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Winning Hearts And Minds?

We have all heard the euphemism “collateral damage.” To spin the carnage in this way makes the reality of dead women and children more abstract and hence more palatable to the American public. It becomes easier to avoid the fact that in the two acknowledged mideast wars, many more civilians are dead than enemy combatants.

Some of the civilians killed were just plain unlucky to be near an intended target. Others were a matter of faulty intelligence or miscalculations. On one occasion, an Afghan wedding had the festive fun snuffed out in an instant

by at least three American bombs dropped in their midst. The bride was among the dead. According to CNN of the wedding party, at least 20 people were killed and more than 60 wounded.Two injured young girls (ages 6 & 7) were the sole surviving members of their respective families.

Blame is sometimes subjective and the assignment of fault can be a difficult task. One could reasonably argue that tragic events like these are the unavoidable reality of war. This undeniable truth is exactly why war should be avoided at all costs and certainly not rushed into without profoundly honest evaluation of the imminent threat and sober discussion and debate about possible alternatives. After all, if we have learned anything from history, it’s that war is the worst and most godawful event that mankind has ever undertaken. Based on the troop numbers, rational discussion didn’t happen regarding Afghanistan and in the case of Iraq, honesty was absent.

For instance, we know (and knew then) that a small contingent of Special Forces can penetrate any country and carry out precision raids to free hostages or to kill Osama bin Laden and the members of al Qaeda that were directly involved in the 9/11 attacks. In fact, this was the way we started our involvement and ultimately how bin Laden was killed. How much better off would we be if back in the early days of Afghanistan we had looked beyond our justifiable anger and concluded that small elite teams was the most effective path to continue? How much better off would the wedding party and guests be? What would have been the harm in extending this approach? So what if the intelligence gathering and planning had taken years to track down and kill bin Laden? It did anyway but it would have avoided tens of thousands of boots on the ground, with the devastating consequences. But I’m just a guy sitting in front of my computer. Certainly there are far superior intellects than me who could come up with any number of alternative scenarios other than protracted war and occupation. Right?

Here’s what I do know: When the 9/11 terrorist attacks happened, committed al Qaeda fighters numbered around 500. Some experts say that at the time their members actually totaled under 200. A group of 19 fanatics armed with box cutters managed to kill more than 3000 people. It was a truly dreadful and gut-wrenching tragedy. Unfortunately based on the number of dead, our response has been a tragedy of vastly greater scale. We bombed Iraq back into the Stone Age. In the process more than 6000 of our young men and women have been sacrificed. Estimates put the Iraqi and Afghan innocents killed at more than 100,000 and some estimates go as high as 1.4 million. This can only be understood as the racist view that the worth of an Iraqi’s life is less than 3% of the value of “our” lives. Even this doesn’t take into account that the majority of the dead had no connection to al Qaeda or with the 9/11 attacks.

Imagine how different things would be if our ill-conceived invasion of Iraq had not happened. Osama bin Laden would still be dead and some could argue that it would have happened sooner. However, in getting to that point we would not have inspired the distrust and hatred of so many in the Arab world. We would not have acted the part of poster child for al Qaeda recruitment. Countless lives would not have been cut short, thousands of children would not be orphaned (in the mideast and in the US), no broken bodies and spirits, and no broken infrastructure.

The cost of these wars in human as well as monetary terms is staggering. What we could have been done if so much money had not been funneled into the wars. Imagine if the US had taken a domestic policy strategy with the same sense of urgency as it did with the prosecution of the wars. 12 years of budget surplus: new roads and modern bridges, new schools with more teachers and more support for higher education, high speed trains and high speed internet… quality health care for all? a declining population of the poor? What a pathetic missed opportunity.

Can I say for sure that America would have been all shiny and new as I envisioned? Probably not. Admittedly, before 9/11 there was still Fox “News,” growing corporate greed, bought politicians, a continuing drug war, the racist judiciary filling the for-profit private prisons, and hateful right wing talk show hosts. Still, I doubt anyone would argue with the idea that most of us would be far better off. Well, except maybe the war profitteers.

