We committed a quiet little war crime the other day (March 22). Forty-plus people are dead, taken out with Hellfire missiles while they were praying.
Or maybe not. Maybe they were just insurgents. The women and children, if there were any, were … come on, you know the lingo, collateral damage. The Pentagon is going to “look into” allegations that what happened last March 16 in the village of al-Jinah in northern Syria was something more serious than a terrorist takeout operation, which, if you read the official commentary, seems like the geopolitical equivalent of rodent control.
The target was “assessed to be a meeting place for al-Qaeda, and we took the strike,” a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command explained. The strike involved two Reaper (as in Grim Reaper) drones and their payload of Hellfire missiles, plus a 500-pound bomb.
The target, at least according to human rights organizations and civilians on the ground, was a mosque during prayer hour.
“U.S. officials said the strikes … had killed ‘dozens’ of militants at a meeting of the terrorist group,” according to the Washington Post. “But local activists and a monitoring group reported that at least 46 people died, and more were trapped under rubble, when the attack struck a mosque during a religious gathering… . Photos from the area showed rescue workers pulling mangled bodies from a mound of rubble.”
One local resident told AgenceFrance-Presse: “I saw 15 bodies and lots of body parts in the debris when I arrived. We couldn’t even recognize some of the bodies.”
During the 30 seconds of attention the story garnered, the controversy was whether it was a mosque that was hit or a building across the street from a mosque. The Pentagon even declassified a photo of the bombing aftermath, showing that a small building near the ghastly bomb crater was still standing. However, according to The Intercept: “Activists and first responders say the building that was targeted was a part of the mosque complex — and that the charred rubble shown in the photo was where 300 people were praying when the bombs began to hit.”
Anyway, the news cycle moved on. My initial thought, as I read about the bombing, which was not described as a massacre or slaughter in the mainstream headlines, but remained an “incident,” is that the media have a default agreement on morality: Killing’s OK as long as it’s emotionless, coldly rational and strategic (even if mistakenly so). This is the American way. Coldly strategic murder can be reported in such a way that it fits into the global infrastructure of safety and the control of evil.
But killing is bad if there’s passion involved. Passion is easily linked to “extremism” and wrong-think. The man killed this month by police at Paris’ Orly Airport, for instance, had cried, “I am here to die for Allah — there will be deaths.”
This fits neatly into the moral certainty of the Western world. Compare this to military PR talk, also reported in The Intercept: “The area,” according to a U.S. Navy spokesperson, “was extensively surveilled prior to the strike in order to minimize civilian casualties.”
In both cases, the perpetrators foresaw dead bodies left in the wake of their action. Nevertheless, the American military machine carefully avoided the public’s, or the media’s, moral disapproval. And geopolitics remains a game of good vs. evil: as morally complex as 10-year-old boys playing cowboys and Indians.
What I had not foreseen was how quickly the story would disappear from the news cycle. It simply couldn’t compete with the Trump cacophony of tweets and lies and whatever else passes for the news that America consumes. This adds a whole new dimension of media indifference to the actual cost of war, but I guess no nation could wage endless war if its official media made a big deal out of every mosque or hospital it (mistakenly) bombed, or put human faces on all its collateral damage.
I write this with sarcasm and irony, but what I feel is a troubled despair too deep to fathom. Global humanity, led by the United States of America, the planet’s prime superpower, is devolving into a state of perpetual war. It has caged itself into unending self-hatred.
“The way in which U.S. militarism is taken for granted,” Maya Schenwar writes at Truthout, “mirrors the ways in which other forms of mass violence are deemed inevitable — policing, deportation, the genocide and erasure of Indigenous peoples, the exploitative market-driven health care system, the vastly inequitable education system and disastrous environmental policies. The generally accepted logic tells us that these things will remain with us: The best we can hope for, according to this narrative, is modest reform amid monstrous violence.
“We have to choose,” she says, “life-giving priorities over violent ones. We have to stop granting legitimacy to all forms of state violence.”
Yes, yes, but how? The necessity of war has not been challenged at official levels of power in this country in more than four decades. The corporate media grants legitimacy to state violence more by what it doesn’t say than by what it does. Bombed mosques simply disappear from the news and, voila, they never happened. Liars had a global forum to promote the invasion of Iraq, while those who questioned it had to loose their outrage from street corners. “Collateral damage” is a linguistic blur, a magician’s cape, hiding mass murder.
And Donald Trump is under the control of the militarized far right as well as his own clueless immaturity. Of course his new budget, released, as Schenwar points out, on the anniversary of the My Lai Massacre, ups the military allotment by $54 billion and gouges social spending. As we protest and write letters to Congress and express our shock and awe at what is happening, let us keep in mind that Trump merely puts a face on America’s out-of-control militarism. He didn’t create it.
For the protests against his budget cuts to be effective, for the roiling turmoil to matter, a new country must be in formation.
How many civilians can we kill?
“The wooden carts that residents use to carry vegetables and other wares in the once busy market area instead ferried out cadavers recovered from the rubble last week.”
And so … another “precision” bomb strike in America’s war against terror. This was the scene in Mosul earlier this month, as reported by the Washington Post. Likely more than 200 civilians died, buried in the rubble of several buildings, which had been jammed with terrified residents of Iraq’s second largest city who were seeking shelter from the war. Many of them — including women, children — may have died slowly, buried beneath the rubble, as rescue operations took a week to mobilize.
Words fail me. So I borrow some from Air Force Brigadier Gen. Matthew Isler, who told U.S. News and World Report in the wake of the Mosul strike: “The density of the local fighting for those ground forces has changed. What has not changed is our support, our diligence in making sure we are taking the appropriate levels to make sure we are avoiding any harm to innocent civilians.”
The article, which addresses the controversy that President Trump has “relaxed” the rules of engagement in the war against ISIS, causing an increase in civilian casualties, goes on to note: “Isler specifically said the risk calculus — the number of civilian casualties acceptable to war planners, at times including the president, when considering missions — has not changed.”
The tremor I feel in these words goes deeper than another Trump controversy: “the number of civilian casualties acceptable to war planners …”
Even if these words were more than just PR blather and had a core of moral integrity, they stop me in my tracks. Of course, there’s nothing surprising here. This is how war works, especially today, when battlefields are coterminous with civilian living and working space. Innocent people are unavoidably taken out along with the “enemy.” This is the collateral damage that comes with every decision to wage war.
But still, how is it possible for human life to be measured and weighed in the same moral framework as abstract strategic calculation? This is the question that pulses like a heartbeat in these cold words — almost as though the soul of war itself lays suddenly exposed. Take away the bland terminology of public relations-speak and the general is saying something on the order of: Killing a high-ranking ISIS guy is worth the lives of no more than two children, max, and if we take out more it’s not our fault. The terrorists are using civilians as human shields. Or whatever.
Another hidden assumption in the U.S. News and World Report story is that “war planners,” whoever they are, have no public accountability about their choices — except in a strategic sense: Did we win? They have no moral accountability.
Why is that? This is the quintessence of spectator democracy: The American public watches war, waged in its name, on TV, at a remove that is virtually equal to its remove from the sporting events it consumes. The entirety of the public’s interest in war, at least from the perspective of the mainstream media, is limited to whether we’re winning or losing, with the “greatness” Trump has promised to reclaim for America all about copping a quick, unambiguous victory from ISIS and, more generically, from the Muslim world.
In other words, war itself — morality be damned — is embedded in the national and global infrastructure: It’s just the way things are.
“Meanwhile,” as Barbara Ehrenreich writes in her excellent book, Blood Rites, “war has dug itself into economic systems, where it offers a livelihood to millions, rather than to just a handful of craftsmen and professional soldiers. It has lodged in our souls as a kind of religion, a quick tonic for political malaise and a bracing antidote to the moral torpor of consumerist, market-driven cultures.”
But there’s more to it than this. The morality of war is indeed a serious matter, embedded as war may be into our economic and political systems. Viet Cong body counts, for instance, were an enduring part of the Vietnam War — an indication of our prowess and success — until the war utterly unraveled in defeat and two-plus decades of “Vietnam Syndrome”: the public’s disgust with the war machine. The war profiteers, military industrialists and neocons eventually succeeded in rebuilding a national war mentality, but it required eliminating the draft so that most Americans were not personally affected by it; and all the blood and gore were removed from the PR of war, exemplified by Gen. Tommy Franks’ famous utterance, as the invasion of Afghanistan was underway: “We don’t do body counts.”
So maybe war — with its unquestioned, trillion-dollar annual drain from the U.S. budget — remains “a kind of religion,” but only if the public at large can be kept at a distance from its stench and realness. “The number of civilian casualties” that are acceptable must be left to the war planners, not thrown open to public discussion.
And what discussion there is must be in the pretend language of the war planners, concerning acceptable levels of collateral damage, not cadavers in vegetable carts.
What I’m trying to say is that the public truly lacks the will to wage war and has already begun abandoning it as a religion. Disengaging from it economically is more complicated and probably cannot begin until the media begin reporting on war with raw honesty, from the point of view of its victims, not its planners.
