DISPATCHES FROM AMERICA Five weddings and many funerals
By Tom Engelhardt
It was a tribal affair. Against a picture-perfect sunset, before a
beige-colored cross and an altar made of the very Texas limestone that was also
used to build her family's "ranch", veil-less in an Oscar de la Renta gown, the
26-year-old bride said her vows. More than 200 members of her extended family
and friends were on hand, as well as the 14 women in her "house party", who
were dressed "in seven different styles of knee-length dresses in seven
different colors that match[ed] the palette of ... wildflowers - blues, greens,
lavenders and pinky reds".
Afterwards, in a white tent set in a grove of trees and illuminated
by strings of lights, the father of the bride, George W Bush, danced with his
daughter to the strains of You Are So Beautiful. The media were kept at
arm's length and the vows were private, but undoubtedly they included the
phrase "till death do us part".
That was early May of this year. Less than two months later, halfway across the
world, another tribal affair was underway. The age of the bride involved is
unknown to us, as is her name. No reporters were clamoring to get to her
section of the mountainous backcountry of Afghanistan near the Pakistani
border. We know almost nothing about her circumstances, except that she was on
her way to a nearby village, evidently early in the morning, among a party
70-90 strong, mostly women, "escorting the bride to meet her groom as local
It was then that the American plane (or planes) arrived, ensuring that she
would never say her vows. "They stopped in a narrow location for rest," said
one witness about her house party, according to the BBC. "The plane came and
bombed the area." The district governor, Haji Amishah Gul, told The Times of
London, "So far there are 27 people, including women and children, who have
been buried. Another 10 have been wounded. The attack happened at 6:30am. Just
two of the dead are men, the rest are women and children. The bride is among
US military spokespeople flatly denied the story. They claimed that Taliban
insurgents had been "clearly identified" among the group. "[T]his may just be
normal, typical militant propaganda," said 1st Lieutenant Nathan Perry. Despite
accounts of the wounded, including women and children, being brought to a local
hospital, Captain Christian Patterson, coalition media officer, insisted, "It
was not a wedding party, there were no women or children present. We have no
reports of civilian casualties." The members of an Afghan inquiry, appointed by
President Hamid Karzai, later found that, in all, 47 civilians had died,
including 39 women and children, and nine others were wounded.
Here's another American take on what happened: "The US military has denied
allegations that its forces ... killed dozens of people celebrating a marriage
... 'We took hostile fire and we returned fire,' said Brigadier General Mark
Kimmitt, deputy director of operations ... He said there were no indications
that the victims of the attack were part of a wedding party."
Oh, my mistake. Kimmitt was denying that a different wedding party had been
obliterated - in the western Iraqi desert, near the Syrian border, in May 2004.
In that case, the wedding feast was long over. The celebrations had ended and
the guests were evidently in bed when the US jets arrived. More than 40 people
died, including children, women, musicians and a well-known Iraqi wedding
singer hired for the event. According to Rory McCarthy of the British Guardian,
who interviewed some of the hospitalized survivors, 27 members of one extended
family died when the jets arrived.
In response to reports on that 2004 killing, Major General James Mattis,
commander of the 1st US Marine Division, asked the following question: "How
many people go to the middle of the desert ... to hold a wedding 80 miles [128
kilometers] from the nearest civilization?" And, in an e-mail responding to
questions from a New York Times reporter, Kimmitt later offered what was, by US
military standards, little short of an admission: "Could there have been a
celebration of some type going on? ... Certainly. Bad guys have celebrations.
Could this have been a meeting among the foreign fighters and smugglers? That
is a possibility. Could it have involved entertainment? Sure. However, a
wedding party in a remote section of the desert along one of the rat lines,
held in the early morning hours strains credulity."
The comments of Mattis and Kimmitt deserve, of course, to go directly into the
annals of American military quotes, right next to that Vietnam-era classic: "It
became necessary to destroy the town to save it."
But back to the subject of collateral ceremonial damage in Afghanistan.
Consider this passage from a news report headlined, "No US Apology over Wedding
Bombing," in the Guardian:
Afghans claim the wedding guests, who were
celebrating near Deh Rawud village, in the mountainous province of Oruzgan,
north of Kandahar, had been firing into the air - a Pashtun wedding tradition -
when American planes struck. But a US spokesman claimed yesterday that the
shooting was "not consistent" with a wedding, saying that the planes had come
under attack. "Normally when you think of celebratory fire ... it's random,
it's sprayed, it's not directed at a specific target," said Colonel Roger King
at the US airbase at Bagram. "In this instance, the people on board the
aircraft felt that the weapons were tracking them and were [trying] to engage
That was indeed Afghanistan - not in July 2006, however,
but four Julys earlier, when at least 30 people in a wedding party were wiped
out, most of them, again, reportedly women and children. Here's how Abdullah
Abdullah, the Afghan foreign minister at the time, described that American air
attack. It killed, he said, "a whole family of 25 people. No single person was
left alive. This is the extent of the damage."
