Imagine for a moment that you live in the nation’s capitol, by the Pentagon or minutes away in Quantico, the Marine Corps headquarters, or one exit down the parkway from the National Security Agency (NSA) in nearby Maryland. Imagine farther out, places where our Navy fleets are stationed – Norfolk, San Diego – or the main Air Force satellite control center in Colorado Springs. Any military installation across the country.
Now imagine what it would be like to hear over radio waves and on your television set that one of those places might be bombed as punishment for something your president did. This punitive measure is to be meted out against "military assets," and guess what? You live right down the street from one.
You could stand in line with thousands of other neighbors at the local Safeway or Stop & Shop for bread and water and Chef Boyardee. You might hustle your family and most of what you own into a car, and join the traffic glut headed for Canada or the southern border. Ironically, Mexico might just make you twist in the wind before letting your brood cross the line.
For people whose threshold is about 12 minutes before whining for a new checker when the grocery line is too long, a queue that wraps around the store, out the door and into the parking lot would be a new and most unwelcome misery. Throw in the cloud of collective punishment, frightened children, the prospect of elderly parents not being able to travel, banks and gas stations closing and stocks diving, and you’ve got panic.
Welcome to Damascus. As our leaders and phony baloney pundit class talk about "surgical strikes," "punitive measures," and "limited attacks," the Syrian people are grimly preparing for the worst. For us, safely ensconced in our little world that hasn’t seen a full-scale war of any kind on domestic soil since 1865, we hear something like this and think well, it sounds pretty darn reasonable:
"I think it would be more like Kosovo-lite, with a smaller target set and limited air involvement," says Jeffrey White, defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies, referring to the 1999 NATO air campaign against the former Yugoslavia. "Perhaps a heavy initial round, followed by [battle damage assessment] and then additional strikes or re-strikes to make sure the targets were well hit…. But it all depends on what the president thinks is enough to achieve the goals of punishing and deterring."
Syrians in Damascus hear this – and a hundred other fatuous commentaries on the subject – and they think, "we may die today," and head for the bread lines, which, according to reports last week, were interminable. "We didn’t manage to get any (bread)" said Nour, 22, to a reporter for The Washington Post last week. "Usually you can wait for two or three hours, but today, the line stretched across the street endlessly."
Reports indicate that because of all the chatter throughout the western media about impending attacks, the Syrian military has already been evacuating key targets. That has left behind whoever did not choose to join the exodus of an estimated 9,000 Syrians out of the country on Aug. 27 (the average number of people who have been crossing into Lebanon is usually closer to 3,000 per day, according to Lebanese officials). “We live in the capital. Every turn, every street, every neighborhood has some government target," a nurse told a Reuters on Wednesday. "Where do we hide?”
“I’m starting to see the fear in people’s eyes,” said one resident named Rula, speaking by phone. “People have been in the habit of stocking extra food since the conflict began, but now people are buying huge amounts of food and water.” Around Damascus, many banks were crowded with people, and dozens queued at cash machines.
According to the Post story, a call went out on Syrian government websites last week for people staying in the city to join in sit-ins at "at the sites of potential targets and act as a ‘human shield.’" Whether they do or not, Syrians in Damascus will still be in harm’s way, as The Washington Times explains. The city is a pretty target rich environment.
Here’s another blithe comment on U.S. "muscle," this one from naval expert Norman Polmar, who told the paper that four U.S. destroyers could easily fire 80 Tomahawk cruise missiles at President Bashar al Assad’s assets.
"The 1,000-pound warhead can destroy the palace, ministries, command centers, storage depots, hangars, bridges," he said. While that would not end the fighting, "it could make life very uncomfortable for Assad."
How "uncomfortable" it’ll make a Syrian family, too, if one of those bombs misses a target or if that family’s home might be uncomfortably in the way of flying debris when one of those "assets" are blown to bits. About this, most news outlets are deafening in their silence, especially after Friday’s speech by Secretary of State John Kerry and an announcement by President Obama that he has made a decision to strike and will be approaching congress with a plan. This is what it looks like, by the way, when a 1,000-pound warhead does its stuff:
Of course, as we sat safely on our couches watching the 2003 "shock and awe" show from Baghdad, media embeds from all over the spectrum practically jumping out of their ill-fitting Army issued gear with excitement, little airtime was given to the Iraqis hunkered down for the worst. Dahr Jamail was an independent, unembedded reporter in Iraq from 2003 to 2005. He spent time in Fallujah during the 2004 siege and bombardment, and talked about it with Antiwar in an interview last week:
"I can’t really stress enough – for people who have been through it, words can only go so far. There’s nothing ‘surgical’ or ‘sanitary’ about it, that’s hogwash. I was in Fallujah … there were drones flying non-stop 24-7 so there was always this constant buzzing in the background and you never knew what they were going to do. We knew that at any time the U.S. could be bombing the hell out of Fallujah. And they did.
What I realized in the aftermath, the type of bombs – using that large of bombs in civilian areas – was horrifying. They were dropping 500 to 2,000-pound bombs in cities, I remember seeing a crater in the concrete street, about 10-feet deep, about 50 to 60 feet wide, and then the debris from that (size) bomb would travel so far it would shred and go through anything in its path, anywhere to a half-mile away.
