January 10, 2014

When Atrocity Is Central to Your Being

Over my more than ten years of blogging, I have written extensively about the criminal immorality and endless horror of the United States government's invasion and destruction of Iraq. I analyzed how the U.S.'s actions constituted an endless series of war crimes, not only in the light of general moral considerations, but also applying several provisions of the Nuremberg Principles. Those Principles establish beyond question that the U.S. government was guilty of the very crimes of which Nazis were once convicted. It should be emphasized that the invasion of Iraq is hardly unique in this respect in the history of the United States, which launches aggressive wars with a regularity that ought to horrify any minimally decent human being. That this history does not horrify most people signifies only that the majority of humanity has yet to grasp the sacred, irreplaceable value of a single human life. Most people never understood the meaning of the first murder; this grievous failing made the innumerable additional murders inevitable and equally unforgivable. In the case of Iraq, those additional murders constitute a genocide of world-historical proportions.

On numerous occasions (here's one representative example from August 2008), I also pointed out that the most severe criticisms of these monstrous crimes permitted by our culture of denial were (and are) that it was a "mistake" based on "bad intelligence," and that it was a "blunder." The first of these evasions is a lie based on a complete misunderstanding of the role of "intelligence" with regard to decisions of policy, while the second represents the superficial babblings of a person so severely damaged that he is incapable of grasping the meaning of words such as "value" and "life." The U.S. government and its military (and all other personnel involved) committed a series of horrifying crimes, they murdered countless people, they wounded and damaged huge numbers of additional persons, and they destroyed a country. Carelessly smashing a vase or blurting out an inappropriate comment before your employer is a "mistake" or a "blunder." Murder and destruction on a vast scale require deliberate, intentional, planned actions over a lengthy period of time; they are crimes which annihilate the concept of forgiveness.

I frequently argued that there is still one more horror beyond these crimes: that neither the U.S. government, nor the ruling class, nor many Americans have learned a single, goddamned thing from these ghastly events. The commitment to America's "right" to dominate world events and the necessarily related commitment to America's perpetual military superiority remain axiomatic and unchallengeable. The ongoing treatment of Iran as a nation that must be brought to heel, the "pivot" to Asia, and the actions of the U.S. government around the globe all attest to the ruling class's belief that America remains unique and uniquely suited to lead and direct events everywhere, a belief that most Americans also continue to accept enthusiastically.

It is one thing to simply deny the reality of our own history. It is quite another to reach back into the past, completely recast the actions of the U.S., transform horrifying crimes which defy description into acts of nobility, and make ourselves into sympathetic victims -- moreover, the only sympathetic victims worthy of note. This New York Times story does all of that, in a manner which caused me to veer between shocked disbelief and nauseated horror: "Falluja's Fall Stuns Marines Who Fought There." The article discusses the "Sunni insurgents, some with allegiances to Al Qaeda," who "retook" Falluja "and raised their black insurgent flag over buildings" where American Marines had fought. Its focus is on the reaction of the Marines who fought there, and its tone is one of deep sympathy and understanding. That is, deep sympathy and understanding with regard to the Marines. Is there any recognition of the ongoing agony of the Iraqis, agony which is the direct result of the U.S.'s actions -- and of the actions of these Marines themselves? Of course not.

For example, about Adam Banotai, who was "a 21-year-old sergeant and squad leader in the Marine Corps during the 2004 invasion of Falluja":
“I don’t think anyone had the grand illusion that Falluja or Ramadi was going to turn into Disneyland, but none of us thought it was going to fall back to a jihadist insurgency,” he said. “It made me sick to my stomach to have that thrown in our face, everything we fought for so blatantly taken away.”
About the significance of Falluja:
The bloody mission to wrest Falluja from insurgents in November 2004 meant more to the Marines than almost any other battle in the 12 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many consider it the corps’ biggest and most iconic fight since Vietnam, with nearly 100 Marines and soldiers killed in action and hundreds more wounded.
From later in the article:
“This is just the beginning of the reckoning and accounting,” said Kael Weston, a former State Department political adviser who worked with the Marines for nearly three years in Falluja and the surrounding Anbar Province, and later with Marines in Afghanistan.

