In ‘Notes From the Front Lines,’ Argument Unbecoming a Decent Human Being


Anyone who thinks the New York Times is a part of the “liberal media” would be served well by checking out the work of groups like Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), and gadfly’s like Noam Chomsky, Edward Herman, David Peterson, and so on. The Times has shown time and time again to be a propaganda tool for the dominant economic and political powers. On matters of war, the Times routinely helps beat the drums, or provides a venue for jingoists to delusionally go on about the nobility and righteousness of America’s wars.

In Monday’s “Notes From the Front Lines” the Times gives Ramsey Sulayman, a major in the Marine Corps Reserve and legislative associate with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), space to write a piece titled “In Urination Video, Behavior Unbecoming a Marine.”

We are constantly reassured that the Marines are about “Honor, Courage, Commitment,” and that while “war is a dirty business,” the soldiers who urinated on their victims was “unbecoming a Marine.” Many of Sulayman’s comments read as if a decent human being would be moved by them with awe and respect. Here are a selection:

The values I learned were that we fight ferociously but maintain our honor. Always. We kill as a necessity of our business — not for sport, pleasure, or because we can. That is what makes us professional warriors. We also don’t take trophies, souvenirs, body parts, or desecrate the dead. That’s what separates us and why we can claim the moral high ground and come to terms with the ugliness of war. Gen. James N. Mattis, the current commander of the United States Central Command, summed up the rules for combat in Iraq and Afghanistan perfectly: “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.”

By turning war into a “business,” and being “professional warriors” there is somehow a “moral high ground” to be had. Sulayman even uses the word “perfectly” to describe “the rules for combat in Iraq and Afghanistan”: “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.” This is said with all seriousness and an intent to come off as righteous. It reminds me of the John Lennon song “Working Class Hero” where the late Beatle sung, “There’s room at the top they’re telling you still, but first you must learn how to smile as you kill.” Being a polite robot ready to kill everyone is, we are told, of the highest virtues defenders of freedom and liberty can have. But for Sulayman, the urinating killers are “Marines acting unprofessionally and inappropriately. Not because they were conducting their business during a combat action, but because they crossed the line after the fighting stopped.”

With the revelation that these men urinated on their victims came a quick response by U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta saying the incident was “utterly deplorable,” and announced an investigation into the act.

What I want to ask is: What exactly is “deplorable,” or “inappropriate”? Urinating on the dead bodies of people we killed in a criminal war, or the killing (i.e. war) itself? This is an important question to ask because if it’s just the urination, as Sulayman wants to believe, and that there would be no scandal if “our troops” just stopped at killing people, then our disconnect from decency is a much bigger problem than what is being called “deplorable.”

(As a sidenote, all of this reminds me of Mark Twain’s short story The War Prayer, which I recommend everyone read at the end of this article.)

Can we imagine the response of outrage if we were the people of Afghanistan and Iraq reading this? What if the tables were turned and it was us who was invaded and occupied and routinely subjected to crimes “unbecoming a Marine”? Or what if the horrors we endured were at the hands of smiling young men who acted “professionally”? Would we end our grief and say to ourselves, “At least the killer of my family shook my hand”? How would we feel about the New York Times publishing a piece by the article who trivialized our hardships, and made the perpetrators out to be courageous young men?

This is hardly an isolated incident. In one of the first drone attacks in Afghanistan following the October 2001 invasion was the story of Daraz Khan, an Afghan man who was murdered by an American Hellfire missile because he was tall, had a beard and wore a turban. According to the New York Times, a Pentagon spokesperson, Victoria Clarke, said that “We’re convinced that it was an appropriate target,” yet Mr. Clarke acknowledges that “we do not know yet exactly who it was.” Even Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld weighed in with the incriminating comment that, “Someone has said that these people were not what the people managing the Predator believed them to be,” he said. ”We’ll just have to find out. There’s not much more anyone could add, except there’s one version and there’s the other version.” It doesn’t take much critical thought to conclude that there is nothing “appropriate” about killing an unknown man because he is tall, bearded and wearing a turban. It is clear that U.S. forces racistly profiled the man, and as the saying goes, shot first and asked questions later.

