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Best of TomDispatch: Nick Turse, From the Missing Archives of a Lost War

Published on: October 30, 2018

Filed Under: Connections to Today, Featured

Views: 80

This post originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

By Nick and Tam Turse.

It was nearly sunset on Easter Saturday when I met Marie Dz’dza. She was sitting on a set of steps in a hospital compound in the town of Bunia. Near her was her mother, Jesinne Dhewedza, and her niece, six-year-old Irene Mave. Two weeks earlier, I might have noticed any number of things about them — Dz’dza’s prominent cheekbones, Mave’s smile, Dhewedza’s graying hair. Instead, my attention was focused on what had been taken from them when men with machetes fell upon their village. Dhewedza now had six fingers instead of 10; Mave, one arm instead of two; and Dz’dza’s arms ended just below the elbow.

They were victims of an outbreak of hyper-violence that had swept through the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Ituri Province in the first months of this year, part of a constellation of conflicts affecting a country long plagued by such violence. The three of them were also among the millions of victims of the wars of the last century that have disproportionately affected civilians.

The end of World War I, that war to end all wars a century ago, marked the passing of conflicts in which soldiers’ deaths outnumbered those of civilians. Since then, noncombatants, people like Dz’dza, Dhewedza, and Mave, have borne the brunt of war. As it happens, this grim anniversary year coincides with one of my own. While I didn’t realize it at the time, my recent reporting on an ethnic-cleansing campaign in the Democratic Republic of Congo for Vice News marked roughly 12 years since I first began interviewing people who had lost parts of themselves to armed conflicts. Over that span, I’ve regularly witnessed the way war’s barbarism is inscribed on the bodies of men, women, and children. I’ve seen civilian victims who have lost eyes and ears, hands and feet, arms and legs — people who are now a living testament to our inhumanity.

While I’ve spoken to many hundreds of war victims and chronicled atrocities from Afghanistan to Cameroon to South Sudan, interviews with people whom war has literally reshaped have often stuck with me, though few more vividly than those in the 2008 TomDispatch piece reposted below. A decade ago, reporting from Vietnam for this website, I interviewed two men who had lost legs to the “American War” almost 40 years earlier. The generosity of readers led to a happy result: those two survivors received new prosthetics — hardly compensation for what they had lost, but perhaps the bare minimum we owe to the civilian casualties of our conflicts; the bare minimum, in fact, that the world owes all the victims, including Dz’dza, Dhewedza, and Mave, from conflicts that were supposed to have been over and done with a century ago, but which, sadly enough, churn on today, from Afghanistan and Syria to Yemen and Congo.

The article that follows flowed far more from the questions those survivors of war asked me than the ones I asked them. It also taught me something about another bare minimum we owe to the victims of our wars: listening to them. Sadly, since this piece was published in 2008, a decade’s worth of new war victims have been added to the pages of humanity’s most appalling ledger. Who will chronicle all of their stories? And even if someone did, would we have the courage to read them? Nick Turse

Two Men, Two Legs, and Too Much Suffering
America’s Forgotten Vietnamese Victims
By Nick Turse

Nguyen Van Tu asks if I’m serious. Am I really willing to tell his story — to tell the story of the Vietnamese who live in this rural corner of the Mekong Delta? Almost 40 years after guerrilla fighters in his country threw the limits of U.S. military power into stark relief — during the 1968 Tet Offensive — we sit in his rustic home, built of wood and thatch with an earthen floor, and speak of two hallmarks of that power: ignorance and lack of accountability. As awkward chicks scurry past my feet, I have the sickening feeling that, in decades to come, far too many Iraqis and Afghans will have similar stories to tell. Similar memories of American troops. Similar accounts of air strikes and artillery bombardments. Nightmare knowledge of what “America” means to far too many outside the United States.

“Do you really want to publicize this thing,” Nguyen asks. “Do you really dare tell everyone about all the losses and sufferings of the Vietnamese people here?” I assure this well-weathered 60-year old grandfather that that’s just why I’ve come to Vietnam for the third time in three years. I tell him I have every intention of reporting what he’s told me — decades-old memories of daily artillery shelling, of near constant air attacks, of farming families forced to live in their fields because of the constant bombardment of their homes, of women and children killed by bombs, of going hungry because U.S. troops and allied South Vietnamese forces confiscated their rice, lest it be used to feed guerrillas.

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In June, Austin “Scott” Miller, the special-ops general chosen to be the 17th U.S. commander in Afghanistan, appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Like so many of the generals who had preceded him, he suggested that he saw evidence of “progress” in the Afghan war, even if he refused to “guarantee you a timeline or an end date.” Smart move, general!

