The Bush Afghan war calls up memories of the Vietnam war in both actions and rhetoric: the massive use of superior arms heavily impacting civilians, deliberate food deprivation, wholesale terror allegedly combatting “terrorism,” but always “sincere regrets” for any “collateral damage.”
In the earlier war, although the propaganda claim was that we were saving South Vietnam from aggression, the U.S. leadership and military knew very well that the U.S. puppet regime in the south had negligible internal support, and in consequence the most ferocious forms of U.S. violence were directed at the people in the south.
Virtually all the napalm and chemicals used during the war struck the south, which was also regularly attacked by B-52 bombers, and much of its territory was made into “free fire zones.” As good propaganda servants of the state, however, the mainstream media never noticed the contradiction–virtually unlimited violence against the people allegedly being saved from aggression. In the classic military explanation of the treatment of Ben Tre: “We had to destroy the town in order to save it.”
In South Vietnam, the United States carried out a large-scale program of attempted food deprivation to starve out the indigenous National Liberation Front (NLF) soldiers.
Under this program, charmingly labelled Operation Ranch Hand, millions of gallons of Agent Orange and other dangerous chemicals were sprayed repeatedly on peasant rice crops, in a policy that U.S. Admiral William Leahy had opposed during World War II on the ground that it would “violate every Christian ethic I have ever heard of and all known laws of war.” (We were already on the road to “humanitarian bombing” and the new “ethical foreign policy” when this policy was installed in the Kennedy years).
This chemical warfare killed many thousands of peasants and their family members, and left a memorial in an estimated 500,000 Vietnamese children with serious birth deformities (Peter Waldman, “Body Count,” Wall Street Journal, Dec. 12, 1997).
At the time, critics of this illegal and vicious policy stressed the fact that soldiers would have priority access to the diminished food supply. The distinguished Harvard nutritionist Jean Mayer was only one among many who pointed out that this policy “first and overwhelmingly affected small children” (“Crop Destruction in Vietnam,” Science, April 15, 1966).
But this had no effect on policy: food deprivation pushed ahead with little opposition from the liberal media or the international community. So did intensive high level bombing and the use of napalm and fragmentation bombs.
While it was regularly claimed by the U.S. military that they regretted and were trying to avoid civilian casualties, there were also occasinal admissions that the people supported the NLF and that making this support “costly” and driving them into the cities was deliberate policy. The several million dead and severely wounded and traumatized Vietnamese civilians were still “collateral damage,” as the policy did not aim to kill them but merely to induce this stubborn populace to accept a minority government acceptable to U.S. officials.
In Iraq, under the UN sanctions regime, also, the 500,000 plus Iraqi children and overall million plus dead civilians, whose death was “worth it” for Madeleine Albright, and hence for the mainstream media, are, once again “collateral damage.”
The stated aim has been to get rid of Saddam Hussein, not to kill children, so the deaths of large numbers of children are regretfully but understandably and acceptably costs of a policy with a clearly benevolent end. As in the old saw attributed to the Reds, the means are justified by the ends, even if these entail mass deaths of innocent victims.
In the imperial system there is another rationale employed to justify mass deaths resulting from policy, even when these approach genocidal levels. That is, as the leaders of the victims always have the option of surrender, THEY are responsible for any deaths that follow their refusal, not the party actually doing the killing directly.
The Vietnamese were regularly offered the option of abandoning the struggle to overthrow the minority government imposed on the south by the United States; so that if they refused, what option had the United States but to kill, to protect South Vietnam against “internal aggression” (the phrase was then U.S. Ambassador to the UN Adlai Stevenson’s Orwellian masterpiece)?
How else resolve the choice between U.S.”credibility” and the killing of millions of innocent civilians?
Similarly, Saddam Hussein could give up power voluntarily, and although the UN has never mandated his removal as the objective of the “sanctions of mass destruction” imposed on Iraq by that organization, if the United States adds in this objective at its own discretion who can object, except the impotent victims and weaklings of the left?
In Kosovo we saw the familiar process employed once again: Yugoslavia at Rambouillet was invited to surrender, not only by agreeing to a NATO takeover of Kosovo, but under Appendix B to allow the NATO occupation of all of Yugoslavia.
