[Note for TomDispatch readers:We live in a media world with a remarkably
short memory, which means that stories with a past go missing in action all
the time. Witness the one that follows. To the extent my aging brain is able,
TomDispatch tries to keep the past in mind and, when it comes to the recent
past, not to forget the remarkable record of the Bush administration in its
various wars. This Web site aims to rescue at least a few of the missing stories
of our age, before they slip through the cracks forever. The new book, The
World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire, is,
I think, a striking record of this site's recovery efforts over the last years.
I hope those of you who haven't yet gotten yourselves a copy will consider
doing so. Think of it as a gesture of moral support for a site in the memory
repo business. Tom]
It was a tribal affair. Against a picture-perfect
sunset, before a beige-colored cross and an altar made of the very Texas
limestone that was also used to build her family's "ranch," veil-less in an
Oscar de la Renta gown, the 26-year-old bride said her vows. More than 200
members of her extended family and friends were on hand, as well as the 14
women in her "house
party," who were dressed "in seven different styles of knee-length dresses
in seven different colors that match[ed] the palette of … wildflowers – blues,
greens, lavenders, and pinky reds." Afterward, in a white tent set in a grove
of trees and illuminated by strings of lights, the father of the bride, George
W. Bush, danced with his daughter to the strains of "You Are So Beautiful."
The media was kept at arm's length and the vows were private, but undoubtedly
they included the phrase "till death do us part."
That was early May of this year. Less than two months later, halfway across
the world, another tribal affair was underway. The age of the bride involved
is unknown to us, as is her name. No reporters were clamoring to get to her
section of the mountainous backcountry of Afghanistan near the Pakistani border.
We know almost nothing about her circumstances, except that she was on her
way to a nearby village, evidently early in the morning, among a party 70-90
strong, mostly women, "escorting the bride to meet her groom as local tradition
It was then that the American plane (or planes) arrived, ensuring that she
would never say her vows. "They stopped in a narrow location for rest," said
one witness about her house party, according
to the BBC. "The plane came and bombed the area." The district governor,
Haji Amishah Gul, told
the British Times, "So far there are 27 people, including women and
children, who have been buried. Another 10 have been wounded. The attack happened
at 6:30 a.m. Just two of the dead are men, the rest are women and children.
The bride is among the dead."
U.S. military spokespeople flatly denied the story. They claimed that Taliban
insurgents had been "clearly identified" among the group. "[T]his may just
be normal, typical militant propaganda," said 1st Lieutenant Nathan Perry.
Despite accounts of the wounded, including women and children, being brought
to a local hospital, Capt. Christian Patterson, coalition media officer, insisted:
"It was not a wedding party, there were no women or children present. We have
no reports of civilian casualties." The members of an Afghan inquiry, appointed
by President Hamid Karzai, later
found that, in all, 47 civilians had died, including 39 women and children,
and nine others were wounded.
American take on what happened: "The U.S. military has denied allegations
that its forces … killed dozens of people celebrating a marriage. … 'We took
hostile fire and we returned fire,' said Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, deputy
director of operations. … He said there were no indications that the victims
of the attack were part of a wedding party."
Oh, my mistake. Kimmitt was denying that a different wedding party had been
obliterated – in the Western Iraqi desert, near the Syrian border, in May 2004.
In that case, the wedding feast was long over. The celebrations had ended and
the guests were evidently in bed when the U.S. jets arrived. More than 40 people
died, including children, women, musicians, and a well-known Iraqi wedding
singer hired for the event. According to Rory McCarthy of the British Guardian,
some of the hospitalized survivors, 27 members of one extended family died
when the jets arrived.
In response to reports on that 2004 slaughter, Maj. Gen. James Mattis, commander
of the 1st Marine Division, asked the following question: "How many people
go to the middle of the desert … to hold a wedding 80 miles from the nearest
civilization?" And, in an e-mail responding to questions from a New York
Times reporter, Gen. Kimmitt later offered
what was, by U.S. military standards, little short of an admission: "Could
there have been a celebration of some type going on? … Certainly. Bad guys
have celebrations. Could this have been a meeting among the foreign fighters
and smugglers? That is a possibility. Could it have involved entertainment?
Sure. However, a wedding party in a remote section of the desert along one
of the rat lines, held in the early morning hours, strains credulity."
The comments of Mattis and Kimmitt deserve, of course, to go directly into
the annals of American military quotes, right next to that Vietnam-era classic:
"It became necessary to destroy the town to save it."
But back to the subject of collateral ceremonial damage in Afghanistan. Consider
from a news report headlined, "No U.S. Apology Over Wedding Bombing," in the
"Afghans claim the wedding guests, who were celebrating near Deh
Rawud village, in the mountainous province of Oruzgan, north of Kandahar, had
been firing into the air – a Pashtun wedding tradition – when American planes
struck. But a U.S. spokesman claimed yesterday that the shooting was 'not consistent'
with a wedding, saying that the planes had come under attack. 'Normally when
you think of celebratory fire … it's random, it's sprayed, it's not directed
at a specific target,' said Colonel Roger King at the U.S. airbase at Bagram.
