Kunduz and Columbia

I won’t need to provide links, you’re already familiar with outlines of the stories. I do have a few comments to make about similarities in what happened, and about one striking difference in official response.

The two are US attack on a MSF hospital in Afghanistan, and a Deputy Sheriff in South Carolina throwing a student to the floor.

The similarity I find is that, in each instance, excessive force was called into a situation which — so far as we outsiders can determine — could have been resolved far less dramatically.

At the hospital (and here I am limited to such information as has been made public) a Green Beret unit called in firepower to attack a building where they believed a Taliban figure was hiding. The GB unit understood that the building was, or included, a hospital occupied by patients and medical staff. Nevertheless, in what seems a flagrant violation of Rules of Engagement, or Just Warfare, an AC 130 gunship was called in. It circled and attacked the building for nearly an hour. The toll you probably already know.

Details of the South Caroline story also are — and understandably — open to debate and interpretation. Still, it is clear from a video of the ridiculous — I use that word quite deliberately here — confrontation that a young girl, whose only offense may have been teen-age defiance, was thrown to the floor and led away in handcuffs, as was another girl who had the temerity to complain of the first girl’s treatment. The crucial factor, so far as this argument goes, is that the girl refused to hand over her cell phone. She refused the teacher, who then summoned a principal. The girl refused to hand over to the principal, who then summoned a Deputy Sheriff assigned to the school. And the DS tossed her to the floor when she refused him.

The critical item — call it the resolution point — in each scenario was an “official” determination to call in brute force. At the hospital, it was the Green Beret team. At the school, it was the principal.

In Afghanistan, other shoes have yet to fall. In South Carolina, the Sheriff has fired his Deputy. I say hurray for the Sheriff, yet I also have to say I’m just a tiny bit sympathetic to the Deputy. He ought never to have been called into the classroom. A teen-age girl won’t hand over her cell phone and the principal calls in the cops? Absolutely and unquestionably uncalled for. It’s the Deputy who got fired, it’s the principal who ought to take the fall.

And at the hospital, who knows when or even if any resolution will come. US forces managed in a painfully blundering fashion to exacerbate the problem by trying, after the attack, to bulldoze their way into the hospital to look for evidence. And that is a second example of the central issue in these situations.

Someone is uncertain what to do, or lacks the courage to do it, so calls in a higher power to do the dirty work. A higher power which, in both these situations, was absolutely uncalled for.

Disturbing images? Yes.

Every day for a while, now perhaps only every other day, there’s a story about the Doctors Without Borders hospital which was attacked by U.S. aerial weaponry. Today Foreign Policy magazine has published not merely a story, but the story. Before clicking on that link, read this notice which appears above the first image.

Warning: Some readers may find the following images disturbing.

Why bother providing a link to disturbing images? Why, in fact, bother providing images themselves? Michael Shaw at Reading the Pictures argues that it’s crucial…

… to actually substantiate something we only know to be true… the reality of of those events — the ashen floors; the peeled and pock-marked walls; the carcasses of bed frames; that noose-like thing, whatever it was; and far worse — are either left to the mind’s eye, or Hollywood’s.

Is any good accomplished, posting stories like these? I do not know. Perhaps not. Perhaps the only benefit is to me personally, and to Michael Shaw, and to the Foreign Policy people who took and published those disturbing images. Our distress is not lessened but our consciences are answered, albeit so slightly that they do not stop haunting us.

I go back and read things I wrote earlier about our wars and our war-happy politicians and our war-trapped military. Nothing has changed. Nothing we write or photograph, none of our cries and tears bring an answer for us or for the immediate survivors of these… I cannot think what to call them.

They are unfortunate accidents, seems to be the official attitude. It was all collateral damage. Awfully sorry, and we’ll try not to do it again.

They will try. But — and we know, there is no way around it — they will do it again. And yet another time after that.

A picture is worth how many words?

I don’t see many print ads these days, don’t flip random pages at the magazine rack, never glance at the exposé crap next to the check-out line at the supermarket. We get the Sunday Times but first thing I do is toss the style section then do my best to ignore ads as I thumb through the magazine and news pages. Our local rag doesn’t get any farther into display ads than hearing aids and rain gutters. And I have a pretty good ad blocker on my desktop computer.

My point — and there is one — is that I’ve been completely unaware of how commercialization has subverted our most recent human drama. Here’s one example of it. I’m confident there are more. Words don’t fail me, but the ones first to mind are so obvious and so crude that I’ll leave you to express your own.


For a bit more on this, check Reading the Pictures, one of my favorite stops when I sit at the desk each morning.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

From this morning’s New York Times:

The U.S. military said “there may have been collateral damage” in Kunduz. Doctors Without Borders said its hospital had been hit. President Obama offered his condolences for the deaths.

Reading that a few minutes ago, I recalled a piece I wrote eight years ago.

Here it is.


