Killing Civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq
by Tom Engelhardt
Consider the following statement offered by Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a news conference last week. He was discussing Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks as well as the person who has taken responsibility for the vast, still ongoing Afghan War document dump at that site. “Mr. Assange,” Mullen commented, “can say whatever he likes about the greater good he thinks he and his source are doing, but the truth is they might already have on their hands the blood of some young soldier or that of an Afghan family.”
Now, if you were the proverbial fair-minded visitor from Mars (who in school civics texts of my childhood always seemed to land on Main Street, U.S.A., to survey the wonders of our American system), you might be a bit taken aback by Mullen’s statement. After all, one of the revelations in the trove of leaked documents Assange put online had to do with how much blood from innocent Afghan civilians was already on American hands.
The British Guardian was one of three publications given early access to the leaked archive, and it began its main article this way: “A huge cache of secret U.S. military files today provides a devastating portrait of the failing war in Afghanistan, revealing how coalition forces have killed hundreds of civilians in unreported incidents. They range from the shootings of individual innocents to the often massive loss of life from air strikes…” Or as the paper added in a piece headlined “Secret CIA paramilitaries’ role in civilian deaths”: “Behind the military jargon, the war logs are littered with accounts of civilian tragedies. The 144 entries in the logs recording some of these so-called ‘blue on white’ events, cover a wide spectrum of day-by-day assaults on Afghans, with hundreds of casualties.” Or as it also reported, when exploring documents related to Task Force 373, an “undisclosed ‘black’ unit” of U.S. special operations forces focused on assassinating Taliban and al-Qaeda “senior officials”: “The logs reveal that TF 373 has also killed civilian men, women, and children and even Afghan police officers who have strayed into its path.”
Admittedly, the events recorded in the Wikileaks archive took place between 2004 and the end of 2009, and so don’t cover the last six months of the Obama administration’s across-the-board surge in Afghanistan. Then again, Admiral Mullen became chairman of the Joint Chiefs in October 2007, and so has been at the helm of the American war machine for more than two of the years in question.
He was, for example, chairman in July 2008, when an American plane or planes took out an Afghan bridal party — 70 to 90 strong and made up mostly of women — on a road near the Pakistani border. They were “escorting the bride to meet her groom as local tradition dictates.” The bride, whose name we don’t know, died, as did at least 27 other members of the party, including children. Mullen was similarly chairman in August 2008 when a memorial service for a tribal leader in the village of Azizabad in Afghanistan’s Herat Province was hit by repeated U.S. air strikes that killed at least 90 civilians, including perhaps 15 women and up to 60 children. Among the dead were 76 members of one extended family, headed by Reza Khan, a “wealthy businessman with construction and security contracts with the nearby American base at Shindand airport.”
Mullen was still chairman in April 2009 when members of the family of Awal Khan, an Afghan army artillery commander on duty elsewhere, were killed in a U.S.-led raid in Khost province in eastern Afghanistan. Among them were his “schoolteacher wife, a 17-year-old daughter named Nadia, a 15-year-old son, Aimal, and his brother, employed by a government department.” Another daughter was wounded and the pregnant wife of Khan’s cousin was shot five times in the abdomen.
Mullen remained chairman when, in November 2009, two relatives of Majidullah Qarar, the spokesman for the Minister of Agriculture, were shot down in cold blood in Ghazni City in a Special Operations night raid; as he was — and here we move beyond the Wikileaks time frame — when, in February 2010, U.S. Special Forces troops in helicopters struck a convoy of mini-buses, killing up to 27 civilians, including women and children; as he also was when, in that same month, in a special operations night raid, two pregnant women and a teenage girl, as well as a police officer and his brother, were shot to death in their home in a village near Gardez, the capital of Paktia province. After which, the soldiers reportedly dug the bullets out of the bodies, washed the wounds with alcohol, and tried to cover the incident up. He was no less chairman late last month when residents of a small town in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan claimed that a NATO missile attack had killed 52 civilians, an incident that, like just about every other one mentioned above and so many more, was initially denied by U.S. and NATO spokespeople and is now being “investigated.”
And this represents only a grim, minimalist highlight reel among rafts of such incidents, including enough repeated killings or woundings of innocent civilians at checkpoints that previous Afghan war commander General Stanley McChrystal commented: “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.” In other words, if your basic Martian visitor were to take the concept of command responsibility at all seriously, he might reasonably weigh actual blood (those hundreds of unreported civilian casualties of the American war the Guardian highlighted, for example) against prospective blood (possible Afghan informers killed by the Taliban via names combed from the Wikileaks documents) and arrive at quite a different conclusion from Chairman Mullen.
In fact, being from another planet, he might even have picked up on something that most Americans would be unlikely to notice — that, with only slight alterations, Mullen’s blistering comment about Assange could be applied remarkably well to Mullen himself. “Chairman Mullen,” that Martian might have responded, “can say whatever he likes about the greater good he thinks he is doing, but the truth is he already has on his hands the blood of some young soldiers and that of many Afghan families.”
