Graphic by Larry Ray
“We have shot an amazing number of people, but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat,” - General Stanley McChrystal, Senior American and NATO commander in Afghanistan - March 27, 2010While outrage in the United States over our endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has retreated into the background noise of immediate domestic economic and political concerns, outrage in the Middle East over civilians killed by US forces is kept alive and seething. American troops continue to mistakenly shoot, bomb, kill and maim a steady stream of innocent folks trying to go about their daily lives. It has been going on so long it rarely even makes the evening news here at home.
''The Oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient." Gen. William Westmoreland, South Vietnam - on film quote, Oscar-winning 1974 Vietnam documentary ''Hearts and Minds."
First, a review of the numbers ...
We have had troops fighting and dying in Iraq for an incredible eight years, and in Afghanistan for an even more incredible ten years. Hannibal crossed the Alps and defeated the Romans in not much more time . . . using elephants. To date we have not really defeated anything to speak of and the troop casualty count, including coalition forces in both wars is reported to be 6,500 combat arena deaths. The price tag for Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001 is spinning toward one trillion dollars . . . $986,284,900,000 as of this post.
The Iraq Body Count Project as of this writing, reports 95,888 – 104,595 non-combatant civilian deaths since the US-led 2003 invasion of Iraq. Estimates of total Afghan civilian deaths as a direct result of the war since the US invasion in 2001 are estimated at 10,172 - 12,969. Folks continue to argue over totals, but civilian casualties have been outrageously high and unacceptable.
The accepted figure for US military troop deaths in the Vietnam war is 58,236. South Vietnam US forces killed an estimated 90,000 South Vietnamese civilians from extensive use of fire power (artillery, carpet bombings, small weapons). Another 1,500 were killed in various massacres as detailed in Rummel's "Statistics of Democide."
The politics of dying ...
In Texas we always called a pointless fight, argument or defense of the indefensible a "skunk-pissing contest." A colorful argot meaning no one wins and both risk smelling really bad, figuratively or literally.
Politics is rife with these contests. And the really bad smell has too often sadly been the smell of death. Pure politics, not a palpable threat of invasion or attack on America by a rogue nation, is at the heart of the political reasons for our wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. Their origins, accomplishments and civilian death tolls could collectively be called "Vietraqistan."
The alleged cold war "domino effect" and Lyndon Johnson's trumped up claim of a US Navy Destroyer being attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin was used to justify our massive troop presence in South Vietnam and sustained bombing of North Vietnam.
Looking back, a cold-war commie menace threat with red hordes taking over all of Southeast Asia if America didn't "win" in South Vietnam is far-fetched. But no more so than America's hastened military posse sent to Afghanistan to locate and capture Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden after the 9/11 hijacked airliner attacks. After Bin Laden slipped away the hunting expedition turned into a decade-long on-again, off-again American military war presence in this ancient Muslim country.
I will not even address the reeking politics of America being led into an unprovoked invasion of Iraq, a nation that had nothing whatsoever to do with the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the USA. Instead, drop by The Center for Public Integrity for a line-by-line documentation of the more than 935 false statements used by the Bush administration to lead our nation to war there.
Why does any of this matter right now?
It matters because ignoring or forgetting what America has lost in lives, treasure and international reputation is both irresponsible and dangerous. A decade of our troops kicking in the doors of people's homes, terrorizing whole families and treating the "ragheads" with little respect, has done us great harm. Young, motivated Muslims easily believe America is actively involved in a war on Islam. These potential Islamic terrorists share with members of the armed, angry citizen militias being formed right here in the USA the idea that they are being personally attacked and must fight back.
The idea that we could win hearts and minds by bombing and blasting away at centuries of ideology, traditions, sectarian hatreds and deeply embedded Islamic faith is stunningly misguided. Political expediency has let one year become ten years with ever changing justifications for not pulling out and coming home.
It quickly became clear after we entered Iraq that the touted weapons of mass destruction never existed. But we had blown the country's infrastructure to smithereens and had to come up with new justifications being there in the middle of the huge deadly mess we had made. No WMD's, so let's create a model American styled Iraqi democracy, a showplace for the Middle East.
