Pillar Of His Community, Destroyer Of Others

by Stephen Gowans

June 17, 2002


Young, fit, his hair closely cropped, he strode from the church, his family's Bible nestled under his left arm.

His lawyer says he's haunted nightly.

"Every time he goes to bed, he knows that he killed people on our side." (1)

A one time NCAA star soccer player, he joined the Navy, and became an instructor at the elite TOPGUN fighter school. He flew over 100 combat missions. Highly respected in his job. Highly respected in his community.

And then on April 17th, stationed in Kuwait with the Illinois Air National Guard's 183rd Fighter Wing, it all went wrong. Piloting his F-16 -- better at putting bombs on target than F-18s, he once told a military newsletter -- he came under hostile fire over Afghanistan. Or so he thought.

He was just south of Kandahar. So were four Canadian soldiers, members of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light infantry, under US command in George Bush Jr.'s war on terrorism. The Canadians were taking part in a live fire exercise, with US troops.

He let loose his bombs. The four Canadians didn't have a chance. Blown apart, they became casualties of friendly fire.

The reaction in Canada to the pilot's blunder was swift. Outrage. President Bush seemed to slough it off. Didn't apologize. That infuriated Canadians even more. Some called for Canada's immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan. Four dead Canadians seemed too much.

And yet, surely there were Afghans who had nothing whatever to do with al-Qaeda or the Taliban or 9/11, who died in exactly the same way the four Canadian soldiers died -- bombed from the sky, by an F-16, piloted by a fit, trim man, who read the Bible and went to church. And yet nobody said anything of them. Canadian reporters didn't knock on the doors of family members and ask for their reaction. The grieving of mothers, fathers, wives, children, wasn't meticulously laid out, in photo spreads, before the nation's eyes. There were no elaborate funerals, no letters to the editor, no sombre ceremonies. No one called the victims heroes, for having their limbs ripped from their bodies, for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Instead, there was silence. A callous, "Oh well, that's what happens in war," silence.

One wonders. The fit man, with the closely cropped hair: Is he haunted by the Afghans he killed from above, from an F-16 that's better at putting bombs on target than an F-18 ? Or is it only the deaths of Canadians that make him turn to his Bible for solace, to make sense of the tragedy? And if so, why?

Because the Canadians were on our side?

But this matter of who is, and who isn't, on our side, or what our side is, is tricky.

Was Bibi Gul, who's been through years of civil war and famine and never had a moment for the Taliban or Osama bin Laden's followers, on the other side? She fled her home in Kandahar, after it was destroyed by US bombs. She lives now -- struggles to survive, really -- in a refugee camp in Pakistan. Her five year old son died months ago, of cold and hunger. Whose side is she on? Whose side was her son on?

Is the Bush administration on our side? Pressing a military into service to root out terrorism has never worked. It hasn't worked in Ireland. It hasn't worked in Palestine. And it didn't work in Serbia, when the Nazis tried to stamp out the Partisans' terrorism. If anything, it only made matters worse. And yet, the Bush administration pursues a strategy history says is a spectacular failure?

And soon after 9/11, when airlines were reeling, who did the Bush administration bail out? Not the employees, who lost their jobs in the thousands, but the airline's owners and shareholders. Whose side is the president on?

And apart from the question of whose side who is on, what of equivalence? If the deaths of four Canadians is a tragedy, what are the deaths of thousands of Afghan civilians, equally as innocent of terrorism against the United States as the Canadian soldiers were, if not a tragedy of an even greater magnitude? And what of the tens of thousands of other Afghans who have died because food relief was disrupted, or because they've been driven into filthy refugee camps, stalked by death from cold, hunger and disease -- is that not also a tragedy?

One can empathize with a pilot whose blunder has had such a tragic denouement, but how is the killing of four innocent Canadian soldiers any different than the killing of innocent Afghan civilians, except that more innocent Afghans have been killed, and the Afghans are of the wrong tribe -- part of the faceless, nameless, throng of the world's poor, that North Americans barely acknowledge, and barely know exist?

Morality doesn't reduce to treating members of your own tribe -- Americans, Canadians, people from the West -- as human, and everyone else as "people shit happens to, and, oh well, that's life, and they probably deserved it anyway."

I wonder, as the pilot sits in church, his bible clutched between hands that are more at ease on a joy stick and a trigger, after he's been thanked by his neighbors for doing his part to protect Americans, I wonder whether he thinks of Bibi Gul, and her five year old son, who threatened not a single American. And does he think of all the other innocents, apart from the Canadians, whose threat to Americans was equally nil, whose lives he's also destroyed?

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1.  Glen McGregor, "F16 pilot haunted nightly," The Ottawa Citizen, June 10, 2002  (back)


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

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Published June 17, 2002
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