The October 7th America has forgotten

The war deaths we no longer protest (or even think about).

Image Credit: Chaim Goldberg/Flash90

We Americans have been at war now since October 7th, 2001. That was when our military first launched air strikes against the Taliban in Afghanistan in response to al-Qaeda’s September 11th terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. That’s 22 years and counting. The “war on terror” that began then would forever change what it meant to be an Arab-American here at home, while ending the lives of more than 400,000 civilians — and still counting! — in South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. In the days after those September 11th attacks, the U.S. would enjoy the goodwill and support of countries around the world. Only in March 2003, with our invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, would much of the world begin to regard us as aggressors.

Does that sound like any other armed conflict you’ve heard about recently? What it brings to my mind is, of course, Israel’s response to the October 7th terror assault by the Islamic militant group Hamas on its border areas, which my country and much of the rest of the world roundly condemned.

Many Americans now see the destruction and suffering in Gaza and Jewish settler violence against Palestinians in the West Bank as the crises of the day and I agree. It’s hard even to keep up with the death toll in the Palestinian territories, but you can certainly give it a college try. More than 29,000 Gazans have already been killed, more than 12,000 of them reportedly children. The scale of the loss of civilian life has been breathtaking in what are supposed to be targeted missions. For example,in mid-February, in an ostensible attempt to free two Israeli hostages in the southern Gazan city of Rafah, where more than one million civilians are now sheltering under the worst conditions imaginable, Israeli troops killed 74 Palestinians. Between December 2023 and January 2024, four strikes there had already killed at least 95 civilians. And on and on it goes. Anyone with concerns about Israel’s response to Hamas’s bloody attacks has ground to stand on.

But if war deaths among people of color in particular are really that much of a concern to Americans, especially on the political left, then there are significant gaps in our attention. Look at what’s happening in the 85 countries where the U.S. is currently engaged in “counterterrorism” efforts of one sort or another, where we fight alongside local troops, train or equip them, and conduct intelligence operations or even air strikes, all of it in an extension of those first responses to 9/11. Ask yourself if you’ve paid attention to that lately or if you were even aware that it was still happening. Do you have any idea, for instance, that our country’s military continues to pursue its war on terror across significant parts of Africa?

Given Israel’s October 7th tragedy, my mention of that date in 2001, which marked Washington’s first military response to the worst terrorist attacks on our soil, is more than a play on words. Like Israel, the U.S. was attacked by armed Islamic extremists who sought to make gruesome spectacles of ordinary Americans. Some of them, like the Israeli families smoked out of their safe-rooms only to be shot, flung themselves from their office buildings in New York’s Twin Towers, essentially choosing the least awful deaths under the circumstances. Yet after decades of America’s war on terror, whose benefits have been, to say the least, questionable, our tax dollars continue to fund the longest and bloodiest response to terrorism in our history.

Our own October 7th and its seemingly never-ending consequences suggest that something more sinister may be at play in shaping what violence we choose to focus on and condemn, and what violence we choose to overlook.

An international smorgasbord of killings

Too little ink is spilled anymore objecting to the hundreds of thousands of civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, and Yemen who died in our global war on terror — and, of course, those are just some of the countries where we’ve fought in these years. Consider, for example, how we continue to arm and train Somali government troops in their deadly counterinsurgency war. And remember that the war on terror, as it still plays out, isn’t just President Biden’s war, though he has indeed continued it (though in 2021, he did at least get us out of the longest-running part of it in Afghanistan).

Remember as well when you condemn the Israelis for what they’re doing that, thanks to American bombs and missiles, civilians in our own post-October 7, 2001, war zones died as they slept at home, studied, or shopped at marketplaces. Some were run over by our vehicles. Some died in NATO air strikes or in strikes by unmanned American drones, or in fires that erupted in the aftermath of such bombing and shelling. Some were run off the road, gunned down at checkpoints, blown up by bomblets left over from our use of cluster bombs, tortured or executed in U.S.-run prisons, or raped by occupying American troops.

Here are just a few examples: In 2012, an American soldier in Afghanistan shot dead 16 civilians, nine of them children, as they slept in their homes. This was anything but the first such incident of civilian targeting and would be anything but the last. In 2017, after then-President Donald Trump loosened Obama-era air strike restrictions meant to help protect civilians, the U.S. conducted more individually identifiable drone strikes than in any other year except 2012 under — yes! — President Barack Obama.

One January 2017 raid that killed more than a dozen opposition fighters in Yemen also killed Saudi and Yemeni civilians, among them children as young as eight years old. In 2021, two Yemeni families filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights for the unlawful deaths of 34 relatives, including nine children, in U.S. drone strikes between 2013 and 2018, seeking recognition of harm done by the U.S. and its allies. Given that the Pentagon lacks a centralized system for tracking civilian casualties in places where our forces fight and no system at all in areas like Israel where the U.S. only provides military aid, recognition of such horrors has been a rare commodity.