Our costly eight year presence in Iraq has succeeded in eliminating a dictator and his two psychopathic sons, but Americans are not heroes there. Eight years on and there is still limited electrical service, and raw sewerage still floods poorer quarters of Baghdad. They just want us to go away, just like they did in Vietnam. We might have all troops out by New Year's eve, 2011. Or not.
Afghanistan is an even sorrier mess. Its name dates from about 982 AD and the modern day country has been in a constant state of civil war since the early 1970's, intensified by foreign occupations by the Soviets in 1979 and the US-led invasion in 2001 that overthrew the Taliban government . . . for a while.
Bloody coups, power struggles and tribal warlords determining unstable transfers of power have always been the norm in Afghanistan. It has been governed by just about every known form of government for the past century. We have been stuck there for ten long, dusty and deadly years.
After several touted "plans" for US success in Afghanistan over the years, former special forces commander, General Stanley McChrystal recently became Senior American and NATO commander with a plan to have US troops undertake a mission of nation building and establishing trust among the far-flung tribes who have seen all this many times before. Again, politically bogged down, the spanking new mission is "to win hearts and minds."
Instead, we continue to regularly kill Afghan civilians especially as we press into Pakistan to bomb and launch missile attacks across the ill-defined Pakistani-Afghanistan border. We also regularly call in air strikes and wipe out the wrong houses killing women, children and the elderly. Going rate is said to be around $2,500 a family that we pay for our targeting mistakes. This perceived repeated brutality is easily interpreted as America waging war against Islam.
"Why the hell do we keep doing that?" we ask back here at home. "Why have we always done that?" is a better question.
US Army WWII and Korean war combat historian, S.L.A. "Slam" Marshall used oral history recorded interviews to get the gut reactions of troops in combat and under fire. In his latter years what he observed about troops in Vietnam equally applies to young Americans fighting today:
" ... The American fighter can outwit, out-move and out-game anyone thus far thrown against him. Their main gripe is that the enemy is loath to come out of hiding. Their aggressiveness arises from pride in unit. The bond with their buddies. A wish to get the job over... "And that is it in a nutshell. Since no one is coming over the walls back home trying to conquer the USA, the motivation to carry out "the mission" in some far-flung place varies but it always involves a tit-for-tat payback for every American killed be it by a sniper or a roadside bomb. When in doubt, fueled with adrenaline, the answer is to kill the raghead, (or the gook, or the kraut or the whatever). The sergeant will sort it out later.
I spent a year out in the boonies with combat units all over South Vietnam as a civilian correspondent in 1966-67. When young Americans are sent to strange, inhospitable countries where they can neither read nor speak the native languages, winning hearts and minds is not at the top of the list. It ain't hearts and minds when the rounds are incoming, or when the laundry lady or friendly local interpreter blows up half your unit. In Vietraqistan our troops on the ground, or in the air, will always try to kill someone before they kill them. That's just the way it is.
Where does all this take us?
Vietnam finished out its civil war of nationalism as soon as we left and in a few years it moved toward reunification of North and South. Today we are proud to have full diplomatic, economic and trade relations with the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. True to Buddhist tradition, the Vietnamese hold no deep hatred for America or Americans.
But our invasion and extended presence in these two Middle Eastern countries has served to validate the widely held belief that America is waging open war against Islam. The longer we stay and the more the civilian casualty toll rises, the more Muslims, especially young people, fiercely believe we are waging war against the dominant religion in the Middle East.
If this seems to us a far fetched thing for anyone to believe, consider that we have killed, conservatively, some 120,000 non combatants, including women and children in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. Here at home civilian anti-government and conspiracy-based militias now number some 300, doubling since last year according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Many of these folks think President Obama is building concentration camps where fine loyal Americans like them will be locked up.
Distrust, ignorance and anger usually starts a skunk-pissing contest. It can take a long time for the air to clear.
We may not have the time required for that before another dramatic and deadly domestic terrorist attack upon American soil. The question is will it come from Islamic zealots, or from another equally mad and militia-motivated Timothy McVeigh?
How long does it take to learn the lessons from Vietraqistan?
Montage photos - AP, Jamie Wiseman