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Chernynkaya On April - 13 - 2010

The quote originates from General Sherman’s address to the graduating class of the Michigan Military Academy (19 June 1879):

I’ve been where you are now and I know just how you feel. It’s entirely natural that there should beat in the breast of every one of you a hope and desire that some day you can use the skill you have acquired here.

Suppress it! You don’t know the horrible aspects of war. I’ve been through two wars and I know. I’ve seen cities and homes in ashes. I’ve seen thousands of men lying on the ground, their dead faces looking up at the skies. I tell you, war is Hell!

War crimes, massacres, and, as Al Jazeera calls it, “collateral murder,” have been part of the US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001.

As the New York Times reports:

“American troops raked a large passenger bus with gunfire near Kandahar on Monday morning, killing and wounding civilians, and igniting angry anti-American demonstrations in a city where winning over Afghan support is pivotal to the war effort.”

The Kandahar incident is only one of many. Last year alone, there have been dozens of Afghans who have been killed in checkpoint and roadside killings. Not one, not a single one, of these involved hostile forces. When the smoke and dust cleared, all of the cases involved innocents. And these are only the incidents we know about. I guarantee the people in Afghanistan and Iraq know of many more. And they won’t forget.

As General McChrystal himself recently said:

“We really ask a lot of our young service people out on checkpoints because there’s danger, they’re asked to make very rapid decisions in often very unclear situations. However, to my knowledge, in the nine-plus months I’ve been here, not a single case where we have engaged in an escalation of force incident and hurt someone has it turned out that the vehicle had a suicide bomb or weapons in it and, in many cases, had families in it.”

Then why aren’t the rules of engagement altered? An important part of McChrystal’s strategy is to win over the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. We are spending billions upon billions on that strategy, building schools, roads, and hospitals. These civilian killings, aside from being tragic beyond all comprehension, are a damned ineffective way to go about that!

In the Iraq case, as revealed in the Wikileaks video, a group of eight men on a Baghdad street, in plain sunlight, is shot to pieces from a helicopter.  Then, when a van carrying four or five other men arrives to pick up a wounded man, the van is blasted to pieces when the airmen request permission to “engage.”

The military’s rationale is that US forces a few hundred yards away had taken small arms fire, and so the airmen in the copters circling above assumed that the men they’d seen were bad guys. And my response remains the same — war is hell– although I realize how dismissive and cavalier that sounds. It is a cliché because it is the terrible, hideous truth. But even though war is horrific for everyone, we can’t just leave it at that. Not good enough.

David Finkel, a Washington Post reporter wrote:

“What’s helpful to understand is that, contrary to some interpretations that this was an attack on some people walking down the street on a nice day, the day was anything but that. It happened in the midst of a large operation to clear an area where U.S. soldiers had been getting shot at, injured, and killed with increasing frequency. What the Reuters guys walked into was the very worst part, where the morning had been a series of RPG attacks and running gun battles.

“More context. You’re seeing an edited version of the video. The full video runs much longer. And it doesn’t have the benefit of hindsight, in this case zooming in on the van and seeing those two children. The helicopters were perhaps a mile away. And as all of this unfolded, it was unclear to the soldiers involved whether the van was a van of good Samaritans or of insurgents showing up to rescue a wounded comrade. I bring these things up not to excuse the soldiers but to emphasize some of the real-time blurriness of those moments.

“If you were to see the full video, you would see a person carrying an RPG launcher as he walked down the street as part of the group. Another was armed as well, as I recall. Also, if you had the unfortunate luck to be on site afterwards, you would have seen that one of the dead in the group was lying on top of a launcher. Because of that and some other things, EOD — the Hurt Locker guys, I guess — had to come in and secure the site. And again, I’m not trying to excuse what happened. But there was more to it for you to consider than what was in the released video.”

