America ’s Unworthy and Invisible Victims Before and Since 9/11

In a great propaganda victory for the culture of nationalistic imperialism, millions of Americans have been trained to think of the “Vietnam War” in terms of what the Vietnamese “did to us.” It is true that 58,000 American soldiers died (tens of thousands more were crippled and sickened and an equal number committed suicide since the “war”) in the United States’ “crucifixion of South East Asia” – Noam Chomsky’s chilling but apt description of the incredible U.S. superpower assault on the largely peasant based communities of Indochina between 1962 and 1975. But those dead and maimed Americans were victimized primarily by the war masters of Washington, not by Vietnamese who dared to defend their villages, cities, independence and nation from the government that Dr. Martin Luther King described in April 1967 as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”

The Indochinese died before their time in far greater number (to say the least) than the American invaders. The Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations killed at least 3 million in Vietnam, Laos , and Cambodia. Much of Vietnam and its not-so sovereign neighboring territory were bombed and burned “back to the stone age” by the American “liberators.”

“War” is a curious term for such one-sided imperial slaughter, which turned Vietnam into a lethal “basket case” (the Pentagon’s own language) while many Americans enjoyed lives of historically unprecedented mass affluence in relative freedom at home.

Not long after the full and direct attack receded, the Christian U.S. president Jimmy Carter proclaimed at a news conference that we owed no debt to Vietnam because “the destruction was mutual.” It was a remarkable comment, thoroughly uncontroversial in the dominant U.S. political and media culture, which renders invisible and officially unworthy the victims of American and U.S.-allied violence. The 3 million prematurely dead Indochinese met their demise on the wrong side of the imperial guns and the wrong side of the imperial cameras. They did not and do not officially exist or matter according to the Orwellian rules of the dominant national and mass media culture.

Flash forward to the aftermath of the death of the former U.S. Cold War terror tool Osama bin Laden. Over the last two days, we have been fed images of al Qaeda’s criminal act of 9/11/2001, when bin Laden’s extremist warriors killed 3000 Americans on U.S. soil. The wounds of what the evil others from the Middle East did to us have been re-opened for public viewing like no time in recent years. There’s nothing said in the dominant mass media and politics culture about the vastly larger number of Arabs and Muslim killed on their soil by the U.S. and its aliens and clients (including the CIA-backed Osama back in the 1980s) before and since 9/11.

Last Monday night on the “Public” Broadcasting System’s News Hour, Madeline Albright applauded the death of a terrorist who had “killed not only Americans but a lot of other people.” The end of the already irrelevant criminal bin Laden should occasion no tears, of course, but a reasonably civilized culture would be more than a little skeptical about righteous expressions of concern for innocent victims from a woman who as Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State said the following on national television about the killing of more than half a million Iraqi children by U.S.-led economic sanctions: “this is a very hard choice, but the price – we think the price is worth it.” The standard statistic for the number of Iraqis killed by the sanctions (1991-2003) is 1 million, considerably more than the 3000 Americans who died in September of 2001. Never mind: the Iraqis died on the wrong side of the imperial culture and are thus invisible. Along with other and related aspects of U.S. policy in the Middle East (chiefly America’s sponsorship and protection of Israeli oppression and bloody dictatorships across the region’s arc of U.S.-backed despotism), those officially unworthy casualties were part of why a major Islamo-terrorist attack on the U.S. seemed likely well before 2001. The Islamist “blowback” (a CIA term that the left author Chalmers Johnson turned into a book title and prediction in 2000) was all too predictable.

