Son of Credibility Gap: Johnson and Nixon Rhetoric Reborn


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

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

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


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

Our Soviet Moment

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

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


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

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

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

Another Reluctant Warmonger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tinkerbell Gets the Clap

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

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

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

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

The Real Reason

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Obscenities of the Great War




The killing, mutilation and gas poisoning of millions of soldiers on both sides had broken taboos and decisively blunted moral sensitivities. Auschwitz cannot be explained without reference to World War I.” – Yehuda Baueri

World War I brought about great political and strategic changes. We acknowledge the political and strategic links joining World Wars I and II, but we seldom acknowledge the link of trauma that ties the brutalities visited on the combatants of the first war to the systematic mass killings of civilians in the second. The impact of the Great War echoes strongly through the generations, but to understand its impact we need to remind ourselves of the conditions endured by combatants. This was like a holocaust of young men, a multinational holocaust which even enemy states shared in common. It was one of histories great obscenities akin to a genocide or the horrors of the Atlantic slave trade, and it sowed the seeds of even greater future suffering.

The factors acting to derange the senses of the front line troops began even before enlistment with unrealistic, romantic and chauvinistic expectations of violence, combat and war;ii masculinity;iii and the martial prowess of their nation.iv As to the Great War itself, they genuinely expected it to be “over by Christmas”.v They, and those who were to remain home, felt that war would cleansevi and unite societyvii – renewing lost values and providing an “escape from modernity”.viii

In training troops were intentionally degraded, brutalised and stripped of individuality.ix Perhaps more importantly their training did next to nothing to prepare them for the realities of the front line, and very little to help them fight or survive.x

On arrival at the front they were confronted with overwhelming noisexi and disorientation in time and space,xii producing an immediate and lasting sense of befuddlement.xiii They had to contend with stench, filth, mud, vermin and, above all, cold.xiv They were constantly fatigued from hard labour at or behind the front line,xv they suffered chronic sleep deprivation exacerbated by the reversal of day/night patterns of activity in the front trenches.xvi They were malnourished in the field, and many had been malnourished in earlier life.xvii They were extremely prone to physical disease and were often treated punitively, cruelly or callously on falling ill.xviii They were starved of any, even basic, strategic informationxix and deprived, by physical realities, of a visual or tactical understanding of their situation – living in what Leed refers to as the “labyrinth”.xx Winter suggests that these factors caused “mental depression and physical sluggishness… from… lack of sleep combined with a total lack of information, which added to the lack of a sense of purpose.”xxi Their lives were expended with what can only be described as great profligacy. In these circumstances the front line soldier inevitably came to see some actions of military superiors and politicians (and by association the “home”) as either gratuitously idiotic or insane,xxii or as intentionally murderous.xxiii

The three greatest factors impacting the combatants’ psyches were the prevalences of fear, immobility and death. Leed emphasises the impact of immobility, contending that it destroyed any sense of identity as an “offensive” soldier.xxiv Psychiatric casualty rates certainly reflect the impact of static warfare.xxv This is most clearly illustrated by the fact that rates were lower during mobile war phases despite higher death and injury rates.xxvi On a more basic level than that of identity, however, soldiers were exposed to danger, provoking fear and adrenal response, and prevented from the active defence that both self-preservative cognition and biochemistry demanded. It is only too reasonable to expect that in these circumstances they would become neurasthenic and, as Aldington hinted, begin to morbidly fear fear itself.xxvii They were also constantly confronted with manifest death, the importance of which is shown by the centrality of encounters with corpses in both memoryxxviii and in the way combatants framed and interpreted the meaning of the war.xxix Killing could prompt guilt (although it should be remembered that only a small minority of infantry soldiers would have killed anyone). The loss of comrades could be a source of grief which, because of the necessarily close bonding of military units, caused “a large vertiginous emotional drain, and… a seemingly endless process of mourning.”xxx Combatants were radically desensitised, losing their normal reactions to both death and decay.xxxi Leed describes an instance where a soldier is blown by a shell onto the rotten stomach of an enemy, causing the excreta and rotten entrails of the corpse to enter his mouth – a single incident that illustrates the violation of profound values which confronted soldiers.xxxii The most damaging aspect of the confrontation with death was the reminder of one’s own mortality. In a war where front line soldiers were only too aware that they had little or no agency in their own self-preservation, each corpse represented the viewer’s own death save for a small sliver of fate or fortune. All agency and the disbursement of death was relegated to technology, the war-machine,xxxiii the soldiers were “unprotected by anything but cloth”.xxxiv They could not physically defend themselves and took refuge in superstitions talismans ritual and spells,xxxv largely abandoning established religion which offered only post-mortem salvation.xxxvi

The above is but a short list of some of the more prominent aspects of the front line that served to alienate and to enact profound psychic changes. These are two faces of the same coin – the war altered combatants but it was a “silent teacher” imparting a “secret which can never be communicated”.xxxvii Walter Benjamin noted that returning soldiers had “grown silent – not richer but poorer in communicable experience.”xxxviii The incommunicability of experience could make home leave unbearable because by itself it could be so intensely alienating.xxxix

The “silence” of the front line soldier was exacerbated by their lack of a military “offensive” identity.xl Soldiers are meant to be killers, shooters, attackers – they are trained as such and people, even today, believe it is their role. This derangement is not merely one affecting the popular imagination and popular culture, but is entrenched even in the scholarship of the subject. Joanna Bourke opens An Intimate History of Killing with the sentence, “The characteristic act of men at war is not dying, it is killing.” However, although she seeks to include the imaginary in constructing the meaning of war to participants, the point is not sustained even by her own selected evidence and although she deals with the fear of death she does not draw a link between it and the interpretation of the act of killing.xli Denis Winter makes the point that “danger was the most crucial trigger of aggression and sustainer of it….” Thus death precedes and shapes the act of killing.xlii Also in his reconstruction of the experience of battle it is fear of death that preconditions the soldier so intensely that its release leads to an immediate sense of euphoria, but also of detachment and unreality, which could change into positive enjoyment.xliii As discussed below this can have seldom been linked to killing in reality, and the sequence would suggest that the killing imaginary, and the narrative conventions of killing, are the product of the fear of death and a way of reclaiming agency after profound feelings of helplessness. Bourke herself cites an example of euphoric sensations and coital associations, identical to those that she suggests are associated with killing, deriving from a situation of danger where there was no remote possibility of the subject killing anyone, nor did he envisage or imagine doing so.xliv Similarly David Grossman is utterly insistent on seeing an erotic aspect to the act of killing when, if the only evidence by which to judge this is that offered by Grossman, there is more to be gleaned about the predispositions of Grossman and Bourke than any true erotic element to killing.xlv

