Starting from Idlib, Syria: A Trail of Tears and Bombs

Idlib attack

One of the many qualifications for the role of president of the United States is to never miss an opportunity to praise the greatness and courage of our men and women in uniform.  A second and far weightier requirement is to always, or nearly always, finish a public address with these sacred words: “May God bless our troops.” They are, after all, in the words of President Biden, “the solid-steel backbone of this nation, ready to fly into danger at a moment’s notice to keep our country and the American people safe. …”

Another Small Price to Pay

On February 3, U.S. Special Forces proved once again that, when it comes to fighting terrorism, no one does it better than our troops. An overnight raid on a house in a Syrian village succeeded in eliminating the latest leader of Islamic State (IS)—Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi. It also resulted in the deaths of 13 civilians, including 4 women and 6 children. If we are to accept at face value the words of President Biden, their deaths shouldn’t in any way tarnish the significance of what our troops accomplished—thanks to their skill and bravery, and the extraordinary care with which they executed their plan. Indeed, every effort was made to avoid harming civilians—or so we’ve been assured by Biden and White House officials.

In his television address following the raid, Biden attributed the civilian casualties to Qurayshi. To avoid capture and eventual punishment for his crimes, Qurayshi (allegedly) detonated enough explosives to kill himself and everyone sheltering on the third floor, including members of his own family. With his death, we can breathe a deep sigh of relief, knowing our loved ones will be safe and our military, blessed by God, is on the job, night and day, eliminating anyone and anything that threatens the homeland. Biden had nothing but praise for the soldiers who carried out the mission, for the families that love and support them, and for the members of various government agencies who made sure things went according to plan.

The president didn’t have too much to say about the innocents who were crushed under slabs of concrete or blown to pieces. In keeping with Washington’s traditional spin on our overseas counterterrorist adventures, the most salient points for Americans to bear in mind are that there were no U.S. casualties; the raid was successful; and our troops are blameless. We are expected to believe the deaths of those women and children were not in any way connected to the immense firepower on display. Witnesses claim they saw helicopters and F-16 warplanes dropping bombs prior to the landing of ground forces. Charles Lister, director of the Syria program at the Middle East Institute in Washington, watched the operation in real time: “At least one of the helicopters in the area fired its heavy machine guns at the building for over a minute straight.” Lister also said that “Some of the corpses in the area do not look like they died in an explosion. They look like they were hit by extremely heavy calibre gunfire.”

Already the story of the raid has been washed away along with the President’s celebratory remarks, and the blood of the women and children who died. Of course, it’s entirely plausible their deaths were the intended consequences of Quryashi’s final act of cowardice and cruelty—and not “collateral damage” caused by U.S. machine guns and bombs. Phyllis Bennis, prolific writer and director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, questions that premise. In her response to the killings, Bennis said:

The so-called ‘global war on terror’ has, from its origins, been characterized by attacks by U.S. Special Forces, by airstrikes, by armed drones, and more, that routinely kill far more civilians than the targets identified on the ‘kill lists’ prepared by presidents and top White House officials.

Anyone listening to or watching President Biden’s speech on the morning of February 3 would have been hard-pressed to reconcile his words with the perspective offered by Phyllis Bennis. In Biden’s speech, America is the benefactor of humanity, snuffing out terrorists and keeping their loathsome networks at bay. The military, working in tandem with our intelligence agencies and our allies (and of course our devotion to the cause of peace and the eradication of terrorism) keep the American people safe while providing a blanket of security over the global community. Translation: The deaths of four women and six children are a small price to pay for taking out yet another contemptible human being responsible for acts of unspeakable savagery and bloodshed. The operation was an unqualified success. Only four women and six children were killed. God bless our troops.

The U.S.: Global Peacemaker or Global Threat?

