By The Plaid Adder
This week, a whole mess of new photographs of the Abu Ghraib
scandal surfaced. We heard that inmates were "fondled by female
soldiers," forced to masturbate, and forced to retrieve their
food from toilets; we were also introduced to the euphemism
"unidentifiable brown substance." Next to the picture of Private
Englund yanking her end of the dog leash, we can now juxtapose
the image of a naked prisoner covered in shit standing with
his arms spread out before his uniformed American tormentor.
All right. Now that I have your attention, let's talk about
the wedding massacre.
It has always bothered me that people in America just never
seemed to care about the "collateral damage" that we were
doing in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now, it bothers me even more
to see the immense contrast between the media and Congressional
attention that has been devoted to covering the Abu Ghraib
scandal and the woefully inadequate response to incidents
like last week's bombing at Makr al-Deeb, in which we killed
40 Iraqis in their sleep in order to bring in our glorious
haul of - according to the little military rebuttal that ABC
News included on its website in order to be 'fair and balanced'
- "machine guns, rounds of ammunition, a Sudan Airways plane
ticket, medical gear, a Sudanese passport and battery packs
associated with improvised explosive devices."
U.S. military sources admit that six women were killed in
the attack but as of this writing still do not acknowledge
that any children were killed. A Guardian article
on the same incident quotes a local doctor as saying that
the 42 victims included 11 women and 14 children. Survivors
also pointed out that what the U.S. Army had bombed was in
fact not a nefarious gathering of sinister terrorists, but
Through one of its mouthpieces, Major General Mattis, the
U.S. military denied this - in fact, according to Mattis,
we would all be "naive" to believe that anyone would hold
a wedding out in "the middle of the desert" - until the Associated
Press obtained several hours' worth of video of what,
sure enough, looked a hell of a lot like a wedding in the
middle of the desert, attended by many of the same people
who later turned up dead or wounded.
Now, the military has changed its story; according to an
unnamed "U.S. official," there might have been a "celebration"
of some kind going on before the raid, but it was over
by the time we bombed the sleeping wedding guests into tiny
OK, so the wedding was over before we tried to kill
everyone who had attended it. I'm still trying to figure out
how that makes it OK.
Well anyway, says Brigadier General Kimmitt, why couldn't
this wedding also have been a nefarious gathering of
sinister terrorists? After all - and this is a verbatim quote
from Kimmitt - "Bad people have parties too."
Well, Kimmitt is right. Bad people do have parties. We're
reminded of that every time we read about one of Bush's $2,000
a plate fund-raisers. All the same, that sentence really turned
my stomach. I had the same shudder of revulsion, reading it,
that you have when you see a giant cockroach scuttle across
your kitchen floor. You knew it was probably there; you'd
been trying to stamp it out; but it's still just unspeakably
disgusting to finally see it crawl out of the shadows
and into the light.
First of all, Kimmitt sounds like he's addressing a group
of three-year-olds in a sandbox. "Bad people?" All this time
I was wondering exactly who it was that made up this organized
and apparently multifaceted opposition we were fighting in
Iraq - and now I know! It's the Bad People. So is this what
they put on their tactical maps? "Areas marked in red indicate
territories inhabited by Bad People. Those you can bomb at
will. Areas marked in blue indicate territories inhabited
by Good People. Try not to bomb those."
"Bad People." It's been over a year since the fall of Baghdad
and the U. S. military leadership has apparently learned absolutely
nothing. Kimmitt is still talking as if the people who are
fighting his forces belong to some kind of distinct and easily
identifiable community of evildoers who were all born with
a scarlet birthmark on their right shoulderblades that marked
them in the womb as Haters Of Freedom. Nobody in Iraq would
mind our occupying the country at all were it not for these
Bad People whose genetic predisposition to hate all that is
good leads them to attack us and our collaborators. Evidently
the U.S. battle plan for Iraq is still to identify all the
Bad People and then kill them, thus wiping out Bad People
forever and ushering in the golden age of Iraqi democracy
that we all hear so much about.
What Kimmitt and his fellow mouthpieces are apparently desperately
trying never to acknowledge is that our definition of "bad"
in this context is strategic rather than ethical. Presumably
it is not the U.S. military's responsibility to search the
heart of each Iraqi and exterminate those who have beaten
their spouses, have robbed their neighbors, have lied to those
who trusted them, or have turned the current invasion into
an excuse to gouge their customers. These are all bad things;
but they do not make someone a Bad Person. A Bad Person is
simply someone who is attacking U.S. forces or their collaborators,
or otherwise making it more difficult for us to establish
control of the country. So let us for once be honest about
that: what makes these people Bad is not some inherent predisposition
toward evil, but the fact that they are involved in a military
campaign against us. These Bad People are not the Satanically
appointed Enemies Of Freedom. They are the enemies of us.
But of course in order to be honest about that we would
have to face the possibility that America and Freedom are
not synonymous; and nobody in Washington wants to do that.
