Never forget

Thursday, November 6th, 2003

Checkpoint etiquette for the occupying army: “Human Rights Watch strongly recommends that U.S. forces desist from the practice of putting their feet
on the heads of Iraqis whom they have detained face-down on the ground.”

How does this fit in with our plan to bring democracy to the Middle East?
Apparently even Donald Rumsfeld is troubled.

We’re playing a dangerous game in Iraq right now for which, as far as I can tell, we have no preparation whatsoever, except how to lose. The recently released Human Rights Watch report on the U.S. occupation, which detailed routine use of excessive, panic-driven force against Iraqi civilians, gross cultural “insensitivity” and the indifference of U.S. high command (which doesn’t even bother to keep statistics on civilian deaths), makes it clear how badly we’re losing.

And thanks to some digging in an old boneyard of national horrors by the Toledo Blade, the report has taken on a terrible urgency. What lessons have we learned from Vietnam? Precisely none.

Blade reporters Michael Sallah and Mitch Weiss spent eight months investigating the activities of an elite U.S. Army unit called Tiger Force in Quang Ngai Province in 1967, half a year before the infamous My Lai massacre in the same province that left 500 villagers dead and eventually sickened the American public on the war.

Before My Lai, Tiger Force ran amok in the Central Highlands. The Blade reporters combed classified Army documents and interviewed dozens of people both here and in Vietnam in order to chronicle the brigade’s seven-month rampage, in which hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese civilians were tortured, killed and dismembered.

The unearthing of these gruesome details, buried for 36 years, springs Gook World on us full-blown: the time of shameful dehumanization of a designated enemy that permitted American boys to act like Nazis. They took scalps, wore strings of severed ears around their necks and even, chillingly, removed gold fillings from the mouths of the dead. Here are some of the other ” highlights” of the brigade’s descent into barbarism:

“They dropped grenades into underground bunkers where women and children were hiding and shot unarmed civilians, in some cases as they begged for their lives. …

“A 13-year-old girl’s throat was slashed after she was sexually assaulted, and a young mother was shot to death after soldiers torched her hut, according to the records.

“An unarmed teenager was shot in the back after a platoon sergeant ordered the youth to leave a village, and a baby was decapitated so that a soldier could remove a necklace, the records show.”

Is it un-American to dredge through this ghastly muck, to smear it across the face of the 21st century? What’s the point? This is dead business; the Army is content not to reopen the matter. Let’s move on, OK?

But “never forget” is not a rallying cry just for victims.

The scariest part of the Blade story was not the grisly details — the cataloging of what young men, armed to the teeth, can do under live-or-die conditions, in a state of blood madness — but the official response. At the lowest levels of leadership, wanton killing was encouraged; those GIs who objected to the mayhem were ordered to keep quiet.

And up the chain of command: nothing. No punishment, no investigation, no orders to cease and desist. The My Lai massacre could have been prevented if the U.S. command had taken steps to contain the war crimes of Tiger Force, the Blade surmises. Instead, it allowed a climate of impunity to prevail.

What I worry about is what will happen tomorrow — in Iraq. The brass is as criminally negligent, in my opinion, cowardly, now as it was then. Good Lord, it took a scandal to get the Air Force to take steps to eliminate the in-house rape of its own female cadets. Concern about the treatment of the civilian “enemy” isn’t even on our radar screen.

Yet in Rumsfeld’s leaked memo, the secretary of defense acknowledges that we don’t know whether we’re winning or losing the war on terror and wonders, as though the thought just occurred to him, if maybe we shouldn’t “fashion a broad, integrated plan to stop the next generation of terrorists.”

Congratulations, Mr. Secretary. You’ve figured it out. Terrorism has causes. Victory requires more than a good kill ratio. For starters, maybe we should stop stepping on the heads of Iraqi civilians.