Read Part 1
The United States has historically spent about $70 million per year on humanitarian aid for Afghanistan (about four dollars per person per year, the equivalent of about a hundred and eighty dollars if it were given in the United States), which is about how much the United States spent per Afghan on the bombing campaign every hour and forty minutes.
If United States citizens have paid four dollars a piece per day to support this war effort, the Afghan people have paid rather more. The bombs—such a nice, short word to describe inventions that have as their purpose destruction— include, fairly typically, the two-thousand pound MK-84, which was developed in the 1950s and has served its masters well in the time since. About twelve thousand were dropped on Iraq during the First Gulf War. If the bomb detonates on contact with the ground, it creates a crater fifty feet in diameter, and thirty-six feet deep (Sorry, guys, this is not precisely what I had in mind when I asked for a new well). If it explodes above ground, it disperses shrapnel to a lethal radius of four hundred yards.
A more commonly used incendiary device—incendiary device being even more abstract language than bomb—are cluster bombs. Instead of causing a single explosion, cluster bombs (or CBUs: Cluster Bomb Units, if we don’t mind getting yet more abstract) contain dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of bomblets called BLUs (bomb live units). Each BLU then splits into hundreds of pieces of shrapnel. For example, the bomb called the CBU-75 may contain eighteen hundred BLU-26 Sadeyes. Each Sadeye contains six hundred sharp steel shards. A single CBU-75 will shoot these shards across an area of around 9.25 million square feet, which is about 212 acres, or more than 150 football fields, or nearly a third of a square mile. A single B-52 strategic bomber can carry forty of these cluster bombs, which could then blanket almost fourteen square miles at an average density of one shard every ten square feet. In just one day in the First Gulf War, twenty-eight B-52s dropped about four hundred and seventy tons of explosives on Iraq, enough to devastate approximately sixteen hundred square miles, an area about one-third the size of Connecticut.
The United States military uses another type of bomb, this one “a terrific weapon” with “tremendous destructive power,” according to U.S. General Wesley Clark. It is the BLU-82, also known as the “Daisy Cutter.” This fifteen-thousand-pound bomb, filled with an aqueous mixture of ammonium nitrate, aluminum powder, and polystyrene soap, is so large it can only be launched by rolling it out the rear door of a cargo aircraft, the MC-130 Hercules. The slowness of the cargo plane means Daisy Cutters can only be dropped when there are no defenses, in other words, only on those who are defenseless. (It must be stated that prior to the U.S. attack, the Afghans were not precisely defenseless: their Air Force did have two old planes, which might even have been jets. It must also be stated that in the first days of the attack the Afghan military killed precisely one American soldier, and Afghan prisoners did manage to kill one CIA operative—who was probably “playing smacky face” with them, as the CIA has been known to put it—before they themselves were ultimately blown to bits. Far more U.S. military casualties were caused by so-called friendly fire and a plane wreck.) A parachute opens, then the Daisy Cutter floats toward the Earth. The parachute slows the descent enough to give the transport plane time to get away before the bomb explodes. The bomb detonates just above ground, producing what are called overpressures of one thousand pounds per square inch (overpressure is air pressure over and above normal air pressure: overpressures of just a few pounds are enough to kill people) disintegrating everything and everyone within hundreds of yards, and killing people (and nonhumans) at a range of up to three miles. General Peter Pace, vice-chair of the U.S. joint chiefs of staff, put the purpose clearly: “As you would expect, they make a heck of a bang when they go off and the intent is to kill people.” Marine Corps General Trainor was even more specific about the effect of Daisy Cutters on people in Afghanistan: “Besides the physical degradation, these— along with the regular ordinance dropped from B-52s—provide great psychological punishment, as victims begin to bleed from the eyes, nose, and ears, if they aren’t killed outright, of course. It’s a frightening, awesome assault they’re suffering, and there’s no doubt they’re feeling our wrath.”
Even if the primary target of these bombs were members of the Afghan military (or terrorists, whatever or whomever they may be) those who were killed were mainly just people trying to survive. “We were farmers,” said Kamal Hud-din, after American planes made four passes over Kama Ado, his home village, killing more than half of the three hundred people who lived there. “We were poor people. And we didn’t have any contact with any organizations.” It’s no surprise that people like these—people living in mud huts with straw roofs, using wooden plows to till the soil exactly as their ancestors did—were killed. Colonel John Warden, who planned the air campaign in Iraq, said that dropping any of these bombs I’ve mentioned “is like shooting skeet. Four hundred and ninety-nine out of five hundred pellets may miss the target, but that’s irrelevant.”
