Swans Commentary » swans.com June 29, 2009  



Murder From Above


by Martin Murie





(Swans - June 29, 2009)   "War is Terrorism" puts war in a special file, separate from "Just Wars" and other euphemisms that strike me as pacifiers -- abstract bones for us to chew on. Tiziano Terzani's collection of letters, each of which is a treasure trove, goes even further: "Killing under all circumstances is murder."

I have read two letters so far, Letter From The Himalayas, written in Florence in December 2002, and Letter From Kabul. What is great about these letters? They are well-written, with passion and without that terrible downer: Hopeless, Get Used To It.

Terzani is an Italian, not an embedded journalist. He is a freelancer, reporting for Der Speigel. He surveys Kabul and its destruction and the Himalayas where he "can look at (them) without feeling I have to climb them. When I was young I'd have wanted to conquer them. Now I can let them conquer me."

These are fine opening lines, setting the stage for a gradual assent, word-step by word-step, to where he can say that "A society gains much more strength by its moral resolution than it does by acquiring new weapons," and, finally, the climax: "these are days in which it's still possible to do something. So let's do it, sometimes on our own, sometimes all together. It's an opportunity."

In his weeks in Kabul, capital of Afghanistan, in the first horrors of the war and carpet-bombing, Terzani is overcome by destruction and the roar of military planes carrying bombs to new sites. The destruction is by sophisticated murder from above by the latest entry in the Empire business, our own nation, America. Terzani knows his history, delves into millennia past. Afghanistan has been a crossroads of trade and armies and it has had its years of peace and beauty.

The valley traversed by a river on whose banks Kabul itself was built; Kabul, the city of which a poet once wrote, in a play on the two Persian syllables which make up its name: "My home? here is my home: a drop of dew amid the petals of a rose." The old bazaar of the Four Arcades, where they used to say you can find every object made by nature or human skill. The mosque of Puli-i-Khisti. The mausoleum of Timur Shah. The sanctuary of the King of Two Swords, built in honor of the first Muslim commander who, according to the legend, had his head cut off in battle in the seventh century A.D. but fought on regardless with a weapon in each hand, so determined was he to impose Islam, the new, aggressive religion recently founded in Arabia, on a population that for more than a thousand years had been happily Hindu or Buddhist.

He investigates the strike on Al Jazeera's headquarters, finds that it was not a mistake; it was a deliberate selection of target in a street where all houses look alike, no military contrivance anywhere near.

He looks at the mountains, but is not at peace. "I can't enjoy it, because I've never felt the stupidity of the fate to which man has devoted himself as keenly as I do when I look out of these dusty windows."

In no way can Kabul still be called a city. It's a teeming anthill of human misery, an immense dusty cemetery. Everything is dust, and more and more I get the feeling that this dust which constantly blackens my hands, fills my nose and enters my lungs is all that remains of the bones, the palaces, the houses, the parks, the flowers and the trees which made this valley a paradise." (1)

Scene after scene of dust and destruction, from the time of Mongol hordes to the surge of United States military.

Chris Hedges speaks even more plainly.

The bodies of dozens, perhaps well over a hundred, women, children and men, their corpses blown into bits of human flesh by iron fragmentation bombs dropped by US warplanes in a village in the western province of Farah, illustrates the futility of the Afghan war. We are not delivering democracy or liberation or development. We are delivering massive sophisticated forms of industrial slaughter. And because we have employed the blunt and horrible instrument of war in a land we know little about and are incapable of reading, we embody the barbarism we claim to be seeking to defeat. (2)

Once in a while mainstream media tally the dead American fighters. They steer away from the wounded. It's from the dead and the wounded that we must go to, in all humility, for truth about war -- not embedded journalists. Once you have seen your comrades die, it's a haunting lodged in your brain, set to pounce.

When I walked away from combat for the last time I happened to look up at chestnut trees on the high ridge connected to the high ground that we had taken, with the usual cost. I heard those trees say, "We had no part in this." Sounds like hallucination, and it is, but war is that way, total stupidity and craziness. I did hear those trees. I joined two other walking woundeds and we came to a pipe gushing water and stopped to take sulfa tablets and by then the night had taken us back to relative sanity.

It is not combat memories alone that drive veterans to take the path of peace, take to the streets, join the Grannies, one of whom is still active though dying of cancer. It is being on the ground or on the sea, wherever the newest war play grinds on, learning the hypocrisy, the lies, the evasions, the shame. Veterans For Peace, in contact with other veteran outfits working against war, took up the phrase, "Death From Above," which means missiles, bomblets, and bombs from on high, whether piloted by a human or not. The latest "Death From Above" are Predator and Reaper, fully operational drones guided to their targets by operators in an air base in Nevada. If you don't know who you are killing and who is killing your comrades, is it murder? It is.

Listen to a mother, Cindy Sheehan.

As the plane was on the approach to John Wayne airport, the Captain came on the intercom to remind us all to "remember our brave troops who have died for our freedom." Even in this post 9-11 paranoid paradigm, if I wasn't belted in for landing, I would have popped out of my seat at 13D and charged up to the cockpit to let the pilot know that my son was killed in Iraq and not one person anywhere in this world is one iota more free because he is dead. (3)

I don't believe that peace agreements, even the grand founding of the United Nations, lead to the next war. That is superficial reasoning. Behind the wars and the truces lie the systems of empire that we don't like to examine because that gets us into home territory where we discover that greed for profit and power guides the schemes of empire.

What can we do? asks Tiziano Terzani. He suggests in the strongest way he can that together we can do thousands of things. I suggest that one of those things is learn the art of the politically impossible. The art of the politically possible is what guides our leaders, including that clever craftsman, Barack Obama. We have to get over slavish loyalty keeping us caged in a box canyon so cleverly designed by our corporate culture. We can up the ante, dare the art of impossibility. Is there a little crack in that canyon? Of course there is. Let's find it. Si, se puede. We can do it.

Or, we can wait, watch Reaper and Predator kill from above, and kill again, terrorize villages, build high the body count. For what purpose? Ask Cindy Sheehan.



1.  See Swans complete posting of "Letters Against The War," Swans.com, September 8, 2008 (republished June 1, 2009).  (back)

2.  Chris Hedges writes a regular column for Truthdig.com. He was for nearly two decades a foreign correspondent for The New York Times. His new book, Empire Of Illusion: The End Of Literacy And The Triumph of Spectacle, will be available in July of this year.  (back)

3.  Cindy Sheehan, on her way to Orange County from Sacramento to attend the al-Awda Conference, a Palestinian Rights gathering.  (back)


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Published June 29, 2009