A few weeks ago, one night a day or two after July 4th, I heard, as I had on a number of other days, the sound of a string of exploding firecrackers outside. For whatever reason, the sound triggered in my mind something that’s not too surprising since it’s been in the news a lot lately: the image of someone entering a school or church or workplace, then opening fire on people in order to kill as many of them as possible before the sideshow he’d started came to its demented and familiar end.
It was a quick thought, not one I felt a need to pursue. As with most people, images and soundbites from the media are always popping into my head, then fizzling out. I proceeded to occupy myself with other things.
Now, though, the thought comes back to me, not the firecrackers aspect of the thought, but the fact that these domestic mass killings are so much in the news lately.
However, as much tragedy as these rampages by lone gunmen cause, the truth is that the shooters are minor leaguers when it comes to creating carnage. The deadliest form of mass killing is institutional and often a tactic of control, as with the so-called accidental killings of civilians by the U.S. in our many current conflicts in the Mideast. At first these incidents abroad may indeed seem unintended, but a quick overview of the situation reveals how words like unintended in these circumstances often hide troubling truths.
In late May 2017 in Mosul, Iraq, U.S. forces bombed the wrong site by mistake, killing over 100 noncombatants. A little more than a year afterwards, the U.S. took the lives of fourteen members of an extended family, eleven of them women and children, when it mistakenly bombed a home in northern Afghanistan in July 2018.
Although it’s true that neither the Mosul dead nor the wedding party members killed were intentional targets, their deaths were nonetheless useful to the U.S., that is, they served a function. The deaths kept, as such incidents always do, local populations in a state of panic and uncertainty as the conflicts dragged on.
Such demoralization is an important part of an attacker’s agenda. Therefore, any incident which increases demoralization by pummeling the local population into despair further weakens that populace’s will to resist the intruder. This is why, although the U.S. is theoretically never happy to mistakenly bomb Iraqi, Syrian, Afghanistani, Pakistani, Yemeni, etc. civilians, we continue to do so. In the end, utility wins the day, even if indirectly. Afterward, of course, we often apologize.
The U.S. believes these apologies shield the U.S. from criticism. But how often can you apologize for, or stonewall an investigation into, an illegal bombing or shooting without the strike zones’ inhabitants wondering why these so-called mistakes occur again and again? And make no doubt about it, they do occur again and again. As Tom Engelhardt detailed in an article in The Nation (Dec. 20, 2013), the U.S. bombed at least eight wedding parties in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen from 2001-2013, killing close to 300 people in total, not to mention the number of injured. That’s a lot of mistakes to say we’re sorry for. Nonetheless, we keep flooding the world with our meas culpa. The thrill of apology apparently makes the military, if not the families of the dead, happy.
One of many other examples of this ritual occurred in 2015 when the military apologized for the unintended destruction of a Doctors Without Borders hospital in the city of Kunduz in northern Afghanistan. Along with the building’s demolition, forty-two people died, twenty-four of them patients and the others staff members and caregivers.
Although after investigating itself the U.S. military took responsibility for the deaths, it emphasized, as it routinely does in such situations, that the operation didn’t result in a war crime because “this tragic incident was caused by a combination of human errors, compounded by process and equipment failures.”
Doctors Without Borders President Meinie Nicolai, however, analyzed the situation differently, viewing the combination of mistakes mentioned by the U.S. as itself a serious transgression against the local population. She stated that
Today’s briefing amounts to an admission of an uncontrolled military operation in a densely populated urban area, during which US forces failed to follow the basic laws of war . . . It is incomprehensible that, under the circumstances described by the US, the attack was not called off.
In the end, the military listened only to its own version of the incident, not Nicolai’s or any of the other criticisms from around the world. Its version, therefore, was the one that deluged media offices internationally. Part of the military’s spin included drawing a portrait of the U.S. as a caring superpower. To this end, the Department of Defense (DOD) announced in a press release (Release No: NR-395-15) the U.S.’s intention to support the families of those killed as well as the injured.
The Department of Defense believes it is important to address the consequences of the tragic incident at the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan. One step the Department can take is to make condolence payments to civilian non-combatants injured and the families of civilian non-combatants killed as a result of U.S. military operations.
As Newsweek later reported, condolence payments averaged about $6,000 for the family of someone killed in the bombing and $3,000 for someone crippled or maimed. Not surprisingly, the amounts paid didn’t necessarily fill victims with gratitude. This was especially so given the U.S.’s insistent refusal to heed requests from Doctors Without Borders for an independent investigation into precisely what caused the “accident.” (Moylan, Danielle, “How Much For Your Child? Afghan Condolence Payments Draw Scrutiny,” Newsweek, 4/9/16)
It’s for touchy situations like this that the DOD and the military’s High Command house internal public relations divisions whose job is to rationalize U.S. imperialism and explain away messy situations overseas. Their tactics for doing this are multiple and are often combined in improvisational ways into customized approaches that fit the ups and downs of specific instances.
