“Before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured — the highest standard we can set.”
– President Barack Obama
“Before any strike is taken,” President Obama assured us in his speech this May on U.S. Drone and Counter-terrorism policy, “there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured.” Nice words, but as Jon Snow remarks in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, “Men are men, vows are words, and words are wind.” Sorry, I can’t help it if a GOT quote most aptly fit there.
I wonder how “near-certainty” the President was on Friday, December 13th, when a U.S. drone strike targeted a wedding convoy in Yemen’s al-Baitha province, killing 14 and injuring 22. Imagine gathering for a quaint wedding in Northern Virginia on a picturesque farm, all of your loved ones gathered in celebration, only to have your wedding party slaughtered by a drone from Pakistan. We react with hysteria when a lone gunman starts shooting in a public place. Imagine our vitriolic response to repeated attacks on weddings by foreign enemies.
This isn’t the first wedding that we’ve bombed, nor is it likely the last. In June of last year, a similar incident went largely unreported in the mainstream, this time, in a village in Logar Province, Afghanistan. A family was gathered in a home for a wedding celebration when U.S. and Afghan troops alleged that a group of Taliban insurgents entered the home. As forces surrounded the home, either a grenade was thrown or firing broke out, at which point a jet was called in to drop a 500-pound bomb, killing everyone inside, including nine children. Congrats on your wedding from the U.S. of A! Till death do you part!
Despite the President’s lovely words about going the extra mile to avoid civilian casualties, these are no aberrations in U.S. counter-terrorism policy. In 2001, B-52 and B-1B bombers took out an entire wedding party in a small Afghan village, killing over 100. Rory Carroll wrote in The Guardian:
The attack on Qalaye Niazi was as sudden and devastating as the Pentagon intended. American special forces on the ground confirmed the target and three bombers, a B-52 and two B-1Bs, did the rest, zapping Taliban and al-Qaida leaders in their sleep as well as an ammunition dump.
The war on terrorism came no cleaner and Commander Matthew Klee, a spokesman at the US central command in Tampa, Florida, had reassuring news: “Follow-on reporting indicates that there was no collateral damage.”
Some of the things his follow-on reporters missed: bloodied children’s shoes and skirts, bloodied school books, the scalp of a woman with braided grey hair, butter toffees in red wrappers, wedding decorations.
In 2002, a U.S. plane targeted a house of wedding guests in the central region of Oruzgan, killing at least 30 people and injuring at least 40 – many of whom were women and children. In Western Iraq in 2004, another wedding party was attacked while the guests slept. More than 40 were killed, women and children included. In 2008, a wedding party was bombed as 70-90 women accompanied the bride-to-be to meet her soon-to-be husband, the customary tradition. Her vows were never said. 27 people, mostly women and children, were among the dead, including the bride. Tom Engelhardt’s aptly titled piece in TomDispatch, “The Wedding Crashers,” goes into even more detail.
Funeral Crashing as well, is not even out of bounds for our noble purveyors of global violence. In 2007, as villagers in Watapour, Afghanistan were burying 10 people killed in a previous strike, Nato-led forces attacked again, killing 25. In 2012, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism documented that the U.S. targets those who rescue and retrieve bodies from drone attacks, as well as those who gather at funerals to mourn those who have died from drone attacks. As the New York Times summarized, “The report, by the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, found that at least 50 civilians had been killed in follow-up strikes after they rushed to help those hit by a drone-fired missile. The bureau counted more than 20 other civilians killed in strikes on funerals.”
On Sunday following this most recent attack in the al-Baitha province, Yemen’s parliament voted unanimously in a call for the U.S. to end drone strikes in the country. A top Yemeni national security official who spoke anonymously said, “The Yemeni public is angered by the drone strikes…The people’s representatives reflected on the tone of the streets.” I imagine that the tone of the streets is stronger than this official lets on. As we murder more and more innocents abroad, we stoke the fires of anti-American sentiment and create more enemies for ourselves in exponential numbers. This is called blowback, the creation of new terrorists in our hunt of terrorists abroad. We kill members of your family and terrorize your village, you take up arms against the imperial aggressors who send drone after drone into your homes, schools, and public spaces. Former U.S.official, Nabeel Khoury, the deputy chief of mission in Yemen for the State Department from 2004 to 2007, wrote in the Cairo Review this October that the use of drones oversees is breeding new militants with each attack. He wrote,
“Drone strikes take out a few bad guys to be sure, but they also kill a large number of innocent civilians. Given Yemen’s tribal structure, the U.S. generates roughly forty to sixty new enemies for every AQAP operative killed by drones. Open source reporting records 45 drone strikes in Yemen in 2012, and 22 so far in 2013. Reported casualties are 491 for 2012.”
In Obama’s drone and counter-terrorism speech in May, he discussed the understanding Americans have for the “price that must be paid for freedom,” and that while Americans are “deeply ambivalent about war,” our commitment to the principles defined in the Constitution have withstood every war and every war has eventually come to an end.
“For over two centuries, the United States has been bound together by founding documents that defined who we are as Americans, and served as our compass through every type of change. Matters of war and peace are no different. Americans are deeply ambivalent about war, but having fought for our independence, we know a price must be paid for freedom. From the Civil War to our struggle against fascism, on through the long twilight struggle of the Cold War, battlefields have changed and technology has evolved. But our commitment to constitutional principles has weathered every war, and every war has come to an end.”
But every war has not come to an end. One war – the war for greed and power – has continued. This is the war of the powerful against the weak, of the rich against the poor, of the haves against the have-nots. The U.S. is fighting enemies all around the globe – in Yemen, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Somalia, in Pakistan, in Djibouti, the Philippines, central Africa, Guatemala, Mexico, and too many others – frantically sucking up resources and actively working to prevent democracy and basic human rights in countries where our government supports brutal and oppressive regimes. The U.S. has continued to kill innocent civilians abroad without regard to their own right to a peaceful, happy life. And make no mistake, there will be blowback. Chris Hedges summed this idea up impeccably: “The violent subjugation of the Palestinians, Iraqis, and Afghans will only ensure that those who oppose us will increasingly speak to us in the language we speak to them—violence.” Violence breeds more violence, and for every terrorist we may take out abroad, we are creating many and more, permitting the cycle to continue indefinitely.