To my mind, Bennis’s characterization of the U.S. “global war on terror” as a murderous rampage taking the lives of countless, uncounted, and ultimately unimportant civilians is much closer to the truth. The “war on terror,” which actually began under President Reagan but was re-ignited under George W. Bush after 9/11, has hardly advanced the cause of peace. Internationally respected linguist, historian, social critic, and activist Noam Chomsky, during an interview in September 2021, turned the conventional view of America’s position in world affairs on its head:

Even under Clinton, leading political scientists recognized that most of the world regarded America as the world’s ‘prime rogue state’ and ‘the single greatest external threat to their societies’ … In the Obama years, international polls found that the U.S. was considered the greatest threat to world peace, with no contender even close.

Since 9/11, the U.S. in its ostensible quest for an end to the terrorist threat has invaded two countries—Iraq and Afghanistan—on the basis of fabrications, suppositions, and outright lies; participated in the destruction of Libya, which had been one of Africa’s most highly developed countries; provided Syrian secular and Islamist militias with arms and training through covert programs run by the CIA (Timber Sycamore) and the Pentagon (Train and Equip Program); attacked targets in Pakistan and Yemen; consistently turned the other cheek in response to Israeli aggression against Palestinian communities while continuing to provide Israel with approximately $3 billion in military aid each year; and unconditionally supports Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners in their devastating war with Yemen’s Houthi rebels.

Yemen: “A Humanitarian and Strategic Catastrophe”

Despite Congressional and grassroots efforts to stop the flow of arms to Saudi Arabia and end U.S. support for this oil-rich monarchy, the war continues; the Saudi blockade of Hodeida (Yemen’s main port on the Red Sea) remains in place; and the people suffer extreme levels of poverty and food insecurity as a consequence of the war. According to Ebtihal Ghanem, economic recovery manager for the International Rescue Committee (IRC), “more than half of Yemen’s population is unable to access food for survival, and the rate of poverty and hunger is increasing every day.”

In its review of the war and its effect on the Yemeni people, the IRC highlights some of the reasons why this conflict-driven crisis will only deepen if the war isn’t ended and Yemen’s economy continues to implode:

  • 7 million people in need of humanitarian aid.
  • 6 million [ or about 50% of the population] people living in extreme poverty.
  • 1 million people facing [critical] or worse levels of food insecurity in 2022.
  • [only] 1.2% of population fully vaccinated against COVID-19.


During his first foreign policy speech, given on February 4, 2021, President Biden commented on the war in Yemen and called for a diplomatic solution:

We’re also stepping up our diplomacy to end the war in Yemen — a war which has created a humanitarian and strategic catastrophe.  I’ve asked my Middle East team to ensure our support for the United Nations-led initiative to impose a ceasefire, open humanitarian channels, and restore long-dormant peace talks.

Despite Biden’s recognition of the extreme suffering endured by the ordinary people of Yemen, there has been no diplomatic resolution of the war, and it is unlikely to come about as long as Saudi Arabia is regarded as a key trading partner and strategic ally in U.S. efforts to push back Iranian influence in the region. Instead, the U.S. remains complicit in the catastrophe that has befallen Yemen by not demanding an end to the Saudi blockade and by continuing to provide the Kingdom with military aid with which to prolong the fighting, the killing, the dying. In February of 2021, Biden announced that the U.S. would no longer support Saudi Arabia and its allies with offensive weapons. However, the meaning of “offensive” was (purposely?) left vague. In addition, some members of Congress argued that so-called defensive weapons could be used for offensive purposes against the coalition’s adversaries in Yemen. While Biden’s decision was welcomed as a positive step toward peace, the U.S. has continued to provide support in the form of “maintenance and intelligence sharing for warplanes conducting airstrikes and enforcing an air and sea blockade of Yemen.”

In November, the Biden administration notified Congress of its intention to sell Saudi Arabia 280 advanced medium range air-to-air missiles (made by Raytheon) and 596 launchers for a total of $650 million. In response to limited Congressional opposition to the weapons sale, Biden said the missiles are in no way incongruent with his earlier decision to end military support for Saudi offensive operations. (Translation: Up is down; war is peace; rainbows are multicolored clowns.) In a December policy statement, the administration maintained that “the missiles could not be used against ground targets and that ‘Saudi Arabia uses these munitions to defend against aerial cross-border attacks, such as Houthi explosive-laden drones.’”

