In his classic work, Obedience to Authority, psychologist Stanley Milgram observed:
There is always some element of bad form in objecting to the destructive course of events, or indeed, in making it a topic of conversation. Thus, in Nazi Germany, even among those most closely identified with the ‘final solution’, it was considered an act of discourtesy to talk about the killings.1
The same “bad form” is very much discouraged in our own society. One would hardly guess from media reporting that Britain and America are responsible for killing anyone in Iraq and Afghanistan, where violence is typically blamed on “insurgents” and “sectarian conflict”. International “coalition” forces are depicted as peacekeepers using minimum violence as a last resort.
In reporting the November 2005 Haditha massacre, in which 24 Iraqi civilians were murdered by US troops, Newsweek suggested that the scale of the tragedy “should not be exaggerated”. Why?
America still fields what is arguably the most disciplined, humane military force in history, a model of restraint compared with ancient armies that wallowed in the spoils of war or even more-modern armies that heedlessly killed civilians and prisoners.2
The truth was revealed in a single moment of unthinking honesty by a senior US Army commander involved in planning the November 2004 Falluja offensive and convinced of its necessity. He visited the city afterward and declared:
My God, what are the folks who live here going to say when they see this?3
The answer was provided by physician Mahammad J. Haded, director of an Iraqi refugee centre, who was in Falluja during the US onslaught:
The city is today totally ruined. Falluja is our Dresden in Iraq… The population is full of rage.4
In July 2005, the Independent commented on US actions in Iraq:
The American army’s use of its massive fire-power is so unrestrained that all US military operations are in reality the collective punishment of whole districts, towns and cities.5
In April 2004, the Daily Telegraph reported the disgust of senior British army commanders in Iraq with the “heavy-handed and disproportionate” military tactics used by US forces, who view Iraqis “as untermenschen. They are not concerned about the Iraqi loss of life… their attitude toward the Iraqis is tragic, it is awful.”6
Burying The Bride
The anonymous commanders’ comments generalise to both British and American media reporting.
In July, Afghan investigators in Nangarhar, Afghanistan, told the AFP news agency that they had been shown the “bloodied clothes of women and children” killed in a July 6 US air strike. The attack was reported to have killed 47 civilian members of a wedding party, including 39 women and children, with nine wounded. The head of the team, Burhanullah Shinwari, deputy speaker of Afghanistan’s senate, said: “They were all civilians and had no links with Taliban or Al-Qaeda.”7
Around ten people were reported still missing, believed buried under rubble. It is now estimated that 52 people were killed — the same number that died in the London suicide attacks of July 7, 2005. Another member of the team, Mohammad Asif Shinwari, said there were only three men among the dead and the rest were women and children. Marc Herold of the University of New Hampshire reports that eight of the victims were between 14 and 18 years of age.8 The US military initially claimed only “militants” involved in mortar attacks had been killed.
A separate investigation into a July 4 strike in the northeastern province of Nuristan found that 17 civilians had been killed there. The coalition claimed they had killed several militants who were fleeing after attacking a base. But an Afghan official again confirmed that the victims were “all civilians.”8 Afghan authorities said the dead included two doctors and two midwives who had been attempting to leave the area to escape military operations.
Air Force Times reports that allied warplanes are currently dropping a record number of bombs on Afghanistan. For the first half of 2008, aircraft dropped 1,853 bombs — more than they released during all of 2006 and more than half of 2007’s total. But this only hints at the true extent of the slaughter. The figures do not include cannon rounds shot by fighters or AC-130 gunships, Hellfire and other small rockets launched by warplanes and drones, and assaults by helicopters. Air Force Times comments:
In close-quarter firefights where friendly soldiers could be wounded if bombs are used, cannon fire and missiles are often the preferred alternative.9
The response of the UK press to these latest atrocities is a case study in censorship by omission.