Another example of an American massacre was in January of 2002 when Time Magazine reported on it the following month by noting that, “In what appeared to be a perfect sneak attack, U.S. special-operations soldiers on Jan. 24 stormed Sharzam High School in Uruzgan” and killed all the men present. A guard hid in a ditch and heard the men pleading for their lives, but none were spared.

According to eyewitnesses, U.S. commandos moved on Uruzgan shortly before 2 a.m. on Jan. 24, accompanied by eight helicopters and at least two armored humvees. Local Afghans said that when the Americans burst into the school, they found Afghan fighters sleeping and began spraying the beds with gunfire.

The Americans accused them of being Taliban fighters however they were what the men were trying to tell the U.S. forces, who likely didn’t understand their language: “The soldiers slaughtered at Sharzam, they say, were not enemy fighters but anti-Taliban troops loyal to U.S.-backed interim Afghan leader Hamid Karzai. They belonged to a military commission appointed by the new provincial government to oversee the collection of leftover Taliban weapons.”

The article ends with another gruesome account of the incident:

One witness of the aftermath said the Americans shot Afghans as they hid under beds and rushed out of doorways. The Pentagon maintains that the Afghans started shooting first, but villagers say they heard no gunfire from inside the school. Two dead Afghans were found with their wrists bound. One U.S. soldier left behind a note: “Have a nice day. From Damage Inc.” Days after the attack, the classrooms at the school were still soaked in thick blood.

There are many other examples of such bloodbaths. Accounts of drone attacks killing entire wedding parties, or U.S. convoys opening fire as they speed through town, or even the notorious “kill team” where U.S. soldiers hunted civilians and took grisly pictures of them holding the dead bodies as if they were trophies, and much more are easily found thanks to the power of the internet. The mass media however, has not given these bloodbaths the coverage they deserve and are already going down the memory hole.

For example, while the New York Times covered the story of Daraz Khan in one article totaling 1,758 words, in a two month period following the incident and never covered the Uruzgan massacre, the same is not true for an incident where Canadian soldiers were killed in a case of “friendly fire” in what came know as the Tarnak farm incident. In April of 2002 an American F-16 reported seeing surface-to-air fire, asked to fire on the location and while on “stand by” the pilot bombed the place before being told to “hold fire . . .Friendlies, Kandahar.” In a two month period the incident received eight articles totaling almost 6,500 words.

Recently the U.N. reported that, in Afghanistan, torture is “systematic.” As the U.S. follows the tradition of a long line of empires who seek to control Afghanistan, and they never do, there has been a reliance on local forces to ruthlessly go after the dominant Islamic movement, the Taliban. A particularly gruesome example was the Dasht-i-Leili massacre where thousands of suspected Taliban fighters were caught, stored in metal containers and suffocated to death—all of which occurred with U.S. knowledge, and possibly supervision.

As for Iraq, we can turn to a medical report, which was released in late 2010, and where we learn how the effects of our November 2004 U.S. attack on Fallujah was worse than what the U.S. did to Hiroshima, when just over 65 years ago the United States became the first and only country to use a nuclear weapon (“little boy”) on the battlefield. That was in Hiroshima, Japan. Three days later in Nagasaki another nuke (“fat boy”) was dropped.

Back to Fallujah, early on, in our illegal war of aggression, when we “liberated” the country, we set up a military base near a school in the town. Naturally the residents, who were no friends of Saddam, protested. And the protests grew. U.S. soldiers, realizing they weren’t being greeted with candy, opened fire on them, killing 17 and wounding 70. Tensions increased and escalated when the locals got their hands on four Blackwater mercenaries, hung them from a bridge and set fire to their hanging bodies. The U.S. responded in a heavy-handed and disproportionately manner (i.e. a war crime). As expected, Fallujah became a symbol of resistance to U.S. troops. That was the spring of 2004.