OK, go ahead and say it, or I’ll say it for you: hindsight is 20-20. However, I don’t think that axiom applies in this situation, or at least not entirely. It’s not like we had no historical situations to draw from. Likely the most pertinent was the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union. There are others which in part we could have used in the decision making process: VietNam for one, or how about considering other occupations such as Gaza. How’s that working out for Israel? First, in terms of its standing in the world and its relationships with other countries. But more importantly, even if someone is of the belief that Israel has no other choice, the morally corrosive and dehumanizing effect of a repressive occupation can’t be denied.

If our goal has been to win the hearts and minds of the people in the countries US military have/are occupying, we have a damn odd way of going about it. Our military, in addition to dealing admirably with an extremely difficult mission, sometimes do bad things. “Bad things” doesn’t do justice. Try: fucking horrific and despicable crimes.

The morally corrosive and dehumanizing effect of war and a repressive occupation can’t be denied. Examples are easy to find: The collateral murder video that most us have seen is obviously disturbing not only for the obvious reasons, but for the callousness of the gunner. A potentially more egregious event (if murder can be rated by degrees of evilness) happened in the town of Haditha. 24 unarmed Iraqi civilian men, woman and children, most dressed in their pajamas were killed on November 19, 2005. 19 were shot in their homes and 4 students and the driver were pulled from a taxi and shot. Of the 24, 7 were children, one was a 3 year old toddler, another was a year old, 3 women and a 76 year old man in a wheelchair. The Marines allegedly responsible are described by witnesses as “going on a rampage” and are said to have been retaliating for the death of a fellow Marine, Lance Corporal Miguel Terrazas, by an IED.

The fact that the incident was falsely reported leaves little doubt that anyone involved with this attack believed it was justified. On November 20, 2005, a statement blaming Iraqi insurgents was released:

  • “A US marine and 15 civilians were killed yesterday from the blast of a roadside bomb in Haditha. Immediately following the bombing, gunmen attacked the convoy with small arms fire. Iraqi army soldiers and Marines returned fire, killing eight insurgents and wounding another.”

The truth was first reported by Time Magazine reporter Tim McGirk. Video footage taken the following day and a medical report confirmed that each victim had been shot and no one died from injuries consistent with an explosion. The medical report indicated that the victims were shot at close range.

Additionally, Eman Waleed, a 9 year old girl was injured but survived. In an interview she said:

  • “I couldn’t see their faces very well – only their guns sticking in to the doorway. I watched them shoot my grandfather, first in the chest and then in the head. Then they killed my granny.”

8 Marines were charged with a variety of offenses in connection with the Haditha incident. 6 of the 8 have subsequently had charges dropped, One was acquitted. The 8th was the Sergeant in charge who had been implicated in instigating the event and all 5 of the deaths of the taxi driver and passengers. In a plea deal, he pleaded guilty to dereliction of duty and punishment will likely be a rank reduction and a possible pay cut. Iraqis are justifiably shocked and outraged by this trial outcome. The list of victims as reported at Wikipedia is on the right, sourced from United for Peace and Justice.

It is long past the time to go, we need to leave immediately. This applies to our troops in Afghanistan as well as the thousands of private security forces in Iraq. What could the mission be (a topic for another day) of the approximately 4000 government employees that are to be protected by a mercenary army?

These privately contracted corporate troops are highly militarized but not as disciplined or well trained as US military. They aren’t accountable to our government but will none-the-less be seen by the Iraqis as US forces. It seems inevitable that eventually one of these mercenaries will rape or kill an innocent Iraqi, the blowback will be more anger and ill will. As has happened in the past, and regardless of the crime, the perpetrators will be vigorously protected by corporate headquarters.

The local people are literally sick to death of us. We are the scary and obnoxious uninvited house guest who shows up for a weekend and stays for 10 years (and breaks all their stuff). No matter how far down the wrong path you’ve traveled, it’s never too late to stop and head in a different direction.

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