The Invisible Dead and "The Last Word": Lawrence O'Donnell 'Rewrites' the Occupation of Afghanistan

By Nima Shirazi

On Saturday August 6, 2011, a U.S. military Chinook transport helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan, killing 30 American soldiers, including 17 elite Navy SEALs, and eight Afghans. The mainstream news media was awash with somber reports about this being the "deadliest day" for U.S. forces in the ten years since the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan began.

Notably, many news outlets such as ABC, NBC, CBS, and The Washington Post claimed the helicopter crash and its 30 American casualties marked the "deadliest day of the war", without adding the vital qualification, "for United States military personnel." Even the progressive website Truthout provided its daily email blast that day with the headline: "Deadliest Day in Decade-Long Afghanistan War: 31 Troops Killed in Shootdown."

The obvious implication of these reports was that on no single day since October 7, 2001, when the U.S.-led invasion and bombing campaign began, had as many people been killed in Afghanistan as on August 6, 2011.

Perhaps most brazen and sanctimonious regarding this claim was MSNBC's primetime anchor Lawrence O'Donnell. Introducing the "Rewrite" segment of his Monday August 8 broadcast of "The Last Word", O'Donnell looked directly into the camera and, in his measured and most heartfelt serious voice, told his viewers:


"This weekend saw the worst single loss of life in the ten years of the Afghan War."

He was lying. Unless, of course, like so many Americans, O'Donnell doesn't count Afghan civilians as human beings worthy of being allowed to stay alive. In fact, the invisibility of the native population of Afghanistan is so ubiquitous in the American media, O'Donnell and his writers probably didn't even think they needed to acknowledge civilian death tolls at the hands of foreign armies. As General Tommy Franks, who led the invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq, told reporters at Bagram Air Base in March 2002 when asked about how many people the U.S. military has killed, "You know we don't do body counts."

After showing a video clip of CIA Directer-cum-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's statement that the helicopter crash served as "a reminder to the American people that we remain a nation still at war," O'Donnell took seven minutes of airtime to lecture his viewers about a country that has forgotten the hardships of warfare, due to the absence of a draft or rationing or war taxation. Clearly passionate and frustrated, he rhetorically wondered, "What kind of nation would need to be reminded that it is still at war?" He continued,

"There will be other nights for us to discuss the way forward or the way out of Afghanistan. Tonight is not that night. Tonight is for reminding this nation that it is indeed at war. And tonight is for reminding the nation of the price of war. The ultimate sacrifice."

At this point, O'Donnell displayed photographs of some of the soldiers killed in the crash while delivering brief biographies, a sort of "Last Word" eulogy for the dead.

In his effort to tug at his viewers heartstrings, O'Donnell told us of one young soldier who had only "been in Afghanistan for less than two weeks." Another was described by his mother as "a gentle giant." A SEAL Team 6 member also killed in the crash, we were told, had a wife, a two-year-old son and a two-month old baby girl while another solider was survived by his pregnant wife and three children. O'Donnell eulogized one of the deceased servicemen by telling us of his personal history as a high school wrestler and his lifelong dream of becoming a Navy SEAL.

O'Donnell concluded the segment with the assurance that none of the family members of those soldiers who had died - as opposed to the million of Americans whose lives are totally unaffected by the ongoing occupation - needed any "reminding" that "we are a nation at war."

Never once during this paean to the military did O'Donnell make even a passing reference to the thousands upon thousands of Afghan men, women, and children killed by U.S. and NATO forces in their own homeland, their own country, their own towns, their own communities, their own homes, hospitals, mosques, and schools, and at their own weddings.

The Afghan village of Karam was completely destroyed on October 12, 2001 when American forces dropped a one-ton bomb on it and killed over 100 people. On October 21, 2001, "At least twenty-three civilians, the majority of them young children, were killed when U.S. bombs hit a remote Afghan village," according to a report by Human Rights Watch.

Not a solitary syllable was uttered to honor the seven children blown apart "as they ate breakfast with their father" when "a US bomb flattened a flimsy mud-brick home in Kabul" on Sunday October 29, 2001. The Times of India, citing a Reuters report, revealed that "the blast shattered a neighbour's house killing another two children."

