How To Disappear (a Massacre) Completely

May 13, 2009

Protesters in Kabul this week

Protesters in Kabul this week

Imperial propaganda has rarely been so blatant.

The AP reports that the U.S. military is going public with details of how militants in Afghanistan have been using white phosphorus against American and coalition troops.

“The U.S. military, in documents supplied to The Associated Press, said there had been at least seven instances of militants using white phosphorus in improvised explosive attacks since spring 2007, including attacks in civilian areas.

The military documents showed 12 attacks where militants used white phosphorus in mortar or rocket attacks, the majority of which came the last two years…The most recent militant attack using white phosphorus came last Thursday, when a NATO outpost in Logar was hit with two rounds of indirect white phosphorus fire.”

The AP also repeats an allegation made by the Pentagon after U.S. warplanes were accused of levelling a village in Farah province, killing over 130 people. “Afghan authorities have also said Taliban fighters may have used a burning agent — possibly white phosphorus — in a major battle on May 4,” the AP parrots, “after doctors discovered unusual burns among the dead and wounded.”

As for the U.S., “The American military itself [only] uses white phosphorus in Afghanistan to light up the night sky and for smoke screens” while a military spokeswoman frets that “[a] pattern of irresponsible and indiscriminate use of white phosphorus by insurgents is reprehensible and should be noted by the international human rights community.”

How humanitarian of her.

The context is that the U.S. military is under pressure following the aforementioned bombing. An 8 year-old girl is fighting for life after the attack, showing clear signs of white phosphorus burns – which hardly represents a PR coup for the occupation.

Is it time for some contrition? Not really. As the spokeswoman told the AP, while “the U.S. can’t be certain who fired the round that wounded Razia, who has been receiving medical care at the U.S. base at Bagram, where she has had 10 skin grafts..”There’s no way to be sure that it was an enemy round that impacted Razia’s house, but based on the plotting of ISAF’s rounds and the time of the reported impact, we can’t establish that ISAF was responsible either.”

The Pentagon is trying to muddle the issue – spreading allegations against the Taleban which don’t square with eyewitness accounts from the scene of the attacks, or those of journalists like Patrick Cockburn who have visited since.

This theme has been taken up by other media outlets too, such as the BBC, which uncritically quotes military spokesman Greg Julian, who says that “The insurgents possess and use white phosphorus as a weapon against people [which is] a law of war that we adhere to but the insurgents blatantly violate.”

The Times of London reports on the same documents, adding the detail that “markings on some of the white phosphorus munitions that had been recovered showed that they had been manufactured in a number of different countries, including Britain, China, Russia and Iran.” The paper’s Michael Evans adds that while “The Americans were initially blamed for killing the civilians in airstrikes…local doctors discovered unusual burns among the dead and injured, which pointed to the use of white phosphorus.”

All of this obscures a brutal reality. In the real world, a village was flattened by massive aerial bombardment. This is what the U.S. is trying to hide, hoping that the story will blow over. But details continue to emerge. As one Kabul-based official told the Guardian, “The stories that are emerging are quite frankly horrifying. It is quite apparent that the large bulk of casualties were called in after the initial fighting had subsided and both the troops and the Taliban had withdrawn.”

Apparently, “Local villagers went to the mosque to pray for peace. Shortly after evening prayers the air strikes were called in, and they continued for a couple of hours whilst the villagers were frantically calling the local governor to get him to call off the air strikes.”

And that is probably when the villagers received such horrific burns. It is very unlikely that the Taleban ventured in under such an assault to lob white phosphorus grenades into the carnage.

Yet aside from the Guardian, few media outlets in the UK are willing to privilege this version of events. The articles mentioned above merely repeat the words of U.S. military spokespeople. They do not expose those words as contested or, what is probably the truth, as rank lies.

White phosphorus munitions aren’t simply used by the coalition forces as toys to light up the sky. They were used on a massive scale during the U.S. assault on Fallujah in 2004. In that instance, the U.S. repeatedly denied that it had used phosphorus munitions – claiming that, when used, “they were fired into the air to illuminate enemy positions at night, not at enemy fighters.”

Almost a year after the attacks, however, the Italian media carried footage which showed these claims to be disgusting lies. An ex-American soldier reported that “Phosphorus burns bodies, in fact it melts the flesh all the way down to the bone … I saw the burned bodies of women and children. Phosphorus explodes and forms a cloud. Anyone within a radius of 150 metres is done for.”

A Fallujah based biologist related how “A rain of fire fell on the city, the people struck by this multi-coloured substance started to burn, we found people dead with strange wounds, the bodies burned but the clothes intact.”

Photos of the destruction are now in the public domain, yet the U.S. military was content to deny and deny that it had been responsible for chemical attacks upon civilian targets. Its recent utterances about attacks in Afghanistan’s Farah Province bear the same stamp of evasion or misinformation. Yet there isn’t nearly enough critical coverage of this propaganda. Indeed, the media has largely been doing the U.S. military’s work by regurgitating its statements.

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