US Wars are for Empire, Not for Profit

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Yemen is being destroyed. A US-backed “Saudi Coalition” has been bombing and shelling Yemen for 16 months. The UN puts the civilian death toll at 3700, but (aside from the question of why combatants’ lives apparently only count if they are Western soldiers) this probably vastly under-represents the death toll by both direct violence and by the indirect effects of the war. Most of the country has no reliable access to clean water and people, particularly young children, are dying of disease and deprivation.

On August the 22nd, two eminent commentators gave interviews on Yemen. Harper’s magazine editor Andrew Cockburn (author of a book on drone assassinations called Kill Chain) was interviewed on Democracy Now! Later in the day Medea Benjamin (prominent activist co-founder of Code Pink and also author of a book on Drone Warfare) was interviewed on KPFA’s Flashpoints.

Cockburn and Benjamin were in complete agreement about two very important facts. This first is that this is a US war. As Cockburn wrote in a Harper’s piece:

Thousands of civilians – no one knows how many – have been killed or wounded. Along with the bombing, the Saudis have enforced a blockade, cutting off supplies of food, fuel, and medicine. A year and a half into the war, the health system has largely broken down, and much of the country is on the brink of starvation.

This rain of destruction was made possible by the material and moral support of the United States, which supplied most of the bombers, bombs, and missiles required for the aerial onslaught. (Admittedly, the United Kingdom, France, and other NATO arms exporters eagerly did their bit.)

The second important fact is that Saudi violence is is targeted against civilians and civilian infrastructure. To quote Cockburn again: “They’ve destroyed most of the health system. They destroyed schools. Human Rights Watch did an excellent report pointing out that they’ve attacked—consistently attacked economic targets having nothing to do with any kind of war effort, but like potato chip factories, water bottling factories, power plants. It’s an effort to destroy Yemen. And … we are part of that. This is our war, and it’s shameful.”

The type of warfare Cockburn is describing, systematic violence against a national group and systematic destruction of a nation-state, is exactly what was meant by Raphael Lemkin when he coined the term “genocide” (as you can read for yourself here) and it is clearly covered by the UN Convention against genocide which prohibits any intentional destruction “in whole or in part” of a national group by:

(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.

I will return to the significance of the concept of genocide in due course, but there is a third very significant thing on which Benjamin and Cockburn agree, and that is that the US motive in participating is to make money. In response to Kevin Pina’s opening question as to why the US is involved, Benjamin answered: “That’s a pretty simple one: money; greed; US weapons industries. The Saudis have become the number 1 purchaser of US weapons.” In this case, however, I must vehemently disagree with Benjamin and Cockburn (and on this subject it often feels like I’m disagreeing with the entire Western world). Blaming greed, or the power of profit, is a dangerous delusion. If opposition to permanent warfare continues to be dominated by this trope then we will never be able to end these ongoing massacres. Nor, for that matter, will we be able to halt the war on the domestic front – the intrinsically linked increase in militarisation, surveillance, and state violence (actual and potential) that is the other side of the permanent warfare coin.

There are many things that make me angry about the wide-held belief that US foreign policy is shaped by the profit motive. It is facile; it is intellectually cowardly; it is self-defeating; it is chauvinistic (or more specifically Usacentric) and thus unavoidably racist; and it is embarrassingly credulous. Nicholas J S Davies recently published an excellent article on the “normalisation of deviance” which causes US foreign policy elites to embrace a worldview of vast cognitive dissonances, in which realities of illegal and inhumane US practices are subsumed (and thus made possible) in the oceanic assumption of fundamental existential US benevolence, benevolence of US purposes, and benevolence of US intents. My contention is that Benjamin, Cockburn, and others I shall name are part of a constrained and disciplined dialectic of opposition that condemns the individual dissonant actions but actually accommodates and reinforces the US exceptionalist worldview that creates the “normalisation of deviance”.

There are two things that are very crucial to understand. One is that the US exceptionalist worldview is hegemonic throughout the West and, to a lesser extent, globally. What this means is that when judging the actions of the US government we project our own self-image onto imagined or real agents (such as the US President). We assume that the motives behind their actions are sane and rational and not malevolent in intent (unlike those of demonised enemy leaders who are often assumed to be acting out of irrational or diabolical intent). That is not to say that the claim is that US foreign policy is rational, but rather that irrationality is created by the system, while US leaders are personalised as rational beings who mean well in exactly the way that enemies of the West are personalised as irrational and/or malevolent in intent.

The second thing to understand is that without the widespread “normalisation of deviance” US military interventions would be impossible. Many US personnel would not follow the flagrantly illegal orders which they currently enact without a second thought. Other countries would not continue to cooperate with the US except when necessary and they would make war crimes prosecutions an unsurpassed priority of public and private diplomacy.

The idea that “war is a racket” and that wars are fought to line the pockets of profiteers is part of a tradition that comes out of an ideological consensus that is so widespread as to be nearly invisible. This is a materialist consensus between Marxists, liberals, conservatives, and others which embraces economic determinism (meaning roughly that economics shape society rather than society shapes economics). Note that Marxists often reject economic determinism as merely “vulgar Marxism”, but the fact remains that the very terminology of Marxism, much of which is used by non-Marxists, ensures that they remain shackled to that basic position. Free-market liberals, conservatives, neoliberals, and libertarians are ultimately just as tied to economic determinism, not least because they embrace the notion of capitalism which (as we tend to forget) comes from Marx. The point about this materialist consensus is that creates a common language in which people can intelligibly argue about the fine details of a fundamentally nonsensical construct. Disputants on both sides find that the path of least resistance lies in affirming the underlying orthodoxy and working with that, and the prefabricated arguments that come with it. The fatal flaw is that dissent becomes limited and impotent to affect change.

People who cite the military-industrial complex and profiteering as being a cause of US foreign policy often seem to be rather smug with what seem to me to be an unjustified sense of bravery and insight. I think people find it satisfying because they have the sensation of having pierced a veil, or having clambered over the thorny hedge that surrounds the a meadow of classroom platitudes. Such people, presumably, feel good about themselves for being clever. They will generally only be challenged by people who still cling to an even less tenable analysis so they need never interrogate these beliefs.

There is also a certain calculus of dissent. If you reject the mainstream view in the most obvious and easy fashion, you can be sure that you will have a cohort of like-minded semi-dissidents. However, if you then question and reject the easy critique, you will most likely find yourself isolated and deprived of the common language and shortcuts shared between the mainstream and semi-dissenting viewpoint. Usually someone will be quite young when they reject idealistic notions of politics and embrace a sense of amoral economic determinism and human greed or self-interest as driving forces behind the exercise of power. Once they have that conviction it will be a foundation on which rests all of their political analysis that they develop through life and thus it becomes an ingrained unexamined habit of thought.

However, when it comes to war, the centrality of profit/profiteering becomes a big problem. There are some exceptional circumstances, such as the interests of US financiers in World War I, in which powerful individuals may have a strong profit-motive that leads them to agitate for war. On the whole, however, wars do not create wealth, they destroy wealth. Some interests may profit, but fighting wars will reduce overall profits (except in as much as they may allow an upward redistribution of wealth through the disbursement of tax money and government bond money (which is the tax money of future generations)).

In the US context people may mistakenly believe that they have a more robust analysis than “war is a racket” because they can cite the existence of the military-industrial complex. The problem with that is that is presumes that the military-industrial complex just created itself. On Waatea 5th Estate, for example, Henry Rollins opened an interview by explaining the whole thrust of US politics since Reagan as being caused by the needs of the military-industrial-complex and the prison-industrial-complex. In fairness, he did go on to show that he understood the prison-industrial-complex to be a dynamic mechanism (situated in history) for reproducing the racialised “caste” system that subjugates African Americans. However, he shows no such insight into the military-industrial complex, though its historical roots are, if anything, more strikingly functional than those of the prison-industrial complex. The prison-industrial complex exists to maintain a domestic social order through violent subjugation and the military-industrial complex exists to maintain imperial hegemony and an international social order through even greater violence and subjugation.

The term “military-industrial complex” was coined by Dwight Eisenhower at the end of 8 years in the White House. The forerunners of the complex can be seen in the British Empire. Thus, in trying to diagnose the British Empire at the end of the 19th century, John A. Hobson noted that the Empire was an economic drain, but that it benefited “certain sectional interests”. He specified that these interests were the finance sector plus the shipbuilding, boiler-making, and gun and ammunition making trades”. In those days of British naval supremacy shipbuilding and boiler-making were the equivalent of the aerospace industry in the US today. Hobson, like today’s aficionados of the military-industrial complex, treated the whole thing as if it were some sort of scam – an unfair and vastly disproportionate way of fleecing the British people and the colonies. But the disproportionality itself showed that profit could not be a driving factor. Why, after all, would wealthy landowners and traders sacrifice their own wealth, as Hobson claimed, for sectional interests? If those interests had taken control of policy, why and how?

The key to understanding this “empire complex”, as I will call it, is that these “certain sectional interests” were, alongside the military and some other parts of the British state structure, the governing structures of the Empire (and the informal empire). This rose from a deliberate blurring of the lines between state and private power. For example, in Century of War F. William Engdahl writes of 3 “pillars of the British Empire” (finance, shipping and control of natural resources) and gives this example of interpenetration between private interests, government and British intelligence:

Britain modelled its post-Waterloo empire on an extremely sophisticated marriage between top bankers and financiers of the City of London, Government cabinet ministers, heads of key industrial companies deemed strategic to the national interest, and the heads of the espionage services.

Representative of this arrangement was City of London merchant banking scion, Sir Charles Jocelyn Hambro, who sat as a director of the Bank of England from 1928 until his death in 1963. During the Second World War, Hambro was Executive Chief of British secret intelligence’s Special Operations Executive (SOE) in the Government’s Ministry of Economic Warfare, which ran war-time economic warfare against Germany, and trained the entire leadership of what was to become the postwar American Central Intelligence Agency and intelligence elite, including William Casey, Charles Kindelberger, Walt Rostow and Robert Roosa, later Kennedy Treasury Deputy Secretary and partner of Wall Street’s elite Brown Brothers, Harriman.

The US military-industrial complex took things further than its British forerunner. When Eisenhower gave his famous warning about the “military-industrial complex” he was referring to something with long historical roots and antecedents, but nevertheless he was referring to something new; something only a decade old. In earlier drafts of Eisenhower’s farewell address it was referred to as the “military-industrial-Congressional complex”. In retrospect it was unfortunate that the word “Congressional” was omitted, because he nature of Congressional involvement shows a level of premeditated planning. Military contracts were distributed to every possible Congressional district so that every representative would be vulnerable to losses of jobs and income in their district. Politicians were being deliberately tied to the complex, so that it would be possible to either direct or replace any who spoke out against the interests of the complex. This was all happening at the time when NSC-68 became policy, creating what we know as the Cold War.

NSC-68 was a policy document signed by President Truman in 1950. It halted the post-WWII demobilisation of the USA and put the country on a permanent wartime footing. Though top secret, the 58 page document is stuffed full of propaganda that painted a fictitious picture of the USSR as a military threat to the USA. It states: “The Kremlin regards the United States as the only major threat to the conflict between idea of slavery under the grim oligarchy of the Kremlin … and the exclusive possession of atomic weapons by the two protagonists. The idea of freedom, moreover, is peculiarly and intolerably subversive of the idea of slavery. But the converse is not true. The implacable purpose of the slave state to eliminate the challenge of freedom has placed the two great powers at opposite poles. It is this fact which gives the present polarization of power the quality of crisis.” NSC-68 is full of fake figures and outright lies about Soviet capabilities. The document was probably not intended to persuade lawmakers and administrators as much as it was to give them a Party-line and talking points. These were words, phrases and arguments that could sell a new brand of USA to the people living in the USA itself and the strongest dissenting voices were soon silenced by McCarthyism.

Military spending tripled in the three years after NSC-68. An armistice was signed in Korea in 1953, but the military spending remained at wartime levels, and has never significantly decreased since.

The military-industrial complex was purposefully given a lever to control Congress and this tells us something about the intentionality of its creation, but I must point out that the complex has other levers to pull. Like other big industries which rely on government contracts and/or a lucrative legislative and policy environment, the private interests in the complex spend vast amounts on lobbying and campaign donations. This alone gives them “unwarranted influence” far in excess of what Eisenhower might have envisaged (at least in the fact that that influence is ineradicable by any means short of revolution). It gets even worse, however, because elected officials in the US are heavy investors in weapons and aerospace, and House and Senate members are not prohibited from insider trading. Between 2004 and 2009 19 of 28 members of the Senate Armed Services committee held stock in companies to which they could award contracts. They are only: “precluded … from taking official actions that could boost their personal wealth if they are the sole beneficiaries.”

The circle of venality tying politicians to the military-industrial complex works through bonds of greed and self-interest, but it has nothing to do with the profit mechanisms of “capitalism” as it is usually conceived. The complex was partly the product of historical processes shaped by power relations, but more importantly it was a conscious artifice. At the same time that food companies were developing the “TV Dinner”, US political elites created a TV Dinner military hegemony which went with a new TV Dinner empire. They pulled back the foil on their instant empire by announcing the doctrine of Cold War “containment”. Modelled on the 19th century “Monroe Doctrine”, by which the US gave itself the right to intervene in any Western hemisphere country, “containment” meant that any time the US had the power and desire to intervene they would simply claim that there was a Communist threat.

The military-industrial complex was created to tie government to the project of empire, however it did not remain static once created. Because this is an empire, success within the system is not determined by market forces, as much as market forces are twisted, wrangled and beaten into a shape that feeds the semi-private arms of imperial power. They are profitable, but that is incidental.

Both the military-industrial complex and the prison-industrial complex are subsumed within a greater empire complex. This model of government corruption (campaign financing, lobbying, revolving door appointments, intellectual property legislation, no-bid contracts, cost-plus contracts, bail-outs, etc.) creates a whole class of industries that are co-dependent with government. These are not random concerns, they are tied together by a shared characteristic. Such industries include arms; aerospace; finance; agribusiness; pharmaceuticals; health; oil and energy; infrastructure; media and communications; and security/policing/prisons/mercenaries. What ties them together is that whoever controls these things controls nations and peoples.

The imperial complex creates a situation where it becomes inevitable that the business of empire is empire, and nothing else unless it is in the service of empire. The government of the USA is so integral to the empire complex that, in foreign policy, it is purely devoted to the extension and maintenance of imperial power. In fact, the model of governance imposed on the empire by the public-private branches of the empire complex, widely known as “neoliberal”, increasingly provides the model of domestic governance. The US is colonising itself. The empire complex has evolved to control, not to build, nurture or protect. Like empires of the past, it has become the tool of a narrow elite whose interests are not truly tied to the motherland any more tightly than they are to the colonies.

