The United States of Genocide

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Putting the US on trial for genocide against the peoples of Korea, Laos, Viet Nam, Cambodia, Iraq and elsewhere.

The United States of America was built on a foundation of genocide against the indigenous peoples of North America. In fact, all successful settler colonial societies are founded in genocide. The process is one of dispossession – the erasure of one group identity and the imposition of another on the people and/or on the land. But genocide is not merely the foundation of the US nation state, it is also the foundation of the US empire. The US habit of genocide has not died, but has transformed. The US has become a serial perpetrator of genocide with the blood of many millions of innocents spilled in pursuit of imperial hegemony.

There is a fight going on for the very meaning of the term “genocide”. Western powers assert their right to accuse enemies of committing genocide using the broadest possible definitions whilst also touting a twisted undefined sense of “genocide” which can never, ever be applied to their own actions. New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, apparently taking his cue from the US, is currently pushing for reform of the UN Security Council such that the veto power would be unavailable in cases of “genocide”. The UNSC is a political body and “genocide” will simply become a political term cited by powerful states to rationalise aggression against the weak.

Key notoriously said that his country was “missing in action” because it did not invade Iraq in 2003, reminding Kiwis that “blood is thicker than water”. If his desired reforms existed now, the US would probably have a UN Security Council resolution authorising the use of force against Syria on the grounds of “genocide”.

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John Key – Prime Minister of Aotearoa (NZ); former Merill-Lynch Currency Trader

All of those who oppose Western aggression justified as humanitarian intervention under the “responsibility to protect” must stop burying their heads in the sand over this matter. This is a very real fight for the future of humanity. We can either learn and propagate the understanding that US imperial interventions are, by nature, genocidal. Or we can just pretend the word has no meaning; indulge our childish moral impulses and the lazy fatuousness of our scholars and pundits; and let Western mass-murderers use this Orwellian buzzword (for that is what “genocide” currently is) to commit heinous acts of horrific violence which ensure the continued domination of the world’s masses by a tiny imperial elite.

(An aside: apparently people like a pragmatic focus to accompany a call to action. So, am I making the most obvious appeal – that US officials be tried for committing genocide? No I am not. They can be tried for war crimes if people really think that “holding people accountable” is more important than preventing suffering and protecting the vulnerable. But it has been a terrible mistake to construct genocide as being an aggravated crime against humanity committed by individuals, as if it were simply a vicious felony writ large. This has played completely into the hands of those propagandists for whom every new enemy of the West is the new Hitler. The means by which genocides are perpetrated are the crimes of individuals – war crimes, for example – but genocide itself is the crime of a state or para-state regime. That is the proper target of inquisition and censure. Though the attempt was tragically abortive, the Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Tribunal recently began hearing charges of genocide against Israel. We need this sort of process to hear charges of genocide against the US. I fully support such efforts, but my real call to action is a call for thought, for clarity and for self-discipline. People are drawn to using woolly thinking over genocide, wishing to use it as the ultimate condemnation of mass violence without reference to any actual meaning of the term. We must not tolerate it in ourselves or others. We are a hair’s breadth away from the point where “genocide prevention” will be used by major Western powers to justify genocidal mass violence)

US “Wars” are Actually Genocides

Every major military action by the US since World War II has first and foremost been an act of genocide. I do not state this as a moral condemnation. If I were seeking to condemn I would try to convey the enormous scale of suffering, death, loss and misery caused by US mass violence. My purpose instead is to correct a terrible misconception of US actions – their nature, their meaning and their strategic utility. This understanding which I am trying to convey is a very dangerous notion with an inescapable moral dimension because the US has always maintained that the suffering, death and destruction it causes are incidental to military purposes – they are instances of “collateral damage”. But, with all due respect to the fact that US personnel may face real dangers, these are not real wars. These are genocides and it is the military aspect that is incidental. In fact, it is straining credulity to continue believing in a string of military defeats being sustained by the most powerful military in the history of the world at the hands of impoverished 3rd World combatants. The US hasn’t really been defeated in any real sense. They committed genocide in Indochina, increasing the level of killing as much as possible right through to the clearly foreseen inevitable conclusion which was a cessation of direct mass violence, not a defeat. The US signed a peace agreement which they completely ignored. The Vietnamese did not occupy US territory and force the US to disarm and pay crippling reparations.

There is no question that the US has committed actions which fit the description of genocide. Genocide does not mean the successful extermination of a defined group (there is no such thing as “attempted genocide”). It was never conceived that way, but rather as any systematic attack on “a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.” Those who deny US genocides usually only deny that there is any intent to commit genocide. The UN definition of genocide (recognised by 142 states) is:

“…any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

The US has committed these acts many times over and in many different countries. Some people object that this is some watered down version of genocide that risks diluting the significance of this “ultimate crime”. However, bear in mind that the victims of US armed violence are not usually combatants and even if they are they are not engaged in some sort of contested combat that gives them some ability to defend themselves or to kill or be killed. They are helpless as they die of incineration, asphyxiation, dismemberment, cancer, starvation, disease. People of all ages die in terror unable to protect themselves from the machinery of death. Make no mistake, that is what it is: a large complex co-ordinated machinery of mass killing. There is nothing watered down about the horrors of the genocides committed by the US, and their victims number many millions. The violence is mostly impersonal, implacable, arbitrary and industrial.

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There are at least three specific times at which US mass violence has taken lives in the millions through direct killing: the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the wars and sanctions against Iraq in combination with the occupation of Iraq. I refer to them as the Korea Genocide (which was against both South and North Koreans), the Indochina Genocide (against Laotians, Cambodians, and Vietnamese), and the Iraq Genocide (which took place over at least a 20 year period).

There are many ways to show that the US committed genocides in these cases. On one level the case is straightforward. For example, if the US commits acts of “strategic bombing” which systematically kill civilians by the hundreds of thousands, and it turns out that not only is there no rational proportionate military reason, but that US military and intelligence analysis is clear that these are in fact militarily counter-productive acts of gratuitous mass-murder, then by any reasonable definition these must be acts of genocide. The logic is simple and inescapable. I have written lengthy pieces showing in detail that these were large scale systematic and intentional genocides which you can read here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here.

For a long time I have tried to think of ways in which I condense this in a readable form. The problem in many respects lies with the necessity of overcoming misapprehensions. Genocide is an emotive topic, whilst people are very reluctant to read that those who rule in their name (with whom they sometimes actively identify) are in the moral vicinity of the Nazi leaders of Germany. Permeating every level of the discourse is the constant position (whether as the unspoken assumption or as the active assertion) that the US has never acted with genocidal intent. Intentionality is a topic in its own right, but to be brief I will point out that intent does not require that “genocide” be its own motive. If I kill someone because I want their watch, I can’t turn around and say it isn’t murder because I didn’t intend to kill them because I was really just intending to take their watch. It may seem a ridiculous example, but the discourse of genocide is so twisted that it is the norm even amongst genocide scholars. We keep looking for the people, the bloodthirsty psychopathic monsters, who kill people just for the fun of it and grab their watch afterwards as an afterthought. Unsurprisingly, we find those people among the leaders of those countries who oppose Western political power. Now that includes Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.

The best way of demonstrating US intentionality is to demonstrate the consistency of their approach in different times and places. However, this is a necessarily exhaustive approach, so I have decided to take a different tack here. I wish to sketch a fragment of autobiography here – an outline of the process by which I came to my current understanding of the topic. I want readers to understand that I didn’t seek these conclusions out. I have had it made clear to me, by rather comfortably embedded scholars, that they think that I am being provocative out of ambition. It is a testament to the self-satisfaction of such people that they somehow think that being provocative is some advantage. Academia thrives on the journal-filling peer-reviewed “controversies” of rival schools and scholars, but they aren’t really keen on anything that might actually be of any interest to anyone else. The fact is that I didn’t seek this out and it certainly has not endeared me to anyone that I can think of. On the other, hand I have had people act as if I had smeared my own faeces all over myself for using the g-word with respect to Iraq, and I have had many metaphorical doors slammed in my face. As I hope the following will indicate, at least partially, I cannot but characterise US genocides as such and I cannot but view the subject of absolute urgent fundamental importance.

