The Children's Crusade

Day after day, week after week, Barack Obama's "Overseas Contingency Operations" keep churning through the bodies of children: sometimes with chemical weapons that sear their flesh and leave them maimed and disfigured for life; sometimes with carefully aimed bullets ripping through their organs and leaving them dead right on the spot.

And in every such case, our brave and noble Terror Warriors -- who, lest we forget, are upholding the highest values of world civilization, bringing hope and change to benighted lands and defending our sacred way of life -- run screaming like spinsters in a hissy fit from the slightest hint of responsibility for their actions. Their first response, always, is to blame someone else: either the designated enemy of the day -- or else the burned and shredded children themselves.

This tendency was on vivid display this week in two stories from separate fronts in the ever-spreading Terror War. (Both pieces, from McClatchy and Reuters, come via the Angry Arab, who rightly notes Obama's moral ownership of the bullets and bombs of the militarist campaigns).

The most garish example can be found in Iraq, where American soldiers shot a 12-year-old boy in the streets of Mosul, one of the most troubled cities in the conquered land. Mosul, you may recall, is where Generalissimo David Petraeus -- now in military command of the entire Terror War -- built his vaunted but vaporous reputation for "effective counterinsurgency techniques" early in the war. It was a miniature model of the later "surge": using a massive influx of American troops, along with payoffs to favored local forces, to suppress the endemic chaos and violence unleashed by the invasion just long enough to establish a PR narrative of "success." Once the media spotlight has moved on, the evil, inevitable fruits of the original crime -- the Hitlerian act of military aggression -- flourish once more.

As in Iraq at large, so it is in Mosul. Last Thursday, American occupation troops rolling through the city were attacked by a grenade. In response, they shot a killed a 12-year-old boy, Omar Musa Salih, who was standing on the roadside selling fruit juice. Although eyewitnesses on the scene said the boy had not thrown the grenade -- they had seen, with their own eyes, an older man lobbing it toward the Americans -- President Obama's Pentagon insisted that the dead boy was an "insurgent" who deserved to die. Their proof? He had a handful of Iraqi dinars -- less than $9 -- in his hand when they inspected his corpse. So that means he was in the pay of terrorists, you see.

"We have every reason to believe that insurgents are paying children to conduct these attacks or assist the attackers in some capacity, undoubtedly placing the children in harm's way," a faceless "U.S. military spokesman" told McClatchy, in an email. Smearing the victim: a dead child -- oh, how noble, how civilized, how redolent of honor! You can certainly understand why no one would want to attach their face or name -- or even their voice -- to such a depraved, shameless and cowardly apologia.

For as McClatchy notes, there is no evidence whatsoever that young Omar was involved in the attack; quite the contrary, in fact:

....eyewitnesses said the boy, identified as Omar Musa Salih, was standing by the side of the road selling fruit juice - a common practice in Iraq -- and had nothing to do with the attack.

A friend, Ahmed Jassim, 15, said he was selling cans of Pepsi nearby when he heard the grenade explode. He dove behind a parked car, then heard the roar of machine gun fire. "When the shooting was over and the patrol went away, I stood and I saw Omar on the ground covered with blood," Jassim said.

Another witness, Ahmed IzAldeen, 56, said he saw the person who threw the grenade. It wasn't the boy, but a man in his twenties, he said. IzAldeen said he saw the man standing behind a truck holding the grenade as the American patrol approached....

"When attacked, the Americans just open fire, whether on the gunman or just randomly," said Usama Al Nujaifi, a member of Parliament from Mosul. "The American presence in the cities is wrong, we urged them to stay outside from the beginning."

American combat forces are supposed to pull out of all cities by June 30 under an agreement signed last year that hands security over to Iraqi forces. But the two sides have discussed pushing back the deadline, especially in the most violent cities, such as Mosul.

Oh yes, these "deadlines" will doubtless prove to be infinitely flexible, easily extended; after all, President Obama has consistently reiterated his determination to be guided by the advice of his military officials and by "the facts on the ground" in implementing his scheme to remove some American troops from Iraq while leaving tens of thousands behind: a process of streamlined occupation that for some reason is called a "withdrawal."

But the lives of children are not so flexible, not so extendable. Omar Salih will not get up again. "Friends of the Salih family said he was the oldest of 6 children," McClatchy writes. "He quit school in the first grade, when he was six or seven years old. He was well-known in the Ras Al-Jadda neighborhood, where the attack took place."

He quit school at six or seven; that is, in 2003 or 2004, in the midst or in the aftermath of the American invasion. His life was spent on the street, trying to earn a pittance for his family. And now he is damned as a terrorist by the most powerful, most "advanced" nation in the world -- because he had a few strips of colored paper in his hand when he was gunned down at his fruit stand.

