by Tom Engelhardt
“Slowly a humped shape rose out of the pit, and the ghost of a beam of light seemed to flicker out from it. Forthwith flashes of actual flame, a bright glare leaping from one to another, sprang from the scattered group of men. It was as if some invisible jet impinged upon them and flashed into white flame. It was as if each man were suddenly and momentarily turned to fire.
“Then, by the light of their own destruction, I saw them staggering and falling, and their supporters turning to run…”
That, as H.G. Wells imagined it in 1898, was first contact with a technologically superior and implacable alien race from space, five years before humanity took to the air in anything but balloons. And that was how the Martians, landing in their “cylinders,” those spaceships from a dying planet, ready to take over ours, responded to a delegation of humans advancing on them waving a flag of peace and ready to parlay. As everyone knows who has read The War of the Worlds, or heard the 1938 Orson Welles radio show version that terrified New Jersey, or watched the 1953 movie or the Stephen Spielberg 2005 remake, those Martians went on to level cities, slaughter masses of humanity using heat-rays and poison gas, and threaten world domination before being felled by the germs for which they were unprepared.
Germs aside, Wells’s Martians did little more than what earthly powers would do to each other and various “lesser” peoples in the 112 years that followed the publication of his book. Now, a group of scientists writing in an “extraterrestrial-themed edition” of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A in Great Britain warn us that we should ready ourselves for the possibility of alien contact. We should, in fact, “prepare for the worst” which, according to contributor Simon Conway Morris, could be summed up this way: thanks to neo-Darwinian laws of evolution assumedly operative anywhere, such aliens, should they exist, would probably be more or less like us.
Long before Morris, Wells understood that the most dangerous aliens weren’t in space, but right here on planet Earth, and concluded that he lived among them. When he wrote his ur-alien-invasion novel, he was evidently using the British “war of extermination” against the Tasmanians as his model.
Of course, we in the United States have few doubts about who the aliens on this planet are: Them! (the title of a classic 1954 sci-fi movie about monstrous mutant ants that infest the sewer system of Los Angeles). In my childhood, “them” was “the commies,” of course. Now, it’s certainly Muslims or jihadists or Islamo-fascists.
When one of them commits some nightmarish act, whether a slaughter at Fort Hood in Texas, the planting of a car bomb in New York City’s Times Square, or the donning of an underwear bomb for a flight to Detroit on Christmas day, our response is a shudder of fear and loathing, followed by further repression. After all, each of those acts is imagined as part of a barbaric and fiendish pattern inimical to our safety. Perhaps because it’s assumed that they are mentally ill (“fanatic”) en masse, that being “a loner” isn’t part of their culture, and that individuality is not one of their strong points, the heinousness of the act is focused upon rather than the potentially damaged nature of the individual who acted.
It’s only when a Timothy McVeigh or a Jared Loughner emerges from the undergrowth that problems arise and reactions change. (Keep in mind that McVeigh’s crime, the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City which killed 168 people, was initially blamed on Arab terrorists and that, had Loughner gotten away from that Safeway in Tucson, similar warnings might have been raised.) It’s only then that the bizarre individuality, even the twisted humanity, of such acts comes to the fore and so mental illness becomes a possible explanation. It’s only then that, instead of fear and panic, we “grieve” as a nation and engage in a “conversation” about the state of ourselves.
Not surprisingly, the police mug shot of Loughner featured on the front-page of my hometown paper (and probably every other paper in America) was the equivalent, for the American conversation, of manna from heaven: a smiling maniac, the Grim Reaper gone bonkers, someone who had visibly absorbed left, right, and every kind of fringe into his dream world and conveniently come out a “nihilist.”
In the Crosshairs
Whether it’s obvious or not, all of this avoids a different kind of conversation about slaughter and mania. After all, thought of from a Wellsian perspective, it’s always possible that the Martians could actually be us (or us, too, at least) — and not just the madmen among us either. Welles was a rarity on this issue. When it comes to thinking of ourselves as “them,” normally it just doesn’t come naturally.
