Killing Civilians: Behind the Reassuring Words

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Norman Solomon’s Column

The Bush administration has vowed that it will not aim the Pentagon’s firepower at civilian targets in Afghanistan. Such assurances are supposed to make us think that innocent bystanders will be spared when the missiles fly and the warheads explode. Don’t believe it.

Back in early August 1945, President Truman had this to say: “The world will note that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military base. That was because we wished in this first attack to avoid, in so far as possible, the killing of civilians.”

Actually, the U.S. government went out of its way to select Japanese cities of sufficient size to showcase the extent of the A-bomb’s deadly power. In Hiroshima and Nagasaki, hundreds of thousands of civilians died — immediately or eventually — as a result of the atomic bombings.

In the past several decades, presidents have routinely expressed their reverence for civilian lives while trying to justify orders that inevitably destroyed civilian lives. Denial is key to the success of public-relations campaigns that always accompany war.

While top U.S. officials spoke of fervent desires to protect civilians from harm in Southeast Asia, the Pentagon inflicted massive carnage on the populations of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Both Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon tirelessly proclaimed their eagerness for “peace with honor.” Most of those who died were civilians.

When U.S. troops invaded Panama in December 1989, the USA’s major media and policymakers in Washington ignored the hundreds of civilians who died in the assault. Scarcely more than a year later, during the Gulf War, most of the people killed by Uncle Sam were civilians and frantically retreating soldiers. Pentagon officials quietly estimated that 200,000 Iraqis had died in six weeks. During the past decade, damage to Iraq’s civilian infrastructure and ongoing sanctions have cost the lives of at least several hundred thousand children.

In the spring of 1999, we were told, the U.S.-led bombing of Yugoslavia aimed only at military targets. The explanations were often Orwellian — not just from the Clinton administration and NATO, but also from news media.

Consider the opening words of the lead front-page article in the New York Times one Sunday in April 1999: “NATO began its second month of bombing against Yugoslavia today with new strikes against military targets that disrupted civilian electrical and water supplies…” The concept was remarkable: The bombing disrupted “civilian” electricity and water, yet the targets were “military” — a very convenient distinction for PR purposes, but irrelevant to the civilians who perished due to destruction of basic infrastructure.

Now, while people in Afghanistan fear missiles and bombs, their lives are most threatened by a dire lack of food. The likelihood of a large-scale assault has already forced aid organizations out of the country -“fearing both that they may be caught in the expected raids or that they would be attacked as westerners after the NATO bombers have flown away,” says Chris Buckley, the Christian Aid program officer for Afghanistan. He adds that the nation “is in the grip of a three-year drought and on the verge of mass starvation. According to the UN-run World Food Program, by the end of the year 5.5 million people will be entirely dependent on food aid to survive the winter. That’s a quarter of the Afghan population.”

In human terms, the emerging U.S. military scenarios are ghastly. And — with Washington already gaining Pakistan’s agreement to cut off food aid to Afghanistan — they’re also illegal. Part IV of the Geneva Conventions clearly states that “starvation of civilians as a method of warfare is prohibited.” The same document forbids targeting “objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population.”

No amount of vehement denials can change the reality that huge numbers of civilians are now in the Pentagon’s cross hairs.

Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His latest book is “The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media.”

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