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Casualty Comprehension

by CHRISTIAN SORENSEN

A casualty traditionally refers to anyone wounded or killed in combat, but this term doesn’t articulate the variety of war’s victims. In addition to premature death and mangled bodies, casualties include broken hearts, shattered minds, economic instability, traumatized families, and mental depression. These afflictions cross race and nationality. Since 2001, casualties of American, Afghan, European, Pakistani, Yemeni, Somali, Iraqi, and other nationalities have fallen in the so-called Global War on Terror. With the first of April marking the Global War on Terror’s 6,409th American fatality, we must remind ourselves of war’s true human cost.

 

United States’ Loss

 

Juxtaposition provides insight into Pentagon delusion. Over 6,400 uniformed American service-members and 2,330 mercenaries have died in the Global War on Terror since 2001, but their corpses might end up in a landfill when they return to the United States. General John Allen acknowledges that Afghans are “fighting for their country,” but refuses to admit that the majority of Afghans do so against an occupying military force: the U.S. Armed Forces. After years of elective war, the United States military is exsanguinated, but Pentagon officials insist that “we have a military that… is stronger and more resilient and healthier as any armed force than during any previous conflict.”

 

In the Pentagon’s bureaucracy, money is the ultimate indicator of priorities. Pentagon generals and senior officials consistently talk about “taking care of their people,” even dedicating a whole chapter of their budget requests to this topic. They then allocate only $415 million, out of the roughly $700 billion Pentagon FY 2012 budget, for “support of vital research involving psychological health, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, traumatic brain injuries,” prosthetics, and all other physical conditions resulting from the Pentagon’s War on Terror. Research for the benefit of wounded troops falls flat at $415 million, while research for advanced weaponry tops $3.2 billion. Apparently, support our troops never progressed beyond the yellow car decal on the Pentagon pickup truck.

Pentagon officials soothe their qualms through issuing mindless propaganda, which the corporate media consume at a voracious pace. When facing the 47,740 American men and women who have been wounded in action since the War on Terror began, officials find solace in issuing articles like Amputee Runs on Inspiration. While this amputee is “at peace” with his amputation, propagandists never discuss how these wounds are entirely preventable. While many service-members are inspired to work harder when they realize how much this amputee has overcome, America can derive a different sort of inspiration from the amputee’s story. America can be inspired to prevent wars of choice from ever occurring in the first place. Americans can stand up and shake complacency from peers, family, and friends, letting them know that such tragedy can be averted entirely, given requisite political mobilization, non-violent direct action, and self-education.

History is an ominous indicator of what is in store for this generation’s combatants. After decades in limbo, roughly 89,000 Vietnam veterans were recently paid more than $2.2 billion for exposure to Agent Orange. No Vietnamese victims were compensated in this settlement. Will the Pentagon neglect its Iraqi victims when divvying out compensation in forty years? Over 73,000 Americans from World War II are still unaccounted for. More than 7,500 Americans remain missing from the Korean War and 1,702 Americans are still listed as Missing in Action from the Vietnam War. Will MIAs from Iraq, Afghanistan, the Philippines, Yemen, the Horn of Africa, Latin America, Africa’s Sahel Region, and other misadventures in the War on Terror approach these figures?

293 American service-members were killed and 467 wounded during the Gulf War (1990-1991). Over 168,011 soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines were ultimately classified as “disabled” from this conflict. Since then an additional 8,306 servicemen have died and 159,705 have been injured from Gulf War “exposures,” according to the Veterans Administration (Johnson: 100). Extrapolating these statistics in proportion to the duration and scope of the Global War on Terror leads one to the inevitable conclusion: With an estimated 500,000 disability claims already filed from the recent Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the Veterans Administration will not be able to compensate all future disability requests. Even worse, considering the bi-partisan neglect of fiscal responsibility, the future of all military healthcare is in jeopardy. In attempting to stave off this inevitable collapse, the Pentagon adopts the Costanza approach to medical care and couches healthcare “reform” as “holistic.”