They would all much rather delude themselves. Well, fine,
that's human nature; but here's the practical problem withat
These Bad People are not battle droids that were constructed
by the evil overlords last April for the sole purpose of bedeviling
the U.S. war effort. Some of them indeed may be recent arrivals
from neighboring countries; but a fair number of them are
people who have lived all their lives in Iraq and have only
comparatively recently joined one of the many different resistance
groups now organizing against us. That means each of these
Bad People has lived most of his life as an ordinary person,
with an immediate family, an extended family, neighbors, friends,
colleagues, and an extensive kinship network that ties him
to even more people. Not all of these intimate ties will be
with other Bad People. And that means that each of these Bad
People is going to be spending a fair amount of time around
Good People - if by Good People we understand women, children,
the elderly, and the rest of the uninvolved and nonresisting
members of "the Iraqi people" that we are supposedly trying
Which means that if your approach to dealing with the Bad
People is to fly over a large area with some Bad People in
it and bomb it so thoroughly that you have a good chance of
destroying all the Bad People, it is quite probable that every
time you take out one Bad Person you are going to take out
a dozen Good People.
Which brings me back to General Kimmitt and the wedding
massacre. So far everyone talks about this as if there are
two possibilities: 1) The U.S. military didn't realize that
this gathering was a wedding and they killed 40 people there
by mistake, whoops. 2) This really wasn't a wedding; it was
a strategic gathering of plotting Bad People, in which case
the wedding video must just be a cunning fabrication being
used by Al Qaeda to destroy support for the glorious liberation
just like the witnesses are all highly trained actors being
paid by Al Qaeda to pretend to have gunshot wounds and post-traumatic
#2 is ridiculous on its face. I didn't try to argue that
the Nicholas Berg beheading video was a CIA mock-up based
on a white plastic chair and a gold ring; so I'm not going
to take any shit from anyone about how that organ player in
the shroud doesn't look like he's REALLY dead. Nor does the
fact that the military has changed its story since the video
surfaced lend them a whole lot of credibility.
#1, on the other hand, sounds like exactly the kind of thing
that probably happens all the time in this war, which began
with a completely and wilfully wrong intelligence assessment
and has lurched from blunder to gaffe to atrocity ever since.
But to go back to the one thing Kimmitt said that we can
say is demonstrably true: bad people have parties too. And
this is where the roach frisson thing comes in. Because that
comment, and Kimmitt's whole attitude in general, raises a
third possibility: that the U.S. military knew perfectly well
that there was a wedding going on at Makr al-Deeb, and that
was exactly why they bombed it.
After all. If our military's "intelligence" had informed
them that one or both of the families involved in this wedding
contained some Bad People, then what better chance would they
ever have to get all of these Bad People in one fell swoop?
This wedding brought two very large extended families - including,
as Mattis so gleefully pointed out, more than "two dozen military
age males" - into one convenient spot, where they celebrated
far into the night and then eventually turned in exhausted
to sleep it all off. They're all in an easily identifiable
location in the middle of the desert easily accessible to
aircraft - and they're all sound asleep. How could you pass
that up? Sure, while you're killing the Bad People you're
going to be killing their wives, cousins, sisters, children,
parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, caterers, photographers,
and hired musicians - most of whom will be Good People - but
what the hell do you care? In war, as Mattis sagely instructed
us, "bad things happen," and according to Mattis, being an
officer in the U.S. military means that you "don't have to
apologize" for making bad things happen to good people.
You find that prospect chilling? So do I. But this is war
American-style. We did this all over Afghanistan
and now we are doing it all over Iraq. And this is the problem
with an occupation: the Bad People are not brightly labeled,
nor are they segregated out into well-demarcated areas. These
Bad People are Good People who have for whatever reason decided
to resist the occupation instead of accepting it. That means
they are still sharing homes with Good People in neighborhoods
of Good People and doing daily business with Good People.
They are attending the weddings of Good People. And indeed
they look at first glance just like Good People, which
means that Good People often look at first glance just like
Bad People, and the result is that a lot of Good People get
shot at checkpoints or in pre-dawn raids or blown up at weddings
in the middle of the desert.
So, this is what we come to at the end of the day: the day
this war began you knew there would be incidents like this,
because massive civilian casualties follow bombing raids as
surely as night follows day. And as long as our army is there,
things like the Makr al-Deeb bombing will go right on happening.
Now that bothers me. But 40 people blown up at a wedding
- whether deliberately or by accident - by U.S. forces does
not seem to bother most of my fellow-Americans or indeed my
Congressional representatives anywhere near as much as the
images from Abu Ghraib do. I'm not sure exactly why that is,
though of course I have a few crackpot theories. One of them
is that we are simply much less tolerant of sex than we are
of violence. I remember watching a woman comedian do a routine
about the bizarreness of the Motion Picture Association rating
system, complaining that in a PG-13 movie, a man cannot touch
a woman's naked breast with his hand, but "he can cut it off
with a chainsaw." Michael Moore's argument throughout Bowling
for Columbine is that America's culture of paranoia has led
to such an obsession with self-defense that gun-related violence
is now an integral part of the fabric of American life. We
have accepted the horrific deaths of uninvolved civilians
a justifiable, even 'natural' aspect of war. Rape, sexual
assault, and the other bizarre forms of humiliation that have
been practiced in Abu Ghraib are more shocking somehow because
they seem gratuitously perverse.