As it happens, just over a week ago, he got a dose, up close and personal, of what the Afghan version of “progress” really means. He was visiting key American allies in the southern province of Kandahar when the “insider” attack of all insider attacks occurred. In the sort of event that’s been going on since at least 2010, an ostensible ally, in this case a local member of the Afghan security forces who had evidently joined the Taliban, turned his gun on Kandahar’s chief of police (a crucial powerbroker in the region), the local intelligence chief, and the provincial governor, killing the first two and wounding the third. In the process, he ensured that, with local leadership literally down the tubes, elections in Kandahar would be postponed for at least a week. Three Americans, including a brigadier general, were also wounded in the attack.  (In 2014, an American major general was killed in just such an insider strike.)  In one of the rarest acts for an American commander in memory, General Miller reportedly drew his sidearm as the bullets began to fly, but was himself untouched. Still, it was a striking reminder that, 17 years after the U.S. invaded that country, the Taliban are again riding high and represent the only forces making “progress” or “turning corners” in that country.

In a conflict with no end in sight that is now not only the longest in American history but more than four times as long as World War II, the “finest fighting force that the world has ever known” hasn’t been able to discover a hint of victory anywhere. And that’s something that could be said as well of the rest of its war on terror across the Greater Middle East and ever-expanding regions of Africa. Today, TomDispatch regular retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel William Astore suggests that no great military stays at war for 17 years unless it is, in some sense, victorious. As a result, in his latest post, he explores just where, in our increasingly upside-down American world, evidence of such triumph might be found. Tom

Why American Leaders Persist in Waging Losing Wars
Hint: They’re Winning in Other Ways
By William J. Astore

As America enters the 18th year of its war in Afghanistan and its 16th in Iraq, the war on terror continues in Yemen, Syria, and parts of Africa, including Libya, Niger, and Somalia. Meanwhile, the Trump administration threatens yet more war, this time with Iran. (And given these last years, just how do you imagine that’s likely to turn out?) Honestly, isn’t it time Americans gave a little more thought to why their leaders persist in waging losing wars across significant parts of the planet?  So consider the rest of this piece my attempt to do just that.

Let’s face it: profits and power should be classified as perennial reasons why U.S. leaders persist in waging such conflicts. War may be a racket, as General Smedley Butler claimed long ago, but who cares these days since business is booming? And let’s add to such profits a few other all-American motivations. Start with the fact that, in some curious sense, war is in the American bloodstream. As former New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges once put it, “War is a force that gives us meaning.” Historically, we Americans are a violent people who have invested much in a self-image of toughness now being displayed across the “global battlespace.” (Hence all the talk in this country not about our soldiers but about our “warriors.”) As the bumper stickers I see regularly where I live say: “God, guns, & guts made America free.” To make the world freer, why not export all three?

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I felt discouraged recently when it hit home: I’ll never be a Supreme Court justice. Reviewing my life, I came to the realization that I was in no way qualified — and no, I’m not talking about my utter lack of legal experience (except as a juror). I was thinking instead of the qualifications that — as TomDispatchregular and former New York Times sports columnist Robert Lipsyte lays out today — the Kavanaugh hearings revealed for being the right sort of boy/man for the job.

I certainly spent parts of my 1950s childhood dreaming of joining the Brooklyn Dodgers on the field. (“Engelhardt darts to his right, picks up the hot grounder, and fires it to first!”) On an actual baseball diamond, however, I had a few problems fielding any grounder or, for that matter, judging the depth of fly balls (I always ran in), or doing much but whiffing at the plate. Unlike Brett K., sports, it turned out, was not my natural resting place. Worse yet, when I was at college, no fraternity ever tapped me, though I can still remember Saturday nights in my room listening to music pound away at a nearby frat house. And drinking? Well, give me credit there: I did get black-out drunk in high school. My best friend and I went into my parents’ liquor cabinet while they were away and downed much of a bottle of vodka. Brett K. would have been proud of me. I puked big time, passed out, woke up, and blamed the mess on my dog, and — what could better indicate my lack of Supreme quality — I thought it was so gross I never did it again.

And let’s not even turn to girls in those years. It was hard enough to approach one in the right spirit. Assault her? I couldn’t imagine.

So consider me hopeless. All of this only helped me in one small way in my life: when my daughter and son were young, I volunteered to coach their little league baseball teams. And being more or less grown-up by then, my heart went out to the kids on those teams who — remembrance of things past — weren’t especially good or skillful. Unlike a number of the other coaches, out of pity for my former self, I focused my efforts on them, gave them extra practice time, and you know what? Because of that, the teams I coached always did better than I expected.

