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Hearts And Minds, Year Eight

« April 2010 »


This week brought the news of two more horrific incidents in our now eight-year-old Middle Eastern misadventure. Two incidents that brazenly illustrate a simple, yet rarely-spoken fact. If the United States military cannot do its job without lying about, and covering up, the killing of innocent civilians, then there is either something very wrong with the United States military or there is something very wrong with the job.

We'll start with what is generally considered to be the "mistake" war of our two wars, although I've argued since September 12 that both were stupid fucking ideas. Iraq, 2007. A Reuters photographer, his driver, and nine Iraqis were killed when soldiers opened fire on them from the ground and from an Apache helicopter. The official story is that the nine Iraqis were all "insurgents", and that the troops had taken small arms and RPG fire before attacking.

You know what's coming. Wikileaks released the video that's had the United States government after them for the past month - a video that not only shows no small-arms or RPG provocation, but shows the soldiers gloating over their kills and mocking the children they shot in the process.

Wow, that's depressing. Quick, let's switch to the good war, in Afghanistan, against the Taliban, in retribution for 9/11. February, 2010. U.S. soldiers shoot up a birthday party, Two men, two pregnant women, and a teenage girl were killed. The men were, of course, mistaken for insurgents.

Oh, and also, the soldiers went and dug all their bullets out of the corpses and the walls, and poured alcohol in the wounds, to mess up the forensics. The attack was initially blamed on Taliban militants.

Now, you can talk about the fog of war, and that's fine. These actions are messy as hell, for a wide variety of reasons. And you can make excuses for the soldiers based on the murky rules of engagement, and again, that's fine. Hell, you can even make excuses for the inhuman, sociopathic behavior of the soldiers as being the product of the environment they've been subjected to for tour after tour. I don't necessarily agree that it's an excuse, but I certainly have to admit that it happens.

But the fact remains that when these things happen, every single time these things happen, we cover it up. Pat Tillman died by friendly fire, we covered it up. Massacre after massacre, mistake after mistake, the Pentagon issues a release saying it was in self-defense, or they were fired on, or they thought they were fired on, or that wedding party they bombed were firing guns into the air. Sometimes the truth comes out, sometimes it doesn't, but the cover-ups are constant. Here's a fascinating quote from General Stanley McChrystal, from a town hall with troops in Afghanistan.

"We really ask a lot of our young service people out on the checkpoints because there's danger, they're asked to make very rapid decisions in often very unclear situations. However, to my knowledge, in the nine-plus months I've been here, not a single case where we have engaged in an escalation of force incident and hurt someone has it turned out that the vehicle had a suicide bomb or weapons in it and, in many cases, had families in it. That doesn't mean I'm criticizing the people who are executing. I'm just giving you perspective. 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."

Let that sink in for a minute. Nine months, and not a single incident responded to as if it were a threat was actually a threat. Forget about the reasons and the motives for a moment. Focus on the fact. We are, and have been, in Afghanistan and Iraq, killing civilians at astonishing rates, and then lying about it afterwards. Both of these things are inarguably wrong. The best you can manage is to argue that, while wrong, they are also necessary.

But they really can't be necessary, because our mission, to the extent that anyone has understood our mission for at least the past six years, is to introduce stability and reduce violence. If, in the process of introducing stability and reducing violence, we have to reduce stability and increase violence, then there is a problem. If the only way we can increase stability and reduce violence is to lie about all the stability we're decreasing and the violence we're committing, then there is a problem.

If the job can't be done without slaughtering civilians, then we need to stop lying about it, and punish the people in the Army who lie about it and maintain cover-ups as policy. If the job can't be done without slaughtering civilians and lying about it, then we really need to admit that the job shouldn't be done at all, and stop trying to do it. We've lost the moral high ground, we've lost the pretense of the moral high ground, and we can't even pretend we can find the pretense of the moral high ground on a map anymore.

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