The recent exposés from Iraq and Afghanistan--with their shocking images, appalling laughter, and video-game ethos--would have shocked the conscience of the nation in an earlier era. After all, when what happened at My Lai was exposed during the Vietnam War, it shocked millions of people who hadn't been thinking very much about the war.
My Lai was hardly the first, and probably not the worst, U.S. massacre of civilians in Vietnam. Vietnam's casualties were exponentially higher than Afghanistan's. Still, when the reports came out, they hit the front pages. In today's wars, exposés are mostly relegated to page 13 of The New York Times, and there's no evidence so far that any consciences were particularly shocked. The Pentagon responded that all the helicopter pilots and gunners had operated within the official rules of engagement. No rules were broken.
And the Pentagon is probably right. The rules of engagement probably weren't violated. The bylaws and directives of this war allow our Army helicopter gunners to shoot at unarmed Reuters photographers, and military convoys to fire on busloads of civilians in Afghanistan, and U.S. Special Forces to murder pregnant women and teenage girls in Iraq.
Of course the official rules of engagement don't actually say that's okay. General Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, has been talking a lot about his concern over killing civilians. He doesn't talk much about the danger to the Afghan civilians themselves, he talks mostly about how dangerous killing civilians is to the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.
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He's apologizing a lot these days, because U.S. troops are killing so many Afghan civilians. General McChrystal really is sorry. Protecting civilians really is our top priority. It's the fog of war, the split-second decisions that our young soldiers have to make.
He's partly right. Most of these young soldiers are from rural areas and small towns, drafted into the military by the lack-of-jobs draft, the lack-of-money-for-college draft, the lack-of-any-other-options draft. They're themselves victims of George W. Bush's, and now President Obama's, war, sent to kill and sometimes die in a war that will not make them or their families safer, a war that is impoverishing their own country even as it devastates the countries in which they fight.
General McChrystal can apologize all he wants, but counter-insurgency and the U.S. "global war on terror" are all about sending U.S. and a few NATO troops to kill Afghans in their own country. No surprise that sometimes--often--they kill the "wrong" Afghans. The split-second decisions are dangerous and difficult and sometimes impossible. But why does the U.S. military get to decide who are the "right" Afghans to be killed in their own country, anyway?
Does anyone still need to ask, "Why do they hate us?" The only ones these wars make safer are the war profiteers pocketing billion-dollar contracts--and the politicians pocketing campaign contributions in return. These wars don't make Afghan or Iraqi lives better. Their cost is devastating our economy, and there's no military victory in our future. The sooner we acknowledge that, and start withdrawing all the troops, drones, and planes, the sooner we can begin to make good on our real debt--humanitarian, not military--to the people of Iraq and Afghanistan.