Colonial War Media: Reflections on a Recent Issue of the New York Times

“Frightening” Marines With Bullets


“Oh My, Colonial Subjects Are Shooting Back.” That would have been a good title for a recent New York Times story on the U.S. military assault on Marja, in Afghanistan’s HelmandProvince.  Times reporter C.J. Chivers reports breathlessly that “Five Marines have been struck in recent days by bullets at long range.” 


Yes, it appears that some natives are firing back – with guns and bullets. Goodness.


According to Chivers, “Almost every American infantryman” involved in the Marja campaign “has had frightening close calls.”  Chivers mentions “lone bullets striking doorjambs beside their faces as Marines peeked around corners, single rounds cracking by just overhead as Marines looked over mud walls, and bullets slamming into the dirt beside them…” [1] Imagine.


“You Strap on a Gun and go Struttin’ Around Some Other Man’s Country…”


Yes, the colonials are coming at “our” brave young troops with live ammunition. What next? I wonder if Chivers and his editors ever heard the following bit from the admittedly arch-cynical comedian George Carlin’s 2005 “Life is Worth Losing” show:  “When all those beheadings started in Iraq,” Carlin ranted, “it didn’t bother me. A lot of people here were horrified, ‘Whaaaa, beheadings! Beheadings!’ What, are you fucking surprised? Just one more form of extreme human behavior.” Further:


“Besides, who cares about some mercenary from Oklahoma who gets his head cut off? Hey Jack, you don’t want to get your head cut off? Stay the fuck in Oklahoma. They ain’t cuttin’ off heads in Oklahoma, far as I know. But I do know this: you strap on a gun and go struttin’ around some other man’s country, you’d better be ready for some action, Jack. People are touchy about that sort of thing… And let me ask you this… this is a moral question, not rhetorical, I’m looking for the answer: what is the moral difference between cuttin’ off one guy’s head, or two, or three, or five, or ten – and dropping a big bomb on a hospital and killing a whole bunch of sick kids? Has anybody in authority given you an explanation of the [moral] difference?”


Strong stuff, to be sure, but Carlin had a point – he usually did.


Stray Kalashnikovs v. 250-Pound Bombs


Of course, the American troops in Afghanistan are mainly working class kids with few job options - pawns who have been ordered into bloody colonial war. And the United States has a bit more than rifles in its arsenal when it comes to countering scary attacks – with, yes, bullets – from Afghan militants in Marja. Chivers reports that U.S. forces have responded to Taliban sniper fire with “mortars, artillery, helicopter attack gunships, and airstrikes.”  After one rifle “ambush” against American soldiers, U.S. Marine Capt. Akil R. Bacchus put in a call for assistance from above.   “About a minute later," Chivers writes, “a 250-pound GPS-guided bomb whooshed past overhead and slammed into the compound with a thunderous explosion.”


“After the airstrike, two pairs of attack helicopters were cleared to strafe a set of bunkers and canals that the Taliban fighters had been firing from.”


“They climbed high over the canal and bore down toward a tree line, guns and rockets firing. Explosions tossed soil and made the ground shudder.”


With the Pashtun snipers pulverized (along with any civilians who might have been in their vicinity), U.S. Marines First Platoon was free to continue clearing “insurgents” from the colonial hinterland.



An Unimaginable Headline


Chivers’ article is titled “Snipers Imperil U.S.-Led [2] Forces in Afghanistan.”  Imagine a New York Times article (front page or anywhere else) titled “World’s Only Military Superpower Imperils Afghanistan.” Uncle Sam has killed many thousands of Afghanis – mainly civilians – in countless bombings (wedding parties have been a recurrent target), missile and artillery attacks, strafing assaults, and executions since October of 2001. The attacks have continued and indeed escalated into the Age of Obama, who has made good on his campaign promise to escalate the “good war” in Afghanistan [3]. Nobody in a position of imperial authority has been willing to respond to George Carlin by explaining the moral difference between Muslim beheadings and American bombings of Afghan villages and wedding parties. 



“Air Warfare” (Supposedly) Hampered By (Supposed Excessive) Concern About “Dead Civilians”


An Op-Ed by the cold-blooded U.S.  “intelligence analyst” Lara Dadkhah in the same day’s Times (Thursday, February 18, 2010)  decries the supposed terrible impact of “new air warfare rules” on “our troops” in Afghanistan. 


“Air warfare”? Have Taliban fighters sent up propeller planes to shoot bullets at “our” pilots? No.


“Air warfare” is Dadkhah’e term for bombing runs by U.S. warplanes, which meet no resistance in the air beyond the occasional flocks of (Islamo-terrorist and al Qaeda trained?) geese.


