It Is Happening Again . . . Again

One boy’s eyes lay gently closed, and his long dark lashes were washed in tears, as though he had cried himself to sleep. As they bent over him they saw that he was very young, and a breeze came up from the edges of the swamp, bearing with it a scorched odor of smoke and powder, and touched the edges of his hair. A lock fell across his brow with a sort of gawky, tousled grace, as if preserving even in that blank and mindless repose some gesture proper to his years, a callow charm. Around his curly head grasshoppers darted among the weeds. Below, beneath the slumbering eyes, his face had been blasted out of sight. Culver looked up and met Mannix’s gaze. The Captain was sobbing helplessly. He cast an agonized look toward the Colonel, standing across the field, then down again at the boy, then at Culver. “Won’t they ever let us alone, the sons of bitches,” he murmured, weeping. “Won’t they ever let us alone?”

—William Styron, The Long March

So. I suppose we can leap aboard the great wheel at the time of the French misadventure in Vietnam. From which the Americans determinedly learned nothing. And so walked, eyes wide shut, into Southeast Asia, and their own prolonged Dien Bien Phu. Then came the Russians. Who belatedly admitted they had not learned from the American experience in Vietnam. And so went down in the dust of Afghanistan. Now, eternally recurring, the Americans. Again. In Afghanistan this time. Not learning from their own experience in Vietnam. And not learning from the Russians not learning in Afghanistan.

On February 7, 1968, an American major told AP’s Peter Arnett, in speaking of the decision to bomb and shell unto rubble the Vietnamese town of Ben Tre, “it became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”

The U.S. military’s official explanation of why “it became necessary to destroy the town” is that it had been infiltrated by thousands of Viet Cong. Thus, their rationale went, trying to oust the VC in ground-level fighting, from street to street, would have caused a high number of American casualties and even more civilian casualties.

This month, in defending the October 2010 decision to bomb and shell and obliterate from the face of the earth (as seen in the photos above) the Afghan village of Tarok Kalache—damned as an alleged snake’s nest of Taliban sympathizers and booby-traps—American and Afghan officials have variously stated that “there was no other way,” “it was the only way I could give the men confidence to go back out,” that “the only way” to “not ‘lose momentum‘ was just to bomb the hell out of it,” and “we had to destroy them to make them safe.”

On and on and on it goes. To these eyes, getting pretty old. As Arthur Schopenhauer observed: “Whoever lives two or three generations, feels like the spectator who, during the fair, sees the performances of all kinds of jugglers and, if he remains seated in the booth, sees them repeated two or three times. As the tricks were meant only for one performance, they no longer make any impression after the illusion and novelty have vanished.”

Some 25 tons of munitions were used to obliterate the village of Tarak Kolache. Colonel Erik Gunhus, a spokesliar for General David Petraeus, claimed that the Taliban had booby-trapped a bunch of houses in the village, and therefore the American decision to permanently erase Tarak Kolache was All The Taliban’s Fault.

“We had to reduce the city because it was rigged,” Gunhus intoned. “It was saturated with IEDs meant to harm [American] forces. There were no citizens in the town.”

Asked how he was sure there were no citizens in the town when US forces erased it from the face of the earth, Gunhus recited that he was unable to speak of the Gomorrahing of Tarak Karoche “in significant detail.”

“We’re being forced into these things,” Gunhus whined. “We’re not the ones rigging houses or kicking families out of their homes in the middle of winter.”

No, you’re simply permanently destroying their homes, so they’ll have nowhere to go. All winter. Every winter.

The Gunhus robot repeatedly used the word “reduce” when describing the complete obliteration of the village. So that is apparently now the preferred Newspeak term. File it away with “incursion,” “enhanced interrogation,” “terminate with extreme prejudice,” and “necessary to destroy the town in order to save it.”

Americans decided to just eliminate Tarak Karoche because it was too much work to clear houses individually. And besides, such an operation might Endanger An American.