On July 12, the Guardian devoted 307 words to the attack on the wedding party. The killing of 39 women and children was not considered front page news — the story was buried on page 30.10
On the same day, a 490-word article in the Times focused on the fate of nine British troops injured when a US helicopter accidentally targeted them in a “friendly fire” incident. Six of the nine soldiers have since returned to duty, with three still receiving medical treatment. While 447 words were devoted to this story, the article concluded with two sentences totalling 43 words on the killing of the Afghan civilians:
However, 47 civilians, most of them women and children, were killed when a US aircraft bombed a wedding party in eastern Afghanistan on Sunday, an Afghan government investigation has concluded. The nine-man investigation team found that only civilians were hit during the airstrike.11
At time of writing there have been five mentions of the 47 deaths in UK national quality newspapers.
Media reports on Western victims of terrorist or insurgent attacks typically provide detailed information on the names, backgrounds and personal histories of the victims. When the first female British soldier, Sarah Bryant, was killed in Afghanistan on June 17, the media poured forth details about her life. The BBC website showed pictures of Bryant’s wedding and devoted an article to moving tributes from her husband, father, mother, commanding officer, unit commander, friends and colleagues. A friend of the family described Bryant: “A hundred per cent feminine, very pretty, very unassuming, a natural person, very happy — the sort of person that when she was in a room, it lit up.”12
Bryant, recall, was a combatant. The depth of focus changes for Iraqi and Afghan non-combatant victims of US-UK violence. In a BBC online article, Martin Patience reported the July 6 attack:
Regional officials said the casualties were attending a wedding party and that the bride had been killed.13
We wrote to Patience (July 14), noting that he had reported that the bride had been among the victims. We asked him why he had not mentioned that fully 39 of the victims were women and children. He responded:
I accept your point about not mentioning women and children, although, in my defence, the story was linked to the new story and I didn’t necessarily want to repeat the details.14
We wrote back:
Thanks for your response, I appreciate it. But something doesn’t add up. How often did the media provide us with the personal details — name, gender, photo, education, work lives, loved ones, aspirations — of the victims of the July 7 bomb attacks in London? [See here: (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/spl/hi/ uk/05/london_blasts/victims/default.stm] The July 6 atrocity in Afghanistan has been reported a tiny handful of times in the press. Why would you be concerned about repeating the fact that almost all of the victims were women and children?15
We received no further reply but, to its credit, the BBC did subsequently publish an excellent piece on the July 6 attack.16
Patience had earlier reported: “the latest claim of civilian casualties puts yet more pressure on the Afghan authorities and international forces to get it right when carrying out operations.”17
The reference to the need for “international forces” to “get it right” might sound like neutral language. But imagine if a journalist had commented in August 1990 that claims of civilian casualties had put “yet more pressure on Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi forces to get it right when carrying out operations in Kuwait.” The bias suddenly becomes very clear.
Militants And Mistakes
On July 12, Leonard Doyle of the 18 reported:
The UN said last month that nearly 700 Afghan civilians had lost their lives in Afghanistan this year, about two-thirds in attacks by militants and about 255 in military operations.19
From this, we were presumably to understand that the “militants” are not conducting “military operations”, and Afghan government/”coalition” forces conducting “military operations” are not “militants”.
The point being that “militant” is a pejorative term used by journalists to suggest illegitimacy. In June 1999, the BBC reported that “Kosovo Albanians have been welcoming the return of armed KLA soldiers.”20 KLA insurgents fighting Serbian forces were supported by the West and were regularly described as “soldiers” rather than “militants” or “insurgents”. The British media have similarly referred to the “Chechen resistance” fighting the Russian army. Ironically, British and American journalists also commonly referred to Afghan forces fighting the 1979-1989 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan as “resistance fighters” and “freedom fighters.”21 The use of such terms is of course inconceivable in US-UK reporting of the current occupation.
On the rare occasions when US-UK atrocities are discussed, they are invariably described as blunders rather than crimes. On July 13, Alastair Leithead commented on the BBC’s evening news:
It’s these mistakes that cost the US the support of the [Afghan] people.
