View from the Loft 

war and peace, politics, books, rants, the passing parade ...


Saturday, May 24, 2003

Iraqi Civilian Deaths

I alluded to the high number of civilian deaths in "Death by Remote Control," below. It appears that the number of civilians killed during the U.S. invasion of Iraq may turn out to be as high as 10,000; certainly, the figure is over 5,000. Iraq Body Count includes only deaths reported by the media, and their figures are currently a minimum of 5334, maximum 6942.

Counting the deaths is made difficult because of the chaos war brings. Some people obtained death certificates for the deceased; others buried their dead where possible. In Nasariyeh, workers for CIVIC (Campaign for Innocent Victims in Combat) found over 1,000 graves. Hospitals were overwhelmed by the number of casualties that poured in, and records there are understandably inaccurate, incomplete, or missing. All this makes counting the victims very difficult. CIVIC workers are going door-to-door, talking to hospital officials, and searching out records in an attempt to count the dead. (For a personal account of the work the CIVIC teams are doing, see Where Is Raed?)

The U.S. military is not attempting to tally civilian deaths. Predictably, the Pentagon claims that U.S. troops "made every effort to minimize innocent casualties," even at the risk of their own lives, and I believe that in individual cases this is no doubt true. However, Mark Herold has shown that precision bombing is often anything but. Hundreds of Iraqi civilians were killed when bombs and missiles struck marketplaces, grain silos, isolated farms, residential areas in cities, factories, and villages. I'm sure we all remember the civilians killed as they drove up to checkpoints, where they were fired upon by U.S. troops who were anything but careful to minimize deaths.

And cluster bombs have continued to kill people long after the bombing has stopped. On April 24, Gen. Richard Myers, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that of 1500 cluster bombs used in Iraq, only one had resulted in civilian casualties. Not only does this beggar belief, but Myers didn't even mention surface-launched munitions, which are believed to have caused greater numbers of casualties than those dropped from the air. As of May 6, Iraq Body Count believed that between 200 and 372 deaths could be attributed to cluster bombs.

Why does it matter that we count the number of non-combatants who have died? To the military, it doesn't. Civilian deaths are merely "collateral damage," a term that eliminates the human element completely and trivializes the deaths of those who happened to be in the way. But we need to remember that these are ordinary men, women, and children, caught up in a maelstrom not of their making, whose ordinary round of activities has been interrupted by war, injury, and death. We need to be reminded that there are no clean wars and no bombs that spare innocent human lives. We need to insist that human beings matter, that they are not just an inconvenient consideration that the military is forced to take into account when planning their missions.

This becomes even more important as new weapons are designed that make it all too easy to avoid the results of a bombing session or a round of artillery fire. As mechanized, remote-controlled weapons move onto the battlefield, it will become easier and easier to believe the lie that war can be fought without a high cost in human life. The war in Iraq was presented to the U.S. population as a war of little bloodshed, and indeed, only 162 American soldiers lost their lives. But photos and video footage of civilian casualties, homes destroyed, families dislocated, all the waste and destruction of war, might at least have brought home to the average American that there has indeed been a high price paid by the Iraqi people. If we care only about our own troops, we betray our humanity. Now we must hear the truth about the number of people killed by our government's obsession with war-making--and ask, "Why?"

Friday, May 23, 2003

Death by Remote Control

Often quoted since the invasion of Iraq is Robert E. Lee's observation, "It is well that war is so terrible: we would grow too fond of it." The United States has been working feverishly to reduce the horror of war--for its own troops--by creating remote-controlled weapons systems and unmanned drones. More and more, it is civilians who pay the bloody price of war. By some estimates, the ratio of Iraqi civilian deaths to military fatalities may be as high as 33:1.

But for some of our troops, all that death and destruction remains pretty abstract. Some report a feeling of "exhilaration" as they drop bombs on a city; they don't see the amputations, deaths, grief that their bombs cause. Precision bombing helps to alleviate any misgivings--after all, these bombs are precise, and doesn't that ensure a nice, clean war with few civilian deaths?