Whether eroticised or not, the fascination with the ground soldier’s lethal agency, their acts of killing, seriously interfere with our ability to understand the soldier’s situation and the long-term effects of immersion in this situation. In fiction it is hard to find an infantry protagonist who does not kill an enemy soldier at some stage. However in reality, most front line soldiers were not killed, and 58 per cent of deaths that did occur were caused by shellfire.xlvi Of the remainder snipers, machine-guns, accident, disease, gas, aircraft and other causes would have accounted for so many that, given the relatively even matching of forces, only a tiny percentage of infantry could have actually killed someone with rifle, bayonet or grenade. The role of the infantry was not to kill but to occupy space. This is a source of cognitive dissonance to the soldier who has been instilled with an “offensive” identity, but also a source of cognitive estrangement from civilians and the values of a “society at war”.xlvii

The front and the home were also polarised in their attitudes towards the enemy. Civilian hatred towards the enemy was frequently a source of bitter anger for those serving at the front.xlviii The front line soldiers tended to lack hatred towards the enemy and often felt identification or even empathy.xlix To Stevenson this arose from the fact that they were all “trapped in a killing machine by pressure from above”.l The hatred of the enemy, and the pro-war patriotism of the home front was a source of bitter alienation in itself,li greatly aggravated by a blithe ignorance of the horrors facing combatants and a frequent expectation that the soldier should conform to preconceptions and be actively desirous of combat.lii The home front’s enthusiasm for slaughter was not simply a matter of estrangement of perceptions and beliefs, it made them part of the “killing machine”, as much a part of the apparatus as the staff officers in the rear lines. Some soldiers felt that civilians were responsible for maliciously and knowingly sending young men to die for their own profit or enjoyment, deceiving them as to the nature of military life and the reality of war.liii To Sassoon war was a “dirty trick” on his generationliv perpetuated by the “callous complacence” of There was not only bitterness but immense disdain directed at the older generation.lvi Remarque writes of their “moral bankruptcy”, his protagonist is “forced to conclude that our generation is more honourable than theirs.”lvii It was strongly felt that those staying behind were profiting from suffering and death of the front line troops, be they “profiteers” or armaments workers.lviii

Even more acute than the anger felt towards elders was that felt towards women.lix Some held that they derived positive enjoyment from young men’s sufferings. Aldington went so far as to write that the news of a son’s death was “almost wholly erotic” to a mother and that “all the dying and wounds… [from] a safe distance… gave [women] a great kick….lx More commonly women were blamed as active recruiters, although not entirely without reason.lxi

Psychologically the world was primed for an unprecedented turn towards genocide. We cannot forget that the experiences of Great War combatants were diverse, but at the same time we would be extremely foolish not to acknowledge the singular historical significance of the unprecedented sharing of such extreme conditions among tens of millions of young men. Never before have so many from so many nations shared so much with each other that they did not share with the rest of humanity. The reactions were also diverse among returned servicemen. An societal embrace of pacifism was a natural reaction, often shared by veterans, but other brutalised men were all too ready to don the uniforms of paramilitary police or fascist militias. The resentment of civilian impunity worked its way into military doctrine. Three early advocates of mass aerial bombardment were Giulio Douhet (Italy), Hugh Trenchard (Britain), and Billy Mitchell (US). Douhet and Trenchard argued against the distinction between civilian and combatant, Mitchell was an advocate of incendiary bombing, and all three argued that mass bombing of urban areas would shorten wars, preventing the horrors of drawn out trench warfare.lxii Thus, even without recourse to Nazi racial theories, it became quite normal in some circles to think that the mass-murder of civilians was a normal and desirable part of warfare. The callousness with which war leaders had used young men in the Great War sowed the seeds of genocidal brutality for the next generation of war leaders. These leaders would lay waste to entire countries and collectively slaughter tens of millions of civilians.

iYehuda Bauer, A History of the Holocaust. New York: Franklin Watts, 1982, pp 58-9, quoted in Eric Markusen and David Kopf, The Holocaust and Strategic Bombing: Genocide and Total War in the Twentieth Century. Boulder, San Francisco, Oxford: 1995, p 30.

iiMichael C.C. Adams, The Great Adventure: Male Desire and the Coming of World War I, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990, pp 71-2.

iiiIbid p 30.

ivEric J. Leed, No Man’s Land: Combat and Identity in World War I, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979, p 40; J.G. Fuller, Troop Morale and Popular Culture in the British and Dominion Armies 1914-1918, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990, p 37.

vDenis Winter, Death’s Men: Soldiers of the Great War, London: Penguin, 1979, p 32.

viMichael C.C. Adams, The Great Adventure: Male Desire and the Coming of World War I, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1990, p 61.

viiLeed, No Man’s Land, pp 44-5.

viiiIbid pp 58-72.

ixWinter, Death’s Men, pp 41-3. The destruction of individuality was also ipso facto the destruction of identity, or more specifically civilian identity, which was, in theory replaced with a less individual identity as a soldier. The problem, as we shall see, is that a soldier identity, as everyone understood it and as the military attempted to instil it, was totally untenable in the conditions of trench warfare (see below).

xIbid pp 36, 39-40.

xiLeed, No Man’s Land, pp 126, 131.

xiiIbid pp 124-5; Winter, Death’s Men, p 101.

xiiiWinter, Death’s Men:, pp 82, 226; Leed, No Man’s Land, p 21.

xivWinter, Death’s Men, pp 95-8.

xvIbid p 86, David Stevenson, 1914-1918:The History of the First World War, London: Penguin 2004, p 185; Fuller, Troop Morale and Popular Culture, pp 76-8.

xviDenis Winter, Death’s Men: Soldiers of the Great War, London: Penguin, 1979, p 100.

xviiIbid pp 30, 102; Jock Phillips, Nicholas Boyack, and E.P. Malone (eds), The Great Adventure: New Zealand Soldiers Describe the First World War, Wellington: Allen and Unwin, 1988, p 9; Fuller, Troop Morale and Popular Culture…, p 60.

xviiiWinter, Death’s Men, pp 99, 201-2.

xixFuller, Troop Morale and Popular Culture…, pp 62-4.

xxLeed, No Man’s Land , pp 77-80.

