Engelhardt, The View from Mount Olympus

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[Book Notes for TomDispatch Readers: A number of you were frustrated when this site posted a remarkable piece by Michelle Alexander, “The New Jim Crow,” and her book of the same name promptly sold out.  For those who still want a copy, a new printing is now in and available at Amazon.  While you’re at it, don’t miss Alexander’s riveting appearance on Bill Moyers Journal two weeks ago, which can be viewed by clicking here.  And don’t miss another TD favorite, Andrew Bacevich, who appeared on the Moyers show last Friday to discuss the debacle that is our Afghan War.  That appearance represented, by the way, the first brief roll-out of Bacevich’s new book, Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War (about which TD readers will hear much more on its publication in August).  Finally, one more book recommendation:  Americans know little about Kashmir, a wounded land claimed by both India and Pakistan, which may be the key to war or peace in South Asia.  Anyone interested in a deeply personal account of life in Kashmir in these last difficult decades might consider picking up Basharat Peer’s moving account, Curfewed Nights: One Kashmiri Journalist’s Frontline Account of Life, Love, and War in His Homeland.  Tom]

Gods and Monsters
Fighting American Wars From On High

By Tom Engelhardt

The Greeks had it right.  When you live on Mount Olympus, your view of humanity is qualitatively different.  The Greek gods, after all, lied to, stole from, lusted for, and punished humanity without mercy, while taking the planet for a spin in a manner that we mortals would consider amoral, if not immoral.  And it didn’t bother them a bit.  They felt — so Greek mythology tells us — remarkably free to intervene from the heights in the affairs of whichever mortals caught their attention and, in the process, to do whatever took their fancy without thinking much about the nature of human lives.  If they sometimes felt sympathy for the mortals whose lives they repeatedly threw into havoc, they were incapable of real empathy.  Such is the nature of the world when your view is the Olympian one and what you see from the heights are so many barely distinguishable mammals scurrying below.  The details of their petty lives naturally blur and seem less than important.

In the last week, we’ve seen — literally viewed — a modern example of what it means in our day to act from the heights, and we’ve read about another striking example of the same.  The website WikiLeaks released a decrypted July 2007 video of two U.S. Apache helicopters attacking Iraqis on a street in Baghdad.  At least 12 Iraqis, including two employees of the news agency Reuters, a photographer and his driver, were killed in the incident, and two children in the vehicle of a good Samaritan who stopped to pick up casualties and died in the process, were also wounded.

Without a doubt, that video is a remarkable 17-minute demo of how to efficiently slaughter tiny beings milling about below.  There is no way American helicopter crews could know just who was walking down there — Sunni or Shiite, insurgent or shopper, Baghdadis with intent to harm Americans or Baghdadis paying little attention to two of the helicopters then so regularly buzzing the city.  Were they killers, guards, bank clerks, unemployed idlers, Baathist Party members, religious fanatics, café owners?  Who could tell from such a height?  But the details mattered little.

The Reuters cameraman crouches behind a building looking, camera first, around a corner, and you hear an American in an Apache yell, “He’s got an RPG!” — mistaking his camera with its long-range lens for a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.  The pilot, of course, doesn’t know that it’s a Reuters photographer down there.  Only we do.  (And when his death did become known, the military carefully buried the video.)

Along with that video comes a soundtrack in which you hear the Americans check out the rules of engagement (ROE), request permission to fire, and banter about the results.  (“Hahaha. I hit ’em”; “Oh yeah, look at those dead bastards…”; and of the two wounded children, “Well, it’s their fault bringing their kids into a battle.”)  Such callous chit-chat is explained away in media articles here by the need for “psychological distance” of those whose job it is to kill, but in truth that’s undoubtedly the way you talk when you, and only you, have god-like access to the skies and can hover over the rest of humanity, making preparations to wipe out lesser beings.

Similarly, in pre-dawn darkness on February 12th in Paktia Province, eastern Afghanistan, a U.S. Special Operations team dropped from the skies into a village near Gardez.  There, in a world that couldn’t be more distant from their lives, possibly using an informant’s bad tip, American snipers on rooftops killed an Afghan police officer (“head of intelligence in one of Paktia’s most volatile districts”), his brother, and three women — a pregnant mother of 10, a pregnant mother of six, and a teenager.  They then evidently dug the bullets out of the women’s bodies, bound and gagged their bodies, and filed a report claiming that the dead men were Taliban militants who had murdered the women — “honor killings” — before they arrived. (This was how the American press, generally reliant on military handouts, initially reported the story.)

