War Without Outrage

We are more than five years in to the American War in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan, where Canadian soldiers are dying,  has raged longer, with no end in sight.   Yesterday, Canada lost another young boy who was soldiering for “us” near Kandahar.  An unknown number of Afghan civilians died as well:

Canada suffered another loss in the grinding war against Taliban bombers yesterday with the death of a soldier in an explosion. The blast came only hours after the military claimed a victory with the killing of an insurgent suspected of masterminding deadly bomb attacks on Canadians.

The flurry of violence on Boxing Day serves as a window on the insurgents’ winter campaign of bombings and the struggle by Canadian intelligence operatives to break the secretive cells of militants who plant the explosives.

The latest blast killed a Canadian soldier and injured three others around 12:45 p.m. local time in Zhari district, about 24 kilometres west of Kandahar city. It happened roughly a dozen kilometres from the stretch of highway where six other Canadians were killed in separate blasts earlier this month.

The man believed responsible for the earlier bombings, known as Shahir Sahib, died earlier in the day as U.S. forces swept into compounds further west of the city during an overnight raid in Maywand district, according to a military statement.

But the raid ignited an angry protest on the main highway later in the afternoon, with local villagers burning tires and blocking the road for three hours, claiming that innocent people were killed in the attack. They also protested against the disappearance of a woman who they mistakenly believed had been detained. The crowd later dispersed after tribal elders explained that the woman had only been taken away for medical treatment.

At one point, witnesses described the unruly mob swelling into a crowd of hundreds and preparing to charge the heavily guarded barricades of Maywand District Centre, the main government outpost in the rebellious district.

Ustad Abdul Halim, an influential tribal leader, said Kandahar’s governor and intelligence chief called him half a dozen times, urgently asking him to help stop the unrest.

The chain-smoking former mujahedeen commander summarized the chaotic events with a simple phrase: “It’s a very bloody day.”

Few details have been released about the Canadian killed yesterday.

The military has told the soldier’s family about the death, and the family has requested a short delay before the name and personal details are publicized.

Helicopters took the three wounded soldiers to a military hospital at Kandahar Air Field, and all of them were listed in good condition last night.

The number of bombings in the districts west of the city has climbed sharply in recent weeks as the cold weather discourages large groups of insurgents from roaming the countryside and the Taliban shift toward attacks that require less manpower.

Unlike other recent bombings, the latest occurred away from the main routes. It appears the Canadians were travelling off-road, a common tactic to avoid Taliban bombs. The dusty flatlands near particularly dangerous stretches of highway are often carved up with dozens of tire tracks as the Canadians try to steer their vehicles along new paths in hopes of missing any buried explosives.

But such tactics have limits; Canadian officials have repeatedly said that better armour and the latest bomb-detecting technology will not keep soldiers completely safe from the bombers, who only adapt to new techniques.

Instead, the Canadians have recently focused on collecting tips and forensic evidence to target the bombers themselves. The military’s claim of success at finding a senior insurgent who planned the recent attacks on Canadian troops – in two blasts, on Dec. 5 and Dec. 13, near the town of Senjaray – is highly unusual because such operations are usually kept secret.

No Canadian soldiers were involved in the raid itself. A U.S. military statement said coalition forces approached a group of compounds about 75 kilometres west of Kandahar city and loudly called on the occupants to surrender peacefully.

“Disregarding these instructions, militants barricaded inside the compounds opened fire on the force using PKM machine guns and AK-47s,” the U.S. statement said.

The soldiers waited until women and children had left the compound before retaliating, the statement said. The battle finished with 11 men killed and one injured woman, who was transported to hospital. She was suffering shrapnel wounds in her leg and is expected to fully recover.

“No martyrs here, just militants who put down roadside bombs that kill innocent Afghans,” the U.S. statement said.

But local villagers said a child was killed and two other women injured and suggested that the U.S. troops had been tricked by a local man into targeting the houses as part of an ongoing feud. The owner of a house targeted in the raid, Nazar Mohammed, had a violent disagreement with his brother-in-law after a recent marriage.

This likely resulted in the tip-off about Taliban activity in the area, according to the group of disgruntled tribesmen who gathered yesterday at Mr. Halim’s house on the west side of Kandahar city.

At the flaming roadblocks farther west on the highway, young men yelled slogans against the foreign troops.

