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JOHN CHUCKMAN ESSAY: THIS IS WHAT WAR DOES   1 comment

 

THIS IS WHAT WAR DOES

John Chuckman

 

A Canadian photographer named Bryan Adams (yes, the rock singer) has done something extraordinary in publishing a book of photographs of what war does to soldiers. The wounds of his subjects are not covered with gore as they would be on the battlefield. His pictures are clean studio shots. The subjects sometimes even are smiling. Their wounds are healed, at least as much as such wounds can ever be called healed, but the surrealistic sense of the pictures says something profound story about our society. We’ve done these savage things to our own young, and then left them to spend the rest of their lives struggling with the results.

For an institution which quite literally dominates human history, it is a remarkable that the real face of war is never seen by most people. The press goes so far in avoiding it that it creates a fantasy picture, in many respects resembling those beautifully done dioramas of lead soldiers in famous battles. It’s the same psychology at work when caskets containing the blasted remains of soldiers are draped with bright, cheery flags. And when war is over, there’s the home town parade with flags and drums and high-stepping baton twirlers in cute little sequined outfits, with no sign of death or gore to be seen.

A few times in my life a bit of the truth has leaked out. During Vietnam, the first major war in the mature television age, the public was exposed to some of it. Not a great deal, mind you, but it was enough to provide governments a harsh warning on the effects such images have upon the public’s support for war.

Fairly early, television showed us Marines dutifully torching the thatched homes of peasants, I’m sure never giving a thought to someone’s doing the same to Mom and Dad’s farmhouse back in Indiana. But still we never saw a hint of the wholesale slaughters of a war which extinguished three million lives. We saw the distant flashes and puffs of smoke of bombings, including the instantaneous infernos of that hellish stuff, napalm, ripping across a landscape, but never a single frame of the resulting incinerated bodies. No newsreel ever showed close-ups of a village or city after American carpet-bombing by B-52s. We did see the odd distant shot of a prisoner falling from a high-flying helicopter but never the preceding close-up scene of his being hurled out by American Special Forces or intelligence operatives unhappy with his answers to questions.

I recall an American deserter speaking at a public meeting in Toronto of his raping a young Vietnamese woman and then emptying his rifle into her, an atrocity which is reported to have been repeated many times over the years. After all, what do you think happens when young men, often from the most marginal backgrounds, are dumped in a foreign place they cannot understand and often hate, armed with powerful weapons and under no normal restraints? Young men, especially under stress, are capable of almost any savagery, and you do have a responsibility to consider that reality before sending them off to terrorize others.

Early during Vietnam I recall another young man briefly interviewed on television whose face had been turned into a molten-looking mass, perhaps from napalm, his mouth consisting of a hole into which a straw could be inserted. What purpose could possibly be worth that sacrifice? I’m not sure, but I know it wasn’t a dirty colonial war in Vietnam started by cheating and lying to the people who had to fight it.

When Britain went to war in the Falklands, the warning of Vietnam was heeded. All the British people saw were selected, cleaned-up images of another dirty colonial war, images like a stalwart Maggie Thatcher waving off the Falklands fleet, and who on this planet could better play the role of a stern and impressive god of war than Mrs. Thatcher? She gave Winston Churchill himself a run for his money.

I did read of one instance of a dead or dying invading British soldier having been photographed on the beach with bowels torn open and spilled out, but the image was suppressed.

Some very heroic cameramen from the Middle East did obtain shocking images of the savagery of America’s war in Iraq, a war in which cluster bombs were heavily used but also white phosphorus and depleted uranium shells. I recall images of horribly mangled children, burnt smudgy corpses, a woman virtually smashed into the ground, and others, but they were only a small sample of America’s destruction of a million or so souls.

The images were found on not-widely-known sites on the Internet, even Al-Jazeera itself being then not familiar to most Americans. The images never made their way onto the pages of The New York Times or the evening news on NBC where they would have been seen by the millions of ordinary Americans in whose name the atrocities were committed. The American military does appear to have made an effort to target foreign journalists trying to capture some truth, killing the messengers, as it were, in the spirit of vicious boys ripping the wings off butterflies.

There were still other images from Iraq on the Internet, and these came straight from America’s own dear “boys in harm’s way.” There was an Internet site, briefly, which provided young American soldiers with free access to raw pornographic sexual images in return for their submitting raw pornographic war images, as from cell phones and the like. There were reportedly large numbers of takers on the offer, sending in their snaps of things like bloody boots with bits of leg sticking out or of a human head half turned into beef tartar before Pentagon matrons dedicated to decency in war closed the operation down.

America’s horrors at Abu Ghraib were heavily censored. According to America’s best investigative journalist, Seymour Hersh, we saw only the most innocuous images of degrading treatment, the frat-boy pranks with naked humans, dog leashes, and shit. We did not see the hard-core stuff of torture, rape, including of children, and death, pictures which did in fact exist but were suppressed. The stuff from Guantanamo was along the same lines, images of degrading treatment, men in jump suits and chains kneeling in tiny cells – just enough for the folks back home to say “Good, it’s what they deserve,” but not enough to shock or terrify Americans about what was being done in their name.