In fact, no. As Mark Herold reports, during the period between March 20 and April 1 alone, bombing was over three times as deadly to civilians as in the Gulf War, even though precision bombs made up 90% of the number dropped, compared to only 6% in the Gulf War. The idea that bombs are precise appears to be nothing more than illusion, one that, perhaps not so coincidentally, allows war-makers, war supporters, and troops to assuage their consciences with the thought that everything possible is being done to spare the lives of innocents.

But what the future holds must make us even more concerned, for as war becomes less deadly to those who perpetrate it, it becomes easier to promote as an answer, especially when the perpetrator has little or no concern for "collateral damage." What the future holds is an automated battlefield, one in which fewer and fewer soldiers will be put at risk, a battlefield dominated by unmanned bombers ike the X-45, drone ambulances (for those few actual human troops required, I suppose), robotic mules for hauling equipment, automated mine clearers, and self-programmed submarines.

This is surely good news for those who have to fight the wars, if wars there must be (and certainly we, as a species and as a nation, seem addicted to them). But how much easier will it be to decide to go to war, when we anticipate so few casualties for our troops? None of these things could be used in self-defense, or, if so, could be used in only a very limited way. These weapons are all meant for aggressive action like the one the U.S. undertook in Iraq. And these weapons mean that wars will become less and less "up close and personal." The use of such weapons also obviously means that the wars the U.S. fights will become more and more one-sided. No nation matches our military might now, nor will they have military technology that rivals ours.

Of course, knowing that we have this gadgetry could drive a country to use nuclear weapons against us, the fight otherwise being so lopsided.

I fear the callousness that allows people to create these weapons, the callousness that will allow the U.S. to use them. I am sickened that such imagination, work, engineering, and creativity are being expended to find new ways of killing, particularly from a distance, instead of being used to better human life on this planet.

There's another quotation that should be learned and remembered by all those who want so desperately to wage war:

Every gun that is fired, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. The world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its labourers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. (Dwight D. Eisenhower)

Wednesday, May 21, 2003

Take Action!

It's time once again to tilt at windmills. Let's go!

Reject Bush and Blair for Nobel Peace Prize

Yep, you read that right. George W. Bush and Tony Blair have been nominated by Norwegian Member of Parliament Harald Tom Nesvik for "their decisive action against terrorism, something I believe in the future will be the greatest threat to peace." Read and sign the petition urging the Prize Committee to choose a more appropriate recipient.

Senate Lifts Ban on "Mini-Nukes"

The Senate has just voted to continue research and development on so-called "mini" nuclear weapons. Senate Democrats are hoping to bring about a compromise that would allow research, but prohibit development. The House version of the bill removes the ban on research but retains the ban on development. These so-called "low-yield" weapons are about one-third the size of the bomb that leveled Hiroshima, which doesn't sound all that "mini" to me. Okaying these weapons would pave the way for accelerated proliferation and, to my mind, blur the distinction between nuclear and conventional weapons to the point where these smaller nukes would almost certainly be used. Please go to Congress.org and urge your senators and representative to keep working against the development of these weapons. A vote is expected in the House as early as today, so don't delay.

UPDATE: On Wednesday the Senate agreed to a compromise that will allow research and design but require new Congressional authorization for engineering work or development of the weapons. Well, it's something, I suppose, although it seems that once the door has been opened ...

Terrorism Information Awareness

... formerly known as Total Information Awareness. See my post below, and use the above link to Congress.org to communicate with your elected officials about this egregious erosion of our civil liberties.

Talk back to the DLC.

The Democratic Leadership Council recently said in a memo leaked to the press that grassroots activists inspired by Howard Dean's call to "take back the party" are "activist elites" and not "real Democrats." ("Activist elites"? What the hell does that even mean?) The values of Dems who are not "Bush Lite" are called "an aberration" in the memo.

Please send them a message. You'll have to word your own e-mail, but I'm sure you can come up with a few pithy phrases that'll never make it into a Peggy Noonan speech. You know--stuff like health care for all Americans, a decent foreign policy, stuff like that.

