A World of Collateral Damage

Donald Greenspon

War Made Invisible
How America Hides the Human Toll of Its Military Machine
By Norman Solomon
The New Press, 2023, 197 pages + notes and index, $27.99 hardcover.

VETERAN PEACE ACTIVIST and author or co-author of a dozen previous books, Norman Solomon’s most recent book documents the many ways that the United States’ endless wars of the 21st century are kept hidden from the American public. First and foremost are the many U.S. military operations of which the public is unaware. (Until just recently, who knew about our expanded bombing operations in Yemen?)

The conduct of wars by so-called “precisions weapons” and drones, rather than “boots on the ground,” allows political elite to minimize the true costs. The toll of U.S. wars, especially on  civilians, are significantly minimized if not virtually ignored. Solomon contrasts this with the victims of wars conducted by U.S. adversaries, especially where the victims are people who “look like us,” whose tragedies are rightfully highlighted.

Where the government is forced to admit the costs of war. it minimizes the continuing effects  on the victims and its own veterans. Solomon details the U.S. government’s criminalization of whistleblowers who try to shed light on the government’s war secrets.

Finally, he discusses the role the mainstream media plays in cheerleading for wars and attempting to silence brave reporters who try to voice dissent.

“The frequencies of certain assumptions blend into a kind of white noise, with little chance for contrary sounds to be heard or considered. (T)he dominant media discourse and standard political rhetoric about the country’s military role in the world are like that.” (17)

Forever Wars at Faraway Places

Solomon begins his Introduction with the aftermath of 9-11. Although the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan resulted in the rapid fall of the Taliban regime in November 2001, the “global war on terrorism” was just getting started. Little interest was paid to U.S. Army general William Odom who was quoted on C-SPAN:

“Terrorism is not an enemy. It cannot be defeated. It’s a tactic. It’s about as sensible to say we declare war on night attacks and expect we’re going to win that war. We are not going to win that war on terrorism.” (3)

After 9-11 the U.S. bombing campaigns would extended way beyond Iraq and Afghanistan to also include Pakistan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Syria and other places — 22 countries on four continents.

Many of these wars were out of public sight and mind from the American public. The human costs of war had shifted as Solomon cites New York Times Magazine contributing writer Azmat Khan:

“U.S. soldiers, service members are dying at some of the lowest rates that they have traditionally in history. And the human costs of war are primarily being shifted to both foreign civilians and partner forces. And so this shift to airpower has really taken away some of the political costs of the past, for example, during the era of Vietnam, have served to curtail war or to mount pressure to end it. So we’re really looking at an era of warfare in which the political costs are diminished significantly and those result in far less attention and focus than there would be on wars in the years past.” (13)

President Biden’s United Nations speech in the fall of 2021 proclaimed: “I stand here today, for the first time in twenty years, with the United States not at war. We’ve turned the page.”

That same month, the false claim that the U.S. had finally “turned at page” was disputed by the Costs of War Project at Brown University, which showed that the “war on terror” was still underway on several continents. It estimated the deaths from the U.S. post-9-11 wars at between 897,000 and 929,000. (14)

Biden’s false claim was also refuted by outlandish U.S. military expenditures on “defense,” more than the next ten countries combined. In the first two decades of this century, five megafirms, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman have been paid $2.1 trillion in military contracts. The mainstream media rarely cover this war profiteering and these financial costs.

Unintended Deaths and Racism of War

Phyllis Bennis from the Institute for Policy Studies offered the following assessment in 2022:

“The so-called ‘global war on terror’ has, from its origins, been characterized by attacks by U.S. Special Forces, by airstrikes, by armed drones, and more, that routinely kill far more civilians than the targets identified on the “kill lists’ prepared by presidents and top White House officials.” (51-2)

Solomon rightfully believes that a single standard of humanity should infuse media coverage of war and the lives of all victims of war should have equal value. Unfortunately, he documents the many ways that this is not the case. While it is not wrong to spotlight the horrors of Ukrainian war victims, this light is dimmed for victims in Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Somalia and Palestine.

The tenor and volume of U.S. media coverage hinges on two factors: who is doing the killing (the United States or the designated enemy) and who is being killed (white or people of color). As Solomon points out, there is no starker example of this double standard than in the Russian invasion of Ukraine and Israel’s multiple wars on Palestine and its Middle East neighbors.

James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute makes Solomon’s point:

“It passed without comment in the U.S. press when an Israeli government official denounces the Russian invasion as a ‘grave violation of the international order,’ while another expressed his support for Ukraine’s ‘territorial integrity and sovereignty’ — as if Israel has ever respected these concepts. They have invaded and occupied Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt, justifying their actions using the same ‘security’ argument claimed by the Russians.”

Senator Bernie Sanders’ foreign policy adviser Matt Duss echoes similar thoughts:

“As a Ukrainian-American I am immensely proud of the bravery of Ukrainians and of the support being shown by Americans. As a Middle East analyst, I am floored by the blatant double standard on resisting occupation and repression.” (139)

How Wars Don’t End

Solomon’s chapters 5 and 8, “’Humane’ Wars“ and “The Costs of War,” cover the terrible reality that rarely are wars over when the government claims they are. America left Vietnam in 1975, leaving that country with three million dead and much greater devastation. After the war, reputable studies found that “unexploded bombs and cluster munitions contaminated over 23,670 square miles.” These amounted to 19 percent of Vietnam’s total land area.” (104)

Vietnam and Laos were also left to cope with the long-term effects of the U.S. military’s use of the defoliant Agent Orange including birth defects.

