By now you’ve probably heard about our airstrike in Afghanistan that ganged more seriously agleigh than any that preceded it. “A United Nations human rights team,” Carlotta Gall reported in the New York Times, “has found ‘convincing evidence’ that 90 civilians — among them 60 children — were killed in [US] airstrikes on a village in western Afghanistan on Friday.”
She continues: “Mohammad Iqbal Safi, the head of the parliamentary defense committee and a member of the government commission, said the 60 children were 3 months old to 16 years old, all killed as they slept. ‘It was a heartbreaking scene,’ he said.” That might seem obvious to us. But he may have intuited how inured the American public is to such news and was only trying to drive the point home.
A member of Afghan Parliament explained to Ms. Gall that the inhabitants of the village of Nawabad in the Azizabad area of the Shindand district had been preparing for a visit from their extended families to honor the memory of a man who had died. In fact, there’s no evidence of the presence of the Taliban.
Along with another member of Parliament, the MP said “the villagers blamed tribal enemies for giving the military false intelligence on foreign fighters gathering in the village.” In an earlier story, Ms. Gall wrote that it was the “Afghan National Army, whose commandos called in the airstrike along with American Special Forces trainers.”
Far from providing the those who called in the strike — and those who approved it –- a measure of exoneration, the claim that the memorial celebration was a gathering of Taliban only exacerbates the extent of their blunder.
When calling in airstrikes, American officers weigh the value of killing their designated enemy against the loss of life of the enemy’s families. But how can any experienced member of the American Special Forces accept the word of locals without first sniffing out their motives? Weren’t Abu Ghraib, Bhagram and Guantanamo filled by locals fingering their personal or tribal enemies? Siccing an invasive force to attack your enemy in the next valley is the oldest trick of the book.
Second, how can you call in a strike on a group that size without getting a closer look? Though the bombing occurred at midnight, the target area was well-lit by cooking fires. Apparently the services of scouts, like intelligence assets on the ground, are no longer needed since the switch to surveillance technology.
Conventional opinion holds that My Lai was a turning point in the American public’s opinion about the Vietnam war. But instead of learning the lesson that war brutalizes our young into people we don’t know, it’s entirely possible that many Americans took something else away from Vietnam.
We hear the justification, by now pretty time-worn, expressed by a commenter named Vernon at the hard-right Web site Jihad Chat: “When terrorist thugs hide among the civilian population and the civilian population tolerate it, we have a choice: take them out or let them use the civilians as cover. There is one way for it to stop: civilians/non-combatants stop hiding the terrorists and reveal their location to competent authority.”
It’s naïve to think you can expect locals to become informers with any consistency when they do so at their own considerable risk. Also, singling out Those Who Love Terrorists is playing the dirtiest of all possible games of blame the victim.
Even after Iraq and the enormous casualties its civilians suffered at our hands, we seem to be making no progress in separating the wheat of civilians from the chaff of our designated enemy. Does Azizabad point to a flaw in procedures or the personnel involved?
It’s of particular concern to this author because his 25-year-old nephew, a sergeant in the Special Forces, is due to be deployed again to the Middle East soon. The fear that he’ll be party to an atrocity gnaws just as much as the fear that he’ll be killed.
Whether or not My Lai was instrumental in turning the tide of opinion against the Vietnam War, what will it take to generate American outrage over incidents like Azizabad? Will the day ever come when we can find it within ourselves to demonstrate a shred of sympathy or a twinge of empathy for the casualties of our wars?