As we've noted several times in recent days, this is an inevitable result of military occupations in hostile lands: all of the natives come to be seen as the enemy -- children, women, the old and weak included. All are deemed imminent and/or potential threats by the conquerors, who live steeped in fear and incomprehension and anger at the "ingratitude" and hostility and recalcitrance of the locals. And so, ultimately, every civilian death can be "justified" -- because there are no civilians. There are just Them -- and Us. And whatever We do to protect ourselves from Them -- or to put Them in their place -- is rightful and just and should not be questioned.

This is the logic of the conqueror, the logic of domination. And it is the foundation and the philosophy of the War on Terror that America's bipartisan political class -- past and present, conservative and "progressive" -- has so enthusiastically embraced.

II.
This week reports emerged about the possible use of white phosphorus shells in the American bombing assault last week that killed more than 140 children, women and old men who were taking shelter from a battle several miles away. These chemical weapons are "legal" when used "to illuminate a target or create smoke," but are illegal under international law if used purposely as a weapon. Of course, in dealing with attacks on populated areas -- the very heart of Terror War "counterinsurgency" -- this is a distinction without a difference. The shells explode in the midst of homes and streets, throwing their searing, unquenchable chemical gel everywhere, causing unbearable agony and permanent damage to the afflicted. However, the inherent ambiguity of carrying out military operations in civilian areas provides convenient cover for the use of this chemical weapon to put the natives in their place. (As we saw in Fallujah, for example, and most recently in Gaza.)

As always, the illumination-bringers in the American war machine blame someone else for the strange, horrific burns that doctors have discovered among the survivors of the massacre. After denying the use of white phosphorus in the attack for any reason, they first suggested that it was the Taliban who lobbed the advanced chemical weapon into villages that Afghan officials and the International Red Cross say were devastated by American bombs. Then they said the burns might have been caused by propane tanks exploding during the bombardment. But doctors dealing directly with the victims scoffed at this, as AP reports:

Dr. Mohammad Aref Jalali, the head of the burn unit at the Herat Regional Hospital in western Afghanistan who has treated five patients wounded in the battle, described the burns as "unusual."

"I think it's the result of a chemical used in a bomb, but I'm not sure what kind of chemical. But if it was a result of a burning house — from petrol or gas cylinders — that kind of burn would look different," he said.

Gul Ahmad Ayubi, the deputy head of Farah's health department, said the province's main hospital had received 14 patients after the battle, all with burn wounds. Five patients were sent to Herat. "There has been other airstrikes in Farah in the past. We had injuries from those battles, but this is the first time we have seen such burns on the bodies. I'm not sure what kind of bomb it was," he said.

U.N. human rights investigators have also seen "extensive" burn wounds on victims and have raised questions about how the injuries were caused, said a U.N. official who asked not to be identified talking about internal deliberations.

These new concerns come amidst new calls for an investigation of an earlier chemical weapon attack, which left an eight-year-old girl, Razia, with "her face an almost unrecognisable mess of burnt tissue and half her scalp a bald scar." She is the first known civilian victim of white phosphorus in Afghanistan. As Reuters reports:

"The kids called out to me that I was burning but the explosion was so strong that for a moment I was deaf and couldn't hear anything," her father, Aziz Rahman, told Reuters. "And then my wife screamed 'the kids are burning' and she was also burning," he added, his face clouding over at the memory.

The flames that consumed his family were fed by a chemical called white phosphorous, which U.S. medical staff at Bagram said they found on Razia's face and neck. It bursts into fierce fire on contact with the air and can stick to and even penetrate flesh as it burns....

Colonel Gregory Julian, a spokesman for the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan, confirmed that Western forces in the country use the chemical.

"In the case of white phosphorus it is used on the battlefield in certain applications ... It is used as an incendiary to destroy bunkers and enemy equipment; it's used for illumination"...

Razia and her family are the first known civilian casualties of its use in Afghanistan.

As in the recent massacre, occupation officials point to the Taliban as the culprit in the chemical weapon attack -- a claim belied by experts on the region. But in the AP story on the massacre, Julian is suddenly asserting that "military officials believe that Taliban militants have used white phosphorus at least four times in Afghanistan in the past two years." We have heard nothing of this before, nor have any Afghan government official or acknowledged specialists. These charges of Taliban chemical weapons emerged only after Human Rights Watch began pushing the story of Razia's plight and the doctors in Herat found the strange burns in the massacre survivors. As Reuters reports:

U.S. Major Jennifer Willis suggested instead that the Taliban had fired the shot: "An enemy mortar team, known to have been operating in that area, may have been responsible."

