New York Times war correspondent Dexter Filkins couldn't help liking the young American soldiers with whom he was embedded in U.S.-occupied Iraq. Recognizing that, Filkins tried to maintain some professional distance.
"There wasn't any point in sentimentalizing the kids; they were trained killers, after all. They could hit a guy at 500 yards or cut his throat from ear-to-ear. They had faith, they did what they were told and they killed people," he wrote in his book of war vignettes The Forever War. Alas, he was all but alone.
All wars demand contempt for The Other. But the leaders of a country waging a war of naked, unprovoked aggression are forced to rely on an even higher level of enemy dehumanization than average in order to maintain political support for the sacrifices they require. Your nation's dead soldiers are glorious heroes fallen to protect hearth and home. Their dead soldiers are criminals and monsters. Their civilians are insects, unworthy of notice. So it is. So it always shall be in the endless battle over hearts and minds.
Even by these grotesque, inhuman rhetorical standards, the 10-year occupation of Afghanistan has been notable for the hyperbole relied upon by America's compliant media, as well as its brazen inconsistency.
U.S. and NATO officials overseeing the occupation of Afghanistan liken their mission to those of peacekeepers--they're there to help.
"Protecting the people is the mission," reads the first line of the International Security Assistance Force commander's counterinsurgency guidance statement. "The conflict will be won by persuading the population, not by destroying the enemy. ISAF will succeed when the [Karzai government] earns the support of the people."
Of course actions speak louder than words. Since 2001 ISAF has been doing precious little protecting of anything other than America's geopolitical interests, using Afghanistan as a staging ground for thousands of drone attacks across the border in Pakistan. Protecting Afghan civilians has actually been a low ISAF priority, to say the least. They've been bombing civilians indiscriminately, then lying about it, sometimes paying off bereaved family members with token sums of blood money.
The verbiage deployed by American officials, dutifully transcribed by journo-stenographers at official press briefings, sends nearly as loud a message as a laser-guided Hellfire missile slamming into a wedding party: Afghan lives mean nothing. The life of an American dog--literally, as we'll see below--counts more than that of an Afghan man or woman.
In the worst single-day loss of life for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Taliban fighters shot down a Chinook CH-47 transport helicopter in eastern Wardak Province with a rocket-propelled grenade on Aug. 6.
Western media's attitude toward the Afghans they are supposedly trying to "assist" was as plain as the headlines. "U.S. Troops, SEALs Killed in Afghanistan Copter Crash," reported Time magazine. (SEALs are U.S. Navy commandos.) "31 Killed in Afghanistan Chopper Crash," said ABC. "31 Dead in Afghanistan Helicopter Crash," shouted Canada's National Post. (The number was later revised to 30.)
Eight Afghan government commandos died, too. But dead Afghans don't rate a headline--even when they're working for your country's puppet regime. As far as the American press is concerned, only 30 people--i.e., Americans--died.
An initial Associated Press wire service report noted that the dead included "22 SEALs, three Air Force air controllers, seven Afghan Army troops, a dog and his handler, and a civilian interpreter, plus the helicopter crew."
The dog. They mentioned the dog.
After 9/11, American pundits debated the question: Why do they (radical Muslims) hate us (Americans) so much? This is why. It is official Pentagon policy not to count Afghan or Iraqi or Pakistani or Libyan or Yemeni or Somali dead, civilian or "enemy." But "our" guys are sacred. We even count our dogs.
Lest you think that I'm exaggerating, that this was merely another example of a reporter larding his account with excessive detail, consider this maudlin missive by Michael Daly of the New York Daily News, one of the biggest newspapers in the United States:
"Among the SEALs were a dog handler and a dog that would remind outsiders of Cujo [a rabies-infected beast in one of Stephen King's horror novels], but held a special place in the hearts of the squadron," wrote Daly "SEALs have a soft spot for their dogs, perhaps partly because a canine's keen senses can alert them to danger and give them a critical edge. A dog also allows resolutely reticent warriors to express a little affection; you can pet a pooch, if not another SEAL."
Get a grip, Mike. Lots of people like dogs.
Daly tortures and twists his cheesy prose into the kind of savage propaganda that prolongs a war the United States can't win, that is killing Afghans and Americans for no reason, that most Americans prefer not to think about. Soon a group of elite commandos--members of Team Six, the same outfit that assassinated Osama bin Laden--become helpless victims of the all-seeing, all-powerful Taliban of Death. In Daly's bizarre world, it is the Afghan resistance forces and their 1980s-vintage weapons that have all the advantages.
Note the use of the phrase "bad guys."
