Another massacre, another series of "facts" to be extracted from the "reality" of the US/NATO occupation of large areas of the world. Naturally I went to DemocracyNow! to try to find out as much as could about it without - or in spite of? - the built-in filters.
I’ve been a follower of DemocracyNow!... for several years now. When I
first discovered the program, I was convinced I had found THE alternative to
the filtered-at-the-source news available on TV and in the press. Then I saw
with chagrin that DN had more or less swallowed whole the US/NATO/mainstream
media take on Libya – that NATO was on a humanitarian mission to free a people
of a sanguinary dictator – without seeming to consider the real geopolitical
stakes: Iraq’s rich oil deposits, Khaddafy’s determination to aid and promote a
free and independent Africa, the US AFRICOM’s need for a foothold on the
African continent, etc. In other words, DN seems to have fallen for the meme
wherein the US/NATO military and the corporate-financial complex it supports
are basically well-meaning if at times heavy-handed. By then I had begun to
find and regularly consult other sources of information – which probably
explains my wariness at DN’s take on Libya –, and, more importantly, to realize
that, convenient and reassuring as it might be to be able to count on ONE
source of news, there is really no alternative to the patient effort to find
new sources and, more importantly, to develop one’s own critical sense about
what those various sources are putting forward. Having said that, DN continues
to be among the sources I consult, and it is still an invaluable one.
Nevertheless, when I read the transcript of DN’s interview with Neil Shea about the massacre in Panjwai (which no source anywhere seems to suggest was anything but a massacre), I felt that something was wrong. I’ll go through the transcript of the interview and try to point out a few things that lit the warning light in my head, and go on to draw a few conclusions:
We speak with journalist Neil Shea, who has reported on Afghanistan and Iraq since 2006 for Stars and Stripes and other publications.
Ordinarily, I would not tend to trust a reporter who writes for an official Pentagon newspaper. But the fact that he is being interviewed by DN gives him credibility…
Shea discusses his experiences witnessing disturbing behavior during his travels with U.S. troops in Afghanistan and offers insight into understanding the massacre of 16 Afghan civilians. "When we cycle our soldiers and marines through these wars that don’t really have a clear purpose over years and years...we expect light-switch control over their aggression," Shea says. "We expect to be able to turn them into killers and then turn them back into winners of hearts and minds. And when you do that to a man or a woman over many years, that light-switch control begins to fray." [includes rush transcript]
Neil Shea has reported on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2006 for Stars and Stripes and The Christian Science Monitor, among other publications. His latest article in The American Scholar is called "Afghanistan: A Gathering Menace: Traveling with U.S. Troops Gives Insights into the Recent Massacre."
JUAN GONZALEZ: Afghan President Hamid Karzai is set to meet today with the families of 16 civilians killed in a massacre allegedly committed by a single U.S. soldier. Yesterday Karzai called on U.S. troops to withdraw from Afghan villages. Meanwhile, the Taliban has announced they’re suspending peace talks, even as U.S. officials say they hope to stick around to a 2014 withdrawal schedule for troops in Afghanistan.
After meeting with Karzai, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta again promised the unnamed suspect in the shooting rampage that killed mostly women and children would be brought to justice
DEFENSE SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: I assured him that, first and foremost, that I shared his regrets about what took place, that we extended our deepest condolences to the families, to the villages and to the Afghan people over what occurred. And I again pledged to him that we are—we are proceeding with a full investigation here, and that “we will bring the individual involved to justice”. And he accepted that.
The first thing I noticed is that the clip shown is from the news conference given by Secy. Panetta following his discussion with President Karzai, during which he said “We will bring the individual involved to justice.” This is the version DN chooses to quote. The official Department of Defense news release, however, quotes Panetta as saying “we will bring those responsible to justice.”
JUAN GONZALEZ: That was Defense Secretary Panetta.
Many Afghans have raised questions about the U.S. military’s statements on the massacre. On Thursday, the Pajhwok Afghan News agency reported an Afghan parliamentary probe determined up to 20 U.S. troops were involved in the massacre. The Afghan lawmaker Hamizai Lali told the agency, quote, “We are convinced that one soldier cannot kill so many people in two villages within one hour at the same time, and the 16 civilians, most of them children and women, have been killed by the two groups.”
