The Collateral Damage Is Central

By David Swanson

The collateral damage in Iraq is most of the damage, and intentionally producing it is most of the mission. This is one of the conclusions I take away from an important new book by Chris Hedges and Laila Al-Arian called “Collateral Damage: America’s War Against Iraqi Civilians.”

The authors published a related cover story in the Nation magazine’s July 30 / Aug. 6, 2007 issue called “The Other War: Iraq Vets Bear Witness.” The book is quite short by book standards, but longer and more useful than the article. The authors interviewed 50 U.S. veterans of combat in Iraq over a period of seven months. The book does not just record these veterans’ statements. It synthesizes what the authors learned.

The authors came to understand that the basic procedures of the occupation of Iraq produce atrocities so reliably that atrocities become routine.

Convoys, the transportation of U.S. military and mercenary and contractor goods through Iraq, are one such procedure. Transporting materials through a hostile population amounts to pinning a bulls-eye on the side of your head and strutting past a firing range. The single biggest cause of U.S. casualties in Iraq is improvised explosive devices (IEDs) left on roads. So, what do convoys do? They drive fast, stopping for nothing. If a child is in the way, that child must be run over. If children are run over, that practice is justified by telling each other that Iraqis don’t actually value their children the way Americans do.

Checkpoints, temporary or permanent roadblocks set up to search cars for insurgents, are another atrocity-producing procedure. While convoys often transport useless crap, contractors’ luxuries, or empty trucks, it would seem reasonable to argue that as long as you’re going to occupy someone’s country you can’t avoid using convoys. Checkpoints, on the other hand, by the reports of the veterans interviewed, rarely if ever accomplish their stated goals. But they lead to the predictable slaughter of hundreds or thousands of civilians. In Iraq, a raised open hand means “approach,” whereas to a soldier or marine it means “stop.” This sort of communication problem compounds the dangers to civilians of checkpoints surprising them around hidden corners, or U.S. checkpoints set up behind Iraqi checkpoints – drivers think they have been waived through both checkpoints and die for the mistake. Under Saddam Hussein it was advisable to speed quickly past important buildings. Now checkpoints in the same locations punish driving quickly by unloading a storm of bullets into your car.

Raids of houses, like checkpoints, are understood by those conducting them to be nearly always pointless. Communication is often impossible, given the shortage of translators. Raids serve to humiliate, terrorize, detain, and sometimes kill. The soldiers conducting the raids apparently understand quite well that their actions are unlikely to uncover terrorists, but quite likely to produce new ones.

The same can be said for that other famous Iraq Occupation procedure: detention. Six months into the “surge,” the official count of detained Iraqis jumped from 16,000 to 22,500. Testifying in the U.S. Senate about detainees in September, 2006, Army Maj. Gen. John Batiste (ret) said: “Probably 99 percent of those people were guilty of absolutely nothing, but the way we treated them, the way we abused them turned them against the effort in Iraq forever.” By “the effort” he meant the U.S. effort to occupy Iraq, not the Iraqi effort to drive the occupiers out.

The occupation effort appears, from the accounts veterans provided to Hedges and Al-Arian, doomed to fail. John McCain proposes to end the Iraqi resistance and then continue the occupation forever without the violence. That scenario appears impossible. Barack Obama (and Hillary Clinton) propose to scale back the occupation on the basis of reduced Iraqi resistance and then continue the occupation for an unspecified period of time. That scenario appears equally impossible and not in any decisive sense different. Dick Cheney proposes to keep the occupation going, as is, but also bomb the neighboring nation of Iran. That approach appears likely to make matters amazingly worse — amazingly because it’s amazing that this catastrophic crime could be made worse and because it would be made far, far worse. Our representatives in Congress, meanwhile, propose to fund the occupation for another year and a half as soon as possible and then hope for the best. That strategy appears to me to be beneath contempt. In short, our entire government and potential future members of government are operating on the basis of important and demonstrably false fantasies.

Collateral damage is a good name for our central mission as a nation. Our biggest export is weapons. Our biggest public expense is the occupation of foreign nations. And yet what we believe is central to our behavior is myth and fantasy. In this book, as always, Hedges brings out the disturbing nature of war as pornography of violence, war as violence understood – even by those engaged in it – through a lens of fantasy and wishful thinking. When veterans come home from what they’ve finally understood to be hellish murder and rape without redemption, the bullshit they hear on television and from their fellow citizens about heroism can make them hide inside themselves, lose their sanity, or find the unbelievable courage to speak out. When they speak to real journalists, we get a book as good as this one.

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