You can argue that we’ve all become desensitized to it. You can hear the words rolling off of the lips of one of the Roberts… Robert Gibbs, Robert Gates, Roberto Gonzalez, or some upper-mid level NATO public relations man running interference for General Petraeus or General McCrystal like one Brigadier General Eric Tremblay (we will come to him later). It goes something like this: “Special Forces are risking their lives to protect Americans from the terrorist threat in Afghanistan…”, followed by, “Every day our men face difficult decisions, judgment calls, people need to understand that we are fighting an ‘asymetrical’ conflict and there will unfortunately be ‘collateral damage’ in these situations.” How true.
The actual family massacre story they could be referring to actually goes like this:
On Feb. 12, 2010, a family in Khataba, Afghanistan, held a party to celebrate the birth of a baby boy. Just hours after they went to sleep, U.S. Army Special Forces assaulted the house. They kicked down the door, rushed to the roof and began shooting at everybody below…”
Take a few minutes out of your valuable time and read the full report here. Just read it. Don’t worry. Relax, you are not obligated to act on this story. You can quietly carry on with your life. Just read it. Hell, you might even Facebook it. If you are religious, you might take a moment and say a prayer for the families involved. You might also say thanks to the big guy upstairs that you are not living under US Military Occupation in Afghanistan. If you are an atheist, then this regrettable tale of neocolonial largess in Central Asia might reaffirm your argument that there is no God, for how can a God, yet again, allow such a crime to happen- again?
Whatever your faith (or lack of it), you will probably consider yourself lucky that you are tucked away in a safe community, living in a Western Democracy out of harm’s way. But mind you, if this story doesn’t evoke some level of your conscience, if you feel nothing, then it is very possible that your morality may have drifted away, way beyond the pale. Such is the nature of the contemporary ‘remote’ war. In the age of personal empowerment, these are wars of convenience, events we can seemingly choose to engage with, or simply ignore.
But the chain of events which took place in Khataba followed by the cover-up from the Pentagon so compelled this writer to stop what he was doing yesterday so as to try and make some sense of it all. Despite years of media war fatigue, my human side did not wish to change the channel. I realized at that moment these were not words in another grim story about Iraq or Afghanistan, rather, these are real people, I could see them, hear them, smell them, down to the smallest detail. What’s more, in the context of the follies the world has learned to tolerate in Iraq and Afghanistan – it’s not the first time and won’t be the last.
All is Fair in Love and War: The Cover-up
Just as every cracking wooden fence requires a white wash, so every unsavoury event needs a good cover-up. After the massacre, it’s reported that the Coalition Soldiers removed the bullets from the walls, plastered over the bullet holes, and then tied the hands of the dead victims behind their backs and gagged them. Enter the leggett, a Coalition spokesman, one Brigadier General Eric Tremblay, who declared that those responsible for the massacre were rogue Afghani “criminals and terrorists who do not care about the life of civilians.” A staged cover-up made to look like terrorists and criminals did this before the Coalition Cavalry arrived on the scene.
Unsurprisingly, PR is now a crucial part of the post-modern military theatre. Hence, this was the official Pentagon story of this messy incident, and no doubt some PR brain in Washington may have even attempted to use the cover story to stir up further sectarian strife in the region, following through on the age-old British colonial mantra known fondly as ”Divide and Conquer”. No doubt they tried. Most reporters are too dependent on access, security, and the ‘embedded culture’ to leave the protective custody of military forces in the field. NATO even keeps a long list of “blacklisted journalists”. The PR effort is huge. But like so many times before, like so many botched attempts to control the flow if information and cover up the truth, they failed miserably. That’s the funny thing about the truth, no matter how hard you try it always comes out in the end.
A New Language for a New Generation
Now for the apologists’ coffee table debate. Perhaps US Special Forces just made a mistake. Perhaps the “intel” was rather poor. Maybe CENTCOM had a ‘dodgy hajji’ for an informant. We all know that war is just an ugly business. Perhaps. And then there’s that term again, ‘collateral damage’. And there’s that other term again, ‘asymmetrical warfare’. There are many other impressive new modern military jargon euphemisms too. Men like Donald Rumsfeld helped to educate us lay folks on these and more during his tenure at the Pentagon. So impressive is the language. And apparently, so also… so, so impressive is the elusive enemy in this new post-modern, post-911, post-everything war.