Also unsurprising was Washington ’s exploitation of the predicted “blowback” as a pretext to launch an ambitious military campaign in the oil-rich Middle East and particularly in Iraq (second only to Saudi Arabia in petroleum reserves). The morning the Twin Towers fell in lower Manhattan, I sat mesmerized in front of my television, thinking that a large number of innocent people would be losing their lives in the Arab and Muslim worlds at the hands of a vengeful Empire (an empire that no longer seemed to face any relevant deterrent on the global scale) in coming months and years. I had no idea how big the body count would be. The brilliant British Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk estimates “up to half a million Muslims dead in Iraq and Afghanistan ” thanks to U.S. wars since 9/11. It’s a reasonable guess. Many, perhaps most of that half million have died indirectly, through health problems created by the American invasions’ terrible impact on daily life. But many –far more than the American death count of 9/11 – have been directly slaughtered by U.S. forces, both uniformed and contracted-out.

The American petro-imperial revenge machine reached its mass-murderous apex, perhaps, in the Iraqi city of Fallujah in April of 2004. That’s when the Marines responded to the killing of four Blackwater mercenaries with a quasi-genocidal assault that included the criminal bombing (including hyper-lethal cluster-bombing), mortaring, napalming, gassing, and shooting of civilians, the destruction of hospitals and clinics, and the targeting of ambulances. U.S. snipers boasted of killing anyone they could get in their sites and U.S. soldiers tossed grenades into civilian homes. The assault considerably out-did al Qaeda’s 9/11 death count. An American video game (“Fallujah – Operation al-Fajr”) was subsequently released to celebrate and profit from the Fallujah slaughter. The game’s players join U.S. Marines and Army soldiers in their attack on the Jolan district in Fallujah. Kuma Reality Games used detailed satellite imagery of Jolan in making the popular game. Publicity material for the game enticed purchasers with the opportunity to “dodge sniper fire and protect civilians.”

Along the way we have seen well-documented mass torture and rape in the imperial American charnel houses of Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and Bagram Air Force Base, not to mention the capture and sending of often innocent accused terrorists to torture chambers in Egypt and other U.S.-allied states.

U.S. military personnel have routinely and preposterously justified disgraceful actions in the Middle East and Southwest Asia as “revenge for 9/11” – a frequent motivational theme in the preparation of U.S. troops to kill “Hajis” during the basic training that precedes deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan. American troops, officers, intelligence operatives, and pilots have been conditioned to take out their hatred for Osama bin Laden on innocent men, women, and children in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Ethiopia .

The indiscriminate killing of civilians in the name of 9/11 retribution has continued into the age of Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama, who refused to apologize for the deadly bombing of dozens of women and children in the Afghan village of Bola Boluk even as he offered a formal apology to New Yorkers for an ill-advised Air Force One flyover that reminded some city residents of 9/11.

It is well understood in elite circles that the lethal, mass-murderous (dare we say “monstrous”?) U.S response to 9/11 has increased the Islamist terror threat to Americans and others by deepening the Arab and Muslim worlds’ alienation from the U.S. and the West. The Wall Street Journal reported last Monday that Al Qaeda had 200 members on the eve of 9/11. Today the group is larger and “more far-reaching than before the U.S. sought to take it down.” Independent offshoots have emerged in Yemen , Somalia and elsewhere. “New terrorist leaders,” New York Times columnist Joe Nocera writes, “include Nasir al-Wahishi, who leads Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born cleric who has been involved in several terrorist plots, including the attempt to blow up a plane on Christmas Day in 2009.”

This makes perfect sense in light of U.S. Middle East policy, which continues under Obama to rest on alliance with military despotism and Israel and on the related threat and use of direct military force. The increase of the terror threat by the U.S. “war on terror” (now speaking of its greatest victory) might seem paradoxical and dysfunctional from America’s perspective but it keeps alive the threat of future Islamist attacks that can be used again to fuel and the military-media industrial complex’s seemingly insatiable thirst for the profits and diversions of endless war.

Paul Street ( is a veteran radical historian and independent author, activist, researcher, and journalist in Iowa City, IA. He is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm 2005); Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (Routledge 2005): and Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (Rowman&Littlefied 2007). Street's new book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics can now be ordered. Read other articles by Paul.