“We will help the Taliban fight and remove the infidels from our area,” one protester said. “The Americans came to kill the ordinary people, not the Taliban.”

Victory?  Defeat?  The words will always be meaningless in Afghanistan (and Iraq as well).

I had to change the word “Kandahar” after I first named the place, above.  The first time round, I said Vietnam.

I was thirteen-years old when I started reading about that war on the front pages of  the Globe and Mail on cold mornings while I ate my toast and peanut butter.  It made me so angry.  In those days, it was possible for us to actually see the destruction done to the countryside in Vietnam, to see the burned villages and fleeing civilians, to see the bodybags holding the bodies of young boys soldiering for something-or-other in that country.  I wonder if that’s what sparked the moral outrage in my heart and soul.  I wonder if I have some sort of flashback to that when I hear of the deaths and maimings and destruction of the social, cultural fabric in Iraq and Afghanistan.  I wonder that partly because I know the outrage doesn’t come from any similar pictures on my evening news or in my daily newspaper – there are none.  Just supposedly evocative stuff like this:


It’s a sad and lonely picture beneath the news of the death of another Canadian soldier, but it doesn’t evoke carnage.  We see none of that from these blacked out war zones.  We don’t live with the blood and the shattered bones.

Is that why the world hasn’t gone, isn’t going, absolutely mad with rage and outrage over these immoral and illegal wars?  I had something in those terrible years of the Vietnam War that I don’t have now.  A whole community that was aware and against and angry and out in the streets letting their voices be heard.  Of course, there was also the draft.  Even I, living in little Willowdale, Ontario knew a kid from Gary, Indiana who had his draft card.  I had cousins in California who might have been drafted any day.  Was it because most of us knew someone who had gone or would go that we were afraid for them, so afraid that we needed a damn good reason for the bodies and lives wasted and when we didn’t get it, we just weren’t going to shut up about it? 

Maybe.  I do know that what I’m missing is the community of the outraged.  I know they’re out there, I read what they write, I donate to the peace organizations.  There’s still the feeling that everyone’s so damn far away.  I want to be out in the streets with everyone, shouting.  I want someone to hear the outrage.  I want someone physically close to express it with.  To some extent, I still don’t really understand why it’s not there.  Maybe I’m not interested in understanding.

Playright Harold Pinter, who died yesterday, thought he understood something about  it.

From his Nobel Laureate speech in 2005, Art, Truth and Politics:

… The United States no longer… sees any point in being reticent or even devious. It puts its cards on the table without fear or favour. It quite simply doesn’t give a damn about the United Nations, international law or critical dissent, which it regards as impotent and irrelevant.

It also has its own bleating little lamb tagging behind it on a lead, the pathetic and supine Great Britain.

What has happened to our moral sensibility? Did we ever have any? What do these words mean? Do they refer to a term very rarely employed these days – conscience? A conscience to do not only with our own acts but to do with our shared responsibility in the acts of others? Is all this dead?

Look at Guantanamo Bay. Hundreds of people detained without charge for over three years, with no legal representation or due process, technically detained forever. This totally illegitimate structure is maintained in defiance of the Geneva Convention. It is not only tolerated but hardly thought about by what’s called the ‘international community’. This criminal outrage is being committed by a country, which declares itself to be ‘the leader of the free world’. Do we think about the inhabitants of Guantanamo Bay? What does the media say about them? They pop up occasionally – a small item on page six. They have been consigned to a no man’s land from which indeed they may never return. At present many are on hunger strike, being force-fed, including British residents. No niceties in these force-feeding procedures. No sedative or anesthetic. Just a tube stuck up your nose and into your throat. You vomit blood. This is torture.

What has the British Foreign Secretary said about this? Nothing. What has the British Prime Minister said about this? Nothing. Why not? Because the United States has said: to criticise our conduct in Guantanamo Bay constitutes an unfriendly act. You’re either with us or against us. So Blair shuts up.

The invasion of Iraq was a bandit act, an act of blatant state terrorism, demonstrating absolute contempt for the concept of international law. The invasion was an arbitrary military action inspired by a series of lies upon lies and gross manipulation of the media and therefore of the public; an act intended to consolidate American military and economic control of the Middle East masquerading – as a last resort – all other justifications having failed to justify themselves – as liberation. A formidable assertion of military force responsible for the death and mutilation of thousands and thousands of innocent people.

