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The Japan Times

Why Does Distance Ameliorate a War Crime?

Hiroaki Sato

NEW YORK - One aspect of the modern sense of war, be it delusional, duplicitous or both, was palpable in two articles paired at the top of the front page of The New York Times toward the end of September. The headline of one said "Drug Use Cited In Killings of 3 Civilians"; the headline of the other, "CIA INTENSIFIES DRONE CAMPAIGN WITHIN PAKISTAN."

One had to do with old-fashioned murder by infantrymen on the ground, the other with ultramodern murder by electronically operated vehicles in the sky. Those involved in the former sometimes face charges of war crime. Those involved in the latter face no such bother - though they may be at times "criticized" for their incompetence.

The main points of the first story are these: Five soldiers in a U.S. Army unit in Afghanistan are investigated by a military court in Washington State for killing three unarmed Afghan civilians on three separate occasions earlier this year, for "no apparent reason." They are provided with defense lawyers to raise some fuss.

"The soldiers are accused of possessing dismembered body parts, including fingers and a skull." Some were photographed with the heads of dead Afghans.

One of them may or may not have been under medication for battlefield trauma. In any case, the use of "illegal drugs" was rampant among the soldiers of the unit - on "bad days, stressful days, days that we just needed to escape," as one of them said.

The higher echelon of the U.S. Army is concerned that the case against the five solders "will undermine efforts to build relationships with Afghans in the war against the Taliban." But even as the army officials talk about "the military justice process," they do not want to have evidence detrimental to their cause made public.

The principal target of "investigations" is a specialist - an enlisted rank in the U.S. Army with certain technical qualifications - who may face "a court-martial and a possible death sentence."

Here are the main points of the second article: In the month of September the Central Intelligence Agency more than doubled the monthly bombings by drones in Pakistan, "an ally," to 20 attacks, for a total of 74 so far this year.

The target of the "campaign" is not just the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaida but also the Haqqani fighters ("a Pakistan-based offshoot of the Taliban with ties to al-Qaida," as one news report has put it). In just two weeks from September to October, U.S. and NATO forces killed more than 100 of these fighters.

The redoubled bombings were meant to "stem the rise of American casualties before the Obama administration's comprehensive review of its Afghanistan strategy set for December."

U.S. President Barack Obama has "enthusiastically embraced the CIA's drone program, an ambitious and historically unusual war campaign by American spies." In less than two years in Obama's presidency, the spy agency "launched nearly four times as many attacks as it did during the final year of the Bush administration."

The Sept. 27 New York Times article on a "drastic" expansion of drone deployment did not mention it, but the carnage resulting from bombings and missile attacks by the drones necessarily include a large number of people who have nothing to do with anything except that they happen to be in the wrong place, be it Afghanistan, Pakistan or Iraq, in each of which the U.S. does as it pleases.

In 2007, for example, a drone missile struck a wedding party in Afghanistan, killing 30 people. In August this year, a drone missile that hit a house of "suspected militants" in Pakistan also destroyed a neighboring house, killing 20 people.

"Drones" are what Tom Engelhardt, the author of "The American Way of War: How Bush's Wars Became Obama's," calls "another kind of American fever dream": robotic aircraft with their pilots "sitting in front of consoles 7,000 miles away from where their missiles and bombs are landing." Though I cannot tell whether it is real footage made at the drone command center in Nevada, you can see a video of a couple of such "pilots" at work on the Internet, one of them a young woman in a half-sleeve shirt.

With the routine use of drones, the "Star Wars" aspect of U.S. warfare that enthralled many TV-watching Americans during the Persian Gulf war two decades ago has become a solid reality.

These aerial weapons of destruction are so "cruel as to be beyond the pale of human tolerance," Lord Bingham, one of Britain's most senior judges, said last year. Yet, Hillary Clinton denied that the use of drone attacks was an act of terrorism when she visited Pakistan last fall and a female TV anchor put that question to her. Would the U.S. secretary of state offer the same denial if similar assaults occurred in Chappaqua, N.Y., where she lives?

As for the five soldiers being put through the U.S. "military justice process": Why single out these poor men when the CIA, Department of Defense and "private military contractors" such as Xe (formerly Blackwater) have been doing the same thing on a much larger scale, with impunity, as Karen Kwiatkowski, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, has pointed out ("War Is Murder")?

When it comes to the slaughtering of human beings, the question is this: Why make a distinction between the killings on the ground and the killings from the air? Why let the users of aerial means, be it a manned bomber, a missile or a drone manipulated thousands of miles away, go scot-free? Whether a soldier on the ground takes body parts of the murdered as a trophy is irrelevant. That's what a soldier was expected to do until recently. A bomber pilot or a drone operator behind a computer console simply doesn't have the chance to do the same.

A war crime is an artificial construct hatched in the "advanced" Western mind. Take a look at the Hague Convention of a century ago and consider the weapons described. For a war crime to have any meaning, no distinction should be made between the means of killing.


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Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist who is at work on a biography of Yukio Mishima.

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