“Civilian Casualty Incidents”

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Just another civilian casualty incident?  Original caption: Mourners carry the coffin of a child at the funeral procession for those killed in an airstrike on a bus in Yemen. Photograph: Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images

W.J. Astore

Last night, as I was watching the PBS News Hour, I snapped to attention as I heard a new euphemism for murdered innocents from bombing: “civilian casualty incidents.”

A PBS reporter used it, unthinkingly I believe, repeating bureaucratic jargon about all the innocents in Yemen smashed to bits or shredded by “dumb” bombs, cluster munitions, and even “smart” bombs that are really only as smart as the pilots launching them (and the often imperfect “actionable intelligence” gathered to sanction them).

The overall tone of the PBS report was reassuring.  General Mattis appeared to comfort Americans that the Saudis are doing better with bombing accuracy, and that America’s role in helping the Saudis is limited to aerial refueling and intelligence gathering about what not to hit.  Of course, the Saudis can’t bomb without fuel, so the U.S. could easily stop aerial massacres if we wanted to, but the Saudis are our allies and they buy weapons in massive quantities from us, so forget about any real criticism here.

I’ve written about Orwellian euphemisms for murderous death before: “collateral damage” is often the go-to term for aerial attacks gone murderously wrong.  To repeat myself: George Orwell famously noted the political uses of language and the insidiousness of euphemisms.  Words about war matter.  Dishonest words contribute to dishonest wars.  They lead to death, dismemberment, and devastation. That’s not “collateral” — nor is it merely a “civilian casualty incident” — that’s a defining and terrifying reality.

What if innocent Americans were being killed?  Would they be classified and covered as regrettable if inevitable “civilian casualty incidents”?

10 thoughts on ““Civilian Casualty Incidents”

  1. “How could they not know?”
    “Why didn’t they stop it?”
    “Did people just not care?”
    “Was it something in their national character?”

    All questions we’ve all asked ourselves about the Germans of 1933-1945. And future humans will ask the same of Americans, too.

    Only, America’s crimes have gone on for decades. Count the wars, count the bodies. Count the federal income tax dollars that flow from your paycheck to the Pentagon, year after year. 50%, give or take, and don’t try to count Veterans care in that – it isn’t part of the discretionary budget.

    This should be an exercise, done in every class, every year. We talk a great game in America about how we’re all responsible for keeping our government in check, and yet two oceans’ worth of separation from any other military power, hundreds of nuclear weapons hiding under the Pacific and the Atlantic guaranteeing that no other military power would ever be able to defeat us, and alliances (dying, now) with almost every single other major military power on earth – not enough to keep us safe.

    This is why America doesn’t bother to effectively teach history, geography, and social sciences in high school. Same reason why Japan’s textbooks minimize what was done to Korea, China, and the rest of Asia in the 1930s. Shame.

    The reality is that we’re all guilty, all culpable, and every time we wave the blood-drenched flag and ignore the evils done in the name of our “national security” (always defined by people who have a stake in the outcome, of course), we participate in erasing a national legacy of murder, sometimes genocide.

    But who wants to admit that? Confront that? And who in power will move to change it? Not the republicans, obviously. Not the democrats, who now apparently have a collective hard-on for Cold War 2, and who did nothing under Obama to dismantle the security state.

    No one wants to count the bodies. So they keep piling up, as to the euphemisms the State uses to provide us (and the media, of course) that veneer of respectability that they do not deserve.

    Once upon a time, after graduating university, I enlisted to go help rebuild Iraq – or, at least, pull security for the people who were doing the real work. And there I encountered an institution that was structured to generate body counts. Where from day 1 the drill sergeants told us that we were there to learn to kill, that anyone we even thought was a threat was a legitimate target. And where the veterans of the nightmare that Baghdad was in 2005 routinely confirmed that everyone carried a couple extra AKs in the Bradley or Humvee, because any Iraqi found dead near a weapon was automatically classified as an ‘insurgent’, and who wanted to be the soldier who went to jail because they made a mistake in the heat of the moment?

