We Are Protecting Afghan Civilians…from Ourselves

Posted on August 13, 2009 by


Today, a serial-killing rapist passed several women during his noon hour lunch break, and he thought to himself, “there are some that should really get it.” He did not act on his thoughts. He was safeguarding the welfare and safety of those women.

A shoplifter greedily eyed the expensive items in the store’s electronics section. She thought of making a move, then decided not to. She was taking anti-theft measures.

A gangster proposes to a baker that if he pays him a weekly sum, no harm will come to the baker, his family, or his store. He was offering the baker protection.

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Hold Still While I Protect You

It begins with this article posted prominently on Yahoo! by the Associated Press for this date, titled “Marine mission to protect Afghans slows progress.” (In fact, the same AP article was reproduced by numerous news organizations on this date.) It was to me, and hopefully to anyone with a memory capacity larger than a gnat’s, possibly the most outlandish headline to be seen in a long time. The Marines are protecting Afghans? The Marines? Protecting?

One would have to ignore the thousands of civilians killed in Afghanistan since the U.S. invasion, that are directly attributable to the U.S. and NATO occupation forces, and that are caused by U.S./NATO actions and the responses they provoke. One would have to forget the torture and murder of detainees in U.S. custody at Bagram Air Base, where hundreds remain in detention without charge and without trial. One would have to be oblivious to at least several wedding parties butchered by the US Air Force. One could then choose to ignore the documentary made available below, Taxi to the Dark Side, winner of an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. If one successfully blinds and deafens oneself, then the AP headline is not so outrageous.

However, what is even more striking about the AP piece is the actual content of the report, which essentially reads in the same way as the three vignettes above. The Marines, in not being allowed to raze a village and mow everyone in their path, are “protecting” civilians, clearly from the Marines themselves:

The British jet called in by the U.S. Marines had the Taliban position in sight, but the pilot refused to fire, a decision that frustrated Marines on the ground….

The Marines themselves didn’t attack militants shooting at them from a compound Wednesday during the same battle because women and children were there….

By holding fire, McChrystal hopes to avoid the massive civilian casualty cases of past months and years and help win over Afghan villagers….

McChrystal’s order to protect civilians applies to all forces in the country.

“Sure, that’s frustrating, but we’ve got to deal with it,” said Capt. Zachary Martin, commander of Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines….

The Marines say they can avoid civilian casualties with the help of the sophisticated surveillance technology they have. Strict orders have also been issued for the Marines to use proportional response when attacked….

But many of the riflemen voiced frustration at the limited options they were left with when trying to expand control of the town on Wednesday. The orders to hold fire appeared to have slowed their advance in Dahaneh, where after a full day they held only a small foothold outpost.

Since the Marines are frustrated that they cannot fire, they are “protecting” civilians, as if they should be praised for doing what is legally required of US/NATO occupation forces under the international legal conventions that they signed on to, and that acquired force as part of their domestic laws. Not being excessively aggressive, and committing war crimes, is reconstructed as benevolence, rather than a basic minimum. Not being an outright brute, is represented as moderation. It’s a very short and smooth road to sainthood for warriors forced to respect the mandates of the Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War (1949) (see also here). This is humanitarianism, as a default starting point.

What this also affords us yet another opportunity to witness how the Western, and specifically American, news media fold in with the official propaganda of the government and military, reproducing the authorized rhetoric without so much as batting an eyelid in disbelief. The reason: the intention is to train all of us into credulity, sympathy, and obedience. The chosen vocabulary of doublespeak keeps growing, while erasing the more accurate, honest, revealing vocabulary needed to name reality. Thus we have collateral damage to mask the butchering of civilians through excessive force; we have private security contractors (sometimes shortened to just private contractors), who are in fact mercenaries, guns for hire, soldiers of fortune…and not innocent, ordinary security guards and dry wallers. We have incidents to gloss massacres. Now we have protection. One has to simply listen to/read the mass media — the terms of official-speak are plainly there, reproduced frequently, without question, with ease.

Newspeak Outlaws Reagan and Rambo

To some extent, the state and the media exercise in public re-education works, perhaps with just that part of the population that is predisposed to credulity, possibly the same part that believes that Jesus walked with dinosaurs, that angels exercise an active presence in our lives, that health care for the poor is the “dismantling of America,” and that stepping on a crack really will break your mother’s back.

Just today in Twitter, I spotted this statement: “Rough time 4 soldiers fighting terrorists and building communities in Afghanistan.” Building communities — after massive aerial bombings over a period of eight years. Building communities — as if Afghanistan had no communities before Americans slammed into the country. “Fighting terrorists” as if those who fight soldiers, foreign invaders, can now be re-branded as “terrorists” in spite of common definitions premised on the idea that terrorism involves the deliberate, indiscriminate killing of non-combatants, a category that automatically excludes soldiers.