xxiWinter, Death’s Men, p 100.

xxiiIbid, pp 213; Leed, No Man’s Land, p 99.

xxiiiLeed, No Man’s Land, pp 106-7.

xxivIbid 180-6.

xxvJoanna Bourke, An Intimate History of Killing: Face-to-Face Killing in Twentieth-Century Warfare, London: Granta, 1999, p 249. See also note 8 above.

xxviStevenson, 1914-1918, p 215.

xxviiWinter, Death’s Men, p 133. Winter paraphrases Aldington as suggesting that men were ‘horribly afraid of seeming afraid’, however it is a reasonable inference to suggest that, given the risk of death or insanity that uncontrolled fear brought, they truly did fear fear. Such safety as there was against shelling required immobility, which required the control of fear. Again there are resonances with Catch-22.

xxviiiIbid p 181.

xxixIbid p 206-8. There is also the strong, if not cliché, narrative convention of the encounter with an enemy corpse prompting a realisation of the humanity of the enemy. For example, Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front, London: Vintage, 2005, pp 153-9, wherein the protagonist is also confronted by a protracted death at his own hands.

xxxLeed, No Man’s Land, p 210.

xxxiJoanna Bourke, Dismembering the Male, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996, p 77.

xxxiiLeed, No Man’s Land, p 19.

xxxiiiIbid pp 29-33.

xxxivJohn Keegan, The First World War, New York: Vintage, 2000, p 273.

xxxvLeed, No Man’s Land, pp 127-8; Winter, Death’s Men, p 118.

xxxviStevenson, 1914-1918, p 215.

xxxviiCharles Carrington quoted in Leed, No Man’s Land, p 12.

xxxviiiIbid p 209.

xxxixStevenson, 1914-1918, p 212.

xlLeed, No Man’s Land, p 113.

xliBourke, An Intimate History of Killing, pp 1-3.

xliiWinter, Death’s Men, p 216.

xliiiIbid, pp 179-81.

xlivBourke, An Intimate History of Killing, pp 150-1.

xlvDavid Grossman, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, New York: Back Bay Books / Little, Brown and Company, 1995.

xlviStevenson, 1914-1918, p 184.

xlviiLeed, No Man’s Land, p 110.

xlviiiIbid 106

xlixIbid p 107; in contrast Winter perceives more hatred, or rather ‘dislike’, but suggests that it seems to have been linked to the degree of danger and to have rapidly disappeared in time of truce, (Death’s Men, pp 209-13).

lStevenson, 1914-1918, p 92.

liWinter, Death’s Men, p 167.

liiFuller, Troop Morale and Popular Culture…, p 17.

liiiAdams, The Great Adventure, pp 125-133; Leed, No Man’s Land, pp 206-7

livAdams, The Great Adventure, p 133.

lvLeed, No Man’s Land, p 207.

lviIbid p 74.

lviiRemarque, All Quiet on the Western Front, p 9.

lviiiLeed, No Man’s Land, p 206; Adams, The Great Adventure, p 116; Fuller, Troop Morale and Popular Culture…, p 60; Winter, Death’s Men, pp 167-8.

lixAdams, The Great Adventure, p 108.

lxIbid p 128. Women were psychologically mobilised for the war effort and part of this was an effort to consciously indoctrinate them into viewing the death of their loved one’s as a positive sacrifice and a source of satisfaction. It seems unlikely that women were quite so thrilled at losing their sons as Aldington suggests, but the very existence of widespread propaganda to that effect makes Aldington’s viewpoint seem less extreme. See Nicoletta F. Gullace, The Blood of our Sons: Men Women and the Renegotiation of British Citizenship During the Great War, New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2002, p 63.

lxiDavid Stevenson, 1914-1918:The History of the First World War, London: Penguin 2004, p 292; Nicoletta F. Gullace, The Blood of our Sons: Men Women and the Renegotiation of British Citizenship During the Great War, New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2002, pp 3-4, 53-60, 81-3.

lxiiEric Markusen and David Kopf, TheHolocaustandStrategicBombing:GenocideandTotalWarintheTwentiethCentury, Boulder, San Francisco, Oxford: Westview Press, 1995, pp 201-2

The Korean Genocide Part 4: War or Genocide?


The Korean Genocide Part 4: War or Genocide?

(In Part 3 I presented matters relating to the opening of “major hostilities” in late June of 1950. I eschewed conclusions because of the unanswered questions around events. However I believe that it would be possible to present the case that the US was the instigator of these events due to the circumstance which surround the events (even if those events are themselves are difficult to discern). There is no smoking gun, as such, but there is a very strong case. The US desired this “war”, they had foreknowledge of the timing of its outbreak, and the window of time in which the US could benefit (by forestalling the impending conquest of Taiwan and the looming collapse of the Rhee regime) was very, very, narrow by this point. The US was actively deceptive in claiming to be unprepared to intervene, yet the rapidity of the deployment of the US Navy to the Taiwan Straits, and the instantaneous commitment of troops to Korea showed that planning and decision-making had taken place already. There is also a clear flurry of secretive activity by US officials and personnel leading up to the outbreak of hostilities as well as inter-client activity between the Guomindang and the Rhee régime. Lastly, though the unpreparedness of the ROK Army can be explained as a deliberate softening in order to draw forces into the equivalent of the “centre”, nothing on Earth can explain the depth of DPRK unpreparedness. And, as Sherlock Holmes tells us, when faced with choosing between the unlikely and the impossible, the unlikely must be true. ),%20anti%20American%202.jpg

The period which begins on 25 June 1950 and ends 27 July 1953 is conventionally termed “The Korean War”. A war of three years, as with wars in general, is almost inevitably going to be described in narrative terms and there are good reasons for this. Peoples’ lives were utterly dominated by major discreet events with distinct chronological placements – significant military actions; a front which swept south then north then south in the initial stage and then a completely different stage with virtually no such movement; notable political events; notable massacres; notable bombing raids. The Korean people were living through the “interesting times” referred to in the apocryphal Chinese curse – times when the narrative of “major” historical events is actually the most important factor in shaping the lives of the masses.