'In this instance, the people on board the aircraft felt that the weapons were
tracking them and were [trying] to engage them.'"
That was indeed Afghanistan – not in July 2006, however, but four Julys earlier,
when at least 30 people in a wedding party were wiped out, most of them, again,
reportedly women and children. Here's how Abdullah Abdullah, the Afghan foreign
minister at the time, described that American air attack. It killed, he said,
"a whole family of 25 people. No single person was left alive. This is the
extent of the damage."
and let's not forget the ur-incident in wedding party destruction in Bush's
wars. In late December 2001, a B-52 and two B-1B bombers, using precision-guided
weapons, essentially wiped out a village in Eastern Afghanistan (and then,
in a second strike, took out Afghans digging in the rubble). At the time, it
was claimed that Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders had been killed "in their sleep."
It was also claimed that surface-to-air missiles had been fired at the American
planes. A spokesman for the U.S. Central Command issued a congratulatory statement
after the attack occurred with this passage: "Follow-on reporting indicates
that there was no collateral damage."
Except, of course, as Guardian correspondent Rory Carroll, then in
it, "bloodied children's shoes and skirts, bloodied school books, the scalp
of a woman with braided gray hair, butter toffees in red wrappers, wedding
decorations. The charred meat sticking to rubble in black lumps could have
been Osama bin Laden's henchmen but survivors said it was the remains of farmers,
their wives and children, and wedding guests."
In fact, according to Time
magazine's Tim McGirk, out of 112 Afghans in the wedding party, only two
women survived. In this case, it seems that the Americans were fed disinformation
by an Afghan official out to settle scores and acted on it.
That makes four wedding parties blown away by U.S. air power in Iraq and
Afghanistan since the end of 2001. And there was probably at least one more.
Back in May 2002,
it was claimed that U.S. helicopters wiped out a wedding party in the eastern
Afghan province of Khost, killing 10 and wounding many more. An Agence France
Presse report at the time concluded: "A wedding was in progress in the village
when people fired into the air in traditional celebration and U.S. helicopters
flying over the area could have mistaken it for hostile fire. An aircraft later
bombed the area for several hours." On this event, however, the documentation
is far poorer.
All these "incidents" have some obvious features in common: the almost immediate
claims by the U.S. military, for instance, that those who have been hit were
adversaries, not wedding parties; the ultimate dismissal of the killings as
the usual "collateral damage" in wartime; and, above all, the striking fact
that, for none of these slaughters of celebrating locals, did the U.S. ever
offer a genuine apology.
The mainstream media tends to pick up such stories as he
said/she said affairs. Of course, "she" never actually "says" anything,
being dead. But you get the idea. As with the most recent Afghan wedding-party
slaughter, such pieces – generally wire service stories – are to be found deep
inside American newspapers where only the news jockeys are reading. In fact,
your basic wedding party wipeout report is almost certain to share at least
some space in the story with a mini-round-up of other kinds of recent death
and mayhem in the region in question. The language in which such stories are
written is generally humdrum and, in the military mode, death is
sanitized (except in rare instances like Carroll's fine reports for the
We Americans have only had one experience of death delivered from the air
since World War II – the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. As no one is likely to
forget, they shocked us to our core. And you know how those deaths were covered,
right down to the special pages filled with bios of civilians who just happened
to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the repeated invocations of
the barbarism of al-Qaeda's killers (and barbarism it truly was).
These wedding parties, however, get no such treatment. Initially, they are
automatically assumed to be malevolent – until the reports begin to filter
in from the hospitals, the ruined villages, and the graveyards, and, by then,
it's usually too late for much press attention. When that does happen, their
deaths are chalked up to an "errant
bomb," or that celebratory gunfire, or no explanation is even offered.
Nothing barbaric lurks here, even though we can be sure that these civilians
were hardly less surprised by the arrival of the attacking planes than were
the victims of 9/11. For their deaths, no word portraits are ever painted.
No one in our world thinks to memorialize them, nor is there any cumulative
record of their deaths. Whole extended families have been wiped out, while
the dead and wounded run into the hundreds, and yet who remembers?
Here's the truth of it: In Bush's wars, the wedding singer dies, the bride
does not get a chance to run away, and the event might be relabeled my big,
fat, collateral damage wedding.
In the process, we have become a nation of wedding crashers, the uninvited
guests who arrived under false pretenses, tore up the place, offered nary an
apology, and refused to go home. It's a remarkable record, really, and catches
the nature of the Bush
administration's air war not on, but of and for terror in a particularly
raw way. And yet, in this country, when the latest wedding party went down,
no reporter seems even to have recalled our past history of wedding-party obliteration.
So it goes.
Copyright 2008 Tom Engelhardt