Now, take a moment to check out Lipsyte’s account of the truly bizarre world of “successful” boys and men and then consider your own Supreme qualifications in this all-American world of ours. Tom

Trump and Kavanaugh Win One for the Pack
How Frats, Teams, and Gangs Divide, Conquer, and Now Judge America
By Robert Lipsyte

Brett Kavanaugh’s hellish Supreme Court fraternity pledge week offered many lessons, but the most powerful, if least noted, was about the raising of boys in America — all boys, not just the groomed Georgetown elite from which the judge emerged. Too many boys are raised in packs, whether they’re called fraternities, sports teams, or gangs, all of which offer brotherhood in return for loyalty, obedience, and a dedicated contempt for the Other — anyone, that is, who isn’t a member, above all women. Kavanaugh was raised (and raised up) by just such packs.

Frats, teams, and gangs have their differences, often involving social class and skill sets, but there’s one great similarity: the sense, often nurtured and reinforced by booze, battle, and group sex, that you are part of a special brotherhood. The promise of that brotherhood is to defend boys against a supposedly hostile environment by isolating them from the rest of their world and indoctrinating them with a set of tribal values that must be upheld beyond reason.

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[Note for TomDispatch Readers: Don’t forget to visit our donation page, where for $100 ($125 if you live outside the U.S.) you can get a signed, personalized copy of my latest book, A Nation Unmade by War, Al McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century, Rebecca Gordon’s American Nuremberg, or Robert Lipsyte’s Sportsworld, among so many other titles that could change the way you look at our American world — and also offer a little support to TomDispatch. Tom]

(Un)Happy Anniversary!
17 Years of War (and More to Come)
By Tom Engelhardt

We’re already two years past the crystal anniversary and eight years short of the silver one, or at least we would be, had it been a wedding — and, after a fashion, perhaps it was. On October 7, 2001, George W. Bush launched the invasion — “liberation” was the word often used then — of Afghanistan. It was the start of the second Afghan War of the era, one that, all these years later, still shows no signs of ending. Though few realized it at the time, the American people married war. Permanent, generationalinfinitewar is now embedded in the American way of life, while just about the only part of the government guaranteed ever more soaring dollars, no matter what it does with them, is the U.S. military.

This October 7th marked the 17th anniversary of that first of so many still-spreading conflicts. In league with various Afghan warlords, the U.S. military began moving into that country, while its Air Force launched a fierce campaign, dropping large numbers of precision munitions and hundreds of cluster bombs. Those were meant not just for al-Qaeda, the terror outfit that, the previous month, had dispatched its own precision air force — hijacked American commercial jets — to take out iconic buildings in New York and Washington, but the Taliban, a fundamentalist sect that then controlled most of the country. By early 2002, that movement had been ejected from its last provincial capital, while Osama bin Laden had fled into hiding in Pakistan. And so it began.

The 17th anniversary of that invasion passed in the heated aftermath of the Kavanaugh hearings, as the president was rallying his base by endlessly bashing the Democrats as an “angry mob” promoting “mob rule.” So if you weren’t then thinking about Afghanistan, don’t blame yourself. You were in good company.

On October 8th, for instance, the front page of my hometown newspaper had headlines like “Court Showdown Invigorates G.O.P. in Crucial Races” and “20 Dead Upstate as Limo Crashes on Way to Party.” If you were old like me and still reading the paper version of the New York Times, you would have had to make your way to page seven to find out that such an anniversary had even occurred. There, a modest-sized article, headlined “On 17th Anniversary of U.S. Invasion, 54 Are Killed Across Afghanistan,” began this way:

“Kabul, Afghanistan — At least 54 people have been killed across Afghanistan in the past 24 hours, according to a tally based on interviews with officials on Sunday — 17 years to the day [after] American forces invaded the country to topple the Taliban regime. The violence was a reminder that the war has only raged deadlier with time, taking a toll on both the Afghan security forces and the civilians caught in the crossfire…”

And that, really, was that. Little other mention anywhere and no follow-up. No significant commentary or major op-eds. No memorials or ceremonies. No thoughts from Congress. No acknowledgement from the White House.

Yes, 3,546 American and NATO troops had died in those long years (including seven Americans so far in 2018). There have also been Afghan deaths aplenty, certainly tens of thousands of them in a country where significant numbers of people are regularly uprooted and displaced from their homes and lives. And 17 years later, the Taliban controls more of the country than at any moment since 2002; the U.S.-backed Afghan security forces are reportedlytaking casualties that may, over the long run, prove unsustainable; provincial capitals have been briefly seized by insurgent forces; civilian deaths, especially of women and children, are at their highest levels in years (as are U.S. and Afghan air strikes); al-Qaeda has grown and spread across significant parts of the Middle East and Africa; a bunch of other terror outfits, including ISIS, are now in Afghanistan; and ISIS, like al-Qaeda (of which it was originally an offshoot), has also franchised itself globally.