One month earlier, Representative Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) voiced her rejection of the proposed weapons sale: “It is simply unconscionable to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia while they continue to slaughter innocent people and starve millions in Yemen, kill and torture dissidents, and support modern-day slavery.” Writing in Foreign Policy,  Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now, contends the missiles that are part of the weapons package will be used to enforce the Saudi blockade of Yemen’s sea and air borders:

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman appears to be pursuing a policy of collective punishment to starve Yemeni civilians into submission. The consequences, which UNICEF has called the largest humanitarian crisis in the world, have been devastating. New U.S. missiles will only enable Riyadh to maintain this blockade, threatening any aircraft that seeks to land in the country.

War on Terrorism or War of Terrorism?

 One would be more than justified in concluding that the U.S. record of backing violent, autocratic regimes (as long as we have mutually supportive geopolitical goals); invading sovereign states like Iraq and Afghanistan; and imposing deadly, economy-crushing, poverty-inducing sanctions on countries targeted for regime change should disqualify America from claiming the title of global peacemaker. But it gets worse. Between 2018 and 2020, the U.S. conducted counterterrorism operations in 85 countries. According to the Costs of War project undertaken by a research team at Brown University’s Watson Institute in Providence, Rhode Island:

These operations include air and drone strikes, on-the-ground combat, so-called “Section 127e” programs in which U.S. special operations forces plan and control partner force missions, military exercises in preparation for or as part of counterterrorism missions, and operations to train and assist foreign forces.

According to the World Atlas, the world has a total of 195 countries. The U.S. has boots on the ground and/or planes in the air in nearly half of them. Since the terrorist attack of 9/11, George W. Bush’s iteration of the “war on terror” has metastasized into a network of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism missions along with outright invasions, extralegal interventions, destructive regime-change policies, and the imposition of sanctions on more than 20 countries (In some cases, economic sanctions have caused unconscionable harm to civilian populations by depriving their governments of the resources they need to maintain and repair infrastructure, and obtain essential medicines and food supplies for the people.) The scope of this ongoing, worldwide, two-decade-long endeavor to mete out “justice” for the sins of 9/11 is almost impossible to imagine much less calibrate—except perhaps in terms of the cost.

Since 2001, the U.S. has waged war in eight countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Somalia, and the Philippines. Researchers with the Cost of War Project report that the U.S.-led “war on terror” has driven at least 38 million people from their homes in search of safety. More likely the total number of displaced persons is closer to 49-60 million. The refugee crisis resulting from the “war on terror” approximates the number of people displaced during the Second World War (1939-1945). And to this total we must now add over 3 million Ukrainian refugees and nearly 7 million internally displaced Ukrainians fleeing the violence and destruction from Russia’s criminal invasion of their country—a war of aggression that might have been avoided had the U.S. not chosen to dismiss Russia’s security concerns while insisting that Ukraine has the right to choose for itself whether to join NATO. (This position has been formally expressed by  U.S. Ambassador in Moscow, John Sullivan, and U.S. Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, despite Russia’s long-standing and justifiable objection to any further expansion of NATO, the European and North American military alliance.)

Two decades of the “war on terror” (cleverly rebranded as “overseas contingency operations” by the Obama administration) have been a major driver of the on-going, no-end-in-sight refugee crisis. The war has been one long killing spree. In 2012, three world-class human rights organizations studied available data on the number of victims in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan—the principal battlefields. Physicians for Social Responsibility, Physicians for Global Survival, and International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War concluded that 12 years of Washington’s war on terror had “killed about 1.3 million people, a toll that ‘could also be in excess of 2 million.’” The Watson Institute undertook a study of civilian casualties from 2001to 2021. Their work, focusing on deaths in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, concluded that the probable number of civilians who died directly from the violence of U.S.-led wars in these major war zones ranged from 897,000 to 929,000. However, the estimated death toll does not include civilians who died from the effects of attacks on essential civilian infrastructure, resulting in food and medicine shortages, water-borne diseases from the destruction of water treatment plants and sewage systems, and other effects of the war.