So, who dies? I have seen pictures of the dead, dark-haired children laid out on mattresses, hands folded neatly above the last clothes they will ever wear by parents now standing looking downward, eyes red, in the background. The chil-dren’s faces are bloated, and red, too, though not from tears but instead from blood which never seems to finally wash away. The parents’ hands, too, are red where faint traces of their children’s blood remains.
It is not acceptable in the United States to talk about these dead children. The official United States and capitalist media have declared it so. The Chair of CNN, Walter Isaacson, ordered journalists who work for CNN not to focus on the killing of Afghan citizens by the U.S. military, because it “seems perverse to focus too much on the casualties or hardship in Afghanistan.” He went on to admonish his reporters who cover civilian deaths that they should never forget that it is “that country’s leaders who are responsible for the situation Afghanistan is now in,” perhaps forgetting that the same argument could just as easily be used to ignore the dead in this country. The head of standards [sic] for CNN, Rick Davis, followed up his boss’s memo with some suggested language for newscasters to repeat, for example, “We must keep in mind, after seeing reports like this from Taliban-controlled areas, that these U.S. military actions are in response to a terrorist attack that killed close to 5,000 innocent people in the U.S.,” or “We must keep in mind, after seeing reports like this, that the Taliban regime in Afghanistan continues to harbor terrorists who have praised the September 11 attacks that killed close to 5,000 innocent people in the U.S.,” or “The Pentagon has repeatedly stressed that it is trying to minimize civilian casualties in Afghanistan, even as the Taliban regime continues to harbor terrorists who are connected to the September 11 attacks that claimed thousands of innocent lives in the U.S.” Each of these statements could of course be inverted: “We must keep in mind that the capitalist regime in Washington continues to harbor journalists, military leaders, politicians, and CEOs who have put in place and praised
U.S. military and economic policies that kill millions of people annually.”
Not to be outdone, Brit Hume of Fox News Channel recently wondered on air why journalists should bother to cover civilian deaths at all: “The question I have,” Hume said, “is civilian casualties are historically, by definition, a part of war, really. [This is true only under a strict definition of history: as I’ve shown elsewhere, even for many of the warlike indigenous peoples—that is, those who are ahistorical, uncivilized—to kill noncombatants was unthinkable, and even killing combatants was a rarity, an event.] Should they be as big news as they’ve been?” One could, of course, ask the same question of civilian casualties in the United States. Mara Liasson of that bastion of liberal news National Public Radio answered Hume’s question, and went right to the point: “No. Look, war is about killing people. Civilian casualties are unavoidable.” Perhaps following the standards set down by Rick Davis, Liasson made sure to add that what she thought was missing from television coverage was “a message from the U.S. government that says we are trying to minimize them, but the Taliban isn’t, and is putting their tanks in mosques, and themselves among women and children.”
U.S. News & World Report columnist and Fox commentator Michael Barone responded to Hume and Liasson, revealing the wide variety of opinion represented in the corporate media: “I think the real problem here is that this is poor news judgment on the part of some of these news organizations. Civilian casualties are not, as Mara says, news. The fact is that they accompany wars.”
As above, so below. The same avoidance of attention to those killed by the United States happens at smaller news outlets as well. A memo circulated at the Panama City, Florida, News Herald warned editors: “DO NOT USE photos on Page 1A showing civilian casualties from the U.S. war on Afghanistan. Our sister paper in Fort Walton Beach has done so and received hundreds and hundreds of threatening e-mails and the like….DO NOT USE wire stories which lead with civilian casualties from the U.S. war on Afghanistan. They should be mentioned further down in the story. If the story needs rewriting to play down the civilian casualties, DO IT. The only exception is if the U.S. hits an orphanage, school or similar facility and kills scores or hundreds of children.”
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After 9/11, The New York Times took to publishing profiles of people killed in the attack on the World Trade Center. These profiles were syndicated through the country, letting us in on details of the lives of the dead. Thus we learn that one of the dead was an “efficient executive” who “never forgot the attention to spit and polish, in his work or play. ‘It doesn’t shine itself,’ he’d reply when people admired his vintage car.” We learn that another was “mad for Mantle,” and “stubbornly stood by his Yankees, even when his two sons . . . turned out to be Mets fans.” A third, we learn, was a top stockbroker, and a “prankster with a heart” who “would pull up next to you in his Porsche—a 911—flip the bird, grin, and take off in the wind.” A friend from New York said of the profiles, “I smell a Pulitzer.”
