Abu Ghraib, Falluja and "All The News That's Fit to Print"
Abuse at Abu Ghraib: It's obscene, an atrocity and against international law. It's condemned by the world.
The assault on Falluja: It's obscene, an atrocity and against international law. It's barely noticed by the Western world, although abhorred in the Arab world.
One of the reasons for this striking difference is media coverage. A recent article in the New York Times, "A Full Range of Technology is Applied to Bomb Falluja," was almost straight Pentagon propaganda, with the only sources Generals and military pilots. (1)
The propaganda starts in the headline: "Technology is applied." Technology is a cheering, comforting word. If America's amazing man-on-the-moon, woman-going-to-Mars technology is in the driver's seat, were A-okay. Unspoken, but implied, is "surgical" bombing.
"Applied" sounds benign. Women apply make-up. Nurses apply compresses. Apply suggests neatness, a far cry from the increasing chaos in Iraq.
What does the reader learn -- and not learn -- in the text accompanying this headline? Air Force F-15E and F-16 warplanes, F-14 and F-18 fighter-bombers, and AC-130 gunships were the appliers of the technology, in this case 500-lb, 1000-lb and 2000-lb bombs.
Then, there's the ringer: Three-dozen, 500-lb bombs have been dropped on Falluja in a 48 hour period, April 27 to April 29.
Three dozen? Thirty-six bombs dropped over a 48-hour period on a town of about 200,000? What would it mean if this number of bombs were "applied" to a US city of equal size, say Baton Rouge or Colorado Springs?
What did the "application" do to Falluja? The Times says the raids destroyed 10 buildings and 2 "sniper nests." Only 10 buildings and a couple of "nests" are destroyed in a two-day bombing raid?
What about the people? Didn't people die? The article's authors, Schmitt and Shanker, tell us that the military has "no idea how many civilians died." We're told, however, that the bombs were "laser-guided." It's another comforting concept. It reminds us of laser surgery -- clean and relatively painless.
Key to the Time's article is the old saw: the US is using "precision" bombs.
Shortly after Gulf War I the Washington Post deflated the "precision" bomb myth, reporting that US bombs were accurate only 30% of the time. (2) The precision of US bombs has supposedly improved since then, but even with a "precise" bomb there's two problems. One is what happens when a bomb explodes and two is who determines the target.
One author says, "one must distinguish between the precision with which a bomb or missile hits its intended point of impact…and the area within which lethal damage will be wrecked when the warhead explodes." (3)
After the explosion fragments of crushed buildings, pieces of broken glass and shrapnel spew out. An Air Force manual says, "Fragmentation is effective against troops, vehicles, aircraft and other soft targets. The fragmentation effects generated from the detonation of a high-explosive bomb have greater effective range than the blast, usually up to 3000 feet regardless of bomb size." (4)
Whether it's a 500-lb bomb or a 1000-lb bomb, lethal missiles are slicing through the air for more than a ˝ mile in all directions. Hey, that's ten city blocks!
A Human Rights Watch report quotes a Basra resident who survived Gulf War I. He said the shrapnel sliced through the air, "like knives". (5) The same report says "civilians fear injury from flying shrapnel as much as they feared the consequences of a direct attack." (6)
Mr. Schmitt's and Shanker's antiseptic account of "10 buildings and 2 snipers nests" destroyed omit these unpleasant details.
What else was wiped out in the bombing raids? A hospital? Schools? Houses? We don't know -- and we, probably, will never know the number of casualties. (Earlier in the siege on Falluja the Associated Press reported 600 deaths and over 1000 injuries. That report was on April 11, days before these bombing raids.) (7)
Even without the lethal blast effect, in the case of Falluja (and most bombed towns in Iraq), the "precision" claim is moot because of how targets are selected. The Times tells us that spotters on the ground are calling in coordinates. Then, pilots bomb the targets.
Not addressed is how do the spotters determine what's a target? The spotters don't speak Arabic. They can't see the difference between a young man going out to buy a tomato, a member of the Iraqi resistance and a terrorist from Yemen. Furthermore, the spotter is hyped up, scared and angry. He's seen and heard his dying buddies screaming as their guts spill out onto Iraq's dusty streets. And he's from the same military culture that spawned the grotesque abuses at Abu Ghraib prison.
Are these soldiers going to be able to accurately determine who is and is not the enemy?
Add in these factors and we quickly leave the re-assuring realm of computer chips, laser bombs and global positioning devices. It's all too likely that Iraqi civilians are being classified as "the enemy" on the basis of highly emotional hunches. They moved at the wrong moment, ran -- or walked -- in the wrong direction or they were wearing the wrong clothes.
What happened in Vietnam is relevant. In Vietnam after peasants and farmers were killed, they were classified as Vietcong. It seems inevitable that Iraqis also will be defined as the enemy because they've been killed by US forces, rather than vice-versa. (8)
Jonathan Schell's descriptions of how US pilots on bombing missions "identified" Vietcong are chilling: "they look up at your plane," "they run away," "he walked real proud…instead of just shuffling along like a farmer," and "it's kind of an intuition. I think I can just about smell a VC from 5000 feet by now." (9)
Whether any of the US spotters in Iraq are using this smelling technique or not, what's guiding those 36 bombs in Falluja is all-too frail human beings. And these human beings are operating within the context of a bankrupt policy: the "enemy" is Iraqis who are protecting their country from a foreign invader -- the US.
The result? Thousands of Iraqis are incinerated in flames, buried in rubble, or chopped up by flying missiles.
The New York Times banners the hooded, naked bodies of Abu Ghraib prisoners on its front page, but does not show pictures of Falluja's charred babies or decapitated children. No, the only picture of the bombardment of Falluja was almost beautiful, showing the night lit up by explosions.
Abu Ghraib and Falluja, twin atrocities.
Mina Hamilton is a writer in New
York City. She can be reached at
1) Schmitt, Eric
and Shanker, Tom, "A Full Range of Technology is Applied to Bomb
Falluja," New York Times, April 30, 2004, p. A12
Articles by Mina Hamilton