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The Best of Tomdispatch: Mike Davis

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It didn’t take long for the war crimes to begin — in Afghanistan, in Guantanamo, in Iraq. By November 2003, Mike Davis was writing about them for Tomdispatch. And in introducing his piece, “The Scalping Party,” I suggested that the seeds of our future were well-planted and already beginning to sprout their monstrous crop. I wrote on that November 14th, over a year and a half ago:

“Operation Iron Hammer” just went into its second night in Baghdad with the limited use of helicopters and an AC-130 gunship over the capital and the destruction of at least one building. Part of a new “get tough” policy announced by Centcom head Gen. John Abizaid, it represents an escalation in the “urban warfare” that everyone, by late last April, assumed would never happen. Meanwhile, in the Sunni triangle our military has started dropping 500-pound bombs around the flashpoints of Falluja and Tikrit. In a guerrilla war, this is the equivalent of conceding defeat in the struggle for popular support in an area. A 500-pound bomb is a completely indiscriminate weapon.

So helicopters and gunships firing over urban areas, 500-pound bombs as a response to pinprick guerrilla attacks, lurching tactics and “mid-course” corrections, escalating daily attacks on American and allied forces, escalating casualties (already at something like 2-4 American dead a day and cumulatively higher than our casualties in the first three years of the Vietnam war), escalating frustration at being unable to sort the enemy from the civilian population, lowering morale among administration and occupation officials and at the level of the troops. Believe me, we’ve been down this path before and it leads nowhere good.

That, of course, was just the beginning. Within the year, we would loose our Air Force in a major way on heavily populated, urban Iraq — certainly a war crime. But here’s the point: it was all so foreseeable, along with some version or other of Abu Ghraib, the lit cigarettes in ears and endless stress positions, the ongoing checkpoint killings, the sweeping arrests of vaguely military-age Iraqi men (not to speak of women and children), and so on. I wrote back in 2003, “Now, along comes Mike Davis, who sends a flare into the dark night sky and illuminates a landscape many would rather leave unlit.” To this day, it seems, most Americans would prefer to leave that landscape — ever darker, ever grimmer — in the shadows and go about their business.

Here are typical comments made this week by American commanders:

“‘Although the coalition can be benevolent, this is still the same lethal formation that removed the former oppressive regime [of Saddam Hussein],’ Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez told a regular news briefing… ‘We will not hesitate to employ the appropriate levels of combat power,’ he said as a slide of a fighter jet dropping bombs was displayed behind him… ‘Not a single tool that we have available would be spared if necessary to defeat that enemy,’ Sanchez said.” (Andrew Grey, “U.S. military chief vows to ‘get tough’ in Iraq,” Reuters)

And that’s the polite version. Move a little farther down the line of command and here’s what you get: “‘This is to remind the town that we have teeth and claws and we will use them,’ said Lt. Col. Steven Russell, commander of the 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment” — a statement made after U.S. units moved through Tikrit “firing at houses suspected to be harboring hostile forces in the wake of an apparent attack on a Black Hawk helicopter that killed six U.S. soldiers.” (U.S. Retaliates After Black Hawk Crash)

Davis, looking back from the vantage point of today offers the following mini-commentary by way of introduction to his 2003 piece:

Let’s face it, a tolerance for atrocity is now enshrined at every level of American culture. The Toledo Blade’s brave unearthing of the story of the Tiger Force’s murderous sojourn in the Song Ve Valley in Vietnam back in 1967 has been smothered in silence and indifference just as was the Associated Press revelation in 1999 that a American massacre of hundreds of Korean civilians had taken place at No Gun Ri in 1950. And because we are unmoved by the war crimes of the past, we are passive in the face of the monstrous acts being committed in our names today. Where are the congressional investigations, the public outcries, and the campus protests in the wake of the revelations about the torture regimes at Abu Ghraib, Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, and Guantánamo?

Part of the answer, I think, has to do with the failure of progressives — especially anti-war activists of my generation — to sustain a public fight over the moral legacy of U.S. genocide in Southeast Asia. After Nixon brought the boys back home, the antiwar movement disarmed unilaterally. In contrast, pro-war forces, organized through powerful veterans’ organizations and a caucus of warrior politicians, have never ceased to refight the war on the terrain of memory and public history. The open sore of Vietnam, never lanced, has become the Republicans’ most prized symbolic property.