Each time I write about such examples of how, in those years, my country slaughtered civilians, I need to do something like pet my cat or hug my children. That’s how much hurt I feel, especially as a military spouse, when I think about it. I always remember scholar Elaine Scarry’s insight that having to explain how war kills people (not “just” opposing forces but civilians, too!) ought to unsettle us. Only recently, just a few months late, President Biden did indeed finally caution that Israel needed to come up with a “credible plan to protect civilians” before sending its troops into the Gazan city of Rafah, and it certainly should have been a laudable message about preserving life. Unfortunately, it ignored the fact that, when they do so, they’ll be using American weaponry and that funding war — anyone’s war — necessarily means endorsing civilian deaths.

Selective reckoning on armed conflict

I wonder sometimes how many of the Americans now protesting Israel’s incursions into Gaza have ever spoken up about our own country’s endless wars in this century and the human toll that’s gone with them. I suspect most Americans don’t even realize that our war on terror is still ongoing (and younger ones may know little or nothing about what we actually did in all those post-2001 years).

Perhaps such apathy can be attributed in part to the sense of righteous purpose that was first associated with launching a war in Afghanistan on that all-American October 7th of ours, while planning to democratize that country and rid women, in particular, of the Taliban’s oppressive rule. Then came our disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq, based on President George W. Bush’s spurious claims that its ruler, Saddam Hussein, possessed weapons of mass destruction and the initial protests of so many Americans responding to the grim, if flashy, optics of those first air strikes on Baghdad with countrywide protests that soon faded away.

After that, most Americans stopped paying attention to our ongoing mobilization of troops to send abroad, the slow-motion destruction of entire communities in distant lands, and the creation of an estimated 38 million refugees from those conflicts. A case in point: When I do a Google search of the words “Israel, Gaza civilians killed,” I get notice of 13 million articles written on the subject since October 7th of last year. When, however, I search for “War on Terror, civilians killed” without even circumscribing the time range, I get about 850,000 results. Part of the problem undoubtedly lies in semantics and search-engine logistics. After all, in some sense, there was no such thing as the war on terror but instead the war in Iraq, in Somalia, in Pakistan, in Syria, and so on. A framing of our foreign wars that called more attention to the specifics might still focus our attention on the policymakers across the political spectrum who continue to vote for bloated military budgets and all the global destruction that goes with them.

Caring about the costs of all wars

Is it possible that one factor in the objections of some Americans to Israel’s war in Gaza isn’t just the ongoing nightmare of civilian deaths, but also a distaste for the nation and people prosecuting this particular war? Consider that the incidence of anti-Semitic attacks and threats on U.S. soil has exponentially risen in recent years, spiking especially dramatically in the months following the start of Israel’s war, or consider the recent mealy-mouthed responses of the leaders of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, and MIT to whether calls for the genocide of Jews should be censured on university campuses, or what is reportedly happening at some of the nation’s most highly ranked social-work schools where certain Jewish students have claimed not to feel safe when some of their peers call them “colonizers.” (When I was in social work school in 2017, I heard a Jewish student told in class that she was demonstrating “white fragility” in speaking up about her family’s experiences of anti-Semitism in this country.)

In light of such examples, it’s easy for me to see why a double standard might be applied here to the Jewish state and the U.S. one and, more to the point, in the wake of a rash of anti-Semitic verbal threats, physical attacks, and harassment, it’s striking how readily so many Americans now blame Israelis generally for the war perpetrated by that country’s right-wing government, but not Americans for our wars, which most of us know all too little about. What’s more, we shouldn’t forget that part of what shaped Israel’s very formation was the refusal of the U.S. government to take in Jewish refugees before, during, or after the Holocaust. In the wake of World War II, many Jews needed a safe place to go, so a place needed to be made for them.

Don’t think, by the way, that I’m suggesting we should stop holding Israel accountable for war crimes in Gaza and the West Bank. We shouldn’t. Not for a second. But I’m suggesting that if we care about peace in the Middle East, then we need to focus as well on this country’s foreign policy and the racism that shapes it. If we really care about the costs of war, then we need to be equal-opportunity critics and consider not only the most highly reported conflict of the moment but also the chronic ones fought, whether we realize it or not, distinctly in our names.

Among other tasks, that means we need to think through the long-term consequences of policies that began under the Trump administration, which elevated Israel’s standing in Jerusalem and the Golan Heights and exacerbated Palestinian-Israeli tensions long before the Hamas attack of October 7th. It’s also important that we ask ourselves what it means for us to agitate for an Israeli ceasefire (as well we should!) when, since our own October 7th, our wars overseas have largely been protected by American silence and so complicity. Otherwise, it’s likely that progressives and moderates alike will continue to be divided by whatever conflict rules the day in our capricious mainstream mediasphere, rather than speaking with one voice about the costs of war and how they drain our economy and our culture.

Read Tom Engelhardt’s response here.


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