A few weeks later, on November 17, 2001, U.S. bombs fired at the village of Chorikori murdered "two entire families, one of 16 members and the other of 14, who lived, and perished, together in the same house," reported The Los Angeles Times. Shortly thereafter, heavy American bombing in Khanabad near Kunduz was said to have killed 100 people. The same day, a religious school in Khost was bombed, killing 62 people.

Around the same time, James S. Robbins, a professor of International Relations at the National Defense University, published an article in The National Review entitled, "Humanity of the Air War: Look how far we've come." The piece began this way: "Think airpower can't bring victory in Afghanistan? Think again."

Robbins continued his claim that "the air campaign over Afghanistan has been effective by most reports" and that "critics of the air campaign at home and abroad make as much of civilian casualties as suits their purposes, but arguments over whether a few, a dozen, or hundreds of people have died only show how civilized warfare has become." He averred that "[a]ny civilian deaths caused by allied bombs are unintended deaths" (emphasis in original), declared that the U.S. was using the "tools and means of the humane" to bomb Afghan civilians to death on a regular basis, and concluded, "The allied air campaign is demonstrating how moral a war can be."

On December 31, 2001, U.S. ground forces confirmed an enemy target in the village of Qalaye Niazi and "three bombers, a B-52 and two B-1Bs, did the rest, zapping Taliban and al-Qaida leaders in their sleep as well as an ammunition dump." A military spokesman, Matthew Klee, proudly told reporters that the strike was an unmitigated success, saying, "Follow-on reporting indicates that there was no collateral damage." However, The Guardian reported:

Some of the things his follow-on reporters missed: bloodied children's shoes and skirts, bloodied school books, the scalp of a woman with braided grey hair, butter toffees in red wrappers, wedding decorations.

The charred meat sticking to rubble in black lumps could have been Osama bin Laden's henchmen but survivors said it was the remains of farmers, their wives and children, and wedding guests.

They said more than 100 civilians died at this village in eastern Afghanistan.

In the first three months of the Afghanistan assault, Carl Conetta of the Project on Defense Alternatives found that upwards of 4,200-4,500 Afghan civilians had been killed as a result of the U.S.-led bombing campaign and the "starvation, exposure, associated illnesses, or injury sustained while in flight from war zones" that followed the invasion and airstrikes. In May 2002, Jonathan Steele of The Guardian reported that, up to that point, "As many as 20,000 Afghans may have lost their lives as an indirect consequence of the US intervention."

For O'Donnell, it appears the "price of war" doesn't include the 48 civilians killed and 117 wounded, many of them women and children, when U.S. jets bombed a wedding party in Oruzgan in July 2002, the 17 civilians, mostly women and children, killed by coalition bombs in Helmand in February 2003, the eight civilians killed by a U.S. gunship and bomber in Bagram Valley the same month, the eleven civilians killed, including seven women, by a U.S. laser-guided bomb that hit a house outside the village of Shkin in April 2003, the six family members killed by U.S. bombs that hit the village of Aranj in October 2003, or the nine children (seven boys and two girls aged 9 to 12) murdered by two U.S. A-10 Thunderbolt II planes which attacked the village of Hutala while the children were playing ball.

The human cost of the Afghan occupation, so far as O'Donnell is concerned, doesn't include the eleven people, four of them children, killed by an American helicopter which fired on the village of Saghatho in January 2004, the scores of civilians bombed to death by NATO airstrikes in October 2006, eight civilians shot by American soldiers in Kandahar in 2007, the more than 100 civilians killed in numerous U.S. and NATO bombings in May 2007, the seven children killed by a U.S.-led airstrike in June 2007, the group of bus passengers gunned down by US troops on December 12, 2008, the seven civilians killed by American troops in a rural village near Nad-E'ali in 2009, the 26 civilians, including 16 children, killed by British forces, the scores of dead civilians in Kunduz and Helmand who were killed by 500-pound bombs dropped by U.S. jets in September 2009, the 27 civilians killed by a NATO strike in the Afghan province of Uruzgan in February 2010, the five civilians, including two pregnant women and a teenage girl killed in Khataba, the 45 civilians (most of whom were women and children) murdered by a NATO rocket in Afghanistan in July 2010, the 30 or more civilians killed in two NATO air strikes on two villages in the Nangarhar province in August 2010, or the numerous civilian men, women, children, dogs, donkeys, and chickens slaughtered by Task Force 373, a clandestine black ops unit which NATO uses as an assassination squad.