As the Kunduz hospital bombing shows, a local population’s response to a U.S. apology and/or condolence payments isn’t always positive. Sometimes a U.S. approach even fails entirely and the military is forced to change its tune.
The mass killing that occurred near Raqqa, Syria in 2017 illustrates this.
Initially employing traditional spin, the military painted a positive picture of a U.S. airstrike by reporting it as a successful mission in which thirty ISIS soldiers were killed in an air attack on an otherwise abandoned school building in Raqqa. However, while the U.S. persisted in sticking to this story, pressure on the military to provide greater detail on the incident mounted as evidence gathered at the location by civilians and other nonmilitary actors, including U.N. investigators, began surfacing online and in other media. Eventually, rejecting traditional spin and resorting to a second tactic, the military came clean and admitted what happened. They acknowledged that U.S.-orchestrated air strikes had killed approximately 150 innocent civilians while bombing a school building that since 2012 had been publicly known to house noncombatant refugees from the Syrian conflict.
Unfortunately, even if one wanted to, it’s difficult to conclude that the U.S.’s reversal of its description of events was an outcome of its methodical reevaluation of the incident. In fact, the U.S. got its updated information not on its own but from U.N. investigators who did what the U.S. wasn’t motivated send people to do: they visited and studied the bombing site and also spoke with area residents.
As the investigators wrote in their report (U.N document, “A/HRC/37/72”) —
The Commission conducted 20 interviews with survivors, relatives of victims, rescuers, village residents and individuals on site after the airstrike and concluded that the school had been housing internally displaced families since 2012. Of more than 200 residents in the school, 150 were killed.
That’s approximately three-quarters of the building’s residents dead. The military’s planners completely miscalculated the location to be targeted in the attack. Unfortunately for them, the initial cover story regarding the bombing — i.e., that no civilians but only thirty ISIS combatants were slain — was as full of mistakes as their planning for the mission had been. Hence, the cover story fell apart.
Which is why the U.N.’s report summarized the incident as follows —
Information that residents of the school were internally displaced families, including a large number of women and children, and that the school had been used to shelter internally displaced persons since 2012 should have been readily available to the coalition’s targeting team. The Commission therefore concludes that the international coalition should have known the nature of the target and failed to take all feasible precautions to avoid or minimize incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects, in violation of international humanitarian law. The subsequent investigation conducted by the international coalition should have been able to identify the high number of civilian casualties resulting from this incident.
Being found guilty by the U.N. of a violation of international humanitarian law is no small matter. The deeper issue, however, is the one mentioned earlier: what does the never-ending repetition of such incidents (i.e., their pattern) tell us when we study each individual incident in the context of all the others?
The answer is that what the above examples show isn’t merely a string of unintended attacks on civilians, but evidence of the need to redefine precisely what is meant by unintended. In a world of information overload, doublespeak, and the reorganization of data into manipulative news-tainment packets, it’s always necessary to scuba-dive for meaning beneath the surface of a government’s words.
As Meinie Nicolai of Doctors Without Borders commented about the U.S. bombing of the Kunduz hospital, the very problems the U.S. admitted to — i.e., human errors, process mistakes, etc. — were proof that the U.S., spread too thin in the middle east, was pushing its scaled-back troops and maintenance crews to the brink, thereby making them more error-prone. Simultaneously, a populace back home cranky about lost U.S. lives had persuaded the war’s planners to increasingly employ air strikes as our major fighting mode, which statistically is much safer for our troops but (also statistically) produces a far higher number of civilian deaths than do ground conflicts. It is this context which prompted Nicolai to argue that, regarding the Kunduz hospital bombing, it was “incomprehensible that, under the circumstances described by the US, the attack was not called off.”
But it wasn’t canceled and forty-two people died. If that many people were murdered by a lone gunman in the U.S., the event would receive massive multi-day coverage, but as simply one instance of many such killings of unarmed noncombatants by the U.S. military in Afghanistan (or other countries in the Middle East), it received scant coverage. Even if we claim ignorance concerning why these deaths don’t receive the same coverage as do American deaths, news people know exactly what’s going on, although they don’t necessarily publicize it — it’s about whose lives are important and whose aren’t. Mass-killed Americans get coverage, mass-killed Afghanis don’t.
Nicolai hasn’t been the only one nor the first to make the case that the U.S.’s choices about how to fight in the Middle East — i.e., from the air while on the ground there are only a sparse number of troops — makes excessive civilian fatalities inevitable and therefore built into the plan.