The Obama Vector: A More “Humane War”

In 2002, when Obama was still a senator, he addressed an anti-war rally in Chicago only months before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. At the beginning of his speech, he made sure the crowd understood that he was “not opposed to war in all circumstances.” What he did oppose was “a dumb war … a rash war”— like the impending war in Iraq would prove to be, at least for Obama. Some critics on the Left faulted Obama for not going further in his opposition to that war. By calling it “dumb,” he missed an opportunity to be the authentic peace candidate many of his supporters believed him to be. Noam Chomsky, for one, regrets that Obama failed to base his opposition on something other than pragmatic grounds. The invasion of Iraq, for Chomsky and other progressives, was both immoral and illegal—not merely “dumb.” Obama’s presidential “campaign rhetoric, hope and change, was entirely vacuous,” according to Chomsky. “There was no principled criticism of the Iraq war: he called it a strategic blunder.”

As president, Obama inherited the wars begun by his predecessor. Would he, like George W. Bush during his first term, rely on ground troops and massive fire power to do the job of building a more just and peaceful world—one crumbling nation after another? Or would he adopt a less bellicose, more measured approach in keeping with his background as a legal scholar and lecturer on constitutional law? Either way, the global war of terror would not only continue under Obama; it would expand until, by the end of his second term in office, 70% of all the countries in the world would bear the footprints of U.S. Special Forces conducting counter-terrorism operations and the burned-in shadows of killer drones. For every year of his presidency, the U.S. military was fighting somewhere in the world. Although he succeeded in reducing the number of troops stationed in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, and ended combat missions in both places, he also authorized airstrikes and elite commando raids in at least seven countries during his time in office: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan. And yet, Obama understood that the country could not remain at war forever. In 2013, he said, “Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. It’s what our democracy demands.”

Obama not only expanded the war; he succeeded in rendering it a non-event, something that the American people didn’t have to think too much about or pay much attention to. The war was still going on, of course, but far fewer young men and women, killed in one war zone or another, were coming home in flag-draped coffins. People were still dying in this war, but as long as they weren’t “our people,” their deaths were not front-page news. An important goal of his administration was to present the U.S. as a standard bearer of humane war. We would no longer (indiscriminately?) bomb targeted countries or send in heavily armed combat troops to put down insurgencies and round up suspected terrorists. No, the new way of waging global war — unlimited in time and space, and blessed with the imprimatur of the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed by Congress on September 18, 2001—was to rely primarily on unmanned, weaponized aircraft, i.e., drones, and highly trained Special Forces units, also known as Special Operations Forces, like the Army’s Delta Force and Navy SEALs. Where was the humanity in this new chapter of the “war on terror”? one might ask. For starters, we were assured that our drones would visit hell and damnation only on legitimate targets, that is, targets for which the presence of terrorists and/or terrorist activities was all but unequivocal. Strikes would be surgical and precise with little or no “collateral damage.” Only the bad guys would be taken out, while goat herders, shepherds, farmers, families, wedding guests, children could go about their daily activities unharmed, and the world would thank us for the care and judicial oversight with which we prosecuted the war. Even our bitterest enemies would have to recognize our humanity and our adherence to the codified, internationally recognized (but largely flouted) rules of war.

Comparing the number of airstrikes under Bush II with the number under Obama shows how much the “hope and change” president relied on drones to prosecute the war on terror. Drone warfare, along with covert operations by Special Forces, kept civilian casualty counts low and helped repackage post-9/11 wars as low-intensity, humane alternatives to full-on battlefield engagements. There were 57 drone strikes during Bush’s eight years in office; under Obama, the number rose to 563 between 2009 and the end of 2015. Most of these strikes were carried out in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen.