A narrative has a beginning, a middle and an end. The beginning describes a status quo. The middle is a series of transformative events which follow an initiation event which disturbs the status quo. The end is the establishment of a new status quo. This is all convention, of course, and it is understood that the beginning and end points are static only in terms relative to the defined boundaries of the middle – boundaries of both chronology and of type when including or excluding transformative events. What then should one expect from a narrative of war? More to the point, what would one expect the end to look like? Innumerable examples of war narratives end (by any reckoning) in a manner which accords with Clausewitz’s description of the nature of war. From the Punic Wars to the World Wars, they end with one side imposing its political will on the other, at least to some extent. Before World War II, stalemates were broken when one side gained the advantage. Only very small wars would actually end with a stalemate in place. The Korean War simply does not fit that aspect of the war narrative. The very simple trick of looking at the end of the narrative, one can already discern that the events of 25/06/1950 to 27/07/1953 are more likely to conform to a narrative wherein the “middle” is characterised by genocide rather than war.

In politico-military-strategic terms the end results of the Korean War are insignificant in terms of the scale of military action. There was no regime change. There wasn’t even a change in the balance of power on the peninsula except a growth of deterrence. If anything the war acted to stop change at this level, to halt transformative events and reimpose a more stable form of the status quo ante as if to defy the rules of narrative. However, on another level the transformation was profound and shocking. Around 10 percent of Koreans, or slightly more, were dead. In the DPRK about 2 million civilians and 500,000 military had died according to Halliday and Cumings.i That is more than one of every four human beings exterminated in a three year span. Others give lower figures, but still produce shocking mortality rates such as 1 in 5, though there is the ever-present confusion of specifying only “casualties” without distinguishing killed and wounded. One estimate is that one ninth of North Korean civilians (1,000,000 people) were killed in air raids alone.ii Additionally, according to Stueck,[i]n property, North Korea put its losses at $1.7 billion, South Korea at $2 billion, the equivalent of its gross national product for 1949. North Korea lost some 8,700 industrial plants, South Korea twice that number. Each area saw 600,000 homes destroyed.”iii The urban destruction in the DPRK was unparalleled before or since,at least 50 percent of eighteen out of the Norths twenty-two major cities were obliterated. A partial table looks this:

Pyongyang, 75%

Chongjin, 65%

Hamhung, 80%

Hungnam, 85%

Sariwon, 95%

Sinanju, 100%

Wonsan, 80%.”iv


Within months the US had run out of military targets and in less than a year they were running out of significant civilian targets and began bombing the countryside.v

The US also bombed south of the 38th parallel, when the KPA occupied areas or when there was guerilla activity. Hundreds of thousands were also massacred, almost exclusively by US and right-wing formations. Millett observes that[i]t is no accident that Koreans often compare themselves to Jews, Poles, and Irish.”vi In the ROK there is even a word, han, which specifically denotes the repressed and accumulated grief and rage that was produced in those who loved ones were killed by the regime but who avoided even mentioning the departed, let alone grieving their loss, for fear of being killed themselves.vii If this level of trauma is present in the ROK, one can only imagine the level of psychic devastation in the DPRK.

From the point of view of narrative, then, it would seem from the end point of the narrative arc that the middle, the crucial transformational events which are the stuff of traditional history, would be more likely to take the form of genocide than that of war. It’s not quite that simple though. It cannot be denied that there was a war going on. Baudrillard could not claim that “the Korean War did not happen”, although one might observe in events embryonic forms of the sort of “simulation” that led him to claim “the Gulf War did not happen”. What one can say is that in the narrative of war US actions often seem to be difficult to explicate, especially if its role in peace negotiations is incorporated. Claims of US naivety, idealism, stupidity and arrogance are all deployed to explain US actions, along with analyses of domestic political matters and inter-élite conflict. This sort of approach is no different from that used with respect to Indochina, Iraq, Afghanistan, and many sites of lesser US involvement which would include most of the very long list of US interventions. In contrast a narrative of genocide requires no such explications. Indeed, it is almost eerie that events unfold as if smoothly following a predetermined plan of genocide, notwithstanding that prosecuting genocide does not require the precision of prosecuting war and is thus not subject to uncertainty and reversal in the same manner.

Before narrating the events of the front line, it is worth describing the genocidal character of US actions in rear areas, which is ultimately a more fundamental defining characteristic of what occurred than the battles at the front. As Cho writes:

Targeting a civilian population would be a strategy that the U.S. militaryperfectedduring the Korean War, leaving three million people, or 10 percent of the population, dead. The horrors that began to unravel on the Korean peninsula on June 25, 1950, were already reminiscent of a future of U.S. military domination in Asia, flashing forward to images of napalmed children running through the streets….viii

It is worth contextualising US and ROK atrocities by making a comparison with Communist atrocities. Firstly, it is worth noting that the Chinese are not linked to massacres. Their treatment of POWs was far from what one would hope, and yet far better than that meted out by other belligerents. During 1951 the Chinese even took over custody of nearly all Western prisoners due to concerns over their treatment at Korean hands and were mostly at pains to treat them reasonably (in fairly grim circumstances) and protect them from the vengeance of Korean citizens.ix The Chinese example alone should be enough to belie completely any apologistic discourse which seeks to suggest that the sort of atrocities committed by the US were some innate by-product of the type of war fought.

North Korean atrocities differed form those of the US and ROK in three ways. Firstly there is the matter of scale. Cumings estimates that KPA atrocities were about one sixth compared to around 100,000 dying at the hands of ROK security forces and right-wing paramilitaries.x It may be that Cumings is being conservative with both numbers here, but if we assume from this a figure of 17,000 victims of Communist atrocities then it becomes more like one tenth or twentieth if one accounts in addition for US massacres and ROK massacres in captured or recaptured territories. If one factors in the civilians who died under US aerial bombardment the figure becomes less than 2%.xi

Secondly, there is the matter of authorisation. As Dong Choon Kim writes:North Korea’s Kim Il Sung strongly emphasized the prohibition against civilian killings, which seemed quite natural because the [KPA], as a revolutionary army, had to win the hearts and minds of the South Korean people.”xii Kim Il Sung also condemned revenge killingsxiii which were rife at the village level with reciprocal atrocities occurring as territory changed hands.xiv Furthermore, though the killing of POWs on or soon after capture was common, KPA officers at all levels strove constantly to end these murders.xv The authorised atrocities were restricted to the murder of political prisoners after a show of formal legal proceedings. On an individual level this is no less an atrocity than the same act carried out without the pretence of a trial, perhaps more so especially if confessions are produced through torture. It does, however, greatly restrict the scale of murder to a more individual rather than mass event. It also restricts the nature of the victims. Children, for example, would not be subject to this violence, nor generally would the apolitical, nor those without some significant form of political power.