Spake Gunhus:

“It comes down to, intellectually, do you level a town where no one’s living that would take you probably days and you’d probably lose some people, or do you level it and then rebuild it? Intellectually, I think it makes sense.”

Morally, Mr. Gunhus, I think you’re a dumkopf. Because your proposition only makes sense if the highest priority is safeguarding the lives of foreign soldiers who have no business even being in the country. The booby-traps you seek to clear are there only because you are. Ever think about that?

I think not.

A Lieutenant Colonel David Flynn ululated that if Tarak Karoche had not been erased from the earth it meant “certain death” for his sacred American troops, who could not be permitted to “lose momentum” by clearing the village, as they wander to and fro in Afghanistan, not winning anything, like no outside army has won anything in Afghanistan since the days of the Khans.

His troops, it seems, were “terrified” to go into Tarak Karoche. So, without actually entering the village, to see if there were any civilians about, they just bombed and shelled it out of existence.

Flynn said he felt vewy vewy bad about going Jehovah on Tarak Karoche: “I literally cringed when we dropped bombs on these places—not because I cared about the enemy we were killing or the HME destroyed, but I knew the reconstruction would consume the remainder of my deployed life.”

Aw. Poor baby.

Meanwhile, a certified Bad Person notes: “You have to wonder how diverting so many resources to rebuilding a village you just blew up aids the ‘momentum’ originally sought.”

Tarak Karoche is not an anomaly: the New York Times reported in November that in the village of Khosrow “every one of the 40 homes [] was flattened by a salvo of 25 missiles.”

“And not just Khosrow, but many villages,” said district governor Shah Muhammed Ahmadi, ticking off the names of a half-dozen others. “We had to destroy them to make them safe.”

The governor of Kandahar province told the Times that the US has been obliterating homes throughout his realm. “We don’t know the accurate number of homes destroyed,” he said, “but it’s huge.”

One of the most fearsome tools is the Miclic, the M58 Mine-Clearing Line Charge, a chain of explosives tied to a rocket, which upon impact destroys everything in a swath 30 feet wide and 325 feet long. The Himars missile system, a pod of 13-foot rockets carrying 200-pound warheads, has also been used frequently for demolition work.

Activists at the organization Afghanistan Rights Monitor have been critical of the campaign. “These are all mud houses, quite humble houses,” said Akmal Dawi, of the group, “so they are just taking the easiest way and saying, ‘We will destroy them and then help them rebuild, give them a couple hundred dollars and show we are on their side.’”

It’s really embarrassing, the way that Americans toss money around. And sort of . . . touching, in its gauche naiveté, how they think that money will solve all things.

It should be remembered that BushCo relied upon money to encourage Afghan warlords to enter the caves of Tora Bora to snuff out the lives of Osama bin Laden and his compadres—another operation designed so as to spare sacred American lives. In that instance, the warlords pocketed the cash, and then smiled and waved bye-bye, as bin Laden and his people slipped over the border into Pakistan.

The cash-compensation campaign conceived for these village snuffing operations doesn’t seem to be working out real well either.

“People are not happy with the compensation,” said a tribal elder in Zhare, who said he was afraid to give his name for publication. “Compensation is just kicking dirt in our eyes.”

Of course, destroying Ben Tre back there in Vietnam also didn’t work real well. “It is always a pity about the civilians,” one major then observed. Another official said of those civilians: “Most of those we see around appear mighty relieved that they survived. But I know that there are lots of refugees, outside of town in a camp, and they may not be so happy.”

And how did that ultimately work out, there in Vietnam?

As Bruce Springsteen put it:

had a brother at Khe Sahn
fighting off the Viet Cong
they’re still there
he’s all gone

Back in the last millennium there came the wildly popular book All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten. One of the many books I’d like to, but know I will never,write, is called All You Really Need To Know About War Can Be Learned From Catch-22.