It Wasn’t Us (or Was It?)

This is not to say that other types of weapons were no longer used in the “war on terror.” In addition to killer drones, warplanes, and Special Ops, the U.S. military continued to launch cruise missiles at suspected terrorist strongholds or encampments. On December 17, 2009 the Obama administration authorized the launching of cruise missiles against two suspected militant sites in Yemen. Authorization for the attacks came directly from the Oval Office despite the administration’s initial reluctance to publicly acknowledge responsibility. CIA director David Petraeus said that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula “has emerged as the most dangerous node in the global Jihad.” John Brennan, who served as Obama’s chief counterterrorism advisor, claimed that this organization was planning attacks not only in Yemen but in the U.S. A member of the Senate Armed Services Committee said, “We view [al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] as the primary threat to the homeland.”

In one of the attacks, one or more missiles were launched from a submarine or American warship in the Arabian Sea. Their target was Saleh Mohammed al-Anbouri, a militant alleged to have been recruiting and training fighters from different countries for membership in al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a local chapter of the much larger al-Qaeda network. Al-Anbouri was living in al-Ma’jalah, a mountain village in southern Yemen, with his wife and four sons. The family was part of the al-Anbouri clan or tribe. He and other men in the village were digging a well when a BGM-109D Tomahawk cruise missile equipped with cluster bombs struck the village. Amnesty International later conducted a forensic investigation in which they found evidence implicating the U.S. role in the attack: missile parts made in the U.S. and fragments of cluster bombs. According to the report published by Amnesty International, “each [cluster bomblet explodes] into over 200 sharp steel fragments that can cause injuries up to 150m away. Incendiary material inside the bomblet also spreads fragments of burning zirconium designed to set fire to nearby flammable objects.” This particular type of missile can carry 166 cluster bombs; at the time of the attack, only the U.S. had BGM-109D missiles in its arsenal.

The attack killed al-Anbouri and 13 other alleged members of al-Qaeda. Reports coming out of Yemen attributed both attacks on December 17 to the country’s Air Force. President Obama called Ali Abdallah Salih, the president of Yemen, to congratulate him on his success in keeping the pressure on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, without acknowledging—at that time—the role played by the U.S. in the two cruise missile attacks, a clear escalation of the war in Yemen.

The congratulatory call from the White House and standard media coverage of the attacks focused on the deaths of alleged terrorists and the success of Obama’s “targeted killing” counterterrorism strategy. Scant attention was given to the others who died when their village was attacked with cruise missiles. According to Amnesty International, 41 residents of the village of al-Ma’jalah were killed in the early morning of December 17. The dead included 14 women and at least 21 children. The youngest child was only one year old. Five of the women were pregnant when the missiles found their mark. None of these victims had any connection with al-Qaeda.

Jeremy Scahill, an American investigative journalist, met with some of the survivors. A woman recalled the moment the missiles struck:

At 6am they were sleeping and I was making bread. When the missiles exploded I lost consciousness. I didn’t know what had happened to my children, my daughter, my husband. Only I survived with this old man and my daughter.

Scahill also spoke with a tribal leader who visited the site and described what he saw:

If somebody has a weak heart, I think they will collapse. You see goats and sheep all over. You see heads of those who were killed here and there. You see children. And you cannot tell if this meat belongs to animals or to human beings. Very sad, very sad.

