The desperation of our military efforts is showing around the edges of the carnage and tragedy. This past week has brought three official U.S. denials that we have done what eyewitnesses and/or other evidence indicates we did: a) used white phosphorous as a weapon against Afghan civilians; b) killed nearly 150 Afghan villagers in a sustained bombardment; c) killed a 12-year-old Iraqi boy as he stood innocently by the side of the road selling fruit juice.

Note to David: Goliath’s vulnerability is the truth.

We are living on the brink of profound change, hard as that change is to see through the smoke and rubble — but why else would the U.S. military, or any other military for that matter, find it so hard to accept responsibility for its own actions? Why the fumbling evasions rather than a sneering “It was necessary”? If might makes right, why take the trouble to worry about public relations at all?

Governing morality may not have changed much since the days of the Roman Empire, but the seething mass of the governed — humanity itself — has evolved beyond barbarism to a higher state of values. Vaguely articulated ideals pulse amid the shrapnel of politics: We want a fair and just world. Every child deserves a chance. We are (ahem, cough) all one, at some core level.

Thus our official goals in the Middle East and Af-Pak grudgingly reflect this: safety and security (and oil) for America, yes, but democracy for the world, too. And women’s rights! Aw, look at those purple fingers that those first-time voters raise proudly for the photographers — that’s what our bombs are accomplishing; that’s why our endlessly deployed troops are self-destructing with PTSD. Does the heart good.

Could it really be that a gossamer layer of official spin is all that’s protecting the military-industrial status quo from a groundswell of change in how we think about and plan the human future?

How close are we to telling President Obama that drones will not secure anything for us in Afghanistan, but if we’re committed to that country’s transformation, if America truly represents an alternative to all that is cruel and repressive about the Taliban, we should experiment with positive investment in the region and redefine “diplomacy” to mean respectful listening rather than coercion? Yeah, right, that’s going to happen — maybe in the next hundred days.

I guess my point is that we have no right to give up:

“Shouting ‘Death to America’ and ‘Death to the Government,’ thousands of Afghan villagers hurled stones at police . . . as they vented their fury at American air strikes that local officials claim killed 147 civilians,” Patrick Cockburn reported last week in the U.K.’s Independent.

Cockburn added that U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, speaking in Kabul, suggested that the dead — some of them, anyway — may have been the victims of Taliban grenades for failing to pay an opium tax. Eyewitnesses and photos of bomb craters in the three destroyed villages in Farah Province said otherwise, however, and Gates ultimately “expressed regret for the incident but did not go so far as to accept blame,” Cockburn wrote.

In Mosul, Iraq, last week, American soldiers turned machinegun fire on a 12-year-old boy after their convoy had been hit with a grenade. Because the boy had Iraqi currency on him worth about nine U.S. dollars, a military spokesman told McClatchy Newspapers, “We have every reason to believe that insurgents are paying children to conduct these attacks.”

Once again, however, eyewitness accounts lend no credence to what simply seems to be wishful thinking (a strange, jarring sort of activity for a superpower). A man in his 20s had tossed the grenade, witnesses said. But, “When attacked, the Americans just open fire, whether on the gunman or just randomly,” Mosul member of Parliament Usama Al Nujaifi later said, according to the McClatchy account. “The American presence in the cities is wrong. We urged them to stay outside from the beginning.”

And, oh yeah, the shooting is still under investigation, according to an American military statement. As far as I know, no such investigation is under way into the allegation by human rights groups that some of the civilian injuries in the Farah Province battles — “unusual” and serious chemical burns — were the result of the U.S. use of white phosphorus, which sticks to the skin of victims as it burns and is banned for use as a weapon by a treaty the U.S. has signed.

The U.S. is trying to effect changes in the world that cannot happen militarily, but old forces of habit and economic interest keep us plunging forward into greater and greater violence anyway, and when we only succeed at creating the horrors we attribute to our enemies, we deny, deny, deny. In the immortal words of the former president, “America doesn’t do torture.” This lie’s days are numbered.

Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at or visit his Web site at © 2009 Tribune Media Services, Inc.