We have brought torture, cluster bombs, depleted uranium, innumerable acts of random murder, misery, degradation and death to the Iraqi people and call it ‘bringing freedom and democracy to the Middle East’.

How many people do you have to kill before you qualify to be described as a mass murderer and a war criminal? One hundred thousand?

More than enough, I would have thought. Therefore it is just that Bush and Blair be arraigned before the International Criminal Court of Justice. But Bush has been clever. He has not ratified the International Criminal Court of Justice. Therefore if any American soldier or for that matter politician finds himself in the dock Bush has warned that he will send in the marines. But Tony Blair has ratified the Court and is therefore available for prosecution. We can let the Court have his address if they’re interested. It is Number 10, Downing Street, London.

Death in this context is irrelevant. Both Bush and Blair place death well away on the back burner. At least 100,000 Iraqis were killed by American bombs and missiles before the Iraq insurgency began. These people are of no moment. Their deaths don’t exist. They are blank. They are not even recorded as being dead. ‘We don’t do body counts,’ said the American general Tommy Franks.

Early in the invasion there was a photograph published on the front page of British newspapers of Tony Blair kissing the cheek of a little Iraqi boy. ‘A grateful child,’ said the caption. A few days later there was a story and photograph, on an inside page, of another four-year-old boy with no arms. His family had been blown up by a missile. He was the only survivor. ‘When do I get my arms back?’ he asked. The story was dropped. Well, Tony Blair wasn’t holding him in his arms, nor the body of any other mutilated child, nor the body of any bloody corpse. Blood is dirty. It dirties your shirt and tie when you’re making a sincere speech on television.

The 2,000 American dead are an embarrassment. They are transported to their graves in the dark. Funerals are unobtrusive, out of harm’s way. The mutilated rot in their beds, some for the rest of their lives. So the dead and the mutilated both rot, in different kinds of graves.

I have said earlier that the United States is now totally frank about putting its cards on the table. That is the case. Its official declared policy is now defined as ‘full spectrum dominance’. That is not my term, it is theirs. ‘Full spectrum dominance’ means control of land, sea, air and space and all attendant resources.

The United States now occupies 702 military installations throughout the world in 132 countries, with the honourable exception of Sweden, of course. We don’t quite know how they got there but they are there all right.

The United States possesses 8,000 active and operational nuclear warheads. Two thousand are on hair trigger alert, ready to be launched with 15 minutes warning. It is developing new systems of nuclear force, known as bunker busters. The British, ever cooperative, are intending to replace their own nuclear missile, Trident. Who, I wonder, are they aiming at? Osama bin Laden? You? Me? Joe Dokes? China? Paris? Who knows? What we do know is that this infantile insanity – the possession and threatened use of nuclear weapons – is at the heart of present American political philosophy. We must remind ourselves that the United States is on a permanent military footing and shows no sign of relaxing it.

Many thousands, if not millions, of people in the United States itself are demonstrably sickened, shamed and angered by their government’s actions, but as things stand they are not a coherent political force – yet. But the anxiety, uncertainty and fear which we can see growing daily in the United States is unlikely to diminish.

I know that President Bush has many extremely competent speech writers but I would like to volunteer for the job myself. I propose the following short address which he can make on television to the nation. I see him grave, hair carefully combed, serious, winning, sincere, often beguiling, sometimes employing a wry smile, curiously attractive, a man’s man.

‘God is good. God is great. God is good. My God is good. Bin Laden’s God is bad. His is a bad God. Saddam’s God was bad, except he didn’t have one. He was a barbarian. We are not barbarians. We don’t chop people’s heads off. We believe in freedom. So does God. I am not a barbarian. I am the democratically elected leader of a freedom-loving democracy. We are a compassionate society. We give compassionate electrocution and compassionate lethal injection. We are a great nation. I am not a dictator. He is. I am not a barbarian. He is. And he is. They all are. I possess moral authority. You see this fist? This is my moral authority. And don’t you forget it.  [Globe & Mail}

I have a fist too.  It used to be held in the air and often, opened in the “V” of peace.  I wish I could think of something to do with it.

Rest in peace Harold Pinter, artist, man of conscience.  We need to hear more voices like yours.  Or I do.

An Wright on Pinter at CommonDreams

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