Yemen and Afghanistan: What the “War on Terror” Has Wrought

The massacre occurred 13 years ago. But fighting in Yemen continues. Although direct U.S. involvement in the campaign against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is significantly less than it was in previous years (AQAP was formed in 2009), the civil war, now in its seventh year, is only becoming more violent. In 2015, a coalition of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia intervened in the civil war. Their primary goal has been to defeat a Shia rebel group in Yemen called the Houthis and to restore the government of President Abed-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, driven from power by the Houthis and now living in exile in Saudi Arabia. ((The Houthis belong to a branch of Shia Islam known as Shia Zaidi. They believe that only a direct descendant of Prophet Muhammed is entitled to lead Muslims.) The Saudis fear that Houthi control of Yemen will turn the country into a vassal of its most powerful foe—Iran. Many observers, however, believe Iranian influence is minimal at best. Though both sides in the war are guilty of war crimes and have contributed to the humanitarian catastrophe that has befallen the people of Yemen, human rights organizations attribute most of the suffering to the Saudi-imposed blockade and the ongoing air strikes, backed by the U.S., it bears repeating.  A recent report issued by UNICEF documents the effects of the war on Yemeni children:

Yemen remains one of the largest humanitarian crises in the world, with around 23.7 million people in need of assistance, including almost 13 million children. … More than 10,200 children have been killed or maimed since the beginning of the conflict, and thousands more have been recruited into the fighting. An estimated 2 million children are internally displaced. … Meanwhile, Yemen’s already dire hunger crisis is teetering on the edge of outright catastrophe. By March 2022, around 17.4 million people were in need of food assistance, with a growing portion of the population coping with emergency levels of hunger.

A comparable if not worse situation prevails in Afghanistan. To compound the tragedy that 20 years of war by a U.S.-led military alliance has wrought in one of the poorest countries in Asia, the Biden administration refuses to lift the sanctions that are contributing to the free fall of the Afghan economy, driving up the prices of essential goods and services, and making the lives of ordinary Afghans increasingly unbearable. Those who support the sanctions argue they are a necessary response to the Taliban regime and its human rights abuses, particularly the regime’s treatment of women. Apparently, in the minds of State Department functionaries, the policy of imposing severe economic sanctions will not only silence those Republicans who opposed U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and who view the withdrawal as capitulation to a hated regime; the sanctions policy will also show critics that the Biden administration knows how to play hard ball with the Taliban by denying them any kind of resources. It may even be that a few more idealistic Washington bureaucrats imagine that sanctions, despite the misery they produce, will eventually cause the Taliban to sing a different tune (just like they made Iraq’s Ba’athist regime become a model of compassionate governance). Eventually, as the Afghan economy continues to flatten like a wrecked car under the relentless press of a car crusher, the Taliban will no longer violate human rights, and women will finally enjoy the freedom to which they are entitled.

Before this paradise comes to pass, however, the people, and only the people, particularly the poor, the infirm, the elderly, the very young, will pay the price of their leaders’ misogyny, intolerance, and perverted understanding of the religion they claim to practice. Of all the sanctions currently in place, the most onerous, the deadliest is the seizure of the country’s financial assets—approximately 7 billion dollars now sitting in the U.S. Federal Reserve. That amount represents about 40% of Afghanistan’s economy. Biden has proposed giving half the amount to the families of the victims of 9/11 and the rest funneled through international aid organizations. Does that sound like a pretty good deal? It might be if that money didn’t belong to the country’s Central Bank and if it was rightfully ours to do with as we pleased. The sanctions imposed on Afghanistan “are on track to take the lives of more civilians in the coming year than have been killed by 20 years of warfare.”

David Miliband, head of the International Rescue Committee, addressed the imminent threat of mass starvation in Afghanistan during his testimony before the U.S. Senate in February:

Today, Afghanistan is a starving country, not just a poor country. The proximate cause of this starvation crisis is the international economic policy which has been adopted since August, and which has cut off financial flows not just to the public sector, but in the private sector in Afghanistan as well.

Miliband also confirmed reports that Afghans are selling organs in order to purchase food for their families since the value of the currency has depreciated by about one quarter. According to the UN World Food Program,

An estimated one million children are suffering from “severe acute malnutrition” this year. Children who are malnourished are more likely to die from other diseases, even when they can get enough calories and nutrients to survive. Already, 98 percent of the population is not getting enough food.