Here’s my question: What is the premise (and purpose) of these profiles? The most basic answer is clear, that the dead are individuals worthy of consideration. Or, as someone put it in a letter to the editor, “I appreciate the efforts to humanize the victims. …They deserve to be remembered. They deserve justice.”
Here’s another question that interests me even more: What is the premise (and purpose) of the silence surrounding victims of our way of life? That answer is clear as well, although we do not talk or even think about it.
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Imagine how our discourse and actions would be different if people daily detailed for us the lives—the individuality, the small and large joys and fears and sorrows—of those whom this culture enslaves or kills. Imagine if we gave these victims that honor, that attention. Imagine if everyday newspapers carried an account of each child who starves to death because cities take the resources on which the child’s traditional community has forever depended. She never ran, the article might read, because she never had the energy, but she loved to be tickled, and loved to watch her mother, no matter what her mother did. When her mother carried her in a sling on her back, her large eyes took in every detail of her surroundings. She loved to smile at her neighbors, and smile also at little birds that landed on the ground near her mother’s feet. Imagine if we considered her life as valuable as that of the “efficient executive,” and if we considered violence against her to be as heinous as we consider violence against him.
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Imagine, too, if our discourse included accounts of those nonhumans whose lives this culture makes unspeakably miserable: the billions of creatures bred for torture in feedlot, factory farm, or laboratory; the wild creatures worth money, who are pursued and destroyed no matter where they hide; the wild creatures unvalued by the economic system, who are eliminated because they are in the way of production. Imagine if we spoke of the threespine stickleback, the Miami blue butterfly, white abalone, spectacled eider, southwestern willow flycatcher, Holmgren’s milkvetch, Pacific pocket mouse, individually and collectively. Imagine, finally, if we considered their lives as valuable as our own, and their contribution to the world and to our neighborhoods to be as valuable as that of a stockbroker—or even moreso—even if the stockbroker does drive a Porsche, flip us the bird, and take off in the wind.
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The fourth premise of this book is that civilization is based on a clearly defined and widely accepted yet often unarticulated hierarchy. Violence done by those higher on the hierarchy to those lower is nearly always invisible, that is, unnoticed. When it is noticed, it is fully rationalized. Violence done by those lower on the hierarchy to those higher is unthinkable, and when it does occur it is regarded with shock, horror, and the fetishization of the victims.
This is true when we talk about the acceptability—the expectedness, normality, necessity, even desirability (only when victims force their hand, of course)—of the U.S. military and its proxies killing civilians the world over and the unthinkability of counterattacks in kind. It is true when we talk about the acceptability of routine police violence against civilians and the fetishization of police officers killed on the job (“All gave some, some gave all,” read the bumper stickers, but no one ever mentions, at the huge police funerals or elsewhere, that garbage collection is far more dangerous—with a far higher mortality rate—than police work; and don’t hold your breath waiting for the next Bruce Willis or Tom Cruise action flick about courageous garbage collectors putting their lives on the line to clean up the mean streets of New York or L.A.). This is true when we talk about humans extirpating sharks and other species almost unnoticed while trumpeting the rare cases when sharks or others bite humans (usually when the humans have already either destroyed the creature’s home, backed it into a corner, and/or physically tormented it): despite propaganda from books and movies like Jaws, the ratio of humans slaughtering sharks to sharks even attacking humans is approximately 20 million to one. It is true when we talk about CEOs making decisions that lead to profits for the corporations they run and death for those humans (and nonhumans) they poison, and the victims of these CEOs for some reason refraining from similarly poisoning the CEOs, the politicians who protect them, and the families of both. And it’s true when we talk about more intimate forms of violence, like those perpetrated en masse by men against women and children, and the relative rarity with which the women or children fight back. I wrote a book about the violence that took place within my family when I was a child. The violence was rigidly one-way: my father beat his wife and children with impunity. I remember the only time my brother defended himself by returning a single blow: he received the worst beating of his miserable childhood. Why? Because he had broken a fundamental unstated rule of our family (and of civilization): Violence flows in only one direction.
Continue reading: Part 3