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Tom Engelhardt: Killing Civilians

April 24, 2009

By Tom Engelhardt

Almost like clockwork, the reports float up to us from thousands of miles away, as if from another universe. Every couple of days they seem to arrive from Afghan villages that few Americans will ever see without weapon in hand. Every few days, they appear from a world almost beyond our imagining, and always they concern death — so many lives snuffed out so regularly for more than seven years now. Unfortunately, those news stories are so unimportant in our world that they seldom make it onto, no less off of, the inside pages of our papers. They’re so repetitive that, once you’ve started reading them, you could write them in your sleep from thousands of miles away.

Like obituaries, they follow a simple pattern. Often the news initially arrives buried in summary war reports based on U.S. military (or NATO) announcements of small triumphs — so many “insurgents,” or “terrorists,” or “foreign militants,” or “anti-Afghan forces” killed in an air strike or a raid on a house or a village. And these days, often remarkably quickly, even in the same piece, come the challenges. Some local official or provincial governor or police chief in the area hit insists that those dead “terrorists” or “militants” were actually so many women, children, old men, innocent civilians, members of a “wedding party”:http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/174954 or a “funeral”:http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/6279616.stm.

In response — no less part of this formula — have been the “denials”:http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/174975 issued by American military officials or coalition spokespeople that those killed were anything but insurgents, and the assurances of the accuracy of the intelligence information on which the strike or raid was based. In these years, American spokespeople have generally retreated from their initial claims only step by begrudging step, while doggedly waiting for any hubbub over the killings to die down. If that didn’t happen, an “investigation” would be launched (the investigators being, of course, members of the same military that had done the killing) and then prolonged, clearly in hopes that the investigation would outlast coverage of the “incident” and both would be forgotten in a flood of other events.

Forgotten? It’s true that we forget these killings easily — often we don’t notice them in the first place — since they don’t seem to impinge on our lives. Perhaps that’s one of the benefits of fighting a war on the periphery of empire, halfway across the planet in the backlands of some impoverished country.

One problem, though: the forgetting doesn’t work so well in those backlands. When your child, wife or husband, mother or father is killed, you don’t forget.

Only this week, our media was “filled with”:http://onthescene.blogs.foxnews.com/2009/04/21/10th-anniversary-of-the-columbine-tragedy/ ceremonies and remembrances centered around the tenth anniversary of the slaughter at Columbine High School. Twelve kids and a teacher blown away in a mad rampage. Who has forgotten? On the other side of the planet, there are weekly Columbines.

Similarly, every December 7th, we Americans still remember the dead of Pearl Harbor, almost seven decades in the past. We still have ceremonies for, and mourn, the dead of September 11, 2001. We haven’t forgotten. We’re not likely to forget. Why, when death rains down on our distant battlefields, should they?

Admittedly, there’s been a change in the assertion/repeated denial/investigation pattern instituted by American forces. Now, assertion and denial are sometimes followed relatively quickly by “acknowledgement, apology”:http://uk.reuters.com/article/usTopNews/idUKTRE53G3L620090417?sp=true, and payment. Now, when the irrefutable meets the unchallengeable, American spokespeople tend to own up to it. Yep, we killed them. Yep, they were women and kids. Nope, they had, as far as we know, nothing to do with terrorism. Yep, it was our fault and we’ll pony up for our mistake.

This new tactic is a response to rising Afghan outrage over the repeated killing of civilians in U.S. raids and air strikes. But like the denials and the investigations, this, too, is intended to make everything go away, while our war itself — those missiles loosed, those doors kicked down in the middle of the night — just goes on…

Read more at “TOMDISPATCH.COM”:http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175063

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of “the American Empire Project”:http://www.americanempireproject.com/, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. He is the author of “The End of Victory Culture”:http://www.amazon.com/dp/155849586X/ref=nosim/?tag=nationbooks08-20, a history of the Cold War and beyond, as well as of a novel, “The Last Days of Publishing”:http://www.amazon.com/dp/1558495061/ref=nosim/?tag=nationbooks08-20. He also edited “The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire”:http://www.amazon.com/dp/1844672573/ref=nosim/?tag=nationbooks08-20 (Verso, 2008), an alternative history of the mad Bush years. To catch a recent audio interview in which he discusses the CIA’s drone war over Pakistan, click “here”:http://tomdispatch.blogspot.com/.

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