The murderous rampage of U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales in Afghanistan has received much deserved media attention. Sgt. Bales’s shooting spree, killing 17 Afghan civilians, was quickly condemned by the Obama administration as a horrible incident and an aberration that was in no way representative of the “exceptional character” of the U.S. military.
It is a matter of state doctrine that such “incidents,” no matter how frequent, are treated as singular events from which no broader conclusions can be drawn. This is convenient for U.S. policy makers and politicians, for it absolves them of any responsibility for the actions of the soldiers they deploy overseas to kill people and break things.
But how isolated was this latest massacre?
Anyone following the news is aware that U.S forces are frequently responsible for the deaths of innocent civilians. These deaths may not be the result of a soldier or group of “rogue” soldiers “losing it,” but that is a meaningless distinction. After all, it was Gen. Stanley McChrystal who said of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, “We have shot an amazing number of people, but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat.”
The past ten years have borne witness to one atrocity after another committed by U.S. soldiers. There was the Abu Ghraib prison-abuse scandal and the “Collateral Murder” video showing a U.S. gunship crew cheerfully mowing down Iraqi civilians. There was the Haditha massacre and the team of U.S. soldiers that were killing Afghan civilians for sport. There was the more recent “incident” of U.S. soldiers urinating on corpses. And during their occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. troops have carried out night raids into villages that have killed and injured countless civilians. How many such “incidents” have gone unreported?
Are atrocities inevitable when soldiers are being deployed multiple times to foreign countries where they are surrounded by hostile populations? Of course they are.
This is why the ultimate responsibility for the crimes of U.S. soldiers lies with those in power, for they’re the ones who make the war plans and give the orders to invade. When Donald Rumsfeld spoke obtusely of “shock and awe” in the run up to the Iraq War, he knew that it meant the suffering and death of many innocent civilians. But the carnage visited upon Iraqi society by the U.S. military was considered “worth it” by the geopolitical strategists and imperial schemers in Washington. As H.L. Mencken said, “wars are not made by common folk, scratching for livings in the heat of the day; they are made by demagogues infesting palaces.”
Perhaps U.S. troops overseas would be on better behavior if those further up the chain of command were expected to abide by the law. After all, both George W. Bush and Dick Cheney have boasted of authorizing the torture of prisoners. But these admissions to what are clearly violations of federal and international law have not led to any indictments.
The decision by the Obama administration not to indict Bush, Cheney, et al. for their crimes is understandable. Having now served more than three quarters of a presidential term, President Obama and his henchmen are probably guilty of a long train of abuses, and they want similar immunity from the law.
But let’s go back to the Obama administration’s claim that Sgt. Bales’ actions are not representative of the “exceptional character” of the U.S. military. Contrary to the patriotic mythology, the U.S. military has never flinched from inflicting civilian casualties in waging war.
America’s westward expansion in 19th century was enabled by a series of ruthless military campaigns to clear out the Native American population. To justify the theft of land and the slaughter of defenseless men, women, and children, Americans adopted the myth of Manifest Destiny. The prevailing attitude among the military regarding Native Americans was perhaps best expressed in the words of Colonel John Chivington, who reportedly said to his troops at Sand Creek, “Kill and scalp all, big and little; nits make lice!”
During the so-called American Civil War, the armies killed an estimated 50,000 civilians, mostly women and children. Entire cities in the South were bombarded and burned to the ground. Union generals like Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, and Philip Sheridan deliberately targeted civilians in their military campaigns to rein in the “rebellious” South.
After the United States took control of the Philippines in 1898, the U.S. military waged a brutal campaign to quell a native insurgency. The Philippine-American War (aka the Philippine War of Independence) cost the lives of an estimated 250,000 Filipinos before it ended in 1902.
During World War II, the U.S. military deliberately targeted German and Japanese civilians in a strategy of terror bombing. As General Curtis Lemay described it, American B29 bombers flying over a prostrate Japan in 1944 and 1945 “scorched, boiled, and baked to death” some 330,000 people.
America’s wars in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq killed more than six million people, the vast majority of them civilians. In each of these wars, U.S. soldiers have engaged in massacres, but the lion’s share of the civilian death toll was a consequence of actions occurring within the rules of engagement.
During the Korean War, American planes bombed the North with no regard for civilian life. In Vietnam, the U.S. military declared vast areas “free-fire zones,” and wiped out entire villages. The United States dropped over 8 million tons of bombs on Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia from 1962 to 1973. The United States also waged a 20-year war against Iraq, including a sanctions regime that killed 500,000 children. The total civilian death toll is estimated to exceed one million, and more than five million have fled the war-torn nation.
The fact is that the U.S. military has historically used its massive firepower to intentionally kill large numbers of civilians. Most Americans, however, are either ignorant of this ugly truth or rationalize the carnage as an unavoidable consequence of waging just, necessary, and “good” wars.
John Tirman, author of the remarkable and thought-provoking The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars, calls this phenomenon “the collective autism” of the American people. He writes,
One of most remarkable aspects of American wars is how little we discuss the victims who are not Americans. The costs of the war to the populations and common soldiers of the “enemy” are rarely found in the narratives and dissections of conflict, and this habit is a durable feature of how we remember war. As a nation that has long thought itself as built on Christian ethics, even as an exceptionally compassionate people, this coldness is a puzzle. It is in fact more than a puzzle, for ignorance or indifference has consequences for the victims of American wars and for America itself.
As General Sherman infamously said, “War is hell.” So why do so many Americans support creating hell on earth? I suppose many still think that these wars are necessary to defend the country, and thus are beguiled by all the pro-war propaganda, patriotic symbolism, and flag waving.
But the truth is that most of America’s wars have been waged neither for purposes of defense nor for the promotion of freedom abroad, but for imperial conquest. This lust for wealth and power has driven U.S. foreign policy for more than a century, and millions of innocent civilians have been the victims of Washington’s imperial ambitions.
In order to deal with the daunting problems now confronting them, Americans are going to have to come to terms with their country’s true history and admit that American political leaders and American soldiers have been guilty of ghastly crimes in pursuit of plunder and empire. James K. Galbraith put it well:
The reality is that we are a country like any other, with good and evil people, the strong and the weak, noble and criminal acts, with truth often hidden under deception and propaganda.