Project Bugsplat

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By Robert C. Koehler

“The Lakotah had no language for insulting other orders of existence: pest, waste, weed . . .”

But what about “bugsplat”?

That’s the word for the cop at UC Davis, walking up and down the line of students sitting with their arms locked, zapping them in the eyes with pepper spray. It’s the word for the Tunisian police and bureaucrats who humiliated Mohamed Bouazizi and destroyed his livelihood as a street vendor. It’s the word for anyone whose power exceeds his humanity.

And, according to a 2003 Washington Post story, it’s the name of a Defense Department computer program for calculating collateral damage; it’s also, apparently, casual terminology among Pentagon operation planners and the like to refer to the collateral damage itself . . . you know, the dead civilians. CIA drone operators talk about bugsplat. The British organization Reprieve calls its effort to track the number of people killed by U.S. drone strikes — in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen — Project Bugsplat.

It’s a term I’ve only recently come across, but I can’t get it out of my head. The only way I know how to begin thinking about it is to quote that passage from Rupert Ross’ extraordinary book about Native American wisdom, Returning to the Teachings, and contemplate the idea of a people who have “no language for insulting other orders of existence.” Such a thought, it seems to me, is worth sitting with for a while, especially as we read or listen to the news and behold the daily unfolding of our casual disrespect for every order of existence, including our own.

Ross goes on to talk about “the core teaching that all aspects of Creation were essential, none were superior and each must be respected if all are to survive.”

What if this is actually true? What if this is the depth at which we need to transform ourselves, not merely personally but at every level of our interaction with the world, including geopolitically?

“But even when they’re not targeting civilians, which is probably most of the time, they end up killing massive numbers of civilians,” journalist Allan Nairn told Amy Goodman in a “Democracy Now!” interview last year.

“The Pentagon has a word for that, too,” he went on. “They call it ‘bugsplat.’ In the opening days of the invasion of Iraq, they ran computer programs, and they called the program the Bugsplat program, estimating how many civilians they would kill with a given bombing raid. On the opening day, the printouts presented to General Tommy Franks indicated that twenty-two of the projected bombing attacks on Iraq would produce what they defined as heavy bugsplat — that is, more than thirty civilian deaths per raid. Franks said, ‘Go ahead. We’re doing all twenty-two.’”

And this is the foundation of our national security.

I go back to the now-infamous video of the policeman at UC Davis, acting not so much in personal disdain toward the students he was pepper-spraying as in a context of institutional disdain for them. The police defined their role as restoring order, but what they were doing was re-establishing turf. To that end, they were simply doing their jobs: removing impediments.

The extended video of the incident, showing the chaotic aftermath of the spraying, with the crowd screaming “Shame on you!” as the injured students clutch their faces and roll on the ground in pain, as some are cuffed while they lie face-down in the grass, is almost as harrowing to watch as battle footage. At one point someone shouts in outrage, “These are children!”

While the balance of power seems remarkably uneven in this incident, in reality that’s not the case. As the demonstrators focus their anger and cries of shame, the perplexed police are the ones who stumble backwards, at least momentarily.

This doesn’t happen where we wage our wars. This, for instance, is from a New York Times article on Thanksgiving Day, about a NATO airstrike in southern Afghanistan that killed seven civilians (including six children):

“Abdul Samad, an uncle of four of the children who were killed, disputed the government’s version of the attack. He said his relatives were working in fields near their village when they were attacked without warning by an aircraft.

“His brother-in-law, Mohammad Rahim, 50, had his two sons and three daughters with him. They were between 4 and 12 years old and all were killed, except an 8-year-old daughter who was badly wounded, Mr. Samad said.”

Project Bugsplat is the name of every war, at least from the planners’ point of view. A winnable war is waged from above, invisibly, with godlike impunity. Such wars, especially in today’s political order, cannot be effectively opposed with acts of equally brutal counterforce; they can only be prolonged.

“Bugsplat” is a term of ultimate disrespect and indifference, and it begins with a state of mind. The global Occupy movement, with its humane and nonviolent core certainty, is tipping the balance. Finally it comes down to this: Occupy consciousness.

© 2011 TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist. His new book, “Courage Grows Strong at the Wound” (Xenos Press) is now available in bookstores. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his website at commonwonders.com.

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