How Khadr was caught in the U.S. fog of war

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - Heather Mal­lick Heather Mal­lick is a na­tional af­fairs colum­nist for Torstar Syn­di­ca­tion Ser­vices. hmallick@thes­tar.ca.

The U.S. at­ti­tude to war­fare is a puz­zling thing. It has been so since the Sec­ond World War, which was a clear bat­tle be­tween armies with dis­tinc­tive uni­forms. Then the clar­ity ended.

It was the last time Amer­i­cans fought a war that every­one, them­selves in­cluded, fully un­der­stood. There’s some­thing wretch­edly ap­peal­ing about that.

I am think­ing of the fall­out from the Omar Khadr set­tle­ment af­ter a Supreme Court of Canada rul­ing on what hap­pened off the bat­tle­field when Cana­dian of­fi­cials went along with the U.S. tor­ture of a 15-year-old Cana­dian cit­i­zen.

I am think­ing of the four Cana­dian sol­diers killed and eight wounded in Afghanistan in 2002 - the same year Khadr was taken pris­oner - when a U.S. fighter pi­lot bombed them in “friendly fire.”

The pi­lot, Maj. Harry Schmidt, was even­tu­ally rep­ri­manded and fined $5,600 (U.S.).

As the CBC re­ported, Schmidt ap­pealed, lost and later sued the U.S. mil­i­tary for al­legedly vi­o­lat­ing his pri­vacy. He ac­cepted no blame. The Cana­dian fam­i­lies did not sue him. How could they?

War is com­pli­cated, some­thing Amer­i­cans have rarely been will­ing to con­cede. They tend to see war as if it were the Su­per Bowl, a staged event with sim­ple rules, om­nipresent um­pires and cam­eras, and fre­quent, sched­uled breaks. Every­one makes money.

But war is a blood soup with hor­ri­ble lumps: burned baby hands, bits of bone and ten­don, sev­ered heads, des­ic­cated corpses, scraps of fab­ric, dusty bones, the hoods of Abu Ghraib, fam­i­lies an­ni­hi­lated when an­gry male vet­er­ans re­turn, eye­balls, bul­let cas­ings ...

In the Sec­ond World War, sol­diers fought un­til they died or Hitler did, end of story. Mod­ern war isn’t like that.

With­out a draft to evade, it seems more like an or­di­nary job with “con­trac­tors” (once called “mer­ce­nar­ies”), tours of duty, re­tire­ments and pen­sions. Death is rel­a­tively rare. The hor­ri­ble work is largely done by work­ing class grunts, as the re­cent USS Fitzger­ald col­li­sion at sea re­vealed.

The U.S. fought and failed in the Korean War. It shouldn’t have in­vaded Viet­nam in the first place, but it did and lost, bring­ing the geno­ci­dal Kh­mer Rouge into Cam­bo­dia. It shouldn’t have in­vaded Afghanistan either, or Iraq, cre­at­ing chaos that in­vited an­other hor­ror, an­other style of vi­o­lent death.

The U.S. failed to learn from its own his­tory, re­peat­edly wag­ing war with guer­ril­las who spoke lan­guages Amer­i­cans couldn’t be both­ered to learn. The blow­back has been fan­tas­tic.

The fail­ure to un­der­stand mod­ern war is summed up by “un­law­ful com­bat­ant.” It’s a phrase dreamed up by Amer­i­cans who don’t grasp the in­for­mal­ity of soldiering, of for­eign­ers be­ing deeply at­tached to their own soil and fight­ing for it un­til they died or the U.S. was driven out.

It is a use­ful term for tor­tur­ers who, de­spite the In­ter­na­tional Crim­i­nal Court that the U.S. won’t join lest it be ac­cused of war crimes, wanted per­mis­sion to ply their trade.

Amer­i­cans, fine peo­ple that they hope they are, per­sist in think­ing that war is ra­tio­nal. It is not. The Supreme Court of Canada is by its na­ture ra­tio­nal, and it in­sists that the Cana­dian govern­ment not make use of the Amer­i­can will­ing­ness to tor­ture our cit­i­zens.

The Sec­ond World War did not bring jus­tice. Noth­ing could ever match Nazi Ger­many do­ing the worst things hu­mans have ever done. It brought respite, which is a dif­fer­ent thing en­tirely.

Ken Burns’s new doc­u­men­tary, The Viet­nam War, will be shown on PBS in Septem­ber. In prepa­ra­tion, I urge you to watch The Fog of War, the 2003 Er­rol Mor­ris doc­u­men­tary in which the for­mer U.S. sec­re­tary of de­fense, Robert Mc­Na­mara - in­cin­er­a­tor, na­palmer and bomber of mil­lions from the 1945 fire­bomb­ing of Tokyo to the Viet­nam catas­tro­phe talked di­rectly to the cam­era about what he had learned.

Said Mc­Na­mara: “What ‘the fog of war’ means is war is so com­plex it’s be­yond the abil­ity of the hu­man mind to com­pre­hend all the vari­ables. Our judg­ment, our un­der­stand­ing, are not ad­e­quate. And we kill peo­ple un­nec­es­sar­ily.”

Mc­Na­mara’s ex­tra­or­di­nary con­clu­sion - though it was not a con­fes­sion of guilt - was that the U.S. never un­der­stood what it was do­ing in Viet­nam. He placed his hope in the Amer­i­can peo­ple’s ret­ro­spec­tive wis­dom.

To this end, he quoted T.S. Eliot. “We shall not cease from ex­plor­ing/And at the end of our ex­plo­ration/We will re­turn to where we started/And know the place for the first time.”

He died in 2009, hav­ing lived to see two more point­less Amer­i­can wars. The fog of war had never cleared.

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