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Who in their right mind wants to talk about, think about or read a short essay about… civilian war casualties? What a bummer, this topic, especially since our Afghan, Iraq and other ongoing wars were advertised as uplifting acts of philanthropy: wars to spread security, freedom, democracy, human rights, gender equality, the rule of law, etc.
A couple hundred thousand dead civilians have a way of making such noble ideals seem like dollar-store tinsel. And so, throughout our decade-long foreign policy debacle in the Greater Middle East, we in the United States have generally agreed that no one shall commit the gaucherie of dwelling on (and “dwelling on” = fleetingly mentioned) civilian casualties. Washington elites may squabble over some things, but as for foreigners killed by our numerous wars, our Beltway crew adheres to a sullen code of omertà.
Club rules do, however, permit one loophole: Washington officials may bemoan the nightmare of civilian casualties—but only if they can be pinned on a 24-year-old Army private first class named Bradley Manning.
Pfc. Manning, you will remember, is the young soldier who is soon to be court-martialed for passing some 750,000 military and diplomatic documents, a large chunk of them classified, to the website WikiLeaks. Among those leaks, there was indeed some serious stuff about how Americans dealt with civilians in invaded countries. For instance, the documents revealed that the US military, then the occupying force in Iraq, did little or nothing to prevent Iraqi authorities from torturing prisoners in a variety of gruesome ways, sometimes to death.
Then there was that gun-sight video—unclassified but buried in classified material—of an American Apache helicopter opening fire on a crowd on a Baghdad street, gunning down a dozen men, including two Reuters employees, and injuring more, including children. There were also those field reports about how jumpy American soldiers repeatedly shot down civilians at roadside checkpoints; about night raids gone wrong both in Iraq and Afghanistan; and a count of thousands of dead Iraqi civilians, a tally whose existence the US military had previously denied possessing.
Together, these leaks and many others offered a composite portrait of military and political debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan whose grinding theme has been civilian casualties, a fact not much noted here in the United States. A tiny number of low-ranking American soldiers have been held to account for rare instances of premeditated murder of civilians, but most of the troops who kill civilians in the midst of the chaos of war are not tried, much less convicted. We don’t talk about these cases a lot either. On the other hand, officials of all types make free with lusty condemnations of Bradley Manning, whose leaks are luridly credited with potential (though not actual) deaths.