There is in that novel an account of the complete destruction of a village. So as—as ever—to safeguard American lives. Here, somewhat abridged, it is:

“They’ll be bombing a tiny undefended village, reducing the whole community to rubble. I have it from Wintergreen that the mission is entirely unnecessary. It’s only purpose is to delay German reinforcements at a time when we aren’t even planning an offensive.” He gestured languidly toward his gigantic map of Italy. “Why, this tiny mountain village is so insignificant that it isn’t even there.”

They arrived at Colonel Cathcart’s group too late to attend the preliminary briefing and hear Major Danby insist, “But it is there, I tell you. It’s there, it’s there.”

“It’s where?” Dunbar demanded defiantly, pretending not to see.

“It’s right there on the map where this road makes this slight turn. Can’t you see this slight turn on your map?”

“No, I can’t see it.”

“I can see it,” volunteered Havermeyer, and marked the spot on Dunbar’s map. “And here’s a good picture of the village right on these photographs. I understand the whole thing. The purpose of the mission is to knock the whole village sliding down the side of the mountain and create a roadblock that the Germans will have to clear. Is that right?”

“That’s right,” said Major Danby, mopping his perspiring forehead with his handkerchief. “I’m glad somebody is beginning to understand. These two armored divisions will be coming down from Austria into Italy along this road. The village is built on such a steep incline that all the rubble from the houses and other buildings you destroy will certainly tumble right down and pile up on the road.”

“What the hell difference will it make?” Dunbar wanted to know. “It will only take them a couple of days to clear it.”

Major Danby was trying to avoid an argument. “Well, it apparently makes some difference to Headquarters,” he answered in a conciliatory tone. “I suppose that’s why they ordered the mission.”

“Have the people in the village been warned?” asked McWatt.

Major Danby was dismayed that McWatt too was registering opposition. “No, I don’t think so.”

“Haven’t we dropped any leaflets telling them that this time we’ll be flying over to hit them?” asked Yossarian. “Can’t we even tip them off so they’ll get out of the way?”

“No, I don’t think so.” Major Danby was sweating some more and still shifting his eyes about uneasily. “The Germans might find out and choose another road. I’m not sure about any of this. I’m just making assumptions.”

“They won’t even take shelter,” Dunbar argued bitterly. “They’ll pour out into the streets to wave when they see our planes coming, all the children and dogs and old people. Jesus Christ! Why can’t we leave them alone?”

“Why can’t we create the roadblock somewhere else?” asked McWatt. “Why must it be there?”

“I don’t know,” Major Danby answered unhappily. “I don’t know. Look, fellows, we’ve got to have confidence in the people above us who issue our orders. They know what they’re doing.”

“The hell they do,” said Dunbar.

“What’s the trouble?” inquired Colonel Korn, moving leisurely across the briefing room with his hands in his pockets and his tan shirt baggy. “Why don’t you want to bomb the village?”

“Its cruel, that’s why.”

“Cruel?” asked Colonel Korn with cold good humor, frightened only momentarily by the uninhibited vehemence of Dunbar’s hostility. “Would it be any less cruel to let those two German divisions down to fight with our troops? American lives are at stake, too, you know. Would you rather see American blood spilled?”

“American blood is being spilled. But those people are living up there in peace. Why can’t we leave them the hell alone?”

“Yes, it’s easy for you to talk,” Colonel Korn jeered. “You’re safe here in Pianosa. It won’t make any difference to you when these German reinforcements arrive, will it?”

Dunbar turned crimson with embarrassment and replied in a voice that was suddenly defensive. “Why can’t we create the roadblock somewhere else? Couldn’t we bomb the slope of a mountain or the road itself?”

“Would you rather go back to Bologna?” The question, asked quietly, rang out like a shot and created a silence in the room that was awkward and menacing. Yossarian prayed intensely, with shame, that Dunbar would keep his mouth shut. Dunbar dropped his gaze, and Colonel Korn knew he had won. “No, I thought not,” he continued with undisguised scorn. “You know, Colonel Catchcart and I have to go to a lot of trouble to get you a milk run like this. If you’d sooner fly missions to Bologna, Spezia and Ferrara, we can get those targets with no trouble at all.”

