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Mark LeVine
Mark LeVine
Mark Levine is a distinguished visiting professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh.
Afghanistan: The dead just keep piling up
After an American soldier killed 16 Afghan civilians, the US apologises - but will probably not learn its lesson.
Last Modified: 13 Mar 2012 08:29
The entertainment industry focuses on US soldiers, while civilians are often absent from films [EPA]

Irvine, CA - It's a well-worn ritual - the expression of outrage and "shock", as President Obama put it. The "condolences to the families" offered by senior leaders of the occupying power to the latest victims of their supposedly benign occupation.

Of course the action in question - which is always the latest in a whole series of actions, with the previous ones conveniently forgotten by the time the next one happens - can "not represent the exceptional character of our military and the respect that [we have] for the people of Afghanistan". "We" don't do that. That's what "they" - the people whom we have occupied/sent soldiers into Afghanistan/Iraq/Pakistan/Yemen/ to destroy - do. They are the barbarians who hate us because of "our values", as President Bush so eloquently put it.

 US soldier kills Afghan civilians in Kandahar

We will urge calm and investigate - just like we're investigating the burning of Qurans, urinating on dead fighters and mutilating dead children, and all the other insults and injuries upon Afghans, Pakistanis, Iraqis and other benighted peoples. Those responsible for the deaths will face justice, or whatever we say is justice, unless of course a military court somehow determines justice to be something else than we told you it would be, in which case that is just another example of how fair our system of jurisprudence is.

Compensation will be paid to the families of the dead and injured, although not too much compensation. Certainly not more than the cost of one or two Hellfire missiles, or the salary of one of the mercenaries to whom we pay three to four times the wages of a soldier so that we can say we're reducing the number of "troops" in your country. In fact, we'll pay as little as possible, as low as $100 a head, if you'll take it.

Imperial hypocrisy

Say what you want about Israel, at least it doesn't pretend to "respect" Palestinians. The whole "shooting and crying" act went out of style by the time the al-Aqsa intifada erupted. But Israel/Palestine is an old-fashioned ethno-territorial conflict. It's hard to keep pretending you respect someone whose territory you're violently taking over and resettling with your own people; and when you have as much power as Israel does compared with its foe, after a while why even bother? "We have exacted from them a very high price," Prime Minister Netanyahu said bluntly, after the latest Israeli attack in Gaza killed several militants along with a 55-year-old man and a schoolboy. "Naturally, we will act as necessary;" collateral damage no longer requires an apology.

The Obama administration is in a far tougher situation. It can't afford to appear too imperialist, precisely because it is enmeshed in a series of ongoing military engagements across the Muslim world. Yet even though well over 50 per cent of Americans oppose the continued US presence in Afghanistan, and even if the president is sincere in his stated desire to withdraw combat forces from Afghanistan as soon as possible, the huge American military footprint across the region will not easily shrink.

The dozens of military bases serve the same purpose for the perpetuation of American empire as colonies once did for the British and the French. Along with the bases come well over 100,000 troops, at least two carrier groups and untold tens of billions of dollars worth weapons and security relationships with local regimes.

Just as importantly, the corrupt and authoritarian nature of the regimes the US must deal with - if they were honest and democratic, the US wouldn't be allowed in the door - makes the situation even worse, as their own interest in holding onto power will trump taking any action that might lead to a US withdrawal from their territory, except on their own terms.

In Afghanistan in particular, the government that the US put into power has been so endemically corrupt that its own actions only exacerbate the enmity of most Afghans towards Americans.

But neither Afghanistan's internal problems nor the intense violence of the Taliban account for why American troops - like every other occupying force in history - so routinely behave inhumanely towards the occupied population.

Strategic forgetting

In a fascinating but sadly overlooked Washington Post op-ed early this year, MIT professor John Tirman attempted to explain why Americans have shown so little concern for the civilians of other countries killed on their behalf. He pointed out a number of reasons, including the self-perception that such behaviour is so outside the norms of American morality that it can only be an aberration, and the absence of civilians from films, novels and documentaries about the wars.

The entertainment industry almost always focuses on Americans. The latest film from the military-entertainment complex, Act of Valor, thoroughly embedded actors with the military's most elite killers for video game-style mayhem. Accordingly, most Americans too have no reason to consider the reality of the violence in which soldiers are engaged.

 Afghan analyst on US soldier's shooting spree

Perhaps most important, as Tirman points out, is that frontier countries like the US have a long history of conquest, killing and oppressing indigenous peoples at home. Quoting a Wall Street Journal article by Robert Kaplan, he argues that "the red Indian metaphor is one with which a liberal policy nomenklatura may be uncomfortable, but Army and Marine field officers have embraced it because it captures perfectly the combat challenge of the early 21st century".

If Americans have yet to begin to own up to the genocide of the native peoples of their country, what hope is there that they will look critically at the death and destruction wrought on equally "uncivilised" and "savage" peoples 15,000 kilometres away? Especially, as the quote makes clear, when everyone from commanders on the ground to commentators back in Washington - not to mention drone operators a few kilometres away in Virginia - confuse the early 21st century with the early 19th century? We can only imagine that the average American estimate of native American deaths during the conquest of the West wasn't much better than the average estimate - about 10,000 - of Iraqi civilian deaths (about 2-3 per cent of the actual total). 

But it's hard to blame the average American when their leaders purposefully mislead them about the number of dead, either by refusing to do "body counts" or by declaring, as did President Obama's top counter-terrorism adviser, John O Brennan in August of last year, that "there hasn't been a single collateral death" from drone strikes in the Af-Pak theatre last year - without the mainstream media offering any serious rebuttal.

Rewriting history

Ultimately, with rare exceptions - such as post-World War II Germany and Japan, which were thoroughly defeated and whose peoples largely accepted American occupation and the rebuilding of their countries along Western lines - imperial occupations inevitably end with the occupier forced to make an ignominious withdrawal, leaving little but death, anger and broken hearts to show for their presence.

Lessons are rarely learned, and rather than try to heal the incredible psychological trauma on the soldiers who fight these wars, Chuck Norris and Sylvester Stallone will ensure that history is rewritten to highlight the suffering of the brave soldiers who were betrayed by weak leaders who didn't give them the tools to win.

Meanwhile, untold numbers of real soldiers suffer all sorts of physical and psychic trauma, bringing the violence back to the US in ways that ultimately will prove every bit as damaging as the 9/11 attacks. And back in Afghanistan/Pakistan/Yemen/Your Country Here, poor and brutalised peoples will once again scrape by their meagre lives, with not even the glimmer of hope that those who are most responsible for their unending suffering - from Western leaders and corporate managers to local politicians, warlords and religious zealots - will pay for all the harm they've caused. And in Damascus, Bashar and his military commanders will surely offer a toast of gratitude to the unhinged American soldier who reminded the world that man's inhumanity knows no ethnic, religious or national boundaries - before resuming their own, far more deliberate slaughter.

Mark Levine is a distinguished visiting professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh.

Follow him on Twitter: @culturejamming

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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