The Worst Day of the War?

by Stephen Gowans

March 11, 2002


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"The legitimate object of war is a more perfect peace."
--General of the Army William T. Sherman, 20 July 1865
(Cited in U.S. Foreign Policy Agenda, December 1999, by General Henry H. Shelton, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff)

Three, four, five thousand Afghans dead -- nobody knows the precise figure -- and no tears, no prayers, no photographs of anguished parents, spouses, children, mourning.

And then close to a dozen American GIs are killed, 11 are injured, and newspapers carry the president's picture in prayer, parents of the dead soldiers are shown grieving, pundits wonder whether the deaths will weaken America's resolve to kill more Afghans, or next on America's hit list: Somalis, Iraqis, Iranians, North Koreans.

A dozen American GIs dead and a headline reads, "The worst day of the war."

Thousands of Afghan civilians dead and a headline reads, "President's approval rating soars."

For Rukia the worst day of the war was the day she lost all five of her children. US bombs flattened her Kandahar home, now a pile of rubble, and blood, and bits of shrapnel that tore through flesh. Her children's.

For Haji Khan the war is an endless succession of worst days. "It never ends," he explained, from a Pakistani refugee camp, on the border near Afghanistan. "It was boom, boom, boom, boom, and then boom again. It was like being inside a nightmare. Everyone was crying. There were dead people everywhere." Now he hangs on, fighting off cold, fighting to get enough to eat, so he can live another day, another nightmare, another worst day.

For Bibi Gul, the worst day came the morning she awoke to find Tahir, her two year-old son, stiff, cold and unmoving. He had frozen to death. "The sky is my roof and the earth is my floor," she says bravely, sitting upon an old grey blanket, in a refugee camp near Herat. Bibi Gul is one of 800,000 Afghans who live in the camp. On any given day, 40 people -- the number who succumb to cold and starvation at Bibi Gul's camp alone -- will experience their worst day of the war.

What then are the deaths of seven American GIs by comparison? Everything, we're told.

They're Americans, for one, worth more than the wretched life of a brown-skinned foreigner who's never sung The Star Spangled Banner, or eaten at McDonald's, or grieved over the death of Johnny Span, who became an American hero for dying in a prison uprising he may have touched off himself by threatening to kill bound prisoners of war.

And because American lives matter so much, their deaths could bring the whole war of terror to a grinding halt, where the deaths of thousands of Afghans can't, where the deaths of half a million Iraqi children can't lift sanctions against Iraq, deaths a former Secretary of State called regrettable, but worth it.

After Vietnam, Washington figured out you could kill foreigners with reckless abandon and few would object. Who cares about Rukia and Haji Khan and Bibi Gul? Just make sure Americans aren't killed, and you'd be left to pursue your wars without the inconvenience of marches and an antiwar movement and "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" How many American kids did you kill today? Who gave a shit about Vietnamese kids?

And so, what followed was high-altitude bombing, and Special Forces who advise and train proxy armies but stay away from the action. Foreigners as the grunts. Foreigners as the casualties. Foreigners as the victims. Foreigners to be bulldozed into graves. Foreigners aren't American, so they're not really people, not people Americans need to worry about.

But some do.

For them, there are pundits to rush in, like paramedics to the scene of car crash, to bring relief from that rarest of American afflictions: a conscience. "In Afghanistan, the bombing and killing by US-led foreign forces has enjoyed broad support," writes one newspaper columnist, a moral paramedic.

How does he know? Did he do a survey? Did Rukia or Haji Khan or Bibi Gul support the bombing of their homes? Are they glad they were driven into refugee camps? Are they happy their children were killed? Did he talk to any of them? Or did he base his conclusion on a single photograph, of Afghans lining up to see a movie, for the first time in years? "They look happy. I guess they're in favour of having bombs dropped on their homes, of having their children blown to pieces, or being forced to flee to squalid refugee camps, of boom, boom, boom, that never ends."

"Most Afghans rejoiced to have the brutal Taliban regime smashed," the moral paramedic writes.

Did they? And did they say, "Please, destroy my home, murder my children, take my limbs, drive me into a refugee camp, let me starve"?

"In spite of a public relations drive to prove that the American-installed regime in Kabul is radically different from that of the Taliban," writes journalist John Pilger, "the main changes are a return to a bloody civil war and feudalism and the renewal of the heroin trade. As for the human rights of the long-suffering population, the new government will, like the Taliban, impose sharia Islamic law on its people."

