War/Security

Is Azizabad the new My Lai?

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?

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8 replies »

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  2. Russ:

    A couple of things. One is that My Lai was not a mistake and could not have been a mistake. It was done by troops on the ground who went berzerk and started killing everything in sight. It was this up close and personal nature of My Lai that so revolted the US population.

    The second is that the airstrikes are being used to avoid exposing US troops to an on-site “closer look.” In other words, the US military has decided to accept the risk of being horribly, terribly wrong and killing children and other innocents in order to avoid US military casualties. So, that should make your nephew safer.

  3. So much of this is based upon the concept of “strategic” bombing, which itself is intrinsically tied to the morality of long-range killing. While i take J.S’s point about how up close and personal My Lai was, that is, in fact, the cruel face of war…that’s how war has mostly been throughout history. Those soldiers did it with their own two hands and looked their actions in the eye.

    Launching a missile or dropping a bomb is, simply, easier. Our military doctrine assumes that it is also effective. However, when bombing became commonplace in the second world war, there was contemporary statistical analysis of its effectiveness…which showed it to be terribly ineffective as a strategic tool. It was adopted as military doctrine following WWII mostly because it fit Gen. LeMay’s budgetary wishes.

    And i would suggest that the aim of war is not to have the fewest casualties, but to defeat the enemy. In a set piece engagement there is something to be said for fewer casualties (unless you can absorb the loss as the Soviets did in WWII). But that is one of our military problems, we have a military designed for set piece engagements with the Soviets rather than counter-insurgency operations where victory can only be measured in defeating the enemy for hearts and minds.

    Using the wrong tool for the job most often ends in shitty workmanship.

  4. Lex,

    Let’s just go over some terminology. “Strategic bombing” is not what the US is doing in Afghanistan. It is not even doing “operational bombing.” It is, instead, “tactical bombing” aimed at a specific target at a specific time for a specific reason in small scale. Strategic bombing, according to Albert Speer, was in fact quite effective in WWII when it concentrated on the means of production, rail lines, and the like. Both the German and Japanese armies had enormous supply problems in the last 1.5 to 2 years of the war. What did not seem to be as effective was massive bombing of civilian populations — until Hiroshima, that is.

    All missile armies have been standoff armies that were so reluctant to close into hand-to-hand combat that, in fact, it almost never happened, despite artistic depictions of bayonet battles. And there’s no question that the stand-off nature reduces the emotional revulsion war should always invoke.

    Sometimes, winning a war does mean taking the fewest casualites (note Hannibal, who simply could not afford them, or Wellington, who probably could not have won at Waterloo with even one less regiment). In the modern era, the US, being a rich country, has had a massive firepower doctrine, buying the lives of US soldiers with (sometimes) superior weapons and unlimited munitions. I think it can be argued that a volunteer army in a country with many other job opportunities requires this approach if it is to continue to attract recruits.

    I believe the US military is, in fact, structured to make these raids on suspected terrorists. All it really requires is mobility, which we have in spades. What we don’t have is the appetite to take casualties. Thus, the laser-guided bomb.

  5. Strategic bombing, according to Albert Speer, was in fact quite effective in WWII when it concentrated on the means of production, rail lines, and the like. Both the German and Japanese armies had enormous supply problems in the last 1.5 to 2 years of the war. What did not seem to be as effective was massive bombing of civilian populations — until Hiroshima, that is.

    That exactly echoes a lot of the latetst thinking on the subject. (Notice how we’re just now figuring out World War II?)

    Re My Lai: I don’t have time to track this down. But it’s my understanding that My Lai, like many other such incidents that weren’t publicized, was sanctioned by commanding officers, perhaps as high as generals. The soldiers didn’t just go berserk. As with Nazi massacres, it took hours to complete.

  6. I don’t know, Russ. There may be new info on My Lai, but my understanding (based on the old info) was that Lt. Calley ordered the atrocities on his own authority. And, yes, it took hours, and that’s part of the horror. But, then, the fact that humans can do such things to other humans, and do it often, is well documented