This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
Who in their right mind wants to talk about, think about, or read a short essay about... civilian war casualties? What a bummer, this topic, especially since our Afghan, Iraq, and other ongoing wars were advertised as uplifting acts of philanthropy: wars to spread security, freedom, democracy, human rights, gender equality, the rule of law, etc.
A couple hundred thousand dead civilians have a way of making such noble ideals seem like dollar-store tinsel. And so, throughout our decade-long foreign policy debacle in the Greater Middle East, we in the US have generally agreed that no one shall commit the gaucherie of dwelling on (and "dwelling on" = fleetingly mentioned) civilian casualties. Washington elites may squabble over some things, but as for foreigners killed by our numerous wars, our Beltway crew adheres to a sullen code of omertà.
Club rules do, however, permit one loophole: Washington officials may bemoan the nightmare of civilian casualties—but only if they can be pinned on a 24-year-old Army private first class named Bradley Manning.
Pfc. Manning, you will remember, is the young soldier who is soon to be court-martialed for passing some 750,000 military and diplomatic documents, a large chunk of them classified, to the website WikiLeaks. Among those leaks, there was indeed some serious stuff about how Americans dealt with civilians in invaded countries. For instance, the documents revealed that the US military, then the occupying force in Iraq, did little or nothing to prevent Iraqi authorities from torturing prisoners in a variety of gruesome ways, sometimes to death.
Then there was that gun-sight video—unclassified but buried in classified material—of an American Apache helicopter opening fire on a crowd on a Baghdad street, gunning down a dozen men, including two Reuters employees, and injuring more, including children. There were also those field reports about how jumpy American soldiers repeatedly shot down civilians at roadside checkpoints; about night raids gone wrong both in Iraq and Afghanistan; and a count of thousands of dead Iraqi civilians, a tally whose existence the US military had previously denied possessing.
Together, these leaks and many others offered a composite portrait of military and political debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan whose grinding theme has been civilian casualties, a fact not much noted here in the US A tiny number of low-ranking American soldiers have been held to account for rare instances of premeditated murder of civilians, but most of the troops who kill civilians in the midst of the chaos of war are not tried, much less convicted. We don't talk about these cases a lot either. On the other hand, officials of all types make free with lusty condemnations of Bradley Manning, whose leaks are luridly credited with potential (though not actual) deaths.
Putting Lives in Danger
"[WikiLeaks] might already have on their hands the blood of some young soldier or that of an Afghan family," said Admiral Mike Mullen, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on the release of the Afghan War Logs in July 2010. This was, of course, the same Admiral Mullen who had endorsed a major escalation of the war in Afghanistan, which would lead to a tremendous "surge" in casualties among civilians and soldiers alike. Here are counts—undoubtedly undercounts, in fact—of real Afghan corpses that, at least in part, resulted from the policy he supported: 2,412 in 2009, 2,777 in 2010, 1,462 in the first half 2011, according to the U.N. Assistance Mission to Afghanistan. As far as anyone knows, here are the corpses that resulted from the release of those WikiLeaks documents: 0. (And don't forget, the stalemate war with the Taliban has not budged in the period since that surge.) Who, then, has blood on his hands, Pfc. Manning—or Admiral Mullen?
Of course the admiral is hardly alone. In fact, whole tabernacle choirs have joined in the condemnation of Manning and WikiLeaks for "causing" carnage, thanks to their disclosures.
Robert Gates, who served as secretary of defense under George W. Bush and then Barack Obama, also spoke sternly of Manning's leaks, accusing him of "moral culpability." He added, "And that's where I think the verdict is ‘guilty' on WikiLeaks. They have put this out without any regard whatsoever for the consequences."
This was, of course, the same Robert Gates who pushed for escalation in Afghanistan in 2009 and, in March 2011, flew to the Kingdom of Bahrain to offer his own personal "reassurance of support" to a ruling monarchy already busy shooting and torturing nonviolent civilian protesters. So again, when it comes to blood and indifference to consequences, Bradley Manning—or Robert Gates?
Nor have such attitudes been confined to the military. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused Manning's (alleged) leak of 250,000 diplomatic cables of being "an attack on the international community" that "puts people's lives in danger, threatens our national security, and undermines our efforts to work with other countries to solve shared problems."
As a senator, of course, she supported the invasion of Iraq in flagrant contravention of the U.N. Charter. She was subsequently a leading hawk when it came to escalating and expanding the Afghan War, and is now responsible for disbursing an annual $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt's ruling junta whose forces have repeatedly opened fire on nonviolent civilian protesters. So who's been attacking the international community and putting lives in danger, Bradley Manning—or Hillary Clinton?
Harold Koh, former Yale Law School dean, liberal lion, and currently the State Department's top legal adviser, has announced that the same leaked diplomatic cables "could place at risk the lives of countless innocent individuals—from journalists to human rights activists and bloggers to soldiers to individuals providing information to further peace and security."
This is the same Harold Koh who, in March 2010, provided a tortured legal rationale for the Obama administration's drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, despite the inevitable and well-documented civilian casualties they cause. So who is risking the lives of countless innocent individuals, Bradley Manning—or Harold Koh?
Much of the media have clambered aboard the bandwagon, blaming WikiLeaks and Manning for damage done by wars they once energetically cheered on.