Mr. Weston, who is now writing a book but remains in close contact with scores of the men he served with, said Marines across the globe had been frenetically sharing their feelings about the new battle for Falluja via email, text and Facebook.

“The news went viral in the worst way,” he said. “This has been a gut punch to the morale of the Marine Corps and painful for a lot of families who are saying, ‘I thought my son died for a reason.’'"

Ryan Sparks was a platoon commander during a seven-month Falluja deployment in which three men were killed and 57 wounded in his 90-man unit. Now about to take a job in Manhattan after recently leaving the Marines, Mr. Sparks, 39, said many of the younger Falluja veterans are angry “because we lost so many Marines, and it feels like they were sacrificed for nothing.”
And about Banotai, first quoted above, we are told:
Mr. Banotai has no regrets about supporting the war, and said it was a mistake for the United States to withdraw troops when it did, which he believes was done for political reasons, not because the mission was accomplished. But he also would not favor sending troops back. “It’s too late. Mistakes have already been made,” he said. “We can’t go back and rewrite history.”
We also learn about "one senior active duty officer" who was "part of an email chain circulating among Marine officers discussing how to respond to the inquiries they were receiving from Marines and their families about Falluja":
The officer cited what he called the Marines’ success in helping foster the Awakening movement — where local tribesmen turned against jihadists and partnered with American forces — and said that “without these victories, we might still be there today.”

The officer added: “What the Iraqi forces lost in the last month, four years after transition, is not a reflection of Marine efforts. If it is a reflection of anything, it is the nature of the Iraqi social fabric and long-suppressed civil discord.”
Those who refuse to acknowledge the horror of what the U.S. government has done -- and the horror of what they have done -- are always led to the final redoubt of the blasted, shriveled, unrecognizable soul: Anything bad that has happened and that continues to happen is the fault of the Iraqis -- those primitive, barbaric, uncivilized Iraqis. This is exactly what Hillary Clinton has said, as well as almost any politician you can name. We are expected to forget that the U.S. deliberately fomented "civil discord" (and "ethnic cleansing," too) among the contending groups as a means of fostering "stability," which they also knew would only be temporary in nature but would allow the U.S. to claim "victory" for a brief moment.

All of this -- the singular focus on the "success" of the U.S. military, the unexamined question of the legitimacy of the war itself, the enormous sympathy with the suffering of the Marines (all of whom are now safely out of harm's way, while the grisly violence continues to unfold in Iraq day after bloody day) -- is bad enough. But remember -- dear God, please, please remember -- that we are talking about Falluja. Many Marines "consider [Falluja] the corps' biggest and most iconic fight since Vietnam." Okay, let's talk about that, something neither the Times nor any of the quoted individuals has any intention of doing, certainly not with any measurable degree of honesty.

Chris Floyd wrote extensively about Falluja. I was unable to locate his posts on his own site, but I found one of his columns reprinted here. This is Floyd writing in December 2005:
Last month, the broadcast of a shattering new documentary provided fresh confirmation of a gruesome war crime covered by this column nine months ago: the use of chemical weapons by American forces during the frenzied, Bush-ordered destruction of Fallujah in November 2004.

Using filmed and photographic evidence, eyewitness accounts, and the direct testimony of American soldiers who took part in the attacks, the documentary ­ "Fallujah: The Hidden Massacre" ­ catalogues the American use of white phosphorous shells and a new, "improved" form of napalm that turned human beings into "caramelized" fossils, with their skin dissolved and turned to leather on their bones. The film was produced by RAI, the Italian state network run by a government that backed the war.