I recall an image from Israel’s first savage assault on Gaza, one killing several hundred children and more than a thousand others, an image of a narrow  street running with a small river of blood and desperate people trying to pass without stepping into it. Such images are rare because Israel allows no one access to document its filthy work. Even after the savagery is over, various organizations and officials generally are refused entry even on humanitarian missions, as is the case today after a second mass murder in Gaza killing even more children than the first.

War is such a time of fearful darkness and chaos that great horrors can be hidden easily under its cover. In Afghanistan, three thousand American prisoners were “disappeared” by one of America’s war lord allies by being taken out in sealed trucks into the desert to suffocate, their bodies then dumped into mass graves. This occurred shortly after American Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld made a shameful Nazi-like public statement that the large numbers of Taliban prisoners being held in Afghanistan should either be killed or walled away for the rest of their lives. This war crime was committed right under the noses of occupying American soldiers and clearly with Mr. Rumsfeld’s secret blessing, and it has never been featured or investigated except by a British documentary film maker.

It is invariably human nature to show others our work, of any kind, when we are proud of what it is that we have done. The great irony of war is that we invariably are ashamed of what we have done, and yet we repeat, some of us, the work again and again.

Another great irony of war is that it is almost never about defending ourselves, although that is what the propaganda never stops telling us that that is what it is about. That is why America uses the term Department of Defense, and Israel calls its army the Israeli Defense Force.

What was America defending in Vietnam, in Cambodia, in Serbia, in Afghanistan, or in Iraq? Only its right to tell others what to do, a right based solely on the concept of might makes right, the slogan of the bully. So too for its many violent and destructive interventions using hired thugs into the affairs of others, whether in Cuba, Chile, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Iran, Syria, Ukraine, or other places.

What does Israel defend in its endless assaults upon its neighbors, none of them remotely capable of seriously threatening Israel much less destroying it, and its ceaseless hectoring for even more war in the region? Again, nothing more than the right to tell others what to do, a right based only on might makes right. And what of its countless assassinations in half a dozen countries, of its interference into the affairs of Egypt, Iran, Syria, Iraq, and other countries?

I notice something in what I’ve written. While I started with war’s effect upon soldiers, almost all my words deal with civilians, and that brings us to the greatest irony of modern war: soldiers are just a tiny part of those killed and brutally injured. It cannot be otherwise with missiles, heavy bombing, and other indiscriminate weapons. Modern war is mass killing of civilians, always and everywhere, a practice which evolved in World War II and has done nothing but progress in that direction since. Even when they aren’t the actual targets, as in America’s nightmarish assassination-by-drone project, large numbers of dead or mangled civilians are the unavoidable consequence. Well, if you’re in for killing mere suspects as in the drone project, I guess extra civilians don’t mean much, do they? “In for penny, in for pound,” as they say.

We’ve even developed special language for the realities of indiscriminate killing. Israel, at the very least, always is said to be killing “militants.” I don’t know about you, but I’ve never met a “militant,” and I doubt I’d be able to recognize one walking down the street. But our clever press instantly recognizes them when they are shot full holes by Israeli soldiers. You see, Israel simply can never be wrong in our press, so if it hasn’t killed terrorists, it has to have killed “militants,” and that’s surely almost as good.

As for the tens of thousands maimed and slaughtered by America’s hideous bombings in many lands, well, they are called, right on the evening news by announcers in pancake makeup with blow-dried hair in momentarily subdued tones just before moving on to the sports scores, “collateral damage.”

 

 

Posted January 6, 2015 by JOHN CHUCKMAN in Uncategorized

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JOHN CHUCKMAN ESSAY: AMERICA’S BRUTAL TACTICS   3 comments

AMERICA’S BRUTAL TACTICS

John Chuckman

Naturally enough, few details of what American troops do in Iraq and Afghanistan reach the nation’s television screens, the main source of news for most Americans. American television takes the approach of the New York Times when it refers to professional soldiers as GIs, as though they were humble mechanics and bricklayers of America drafted into the titanic struggle against Hitler and Tojo.

But if you are genuinely interested in discovering the truth, there are plenty of sources for first-hand information. And anyone taking a little time to search through some of these comes away with a sick feeling.

From several ex-soldiers comes a vivid image of America’s house-to-house methods of searching for “insurgents.” A small block of C-4 plastique is fixed to the front door of a house, the door is blown in, and several armored giants rush through the shock and smoke with their automatic weapons at the ready. Women and children are held to one side at gunpoint, while any men are taken roughly for questioning. In most cases, the men have nothing worthwhile to say, but they and other members of their families are left with a terrifying experience they will never forget.

These violent procedures have been repeated thousands of times, both in Iraq and in the mountain villages of Afghanistan. Could this be part of what Condoleezza Rice meant when she said recently in Britain that despite thousands of tactical mistakes, America’s basic strategy was sound? Can you imagine her saying the same thing if Washington-area police blew her door down and stormed into her home in Chevy Chase or whatever other exclusive area she lives, perhaps looking for drug dealers or murderers, suspecting her home because she is black?

