Bowe Bergdahl, Barack Obama, and the Horror of America

ZNet,  June 13, 2014.

“I am sorry for everything. The horror of America,” Bowe Bergdahl wrote to his family via e-mail before disappearing in eastern Afghanistan five years ago, “is disgusting.”

A case in point is the right-wing feeding frenzy over the possibility that Bergdahl may have deserted his post – a frenzy so furious that proto-fascistic FOX News and talk radio pundits have fastened on Bergdahl’s father’s “Muslim beard” as proof of the recently returned soldier’s “Islamist treason,” aided and abetted by US president Barack Obama.

Over at the “liberal” (the FOX News and talk radio crowd even and quite absurdly call it “leftist”) New York Times, an Op Ed by former Times reporter Alex Berenson tells readers that “Sergeant Bergdahl may have broken any number of military laws.” Berenson notes that “Desertion during wartime is punishable ‘by death.’” He suggests that Berenson “deserves a few years in Leavenworth to reflect on his dereliction of duty.”

Berenson identifies himself as a former reporter who “embedded…with American soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq.” He believes “that we civilians don’t deserve the soldiers we have.” In the Bergdahl case, however, Berenson says, “perhaps…the reverse was true.”

The still if today more comfortably Empire-embedded Berenson’s column is titled “A Prisoner of War, but Not a Hero.”[1]

“As Illegal as the Invasion of Iraq”

There’s something rather significant missing from such discussions and from the broader US “mainstream” media tumult over Bowe Bergdahl: the illegal, immoral, and imperial nature of the US military’s presence in Afghanistan. It’s nothing new. The consistently absent, doctrinally deleted ingredient in dominant US media-politics culture’s commentary on Washington’s long atrocity-filled [2]military campaign in Afghanistan is the abject criminality of “the Afghan war.”

There is no discussion outside marginal US left circles of the (one would think) basic fact that the US bombing and invasion of Afghanistan initiated in October of 2001 took place in bold defiance of international law forbidding aggressive war. Sold as legitimate “defensive” responses to the al-Qaeda September 2001 jetliner attacks, the US operation was undertaken without definitive proof or knowledge that Afghanistan’s Taliban government was responsible in any way for 9/11.

The US assault occurred after the Bush administration rebuffed offers by that government to extradite accused 9/11 planners to stand trial in the US.

Washington decided to destroy the Taliban government with no legal claim to introduce regime change in another nation.

The US invasion took place over the protest of numerous Afghan opposition leaders and against the warnings of aid organizations who expected a US attack to produce a humanitarian catastrophe.

US claims to possess the right to bomb Afghanistan – an action certain to produce significant civilian casualties – raised the interesting question of whether Cuba and Nicaragua were entitled to bomb the US since the US had long provided shelter to terrorists who conducted mass-murderous attacks on the Cuban and Nicaraguan people.[3]Interesting, that is, to those who think that “international norms” should be applied equally to all states, even the most powerful.

The US attack on Afghanistan met none of the standard international moral and legal criteria for justifiable self-defense and occurred without reasonable consultation with the United Nations Security Council. “The invasion of Afghanistan was as illegal as the invasion of Iraq,” legal scholar Marjorie Cohn noted in July of 2008.

The U.N. Charter requires member states to settle international disputes by peaceful means. Nations are permitted to use military force only in self-defense or when authorized by the Security Council. After 9/11, the Council passed two resolutions, neither of which authorized the use of military force in Afghanistan.

Invading and bombing that country was not rightful self-defense under article 51 of the Charter since the jetliner assaults were criminal attacks, not “armed attacks” by another country. Afghanistan did not attack the U.S. and fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia.