This brings me back to the claim that the US is behind the bombing in Yemen because it feed the profits of the military-industrial complex. The claim is 100% wrong. None of this is for profit. It was a system intentionally constructed to maintain and extend imperial hegemony. It’s subsequent evolution has not in any way made it capitalistic, but has alarmingly broadened and deepened the governance structures.

There is an underlying assumption by Cockburn, Benjamin and other such critics of US foreign policy that the money factor has perverted foreign policy from its true course. This implies that uncorrupted by money (and nefarious foreigners) US foreign policy would revert to being a largely benevolent practice directed by concern with national security, the national interest, and the prosperity of the homeland. The frustrating thing about this is that it is a complete refusal to simply attempt to analyse an empire (which many critics US foreign policy gladly admit that it is) as an empire. It is sad that trenchant critics of wars (and the bloodthirsty elites who wage them) are stuck with such a childish mentality. They evince a faith that the proper purpose of the system itself is akin to that of a parent (whether loving or stern) and that Dad just needs to sober up from the intoxication of money.

Most critics of US foreign policy assume that it is a dysfunctional branch of nation-state politics, rather than even entertaining the idea that it might be a very rational and functional arm of imperial politics. For example, they assume that provoking terrorism against US interests and people is a failure of policy, but there are no concrete reasons for believing this. In contrast, one can argue that the US provokes terrorism on purpose in order to justify foreign interventions and erosions of civil liberties. That is a reasoned position that explains US actions with a clear motive. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with it, but let us consider conventional assumption that provoking terrorism is a mistake. In that case the contention is that an observed repeated pattern of behaviour (the various violent provocations such as invasions, bombings, torture, kidnappings) is a continual series of errors due to systemic dysfunction. To support this you must create a complex analytical apparatus showing that some essentialist cultural characteristics (a blend of ignorance, arrogance, and the desire to do good) cause US officials and personnel to keep repeating the same mistakes and never learn their lesson. All of this, a massive offence against the principle of parsimony, rests on the assumption that there can be no intent to foment terrorism because those same officials and personnel are collectively inclined to protect Usanians and US interests. This all falls down though, in the very obvious fact that the US government only protects US citizens when forced to. In the policies environment, public health, health, economy, trade, infrastructure, civil defence and (let us not forget) foreign intervention the US government shows that it will happily sacrifice the lives of its citizens. Terrorism deaths are a drop in the bucket compared to those caused by the insufficient healthcare in the US. Moreover, if you pre-ordain that non-interventionism and demilitarisation are not allowable foreign policy options, then you will not allow a policy that keeps people safe from terrorism. In practical terms that is a conspiracy to foment and harness terrorism for foreign interventions because the results are foreseeable and unavoidable.

Accompanying the infuriating belief that the natural state of Western governance is enlightened self-interest is the more repugnant and hypocritical belief that non-Western foreigners act in ways that need no explanation other than their hatred, brutality, and irrational violence. We endless ask ourselves where the US went “wrong” over various acts of mass violence, but no one feels the need to agonise about what part of the Qatari national character causes them to keep making the “mistake” of thinking they can bomb terrorism out of existence. The only analysis you need put forward is that they hate Iran, or hate Shi’a or (if you are really sophisticated) hate republicanism, then there is not need to explain why this translates into bombing or invasions or torture or any form of violence. When non-Westerners commit such acts it is treated as no more remarkable than the sun rising.

When Saudi Arabia bombs Yemen with US weapons, few entertain the notion that the Saudi Arabia might be acting as a US proxy, even though the US must approve enough to keep supplying the bombs. Instead we have a frankly racist discourse that suggests that Saudi Arabia is by some means dragging the US into a conflict in contravention of US interests. This whole “tail-wags-dog” trope really pisses me off. The US has been using the supposed rebelliousness and truculence of its puppets as an excuse for its actions going at least as far back as Syngman Rhee, the dictator they installed in South Korea after WWII. Everywhere that they possibly can, the US installs leaders who are unpopular enough with their own people that they are dependent on the US military to stay in power. That is how you run an empire. Sometimes it is in the US interest that such people make a show of anti-imperialist defiance, but when they really are defiant they tend to find themselves exiled, dead or imprisoned in fairly short order.

In the case of Saudi Arabia, an oligarchy of royals rules in defiance of the public will and the public interest. That is the classic recipe for a client regime, and probably differs little from a standard Roman client regime 2000 years ago. Iraqi-American analyst BJ Sabri has been posting a multi-part analysis of Saudi subjugation for over some months and argues that Saudi dependency is very deep, perhaps unusually so. In Part 2 of the series Sabri wrote:

On one side, we have the Saudi deference to the United States. I view this deference as follows: (1) confluence and reciprocal opportunism of two different but oppressive ideologies —Wahhabism and imperialism; (2) oil and petrodollars, and (3) a long history of secret deals—since the day Franklin D. Roosevelt met Abdul Aziz Al Saud in 1945. On the other, we have a supremacist superpower that views Al Saud as no more than a backward tribal bunch whose primary function is providing special services to the United States. These include cheap oil, buying US weapons, investing oil money in the US capitalistic system, supporting US hegemonic quest, buying US national debt, and bankrolling its covert operations and wars.

To drive the point, I argue that the combination between lack of means, lack of resistance, and other forms of dependence (US political and public relations support, for example) has created a situation of dependency. It incrementally forced the Saudi regime into a mental subordination to the United States similar to an occupied mentality.

Of course, others will tell you that the US must be acting at the behest of Saudi Arabia because they have no motive of their own. As Cockburn reports, “no one that I talked to in Washington suggested that the war was in any way necessary to our national security. The best answer I got came from Ted Lieu, a Democratic congressman from California who has been one of the few public officials to speak out about the devastation we were enabling far away. ‘Honestly,’ he told me, ‘I think it’s because Saudi Arabia asked.’”

When people like Cockburn make reference to “our national security” as if it were a factor in US military interventions I have to check that I haven’t been whisked to a parallel dimension. When has US national security ever been a consideration in a US decision to attack another country? This is the most interventionist state in the history of humanity and from an historical perspective the only differentiation in terms of national security is whether the US government puts a lot of effort into lying about having a national security interest (e.g. Viet Nam, Cambodia, Korea, Iraq); puts on a minimal or pathetic show (e.g. Grenada, Laos, Syria, Libya); or doesn’t really bother with the pretence at all (e.g. Haiti, Somalia, Panama).

Implying that a given US military intervention is aberrant because not does not serve national security is gross intellectual cowardice. It is a way of critiquing US policy without ever suggesting that the US might itself be worthy of criticism. Notions of exceptionalism are not challenged but rather are enforced by the implication that each act of mass violence is a departure from an unspoken norm. These are criticisms that sanitise and conceal US agency and intentionality by using the equivalent of the passive voice.

Gareth Porter is a fine critic of US policy when it comes to challenging the lies of officials who are gunning for war. He has written extensively to debunk the nuclear scare tactics used by US officials to threaten war against Iran and to impose cruel sanctions. But Porter is also an exponent of this passive voice historiography. His 2005 book Perils of Dominance documented the fact that the US had an unassailable strategic hegemony and lied to create the impression that the USSR was a threat to national security. It is a very useful book (although I would dispute his exculpation of Lyndon Johnson), but the way Porter frames facts, indeed the central “thesis” of the book, is that not having any genuinely security fears caused the US to invade Viet Nam. It is rather like framing a story of spousal abuse by focussing on the fact that the perpetrator was induced to beat the victim because of a large difference in size and strength.

The reason I bring Porter up is because in a recent interview with Lee Camp he said we need to go beyond the military-industrial complex and look at the “national-security complex” and the “permanent war state”. At first glance you might think that he and I were on the same wavelength, but despite admitting to long years of “committing the liberal error of opposing the war, but not the system”, he refuses to relinquish his central delusion. He reprises the same analytical framework that was very common after the US withdrew from Viet Nam under titles like Quagmire Theory or Stalemate Theory. The idea is that bureaucratic systems running on their own logic become the determinants of foreign policy. This allows people like Arthur Schlesinger (himself an official under Kennedy) to state that the war in Indochina was “a tragedy without victims” and talk of “the politics of inadvertence”. This apologism can be seen in book titles on US war that emphasise benign intent or lack of agency such as Nobody Wanted War, or the book by one of the US officials who help destroy Iraq whose lame excuse is We Meant Well.

Discussing Syria (though it could just as well be Yemen) Porter says US actions point to “the total inanity and irrationality of US policy”. This is the critique of someone who wants to go on record as opposing US warmongering but wants the least possible challenges and repercussions for doing so. It resonates easily with people, but it simply does not hold up to any intellectual examination. US aggressions, as Porter admits, fit a pattern of behaviour, so are they irrational? Irrational would imply self-defeating, but the US has been destroying countries, Balkanising them, destabilising them, killing and impoverishing in many places. They have created an ever-lengthening string of failed or near-failed states in actions so momentous that they have created the greatest refugee crisis since World War II. Why would irrationality be so consistent and have such a strong impact?

I do not have the time and space here to detail the intrinsic links between genocide and imperialism here, but let us not be unnecessarily stupid and deny that empires profit from Balkanising, partitioning and destroying countries that are strategically inconvenient. That is well established as part of history, and there is no reason at all to think that the US should be any different. The US empire, despite its internally generated weakness and contradictions, goes from strength to strength in foreign policy. The USSR is gone and NATO is on Russia’s border. China is besieged by the “Pacific pivot” and the TPP. Independent nationalist regimes that reject the neoliberal “Washington Consensus” (which is the surrender of economic sovereignty to the US empire) have been picked off one by one. In global terms the US has never been more powerful.

How many times do we need to see the same intentional destruction of a country and its people by the US before we call it what it is – genocide. This is intentional destruction of “nations and peoples” and it is exactly what the term genocide was coined to describe.

The US empire is hollowing itself out. As it fails internally it will be ever more driven to impose control globally. As the 2016 Presidential campaign enters its crucial stage, we are entering the most dangerous period of history since the Cold War. We cannot afford to cling to delusions. We need to oppose US wars; evict US military bases; end mass surveillance and intelligence co-operation; reject neoliberalism and pro-corporate trade deals; and we need to reject the propaganda and discourse of US exceptionalism and apologism. When I say “we”, I mean every single person on the planet (including people in the US itself). The empire has to be beaten back on all fronts, because otherwise there are two horrific options: either it collapses, or worse still it doesn’t.

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The Guardian’s Death Squad Documentary May Shock and Disturb, But the Truth is Far Worse

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In what to many must seem a shocking exposé, the Guardian and BBC, after a 15 month investigation have produced a dramatic full-length documentary about US involvement in the formation and running of death squads in Iraq. One journalist describes the result as a “staggering… blockbuster”. But, by creating a false context, by omission, by deceptive emphasis and by specious analysis the Guardian and BBC have create a false and toothless critique. Indeed, though the authors would probably deny it vehemently, the impression given in this documentary is not inconsistent with the villain of the piece, James Steele, being a rogue Kurtz-like figure, with Col. James Coffman cast in the role of faithful sidekick. Other links to the established death squad practices are conspicuously absent – links such as John Negroponte’s appointment as Ambassador to Iraq and Steven Casteel’s role in forming the Police Commando units which functioned as death squads (not to mention ordering the Oregon National Guard to return rescued prisoners to their torturers). Even at the most basic level, the fundamental context was obscured, including one fact that the widespread use of death squads confirmed – the US-led “counterinsurgency” was not war, it was genocide.

Perhaps the most striking thing of all is that, after 15 months of investigation and nearly ten years after US officials set in motion the “Salvador option” in Iraq, this documentary reveals much less of substance than was being reported in 2005. In fact, it is a triumph of style over substance which packs an emotive punch, but disarms watchers by its lack of informational revelation. In January of 2005 it became public knowledge that the US was pursuing a death squad programme. In May 2005 the New York Times published the story showing Steele’s involvement in torture. In the intervening years people like Dahr Jamail continued to report on the US orchestration of death squad activity. And Max Fuller spent years and numerous articles (not to mention a website and the book Crying Wolf: Selling Counterinsurgency as Sectarian Civil War) documenting the death squad programme as well as revealing a deliberate ploy to misrepresent US-run death squads as sectarian murder.

Here is what I found wrong with James Steele: America’s mystery man in Iraq:

1) Mortality Data

One of the key distortions here is something very basic, the use of “more than 120,000” as a mortality figure. Some may argue that given the controversy over the mortality, it is only sensible to be conservative. But these figures are more than simply abstract numbers. When some people, most notoriously David Irving, put the case that only one million European Jews died during World War II, the media didn’t suddenly adopt the more conservative figure. In fact, Irving was thrown in prison. Irving’s casualty figure was crucial to his genocide denial, and the same is true of the lower figure used in “James Steele: America’s mystery man in Iraq”. A mortality of 120,000 immediately colours the way in which we perceive US actions in Iraq.

While many simply accept such figures on the basis of faith, the origins of the lowee estimates lie entirely in the work of scoundrels and fools. The figures produced by the two Lancet (“L1 and “L2)surveys indicate a far higher level of mortality and have been reinforced by sources such as the ORB poll. The nail in the coffin of these lower estimates (based on adding the Iraq Body Count figure to those in the Iraq War Logs) came when Les Roberts and students at Columbia subjected the two data sets to analysis, by pains-taking cross-referencing, showed that the two sets of data should be extrapolated to indicate a figure of a similar order, though slightly lower, than the ORB survey suggested. IBC claim that they have a different analysis of the correspondence between IWL and IBC wherein the vast majority of the IWL fatalities are in the IBC count (81%). They also claim, completely speciously, that they can distinguish combatant and non-combatant casualties. However, IWL is thought to cover only about 50% of US military reports (omitting special forces actions, for example, not to mention the incident shown in the footage released as Collateral Murder). Also remember that, as with the “mere gook rule” in Vietnam,1 US forces regularly report civilian deaths at their own hands, such as those in Collateral Murder, as being combatant deaths as a matter of policy.2 You can either conclude that IBC made an honest mistake, trust them on their analysis, and simply add another 15,000 deaths whilst also conveniently ignoring the undisputed fact that the US systematically mischaracterised non-combatant deaths as combatant deaths, or you might think that maybe IBC are not to be trusted. After all, they swore blind in defence of their figure before IWL came out, and barely skipped a beat when the figure jumped over 10% overnight.