In other words, 17 years later, what was once known as the Global War on Terror and is now a set of conflicts that no one here even bothers to name has only grown worse. Meanwhile, the military that American presidents repeatedly hailed as the greatest fighting force in history continues to battle fruitlessly across a vast swath of the planet. Afghanistan, of course, remains America’s “longest war,” as articles regularly acknowledged some years ago. These days, however, it has become so eternal that it has evidently outgrown the label “longest.”

(Un)Happy Anniversary indeed!

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I missed the Salem witch trials, but I well remember Anita Hill at the Clarence Thomas hearings. How could I forget the fire in her eyes or the cool precision of her responses to that phalanx of old white men so titillated by her answers as they pressed her for more salacious details? I remember, too, how the proceedings climaxed in Thomas’s intimidating rant, the one in which he cast himself as the righteous victim of a “high-tech lynching.” After that, women standing by to back up Hill’s testimony with charges of their own were told to go home.

I remembered it all as I watched the recent immolation of Christine Blasey Ford by another pack of old white men jumping out of their shorts to replace their hired gun — a “femaleprosecutor”– with top-volume tantrums of their own. Brett Kavanaugh himself whipped up that hysteria further with his prolonged self-pitying reprise, by turns tearful and threatening, of Thomas’s historic tongue-lashing. (Alas, such male posturing always reminds me of Joel Steinberg, a New York lawyer who, having beaten and tortured his partner into oblivion and killed a child, voiced this anguished, belligerent courtroom lament: “I’m the victim here!”)

Such staged public spectacles are now called “teachable moments.” But what exactly is being taught? And to whom? If the proceedings are not transparent as advertised, the takeaways surely are. Big white men (financed by bigger white men) who scramble to positions of power are not to be called to account. Especially not by their inferiors. Especially not by women.

Some women, like Christine Blasey Ford, still believe in older lessons that taught us to do our civic duty, to tell the truth for the sake of the common good. Most women stand with the truth-tellers, even knowing that President Trump smacks down truth every day. Most of us also know that we live in a dystopia and, believe me, it’s on our minds. If you want proof, go to the bookstore and pick up Louise Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God, Naomi Alderman’s The Power, Sophie Macintosh’s The Water Cure, Joyce Carol Oates’s Hazards of Time Travel, Leni Zumas’s Red Clocks, Christina Dalcher’s Vox, Idra Novey’s Those Who Knew, Maggie Shen King’s An Excess Male, Bina Shah’s Before She Sleeps. Then sit back and rerun the video of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale before plunging into Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad and Soraya Chemaly’s Rage Becomes Her. Those two are not fiction.

Such Kavanaugh moments raise big problems for the teachers among us. What’s a teacher to do with a teachable moment that runs counter to all that American youngsters have customarily been taught to believe? TomDispatch regular Belle Chesler and her students faced the most recent such moment together in a high school classroom in Oregon. Her moving account of what they made of it could teach the rest of us something, too. Ann Jones

Anita, Christine, and Me
The Media’s Moving On, But I’m Not
By Belle Chesler

It’s been three weeks since Dr. Christine Blasey Ford gave her testimony before the nation and I’m still struggling to move on. As talk turns toward the impending midterms, I find myself mentally pushing back against the relentlessness of the news cycle as it plows on, casting a spell of cultural amnesia in its wake. I’m still mired in the past, shaken by the spectacle of the Kavanaugh hearings, and pulled across the decades into the darkest crevasses of my memories.

In October 1991, I sat perched on a stool in Mr. Bundeson’s seventh grade woodshop class listening with fascination as Anita Hill testified about her experience of sexual harassment by thenSupreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. To a seventh grader, the details, both surprisingly specific and appealingly lurid, were especially intriguing. What 13-year-old could have resisted the simultaneously bizarre and gross testimonyregarding a pubic hair placed on a can of Coke? We were riveted. Who could make something like that up? Over the course of the hearing, our teachers rolled out TVs on carts and let the proceedings play during our classes. It felt like we were sharing a significant national moment and watching together meant we were all a part of history being made.

The full import of that experience wouldn’t hit me, however, until the week I turned 40 and watched Dr. Ford telling her story in front of another judiciary committee. This time, I was looking at the computer on my desk at the suburban high school in Oregon where I’ve taught visual art and film studies for the past 14 years. Taking in her testimony, I found myself growing distraught. As her voice quavered, I felt a surge of emotion so strong it seemed to paralyze me. I couldn’t stop looking even though I knew something inside was tearing me apart and that, no matter my emotional state, I would still have to pull myself together to face my first class of the day, only moments away. As the camera zeroed in on Dr. Ford’s face, her nervous gesturing at her hair, and the tears shimmering in the corners of her eyes, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was watching a woman sacrificing herself before the nation, just as Anita Hill had done so many years before.

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