Tragic Folly: Supporting Death and Destruction in Yemen

Last year, in the Yemeni village of Dahyan, a Saudi airstrike targeted a bus of schoolboys on a field trip, killing 54. Forty-four were children. The Guardian and CNN identified the munition as an MK-82 (500 lb.) bomb; experts stated it was “a laser-guided Paveway, manufactured by the U.S. company Lockheed Martin,” one of the United States’ largest defense contractors. At the time, Lockheed spokespersons deferred questions to the Pentagon and US State Department, but neither provided any comment.

Over the past four years, the Saudi-led coalition, which includes the United Arab Emirates and eight other countries from the Middle East and Africa, has subjected the Yemeni population to devastating airstrikes on civilian targets. The United States is the main backer of the coalition, supplying arms, logistics, and intelligence. Iran supports Yemen’s Houthi rebels.

In March 2016, the Saudi-led coalition dropped a US MK-84 (2,000 lb.) bomb on a marketplace in Mastaba, killing 97 people– including 25 children. In October 2016, the Saudis hit a funeral hall in Sana’a with two airstrikes, three to eight minutes apart, killing 155 people and wounding 525 more. A second strike conducted minutes after the first is often referred to as a “double tap,” a tactic employed by terrorist groups or belligerent state actors and designed to target first responders, seeking to inflict maximum casualties. The Sana’a massacre resulted in the Obama administration banning the sale of precision-guided military technology to Saudi Arabia over “human rights concerns.” “I think it’s a signal but too weak of a signal,” said William Hartung of the U.S.-based Center for International Policy, at the time responding to the Obama administration’s decision. “As long as they’re going to be refueling aircraft which is central to the bombing campaign, it’s hard to see that they’re using all the leverage they have.” The Trump administration reversed that modest effort and lifted the ban in spring 2017. Human rights groups also report the Saudi use of U.S.-made cluster bombs, a munition banned under international law.

Everyday Yemenis are conscious of where the bombs and missiles originate: fragments of unexploded materials litter the ground with clearly identifiable writing. “Technical information and serial numbers from missile parts that survive explosions can easily be traced to western arms manufacturers,” wrote Bethen Makernan of the Guardian. In the aftermath of the Dahyan school bus attack, Yemeni journalist Ahmad Algohbary held up a piece of the U.S.-made bomb and addressed the United States, ” This American-made bomb killed them, killed the innocent children. Most of these victims were children. Your bombs are killing victims here, are killing children.”

United Nations reports indicate that war crimes have been committed by both sides, however, it is the Yemeni people that have, by far, suffered the most, enduring indiscriminate bombing and missile targeting and starvation used against them as a military tactic. Of course, for each crime, Saudi Arabia provides an official excuse: schoolboys being used as combatants, errors in targeting information, or civilian shields. In the case of Dahyan and the blatant school bus attack, video clearly shows a group of young boys on a trip, not child soldiers heading out to battle. By year’s end, the death toll from fighting and disease will reach 233,000, according to the United Nations. Currently, eighty percent of the population is reliant on aid supplies for survival. The U.N. has called it “humanity’s greatest preventable disaster.” It has also stated that the US and other western nations bear some responsibility for the situation. “The United States, Britain and France may be complicit in war crimes in Yemen by arming and providing intelligence and logistics support to a Saudi-led coalition that starves civilians as a war tactic,” the United Nations stated in early September. The war in Yemen has been described as a war against children, where a child dies every ten minutes, and as of 2018, 400,000 children were starving and 1.5 were malnourished and needed aid to survive.

Another side to this tragedy is the folly of US and other nations policies regarding their own future security interests. The US military-industrial complex supplying weapons, logistics, and intelligence to the Saudi coalition demonstrates, at worst, a complete disregard to understand and address the causes of terrorism as well as anti-American sentiment in the region. At best, the policy shows us that Washington may be concerned with addressing international terrorism and its root causes, but that the issue ranks far below the priority of maximizing the yearly profits of major defense contractors. An individual that witnesses family and friends murdered from the sky by a foreign supplied munition will undoubtedly, irrespective of nationality, have a very poor opinion, for the rest of his life, of the perpetrator and its accomplices. Of those people, some may one day seek vengeance, at the very least, influence the next generation’s global perspective. I oppose all forms of terrorism, but one needs to pose the question of how an American father would feel if a missile struck a school bus while his three young boys were joyfully riding along on route to an outing. How would that father react upon viewing the scattered remains of his young children and then seeing a metal fragment of the bomb with the serial number of the foreign manufacturer that knowingly sold that weapon to a belligerent state, all to obtain more obscene levels of profit. Would he classify that as evil? What makes it evil if it happens in your town and not if it happens to someone on the other side of the world? While St. Francis would turn the other cheek, forgive, and pray for the perpetrator, the world has very few people with the saintly character of St. Francis.

Paul F.J. Aranas is a lecturer in International Relations, Writer, and Author of Smokescreen: The US, NATO, and the Illegitimate Use of Force. Reprinted with permission from Eye on Global Politics.