This brings us to the third factor, the matter of discrimination. Communist atrocities particularly targetted specific individuals.xvi This was true of both authorised and unauthorised atrocities. Even surrendering soldiers and POWs are specifically “enemy combatants” who, by their nature, are or have been involved in conflict. The agency of, say, an infantryman may be virtually non-existent (outside of the fantasies promoted by recruiters), but that makes them pawns, not bystanders. There is no inherent moral difference between murdering a soldier and murdering a civilian, but there is a distinct difference. It is almost inevitable that military personnel are viewed as enemies, but enmity towards civilians, if defined innational, ethnical, racial or religious”xvii terms, is at the very least a prerequisite for genocide. Arguably it might be said that any mass killings and/or major destruction under this condition is definable as genocide in line with Lemkin’s definition of genocide as being “against populations”.xviii

Leaving aside the POW issue, given the conditions under which the Communists committed atrocities, it seems reasonable to accept Cumings’ implicit figure of roughly 17,000 civilians killed. This means that the US and ROK forces under US command killed more than 50 times as many civilians as the Communists.xix That is a substantive difference, not only in moral terms. Behind this massive disparity is a mountain of corpses. Explanations are given which rely on the atomisation of various forms of massacre, an artificial separation of methods and circumstances of mass slaughterpanic at the advance of the KPA; fanatical anticommunism; racism; superior firepower; and the USairpower fetish”. The disparity, however, gives lie to this because at every turn the Communists opposed the mass killing of civilians while, as will be shown; each instance of US/ROK mass murder was the result of policy. The disparate levels of atrocity mean exactly what they should suggest at first glanceone side was fighting a war, the other was committing a genocide.

To begin with the UN side of the frontline, the most well known massacre carried out by US personnel was that of No Gun Ri. This occurred from 26 July to 29 July 1950, that is to say over the space of about 3 days. The massacre began when refugees fleeing across a bridge were strafed and mortared. This much is not disputed.xx Controversy arose over the circumstances soon after the massacre rose to prominence in 1999. A narrative was promulgated throughout most of the US media thatthe incident took place because the military was ill-trained and ill-equipped during the early stages of the war”xxi with the result thatthe No Gun Ri story became sanitized as just another anecdotal war story that asks to be forgotten.”xxii In fact it is well documented that the US had on numerous occasions been directly ordered to open fire on refugees.xxiii According to the BBC: “Declassified military documents recently found in the US National Archives show clearly how US commanders repeatedly, and without ambiguity, ordered forces under their control to target and kill Korean refugees caught on the battlefield.”xxiv On 26 July, the day the massacre began, a letter from the US Ambassador to the ROK detailed to the State Department the US Army’s plan to open fire on refugees if they did not heed warning shots.xxv However, warning shots do not seem to have played a role in these events. According to the ROK Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRCK) in 2007:

On July 25th, 1950, Korean villagers were forced by U.S. soldiers to evacuate their homes and move south. The next day, July 26, the villagers continued south along the road. When the villagers reached the vicinity of No Gun Ri, the soldiers stopped them at a roadblock and ordered the group onto the railroad tracks, where the soldiers searched them and their personal belongings. Although the soldiers found no prohibited items (such as weapons or other military contraband), the soldiers ordered an air attack upon the villagers via radio communications with U.S. aircraft. Shortly afterwards, planes flew over and dropped bombs and fired machine guns, killing approximately one hundred villagers on the railroad tracks.xxvi

That is the context, which became a centre of controversy (albeit specious controversy) which in turn managed to leave most people with the impression of some sort of panicked response by US personnel who were not coping. The reader may well be wondering how this could possibly address all of the issues involved in a 3 day long massacre, a period longer than panic or unpreparedness could possibly account for.

After the initial attack, the refugees fled into a culvert and a tunnel beneath the bridge. US forces set up machine guns at either end of the culvert and tunnel. For over three entire days the machine gunners killed those who tried to leave, killing, according to the TRCK, an additional 300:xxvii‘There was a lieutenant screaming like a madman, fire on everything, kill ’em all,’ recalls 7th Cavalry veteran Joe Jackman. ‘I didn’t know if they were soldiers or what. Kids, there was kids out there, it didn’t matter what it was, eight to 80, blind, crippled or crazy, they shot ’em all.’xxviii Soldiers with small arms would, as time passed, approach the culvert to pick off any survivors. A survivor, 12 at the time, said:The American soldiers played with our lives like boys playing with flies.”xxix Bruce Cumings believes that there was a concerted effort to ensure that there were no surviving

We know these events occurred because of eye-witness statements, both those of survivors and those of 35 veterans who corroborate these events.xxxi Further corroboration exists in the bullet holes that remain to be seen, though plastered over, in the culvert and the tunnel to this day.xxxii Eye-witness testimony is the central evidence of these occurrences. Even the journal Archival Science is forced to concede that documents are supplementary, corroborating details rather than constituting an account.xxxiii This is true for all the massacres that occurred south of the 38th parallel. The orders that set the machinery of death in motion may be documented, but the events were not. The substance of eye-witness testimony, however, has been borne out by the mass graves to which witnesses were often able to lead investigators.xxxiv

No Gun Ri was not isolated. Over 60 further such massacres at US hands have been reported:

For example, on 11 July 1950, the US Air Force bombed the peaceful Iri railway station located far south of the combat line and killed about 300 civilians, including South Korean government officials. US warplanes also bombed and strafed gathered inhabitants or refugees in Masan, Haman, Sachon, Pohang, Andong, Yechon, Gumi, Danyang and other regions. Roughly 50 to 400 civilians were killed at each site and several times of that number were severely wounded. In dozens of villages across southern South Korea, US planes engaged in repeated low-level strafing runs of the ‘people in white,’ In the southeast seaside city of Pohang in August of 1950, US naval artillery bombarded the calm villages and killed more than 400 civilians. In addition, another fifty-four separate cases of attacks equivalent to No Gun Ri are logged with South Korean authorities but have not yet been investigated.xxxv

The one salient point that is repeated most often by veteran pilots is that they were told to target thepeople in white”. White clothing was the normal and traditional Korean attire, the most common form of dress among the rural majority.xxxvi But No Gun Ri is symptomatic of more than just the systematic targeting of refugees, it also shows the gratuitous violence of individual soldiers fuelled by racism. Hungarian reporter Tibor Meray described US personnel shooting Koreans for sport at the time and stated that neither the KPA nor the ROKA could compare to US forces in brutality.xxxvii In Viet Nam years later, a veteran of the Korean War told Philip Caputo:I saw men sight their rifles in by shooting at Korean farmers. Before you leave here, sir, youre going to learn that one of the most brutal things in the world is your average nineteen-year-old American boy.”xxxviii