    This is America. This is the Star-Spangled Banner. This is why I call myself a Cascadian, and think everyone else should work to end the Empire by working against D.C. From (not a very good, I have to admit) soldier to an advocate for saving the Constitution from what the vultures in D.C. have made of it.

    Yeesh.

    And now I’m going to stop procrastinating and go write about what Post America looks like, after the contradictions finally get too much for the nation to bear, and the whole rotten house collapses in on itself.

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    1. Great post AT; Look very forward to your writings on ‘Post America’: I think it’s closer than we think. Being overseas for 20 years, when I visit I notice every year things drop a bit. Though the affluent areas never looked better, the once decent working class areas never looked so bad.
      More on subject; re what WJAstore’s essay is about, when I see videos on (hated!) foreign TV stations! – I can’t believe it! Ancient cities completely destroyed, and worse for me being middle class American, a family air conditioning unit destroyed in the street, next to this once proud family’s burned out car. Their house unlivable, thanks to US, UK, French bombings. This breaks all rules of the so-called ‘West’: it’s what Hitler did (or tried to), in E Europe & Russia. He also had no cares with “Civilian Casualty Incidents”, but what’s ironic today is ours sins are biting our ass.
      These great military & thinktank “thinkers” never did rob Iraq oil & Afghanistan lithium. Doubt they ever will, but made a fortune on the promises. Here’s where I blame the American people, Dems & Reps alike, hoping a HUGE military budget would benefit them: “Wow! free oil for my McMansion! 2$ iphones!” They’ve been duped by Americans, no ‘foreigners’, morally, and FINACIALLY! – deserve it….
      It will come, and it won’t be pretty. Iraq, Afghanistan*, Libya, now Syria. * I kind of like them! They know how to bankrupt Empires! 17 years and our puppets dance (+!) – with young boys! Hey! It’s their culture! But I’m amused by old farts like Mattis today -SO MANY before him! -suck up to these pedophiles.
      NEVERTHELESS, we’ll LOSE!

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    2. Andrew, you are correct in your post. Civilians have long suffered at the hands of invading armies, the Ancient Romans and Mongols were brutal. Joshua in the Bible committed what we would today consider a War Crime: All the silver and gold and the articles of bronze and iron are sacred to the Lord and must go into his treasury. They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.
      **************************
      Strange how the “Lord” valued silver, gold, bronze and iron, just like humans do.

      During WW 2, air power was used, it was carpet bombing. Air power and carpet bombing was viewed as a game changer, you could destroy the enemies production capability from above.

      So if carpet bombing “worked” against Germany and Japan, it must work elsewhere. The template of aerial bombing to victory was used during the Korean War, Vietnam and now our wars in Whereveristan. At least since Gulf War 1, the bombing is more of a video game for Americans on the Home Front.

      Off subject, yesterday the McMega-Media had the McCainaics funeral procession broadcast live. I was reminded of the OJ Simpson car traveling along California’s freeways, with the same type of mind numbing commentary.

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    3. Many good comments, Andrew, especially this:

      “But who wants to admit that? Confront that? And who in power will move to change it? Not the republicans, obviously. Not the democrats, who now apparently have a collective hard-on for Cold War 2, and who did nothing under Obama to dismantle the security state.”

      As C.J. Hopkins at the Unz Review (August 31, 2018) tells us, those in power have already scheduled the next two years of the American national “attention span” (no matter who “wins” the 2018 mid-term elections) to a new round of “reality television” productions (new episodes and reruns) known as Trump Deathwatch, which will probably result in President Trump’s re-election in 2020.

      What a certifiable zoo of a “country.”