What is equally astonishing is that these “terrorist” branders completely go against the rhetorical grain of their great American hero, the Great Communicator himself, Ronald Reagan. It was President Reagan who said:

in Afghanistan, the freedom fighters are the key to peace. We support the Mujahadeen. There can be no settlement unless all Soviet troops are removed and the Afghan people are allowed genuine self-determination. (Applause.) (7th State of the Union speech)

“To watch the courageous Afghan freedom fighters battle modern arsenals with simple hand-held weapons is an inspiration to those who love freedom. Their courage teaches us a great lesson—that there are things in this world worth defending. To the Afghan people, I say on behalf of all Americans that we admire your heroism, your devotion to freedom, and your relentless struggle against your oppressors.” (March 21, 1983).

At the time, popular culture followed. The closing credits to Rambo III dedicated the movie to the Afghan “freedom fighters” who battled the Soviet invaders. Having just seen the film, Ethnografix read the final dedication, to the “gallant people of Afghanistan.”

It’s a significant, successful coup in producing a newthink and newspeak that turns its back on figures such as Reagan and Rambo, and that leads some Americans, at the highest levels, to adopt Soviet-style propaganda. Let us not forget that many of these gallant, freedom loving, heroic mujahideen became what we know today as the Taliban. If they are now the terrorists, then the USA must now be the USSR.

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Trying Again: The Armored Angels

The latest attempt to torture reality in order to exculpate American military aggression comes in the form of yet one more attempt at beautifying the story of Paula Loyd, herself an Army reservist, then a civilian employee for the Pentagon’s Human Terrain System when she was killed by an Afghan. Abdul Salam, her attacker, was then killed by a mercenary in the employ of HTS, Don Ayala, while  Salam was under detention, subdued, and unarmed — a war crime by the strictest interpretation. Don Ayala was let off with a slap on the wrist from a U.S. court, and not even charged under war crime laws to begin with (see here). The accepted excuse? He killed out of “stress” induced from being in a war zone. To my knowledge, such generous sympathies have never been offered to those who have lived, on an everyday basis, full time, in a war zone: the Taliban themselves. Nor was such a compassionate understanding expanded to embrace Loyd’s own killer. Of course not, American commentators and judges only invent such excuses for those they deem human to begin with.

The latest attempt I alluded to above comes in the form of an article by an American human rights lawyer currently based in Afghanistan, Erica Gaston, in her article in The Huffington Post titled “Has Kandahar Already Fallen?” (10 August 2009). In that article she produced the following paragraph:

Most humanitarian workers and journalists have simply pulled out of Kandahar because they cannot operate under the intense security restrictions. Those who remain are prisoners to their compounds. The incidents that have happened when they do leave their compounds are chilling. A brave researcher, Paula Loyd, was doused in cooking oil and set on fire when she ventured out of her compound last year.

Read it again. The paragraph begins with “humanitarian workers and journalists” — as if Paula Loyd was either one, yet that is where Gaston places her. Still speaking of independent civilians, not in the employ of an occupying army, and not residents of a military base, Gaston notes that they are “prisoners to their compounds.” Then Gaston continues, speaking of “incidents that have happened when they do leave their compounds” and immediately points to Paula Loyd. Loyd did not leave her “compound” when she was killed. She was stationed on a U.S. military base. She was in the company of a military patrol.

Don Ayala and Paula Loyd

Don Ayala and Paula Loyd

She was armoured and helmeted, indistinguishable from a U.S. soldier in most people’s eyes. Indeed, she was what journalist Robert Young Pelton described of other military patrols that take HTS employees with them, who “look like the ultimate Imperial Stormtrooper,” part of a “made-in-America, million-dollar-a-copy, fuck-you occupation parade” (source). It’s not just Pelton’s view, it’s also David Kilcullen’s, Kilcullen the counterinsurgency theorist, icon of the “small wars” crowd, in his book The Accidental Guerrilla: “We are aliens — imperial stormtroopers with our Darth Vader sunglasses and grotesque and cowardly body armor” (p. 136). One reader pictured Loyd’s entry to the village in these terms: “a young blonde woman parading around in a power suit (military uniform) surrounded by armed guards send[ing] the message to the locals that ‘I am what your future looks like,’ which is an antagonistic message.”

Paula Loyd was not just researching, nor was she as brave as someone who travels alone through Afghanistan, without an army. Loyd was most certainly not a humanitarian worker.

I don’t know what people see in that photo above, but I imagine that few would be willing to bet their wages that there is a woman in that photo. I also cannot imagine how she would look like anything other than a soldier to a Taliban attacker, and thus nothing less than a legitimate target, and nothing more.

Let’s finish with an exercise in newspeak turned against itself. Salam was a liberator. He liberated Loyd from a prolonged career of selling her services to militarism, and thus to terrorism. Never again would she be used as a human shield by the American terrorists. However, Salam did not kill everyone on her patrol: that’s because he was protecting them.

We’re all saints now.

[Addendum: I recognize that undereducated, lunatic members of the extreme right in the U.S., notorious for their reading comprehension difficulties, and willful blindness, will have difficulty understanding Orwellian newspeak, since they practice it ignorantly and unconsciously. However, if that paragraph above “We’re all saints now,” reads as “offensive,” then: one, tough, grow up; and, two, replace the details with those of an Afghan, and see how offensive you are in Afghan eyes. That’s the point. Missed by the irreparably dumb and the duped.]

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Taxi to the Dark Side

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