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On the internet there have been photographs going round of a row of puffy-faced North Korean generals with flabby chests covered in medals. Their decorations are absurd, of course, because none of these chubbies has heard a shot fired in anger. And western propaganda machines are understandably publicizing the pictures at this time of tension with the regime of pot-bellied, moon-faced and deranged President Kim Jong Un. But it’s unlikely that the North Koreans will publish photographs of the equally generous medal-chests of American or other nations’ generals, if only because they’ve got no sense of humor.
Have you ever wondered how many medals have been awarded to foreign soldiers in Afghanistan who have been fighting America’s Longest War? We can’t establish the exact number, because we’ll never know how many soldiers have endured service in that God-forsaken hellhole. But given average annual strength over the past few years of about 40,000 foreign troops, each having a six-month tour of duty, it’s getting on to half a million national medals. Then there is the other medal awarded to everyone for having been there: the International Security and Assistance Force Medal. Add half a million. So that’s at least a million little circles of metal attached to ribbons that are pinned on the chests of all these military people.
What’s the point of all these shiny gongs? What are they supposed to signify? I don’t disapprove of medals as such, because some are indicative of honorable military service, usually in dangerous and horrible circumstances, and in a number of cases they are awarded for great bravery. It is pleasing that the new Secretaries of State and Defense in Washington have medals — not that their experience and courage deterred a bunch of pathetic chair-bound dummies from trying to block their appointments. And they are proof that at least some metal is awarded for mettle. So don’t get me wrong about medals. After all, I’ve got ten, and they look very pretty and I like wearing them on ceremonial occasions. Six of them, however, are just glitter garbage, handed out for having done nothing in particular.
But some medals are awarded for propaganda purposes, and if you think back to the dishonorable and disgraceful way in which some US senior officers — very senior officers indeed — told deliberate lies about the award of a posthumous bravery medal to Pat Tillman, then you wonder about military integrity.
You might not remember the Pat Tillman affair, so please allow me remind you what happened on the death of this American football player who joined the Army Rangers rather than take up a multi-million dollar contract with the Arizona Cardinals. After his death in Afghanistan in April ten years ago there was a memorial service at which his family “were told that he was killed while running up a hill in pursuit of the enemy. He was awarded a Silver Star for his courageous actions. A month and two days after his death, the family learned that Pat had been shot three times in the head by his own troops in a ‘friendly fire’ incident.” Make no mistake: Pat was a brave man. He deserved a medal for courage because he exposed himself to deadly danger when he stood up and shouted to his panicking comrades to stop firing because there wasn’t an enemy within miles. But a gang of despicable and dishonorable generals used his status and bravery as a propaganda tool for their own putrid purposes. It’s like the repulsive fraud about Private Jessica Lynch during the invasion of Iraq — and countless other tawdry deceptions. The farcical Lynch affair was the stage-managed rescue of a 19-year old supply clerk who was in a convoy that got lost and was shot at by Iraqi troops. She was slightly wounded and the Iraqis took her to a hospital where she was looked after very well (“The nurses tried to soothe me and return me,” she said, later.) There were no guards, and she was in no danger. But the hospital was assaulted by dozens of US special forces especially for propaganda purposes, which no doubt earned everyone concerned a few more chest-chinking bits of metal. She got six of them. And as she told the US Congress in April 2007: “I am still confused as to why they [the US army] chose to lie and tried to make me a legend.” It all stinks, of course; but so long as the medals keep coming, who cares? And who cares about what’s been happening in Afghanistan, the land where medals outnumber soldiers, and soldiers die for nothing?
And not only soldiers die for nothing in Afghanistan. The New York Times reported in February that two Afghan kids gathering firewood “were killed by weapons fired from a NATO helicopter,” causing the commander in Afghanistan, US General Joseph Dunford, to “offer my personal apology and condolences to the family of the boys who were killed.” But do you think the killer pilot will wear his medals with pride? And might General Dunford ever wonder, as he dons his uniform jacket, heavy with badges and blazonry, and rigid with rows of ribbons, if he truly deserves the medals he got at the time that two seven year-old Afghan boys were blasted to ragged gobbets of blood-gushing flesh by a missile from one of his hi-tech gunships?
Every time I learn of a soldier being killed in Afghanistan I think of his family — probably because I’m an old soldier and once had to go to the house of an army widow who didn’t know she was a widow until I told her. That was a long time ago, but I wonder, now, what a young army major (or whatever) thinks when he forms up to the front door of a doomed family and rings the bell and lifts his chin and squares his shoulders and delivers the sentence of death — but I also think of the weeping Afghan army widows who face lives of despair and hopelessness. (There is never a word in the Western media about the many, many thousands of them.) And I think of Afghan family compounds where loving parents are told to their frantic anguish that their tiny boys have vanished forever because some bungling foreigners imagined they were terrorists. Who deserves medals for killing kids?
In our celebrity-worshipping age, in which not much matters to countless millions of people except Oscars, Nascars and shrieking excitement at rah-rah sport, it’s difficult to come to terms with reality. Which is one reason why handing out medals is so important to those who want to manipulate people in the cause of war. They’re the cheer-breeders.
One of the most bizarre pieces of news to hit the media recently concerned the decision by the Administration in Washington to award a bravery decoration to government workers who from armchairs direct drones to kill supposed enemies and in the process slaughter totally guiltless people from time to time. I have to say that when I first read the report I thought it might be an amusing if somewhat sick spoof dreamed up by London’s Private Eye magazine or the satirical online site, The Onion. Alas: not so. This grotesque report was no sardonic send-up; it was perfectly serious official notification that the United States of America approves of and conducts assassinations. Further, the Land of the Free, the World’s Greatest Democracy, was announcing to the world that its uniformed minions who kill kids by mouse-tap deserve medals for displaying courage.
Drone drivers are honored by the newly-invented US Distinguished Warfare Medal, which ranks above the Bronze Star which is awarded “for acts of heroism, acts of merit, or meritorious service in a combat zone.” But how can there be heroism involved in controlling drone strikes? And how does an air-conditioned screen-studded hi-tech parlor behind massive security walls count as a combat zone?
It seems that Defense Secretary Hagel may be able to cancel the bizarre decision to award gallantry medals to switch-flicking mouse-tappers. But the very fact that the medal was created at all is a sad commentary on the state of decorations and the degradation of Democracy.
Drone operators have killed 400 civilians in their strikes in Pakistan alone. We’ll never know how many ordinary citizens they’ve killed in Afghanistan or Yemen or other countries into which the CIA and the US Air Force propel their savage explosive daggers.
Over western Pakistan the terror drones drift soundlessly in the sky, and sometimes they twinkle in reflected sunlight; and when villagers see them they freeze in fear. Might there be someone in their village who has had a CIA-supplied micro-chip planted on them? Perhaps a chip-stuck truck came into their village that morning, and the spark-eyed mouse-tapping Controllers in their armchairs are waiting for activation. Maybe one of their neighbors hates them and has told someone-who-knows-someone that they support a terrorist. (That’s a popular means of local eradication.) But there’s no point in villagers fleeing their homes, because they might run in the wrong direction. They might seek refuge, these terrified families, in compounds identified as “hostile” by the hi-tech Controllers. Then — BLAMMO!
Shrieking terror. Blood-gushing shredded corpses. Wailing widows.
And Distinguished Warfare Medals all round. For murder.
Brian Cloughley’s website is www.beecluff.com