At a moment when a single horrific incident, the killing of six Americans and the wounding of 13, including a member of Congress, looms so much larger than life and has for days become “the news,” when our world has been abuzz with media discussions about civility in U.S. politics, crosshairs and where they were placed, the president’s role as “national healer,” and various profiles in courage among the living and dead, when the focus, in other words, is so overwhelming, you have to wonder what’s hidden from sight.
One out-of-sight matter to consider might be those crosshairs — not on a symbolic political map but over actual humans beings, resulting in multiple deaths. I’m talking about our war in Afghanistan.
To give an example, on January 10th, according to a New York Times report, a “team” (whether American or NATO we don’t know) “conducting a patrol” in the village of Baladas in central Afghanistan “spotted ‘nine armed individuals setting up what appeared to be an ambush position.'” That team called in a helicopter strike, killing three Afghans and wounding three others. According to a statement from “a coalition spokesman,” the six casualties turned out to be “innocent people… mistakenly targeted.” According to local Afghan figures, they were members of “a local police team… on their way to meet a unit of the American Special Forces for a joint patrol.” Condolences have since been offered and a NATO “assessment team” was sent to the site to “investigate.”
Classified as a case of “friendly fire,” the incident represents one small-scale slaughter that got no attention here. Like almost all such reports from Afghanistan, the names of the dead and wounded were not recorded (undoubtedly because there was no reporter on the ground to ask). And it goes without saying that no one in our world will grieve for those dead, or praise them, or offer “healing” words about what their example should mean to the rest of us. About their fate, there will be no TV reports, no conversation on underlying issues, not a shred of discussion, not here.
A week ago, it’s reasonable to assume, 99.9% of Americans had never heard of Congressional Representative Gabrielle Giffords; even fewer knew of federal judge John Roll who died in that Safeway parking lot; and none (other than family and friends) had heard about nine-year-old Christina-Taylor Green, tragically shot down while learning firsthand how U.S. politics works, or Daniel Hernandez, the congresswoman’s intern, who ran towards the gunshots to offer help. Now, we all “know” them as if they were neighbors or friends. Victims of a nightmare, they have been memorialized repeatedly, giving us the feeling that there is something better to American life than Jared Loughner.
In the process, the coverage of the Tucson massacre has been, to say the least, unrelenting. From a media point of view, it’s also had its ghoulish side: Think of it as the OJ moment — the discovery that focusing on a high-profile nightmare 24/7 glues eyeballs — meets the more recent massive downsizing of newspapers and TV news. All of this makes “flooding the zone” (covering a single, endlessly reported event) cheaper, less labor intensive, and far more appealing than blanketing the world.
On the other hand, the coverage of the “friendly fire” incident in Afghanistan has been, to put it politely, relenting.
Close to 100% of Americans knew nothing about that incident when it happened and close to 100% know nothing about it now. Of course, in the fog of war tragic mistakes are made, intelligence gets screwed up, targeting goes awry, deadly mishaps occur. So six local Afghan police mistakenly killed or wounded by a helicopter hardly turn us into slaughtering maniacs (though imagine the attention, had six policemen been shot down anywhere in the United States).
To put this incident in perspective, however, consider five similar “friendly fire” incidents reported from Afghanistan in the five weeks preceding January 10th, none of which got significant attention here.
On December 8th in Logar Province, two missiles from a U.S. air strike “mistakenly killed” two Afghan National Army soldiers and wounded five as they were moving to help NATO troops under attack. The Afghan Defense Ministry “condemned” the strike. (“As a result of a bombardment by international forces… two soldiers… were martyred…”)
On December 16th in Helmand Province, another air strike killed four Afghan soldiers as they were leaving their base, yet again a case identified as mistaken targeting. Typically, an investigation was launched (though the results of such investigations are almost never reported).
On December 23rd, “in an attempt to intercept suspected insurgents,” a “NATO helicopter” reportedly strafed a car in a convoy heading for “an event hosted by the head of a local council in [Faryab Province in] northern Afghanistan.” A policeman and the brother of former parliament member Sarajuddin Mozafari, a local politician, were killed. Two policemen and a civilian were reported wounded. The governor of the province, Abdul Haq Shafaq, was among the guests and aided the wounded. Associated Press reporter Amir Shah quoted the governor this way: “‘We are so angry about this,’ Shafaq said, describing the dead as innocents. He called for an investigation into the incident by the attorney general.” (Said U.S. Air Force Col. James Dawkins in response to the event: “While we take extraordinary care in conducting operations to avoid civilian casualties, unfortunately in this instance it appears innocent men were mistakenly targeted… we deeply regret this incident.”)
On December 24th, there was a “night raid” in Kabul. (The government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai regularly condemns such American night raids.) Evidently thanks to mistaken intelligence, two private guards were killed and three wounded when commandos from coalition forces raided the headquarters of the Afghan Tiger Group, “a supplier of vehicles to the United States military.” (From the New York Times report on the incident comes the following quote: “’It was murder,’ said Col. Mohammed Zahir, director of criminal investigations for the Kabul police, who arrived at the scene shortly after the raid began and said both victims had been shot in the head.”)
On January 5th in Ghazni province, another night raid resulted in the deaths of three Afghans whose bodies were paraded through Ghazni City by angry fellow tribesmen shouting “Death to America.” Local officials indicated that the three were indeed innocent civilians; the Americans claimed they were “insurgents.”
Massacres like the one in Tucson are more common than Americans like to imagine, but still reasonably rare. The repetitious deaths of “innocents” in Afghanistan are commonplace in a way that Americans generally don’t care to consider. Add up the casualties from all six of these incidents between December 8th and January 10th and you get 16 dead (and 13 wounded).
Next, put together the mistaken targetings, the American denials or expressions of condolence, the predictable announcements of investigations whose results never seem to surface, as well as the minimalist coverage in the U.S., and you have a pattern: that is, something you can be sure will happen again and again on as yet unknown days in 2011 to as little attention here.
And keep in mind that such “incidents” have been the norm of our wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Pakistani tribal borderlands for years. There have been hundreds or (who knows?) even thousands of them (not that anyone is counting). And yet, let’s face it, if we were to look in the mirror, one thing is certain: we would not see a grinning, demented monster staring back at us.
Here’s a question: Why don’t the dead of our foreign wars register on us, particularly the civilians killed in numbers that, if attributed to our enemies or past imperial armies, would be seen as the acts of barbarians? After all, when a Taliban suicide bomber kills 17 Afghans and wounds 23 in a bathhouse, including a senior police border-control officer, we know just what to think. It wouldn’t matter if those who sent the bomber claimed that he had made a “mistake” in targeting, or if they declared the other deaths regrettable “collateral damage.” When we attack with similar results, we hardly think about it at all.
I can imagine at least three factors involved:
Tribalism: Yes, we consider them the tribal ones, but we have our own tribal qualities, including a deep-seated feeling that what’s close at hand (us) is more valuable than what’s far away (them). The valorizing of your own group and the devaluing of those outside it undoubtedly couldn’t be more human. Who doesn’t know, for instance, that when it comes to media coverage, one blond American child kidnapped and murdered is worth 500 Indonesians drowned on a ferry?
Racism/The Superiority Factor: This subject is no longer raised in connection with American wars, and yet it’s obviously of importance. If 16 Americans had been killed and 13 wounded in six mistaken-targeting incidents even in distant Afghanistan, we would be outraged. There would be news coverage, Congressional hearings, who knows what. If there had been the same number of dead Canadians or Germans, there would still have been an outcry. But Afghans? Dark-skinned peoples from an alien culture in the backlands of the planet? No way. Our condolences every now and then are the best we have on tap.