In September 2004, the BBC’s Nicholas Witchell reported on BBC TV news from Baghdad:
As is so often the case in this conflict it’s the Iraqi civilian population which suffers the greatest loss of life — either as a result of mistakes by the Americans, or, far more frequently, of course, as a result of the bombs and the bullets of the insurgents.22
The bias could hardly be more transparent — we kill civilians only by “mistake”, our enemies do not. Noam Chomsky comments:
The more vulgar apologists for U.S. and Israeli crimes solemnly explain that, while Arabs purposely kill people, the U.S. and Israel, being democratic societies, do not intend to do so. Their killings are just accidental ones, hence not at the level of moral depravity of their adversaries.23
As Chomsky notes we can distinguish three categories of crimes: murder with intent, accidental killing, and murder with foreknowledge but without specific intent. When Israel’s High Court authorised intense collective punishment of the people of Gaza by depriving them of electricity, when Bill Clinton bombed the al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in 1998 in Sudan supplying half the country’s drugs, and when Bush and Blair invaded Iraq, the devastating consequences for civilians were predictable, but ignored.
Certainly it is reprehensible to kill with intent. But is it any better to kill without intent when the likely consequences for our victims are so irrelevant that they do not even enter our minds? The point being, as Chomsky writes, that Western elites really do appear to regard Third World peoples “much as we do the ants we crush while walking down a street. We are aware that it is likely to happen (if we bother to think about it), but we do not intend to kill them because they are not worthy of such consideration.”23
When we assemble the different pieces of the media jigsaw puzzle, clear patterns emerge. Western victims are presented as real, important people with names, families, hopes and dreams. Iraqi and Afghan victims of British and American violence are anonymous, nameless. They are depicted as distant shadowy figures without personalities, feelings or families.
The result is that Westerners are consistently humanised, while non-Westerners are portrayed as lesser versions of humanity.
- Milgram, Obedience to Authority, Pinter & Martin, 1974, p.204. [↩]
- Evan Thomas and Scott Johnson, ‘Probing Bloodbath,’ Newsweek, June 12, 2006. [↩]
- NY Times Week in Review. [↩]
- Countercurrents. [↩]
- Patrick Cockburn, ‘We must avoid the terrorist trap,’ The Independent, July 11, 2005. [↩]
- Sean Rayment, ‘US tactics condemned by British officers’, Defence Correspondent, Daily Telegraph, April 11, 2004. [↩]
- AFP, “US-led strikes kills 64 Afghan civilians,” July 11, 2008. [↩]
- “Another Wedding Party Massacre,” July 6, 2008. [↩] [↩]
- Bruce Rolfsen, ‘Afghanistan hit by record number of bombs,’ Air Force Times, July 18, 2008. [↩]
- Mohammad Rafiq Jalalabad, ‘US air strike killed 47 civilians, says Afghan government,’ Guardian, July 12, 2008. [↩]
- Dominic Kennedy and Michael Evans, ‘Friendly fire inquiry to investigate messages from troops,’ The Times, July 12, 2008. [↩]
- http://news.bbc.co.uk/ 2/hi/uk_news/7463470.stm. [↩]
- http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/7502137.stm. [↩]
- Email to Media Lens, July 14. [↩]
- Email, July 14. [↩]
- http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/7504574.stm [↩]
- http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/7492195.stm. [↩]
- Independent [↩]
- Doyle, ‘US to investigate air strike that killed 47 Afghan civilians,’ Independent, July 12, 2008. [↩]
- http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/369239.stm. [↩]
- See our media alert: http://www.medialens.org/alerts/ 07/071120_invasion_a_comparison.php. [↩]
- Witchell, BBC1, 18:00 News, September 30, 2004. [↩]
- Noam Chomsky, ‘Terrorists wanted the world over,’ Tom’s Dispatch, February 26, 2008. [↩] [↩]