In an Oct. 15, 2008 opinion piece in The Guardian, Seumas Milne wrote scathingly, and correctly, from a similar perspective. He stated resolutely that
while 242 US and Nato ground troops have died in the war with the Taliban this year, not a single pilot has been killed in action. The tradeoff could not be clearer. With troops thin on the ground and the US military up to their necks in Iraq and elsewhere, US and Nato reliance on air attacks minimises their own casualties while guaranteeing that Afghan civilians will die in far larger numbers. It is that equation that makes a nonsense of US and British claims that their civilian victims are accidental “collateral damage”. . . In real life, the escalating civilian death toll is not a mistake, but the result of a clear decision to put the lives of occupation troops before civilians; westerners before Afghans.
As the above examples show, our overseas mass killers supply the nation with an edgy chaos that’s psychopathically hip in a Training Day meets Apocalypse Now sort of way. Meanwhile, although our domestic mass killers get more coverage, they can’t duplicate, no matter how hard they try, their military counterparts’ ability for terror: bombing whole middle eastern populations back to the stone age while randomly killing civilians “accidentally” for the purpose of playing mind games with those who survive.
All of which places us exactly where we already are: in the here and now.
But being in the here and now is itself problematic these days. Understanding why this is so is crucial to grasping why there’s so often such a great gap between our nation’s behavior at the highest levels and what we believe that behavior to be.
So, first things first.
The first thing we must remember is that our current here and now includes an evolution in newscasting in which the news, as strange as this may sound, no longer covers war zones overseas but has instead morphed into being a war zone.
This is to say that no longer is the news presented to us as a series of facts about wars or any other subject, but instead is given to us as a war of words and images over the question of whether or not the alleged facts actually exist and, if they do exist, in what particular arrangement they must be seen in order to be considered “true.” This feuding over how to look at things is dramatized on TV and in newspaper columns by various experts demonizing opposing experts’ opinions in ways reminiscent of reality TV show catfighting.
As an example, think here of the big government hullabaloo made in 2002-2003 about Iraq’s alleged dangerous nuclear potential and its possession of chemical weapons as the White House methodically built public support for invading Iraq. As Pres. Bush and his staff made their case, arguments broke out all over the country as experts representing organizations and institutions with differing political orientations took sides, denouncing each other in efforts to establish themselves as the “real” authority. Soon the carnivalization of the news was complete and in the absence of any methodical public discussion, the inevitable took place. The White House, being the biggest podium in the land, took over and won the day. We invaded.
As we all now know, after the invasion and the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqis, none of the promised weaponry was found because none existed. However, Washington had achieved its goal: the U.S. was in the middle east and it hasn’t left since. Of course, it was also there prior to that, in Afghanistan. But occupying Iraq sealed the deal.
The carnivalization of the news mentioned above has assumed a particular form over the years. Pushed by ever newer technologies, the media has gradually reorganized itself into a constant stream of existainment — i.e., the transformation of existence into an omnipresent reality show with a single mission: to sell. What’s sold is divided into three categories: endless arrays of consumer products, “acceptable” world visions, and a lifestyle highlighted by the self-delusion that one’s opinion matters when it doesn’t.
In such a society, people no longer go to the news to learn anything. They approach it already knowing what they think and so their only interest in it is to watch and cheer as their favorite word-fighters engage in a verbal version of hand-to-hand combat with rivals representing different perspectives. If blood isn’t spilled and a life or two not ruined on any given day, the news for that day is graded as subpar. (“The take at the gladiator arena sucked tonight.”)
We all know how the war is structured. It’s Fox News vs. MSNBC, The Washington Times vs. The New York Times, Rush Limbaugh vs. David Axelrod and so on.
In this 24/7 News War, on any given day the facts selected for discussion are disputed by the pundits in such a way that the pundits themselves (e.g., the experts who appear on news shows, editorial pages, panel discussions, podcasts, etc.) become more important than the facts they debate. They become more important because in a very real sense the facts become secondary to the arguments made about them by those women and men widely perceived to be leading articulators of various political viewpoints — right, left and various gradations of the same.
The entertainment part of the word news-tainment is located precisely in what I’ve just mentioned: in the articulations, stumblings, yellings, meditativeness, putdowns, etc. intrinsic to how today’s news stories are presented. This is the storm that whirls around the particular fact or facts whose meaning we desire to get at. Whether we like it or not, surviving the storm has become the real challenge in the contemporary U.S., not understanding the fact or facts. All media, as we know them today, have coalesced around the principle that more money is to be made via such a circus than by promoting critical analysis or widespread investigative reporting.
The problem is not that debating/arguing about the meaning of facts and events, etc. is intrinsically wrong. It’s not. In fact, it’s part of the dialectical process of discovering meaning. The problem arises when, as is currently the case, the debate’s entertainment dimension is prioritized over concern for a clarification of the issues.
