In an earlier era, in an earlier war, the recent exposés from Iraq and Afghanistan – with their shocking images, appalling laughter, video-game ethos – would have ‘shocked the conscience of the nation.’ In an earlier era, in an earlier war, when My Lai was exposed, it shocked the conscience of a whole lot of people who hadn’t been thinking very much about the war till then.
My Lai was hardly the first, and probably was not the worst US massacre of civilians in Vietnam. Casualties in Vietnam were exponentially higher than in Afghanistan. Still, when the reports came out, they hit the front pages. But these days, in today’s wars, the exposés were mostly relegated to page 13 of the New York Times, and there’s no evidence so far that any consciences were particularly shocked. The Pentagon responded that all the helicopter pilots and all the gunners had all operated within the official rules of engagement. No rules were broken.
And the Pentagon officials are probably right. The rules of engagement probably were not violated. The bylaws and directives of this war allow US Army helicopter gunners to shoot at unarmed Reuters photographers, and military convoys to fire on busloads of civilians in Afghanistan, and US Special Forces to murder pregnant women and teenaged girls in Iraq.
Of course the official rules of engagement don’t actually say that’s okay. General Stanley McChrystal, commander of all the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, has been talking a lot about his concern over killing civilians. He doesn’t talk much about the danger to the Afghan civilians themselves, he talks mostly about how dangerous killing civilians is to the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. He apologizes, over and over again, and admits that "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." He’s apologizing a lot these days, because that "amazing number" is in fact a very large aggregate of people – Afghan civilians – who are being killed by U.S. troops. They’re mowed down in passenger buses on the road, they’re pregnant women and a teenaged girl killed by U.S. soldiers inside their own home, they’re attacked by US helicopter gunners quite certain that the guy with the big camera is a terrorist.
General McChrystal really is sorry. Protecting civilians really is our top priority. It’s the fog of war, the split-second decisions that our young soldiers have to make.
And you know, he’s partly right. Most of these young soldiers are from rural areas and small towns, drafted into the military by the lack-of-jobs draft, the lack-of-money-for-college draft, the lack-of-any-other-options draft. They are themselves victims of Bush’s, and now President Obama’s war, sent to kill and sometimes die in a war that will not make them or their families safer, a war that is impoverishing their own country even as it devastates the countries in which they fight. General McChrystal can apologize all he wants, but counter-insurgency and the U.S. "global war on terrorism" are all about sending U.S. and a few NATO troops to kill Afghans in their own country. No surprise that sometimes – often – they kill the "wrong" Afghans. The split-second decisions are dangerous and difficult and sometimes impossible. But why does the U.S. military get to decide who are the "right" Afghans to be killed in their own country, anyway?
Some of the recent exposés demonstrate that not every operation in Afghanistan or Iraq is shrouded in the "fog of war." The pilots and gunners in the helicopter gunships hovering over the Reuters journalists and the crowd of Iraqi civilians around them in 2007 were eager, laughing, urging each other on to the kill. When a local van pulled up to help transport some of the dead and wounded, the gunners asked for and got permission to fire again; this time they wounded two children, but blamed the Iraqi victims because "it’s their fault for bringing their kids into a battle." In the February 2010 incident, if the reports of the Afghan investigators are correct, the US Special Forces – among the most highly trained killers of the US military – killed two innocent men in their Gardez courtyard and three women inside their house, then approached the dead women and girl to remove incriminating evidence (presumably identifiably made-in-the-USA bullets) from their bodies.
Does anyone still need to ask "why do they hate us?" The only ones this war makes safer are the war profiteers pocketing billion-dollar contracts – and the politicians pocketing campaign contributions in return. This war does not make Afghan or Iraqi lives better, the cost is devastating our economy, and there is no military victory in our future. The sooner we acknowledge that, and start withdrawing all the troops and drones and planes and close the bases, the sooner we can begin to make good on our real debt – humanitarian, not military – to the peoples of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and co-author of Ending the US War in Afghanistan: A Primer.