Coming to Understand

The Vietnam War loomed large in my childhood. I was five when it ended. I watched the critical documentary series  Vietnam: The 10,000 Day War when I was ten or eleven years old. During the 1980s Vietnam War movie craze I was sucked into that powerful quagmire of pathos and adrenaline – not to mention the evocative music. But even then, as a teen, I could not abide the apologism and the way in which American lives and American suffering were privileged. The US personnel were portrayed as the victims, even in films which showed US atrocities. I knew far too much about things such as the nature of the atrocities carried out by the Contras to find that sort of propaganda palatable. For one thing, I had read William Blum’s The CIA: A Forgotten History. This book (now titled Killing Hope and still available) doesn’t leave the reader much room for illusions about the US role in international politics. Perhaps if I had been a little older I might have been “educated” enough to be blind to the obvious, but I wasn’t. While most people managed to avoid facing the facts, I knew from this book and others like it that although the atrocities of the Soviet Bloc were substantial, they were dwarfed by those of the US and its closest clients. If Cuba, for example, has been repressive, then what words remain to describe the US installed regimes in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, El Salvador, or Chile?

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How could one characterise a state that backed and created death squad regimes that massacred entire villages, that tortured children to death in front of parents? How does one describe a militarised country whose meticulously planned and executed bombing raids systematically visited untold death and suffering on innocents as an intended purpose. Any informed person who had an objective proportionate viewpoint could only conclude, as Martin Luther King Jr. had already concluded, that the US government and the wider US corporate state were “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” Fred Branfman, who saw the results of US bombing first-hand in Laos, has more recently concluded that the executive branch of the US government is “the world’s most evil and lawless institution”.

So that is where I was coming from. On moral terms I could not have been more condemnatory of the US government. I considered the US government and military-corporate-intelligence complex to be the worst thing in the world since the demise of the Third Reich. I believed this on the basis that they had demonstrably brought about more suffering, death and destruction than anyone else. If someone had tried to claim that it was for “freedom” I would have laughed bitterly, thinking of the brutally crushed democracies and popular movements that were victims of the US. But if someone had said to me that the US had committed genocide in Korea and Indochina I would have most likely dismissed the claim as emotive overstatement. I didn’t actually know what the word genocide meant precisely, but I would still have seen its use as being a form of exaggeration. Implicitly that means that I took the word “genocide” to be a form of subjective moral condemnation as if it were an inchoate scream rather than a word that might have a consistent meaning. (You can’t exaggerate by calling something “arson”, for example. It is either a lie or it is the truth. Genocide is the same). However, “genocide”, as a word, has been subjected to the ideological processes (described so well by Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four) which destroy the meaning of words. Here is how I put it in an academic piece:

Certain words are so highly politicised in their usage that, in Orwellian fashion, they are stripped of all meaning and become merely signals designed to provoke in impassioned unreasoning involuntary response. In this fashion ‘democracy’ means ‘double-plus good’ and the Party members1 respond with cheers and tears of joy. Equally, ‘terrorism’ means ‘double-plus bad’ provoking among Party members, ‘[a] hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge-hammer….’2 Genocide plays a starring role in an entire discourse shaped in such a way as to not only excuse but to facilitate the perpetration of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Stripped of any actual meaning but given the significance of being the ‘ultimate crime’ it becomes a tool by which powerful Western states are able to threaten or carry out attacks against weaker states – attacks which are in themselves criminal and which in some instances are actually genocidal. The emotive misuse of the term genocide has become a powerful political tool. As Jeremy Scahill reveals after accusations of genocide by Arabs against black Africans, “even at antiwar rallies, scores of protesters held signs reading, ‘Out of Iraq, into Darfur.’” Scahill adds that, ‘[a] quick survey of Sudan’s vast natural resources dispels any notion that U.S./corporate desires to move into Sudan derive from purely humanitarian motives.’3

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What brought me around to using the term genocide was realising that there was no other word to describe what the US did in South Viet Nam. I had been aware that the vast majority of victims of the US military were civilians. It was commonplace to say that 90% of casualties were civilian. (Tellingly Western commentators, including those in the peace movement, would vouch that the figure of 90% civilian casualties was proof of how cruel and deadly “modern war” had become – as if US practices were some sort of universal standard and as if the fact that other belligerents did not produce such high rates of civilian death was not of any interest whatsoever.)

So, US violence mostly caused civilian deaths and the vast majority of those civilians were, in fact, subjects of the US installed puppet [sic] regime in Saigon. They were killing their own supposed allies. I have read all of the rationalisations for why the US thought it was a good idea to kill the civilians of their own client state, and they are all completely insane. I don’t even believe that killing the civilian populations of enemy countries is militarily effective and in that belief I am supported by the strategic analyses of the US itself going back to 1944. Killing the civilian population of an allied state makes no military sense whatsoever. Often killing civilians was rationalised in terms of counterinsurgency (usually crudely reversing Maoist doctrine about the relationship between the guerrilla and the rural population) despite the fact that it was recognised from very early on that the civilian deaths were recruiting and strengthening the enemy.

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That was the other striking thing about US activities in Indochina – they were systematically killing civilians without apparent purpose, but they were also undermining their own political and military efforts. This happened at all levels. As I was reading and coming to grips with this aspect of history, it seemed that exactly the same thing was playing out in Iraq. In 2003, as invasion loomed, I had initially expected that the US would conduct a fast vicious campaign particularly aimed at inflicting maximum damage to economic infrastructure. They would then leave, crowing about their surgical use of force and minuscule US fatalities. The US would continue to enhance the perceived legitimacy of its acts of aggression and would be able to use economic blackmail to exert neocolonial control. However, I was woefully naïve for believing that. In contrast, Paul Wolfowitz was  absolutely clear on this point – you cannot use normal neocolonial power on Iraq: “…[W]e just had no choice in Iraq. The country swims on a sea of oil.” Instead, the US invaded, occupied and then acted repeatedly and systematically in ways which would very predictably cause armed resistance, just as they had in Indochina. But without that resistance they could not have justified a major military presence and the proconsular rule of the occupation imposed on Iraq.

In 2006 I was able to devote quite a lot of time to the subject of genocide in Indochina as it was the topic of my Honours research paper. My initial understanding of genocide was pretty thin and one-dimensional, but it was sound in the given context. The most important aspect for me was that genocide matched means with ends. War is always a matter of uncertain outcome. To wage war is to wager (the words are cognates). Indeed that is why we use such terms as “wage” and “adventure” for military action. If memory serves, Carl von Clausewitz himself even wrote that a belligerent will never be able to attain their intended war aims because the war they pursue will itself change matters and impose its own realities. In that sense war is a gamble which will always be lost. Genocide is not a gamble.

I saw genocide as being an attack on the peoples of Indochina which avoided the uncertainties of waging military war. The maximal aim of the genocide was the eventual neocolonial domination of Indochina. It worked. In Viet Nam the war and subsequent US economic sanctions were devastating. By 1990 the per capita GDP was only $114.4 Under doi moi liberalisation, Viet Nam has achieved much greater formal economic activity (GDP), but only by submitting to the “Washington Consensus”, which means no price supports for staples such as rice, which in turn means that the real income of the poorest urban dwellers has dropped 5 Former US military commander in Vietnam Gen. Westmoreland characterised doi moi as proof of US victory.6 The point is, though, that genocide doesn’t need an end goal such as such as submitting to neoliberal WTO regulations and IMF conditions. Chomsky called Vietnamese poverty “a vivid refutation of the claim that the US lost,”7 Similar stories could be related with regard to Laos and Cambodia. Whether these nation states are considered enemies or vanquished vassals or friends is of no relevance, the weakness of their populations is a gain in relative power for the US empire, and empires intrinsically function on relative gains.

This is what I wrote in 2006:

…[A]clever strategist, where possible, matches means and ends, thus making results more predictable. In a situation where there is a stated end and a given means are employed and continue to be employed despite continued demonstrable “failure” and are then employed elsewhere under the same rationale with the same results – in such a situation it is possibly worth considering that the “means” are themselves the end. In the case of the Second Indochina War, I will argue the means were widespread general destruction, employed on as many of the people and as much of the societal fabric or infrastructure as was physically and politically feasible. If those were the means, I will suggest, they were also the end. The results are predictable. The dead stay dead.

As I would later discover, when he first coined the word “genocide”, Raphaël Lemkin wrote that “genocide is a new technique of occupation aimed at winning the peace even though the war itself is lost.” He also wrote: “Genocide is the antithesis of the … doctrine [which] holds that war is directed against sovereigns and armies, not against subjects and civilians. In its modern application in civilized society, the doctrine means that war is conducted against states and armed forces and not against populations. … [T]he Germans prepared, waged, and continued a war not merely against states and their armies but against peoples. For the German occupying authorities war thus appears to offer the most appropriate occasion for carrying out their policy of genocide.”

(At this point I would like to urge people to read what Lemkin actually wrote when trying to describe genocide. It is not a time consuming task. You can find the chapter here.)

What I had found was that the US was maintaining the “war”. It helped to recruit its enemies, to arm them, finance them, and to supply them. Just as I was researching this, a book by David Keen was published about the “War on Terror” which claimed that it was a self-perpetuating endless “war system”. It focussed on clearly “counterproductive” actions undertaken by the US, belying its stated aims:

When it comes to war in other words, winning is not everything; it may be the taking part that counts. Indeed, as Orwell saw in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, certain kinds of regimes may thrive off energies and perpetual war. The irrationality of counterproductive tactics, in short, may be more apparent than real, and even an endless war may not be endless in the sense of lacking aims or functions.8

Keen never mentioned Indochina. The precedents he cited of were civil wars in Africa. However it was as if the idea of a war system was, in a sense, on the tip of people’s tongues towards the end of the US involevment in Indochina, as if they knew deep-down that the US was not trying to win the war. It seems almost the implicit subtext of Magnum photographer Philip Jones Griffiths’ book Vietnam Inc. which by its title alone suggests an enterprise quite differently conceived than war. Even the orthodox political discourse (with talk of quagmires and a “stab in the back” story of brave soldiers hamstrung by politicians) hints at a war system. What the US did in Indochina was an absolute textbook example of what Keen was describing.

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As I found this way of understanding the past, I was also viewing events in Iraq with the same apprehension. What was occurring on a daily basis was very clearly indicating a parallel process. Captured weapons were dumped unsecured in the countryside. Efforts to secure borders (to at least impede the flow of weapons, resistance fighters and money) were systematically undermined. Just as in Viet Nam, diverted cash sloshed through networks of corruption and was available to resistance groups. People were driven into the arms of the resistance by the random brutality of US personnel, the murderous use of indiscriminate ordnance, and the systematic degradation of the civilian economic sphere. On top of this, the US fomented a civil war.

It is a pity that Keen did not know of the Indochina precedent, because what we know of it goes much deeper and reaches much higher than the what we know of the “War on Terror” (which Keen takes to include Iraq and Afghanistan interventions). Keen discusses various tactics and policies which are counterproductive. But it is not just the counterproductive things which sustain US enemies, it is the ways in which US leaders ensure that they cannot ever achieve a victory. This is what I wrote:

Numerous people, including Jeffrey Record9 and Harry Summers,10 have in effect suggested that the US lacked any winning strategy. In fact, what they had were three no-win strategies – strategies which did not, even in theory, have an end point at which a military victory would be obtained. These were the fire-power/attrition, the graduated response and the enclave strategies. The only strategy by which the US could have attained its stated objective was the pacification strategy, but this too was no threat because the pacification strategy was only weakly implemented while being misapplied, subverted, sabotaged and contravened – not least by the more vigorous application of the fire-power/attrition and graduated response strategies.

You can read all about thatstuffin detail if you want, otherwise you’ll just have to take my word for it. The US systematically ensured that it could never achieve “victory” in Indochina. Perhaps the most blatant example was the brutal genocide unleashed on Cambodia from 1970 until 1975. Not the “genocide” or “autogenocide” of the Khmer Rouge, but the genocide before that, without which there would never have been a Khmer Rouge takeover. Here’s a long excerpt from my Honours piece:

When the the US generated a war in Cambodia they had already had a great deal of experience in Viet Nam and Laos, and what occurred in Cambodia is, in many ways, a naked exposure of the logic behind the genocidal war system, less obfuscated because, ironically, Cambodia was a “sideshow” where it was not the details but the whole war which was kept obscure from the public.

Within a year of Lon Nol’s coup, as mentioned, the economy of Cambodia was virtually destroyed, not only by bombing, but also by US aid. Aid was channelled to the import of commodities and surplus US agricultural goods. It also underwrote the Cambodian government and armed forces: “By the end of 1970, the government was spending five times its revenue and earning nothing abroad.”11 Most of the population became reliant on US aid to eat, and rice supplies were kept at the minimum level needed to prevent food riots. By 1975, malnutrition was widespread and many children starved to death.12

Less than two months after the coup that brought Lon Nol to power, the US invaded Cambodia, along with ARVN forces. They did not bother to forewarn Lon Nol who found out after Richard Nixon had announced the invasion publicly.13 This invasion along US and RVN bombing and the civil war made refugees of around half of the Cambodian population.14 Lon Nol was outraged by the invasion and when later briefed by Alexander Haig (then military assistant to Kissinger) about US intentions he wept with frustration. According to Shawcross, “He wished that the Americans had blocked the communists’ escape route before attacking, instead of spreading them across Cambodia. … The Cambodian leader told Haig that there was no way his small force could stop them. … [Haig] informed Lon Nol that President Nixon intended to limit the involvement of American forces…. They would be withdrawn at the end of June. The the President hoped to introduce a program of restricted military and economic aid. As the implications of Haig’s words for the future of Cambodia became clear to Lon Nol, he began to weep. Cambodia, he said, could never defend itself.”15

As has been detailed, US actions, particularly in bombing, were directly responsible for creating the communist enemy which overthrew Lon Nol. The bombing between 1969 and 1973 took up to 150,000 lives.16 If averaged out, over 33 tons of ordnance were used to kill each Khmer Rouge insurgent.17 Despite the fact that Vietnamese pilots bombed any Cambodian they could, which aided only the Khmer Rouge, Lon Nol acceded to a US demand that he request an increase in VNAF bombing in 1971.18

By May 1972, the Lon Nol regime had control of perhaps 10 per cent of the country and continued to lose territory which was thereafter fragmented into ever smaller enclaves.19 The result was by that stage foregone, and yet the war dragged on for three years with the greater part of the 1 million casualties occurring after that point.

In 1970, when Henry Kissinger briefed Jonathan “Fred” Ladd, who was slated to conduct the war in Cambodia, he told him: “Don’t even think of victory; just keep it alive.”20

When the US Congress finally blocked aid to Cambodia and South Viet Nam, it was with the belated realisation that such aid would not give any hope of victory or improve a bargaining position. Senator Mike Mansfield spoke out, “Ultimately Cambodia cannot survive…. Additional aid means more killing, more fighting. This has got to stop sometime.”21

It was pretty clear that the US was maintaining the situation of armed conflict in order to commit genocide. This was a comprehensive act of genocide which did not merely involve the systematic killing of the target populations, it also involved every other “technique of genocide” described by Lemkin. There was systematic economic, social, cultural, political, and religious destruction. There was the systematic and deliberate ecocidal poisoning of the land and people with defoliants. There was very raw brutality. People were slaughtered by bombs, but there was also murder, rape and torture on a scale beyond imagining. In one book co-written by Nick Turse he finds that when he sets out to find the site of a massacre in Vietnam it becomes like trying to find a needle in a haystack of massacre sites.22 In his next book Kill Anything that Moves Turse tries to show that haystack for what it is. The results would be hard to believe if they were not so well documented. I cannot reduce its contents here, I can only recommend that people acquire and read the book. It is a litany of slaughter that seems almost endless and through it all the command structure and the political structure provide the framework for the personnel to commit atrocities.

MERE GOOKS

This is not just about the choice of tactics – it is also about “grand tactics”, strategy, doctrine, and indoctrination. Psychiatrist and author Robert Jay Lifton famously discussed “atrocity producing situations” as a driving factor behind US war crimes, and I believe we can now conclude these situations were deliberately created, not just because we have other evidence that atrocities were tacitly encouraged, but because the US went to great lengths to replicate these these “atrocity producing situations” in Iraq.

Why Genocide and Not War?

By the end of my honours thesis I was convinced that both the 2nd Indochina War and the “Iraq War” were “genocidal war systems”. Since then I have learnt a great deal more, and my thinking has developed a great deal more. I won’t bore you with the detail, but I came to realise the the “war system” appellation was largely redundant. Genocides are “war systems” by nature. Almost every perpetrator of genocide explains their violence as fighting war.

Genocide was a key means by which the US secured global hegemony in the post-WWII era. I learnt that Korea was also a case of US genocide. US actions there were as shocking, as deadly and as militarily nonsensical as they were in Indochina. Hundreds of thousands were massacred and hundreds of thousands incinerated. 25% of the entire population of North Korea was killed and we should not forget that many hundreds of thousands of the ostensibly allied South Koreans died at US hands or those of US commanded troops. The whole war became widely recognised as a pointless killing machine (described as “the meatgrinder”) while the US needlessly sabotaged and prolonged armistice negotiations.

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I can’t explain in this space why Korea, Vietnam and Iraq posed such great threats to US imperial hegemony, but they did and the US successfully dealt with those dangers by committing genocide. These are successful uses of genocide to establish, deepen and maintain imperial hegemony, but we have wilfully blinded ourselves to their nature. Critics of US interventions have evidently been scared to entertain the notion that there was some successfully applied rationale to US behaviour. They have joined with the lovers of war, the nationalists, the racists and the fanatics in declaring over and over and over again the wrong-headedness and failures of US military endeavours. The victims of US genocide quite understandably prefer to see themselves as the plucky Davids that beat the Pentagon Goliath. These are all lies.

US forces storm into one house after another, claiming to be trying to kill flies with sledgehammers. Given that they have entirely demolished several houses and severely damaged many others; and given that they have been caught red-handed releasing flies into targeted houses; and given that they forcibly try to make people buy very expensive fly “insurance”; maybe it is time we consider that neither they, nor their sledgehammers, are concerned in any way with flies (except as a pretext).

Where people might once have been terrified that to suggest any cogent purpose to US actions for fear of giving credit to warmongers, we need not be so worried now. It is very clear that the US does not exert imperial hegemony for the sake of peace and stability, or even for the sake of the enrichment of the US and its people. They never protected us from the nefarious threat of communism and they don’t protect us from the nefarious threat of Islam. A very narrow group of imperialists who share a cohesive long-term hegemonic programme have successfully concentrated power and wealth levels of disparity akin to those in slavery-based economies. They have also created a neofeudal framework of privatised regnal rights. No doubt many of these people have noble intentions, believing that only by such ruthless action can they exert enough control to save humanity from its self-destructive impulses. Many elitists will openly express such opinions and we can certainly understand having concern over the future of the planet. But such people are, in fact, completely insane and they should be taken out of circulation and treated exactly like any other dangerous megalomaniac who believes that they are the new Napoleon. It is not the masses that are threatening the planet. It is not the masses who bring about wars. And though communal violence seems almost the epitome of the mob in action, I know of no genocide that did not result from the actions of a narrow elite.

The reason that we must view US genocides as being genocides and not wars is that we cannot ever understand the logic of their actions in any other way. People shy away from the term genocide and people react violently to what they perceive as its misuse. That indicates just how important it is. I mentioned Nick Turse’s Kill Anything that Moves which is an entire book devoted primarily to the systematic killing of non-combatants. He never uses the term “genocide”. In a work based on veteran testimony, Chris Hedges and Laila al-Arian explain that the very nature of the Iraq occupation is that of an atrocity producing situation and that US personnel have gone “from killing – the shooting of someone who [can] harm you – to murder. The war in Iraq is primarily about murder. There is very little killing.”23 They are talking about the systematic murder of civilians in small increments multiplied many times over, but they never use the term “genocide”. This despite the fact that US actions in Indochina have widely been adjudged genocidal and despite the fact that it was very strongly argued that the US and UK controlled sanctions against Iraq were genocidal. Ask yourself this: if someone was documenting the same thing being perpetrated by Sudan, or by Zimbabwe do you think the word “genocide” would be left out of such works?

Above all we must end the continuing fatuous nonsense spouted by security geeks (including high ranking military and civilian personnel) who seem to believe every exaggerated claim about threats from the Cubans, the Iranians, the Soviets, Al Qaeda in the Falklands (AQIF) or whomever. The morons with their clichés about “fighting the last war” will never ever tire of telling us how the US just doesn’t know how to do counterinsurgency. Really? The question must be, then how did they manage to remain so bad at counterinsurgency when they have spent more person hours on counterinsurgency and counter-guerilla warfare that all other states throughout the entirety of humanity added together? (I could list a few examples here starting with the Indian Wars, mentioning 200 years of interventions in the Western hemisphere, Cuba, Philippines, Pacific War, Korea and Indochina. Then there is also the institutional knowledge built and disseminated by “security co-operation”. Moreover, the US is trains many of the rest of the world’s military leaders to conduct counterinsurgency at Fort Benning).

The point is that you can’t understand what the US does through the lens of war. It is very satisfying, no doubt, for young liberal reporters to outsmart generals (who clearly have no idea how to fight wars because they are just stupid Republicans), but it is seriously delusional. There is an instant exculpation given when these genocides are misrepresented as wars. It is very, very important for perpetrators of aggression or genocide (or both) to conceal their intentionality. The UK government and Tony Blair, in particular, showed far more concern with convincing people that they themselves believed in their fictitious casus belli, than with convincing people that Iraq really did have pose a threat. All of the British media seemed to echo the mantra that you might not agree with Blair but, “no one can doubt his sincerity”. So for moral reasons, in order to end the impunity of the worlds worst war criminals, as well as for intellectual reasons we must grasp the nettle and begin using the term genocide.

Textbook Cases

There are many problematic areas in the subject of genocide. Sometimes it is hard to tell when war ends and genocide begins. It can be hard to tell where state repression becomes persecution and when persecution becomes genocide. Were not the Nuremburg Laws an epitome of what we now call apartheid? Is apartheid a form of slow genocide? Is there structural genocide? Should something only be called genocide if there are mass fatalities?

These are all important considerations and questions, but none of them are relevant here. The genocides I have referenced are absolute textbook cases of genocide. It is impossible to create a coherent and rational definition of the term “genocide” which does not include these genocides.

These genocides were more demonstrably genocidal in nature than the Armenian Holocaust. We should always remember that for the Turkish government, and for most Turks, there was no such thing as a genocide of Armenians. In their own eyes they were fighting a war against Armenian insurgents. Sound familiar?

1In Orwell’s allegory the ‘Party’ represented the ‘educated’ sector of society – people such as the central character Winston Smith, who worked as a journalist.

2George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four. London: Penguin, 1983.

3Jeremy Scahill, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, London: Serpent’s Tail, 2007, p 350.

4Hy V. Luong, ‘Postwar Vietnamese Society: An Overview of Transformational Dynamic’ in Hy V. Luong (ed.), Postwar Vietnam: Dynamics of a Transforming Society. Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003, pp 12, 14.

5Nicholas Minot; Francesco Goletti, ‘Export Liberalization and Household Welfare: The Case of Rice in Vietnam’ in American Journal of Agricultural Economics, Vol. 80, No. 4. (Nov., 1998), p 743. Minot and Goletti actually (to their own evident surprise) projected a slight overall drop in poverty, but they do so on the basis of changes in real income which do not take into account that rural persons are better able to acquire food without income expenditure. They also slightly underestimate the level of urbanisation – they use the 1990 figure of 20 per cent, when by the time of their writing the figure was over 23 per cent (Michael DiGregorio, A. Terry Rambo, Masayuki Yanagisawa, ‘Clean, Green, and Beautiful: Environment and Development under the Renovation Economy’ in Hy V. Luong (ed.), Postwar Vietnam: Dynamics of a Transforming Society. Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003, p 189.) and do not account for future urbanisation. Michel Chossudovsky suggests that the Vietnamese did, in the actual event, become considerably poorer (Michel Chossudovsky, The Globalisation of Poverty and the New World Order. Shanty Bay, Ontario: Global Outlook, 2003, p 168).

6Marc Jason Gilbert, “Introduction”, in Marc Jason Gilbert (ed), Why the North Won the Vietnam War. New York: Palgrave, 2002, p 26.

7Rethinking Camelot: JFK, the Vietnam War, and US Political Culture. Boston: South End Press, 1993, p 30.

8David Keen, Endless War? Hidden functions of the ‘War on Terror’. London, Ann Arbor: Pluto Press, 2006, p 51.

9Record, “How America’s Military Performance…”, in Gilbert (ed.), Why the North Won the Vietnam War, p 117.

10Harry G. Summers Jr., On Strategy: A critical analysis of the Vietnam War. New York: Presidio Press, 1995 (1982), p 103.

11William Shawcross, Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia. London: Fontana, 1980 (1979), p 220.

12Ibid, pp 317-9.

13Ibid, p 149.

14Sorpong Peou, Intervention & Change in Cambodia: Towards Democracy? Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2000, p 127.

15Shawcross, Sideshow, p 163.

16Ben Kiernan, The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1996, p 24.

17Ibid, p 19.

18Shawcross, Sideshow, p 186.

19Ibid, pp 254-5.

20Ibid, p 169.

21Nigel Cawthorne, Vietnam: A War Lost and Won. London: Arcturus Publishing, 2003, p 213; Westmoreland, ‘A Look Back’.

22Deborah Nelson, The War Behind Me: Vietnam Veterans Confront the Truth about U.S. War Crimes, New York: Basic Books, 2008, p 127.

23Chris Hedges and Laila Al-Arian, Collateral Damage: America’s War against Iraqi Civilians, New York: Nation Books, 2008, p xiii.

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Keep Your Guard Up: Why the World Should Not Relax Over Syria

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Though apparently thwarted in its efforts to justify action against Syria, the US is likely to continue looking for cracks in the wall of opposition and will exploit any opportunity to act, relying on its well established impunity.

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Two Superpowers and Two Toadies

By early 2003, fear of the United States had reached remarkable heights throughout the world, along with distrust of and often loathing for the political leadership.”

Noam Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival, 2003.

In 2003 Noam Chomsky was one of those who embraced the idea that there are two superpowers in the world – the United States and world public opinion (WPO). Clearly it was the US that won the fight in 2003, but there is a sense that things may be different at this time as the two superpowers end Round 1 of a rematch. Unfortunately a sense of difference is all that there is. In matters of substance, there is nothing which we should really take as comforting, and nothing that we can really point to that will ensure a different outcome. One of the most serious problems is the WPO can only block US moves and has no effective way of fighting back. Even if the US finds its fanciest and most energetic combination blocked and foiled it can just dance around jabbing, waiting for an opening to land a serious blow.

It only takes one blow for the US to be declared the winner, and it doesn’t need to be a great one. The killer punch of Colin Powell’s 2003 UN presentation was actually barely felt by WPO, but as WPO stood by helplessly, the US was declared the winner. The problem lies with the two referees of the fight. One is a weedy and unctuous streak of nothing, with the manner of a Peter Lorre character. This is the UN Secretariat (the primary bureaucracy of the UN). Sometimes it defiantly squeaks at the US, berating it for biting and hitting below the belt, but it can always be relied on to ratify victory like the compliant minion that it is. If this seems overly cynical, we should remember that much the same behaviour is displayed by completely dependent puppet leaders installed by the US (such as Thieu and Ky in Saigon; Karzai in Kabul; Rhee in Seoul; Lon Nol; Mobutu; Suharto; and any number of Latin American dictators who have not been averse to appropriating anti-imperialist rhetoric to further the imperial project). Shows of defiance help build the flimsy constituencies of puppet regimes, but also lend credence to US claims that they are independent actors. This is not a jaded view of the UN Secretariat but a realistic one. To illustrate, I need only point out that there is no obligation whatsoever to be amnesiac. The UN Secretariat does not need to pretend that there was no invasion of Iraq, no bombing of Serbia, no invasions of Granada or Panama, no bombings of Laos and Cambodia. Try as I might, I cannot find that part in the UN Charter that reads: “Never mind. What is done is done and there’s no use crying over spilt milk.” In fact, it seems rather hollow to forbid something if, when those warnings and protestations are ignored, you simply roll your eyes. This is not the way the UN Secretariat behaves towards rivals and enemies of the US such as Iran, North Korea and Sudan whose past sins are never forgotten.

Working closely with the UN Secretariat is a dim-witted giant – the UN itself. The United Nations is a collection of member states, and should not be confused with the UN Secretariat. In practice that means that the UN is the governments of those member states. Collectively they make up this lumbering moron that is quite resentful of the US but far more afraid of it. The confused ambivalence of the UN makes quite a contrast with the clarity of WPO. In theory, the UN should reflect the WPO and be in the WPO’s corner. It should untie the WPO’s hands, and then the US would never even dare step in the ring. If the UN had the clarity of the WPO then its fellow referee would be forced to concur on its decisions. But the UN is ensorcelled – rendered stupid by the glamour of meaningless baubles and flattery while genuinely fearful of the unpredictably psychopathic US. The question of the moment is whether the UN is starting to think that the WPO might also be dangerous, and perhaps rethinking its allegiance.

This is Serious Business

I am going to abandon the boxing analogy now, but I must ask why the US feels compelled to go up against WPO. It is not merely some whim, nor a clash of personalities, nor a money-making scheme for Raytheon. Morevover, Obama and Kerry are utterly incidental – as Tony Cartalucci details, specific plans to foment armed insurgency in Syria were set in motion in 2007. Before that Syria was on a “hit list” of 7 countries dating from 2002. There is also no truth in Washington’s claimed motive of humanitarian concern and a self-declared “red-line”. Many, including John Pilger, have pointed out the sheer breathtaking hypocrisy of citing humanitarian concerns by a power which remains, in MLK’s words, “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world”. Others have been specifically enraged by the Obama repeatedly citing the “norms” against using chemical weapons when the US has caused such immense amounts of death and suffering with chemicals such as Agent Orange. For example, Wesley Messamore outlines 10 mass death causing chemical attacks conducted by the US, with US approval, or with US assistance.

In short, US pretensions of humanitarian concern and righteous outrage are a bald-faced and contemptuous deception. Equally, the evinced concern for US credibility is no more than a twisted joke. As I detailed in a recent article, Obama is using language very similar to that used by Richard Nixon in 1970. He explained that the US needed to invade Cambodia otherwise people would think it “a pitiful helpless giant”. Needless to say that any President modelling his words on those of Nixon is truly scraping the bottom of the propaganda barrel. These are rationalisations only liable to persuade the most credulous, the most craven, and the most pious believers in the infallible goodness of the authorities. As indicated in the previous section, this broadly excludes the peoples of the world, but mostly includes their governments.

The stated reasons for US intervention are clearly inaccurate. Here is another explanation given by Daniel Drezner in Foreign Policy:

“To your humble blogger, this is simply the next iteration of the unspoken, brutally realpolitik policy towards Syria that’s been going on for the past two years. To recap, the goal of that policy is to ensnare Iran and Hezbollah into a protracted, resource-draining civil war, with as minimal costs as possible. This is exactly what the last two years have accomplished…. at an appalling toll in lives lost.

This policy doesn’t require any course correction… so long as rebels are holding their own or winning. A faltering Assad simply forces Iran et al into doubling down and committing even more resources. A faltering rebel movement, on the other hand, does require some external support, lest the Iranians actually win the conflict. In a related matter, arming the rebels also prevents relations with U.S. allies in the region from fraying any further.”

This implies that the concern is somehow with Iran and Hezbollah as military powers, but I think security, in that sense, is distinctly secondary. Neither of these parties pose a threat to the US. As to the threat they pose to Israel, US strikes against Syria actually increase that threat immensely. A more realistic realist concern is with Syria itself in petroleum related strategic terms. Nafeez Ahmed outlines the direct interest in gas and oil pipelines involving Syria as well as the wider regional project to control petrochemicals through military force and regime change. If this seems to contradict Drezner’s suggestion that the US is fomenting open-ended deadly conflict, we should remember that oil and gas are strategic resources, not mere commodities. Strategic denial is as important as acquisition of such resources. This means that preventing their exploitation increases the value of other exploitable sources. This was the approach to gold taken by the British Empire, and has been the US approach to oil since 1974 when US client states, Saudi Arabia and Iran, created a sudden 400% rise in oil prices. US destabilisation regionally is already pushing up oil prices which is a big bonus to the likes of Exxon-Mobil and other well connected energy companies. Not to mention the fact that the value of the US dollar and its reserve currency status rely on “interventions” which have become rolling acts of serial genocide. (Some see Syria as the “last line of defense for the US Dollar and the exalted position of OPEC”, but personally I have to think that if it had come to that the US would be seeking to wind down its empire not create an apocalyptic confrontation merely to delay the inevitable.)

To summarise, the plans are old and the stakes are high. I refer to US actions as a rolling serial genocide because it is a war against peoples not their governments or armies, that is the defining characteristic of genocide. The US is systematically fomenting the “bloody civil war”. David Malone, after a detailed 3-part analysis of material/strategic interests, writes of “a dark thought”:

“This is speculation but I think worth keeping in mind. I think certain parts of the US military and intelligence have learned a lesson from Iraq and Afghanistan; that imposing stability is not as easy as they once imagined it might be. Instead Iraq and Afghanistan showed them how a country riven with factions, some of them violent and fundamentalist, can, given enough arms and encouragement, keep a country in a state of barely contained anarchy and chaos for years on end. Just enough order to extract wealth but not enough to ever unify.”

It is a dark thought, but the assertion that the US tried and failed to create stability in Iraq and Afghanistan is simply untrue. The US never attempted to create stability. After more than 12 years of genocidal sanctions on Iraq, the US by direct means did to Iraq exactly what it is doing indirectly to Syria, and in even bloodier fashion. They destabilised, they killed, they destroyed, they poisoned, they unleashed death squads and they deliberately created a civil war. As the list of “failed states” left in the wake of US direct and indirect, overt and covert interventions continues to grow; as the numbers of victims mount and surpass those of past brutal regimes, perhaps it is time for us to shed our denial over the nature of the US empire.

Time is on Their Side

The redoubtable Glen Ford of Black Agenda Report writes that Obama will “soon be back on the warpath, meaner and more aggressive than ever.” That may come to pass, but I am not sure that Obama needs to be more aggressive. The real danger now is that Obama successfully feigns a change of heart and in doing so finesses some form of “authorization” which may be exploited. Historically speaking when the US congress authorised the President to use force in 1964 and 2001, those authorisations were taken as carte blanche for multiple acts of aggression.

Already Obama and Kerry have stated that a credible threat of force is necessary for what they refer to in Orwellian fashion as “diplomacy”. Threats of force are, in fact, illegal under Article 2 of the UN Charter, and one would not normally describe coercing someone into compliance as being diplomatic. There is, however, a relevant precedent. As Noam Chomsky indicated on a recent appearance on Democracy Now! it was the efficacy of threats of force that secured the Sudetenland for Germany in 1938. That too was referred to as diplomacy, and the Germans justified their intervention on humanitarian grounds. But John Kerry has something that Hitler never had – the Munich analogy. He actually said, “this is our Munich moment.” John Kerry gets to justify acting like Hitler by implying that if he doesn’t then Assad will be the next Hitler. If Adolph were around, he’d be green with envy.

Perhaps even more sickening than the Munich analogy is the Obama’s use of the Rwanda analogy. Most people in the world know only the Hollywood version of what happened in Rwanda, as embodied in the film Hotel Rwanda. But the man whose life and actions inspired that film, has said the following about the Hollywood version in a recent interview: “When we hear about this from outside, we take it like something that came out of nowhere and disappeared. The victors, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, told us that it had disappeared, which is not true, because killing, massacres, crimes against humanity, war crimes, kept repeating themselves, not only in Rwanda but also in the Congo.”

Unfortunately Rwanda before 1994 does bear some resemblance to current Syria, for all the wrong reasons. The US backed and armed an unbelievably vicious insurgency which lacked popular support. The insurgent Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) was better armed than the actual Armed Forces of Rwanda (FAR). The RPA inverted the normal practices of traditional insurgents who draw on the support of local populations. Instead they conducted a scorched earth, cleansing, refugee generation and mass destabilisation that centred around massacring civilians to create terror. The achieved the same thing through demonstrative atrocities that the US bombing campaign in Cambodia achieved, emptying the best farmland and creating a volatile tinderbox of frightened refugees. Genocide scholar Alan Kuperman studied the RPA and concluded that they deliberately provoked the genocide against their fellow Tutsi. (The RPA was made up of exiled Tutsi and did not scruple to massacre Tutsi themselves if they were in an area which was to be cleansed). After the RPA won, the massacres continued. The Rwandan regime became, according to the Economist “the most repressive regime in Africa”. Over 100,000 people were imprisoned awaiting trial in the year 2000. Speech crimes such such as “negationism” attract sentences of 10 to 50 years. 2 million fled when the RPA secured victory, of whom 500,000 died in neighbouring Zaire/DRC in what a UN team describes as genocide carried out by Rwanda.

So there is the Rwanda analogy for you. Unfortunately I believe it only too plausible that the US sees parallels between the two situations. The US uses Rwanda as an example of the dangers of inaction but it was the US that actually blocked a Belgian initiative that would have prevented the horrific genocide. In both instances the US level of calculation and degree of control make it morally culpable for every death and every injury.

The US is not omnipotent, but it is very powerful, sophisticated and subtle. It cultivates an image of blundering idiocy, just as the British Empire did before it, but it is in a controlling position. The Obama administration needs only one trigger to attack Syria. This could be an AUMF from US Congress, a “multilateral” agreement, or a UNSC authorisation. The administration will try to convince congress that it should authorise force simply to further “diplomacy”. A multilateral agreement need not be from NATO, but could be a defensive pretext involving a neighbour of Syria. The point is that any trigger could be seized upon. US aggression has not been prevented by widespread public anger, at least not directly, it has been stopped by the lack of such a trigger. If you want to know how important world public opinion is to the US empire, look at the 2003 quote from Chomsky at the top of this article. If “fear”, “distrust” and “loathing” were high in 2003 what exactly has the US done to assuage that feeling since? Fallujah? Abu Ghraib? Guantánamo? Libya? World financial crisis? The US acts with complete impunity and as per the boxing analogy, WPO has no way of fighting back. In fact it gets exhausted by the constant assaults – exhausted and distracted.

Any possible excuse for the use of force will be taken much further than stated which is exactly why no one this far has given the Obama administration the excuse it is seeking. The worst would be a UNSC resolution authorising force under Chapter VII. The US clearly misused the UNSC resolution authorising the use of force to protect civilians in Libya. More striking, however, was the resolution authorising force against Iraq passed in 1990 in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. It was this that was used to justify the genocidal sanctions campaign, the invasion and the occupation of Iraq. What people might not realise is that once a Chapter VII provision is in place, permanent UNSC members can veto its lifting. That means that once such a resolution is in place, the US, UK or France can ensure that it continues indefinitely. In the case of Iraq, Chapter VII authorisation was not lifted until this year – more than 22 years after Iraqi forces left Kuwait and 10 years after Saddam Hussein was ousted.

Keep Fighting

The only answer for now is to keep opposing any US action without ever letting our guard down, but it is about time that the people of the world were given a chance to fight back. We need to create actual democracies. To start making our governments act according to the wishes of the people. The fight against this war, the fight against the TPPA, the fight against GMOs, against corporate and financial corruption, against government surveillance, against paramilitary policing, against the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM), against austerity, and against privatisation – these are all fights against empire. Oddly our fight to democratise our governments and win them back from the imperial thrall (our fight for sovereignty) is exactly the same in the US itself. The people of the US are in exactly the same boat as the rest of us with only slight differences in detail. Fred Branfman has recently concluded that the executive branch of the US government is “the world’s most evil and lawless institution”. The fight in the US is a struggle to force the legislative branch to oppose the imperial executive on behalf of the people. I think, though, that we ought to view the executive branch as the visible tip of the US empire iceberg.

Son of Credibility Gap: Johnson and Nixon Rhetoric Reborn

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Make no mistake – this has implications beyond chemical warfare. If we won’t enforce accountability in the face of this heinous act, what does it say about our resolve to stand up to others who flout fundamental international rules? To governments who would choose to build nuclear arms? To terrorist who would spread biological weapons? To armies who carry out genocide?

We cannot raise our children in a world where we will not follow through on the things we say, the accords we sign, the values that define us.” – Barack Hussein Obama 2013.

If, when the chips are down, the world’s most powerful nation, the United States of America, acts like a pitiful, helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions throughout the world.” – Richard Milhous Nixon 1970.

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When the US claims that its reasons for using military mass violence are to maintain credibility it is really scraping the bottom of the rhetorical barrel. But is this desperation, or is it simply that they no longer even care enough to lie convincingly? Or is it that the price of being seen as a liar is less than the price of revealing the true motives and reasons for US government actions?

Our Soviet Moment

Even lies can only do half of the work of engineering the consent or assent (or mere apathy) required to launch a war. Lies provide a pretext which gives moral legitimacy and emotive force to the case for war. Lies are also used to adopt a mantle of formal legitimacy under international law. But there is a third component, necessary but so de-emphasised that it may pass entirely unnoticed. It is the component of reason or rational justification. You can establish your moral and legal right to act, but you still have to give some sort of case, however cursory and pathetic, to explain why the use of mass violence and mass killing actually makes some sort of sense. To give an example, lies were told to the about Kuwaiti newborns being dumped to die of exposure by Iraqis to give moral impetus to US intervention, but the rationalisation given for bombing and killing so many Iraqis was encapsulated in the Munich analogy highlighting the dangers of “appeasement”. This was more important and more emphasised than justifying the use of force as a means of liberating Kuwait.

(The essence of the Munich analogy is that if you do not use military force to oppose acts of international aggression you are simply emboldening the perpetrator and ensuring greater aggression – and hence war and suffering – in the future. The analogy doesn’t actually stand up because the Munich Agreement was actually collaboration not appeasement, but most people don’t know that. In 1990 the fundamental reason given that military action, as opposed to other forms of action, was a rational response to the aggression and atrocities of Iraqis was the threat of further aggression. We were told that Iraq was poised to attack Saudi Arabia. Naturally it was a lie, but it was a necessary lie.)

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9-11 was crucial not just for the fact that it caused emotions to over-ride sapience, but because it provided that implicit rationale of using force to kill those who would do harm to you. It is true that this does not bear much thoughtful reflection, but those given to thoughtful reflection tend to oppose wars anyway. This and the Munich analogy are veneer rationalisations designed mainly for those who have faith in the judgements and goodwill of authorities – authorities who have successfully persuaded them to distrust their own perception and mental capacities. The danger for the US government is that these latter people – those whom they count on to support wars – start to think that their leaders are habitual liars. This is called a “credibility gap” a key component of the “Vietnam Syndrome” which prevented overt US aggression for over a few years. The “Vietnam Syndrome” meant that people would not accept further major acts of war.

But the way people seem to feel right now isn’t quite the way they felt when the “Vietnam Syndrome” held sway. It is both a cause for alarm and a great source of hope that the situation faced by the West now resembles the jaded scepticism of the peoples of the Soviet Bloc in 1980 more than it does the uncertain distrust of 1980 Western Bloc peoples. In 1980 radical and dissident voices were, as always, excluded from the public discourse of the mass media, but in the West at least the scepticism of the majority was acknowledged and represented. Now, like the mass media of the Soviet Union, our mass media have become totally detached from public opinion. There is a sense of piety which would view honesty as heresy – even those journalists who harbour the heresy themselves would not dare utter such dangerous notions, while the truly faithful act with such spittle-flecked fervour as would warm the heart of Torquemada. The heresy in question, the unspeakable notion of this moment, is that it makes no sense whatsoever for the Syrian government to have used chemical weapons at this time and therefore Obama and Kerry are probably just bald-faced liars.

It is no coincidence that our decaying Soviet moment is coming at a time when ordinary people can no longer sustain the illusion that there is a fundamental fairness in our system of governance. As with the Soviet Union, the links between political power and material wealth throw a spotlight on the fundamental corruption of a system of power referred to by the meaningless term of “capitalism”. People have long accepted the concept that those who acquire greater wealth wield greater political power, but now that we can no longer deny that it is in fact those who wield greater political power who acquire greater wealth. It was always so, but used to be arranged on a class basis in order that it would seem that some neutral economic mechanics of market functions made certain people wealthier than others. Now we can see quite plainly that the wealthy write laws to make themselves more wealthy at the expense of the poor. People are pissed off, but more to the point they are literally dis-illusioned. It is also no coincidence that this occurs at a time when the fist of the police state is ever more evident in both the use of physical force and in the unprecedented level of surveillance. Our society resembles the late era of the Soviet Union right down to the denial of the metastasised systemic malignancies of a régime that eats its own rotten flesh and sweeps the victims of its dysfunction under a rug bearing a bread-and-circus motif.

Another Reluctant Warmonger

Those who are familiar with the history of the US decision to launch all-out war in Vietnam may get déja vu. Those who already experienced déja vu over the Iraq occupation maybe feeling déja vu encore. (We may not have been impressed with what occurred in Iraq, but clearly someone gave it a standing ovation). Once again the US is proposing that a failure to act will make it appear weak and proposing instead to act in a way which its own analysis suggests will reveal it to be impotent. With regard to Viet Nam concern for “credibility” is still widely accepted as a motive for US aggression. After all, even if it seems a stupid rationale, US policy makers might really have believed it, surely? But, there is a difference between stupid and nonsensical. I don’t personally believe that the US policy makers were individually or collectively stupid, but even if they were that would not be sufficient to give weight to these claims. To claim that the US acted to maintain its “credibility” would be to suggest that they believed their credibility would be heightened by what Kissinger described as, “victory by a third class Communist peasant state.” That, after all, is what their most comprehensive analyses kept suggesting would be the outcome if they continued their escalating commitment, and so, logically, they chose this outcome (being “defeated” by a small nation of peasant farmers) over any other options such as neutralisation or simple unilateral withdrawal and the disowning of the GVN. To reitierate: the idea we are supposed to believe is that being militarily defeated by the poorly armed peasants a small underdeveloped state is supposed to be better for US credibility than doing nothing or bullying said state into massive concessions at the negotiating table.

The credibility motive idea also requires a belief in the highly exaggerated vulnerability of the US evidenced in Nixon’s “pitiful helpless giant” speech. The fact is that all other state actors during the Cold War were at all times very reluctant to really offend or provoke the US. The US no more needed to show a propensity to use its unparalleled might than a 200 kilogram gorilla would have to do so in order to induce those nearby to be cautious. The sheer irrationality of this is perhaps most clearly shown by McGeorge Bundy’s February 1965 memorandum suggesting that the US should bomb the DRV to demonstrate to everyone that the US was willing to bomb the DRV.

In the more recent case Obama is proposing to strike Syria because to leave Syria unpunished is to appear weak, but what exactly are the proposed cruise missile strikes supposed to achieve? They will not diminish anyone’s chemical weapons capacity. They will not achieve régime change. They won’t improve the negotiating position of the rebels. But missile strikes on Syria will demonstrate that the US can conduct missile strikes on Syria. Sound familiar? This weird contention that a message must be sent to Iran and North Korea is to suggest that if either régime attacks its own people with “weapons of mass destruction” the US will also attack their people with weapons that cause mass destruction (not to be confused with “weapons of mass destruction” which are only used by evil régimes).

Abroad in the echoing canyon of mainstream mass yodels is the floating signifier of presidential reluctance. Before the British parliament voted against action, some alleged journalists were trying to say that Obama was having his arm twisted by allied countries. Others say Obama painted himself into a corner with his own rhetoric of a “red line”. More say that the unprecedented nature of these alleged crimes places demands on Obama that he cannot ignore. For those who actually believe that the Syrian army are responsible (given what we know about far more deadly chemical attacks by Iraq) the unprecedented aspect must be the alleged fact that these attacks would have been conducted without US approval and assistance (such as the US supplied to Iraq in numerous ways when it was using CW against Iranian soldiers and civilians. I will admit that it is pretty shocking and chilling to think that people would commit atrocities without Henry Kissinger’s involvement at some level, but I have it on good authority that mass murders occurred before Henry was even born. Strange, I know, but there it is.)

It used to be said of Israel that the Labour Zionist approach to Palestinians was “shoot, then cry”, but for sheer histrionic reluctance while committing mass-murder nothing can quite compare to a Democrat in the Whitehouse. Some point to Wilson’s 1916 campaign pledge to stay out of the Great War and decision to send troops in 1917, but for my money nothing will ever match Br’er Johnson’s “please don’t throw me in the Vietnam quagmire” performance. Johnson made a very vocal show of having his hand forced. He famously, after the fact, referred to the conflict as that “bitch of a war”. In addition, he called it a “god-awful mess”, and himself as “hooked like a catfish” and “trapped”. He had a habit of thinking out loud with regard to the war, wondering how he could maintain his “posture as a man of peace” and making it clear that all the options available to him were unpalatable. He would have frequent theatrical outbursts of indignation against hawkish advisers and, on one occasion, the constant changes of régime in the RVN (brought about by his own administration).

The most bizarre Johnson outburst I have come across is an instance where a Major was, for no apparent reason, made to hold a map during a meeting between Johnson and the JCS, becoming “an easel with ears”. Later he described the event to Christian Appy:

“…Johnson exploded. I almost dropped the map. He just started screaming these obscenities. They were just filthy. It was something like: “You goddamn fucking assholes. You’re trying to get me to start World War III with your idiotic bullshit – your ‘military wisdom.’” He insulted each of them individually. “You dumb shit. Do you expect me to believe that kind of crap? I’ve got the weight of the Free World on my shoulders and you want me to start World War III?” He called them shitheads and pompous assholes and used the f-word more freely than a marine in boot camp. He really degraded them and cursed at them. The he went back to a calm voice, as if he’d finished playing his little role….”

Historian Fred Logevall describes Johnson’s behaviour as a “charade” undertaken because “Johnson wanted history to record that he agonised.”

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Tinkerbell Gets the Clap

Sometimes the more ridiculous and stupid one’s beliefs, the harder to let go of them simply because of the pain of realisation. I recently heard a story of a foreign student in my country who, after an accident, had ended up in hospital with a broken neck, arm, and ribs. She insisted that the sign indicating the suggested speed at which one should take the corner was in fact indicating the number of degrees of bend. She insisted despite being told otherwise by her native-born teacher. She insisted despite the fact that a hairpin bend is obviously not a mere 15 degrees and despite the fact that labelling bends in degrees is a facially ridiculous and unworkable idea. She insisted despite actually being in hospital because of this idiotic belief. However it is tempting to think that if she had been told of her foolishness before her accident she might have been more accepting, so really she insisted because she was in hospital. The problem is that after the event, telling the young woman that she had been really stupid and the author of her own woes does not endear one to her.

I have no doubt that if there is one thing that keeps me isolated from potential intellectual allies it is the fact that I will not soften the blow or sweeten the bitter pill of telling people who oppose US aggression that they are being complete morons every time they smugly condemn the stupidity of US political and military leaders. After 1965 proving that you were smarter that the “best and the brightest” was all the rage for the better and brighter among journalists. Of course the journalists’ problem was that they were fighting the last war (actually the war before that, but a favourite accusation of such iconoclastic journalists is that the US military is “fighting the last war” – there is nothing like a good facile cliché to destroy reflection). They were assuming that the US was losing a war for national security, national self-interest or, at the very least, the enrichment of the national bourgeois ruling class. Instead an imperial cabal was successfully committing an imperial genocide but doing so at a considerable cost to national security, national self-interest and the enrichment of the national bourgeoisie. Some corporate interests did profit immensely, but they were not the “capitalists” who make cars and fridges and such-like, they were imperial interests whose activities (arms, media, finance, oil/energy, biochemical, water) give direct control over populations. The profits they made were also not from the looting of Indochina but from the looting of the US taxpayer in payment for their role in inflicting genocidal death and destruction on Laos, Cambodia and Viet Nam.

Beginning with US actions in Indochina, but certainly aided by Ronald Reagan and Dan “Potatoe” Quayle, opposition to US foreign policy became ever more mired in self-congratulatory armchair generalisms. The apex of this was the George W. Bush era. Bush was like the Stupid Fairy (Dumberbell). Every time he should have been politically dead (Enron, 9-11, Tora Bora, Katrina) he was resurrected, not by the meathead war lovers, but by the smug liberals who shut their eyes and clapped: “I believe in the Stupid Fairy! I believe in the Stupid Fairy!” And because they believed, and because their hearts were true and pure, nobody said “hey, this guy is doing all of this stuff on purpose”. With the invasion of Iraq Bush engaged in sophisticated and systematic deception in order to justify the continuation of genocide in a new and more brutal phase using invasion and occupation. Even those who knew he was lying completely about his motives still said he was doing it just because he was stupid.

This brings us back to present-day Obama. Already alternative media commentators who are convinced that Obama is lying are equally certain that he doesn’t have any real reason for attacking Syria. It’s all one big mistake because Obama is stupid, or because he is too proud to back down from his unwise and disingenuous mention of a “red line” (which was just innocently thrown out there as a warning to Syria, and was definitely not a keynote in an ongoing campaign to build support for military action). I can already imagine that the academic hacks who indulge in “psychopolitics” are beginning to see how his absent father and lack of ethno-racial peers in childhood would incline Obama to want to attack Syria in a maverick gunslinger at high-noon sort of way. But one does not construct an elaborate deception without having something to conceal. And one does not use this deception to commit a war crime without a pretty serious motive.

The Real Reason

The helpless giant rhetoric currently being used by Obama and Kerry is incredibly weak. Many millions in the US and throughout the Western world, already much more jaded than during Obama’s first term, will become permanently distrusting of the US government. The very fact that Obama was supposed to be different than Bush has been a huge advantage which has enabled Obama to act in ways that Bush would never have been allowed to act. But now those that lose faith in Obama are liable to lose faith in the régime altogether, and they are likely to stay that way for a very long time if not until the day they die. Outside of the West, the fact that even the lies and rationalisations are so pathetic quite understandably fuels an extreme level of anger and directs that anger far more at the people of the US and the West than Bush’s actions ever could. The Obama administration would not create this situation without significant reasons.

With regard to the the specific instance of the threatened cruise missile strikes against Syria I must be speculative, but with regard to the context of ongoing support for armed rebels in Syria I can speak more firmly. I have heard it said that the US encouraged or allowed its Syrian National Council allies or clients to repudiate offers of negotiations on the basis that the US was hoping for military victory. But without a major outside military intervention there has never been any realistic prospect of a rebel victory. When I outlined to an acquaintance the factors which show that the US is, in fact, trying to ensure that conflict continues without a decision there was a reflexive response that the the driving force must be the US arms manufacturers seeking profits. It think that such a response would be common but, in my opinion, it borders on magic thinking. In general, if you think that the tail is wagging the dog then you do not understand how the dog works. Instead it should be clear that the US ensures the continuation of conflict in Syria because the conflict weakens Syria. The conflict destroys Syrian property, divides Syrian society, and kills Syrians.

There must be a real and substantive motive behind US behaviour. These are matters of extreme weight undertaken by an enormous bureaucratic machine. Between the State Department, the National Security Council, the “intelligence community” and the Department of Defense it is not as if Obama could or would just poke his head around the door one Tuesday afternoon and say: “Hey Chuck, how about we arm those FSA dudes?” If there is reason and consideration behind US actions then, why do they not just share those reasons with us? George Orwell had the answer to that question back in 1946: “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties.”

The fact is the Obama and Kerry could honestly explain what they are doing in Syria, but to do so would cause worldwide riots; would see allies repudiating their relationship with the US; and might even spawn serious moves towards war-crimes trials perhaps even in the US itself. The US needs to exert some form of control over the Middle East because of its oil resources. Since it cannot rule directly or even indirectly (because the interests of most Middle Eastern people are not compatible with US imperial interests) it must seek to enfeeble these inherently inimical societies through destabilisation and direct or indirect destruction. This is very deadly and very brutal behaviour.

In Iraq it was exactly this sort of behaviour, working on exactly this sort of rationale, that saw the US by direct means cause over 2 million Iraqi deaths in the space of 20 years and leave a shattered and poisoned land of ongoing mass violence behind. This was war conducted against the nation of Iraq – not the government of Iraq, nor the army of Iraq, but the people of Iraq. When Raphaël Lemkin wanted to describe the “antithesis of the … doctrine [which] holds that war is directed against sovereigns and armies, not against subjects and civilians” he came up with a brand new term. That term was “genocide”. That is what genocide means, it means war conducted against a people, their society, their culture, their economy and not their government’s army. In this sense, and under the law contained in the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, there is no question that the US committed genocide in Iraq. If it were ever to be argued properly in court, the case would be open and shut regardless of the fact that many Iraqis died at the hands of the avowed enemies of the US.

Am I then suggesting that the US is committing genocide in Syria when it is not directly involved and when it is the Syrian government forces that have caused many if not most of the fatalities? Yes and no. It is not important whether people apply the term “genocide” or not. What is important is that people realise that the logic behind US actions is the logic of genocide. Some might say that if you are going to look at things this way, you might just as well say that almost everything the US government does is genocidal, including most of its behaviour towards the people of the US itself. Again, that is for the reader to decide. You can make up all the conditions you want for what is and is not genocide as long as they are cogent and applied consistently, but bear in mind that Lemkin invented the term to describe the German approach to all occupied Europe as a whole, not just to certain minorities. Genocide denoted the general strategic approach to direct rule by the Germans (including many actions which were not direct violence) but Lemkin applied the term to imperialist and colonialist dominance and would certainly have applied it to neocolonial violence and control where it was merited.

That is why the Obama has to recycle some of the lamest Johnson, Nixon and Bush rhetoric. That is why Kerry is comparing Assad to Saddam Hussein and Hitler. These are not words which endear the US régime to the world. They don’t inspire confidence or belief. They sound strained and desperate. But the Obama administration is willing to lose credibility at home and abroad because the cost of explaining it real motives would be far far higher.

As to the specifics of why this current behaviour of deliberately and theatrically telegraphing an intent to deliver illegal “punishment” it is probably both a show of force and impunity and a provocation. Given that calling for US attacks is not going to win the SNC and FSA many friends in Syria, it seems a little like the last throw of the dice, but remember that the US has nothing to lose but its credibility. Even if the bulk of the armed resistance to Assad is crushed or quits in disgust at the actions of the US and the most fanatical Islamists, there will be ample opportunity for the US, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and whomever else wishes to continue destabilisation operations that continue to push Syria ever and ever closer to failed statehood and a permanent crisis of violence and misery.

That is a good point to end on – a reminder that 20 years ago there was no such thing as a “failed state”. It is true that we could have applied the term to Lon Nol’s Cambodia and to the Democratic Kampuchea régime that followed (Kissinger could take the bulk of the credit for both). There would have been other scattered instances before, but on the whole it is a new phenomenon. US destabilisation programmes and warfare, often undertaken by proxies, are responsible for creating these failed states. Events in the Eastern Congo (part of the Democratic Republic of Congo) have shown that having a society being ripped apart and the violent deaths of millions need not interfere with mineral extraction and obscene profits – quite the contrary. This is the neocolonial equivalent of King Leopold’s holocaust. Even if at lower intensities, it is applied throughout the poor states of the world, particularly those rich in resources. This is a genocidal approach aimed at “the destruction in whole or part” of underdeveloped peoples and ultimately even the peoples of the global North.

In the case of Syria, from an imperialist perspective it may be that the horrors of this civil war are doing their job quite well. With 100,000 dead and 2 million external refugees, Israel has decided to allow oil and gas exploration in the Golan Heights. Given that the Golan Heights are part of Syria, Israel would never have dared such a move if the Syria had not been drastically weakened. The contract has been awarded to Genie energy, a company whose “strategic advisory board” include Dick Cheney, Jacob Rothschild and Rupert Murdoch.