The US Highway of Death

Recently by John W. Whitehead: The Drone-ification of America

“Now thou art come unto a feast of death.” ~ Shakespeare, 1 Henry VI 4.5.7

War is not about territories. War is not about oil. War is not even about winners and losers. In the end, all that can really be said is that war is about killing. It is about the taking of human life.

“No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main,” wrote John Donne. “Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in Mankind…” If this is so, then we belong to a race of human beings that has been greatly diminished over time. In fact, one “atrocitologist” estimates that roughly 174 million people died in the 20th century alone due to acts of war, genocide and tyranny.

War is also about the loss of humanity – a loss that has become an inherent part of modern-day warfare. And with every new death, civilian or otherwise, we lose yet another piece of our humanity and regress toward our primitive, animal instincts. This is what we must grapple with in the wake of the reported assassination of Osama bin Laden and the NATO airstrike said to have claimed the lives of leader Muammar Gaddafi’s 29-year-old son and three young grandchildren. Whether or not it was actually bin Laden or Gaddafi’s relatives who were killed, as some have questioned, is not the issue. As CIA Director Leon Panetta remarked, “Bin Laden is dead. Al-Qaida is not.”

In other words, while Americans may be celebrating the death of “the most infamous terrorist of our time,” seeing it as a fitting act of retribution for the innocent lives lost on 9/11, the war effort is far from over. Indeed, America’s military response to 9/11 has spawned such blowback in the Middle East that we now find ourselves in a permanent state of war.

As a result, the war machine will continue unimpeded and the civilian death toll will rise higher with every passing day. All the while, most Americans, comforted by expressions of patriotism and pride in their military, distracted by mindless entertainment, technological gadgets and materialistic pursuits, and relatively insulated from the devastation being wrought overseas, seem to be unconcerned about the escalating costs of war – in dollars and lives. Even as these endless wars drag America to the brink of bankruptcy, both financially and morally, most Americans continue to live in a state of denial about the part we have played – are playing – in this bloody tragedy.

Modern technology totally dehumanizes warfare and, in the process, totally dehumanizes us as human beings. While it allows us to wage battles from afar, modern technological warfare also reduces the act of killing human beings to nothing more than targeting blips on a screen – a macabre video game with faceless victims and no danger of someone shooting back. And when an American drone annihilates innocent civilians in some far-away land, this is simply written off as yet another technological blip.

I was an infantry officer in the Army from 1969 to 1971. Men in my platoon who had served time in Vietnam told me many stories – but none more chilling than the one from two helicopter pilots. They told me how they would shoot the “friendlies” on their way back from reconnaissance missions just so they could empty their ammunition before returning to base. The “friendlies” were South Vietnamese women and children, helpless victims in a war they did not understand. But to the American pilots, they were simply dots on the ground.

This is what warfare does to so-called civilized people. Unfortunately, these “joy killings” are not isolated instances. Take, for instance, a U.S.-led attack that occurred during the Gulf War on the night of February 26–27, 1991, after Saddam Hussein announced a complete troop withdrawal from Kuwait in compliance with U.N. resolutions.

On a 60-mile stretch of road from Mutlaa, Kuwait, to Basra, Iraq, a convoy of more than 2,000 vehicles and tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers and civilians were fleeing. These were people who were putting up no resistance, many with no weapons, leaving in cars, trucks, carts and on foot. The American armed forces bombed one end of the main highway from Kuwait City to Basra, sealing it off, then bombed the other end of the highway, sealing it off. They positioned mechanized artillery units on the hill overlooking the area and then, both from the air and the land, massacred every living thing on the road. Fighter bombers, helicopter gunships and armored battalions poured merciless firepower on those trapped in the traffic jams, backed up as much as 20 miles. One U.S. pilot reportedly said, "It was like shooting fish in a barrel." That fateful stretch of road has since been dubbed the "Highway of Death."

A report submitted to the Commission of Inquiry for the International War Crimes Tribunal stated that those killed were Palestinian and Kuwaiti civilians trying to escape the siege of Kuwait City and the return of Kuwaiti armed forces. The report claimed that no attempt was made by U.S. military command to distinguish between military personnel and civilians.

Pictures taken after the attack show charred and dismembered bodies. Some of these photographs can be viewed by clicking on the link for Peter Turnley’s photo essay, “The Unseen Gulf War.” Ramsey Clark, a former U.S. Attorney General under Lyndon Johnson, suggested the carnage could only have resulted from the use of napalm, phosphorus or other incendiary bombs – anti-personnel weapons outlawed under the 1977 Geneva Protocols.

The killing did not stop with the Gulf War. Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the American government dispatched its arsenal of deadly weapons to Afghanistan to quash Osama bin Laden and the Al-Qaida network – but to no avail. And once again, there were reports of the indiscriminate killing of civilians by American forces where entire villages were wiped out and women and children lay dead on the cold earth of Afghanistan. Then the American military industrial complex trained its sights on Iraq, once again unleashing its awesome war machine. And the carnage continued, made even worse by horrifying reports of Iraqi prisoners being tortured, raped and subjected to all manner of other abuses at the hands of U.S. soldiers.

Most recently, reports and photos have surfaced of a so-called “kill team” comprised of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan who murdered innocent civilians, mutilated their corpses, and then photographed the kills. As Rolling Stone reported, “The photos, obtained by Rolling Stone, portray a front-line culture among U.S. troops in which killing Afghan civilians is less a reason for concern than a cause for celebration. ‘Most people within the unit disliked the Afghan people, whether it was the Afghan National Police, the Afghan National Army or locals,’ one soldier explained to investigators. ‘Everyone would say they’re savages.’ One photo shows a hand missing a finger. Another depicts a severed head being maneuvered with a stick, and still more show bloody body parts, blown-apart legs, mutilated torsos. Several show dead Afghans, lying on the ground or on Stryker vehicles, with no weapons in view.”

Despite the rising death toll among the military and civilians, despite the cost to the economy (the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan alone have already cost more than $1 trillion), despite the fact that the American military, acting as an international police force, is spread dangerously thin, despite the fact that Congress has yet to actually declare war against most of the countries in which America is making war (thus undermining the one thing that stands between us and tyranny – our Constitution), the American government continues to bang the war drums. And when all is said and done, after all the blather about national security and fighting terrorism and defending freedom abroad have died down, if these endless wars amount to anything at all, it is nothing less than the utter destruction of every decent and noble ideal for which America is supposed to stand.

The fact that modern technological warfare is turning human beings into non-feeling killing machines should cause us to tremble. It should give us reason to pause and question how we could let ourselves travel so far down the road to perdition. We have placed others on the highway of death. In the end, however, it is we who are traveling the highway of death. May God help us all.