The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is in the news yet again, this time in the form of video footage showing the execution of a captured Jordanian pilot, Muath al-Kasabeh. The latter was doused in gasoline while held in a cage, set alight and burned alive. This barbaric punishment generated understandable and justifiable revulsion among audiences around the world. This act of savagery only underscores the brutality of the perpetrators.
The denunciations of ISIS by the politicians and media commentators in the West however, have a hollow ring to them. The constant and repetitive orgy of condemnations, rather than stemming from concern for the victim, only serve as a means of almost-tribal self-affirmation. As Glenn Greenwald puts it in his latest article, the ritualistic outpouring of criticism of ISIS obscures the crimes that the imperialist powers have committed over the decades in their predatory wars. Surely we, the West, are not as bad as them? If ISIS is savage and repellent, it is only using tactics that have been mechanised and refined by the Western states in their wars against the non-white peoples of the world.
The grotesque nature of this crime – incinerating people – is not in dispute. Greenwald is asking why there is no comparable outrage when the United States and Britain (and for that matter, the state of Israel), have committed similarly egregious atrocities, crimes that have been hidden from public view. The United States, in contrast to ISIS, deliberately suppresses, excuses and provides flimsy rationales for the savagery it commits with its superior military technology. As Greenwald points out, the US military had implemented and perfected its preferred method of incinerating people alive in its war in Vietnam – by using napalm. As the Boston Globe wrote in 2013:
SINCE ITS INTRODUCTION in World War II, where it was used to firebomb Japanese cities, napalm—highly incendiary and nearly impossible to extinguish—has made its way into American consciousness as a symbol of war gone horribly wrong. Perhaps the most striking photograph to emerge from the Vietnam War was of a little girl, Kim Phuc, burnt by napalm, running and screaming.
Actually, rather than symbolise war gone wrong, napalm has the intended effect of not only burning its victims, but also intimidating civilian populations into submission.
White phosphorus, an inflammatory chemical that can burn extensively and ignite clothing, fuel and other materials, was used by the Israeli military in its assault on the Palestinians of Gaza in 2008-09. Densely populated areas were deliberately targeted by the Israeli forces during their military campaign. White phosphorus, on contact with people, produces intense burns, emitting heat and absorbing liquid. Human Rights Watch compiled an extensive report on the war crimes of the Israeli forces, including their use of incendiary chemical weapons.
Greenwald cites the report by a human rights group Living Under Drones. This organisation questions the usual narrative about US drone strikes being clean, clinical and precisely targeted strikes that avoid civilian casualties. Living Under Drones documents the stories of those who live in constant fear of a drone attack, along with those survivors that have been traumatised by the grief and loss of such strikes. Not only do drone strikes kill and incinerate everyone in the direct impact zone, they also leave the survivors with disfiguring burns, shrapnel wounds, amputations, and severe deleterious impacts on mental health.
However, Greenwald omits to mention the experts on burning people alive; the United States air force. In March 1945, the US air force, under the direction of air force General Curtis LeMay, dropped 2000 tonnes of incendiary bombs on the city of Tokyo over a 48-hour period. It was the worst firestorm in recorded history. Knowing that most of Tokyo city’s buildings were made of wood, the US air force command set to work on incinerating the city and its people. As a French reporter described the bombing at the time, “They set to work at once sowing the sky with fire.”
Common Dreams, the online magazine, wrote in 2005 about the Tokyo firebombing that:
The M-69s [the incendiary cylinder bombs dropped on Tokyo], which released 100-foot streams of fire upon detonating, sent flames rampaging through densely packed wooden homes. Superheated air created a wind that sucked victims into the flames and fed the twisting infernos. Asphalt boiled in the 1,800-degree heat. With much of the fighting-age male population at the war front, women, children and the elderly struggled in vain to battle the flames or flee.
As Common Dreams notes, the bombing of Tokyo left a lasting legacy of terror and pain for the victims. This aerial bombardment still remains a component of unfinished business for US-Japan relations, more so in some ways than the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While the Tokyo bombing sent shock waves throughout Japan, the morale of the Japanese military remained undented;
But if the American objective was to shorten the war by demoralizing the Japanese population and breaking its will to resist, it didn’t work. What had proven true in Germany proved equally true here: Morale was shaken by bombing, but once the shock passed, the war work went on.
The infliction of pain and suffering on a person, or group, by means of incineration and burning is a sadistic crime, of that there is no doubt. ISIS used the primitive method of pouring gasoline; the mechanised war machines of the imperialist states use more sophisticated, but no less lethal, methods in applying their brand of warfare on a larger scale.
The hypocritical denunciations of ISIS barbarity serve to incite a tribalistic mentality, further instigating public opinion for another war in the Middle East. We must ask serious questions about the motives of the US imperial state in its drive to secure energy-rich and strategic resources in the Arab and Islamic countries. While we recognise that ISIS is barbaric, it is the barbaric drive to war emanating from our own political and economic elites that must be subjected to searing and critical examination before even more lives are sacrificed for corporate profits. Hyperbole about the unique evil of ISIS only serves to obfuscate the brutality of our imperialist system.