It is not mentioned that the victims (including small children) were reportedly killed by a shot to the head and that in the first location, their bodies were piled together in one room and an attempt was made to burn them. The similarity to previous night raids is unmistakable, in addition to the fact that both details argue against the “lone crazed killer” idea and in favor of coordination and pre-planning. Additional evidence that there may well have been more than one killer lies in Sec’y Panetta’s being quoted in the DOD release as having said “We will bring those responsible to justice,” but altering the phrase to “we will bring the individual involved to justice.” [Update: The official version is now saying that the witnesses who saw multiple soldiers may have in fact seen members of a a search party that was sent to look for Bales. I could have sworn that that sentence about the search party was not in the stories I read a couple of days ago.] Goodman follows the quote from the leader of the Afghan investigative team – “We are convinced that one soldier cannot kill so many people” – by leading off with “The US soldier accused in the massacre…”
AMY GOODMAN: The U.S. soldier accused in the massacre has been flown out of Afghanistan to a detention center in Kuwait despite several Afghan lawmakers and residents saying he should have been tried in Afghanistan. A senior U.S. commander defended the move, saying it was made to help ensure a proper investigation and trial. The suspected killer’s name has not been released, but he has been identified as a 38-year-old staff sergeant who served three tours of duty in Iraq, where he suffered a head injury. This was his fourth tour of duty, in Afghanistan.
Couldn't she have said "a US soldier..."? The identity of the accused “lone killer” has, of course, now been released (he is Staff Sgt. Robert Bales), along with the fact that he has been flown to the USA. We are told that removing him physically from Afghanistan will “help ensure a proper investigation and trial,” with no answer to the obvious question that arises: How will removing him from Afghanistan help ensure a proper investigation? Will it not rather ensure that no one anywhere near the events will be able to testify in the supposed trial? [Update: The official line on Bales’s being moved to Leavenworth has changed. Now we are told that he was moved not because moving him would “help ensure a proper investigation and trial,” but because “there was no appropriate detention facility to hold him in Afghanistan.”]
What follows tell us that Bales’s attorney implies that his family feels that the massacre – which we are being led to believe was the work of a single individual who “snapped” – was caused at least in part by his dissatisfaction with an overloaded and dysfunctional US military command:
Yesterday, prominent Seattle defense attorney John Henry Browne announced he will represent the soldier. Browne’s past clients include serial burglar Colton Harris-Moore and serial killer Ted Bundy. At a news conference in Seattle, Browne said the soldier’s family was shocked at what happened.
JOHN HENRY BROWNE: He was told that he was not going to be redeployed. And they were—the family was counting on him not being redeployed. And so, he and the family were told that his tours in the Middle East were over. And then, literally overnight, that changed. So I think that it would be fair to say that he and the family were not happy that he was going back…
Oh, they were totally shocked. He’s never said anything antagonistic about Muslims. He’s never said anything antagonistic about Middle Eastern individuals. He’s, in general, been very mild-mannered. So, they were very shocked by this.
Yet somehow the fact that the lawyer who is to defend Bales was also the defender of serial murderer Ted Bundy suggests that a (temporary) insanity plea is being envisaged.
Now Goodman introduces Shea and provides background on Shea’s recent article in American Scholar:
AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by journalist Neil Shea. He’s joining us from Raleigh, North Carolina, has reported on Afghanistan for many years for Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper, and The Christian Science Monitor, among others. His latest article in The American Scholar is called “Afghanistan: A Gathering Menace: Traveling with U.S. Troops Gives Insights into the Recent Massacre.”
We welcome you, Neil, to Democracy Now! Yours is an extremely disturbing article. Tell us what you have found. Just walk us through the descriptions you share in your piece.
NEIL SHEA: Well, good morning, Amy and Juan.