Oh, and let's not forget the ur-incident in wedding party destruction in Bush's
wars. In late December 2001, a B-52 and two B-1B bombers, using
precision-guided weapons, essentially wiped out a village in eastern
Afghanistan (and then, in a second strike, took out Afghans digging in the
rubble). At the time, it was claimed that Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders had been
killed "in their sleep". It was also claimed that surface-to-air missiles had
been fired at the American planes. A spokesman for the US Central Command
issued a congratulatory statement after the attack occurred with this passage:
"Follow-on reporting indicates that there was no collateral damage."
Except, of course, as Guardian correspondent Rory Carroll, then in Afghanistan,
put it, "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."
According to Time Magazine's Tim McGirk, out of 112 Afghans in the wedding
party, only two women survived. In this case, it seems that the Americans were
fed disinformation by an Afghan official out to settle scores and acted on it.
That makes four wedding parties blown away by US air power in Iraq and
Afghanistan since the end of 2001. And there was probably at least one more. In
May 2002, it was claimed that US helicopters wiped out a wedding party in the
eastern Afghan province of Khost, killing 10 and wounding many more. An Agence
France Presse report at the time concluded, "A wedding was in progress in the
village when people fired into the air in traditional celebration and US
helicopters flying over the area could have mistaken it for hostile fire. An
aircraft later bombed the area for several hours." On this event, however, the
documentation is far poorer.
All these "incidents" have some obvious features in common: the almost
immediate claims by the US military, for instance, that those who have been hit
were adversaries, not wedding parties; the ultimate dismissal of the killings
as the usual "collateral damage" in wartime; and, above all, the striking fact
that, for none of these slaughters of celebrating locals, did the US ever offer
a genuine apology.
The mainstream media tend to pick up such stories as he said/she said affairs.
Of course, "she" never actually "says" anything, being dead. But you get the
idea. As with the most recent Afghan wedding-party slaughter, such pieces -
generally wire service stories - are to be found deep inside American
newspapers where only the news jockeys are reading. In fact, your basic wedding
party wipe-out report is almost certain to share at least some space in the
story with a mini-round-up of other kinds of recent death and mayhem in the
region in question. The language in which such stories are written is generally
humdrum and, in the military mode, death is sanitized (except in rare instances
like Carroll's fine reports for the Guardian).
We Americans have only had one experience of death delivered from the air since
World War II - the attacks of September 11, 2001. As no one is likely to
forget, they shocked us to our core. And you know how those deaths were
covered, right down to the special pages filled with bios of civilians who just
happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the repeated
invocations of the barbarism of al-Qaeda's killers (and barbarism it truly
These wedding parties, however, get no such treatment. Initially, they are
automatically assumed to be malevolent - until the reports begin to filter in
from the hospitals, the ruined villages and the graveyards, and, by then, it's
usually too late for much press attention. When that does happen, their deaths
are chalked up to an "errant bomb", or that celebratory gunfire, or no
explanation is even offered.
Nothing barbaric lurks here, even though we can be sure that these civilians
were hardly less surprised by the arrival of the attacking planes than were the
victims of September 11. For their deaths, no word portraits are ever painted.
No one in our world thinks to memorialize them, nor is there any cumulative
record of their deaths. Whole extended families have been wiped out, while the
dead and wounded run into the hundreds, and yet who remembers?
Here's the truth of it: In Bush's wars, the wedding singer dies, the bride does
not get a chance to run away, and the event might be relabeled my big, fat,
collateral damage wedding.
In the process, we have become a nation of wedding crashers, the uninvited
guests who arrived under false pretenses, tore up the place, offered nary an
apology, and refused to go home. It's a remarkable record, really, and catches
the nature of the Bush administration's air war not on, but of and for terror
in a particularly raw way. And yet, in this country, when the latest wedding
party went down, no reporter seems even to have recalled our past history of
wedding-party obliteration. So it goes.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the
Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com.
The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso,
2008), a collection of some of the best pieces from his site, has just been
published. Focusing on what the mainstream media hasn't covered, it is an
alternative history of the mad Bush years.