Suicide

Suicides are one form of casualty that is often overlooked. Relationship troubles, financial problems, and legal difficulties, which are exacerbated during military deployments, contribute to the military’s high suicide rate. Accumulated, invisible wounds of war, including post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, anxiety, and depression, also contribute to this suicide epidemic. A testimony to the horror, 160 active duty soldiers and 52 Marines committed suicide during just one year. Military suicides are so widespread that they jeopardize the future of America’s all-voluntary military.

Despite these “immense” tolls, it took the Pentagon a full decade of Global War to finally send condolence letters to families of troops who committed suicide while on deployment. As of last summer, 261 suicides of American servicemen and women have occurred in Afghanistan alone. Families of these victims likely did not receive letters, since their suicides occurred prior to the July 2011 policy change. Even more regrettably, no letter is mailed to service-members who commit suicide after returning home from deployment to a life in shambles. These military families receive no letter, but plenty of stigma, while the Pentagon continues to use and abuse the enlisted force and company-grade officer corps.

Pentagon bean-counters play number games with suicide data by classifying suicides into multiple categories: potential, confirmed, and under investigation. Once the bureaucratic ball gets rolling, potential suicides can then be classified as confirmed suicides or suicides under investigation. For example, in February of this year, the Army still had 11 of 16 potential suicides from January classified as under investigation, leaving nearly a dozen families in a state of continual bereavement. Not only is this unacceptable from a moral standpoint, but it also allows the average bureaucratic general to appease his boss by stating that there were only five confirmed suicides in the month of January.

To its credit, the Pentagon issued a public service announcement designed to help increase suicide prevention and commissioned a study to recommend improvements for suicide-prevention programs. The study, entitled The War Within: Suicide Prevention in the US Military, defined several ways to improve prevention programs, including implementing a tracking program for the entire American military, which would log suicides and suicide attempts comprehensively, making analysis of the bigger picture more efficient. America waits to see if the Pentagon affords service members recommendations. Dr. Jonathan Woodson, the Pentagon’s top medical professional, articulated the challenge well when he stated that changing the military’s culture is the main obstacle we face.

Living Casualties

The former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff views military recruitment through a distorted lens that glosses over such socio-economic discrepancies and the failure of the American education. The former Chairman remarks that this generation is “wired to serve, and we just have to figure out how to give them the paths to serve.” He affirms that “everyone is aware of the threat and yet they do sign up, they do raise their right hand and they come to serve because of [the 9/11 attacks].” Vice President Biden attributes participation in military service not to wiring or 9/11, but to “instinct.” Reality indicates that education and employment are by far the top reasons for enlisting in the United States military. Yet, according to the Chairman, it all boils down to a simple predisposition. Or maybe the “wiring” to which the Chairman referred was a subconscious nod to the inherently unequal wiring of American society. A struggling American economy and the largest wealth gap between minorities and Caucasians in generations means that the Pentagon will have plenty of fodder from which to recruit into the proletariat of the US Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps.

Just as educational incentives (e.g. GI Bill, Tuition Assistance, College Loan Repayment Program) are a primary reason for joining the American Armed Forces, “the number one motivator to join the [Afghan] army and police is literacy,” according to the NATO Training Mission Afghanistan Commander’s deputy. US Army Sergeant Cheri Depenbrock explains that, prior to 9/11’s temporary impact on reasons for American enlistment, signing up was “almost always for college, for money, and for having a full-time job.” Army Master Sergeant Juan Dozier concurs, recalling that “There wasn’t so much of a sense of purpose, of ‘What can I do for my country?’ It was more ‘I need the training or education money.’” Both Depenbrock and Dozier note that immediately after 9/11 Americans enlisted for “patriotic” reasons, but Depenbrock speculates that today, “when they come in now, they’re looking at benefits… they’re talking about a safety net.”

Tragically, many service-members join or remain in uniform for the hyper-economic benefits associated with military service. While there ought to be non-violent alternatives, one cannot blame these men and women for looking out for themselves and their families. If that means multiple deployments to preventable wars, like Iraq, then they must do so to make ends meet. In this regard, US service members are victims upon enlistment; with jobs increasingly scarce in America’s corporate economy, more and more enlist just for the basic benefits.

