Drone instincts: What's wrong with the war effort?

While Americans may be celebrating the death of “the most infamous terrorist of our time,” seeing it as a fitting act of retribution for the innocent lives lost on 9/11, the war effort is far from over. As CIA Director Leon Panetta remarked, “Bin Laden is dead. Al-Qaida is not.” With every new death, civilian or otherwise, we lose yet another piece of our humanity and regress toward our primitive, animal instincts.

I was an infantry officer in the Army from 1969 to 1971. Men in my platoon who had served time in Vietnam told me many stories— but none more chilling than the one from two helicopter pilots. They told me how they would shoot the “friendlies” on their way back from reconnaissance missions just so they could empty their ammunition before returning to base. The “friendlies” were South Vietnamese women and children, helpless victims in a war they did not understand. But to the American pilots, they were simply dots on the ground.
This is what modern warfare does to so-called civilized people. Unfortunately, these killings are not isolated instances, and they're not confined to helicopter-based or drone-based warfare. Take, for instance, a U.S.-led attack that occurred during the Gulf War on the night of February 26–27, 1991, after Saddam Hussein announced a complete troop withdrawal from Kuwait in compliance with U.N. resolutions.

On a 60-mile stretch of road from Mutlaa, Kuwait, to Basra, Iraq, a convoy of more than 2,000 vehicles and tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers and civilians were fleeing. These were people who were putting up no resistance, many with no weapons, leaving in cars, trucks, carts, and on foot. The American armed forces bombed one end of the main highway from Kuwait City to Basra, sealing it off, then bombed the other end of the highway, sealing it off. They positioned mechanized artillery units on the hill overlooking the area and then, both from the air and the land, massacred every living thing on the road. Fighter bombers, helicopter gunships and armored battalions poured merciless firepower on those trapped in the traffic jams, backed up as much as 20 miles. One U.S. pilot reportedly said, "It was like shooting fish in a barrel." That fateful stretch of road has since been dubbed the "Highway of Death."

A report submitted to the Commission of Inquiry for the International War Crimes Tribunal stated that those killed were Palestinian and Kuwaiti civilians trying to escape the siege of Kuwait City and the return of Kuwaiti armed forces. The report claimed that no attempt was made by U.S. military command to distinguish between military personnel and civilians.

Pictures taken after the attack show charred and dismembered bodies. Some of these photographs can be viewed in Peter Turnley’s photo essay, “The Unseen Gulf War.” Ramsey Clark, a former U.S. Attorney General under Lyndon Johnson, suggested the carnage could only have resulted from the use of napalm, phosphorus, or other incendiary bombs— anti-personnel weapons outlawed under the 1977 Geneva Protocols.

The killing did not stop with the Gulf War. Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the American government dispatched its arsenal of deadly weapons to Afghanistan to quash Osama bin Laden and the Al-Qaida network— but to no avail. And once again, there were reports of the indiscriminate killing of civilians by American forces where entire villages were wiped out and women and children lay dead on the cold earth of Afghanistan. Then the American military industrial complex trained its sights on Iraq, once again unleashing its awesome war machine. And the carnage continued, made even worse by horrifying reports of Iraqi prisoners being tortured, raped, and subjected to all manner of other abuses at the hands of U.S. soldiers.

Most recently, reports and photos have surfaced of a so-called “kill team” comprised of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan who murdered innocent civilians, mutilated their corpses, and then photographed the kills. As Rolling Stone reported, “The photos, obtained by Rolling Stone, portray a front-line culture among U.S. troops in which killing Afghan civilians is less a reason for concern than a cause for celebration. ‘Most people within the unit disliked the Afghan people, whether it was the Afghan National Police, the Afghan National Army or locals,’ one soldier explained to investigators. ‘Everyone would say they're savages.’ One photo shows a hand missing a finger. Another depicts a severed head being maneuvered with a stick, and still more show bloody body parts, blown-apart legs, mutilated torsos. Several show dead Afghans, lying on the ground or on Stryker vehicles, with no weapons in view.”

Despite the rising death toll among the military and civilians, despite the cost to the economy (the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan alone have already cost more than $1 trillion), despite the fact that the American military, acting as an international police force, is spread dangerously thin, despite the fact that Congress has yet to actually declare war against most of the countries in which America is making war (thus undermining the one thing that stands between us and tyranny: our Constitution), the American government continues to bang the war drums.  And when all is said and done, after all the blather about national security and fighting terrorism and defending freedom abroad have died down, if these endless wars amount to anything at all, it is nothing less than the utter destruction of every decent and noble ideal for which America is supposed to stand.

