Parallels of Conquest, Past and Present
After the Battle of Hastings in 1066, William the Conqueror’s army buried its fallen comrades, but left the corpses of the English defenders to rot in the fields.
Such is the brutal nature of war: the victor inflicts all manner of suffering and humiliation on the vanquished. Nearly a millennium later, what the United States is doing in Iraq and Afghanistan is only marginally different.
William the Conqueror made no pretense about his brutal subjugation of the English. They hated him and resisted his occupation for 20 years, during which time he took their property and gave it to the Norman upper class.
Over 300,000 English people were murdered and starved (one fifth of the population) and some 300,000 French and Normans were planted in England in positions of authority.
During the repression, an English nobleman was likely blinded, castrated, and thrown into a dungeon in one of the hundreds of castles that William built across the countryside to defend Norman interests. The overall strategy was to eliminate native leadership and to terrorize the population into submission.
By the time William repented his sins on his deathbed in 1087, England had ceased being England.
While the U.S.-led occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan are different in many details, there are disturbing parallels in the extent of the carnage and the strategy of coercion, in the innocent blood that has flowed and the number of survivors who have been terrorized.
Like William the Conqueror who ignored the English battlefield dead, the U.S. government has not identified – nor even made a good-faith effort to estimate – the number of Iraqis and Afghanis who have been killed.
That’s because the Bush administration – and now the Obama administration – have had an official policy of not counting the number of people killed, crippled, rendered homeless, starved, or condemned to disease and possibly insanity.
U.S. government officials have claimed that this policy has been followed to escape the “body count” mindset that became notorious during the Vietnam War. But it also has made it impossible to quantitatively measure the amount of misery that U.S. policymakers have inflicted on Iraq and Afghanistan.
The lack of official numbers also has enabled the U.S. government to cast doubt on unofficial estimates that put the number of Iraqi dead in the hundreds of thousands or possibly over one million. Most reports in the mainstream U.S. news media cite much lower estimates, presumably to avoid offending the powers-that-be in Washington.
Out of the Press
As much as possible, U.S. leaders have sought to keep the ugliness of these wars – the mangled bodies, the burned-off faces, the squalid refugee camps, the abused captives – out of the press and away from the public’s consciousness, thus to preserve the pretense of moral superiority that defines American “exceptionalism.”
But the principal advantage of having no official casualty estimates and few photos of atrocities in Iraq is that the American people aren’t reminded of the horrendous consequences of a war launched by President George W. Bush under the false claim that Iraq possessed WMD stockpiles.
By suppressing the human toll, the war still can be sold as benefiting the Iraqi people. The reality of their intense suffering, however, is much different from the generally positive image that U.S. propagandists seek to present.
And that is one big difference between the slaughter of Englishmen by William the Conqueror and the carnage unleashed by George W. Bush, the modern-day conqueror. William’s cruelty was done in the light of day.
Yet, it is not as if the U.S. government doesn’t keep tabs on those killed, maimed or rendered as orphans. The government simply doesn’t want the American people to know the quantity or the specifics, all the better to strip the two conflicts of their human dimensions.
In Afghanistan, for example, the CIA and military have been conducting a census of every village, town and city in the country – much like William’s infamous Doomsday (or Domesday) Book, which assessed the property of every English landowner for the purpose of levying taxes or confiscation.
As commander of the U.S. occupation army, General Stanley McChrystal wants to know the name of every Afghan, so his analysts can decide who is a Taliban and who is not, or in the even vaguer vernacular favored by the U.S. military, who are the “bad guys.”
McChrystal’s survey seeks to determine where each man lives, how many people are in his family, who his wife and children and relatives are, where he works and where his property is.
In places like Marjah, considered a Taliban stronghold where a U.S.-led offensive is currently underway, McChrystal is at a bit of a loss, but he still tries to obtain actionable intelligence through networks of spies and via all manner of electronic surveillance, including satellites.
Tracking the Taliban
This biographical information and other data about Afghanis are entered into a computer in McChrystal’s office, where the material is carefully monitored by the CIA and military special operations units.
Within a separate folder for suspected Taliban, every man is identified by the same biographical criteria as every other Afghan. In addition, each Taliban is categorized by his rank and position within the organization.
Low-level fighters are left to the Marines, while “high-value targets” get their own folder and are handled by the CIA and military special operations.
These “high-value targets” are given the kind of special attention that William the Conqueror reserved for English noblemen, who were viewed as especially important to kill or otherwise neutralize in order to pacify the countryside.
“High-value targets” in Afghanistan have the property (intellectual as well as physical, such as opium fields) that McChrystal wants to deny the Taliban. So, more biographical information is gathered about them, and their movements are tracked 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Through spies and sophisticated electronic surveillance, McChrystal even has a very good idea when they are leaving one safe house and traveling to another. The jets are fueled, and the drones are in the sky, waiting.
And this is how and why 27 Afghan civilians were slaughtered on Feb. 21 while traveling between remote provinces in a caravan of minibuses. The CIA and military special operations forces were alerted that some “high-value target” was traveling with his family, and McChrystal seized the opportunity to kill them all.
In a dirty war like the one in Afghanistan, killing “high-value targets” almost always involves murdering them while they are at home or while traveling with their families; otherwise they are much less accessible and thus harder targets.
Killing enemy leaders along with their entire families has a psychological-warfare impact, too, putting this secret policy under the intelligence rubric of “black propaganda.”
It is psychological warfare because these mass killings have a sobering effect on low-level Taliban who wish to rise in the ranks. It is a form of propaganda that every Afghan citizen is aware of, and it is “black” because it is not officially acknowledged, keeping the American people in the dark.
The mainstream U.S. news media plays along by rarely citing the obvious facts of this dirty war. The killing of civilians is dismissed as an accident that is accompanied by a routine apology from General McChrystal or some other U.S. spokesman.
Savagery, Past and Present
Though U.S. media propagandists treat McChrystal as an honorable and hard-working warrior, the truth is that he is no less savage than William the Conqueror. Both spread terror by killing their enemies, dismembering bodies and inflicting death and cruelty on non-combatants as well.
The primary difference is that William and his army did their killing up close with battle axes and swords for everyone to see, while McChrystal and his high-tech killing machine inflict carnage from far away with 2,000-pound bombs or with missiles fired from drones – and then cloak the horror behind censorship and propaganda.
These cover-ups are essential because the American public might otherwise bolt against Washington’s imperial adventures, which often end up with working-class American soldiers dead or maimed while U.S. corporations snake away with valuable resources from the conquered countries or otherwise use them for economic or geopolitical ends.
This strategy works because most Americans don’t know – and many may not care to know – the names and biographies of the victims.