April 12, 2010

Newsflash: You can’t trust the military

If nothing else, I hope the recent WikiLeaks bombshell helps people to understand that they can’t trust the military. I realize this is asking a lot. After all, we’re a nation that adores the military. Only half of us approve of President Obama, only one-tenth approve of Congress, but most of us—more than four-fifths of Americans, according to a November Rasmussen poll—have a favorable view of the military.[1]

The incident in question involved a US Apache helicopter gunning down a crowd of Iraqis in August 2007. A few hours after the attack,

The American military said…American troops were conducting a raid when they were hit by small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades. The American troops called in reinforcements and attack helicopters. In the ensuing fight, the statement said, the two Reuters employees and nine insurgents were killed.

“There is no question that coalition forces were clearly engaged in combat operations against a hostile force,” said Lt. Col. Scott Bleichwehl, a spokesman for the multinational forces in Baghdad.[2]

But the WikiLeaks video, taken from the helicopter’s gun-site, shows that the military’s story was completely false. Far from being “a hostile force,” the video shows a group of Iraqis standing on a Baghdad street corner, talking to the Reuters employees. Although it appears that one person in the crowd is armed, the others clearly aren’t, and yet the Apache indiscriminately guns-down everyone standing there. We then see a blue van pull up to the scene. An unarmed man gets out of the van and begins helping one of the survivors, only to have the Apache start firing on him, subsequently killing him and wounding two children, who were waiting inside the van.[3]

Such duplicity from the military is hardly rare. In a fairly well-known case occurring in August 2008, US forces bombed a memorial service in Afghanistan’s Herat Province. American officials initially claimed that the strike had killed 30 insurgents and no civilians.[4] After an investigation by the Afghan government concluded that 90 civilians had been killed, the US revised its findings, claiming that 5 of the 30 victims were civilians. Soon thereafter, an Afghan Human Rights Commission “found that 88 people had been killed, including 20 women,” and then a UN investigation “found convincing evidence, based on the testimony of eyewitnesses, and others, that some 90 civilians were killed, including 60 children, 15 women and 15 men.” After all this, the US stated that perhaps as many as 7 civilians, but certainly no more than that, had been killed. [5] It was only after an Afghan doctor released an eight-minute cell phone video which was taken shortly after the bombings and revealed scores of dead bodies in the targeted area that the Pentagon agreed to reopen its investigation.[6]

Similar examples (although usually involving fewer casualties) occur on a regular basis. In fact, just hours before WikiLeaks released its video of the Baghdad slaying, The Times of London reported that the US military had finally been forced to take responsibility for the February 12 killing of three Afghan women. Although the military “had initially claimed that the women had been dead for several hours when the assault force discovered their bodies,” an investigation by the Afghan government concluded that “US special forces soldiers dug bullets out of their victims’ bodies” and then “washed the wounds with alcohol before lying to their superiors about what happened.” Though finally taking responsibility for the women’s deaths, NATO “continued to deny that there had been a cover-up and said that its legal investigation, which is ongoing, had found no evidence of inappropriate conduct.”[7]

Needless to say, lying about civilian deaths is a deliberate military policy. For US commanders realize that they cannot defeat the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan if they don’t win over the local populations, convincing them that we’re there to help them, and it’s hard to convince people that we’re there to help them when they keep reading in the news that we’re killing their countrymen.[8] So we lie. We lie, and we lie, and we lie. In the face of overwhelming evidence, we continue lying. Only if the evidence gets to be too overwhelming, so overwhelming that even we, the world’s greatest liars, realize we can no longer convince anyone of our lies, do we concede that “mistakes were made.” It’s only then that we tell the locals how “extremely saddened” we are “by the tragic loss of innocent lives,”[9] all while reminding them that we’re fighting with “the protection of the Afghan [or Iraqi] people in mind.”[10]

It’s important to keep all this in mind when we’re reading something like this from the Associated Press:

More than 40 insurgents were killed Saturday as hundreds of coalition troops, many dropped by helicopter, wrested a town from the Taliban and U.S. forces battled militants across the south, officials said.[11]

Or something like this from the New York Times:

American and Afghan forces backed by airstrikes engaged in a “fierce firefight” with Taliban insurgents in a remote and mountainous region of eastern Afghanistan on Thursday, killing at least 29 militants in an effort to capture one of their leaders, according to a joint military statement.[12]

Or something like this from Reuters:

A missile fired by a pilotless U.S. drone aircraft on Friday killed at least three militants traveling in a car in Pakistan's North Waziristan region on the Afghan border, security officials said.[13]

It’s clear that we’re killing many militants overseas. But it’s also clear that we’re killing many civilians, many more civilians than the military is willing to admit. And for this reason, we’d be foolish not to scrutinize every statement coming from our leaders.


[1]“Daily Presidential Tracking Poll,” Rasmussen Reports (11 April 2010); “Congressional Performance,” Rasmussen Reports (22 March 2010); “81% View U.S. Military Favorably This Veterans Day,” Rasmussen Reports (11 November 2009).

[2] Alissa J. Rubin, “2 Iraqi Journalists Killed as U.S. Forces Clash With Militias,” New York Times (13 July 2007).

[3] “Collateral Murder,” WikiLeaks (5 April 2010).

[4] “At Least 20 Afghan Civilians Killed in US Air Raid,” Antiwar.com (21 August 2008).

[5] Tom Engelhardt, “Slaughter, Lies, and Video in Afghanistan,” TomDispatch.com (11 September 2008); see also Jason Burke, “Air strike sharpens civilian casualties row,” Guardian (24 August 2008) and Carlotta Gall, “U.S. Killed 90, Including 60 Children, in Afghan Village, U.N. Finds,” New York Times (26 August 2008).

[6] Tom Coghlan, “Harrowing video film backs Afghan villagers' claims of carnage caused by US troops,” Times Online (8 September 2008).

[7] Jerome Starkey, “US special forces 'tried to cover-up' botched Khataba raid in Afghanistan,” Times Online (5 April 2010).

[8] For example, see COMISAF Initial Assessment (Unclassified), Washington Post (21 September 2009).

[9] “McChrystal apologizes as airstrike kills dozens in Afghanistan,” CNN (23 February 2010).

[10] “Nato ‘regrets’ civilian deaths,” Al Jazeera (15 February 2010).

[11] “Over 40 Militants Killed in Afghanistan; Karzai Orders Probe into Violence,” Associated Press (15 July 2006).

[12] Abdul Waheed and Alan Cowell, “29 Taliban Insurgents Killed, Coalition Says,” New York Times (28 May 2009).

[13] Haji Mujtaba, Kamran Haider, and Michael Georgy, “U.S. drone attack in Pakistan kills three militants,” Reuters (1 January 2010).

1 comment:

Hannah said...

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