In this regard, the America and Afghanistan share similar a common bond – enlisting for educational reasons. Michelle Flournoy, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, asserts that fifty percent of Afghan security forces will achieve third-grade literacy sometime in 2012. Flournoy cites this as a “major accomplishment.” Far from a “major accomplishment,” the Pentagon arrogantly modifies Afghanistan’s educational structure and concordantly incentivizes violence through educational allure. Now, in Afghanistan and America, those who resist national militarization lose out on educational opportunity.

While Washington policy-makers who send American troops into imperial misadventures relax in leather chairs in the Hart Office Building, drink scotch, and revel in their daily partisan assaults across the aisle, the American warfighter is absolutely drained. Suffering from multiple deployments, the likes of which few elected officials have experienced, Americans ache from unfathomable tragedies. No thoughtful composition about mismanaged, misguided American wars compares to the email that a close friend sent me regarding deployment:

We’re never gonna ‘win’ this ‘war.’ … God willing, I will be able to separate after this deployment… but [my friends] are stuck doing this over and over; destroying their lives, families, chances at a real life… Please don’t thank me for what I’ve done out here… we aren’t achieving the hearts and minds of these people in this country, we’re breeding hate- in ourselves and the entire community here. Little taliban boys n girls watch us roll in and kill their dads, brothers and uncles… I’d hate us too. Please, please don’t thank me.

Military friends of mine of all ages, both male and female, repeatedly express the same sentiments. Given the content of this email, one wonders: if junior enlisted personnel can see America’s damaging presence in Afghanistan so clearly, why do senior military officials ignore the obvious? 

Native Casualties

The Pentagon inflicts social and health casualties in every community where the Pentagon imposes its military bases. Domestic violence, traffic accidents, rape, murder, social dysfunction, explosive vestiges, heavy metals, and general environmental pollution ravage the landscapes around these bases. Since America doesn’t compensate the surrounding communities, local tax rates are increased to pay for these damages (Lutz: 32), harming the locals even further.

Native casualties from direct military action are no less tragic. Trends are depressing. In the past two years, American operations have caused more than 850 civilian deaths in Afghanistan and at least 168 child deaths in Pakistan. This tradition of civilian casualties dates back to the early stages of the Afghanistan war, when over 3,700 victims perished from America’s high-altitude bombing campaign. A few months later, an American “Spooky” gunship attacked a wedding ceremony, killing over forty women and children. The Pentagon eventually admitted it was a targeting mistake (Johnson: 31).

The Pentagon’s perfunctory responses aggravate these civilian deaths. In the spring of 2011, American military helicopters killed nine boys under the age of twelve, who were gathering firewood in Afghanistan’s northeast. General Petraeus’ reaction was by the book. He apologized and then ordered an investigation, but neither of these actions has any true meaning. The apology means nothing, since words cannot resurrect lost loved ones and civilian deaths continue to rise, and his investigation was carried out by American military officials, ensuring the utmost bias. Petraeus then ordered all “helicopter crews to be re-briefed on the need to keep civilian casualties ‘to the absolute minimum.’” Orders like this beg inquiry into why NATO troops need to be told again that killing civilians is detrimental to “success.” Conspicuously, Petraeus didn’t order a review of America’s SIGINT failures, which often initiate the faulty intelligence-chain that ends with bombing from above. Two weeks prior to the firewood incident, NATO was accused of killing roughly 64 civilians, including women and children, in airstrikes in Kunar Province. Two weeks after the firewood incident, two Afghan children were killed in an American airstrike while watering their crops.

In May 2011, a young Afghan girl was shot and killed in the Surkh Rod district of Nangarhar, Afghanistan. According to the US military’s press release:

Troops were searching for a Taliban leader who they believe is planning a future attack in the district when an insurgent opened fire on the troops. Forces returned fire and killed the insurgent. The young girl was killed soon after when she attempted to run out the back entrance of the compound. Troops reported that they thought she was carrying a weapon, officials said.