After Presidential elections in November 2004, and as the resistance grew like wildfire, the U.S. carried out another massive assault that resulted in numerous war crimes. We literally destroyed the town but before we did we refused to let “men of fighting age” leave despite it being widely known that the resistance fighters had already left. What followed was an orgy of destruction involving conventional and chemical weapons (white phosphorus/Whiskey Pete/WP). Some say WP is not a chemical weapon. That’s simply not true because we relied on the chemical properties of WP as a weapon and used them against people, which legally constitutes it as a chemical weapon.

Fallujah may never recover from the physical damages of our aggression, and the health effects will probably go on for years and years to come. Like Japan, who still struggles with the atomic fallout and a U.S. military presence where the population is expected to foot much of the bill for our destructive presence (Okinawa’s residents are still trying to evict us), the people of Fallujah have a hard life ahead of them and there is no reason to believe the U.S. has any intentions on making it easier for them. In fact, about the only time President Obama has referred to Fallujah has been in the context of the suffering we endured, like he did while a U.S. Senator.

While a list of grievances were made against Saddam Hussein before and during the war, we seem to have managed to achieve every one of them within three years of our occupation: massive arbitrary arrests, torture, various violations of international law including war crimes and crimes against humanity, use of terrorism and chemical weapons against the people of Iraq.

According to Field Artillery Magazine, an Army publication:

WP proved to be an effective and versatile munition. We used it for screening missions at two breeches and, later in the fight, as a potent psychological weapon against the insurgents in trench lines and spider holes where we could not get effects on them with HE [High Explosive]. We fired “shake and bake” missions at the insurgents, using WP to flush them out and HE to take them out.

White Phosphorus was used as a chemical weapon—the U.S. Army publication described it as “an effective and versatile munition”—where its chemical property is used “as a psychological weapon” in order to kill them easier. The “method of warfare” even has a name: “shake and bake.” When Iraqi guerillas got into “trench lines and spider holes where we could not get effects on them with HE” the Marines would use Whiskey Pete to “shake” them out so they could “bake” them with HE.

To expose the fact that we have long known WP is used as a chemical weapon we can turn to a 1995 DIA document titled “POSSIBLE USE OF PHOSPHOROUS CHEMICAL” that was about Saddam Hussein’s alleged use of Whiskey Pete against Kurds in 1991 (an uprising the U.S. called for and then allowed Saddam to put down). In this document we clearly acknowledge WP as a chemical weapon:

IRAQ’S POSSIBLE EMPLOYMENT OF PHOSPHOROUS CHEMICAL WEAPONS — IN LATE FEBRUARY 1991, FOLLOWING THE COALITION FORCES’ OVERWHELMING VICTORY OVER IRAQ, KURDISH REBELS STEPPED UP THEIR STRUGGLE AGAINST IRAQI FORCES IN NORTHERN IRAQ. DURING THE BRUTAL CRACKDOWN THAT FOLLOWED THE KURDISH UPRISING, IRAQI FORCES LOYAL TO PRESIDENT SADDAM (HUSSEIN) MAY HAVE POSSIBLY USED WHITE PHOSPHOROUS (WP) CHEMICAL WEAPONS AGAINST KURDISH REBELS AND THE POPULACE IN ERBIL (GEOCOORD:3412N/04401E) (VICINITY OF IRANIAN BORDER) AND DOHUK (GEOCOORD:3652N/04301E) (VICINITY OF IRAQI BORDER) PROVINCES, IRAQ. THE WP CHEMICAL WAS DELIVERED BY ARTILLERY ROUNDS AND HELICOPTER GUNSHIPS (NO FURTHER INFORMATION ATTHIS TIME). APPARENTLY, THIS TIME IRAQ DID NOT USE NERVE GAS AS THEY DID IN 1988, IN HALABJA (GEOCOORD:3511N/04559E), IRAQ, BECAUSE THEY WERE AFRAID OF POSSIBLE RETALIATION FROM THE UNITED STATES(U.S.) LED COALITION. THESE REPORTS OF POSSIBLE WP CHEMICAL WEAPON ATTACKS SPREAD QUICKLY AMONG THE KURDISH POPULACE IN ERBIL AND DOHUK. AS A RESULT, HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF KURDS FLED FROM THESE TWO AREAS AND CROSSED THE IRAQI BORDER INTO TURKEY. IN RESPONSE TO THIS, TURKISH AUTHORITIES ESTABLISHED SEVERAL REFUGEE CENTERS ALONG THE TURKISH-IRAQI BORDER. THE SITUATION OF KURDISH REFUGEES IN THESE CENTERS IS DESPERATE — THEY HAVE NO SHELTERS, FOOD, WATER, AND MEDICAL FACILITIES (NO FURTHER INFORMATION AT THIS TIME).

