The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars

The Deaths of OthersOne of the primary methods powerful states use to legitimize the resort to violence is the construction of elaborate myths about the ruthlessness and moral inferiority of their victims. Examples of this are plentiful from Thomas Jefferson’s demonization of North America’s indigenous population as “merciless Indian savages” to President Obama’s policy of declaring “all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants.” Imperial violence, rationalized by a culture of dehumanization, has long been a central component of American history which assumes varying forms depending on the official enemy. The latest iteration of this historical norm can be observed in President Obama’s drone war, a campaign of international terrorism that has claimed the lives of thousands of people in Pakistan. In his latest State of the Union Address the President vowed to impose “prudent limits” on the drone program. Nothing was said about the numerous reports of civilian casualties, most notably a drone strike that murdered 12 people at a wedding party in Yemen. A recent article from The Intercept refers to a Human Rights Watch report which “describes conflicting accounts of the December 12 attack, but nevertheless concludes that some, if not all, of the victims may have been civilians.” For those who wish to understand the toxic ideology that underlies the President’s chilling silence when it comes to addressing the fate of those victimized by US terror John Tirman’s The Death of Others is an indispensable source. Reviewing the “collective autism” of the American public in responding to the suffering of civilians on the other side of US bombs, Tirman illustrates how warped perceptions of “the other” coupled with an unusual capacity for denial has contributed to a society permeated with “vast carelessness” and puzzling “coldness.” Tirman begins his analysis of the historical roots of this “societal indifference” in what he calls the “frontier myth”, a Puritan ideology which he describes as “the über-narrative that encompassed values often linked to Americans–individualism and self-reliance, producing goods from the wilderness, and other ‘democratic’ values, as well as other ideological bents like Social Darwinism and Manifest Destiny.”

President Andrew Jackson was one of the more enthusiastic proponents of this imperial ideology and demonstrated his loyalty to “‘democratic’ values” by ethnically cleansing the southeastern regions of North America through the Indian Removal Act. In his message to the US Congress President Jackson stated his objective to “[open] the whole territory between Tennessee on the north and Louisiana on the south to the settlement of whites”, a move that would “incalculably strengthen the southwestern frontier.” In regard to the fate of the indigenous population Jackson made his genocidal aims more explicit, asking the assembled lawmakers “what good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns and prosperous farms … and filled with the blessings of liberty, civilization and religion?” Contemporary analogues to Jackson’s “civilizing mission” are not hard to find in the current public relations project surrounding the benefits of “modernization” which roughly translates into the subordination of the global commons, and by association those who depend on it, to the most predatory forms of state-corporate power.

Recent example of the “vast indifference” within the American intellectual class.

Tirman extends his analysis of this founding myth to more recent conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. The civilian massacres of No Gun Ri in Korea (in 1950 the US military killed approximately 400 Korean civilians in the course of 3 days), My Lai in Vietnam and Haditha in Iraq are given particular focus in the text as instructive samples of how Americans ignore the suffering of their victims. This “architecture of indifference” is attributed to three phenomena: the frontier myth, “racism or ethnocentrism”, and Just World Theory. That the widespread acceptance, and sometimes embrace, of cruelty towards foreign populations can be attributed to racism is not a particularly new idea yet Tirman supports this point of view with statistical data. Citing a study carried out by two psychologists examining American “attitudes toward the fate of Iraqis and Afghans compared with Americans during the wars of the last decade”, Tirman notes that “racial difference influences–intensifies–victim derogation and avoidance.” The practice of “victim derogation” (blaming the victim for their own suffering) took on particularly gruesome forms in America’s “twenty years’ war” against Iraq. Under the presidential administrations of George Bush Sr., Bill Clinton and Bush Jr. Iraq sustained a level of death and suffering that should outrage all except the most committed of sadists. Apart from causing the slow deaths of over 500,000 Iraqi children, the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of the US-imposed sanctions regime were made worse by a criminal bombing campaign, carried out with the stated intent to “accelerate the effects of the sanctions.”

