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The sickening choreography of brutality

Perhaps military spin makes us feel slightly less bad about military atrocity. But that makes us more complicit, not ‘more innocent’.

Simply writing it down makes you feel rage. I may get some of the minor details wrong but I can’t face going back to research this. American soldiers get drunk, go out and rape a 14-year-old girl while holding her family at gun point. Afterwards, realising what this meant, they shot the girl. Then the rest of the family. Then they dragged the bodies outside and tried to burn them to cover up the evidence. One family member survived to give details while neighbours knew what was happening but could do nothing against the highly-armed soldiers raping a 14-year-old girl next door.

This didn’t happen today but a couple of years ago. The military denied it, then played it down through the murky dishonesty of the ‘we can’t confirm’ ploy (which only ever applies one way – militaries don’t wait to ‘confirm’ their opponents atrocities). Finally when the evidence stacked up so completely they went for the ‘a few bad apples’ tactic.

There are many other examples of military atrocities carried out by the west in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some (the brutal murder of Baha Moussa beaten to death while in UK custody, the Abu Ghraib torture-fun-show) make it into the public domain and are accepted as ‘wrong’. Eventually. Others (indiscriminate drone attacks, keeping civilians bound for long periods leading to dehydration and death) are publicly known but are not accepted as ‘wrong’. But Rumsfeld-like we can assume there are also things we don’t know. Many, many ugly and awful things.

Today we discover another one. A gang of soldiers rampaging through a town and for drunken fun shooting what looks like 16 people in their homes. I find this hard to write (having dropped my two-year-old off at playgroup this morning) but they seem to have burst into a children’s bedroom where they opened fire spraying the blood of three children all over the wall. In total it seems like nine of the dead are children and four are women. But this is ‘unconfirmed’ (how hard can it be to confirm this?). And it is ‘disputed’ (it was only one barbarian, not a gang). Though not disputed by anyone who was there, only the ones who simultaneously can’t confirm it. But it’s OK because now it looks like it was ‘only one bad apple’.

This dance will be played out again and again – all our international strategies and policies are based around death. We know that almost all our interventions on the world stage are somehow about killing – by us, with our complicity, as a direct result of our actions, as an unavoidable consequence of our actions, because we did nothing to stop a conflict at an earlier stage and so on. And because our foreign policy is based heavily on the concept of the death of innocents (I include conscripted soldiers and indeed the many honest soldiers who just thought it was a respectable career) we normalise our international relations in those terms. So those of us who are asked ‘but what would you have done about Sadam Hussein?’ cannot answer ‘not have created him and the conditions which enabled him because all we really cared about was access to oil and regional dominance’. It has been normalised in terms of ‘so who should die?’ I am supposed to choose between Afghan villagers knowingly killed by US drone attacks to Afghan women stoned to death by the Taliban. These are my choices.

The horror of what is emerging today should stop us all and make us ask what we have done. What have we done to those poor Afghan victims? And just as importantly, what have we done to those poor, probably under-educated US boys turned into tools of murder, unable to manage the most basic of moral sympathies in a world where morality is suspended?

War is not a necessary evil, it is evil but it is purely optional. The debate about ‘the size of the army in an independent Scotland’ shows that the debate starts with guns and works slowly backwards. And in the choreography of military spin we make sure that the world is still gun-shaped.

Don’t imagine we’re not at least a bit complicit in this. We should all feel sick at ourselves today.

Robin McAlpine