Killing Fields, Then and Now
Fortunately, there are remarkably few Martians in America, as was apparent last week when the Wikileaks story broke. Certainly, they were in scarce supply in the upper reaches of the Pentagon and, it seemed, hardly less scarce in the mainstream media. If, for instance, you read the version of the Wikileaks story produced — with the same several weeks of special access — by the New York Times, you might have been forgiven for thinking that the Times reporters had accessed a different archive of documents than had the Guardian crew.
While the Guardian led with the central significance of those unreported killings of Afghan civilians, the Times led with reports (mainly via Afghan intelligence) on a Pakistani double-cross of the American war effort — of the ties, that is, between Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, and the Taliban. The paper’s major sidebar piece concerned the experiences and travails of Outpost Keating, an isolated American base in Afghanistan. To stumble across the issue of civilian deaths at American hands in the Times coverage, you had to make your way off the front page and through two full four-column Wikileaks-themed pages and deep into a third.
With rare exceptions, this was typical of initial American coverage of last week’s document dump. And if you think about it, it gives a certain grim reportorial reality to the term Americans favor for the deaths of civilians at the hands of our forces: “collateral damage” — that is, damage not central to what’s going down. The Guardian saw it differently, as undoubtedly do Afghans (and Iraqis) who have experienced collateral damage firsthand.
The Wikileaks leak story, in fact, remained a remarkably bloodless saga in the U.S. until Admiral Mullen and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (who has overseen the Afghan War since he was confirmed in his post in December 2006) took control of it and began focusing directly on blood — specifically, the blood on Julian Assange’s hands. Within a few days, that had become the Wikileaks story, as headlines like CNN’s “Top military official: WikiLeaks founder may have ‘blood’ on his hands” indicated. On ABC News, for instance, in a typical “bloody hands” piece of reportage, the Secretary of Defense told interviewer Christiane Amanpour that, whatever Assange’s legal culpability might be, when it came to “moral culpability… that’s where I think the verdict is guilty on Wikileaks.”
Moral culpability. From the Martian point of view, it might have been considered a curious phrase from the lips of the man responsible for the last three and a half years of two deeply destructive wars that have accomplished nothing and have been responsible for killing, wounding, or driving into exile millions of ordinary Iraqis and Afghans. Given the reality of those wars, our increasingly wide-eyed visitor, now undoubtedly camping out on the Washington Mall, might have been struck by the selectivity of our sense of what constitutes blood and what constitutes collateral damage. After all, one major American magazine did decide to put civilian war damage front and center the very week the Wikileaks archive went up. With the headline “What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan,” TIME magazine featured a cover image of a young Afghan woman whose nose and ears had reportedly been sliced off by a “local Taliban commander” as a punishment for running away from an abusive home.
Indeed, the Taliban has regularly been responsible for the deaths of innocent civilians, including women and children who, among other things, ride in vehicles over its roadside bombs or suffer the results of suicide bombings aimed at government figures or U.S. and NATO forces. The Taliban also has its own list of horrors and crimes for which it should be considered morally culpable. In addition, the Taliban has reportedly threatened to go through the Wikileaks archive, ferret out the names of Afghan informers, and “punish” them, undoubtedly spilling exactly the kind of “blood” Mullen has been talking about.
Our Martian might have noticed as well that the TIME cover wasn’t a singular event in the U.S. In recent years, Americans have often enough been focused on the killing, wounding, or maiming of innocent civilians and have indeed been quite capable of treating such acts as a central fact of war and policy-making. Such deaths have, in fact, been seen as crucially important — as long as the civilians weren’t killed by Americans, in which case the incidents were the understandable, if sad, byproduct of other, far more commendable plans and desires. In this way, in Afghanistan, repeated attacks on wedding parties, funerals, and even a baby-naming ceremony by the U.S. Air Force or special operations night raids have never been a subject of much concern or the material for magazine covers.
On the other hand, the Bush administration (and Americans generally) dealt with the 9/11 deaths of almost 3,000 innocent civilians in New York City as the central and defining event of the twenty-first century. Each of those deaths was memorialized in the papers. Relatives of the dead or those who survived were paid huge sums to console them for the tragedy, and a billion-dollar memorial was planned at what quickly became known as Ground Zero. In repeated rites of mourning nationwide, their deaths were remembered as the central, animating fact of American life. In addition, of course, the murder of those civilian innocents officially sent the U.S. military plunging into the Global War on Terror, Afghanistan, and then Iraq.
Similarly — though who remembers it now? — one key trump card played against those who opposed the invasion of Iraq was Saddam Hussein’s “killing fields.” The Iraqi dictator had indeed gassed Kurds and, with the help of military targeting intelligence provided by his American allies, Iranian troops in his war with Iran in the 1980s. After the first Gulf War, his forces had brutally suppressed a Shiite uprising in the south of Iraq, murdering perhaps tens of thousands of Shiites and, north and south, buried the dead in mass, unmarked graves, some of which were uncovered after the U.S. invasion of 2003. In addition, Saddam’s torture chambers and prisons had been busy places indeed.