How absolutely horrifying it was. And it’s unfortunately looking inevitable again.
Over a decade before – what did White call it, "Kosovo-lite"? – NATO was blamed for the deaths of more than 500 civilians in Belgrade in 90 incidents during the U.S-led 78-day campaign against the Serbians, called "Operation Allied Force." NATO acknowledged its culpability in 20 to 30 incidents (due to missed or mistaken targets) but never the number of civilians killed.
There was a residential area hit on the 13th day, the first of two such "mistakes," killing 16 and wounding dozens altogether. There was the accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy, which killed two journalists. At least two refugee convoys were struck mistakenly, killing scores of Albanians (the very people NATO set out to liberate from the Serbs). Sixteen more civilians were killed from a hit on the Serbian Radio and Television headquarters (this was a deliberate NATO strike, justified because, as officials said, the media outlet “was making an important contribution to the propaganda war which orchestrated the campaign against the population of Kosovo”).
A passenger train, hospital and home for senior citizens were also hit because of missed targets or missiles going "astray." Furthermore, NATO used cluster munitions in a hit on a Serbian airfield in Nis. Damage included a nearby hospital and market in which 14 civilians were killed and 60 wounded. More over, there are unexploded cluster canisters all over the Serbian countryside today, posing major danger to the population. Twelve-year-old Miroslav Maksic was killed months after the campaign when he was playing in a field where such bomblets lay there, left behind.
The U.S. failed to join more than 30 other countries signing an international ban on cluster bombs in 2010.
American officials said at the time of the Kosovo action, called "Operation Noble Anvil," that the civilian casualties were light in comparison with other offensives mostly due to the "surgical" nature of the bombings. While that might’ve been true, this only belies the cold determination of the Clinton Administration to teach Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic "a lesson" (Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once said ahead of the 1995 Bosnian bombing, "What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?")
No surprise that Clinton in April 1999 called the civilian casualties in Belgrade "regrettable" but also "inevitable."
"If anyone thinks that this is a reason for changing our mission,” Clinton said, “then the United States will never be able to being military power to bear again."
Thus, Washington has pursued an ethos of ignoring civilian casualty counts, unless pressed by the media or international rights groups about specific incidents. In Iraq, the military made a point about not maintaining "body counts," until WikiLeaks revealed they had, and the truth was not pretty. Estimates conclude that some 150,000 Iraqis – 80 percent of them civilians – died from violence in the U.S-led bombing and subsequent occupation and insurgencies, though some groups have counted much higher.
Was it Dresden or Hamburg? No, but civilian fatality estimates for the initial "shock and awe" phase of the March 2003 invasion, in which hundreds of missiles rained down on the capital city of Baghdad to in essence "disable Saddam Hussein’s assets," were upwards of 4,600, according to one American think tank.
In Libya, not more than two years after US pulled out of Iraq, the US led a NATO bombing offensive to remove dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Exact civilian casualty counts are again, elusive. Amnesty International can put actual names to 55 victims, but cautions that there are many more dead based on local reports, including dozens of Libyans who perished when NATO missiles hit their homes (either deliberately or by accident) in residential neighborhoods. During the seven-month campaign called "Operation Odyssey Dawn" by the US, NATO engaged in more than 9,700 airstrike sorties, according to Amnesty, destroying nearly 6,000 military targets. So, despite notable "efforts to minimize the risk of causing civilian casualties" says the report, civilians were inevitably put into harms way. That’s just what happens.
We need to take the corncobs out of our ears and be cognizant and honest about the human risk of these operations, which means putting an end to the practice of pretending these offenses are clean and sanitized and hurt only the bad guys. That means a responsible press that can talk about how the Syrian urban population will be affected just as much as they talk about how the White House might "lose credibility" if it doesn’t strike and strike hard, or how Israeli civilians are coping with anxiety and buying out gas masks next door.
At least The Washington Post and USA Today have mustered up responsible reports, and Al Jazeera has weighed in, too, pointing out how devastated the war-torn capital is already, with some 600,000 Syrians suffering from a lack of clean water, medical supplies, food, electricity and proper sanitation. Add American missile strikes to an already beleaguered infrastructure, and you’ve got yourself a hellhole.
Unless they emigrated from a war-ravaged country, most Americans cannot empathize with any of this because they never experienced firsthand a mass evacuation, living in a refugee camp, huddling in an underground bunker, or civil war.
"I wish people would have that experience and have it embedded on their brains, though of course I would never wish anyone to have to go through it," said Jamail, who lamented the seeming impassivity of the media and American people.
"I just want them to think about that."
Follow Vlahos on Twitter @KelleyBVlahos
Read more by Kelley B. Vlahos
- Brother Karzai Leaves Election, Joins Another Ticket – March 10th, 2014
- The Wailing Cassandras Return – February 27th, 2014
- Afghanistan: It’s the Election, Stupid! – February 19th, 2014
- How a CIA Whistleblower Survives Behind Bars – February 9th, 2014
- Jason Leopold Talks Forensic Journalism – February 2nd, 2014