True to form, NATO spokesman Rear Admiral Hal Pottman cued the music and went through the motions, stating “We are deeply sorry for this tragedy and apologize to the members of the Afghan government, the people of Afghanistan and, most importantly, the surviving family members of those killed by our actions.” Rinse and repeat.

The pattern continues. In August 2011, General John Allen “expressed his sincere condolences and apologized to Afghan family members” for an airstrike that killed numerous Afghan civilians. In the fall of 2011, NATO killed six children. NATO spokespersons called the incident “unfortunate.” Later that week, when NATO bombed 24 Pakistani troops on the Af-Pak border, Secretaries Clinton and Panetta offered their deepest condolences. Eloquent, moving, and devoid of all sincerity.

In stark contrast to America’s pattern of collateral damage, American Vice Admiral David Dorsett affirms that “We’re great at strike warfare – dropping bombs.” Care to rephrase, Dave?

When not bombing from above, Pentagon forces kill through night raids. This strategy has devastating effects:

The US killing of civilians, combined with a widely held perception that the Afghan government exists only for facilitating the corruption of powerful warlords, drug dealers and war criminals, is producing a situation in which the Taliban and the Haqqani network are gaining support from the Pashtun heartland in communities that would not otherwise be backing them… The United States’ own actions in Afghanistan seem to be delivering the most fatal blows to its counterinsurgency strategy and its goal of winning hearts and minds.

Since Regional Commands use special operations forces to “shape operations” prior to the introduction of conventional forces in the area, every inch of Afghanistan is already lost. Any populations still open to America’s policy goals are eventually lost after enough special operations night raids and “collateral damage” from NATO aircraft ordnance. Sadly, General Allen asserts that counterterrorism operations and special operation missions will “become prominent” and occur “on a regular basis, both now and for the foreseeable future.” Michael Lumpkin, Assistant SECDEF for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict, predicts that the tempo and intensity of these special operations forces will be sustained for the next couple decades at least.

Pentagon officials defend special operations night raids, claiming that they usually end without a shot fired, and state that counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan generally have “borne fruit,” but NATO’s own statistics indicate over 1,500 civilians have been killed in night raids during just ten months. Special operation night raids are a heated point of contention with Afghan President Karzai, who sees them as clearly detrimental and ineffective. Yet, in a clear indication of the delusional bubble within which the Pentagon operates, Defense Secretary Panetta states that he “was very taken by President Karzai’s clear admiration for the US military.”

One special operations officer provides insight into the current pace of night raids. Analogizing the routine of evening special-operation raids to “mowing the lawn,” the officer tallied twelve missions on the night of 1 May 2011 alone. An average of ten raids per night results in dozens of family members victimized, abused, and deceased. With the United States relying increasingly on night raids, due to a shift in strategy, Afghan citizens will dislike NATO at increasing rates. Hearts and minds – the ones that make it out alive, anyways – are against America’s military.

Live and Learn

There are numerous lessons for policymakers and Pentagon generals. In Iraq, cessation of American combat activities led to a reduction by half in the number of monthly civilian deaths. Lesson learned: stop combat operations against a resistance force, and civilian deaths decline dramatically. Furthermore, no violence occurred at checkpoints in northern Iraq for weeks after American troops withdrew partially. Far from realizing these lessons, Pentagon brass instead points to an open-ended American presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014. White House officials acknowledge this as “an enduring presence force focused on counterterrorism.”

The Pentagon designated 2011 as the Year of Change, otherwise deemed the Year of Casualties by conscientious observers. Sadly, tardy reflection on American war crimes will not resurrect the dead. Whether in the form of disfigurement, death, or trauma, casualties cross nationality and touch millions. Instead of apologizing civilian casualties on all sides, the Pentagon can make amends by leaving Afghanistan and finally learning history’s great lesson: to avoid casualties of all kinds, avoid wars of aggression.

 

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