Another aspect of America’s crude tactics has been their way of responding to periodic mortar fire. The American forces use a high-tech radar gizmo that tracks the path of such shells supposedly to permit accurate return fire by artillery. Unfortunately the gizmo often does not work properly, and even when it does operate well, the tactics of mobile guerillas firing a shell from a truck or car and driving away leave the data of the gizmo useless. Well, not completely useless, because American artillery still responds. It’s just that all they hit are innocent residences or businesses.

The trigger-happy nature of Americans at check points is a well-established fact. These boys, many of them having joined up for benefits like money for college, do not want to be in these places, and they are irritated by the strange tongues and cultures and the blazing heat and sandstorms. They simply shoot first and ask questions after. I suppose this tactic might have been appropriate on the Eastern Front in World War II, but it is totally unsuited to a place you are occupying after having invaded, a place where the overwhelming majority of people with which you interact are just ordinary people going about their lives.

There have been dozens of pictures on the Internet of whole families obliterated in their cars by American soldiers. Children have been pumped full of holes. A kidnapped Italian journalist almost lost her life on her short journey back to freedom. The brave Italian secret service agent who had secured her freedom and was accompanying her to freedom was pumped full of holes. Yet this car and its contents were well known and had been identified to American forces.

It is extremely unlikely this was an error, the Italian journalist being someone hated by American occupation authorities for her critical stories. Such a number of unarmed journalists have been shot by American troops that the idea of the accidents of war is not credible. Of course, the recent revelation in Britain that Bush actually discussed bombing offices of Aljazeera adds another dimension to these events.

A number of British soldiers, Britain’s pathetic Blair being America’s only true ally in the phony coalition America’s press never fails to name, have gone on record about American tactics. These include several senior officers, an unprecedented criticism of an ally during war. What they have said to the press is that American tactics are brutal and thoughtless, almost certain in the long run to produce more enemies than friends. Few forces in the world have more genuine experience than Britain’s after decades in Northern Ireland, yet all their advice is treated with contempt by arrogant American commanders and politicians.

It seems both public and press have forgotten the words of Donald Rumsfeld not long after the U.S. triumphed in Afghanistan, the words being among the most shameful in American history and certainly ranking with anything a dread figure like Reinhard Heydrich uttered. On what to do with the thousands of prisoners taken in the invasion, Rumsfeld publicly stated they should be killed or walled away forever. It does appear he was taken at his word, for thousands of prisoners disappeared around the time. There are many eye-witness reports – a documentary film was made by a Scots director – about Afghan prisoners having been taken into the desert in trucks to suffocate in the blazing heat. American soldiers, if they didn’t actively help, just stood around and let it happen.

In the early part of the invasion of Afghanistan, tens of thousands of emergency de-hydrated food packets were dropped by American planes in some of the same areas that cluster bombs were being dropped. As pictures on the Internet testify, the bomblet canisters (pressure-sensitive cans packed with something like razor wire and high explosive) and the food packages were virtually the same optical yellow color. Imagine how many hungry peasants and children were attracted to these deadly areas by the food packets, only to be torn apart?

Bad publicity all over the world did stop the Pentagon’s grotesque practice, but the question of using cluster bombs near civilian populations remains. It was done both in Afghanistan and Iraq. The brave journalists of Aljazeera took dozens of pictures of what these bombs did to children in Iraq, their publication providing one of the reasons for the Pentagon’s and Bush’s intense hatred of the network.

The revelations about the behavior of American soldiers in Abu Ghraib prison are well known, although the last round of abuse and torture pictures released did not include the worst stuff that American Senators saw in closed session a while back. It’s almost as though the “tamer” stuff was released to defuse demands for more information. America’s great investigative journalist Seymour Hersh has said the worst stuff included boys being raped by American soldiers.

How many senior officers or officials have paid for these horrors that absolutely had to be known to them? The answer is none. What did Lieutenant Calley and Captain Medina suffer for the mass murder and rape of women and children in Vietnam a few decades ago? Not much, and their seniors nothing at all.

Of course we know from many sources including amateur plane spotters and flight records that America runs a gigantic secret prison system. Sources in Europe say that 14,000 are held in Iraq alone. There are also secret prisons in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, and at Guantanamo. All of these prisoners are held with no legal rights whatever, just as though they had disappeared into Stalin’s Gulag.

In most cases the prisoners are simply people who fought Americans in their invasions of two lands. Since when do we do this to the fighters who oppose us in war? Americans themselves in the past have joined foreign wars as idealists or as mercenaries. This happened in South Africa, various African anti-colonial wars, Central America, South America, Indo-China, Spain, and other places. It’s an old tradition going back to Lafayette and Pulaski in the American Revolutionary War. The men, and boys, America now holds with no rights were doing no more than what tens of thousands of Americans and others have done previously.

As I have written before, if you want the rule of law, you cannot stand outside the law and claim its moral support. What America is doing in its “war on terror” is little more than freshened-up fascism. It wants a pipeline through Afghanistan and a subservient government in Iraq, and it dresses up the brutal tactics used to achieve these goals as a war on terror.