We can also use our own brains on this topic. In 2006, the Baghdad morgue received 16,000 bodies of whom 80-85% were victims of violence. In 2005 Robert Fisk wrote: “…in July 2003 – three months after the invasion – 700 corpses were brought to the mortuary in Baghdad. In July of 2004, this rose to around 800. The mortuary records the violent death toll for June of this year as 879 – 764 of them male, 115 female. Of the men, 480 had been killed by firearms, along with 25 of the women. By comparison, equivalent figures for July 1997, 1998 and 1999 were all below 200.” We are really talking about an average of (if you will excuse some arguable rounding up) 1000 per month violent deaths until at least the end of 2007 (with the “surge” being the most violent time of the entire occupation). That gives a figure of 59,000 violent deaths. Let’s be conservative and say that right through to the withdrawal of US troops 50,000 people killed by violence ended up in the Baghdad morgue. What percentage of Iraq’s fatalities does it seem likely to you will have passed through the morgue of Baghdad? Just over 20% of Iraq’s population live in Baghdad, and many who died in Baghdad would not have been taken to the morgue. I think that estimating the Baghdad morgue data as representing any more than 10-15% of Iraqi mortality would be an offence against basic rationality and numeracy, so that too indicates that the figure of 120,000 is a massive underestimate, possibly of entirely the wrong order of magnitude. Another simple and universal yardstick is the number of orphans. The Iraqi Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs estimates that there are 4.5 million orphans (presumably those who have lost at least on parent) of whom 70% have lost parents since 2003. Is it possible that the 120,000 (which includes children) could have an average of 26.25 offspring? What about the number of widows in Iraq. One estimate is that 2.5 million Iraqi women have been widowed by the war. That seems inexplicably high, and in fact estimates range from 1 million to 3 million total Iraqi widows, but it is another indication that 120,000 is simply untenable and far below an actual conservative figure.

2) US War Aims

One of the central lies of the Iraq occupation, one of the greatest frauds ever perpetrated perhaps, is not just that the US sought some sort of peaceful independent democratic Iraq, but that it sought to impose any sort of stable unified regime at all. No doubt many US personnel were genuinely engaged in attempting to create stability, but from the beginning decisions made at cabinet level and later those emanating from the CPA, very effectively and systematically continued the work that began in 1990, and continued through years of bombing and sanctions and military action. That work was to inflict maximum damage on the fabric of Iraq’s society through attacks on social, political, intellectual, religious and economic health, and through the direct killing and immiseration of the Iraqi people. That process is called genocide.

The only evidence that the US ever sought stability is their own say so, and this is hardly surprising if you consider how unlikely it would be for them to admit instead to a desire to destabilise, weaken and fracture Iraq even further than they already had. The reader may recall that famously Gen. Eric Shinseki was over-ruled on the required number of troops for an effective occupation, and only one third of that number was committed. Some readers may be aware that State Department planning for a successful post-invasion occupation (the “Future of Iraq” project) was systematically sabotaged and subverted. Then the original occupying authority, ORHA (Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance) was fatally undermined by understaffing, lack of resources, and lack of standing within a chain of command. It was a joke, the only real resources and agency in the country were US military, which ORHA could not exert authority over, or the extant Iraqi institutions, which the US repudiated. After 61 days ORHA was replaced with the next seemingly Joseph Heller inspired spoof of governance – Bremer’s “Coalition Provisional Authority” (CPA).

With the CPA nominally in charge, actual power devolved to a confusing patchwork of military authorities whose only focus was security. Those who have read Imperial Life in the Emerald City know that there was systematic waste, fraud and mismanagement which ensured that reconstruction money belonging to the peoples of Iraq and the US was never successfully used for reconstruction. Everything was undermined. Even James Steele: America’s mystery man in Iraq showed that a mere 6 senior civilian police were supposed to train 30,000 police in 18 months. This sort of thing happened in every imaginable area of governance. So strong is the pattern that explanations of coincidence or incompetence cannot be borne, nor can explanations of systemic failure due to virulent partisan ideology (such as Rajiv Chandrasekaran puts forward).

In the meantime, abetted by the CPA, the US military was actually generating the very insurgency that this documentary would have us believe that the US sought desperately to avoid. As David Keen, author of Endless War, discusses here a function of the “war on terror” is to generate the very enemies which the US can use to justify its “war”. I myself have written about a prior instance of this pattern of US behaviour, the Second Indochina War, wherein the US acted to create recruit, arm and finance its insurgent opposition in order to effectuate genocide against the peoples of Indochina.

In Iraq too, the US actually became the midwives and nurturers of the very insurgency they claimed to be combating. The most obvious example is that by attacking or mistreating civilians, the US acted to recruit survivors and the bereaved as their enemies. In addition, though, accounts from early on in the occupation, in amongst the chaos, US forces left massive amounts of ordnance unguarded in the middle of the desert.3 A wild goose chase for WMD that the administration knew did not exist kept US personnel from securing actual conventional ordnance.4 And in one instance the US Marines more or less simply handed 800 assault rifles, 27 pick-up trucks and 50 radios over to a newly formed Fallujan brigade which promptly and predictably continued in its established role of armed resistance to Coalition occupation in spite of this generosity.5

The US regime also subverted its own personnel’s attempts to secure Iraq’s borders from the arrival of money, arms and fighters. Luis Montalvan gives an extraordinary testimony of obfuscation over the installation of a system for tracking migration, concluding: “From 2007—from 2003 to 2007, no computer systems for tracking immigration or emigration installed—were installed along the Syrian-Iraqi border. This surely contributed to the instability of Iraq. Foreign fighters and criminals were free to move transnationally with little fear of apprehension. It is probable that significant numbers of Americans and Iraqis were wounded and killed as a result of this.”

And then there was the infamous CPA Executive Order Number 2. At a stroke it made 500,000 often armed Iraqi military personnel unemployed. Where there had been none, there was now an insurgency. It should also be noted that the first executive order droves tens of thousands of government employees out of work and inevitably the two together were a massive jump start to insurgency where no serious organised armed resistance had existed to that point.

Also, as will be discussed below, the documentary distinctly gives the impression that US backed death squad activities inadvertently helped fuel sectarian civil war. This relies on the fallacy that death squads are a “dirty war” technique of genuine counterinsurgency (which I will counter below) and ignores the evidence that the US deliberately acted to sow ethnic and sectarian division in Iraq.

3) The “Dirty War” Fallacy

The phrase “dirty war” is used in this documentary to connote that the death squads are a form of counterinsurgency, if perhaps a morally questionable one. But the phrase “dirty war” was first applied to the killings and disappearances in Argentina, not by the Junta’s critics, but by the Junta itself. It is an excuse and a rationalisation of political terror. The Argentine politicide was part of a plan of drastic, if not revolutionary, societal transformation, referred to as el Proceso. The Junta who seized power in 1976 sought a “sanitized, purified culture”.6 Under cover of fighting “terrorism” and insurgency, the Junta implemented a totalitarian anticommunist “free-market” regime by destroying any possible ideological opposition or potentially rival power structures. Feierstein writes: “All those targeted had in common not their political identity, but rather the fact that they participated in the social movements of that time.”7 Those targeted were unionists, leaders of agrarian leagues, and community workers working with the urban poor. This was done over a period of years under the guise of fighting the “dirty war” against “terrorist” guerrillas, despite the fact that Argentina’s Montonero guerrillas were a spent force within 6 months of the coup.8 Some social structures (principally the Church) were cleansed rather than disintegrated, becoming instruments of furthering authoritarian obedience.9 To further ensure unquestioning obedience, books were burned and banned, then a blanket law criminalised writing, publishing, printing, distributing or selling anything found to be “subversive” after the fact. This created a sense of uncertainty and fear. As Galeano puts it: “In this program for a society of deaf mutes, each citizen has to become his own Torquemada.”10

What stands out most in el Proceso is the disappearances. Argentina has the sad distinction of being the first place to nominalise “disappear” into “the disappeared”, just as Guatemala had earlier made its unhappy linguistic contribution with the transitive verb “to disappear [someone]”.11 To disappear someone, rather than to simply gun them down in the streets, is to bring about awful uncertainties about their fate – for the loved ones of the disappeared uncertainty prevents the grieving process and even hope becomes a torment, for everyone the imaginings of protracted torture, usually all too real, become a source of great terror. According to Antonius Robben: “Argentine society became terror-stricken. The terror was intended to debilitate people politically and emotionally without them ever fathoming the magnitude of the force that hit them.”12

I would argue that what distinguishes Argentina from “dirty wars” in Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, or Afghanistan and Iraq is that the Argentine Junta, perhaps unwisely in the circumstances, defeated the actual guerillas rather than ensuring their continuance to provide better cover for their ongoing autogenocide. But the pretence of war is often rather thin, surviving only because it is never challenged. Moreover, certain tactics and certain weapons systems are not even suited for military conflict at all. Look, for example, at the armed unmanned aerial vehicles which are currently used by the US government for a “targeted killing” programme. A Predator drone may carry a very lethal payload and the Reaper (formerly “Predator-B”) may carry 4 Hellfire missiles and 2 500-lb bombs. They are not suited for “fighting” opponents with an opportunity to fight back. In fact, while Obama is set on expanding drone usage even further, the US military is set to cut back on drone production because drones are not suited to “contested airspace” and require “permissive” conditions. Reading between those lines you can see that “combat” drones are in fact nothing of the sort because they do not engage in actual combat. The “hunter-killer” appellation is more honest. Reapers and Predators are for use against those who cannot fight back – like aerial death squads.

Death squads, by nature, are not a military tactic whatever their “counterinsurgency” or “counterterror” pretensions. Indeed, to the best of my knowledge, it is a universal trait for death squad programmes to seek to conflate combatant targets with non-combatant. This is not restricted to death squad activity itself, but it part of the belligerent political discourse of the putative counterinsurgent regime. During the Cold War, the enemies were the “communists” and deliberate efforts were made to create the impression that the ideological identification was equivalent to combatant status, at least in as much as legitimising killing. The same applies to the uses of the terms “Islamist” and “militant”. Part of this process is to divide the world up into two camps – as Bush Jr said “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists”.

But Bush wasn’t stating anything new. Early in the Cold War, in Guatemala the motto was “’For liberation or against it.’ From this Manichean vision sprung the paranoid anti-communist taxonomy that added to the list of enemies not only communists, but ‘philocommunists,’ ‘crypto-communists,’ ‘castro-communists,’ ‘archi-communists,’ ‘pro-communists,’ and finally the ‘useful fools.’”13 In 1962, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff defined “insurgency” as any illegal form of opposition to regime rule, thus including passive resistance, joining banned unions or strikes, or anything else deemed illegal by a given regime. At this time they openly embraced terror tactics, such as those conducted by death squads, as “counterterror”.14 In South Vietnam, before there was any armed insurgency, the Diem regime conducted an horrific terror (seemingly forgotten to history) thought to have cost 75,000 lives.15 Mobile guillotines travelled the countryside to execute those denounced as communists and the campaign came to a head in 1959 with the notorious Decree 10/59 under which all forms of political opposition were made treason and any act of sabotage was punishable by death. Local officials could label anyone they wished “communist” and thus secure summary sentences of death or life imprisonment.16 Then, the US deliberately created the term Viet Cong, to conflate political dissent with combatant status, and then, when their own personnel began to reinterpret VC as referring solely to combatants, the US military then came up with another term – ‘Viet Cong infrastructure’. Prados defines them as “a shadowy network of Viet Cong village authorities, informers, tax collectors, propaganda teams, officials of community groups, and the like, who collectively came to be called the Viet Cong Infrastructure (VCI).” “Sympathizers” were also counted.17 It was the “VCI” that were the main supposed targets of the “Phoenix Programme” – the US run dedicated death squad programme. Those targeted were usually tortured and/or killed,18 so the programme was a war crime in any respect, but when it was expanded throughout South Viet Nam, it was run in such a way that the vast majority of victims were not in any manner involved with the NLF. Instead of using specific intelligence to target people with at least some known connection to the NLF, lists of names were coerced from detainees physically. Cash incentives were also offered for informers, while President Thieu used the programme to kill political rivals.19 “Neutralizations” resulting from the programme were about 20,000 each year. In 1969, out of a US figure of 19,534 “neutralizations” less than 150 were believed to be senior NLF cadres and only 1 (one) had been specifically targeted.20

In Argentina most victims were not guerillas but union leaders, young students, journalists, pacifists, nuns, priests and friends of such people. 21% of victims were students; 10.7% were professionals and 5.7% were teachers or professors. 10% were Jews who were tortured in specific anti-Semitic ways. CIA noted at the time the use of “torture, battlefield ‘justice,’ a fuzzing of the distinction between active guerilla and civilian supporter…arbitrary arrest… death ‘squads’….” Generals increasingly come to understand the threats as being Peronism and unionism. “One Argentine general is quoted as having said that ‘in order to save 20 million Argentines from socialism, it may be necessary to sacrifice 50,000 lives.’”21 General Jorge Rafael Videla defined his “enemy” in the following terms: “a terrorist is not only someone with a weapon or a bomb, but anyone who spreads ideas which are contrary to our western and Christian civilization.”22

As you can see there is a crossover between main force military “counterinsurgency” activities and death squad activities. In El Salvador, by 1992 there were 6800 guerilla’s and they were faced with over 60,000 regular military and over 50,000 ORDEN paramilitaries (many acting as death squads). The UN found the government side responsible for 95% of deaths, concluding that the violence was not guerilla war, but rather repression. This was also true of the 35 year “guerilla war” in Guatemala. UN estimates over 200,000 were killed. 93% of torture, disappearance and execution committed by government forces; 3% by guerillas and 4% described as “private”. The army was involved in 90.52% of massacres, alone in 55% of cases, in collaboration for the others. “In a majority of the massacres committed by the state, especially by the army, the counterinsurgency strategy led to multiple acts of savagery such as the killing of defenceless children, often by beating them against walls…; impaling the victims; amputating their limbs; burning them alive; extracting their viscera while still alive and in the presence of others… and opening the wombs of pregnant women.” A favoured way of torturing to death was to stab someone then throw them into a pit where they would be burnt to death. Specific deliberate raping torturing killing of women and children was a “counterinsurgency” tactic. “The murder of children was adopted by the army as terrorism – as a counterinsurgency tactic, part of a scorched earth operation.” It was a way of further attacking social cohesion – destroy the graves and the children and there are no ancestors or descendants. Rape was used as weapon to destroy social cohesion.23

The same blurring even applies to the current UAV “targeted killing” programme. The targets are “militants”, not combatants, and in the Israeli “targeted killing” programme (on which the US programme is apparently modelled), though Israeli courts use an “immanent threat” justification to legitimise the strikes,24in practice no victims pose an immanent threat and less than half are even wanted militants, while the rest are, once again, community leaders or political activists.25 If, like Israel and the US, “targeted killings” are carried out with missiles, then it is guaranteed that the majority of victims will not be those specifically targeted. Thus in 2002 when the US conducted a strike on an Afghan villager because he was tall (and therefore may have been Osama Bin Laden who was also tall and may have been in Afghanistan) they also killed two bystanders who were innocent of being tall.26 In the US case, they use “signature strikes”, where there is no known target, more often than “personality strikes”, which ensures that many innocents are killed. In addtion the US uses “double tap” strikes which are follow up attacks designed to kill those who come to help the wounded. It is estimated that about 50 civilians are killed for each known terrorist, but the US has a long standing habit of labelling anyone it murders a combatant by definition.27 William Westmoreland confidently proclaimed that no civilians had ever been killed in a free-fire zone, because people in free-fire zones, whether 9 weeks old or 90 years old, were not civilians by definition.28 Similarly the US government currently defines any “military age male” as a militant unless proven otherwise, and not only do they not investigate such matters, we have no evidence that the US even tries to ascertain whom it has killed other than “military age males”.