“While bracing itself for the invasion that came in early 2003, Iraq was still coping with the U.S. military’s use of DU (depleted uranium) in 1991 during the Gulf War.” Despite warnings how the use of DU had given rise to significant rise in childhood cancers and other malignancies from 1990-2000, the U.S. military proceeded to fire about 180,000 rounds of DU during its 2003 invasion. (105)

The longterm effects not only devastated the countries it bombed and occupied, but also the lives of U.S. combat veterans. After Vietnam, they and their families also suffered from Agent Orange’s severe health effects.

As a result of exposure to a host of chemicals, U.S. veterans of the 1991 Iraq war experienced “Gulf War Syndrome.” In the later wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. soldiers were exposed to toxins from burn pits. Many developed unexplained cancers, and adding insult to injury, veterans and their families who suffered from these exposures had to fight the Veterans Administration’s strong resistance to honor their valid claims. (105)

Effects on veterans also include severe psychological and mental health challenges, and big spikes in domestic abuse and intimate partner violence. (169-70)

Silencing Critics of the War Machine

Solomon’s chapter 6 discusses “Lives that Really Matter, Lives that Don’t.”The U.S. public’s support and enthusiasm for its wars understandably seem inversely proportional to the number of American casualties. Flag-draped coffins arriving on conveyor belts at military bases in the U.S. make for “bad optics.” That’s why over time the government has tightened restrictions of news coverage of dead soldiers arriving at military bases.

What also makes for “bad optics” is the disclosure of U.S. war crimes. “Former U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning spent seven years in a military prison — including long, tortuous stretches in solitary confinement — for making possible the public disclosure of such evidence as the infamous ‘Collateral Murder’ video that showed the cavalier killing of eleven Iraqi civilians from the air.” (122)

WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange brought the Manning video into the open and also released huge troves of documents that exposed deception, coverups, and U.S. military massacres of civilians. Assange underwent seven years of asylum in Ecuador’s small London embassy, and has been held in London’s harsh Belmarsh prison ever since.

Although not a U.S. citizen, Assange has been charged under its espionage law and the American government has gone to great lengths to extradite him to the U.S. to face certain mandatory lifetime imprisonment.

Highly acclaimed TV personality Phil Donohue had a leading MSNBC prime time program when his show was cancelled three weeks before the Iraq invasion began in 2003. A leaked internal memo explained the reason the concerns of MSNBC executives that his program presented a “difficult public face for NBC in time of war.”

“The document warned that the show could become “a home for the liberal anti-war agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity.” (184)

Another typical case is that of newswoman, Ashleigh Banfield. By her early 30s she had won numerous awards including an Emmy, was anchoring a prime time show for MSNBC in 2000, and then was becoming a high-profile NBC News correspondent.

However, in the midst of the triumphalism about “victory” in Iraq, in April 2003 Banfield gave a speech in which she deplored the horrors of that war which other mainstream journalists had ignored. NBC executives immediately dissociated themselves from Banfield, warehoused her until her contract expired which resulted in her complete fall from grace within mainstream U.S. media. (71-74)

True to form, in the midst of Israel’s genocidal destruction of Gaza, the liberal MSNBC cancelled the commentary program of Mehdi Hasan, after he challenged statements by Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev in an on-air interview.

In Conclusion

Many of America’s perpetual wars over the past two decades, and their effects, have been kept off the radar of average Americans because the increased use of high technology, air power and remote drones have replaced “boots on the ground.”

Compliant journalists and editors add to the deception and the minimizing of the true costs. Those brave enough to buck this trend are attacked and relegated to the margins.

The value of Solomon’s book is not only how it accurately depicts the past, but how its themes are applicable to present and future events. It was published in June of 2023, well before the events in Israel/Gaza unfolded in October of 2023. Yet much of what Solomon describes in prior wars has played out in this catastrophe.

The October 7 Hamas war crimes in Israel have been given significant coverage, and the victims’ deaths and hostages are given the humanity they are due. Yet the overwhelming Israeli bombing of so-called protected targets — hospitals, schools, refugee shelters, etc. — are minimized and excused.

President Biden has claimed, with no evidence, that the Gaza Health Ministry was not “telling the truth” about how many people have been killed. Israel is not considered a victimizer even though it has dropped the lethal bombs, while Hamas is routinely accused of using civilians as “human shields” — even though investigations into Israel’s prior attacks on Gaza in 2008-2009 and 2014 by reputable human rights groups failed to find any case of civilian deaths caused by Hamas using human shields.

Israel’s “indiscriminate military attacks” on Gaza have been described by United Nations and human experts as “collective punishment” and a war crime as in its use of white phosphorus against civilian targets.

As the cases of Phil Donohue, Ashley Banfield and others show, mainstream media have attempted to silence critics of the Israeli attack on Gaza within its ranks. The cancellation of Mehdi Hasan’s popular MSNBC show is the most prominent example.

It has been said that “the first casualty when war comes is truth.” War Made Invisible powerfully documents this reality. This book offers a resounding call for change and an important resource for all people who long to live in a peaceful world.

March-April 2024, ATC 229

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