Sunday, October 21, 2007

"Killing" the myth

Sometimes I regret my stubborn refusal to connect my television to the cable outlet. I worried Ken Burns’ 7-part documentary “The War” would stir a patriotic nostalgia for the last "good war". As an antiwar activist I felt I was shirking a responsibility to analyze and debate the effects it may have on the public’s mood about George Bush’s war in Iraq.

In August I read a Cape Cod Times column by Sean Gonsalves that seemed to express a similar anxiety: “One soldier's story I hope is represented in Burns' project is the kind offered by WWII vet Edward W. Wood Jr. in a book titled Worshipping the Myths of World War II: Reflections on America's Dedication to War.

I finally found the book during a visit to the lower 48. A few weeks past before I found the time to begin reading it, but it only took Part 1 – The First Myth – “The Good War” to understand why it impressed Gonsalves so much.

At least to this point, Wood doesn’t deliver a litany of facts as an intellectual challenge to the myth. Instead, he took me on a journey to his philosophical conviction intensely grounded in his brief combat experience and the severe wounds he suffered.

He doesn’t pretend to have been engaged in an objective study of his subject. But it’s not a case of selective research either, of fixing the facts to fit the argument. Rather, he gives the impression that he’s being led by his soul’s intuitive sense of purpose, as if his entire life was supposed to be dedicated to revealing to us all what war really means. “It is time, I think, to deal with what the word “killing” really means in combat”, he tells me.

It is this word that does the work for him. It appears so often in the text, in so many variant forms yet always revealing the same repulsive ugliness that it seeps into the core of my being. His mission is clear. He’s not intending to be savvy and tactful at all.

Once in his grip, my thoughts were transformed. I was no longer the curious reader in search of evidence to add to the layers already accumulated that support my anti-war position. I became fixated on killing just as he intended. The word war itself lost its abstract identity as an armed conflict between states. Death’s whisper gave into the loud blast of gunfire and explosions leaving the landscape in my mind a virtual killing field littered with bodies, in some cases, “blown into small parts by artillery fire”.

I don’t ever want to know firsthand “what the word “killing” really means in combat”, but Wood made me feel like I’ve tried to cheat by imagining I was intelligent and passionate in my antiwar views. I realized it’s his time to talk about killing with a force that goes beyond merely disturbing, and it was my time to listen whether I liked it or not.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Torturous silence toward collateral damage

The news is once again abuzz with the Bush administration’s inhumane treatment of detainees. The interrogation techniques that amount to torture were apparently approved in secretly prepared legal opinions almost three years ago. Democrats and a few Republicans in Congress and some of the mainstream news media are in an uproar. But is it the practice or secrecy that has most of them upset, or the damage to the country’s reputation?

While there is no excuse for torturing any POW or so-called enemy combatant, it seems that the controversy is really a puff of moral blindness. While America in all likelihood continues to detain and mistreat many Iraqis and men of Muslim faith on suspicion alone, no one in Congress ever cries out in horror when US airstrikes reportedly kill civilians.

Last weekend, the LA Times published a story under the headline ““3 U.S. troops killed in Iraq bombings””. While the report immediately describes how that they were killed by roadside bombs, the report provides more information on the disputed effect of a US airstrike on the village of Jizan Imam. The US military claims it killed 25 militiamen, while some local Iraqi officials say most of the dead were innocent civilians.

The first thing apparent in the article is that the death of US soldiers is the issue of primary concern to the American public. That focus serves as the justification for the air strikes that followed. It’s as if to say that military retaliation, executed with a disproportionate use of force, is entirely appropriate when we lose a few of our own.

Then it typical fashion it dismisses the disagreement by stating that it’s “common for U.S. and Iraqi officials to have conflicting accounts of military raids. U.S. military officials say they fire only on known or suspected threats, but Iraqis say the Americans often strafe buildings occupied by civilians, causing casualties.”

There is no call for an investigation and rarely has there been. US reporters take their cue from the military spokespeople while safely nestled in the green zone. Unquestioned trust by Congress is awarded to the military commanders. The Iraqi officials are summarily dismissed like they are mere op/ed writers with a differing viewpoint.

What does this have to do with torture? It seems that Congress believes legislation intended to prohibit "cruel, inhuman and degrading" treatment only applies to individuals detained during or in relation to armed conflict. Meanwhile, the relatively routine killing of innocent civilians by “accident” isn’t cruel or inhuman, nor degrading to the survivors of our attacks whose lives, in a bizarre irony, might be imagined as accidentally being spared.

In this light, the outcry over the administration’s policies permitting torture of some detainees is absurd. Accepting the military command’s report that only armed fighters were killed is the same as allowing Bush to have the final word when he says “This government does not torture people.”

The Democrats have no right to seek any moral high ground on torture. The far more serious war crime is hidden under the benign label of “collateral damage” that Congress and the news media refuses to discuss.

by Rich in Juneau