That means there will still be public executions and amputations and hangings. Adulterers will still be stoned to death.

Change? They're still bastards. Only they're America's bastards now. That's all the change that's ever mattered. Not whether they're nice guys, but whether they're America's guys.

Critics say America has become a fascist country. Hyperbole?

Look at American militarism. America has the largest military in history, many times larger than all the countries combined it calls its regional foes. And Washington says the military needs to get bigger still. Money for health care? No. Money for homeless shelters? No. Money for education? No. Money for cluster bombs, and space-based weapons, and antiballistic missile systems that don't work to be used against a threat that doesn't exist? Always.

"And what of American expansionism," they wonder, pointing to US military bases in almost sixty countries, including new bases in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. On any given day before Sept. 11, more than 60,000 American soldiers were conducting operations in almost 100 countries, says the Defense Department. Today, that number is larger (actually closer to 140 countries...and growing.)

And why are they there? To encircle potential threats to American primacy, like Russia and China and Iran, the foreign policy pundits say. To open new markets, and to ensure that open markets remain open, say others. Hitler, who vowed to protect free enterprise as the sole possible economic order, and had thousands of German soldiers operating in other countries to see to it his promise was kept, would have been impressed.

Contempt for democracy? NAFTA and the WTO remove important public decisions from democratic control. The proposed FTAA and an investor's charter of rights promise to tighten the straitjacket. Washington has a long and ugly history of intervening in elections abroad, funding NGO's, destabilizing governments, and ordering coups when sanctions, threats and buying the opposition don't work. And can it really be said that America's democracy is robust when only two parties prevail, and they're virtually indistinguishable in every way except the details?

As for respect for the rule of law, America's leaders say they need no authority other than the authority of having more weapons of mass destruction than any other country, and a proven willingness to use them. The Geneva Convention hasn't deterred Washington from mistreating prisoners at Camp X-Ray, the UN Charter hasn't stopped the Pentagon from bombing Yugoslavia, Sudan, Iraq, and Afghanistan in recent years, and humanitarian law and the customs of war haven't stopped Washington from deliberately destroying civilian infrastructure abroad.

Is not Americans' knee-jerk support for warmonger presidents (we must unthinkingly support the president in times of war) not blind patriotism, also a defining characteristics of fascism? Is lining up behind the "Commander in Chief," submerging doubt, quelling criticism, not eerily reminiscent of Italians lining up behind Il Duce, another commander in chief who bombed a desperately poor country (Ethiopia), drunk with visions of a new Empire, to be achieved by bringing a massive military to bear against an impoverished weakling country? And chants of U.S.A, U.S.A -- do they not evoke memories of a war-besotted people of another time, crying Sieg Heil! Sieg Heil? Deutschland uber alles. America over all. Is there much difference?

And is it not racist to let the deaths of thousands of innocent non-Americans go unremarked upon, and then, on the day seven Americans are killed, to declare that it was the worst day of the war?

Every day of every war is a worst day for someone -- not only Americans.

But almost always it's the worst day for someone who didn't ask for the war, didn't want the war, won't profit from it, and isn't a soldier, or a shareholder of Boeing, or an oil company executive, or a Pentagon planner or a newspaper columnist who scribbles lies to beat the drums of the war. Usually it's a peasant, brown skinned mostly, whose death means no more to most Americans than the death of a fly, or an ant, trampled under foot, anonymous, unseen, unremarked upon, and never mourned, not in America.

Instead, these deaths, the deaths of non-Americans who don't matter, can't matter, because they're not American, are collateral damage. Oops, sorry. Didn't mean to splatter the content of your children's thoracic cavity across the room. Didn't mean to splatter blood on the walls of your ramshackle house. Didn't mean to leave you homeless. Didn't mean to drive you insane with the relentless boom, boom, boom. Didn't mean to destroy your only source of potable water. Didn't mean to bomb your hospital, and your Red Cross warehouse. Didn't mean to drive you into a refugee camp where you can't get enough to eat and never seem to be warm enough. We didn't mean it. We never do. That's what makes us different from the terrorists. There's no moral equivalence here. No. Couldn't be. We're Americans.

We have the worst days of the war.


Letter to the Editor (March 12, 2002)


Stephen Gowans is a writer and political activist who lives in Ottawa, Canada.

Please, DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work without the expressed written authorization of Swans, which will seek permission from the author. This material is copyrighted, © Stephen Gowans 2002. All rights reserved.

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Published March 11, 2002 (updated March 25, 2002)
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