When the Democrats eventually realized that Vietnam — their war, after all — would not go away, they became patriotic revisionists as well. Indeed, a major goal of the Democratic Leadership Council — the principal group driving the party rightward through the 1980s and 1990s — has been to put the shields and spears back in the hands of its candidates. Vietnam — according to John Kerry and even Bill Clinton — was an American tragedy and it was finally time to honor our heroes.

This kind of solipsistic thinking has erased the Vietnamese people from history. Not even the Japanese ruling party has gone as far as the American Democrats in the rehabilitation of war crimes and war criminals. (New School President Bob Kerrey — whose reputation seems to have suffered little damage from testimony that he massacred unarmed villagers in Vietnam — is a case in point.)

On the other hand, this may be nothing new. Our ancestors made heroes out of Indian killers and built statues to scalping parties. Why should we be any different?

Now, consider Davis’s piece first posted on November 14, 2003 and try to imagine where all this is likely to end. Tom

The Scalping Party
By Mike Davis

In his dark masterpiece, Blood Meridian (1985), novelist Cormac McCarthy tells the terrifying tale of a gang of Yanqui scalp-hunters who left an apocalyptic trail of carnage from Chihuahua to Southern California in the early 1850s.

Commissioned by Mexican authorities to hunt marauding Apaches, the company of ex-filibusters and convicts under the command of the psychopath John Glanton quickly became intoxicated with gore. They began to exterminate local farmers as well as Indians, and when there were no innocents left to rape and slaughter, they turned upon themselves with shark-like fury.

Many readers have recoiled from the gruesome extremism of McCarthy’s imagery: the roasted skulls of tortured captives, necklaces of human ears, an unspeakable tree of dead infants. Others have balked at his unpatriotic emphasis on the genocidal origins of the American West and the book’s obvious allusion to “search and destroy” missions à la Vietnam.

But Blood Meridian, like all of McCarthy’s novels, is based on meticulous research. Glanton – – the white savage, the satanic face of Manifest Destiny — really existed. He’s simply the ancestor most Americans would prefer to forget. He’s also the ghost we can’t avoid.

Six weeks ago, a courageous hometown paper in rustbelt Ohio — the Toledo Blade — tore the wraps off an officially suppressed story of Vietnam-era exterminism that recapitulates Blood Meridian in the most ghastly and unbearable detail. The reincarnation of Glanton’s scalping party was an elite 45-man unit of the 101 Airborne Division known as “Tiger Force.” The Blade‘s intricate reconstruction of its murderous march through the Central Highlands of Vietnam in summer and fall 1967 needs to be read in full, horrifying detail. Blade reporters interviewed more than 100 American veterans and Vietnamese survivors.

Tiger Force atrocities began with the torture and execution of prisoners in the field, then escalated to the routine slaughter of unarmed farmers, elderly people, even small children. As one former sergeant told the Blade, “It didn’t matter if they were civilians. If they weren’t supposed to be in an area, we shot them. If they didn’t understand fear, I taught it to them.”

Early on, Tiger Force began scalping its victims (the scalps were dangled from the ends of M-16s) and cutting off their ears as souvenirs. One member — who would later behead an infant — wore the ears as a ghoulish necklace (just like the character Toadvine in Blood Meridian, while another mailed them home to his wife. Others kicked out the teeth of dead villagers for their gold fillings.

A former Tiger Force sergeant told reporters that “he killed so many civilians he lost count.” The Blade estimates that innocent casualties were in “the hundreds.” Another veteran, a medic with the unit, recalled 150 unarmed civilians murdered in a single month.

Superior officers, especially the Glanton-like battalion commander Gerald Morse (or “Ghost Rider” as he fancied himself), sponsored the carnage. Orders were given to “shoot everything that moves” and Morse established a body-count quota of 327 (the numerical designation of the battalion) that Tiger Force enthusiastically filled with dead peasants and teenage girls.

Soldiers in other units who complained about these exterminations were ignored or warned to keep silent, while Tiger Force slackers were quickly transferred out. As with Glanton’s gang, or, for that matter, Einsatzgruppen, the Nazi mobile extermination squads, in the western Ukraine in 1941, atrocity created its own insatiable momentum. Eventually, nothing was unthinkable in the Song Ve Valley.

“A 13-year-old girl’s throat was slashed after she was sexually assaulted, and a young mother was shot to death after soldiers torched her hut. An unarmed teenager was shot in the back after a platoon sergeant ordered the youth to leave a village, and a baby was decapitated so that a soldier could remove a necklace.”

Stories about the beheading of the baby spread so widely that the Army was finally forced to launch a secret inquiry in 1971. The investigation lasted for almost five years and probed 30 alleged Tiger Force war crimes. Evidence was found to support the prosecution of at least 18 members of the platoon. In the end, however, a half dozen of the most compromised veterans were allowed to resign from the Army, avoiding military indictment, and in 1975 the Pentagon quietly buried the entire investigation.

According to the Blade, “It is not known how far up in the Ford administration the decision [to bury the cases] went,” but it is worth recalling whom the leading actors were at the time: the Secretary of Defense, then as now, was Donald Rumsfeld, and the White House chief of staff was Dick Cheney.

Recently in the New Yorker, Seymour Hersh, who was instrumental in exposing the My Lai massacre, decried the failure of the corporate media, especially the four major television networks, to report the Blade’s findings or launch their own investigations into the official cover-up. (Since then, ABC news and Ted Koppel’s Nightline have both covered the subject.) He also reminds us that the Army concealed the details of another large massacre of civilians at the village of My Khe 4, near My Lai on the very day in 1968 when the more infamous massacre took place.

Moreover, the Tiger Force story is the third major war crimes’ revelation in the last few years to encounter apathy in the media and/or indifference and contempt in Washington.

In 1999, a team of investigative reporters from the Associated Press broke the story of a horrific massacre of hundreds of unarmed Korean civilians by U.S. troops in July 1950. It occurred at a stone bridge near the village of No Gun Ri and the unit involved was Custer’s old outfit, the 7th Calvary regiment.

As one veteran told the AP, “There was lieutenant screaming like a madman, fire on everything, kill ’em all. …. Kids, there was kids out there, it didn’t matter what it was, eight to eighty, blind, crippled or crazy, they shot them all.” Another ex-soldier was haunted by the memory of a terrified child: “She came running toward us. You should have seen guys trying to kill that little girl. With machine guns.”

A reluctant Pentagon Inquiry into this Korean version of the Wounded Knee Massacre acknowledged that there was a civilian toll but cited very low figures for the dead and then dismissed it as “an unfortunate tragedy inherent in war,” despite overwhelming evidence of a deliberate U.S. policy of bombing and strafing refugee columns. The Bridge at No Gun Ri (2001), by the three Pulitzer Prize-winning AP journalists, currently languishes at near 600,000 on the Amazon sales index.

Likewise there has been little enduring outrage that a confessed war criminal, Bob Kerrey, reigns as president of New York City’s once liberal New School University. In 2001, the former Navy SEAL and ex-Senator from Nebraska was forced to concede, after years of lies, that the heroic engagement for which he received a Bronze Star in 1969 involved the massacre of a score of unarmed civilians, mainly women and children. “To describe it as an atrocity,” he admitted, “is pretty close to being right.”

The blue-collar ex-SEAL team member who revealed the truth about the killings at Than Phong under Kerrey’s command was publicly excoriated as a drunk and traitor, while powerful Democrats — led by Senators Max Cleland and John Kerry, both Vietnam veterans — circled the wagons to protect Kerrey from further investigation or possible prosecution. They argued that it was wrong to “blame the warrior instead of the war” and called for a “healing process.”

Indeed covering up American atrocities has proved a thoroughly bipartisan business. The Democrats, after all, are currently considering the bomber of Belgrade, General Wesley Clark, as their potential knight on a white horse. The Bush administration, meanwhile, blackmails governments everywhere with threats of aid cuts and trade sanctions unless they exempt U.S. troops from the jurisdiction of the new International Criminal Court.

The United States, of course, has good reason to claim immunity from the very Nuremburg principles it helped establish in 1946-47. American Special Forces troops, for example, were most probably complicit in the massacres of hundreds of Taliban prisoners by Northern Alliance warlords several years ago. Moreover, “collateral damage” to civilians is part and parcel of the new white man’s burden of “democratizing” the Middle East and making the world safe for Bechtel and Halliburton.

The Glantons thus still have their place in the scheme of Manifest Destiny, and the scalping parties that once howled in the wilderness of the Gila now threaten to range far and wide along the banks of the Euphrates and in the shadow of the Hindu Kush.

Mike Davis is the author of Dead Cities and the forthcoming Monster at the Door: The Global Threat of Avian Influenza (New Press 2005).

Copyright 2003 Mike Davis