The fact that modern technological warfare is turning human beings into non-feeling killing machines should cause us to tremble. It should give us reason to pause and question how we could let ourselves travel so far down the road to perdition. We have placed others on the highway of death. In the end, however, it is we who are traveling the highway of death. May God help us all.
Essay author John Whitehead is the founder of the Albemarle-based nonprofit legal group called the Rutherford Institute, which fights for religious and other liberties.


With every new death, civilian or otherwise, we lose yet another piece of our humanity and regress toward our primitive, animal instincts.

What evidence supports we have progressed beyond them?

Thank you Mr. Whitehead. Yours is a courageous voice at a time when many are further dehumanizing our country- by celebrating death.

Those who know war from sitting on a couch in their living room staring at a TV will hopefully read this and take a moment to reflect on the path we have taken.

It's time to bring the troops home from Afghanistan. Those people must solve their own problems and run their own nation. America can no longer afford to police Afghanistan or the world.

Cry me a fricken river.
In a perfect world with perfect people there would be no wars, no hunger and no disease. In a perfect world there would be no innocent lives lost, no torture and no ill will to the fellow man.

Atrocities have occurred throughout history and yet this article slaps the country that allows us a safe environment right across the face. What about the atrocities that are occurring at this moment in Iran, Syria, and the Sudan just to name a few? What about the crimes against humanity that occurred while Hussein was dictator? What about the Third Reich and the Turks?

No wonder the kids today take this country for granted. Keep harping on the things that rarely occur while ignoring the good that we do every single day. One day your wishes will come true and we as a country will eventually fail.

Thanks, Jeez! Mr. Whitehead indicates he was an infantry platoon leader in the Army, but it sounds like it's more likely that he served in the Peace Corps! There are bad people out there that can't be talked out of their "badness", no matter how many times you sing Kumbaya to them.

That Mr. Whitehead refers to comments by Ramsey Clark, a "useful idiot" if there ever was one, shows that he is a fellow traveler of the Hate America crowd, unable to tell the difference between a few rogue individuals and the rest of the brave, honorable people who put on the uniform and say "America and what she stands for mean enough to me that I am willing to lay my life on the line".

Take a look at the pictures in the referenced photo essay. Note that these are all men in uniform, with weapons and military equipment aplenty. This action occurred prior to capitulation of our enemy. These forces were in retreat, to be sure, but that could have easily meant a retrograde action to rear area positions where they might have stood against our advancing forces. War means killing people. If you need to kill 100 of them to save one of your own, lock & load! And if the enemy gives you an opportunity to kill him at little risk to yourself, do so before he changes his mind and tries to kill you.

War is indeed hell. Nobody knows that more than those who pick up a weapon and close with the enemy. And nobody wants the war to end more than these same people. Unfortunately, it won't come to an end any more quickly because of people like Mr. Whitehead, who question the motivation and bravery of these same people with his attempt to paint all of them with the same brush as the rogue elements, who are punished whenever they are discovered and exposed.

Shame on you, Mr. Whitehead!

1) the intelligence to get bin laden was secured in a cia prison... hopefully thru waterboarding

2) bin laden hid behind his wife like the wuss that he was.

3) anyone who thinks that if the US layed down all of its arms tomorrow world peace would break out is an idiot.

4) war is hell, but surrendering to oppression is worse.

5) I think that we should have bombed both ends of that highway he referred to and then called the parents of the people and ask them if it was ok to check for weapons.

6) Why does this guy even get printed?

Right on guys!! You get in a war situation and you wanna shoot something, even if it's a civilian; maybe even cut off an ear and hang it on your belt. And what's wrong with that? I say nothing if that's what it takes to keep Christian people safe in their homes. If you got the right uniform on ain't nothin' wrong.

if you're going to defame air cav personnel,maybe you better show a DD214 proving combat service in Viet Nam.There better not be any stolen valor.

stolen valor? I think the point Mr. Whitehead was making is there is no valor associated with the mass murder of civilians

No one ever won a war by dying for his country. You win wars by making the other SOB die for his. .... George Patton.

