Military Blunders in the War Against Terror

Archival: March 2002

LANDMINES

I recently saw a Super 8 video filmed by an acquaintance at a Cambodian hospital. The subject was a young man who had to have three men hold him down so that gangrene could be scraped from the inside of his amputated thigh.

It is easy to be caught in a western fog that amputations, which result from landmines are clinical, that anaesthetic is administered and that recovery is sound. In reality, the victim’s limb may be hacked off in order to get out of the minefield. Victims commonly lose both, not just one of their legs, as well as their penis and testicles. Some victims ask to be murdered as they lay in blood and shock, unable to move. Later, artificial limbs are usually rudimentary and awkward.

The aftermath of Russian, Taliban and Northern Alliance fighters, all of whom laid mines, has resulted in between 5 and 7 million landmines in Afghanistan, both anti-personnel and anti-tank. One adult male in every ten has been involved in a mine incident.

After all the devastation caused by the existing mines, aid agencies around the world pleaded with the United States Defence not to use mines in this conflict. Nonetheless, the US found it appropriate to employ thousands of mines, which they marked with yellow flags.

 

AIR DISPATCH OF FOOD 

Unfortunately, the US military logistics, for reasons unknown, decided to also mark the food drops with yellow tags. Against a backdrop of mass starvation (5,000,000 people), the measly 35,000 meals dropped to the ground by air dispatch were often soiled, landed on minefields and were marked in a way that may have made them indistinguishable from mines to many Afghan people.

Medicins Sans Frontiers, the Nobel winning organisation, described the food drops as ‘virtually useless and may even be dangerous.’

In a press information note of October 10, three policy analysts for the US Committee for Refugees called the action ‘cosmetic – ineffective and risky.’

 

THE VOCABULARY OF WAR

For the Gulf War, the US hired PR firm Hill & Knowlton (now Hill+Knowlton Strategies). There seems little need this time. The twin towers did that already and they were justification not only for this conflict but allowed Israel to adopt the terminology used by US Defence Secretary Rumsfeldt, Bush and Powell and thereby hitch a free ride on their soundbites. By declaring a nation of Palestinians as terrorists, Israel put Palestine in the ‘rogue state’ category with Libya, North Korea and Iraq. Bush should have felt suitably embarrassed after being publicly chastised for his “axis of evil” comments when Gareth Evans described them as “irresponsible… through some speechwriter in the thrill of the moment.”

Worldwide, however, the effect has spread. We oversimplify complex issues faced by our neighbours, extinguish their discourse, and label them ‘enemies’. The result is a black-and-white portrait of the good and the bad seeds that is so oversimplified it becomes a parody of the truth.

Israel’s jump onto this vocabulary to disseminate propaganda enabled them to stage a massive military action in the days following September 11, which was largely overlooked. At the same time, of course, Pakistan and India, both of whom have nuclear capabilities now, have the US as its role model, just when they were on the brink of evolving beyond a conflict mindset.

 

VIETNAM REVISITED

Other military blunders? For years, the Australian Army has been giving its young officers lessons from the Vietnam War as case studies of what not to do.

While it is a unique conflict in many ways, it bears many similarities with Vietnam. The enemy is faceless; a philosophy. The enemy is practically unlocatable. He is in every country; fragmented. The enemy cannot be confined to a theatre of war – it is simply spectacle.

All of these factors, as well as the lack of exit strategy, have been criticised by retired Brigadier Brian d’Hage. Most likely, there are many Australian commanders who feel the same way, but cannot speak out – it just doesn’t make good military sense.

Rupert Murdoch said in a 2001 speech that knowledge was, ‘the only force that can vanquish the ignorance that is the seedbed of terrorism.’ Ironic. Thanks Rupert.