Ok, I’ll buy that. In war, I am told, there is the” real-time blurriness of those moments.” The fog of war. I don’t doubt it for a minute. We are told we have the “best” military in the world—however that is scored. We are told we have the best soldiers, but soldiers are only as good as their commanders. They are called grunts for a reason. Someone had better start thinking outside the box and changing the rules of engagement. Let’s see some excellence, even though war is Hell.

Add to that, we are “engaging” enemies dressed in mufti. We can’t tell the civilians from the insurgents from the enemy combatants. In Afghanistan, the repeated killings of innocent civilians have angered an embittered the population. Same in Iraq. The same resentment and hatred is brewing in Pakistan, where our drones are killing and maiming civilians. And that is something that will bite us in the ass in the future.

We are never going to win any hearts and minds, but I am glad we try. Now we must try harder—and that means figuring out how to fight a war against an enemy we cannot recognize. This could be the future of war, the way war against a stateless enemy will be fought from now on. There must be a way, must be a template from all the innumerable wars humanity has fought.

I feel like we’ve just discussed this, but I am still thinking about this, so forgive me. I have very unclear and mixed-up feelings about being in Af/Pak; I am not trying to solve my dilemma about that now. I just think since we are there, we need to do the best possible job, and that does not include murdering and maiming the civilian population. Forget the moral aspects of that if you can and just focus on a long-term strategy, because turning those people into eternal enemies can’t bode well for us. I know we’ve talked about this before, but it’s been festering in me. I agree with KQuark that we can’t fight a humane war—it’s an oxymoron. But can we at least fight a smart war, a war that meets our objectives? Or is a “smart war” an oxymoron too?

Categories: News & Politics

Written by Chernynkaya

I am an artist and have lived in Los Angeles all of my life, except for a brief hippie period when I lived in SF. I am currently (semi-unwillingly) retired, but have had several careers.

28 Responses so far.

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  1. Khirad says:

    A bit of a tangent, but Pakistan is a tricky one. Just because the US polls abysmally, doesn’t mean they’re too keen on the Taliban (which is, after all, a primarily Pashto movement). It’s very complicated, and I would but recommend reading Pakistani newspapers like Dawn and the International News at this point, without the time to go into it (plus I’m woefully behind on recent polling).

    • Chernynkaya says:

      All due respect, but I don’t think there is anything tricky about how Pakistan feels about death by drone.

      • Khirad says:

        Ah yes, but they have wanted the Taliban quashed.

        I wasn’t talking about drones, per se; but their own military’s offensives which have targeted the TTP, primarily. This in turn creates IDPs, a horrible humanitarian catastrophe, and the Taliban uses sympathies to gain some support again, until more bombings require the Pakistani Army to move in yet again.


        It is very complicated and circuitous. Like I said, tangential.

        • Chernynkaya says:

          Sorry Khirad, but none of that changes my point, which is that civilian casualties, at the hands of Americans, do not win hearts and minds-- a key part of our strategy. Many Afghans are anti-Taliban too; that doesn’t make them pro-American. Further, civilian casualties make them anti-American. I am not speaking about the Pakistanis’ feelings about their own military.

  2. dildenusa says:

    It sure is. Especially when it’s a symptom of a sick society.


    • Mightywoof says:

      What an absolutely horrifying story! As much as I dislike all war, I am steadfast in my support of those men and women who are injured and maimed in them. It blew my mind that a pediatrician is assigned to care for soldiers and then decided to practice amateur psychology -- it beggars belief!

    • kesmarn says:

      How infuriating it must be to people like Chuck Luther to give up so much, and to suffer so much in the name of patriotism, only to be told — in effect — that they’re crazy.

      Since Sarah Palin is all about “our boys” I think this would be a great issue for her to take up and champion. Whatya think the odds are of that happening?

  3. escribacat says:

    Seems like the only good news we get out of that region is the Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders being knocked out by drone attacks in Pakistan.

