The big news story today is that the Syrian government has probably used nerve gas against Syrian rebels, killing a number of civilians. Because we place poison gas in a different category from conventional means of killing people from the air, and because the Asad government is despicable, it has received a good deal of attention, temporarily driving the latest Trump scandal from the lead story in the news.
The biggest problem in trying to follow the news in recent months hasn’t been fake news—though there certainly has been enough of that, thank you very much—but too much real news, like water from a burst dam, flooding everything, saturating our ability to follow it. It has been difficult to follow any one story as it quickly rushes by, and we all seem to be unable to concentrate on any one story for very long.
Amid the deluge of news, one story, for me, stands out for the relative lack of attention it has received. On March 17, about two weeks ago, a US air raid in Mosul, in Iraq, killed up to 200 civilians. There was certainly some coverage, but it has quickly left the front pages. I’m not sure why that this; I will try to offer my thoughts below, but it comes down to this; when it comes to civilian deaths caused by Americans in the Middle East, Americans just don’t give a damn.
I’m sure you know the basic story. ISIS captured Mosul in June 2014, thereby catapulting the organization to international infamy. ISIS acted with the barbarism we soon came to expect; murdering innocents, especially non-Muslims, blowing up priceless ancient buildings, and subjecting Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, to an utter reign of terror.
It took Iraq and its American handlers a while how to respond, but in October 2016 they launched a major offensive. The US provides the air power, and some guidance on the ground; the Iraqis, in various forms—the regular army, Shi’ite militias, Kurdish forces—supply the ground troops. No one, except our idiot president, then just an idiot presidential candidate, expected the campaign to go quickly, and it hasn’t. There has been some success for the Iraqis and the Americans, but it has been slow, a battle of attrition and small gains.
And then, on March 17, the US conducted an air raid. There are different accounts of what went wrong—they were trying to attack an ISIS target—but something went terribly wrong, and there was a huge civilian casualty toll. US military spokespersons have stated that it was an “unintended accident of war” and I am sure that it is true; it was not a deliberate attack on a civilian target. But after reporting this exculpation, the news media lost interest. I am not saying the other stories that the media has been pursuing, the peculations, prevarications, and tergiversations of Donald Trump aren’t big worthy news stories. But I am ashamed how little attention this story has received.
The air raid, on 17 March, is obviously the ultimate responsibility of the current commander in chief of our armed forces. But one of the reasons, perhaps, this story has not been pursued as much as it might is that this is one area where the differences between Donald Trump and his predecessor, while real, are not neat or clean-cut. In this area, Trump is merely expanding on the policies of Obama. There certainly is a quantitative difference. According to Robin Wright, writing in The New Yorker, where Obama authorized “dozens” of air strikes daily to support the Mosul invasion, under Trump the number has increased to between 70 to 90 a day. This follows what seems to be an emerging “Trump Doctrine” on the use of force, which, unsurprisingly, is using more of it, with fewer safeguards, and an indifference to human rights niceities.
In Somalia, it was revealed this week, that US raids against the Islamicist Shabab organization will operate under “war zone” rules, which means that less attention will have to be paid to collateral civilian casualties in planning raids. In Bahrain, where a Sunni minority has brutally suppressed a Shi’ite majority, human rights concerns will no longer stand in the way of arm sales to the regime. Military commanders have been promised a greater ability to plan military operations with less interference from the White House and the higher-ups in the chain of command. There are reports that US troop movements will now be reported with less transparency. The recklessness of Trump will no doubt lead us into more and deeper quagmires in the Middle East and elsewhere, the problem of what American policy should be goes beyond Trump’s penchant for aggression.
Since the debacle in Iraq, American policy in the Middle East has operated under the following rules: 1) Don’t get American military personnel killed or injured, 2) make sure no one can be accused of not fighting terrorism, and 3) (and this is especially so since the disappointments since the “Arab Spring”) talk about human rights but don’t do much about them. This has led to an emphasis on special forces, drone strikes, doing the most damage while exposing American personnel to the least danger possible. Drones and other artifacts of high-tech warfare have only made this process worse. This was Obama’s basic policy, combining most American’s indifference to the Middle East (or blaming it for its own problems) with the desire to “fight terrorism” in its native, overseas habitats. This will apparently be Trump’s policy as well, though his natural belligerence and abhorrence of nuance and subtlety is only heightening its inherent contradictions, as in fighting a war in a country and simultaneously banning citizens from that country from entering the United States.
And there is no way around the basic contradiction; we are fighting numerous wars, in Iraq, in Syria, in Afghanistan, in Somalia, in Yemen, on behalf of people we mistrust, dislike, and to whose fates we are indifferent. I am not saying that these questions are at all easy. Given the awfulness of ISIS, I had no strong objections when Obama started the Mosul offensive last fall. A few thoughts:
- Someone killed accidentally is just as dead as someone killed deliberately.
- To say something is an “accident” is a way of excusing oneself for responsibility for one’s actions, a way of saying that one can separate one’s acts from one’s intentions. When it comes to killing people, you can’t.
- There might be just causes worth fighting for, but there are no moral armies.
- Treat the lives of Iraqis, Somalis, and Afghanis as seriously as you would your neighbors, as the members of your family. Because Iraqis, Somalis, Iraqis are our neighbors, are part of our family.
- What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow and sister human beings.