Vivid images show civilians, including women and children, who had been burned alive in their homes, even in their beds. This use of chemical weapons ­ at the order of the Bushist brass ­ and the killing of civilians are confirmed by former American soldiers interviewed on camera. "I heard the order to pay attention because they were going to use white phosphorous on Fallujah," said one soldier, quoted in the Independent. "In military jargon, it's known as Willy Pete. Phosphorous burns bodies; in fact it melts the flesh all the way down to the bone. I saw the burned bodies of women and children. Phosphorus explodes and forms a cloud. Anyone within a radius of 150 meters is done for."
Even this fails to capture the ungraspable barbarity of the attack on Falluja. Again from Floyd:
Meanwhile, in the Guardian, Mike Marquesse pounded home the reality of the overarching atrocity of the attack:

"One year ago this week, US-led occupying forces launched a devastating assault on the Iraqi city of Falluja. The mood was set by Lt Col Gary Brandl: 'The enemy has got a face. He's called Satan. He's in Falluja. And we're going to destroy him.'

"The assault was preceded by eight weeks of aerial bombardment. US troops cut off the city's water, power and food supplies, condemned as a violation of the Geneva convention by a UN special rapporteur, who accused occupying forces of "using hunger and deprivation of water as a weapon of war against the civilian population". Two-thirds of the city's 300,000 residents fled, many to squatters' camps without basic facilities.

"By the end of operations, the city lay in ruins. Falluja's compensation commissioner has reported that 36,000 of the city's 50,000 homes were destroyed, along with 60 schools and 65 mosques and shrines. The US claims that 2,000 died, most of them fighters. Other sources disagree. When medical teams arrived in January they collected more than 700 bodies in only one third of the city. Iraqi NGOs and medical workers estimate between 4,000 and 6,000 dead, mostly civilians -- a proportionately higher death rate than in Coventry and London during the blitz."
Floyd has still more, and you should read it if you can bear to. [Here is the article on Floyd's site. And here is a later piece by Floyd from 2011, concerning the long-term effects of Falluja's devastation (including a dramatic spike in the rate of birth defects).] Read articles such as these -- articles that tell the truth of this horror straight from the bowels of Hell -- and then decide how much sympathy you care to extend to the Marines who helped perpetrate these crimes.

There are those who will despise and loathe me for my failure of compassion toward U.S. personnel. What defense do they offer for these criminals -- perhaps that they were only "following orders"? I had thought we once agreed that such an excuse is without merit. But I suppose that's a standard we apply only in the case of others, never ourselves. But the defenders of our soldiers need to explain how moral agency is wholly erased once one joins the military. Do such people become mindless automatons? If that's the case, then they feel nothing, and no sympathy is required. But that is not what happens, and all of us know that is not what happens. (See "No, I Do Not Support 'The Troops'" for a detailed discussion of these and related issues.)

I am reminded of a passage from Hannah Arendt, one that I offered in a very different context but which is tragically apposite here. In writing about those who adamantly refused to be "participants" in the Nazi regime, Arendt asks: "in what way were those few different who in all walks of life did not collaborate and refused to participate in public life, though they could not and did not rise in rebellion?" Here is part of her answer:
The answer to the ... question is relatively simple: the nonparticipants, called irresponsible by the majority, were the only ones who dared judge by themselves, and they were capable of doing so not because they disposed of a better system of values or because the old standards of right and wrong were still firmly planted in their mind and conscience. On the contrary, all our experiences tell us that it was precisely the members of respectable society, who had not been touched by the intellectual and moral upheaval in the early stages of the Nazi period, who were the first to yield. They simply exchanged one system of values against another. I therefore would suggest that the nonparticipants were those whose consciences did not function in this, as it were, automatic way—as though we dispose of a set of learned or innate rules which we then apply to the particular case as it arises, so that every new experience or situation is already prejudged and we need only act out whatever we learned or possessed beforehand. Their criterion, I think, was a different one: they asked themselves to what extent they would still be able to live in peace with themselves after having committed certain deeds; and they decided that it would be better to do nothing, not because the world would then be changed for the better, but simply because only on this condition could they go on living with themselves at all. Hence, they also chose to die when they were forced to participate. To put it crudely, they refused to murder, not so much because they still held fast to the command “Thou shalt not kill,” but because they were unwilling to live together with a murderer—themselves. The precondition for this kind of judging is not a highly developed intelligence or sophistication in moral matters, but rather the disposition to live together explicitly with oneself, to have intercourse with oneself, that is, to be engaged in that silent dialogue between me and myself which, since Socrates and Plato, we usually call thinking. This kind of thinking, though at the root of all philosophical thought, is not technical and does not concern theoretical problems. The dividing line between those who want to think and therefore have to judge by themselves, and those who do not, strikes across all social and cultural or educational differences. In this respect, the total moral collapse of respectable society during the Hitler regime may teach us that under such circumstances those who cherish values and hold fast to moral norms and standards are not reliable: we now know that moral norms and standards can be changed overnight, and that all that then will be left is the mere habit of holding fast to something. Much more reliable will be the doubters and skeptics, not because skepticism is good or doubting wholesome, but because they are used to examine things and to make up their own minds. Best of all will be those who know only one thing for certain: that whatever else happens, as long as we live we shall have to live together with ourselves.
I am keenly aware of the suffering of many returning soldiers, and I feel compelled to read the stories about their plight, including their all too frequent suicides. (In fact, I've written several articles about suicide, a largely misunderstood phenomenon, which you will find here, under "The Causes and Dynamics of Suicide." One of those articles concerns a soldier's suicide.)