‘Asymmetrical’ is the description of the ragtag band of rural terrorists roaming the foothills of the Helmund and the mountains near Kandahar. And what can be more asymmetrical than an avatar like Osama Bin Laden? Understand that it’s that very avatar character on whom the entire War on Terror is based on, an avatar who has transformed the face of warfare in the 21st century, and completely un-catchable we are led to believe by the White House. You couldn’t create a better comic book villian than that.
As Pentagon, NATO military middle managers, assorted media relations officers in desert cammo pants and various other scurrying leggetts become more and more ghettoized within their own self-styled jargon of complex terms, acronyms, and creative language, the further they drift away from reality. It’s a rather bizarre kind of intellectual iron curtain that they’ve built around themselves. Worse however, is how far our unelected managerial elite have drifted away from the moral center point which they claim to occupy, the place where politicians once sold us the war effort.
What our politicians and military haven’t realized is that as a civil society, our moral core is defined by our sense of gravity pulling us back towards a moral center. It’s this gravity which tethers our actions in relation to what we define as right and wrong. One way to sever our inherent human tether to our moral center is to change the language of conflict. The new language of modern warfare we hear in those press briefings is part of an effort to forever cut our connection to that morality. Whether the effort is a success or not is up to our ability to remember the old language- the postcolonial enlightened humanist language which defines a loss of life as a tragedy to be avoided at all cost, and one which equates an Iraqi or Afghani life as equal to its American or British counterpart.
In the West, we have managed, with the help of major media talking heads from CNN, ABC, MSNBC, FOX, and others, to replace our old outdated humanist language which described modern wars befpre Operation Desert Storm in 1991, with a new language and a new and improved perspective. Naturally, this is followed by a new playbook for all wars. Those who are awake to this fact can only sit back in wonder as it gets increasingly ridiculous. Likewise, those who remain in a trance, thoroughly impressed by the science they have come to learn- and love, the new lingua franca of modern warfare, have also learned to love the collateral damage.
In ten years time you will look back and long for the simple theatre of conflict. Send in the Marines? No, no, no. Send in the drones!
Another day, another massacre. Relax, we have the best military in the world – so we are told. “Mistakes will be made in the War on Terror”, we are also told, over and over again. But this story is atypical from the usual news feeds because it lacks the conventional comic book villian… no Taliban here. No Al Qaeda here. It all sounds reasonable enough. Massacres are simply part and parcel of our brave new world.
So when Blackwater does it, we deem it corrupt and vile. After all, they are simply the wart on the hand of the free enterprise aspect we have come accept in the theatre of conflict. You would expect anything from a hired Hessian soldier, the contract Barbarians with tattoos. But when the military does it - with all the billions in high-tech gear, computer kit, manpower, and supposed political oversight… then, it’s simply repulsive. And when the military attempts to cover up their own mistake - in this case, a full-on massacre… well, that’s shameful.
Considering the innocence of the actual victims, that like so many others before them, they died in cold blood for nothing other than to serve as target practice for our Special Forces… well, that’s simply pathetic. More still, the lack of accountability by the military, and the level of culpability by the media lap-dogs can only be described as toxic.
As our Nobel Peace Prizing-winning President takes questions during the 2012 Presidential debates, where he will attempt to defend his position on the escalation of the Bush-Blair Wars which he pretended to campaign against during his 2007 run for the White House, those of us who still have a moral conscience in the crowd should remind Our Dear Leader that there is nothing ‘asymmetrical’ about a slug of lead in the chest, or 10 rounds per second at close range through the neck and head. The result is very symmetrical in fact. One minute you are alive, the next minute you are dead. But still, we are expected to love Our Dear Leaders as they work to serve the greater good, namely, our national security.
And we might also remind him that there is nothing ‘collateral’ about the damage done in the Massacre in Khataba, Eastern Afghanistan. Nor for that matter, is it collateral when a 500-pound bomb lands on top of your home. It destroys everything, it destroys all hope. And don’t forget to ask, like so many did after 10 years in Vietnam, “why are we there?”… and keep asking that question. Never, ever stop asking that question.
Patrick Henningsen is the managing editor of 21st Century Wire. A graduate of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, he is currently based in London, UK and has worked in corporate communications for over 10 years in Europe and the US. He has been active as an anti-war/pro-peace demonstrator, writer since 2002 and is co-founder of the global art project “Chalk4Peace”, facilitating workshops both in the UK and the Middle East.
Crossposted with permission from 21st Century Wire.