Didkhah’s opinion piece is titled “Empty Skies Over Afghanistan.”  It worries about American and NATO leaders’ concern not to be seen as killing “an inordinate number of civilians.” This consideration is making “our soldiers…wait an hour or more for air support” as U.S. officials (allegedly) work to distinguish “enemy” fighters from “innocent” bystanders. Some U.S. troops have been shot while waiting for the U.S. forces units to wage “air warfare” against the dastardly enemy, which insists on defending their lands from foreign assault


The “pendulum has swing too far in favor of avoiding the death of innocents,” Dadkhah proclaims.  Hardly bashful about announcing his willingness to embrace the unavoidable slaughter of bystanders, Dadkhah wishes to disabuse readers of the childish “premise that dead civilians are harmful to the conduct of war.  The trouble is,” he writes, “no previous war supplies compelling proof of that claim.”


 Look, let’s be real, Dadkah argues, “wars are ugly” and “harmful to civilians.”  But they must be fought, of course.  The doctrinal assumption that We (the U.S) are Good, noble, and well-intentioned in our foreign policies is ubiquitous in U.S. dominant media and indeed across the spectrum of respectable opinion in the “mainstream” political and intellectual culture. You can’t get on the supposedly left New York Times’ Op Ed page if you question that childish nationalistic premise, which Lara Dadkhah automatically and almost invisibly embraces. The front-page story twenty pages ahead of Dadkhah’s opinion piece suggests that U.S. “air warfare” is less than completely inhibited and slowed-down by the crippling rules of engagement imposed by such noted pacifists and humanitarians as Gen. Stanley McChrystal [4]. Col. Bacchus’ wait-time for the launching of American weapons of mass destruction from on high – what Lara Dadkhah called “air warfare” – was one minute.


“As Illegal as the Invasion of Iraq


 There’s something missing from both Chivers’ reflexive angst over the horror of Taliban fighters shooting rifles at Marines and Dadkhah’s willingness to embrace the butchering of civilians.  The absent ingredient is the simple, brazen, and imperial criminality of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. Throughout the national “debate” over Obama’s “Afghanistan options” in the summer and fall of 2009, there was no discussion outside marginal left circles of the fact that the initial bombing and invasion of the Afghanistan took place in bold defiance of international law forbidding aggressive war. Sold as a legitimate defensive response to the September 2001 jetliner attacks, it was undertaken without definitive proof or knowledge that that country’s Taliban government was responsible in any way for 9/11. It occurred after the Bush administration rebuffed offers by that government to extradite accused 9/11 planners to stand trial in the U.S. It sought to destroy the Taliban government with no legal claim to introduce regime change in another nation. It took place over the protest of numerous Afghan opposition leaders and against the warnings of aid organizations who expected a U.S. attack to produce a humanitarian catastrophe. U.S. claims to possess the right to bomb Afghanistan – an action certain to produce significant casualties – raised the interesting question of whether Cuba and Nicaragua were entitled to set off bombs in the U.S. given the fact that the U.S. provided shelter to well-known terrorists known to have conducted murderous attacks on the Cuban and Nicaraguan people and governments [5]


The United States‘ attack on Afghanistan met none of the standard international moral and legal criteria for justifiable self-defense and occurred without reasonable consultation with the United Nations Security Council. As prominent legal scholar Marjorie Cohn noted in July of 2008, “the invasion of Afghanistan was as illegal as the invasion of Iraq.”  As Cohn explained, the U.N. Charter requires member states to settle international disputes by peaceful means.  Nations are permitted to use military force only in self-defense or when authorized by the Security Council. After 9/11, the Council passed two resolutions, neither of which authorized the use of military force in Afghanistan. Assaulting that country was not legitimate self-defense under article 51 of the Charter since the jetliner assaults were criminal attacks, not “armed attacks” by another country. Afghanistan did not attack the U.S. and 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, there was no “imminent threat of an armed attack on the United States after September 11 or Bush would not have waited three weeks before initiating his October 2001 bombing campaign.” As Cohn added, “The necessity for self-defense must be ‘instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.’ This classic principle of self-defense in international law has been affirmed by the Nuremberg Tribunal and the U.N. General Assembly”[6].


Not surprisingly, an international Gallup poll released after the bombing was announced showed that global opposition was overwhelming. In 34 of the 37 countries Gallup surveyed, majorities opposed a military attack on Afghanistan, preferring that 9/11 be treated as a criminal matter rather than as a pretext for war. Even in the U.S., just 54% supported war [7]. “In Latin America, which has some experience with US behavior," Noam Chomsky noted, "support [for the U.S. assault] ranged from 2% in Mexico, to 18% in Panama, and that support was conditional on the culprits being identified (they still weren’t eight months later, the Federal Bureau of Investigation reported) and civilian targets being spared (they were attacked at once). There was an overwhelming preference in the world for diplomatic/judicial measures, rejected out of hand by [Washington, claiming to represent] ‘the world’" [8].