Block judicial nominee Carolyn Kuhl.

Senators need support from pro-choice voters as they work to defeat the nomination of Carolyn Kuhl, whose record on reproductive rights is abysmal. E-mail your senators now!

Total Information Awareness by any other name ...

The Pentagon, in a typically cynical move, hopes that changing the name of the Total Information Awareness program to Terrorist Information Awareness will mute its critics. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, explains, "The program’s previous name, 'Total Information Awareness' program, created in some minds the impression that TIA was a system to be used for developing dossiers on U.S. citizens. That is not DoD’s intent in pursuing this program. Rather, DoD’s purpose in pursuing these efforts is to protect U.S. citizens by detecting and defeating foreign terrorist threats before an attack. Therefore, to make this objective absolutely clear, on May 20, DARPA changed the program name to Terrorism Information Awareness."

The Pentagon promises that it will use only "legally collected" personal data, but Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) points out that "laws that protect consumer privacy don't apply when the data gets into the government's hands" and that "lawfully collected information can include anything, medical records, travel, credit card and financial data."

In fact, in the hope of detecting patterns of behavior that might point to terrorist plots, DARPA wants unrestrained access to electronic records of passport applications, visas, work permits, driver's licenses, car rentals, airline ticket purchases, arrests or reports of suspicious activities, financial, education, medical and housing records and identification records based on fingerprints, irises, facial shapes and gait. The Center for Democracy and Technology is one of the groups calling for Congressional oversight and a re-establishment of contraints that were tossed aside during post-9/11 panic. Right now, says CDT's Jim Dempsey, there are no real limits on government access to citizens' private records.

And that's not all. Beyond TIA there's LifeLog, which Steven Aftergood, a defense analyst with the Federation of American Scientists, calls "TIA cubed." LifeLog--and this is from DARPA itself--"is interested in three major data categories: physical data, transactional data, and context or media data."

Here's how DARPA envisions LifeLog:

"'Anywhere/anytime' capture of physical data might be provided by hardware worn by the LifeLog user. Visual, aural, and possibly even haptic sensors capture what the user sees, hears, and feels. GPS, digital compass, and inertial sensors capture the user’s orientation and movements. Biomedical sensors capture the user’s physical state. LifeLog also captures the user’s computer-based interactions and transactions throughout the day from email, calendar, instant messaging, web-based transactions, as well as other common computer applications, and stores the data (or, in some cases, pointers to the data) in appropriate formats. Voice transactions can be captured through recording of telephone calls and voice mail, with the called and calling numbers as metadata. FAX and hardcopy written material (such as postal mail) can be scanned. Finally, LifeLog also captures (or at least captures pointers to) the tremendous amounts of context data the user is exposed to every day from diverse media sources, including broadcast television and radio, hardcopy newspapers, magazines, books and other documents, and softcopy electronic books, web sites, and database access."

DARPA's description of LifeLog makes it sound like a perfectly inocuous system that enables a person to keep a lifelong diary, a kind of cyber memory. But ... why does the Pentagon see itself as having a stake in such a system? The answer can't be one that'll make me sleep any better at night.

Please, go to Congress.org and let your elected officials know that the newly-named Terrorism Information Awareness program must be stopped. Our rights to privacy and our civil liberties have never been so threatened on so many fronts.

Now I'm going to go and read Mother Earth News and find out how to get off the grid ...

I guess this is how we export democracy to our allies. Maybe they need First Amendment zones...

Tuesday, May 20, 2003

Let's hear it for dissent.

Maybe the California Anti-Terror Information Center doesn't understand the difference between terrorism and dissent, but plenty of us do, and it's up to us to keep that distinction alive.

About 100 students walked out on Sen. Rick Santorum--who made "man-on-dog" a household phrase--when he gave a graduation speech at St. Joseph's University last Sunday. They took offense at his earlier remarks implicitly comparing homosexuality to incestuous relationships and bestiality.

