Tuesday, March 21, 2006


I watched Platoon again the other day. It does give some idea of the chaos and brutality of that war. It also highlights the breakdown of discipline and collapse of morale of the US army in that conflict.

One of the most striking aspects for me, however, is that the film, like most of the big Vietnam films, is centred entirely on the effects of the war on US soldiers. In the final monologue, Charlie Sheen's character, traumatised by what he has seen, says something like "In the end, we were really fighting against ourselves". The friends and families of the hundreds of thousands, or probably millions, of south-east Asians who were killed by the US military would beg to differ.

The Hollywood "liberals" really ought to do a decent Vietnam war film from the point of view of the ordinary people of Vietnam. Won't happen though. There are too many uncomfortable truths down that road. Hollywood would never go as far as to present the realities of the war as experienced by the people of Vietnam. Full emotionally engaging victim status is reserved for US soldiers only.

We do know about some of the horrors faced by the Vietnamese though. In 1969, Seymour Hersh broke the story of the My Lai massacre. Hundreds of civilians, including many women and children, were murdered by US marines. After initially attempting to cover-up the massacre, the US military was forced to admit that it had occured. The only soldier to ever have been convicted in relation to the massacre, Lt. Calley, served two days in prison followed by three and a half years of house arrest.

On Sunday, Time magazine reported that US marines killed 15 unarmed Iraqis in their homes, including seven women and three children, in November last year. The marines had initially reported that the deaths were the result of an insurgent bomb blast. The US military opened an investigation only after Time presented video evidence of the aftermath of the deaths which appeared to contradict the official version of events. The US military now accepts that the 15 civilians were killed by the marines. An enquiry has been set up to establish whether any soldiers are guilty of war crimes.

A feel for the likely outcome can be garnered from the comments of Lieut. Colonel Michelle Martin-Hing, spokeswoman for the Multi-National Force-Iraq.
[T]he fault for the civilian deaths lies squarely with the insurgents, who "placed noncombatants in the line of fire as the Marines responded to defend themselves."
Not jumping to conclusions there then. And such moral clarity.

It's just like this: "The fault for the Israeli civilian deaths lies squarely with the Israeli government who have placed civilians in the line of fire as Palestinians responded with suicide bombs to the brutal oppression of the Israeli government". Nonsense, you rightly cry. What about moral agency?

What about it indeed?

Tony Blair, never one to let the evidence get in the way of a good soundbite, famously said this:
The difference between democracy and tyranny is not that in a democracy bad things don't happen. It is that in a democracy, when they do happen, people are held to account.
Not actually true but it sounds mighty fine. I was going to say that in fact in a democracy, when bad things happen and someone in the media finds out and publishes, people are held to account, but even that is overly generous. In a democracy, when bad things happen and the media finds out and publishes, people may occasionally be held to account. Don't hold your breath though.

Proper journalism on this on Tuesday's Newsnight.

Ben Griffin, an ex-SAS soldier who refused to return to Iraq after witnessing the conduct of American forces there, claimed that "the Americans have shown an inability to differentiate between war fighting and counter-insurgency operations throughout their time in Iraq". This has led to what Griffin called the "disproportionate use of firepower". That's been a continuing theme of criticisms of US military operations in Iraq.

One of the array of rent-a-goon ex-advisors to the Bush administration who act as the barrier between the Whitehouse and proper journalism claimed that this criticism was down to a combination of tendentious media coverage and enemy propaganda. Bacause any and all opponent of any aspect of US policy in Iraq must be some sort of mutant offspring of al Qaeda and the Socialist Workers Party and must definitely hate democracy and smell of wee.

Somehow, I doubt that Ben Griffin is a very good fit for the standard "stopper" caricature. It's more than a bit thin at the best of times, never mind when trying to apply it to an ex-special forces soldier with an exemplary military record.

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