On March 23, 2011, U.S. Army Specialist Jeremy Morlock was sentenced to 24 years in prison for the willful murder and mutilation of three Afghan civilians - a fifteen-year-old boy, a mentally-retarded man, and a religious leader. Other members of Morlock's platoon, the 5th Stryker Combat Brigade, have been "charged with dismembering and photographing corpses, as well as hoarding a skull and other human bones," The Washington Post previously reported. At the beginning of the court-martial proceedings, Morlock admitted to the military judge presiding over the case that the murders he and four fellow soldiers were charged with committing had been deliberate and intentional. "The plan was to kill people, sir," he said.

Broadcasting live across the country that evening, Lawrence O'Donnell didn't cover the story. Instead, he spent a considerable amount of airtime justifying Barack Obama's decision to begin bombing Libya, interviewing Anthony Weiner about healthcare, and poking fun at potential GOP presidential candidates. He ended the program that night, however, with a touching and earnest memorial for someone who had recently died: Elizabeth Taylor.

For O'Donnell, the "ultimate sacrifice" he spoke of this week naturally didn't include the Afghan man, four women, and baby murdered at a wedding party by a Polish mortar strike on the village of Wazi Khwa on August 16, 2007, which also injured three other women, one of whom was nine months pregnant. Nor does it include the "nineteen unarmed civilians killed and 50 wounded" when, during "a frenzied escape" on March 4, 2007, U.S. Marines "open[ed] fire with automatic weapons as they tore down a six-mile stretch of highway, hitting almost anyone in their way – teenage girls in fields, motorists in their cars, old men as they walked along the road." The April 2009 U.S. raid on Khost, which killed four civilians, including a woman and two children, didn't receive a sad obituary on primetime cable television either. The American soldiers on that raid "also shot a pregnant woman and killed her unborn baby, which had almost come to term."

To O'Donnell, the "worst single loss of life" in Afghanistan during the last decade wasn't the more than 140 civilians reportedly killed when "U.S. aircraft bombed villages in the Bala Boluk district of Afghanistan's western Farah province" on May 3, 2009 in what is now known as the the Granai airstrike. Reuters revealed that "93 of those killed were children -- the youngest eight days old," and that "[a]ccording to villagers, families were cowering in houses when the U.S. aircraft bombed them." The death toll of this one airstrike is nearly five times larger than the U.S. helicopter crash, which took the life of not a single civilian, let alone child.

255 civilians were killed in military operations in June 2008. In early July 2008, near the village of Kacu, "a U.S. air strike killed 47 civilians, including 39 women and children, as they were travelling to a wedding in Afghanistan...The bride was among the dead."

The following month, 90 civilians, including 60 children and 15 women, were killed during military operations in Herat province alone.

Sixty-five civilians, including 40 children, were killed in a NATO assault on Kunar in February 2011. A few weeks later, NATO helicopter gunners shot nine boys - aged 9 to 15 - to death as they gathered firewood. On May 28, 2011, NATO bombs killed two women and 12 children in Helmand. In the month leading up to the Chinook crash last week, dozens of Afghan civilians were killed in NATO airstrikes and raids.

O'Donnell didn't feel the need to show pictures of any of these victims or quote what their loved ones had to say about them.

The "deadliest day", in O'Donnell's estimation, could not possibly have been when, in July 2007, "U.S. special forces dropped six 2,000lb bombs on a compound where they believed a 'high-value individual' was hiding, after 'ensuring there were no innocent Afghans in the surrounding area'. A senior US commander reported that 150 Taliban had been killed. Locals, however, reported that up to 300 civilians had died."