I found that during one of my last trips to Afghanistan, I met up with a group of soldiers who were the first I had ever come across who made me feel pretty nervous about what I was going to see while I was with them. And I spent a few days with them and came to just really understand that they had gotten to the edge of violence, as we understand it, in Afghanistan, and they seemed ready and capable of doing some pretty bad things. I didn’t actually witness them do anything too terrible, but the way that they talked and the way that they acted toward Afghan civilians and animals and property in the country was sort of stunning to me. And that’s what I describe in the article. It’s talking about these—this group of soldiers and sort of their mental state during a multi-day mission in a central part of Afghanistan that was supposed to be a Taliban stronghold. Many of these guys seemed like they had reached the end of their rope in terms of stability and controlling their aggression.
Now if one reads the article in question, I think it's fair to say that nowhere in it does anything Shea reports about their speech and behavior imply that the men he encountered have been “pushed to the edge of violence.” What emerges about them is rather that their overall attitude toward the lives and property of Afghans and the dignity of Afghan women is one of extreme callousness. Shea allows for the possibility that their talk can be discounted as the equivalent of locker-room braggadocio, but adds that "In speech we give ideas life." Several of them joke about killing their ex-wife or ex-girlfriend once back in the States. One states that the only thing that kept him from killing a prisoner was the fear of a prison sentence. Yet Shea writes “I felt I was watching some of the men unravel toward serious crimes…,” and makes a point of saying that the men of what he calls “Destroyer platoon” “were the first I had ever come across who made me feel pretty nervous.” It is as if he sees the generalized callousness and amorality he witnessed as evidence of a deteriorated state of mind brought on by the stress of war or by faulty command (Bales’s camp, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, is allegedly “dysfunctional”) rather than an unavoidable reaction to taking part in a war that is itself dysfunctional and the product of a dysfunctional foreign policy. Juan Gonzalez pursues this in his next question, and Shea answers by citing further examples,
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Neil, what I found amazing about your story is, as you say, you focus not on any high-profile event that might be considered something illegal done by the troops or a war crime, but on the everyday occurrences that created greater and greater distance between this particular group of U.S. soldiers and the civilian population. At one point, you write, “Evil or atrocity often explodes from a furnace built by the steady accretion of small, unchallenged wrongs. Some men in Destroyer platoon had been drifting that way for a long time.” Can you talk about some of those incidents that you witnessed that were part of this buildup of the psychological perspective, viewpoint of these men?
NEIL SHEA: Sure, Juan. In some ways, this article was a culmination of things that I’ve seen since 2006, when I first started covering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And during those years, I’ve seen soldiers and marines sort of build up through these cycles of aggression, to the point where they start doing—they begin with small things. They’ll insult Iraqis or Afghans behind their backs, and that’s sort of the very mild beginning of it. And then they sort of move up the chain, if we can call it that, into more serious acts of aggression, where they’ll kill animals or they’ll beat somebody or treat them roughly, and it sort of builds up from there.
and leads up to a revealing point:
What I saw with these guys in Afghanistan when I was with them was that several of them had already been through multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they had reached a point where they hated Afghans, they hated the country, and they were really not interested in doing any of the hearts and minds stuff anymore that’s a crucial part of the mission.
In other words, “the hearts and minds stuff” is a crucial part of the mission (the very phrase Shea uses seems to belie that), but our troops in Afghanistan are not interested in doing it because they are overworked and suffering from stress due to multiple missions, possibly the fault of dysfunctional command. The solution would seem to be clear – simply provide more troops, give them the means to fight under better, more human conditions – by providing recreational facilities and female companionship, perhaps? Nowhere is there the suggestion that the fundamental reasons for the presence of these troops in Afghanistan may be wrong, that “the hearts and minds stuff” is not some optional aspect of the troops’ mission, however crucial, that occupying a country militarily is simply not the way to win its people’s hearts and minds.
So by the time I reached these guys, they had already been sort of—they had been building up anger and aggression in strange ways for a number of years. And when I saw them, they had just shot a dog that had been a pet in an Afghan home that they had confiscated during the mission, and they treated Afghan civilians fairly roughly, and they took a few prisoners and treated them very roughly, as well. Nothing that would rise to necessarily the—sort of a crime at that time, but the way that they talked about things and the way that they sort of handled themselves was really aggressive. And it was only—it seemed to me only to be barely kept in check.