There was no “imminent threat of an armed attack on the United States after September 11 or Bush would not have waited three weeks before initiating his October 2001 bombing campaign.” This was no small matter, for, under international law, “The necessity for self-defense must be ‘instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.’ This classic principle of self-defense in international law has been affirmed by the Nuremberg Tribunal and the U.N. General Assembly.”[4]

Not surprisingly, an international Gallup poll released after the US bombing of Afghanistan was announced showed that global opposition was overwhelming. In 34 of the 37 countries Gallup surveyed, majorities opposed a military attack on Afghanistan, preferring that 9/11 be treated as a criminal matter rather than as a pretext for war. Even in the U.S., just 54% supported war.[5]

“In Latin America, which has some experience with US behavior,” Noam Chomsky noted, “support [for the U.S. assault] ranged from 2% in Mexico, to 18% in Panama, and that support was conditional on the culprits being identified (they still weren’t eight months later, the Federal Bureau of Investigation reported) and civilian targets being spared (they were attacked at once). There was an overwhelming preference in the world for diplomatic/judicial measures, rejected out of hand by [Washington, claiming to represent] ‘the world.'”[6]

Barack Obama built his “progressive” presidential brand partly around a distinction between the “bad” and “mistaken” war George W. Bush launched in Iraq and the supposedly “good” and legitimate war Bush launched “in response to the jetliner attacks” in Afghanistan. Obama campaigned on a promise to escalate the American military presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan (co-joined as “Af-Pak”) – a promise he quickly fulfilled in ways that have led to the deaths of untold thousands of Pashtun civilians, including many women and children.

“Peace prize? He’s a killer.” Thus spoke a young Pashtun man to an Al Jazeera English reporter on December 10, 2009—the day that Obama was given the Nobel Peace Prize. [6A]

An Example

Ask the people of Bola Boluk. “The horror of America”? Here’s one of many examples from America’s “good war” in Afghanistan, from the month before Bowe Bergdahl sent his aforementioned e-mail and perhaps went AWOL. In the first week of May 2009, less than five months into Obama’s not-so antiwar presidency, U.S. air-strikes killed more than 140 civilians in Bola Boluk, a village western Afghanistan’s Farah Province. Ninety-three of the dead villagers torn apart by U.S. explosives were children. Just 22 were males 18 years or older. As the New York Times had the decency to report:

“In a phone call played on a loudspeaker on Wednesday to outraged members of the Afghan Parliament, the governor of Farah Province, Rohul Amin, said that as many as 130 civilians had been killed, according to a legislator, Mohammad Naim Farahi. Afghan lawmakers immediately called for an agreement regulating foreign military operations in the country.”

“‘The governor said that the villagers have brought two tractor trailers full of pieces of human bodies to his office to prove the casualties that had occurred,’ Mr. Farahi said.”

“’Everyone at the governor’s office was crying, watching that shocking scene.’”

“Mr. Farahi said he had talked to someone he knew personally who had counted 113 bodies being buried, including those of many women and children. Later, more bodies were pulled from the rubble and some victims who had been taken to the hospital died…”[7]

No Apology

The initial response of the Obama Pentagon to this horrific incident – one among many senseless mass U.S. aerial killings in Afghanistan since October 2001 – was to absurdly blame the civilian deaths on “Taliban grenades.” Obama’s Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed deep “regret” about the loss of innocent life, but the administration refused to issue an apology or acknowledge U.S. responsibility for the blasting apart of civilian bodies in Farah Province.[8]

By telling and sickening contrast, Obama had just offered a full apology and fired a White House official because that official had scared New Yorkers with an ill-advised Air Force One photo-shoot flyover of Manhattan that reminded people of 9/11.[9] The disparity was extraordinary: frightening New Yorkers led to a full presidential apology and the discharge of a White House staffer. Killing more than 100 Afghan civilians did not require any apology. Nobody had to be fired. And the Pentagon was permitted to advance preposterous claims about how the civilians died – stories that were taken seriously by mainstream (corporate-imperial war and entertainment) media.[10]

“Homeland” Horrors

That’s “the horror of America” for you, and of course its just one piece of the broader campaign of bloodshed that Uncle Sam has been inflicting on the world in the name of liberty for very many years now.[11] There’s no small horror to be seen in the “homeland” (a lovely society-militarizing phrase Obama43 had picked up from Bush44) itself. In the US, far and away the world’s leading prison state, more than 16 million children live below the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty [12] level even as the 400 richest Americans possess between them more wealth than the bottom 50 percent of the population. The top 1 percent enjoys more shared net worth than the bottom 90 percent.[13]

“The 1%” includes a number of wealthy “defense” contractors and investors, who rake in tens of millions of dollars annually from a permanent US global war of (“on”) terror that wreaks havoc across the world. Millions of residents of “the world’s richest nation” go without adequate food, medical, and shelter while the US “defense” (empire) budget accounts for nearly half the world’s military spending and pays for the deployment of US Special Forces in more than 130 “sovereign” nations.[14] As Chomsky noted in the late 1960s, “The costs of empire are in general are distributed over the society as a whole, while its profits revert to a few within.” [15]

I don’t have all the facts on how and why Bowe Bergdahl disappeared from his base on June 30, 2009. If he left to follow his conscience by refusing to participate anymore in an illegal, racist, and imperial assault on a desperately poor nation, then that would make him a hero to me.