The racist violence of US personnel had begun during the occupation. Here it is worth contrasting again. Soviet troops had entered Korea as conquerors, war weary, barefoot, and brutalised. They stole, they raped and they killed. After dark they had to travel in groups of no less than three to avoid reprisals from enraged Koreans.xxxix But the official reaction was swift. Their superiors stamped out such behaviour in a matter of weeks and the damage in relations began to heal.xl In contrast, Koreans greeted the US occupation warmly,xli but after 3 months of occupation Hodge reported that hatred of US was increasing,the word ‘pro-American’ is being added to ‘pro-Jap’, ‘national traitor’ and ‘Jap collaborator’.xlii This wasn’t just the result of US policies, but also of the behaviour of the occupation forces:

By December 1945 most of the specific acts with which the US command contended as the occupation proceededopen expressions of disrespect toward Koreans, lack of care in avoiding Korean pedestrians while driving American military vehicles, offensive advances toward Korean women, looting and larcenywere common.xliii

When thereplacements” arrived, conscripts taking over from Pacific War veterans, things got worse – “they lacked the training and discipline of their predecessors in the Army while possessing all the provincialism and sense of superiority of their older comrades, if not their dehumanizing experience in fighting the Japanese.”xliv Western reporters at the time found that racist contempt was the norm and that insurmountable alienation was more or less universal.xlv I cannot provide a full analysis of Hodge’s response, but it was inadequatelong on rhetoric (such as letters of exhortation to the troops), short on efficacious measures (such as widespread curfews and bans of off-duty personnel or rigorous prosecution of the more common offences, which were not necessarily minor). The fact that a commander with an entire machinery of military discipline at his disposal chose what amounted to begging his personnel to be nice shows that he was (as many have pointed out) a battlefield commander unsuited to the task of running an occupation. The fact that neither subordinates nor superiors did anything about his inefficacy, however, shows a fundamental disinterest in improving the behaviour of US personnel, a lack of will which supersedes in relevance any lack in capability on Hodge’s part.


Racist violence was fully unleashed once the War was under way. Just as the Germans had conflated Jewishness and Bolshevism, the US in propaganda and military indoctrination conflatedAsiatic”-ness and Communism.xlvi Instead of reserving animus for combatant enemies animus was directed atgooks”, which meant all Koreans regardless of combatant status, political orientation, or gender. It is true that risks vastly differed for different locales and statuses, but it is also true the every single Korean faced at least some risk of being killed by US forces and local allies were not an exception (a circumstance also seen in South Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and any other place where US forces are directly deployed). A US correspondent wrote that it wasnot a good time to be a Korean, for the Yankees are shooting them all”, while a British war correspondent recorded that GIsnever spoke of the enemy as though they were people…. …[E]very man’s dearest wish was to kill a Korean. ‘Today… I’ll get me a gook.’xlvii

When US forces went north of the 38th parallel massacres also occurred. Details are, of course, sketchier, with DPRK officialdom being an unreliable source. However, as Dong Choon Kim points out:While it must be acknowledged that the North has politically exploited such claims, the facts on the ground force us to not discount their veracity.”xlviii In one instance an estimated 35,380 people in Sinchon were massacred but whereas the DPRK leaders claim that US personnel committed the massacre, it was in fact ROK paramilitary police and militias who were sent north (by the US) in the tens of thousands.xlix

Although subject to commands from the Rhee regime, ROK security forces were ultimately under US command.l The US military may have been involved in formulating the “special decree” which initiated widespread massacres south of the 38th parallel, but there is no doubt that it was the US which initiated the massacres by ROK security forces north of the 38th. An order was issued toliquidate the North Korean Workers’ Party”, a mass movement which had 14% of the DPRK population as members. Mass arrests were to be followed by the production by the US ofblack lists”, the unstated purpose of which is easy enough to A partial list of occasions when the US has provided clients with lists of persons who the US wishes dead due to their political beliefs or activism includes: Guatemala, 1953;lii Iraq 1963,liii 2002-3,liv 2005-7;lv Indonesia 1965;lvi Indochina 1950-75;lvii Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay, Peru, and Ecuador mid-1970s (Operation Condor);lviii Latin America 1982-91lix (note that in the latter two instances most targets were not directly chosen by the US, but under guidelines created by the US). It is pretty easy to establish that these murders are eliticidal in nature by looking at the nature of the victims. They target leading intelligentsia and students, unionists, and peasant organisers. In Viet Nam, for instance, the US even invented the termViet Cong Infrastructure”. PradosdefinesthemasashadowynetworkofVietCongvillageauthorities,informers,taxcollectors,propagandateams,officialsofcommunitygroups,andthelike,whocollectivelycametobecalledtheVietCongInfrastructure(VCI).”Sympathizers”werealsocounted.lx The victims are very clearly non-combatants. For example, in William Blum’s survey of US interventions (Killing Hope) there is no index entry given forunionists”,subversives” ordissidents”; however, quite tellingly, one can get a fair idea of the approach to such individuals through looking up the entries ontorture, US connection to.” Out of 14 entries there are three relating to interrogation;lxi three where armed activists/guerillas/insurgents were tortured alongside unarmed political activists;lxii and 7 entries where only political dissidents are mentioned as victims.lxiii

We don’t know how many died in massacres north of the 38th parallel, but we do have some idea (very roughly) of how many died in mass executions in the south. Of 30,000 political prisoners at the outbreak of war almost all were disposed of (except for 7000 fortunate enough to be imprisoned in Seoul).lxiv This was the tip of the iceberg. An estimated 350,000 people were enrolled in the Bodoyeonmang (National Guidance League, NGL). It was putatively an organisation for monitoring and rehabilitating left-wing activists, but up to 70% of its members were simply apolitical peasants.lxv In a series of enormous mass executions (evidenced by mass graves which, again, provide grim proof of eyewitness testimony) somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 people were slaughtered (some estimates go as high as 300,000).lxvi In Taejon, for instance, 4000-7000 were executed, and when the town was recaptured the mass graves were used as propaganda under the false claim that it was in fact the Communists who had committed the atrocity.lxvii Probably those US personnel and Western reporters who saw the bodies believed it to be true (after all the Communists were the savages) but the massacre had in fact been attended by US officials.lxviii


Victims at Taejon. Note, I found this picture at a site which replicates the lie that communists committed this massacre. Of 48 photos in this 2010 retrospective 4 are depicting communist atrocities (or claim to be) while only 1 depicts an ROK/UN atrocity (below).