Colonel Korn addressed himself to Dunbar and Yossarian in a dry monotone. “You’ve got my sacred word for it. Nobody is more distressed about those lousy wops up in the hills than Colonel Cathcart and myself. Mais c’est la guerre. Try to remember that we didn’t start the war and Italy did. That we werren’t the aggressors and Italy was. And that we couldn’t possibly inflict as much cruelty on the Italians, Germans, Russians and Chinese as they’re already inflicting on themselves.”

Dunbar remains unconvinced, and so, though “Yossarian no longer gave a damn where his bombs fell, he did not go as far as Dunbar, who dropped his bombs hundreds of yards past the village and would face a court-martial if it could ever be shown he had done it deliberately. He had washed his hands of the mission.” Shortly thereafter, Dunbar disappears.

The troops ordered to bomb and shell and erase from existence Tarok Kolache could have dropped their bombs and shells hundreds of yards past the village, washed their hands of the mission, disappeared. They didn’t. Too bad. For those would have been troops I could support.

Time, again, for The Giant.


7 Responses to “It Is Happening Again . . . Again”

  1. 1 possum January 30, 2011 at 10:52 am

    In Possum Valley a prime sign of real intelligence is the ability to learn from the mistakes of others or from history. We try not to repeat the same mistakes relentlessly. Guess many in our administration and military today have failed to learn those lessons. Maybe the are not so smart as many would like to think.

    • 2 bluenred January 30, 2011 at 11:27 am

      I don’t know what it is. People have a bad habit of thinking that it’ll be different this time, because it’s them, rather than somebody else. I’m sure there are some lonely souls there in the various government departments noticing these eternally recurring patterns, and bringing them to the attention of superiors. We learned later there were such souls during the US misadventure in Southeast Asia. And if you read accounts of the USSR’s involvement in Afghanistan, you find there were analysts there too who noticed the eternally recurring patterns of what was going wrong. Eventually, Gorbachev listened to them.

  2. 3 possum January 31, 2011 at 6:22 am

    At least we have some voices of reason today. We can continue to hope those will be heard at some future point. Otherwise we are doomed to a life of continuous, failing wars. At least the military-industrial complex benefits if no other part of society benefits. What a terrible trade.

    • 4 bluenred January 31, 2011 at 8:22 am

      One of the 8678 stories I hope to write someday is about all these ghastly weapons people are developing. Naval rail guns. Rifles that can shoot around corners. Half-robot rats that can be sent scurrying into tight corners to there blow themselves up. The latest, encountered this weekend: “smart bullets” that sniff out and then explode over their targets.

      Not that they’ll, in the end, “win” anything. As the sage Willard observed in Apocalypse Now: “Charlie didn’t get much USO. He was dug in too deep or moving too fast. His idea of great R and R was cold rice, and a little rat meat. He had only two ways home: death, or victory.”

  3. 5 possum January 31, 2011 at 8:50 am

    It is sad how much energy humans put into the destruction of other humans. Why can’t people see that course is a dead end? (No pun intended).

    I understand where Charlie came from in the story. Two ways home and one of them is unattainable. That is a tough spot. At least I had a third alternative, come home and forget the idea of victory. For me victory was getting home alive.

    • 6 bluenred January 31, 2011 at 9:08 am

      Yep. That’s the point of that observation: Charlie couldn’t go home. Because he was home. That gave him an edge that the planners didn’t then, and don’t now, factor in.

  4. 7 possum February 1, 2011 at 5:32 am

    That is an effect we see today in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan. People are trapped. They are fighting for their homeland against foreign aggressors. I remind people often about how they might react should the invasion be on our territory. People need to walk a mile in the others’ shoes sometimes.

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