“I am sorry for everything.” The United States could hardly repair the villages, provinces, cities, schools, societies, nations and untold number of lives it has pulverized abroad over the last seven plus decades with an apology. But apologizing in a heartfelt way would be the beginning point for a step away from military empire, an essential first step toward healing vast disparities and restoring the social good and democracy at home – and abroad. Let us hope that more and more US troops find the decency and courage to walk away to the other side: humanity.

Paul Street’s next book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014),


1. New York Times, June 4, 2014, A21.

2. Alexander Cockburn,  “Massacre Fatigue in Afghanistan,” Counterpunch  (March 16-18, 2012) .Cockburn notes  “a constant diet of [U.S.] atrocities” and concludes that  “We can brace ourselves for more horror stories like the one that came to light last Sunday until NATO’s beaten armies clamber onto the planes and head for home.”

3. Noam Chomsky, Hegemony Over Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance (New York: Metropolitan, 2003), pp. 199-206. See also Rajul Mahajan, The New Crusade: America’s War on Terror (New York: Monthly Review, 2002), p. 21.

4. Marjorie Cohn, “End the Occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan,” ZNet (July 30, 2008), read at defenders of the invasion, Democrats as well as Republicans, upheld Bush’s right to attack prior to UN consultation by making the analogy of a maniac who had broken into your house and already killed some residents: “do you sit and around a negotiate with the murderers while they kill more or do you go in and take them out?” But, as Mahajan argued, “the analogy to the U.S. action would have been better if the maniac had died in the attack, and your response was to bomb a neighborhood he had been staying in, killing many people who didn’t even know of his existence – even though you had your own police force constantly on the watch for more attacks.” By the analogy, the U.S. would have also been allowed to bomb the German neighborhoods in which many of the 9/11 conspirators planned their operation.

5. Abid Aslam, “Polls Question Support for Military Campaign,” Inter Press Service, October 8, 2001; GallupInternational, Gallup International Poll on Terrorism (September 2001); Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, “’ Obama’s Foreign Policy Report Card’: Juan Cole Grades His President – and Very Positively,” MR Zine (November 9, 2009), at

6. Noam Chomsky, “The World According to Washington,” Asia Times (February 28, 2008)

6A. Al Jazeera English, “Afghans Anger at Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize,” YouTube, December 10, 2009,

7. Carlotta Gall and Taimoor Shah, “Civilian Deaths Imperil Support for Afghan War,” New York Times, May 6, 2009.

8. Gall and Shah, “Civilian Deaths.”

9.  Christina Boyle, “President Obama Calls Air Force One Flyover ‘Mistake’ After Low-Flying Plane Terrifies New York,”New York Daily News, April 28, 2009; Michel Muskai, “Presidential Plane’s Photo-Op Over New York Coast as Much as $357,000,” May 9, 2009; Peter Nicholas, “Louis Caldera Resigns Over Air Force One Flyover Fiasco,” Los Angeles Times, May 9, 2009.

10. Paul Street, “Niebuhr Lives, Civilians Die in the Age of Obama,” ZNet (June 15, 2009).

11. A useful review is William Blum, Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower (Common courage Press, 2005). See also Noam Chomsky, Year 501: The Conquest Continues (South End Press, 1993) and Ward Churchill, On the Justice of Roosting Chickens: Reflections on the Consequences

12. National Center or Child Poverty, “Child Poverty 2014,”

13. For details and sources, see Paul Street, They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014), 44-46.

14. Nick Turse, “America’s Secret War in 134 Countries,” Huffington Post (January 16, 2014),

15. Noam Chomsky, For Reasons of State (New York: Pantheon, 1972), 47.

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By | 2014-06-21T14:54:38+00:00 June 21st, 2014|Articles|