If you haven’t seen The Third Man, put it on your list of essential videos. (It’s better on a big screen, of course, but it’s almost sixty years old. You’re not likely to see it at the cineplex.) Even it you have seen it, it’s worth a second or a third viewing.

What brought that to mind was trying to sort out an old adage: “The first victim of war is truth.” It’s crisp, pointed and relevant to the moment. But as happens with so many anonymous truths, it works better as metaphor than as political fact. The problem — for me — is in that word “victim.” Who or what is a “victim?”

Orson Welles — title character in The Third Man — takes Joseph Cotten for a ride on Vienna’s enormous ferris wheel. When they get to the top, Welles assures Cotten he is not about to kill him. Just wants his old friend to look down, two hundred feet below them, at people going about their everyday chores.

Victims? Don’t be melodramatic. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?

Victim. A curt, sharp-edged word. Brutal, yet efficient. Been around, according to the reference books, for six hundred years, remarkable longevity in a language as fluid and variable as English. And its original meaning endures: “a living creature killed and offered as a sacrifice.”

No wonder governments are reluctant to talk about “victims.” The living things sacrificed by governments are not goats or pigeons or lambs. Goverments sacrifice people. The victims of governments are people. Dead ones.

Imagine citizens of a country at war, a war begun by their own government. If they stopped to think, they might notice that they too — the citizens — are people. Just as their government’s victims are people.

Wait a minute. Are those victim-people somehow the same kind of thing as us citizen-people? Is it really a good idea kill them?

That’s why we have “casualties.” Casualty is less frightening than victim, less severe. Casualties don’t have to be dead: a person slightly injured in battle is a casualty. Business can be a casualty, as can prosperity or reputation or art. At its core is that easy-going word, “casual.” Casualties may be inconvenient, but they don’t really hurt anybody. Necessarily. Very much.

Still farther removed from human life is “collateral damage,” which sounds innocuous, or at most trivial. You know.

We destroyed the bridge. Unfortunately, we also loosened a few bricks in the chimney of a nearby home.

Look at the core of this phrase, however, and you find “collateral.” Co-lateral. Side by side. Co-incidental. Often as not, co-valent. A brick knocked loose from the chimney. A child knocked loose from life. Collateral damage. Not victims, though. Not victims.

But I was talking about truth. Let us reserve “victim” with its staccato consonants for the humans who perish. “Casualty” will do for abstractions, even so human an abstraction as truth. (A Google search for “truth as victim” returns about fifteen thousand hits. A search for “truth as casualty” returns nearly five times as many.)

If truth is the first casualty, what is the second? The second — and it may take a moment to make this clear — the second casualty of war is courage. Moral courage. Courage to say the king is naked, to say there’s a man behind the curtain, to say the President is lying, to say we need not to go to war. Difficult things to say, even if we do believe them, because the king, the President, the man behind the curtain will call us cowards. Will call us appeasers. Will call us traitors.

Our friends, who know as well as we do that the king is naked, our friends will not tell the king to put on some pants. They will play along with the fiction because they do not want to be called traitors.

And our politicians. Courage in public life? Look to see who among them actually spoke against the invasion of Iraq or, if they were in a position to, voted against it. See who among those who were deluded the first time around have repudiated their earlier support for the war, and now say it was a mistake.

See who among them is willing to say that a war now with Iran would be a mistake, that we should not and must not begin yet another murderous adventure in the Middle East. See who among them has courage.

My impression so far is that not very many have it. Courage, you see, is the second casualty of war.

Stuff Happens

Stuff happens.

That’s what the man said.

Jeb Bush said it last night, when asked about the Oregon shooting and President Obama’s renewed call for legislation to monitor, if not control, access to firearms.

The actual quote, as reported in The New York Times was “Look, stuff happens…. There’s always a crisis, and the impulse is always to do something and it’s not always the right thing to do.”

If it had been GW I’d have assumed that, as with so much else during his administration, the man simply had no clear idea what was happening and was letting Cheney run the country. But Jeb was advertised as the bright, thoughtful, intelligent Bush.

Maybe it’s genetic.

Or maybe, considering the Trump bandwagon, Jeb is just looking for a quick exit.

Stuff happens might do it.

Conscientious Objector? No.

Two items, the silly one first and then the serious one.

First, did Pope Francis summon Kim Davis in order to thank and encourage her stand as a conscientious objector?


She was invited, along with many others, to a brief meeting with Francis, a routine activity in the Pope’s travels. She was invited, not by Francis, but by the Rev. Carlo Maria Vigano, a church bureaucrat who has been a fierce opponent of any same-sex activity beyond football.

Second, does she even qualify as a conscientious objector?

Again, the answer is no.

If you are a conscientious objector you refuse to obey an order, do so knowing the consequences and willing to accept those consequences. It is much like — may be considered a version of — civil disobedience. The point there is the same. You do not make a point by breaking the law. You make a point by accepting the consequences of that law-breaking.

Davis served a few days in jail then returned to her position and tried again to break the civil law for which she was jailed. That makes her, not a conscientious objector, but a serial miscreant.