This was explicitly designed to “raise the bar” to assure Yugoslav rejection, because “the Serbs needed a little bombing,” in the words of a State Department official. (Saddam also needed a little bombing after he invaded Kuwait in August 1990, so he was not allowed to extricate himself there by negotiations.)
The Kosovo solution by NATO bombing and occupation has been applauded by Western liberals on the ground that the Kosovo Albanians were repatriated–ignoring that they only needed repatriation as a consequence of the NATO war itself–and that the demon responsible for all the Balkan difficulties, Slobodan Milosevic, has been brought to trial–which rests on a comprehensive misreading of recent Balkan history, with an especially noteworthy neglect of the crucial role of the NATO powers in destabilizing Yugoslavia in a manner that assured ethnic cleansing, and protecting the ethnic cleansing, and continuing to protect it today in occupied Kosovo, when done by the right people.
Which brings us to the U.S. war against Afghanistan, where we have a rerun of the now standard rationales for mass killings as collateral damage.
Once again the enemy has been invited to surrender, in a manner that assured rejection–demanding that the Taliban deliver up Bin Laden, but refusing to provide evidence of his involvement in the September 11 terrorist attacks. In the imperial tradition, the refusal to do as instructed means that any future deaths from bombs is the fault of the Taliban leadership.
A unique feature of the war against Afghanistan is that as it began this devastated and poor country was facing the prospect of mass starvation, following incessant wars and three years of drought. World humanitarian institutions such as Oxfam, the WHO, UNICEF, Conscience International and others were already focused on Afghanistan as a desperate case, with 7-8 million people facing starvation.
The U.S. decision to bomb Afghanistan was therefore, in itself, a major act of terrorism, as it caused the immediate flight of thousands from Afghan cities, disrupted food supply by humanitarian groups, and immediately worsened the crisis.
The Bush administration also forced Pakistan to close its borders, directly impeding food supply operations. The bombing itself caused further flight and cutbacks in food distribution, along with the familiar “errant bombs” and “tragic errors” striking civilians directly.
Most notable was the repeated bombing of well-marked Red Cross food supply facilities in Kabul, and the admission that this was intentional as the Taliban allegedly controlled the site. Red Cross officials denied Taliban occupation or interference, but whoever is correct on this point, we see the continuity with the spirit of Operation Ranch Hand in the intent to deprive the Taliban of food, despite the fact that a food deprivation policy will always impact first and foremost children and other noncombatants.
The multiple attacks on the Red Cross sites also suggests that Bush administration officials may not view the effects of the escalating mass starvation as bad–it will put pressure on the Taliban food supply, even as it kills large numbers of noncombatants. The similarity to the Vietnam War policy of depriving the NLF of food, whatever the human cost, is clear.
The U.S. mainstream media are not bothered by this at all, any more than they have been bothered by the 5,000 Iraqi children terminated each month as collateral damage. Remember how intensely interested the mainstream media were in the plight of the Kosovo Albanians expelled and fleeing during the bombing war, and how indignant they were?
Now, with the already starving Afghan civilians put to flight by U.S. bombing and threats, the media focus on the bombing tactics, their effectiveness and prospects, and the condition of the fleeing and starving Afghans is barely noticed; indignation is entirely absent. What a difference the locus of responsibility for the plight of refugees makes for the direction of media attention and moral fervor!
Just as the media essentially suppress the evidence that the U.S. war’s impact on the Afghan starvation crisis is to exacerbate it, making it a policy of mass killing, so they are oblivious to the hypocrisy of the food drop program and its PR character. I still have photos of GIs in Vietnam handing lollipops to Vietnamese children orphaned in the U.S. destruction of Vietnam in order to save it. The media back then showed such photos as evidence of our kindness, without blanching.
Now, we have air drops of food packages that are a miniscule offset to the war-induced fall in humanitarian aid, and with sublime irony, of the same yellow color as the cluster bombs, also dropped in great number, and deadly to anyone touching them.
In short, the media are, once again, serving as key instruments in making national policy palatable and apologizing for and normalizing their government’s mass killings of innocent civilians. We offered the enemy the surrender option, our patience is once again exhausted, and once again “the United States sincerely regrets this inadvertent strike on…” (fill in the blanks), which was clearly unintentional, and collateral damage.