Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta called it "utterly deplorable." Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed "total dismay" General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, was "deeply disturbed" that the actions in question would "erode the reputation of our joint force." Marine Corps Commandant General James Amos declared them to be "wholly inconsistent with the high standards of conduct and warrior ethos that we have demonstrated throughout our history," and Senator John McCain claimed they made him "so sad."
Seldom have so many high officials in Washington lined up to denounce an event so quickly or emphatically. I'm talking, of course, about the video of four wisecracking U.S. Marines in Afghanistan pissing on what might be three dead Taliban or simply -- since we may never know whose bodies those are -- the corpses of three dead Afghans. ("Have a good day, buddy... Golden -- like a shower, " you hear them say, seemingly addressing the bodies.) The video went viral in the Muslim world, and the Obama administration moved fast to contain the damage. After all, no one wanted another Abu Ghraib.
On this subject Washington has been remarkably united (with the exception of Rick Perry, who offered a half-hearted defense of the Marines -- "to call it a criminal act, I think, is over the top"). Pardon me, though, if I find this chorus of condemnation to be too little, too late. It feels like a malign version of one of Casablanca's famous final lines: "Round up the usual suspects."
After all, these last years in occupied Iraq and Afghanistan have been utterly deplorable, totally dismaying, and deeply disturbing from start to finish. On occasion after occasion, U.S. troops, aka "America's heroes," as well as private contractors and others in Washington's employ have run riot. There is no way to catalogue what's been deplorable, dismaying, and deeply disturbing, but if you wanted to start, it really wouldn't be that hard.
In fact, you wouldn't have to go farther than this website. If, for instance, it was deeply disturbing pictures taken by our troops you were curious about, you could have read David Swanson's 2006 piece "The Iraq War as a Trophy Photo," which focused on the "war porn" photos U.S. soldiers were already taking (or even setting up) and then proudly submitting to an actual porn website for posting (something, by the way, that's still going on).
Or if checkpoint killings by U.S. soldiers in Iraq were what you were interested in, all you had to do was read Chris Hedges at TomDispatch in 2008, based on interviews he did with American soldiers for the book Collateral Damage: "Iraqi families," he wrote, "were routinely fired upon for getting too close to checkpoints, including an incident where an unarmed father driving a car was decapitated by a .50-caliber machine gun in front of his small son." ("'It's fun to shoot sh-t up,' a soldier said.") And if his word wasn't enough, you could turn to U.S. Afghan War commander General Stanley McChrystal who, in a moment of bluntness in April 2010, commented: "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."
Or consider something no one has yet denounced as deplorable, dismaying, or deeply disturbing: the obliteration of wedding parties. Over the years, TomDispatch has counted up at least six weddings in Iraq and Afghanistan that were wiped out in part or full by the U.S. Air Force. All of these, including the first in December 2001 in which a B-52 and two B-1B bombers, armed with precision weapons, killed 110 of 112 Afghan revelers, were reported individually. But next to no one in our world thought them dismaying or disturbing enough to write about them collectively or, for that matter, to deplore them. (Of a wedding in Western Iraq in which U.S. planes killed 40 people, including wedding musicians and children, Major General James Mattis, commander of the 1st Marine Division, asked: "How many people go to the middle of the desert... to hold a wedding 80 miles from the nearest civilization?")
The troves of documents leaked to the website WikiLeaks, for which Army Pfc. Bradley Manning has been charged, certainly caused a stir, but the carnage in them was, in truth, easily available without access to a single secret document. Washington's crocodile tears can't wash away the stain of all this on American honor, as TomDispatch regular Chase Madar, author of the upcoming book The Passion of Bradley Manning, makes all too clear. (To catch Timothy MacBain's latest Tomcast audio interview in which Madar discusses the coming trial of Bradley Manning, click here, or download it to your iPod here.) Tom
Blood on Whose Hands? Bradley Manning, Washington, and the Blood of Civilians
By Chase Madar
Who in their right mind wants to talk about, think about, or read a short essay about... civilian war casualties? What a bummer, this topic, especially since our Afghan, Iraq, and other ongoing wars were advertised as uplifting acts of philanthropy: wars to spread security, freedom, democracy, human rights, gender equality, the rule of law, etc.
A couple hundred thousand dead civilians have a way of making such noble ideals seem like dollar-store tinsel. And so, throughout our decade-long foreign policy debacle in the Greater Middle East, we in the U.S. have generally agreed that no one shall commit the gaucherie of dwelling on (and "dwelling on" = fleetingly mentioned) civilian casualties. Washington elites may squabble over some things, but as for foreigners killed by our numerous wars, our Beltway crew adheres to a sullen code of omertÃ.
Club rules do, however, permit one loophole: Washington officials may bemoan the nightmare of civilian casualties -- but only if they can be pinned on a 24-year-old Army private first class named Bradley Manning.
Pfc. Manning, you will remember, is the young soldier who is soon to be court-martialed for passing some 750,000 military and diplomatic documents, a large chunk of them classified, to the website WikiLeaks. Among those leaks, there was indeed some serious stuff about how Americans dealt with civilians in invaded countries. For instance, the documents revealed that the U.S. military, then the occupying force in Iraq, did little or nothing to prevent Iraqi authorities from torturing prisoners in a variety of gruesome ways, sometimes to death.
Then there was that gun-sight video -- unclassified but buried in classified material -- of an American Apache helicopter opening fire on a crowd on a Baghdad street, gunning down a dozen men, including two Reuters employees, and injuring more, including children. There were also those field reports about how jumpy American soldiers repeatedly shot down civilians at roadside checkpoints; about night raids gone wrong both in Iraq and Afghanistan; and a count of thousands of dead Iraqi civilians, a tally whose existence the U.S. military had previously denied possessing.
Together, these leaks and many others offered a composite portrait of military and political debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan whose grinding theme has been civilian casualties, a fact not much noted here in the U.S. A tiny number of low-ranking American soldiers have been held to account for rare instances of premeditated murder of civilians, but most of the troops who kill civilians in the midst of the chaos of war are not tried, much less convicted. We don't talk about these cases a lot either. On the other hand, officials of all types make free with lusty condemnations of Bradley Manning, whose leaks are luridly credited with potential (though not actual) deaths.