Caligula with orange hair
So maybe this is how the U.S. demilitarizes, or the American public at least returns to the consciousness of the late ‘60s, when protests rocked the streets and people demanded an end to the savagery in Vietnam:
Donald Trump, the Fool in the Tarot deck, the harbinger of change, removes the political correctness and public relations sensitivity from U.S. foreign policy and goes naked about conquering the world. Suddenly the U.S. president is Julius Caesar (or maybe Caligula) with orange hair, hugging fellow tyrants, ramping up the military budget, decapitating social spending, bombing Fourth World civilians without restriction and making America great in the only way he can imagine: “fighting to win.”
And Trump is so blatant he awakes the snoozing American conscience. And the awareness and the anger stirred into being become a movement, and the movement isn’t mere protest over Trump’s behavior but a deep and profound cry for atonement for the colonial conquest, the genocide and slavery, out of which this nation created itself, and a demand that we begin acknowledging it rather than feigning ignorance of it — because the face of ignorance is the face of Trump — and in this acknowledgement we begin to undo the armed insanity of its contemporary manifestation.
“We have been trying for years — many years — to get a broad-based consensus among social justice and environmental groups that the bloated military budget was affecting all of their work,” CodePink co-founder Medea Benjamin said in an interview with Common Dreams. Suddenly, with Trump in office, “it seems like people are getting it.”
And thus on April 4, the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s soul-stirring speech at Riverside Church, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence,” CodePink and a coalition of organizations launched the #No54BillionforWar campaign, referencing the military-spending increase in Trump’s proposed budget. This blatant cash grab would simultaneously strip spending from crucial social and environmental programs and further bloat the Pentagon’s budget, which already consumes 48 percent of U.S. discretionary spending in pursuit of perpetual war.
“Our environmental and human needs are desperate and urgent,” reads the campaign’s website. “We need to transform our economy, our politics, our policies and our priorities to reflect that reality. That means reversing the flow of our tax dollars, away from war and militarism, and towards funding human and environmental needs, and demanding support for that reversal from all our political leaders at the local, state and national levels.”
Let us imagine, just for a moment, this and other movements blossoming across the country and across the planet, pulling in the young and the wounded and the aware, who begin committing their lives to the evolution of nations beyond militarism and violent confrontation. Let us imagine a presidential candidate — one running in the 2020 election — emerging from these movements, who articulates a vision of this country beyond militarism so compellingly, and garners so much backing, that she or he cannot be ignored by the media or mockingly dismissed by establishment insiders.
Let us imagine the collapse of the military-industrial status quo, which, at least in its current form, began entrenching itself in the U.S. political and social structure both economically and psychologically since World War II.
Of course, it’s the money part that will be hardest to undo, but the Trump phenomenon certainly begins waking the nation up psychologically.
Consider, for instance, the media shockwaves he generated recently when he fawned so lovingly over Egypt’s dictatorial president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, as though, good God, this repressive tyrant is a friend and ally. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman decried the White House visit as “another morning in Trump’s America,” inspiring Glenn Greenwald to note:
“Krugman believes — or at least wants his Democratic followers to believe — that supporting and praising savage despotism in Egypt is a new development that only happens in ‘Trump’s America.’”
However, he goes on, “the U.S. has been supporting, funding, and arming the Sisi tyranny for years under the Obama administration. In March 2015, as Sisi’s human rights abuses intensified, Obama personally told the Egyptian tyrant in a call the good news that he was lifting a ban ‘on the delivery of F-16 aircraft, Harpoon missiles, and M1A1 tank kits’ and — in the words of the White House — ‘also advised President al-Sisi that he will continue to request an annual $1.3 billion in military assistance for Egypt.’
“What Trump is violating is not any Washington principles or ethics but Washington propaganda tactics.”
Yeah, that’s Trump, beloved violator of protocol and military-industrial discretion, even as he plays the same game that’s always been played. He’s our self-proclaimed Caesar, attempting to bring back the days when military glory spoke for itself, when the enemy was the enemy and killing him didn’t have to be cloaked in the language of political correctness.
Or as the New York Times, guardian of the military-industrial consensus, put it: “Two months after the inauguration of President Trump, indications are mounting that the United States military is deepening its involvement in a string of complex wars in the Middle East that lack clear endgames.”
A decade and a half into the War on Terror, the Paper of Record has noticed a “lack of clear endgames” in our Middle East carnage, which of course it initially supported to the hilt! Could it be that Donald Trump is undoing the crucial alliance between the militarized economy and its mainstream media purveyors? Could it be that the future has woken up?
Robert Koehler, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.