As counterinsurgency death squad or targeted killing programmes can only be counterproductive in practical terms, not least because actual combatants are considerably harder to kill than civilians. These are much more efficient at eliminating political dissidents, activists and organisers, but at the same time inflicting terror on the general populace. We have already seen how this occurred in Argentina, but a recent report Living Under Dronesdevotes 30 pages to the non-lethal effects of social disintegration, mental trauma, economic and educational damage, health impacts, and cultural destruction. The constant presence of Reaper and Predator UAV’s audibly buzzing overhead and the constant threat of sudden incineration that accompanies the noise, creates constant grinding stress: “Drones are always on my mind. It makes it difficult to sleep. They are like a mosquito. Even when you don’t see them, you can hear them, you know they are there”. This plays the same role that disappearances do, heightening terror and trauma through “a chronic state of intense uncertainty [while] the later reappearance of highly mutilated corpses instils fear of the unknown rather than the known.”29 Signs of torture and mutilation on the bodies of loved ones creates deep psychological scars, but also militates against compromise promotes armed resistance over unarmed resistance.

The result is what is referred to as the “culture of terror” (a phrase also used to describe the post-2001 interventionism of the US). It inflicts exactly that state earlier mentioned wherein “each citizen has to become his own Torquemada.” This “culture of terror” and, indeed, the very use of deaths squads as a tactic are symptomatic of genocide, in as much as genocide was coined to denote war against peoples rather than armies. The inventor of the term “genocide”, Raphäel Lemkin, put it this way: “Genocide is the antithesis of the Rousseau-Portalis Doctrine, which may be regarded as implicit in the Hague Regulations. This doctrine 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.” It is part of a “composite and manifold” set of behaviours that signify a “coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of the essential foundations of life of a group”. The claim of those committing genocide that they are fighting “dirty wars” against insurgents has not merely been made in Argentina and Guatemala, but in every major act of genocide including the Herero genocide, the Armenian genocide, the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda (usually known as the Rwanda Genocide), the subsequent genocide against the Hutu in Rwanda and Eastern Congo, and the Bangladesh Genocide (in what was then “East Pakistan”).

If you really want to give proper context to the US backed death squads in Iraq, it is essential to recognise them as a functional part of an ongoing genocide. It is increasingly difficult to seriously maintain that two decades of systematic destruction unleashed on Iraq by the US and allies were somehow unintended. And it is more evidently fatuous than ever to make the false distinction between the genocidal sanctions period and the occupation period which only saw an increase in the tempo of death and destruction. Each period saw a multiplicity of tactics and policies which worked together in exactly the manner originally described by Lemkin when he sought to explain the new concept which he called “genocide”. As Max Fuller wrote in 2006:

Iraq’s ‘democratic opening’ was just as vital a fig leaf for all-out dirty war as Duarte’s civilian presidency was in El Salvador. At this moment all of the voices are telling us the same thing and that is that US-trained, armed and backed forces are committing yet another genocide. Islamofascism is just another cover for ruthless political, economic and social repression, with Shiite militiamen in Iraq no more needing to take their orders from Tehran than Guatemalan death squads needed to take theirs from the Vatican. The objective is not a mystery. It is total neo-colonial domination.”

4) Steele in the Heart of Darkness

One version of the Steele documentary opens with an ominous soundtrack and describes him: “…a shadowy figure, always in the background….” The impression given is that Steele was a radical and puissant figure, and there is a definite implication that he was a rogue (with the possibility left open to viewers that US officials turned a wilful blind eye). In terms of relationships with other US personnel, Steele is placed in a very short vertical chain. Top officials may have valued his knowledge and analysis, but the death squad activities are subject only to a lack of oversight by unnamed officials, with one very important exception. Steele’s sidekick, Colonel Coffman, reported to General David Petraeus, but as to how much Petraeus actually knew, we are left doubting. That is quite literally all of the interconnection shown in this documentary – it implicates two US personnel and leaves one with a question mark. The problem is that this is a completely specious, irrational and amnesiac image of the evolution of US founded death squad programmes in Iraq.

In October of 2003, Steven Casteel arrived in Iraq to become the senior US advisor to the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior. Fuller describes his background thus:

Whilst Casteel’s background is said to be Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the operation against Escobar was a joint intelligence effort, involving the CIA, DEA, Delta Force and a top-secret military intelligence surveillance unit knows as Centra Spike (Marihemp, SpecWarNet). The operation had no impact on Colombia’s position as the world’s major source of cocaine… with the centre of gravity ultimately shifting to dozens of micro cartels (Houston Chronicle). However, the operation did lead to the formation of a death squad known as Los Pepes, which was to form the nucleus for Colombia’s present paramilitary death-squad umbrella organisation, the AUC, responsible for over 80 percent of the country’s most serious human-rights abuses (Colombia Journal). Whilst no official connection was ever admitted, Los Pepes relied on the intelligence data held in the fifth-floor steel vault at the US Embassy in Bogota that served as the operation’s nerve centre. Lists of the death squad’s victims rapidly came to mirror those of Escobar’s associates collated at the embassy headquarters (Cocaine.org, Cannabis News).

Casteel’s background is significant because this kind of intelligence-gathering support role and the production of death lists are characteristic of US involvement in counterinsurgency programs and constitute the underlying thread in what can appear to be random, disjointed killing sprees.”

In December of 2003 Robert Dreyfuss reported that money had been set aside to form a paramilitary militia which analysts immediately pegged as being a death squad programme akin to Phoenix. The programme would bring together both former exile group members and “senior Iraqi intelligence people” from the notorious Mukhabarat of the former regime. James Steele arrived early in 2004 to run the paramilitaries which Casteel was creating, Steele had been in and out of Iraq during 2003, but wasn’t actually assigned to the paramilitaries until after June 2004 when David Petraeus took charge of the newly created “Multi-National Security Transition Command” which trained and equipped Iraqi forces. Also in June 2004 John Negroponte began his tenure as US ambassador to Iraq. It is in no way possible for me to any justice here to the intimate association that Negroponte has to death squad activities, but his record in Latin America is highly enlightening reading. Here’s a taste of his records from Dahr Jamail:

In Honduras he earned the distinction of being accused of widespread human rights violations by the Honduras Commission on Human Rights while he worked as “a tough cold warrior who enthusiastically carried out President Ronald Reagan’s strategy,” according to cables sent between Negroponte and Washington during his tenure there. The human rights violations carried out by Negroponte were described as “systematic.”

The violations Negroponte oversaw in Honduras were carried out by operatives trained by the CIA. Records document his “special intelligence units,” better known as “death squads,” comprised of CIA-trained Honduran armed units which kidnapped, tortured and killed hundreds of people. Negroponte had full knowledge of these activities while making sure U.S. military aid to Honduras increased from $4 million to $77.4 million a year during his tenure. Under his watch civilian deaths sky-rocketed into the tens of thousands. Negroponte has been described as an “old fashioned imperialist” and got his start during the Vietnam War in the CIA’s Phoenix program….”

The first of the paramilitaries under Steele’s guidance was publicly acknowledged in September 2004. In charge of one of the first Brigades was General Rashid Flayih, a former Ba’athist General who played a key role in crushing the 1991 uprising in southern Iraq (itself often misleadingly described as sectarian in nature). Moreover, as Fuller writes: “Even more significantly than the continued tenure of General Rashid Flayih, is that of General Adnan Thabit. Adnan was instrumental in establishing the Police Commandos according to Maas and is currently [ in charge of all of the Interior Ministry’s extensive security forces. Adnan is a Sunni and was a Baathist intelligence officer. Like Rashid, Adnan has a history of collaboration with the CIA.” The original prime targets were not the “Sunni insurgents” but the Mehdi Army. This Shia militia is, in US media discourse, an implacable enemy of the Sunni “insurgents” despite the fact that the Mehdi army’s leader, Moqtada al-Sadr, gave such vocal and voluble support to Sunni resistance in Falluja – even sending aid and personnel to Fallujah. Just as today Sadr’s support of the “Sunni uprising” and its demands is an unmentionable sour note spoiling the self-serving Western discourse of ethnic and sectarian fragmentation and calls for partition (Peter Galbraith, a major and influential partition advocate, has been allowed to make hundreds of millions of dollars out of his Iraq dealings).

So the death squads were US planned and run and though the sectarian aspect was deliberately inbuilt, it was both Sunni and Shia. The documentary leaves intact the impression that infiltration by Shia militias was the driving force behind the sectarian tensions, and a probable force driving the brutal excesses, rather than a calculated deliberate aspect of the death squad programme as designed by the US. Fuller shows that the implementation of the “Salvador option” created sectarian division by design to further the push for partition. Scott Ritter predicted that “the Salvador option will serve as the impetus for all-out civil war. In the same manner that the CPA-backed assassination of Baathists prompted the restructuring and strengthening of the Sunni-led resistance, any effort by US-backed Kurdish and Shia assassination teams to target Sunni resistance leaders will remove all impediments for a general outbreak of ethnic and religious warfare in Iraq.”

Rather than enlighten viewers to the comprehensive and intentional nature of the US death squad policy, the documentary makes it seem as if the callous and scary Steele had, in his ruthless pursuit of counterinsurgency, unleashed sectarian hatreds and opened up the paramilitaries to Shia militia infiltration because their vicious hatefulness and violence, though morally unacceptable to we civilised Westerners, could be harnessed to suppressing the anti-occupation resistance.

There is the deliberate implication that Steele was valued for his ability to utilise “human intelligence” and in the alternative version he is even touted as an expert as getting “actionable intelligence”. Indeed the entire documentary barely mentions the key death squad trait associated with these Special Police Commandos (disappearing live people and producing mutilated corpses). Instead it concentrates on detentions and torture under interrogation. However, I believe that the reason that the “actionable intelligence” quote is dropped from the official version is that it cannot be reconciled with the reality of the death squad activity in Iraq. The documentary, in either version, insinuates that officials did not enquire too closely into Steele’s methods because he got results. But the implication that these results had something to do with counterinsurgency is patent nonsense. At the height of death squad activity hundreds of corpses were turning up each week with signs of torture, only someone seriously deluded would believe that this torture was all done as a way of gathering real intelligence about insurgent threats to the Occupation and the puppet regime. Torture is not a very effective way of getting reliable intelligence from detainee interrogations.

In a “culture of terror” obviously torture promotes terror as has been discussed, but in death squad terror systems torture may also serve other purposes. One already touched upon is the production of what might be called “actionable intelligence” if one acknowledges that “actionable” need not mean “truthful”. As mentioned, in the Phoenix programme, torture was used to generate lists of names simply to perpetuate a largely indiscriminate terror programme. Former UK Ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, found that pro-democracy Uzbek activists were being tortured to produce “intelligence” about “terrorists” in other countries for the use by the US and UK: “The information may be untrue, but it is valuable because it feeds into the US agenda.” (Incidentally, the same Craig Murray said of the Salvador option: “The evidence that the US directly contributed to the creation of the current civil war in Iraq by its own secretive security strategy is compelling. Historically of course this is nothing new – divide and rule is a strategy for colonial powers that has stood the test of time.”) Murray testified to the “Bush Commission” to the effect that “they needed false intelligence from torture chambers” in order to justify the war on terror. Indeed, even the justification for the invasion of Iraq had an integral element gained by torturing false intelligence from Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi. The intelligence produced allows some officials to claim innocence or honest error. Other functionaries are genuinely innocent, actually believing the falsehoods, while others maintain ignorance with varying degrees of wilfulness. This includes those in the media, who are as much a part of this system as CIA or Pentagon employees. So if Steele was actually valued for his “human intelligence” gathering (and I think that much less likely than that he was valued for his skill at repression, terror and genocide) then the “actionable intelligence” was known to be false.

On the subject of torture, it remains to be noted that in a process similar to that used to produce self-justifying “intelligence”, there is a psychology of confession and the reification of the victim as malefactor in the mind of the persecutor. Whether in Argentine torture camps, or in the Khmer Rouge’s notorious Tuol Sleng, torturers force confessions not for external consumption, but to create a reality which justifies their cruelty even if that reality extends no further than the four walls of a single cell. In this instance, however, the US created a grotesque high-tech dystopian version, like Soviet show trials but with Hollywood pizazz. In a reality show called Terrorists in the Grip of Justice a “parade” of torture victims provided by the SPC Wolf Brigade, confessed to heinous crimes including the murders of people later revealed to be alive.

5) Reel Bad Arabs

One of the strongest distortions in this documentary is the way it isolates the Iraqi paramilitaries’ actions from those of US occupation forces. We are left with the impression that no matter what degree of knowledge US officials possessed, their crime was one of inaction – not putting a stop to things getting out of hand as their ruthless Kurtz built his private army of thugs, and as that very army was infiltrated by vengeful sectarian militias. But as with Indochina or Argentina or Guatemala or El Salvador, the existence of dedicated death squads, or paramilitaries that function as death squads does not preclude death squad type activities from regular forces. The “counterinsurgency” tactics used in South Vietnam, in El Salvador, and in Iraq essentially involve all military personnel in a campaign of terror, in which many, even if quite unwillingly, will find themselves in the role of death squad executioner.

Let us examine the realities of detention at the hands of US occupation forces in Iraq. Many men were detained in “house raids” which seemed almost invariably based on false or faulty intelligence. If that seems unlikely, consider that the US was using torture on detainees to gain information when the vast majority (estimated at 70%-90%) were innocent. Just like the paramilitary death squads, the US forces right from the beginning were torturing innocent people to get “actionable intelligence” on other innocent people. After just 6 months of US occupation, Abu Ghraib alone was crowded with 10,000 detainees. The US also gained intelligence by buying it, and replicated all of the venality and private vengeance that they cannot but have known (having gone down this road before) is an inevitable result of a denunciation system of bribery and coercion.

