Al (I’m in charge now) Haig, cracked fixture in various former cabinets, described those who would worry about civilian casualties that would inevitably follow massive US retaliation for Tuesday’s terrorist attacks on New York and Washington as led by a “misguided sense of social justice.” Not to be outdone in self-righteous callousness, arch-conservative Bill Bennett urged George W. Bush to order massive counter-strikes against countries associated with Muslim terrorist groups, even if it means massive civilian casualties. “They did this, they asked for it and they should get it,” he thundered. Senator Zell Miller, a Georgia Democrat, railed, “Bomb the hell out of them. If there’s collateral damage, so be it. They certainly found our civilians to be expendable.”
Compare Haig’s and Bennett’s and Miller’s willingness to pulverize civilians to get at the perpetrators with this: Civilians “are not exonerated from responsibility, because they chose this government and voted for it despite their knowledge of its crimes.”
These words, barely distinguishable from Haig’s, Bennett’s and Miller’s — and Bush’s, if you recall that the president pledged to make no distinction between the terrorists and those who harbor them — were spoken by the prime suspect in the terrorist attacks, Osama bin Laden.
Bin Laden, graduate of the CIA terrorist training school, has an answer for the ordinary Americans who dumbfoundedly wrestle with the monstrosity of killing civilians. “How could anyone do this?” they ask, profoundly troubled. Bin Laden points to the massive civilian casualties in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the tens of thousands of civilians massacred in American strikes against Middle Eastern targets. Americans and their governments have never had any qualms about destroying civilians, he explains. His unspoken question: “Why should I care about civilian casualties? America doesn’t.”
Responding to an objection that the people in New York had nothing to do with U.S. foreign policy, Aleksandar, an owner of a shop in central Belgrade, said: “I had nothing to do with Milosevic’s policy either, but the Americans bombed me.” Aleksander doesn’t feel much sympathy for the victims of Tuesday’s attacks.
All of them, Haig, Bennett, Miller, Bush and bin Laden — even Aleksandar — are saying the same thing: Civilian casualties don’t matter: Not when you’re avenging past wrongs.
Someone likened the US to an elephant stumbling into a nest of fire ants — a nest of well-trained, combat-ready, fanatical fire ants, emboldened by a succession of successes in toppling governments throughout the world. Fire ants the United States itself painstakingly nurtured and set loose. Like Dr. Frankenstien’s monster, this one has turned on its master.
You might as well call Zbigniew Brezinski Dr. Frankenstien. Brezinski, national security advisor to Jimmy Carter, engineered the Mujahideen war in Afghanistan. His aim: to draw the Soviets into their own Vietnam, hastening the former superpower’s demise. The plan worked. The Soviets, bogged down, eventually slunk away, tail between its legs, licking its wounds, the wasted lives of countless young Soviets littering the retreat. Soon after, the Soviet Union collapsed. Bin Laden, and a number of young militants, were emboldened. It “cleared from Muslim minds the myth of superpowers,” he recalled. And that had a terrible implication for American triumphalists: “The youth ceased…seeing America as a superpower,” explained bin Laden.
Said Brezinski: “What was more important in the worldview of history? The Taliban or the fall of the Soviet Empire? A few stirred-up Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?”
I wonder if Brezinski would ask the question differently now.
With the Soviet Union out of the way, American interventionism became bolder. The Gulf War, billed by George Bush Sr. as a war to defend international law, led to countless civilian deaths (unfortunate collateral damage), an ongoing economic blockade of Iraq that’s ushered over a million Iraqi civilians into early graves (more collateral damage, but “worth it” according to former Secretary of State Madeline Albright), and a US military presence in Saudi Arabia. It’s that presence that may have ultimately led to hijacked jetliners plowing into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon.
Bin Laden rails against Saudi Arabia’s decision to let US troops stay after the Gulf War. “Allah ordered us in this religion to purify Muslim land of all non-believers, and especially the Arabian Peninsula,” says bin Laden. He wants the US out of the peninsula. It’s doubtlessly a matter of supreme indifference to ordinary Americans whether US troops are stationed in Saudi Arabia or not. Indeed, no one asked them. And no one ever will. But Americans are paying the price.
As they always do in times of crisis, Americans are rallying around their government, talking about how “we” will pull together, and “we” will remain united. Patriotic, yes, but misguided and suicidal too, and oblivious to the fact that there is no “we”. There’s the people who profit from US empire, and there’s everyone else, who don’t — people like you and me and just about everyone you know, who sadly, have become just as much potential collateral damage in Washington’s war for empire as the victims of US bombs.
