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Washington's Crocodile Tears: On Checkpoints, War Porn, and Wedding Parties

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Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta called it “utterly deplorable.”  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed “total dismay.”  General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, was “deeply disturbed” that the actions in question would “erode the reputation of our joint force.”  Marine Corps Commandant General James Amos declared them to be “wholly inconsistent with the high standards of conduct and warrior ethos that we have demonstrated throughout our history,” and Senator John McCain claimed they made him “so sad.”

Seldom have so many high officials in Washington lined up to denounce an event so quickly or emphatically.  I’m talking, of course, about the video of four wisecracking U.S. Marines in Afghanistan pissing on what might be three dead Taliban or simply -- since we may never know whose bodies those are -- the corpses of three dead Afghans.  (“Have a good day, buddy... Golden -- like a shower, ” you hear them say, seemingly addressing the bodies.) The video went viral in the Muslim world, and the Obama administration moved fast to contain the damage.  After all, no one wanted another Abu Ghraib.

On this subject Washington has been remarkably united (with the exception of Rick Perry, who offered a half-hearted defense of the Marines -- “to call it a criminal act, I think, is over the top”). Pardon me, though, if I find this chorus of condemnation to be too little, too late.  It feels like a malign version of one of Casablanca’s famous final lines: “Round up the usual suspects.”

After all, these last years in occupied Iraq and Afghanistan have been utterly deplorable, totally dismaying, and deeply disturbing from start to finish.  On occasion after occasion, U.S. troops, aka “America’s heroes,” as well as private contractors and others in Washington’s employ have run riot.  There is no way to catalogue what’s been deplorable, dismaying, and deeply disturbing, but if you wanted to start, it really wouldn't be that hard.

In fact, you wouldn't have to go farther than the website I run, TomDispatch.com.  If, for instance, it was deeply disturbing pictures taken by our troops you were curious about, you could have read David Swanson’s 2006 piece "The Iraq War as a Trophy Photo," which focused on the “war porn” photos U.S. soldiers were already taking (or even setting up) and then proudly submitting to an actual porn website for posting (something, by the way, that’s still going on).

Or if checkpoint killings by U.S. soldiers in Iraq were what you were interested in, all you had to do was read Chris Hedges at TomDispatch in 2008, based on interviews he did with American soldiers for the book Collateral Damage: “Iraqi families,” he wrote, “were routinely fired upon for getting too close to checkpoints, including an incident where an unarmed father driving a car was decapitated by a .50-caliber machine gun in front of his small son.”  ("'It's fun to shoot sh-t up,' a soldier said.") And if his word wasn’t enough, you could turn to U.S. Afghan War commander General Stanley McChrystal who, in a moment of bluntness in April 2010, commented: “We've shot an amazing number of people and killed a number and, to my knowledge, none has proven to have been a real threat to the force.”

Or consider something no one has yet denounced as deplorable, dismaying, or deeply disturbing: the obliteration of wedding parties.  Over the years, TomDispatch has counted up at least six weddings in Iraq and Afghanistan that were wiped out in part or full by the U.S. Air Force.  All of these, including the first in December 2001 in which a B-52 and two B-1B bombers, armed with precision weapons, killed 110 of 112 Afghan revelers, were reported individually.  But next to no one in our world thought them dismaying or disturbing enough to write about them collectively or, for that matter, to deplore them.  (Of a wedding in Western Iraq in which U.S. planes killed 40 people, including wedding musicians and children, Major General James Mattis, commander of the 1st Marine Division, asked: "How many people go to the middle of the desert... to hold a wedding 80 miles from the nearest civilization?")

The troves of documents leaked to the website WikiLeaks, for which Army Pfc. Bradley Manning has been charged, certainly caused a stir, but the carnage in them was, in truth, easily available without access to a single secret document.  Washington’s crocodile tears can’t wash away the stain of all this on American honor, as Chase Madar, author of the upcoming book The Passion of Bradley Manning, makes all too clear in a new piece "Blood on Whose Hands?." 

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s as well as The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute's The United States of Fear (Haymarket Books), has just been published. 

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