Recently, in the face of some good on-the-spot journalism by an unembedded British reporter, this cover-up story ingloriously disintegrated, while U.S. military spokespeople retreated step by step in a series of partial admissions of error, leading to an in-person apology, including the sacrifice of a sheep and $30,000 in compensation payments.

Ceremonial Evisceration

Both incidents elicited shock and anger from critics of American war policies.  And both incidents are shocking.  Probably the most shocking aspect of them, however, is just how humdrum they actually are, even if the public release of video of such events isn’t.  Start with one detail in those Afghan murders, reported in most accounts but little emphasized: what the Americans descended on was a traditional family ceremony.  More than 25 guests had gathered for the naming of a newborn child. 

In fact, over these last nine-plus years, Afghan (and Iraqi) ceremonies of all sorts have regularly been blasted away.  Keeping a partial tally of wedding parties eradicated by American air power at, I had counted five such “incidents” between December 2001 and July 2008.  (A sixth in July 2002 in which possibly 40 Afghan wedding celebrants died and many more were wounded has since come to my attention, as has a seventh in August 2008.)  Nor have other kinds of rites where significant numbers of Afghans gather been immune from attack, including funerals, and now, naming ceremonies.  And keep in mind that these are only the reported incidents in a rural land where much undoubtedly goes unreported.

Similarly, General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, recently expressed surprise at a tally since last summer of at least 30 Afghans killed and 80 wounded at checkpoints when U.S. soldiers opened fire on cars.  He said: “We have shot an amazing number of people, but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat.”  Or consider 36-year-old Mohammed Yonus, a popular imam of a mosque on the outskirts of Kabul, who was killed in his car this January by fire from a passing NATO convoy, which considered his vehicle “threatening.”  His seven-year-old son was in the back seat.

Or while on the subject of Reuters employees, recall reporter Mazen Tomeizi, a Palestinian producer for the al-Arabiya satellite network of Dubai, who was killed on Haifa Street in central Baghdad in September 2004 by a U.S. helicopter attack.  He was on camera at the time and his blood spattered the lens.  Seif Fouad, a Reuters cameraman, was wounded in the same incident, while a number of bystanders, including a girl, were killed.  Or remember the 17 Iraqi civilians infamously murdered when Blackwater employees in a convoy began firing in Nissour Square in Baghdad on September 16, 2007.  Or the missiles regularly shot from U.S. helicopters and unmanned aerial drones into the heavily populated Shiite slum of Sadr City back in 2007-08.  Or the Iraqis regularly killed at checkpoints in the years since the invasion of 2003.  Or, for that matter, the first moments of that invasion on March 20, 2003, when, according to Human Rights Watch, “dozens” of ordinary Iraqi civilians were killed by the 50 aerial “decapitation strikes” the Bush administration launched against Saddam Hussein and the rest of the Iraqi leadership, missing every one of them.

This is the indiscriminate nature of killing, no matter how “precise” and “surgical” the weaponry, when war is made by those who command the heavens and descend, as if from Mars, into alien worlds, convinced that they have the power to sort out the good from the bad, even if they can’t tell villagers from insurgents.  Under these circumstances, death comes in a multitude of disguises — from a great distance via cruise missiles or Predator drones and close in at checkpoints where up-armored American troops, fingers on triggers, have no way of telling a suicide car bomber from a confused or panicked local with a couple of kids in the backseat.  It comes repetitively when U.S. Special Operations forces helicopter into villages after dark looking for terror suspects based on tips from unreliable informants who may be settling local scores of which the Americans are dismally ignorant. It comes repeatedly to Afghan police or Army troops mistaken for the enemy.