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  2. Getting back to Andrew Tanner’s brilliant essay, let’s take the beginning statements, which I’ve heard before. Very Churchillian, after winning a war, but losing an Empire. And most below is the FAULT of Churchill’s Imperialist decisions.
    *”How could they not know?” A: That’s easy; British Conservative Parliament was full of fascists. (Embarrassingly, ‘New Germany’ had far better labor laws!) Fascism was ‘chic’ then, including France.
    *”Why didn’t they stop it?” A: Stop what? Autobauns, urban renewal, fairer tax system (ie “cheating Jews” -partially true- and Britain’s cruel sanctions on FOOD! He stopped.)
    *”Did people just not care?” I’d guess the famous fake fire in Riestang scared them to death. (Assassination of JFK, King, Bobby? Bay of Tonkin anyone? Sept 11?) False wars after. Ha! We’re no different!
    *”Was it something in their national character?” I’ll guess again -NO! Britain & France are still jealous of Germany’s fine consumer products, somehow the German’s beat them. THAT’s their “character”: they strive for excellence. And more money than those 2 losers!
    So today, US, Britain, France, sell weapons to Saudi Arabia, etc. Germany sells fancy overpriced cars. 2 wars didn’t work!
    With what I’ve said, I respect in sympathy the soldiers who fought in WW1 &2 for Imperialist powers. I have nothing but DISRESPECT for those who sent them to war – for their own personal profit.
    That is our task today: America is getting as bad as Britain & France before WW1! HORRIBLE ‘NATIONS’! We can make it better!

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  3. Sorry for the off-topic comment, but I’ve wondered when this would happen, given all the mouth-breathing Russophobia emanating from America’s political, military, and media “elites” (minus one for the undead corpse of … well … you know):

    Russia to Stop Transporting U.S. Astronauts to Space After 2019, Official Says, Moscow Times (Aug. 31 2018 – 16:08)

    “Russian-made spaceships will no longer carry American astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) after a contract between the two nations expires on April 2019, Russia’s top defense and space industry official has announced Friday.”

    “Relations have been strained between Russia and the United States over conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, as well as allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Space is a rare area of cooperation, and NASA crews have been sent to the ISS aboard Russian Soyuz capsules since 2011.”

    “Our obligations under the NASA contract to deliver American astronauts to and from the ISS end with the Soyuz-MS landing in April,” Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov was quoted as saying by Interfax.

    “Meanwhile, NASA is planning to send a manned test flight to the ISS aboard Elon Musk’s SpaceX’s Crew Dragon commercial spacecraft from Florida in April 2019.”

    The International Space Station cannot function without the Russian components. So, if the Russians unbolt their sections from the ISS and fly them off some distance to hook up with the new Chinese space station, the whole 100-billion-dollar U.S. investment falls back into the Earth’s atmosphere and burns up. Then it won’t matter if the U.S. can somehow get a spacecraft working that can take astronauts up to low-earth orbit. Nothing will exist up there for them to visit.

    Way to go you numbskull neoconservative bastards. You sure managed to fuck up that whole “cooperation in space” business. Oh, well. What better testimonial to the rancid remains of John Sidney McCain III than a flaming pile of disintegrating junk falling back from space to litter the earth. If only a big enough piece of it lands on his grave. Cosmic justice for a gasbag masquerading as a man.

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  4. I especially wanted to comment on something Andrew Tanner wrote above:

    “And now I’m going to stop procrastinating and go write about what Post America looks like, after the contradictions finally get too much for the nation to bear, and the whole rotten house collapses in on itself.”

    A worthy goal and I wish Andrew Tanner success in pursuing it. The idea of “afterwards” implicit in the affix “post-” has inspired much literature and a great many films. If I might cite, by way of example, the closing paragraph of Cormac McCarty’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road, later made into a film of the same name starring Viggo Mortensen:

    “Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.”

    I found both the book and movie terribly depressing. The entire world reduced to ash, with scattered remnants of humanity existing on canned goods (while they lasted) and cannibalism (while other people lasted). I understood that stories of “post-” [whatever] must lament the passing of something precious, “a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again.” I mention this because the topic of this thread — euphemisms — started me thinking about the death of language. Once we deliberately abandon it, could future generations put it back together and make it right, or would it even occur to them that they might do so? And what would a “human” community without language even look like?