His was a brutal regime; his killing fields were a moral nightmare; and in the period leading up to the war (and after), they were also a central fact of American life. On the other hand, however many Iraqis died in those killing fields, more would undoubtedly die in the years that followed, thanks to the events loosed by the Bush administration’s invasion. That dying has yet to end, and seems once again to be on the rise. Yet those deaths have never been a central fact of American life, nor an acceptable argument for getting out of Iraq, nor an acknowledged responsibility of Washington, nor of Admiral Mullen, Secretary of Defense Gates, or any of their predecessors. They were just collateral damage. Some of their survivors got, at best, tiny “solatia” payments from the U.S. military, and often enough the dead were buried in unmarked graves or no graves at all.
Similarly, in Afghanistan in 2010, much attention and controversy surrounded the decision of our previous war commander, General McChrystal, to issue constraining “rules of engagement” to try to cut down on civilian casualties by U.S. troops. The American question has been: Was the general “handcuffing” American soldiers by making it ever harder for them to call in air or artillery support when civilians might be in the area? Was he, that is, just too COIN-ish and too tough on American troops? On the other hand, little attention in the mainstream was paid to the way McChrystal was ramping up special operations forces targeting Taliban leaders, forces whose night raids were, as the Wikileaks documents showed, repeatedly responsible for the deaths of innocent civilians (and so for the anger of other Afghans).
Collateral Damage in America
Here, then, is a fact that our Martian (but few Americans) might notice: in almost nine years of futile and brutal war in Afghanistan and more than seven years of the same in Iraq, the U.S. has filled metaphorical tower upon tower with the exceedingly unmetaphorical bodies of civilian innocents, via air attacks, checkpoint shootings, night raids, artillery and missile fire, and in some cases, the direct act of murder. Afghans and Iraqis have died in numbers impossible to count (though some have tried). Among those deaths was that of a good Samaritan who stopped his minivan on a Baghdad street, in July 2007, to help transport Iraqis wounded by an American Apache helicopter attack to the hospital. In repayment, he and his two children were gunned down by that same Apache crew. (The children survived; the event was covered up; typically, no American took responsibility for it; and, despite the fact that two Reuters employees died, the case was not further investigated, and no one was punished or even reprimanded.)
That was one of hundreds, or thousands, of similar events in both wars that Americans have known little or nothing about. Now, Bradley Manning, a 22-year-old intelligence analyst deployed to eastern Baghdad, who reportedly leaked the video of the event to Wikileaks and may have been involved in leaking those 92,000 documents as well, is preparing to face a court-martial and on a suicide watch, branded a “traitor” by a U.S. senator, his future execution endorsed by the ranking minority member of the House of Representatives’ subcommittee on terrorism, and almost certain to find himself behind bars for years or decades to come.
As for the men who oversaw the endless wars that produced that video (and, without doubt, many similar ones similarly cloaked in the secrecy of “national security”), their fates are no less sure. When Admiral Mullen relinquishes his post and retires, he will undoubtedly have the choice of lucrative corporate boards to sit on, and, if he cares to, lucrative consulting to do for the Pentagon or eager defense contractors, as well as an impressive pension to take home with him. Secretary of Defense Gates will undoubtedly leave his post with a wide range of job offers to consider, and if he wishes, he will probably get a million-dollar contract to write his memoirs. Both will be praised, no matter what happens in or to their wars. Neither will be considered in any way responsible for those tens of thousands of dead civilians in distant lands.
Moral culpability? It doesn’t apply. Not to Americans — not unless they leak military secrets. None of the men responsible will ever look at their hands and experience an “out, damned spot!” moment. That’s a guarantee. However, a young man who, it seems, saw the blood and didn’t want it on his hands, who found himself “actively involved in something that I was completely against,” who had an urge to try to end two terrible wars, hoping his act would cause “worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms,” will pay the price for them. He will be another body not to count in the collateral damage their wars have caused. He will also be collateral damage to the Afghan antiwar movement that wasn’t.
The men who led us down this path, the presidents who presided over our wars, the military figures and secretaries of defense, the intelligence chiefs and ambassadors who helped make them happen, will have libraries to inaugurate, books to write, awards to accept, speeches to give, honors to receive. They will be treated with great respect, while Americans — once we have finally left the lands we insistently fought over — will undoubtedly feel little culpability either. And if blowback comes to the United States, and the first suicide drones arrive, everyone will be deeply puzzled and angered, but one thing is certain, we will not consider any damage done to our society “collateral” damage.
So much blood. So many hands. So little culpability. No remorse.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s (Haymarket Books), has just been published. You can catch him discussing it on a TomCast video by clicking here. Check out the latest TomCast audio interview in which he discusses the three stages of the developing Wikileaks story by clicking here or, to download it to your iPod, here.
[Note for readers: I would especially like to thank Juan Cole’s Informed Comment blog, Antiwar.com, and Paul Woodward’s the War in Context website for helping keep me up to date on America’s ongoing wars. I couldn’t do without them. A bow of appreciation to all three.]
Copyright 2010 Tom Engelhardt
This article was originally posted at TomDispatch.com.