The Afghan government, military specialists and experts on the Taliban told Reuters, however, that insurgents have never been observed using white phosphorus. The only forces on the battlefield known to use it are the United States and NATO. "I am not aware that the Taliban have used this in any of their attacks," said Zaher Murad, a Defence Ministry spokesman.

Ahmed Rashid, Pakistan-based author of a widely acclaimed book on the hardline Islamists, said that he was also not aware of such reports.

"To think they (the Taliban) are employing white phosphorus as a weapon in their arsenal is very far-fetched," said Marc Garlasco, senior military analyst at Human Rights Watch and a former senior intelligence analyst at the Pentagon. "The U.S. has optics that will allow them to see through the smoke, so it is useless for (the Taliban). They don't need to illuminate because that is telegraphing to the United States where they are going to go and fight. Plus they know the area. They want high explosive to shock and kill; flames raining down from the sky aren't going to frighten the U.S. forces."

NATO spokeswoman Willis said insurgents had been observed using white phosphorus weapons in the past. Asked to provide examples of the Taliban using the chemical, she wrote back to say that she was unable to do so.


Yet even here, as with the "child insurgents" of Mosul, the Pentagon can do no more than wanly assert its "belief" that such things could be going on. No proof is offered. There is only the bristling attempt to thrust away any responsibility, to deflect, distract, smear -- and obfuscate the inescapable realities of subjugating another nation by force.

Whatever the good intentions of this or that ordinary individual serving in the occupation forces -- such as the military doctors who saved what was left of Razia's life -- the underlying logic of domination will have its way, churning relentlessly through the bodies of innocent people caught up -- deliberately or "collaterally" -- in the brutal power of foreign forces which should not be in their land.

III.
I wrote a piece last year about the lasting effects of those insescapable realities of subjugation. Although it deals with a different area of the Terror War, I'd like to close with an excerpt from it -- for, unfortunately, it is just as relevant as ever, if not more so. From "Written on the Body: The Reality of War" (see original for links):

[In] these heated debates on policy, strategy, funding, etc. [of the Terror War], there is always a danger of losing sight of the most overwhelmingly important aspect of the conflict: its effects on actual human beings, the suffering it imposes on our fellow creatures. The reality of war is written on the bodies – and seared into the anguished psyches – of the individuals who experience it. That is what war is, that is where it actually exists – in blood, in bone, in the synapses that carry the electric fire of human consciousness.

A new report from Fallujah – the Guernica of the Iraq War – brings this home most forcefully. Two of the great witnesses of this war – Dahr Jamail and his collaborator, Ali al-Fadhily – present disturbing evidence of how the use of chemical weapons against the people of Fallujah during the brutal decimation the city in 2004 continues to bear horrific fruit today:

Babies born in Fallujah are showing illnesses and deformities on a scale never seen before, doctors and residents say. The new cases, and the number of deaths among children, have risen after "special weaponry" was used in the two massive bombing campaigns in Fallujah in 2004.

After denying it at first, the Pentagon admitted in November 2005 that white phosphorous, a restricted incendiary weapon, was used a year earlier in Fallujah. In addition, depleted uranium (DU) munitions, which contain low-level radioactive waste, were used heavily in Fallujah. The Pentagon admits to having used 1,200 tons of DU in Iraq thus far.

Many doctors believe DU to be the cause of a severe increase in the incidence of cancer in Iraq, as well as among US veterans who served in the 1991 Gulf War and through the current occupation.

"We saw all the colors of the rainbow coming out of the exploding American shells and missiles," Ali Sarhan, a 50-year-old teacher who lived through the two US sieges of 2004 told IPS. "I saw bodies that turned into bones and coal right after they were exposed to bombs that we learned later to be phosphorus. The most worrying is that many of our women have suffered loss of their babies, and some had babies born with deformations."

"I had two children who had brain damage from birth," 28-year-old Hayfa' Shukur told IPS. "My husband has been detained by the Americans since November 2004 and so I had to take the children around by myself to hospitals and private clinics. They died. I spent all our savings and borrowed a considerable amount of money...."

This is the fate of the actual human beings in Fallujah. Behind all the debates and commentary, the think-tank wonkery, the campaign rhetoric, the academic studies and the witlessrantings of TV talking heads, this is the war: a young woman wandering through a ruined city, carrying her broken, dying children to hospitals left without medicine or gear...

I ended the piece with a quote I've used before, from Italo Calvino, because it is, as I said then, "one of the very best encapsulations of the horror, and hope, of our human condition":

"The inferno…is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space."