  4. kesmarn says:

    Cher, when I participated in the poll from Quinnipiac University on the phone, they asked about my opinion on the war in Afghanistan. That was the question (out of about 30) that I had to think about the longest. And I’m still uncertain as to what the “right” answer is, if there even is one.

    If Al Qaeda is still dug in there, and is able to pull off another attack on a level with 9/11, the first question on everyone’s minds would be: “Why didn’t the U.S. make an effort to dismantle them before they could do this again?”

    But how do you identify an “enemy” that is part of the civilian population and is — willingly or not — protected by them? In what is admittedly not a very precise parallel: it would be as if we were trying to identify and arrest Ku Klux Klan members in the U.S. Whether or not their neighbors agreed with what they were doing, would they actually turn them in? In many cases, I doubt it.

    The other problem is trying to conduct a completely “surgical” operation in Afghanistan by wiping out only the bad guys, while (logically enough) trying not to get our guys killed or even hurt. So situations like shooting from helicopters happen…situations in which you can’t see the little kids in the vehicle because you’re way too far away. A “safe” distance away. Not safe for the kids, though.

    When you throw Karzai into the mix, things really get complicated. Rumor has it he’s an addict. That really helps! How do you work with someone like that?

    I guess when it comes down to it, Obama’s position is probably the most “rational” one (in an irrational situation). Give it a decent try for a defined period and then get out. Far from ideal, but I’m afraid I can’t come up with a better one.

    One suggestion that would help in the “winning hearts and minds” department, though…? Don’t ask a child if he wants candy and then hold out a hand grenade to terrify him. And no more throwing puppies off of cliffs…

    • escribacat says:

      Hey kes, I hadn’t heard that rumor that Karzai is an addict. Do you remember where you heard that?

    • KQ says:

      I think getting hold of loose nukes is now the big picture strategy even with AfPak and Al Qaeda. I’ve said all along Obama’s biggest international legacy will be minimize the proliferation of nukes and securing lose nuclear material. Rachel did a great piece last night showing how the US secured all the fissionable nuclear material Chili had their entire country secretly even during the earthquake. We all heard Ukraine is giving up their nukes. If war is hell nuclear war is Armageddon.

      For me more and more Afghanistan comes down to what happens to the civilians, especially woman and children if we leave abruptly. I think with real progress in international cooperation and with securing nuclear material the threat from Al Qaeda attacking is being minimized. But anyone who thinks the blood bath that would follow another power vacuum in Afghanistan will be better for its citizens, especially woman and children than what’s going on now is fooling themselves. The only difference is it won’t be reported at all.

      • kesmarn says:

        KQ, I so appreciate your attention to a situation that gets far too little notice — the plight of women and children in Afghanistan. It really is dreadful; and from what I gather has been for many, many years. I’ve seen videos of women in those awful burqas being shot in the head right out on the street for some minor “modesty” violation. And then there’s the problem of child brides and child soldiers…terrible.

        The question, I guess, that arises next then is: can the US police the situation indefinitely? Is it time for Europe and other Middle Eastern countries to join in an alliance to try to stabilize Afghanistan? Would they be able to?

        Like you, I’m really heartened by Obama’s work to minimize the nuclear threat. How hard it is to get that genie back in the bottle, no?

        • nottoolate says:

          From Wikipedia on J. Robert Oppenheimer:

          In reference to the Trinity test in New Mexico, where his Los Alamos team first tested the bomb, Oppenheimer famously recalled the Bhagavad Gita: “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one.” and “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

          • kesmarn says:

            It’s hard to think of any weapon in the past that was voluntarily given up, unless it was in favor of an even more lethal one.

            I hope we can change that.

  5. whatsthatsound says:

    Maybe the adage should be changed to “Hell is War”. I think we humans have outdone any celestial beings in terms of inflicting misery on our fellows.

    • Chernynkaya says:

      Actually, What’s, I prefer your change--it makes us hear the message more clearly. And as to the celestial beings, well, my belief is that WE are the angels and demons we think are only in the ether.

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