The American Way of War: Once upon a time, we Americans responded to air war, especially against civilian populations, as barbaric and, shocked by its effects in Guernica, Shanghai, London, and elsewhere, denounced it. That, of course, was before air war became such an integral part of the American way of war. In recent years, American military spokespeople have regularly boasted of the increasingly “surgical” and “precise” nature of air power. The most impressively surgical thing about air war, however, is the way it has been excised from the category of barbarism in our American world. The suicide bomber or car bomber is a monster, a barbarian. Drones, planes, helicopters? No such thing, despite the stream of innocents they kill.
No wonder when we look in the mirror, we don’t see the grinning face of a maniac; sometimes we see no face at all, quite literally in the case of the Pakistani tribal borderlands where hundreds have died (always “militants” or “suspected militants”) thanks to pilotless drones and video-game-style war.
In a safe in Jared Loughner’s parents’ house, investigators from the Pima County Sheriff’s Department found documents with the words “I planned ahead,” “My assassination,” and “Giffords.” The words of a madman. When a Taliban suicide bomber strikes, we know that we are staring off-the-charts brutality in the face. When it comes to our killings, it’s always another matter.
And yet, even if every one of those Afghan deaths was “mistaken,” there was nothing innocent about the killings. If something happens often enough to be a predictable horror, then those who commit the acts (and those who send them to do so, as well as those who have the luxury of looking the other way) are responsible, and should be accountable.
After all, week after week, month after month, year after year since September 11, 2001, the deaths have piled up relentlessly. Towers and towers of deaths. Barely reported, seldom named, hardly noted, almost never grieved over in our world, those dead Afghans, Iraqis, and Pakistanis had parents who assumedly loved them, friends who cared about them, enemies who might have wanted to target them, colleagues and associates who knew their quirks. We’re talking so many Safeways’ worth of them that it’s beyond reckoning.
Civilians repeatedly killed at checkpoints; 12 Afghans including a four-year-old girl, a one-year-old boy, and three elderly villagers shot down near the city of Jalalabad when Marine Special Operations forces, attacked by a suicide bomber, fired wildly along a ten-mile stretch of road in April 2007; at least 12 Iraqi civilians (including two employees of Reuters) slaughtered by an Apache helicopter on a street in Baghdad in July 2007; at least 17 Iraqi civilians murdered by Blackwater contractors protecting a convoy of State Department vehicles in Nisour Square, Baghdad, in September 2007.
Any recent year has such “highlights”: a popular Kabul Imam shot to death in his car from a passing NATO convoy with his 7-year-old son in the back seat in January 2010; at least 21 Afghan civilians killed when U.S. jets mistakenly fired on three mini-buses in Uruzgan Province in February 2010; five civilians killed and up to 18 wounded when U.S. troops raked a passenger bus with gunfire near Kandahar in southern Afghanistan in April 2010; and 10 Afghan election workers killed and two wounded last September in a “precision air strike” on a “militant’s vehicle.”
And that, of course, is just to scratch the surface of such incidents. Wedding parties have repeatedly been obliterated (at least seven in Afghanistan and Iraq), naming ceremonies for children wiped out, and funerals blown away.
Bodies and more bodies. All “mistakes.” And yet, knowing the mistakes that have happened and assured of the mistakes to come, our leaders are still talking about U.S. “combat troops” staying in Afghanistan through 2014; our vice-president is pledging us to remain “well beyond” that year; one of our senators is calling for “permanent bases” there; our trainers are expecting to conduct training exercises in 2016; and in the meantime, our Afghan war commander is calling in more air power, more night raids, and more destruction.
Nowhere do we see the face of a madman grinning, but the toll across the years is that of a cold-blooded killer. It’s the mark of barbarism, even if we’re not fanatics.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book is The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s (Haymarket Books). You can catch him discussing war American-style and that book in a Timothy MacBain TomCast video by clicking here.
[Note: Let me offer a small bow of special thanks to three invaluable websites: Juan Cole’s Informed Comment, Antiwar.com (including the prodigious Jason Ditz), and Paul Woodward’s War in Context. Without them, it would be so much harder to follow the news about America’s distant wars.]
Copyright 2011 Tom Engelhardt