So within months of the invasion, terror spread to every Iraqi, because none was safe. Each night going to sleep brought the possibility of awakening suddenly to the violent invasion of a US house raid. “Military age” males were subject to detention. They were then “Persons Under Control” or PUCs. They would then pass through a chain of custody. Even before they reached the destination where interrogators were authorised to torture information out of them that they did not possess, the guards along the way might take the opportunity to “fuck a PUC” or “smoke a PUC”. The radically dehumanised process (wherein human beings labelled as “PUC”s) would make detainees inot nothing but anonymous living meat with bags on their heads in a factory-like process. Those who arrested them might understand that they are innocent of wrongdoing, they will have seen the humanity in their eyes, but, like so much else in this dystopian nightmare, all humanity was systematically effaced. So to the next tiers of people in the PUC production line, they are nothing more than a “bad guy”. Ricks even documents that some US personnel maliciously wrote “IED” on the bags of innocent detainees, just in order to prompt abuse which might easily prove fatal.30

Torture of detainees not an aberration for the US. According to Darius Rejali, contemporary US torture combines two distinct styles which he labels “French Modern” and “Anglo-Saxon Modern”.31 Key features include electrotorture, water torture, sleep deprivation and positional torture. These are what he labels “clean torture” techniques, meaning that they are physical tortures which, no matter how much agony they produce, leave no lasting scars: “Used by authoritarian states abroad, it is torture; but used at home, it is probably good policing.”32 Although Rejali emphasises on innumerable occasions that clean tortures occur in response to monitoring, I think that it is reasonable in this instance to take a more nuanced approach. The US doesn’t fear monitoring. Aside from the facts that a former President has happily admitted ordering torture and that Donald Rumsfeld is one of only very few high officials in modern times known to have ordered specific torture techniques to be used,33 systematic US torture is also well documented by NGOs, the UN, and many major news organisations outside of the US. In fact, the utility of “clean” torture is that it allows people, including torturers, to rationalise the effects as being primarily emotional or mental when they may, like water-boarding, cause excruciating physical pain. As Rejali points out even sleep deprivation causes physical pain.34 And yet these are widely understood to be psychological techniques, inducing fear and breaking down resistance.

Of course there is a great deal done by US personnel that is not among these “clean” tortures. Former interrogator Tony Lagouranis describes how “North Babel was probably the place where I saw the worst evidence of abuse. This was from August to October of 2004, so, it was well after the Abu Ghraib scandal. And we were no longer using any harsh tactics within the prison, but I was working with a marine unit, and they would go out and do a raid and stay in the detainee’s homes, and torture them there. They were far worse than anything that I ever saw in a prison. They were breaking bones. They were smashing people’s feet with the back of an axe head. They burned people. Yeah, they were doing some pretty harsh stuff.”

Somehow, however, these non-“clean”acts are erased when it comes to analysis. The entire world saw that attack dogs were made to bite naked restrained prisoners with photos such as these:

Yet whenever the use of dogs is mentioned something strange happens. For Rejali, the Nazis “set

dogs” on prisoners, but the US “threatens” with them.35 Alfred McCoy, another torture specialist

and strong critic of the US, takes the same approach, emphasising on multiple occasions the Arab

cultural sensitivities and fear of dogs. (Apparently Arabs are peculiarly sensitive to being bound

naked and blindfolded while military attack dogs savage them. Who would have thought?)

Our attitude seems to be that above all, though they might trick people into feeling fear or trick them into a “simulation” of drowning, US terror is somehow fake and unthreatening. But, for the loved ones of those taken by the US military, they were disappeared as effectively as if they had been taken by a Guatemalan death squad. Relatives would have no way of knowing where they were or even whether they were still alive for days, but often that might turn into weeks or even months. These were carceral disappearances with most victims entering a Kafkaesque realm of capricious abuse and arbitrary treatment within a characteristically massive and inhuman prison machinery. The prospect of dying in custody was also very real.

The terror inflicted through these indiscriminate detention policies as not the only way in which the US (and to a lesser degree Coalition partners) created a “culture of terror” which was part of their genocide in Iraq. US forces used ordnance guaranteed to kill civilians, such as white phosphorous, depleted uranium, cluster munitions, and large explosive munitions such as 1000lb and 2000lb JDAMs:

In addition, US forces were more intimately killing. As I have written previously:

…in excess of 100,000, civilians have been killed in a very atomised and geographically dispersed pattern with small arms by coalition forces. The closest parallel to this would be something like the Herero genocide, an early 20th Century colonial genocide.

In a work based on veteran testimony, Chris Hedges and Laila al-Arian explain 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.”36 They are talking about the systematic murder of civilians in small increments multiplied many times over. This is the result of a disproportionate fear and lack of security induced within US personnel as well as such policies and tactics as: force protection; reactive firing; suppressive fire; reconnaissance by fire. These are of relevance during convoy operations, house raids and at checkpoints and I am quite confident that each of these situations has been shaped by US policy in such a way as to maximise civilian deaths, often putting US personnel in the situation of being unwilling murderers. Joshua Key describes, from early in the occupation, having to build a “corpse shack” where Iraqis could go to collect the bodies of relatives killed by his company. It was “near our front gate, so relatives could retrieve their loved ones without entering our compound.”37

And then there are also those instances when, given legitimacy by rules of engagement, US personnel quite eagerly commit murder. International Humanitarian Law and even US Field Manuals forbid the killing of non-combatants, but if the ROE redefines a civilian as a combatant, because they stopped to help a wounded person, or carry a shovel, or do something suspicious, then considerable eagerness to kill people may take over. “Delightful bloodlust” as Bradley Manning terms it. This bloodlust is systematically induced in personnel subjected to intense military indoctrination using psychologically sophisticated techniques.

The same fundamental rules of representation and discourse apply to all mainstream Western media products, including both Hollywood blockbusters and “James Steele: America’s mystery man in Iraq”. Above all, the average US person, including their heavily armed military personnel, can never be shown as a threat to the innocent. For Arabs (as for Chinese, Koreans, Vietnamese, Africans etc. etc.), one is allowed to say that violence is part of their culture, but only the bad apples of the US commit abuses. Above all, one can never suggest that civilians might fear US personnel.

Kieran Kelly blogs at On Genocide.

1 Jeffrey Record, “How America“s Own Military Performance in Vietnam Abetted the “North“s” Victory“ in Marc Jason Gilbert (ed), Why the North Won the Vietnam War, New York: Palgrave, 2002, p 125.

2 Stjepan Gabriel Meštrović, Rules of engagement?: a social anatomy of an American war crime – Operation Iron Triangle, Iraq, New York: Algora, 2008, p 171.

3 Joshua Key writes of loading 1000 rpg and mortar rounds on to a truck, driving it into the middle of the desert and just leaving it. (Joshua Key and Lawrence Hill, The Deserter’s Tale: Why I Walked Away from the War in Iraq, Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2007, pp 78-9.)

4 Thomas E. Ricks, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, London: Penguin, 2007, p 156.

5 Jeremy Scahill, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, London: Serpent’s Tail, 2007, p 142.

6 Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, New York: Henry Holt, 2007, p 105.

7 Daniel Feierstein, “Political violence in Argentina and its genocidal characteristics,” Journal of Genocide Research (2006), 8(2),June, p 150.

8 Klein, The Shock Doctrine, pp 107-9.

9 Ibid, p 110.

10 Eduardo Galeano, The Open Veins of Latin America (1973), New York: Monthly Review Press, 1997, p 282.

11 Frank M. Afflito, “The Homogenizing effects of State-Sponsored Terrorism: The Case of Guatemala”, in Jeffrey A. Sluka (ed.), Death Squad: The Anthropology of State Terror. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000, pp 116.

12 Antonius C. G. M. Robben, “Disappearance and Reburial in Argentina”, in Jeffrey A. Sluka (ed.), Death Squad: The Anthropology of State Terror. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000, p 96.

13 Carlos Figueroa Ibarra, “The culture of terror and Cold War in Guatemala,” Journal of Genocide Research (2006), 8(2), June, p 198.

14 Frederick H. Gareau, State Terrorism and the United States: From Counterinsurgency to the War on Terror, Atlanta and London: Clarity Press and Zed Books, 2004, pp 29-30.

15 William S. Turley, The Second Indochina War. Boulder, Colorado: Westview, 1986, p 32 n 6.

16 David W. P. Elliott, The Vietnamese War: Revolution and Social Change in the Mekong Delta 1930-1975, Volume 1. London and Armonk, NY: East Gate, 2003, p 195-6.

17 John Prados, The Hidden History of the Vietnam War, Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1995, pp 204-5, 210.

18 Tucker gives figures which suggest that just less than one third: “Between 1968 and 1972 it accounted for the deaths of 26,369 people; another 33,358 were captured and 22,013 surrendered,” (Spencer C. Tucker, Vietnam, Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 1999, p 151). These overly precise figures, however, should in themselves arouse suspicion, and accounts of the functioning of the programme make it seem unlikely that any accurate count of those killed was kept, although sometimes, in the words of an officer who helped oversee the programme, “they’d come back to camp with ears to prove they’d killed people,” (Christian Appy, Vietnam: The Definitive Oral History Told from all Sides. London: Ebury Press/Random House, 2006 (2003), p 361).

19 Jonathan Neale, A People’s History of the Vietnam War. New York: The New Press, 2003, p 116.

20 John Prados, ‘Impatience, Illusion and Assymetry’ in Marc Jason Gilbert (ed), Why the North Won the Vietnam War. New York: Palgrave, 2002, p 142.

21 Gareau, State Terrorism and the United States, pp 96-8

22 Feierstein, “Political violence in Argentina…” p 153.

23 Gareau, State Terrorism and the United States, pp 41-9.

24 Michael L. Gross, “Killing civilians intentionally: double effect, reprisal, and necessity in the Middle East”, Political Science Quarterly, 120.4 (Winter 2005), p569.

25 Norman G. Finkelstein, Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History, London: Verso, 2005, p 132.

26 Michael Mandel, How America Gets Away with Murder: Illegal Wars, Collateral Damage and Crimes Against Humanity, London, Ann Arbor: Pluto Press, 2004, p 29.

27 See above n 1 and n 2.

28 James William Gibson, The Perfect War: Technowar in Vietnam. New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 2000 (1986), p 135.

29 Afflito, “The Homogenizing effects…”, p 118.

30 Ricks, Fiasco, p 271.

31 Darius Rejali, Torture and Democracy. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2007, pp 20; 420.

32 Ibid, p 255.

33 Ibid, p 412.

34 Ibid, p 290.

35 Ibid, p 433.

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

37 Key, Deserter’s Tale, p 84.

Drone Hypocrisy: The Toxic Self-regard of the 5% and the Dangerous US Constitution Fetish

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Original image:Attribution Some rights reserved by Tjebbe van Tijen / Imaginary Museum Projects (updated by myself)

Many in the US are up in arms over the fact that Eric Holder has not rejected the President’s use of lethal force against US citizens on US soil, but what are the implications of the outrage shown by “progressives” in the US? Why is it so natural for US citizens to privilege themselves and their lives over the lives of others? Where is the shame of those who claim to oppose US militarism but devote their greatest passion and attention to a minuscule or non-existent threat to themselves?

On a personal level, it is sad for me to find people I normally admire among those reacting in shock and horror to the fact that there is a hypothetical outside chance that they may be killed in the same manner that the US employs to kill lesser beings on a regular basis. Sometimes I actually feel betrayed by people from the US, including some I know personally, who reveal that deep down they see foreigners like myself and my family and friends as having lives worth less than theirs. This was how I reacted in a comment when TomDispatch posted an article of this type on their facebook page: “What about all the people outside of the US? Are you all so jaded and selfish and despicable that you only care about whether they can get you when you are drinking coffee in Boston? Why do you have no shame about this? What do you think it looks like for those outside the US to constantly have our noses rubbed into the fact that you think your government that YOU voted for can kill us, but bleat on so much about the fact that they might be able to kill you? At least you can do something about it. Why is it breaking news that Obama (in “extraordinary circumstances”) can kill 5% of the population when 95% can be killed without even being identified personally. Just wiped out like insects, and you endorse that every fucking time you privilege your concern for US citizens over others – and now its US citizens on US soil that are more important than everyone else. This sickens me.”

Of course, the fact that people from the US endorsed my comment made me feel much better about life in general. I am quite happy to view US politicians as evil hell-spawn, but I tend to think that US people, like all people, are basically good. On the other hand, though, that leaves me to explain why some who devote a lot of themselves to opposing US imperial injustices, including drone strikes, should let themselves down so badly. Joining in the hysteria and hype over the Holder letter is unacceptable, and here is why.

First, divide the world into the “5%” (US citizens) and the “95%” (others). We already knew that the baseline of USG policy is that the executive branch can kill whomever it wants, wherever it wants, whenever it wants based on secret applications of secret legal rationalisations using secret evidence. So far the application of this when using UAVs to kill people has seen 5 US citizens killed. In contrast, the figure of 4700 killed in total has been acknowledged by Sen. Lindsay Graham and that must be excluding those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The 95% are simply at a far, far higher risk than the 5%. This is acutely so in countries or regions where US destabilisation has destroyed the functioning of governments, or where governments are in some other way unable to protect their citizens from US violence. The figure of those killed on US soil, by the way, is 0. So the actual figures would suggest that Rand Paul’s dramatic image of someone being incinerated by a hellfire missile when drinking a coffee in Boston might be overdrawn. But it is so much worse than that. People in Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, and an ever increasing number of other places are really being incinerated when they sit down to have coffee with friends. I understand that Paul opposes the killing of those people too, but why bring up the unlikely hypothetical example when the reality is right there?

Attorney General Eric Holder responded to Sen. Paul with a letter. This letter confirms the privilege accorded to the 5%. The US isn’t going to kill people on US soil because “well-established law enforcement” obviates the necessity. One reading of this is that there was no need for White House involvement in Fred Hampton’s killing, or the MOVE bombing, while administration involvement in the Waco siege would now be unnecessary altogether (as with Christopher Dorner’s demise). US law enforcement killed at minimum an average of one person every 15 hours in 2012. Carrying out covert targeted killings in the milieu of such deadly and militarised policing seems far more logical than using drones. In other words, the US can rely on “law enforcement” to kill people when desirable, which also calls into question the point of Rand Paul’s fatuous question. As always, however, the implications are far worse for the 95% than for the 5%, but no US “progressives” seem to care. The 5% talk of the “chilling effect” of various repressive authoritarian government behaviours on their own society, but imagine the chilling effect that this might have on, say, Iceland – a country that recently deported FBI agents. This is a reiteration to the world that non-compliance with US law enforcement in its hunt for political dissidents may cause the US to take unilateral action, possibly lethal, without regard for sovereignty nor for international law.

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A fairly constant theme of the aghast is the horror of an attack on the Constitution. The basis of this, however, is an unhealthy and historically untenable vision of a mythic Constitution carved in granite and handed down from on high through the agency of semi-divine authorities known as “founding fathers”. But the aspects of the US Constitution that we today tend to admire the most came originally from being forced on the Federalists by anti-Federalists and Jeffersonians, while others were amendments added because of the insistence and agitation of the common people. Not only that, but the application of the Constitution to secure actual meaningful rights for the bulk of the people only tends to occur after people toil, fight and often die to secure them. I’m assuming that the progressives I complain of here (who should know better than to echo the sentiments of not one but several Republican Senators) have read A People’s History of the United States, and are familiar with critiques of Hamilton and Madison. And yet, clearly against their own interests, instead of the people actually taking credit for establishing their own human rights and civil rights through their own power and sacrifice, all to often the discourse is of “constitutional rights”.