This reads almost like the U.S. siege on Fallujah. In 1991 it was Kurdish insurgents, incited by President Bush but then allowed to be crushed, who received a brutal suppression by Saddam with WP and in which hundreds of thousands fled to live in horrid shelters. That was precisely what happened to Fallujah.

While Lt Col Venable admits that WP was used for its toxic properties as a “method of warfare” he incorrectly claimed that its usage was legal. It was not. Even according to a section from an instruction manual used by the U.S. Army Command and General Staff School (CGSC) at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, it is clear that “it is against the law of land warfare to employ WP against personnel targets.”

But no worries, America. This was done “politely” by “professional warriors” who have “honor.”

Another interesting item revealed as Americans were leaving last month was a New York Times reporter who happened upon some four-hundred pages of U.S. military documents pertaining to the 2005 Haditha massacre where American soldiers killed nearly two dozen civilians, many of them women and children. In the article we read of a testimony where a soldier says the murders were not “remarkable” because, “It happened all the time, not necessarily in MNF-West all the time, but throughout the whole country.”

This is just a sample of the horrors the people of Afghanistan and Iraq have endured. In Iraq alone, more than a million people have died, with millions more ethnically cleansed from their communities, or injured, or traumatized, or sick with cancer due to our use of depleted uranium. In Afghanistan, the war and occupation has proved so unpopular that support for the Taliban has increased considerably. In 2007 before President Obama’s “surge,” the Taliban controlled half of the country. Now they control more than 90%. The war and occupation has proved so unpopular that Vice President Biden has had to change tracks and say the Taliban are not the “enemy,” as the Taliban opens an office in Qatar to begin negotiating a settlement to the war.

Sulayman says that Marines “do the right thing because it is the right thing regardless of what those around us would allow,” but that is clearly not the case by the fact that the Iraq War went on for nearly nine years, and that the Afghanistan War is still raging on. Both of these wars were completely illegal (and immoral), and any soldier who participated violated their enlistment oath and are not doing the right thing. In fact, the reason hundreds of thousands of soldiers have not done the right thing is that they were obedient to those around them. Resistance was not “allowed,” nor has it been tolerated. The soldiers who have refused to follow orders and “do the right thing because it is the right thing regardless of what those around us would allow” are the ones who were punished. Folks like Ehren Watada, Naser Abdo, Stephen Funk, Victor Agosto, and Bradley Manning are a tiny minority of resisters, and punishment was sought in every case. Even the case of Alexis Hutchinson—a soldier who refused to deploy so that she could care for her newborn child—endured the military trying to punish her for doing the right thing.

It is worth noting that Sulayman’s piece is completely void of the political, economic, ecological and human realities surrounding the wars he is defending. He talks of noble values, but real honor, courage and commitment lies not in obeying orders to go and kill and occupy, but in disobedience. What makes someone brave or a hero is not being a polite and professional warrior—a mercenary—for a criminal empire, but in resisting it. If Sulayman wanted to see real quality of character he would be looking to Bradley Manning, who has endured nearly two years of detention, often in torturous conditions, for leaking documents that expose corruption and criminality in America’s wars and foreign policies. That the Times provided Sulayman with the platform in which to spread his jingoistic nonsense says a lot about the “paper of record” and their service to the Masters of War. 

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