The rents in America’s collective sense of security might be better repaired if Americans asked, What, and who, got us into this mess in the first place, and why? And does killing more civilians abroad, considering that projection of American military power around the world, with its trail of blood and mangled civilian corpses, has probably incited these attacks in the first place, amount to the best way to make Americans safe? What do ordinary Americans — the people who are now on the firing line — stand to gain from a US military presence in Saudia Arabia, and what did they stand to gain from a war in Afghanistan? And doesn’t killing more innocents abroad guarantee there will be with more terrorist attacks and more US civilian casualties to follow?
Washington has known for years that something like this would happen, but carried on, ready to write off terrorist attacks as the cost of empire, and ready to use the inevitable as a cover for pursuing its interests. The oil fields of the Middle East and Caspian region await a US military presence, part of the sustained war and open-ended war on terrorism. Carpe diem.
American governments call terrorist attacks on American targets asymmetrical warfare. Those who are angry with us — and there are many — won’t use conventional military means, they explain. They know they can’t defeat us head-on. So they’ll use other means…like hijacked jetliners piloted by kamikaze pilots. No one dwells on the fact that these same kamikazes will wipe their consciences clean by pointing to the civilian casualties the US was prepared to tolerate in the fire-bombings of Dresden and Tokyo, the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the high-altitude bombing of Pyongyang and Hanoi, Laos and Cambodia, Tripoli, Baghdad, Belgrade and Novi Sad. Successive US governments have knowingly put their own citizens in harms-way. For that Americans shouldn’t rally around their government. They should be angry.
Newspapers scream with a frightening jingoism, We’re at war! We’re at war? We’ve been at war for the last decade. The Gulf War never ended; it’s only morphed into brutal, murderous sanctions and almost daily attacks on Iraqi targets. We bombed Libya, killing countless civilians. In 1998, we bombed Sudan, destroying the country’s only pharmaceutical factory. We bombed Afghanistan. We set the Mujahideen and other Islamic terrorists upon Yugoslavia, and used the ensuing chaos as an excuse to bomb Bosnia in 1995 and later Serbia in 1999 . We’ve allowed Isalmic terrorists to wage war against Macedonia, and then prevented the Macedonian government from defending itself, instead ordering Skopje to change its constitution, all the while demanding that terrorism be rooted out branch and root and that it never be capitulated to. We’ve armed Turkey in its war against the Kurds, protected Israel from international sanctions for repressing Palestinians, and given hand outs to the Colombian military to beat back the guerillas, waiving human rights conditions.
There’s nothing new in the fact we’re at war. What’s new is that the other side has struck back. The war has come home. It’s no longer an entertaining spectacle on CNN, an abstraction, where the only casualties are people you’ve never met who live somewhere else. It’s now real and bloody and terrifying, just as it’s been for millions the world over, who, for the last decade, have been on the receiving end of the reasoning that leads America’s own Osama bin Ladens — the Haigs and Bennetts and Millers and Clintons and Bushes — to dismiss civilian casualties as unfortunate, but necessary to advance political ends.
Into this nest of red ants goes the elephant, beating its chest, swearing revenge, and, thinking arrogantly that it will emerge unscathed. It won’t. It hasn’t. But this time it’s US civilians who are paying the price, because the rest of the world has been taught well — civilians don’t matter, not when there are political goals at stake. Not to people like Bin Laden and his followers, or Haig or Bennett or or Miller or Bush. In fact, even American civilians don’t matter all that much to America’s leaders either. They’re prepared to continue behaving in ways that make future terrorist attacks against ordinary Americans inevitable — the price to pay for empire, for control of the oil fields, for the opening of markets. Rally around them some more — let them continue to put your lives in peril.
Years ago, Pete Seeger wrote a song, a parable really, about a US platoon on manoeuvres that decides to cross a stream wearing full military gear. Thinking he’s leading his platoon across the stream at its shallowest point, the platoon’s Captain urges his men forward. They object. “The stream’s too deep,” they remonstrate. Dismissing their protests, the captain forges ahead, blundering into deep water, and drowns. His men survive, smart enough to have balked at their Captain’s stupidity, smart enough to have questioned their leader, smart enough not to have pressed on.
The last verse goes,
As I laid my newspaper aside to ponder Bush’s vows of retaliation, I thought of the big muddy.
Mr. Steve Gowans is a writer and political activist who lives in Ottawa, Canada.