Once upon a time, the wise men known as the “founding fathers” gave the US a wise Constitution and the wise men of the US Supreme Court are now tasked with the duty of interpreting it according to “founders intent”. Right? Well, the Supreme Court’s role in interpreting the constitution was not originally mandated, but is a self-arrogated power. And they are political appointees. And they dress funny. And, though I may be an ignorant foreigner, no one has actually explained to me why there even is such a creature as a “Justice Scalia”, let alone why he is allowed to hold a responsible position. Altogether, this patriarchal myth is a quasi-religious understanding of the US Constitution (meaning the written document and 27 ratified amendments). But the actual constitution of the federal polity known as the United States of America is much more than can be found in such document. It includes, for example, English Common Law traditions. Moreover, I concluded a previous piece touching on this subject with these words:

This fetishisation of the idolised US Constitution is getting old. Besides which, the US Constitution’s “Supremacy Clause” (Article 6, Clause 2) actually gives treaties the same status as federal law – which would include the Nuremberg Charter and the UN Charter, among other things. Furthermore, by allowing the issue to be framed in such a manner, psychologically you set yourself and others up for being mollified by cosmetic measures offered to guarantee the rights of US citizens while retaining the right to kill foreigners at will. Do you really believe that being a US citizen or being born in Denver makes someone more human?”

Since writing that I have come to realise that framing the issues as “Constitutional Rights” restricts and controls the discourse in a way that disempowers people considerably. Not only does all of the credit get given to the authority figures, but it emphasises those liberal rights of freedom from state interference over all else. But these were never even intended to be the rights of the poor, nor of women, nor the indigenous people, nor slaves. It is the English Whig tradition which had much to do with protecting privilege in the form of property, and little to do with universal notions of rights despite its pretensions. It would be preferable not to view this issue through the lens of the constitution at all, but rather through the lens of universal human rights. Or even better, targeted killings should be framed as violations of international law or criminal law. You don’t normally have to go to the supreme court to establish that a murder victim had a right to life under the US constitution, but it is accepted that the POTUS can murder whatever foreigner he wants because no one has yet established their constitutional right not to be murdered.

Of course, the Bill of Rights does not say at any stage that it is restricted to US citizens…

“…nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law….”

ADDENDUM – from a bit later.

I wrote a response to a comment which I feel may be superior to the actual article above. Becuase of this, and since the embedded videos did not come through on the comment, I am reprinting it here:

The inaptness of your analogies reveals the degree to which you are blinded to the reality and the extent to which you will fight to keep your own chains of mental slavery. People in other states do not automatically lack empathy in exactly the manner which you suggest. Distance does lessen empathy, and many other societies also dehumanise poorer peoples, traditional enemies, or those considered inferior due to culture, ethnicity, religion or race. However, the vast disparity in the way life is valued by those in the US, and the overtness of it, and the prominence of its repetition are without contemporary parallels. Chauvinism is a matter of degree, an the US is at the extreme end. It may not be alone in this, but it is alone in marrying this chauvinist patriotism (this exceptionalism) with a virulent militarism; and a military capacity beyond anything known to history; and an imperialist interventionism which brought about many millions of deaths.

To illustrate, let me use your first example of Nigerians and Canadians. If the Nigerian government had an assassination programme killing thousands of Canadians using missiles and refusing to give details of its justifications. A handful of Nigerians on Canadian soil had been killed and though many Nigerians opposed all such killings, much more mainstream public attention is devoted to those handful of Nigerians. The Nigerian victims generate several times more questions in Parliament, and 5- or 10-fold as many mainstream media mentions and editorial condemnations. And then, someone brings up the prospect that the Nigerian government might extend the programme to Nigerians on Nigerian soil. There is no ongoing programme to do so, like the ongoing assassination programme in Canada. There are no plans to do so. And an assassination of this type, using missiles to kill someone in Nigeria would lead to riots and the fall of the government. Yet somehow, in the mainstream discourse, this is what the Nigerians care most about, and even those who oppose the ongoing slaughter of Canadians join them in their cries of horror – because this barely hypothetical possibility, this empty signifier, this big fat nothing of no news at all, is taken as a sign of the dissolution of traditional Nigerian rights. Yeah, the cops can gun Nigerians down in the streets at will, but to kill them the same way you would kill a Canadian – what horror is this!

I’ll tell you how the world would react to this alternative world Nigeria, shall I? Nigeria would be an absolute pariah state. The Nigerian people would be viewed by most of the world with hostility, fear, suspicion and/or disgust. A rare few would pity them. The BBC and Al Jazeera English would compete to see who could make the most smug and pompous documentary about how the Nigerian Dream had turned into a poisonous sludge of fascistic nationalism, narrow-minded ignorance and violent xenophobia. The moderate Nigerians would object that that isn’t the real Nigeria, but the BBC and AJE microphones would be pointed at those other ones – the ones who say that all Canadians should be killed; the one’s who say that if they attack Nigerians again we should nuke them to show we mean business; and the ones who say that Canadians are Gods wrathful vengeance wreaked on Nigeria for straying from the path of righteousness. That is how we would see these Nigerians, even the ones that don’t say the mad things out loud must believe them inside because otherwise why would they continue to support valuing Nigerian lives over those of the victims of their own government. But what the Nigerians don’t understand is that those who are making monsters of them are also making fools of them.

I do not hold US citizens morally culpable for what their government does, nor even for their inhumane form of patriotism. It is the same as with the Germans of the Third Reich. On a purely intellectual level the claims of not knowing the basics of Nazi mass atrocities were untrue. The German people did know that their government was committing mass murder, but they were not the irrational Jew-hating monsters that Daniel Goldhagen would have people believe .They had systematically been indoctrinated and manipulated into a state of moral anaesthesia and psychological denial. Clear signals which should have let the Germans know immediately that their government was irredeemably monstrous were stripped of their real meaning – their ethical and moral significance. A seminal book about the creation of the national German consciousness by the Nazis was called They Thought They Were Free, here’s an extract:

But Then It Was Too Late

“What no one seemed to notice,” said a colleague of mine, a philologist, “was the ever widening gap, after 1933, between the government and the people. Just think how very wide this gap was to begin with, here in Germany. And it became always wider. You know, it doesn’t make people close to their government to be told that this is a people’s government, a true democracy, or to be enrolled in civilian defense, or even to vote. All this has little, really nothing, to do with knowing one is governing.

“What happened here was the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to being governed by surprise; to receiving decisions deliberated in secret; to believing that the situation was so complicated that the government had to act on information which the people could not understand, or so dangerous that, even if the people could not understand it, it could not be released because of national security. And their sense of identification with Hitler, their trust in him, made it easier to widen this gap and reassured those who would otherwise have worried about it.

“This separation of government from people, this widening of the gap, took place so gradually and so insensibly, each step disguised (perhaps not even intentionally) as a temporary emergency measure or associated with true patriotic allegiance or with real social purposes. And all the crises and reforms (real reforms, too) so occupied the people that they did not see the slow motion underneath, of the whole process of government growing remoter and remoter.

Such was the German belief in German freedom, that part of their strategic calculation, and a widely held belief, was that Soviet soldiers would not put up much of a fight because, unlike Germans, they were unfree and thus deprived of initiative and sapped of will. You might well be thinking – ah, but this is exactly why we in the US must guard our constitutional rights, so that we guard our fundamental freedoms. But you are not guarding any real freedoms at all. You are just like those Germans. You have been led and manipulated, through your own excessive pride and self-importance, to fight for the meaningless fetish of a piece of paper while tyranny and rot spread throughout the entire regime from top to bottom. If you want to see the ugly militarist face of Western society, look at the excitement over the technology of death when a new war is launched. But if you want to see why the US slips into a different category, why the US looks more fascist than its allies, look at the celebrations of Osama Bin Laden’s death. Look at last year’s political conventions when if there was the slightest hint of protest or dissent the crowd around the protestor, without external direction, would begin chanting “U S A! U S A!” like hundreds of little kid blocking their ears and going “lalalalala I can’t here you”, but much, much scarier. What would you think if Mexicans started doing that at political rallies? Maybe you think it’s perfectly normal to do that and keep shouting “we’re number one!”, but no one else does it.

So they keep you on this track of patriotic rubbish and actually draw out and amplify the hypocritical and callous aspects of nationalism to make you accept the unacceptable. I have a good historical example, which has some currency at the moment thanks to Ritchie Cunningham. I love Arrested Development and I was brought up firm in the faith of Monty Python. Without David Frost there would never have been a Monty Python, yet I still consider him to be one of the most loathsome creatures ever to have slithered on the face of this Earth. Without Ron Howard there would have been no Arrested Development and though I doubt that Howard is as much of a scumbag as Frost, he nevertheless replicated quite faithfully Frost greatest crime against humanity. In a very famous series of interviews Frost talked to Richard Nixon (and Howard made a movie with the same punchline). Frost let Nixon rewrite history over and over again over many many hours of interviewing. He was not challenged on his crimes against humanity and his war crimes at all, but was able to contextualise all of his actions in his own apologetics without the slightest hint that he was a mass murderer responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths in Cambodia alone (just the top of a very long list of serious crimes). Towards the end there came a dramatic breakthrough, which to my mind was clearly a pre-ordained and staged breakthrough. Nixon, under suddenly dogged interrogation, finally broke down and admitted to something. Voice utterly laden with sombre reluctance (really very overacted if you actually listen to it critically) Nixon admitted to lying and that he had “let the American people down”. In a horrible way, this was genius propaganda. The people of the US could suddenly feel like they were the real victims.

Well, this sort of propaganda is fundamental to everything now, especially under Obama. Not all of it appeals to pride, vanity, selfishness and fear. The US regime has become very good and harnessing far more positive energies into meaningless empty nonsense or, sometimes, things that are very important on a human level but ultimately pose no challenge to the structural status quo. Among these are greenwashing, gaywashing and femiwashing. These can have real effects on people’s lives, but above all they feed myths of US freedom and a higher level of development.

When you act like your Constitution is some divine idol to be worshipped, one which makes you society superior to those poor benighted nations that do not have this shining fount of justice; and when any of you decides to privilege concern for US life over the life of others; and whenever you have the gall to say that others do the same, you feed the regime that oppresses you. If you are going to be selfish, you might as well be more enlightened about it.

The Cambodia Precedent: Justifying New Crimes on the Basis of Past Crimes

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For John Kerry the incoming Secretary of State, the bombing of Cambodia by the US was illegal. But, even as Kerry reaffirms his condemnation of US actions in Cambodia, it comes to light that in June his colleagues in the Senate Judiciary and Intelligence committees were issued a white paper from the Department of Justice which claimed US intervention in Cambodia as being a legal precedent for the administrations use of targeted killings using drone strikes. In fact, “legal precedent” might be too strong a term, because what is actually cited is an address given by legal counsel to the State Department to a legal forum. Yes, they are using a speech rather than an adjudication as a claim of precedence, much as one might in some future time quote John Yoo as the legal precedent for a systematic programme of child torture by testicular crushing. On the other hand, the carpet bombing of Cambodia was one of the most brutal and notorious war crimes of the post-WWII era and not only has no one been prosecuted for the crime, but the principle perpetrator was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize a few years later – perhaps this is exactly the sort of precedent that the Obama administration looks towards.

With all of that in mind, it is worth revisiting exactly what the US did to the people of Cambodia. Then we can understand exactly what sort of moral precedent applies here – the sort that would make almost any organised crime boss, or terrorist, or psychopathic serial killer blanch with horrified disgust. If you think I’m exaggerating, read on.

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In 2007 Barack Obama said: “The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.” In questioning John Kerry about Obama’s departure from that principle in Libya, Rand Paul elicited from Kerry, a reaffirmation that he, Kerry, still believed that the bombing of Cambodia was illegal. One might wonder, then, whether Obama’s new Secretary of State is going to oppose his famous “drone” assassination programme. I broach the subject because the Department of Justice rationalised the use of deadly force in other sovereign territories citing Cambodia as a precedent. This is an excerpt from their recently released White paper:

The Department has not found any authority for the proposition that when one of the parties to an armed conflict plans and executes operations from a base in a new nation, an operation to engage the enemy in that location cannot be part of the original armed conflict, and thus subject to the laws of war governing that conflict, unless the hostilities become sufficiently intense and protracted in the new location. That does not appear to be the rule of the historical practice, for instance, even in a traditional international conflict. See John R. Stevenson, Legal Adviser, Department of State, United States Military Action in Cambodia: Questions of International Law, Address before the Hammarskjold Forum of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York (May 28,1970)…, (arguing that in an international armed conflict, if a neutral state has been unable for any reason to prevent violations of its neutrality by the troops of one belligerent using its territory as a base of operations, the other belligerent has historically been justified in attacking those enemy forces in that state).

Now, let me start off by saying something absolutely clearly. The idea that the US can legally engage in a programme of assassinations using hellfire missiles fired from unmanned aerial vehicles is a patent falsehood – a complete joke – a non-starter – a parody – a stupid idea that no one should take seriously. A single ad hoc emergency strike might be justified as self-defence under Article 51 of the UN Charter, but a programme cannot be as self-defence because, under the charter, it can only be applied to imminent threats. This aspect of law isn’t rocket science, nor hidden within some mystical realm of legalese. The standard legal textbook dealing with this subject is Yoram Dinstein’s, War, Aggression and Self-Defense, now in its 4th edition. It is a pretty straightforward book (and I’m no lawyer) and on this particular subject it is so unequivocal that it is impossible that any superior authority might find some crucial flaw which would invalidate Dinstein. The reason it is so unequivocal is that the US arguments have already been ruled against by no lesser body than the International Court of Justice. The reason for this is that the US has already deployed almost the exact same reasoning to justify its actions against Nicaragua.

On Nicaragua v. United States of America, the ICJ ruled “By twelve votes to three, Rejects the justification of collective self-defence maintained by the United States of America in connection with the military and paramilitary activities in and against Nicaragua the subject of this case; …. By twelve votes to three, Decides that the United States of America, by training, arming, equipping, financing and supplying the contra forces or otherwise encouraging, supporting and aiding military and paramilitary activities in and against Nicaragua, has acted, against the Republic of Nicaragua, in breach of its obligation under customary international law not to intervene in the affairs of another State….” And goes on to add other grounds of violation, including a similar finding against the US mining of Nicaragua’s main port. Dinstein explores the US self-defence claims and notes that although self-defence was ruled out on other grounds this did not prevent judges from further noting that the three requisite conditions of immediacy, necessity, and proportionality were also unsustainable.1

In the Nicaragua case, as now, the US argued that conditions of immediacy, necessity and proportionality were met, but then, as now, these are just empty words disproved by the simplest of geographical facts. Such claims are even further disproved by publicly available details of the US assassination programme, such as the use of “signature strikes” and the use of “double tap” follow up strikes. These practices demolish self-defence arguments even as they raise further questions about breaches of International Humanitarian Law (such as the Fourth Geneva Convention (1949)) and International Human Rights Law (such as Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which affirms “the right to life, liberty and security of person”).

So, how much does citing US actions in Cambodia strengthen the feeble claims of legal rationale for drone strikes? I would say somewhat less than not at all, partly because US military actions in Cambodia were clearly not legal and partly because they too failed the test of self-defence (hence arguably being crimes against the peace) but they were also gross breaches of International Humanitarian Law, and should be classified as genocide – which is considered an “aggravated crime against humanity

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When people think of genocide and Cambodia, they tend to think of the Khmer Rouge, and the “Killing Fields”; of their evidently insane Democratic Kampuchea regime which began its “Year Zero” in 1975. But a Finnish Inquiry Commission designated the years 1969 to 1975 in Cambodia (a time of massive aerial bombardment by the US and of bitter civil war wholly sustained by the US) as Phase 1 of the ‘Decade of Genocide’.2Estimates of Cambodian deaths resulting from the 1969-75 war range from Vickery’s 500,000 killed3 to a credible 1 million excess deaths estimated by Sorpong Peou.4 Given that the Cambodian population was an estimated 6 or 7 million in the period of the Second Indochina War, this gives us a figure of between 1 in 6 and 1 in 14 of all Cambodians killed.

US actions inside Cambodian borders began years before the devastating carpet bombing. The US ‘Studies and Operations Group’ conducted attacks with US Special Forces personnel in Cambodia throughout the 1960s. In 1967 these were institutionalised as “Salem House” (later known as “Daniel Boone”). This programme was kept secret from the US congress and conducted a total of 1,835 missions. Their primary activity appears to have been the laying of “sanitized self-destruct antipersonnel” mines anywhere up to 30 kilometres beyond the border. Their supposed mission was intelligence gathering, but throughout the whole programme they only captured 24 prisoners.5 The Special Forces troops usually disguised themselves as Vietnamese PLAF fighters and sometimes murdered civilians in false-flag operations.6

In 1970 Sihanouk was overthrown by General Lon Nol7 and Prince Sirik Matak with tacit support from Washington and probable assistance by the CIA. Washington recognised the new regime within hours.8 So fast was recognition of Lon Nol’s government that it must have precluded any possibility that the changes on the ground were being assessed, which strongly suggests that the US must have had detailed foreknowledge in order to have any confidence in its judgement. Sihanouk’s overthrow made civil war unavoidable.

In 1969, before the above events, the US began bombing Cambodia in what was known as “Operation Menu”. From Saigon, US General Creighton Abrams insisted that he had “hard evidence” that the Central Office for South Vietnam headquarters (COSVN HQ) had been located in the “Fish Hook” salient of Cambodia.9 The problem was that no such place ever existed, though for years the US had mounted operations to crush it when they claimed it was located in South Vietnam.10 Once under way, Operation Menu spread to other areas. Despite the carpet bombing of area supposed to contain COVSN HQ, in April 1970 Abrams claimed that the headquarters still existed as a fortified underground bunker with 5000 personnel.11 In May US and RVN forces invaded Cambodia, the action justified in part as an attempt, yet again, to wipe out the COVSN HQ “which had become the Holy Grail of the American war”.12 The US/RVN invasion simply, and predictably, drove communist forces deeper into Cambodia.13

It is a known and predictable effect that the killing of civilians drives people to take up arms, it is a “counterproductive” counter-insurgency tactic which actually strengthens the enemy.14 It is worth remembering that the famous maverick US Army officer John Paul Vann made the same observation in 1962.15One of the most striking examples of generating an enemy by killing civilians, is what occurred in Cambodia from 1969 onwards. Ben Kiernan repeatedly cites evidence in numerous consecutive instances that US/RVN aerial bombardment strengthened the Khmer Rouge insurgency, and, more specifically the anti-Vietnamese faction of the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot.16 In 1969, the Khmer Rouge consisted of perhaps 4000 – an ultimately unthreatening insurgency. By the end of 1972, they were able, with DRV logistical support, to “hold their own” against Lon Nol’s armed forces, which, at US instigation, had been enlarged to between 132,000 and 176,000 (not counting “ghost” soldiers, who existed only on the books of the corrupt officers who collected their pay) and had massive US/RVN air support.17 In William Shawcross’s words, “the new war was creating enemies where none previously existed”18 and by this stage, Lon Nol’s regime was already reduced to the control of shrinking and fragmenting enclaves.19

When the the US generated a war in Cambodia they had already had a great deal of experience in Vietnam 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.”20 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.21

Going back in time to 1970, 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.22 This invasion along US and RVN bombing and the civil war made refugees of around half of the Cambodian population.23Lon 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.”24

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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.25 If averaged out, over 33 tons of ordnance were used to kill each Khmer Rouge insurgent.26 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 1971.27 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.28 The result was by that stage foregone, and yet the war dragged on for three years with the greater part of the 1 million deaths 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.”29 The point of the US bombing was not to win a military victory – it was to destroy Cambodia as part of an Indochina “exit strategy” – and that is a clear instance of genocide under the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. When the US Congress finally blocked aid to Cambodia and South Vietnam, 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.”30

So that was the end of the US involvement in Cambodia, and their legal culpability. The Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh, and the refugees were shocked to see that the black-clad cadres were mostly young teens, fanatical and brutalised by half a young lifetime of fighting and death. The US was not responsible for the fantasies of the Pol Pot clique, who believed that supernatural amounts of food could be produced without recourse to machine power, nor for their refusal to accept aid. But the US had deliberately brought the Cambodian population to the brink of starvation – destroying farmland and driving peasants off the land. Perhaps 500,000 or more died of starvation. Hundreds of thousands were executed for political or ideological reasons, murdered by the Khmer Rouge who the US had largely brought into existence. And when the Vietnamese put the regime to an end (and despite what you may read about this being justifiable as “humanitarian intervention” it was in fact legitimate self-defence – if you don’t believe me you can read about Khmer Rouge foreign policy, border attacks, and espoused official desire to exterminate all Vietnamese) when the Khmer Rouge were supplanted, the US insisted that they retain a seat at the UN and started giving aid to their guerilla forces.

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So, do I think that the Cambodia precedent is a good one to justify an assassination programme? No, I do not. But then again I am not from the US, and perhaps I am failing to grasp the subtle point that next to no “Americans” died in Cambodia (none that were officially acknowledged) therefore it did not happen. I don’t want to be offensive, but if they do not wish to be complicit with the crimes of the US regime, US anti-drone campaigners must avoid all trace of exceptionalism. I am sure they mean no harm, but why allow yourselves to be drawn into this ridiculous framework of seeing the drone programme as being primarily a question of “the targeting of Americans without due process.” There have been 5 US citizens killed with US drones whereas at least 4000 non-US citizens have been killed. Why would anyone, in those circumstances, give primacy to concern over “US citizens” and “due process”? This fetishisation of the idolised US Constitution is getting old. Besides which, the US Constitution’s “Supremacy Clause” (Article 6, Clause 2) actually gives treaties the same status as federal law – which would include the Nuremberg Charter and the UN Charter, among other things. Furthermore, by allowing the issue to be framed in such a manner, psychologically you set yourself and others up for being mollified by cosmetic measures offered to guarantee the rights of US citizens while retaining the right to kill foreigners at will. Do you really believe that being a US citizen or being born in Denver makes someone more human?

1 Yoram Dinstein, War, Aggression and Self-Defence (3rd ed.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001, pp 184-5.

2 Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. London: Vintage, 1994 (1988), p 260.

3 Ibid, p 263.

4 Sorpong Peou, Intervention & Change in Cambodia: Towards Democracy? Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2000, p 54.

5 Ibid, pp 64-5.

6 Ben Kiernan, The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1996, p 18.

7 The US had developed ties with Lon Nol in the 1950s and by 1970, according to CIA officer Frank Snepp, he was one of two candidates being groomed by the CIA to take Sihanouk’s place (William Shawcross, Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia. London: Fontana, 1980 (1979), pp 114-5).

8 Ibid, pp 114-23; William Blum, Killing Hope: U.S. Military and C.I.A. Interventions Since World War II (2nd ed.), Monroe: Common Courage Press, 2004, pp 137-8; Peou, Intervention & Change in Cambodia, pp 125-6.

9 Shawcross, Sideshow, p 19.

10 Marilyn Young, The Vietnam Wars 1945-1990, New York: Harper Perennial, 1991, pp 72, 186; Tucker, Vietnam, p 129; Turley, The Second Indochina War, pp 79-80.

11 Shawcross, Sideshow, p 140.

12 Young, The Vietnam Wars, p 245.

13 Shawcross, 1979, p 151.

14 David Keen, Endless War? Hidden functions of the ‘War on Terror’. London, Ann Arbor: Pluto Press, 2006, pp 58-61.

15 Neil Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam (New York: Vintage 1989 (1988), p pp 106-111.

16 Kiernan, The Pol Pot Regime, pp 19-23. Also see Peou, Intervention & Change in Cambodia, p 128.

17 Shawcross, Sideshow, pp 73, 180, 194-5, 261.

18 Ibid, p 249.

19 Ibid, p 254.

20 Ibid, p 220.

21 Ibid, p 317-9.

22 Ibid, p 149.

23 Peou, Intervention & Change in Cambodia , p 127.

24 Shawcross, Sideshow, p 163.

25 Kiernan, The Pol Pot Regime, p 24.

26 Ibid, p 19.

27 Shawcross, Sideshow, p 186.

28 Ibid, pp 254-5.

29 Ibid, p 169.

30 Nigel Cawthorne, Vietnam: A War Lost and Won. London: Arcturus Publishing, 2003, p 213.

Is Obama Really Batman?

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You can be excused just about anything if you’re a hero, because no one asks inconvenient questions. – Terry Pratchett.

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There are many ways in which various incarnations of Batman have appealed to people over the years, but central is the trope of counterterror – the revenge fantasy of the impotent. You see, Batman has superhuman powers. Yes, I am aware that the authors make it very clear that he does not have superhuman powers, but then they depict him doing things which are beyond human capabilities – hence he actually has superhuman powers. Using his super powers he brings fear to those who inflict fear. He is the victim who has become the righteous assailant. But there is a little bit of a problem here – if the “hero” is a violent nutcase with an odd costume fetish, why would we trust his moral compass? Why would we rely on his literally self-righteous narrative? In the same vein, why should we take Obama’s word that he has to kill people to prevent terrorism when the alleged terrorists cause much less terror and death than Obama? It turns out that people tolerate Obama because he seems to face an evil more unspeakable, more terrible, and yet more outrageous and comical than any evil known to history. It is not al-Qaeda, nor is it Kim Jong Un. It is the same evil that Batman faces.

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Nerd Rage Revenge Fantasy

There is reassurance in the idea of a powerful paternal figure that protects. But when you have been bullied; when you have been made to feel helpless, weak and scared; when your delusions of potency are shattered, maybe you want more than reassurance – maybe you want VENGEANCE. The tables must be turned. The tormentor must become the tormented. You don’t need a father figure anymore, you need a you figure. But an empowered you, a superhuman you, a terrifying you. You need the superhuman powers because you face a superhuman threat – the villains.

The villains are given superhuman power by the scary demon mask which is given to them by magic storytellers known as the corporate media. They terrorise. The mask they wear is the horror mask of primal and basic fear. Criminals and terrorists are not represented as human beings but as crime and terror made flesh. You cannot reason with them. You cannot even buy their forbearance. They will take your money and kill you anyway – because they are driven to kill. There are no ways of mediating or ameliorating the risk of becoming a victim. You hide behind locks, gates and guards, and you cheer for the preventive violence of vigilantes in or out of uniform.

If you are thinking that they take the horror villain mask from the fictional murderer of Hollywood and place it on the real murderers of the evening news, you would only be partly right. The horror mask is used, of course, but there are no “real” murderers on the evening news. Instead of a human being the news media version of a murderer is a cypher, a vehicle for the urge to kill, murder itself embodied and made flesh. They are even less real than their fictional Hollywood counterparts and it is the same when the murderers are “terrorists”. Proof of the unreality is in the irrelevance of actual guilt. The Central Park Five wore the horror mask, as did Damien Echols, and many other innocents such as those imprisoned and tortured in Guantánamo. These are all fictional unreal murderers and terrorists (despite the fact that they correspond to actual real people) who epitomise murder and terror. Their alien nature, their irrationality, their opacity all make them much greater sources of fear. But then there is the intriguing thought that one can also fight terror with terror.

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Enter the Batman!

The nature of Batman is such that he takes the terror felt by the public and projects it back at the supposed source of their terror. No, he doesn’t go around scaring the crap out of studio owners and heads of news departments, that would be too sensible. He terrorises the “baddies”, and a central part of the canonical backstory is that he too is a victim, having seen his parents senselessly gunned down as a child. The fear makes everyone a victim, and he is the victim granted the power to fight back.

Out of the dark, just as the tattoed thug is in the act of terrorising (his victim usually a woman), a dark figure drops from above. The tables are turned – the terroriser is now the terrorised – a highly gendered process in which the “bad guy” suddenly develops a very high pitched squeaky voice which is decidedly girly. Usually there is also some sort of phallic kerfuffle occuring – the bad guy’s pistol droops impotently, or Batman’s weapon is bigger, or disarmament is shown as symbolic castration. All good family fun.

This all occurs in exactly the same way in the world of Obama. The discourse of terrorism is one of the horror mask beneath which is the simplistic fiction of cardboard-cutout evil. Terrorists, like violent urban criminals, are animated by innate animus – a pure and unadulterated hatred. They hate our freedoms, we were told, and Obama has done almost nothing but reinforce that notion. Terrorists are killing machines. It is in their nature. You cannot negotiate with terrorists because they are all irrational fanatics. And so, like the urban criminals, the only choice is to incapacitate or eliminate them. As Prince Harry put it: “If there’s people trying to do bad stuff to our guys, then we’ll take them out of the game.” (He didn’t preface the comment with “Holy Playstation Batman!”, but he might well have, because the UK really does good line in being sidekick to a deranged vigilante).

The fear of the terrorist or criminal actually relies on the deliberate omission of any hint of rational motive or circumstantial cause. There is “no negotiating with terrorists”. The only admissable response is the response of the strongman, the Obataman who fights terror with terror. Otherwise people might think that all of this counterterror stuff (which actually creates more terrorists than it kills) is really about deliberately sowing instability and strife in order maintain a US strategic predominance which is, in fact, counter to the interests of the US people (but pretty good if you happen to be ExxonMobil).

Is the analogy with Batman a fair one? To be strictly honest, while Dick Cheney rather overtly embraced what he himself described as “the dark side”, Obama is in a sense more discreet than Cheney or Batman. Part of the appeal of the use of drones is that it seems clinical and detached. Obama specifically claimed “very few” civilian casualties from “very precise, precision strikes against Al Qaeda and their affiliates” in a programme that is “kept on a very tight leash.” So it seems like a programme that just gets “the worst of the worst”. Just like Guantánamo. The frequency of the drone strikes just goes to show how serious the threats to the US are. It also reveals the vigilance of the intelligence forces who strike at every credible threat as soon as it is detected. It is a bit like a whack-a-mole game. The public can be very reassured by the frequency of lethal action without having to ask themselves irrelevant questions such as: who?; where?; how old?; or, how can some impoverished person from one of the most undeveloped regions of the planet pose a credible threat against a country that spends such obscene amounts on “defense” and “homeland security”?

On the other hand, to give Batman his due, despite his broody wierdness and silly voice, he usually resists the temptation to actually murder people, and he doesn’t kill children at all. Obama, by contrast, murders children on a very regular basis, which is not a normal part of the “hero” job description.

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The Credibility Problem

Batman and Obama do share a certain fundamental problem, and their propagandists resolve this problem in the same manner. In the final analysis, Batman is an extremely emotionally disturbed vigilante who dresses up as a bat. Yes, this is obvious, and he is a superhero (sort of) but he dresses up as a bat to fight crime. That’s pretty loopy. Likewise, Obama is a serial murderer and war criminal. It might be difficult for people to grasp this at first, but many political leaders in the world are not murderers or war criminals. I know that seems completely mad, but it is true. Heaps and heaps of world leaders don’t even have assasination programmes!

Obama and Batman each have a kind of lame excuse. In the case of Batman it is that while he is actually a bit mad, he almost always has certain internal constraints on his behaviour. It isn’t that comforting really. It is a little like claiming that a sexually motivated burglar who likes to sniff underwear and watch people sleeping is actually alright because, out of hundreds of break-ins, the perpetrator has only sexually assaulted a sleeping victim on a couple of occasions. Similarly, Obama assures us that the people he murders aren’t really murdered, because he has some lawyers who have written down some very important legal words which explain exactly why it is not actually murder but perfectly legal killing and we would be able to see these very important words but they have to be secret because of security. This is nothing more than a sophisticated Third Millenium version of the Nixon defence (if the President does it, it must be legal). These first-line excuses would not protect Obama and Batman from the derision, condemnation and legal proceedings they so richly deserve, but they are supplemented by something far more powerful – flattering contrasts.

How do you make a violent mentally disturbed vigilante in an outrageous costume seem morally acceptable? By pitting him against villains who are even more violent, more mentally disturbed, and more outrageously costumed. Yes, I’m talking about people like Michelle Bachmann and Glenn Beck. You might ask, what about Osama Bin Laden, Muammar Gaddafi and the new kid on the block, Mokhtar Belmokhtar? They are all very well, but for all of their rather suspiciously excessive and picturesque fiendishness, eventually people start to notice that they kill a lot less people than the “good guys”. That is one of the reasons why Bush kept sliding in the polls, eventually even the most brainwashed had to notice that he had lost the moral high ground (and the only excuse that he ever had for pursuing a very criminal foreign policy was to cite moral righteousness). So they had to change from a John Wayne president to a Bruce Wayne president. And you have to admit that Obama seems inherently sane and reasonable when juxtaposed with supervillains like The Newt, Bibi Yahoo, The Enarray, Doctor Romnesia and “Whitey” O’Reilly.

I could probably just start listing completely freakish and weird individuals and groups who position themselves to the right of Obama and it would be a very long list indeed. But you can probably think of a few without my assistance. Obama has managed to seem extremely rational, humane, caring and progressive merely by rejecting some extremely deranged stances taken by his domestic political opponents. Take the Republican primary circus, for example. That was one hell of a freak show and the national convention was a suitably bizzarre coda. And the Republican candidate? A completely unelectable billionaire who refuses to release his tax returns, probably because it would show people how he managed to score millions in taxpayer bailout money by holding the government to ransom in 2008 (the deal was legal, just very very immoral, and concealing it may yet land Romney in prison). And yet they managed to make the election into a credible two-horse race, though only with the mainstream media bending over backwards to keep pretending that Romney’s assertions were worthy of report despite 533 documented lies over the space of 30 weeks of campaigning.

The fact is that Obama only has to say the sort of things that a ten-year old kid would say about the day’s issues, and it seems as if he were the only help of salvation in the face of the sort of reactions his opponents evince. Take the issue of mentally ill people massacring children with weapons which are purpose-built for killing people. Obama said: “We’re going to need on making access to mental health at least as easy as access to a gun. We’re going to need to look more closely at a culture that, all too often, glorifies guns and violence.” Those words almost made him sound like a radical, because very powerful voices were saying that the answer to mass shootings was more guns.

Other issues where Obama’s opponents manage to make him look reasonable even when he is being inhumane or criminal include foreign policy and immigration. Obama has deported record numbers of people (400,000 last year) at enormous expense (ICE and Customs and Border enforcement cost at least $19 billion in 2012). Yet, because he says much less callous things than Republicans, he gets a free ride on the issue. Obama presided over 20,000 air strikes in his first term, nearly equal to the number in both Bush Jr. terms. But Romney’s neocon studded team and the Iran War enthusiasts make Obama seem restrained if not dovish. Obama has been steadfast and seemingly obsequious in support of Israel, but the inevitable opposition to illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Netanyahu’s silly charade of insulted objection, make Obama seem like an “honest broker” (the US has to oppose the illegal settlements, otherwise they could not pretend to support the “peace process” to find a “two-state” solution).

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How Many Jokers?

So there we have it. Batman needs The Joker, otherwise he looks too much like a dangerous lunatic himself. For Obama, one joker is not enough. It takes a whole slew of maniac clowns to make Obama seem alright, and for good reason. Here is a test. Read the list of children killed by drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen compiled by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Think about the dead children. (It is an incomplete list. Many victims will never be known.) Then some day when you are in a crowd, picture Obama and think “This guy kills kids. He actually kills children.” Then look at all of the people around you. Do any of them kill children? Not very likely, is it? Normal people don’t kill children. If you found out that one of the people around you had murdered numerous children, how would you react? Now ask yourself, why don’t you react that way to Obama? Isn’t it time to forget about the freakish clowns and see him for what he really is?

Bomber in Chief: 20,000 Airstrikes in the President’s First Term Cause Death and Destruction From Iraq to Somalia | Alternet by Nicolas J.S. Davies

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Bomber in Chief: 20,000 Airstrikes in the President’s First Term Cause Death and Destruction From Iraq to Somalia | Alternet.

Bomber in Chief: 20,000 Airstrikes in the President’s First Term Cause Death and Destruction From Iraq to Somalia

AlterNet / By Nicolas J.S. Davies

Day after day, U.S. air strikes have conclusively answered the familiar question of 9/11: “Why do they hate us?”

Photo Credit: AFP

Many people around the world are disturbed by U.S. drone attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere. The illusion that American drones can strike without warning anywhere in the world without placing Americans in harm’s way makes drones dangerously attractive to U.S. officials, even as they fuel the cycle of violence that the “war on terror” falsely promised to end but has instead escalated and sought to normalize. But drone strikes are only the tip of an iceberg, making up less than 10 percent of at least 20,130 air strikes the U.S. has conducted in other countries since President Obama’s inauguration in 2009.

The U.S. dropped  17,500 bombs during its invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. It conducted  29,200 air strikes during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. U.S. air forces conducted at least another  3,900 air strikes in Iraq over the next eight years, before the Iraqi government finally negotiated the withdrawal of U.S. occupation forces. But that pales next to at least 38,100 U.S. air strikes in Afghanistan since 2002, a country already occupied by U.S. and NATO forces, with a government pledged by its U.S. overlords to bring peace and justice to its people.
The Obama administration is responsible for  at least 18,274 air strikes in Afghanistan since 2009, including at least 1,160 by pilotless drones. The U.S. conducted at least 116 air strikes in Iraq in 2009 and about  1,460 of NATO’s 7,700 strikes in Libya in 2011. While the U.S. military does not publish figures on “secret” air and drone strikes in other countries, press reports detail a five-fold increase over Bush’s second term, with at least  303 strikes in Pakistan125 in Yemen and 16 in Somalia.
Aside from the initial bombing of Afghanistan in 2001 and the “shock and awe” bombing of Iraq in March and April 2003, the Obama administration has conducted more air strikes day-in day-out than the Bush administration. Bush’s roughly 24,000 air strikes in seven years from 2002 to 2008 amounted to an air strike about every 3 hours, while Obama’s 20,130 in four years add up to one every 1-3/4 hours.
The U.S. government does not advertise these figures, and journalists have largely ignored them. But the bombs and missiles used in these air strikes are powerful weapons designed to inflict damage, death and injury over a wide radius, up to hundreds of feet from their points of impact. The effect of such bombs and shells on actual battlefields, where the victims are military personnel, has always been deadly and gruesome. Many soldiers who lived through shelling and bombing in the First and Second World Wars never recovered from “shell-shock” or what we now call PTSD.
The use of such weapons in America’s current wars, where “the battlefield” is often a euphemism for houses, villages or even urban areas densely populated by civilians, frequently violates otherwise binding rules of international humanitarian law. These include the  Fourth Geneva Convention, signed in 1949 to protect civilians from the worst effects of war and military occupation.
Beginning in 2005, the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) issued quarterly reports on human rights in Iraq. They included details of U.S. air strikes that killed civilians, and UNAMI called on U.S. authorities to fully investigate these incidents.  A UNAMI human rights report published in October 2007 demanded, “that all credible allegations of unlawful killings by MNF (multi-national force) forces be thoroughly, promptly and impartially investigated, and appropriate action taken against military personnel found to have used excessive or indiscriminate force.”
The UN human rights report included a reminder to U.S. military commanders that, “Customary international humanitarian law demands that, as much as possible, military objectives must not be located within areas densely populated by civilians. The presence of individual combatants among a great number of civilians does not alter the civilian nature of an area.”
But no Americans have been held criminally accountable for civilian casualties in air strikes, either in Iraq or in the more widespread bombing of occupied Afghanistan. U.S. officials dispute findings of fact and law in investigations by the UN and the Afghan government, but they accept no independent mechanism for resolving these disputes, effectively shielding themselves from accountability.
Besides simply not being informed of the extent of the U.S. bombing campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. public has been subject to military propaganda about the accuracy and effectiveness of “precision” weapons. When military forces detonate tens of thousands of powerful bombs and missiles in a country, even highly accurate weapons are bound to kill many innocent people. When we are talking about 33,000 bombs and missiles exploding in Iraq, 55,000 in Afghanistan and 7,700 in Libya, it is critical to understand just how accurate or inaccurate these weapons really are. If only 10 percent missed their targets, that would mean nearly 10,000 bombs and missiles blowing up something or somewhere else, killing and maiming thousands of unintended victims.
But even the latest generation of “precision” weapons is not 90 percent accurate. One of the world’s leading experts on this subject, Rob Hewson, the editor of the military journal Jane’s Air Launched Weapons, estimated that  20 to 25 percent of the 19,948 precision weapons used in the “shock and awe” attack on Iraq in 2003 completely missed their targets. The other 9,251 bombs and missiles were not classified as “precision” weapons in the first place, so that only about 56 percent of the total 29,199 “shock and awe” weapons actually performed with “precision” by the military’s own standards. And  those standards define precision for most of these weapons only as striking within a 29 foot radius of the target.
To an expert like Rob Hewson who understood the real-world effects of these weapons, “shock and awe” presented an ethical and legal problem to which American military spokespeople and journalists seemed oblivious. As he told the Associated Press, “In a war that’s being fought for the benefit of the Iraqi people, you can’t afford to kill any of them. But you can’t drop bombs and not kill people. There’s a real dichotomy in all of this.”The actual results of U.S. air strikes were better documented in Iraq than in Afghanistan. Epidemiological studies in Iraq bore out Hewson’s assessment, finding that tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of Iraqi civilians were killed by U.S. air strikes.  The first major epidemiological study conducted in Iraq after 18 months of war and occupation concluded:

Violent deaths were widespread … and were mainly attributed to coalition forces. Most individuals reportedly killed by coalition forces were women and children … Violence accounted for most of the excess deaths and air strikes from coalition forces accounted for most violent deaths.

When the same team from Johns Hopkins and Baghdad’s Al Mustansariya University did  a more extensive study in Iraq in 2006 after three years of war and occupation, it found that, amidst the proliferation of all kinds of violence, U.S. air strikes by then accounted for a smaller share of total deaths, except in one crucial respect: they still accounted for half of all violent deaths of children in Iraq.
No such studies have been conducted in Afghanistan, but hundreds of thousands of Afghans now living in refugee camps tell of  homes and villages destroyed by U.S. air strikes and of family members killed in the bombing. There is no evidence that the pattern of bombing casualties in Afghanistan has been any kinder to children and other innocents than in Iraq. Impossibly low figures on civilian casualties published by the U.N. mission in Afghanistan are the result of small numbers of completed investigations, not comprehensive surveys. They therefore give a misleading impression, which is then amplified by wishful and uncritical Western news reports.
When the UN identified only 80 civilians killed in U.S. Special Forces night raids in 2010, Nader Nadery of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, who worked on the UN report, explained that  this was based on completed investigations of only 13 of the 73 incidents reported to the UN for the year. He estimated the number of civilians killed in all 73 incidents at 420. But most U.S. air strikes and special forces raids occur in resistance-held areas where people have no contact with the UN or the Human Rights Commission. So even thorough and complete UN investigations in the areas it has access to would only document a fraction of total Afghan civilian casualties. Western journalists who report UN civilian casualty figures from Afghanistan as if they were estimates of total casualties unwittingly contribute to a propaganda narrative that dramatically understates the scale of violence raining down from the skies on the people of Afghanistan.
President Obama and the politicians and media who keep the scale, destructiveness and indiscriminate nature of U.S. air strikes shrouded in silence understand only too well that the American public has in no way approved this shameful and endless tsunami of violence against people in other countries. Day after day for 11 years, U.S. air strikes have conclusively answered the familiar question of 9/11: “Why do they hate us?” As Congressmember Barbara Lee warned in 2001, we have “become the evil we deplore.” It is time to change course. Ending the daily routine of deadly U.S. air strikes, including but by no means limited to drone strikes, should be President Obama’s most urgent national security priority as he begins his second term in office.

Nicolas J. S. Davies is author of Blood On Our Hands: The American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq. He wrote the chapter on “Obama At War” for the just released book, Grading the 44th President: A Report Card on Barack Obama’s First Term as a Progressive Leader.