All this is made worse by the fact that our knowledge base about the U.S. and the world was corrupted long before the so-called high tech age began. The corruption I speak of here is the usual one used by nations: mythicizing their history in a way that privileges particular values, population sectors, traditions and so on over others.
What this means for us today in the U.S. is that there’s no stable knowledge base to which we can return as we try to escape existainment’s power over us. If we want such a stable base, we must piece it together ourselves, in part by repairing the problems with the old one and in part by adding new information. The addition of fresh facts, histories, customs and so on must be accomplished by relying on past and current records, not only written ones but oral and image-centered ones as well. All facts must be demythicized as much as possible so they can be seen in their own light.
Since I began this essay with a brief reference to Independence Day, I’ll end it with a few comments about July 4 and the nation’s beginnings.
July 4, as we all know, celebrates our break with Britain. Break, in this instance, of course, means war. Our status as a sovereign nation couldn’t be brought to fruition until we defeated the English on the battlefield.
But there was also a larger context to the war. It was part of, and an important step forward in, the European masses’ struggles in country after country to free themselves from the nobility’s stranglehold on government. Our first U.S. war represented a breakthrough in that regard since our battle to achieve self-rule by seceding from the British Empire entailed first defeating King George III’s armies.
Still, the war wasn’t entirely about freedom. It was also a conflict over the question of which group of whites — i.e., those in the thirteen colonies or the King and his court in Britain — would win the right to decide the best methods for occupying and controlling the continent, that is, to colonize and wield power over it. Whichever party won, one thing was clear: they had no intention of treating the indigenous inhabitants or other people of color (African slaves) as equals. Such peoples were viewed as inferiors and were to be treated accordingly.
Consequently, when the colonies won the war, white supremacy became one of the new nation’s founding principles, a principle that defined the borders of all other principles and laws. Which, simply put, meant that no principle or law that protected people individually or as a group extended beyond the white community into indigenous people’s communities or slave communities. Like India’s dalits (previously called untouchables) who historically were forced — and too often still are — to live outside the borders of the so-called “normal community,” natives and slaves in the U.S. also, although as a result of different tactics than dalits, were marginalized as a type of human who is “outside the normal,” with normal of course being defined here in the U.S. as white.
This division between whites and nonwhites, present at the nation’s beginnings, still continues in many forms today. This is shown in, among other ways, the government’s rolling back of protections for native lands in Standing Rock and Bears’ Ears, and also in its tolerance of a judicial system whose bureaucracies grow fat while feeding off a school-to-prison pipeline which targets black youth, spewing them in epidemic numbers into the nation’s always growing prison system. Sadly, this racism also is shown in the fact that the white left has consistently failed to develop over the years a program or way of organizing that allows for the building of a truly multiracial movement for social-economic change and political revolution.
As the facts show, the traditional view of the July 4th holiday’s meaning is antiquated. It should have been stuffed long ago into an old hatbox covered with dust and cobwebs in somebody’s attic. What we’re left with now are Uncle Sam and Thomas Jefferson bobblehead dolls designed to put a smile on our faces and trigger a national feeling that our lives are well-lived and our nation the greatest ever. The aim of July 4 isn’t for us to think about the holiday’s meaning, it’s that we shouldn’t think at all. The only effort required of us — as with Pavlov’s dogs who salivated when he rang a bell — is for us to foam at the mouth in patriotic ecstasy when the 4th’s fireworks go off. This, supposedly, is the moment we’ve waited for, the split-second when we become the apotheosis of what we are: our nation’s faceless mass, its rowdiest patriots, its warriors for Yankee Doodle Dandy.
At such a moment we belong not only to one nation on one particular day, but to all nations on all days. We are a global phenomenon, a spectacle to behold. Whether traveling into the future to mob together on the National Mall to watch the 2021 presidential inauguration on the U.S Capitol’s west steps or traveling into the past in order to participate in the National Socialist German Workers’ Party’s 1933 Nuremberg Rally (filmed by Hitler’s favorite documentarian, Leni Riefenstahl, as Triumph of the Will), we are the ones always primed, no questions asked, to defend the motherland.
Once we reach this pinnacle, our patriotism test is over and we can step back into real life, stamped by the government as true citizens.
It never stops. History’s on the move. A tidal wave. Do we yield to it or fight to control its energy?
If we want progress, here’s the question we must answer —
How do we go beyond rhetoric to build a mass movement strong enough to withstand attack and bold enough to dethrone capitalism, reinvent human relations and save the planet’s ecology? It’s not sufficient to say we want to do this. We must be the doers who make it happen.
Without big questions, there’s no hope of finding big answers.
Without dedication and hard work, there’s no hope of transforming those answers into what we need most . . . a revolutionary road forward.