Leon Panetta, on his first visit to Iraq as secretary of defense last weekend, reached for a Bush moment ten years too late.
"The reason you guys are here is because on 9/11 the United States got attacked," he said to the assembled troops at Camp Victory in Baghdad, according to the Washington Post. "And 3,000 Americans -- 3,000 not just Americans, 3,000 human beings, innocent human beings -- got killed because of al-Qaeda. And we've been fighting as a result of that."
Yeah, oops, gaffe, Mr. Secretary, right? That Iraq-al-Qaeda connection thingy isn't in the spin anymore, and Panetta's assistant had to mop up afterwards, making sure no one misinterpreted the boss's remarks as reopening an old "debate" by reiterating a long-abandoned lie.
In point of fact, Panetta told the embarrassing truth: 9/11, day of unspeakable tragedy, was a goldmine for the Pentagon and the corporate war interests and was quickly used to launch two wars, both of which are long past the need for justification and require, it seems, nothing more than the first law of physics to stay in motion. You guys are here because of 9/11, the tragic all-purpose justification for global hegemony and the pursuit of empire.
Of course, Panetta was trying to be inspirational. That's what's missing from the Obama game plan: the old-time patriotism the Bush administration milked till the cow dropped dead. The new secretary of defense apparently felt a need to connect with the troops and rouse their fervor, or whatever, so he reached a decade into the past and pulled up the tarnished jewel of American victimhood, blood-drenched from shock-and-awe bombing, drone warfare, cruel and arrogant occupation and the visitation of toxic genocide on the countries we liberated.
Oh, and torture -- can't forget torture, can we, Mr. Secretary? And I mean both kinds of torture, the Abu Ghraib-Gitmo variety, which we perpetrate on suspected bad guys, and the invisible, PTSD variety we bequeath to our own troops for the rest of their lives.
It's so hard to be inspirational a decade into the mess, to summon serious poetry and stir the hearts of men and women on their third or fourth tour of duty in hell, especially when the poetry flowing out of the combat zone is so laced with bitter truth:
. . . the young soldier recalls
the exploded body he saw
plastered against the outside of a house
the chunks of bone
embedded in the wall
"We laughed about the dead Hajji
who'd blown himself up," he said.
"You laugh about it, or you cry about it,
or you say nothing and go insane."
This is an excerpt from a poem called "Property Damage," by Buff Whitman-Bradley, which was passed along to me by a friend. Whitman-Bradley, who was the producer of the "Courage to Resist" audio project (2007-2009), interviewed numerous GIs who had been damaged by the war, many of whom had considered or attempted suicide.
"I finished each interview with enormous respect for the young soldier with whom I had just spoken," he wrote at PM Press. "These were brave, smart folks willing to look beyond and behind the official rationalizations for war; willing to take great risks when they determined that in all good conscience they could no longer participate in wars they came to regard as both illegal and immoral."
Panetta invoked a day of mourning and grief that has been desecrated beyond all recognition. It became a day not so much of revenge as public relations gimmickry, good for rallying support behind the neocon agenda and launching that agenda into a state of fait accompli. A decade in, this agenda's wars have multiplied the death and suffering of 9/11 a hundredfold, if not a thousandfold.
Most horrifically, the United States has committed, and continues to commit, ecocide in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere, recklessly spreading toxic fallout from depleted uranium and numerous other substances, contaminating water supplies and damaging forests and wetlands. The constant traffic of military vehicles has broken the desert crust, intensifying dust storms and compounding the spread of toxins.
A year ago, the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health published an epidemiological study, "Cancer, Infant Mortality and Birth Sex-Ratio in Fallujah, Iraq 2005-2009," which found that the Iraqi city, shattered by two U.S. invasions in 2004, is experiencing higher rates of cancer, leukemia and infant mortality than Hiroshima and Nagasaki did in 1945. Birth defects abound.
Panetta tried to reach around all this and squeeze a little more war propaganda out of the deaths of "3,000 human beings, innocent human beings" last weekend. In the wake of his words, I feel a silent cry go up from the innocent victims of 9/11 and its aftermath -- a million or more -- to reprioritize our values, stop fighting, change the human course.
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Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, contributor to One World, Many Peaces and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at commonwonders.com.
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