So it’s just this small—when we cycle our soldiers and marines through these wars that don’t really have a clear purpose over years and years, I write in the article that we begin—we expect light-switch control over their aggression. We expect to be able to turn them into killers and then turn them back into winners of hearts and minds. And when you do that to a man or a woman over many years, that light-switch control begins to fray. And that’s what I believe I was seeing with these guys in Afghanistan.
Shea seems to miss an essential point: These wars do have a clear purpose. That purpose is neocolonial domination by a military machine. But that purpose cannot be admitted. And so the endless cycle of massacres of civilians and plausible denials continues. Here, we have not the usual bad apple – if the pattern is followed, it will surely be admitted that more than one individual took part in the massacre – but one barrel of rotten apples in the huge storehouse that is the US/NATO military machine, whose overall purpose, while at times not clear, must surely be benevolent.
JUAN GONZALEZ: You also mention something that I don’t think many Americans here realize, that when these platoons go out, especially on multi-day patrols, that they often just take over the homes of Afghans, evict them, and give them a few dollars and basically order them out of their homes and take them over for their own—for their own refuge. And this creates—you quote one soldier saying, “Well, we helped create more Taliban today,” because of—the soldiers themselves recognizing that their actions were creating enormous hostility in the population.
NEIL SHEA: Right. This is—this was a fairly standard practice in Afghanistan, and even in Iraq. When platoons were moving out through really rural areas or even some urban areas, they needed a place to bed down for the night. They’d try to find either an abandoned house or, if they couldn’t find an abandoned one, they would move into a place that was relatively secure, and they’d sort of kick the family out and try to pay them for their trouble. In this particular case, I was told that the Afghans didn’t take the money from the American troops, because they didn’t want anyone in the region to think that they were siding with the Americans. They were afraid that by taking the money, they’d be seen as American sort of collaborators and perhaps killed later.
But the point I was trying to make when I talked about—when I quoted that soldier as saying that they were on a Taliban recruiting drive, he was actually talking about the fact that they had—they had treated the Afghans so badly during the mission that the Afghans were going to obviously choose the side of the Taliban, because now they hated the Afghan army and they hated the Americans. So the brutal treatment that the Americans had sort of pushed upon them drove these civilians into the arms of the Taliban. And that’s what that particular soldier was talking about. And American soldiers all across Afghanistan run into that problem, just as they did in Iraq, where they have a job to do, but sometimes they have to do it so roughly that the civilian population actually turns against them. And so, that’s what that was about.
Amy Goodman then quotes one of the soldiers Shea encountered and whom he focuses on in the American Scholar article:
But she fails to quote him fully. The actual quote is : “‘This is where I come to do fucked-up things,’ Givens said. ‘So I don’t do them at home.’” What this seems to imply is that the US military, rather than employing wholesome, red-blooded American young men and women, is reduced to using social misfits who might very well eventually erupt into mass murder in the US. This would seem to imply that if indeed there is a benevolent mission, the military is having a very hard time convincing young Americans that it is worth signing onto, even with the added inducement of employment in a time of economic crisis at home. But Goodman seems to miss the fact that the soldier is showing a certain lucidity – not about his own sociopathy, but about the attitude of a military who he at least seem to perceive as no longer even trying to convince anyone of the benevolence of the mission. This same sergeant is the one who is quoted in Shea’s article as saying “Yeah, we definitely made some Taliban out here. […] It was like a week-long Taliban recruiting drive. And we had fun doing it. I love recruiting for the Taliban. It’s called job security.” This demonstrates a lucidity that is not in line with Shea’s overall portrayal of these men as being at the brink of elemental savagery. This man seems to be more lucid, at any rate, about the real purpose of his presence in Afghanistan than Shea is. Shea sees the problem as a “lack of clarity about the mission.” This soldier sees that in fact there is no mission – no mission, that is, other than to justify the presence of US/NATO troops in Afghanistan, and by extension the US/NATO presence around the globe.
AMY GOODMAN: Neil Shea, you quote an American Army sergeant, who said to you, “This is where I come to do f*****-up things.”