As far as I am concerned, the massacre at Makr al-Deeb is
exactly as gratuitous and perverse as the abuse at Abu Ghraib
prison. Indeed, the entire war is gratuitous; and the claim
that we are bringing freedom to Iraq by bombing sleeping children
is about as perverse as you could possibly get. Perversion
is what this war is all about: perversion of the truth, perversion
of normal ethical codes of conduct, and perversion of the
meaning of "freedom." And if we as a nation don't get
that yet, it's because we are all still buying Brigadier General
Kimmitt's load of crap about the Bad People.
A few months ago I showed Francis Ford Coppola's film Apocalypse
Now to a group of 18-20 year olds who had for the most part
never seen it before. Before I started the film, I warned
them that it was a pretty violent movie. As I was watching
it, however, I thought, you know what, by contemporary standards
Apocalypse Now isn't really that violent. There's a lot of
shooting and a lot of death and dismemberment and exploding;
but you don't see the effects of this violence at anywhere
near the level of detail you get in something like Kill Bill
or Braveheart. And yet, as usual, after I turned the film
off they were all just sitting there silently in shock.
I asked them why it was that after having grown up on movies
that were much more violent, they still found Apocalypse Now
so disturbing. I got the answer right away: "In those other
movies you always know who the good guys are." It seemed obvious
the minute I heard it; but it was also something of a revelation.
In my head, you can't be a "good guy" and be a callous mass-murderer
at the same time. But in American popular culture, you can.
Indeed, it's almost a prerequisite. That's how you know they're
good guys: because they're killing bad people. How do you
know the people they're killing are bad? Because they're being
killed by the good guys.
So this is one problem: a culture whose definition of "good"
and "bad" has been flattened and evacuated by the massive
disrespect for human life that seems to have permeated it
(and I am talking about the lives of the born, now, not the
only lives that the Republicans ever seem to be concerned
about). But there is something else about the photos from
Abu Ghraib - something that was pointed out in a piece by
Susan Sontag that has been making the rounds.
There are, after all, photos out there of the civilian victims
of our violence. They don't run in the American media, of
course; but they are not hard to find on the web, in the Arab
media as well as the British and European press. But what
those photos do not show is what Sontag identifies as the
most distinctive and disturbing feature of the Abu Ghraib
photos: the smiling faces of the perpetrators. As Sontag points
out, the Abu Ghraib photos bring it home to us once and for
all that the people who are torturing the bodies in these
photos think that what they are doing is A-OK. There's no
remorse, no revulsion, not even a slight shudder of squeamishness.
They have embraced this evil as their good; and they're sure
that we the viewers will do the same.
Sitting here on the other side of the Atlantic, we can still
look at photos from something like the massacre at Makr al-Deeb
and imagine that the people who dropped the bombs are as troubled
by it as we are - that the pilot is sitting in the barracks
somehwere with his head in his hands, tortured with remorse
over the lives he has destroyed. And who knows; he may be.
But I'll tell you who clearly isn't bothered by it: the two
high-ranking U.S. military officers who have publicly shrugged
off questions about the number of children who died in this
bombing with those chilling platitudes. Bad things happen
in wars. Bad people have parties too.
And if we accept that things like the Makr al-Deeb massacre
are natural, necessary, and right, then we are all saying
it right along with Kimmitt, the torturers of Abu Ghraib,
and Satan: "Evil, be thou my good."
Don't worry - I'm quoting Milton's Satan here, the one from
Paradise Lost, not the Biblical Satan. I haven't gone
evangelical all of a sudden. But I will say that one of the
worst things that the Christian right has done to discourse
in this country is to capture the language of morality. We
secular humanist types now feel as if as soon as we start
talking about good and evil we are one step away from frothing
about FORRRRRRNICATION! But good and evil are not the prisoners
of any one religious system, nor do they require a deity or
an eschatology to shore up their meaning. And it is absolutely
insane that they have, in our country, become so thoroughly
entangled with sexual morality. We spend all this time fighting
about whether it is or is not evil for two consenting adults
of the same gender to have sex with each other, and we have
apparently failed to maintain our grasp on the concept that
killing people is wrong. We have spent so much time as a culture
obsessing over sex as foul, filthy, and obscene that we have
forgotten how foul, filthy, and obscene violence is.
I hope we can get back one of these days to a responsible,
honest, and usefully complex understanding of good and evil.
I hope, someday, public policy and public discourse will be
founded on a shared believe in the value of human life and
human dignity rather than one sect's tendentious and self-serving
interpretation of one book. I still hope to see us, one day,
find our way out of the moral wasteland into which Bush has
led this country. And the rest of the world no doubt hopes
to see it too, because in our descent into hell we are pulling
a lot of the world in after us.
I hope we find our way out of Iraq and that we find it soon.
But it will only be the first step in what will be a very
long journey home.
The Plaid Adder's demented ravings have been delighting
an equally demented online audience since 1996. More of the
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