Dec 13, 2013
Carnage From the Air
Posted on Jul 9, 2007
Note: This article was originally published on Tomdispatch.
“Accidents” of War
The Time Has Come for an Honest Discussion of Air Power
The first news stories about the most notorious massacre of the Vietnam War were picked up the morning after from an Army publicity release. These proved fairly typical for the war. On its front page, the New York Times labeled the operation in and around a village called My Lai 4 (or “Pinkville,” as it was known to U.S. forces in the area) a significant success. “American troops caught a North Vietnamese force in a pincer movement on the central coastal plain yesterday, killing 128 enemy soldiers in day-long fighting.” United Press International termed what happened there an “impressive victory,” and added a bit of patriotic color: “The Vietcong broke and ran for their hide-out tunnels. Six-and-a-half hours later, ‘Pink Village’ had become ‘Red, White and Blue Village.”
All these dispatches from the “front” were, of course, military fairy tales. (There were no reporters in the vicinity.) It took over a year for a former GI named Ronald Ridenhour, who had heard about the bloody massacre from participants, and a young former AP reporter named Seymour Hersh working in Washington for a news service no one had ever heard of, to break the story, revealing that “red, white, and blue village” had just been red village—the red of Vietnamese peasant blood. Over 400 elderly men, women, children, and babies had been slaughtered there by Charlie Company of Task Force Barker in a nearly day-long rampage.
Most of the time, that was the beginning and end of the matter: Air strike; dead enemies; move on to the next day’s bloody events. When it came to Iraq, such air-strike successes generally did not make it into the American press as stories at all, but as scattered, ho-hum paragraphs (based on military announcements) in round-ups of a given day’s action focused on far more important matters—IEDs, suicide car bombs, mortar attacks, sectarian killings. In many cases, air strikes in that country simply went unreported.
From time to time, however, another version of what happened when air strikes were called in on the rural areas of Afghanistan, or on heavily populated neighborhoods in Iraq’s cities and towns, filtered out. In this story, noncombatants died, often in sizeable numbers. In the last few weeks “incidents” like this have been reported with enough regularity in Afghanistan to become a modest story in their own right.
In such news stories, a local caregiver or official or village elder is reached by phone in some distant, reporter-unfriendly spot and recounts a battle in which, by the time the planes arrive, the enemy has fled the scene, or had never been there, or was present but, as is generally the case in guerrilla wars, in close proximity to noncombatants going about their daily lives in their own homes and fields. Such accounts record a grim harvest of dead civilians—and they almost invariably have a repeated tagline when it comes to those dead: “including women and children.” In an increasing number of cases recently, reports on the carnage have taken not over a year, or weeks, or even days to exfiltrate the scene, but have actually beaten the military success story onto the news page.
In the past, when such civilian slaughters were reported, often days or even weeks after the initial military account of the battle, what followed also had a pattern to it. The first responses from the U.S. military would be outright denials (undoubtedly on the assumption that, without reporters present, the accounts of Afghan peasants or Iraqi slum dwellers would carry little weight). Normally, given the competing he says/she says frame for the reports and the inability of journalists to make it to the scene of the reputed slaughter, sooner or later the story would simply fade away.
If, against all odds, evidence of civilian deaths piled up, the military would, in strategic fashion, fall back from one heavily defended position to the next. The numbers of noncombatant dead or wounded would be questioned and lowered. Regrets would be offered. Explanations would be proffered. It was perhaps an “accident” (a missile missed its target or faulty local intelligence was responsible); or it wasn’t an accident, because “the bad guys” meant it to happen as it did. (In their cowardly way, they had turned the civilian population into “human shields,” thus causing the deaths in question when U.S. forces reacted in “self-defense.”)
If the story nonetheless persisted, an “investigation” (by the military, of course) would be announced—again, meant to fade away. In rare cases, “consolation payments” and limited apologies would be offered. In extreme instances, when the killings of civilians were especially grotesque and the result of boots-on-the-ground—as at Haditha—lower-ranking soldiers might finally be brought up on charges. With the exception of a friendly fire incident in which two U.S. National Guard pilots killed four Canadian soldiers and injured six others on the ground in Afghanistan, air strikes were exempt from such charges, no matter what had happened. (In the Canadian case, the U.S. pilot, originally threatened with a court-martial on manslaughter charges, was found guilty of “dereliction of duty,” reprimanded, and fined $5,600.)
American (and NATO) officials regularly make the point that the enemy’s barbarism—and from car-bombs to a six-year-old boy sent to attack Afghan soldiers wearing a suicide vest, their acts have indeed been barbarous—is always intentional; the killing of noncombatants by American planes is always an “inadvertent” incident, an “accident,” and so, of course, the regrettable “collateral damage” of modern warfare.
Recently, however, in Afghanistan, such isolated incidents from U.S. or NATO (often still U.S.) air attacks have been occurring in startling numbers. They have, in fact, become so commonplace that, in the news, they begin to blur into what looks, more and more, like a single, ongoing airborne slaughter of civilians. Protest over the killings of noncombatants from the air, itself a modest story, is on the rise. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, dubbed “the mayor of Kabul,” has bitterly and repeatedly complained about NATO and U.S. bombing policies. ACBAR, an umbrella organization for Afghan and international relief and human rights organizations, has received attention for claiming that marginally more civilians have died this year at the hands of the Western powers than the Taliban; and, most recently, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has made a ” ‘strong’ appeal to military commanders in Afghanistan to avoid civilian casualties.”
In all of this, the weakening of the American and NATO position in Afghanistan, and of the American one in Iraq, continue to play crucial roles—while these repeated air-power “incidents” lead into conceptual territory that is simply never touched upon in our mainstream media.
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