And I wanted to ask you about this report we can’t confirm that says “Up to 20 U.S. Troops Executed Panjwai Massacre: Probe” by Bashir Ahmad Naadimon. And it’s from Kandahar city (PAN). It says, “A parliamentary probe team on Thursday said up to 20 American troops were involved in Sunday’s killing of 16 civilians in southern Kandahar province.” Now, all the information that we are getting about what took place is from the military—you know, who this man is; the number of tours of duty—he had three in Iraq, one in Afghanistan; that he had a TBI, a traumatic brain injury, in a rollover in Iraq; and now he’s been taken out, so we don’t have any access to him. So that’s what the U.S. is saying. And the New York Times spoke to family members of some of the people who were killed, so we know what happened to some of the people killed. But what about this kind of story that is going around in Afghanistan? Do you find it credible, the idea that it was more than one person who did the killing?
Notice that although Goodman identifies the source of the allegation that up to 20 troops were involved as coming from an investigative team sent in by the Afghan legislature (the Wolesi Jirga or House of the People), she ends by referring to the source as “this kind of story that is going around in Afghanistan.” Are we to assume that there is a better way to get to the truth than to move in quickly and perform an investigation on the ground before the trails are cold – despite the fact that the alleged lone killer has been removed from any possibility of being interviewed – and that the Afghan legislature is not the competent body to conduct that investigation? And notice that Goodman, rather than asking whether Shea disagrees that an investigative team sent in by the Afghan legislature is at least as believable as the official line of the US military – given its history of systematic coverups of such “incidents,” beginning with My Lai and on up to the present – asks whether Shea feels that “this kind of story” is credible.
NEIL SHEA: At this point, I don’t really think that it’s credible. While it still is possible that it was more than just this one soldier who were involved in it, I think that the idea that it was 20 soldiers from one particular unit going into a village to just sort of slaughter people, that actually sounds very far off base to me. And I do know that in Afghan culture, at least from my observations, rumors travel very quickly, and they take on their sort of—they gather facts as they go, in sort of like a game of telephone. So, I wouldn’t be surprised if this story was sort of exaggerated and built up by this point. It would really shock me if it was an organized effort by a group of 20 U.S. soldiers, because—well, for the simple reasons that it would be difficult for—to keep a heinous crime like that so quiet. Even though the U.S. military is sometimes good at keeping things quiet, that would be almost too big for them to squash.
So, having been prompted to doubt the credibility of the Afghan legislative investigation, Shea further undermines that credibility by pointing to an aspect of “Afghan culture” we viewers may not know about – that “rumors travel very quickly” and “gather facts as they go.” The inherent racism and colonial attitude of such a statement is rather startling. On the grounds that rumors are an inherent part of their culture, we are being asked to believe that a group of Afghans – not ignorant villagers, but members of the country’s national legislature – trying to find out who actually killed 16 of their people is less believable than the colonial power that is occupying their country and that, time and time again, has been guilty of murdering innocent civilians? That the on-the-ground testimony of eyewitnesses, gathered by professional investigators and reported by an international news organization, is somehow less believable than the official line of the US military, which time and time again has covered up such events and systematically denied each element of proof until it was no longer deniable?
JUAN GONZALEZ: And Neil, I’d like to ask you—you’ve been reporting, as you say, from Iraq and Afghanistan now for several years—the length of this war in Afghanistan, more than 10 years now, what it’s done to the American military?
NEIL SHEA: Well, I was asking—when I was there last time, I was actually asking specific soldiers about this, what they thought the military—what damage had been done to the military during the war. And many of them felt that the military had actually been broken by this continued cycle of war. These were usually staff sergeants, command sergeants, mid-level sergeants who are sort of the backbone, as they call them, of the Army. And they really felt that the—a lot of things had deteriorated and eroded during the last 10 years. And soldiers and marines, even airmen in the other branches, told me this. So I think that there’s been a great degree of strain on the American military, particularly in Afghanistan. And that’s partly because, since the beginning of the war, the goal has changed, and the mission has changed, so every few years the military is having to adapt to something new. And there doesn’t really seem to be a clear exit strategy. And so, just sort of constantly refitting itself to adapt to a changing set of demands has created incredible strain.
No clear exit strategy: Even though we had no real reason for going in in the first place, all we need is an “exit strategy”; the issue of why we are there in the first place doesn’t seem to be on the table.