In recaptured territory, as in the North, many deemed politically suspect due to their activities during the DPRK occupation were liquidated. In the Seoul area, for instance, 50,000 were killed by one estimate.lxix In addition, civilians in areas where guerillas operated were at risk of being murdered throughout the war. Counterinsurgency often meant slaughtering civilian men, women and children deemed by geographical criteria to be supportive of the guerrillas. In Guchang, for instance,several thousand civilians, including babies, women, and elderly, were killed during the operations named ‘Keeping the Position by Cleansing the Fields….’lxx The US was also using airpower against parts of the countryside deemed inimical. From 5 January 1951 the US began the wholesale use of napalm against villages deemed to be willingly or unwillingly providing some form of support for guerrillas. As Suh Hee-Kyung writes:The objects of the bombings now included not only military targets but also civilian homes and towns suspected of harboring communist guerrillas and/or North Korean soldiers. Especially in areas that the North Korean Army and the Chinese Army had invaded, the U.S. Army applied a ‘scorched earth policy’ even if the targeted area was residential.”lxxi On 25 January 1951 Lt. General Edward Almond (commander of X Corps) defended the bombing in terms paraphrased by Cumings as,the local population was being killed, true, but the meager population remaining appears sympathetic to and harbors the enemy.”lxxii

The US also began its bombing campaign in the North. Most of the 1 million tons of US ordinance dropped from the air in the War were used instrategic” bombing in the North.lxxiii It is fair to say that in this small and highly urbanised half-country, this tonnage caused a greater degree of destruction than in any other time and place in human history (not counting single cities).By 1952 just about everything in northern and central Korea was completely levelled. What was left of the population survived in caves, the North Koreans creating an entire life underground, in complexes of dwellings, schools, hospitals, and factories.”lxxiv The rough consensus figure is that 1 million civilians died from the US bombing campaign. As Cumings notes:

The United Nation’s Genocide Convention defined the term as acts committed “with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” This would include “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.” It was approved in 1948 and entered into force in 1951 – just as the USAF was inflicting genocide, under this definition and under the aegis of the United Nations Command, on the citizens of North Korea. Others note that area bombing of enemy cities was not illegal in World War II, but became so only after the Red Cross Convention on the Protection of Civilians in Wartime, signed in Stockholm in August 1948.

Kim Dong Choon is cautious about the subject of genocide, despite writing in the Journal Of Genocide Studies:As we usually label genocide when the shooting and strafing were aimed at a certain race or community with clear cut boundaries and characteristics, America’s military actions towards Korean civilians may not be regarded as a genocidal incident. ([Interjects in endnote]However, as Bertrand Russell and Jean Paul Sartre argued when they established a ‘War Crimes Tribunal’… the ‘genocidal intent’ of war may be identified even when official military policies may deny such an ambition.)lxxv Of critical importance, however, is the fact that the US soldiers killed civilian refugees lacking even a modicum of self-defense, including women and children, even when no North Korean soldiers or grass-root guerilla forces threatened them.lxxvi This needless caution on Kim’s part is saddening. The US (and the ROK forces under US command) systematically killed civilians in various completely different circumstances, and they did so under orders from the very top of the chain of command. One need only to glimpse through the various levels of mortality produced bystrategic bombing”, “counterinsurgency”, and mass executions to see that, taken as a whole, this was a staggering amount of death and (perhaps more importantly) a staggering amount of co-ordinated labour employed in causing mass civilian deaths. The level of proof required here is, in fact, far lower than that required to label the mass killings in Rwanda or Cambodia as genocides. Likewise, the economic and social destruction wrought in the North was so comprehensive that it can only be matched by the most widely acknowledged genocides.

There is more. By deliberately drawing out the negotiations for an armistice while instituting a strategy ofattrition” the war, although a very real war, was made primarily an engine of genocide by the US. In this it became a progenitor of later genocidal war systems. To illustrate this evolution it is necessary to trace the progress of the war. The narrative produced is, like that of the origins of the war, distinctly anomalous at points. In the framework of war, as it is generally understood, such actions were difficult to explain and caused alarm among allies, US personnel themselves, and even US political leaders. The US public, on the other hand, simply hated the war and it destroyed the Truman presidencyTruman holding the record for least popular President on record (with 77% disapproval) until the advent of George W. Bush.lxxvii But while from a military perspective many US actions seemed counterproductive or at least completely pointless it should be remembered that the narrative ends with the US having won for itself every single advantage that it could have won, at least from an imperial perspective. The previously fragile division of Korea was now stable and consolidated as was the US client regime in the ROK. Each half of the peninsula was tied more firmly in dependency to its superpower patron. Taiwan was saved from unification with China, while the infant PRC was greatly retarded in its development. The US was now in a state of enduring militarisation, armed with both the weaponry and the ideology which would allow the US to exert coercive imperial power over most of the globe. From this perspective an outright military victory would have been considerably less attractive, not least because US interventions would rely on the (false) implication that the Communist Bloc posed a military threat to the US.

Korea is not particularly suited to blitzkrieg, it is narrow and hilly with poor roading generally at the bottom of valleys, and a climate which makes operations of any sort difficult. Carter Malkasian describes it as suited forstrong in-depth defense”, by which he means using elevated positions of the sort which would be so bloodily contested later in the war. Inexplicably, however, the ROKA commanderwanted to contain any North Korean attack at the 38th Parallel and rejected a planned withdrawal to stronger positions, such as behind the Han river. The 38th Parallel was on comparatively flat ground, lacking ridges or river-lines on which to form a defensive.lxxviii That is to say, such a stance is inexplicable unless it is explained, like so much else must be, as a deliberate softening of ROKA defences.

