Steel Rain

Thursday, July 10th, 2008

“Civilian casualties have been a continuing issue in Afghanistan, and President Karzai has rebuked American and NATO forces for what he has called carelessness in their military operations.”

This is the genteel, bloodless language of geopolitics, spoken by the Gray Lady and the heads of state and makers of policy whom she serves. You wouldn’t know that “carelessness” referred to killing a bride (and twenty-some guests) on her wedding day, except that the observation comes at the end of the New York Times’ account of our July 6 bombing of an Afghani wedding, which followed a Fourth of July missile strike in that country — look at the fireworks, Mom! — that killed 15 innocent civilians. Careless superpower indeed.

What you would never guess is that “carelessness” meant a deliberate U.S. policy of waging the war on terror from the air. But that has been our policy all along, from “shock and awe” and “mission accomplished” to “the surge is working.” It is undebated, unreported, unquestioned, this policy conceived with the vacuous single-mindedness of serial killers. The death it has caused has not been calculated and is perhaps incalculable, especially when you factor in the time-bomb effects of depleted uranium and other deadly substances that bombing spreads both locally and around the world.

To my mind, nothing, not even the torture we practice at Guantanamo and throughout the war on terror gulag, exemplifies the disconnect between U.S. policy and the American people like the sanitized horror of the air war.

When the Nazis dropped 50 tons of explosives on the Spanish city of Guernica in 1937, the world called it barbaric. Today, such a pummeling of some hapless Third World region is routine, transformed by an embedded and co-opted media into “humdrum ordinariness,” as Tom Engelhardt has pointed out. (You’ll recall, of course, that Colin Powell, when he lied before the U.N. General Assembly about Iraqi WMD shortly before we invaded, had the tapestry reproduction of Picasso’s “Guernica” covered up to avoid any awkward triggering of conscience.)

That we have lost control of our government, money-dominated and obsessed with secrecy as it is, is less surprising to me than the extent to which we have lost our watchdog media, which can’t even rouse itself awake long enough to spot the patterns in its own routine coverage of the war. Shall we take a stroll down Memory Lane?

“Ooh, that’s gotta hurt,” I recall a colleague of mine saying back in mid-March of ’03, as the invasion got under way and the shock-and-awe campaign played nonstop on the tube. The relentless air assault on Baghdad killed untold Iraqis but utterly failed in its intended purpose of “decapitating” the Saddam Hussein regime, killing not a single high government official.

In April 2003, we got word that Hussein and his two sons were meeting in a building in the Mansur district of Baghdad. Within 45 minutes, we flattened the building with four high explosive bombs, creating a crater 40 feet deep and killing an unknown number of people, but not Hussein or his sons.

“They found one boy’s body on the roof of that house over there,” an Iraqi later told a reporter. “I heard that the father went out for ice cream and wouldn’t let his children come with him. When we came back, they were dead. He must be dying of grief.”

Shortly before Christmas 2003, USA Today, in a rare instance of independent war coverage, published the results of its four-month investigation of cluster bomb usage in the first months of the war.

“Although U.S. forces sought to limit what they call ‘collateral damage’ in the Iraq campaign, they defied international criticism and used nearly 10,800 cluster weapons; their British allies used almost 2,200,” reporter Paul Wiseman wrote. Describing the “steel rain” that devastated the central Iraq city of Al Hillah, he noted that images of the aftermath, “including footage of a baby torn in half, were so gruesome that Western television networks refused to air them.”

Back to Afghanistan, where Taliban-hunting with bombs and missiles has been commonplace. University of New Hampshire professor Marc Herold, who monitored the early phases of the war, wrote in 2002 that “the documented high level of civilian casualties” is caused by “the apparent willingness of U.S. military strategists to fire missiles into, and drop bombs upon, heavily populated areas of Afghanistan.”

One example, from about a year ago: We bombed a school in eastern Afghanistan; seven children died. A Pentagon spokesman explained: “If we knew that there were children inside the building, there was no way that that air strike would have occurred.”

We can’t wage war without a wide moral latitude. The public has limited capacity for collateral damage even in the abstract, and none at all for actual details, such as babies torn in half by cluster bombs. But this is the war on terror, which we will never win until we face the truth about what we’re doing and stop doing it. Forever.