Now Goodman raises the obvious point of the US military’s history of systematic lying and cover-up, to the point that there is no longer any question of real credibility. The US denies what it can get away with denying, admits what it has no choice but to admit, issues heartfelt apologies and compensation payments to the surviving family, if any, of those it kills, and waits for the “incident” to fade from public memory.
AMY GOODMAN: And finally, the—you know, how we know what we know right now about what’s happened. Of course, there was the story of Pat Tillman, the belief—originally, the U.S. military put out that he was killed by enemy fire, and ultimately, of course, it was, if you call it, "friendly fire." It was fellow soldiers. And then taking that to this story.
NEIL SHEA: So I guess you’re asking about whether or not it could be sort of a cover-up, or the nature of information?
AMY GOODMAN: Right, not trying to figure out how we know what we know, as the people in the United States and Afghanistan deal with what took place.
NEIL SHEA: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: We have to be very aware of what our source of information is, that we don’t have independent confirmation.
NEIL SHEA: Yeah, indeed. I think that it’s entirely possible that right now we’re just sort of being led along with the thinnest of facts. So I’m reluctant to talk about this too much. But, you know, the U.S. military does have a history of trying to keep things under wraps, and particularly something like this. I know the temptation is very strong for them to sort of try to control the story and the message very tightly. So it will be very difficult for journalists to get into this story and sort of crack it open, but absolutely necessary for us to understand not only what happened in Kandahar, but what’s happening to the men and women that we ask to go fight this war.
I can only agree with Amy Goodman that we need to be aware of the fact that we don’t have independent confirmation. And I agree with Neil Shea that journalists need to crack this story open, and that the US military will try to control it. If the past is any indication, each item of deliberately false information that proves to be not plausibly deniable will be spun into something else. In this way, a certain number of layers will be peeled away as we try to get at the truth. But if we continue to assume that at some point we will reach the truth of why we are “fighting this war,” I think that we are mistaken. As with Peer Gynt’s onion, once we reach the last layer, we will see that there is nothing there. There is no justification for the war that might make young Americans want to fight. The original pretext for going to Afghanistan – finding Usama bin Laden – was false, just as the pretext for invading Iraq was false. Behind the lies and the pretexts there is nothing. Or rather, there is what always been there, but can never be named for what it is: An ongoing process of global domination in order to secure resources, yes, but in the end even that is a pretext. The real “reason” behind the US/NATO’s ongoing push toward global domination is nothing other than the very existence of the war machine itself. It is self-perpetuating. Now that the most recent atrocity has been revealed, we are told that the Taliban have cut off talks with the US. We are told that they are threatening to behead American soldiers if any fall into their hands. There will undoubtedly be further attacks on the occupying troops. And that will somehow justify their presence in the country. And so the endless cycle repeats itself. The Taliban were encouraged and funded by the US indirectly through its secret services, but became the enemy, accused of harboring the terrorist bin Laden, himself at one point a clandestine ally of the US. Then the Taliban again became a negotiating partner when it was time for the war machine to begin marshalling its forces against another enemy – Iran, an enemy the US indirectly created through its interference in Iran’s affairs long ago. Just as the emphasis was shifted from Iraq to Afghanistan when it became expedient. Meanwhile, the US/NATO is setting the stage for further interventions, further movements of troops and materiel, further development of weapons systems, through its strategic deployments against Russia – a former ally – and China. Just as the Cold War and the arms race grew out of the desire for military domination. Just as the “war on terror” was created when the supposed “Communist threat” was no longer believable. And there will be more atrocities, because that is what war machines create in their ordinary functioning. And again we will be told that sadly, war sometimes pushes the men and women who fight it to extremes. And that yes, a “good family man,” sadly, can be pushed to the point of being capable of shooting little children in the head. But that his act “does not represent the exceptional character of our military.”
AMY GOODMAN: Neil, we want to thank you very much for being with us. Neil Shea has reported in Afghanistan for many years for Stars and Stripes, The Christian Science Monitor, among others. His latest article is in The American Scholar; it’s called "Afghanistan: A Gathering Menace: Traveling with U.S. Troops Gives Insights into the Recent Massacre." We will link to it at our website, democracynow.org. Neil is speaking to us from Raleigh, North Carolina.