War: The Larger Atrocity

I went to turn her over and there was a little baby with her that I had also killed.  The baby’s face was half gone.  My mind just went.  The training came to me and I just started killing.  Old men, women, children, water buffaloes, everything.  We were told to leave nothing standing.  We did what we were told, regardless of whether they were civilians.  They was the enemy. Period.  Kill.

— Soldier testifying to his part in the My Lai massacre, Vietnam, 16 March, 1968

So the US military and administration are terribly, dreadfully, grievously sorry for the deaths of all those Afghan villagers killed by a ‘suspected’ lone staff sergeant who’d lost the plot, had a breakdown,  suffered a brain injury.  I’m not going to address all the holes in the story that is being told, in a desperate effort to convince the public this is something that has never happened before and never will again (the Western public that is.  Afghans know better.)  Other news watchers will do a better job than me.

No.  What really angers me is the use of language I have heard so many times before.  Not really his fault, you understand.  It was just that war had got to him.  You’d got to feel sorry for him really, lost in ‘the fog of war’ as he was.  One might – if one didn’t suspect that he was not alone; that this wasn’t an isolated incident; that one hadn’t heard all the same lame excuses last week or last month about another ‘tragic’ (and ‘isolated’) event; that he (or they) weren’t doing what so many soldiers have done before: slaughter innocent civilians because they had been trained to see them as ‘gooks’, ‘ragheads’ or whatever dismissive name the current conflict is using to diminish the humanity of the people whose country they have invaded.

It happens in every war, and not once, but again and again. My Lai was not the only atrocity in Vietnam, not by a long way.  And as Jonathon and Orville Schell wrote in a letter to the New York Times*: ‘Such atrocities were and are the logical consequences of a war directed against an enemy indistinguishable from the people.’  It applies particularly to American forces that have fought war after war in the underlying belief that in order to ‘civilise’ the savage you have to kill him (and here I would recommend you read The Deaths of Others by John Tirman).  In this well researched and thoughtful book, Tirman looks at the appalling numbers of civilians who have died in America’s wars, and the absolute uncaring apathy of the American public towards those deaths, even while they care so much about the death toll among their own ‘heroes’.  And before the rest of us pat ourselves on the back, remember that all states with an imperial or colonial past have taken this attitude towards the citizens of the countries they have invaded, occupied, conquered and stripped of resources.

The atrocity in Afghanistan a few days ago is just one of many, and it cannot be talked into forgetfulness.  One cannot excuse it by saying it is part of ‘the tragedy of war’.  No.  The tragedy is that so many refuse to see the victims as having any real presence in the event, any rights, any humanity.  Again and again we refuse to acknowledge the victims or to recognise that our ‘heroic’ soldiers have wilfully and knowing murdered innocent  people.  The ‘fog of war’ is not to blame for this deliberate blindness, and it is deliberate.  What is to blame is the arrogance of belief that some people have more right to life than others.

So – I am tired of the language of war.  I am tired of the denials, the lame excuses, the justifications, the heartfelt and unreserved apologies and the finger pointing at just one singular mad individual.  I am tired of generals saying the US forces ‘do not kill civilians’; that this orgy of killing, torture or abuse was an ‘isolated incident’; that all those killed were’ terrorists’ or ‘insurgents’; that there would be a ‘full investigation’; that ‘lessons would be learned’.

Above all, I am tired of Obama being ‘heartbroken’ at the news from Afghanistan.  The only way I could express myself over his breaking heart would be to resort to a whole page of very coarse swearing.  I could but I won’t – there is enough filth being created by US forces or ISAF or NATO in their illegal war-making around the Middle East and beyond.

So Obama’s heartbroken.  Would that he were. Would that he were burying his parents, wife, children, grandchildren, brothers, sisters and friends.  Would that his house had been bombed into a heap of rubble. Would that he was sitting under a sheet of plastic in the coldest winter weather outside the gates of Washington, with no food, no medical care and no comfort except that somewhere the other side of the world a self-important man was ‘sorry’, was offering an apology.  Would he know what heartbreak meant then?

And I am really tired of the media, the TV channels and mainstream press supinely parroting the statements they are given about isolated incidents, rogue soldiers, alleged and apparent killings by a suspected single member of the US forces.  Was it only last month they were reporting another ‘isolated incident’?  How many times do they have to report a story like this before they stop repeating the rubbish that it is a one-off, could never happen again, due to a single rotten apple that’s had a breakdown?  Will they ever get honest enough to look back at last week’s news without doing their share of copy-and-paste when writing this week’s piece?  And will they ever wonder in print how many similar incidents have gone unreported?  That perhaps this kind of thing is all too common?

And when will the public wake up and recognize that this is what war is; this is what soldiers do; this is what they are trained to do when fighting wars; that there are no heroes in war, just countless obscene and unnecessary deaths.  And when, oh when, will we learn to care about the death of people other than our own?

Lesley is a lover of animals, campaigns and writes on war/peace, climate change and the environment. She is the former editor of Abolish War. Read other articles by Lesley.