All you whiners would be speaking Japanese or German (or still be enslaved) if civilians were 100% off limits. The way to win a war is to make it too costly for the enemy.

War is a brutal,bloody business.It always has been and always will be.We don't fight an enemy dressed in uniforms,we fight against"fighters"dressed as civillians.The people we fight are about as brutal as they come,no rules,no Geneva Convention.We play the game by the rules that are presented to us at the time,you can't stop the battle and say"hey,stop that,that's not fair!"

Imagine if we spent as much money making peace as we spend making war ; my calculation is, that would do far more to advance civilization than what we see happening now.

"I think the point Mr. Whitehead was making is there is no valor associated with the mass murder of civilians."

Very true but singling out our country brings to light an another underlying point he is trying to make.

He also states "The fact that modern technological warfare is turning human beings into non-feeling killing machines..."

So the millions of people that have died during thousands of years of warfare were killed by "caring individuals"? Instead of technological advances or a singled out society being the culprit just maybe it is mankinds inability to advance spiritually and socially.

"Imagine if we spent as much money making peace as we spend making war ; my calculation is, that would do far more to advance civilization than what we see happening now."

You appear to be a very good person. Thank your lucky stars that your upbringing and surrounding allowed you to have a caring personality.

@NancyDrew - Right on! And then we could throw the saddles we macrame' from sea grass on our pet unicorns and ride them to the leprechaun fair!

My calculation is that you smoked too much grass in the sixties, and that last hit took permanently!

"Imagine if we spent as much money making peace as we spend making war ; my calculation is, that would do far more to advance civilization than what we see happening now."

I agree... we should just take the entire Pentagon budget and divide it amongst North Korea, Iran, the Taliban and Al queda . That would solve everything.

In the words of Jack Nicholson in "A few Good Men" ..... "you can't handle the truth"

Hey Bill...that was a character, speaking words written by a screenwriter. You do understand this? It's part of comprehending the truth, you know, separating fiction from reality.

I don't think Nancy meant defund the military, just put equal effort into peacemaking. On the other hand we could always just throw off the gloves and just go into full-on genocide. There's lots of funky critters out there that don't look or think like us, and we have the means to cleanse the earth of their presence. Why not?

"The “friendlies” were South Vietnamese women and children, helpless victims in a war they did not understand. But to the American pilots, they were simply dots on the ground."

Unfortunately, Mr. Whitehead, those pilots who told you that were lying- they were trying to make you think that they were "real men" with their stories.

Those pilots haved lived with that every day of their lives, if they indeed did such a thing.

Yes, there was one pycho kill team? And what happened...they were all arrested when someone outside of their small group found out.

I'm glad you spent a whole paragraph on them, because they are very indicative of US soldiers and what the US is doing over in the MIddle East....

Interesting- and "Rolling Stone" is right up there, on top, with the "National Inquirer" and "Cracked" magazine..............

Once again Mr. Whitehead weighs in on an issue for which he assumes competence, but is in fact relying on faulty data and assumptions.
It is a fact that the so called highway of death was bombed at both ends to prevent the movement of vehicles. That is what you do to an enemy who is making a planned military withdrawl in the face of your assault. What he intentionally leaves out of his diatribe is that American aircraft withdrew from assaulting the intact convoy for several hours under direct orders. Rear Admiral Zlatoper's direct order read, "Our job is to take out Iraqi armor and armored personnel carriers, and not buses." There were no ground forces assaulting this area at that time. The withdrawl was to allow civilians to abandon the obviously stuck vehicles, which by the way contained mostly goods, equipment, and valuables looted from Kuwait. When the planes returned hours later they destroyed anything and anyone left there because they obviously were not helpless our surrendering. Sadaam Hussein had a plan for withdrawing his forces from Kuwait to make a stand in Iraq. That plan was well know to American intelligence services because they easily cracked his communication codes. That plan was based on mass withdrawl right up this very same highway. So, Mr. Whitehead, how is this an atrocity?
I could go on and on, but the point is that Mr. Whitehead has a flawed agenda and is perfectly willing to distort (or fail to check) facts in order to advance this agenda.

@JTM: Fantastic job separating the fact from idealistic nonsense. I do respect Mr. Whitehead a lot and appreciate his work but the sooner we separate airheaded idealism from the picture, the sooner we can make an honest assessment of war, an always difficult decision even without distortions of propaganda.