    Fourteen years ago (in 2004), I set out to describe just such a community, as a metaphor for the increasingly sub-literate United States of America, a project which resulted in the epic narrative poem Fernando Po, U.S.A., America’s post-literate retreat to Plato’s Cave. As a possible aid to Andrew Tanner as he sets out on his own “Post-America” project, I’d like to go over some of the background that led me to conceive and exploit a particular vision of cultural decay in the midst of ostensible “modernity.” As time allows …

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    1. I’ve had an interest in language most of my life, but particularly since my last year of junior high school (1960-1961) when a well-educated friend of my mother gave us a copy of S. I. Hayakawa’s book, Language in Action (1939) later updated to Language in Thought and Action, 5th edition (1990). Over the years, I would go through the bibliography of Language in Action (and its updated versions) looking for books that had influenced professor Hayakawa’s thinking. Somewhere along the line I came across a book on semantics by two British scholars, C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards, entitled The Meaning of Meaning (1923). There at the beginning of “Chapter I: Thoughts, Words and Things,” I read the following epigram:

      “Let us get nearer to the fire, so that we can see what we are saying” — The Bubis of Fernando Po

      I didn’t think much of this reference until later when I read the Prologue to Joseph Cambell’s classic study of mythology: The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), and came across this passage:

      “Today many sciences are contributing to the analysis of the riddle. Archeologists are probing the ruins of Iraq, Honan, Crete, and Yucatan. Ethnologists are questioning Ostiaks of the river Ob, the Boobies of Fernando Po. …”

      An image began forming in my mind of some people called “Boobies” who lived some place called “Fernando Po” and who could not communicate unless they could see the other person gesturing and striking poses while they spoke word-like noises at each other.

      Then, on May. 2, 2003, President George W. Bush landed on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln and began parading around in a “Top Gun” flight suit like a randy bantam rooster at an avian mating ritual. The crew of the ship sprang to attention like so many uniformed erections and television pundits swooned at all the presidential “movements” which conveyed to them an overwhelming sense of “authority” and “command.” I thought to myself: “The same guy who fell asleep on watch and got buggered on international television by nineteen unarmed Saudi Arabian hijackers on 9/11/2001? That guy?”

      I couldn’t believe my eyes and ears. “Boobies,” I thought. “Definitely Boobies.” But still I had no idea what to do with his blinding insight. …

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  5. Now the ‘Saudi-led Coalition’ admits the schoolbus bombing was ‘unjustified’, I suppose in an attempt to stop international calls for an independent external inquiry. At no cost, as years of similar ‘US/NATO coalition’ ‘explanations’ and promises of a ‘thorough investigation’ have shown that in the end no one is held accountable anyway. The moral slippery slope gets steeper by the day and harder to reverse. Children have become the latest bargaining chip in hypocritical politicians’ wars of words, while sorely little is done to actually protect them.
    When we kill or maim them for life, they are unavoidable collateral damage, when our stated enemies do the same, their victims are ‘innocent little babies’.
    With US diplomacy reduced to Bully, Bribe & Blackmail, I expect that when Self-Satisfied, Sanctimonious, Smug Nikki Hailey one day will be asked whether the deaths of some 500.000 Iranian and Palestinian children due to crippling sanctions was worth it (whatever ‘it’ is supposed to stand for, presumably ‘national security’), she will say it was, like Ms Albright did about the Iraqi children.
    The whole world is watching and as we – the supposedly democratic, law-abiding, human rights respecting western world – are callously trampling the very rights we claim to protect, the ‘rogue’ part of the world obviously ignores our preaching and brazenly copies our ‘justifications’ for ‘collateral damage’ war crimes.

    Last night I managed to watch an all-time X-mas favourite ‘The Bishop’s Wife’ on internet (it usually is blocked). Who cares that it is an illusion, it still is balm for sore souls and a reminder that short of changing the world, there are plenty of little things we can do to improve the lives of those around us. From helping a blind man to cross the road to visiting a lonely old professor – instead of being slaves to smart-phones all the time. Highly recommended for a moment of soothing escapism :-).

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  6. OOps, hope I did not expose your blog to some copyright infringement risk.
    I did not expect the link to automatically translate to direct access.

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