Chickens in a Darkening Sky

Chickens in a Darkening Sky

Suddenly the sky is dark with chickens coming home to roost, and bedtime reading is Thucydides’ account of the disastrous Athenian siege of Syracuse.


Suddenly the sky is dark with chickens coming home to roost, and bedtime reading is Thucydides’ account of the disastrous Athenian siege of Syracuse. Start with the amazed discovery of the White House, the Defense Department and the permanently embedded US press corps that nations don’t care to be invaded, even if they have been misgoverned by a tyrant for decades. How many Russians died defending the Soviet Union from German invasion after enduring famine and Stalin’s terror? This isn’t 1991, when Iraqis asked themselves, “Why die for Kuwait?”

Basra? “Military officials,” ran a European press report, “later admitted that they had vastly underestimated the strength of Iraqi resistance and the loyalty of Basra’s population to Saddam.” The report quoted a British officer as saying “there are significant elements in Basra who are hugely loyal to the regime.”

Kurdish-held northern Iraq? “Even in Kurdistan,” reported the London Independent, on March 25 (in the person of my brother, Patrick Cockburn), “where the US is popular and where President Saddam committed some of his worst atrocities, there are flickers of Iraqi patriotism. A Kurdish official, who has devoted years to opposing the government in Baghdad, admitted: ‘Iraqis won’t like to see American soldiers ripping down posters of Saddam Hussein though they might like to do it themselves. They didn’t enjoy watching the Stars and Stripes being raised near Umm Qasr.'”

And so it will all get much, much nastier. Saddam Hussein, a devoted admirer of Stalin, must have the Stalingrad parallel hopefully in mind. A confident invading German Army, extended lines of communication vulnerable to weather and guerrilla attack, and then Stalin’s order to the Red Army, “Not another inch of retreat,” followed by the savagery of house-to-house urban fighting.

One doesn’t have to parallel the German defeat with one for the United States and Britain, or substitute sandstorms and approaching summer heat for snow and the Russian winter, but merely remember what happened to Stalingrad, in which scarcely one brick was left on top of another. The actual fighting component of the invading US/British force is small, because (as anonymous Pentagon officers are now bitterly complaining) Defense Secretary Rumsfeld’s preference for Special Forces prevailed over Gen. Tommy Franks’s recommendation of a large army; also because huge peace demonstrations in Turkey lopped off the northern half of the invading pincers. If urban fighting increases, US strategy will veer toward old-fashioned saturation bombing. The temptation to flatten significant portions of Baghdad by B-52 raids will grow sharply if the land force gets seriously stymied.

But perhaps the most grotesque chicken now roosting in the coop came in the form of Rumsfeld’s sudden discovery of the Geneva conventions regarding prisoners of war. When five captured US soldiers were paraded in front of the Iraqi television cameras, Rumsfeld immediately complained that “it is against the Geneva convention to show photographs of prisoners of war in a manner that is humiliating for them.” True. But the United States does not hold the high moral ground in leveling this charge.

In January 2002 the United States released photographs of Guantánamo detainees kneeling, shackled and blindfolded. The Red Cross said the United States may have violated the Geneva conventions by releasing the photos. No “coercion may be inflicted on prisoners of war to secure from them information of any kind whatever.” Under conditions of sleep deprivation, bright light and other techniques, about twenty-five prisoners in Camp X-Ray at Guantánamo have tried to kill themselves, some more than once.

The US government claims that these men are not subject to the Geneva conventions, as they are not “prisoners of war” but “unlawful combatants.” But as George Monbiot of the London Guardian remarks, “The same claim could be made, with rather more justice, by the Iraqis holding the US soldiers who illegally invaded their country. But this redefinition is itself a breach of article 4 of the third convention, under which people detained as suspected members of a militia (the Taliban) or a volunteer corps (al-Qaida) must be regarded as prisoners of war.”

On March 6 US military officials acknowledged that two prisoners captured in Afghanistan in December had died during interrogation at Bagram air base north of Kabul. A spokesman for the air base confirmed that the official cause of death of the two men was “homicide.” The men’s death certificates showed that one died from “blunt force injuries to lower extremities complicating coronary artery disease.” Another prisoner suffered from a blood clot in the lung that was exacerbated by a “blunt force injury.”

On November 21, 2001, around 8,000 Taliban soldiers and Pashtun civilians surrendered at Kunduz to Northern Alliance commander Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum. A major war crime, with powerful evidence of US participation, ensued. Jamie Doran’s 2002 documentary film Afghan Massacre records how 3,000 prisoners were loaded into container trucks, with the doors sealed and the trucks left to stand in the sun for several days. An Afghan soldier said he was ordered by a US commander to fire shots into the containers to provide air, although he knew he would certainly hit some of those inside. An Afghan taxi driver reports seeing a number of containers with blood streaming from the floors. According to one of the drivers, survivors of the transport ordeal were dumped in the desert near Mazar-i-Sharif. As thirty to forty US soldiers looked on, those prisoners still alive were shot and left in the desert to be eaten by dogs.

Doran interviewed a Northern Alliance soldier guarding the prisoners. “I was a witness when an American soldier broke one prisoner’s neck. The Americans did whatever they wanted. We had no power to stop them.” After an investigation, the German newspaper Die Zeit concluded that “No one doubted that the Americans had taken part.” Doran, an Irishman, says in his film that the Pentagon and State Department have tried “by any means possible” to block an investigation.

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply-reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish everyday at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy