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Dying in the name of GWOT

"The effort in Afghanistan is going to be the longest campaign of the Long War." – Gen. David Petraeus

October 21, 2008
by Rob Lafferty

The Global War On Terror is an awkward name with the terribly appropriate acronym of GWOT. Those who believe in the romance of war prefer "The Long War" as a name for our current military misadventures against Islamic jihadists. It resonates better in speeches and looks better when printed on a page, and that's important when selling a war to a nation. There's no glory in a GWOT, but a Long War evokes the full range of Hollywood war imagery that most Americans have grown to love.

As George Carlin always liked to point out, Americans are pretty much a war-like people; we have a war with somebody every few years, so we must like them. We paid billions of dollars to maintain 761 active military bases in 151 foreign countries this year. We support our troops when they are at war, even when we don't understand why they're being sent to fight and to die. And we talk about the invasion and occupation of Iraq as if it were a justifiable war even though our government broke about a dozen national and international laws when it dropped the ?Shock and Awe? bombing campaign onto the city of Baghdad.

In May of 2007, 126 US soldiers died in Iraq during a year when US forces averaged nearly four deaths per day. Last month 25 American troops were killed; casualties have dropped to an average of one death per day this year. This represents progress to some people, a sign that we're "winning" against the resistance to our occupation.

All it really means is that 25 more American citizens died somewhere they never should have been. A true sign of progress would be soldiers coming home to stay, but that isn't happening yet. When the number of US troop stationed in Iraq does begin to drop, however, it won't necessarily mean that they're coming home.

In Afghanistan, coalition forces lost 232 soldiers in 2007, the most in one year since fighting began in 2001. Today, in mid-October, that death toll is already 247 for this year and rising.

Both presidential candidates have said that they'll continue to send more young men and women into Afghanistan where some of them will die. Of course, the candidates don't actually say that; they talk about increasing our troop levels in order to take the battle to the enemy, or some other more appropriate phrasing that doesn't fully acknowledge the violence and death those troops will endure.

So we know that US troops will be dying in the sands of Iraq for at least more two years after GWB walks away from the White House in January and boards a plane bound for Texas. We know that US troops will still be fighting in the mountain valleys of Afghanistan when the 2012 presidential elections come around.

And that, after all, was part of the Cheney/Rumsfeld invasion plan all along. That's why those six "enduring camps" in the desert sand, whose construction started immediately after the occupation began, are now acknowledged as full-service air bases that will "endure" for a very long time indeed.

And yet American soldiers will never be welcome on the streets of Iraq by the descendants of the ancient tribal divisions of Mesopotamia who have long memories and intentions of their own. A significant number of Iraqi people prefer to work out their own destiny without any further outside interference.

It seems as if we've forgotten that the people of Iraq are very much like us. We forget that so many have suffered agonizing losses though no fault of their own. And we don't seem to understand how many innocents die when our weapons go astray in towns and villages.

Two dozen American soldiers killed each month is a tragedy, but those are small numbers when compared to the number of people – men, women and children, young and old, the innocent along with the guilty – who are killed every month by American weapons in Iraqi and Afghanistan. It's impossible to know the true numbers, but it's safe to say that for each US soldier killed in action there have been at least five innocent children killed by mistake.

After five long years every village, town and city in Iraq and Afghanistan has been deeply affected by sudden, violent death inflicted upon them by Sunni militias or Shia mobs or jihadist bombs – and also by American airstrikes.

According to the Afghani government, two US bomb and rocket attacks in July in the northern provinces killed 62 civilians, including a wedding party of mostly women and children. US military investigators concede that more than 30 civilians died in American airstrikes on Aug. 22 against a suspected Taliban compound in Azizabad, a village in western Afghanistan.

They raised their initial estimate of 5-7 civilian deaths after seeing numerous bodies pulled out of the rubble of exploded buildings. That's still far below the number of 90 victims that Afghani and UN officials claim is supported by cellphone photos, fresh graves and witnesses who saw the bodies.

"Such acts provoke public hatred towards internal and foreign forces and force people to join the enemy who encourages them to carry out terrorist and suicide attacks," read an editorial in the Afghani Hewad newspaper.

"The Americans will soon face new resistance with new motives if they continue such operations and do not care even a little about the lives of the people," the daily Anis wrote. Both newspapers are controlled by the government, so their editorial positions reflect the official state position on all issues.

The kind of problems we're creating in the Middle East go far beyond the accidental deaths that are inevitable in urban warfare. We've used cluster bombs and white phosphorus and depleted uranium as weapons, and we've used them against civilians – most often by mistake, but there were no mistakes to be made when US forces sought to regain control of the city of Fallujah for the second time in November of 2004.

US military statements at the time reflected a belief that perhaps 5,000 insurgents were hiding among the 300,000 residents of Fallujah. A direct military decision was made to punish the city for stubbornly resisting the occupation and for harboring those insurgents.

The assault was preceded by eight weeks of aerial bombardment. US troops cut off the city's water, power and food supplies. Two-thirds of the city's 300,000 residents fled, most of them landing in squatters' camps without basic facilities.

Anyone left in town once the fighting began was considered to be hostile and a legitimate target. Unit commanders later revealed their troops had orders to shoot all males of fighting age seen on the streets, armed or unarmed. Most of the buildings were leveled, including residential neighborhoods, and an unknown number of children were killed simply because their families didn't get out in time.

By the end of operations, much of the city lay in ruins. 70 percent of the buildings were damaged, including 30,000 homes. Another 5,000 homes were totally destroyed. Dozens of mosques and schools were hit by rockets or mortar rounds or cannon shells.

Relief agencies and Iraqi medical workers estimate that at least 7,000 people died as a result of Operation Phantom Fury. Most of the dead were young or middle-aged men and presumed to be fighters, but there were a lot of funerals held for women and children after the battle quieted down.

Mortar teams fired thousands of rounds of high explosives and white phosphorus bombs into the city for 48 hours before the street fighting began. They never saw what they hit and they had no idea what damage was being done – they were given coordinates over the radio and they targeted their mortars accordingly.

In March of 2005, Field Artillery Magazine published "The Fight for Fallujah", an article that openly discussed the use of white phosphorous. A former soldier was quoted as saying, "WP proved to be an effective and versatile munition. We fired 'shake and bake' missions at the insurgents, using WP to flush them out and high explosives to take them out."

The Geneva Protocol bans the use of white phosphorous, "since its use causes indiscriminate and extreme injuries especially when deployed in an urban area." White phosphorous bombs and rockets were used in Fallujah by our own government's admission. "Willie Pete", the soldiers call it. The DOD claims it was used only for illumination purposes, but Iraqi health Ministry officials reported finding bodies with melted flesh. Willie Pete does that to people, as does napalm.

Dr. Khalid ash-Shaykhli was the head of the Iraqi Ministry of Health in Fallujah in 2004. He was reported as stating that "...research, prepared by his medical team, prove that US forces used internationally prohibited substances, including mustard gas, nerve gas, napalm and other burning chemicals in their attacks on the war-torn city."

Dr Shaykhli's claims are echoed in eyewitness accounts of the street fighting stating that "...all forms of nature were wiped out in Fallujah" and "...hundreds of dogs, cats, and birds had perished as a result of those gasses" and "…an unidentified chemical was used in the bombing raids that killed every living creature in certain areas of the city."

That’s the real legacy of the neoconservative movement’s decision to use full military power and “take the gloves off” as we journey “over to the darker side” in our international struggle against violent extremists. In the process, we are making just as many enemies among the people of Iraq and Afghanistan as the Taliban and Al-Queda are.

And so we have The Long War to Keep America Safe. It will always be fought on foreign soil. And innocent foreign children will continue pay the ultimate price of our pursuit of the illusion of safety.