From the North Pole to Broward County, Florida, cities and towns are challenging the Patriot Act. They're calling for Congress to re-examine the Patriot Act, and sometimes they're telling city employees not to cooperate with federal investigations, arrests, and other procedures that they believe violate the individual's rights. As of last Wednesday, the ACLU had counted 105 municipalities that had passed anti-Patriot Act resolutions. While the resolutions are pretty much symbolic, I'd say such symbolism carries a message. At least some Congresspeople now regret their hasty approval of the Act and admit it was "emotional voting."

And librarians are up in arms over the Patriot Act as well. They are required by the law to provide records to federal investigators, but are not allowed to tell individuals that information about them has been requested. Revealing that records have been searched can earn a librarian criminal penalties, including imprisonment. The American Library Association has issued guidelines ("What to do before, during, and after a 'knock at the door'") for librarians, leading with "consult your local legal counsel." The ALA also passed a resolution calling the Patriot Act provisions "a present danger to the constitutional rights and privacy rights of library users" and urging Congress to change the law. Some libraries have posted signs warning patrons that library records could end up in the hands of the FBI. Nearly 22% of librarians participating in a University of Illinois questionnaire said they probably or definitely would defy a federal agent's order not to disclose that a patron was under investigation. Bookstores and libraries are rallying around Bernie Sanders' bill that would amend the section of the Patriot Act dealing with records of book purchases and loans (see my May 15 post).

Remember the $640 toilet seats the Pentagon bought? How they became a symbol for the wastefulness of the Pentagon and its contempt for such things as budgets and fiscal responsibility?

Well, how about this: "A study by the Defense Department's inspector general found that the Pentagon couldn't properly account for more than a trillion dollars in monies spent. A GAO report found Defense inventory systems so lax that the U.S. Army lost track of 56 airplanes, 32 tanks, and 36 Javelin missile command launch-units."

A trillion dollars?

Not to worry. The Bush administration, ever Johnny-on-the-spot, is proposing the Defense Transformation for the 21st Century Act. Ostensibly, the bill would streamline the Pentagon and make it more efficient and less wasteful.

But we're talking about the Bush administration here, the same people who brought you those job-creating tax cuts that have worked such financial wonders (cough, cough) that now they want an even bigger gift for the wealthiest among us. So you won't be surprised to hear that the Act would eliminate studies of program costs and reports that tell Congress when U.S. forces are training foreign soldiers; exempt the DoD from certain environmental regulations; and allow the Secretary of Defense greater authority to move funds between accounts without Congressional knowledge or approval.

If this proposal is as successful as previous attempts to fix the woeful state of the Pentagon's financial affairs, we can expect it to be costly and ineffective. In the past, initiatives like the Corporate Information Management system were abandoned--only after $20 billion had been spent. The Pentagon currently has about 2200 overlapping financial systems. Reportedly, the Pentagon is unable even to complete an audit.

That being so, it's hard to countenance a bill that would act to reduce accountability.

This is what happens when your nation encourages blind ignorance of other cultures--indeed, to the very history of civilization itself--with its constant drumbeat of "The U.S. is the best!" and its refusal to honor whatever has not been built yesterday by and for Americans:

"One of the greatest wonders of civilisation, and probably the world's most ancient structure - the Sumerian city of Ur in southern Iraq - has been vandalised by American soldiers and airmen, according to aid workers in the area ... US forces have spray-painted the remains with graffiti and stolen kiln-baked bricks made millennia ago. As a result, the US military has put the archaeological treasure, which dates back 6,000 years, off-limits to its own troops. Any violations will be punishable in military courts".

The U.S. didn't think the Iraqi National Museum was worth worrying about, nor the libraries that have seen books 1500 years old go up in flames. No wonder the troops have no respect for these remains of ancient civilization. Why should they? The U.S. military has decided to build a sprawling base "right alongside the site, so that the view from the peak of the ziggurat - more or less unchanged for 6,000 years - will be radically altered."

For thousands of years that view remained the same. Now, however, the view will feature the symbol of bellicosity and aspirations to Empire, not to mention a reminder to Iraqis of who's running the show now.


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