Among the primary reasons that I regularly return to the unspeakable crimes committed by the U.S. government and its military is to desperately attempt, in whatever small way I can, to prevent such crimes from ever occurring again. My first concern is always with the targets of the U.S.'s military campaigns (whether those campaigns be bombings, invasions, covert operations, or of any other kind, and I include economic sanctions in this category). Those targets, most of whom are entirely innocent of any wrongdoing and most of whom never constituted a threat of any kind to the U.S., must command the greatest share of our compassion and concern. But I also know that the perpetrators must necessarily suffer. I know one other fact, which most people seek to deny by means of endless rationalizations and stratagems: I know that if we act in certain ways, we will never again be able to find peace with ourselves. Thus, Arendt speaks of the "nonparticipants"who "refused to murder ... because they were unwilling to live together with a murderer -- themselves." These are the people who understand that "as long as we live we shall have to live together with ourselves."

How do you "live together" with yourself when you know you have murdered innocent human beings? When you know you have burned people alive? When you know you have "melt[ed] the flesh" of innocent people "all the way down to the bone"? I submit the answer is unavoidable, and awful beyond words: you cannot "live together" with yourself in any way which permits genuine happiness, or very often even minimally bearable survival. My evidence is the agony experienced by so many military personnel. As I once observed:
[C]ertain actions lead to destruction and loss in a manner and on a scale that forbid correction and amends ... on some occasions we can only accept the certainty of negative consequences that cannot be avoided. Human beings may be capable of remarkable, even wondrous achievement, but limits are inherent in existence itself. Sometimes those limits mean that wounds will never heal, that the pain will never end.
As the title of the essay in which that passage appears expresses the idea: "We are not special, and there is no happy ending." This is why, when we are compelled to act in certain ways, it is imperative to say, No -- if we wish to salvage any recognizably human part of our soul.

The NYT article makes depressingly, horrifyingly clear that we remain very, very far from becoming adults, if by "adult" we mean recognizing certain unalterable facts of our existence. Our politicians, our military personnel, and many Americans still refuse to face honestly and completely the reality of what the U.S. did in Iraq, just as they refuse to recognize the blood-drenched reality of U.S. foreign policy in general. It is inconceivable that any of the catastrophic consequences of our actions, including the suffering of U.S. military personnel, should be our own responsibility. We therefore blame anything and anyone else, including the victims of our own crimes.

The article makes one further fact unavoidable: The U.S. government, and many Americans, are fully prepared to do it all again. Perhaps in the next year or two, perhaps further in the future, perhaps against Iran, perhaps against some other country that will be designated as the target of our next campaign of destruction once it has been suitably demonized. When that happens, we must resist in every way we can, and we must say, No.

And so I will be compelled to return to these subjects still another time.