"The bad guys knew when the Chinook helicopter swooped down into an Afghan valley that it would have to rise once those aboard were done. All the Taliban needed to do was wait on a mountainside. The Chinook rose with a SEAL contingent that likely could have held off thousands of the enemy on the ground. The SEALs could do nothing in the air against an insurgent with a rocket."
Helpless! One could almost forget whose country these Americans were in.
Or what they were in Wardak to do.
Early reports had the dead Navy SEALs on a noble "rescue mission" to "assist" beleaguered Army Rangers trapped under "insurgent" fire. Actually Team Six was on an assassination assignment.
"The American commandos who died when their helicopter crashed in eastern Afghanistan were targeting a Taliban commander directly responsible for attacks on U.S. troops," CNN television reported on Aug. 7. "Targeting" is mediaspeak for "killing." According to some accounts, they had just shot eight Talibs in a house in the village of Jaw-e-Mekh Zareen in the Tangi Valley. Hard to imagine but U.S. soldiers used to try to capture enemy soldiers before killing them.
Within hours newspaper websites, radio and television outlets were choked with profiles of the dead SEALs.
The AP described a dead SEAL from North Carolina as "physically slight but ever ready to take on a challenge." NBC News informed viewers that a SEAL from Connecticut had been "an accomplished mountaineer, skier, pilot and triathlete and wanted to return to graduate school and become an astronaut."
What of the Afghans killed by those SEALs? What of their hopes and dreams? Americans will never know.
Even men of the cloth wallowed in the bloodthirsty militarism that has obsessed Americans since the Sept. 11 attacks. Catholic News Service quoted Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio, who called the Chinook downing a "reminder of the terrible tragedy of war and its toll on all people."
"No person of good will is left unmoved by this loss," said the archbishop.
The Taliban, their supporters, and not a few random Afghans, may perhaps disagree.
This is a war, after all. Is it too much to ask the media to acknowledge the simple fact that some citizens of a nation under military occupation often choose to resist? That Americans might take up arms if things were the other way around, with Afghan occupation forces bombing and killing and torturing willy-nilly? That one side's "insurgents" and "guerillas" are another's patriots and freedom fighters?
Don't news consumers have the right to hear from the "other" side of the story? Or must we continue the childish pretense that the Taliban are all women-hating fanatics incapable of rational thought while the men (and dog) who died on that Chinook in Wardak were all benevolent and pure of heart?
During America's war in Vietnam, reporters derided the "5 o'clock follies," daily press briefings that increasingly focused on body counts. Evening news broadcasts featured business-report-style graphics of the North and South Vietnamese flags; indeed, they immediately followed the stock market summary. "The Dow Jones Industrial Average was down 16 points in light trading," Walter Cronkite would intone. "And in Vietnam today, eight Americans were killed, 18 South Vietnamese, 43 Vietcong."
After 2001 the body counts became a national joke. In many ways America's next major conflict, the 1991 Gulf War, was a political reaction to the Vietnam experience. Conscription had been replaced by a professional army composed of de facto mercenaries recruited from the underclass. Overkill supplanted the war for hearts and minds that defined the late-Vietnam counterinsurgency strategy. And reporters who had enjoyed near total freedom in the 1960s were frozen out. Only a few trusted journos were allowed to travel with American forces in Kuwait and Iraq. They relied on the Pentagon to transmit their stories back home; one wire service reporter got back home to find that the military had blocked every single account he had filed.
Citing the 5 o'clock follies of Vietnam and declaring themselves incapable of counting civilian or enemy casualties, U.S. military officials said they would no longer bother to try. (Covertly the bureaucracy continued to try to gather such data for internal use.)
Meanwhile media organizations made excuses for not doing their jobs.
The UK Guardian, actually one of the better Western media outlets, summarized the mainstream view in August 2010: "While we are pretty good at providing detailed statistical breakdowns of coalition military casualties (and by we, I mean the media as a whole), we're not so good at providing any kind of breakdown of Afghan civilian casualties ... Obviously collecting accurate statistics in one of the most dangerous countries in the world is difficult. But the paucity of reliable data on this means that one of the key measures of the war has been missing from almost all reporting. You've noticed it too--asking us why we publish military deaths but not civilian casualties."
There's something more than a little twisted about media accounts that portray a helicopter shootdown as a "tragedy." A baby dies in a fire--that's a tragedy. A young person struck down by some disease--that's also a tragedy. Soldiers killed in war? Depending on your point of view, it can be sad. It can be unfortunate. It can suck. But it's not tragic.
Alternately: If the United States' losses in Afghanistan are "tragedies," so are the Taliban's. They can't have it both ways.