In a little noted passage in her bestselling book, The Dark Side, Jane Mayer offers us a vision, just post-9/11, of the value of one. In October 2001, shaken by a nerve-gas false alarm at the White House, Vice President Dick Cheney, reports Mayer, went underground. He literally embunkered himself in “a secure, undisclosed location,” which she describes as “one of several Cold War-era nuclear-hardened subterranean bunkers built during the Truman and Eisenhower administrations, the nearest of which were located hundreds of feet below bedrock…” That bunker would be dubbed, perhaps only half-sardonically, “the Commander in Chief’s Suite.”
Oh, and in that period, if Cheney had to be in transit, “he was chauffeured in an armored motorcade that varied its route to foil possible attackers.” In the backseat of his car (just in case), adds Mayer, “rested a duffel bag stocked with a gas mask and a biochemical survival suit.” And lest danger rear its head, “rarely did he travel without a medical doctor in tow.”
When it came to leadership in troubled times, this wasn’t exactly a profile in courage. Perhaps it was closer to a profile in paranoia, or simply in fear, but whatever else it might have been, it was also a strange kind of statement of self-worth. Has any wartime president — forget the vice-president — including Abraham Lincoln when southern armies might have marched on Washington, or Franklin D. Roosevelt at the height of World War II, ever been so bizarrely overprotected in the nation’s capital? Has any administration ever placed such value on the preservation of the life of a single official?
On the other hand, the well-armored Vice President and his aide David Addington played a leading role, as Mayer documents in grim detail, in loosing a Global War on Terror that was also a global war of terror on lands thousands of miles distant. In this new war, “the gloves came off,” “the shackles were removed” — images much loved within the administration and, in the case of those “shackles,” by George Tenet’s CIA. In the process, no price in human abasement or human life proved too high to pay — as long as it was paid by someone else.
Recently, it was paid by up to 60 Afghan children.
The Value of None
If no level of protection was too much for this White House, then no protection was what it offered civilians who happened to be living in the ever expanding “war zones” of the planet. In the Middle East, in Somalia, in Pakistan, in Afghanistan, the war to be fought — in part from the air, sometimes via pilotless unmanned aerial vehicles or drones — would, in crucial ways, be aimed at civilians (though this could never be admitted). “Collateral damage,” the sterile, self-exculpating phrase the Pentagon chose to use for the anything-but-secondary death and destruction visited on civilians, would be the name of the game in the President’s chosen war almost from the moment the Vice President disappeared into his bunker.
In a world where death came suddenly in that vast swath of the planet the neoconservatives once called “the arc of instability” (before they made it one), civilians had few doctors on hand, no less full chemical body suits or gas masks, when disaster struck. Often they were asleep, or going about their daily business, when death made its appearance unannounced. Throughout these years, the stories of these deaths, when they appeared at all, normally were to be found on the inside pages of our newspapers in summary war reports. Regularly, they had “women and children” buried somewhere in them.
We have no idea just how many civilians have been blown away by the U.S. military (and allies) in these years, only that the “collateral damage” has been widespread and far more central to the President’s War on Terror than anyone here generally cares to acknowledge. Collateral damage has come in myriad ways — from artillery fire in the initial invasion of Iraq; from repeated shootings of civilians in vehicles at checkpoints, and from troops (or even private mercenaries) blasting away from convoys; during raids on private homes; in village operations; and, significantly, from the air.
In Afghanistan, in particular, as the Taliban insurgency grew more quickly than U.S. and NATO troop strength, so did the use of air power. From 2004 to 2007, air strikes increased tenfold. Over the past year, civilian deaths from those air strikes have nearly tripled. According to Marc Garlasco, a former Pentagon official and military analyst at Human Rights Watch, 317,000 pounds of bombs were dropped this June and 270,000 this July, equaling “the total tonnage dropped in 2006.”
As with all figures relating to casualties, the actual counts you get on Afghan civilian dead are approximations and probably undercounts, especially since the war against the Taliban has been taking place largely in the backlands of one (or, if you count Pakistan, two) of the poorest, most remote regions on the planet. And yet we do know something…
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Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the American Age of Denial. The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), a collection of some of the best pieces from his site, has just been published. Focusing on what the mainstream media hasn’t covered, it is an alternative history of the mad Bush years.
Copyright 2008 Tom Engelhardt