If it was the Other Way Around…


The late George Carlin’s (understandable) cynicism aside, one should hardly want to see young working class American women and men subjected to sniper fire, IED attacks, and/or other forms of violence in Afghanistan or anywhere else.  But U.S. troops are at once agents and hostages of an Empire that has no legitimate moral or true legal basis for invading and attacking Afghanistan (or Pakistan or Iraq or Somalia or Yemen or Iran or…fill in the blank).  At the same time, the “insurgents” on the other side of “our” (Empire’s) guns (and cannons and tanks and missiles, and bombs, and drones) have the fully legitimate right to resist “our” colonial incursions with force.  The Times reports with sensitivity on the fear and exhaustion experienced by U.S. troops “ambushed” by snipers in a foreign country their masters have illegally invaded. But of course their “ambushers” are doing exactly what many Americans would proudly do to Russian or Chinese troops order to take over part of, say, California. And imagine Dadkhah writing so coldly about the unavoidable necessity of a certain number of “ugly” civilian casualties in a Chinese assault on, say, Honolulu.  These inverted scenarios are absurd, of course, but the point of imagining them is not.  It is to suggest how nationalistic doctrine prohibits an honest discussion of what “we” are really doing in the world.


Paul Street ([email protected])is the author of many articles, chapters, speeches, and books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007; Segregated School: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005); and Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008). Street’s next book The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2010), will be released next summer. Street’s article "The Enemy At Home" will appear in the March 2010 issue of Z Magazine,on newsstands.





1. C.J. Chivers, “Snipers Imperil U.S.-Led Forces in Afghanistan,” New York Times, February 18, 2010, A1.


2. The use of the phrase “U.S.-led” is meant to downplay the fact that the United States is by far and away the real force behind the imperial violence.


3. “Peace prize? He’s a killer." Thus spoke a young Pashtun man to an Al Jazeera English reporter on ecember 10, 2009 – the day that Obama was given the Nobel Peace Prize. "Obama,” the man added, “has only brought war to our country.” The man spoke from the village of Armal, where a crowd of 100 gathered around the bodies of 12 people, one family from a single home.  The 12 were killed, witnesses reported, by U.S. Special Forces during a late night raid. "Why are they giving Obama a peace medal?" another village resident asked. "He claims to want to bring security to us but he brings only death. Death to him" Al Jazeera went to the Afghan village of Bola Boluk, where a U.S. bombing butchered dozens of civilians last spring.  "He doesn’t deserve the award," a young woman said. "He bombed us and left us with nothing, not even a home" See Aljazeera English, "Afghans Anger at Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize," YouTube (December 10, 2009) qt www.youtube.com/watch?v=OBHrnQTinGY&feature=related


4. For some instructive reflections on McChrystal’s blood-soaked/death-squad past, see Tom Engelhardt, “The Pressure of an Expanding War,” TomDispatch.com (May 21, 2009), read at http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175074/the_pressure_of_an_expanding_war; Alexander Cockburn, “How Long Does it Take?” CounterPunch (May 23 2009), read online at http://www.counterpunch.org/cockburn05222009.html


5. Noam Chomsky, Hegemony Over Survival: America‘s Quest for Global Dominance (New York: Metropolitan, 2003), pp. 199-206.  See also Rajul Mahajan, The New Crusade: America‘s War on Terror (New York: Monthly Review, 2002), p. 21.


6. Marjorie Cohn, "End the Occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan,” ZNet (July 30, 2008), read at http://www.zcomm.org/znet/viewArticle/18303.Many defenders of the invasion, Democrats as well as Republicans, upheld Bush’s right to attack prior to UN consultation by making the analogy of a maniac who had broken into your house and already killed some residents: "do you sit and around a negotiate with the murderers while they kill more or do you go in and take them out?" But, as Rajul Mahajan argued, "the analogy to the U.S. action would have been better if the maniac had died in the attack, and your response was to bomb a neighborhood he had been staying in, killing many people who didn’t even know of his existence – even though you had your own police force constantly on the watch for more attacks." By this analogy, the U.S. would have also been allowed to bomb the German neighborhoods in which many of the 9/11 conspirators planned their operation.


7. Abid Aslam, “Polls Question Support for Military Campaign,” Inter Press Service, October 8, 2001; Gallup International, Gallup International Poll on Terrorism “(September 2001); Edward S. Herman and David Peterson,  “‘ Obama’s Foreign Policy Report Card’: Juan Cole Grades His President – and Very Positively,” MR Zine (November 9, 2009), at http://www.monthlyreview.org/mrzine/hp091109.html 


8. Noam Chomsky, “The World According to Washington,” Asia Times (February 28, 2008).


Leave a comment