Lawrence O'Donnell didn't tell his viewers of the hopes and dreams of the hundreds of Afghan children liberated forever from this world by noble American troops and their stalwart allies. He didn't mention how some of the young boys murdered by U.S. missiles loved to play soccer and couldn't wait to learn how to drive. He didn't solemnly note that many of the young girls shot to death by soldiers who love what they do wanted to become doctors and lawyers and human rights activists and teachers and wives and mothers. He didn't devote a segment of his show to the murder of Mohammed Yonus, "a 36-year-old imam and a respected religious authority", killed in Kabul in early 2010 while commuting to a madrasa where he taught 150 students." The New York Times reported, "A passing military convoy raked his car with bullets, ripping open his chest as his two sons sat in the car."

O'Donnell didn't tearfully point out that the bullets and bombs that have killed so many men and women have left countless orphans and widows and taken countless children away from countless parents all sacrificed on the altar of the so-called "War on Terror" and American security and exceptionalism.

None of these innocents - people obliterated in their own houses, in their own fields, and in their own cars on their own roads - was accorded a second of screen time or a moment of acknowledgment during O'Donnell's "Rewrite."

It is unsurprising that, in March 2010, General Stanley A. McChrystal told U.S. troops during a video-conference about civilian deaths at checkpoints in Afghanistan, "We have shot an amazing number of people, but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat." Nevertheless, upon McChrystal's dishonorable retirement only a few months later, Defense Secretary Robert Gates delivered the following tribute: "Over the past decade, arguably no single American has inflicted more fear, more loss of freedom and more loss of life on our country's most vicious and violent enemies than Stan McChrystal."

Lawrence O'Donnell, while chastising the American public for not paying enough attention to our myriad military invasions, occupations and war crimes, said that only "a nation whose news media is more troubled by the loss of credit-ratings than the loss of life" could act in such a way. He didn't mean, of course, the loss of Afghan lives, only of American soldiers. The U.S. government operates the same way; it still doesn't compile death tolls for its murderous operations. Earlier this year, the ACLU revealed [PDF]:

The Department of Defense has confirmed that it does not compile statistics about the total number of civilians that have been killed by its unmanned drone aircraft.


According to the DOD, the military’s estimates of civilian casualties do not distinguish between deaths caused by remote-controlled drones and those caused by other aircraft. While each drone strike appears to be subject to an individual assessment after the fact, there is no total number of casualties compiled. Moreover, information contained in the individual assessments is classified – making it impossible for the public to learn how many civilians have been killed overall.

On July 5, 2005, journalist Peter Symonds wrote:

In what can only be regarded as a bloody act of revenge, the US military last Sunday killed as many as 17 civilians in an air raid on the remote village of Chechal in the northeast Afghan province of Kunar.

The attack took place just five kilometres from where a US Chinook helicopter was shot down, four days before, resulting in the deaths of 16 US special forces personnel — the largest single loss of American troops since the US-led invasion of the country in 2001.

While it remains to be seen what kind of lethal punishment Afghan civilians will bear in retaliation for the most recent Chinook crash with its record-breaking American death toll, one thing is certain: Lawrence O'Donnell will offer no words of sorrow or condolence, no melancholy homage to the dead, no decorous harangue of the American public for not caring enough, for not knowing the names, faces, and stories of those killed by our own soldiers whose salaries we pay and bombs we build.

To mourn only fallen soldiers of one's own country and not even notice the civilians they are trained to kill in their own country is to rewrite the history of war and violence and further entrenches the vile ideology of "us vs. them", inverts aggressor and victim, and praises invasion and empire. Lawrence O'Donnell, by deliberately ignoring the thousands of Afghan dead during his encomium for the dead American soldiers, has proven that, as far as the mainstream media is concerned, justice will never have the last word.

This article originally appeared on Wide Asleep in America on August 9, 2011.

Main Afghanistan & Pakistan The Invisible Dead and "The Last Word": Lawrence O'Donnell 'Rewrites' the Occupation of Afghanistan


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