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Whose Hands? Whose Blood?

Killing civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq.

| Fri Aug. 6, 2010 1:25 PM EDT

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.]

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