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Apr 13 2010

When killing civilians becomes routine

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

The WikiLeaks video I posted yesterday of the killing of Iraqis will have shocked all but the most hardened people. Most Americans, even if they think the killings were wrong, are likely to write this off as the actions of a few rogue elements because they cannot bear to think that ‘we’ can do bad things, so indoctrinated are they by the myth of America’s essential goodness that uniquely sets them apart from the rest of the world. They do not seem to realize that people are pretty much the same the world over and this kind of thing is the inevitable result of sending large numbers of soldiers to fight in foreign countries for extended periods of time. The entire population eventually becomes seen as the enemy and atrocities against civilians become routine. The repetition of this phenomenon is so drearily predictable that it is hardly worthwhile to list them.

Glenn Greenwald, commenting on the WikiLeaks video, points out that such atrocities are not aberrations:

Shining light on what our government and military do is so critical precisely because it forces people to see what is really being done and prevents myth and propaganda from distorting those realities. That’s why the administration fights so hard to keep torture photos suppressed, why the military fought so hard here to keep this video concealed (and why they did the same with regard to the Afghan massacre, and why whistle-blowers, real journalists, and sites like WikiLeaks are the declared enemy of the government. The discussions many people are having today — about the brutal reality of what the U.S. does when it engages in war, invasions and occupation — is exactly the discussion which they most want to avoid.

But there’s a serious danger when incidents like this Iraq slaughter are exposed in a piecemeal and unusual fashion: namely, the tendency to talk about it as though it is an aberration. It isn’t. It’s the opposite: it’s par for the course, standard operating procedure, what we do in wars, invasions, and occupation. The only thing that’s rare about the Apache helicopter killings is that we know about it and are seeing what happened on video. And we’re seeing it on video not because it’s rare, but because it just so happened (a) to result in the deaths of two Reuters employees, and thus received more attention than the thousands of other similar incidents where nameless Iraqi civilians are killed, and (b) to end up in the hands of WikiLeaks, which then published it. But what is shown is completely common.

As support for his contention that such killings of civilians are not rare, Greenwald points to statements made by General Stanley McChrystal, commander of the US forces in Afghanistan who, in a rare moment of candor, conceded that a lot of innocent people have been killed by the US. He said in an interview:

However, to my knowledge, in the nine-plus months I’ve been here, not a single case where we have engaged in an escalation of force incident and hurt someone has it turned out that the vehicle had a suicide bomb or weapons in it and, in many cases, had families in it. That doesn’t mean I’m criticizing the people who are executing. I’m just giving you perspective. We’ve shot an amazing number of people and killed a number and, to my knowledge, none has proven to have been a real threat to the force.

The other case that is emerging is of the killing of civilians in Afghanistan and another attempted cover-up by the US military. Greenwald summarizes what happened and how the military reported it:

On February 12 [2010], U.S. forces entered a village in the Paktia Province in Afghanistan and, after surrounding a home where a celebration of a new birth was taking place, shot dead two male civilians (government officials) who exited the house in order to inquire why they had been surrounded, and then shot and killed three female relatives (a pregnant mother of ten, a pregnant mother of six, and a teenager). The Pentagon then issued a statement claiming that (a) the dead males were “insurgents” or terrorists, (b) the bodies of the three women had been found by U.S. forces bound and gagged inside the home, and (c) suggested that the women had already been killed by the time the U.S. had arrived, likely the victim of “honor killings” by the Taliban militants killed in the attack.

The US military used the propensity of US media to seize on stereotypes that portray other people as barbarians and guessed correctly that they would eagerly seize on the ‘honor’ killing angle and report it as a fact.

Jerome Starkey of the London Times broke the story of what really happened. In order to cover up the fact that they had shot up a celebratory party, the soldiers attempted to collect all the bullets on the scene. In order to get the bullets out of the dead pregnant women, they dug them out with knives and then claimed the knife wounds were evidence that the women had been stabbed to death as part of the ‘honor killings’.

US special forces soldiers dug bullets out of their victims’ bodies in the bloody aftermath of a botched night raid, then washed the wounds with alcohol before lying to their superiors about what happened, Afghan investigators have told The Times.

It is inevitable that this horrific incident of killing, like all the other brutalities like Abu Ghraib and Haditha, will be greeted with the ‘few bad apples’ excuse. But US soldiers at the Winter Soldier hearings say that this kind of thing is not an aberration and that in many cases they were told to just shoot people and that the officers would look after them:

As disturbing as the video is, this type of behavior by US soldiers in Iraq is not uncommon.

Truthout has spoken with several soldiers who shared equally horrific stories of the slaughtering of innocent Iraqis by US occupation forces.

“I remember one woman walking by,” said Jason Washburn, a corporal in the US Marines who served three tours in Iraq. He told the audience at the Winter Soldier hearings that took place March 13-16, 2008, in Silver Spring, Maryland, “She was carrying a huge bag, and she looked like she was heading toward us, so we lit her up with the Mark 19, which is an automatic grenade launcher, and when the dust settled, we realized that the bag was full of groceries. She had been trying to bring us food and we blew her to pieces.”

This is what modern warfare is really like: the lives of innocent people being destroyed.

POST SCRIPT: Obama’s broken promises

Among the many policies that Obama has reneged on since taking office is his promise to increase openness and transparency.

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