Whose Hands? Whose Blood?
This piece originally appeared at TomDispatch.
Consider the following statement offered by Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a news conference last week. He was discussing Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks as well as the person who has taken responsibility for the vast, still ongoing Afghan War document dump at that site. "Mr. Assange," Mullen commented, "can say whatever he likes about the greater good he thinks he and his source are doing, but the truth is they might already have on their hands the blood of some young soldier or that of an Afghan family."
Now, if you were the proverbial fair-minded visitor from Mars (who in school civics texts of my childhood always seemed to land on Main Street, USA., to survey the wonders of our American system), you might be a bit taken aback by Mullen's statement. After all, one of the revelations in the trove of leaked documents Assange put online had to do with how much blood from innocent Afghan civilians was already on American hands.
The British Guardian was one of three publications given early access to the leaked archive, and it began its main article this way: "A huge cache of secret US military files today provides a devastating portrait of the failing war in Afghanistan, revealing how coalition forces have killed hundreds of civilians in unreported incidents. They range from the shootings of individual innocents to the often massive loss of life from air strikes..." Or as the paper added in a piece headlined "Secret CIA paramilitaries' role in civilian deaths": "Behind the military jargon, the war logs are littered with accounts of civilian tragedies. The 144 entries in the logs recording some of these so-called ‘blue on white' events, cover a wide spectrum of day-by-day assaults on Afghans, with hundreds of casualties." Or as it also reported, when exploring documents related to Task Force 373, an "undisclosed ‘black' unit" of US special operations forces focused on assassinating Taliban and al-Qaeda "senior officials": "The logs reveal that TF 373 has also killed civilian men, women, and children and even Afghan police officers who have strayed into its path."
Admittedly, the events recorded in the Wikileaks archive took place between 2004 and the end of 2009, and so don't cover the last six months of the Obama administration's across-the-board surge in Afghanistan. Then again, Admiral Mullen became chairman of the Joint Chiefs in October 2007, and so has been at the helm of the American war machine for more than two of the years in question.
He was, for example, chairman in July 2008, when an American plane or planes took out an Afghan bridal party—70 to 90 strong and made up mostly of women—on a road near the Pakistani border. They were "escorting the bride to meet her groom as local tradition dictates." The bride, whose name we don't know, died, as did at least 27 other members of the party, including children. Mullen was similarly chairman in August 2008 when a memorial service for a tribal leader in the village of Azizabad in Afghanistan's Herat Province was hit by repeated US airstrikes that killed at least 90 civilians, including perhaps 15 women and up to 60 children. Among the dead were 76 members of one extended family, headed by Reza Khan, a "wealthy businessman with construction and security contracts with the nearby American base at Shindand airport."
Mullen was still chairman in April 2009 when members of the family of Awal Khan, an Afghan army artillery commander on duty elsewhere, were killed in a US-led raid in Khost province in eastern Afghanistan. Among them were his "schoolteacher wife, a 17-year-old daughter named Nadia, a 15-year-old son, Aimal, and his brother, employed by a government department." Another daughter was wounded and the pregnant wife of Khan's cousin was shot five times in the abdomen.
Mullen remained chairman when, in November 2009, two relatives of Majidullah Qarar, the spokesman for the Minister of Agriculture, were shot down in cold blood in Ghazni City in a Special Operations night raid; as he was—and here we move beyond the Wikileaks time frame—when, in February 2010, US Special Forces troops in helicopters struck a convoy of mini-buses, killing up to 27 civilians, including women and children; as he also was when, in that same month, in a special operations night raid, two pregnant women and a teenage girl, as well as a police officer and his brother, were shot to death in their home in a village near Gardez, the capital of Paktia province. After which, the soldiers reportedly dug the bullets out of the bodies, washed the wounds with alcohol, and tried to cover the incident up. He was no less chairman late last month when residents of a small town in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan claimed that a NATO missile attack had killed 52 civilians, an incident that, like just about every other one mentioned above and so many more, was initially denied by US and NATO spokespeople and is now being "investigated."
And this represents only a grim, minimalist highlight reel among rafts of such incidents, including enough repeated killings or woundings of innocent civilians at checkpoints that previous Afghan war commander General Stanley McChrystal commented: "We've shot an amazing number of people and killed a number and, to my knowledge, none has proven to have been a real threat to the force." In other words, if your basic Martian visitor were to take the concept of command responsibility at all seriously, he might reasonably weigh actual blood (those hundreds of unreported civilian casualties of the American war the Guardian highlighted, for example) against prospective blood (possible Afghan informers killed by the Taliban via names combed from the Wikileaks documents) and arrive at quite a different conclusion from Chairman Mullen.
In fact, being from another planet, he might even have picked up on something that most Americans would be unlikely to notice—that, with only slight alterations, Mullen's blistering comment about Assange could be applied remarkably well to Mullen himself. "Chairman Mullen," that Martian might have responded, "can say whatever he likes about the greater good he thinks he is doing, but the truth is he already has on his hands the blood of some young soldiers and that of many Afghan families."
Killing Fields, Then and Now
Fortunately, there are remarkably few Martians in America, as was apparent last week when the Wikileaks story broke. Certainly, they were in scarce supply in the upper reaches of the Pentagon and, it seemed, hardly less scarce in the mainstream media. If, for instance, you read the version of the Wikileaks story produced—with the same several weeks of special access—by the New York Times, you might have been forgiven for thinking that the Times reporters had accessed a different archive of documents than had the Guardian crew.
While the Guardian led with the central significance of those unreported killings of Afghan civilians, the Times led with reports (mainly via Afghan intelligence) on a Pakistani double-cross of the American war effort—of the ties, that is, between Pakistan's intelligence agency, the ISI, and the Taliban. The paper's major sidebar piece concerned the experiences and travails of Outpost Keating, an isolated American base in Afghanistan. To stumble across the issue of civilian deaths at American hands in the Times coverage, you had to make your way off the front page and through two full four-column Wikileaks-themed pages and deep into a third.
With rare exceptions, this was typical of initial American coverage of last week's document dump. And if you think about it, it gives a certain grim reportorial reality to the term Americans favor for the deaths of civilians at the hands of our forces: "collateral damage"—that is, damage not central to what's going down. The Guardian saw it differently, as undoubtedly do Afghans (and Iraqis) who have experienced collateral damage firsthand.
The Wikileaks leak story, in fact, remained a remarkably bloodless saga in the United States until Admiral Mullen and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (who has overseen the Afghan War since he was confirmed in his post in December 2006) took control of it and began focusing directly on blood—specifically, the blood on Julian Assange's hands. Within a few days, that had become the Wikileaks story, as headlines like CNN's "Top military official: WikiLeaks founder may have 'blood' on his hands" indicated. On ABC News, for instance, in a typical "bloody hands" piece of reportage, the Secretary of Defense told interviewer Christiane Amanpour that, whatever Assange's legal culpability might be, when it came to "moral culpability... that's where I think the verdict is guilty on Wikileaks."