And according to a health ministry official referenced in a Human Rights Watch report from March 17, 2022,

approximately 1 in 10 newborn Afghan babies born since January 2022 have died – over 13,000 total – an increase believed to be exacerbated by worsening malnutrition, hunger-related diseases, and the collapse of the country’s healthcare sector. 95 percent of the population does not have enough to eat and 3.5 million children need nutritional support.

Is the U.S. wholly to blame for this situation? No. The actions of the Taliban have certainly exacerbated an already severe societal and economic crisis made even worse by drought, COVID-19, and conflict among Afghanistan’s various factions.

The War in Ukraine: One Tragedy in a World of Unspeakable Suffering and Grief

From the way major news outlets here and elsewhere in the world are covering the onslaught of Russian forces in Ukraine, one might reasonably conclude that the war in Eastern Europe is by far the most alarming, most tragic, and most brutal conflict since World War II. (It may in fact be one of the most dangerous since one misstep or miscalculation by either side could trigger World War III and the possible resort to nuclear weapons, which would surely spell the end of human civilization if not the end of all life on Earth.) But given the absolute necessity of neutralizing the dangers posed by Russia’s aggression and the massive suffering and bloodshed that has resulted, what do we say to the people of other lands where years of conflict and U.S. interference have created comparable suffering? In Yemen, Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Libya, and Somalia, to name some of the most devastated places, the U.S. has accomplished very little to offer up as evidence of our ultimately benevolent, law-abiding intentions. Our counterinsurgency tactics and use of advanced weaponry, and our policy of imposing punitive economic sanctions have driven up the refugee count, caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, and provided a fail-safe recruitment tool for militant groups preying on those who may have survived an attack by armed drones or missiles but who saw their loved ones blown to pieces and can find only a ragged solace in the prospect of revenge.

Whose heart is not moved by the plight of Ukrainian families seeing their homes and cities reduced to piles of smoldering rubble, their lives uprooted, their children traumatized, their present, once a fairly predictable reality, now collapsing beneath them. Biden, we are informed, can’t help but internalize human suffering. That may explain his unexpected, off-script remark that Putin cannot remain in power. Only someone whose heart is rent at what the Russians are doing in Ukraine could blurt out what many are interpreting as a call for “regime change” to end the carnage. Maybe. Maybe not. In any case, Biden is not alone. Globally, numerous and diverse expressions of genuine solidarity with the Ukrainian people bespeak profound anguish and a sincere desire to stop the war.

In my faith community (Quaker), members are seeking guidance for how to talk about the war with their children. This is a laudable and necessary task, and an expression of our love and concern for the emotional health of the children. The community as a whole is exploring ways to respond to the conflict—ways that are in line with Quaker values and practices. At a recent gathering on Zoom, a member was grateful that the “world is united” in its opposition to the Russian invasion and its compassion for the people of Ukraine.

But then I ask, where are the cries of anguish and despair for families in Afghanistan where the U.S. refusal to release the country’s billions of dollars in assets threatens to bring even greater suffering to the people? Why aren’t more people outraged by the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, which our government could do much to alleviate merely by ending its support for Saudi Arabia? Curse the Russians for their brutal invasion of Ukraine but at the same time remember the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the hundreds of thousands of innocent lives that were lost, and the mayhem that convulsed the country when civil war erupted and an unimaginably cruel jihadist group was born in the chaos—Islamic State, or Da’esh as it is known locally.

The “trail of tears” referred to in the title of this essay may have begun in Idlib, but by my reckoning, its origin is here, the “indispensable nation.” When we think of the people of Ukraine and feel both outraged by the violence and overwhelmed with grief, is it too much to ask that we allow ourselves to remember other people in other lands where the machinations of our own government have left a long trail of tears, bomb craters, displaced populations, sick and dying children, and a million or more dead. We may have scant leverage over the Russian aggressor, but there is much we can do right here, in our own country, to help restore some measure of humanity to America’s role in the world.

George Capaccio is a writer and activist now living in Durham, North Carolina after moving from the Boston area. He appreciates comments and can be reached by email: [email protected]

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