Bombing targets included dams, oil facilities, shipyards and even water treatment facilities. In the middle of this terrorist assault a cable from the Defense Intelligence Agency reported that “incidences of disease, including possible epidemics, will become probable,” and “the entire Iraqi water treatment system will not collapse precipitously, but its capabilities will decline steadily.” During the First Gulf War American journalist Barton Gellman cited a senior Air Force officer justifying Iraqi civilian deaths under the pretext that “‘the definition of innocents gets to be a little unclear,'” because many Iraqis supported the invasion of Kuwait and “‘ultimately the [Iraqi] people have some control over what goes on in their country.'” Putting aside the fact that the laws of war explicitly outlaws attacks on innocent civilians, the Air Force officer’s rationale for bombing civilians is worth further examination. If it was legitimate for this American Air Force officer to murder Iraqi civilians because they had “some control over what goes on in their country,” what can be said about widespread support for countless wars of aggression in America, a country where people not only have “some control over what goes on in their country” but, theoretically, have the most control over policy decisions as citizens of “the land of the free”, the world’s greatest “democracy”? It doesn’t require much thought to predict what would happen if an Afghan soldier justified the murder of a US civilians on similar grounds citing the fact that the invasion of Afghanistan was supported by large majorities of the US public.

Maybe the most penetrating commentary of this book appears in Tirman’s investigation of the psychological underpinnings of this dangerous worldview. Insight in this domain can be gained through an examination of American intellectual culture, journalism and popular forms of entertainment. Central to the psychological response to civilian suffering is a habit of “containing, dispersing, and abstracting culpability, all the while displacing victims.” Ideological subservience of this kind led to the silencing of Vietnamese victims after the My Lai massacre and Iraqi victims under US occupation. When Wikileaks founder Julian Assange appeared on The Colbert Report in 2010 comedian Stephen Colbert criticized Assange as someone out to make a profit off of images of death and various forms of “manipulation.” Colbert also attempted to minimize the significance of the Collateral Murder video on the grounds that it was not “objective” and its title represented an “editorial” (not an accurate description of what occurred on the video i.e. murder). No comment was made on the condition of the children who survived the savage attack or if criminal charges should be brought against the perpetrators (Colbert called the attack “regrettable”). Colbert also asked Assange if he notified the Apache helicopter pilots (the criminals!) before publishing the video. When Assange said they did not need “harm minimization” Colbert, in a textbook example of “displacing victims”, asked “who needed it.” Assange replied “the families of those on the ground” and the “children in the [attacked] van.”  This interview represented what Tirman called “the third stage” of “public reaction to civilian casualties” namely “a more aggressive public stance of questioning the motives of journalists or others who revealed the incident, a tactic readily joined by the war’s supporters, rendering justice (as with My Lai, among others) haphazard or vitiated.”

Tirman concludes his study with an analysis of Just World Theory, a psychological phenomenon of “denial” and “withdrawal”  demonstrating that “[Americans] simply do not want to witness suffering and therefore naturally seek to avoid it,” particularly when the suffering can be traced back to the United States. In all, Tirman describes this socially sanctioned practice of eye-aversion as an example of the American public’s “psychological distancing from the horror of innocent victimization.” Psychological distancing of this kind is only more likely with the advent of remote control warfare where victims are seen as little more than “bugsplats” on a video monitor. It is therefore incumbent that this grotesque culture of state-directed mass killing be challenged as aggressively as possible. Fortunately, we have an example of this in the recent sentencing of 12 of the Hancock 17, a group of anti-drone resisters arrested for staging a protest outside  Hancock Field Air National Guard Base in Syracuse, New York. Town of Dewitt Court Judge David Gideon “gave the defendants the maximum sentence – 15 days in jail (starting immediately) and a $250 fine with a $125 court surcharge.” Among the impassioned closing statements at this shamefully under-reported trial was that of Elliot Adams who stated the following: ” When people talk about Nazi Germany they often talk about the so called ‘Good German’, a name used for those people who could not see the holocaust even as it happened before their eyes, who stood quietly by as their government shifted from a democratic government to a dictatorship, from a progressive liberal country to a demonic empire. One day people may talk about the ‘Good Americans’ who stood by when the balance of power remained broken and found various excuses for not using the portion of power they had to fix it.” In this respect, reading Tirman’s work is much more than an academic inquiry.  Current events make this type of education a moral imperative.