It came not just to a police officer and his brother and family in Paktia Province, but to a “wealthy businessman with construction and security contracts with the nearby American base at Shindand airport” who, along with up to 76 members of his extended family, was slaughtered in such a raid on the village of Azizabad in Herat Province in August 2008.  It came to the family of Awal Khan, an Afghan army artillery commander (away in another province) whose “schoolteacher wife, a 17-year-old daughter named Nadia, a 15-year-old son, Aimal, and his brother, employed by a government department” were killed in April 2009 in a U.S.-led raid in Khost Province in Eastern Afghanistan.  (Another daughter was wounded and the pregnant wife of Khan’s cousin was shot five times in the abdomen.)  It came to 12 Afghans by a roadside near the city of Jalalabad in April 2007 when Marine Special Operations forces, attacked by a suicide bomber, let loose along a ten-mile stretch of road.  Victims included a four-year-old girl, a one-year-old boy, and three elderly villagers.  According to a report by Carlotta Gall of the New York Times, a “16-year-old newly married girl was cut down while she was carrying a bundle of grass to her family’s farmhouse… A 75-year-old man walking to his shop was hit by so many bullets that his son did not recognize the body when he came to the scene.”

It came in November 2009 to two relatives of Majidullah Qarar, the spokesman for the Minister of Agriculture, who were shot down in cold blood in Ghazni City in another Special Operations night raid.  It came in Uruzgan Province in February 2010 when U.S. Special Forces troops in helicopters struck a convoy of mini-buses, killing up to 27 civilians, including women and children.

And it came this April 5th in an airstrike in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan in which a residence was hit and four civilians — two women, an elderly man, and a child — were killed along with four men, immediately identified in a NATO press release as “suspected insurgents.”  (“Insurgents were using the compound as a firing position when combined forces, unaware of the possible presence of civilians, directed air assets against it.”) The usual joint investigation with Afghans has been launched and if those four men later morph into “civilians,” the usual apologies will ensue.  (Of course, “suspected insurgents,” too, can have wives, children, and elderly parents or relatives, or simply take over compounds with such inhabitants.)  And it came this Monday morning on the outskirts of Kandahar City, when U.S. troops opened fire on a bus, killing five civilians (including a woman), wounding more, and sparking angry protests.

Planetary Predators 

Whether in the skies or patrolling on the ground, Americans know next to nothing of the worlds they are passing above or through.  This is, of course, even more true of the “pilots” who fly our latest wonder weapons, the Predators, Reapers, and other unmanned drones over American battle zones, while sitting at consoles somewhere in the United States.  They are clearly engaged in the most literal of video-game wars, while living the most prosaic of god-like lives.  A sign at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada warns such a drone pilot to “drive carefully” on leaving the base after a work shift “in” Afghanistan or Iraq.  This, it says, is “the most dangerous part of your day.”

One instructor of drone pilots has described this form of warfare vividly: “Flying a Predator is like a chess game… Because you have a God’s-eye perspective, you need to think a few moves ahead.”  However much you may “think ahead,” though, the tiny, barely distinguishable creatures you’re deciding whether to eradicate certainly don’t inhabit the same universe as you, with your looming needs, troubles, and concerns.

Here’s the fact of the matter: in the cities, towns, and villages of the distant lands where Americans tend to make war, civilians die regularly and repeatedly at our hands.  Each death may contain its own uniquely nightmarish details, but the overall story remains remarkably repetitious.  Such “incidents” are completely predictable. Even General McChrystal, determined to “protect the population” in Afghanistan as part of his counterinsurgency war, has proven remarkably incapable of changing the nature of our style of warfare.  Curtail air strikes, rein in Special Operations night attacks — none of it will, in the long run, matter.  Put in a nutshell: If you arrive from the heavens, they will die.

Having watched the video of the death of the 22-year-old Reuters photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen in that July 2007 video, his father said: “At last the truth has been revealed, and I’m satisfied God revealed the truth… If such an incident took place in America, even if an animal were killed like this, what would they do?”

Putting aside the controversy during the 2008 presidential campaign over the hunting of wolves from helicopters in Alaska, Noor-Eldeen may not have gone far enough.  For that helicopter crew, his son was indeed the wartime equivalent of a hunted animal.  An article on the front page of the New York Times recently captured this perspective, however inadvertently, when, speaking of the CIA’s aerial war over Pakistan’s tribal borderlands, it described the Agency’s unmanned drones as “observing and tracking targets, then unleashing missiles on their quarry.”

“Quarry” has quite a straightforward definition: “a hunted animal; prey.”  Indeed, the al-Qaeda leaders, Taliban militants, and local civilians in the region are all “prey” which, of course, makes us the predators. That the majority of drones cruising those skies 24/7 and repeatedly launching their Hellfire missiles are named “Predators” should, then, come as no surprise.

Americans are unused to being the prey in war and so essentially incapable of imagining what that actually means, day in, day out, year after year.  We prefer to think of their deaths as so many accidents or mistakes — “collateral damage” — when they are the norm, not the exception, not what’s collateral in such wars.  We prefer to imagine ourselves bringing the best (of values and intentions) to a backward, ignorant world and so invariably make ourselves sound far kindlier than we are.  Like the gods of Olympus, we have a tendency to flatter ourselves, even as we continually remake the “rules of engagement,” those ROEs, to suit our changing tastes and needs, while creating a language of war that suits our tender sensibilities about ourselves.

In this way, for instance, assassination-by-drone has become an ever more central part of the Obama administration’s foreign and war policy, and yet the word “assassination” — with all its negative implications, legal and otherwise — has been displaced by the far more anodyne, more bureaucratic “targeted killing.” In a sense, in fact, what “enhanced interrogation techniques” (aka torture) were to the Bush administration, “targeted killing” is to the Obama administration.

For the gods, anything is possible.  In the language of Olympian war, for instance, even sitting at a console thousands of miles from the not-quite-humans you are preparing to obliterate can become an act worthy of Homeric praise.  As Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post reported, Colonel Eric Mathewson, the Air Force officer with the most experience with unmanned aircraft, has a new notion of “valor,” a word “which is a part of almost every combat award citation.”  “Valor to me is not risking your life,” he says. “Valor is doing what is right. Valor is about your motivations and the ends that you seek. It is doing what is right for the right reasons.” What the gods do is, by definition, glorious.

Descending From On High

And it’s not only the American way of war, but the American way of statecraft that arrives as if from the heavens, ready to impose its own definitions of the good and necessary on the world.  American officials, civilian and military, constantly fly into the embattled (and let’s be blunt: Muslim) regions of the planet to make demands, order, chide, plead, wheedle, cajole, intimidate, threaten, twist arms, and bluster to get our “allies” to do what we most want.

Our special plenipotentiaries like Richard Holbrooke do this regularly; our secretary of state follows.  Our Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Centcom commander, and Secretary of Defense descend from the clouds on Islamabad, Kabul, or Baghdad frequently.  Our Vice President careens Iraq-wards to help mediate disputes, and even our President, the “heaviest political artillery” (as one analyst called him), recently dropped in for a six-hour visit to “Afghanistan” (actually the hanger of a large American air base and the presidential palace in Kabul).  While there — as Americans papers reported quite proudly — he chided and “pressed” Afghan President Hamid Karzai, offered “pointed criticism” on corruption, and delivered “a tough message.” He then returned to the U.S., only to find, to the surprise and frustration of his top officials, that Karzai — almost immediately accused of being unstable, possibly on drugs, and prone to child-like tantrums — responded by lashing out at his American minders.

We are, of course, the rational ones, the grown-ups, the good governance team, the incorruptible crew who bring enlightenment and democracy to the world, even if, as practical gods, in support of our Afghan war we’re perfectly willing to shore up a corrupt autocrat elsewhere who is willing to lend us an air base (for $60 million a year in rent) to haul in troops and supplies — until he falls.

All of this is par for the course for the Olympians from North America.  It all seems normal, even benign, except in the rare moments when videos of slaughter begin to circulate.  Looked at from the ground up, however, we undoubtedly seem as petulant as the gods or demiurges of some malign religion, or as the aliens and predators of some horrific sci-fi film — heartless and cold, unfeeling and murderous.  As Safa Chmagh, the brother of one of the Reuters employees who died in the 2007 Apache attack, reportedly said: “The pilot is not human, he’s a monster. What did my brother do? What did his children do? Does the pilot accept his kids to be orphans?”

As with tales humans tell of the gods, there’s a moral here: If you want it to be otherwise, don’t descend on strange lands armed to the teeth, prepared to occupy, and ready to kill. 

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the Cold War and beyond, as well as of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing. His latest book, The American Way of War (Haymarket Books), will be published in May.

[A small bow of thanks and appreciation to TomDispatch regular William Astore, who helped inspire this piece.]

Copyright 2010 Tom Engelhardt