After capturing Seoul, the KPA waited about a week, apparently awaiting artillery and other supplies, before the next concentrated offensive.lxxixLacking detailed plans for operations south of Seoul, North Korean forces had been slow to proceed beyond the Han River.” On July 5 the KPA fought their first engagement with US forces, who did have anti-tank weapons but were nevertheless defeated. “American combatants had inadequate firepower to resist Soviet-built tanks, and North Korean soldiers were not intimidated by opponents simply because their skin was white….”lxxx On the contrary, the KPA continued to push, over-running an entire US division when Taejon was captured a week later. It took only until August 1 for the KPA to reach a point less than 50 km west of Pusan.lxxxi By this stage the KPA faced superior numbers 92,000 (47,000 of them US) to the 70,000 it could bring to the front known as the Pusan perimeter.lxxxii Only a tiny chunk of the peninsula was unconquered, but more critical for the KPA than being outnumbered was the fact that they had never prepared for this. They could not replace casualties, communications were still far from desirable efficacy, and their stretched supply lines combined with US air and naval power to make resupply difficult.lxxxiii As Malkasian explains the chance to end the war quickly was slipping away: “Better American bazookas and heavy M-26 Pershing tanks had arrived that could counter the T-34s. The North Koreans waited until 3 September to make their major assault in the Second Battle of the Naktong Bulge. However, by then North Korean strength was ebbing. With only 98,000 men, they faced 180,000 UNC soldiers.”lxxxiv

On September 15 the US X Corps made a bold and extremely well executed amphibious landing at Incheon, the port adjacent to Seoul. The DPRK expected this move but had little choice but to throw everything they could at the Pusan perimeter (in the abovementioned Second Battle of the Naktong Bulge).lxxxv It seems apparent, however, that the DPRK had prepared for withdrawal, and for troops who were cut-off to become guerillas in the hills.lxxxvi Nevertheless, this was a terrible defeat for the KPA who were more or less routed from the South, sustaining heavy casualties and equipment losses. UN forces broke out of the Pusan perimeter on September 23. Seoul fell on the 27th after bitter fighting which caused many civilian deaths.lxxxvii Only around 25,000 KPA reached the 38th parallel before UN forces.lxxxviii

The KPA continued retreating and X Corps pressed northwards. The 38th parallel, crossing which had been condemned as an act of aggression by the UNSC was, little over 2 months later, of no significance. An “imaginary line” as MacArthur put it,lxxxix the same phrase being used soon after by the US ambassador to the UN.xc (Malkasian claims that UNGAR 376, passed on October 7, authorised UN forces to proceed north of the 38th.xci The two major problems with such a contention are that a) by October the 7th UN forces were in places already more than 100 km north of the 38th and b) the resolution says no such thing.xcii)

The US rationalised crossing the 38th as a measure to prevent further aggression, but then changed to the annunciated aim of military unification.xciii The Chinese openly avowed that they would respond militarily to a march on the Yalu with PLA Chief of Staff (on Sept 26) and Chou En Lai both telling the Indian ambassador for conveyance to the US. US intelligence agencies claimed, however, to have believed otherwise.xciv When China entered the war, the US reacted at first as if nothing significant had happened then, after suffering defeats in October and November, as if a large portion of the PLA had crossed the border en masse:

As American forces rushed pell-mell back down the peninsula, observers at the time wondered why they were moving so fast, often breaking contact with an enemy not necessarily pursuing them. On December 15 a British military attaché wrote, ‘The withdrawal continues without any major enemy pressure. There were no signs of defense lines being used to halt the enemy march; it looked like a phony war, or a great hoax.’ British military attachés said in early December that the numbers of Chinese were quite exaggerated, with very few confirmed contacts with the Chinese ; furthermore, it was often impossible to judge the nationality of enemy units. The number of Chinese POWs being taken did not indicate huge numbers of troops.xcv

So yet again US led forces were inexplicably retreating rather than using the defensibility of the hilly terrain, this time back to the 38th parallel in what was known as the “Big Bug-Out”.xcvi Hyperbole exploded in Washington. This was the longest retreat in US military history, but it became transformed into the greatest defeat in US history leading to panic in the corridors of power and many very serious moves towards the use of atomic weapons.xcvii This even went as far as the transfer of necessary bomb components to Japan and Guam.xcviii The “Big Bug-Out” didn’t merely facilitate a vastly heightened level of threats from the US, it also gave a boost to the racist propaganda deployed on Western peoples, particularly those of the US. Hollywood films (more likely to be about the Pacific War than the unpopular Korean “police action”) featured scenes “of marauding Oriental troops; of bearded, unkempt American fighters inhabiting alien hovels in alien lands and dauntlessly improvising devices and designs as they go.”xcix Public affairs programming on television was unabashedly infected by official propaganda. One NBC programme was produced out of the White House by a presidential aide, who used it to declare that[t]he barbarous aggression of the Chinese hoards [sic] in Korea is not only an attack upon the forces of the United Nationsit is an attack upon civilization itselfit is an effort to destroy all the rights and privileges for which mankind has fought and bled since the dawn of time.”c

In coming months China really did commit massive numbers of personnel (officiallyvolunteers”) to a series of offensives, perhaps 400,000 by The KPA and the Chinese People’s Volunteers (CPV) managed to advance about 100km south of the 38thby the end of January, but by February UN counteroffensives had pushed them back across the Han and Seoul was evacuated after massive casualties on 14 March.cii The KPA and CPV continued to mount offensives, but shortages and heavy casualties inflicted by UN forces brought them inevitably to a stop.ciii

Seoul had by this stage changed hands 4 times. As UN forces retreated in January they more or less destroyed the port at Inchon and burnt down large parts of Seoul, just as they had on retreating from northern cities.civ As the UN was preparing to re-enter the city, US air and ground artilleryblasted” the Indeed, one neglected aspect of the war was that during the mobile phase (which, as has been shown, seemed a little artificial at times) all but some small pockets of the countryside were swept over at least once by the battlefront. In addition to the 1 million tons or ordnance dropped by US aircraft, US guns fired a total of 2.1 million tons of ordnanceon a peninsula less than four-fifths the size of New Zealand the US used 43% as much explosive power as it did in the entirety of World War II.cvi Massive amounts of Korean property were destroyed by UN scorched earth policies and by the profligate use of artillery in addition to the massive bombing campaign.

In late December 1950, General Matthew Ridgway took over command of the 8th Army which faced the KPA/CPF offensives. In April he was made Supreme Commander of UN forces.cvii From the first he created an offensive spirit and tactics to match. An infantryman put it thus:We were there to kill Chinese. That’s what they told us. The army was done with retreating. General Ridgway was in charge now, and he wasn’t a retreating general. We heard it every day from the officers. ‘Fix ’em, find ’em, kill ’em.’ We went out every day and we attacked. Seems like that’s all we did was attack. We hardly ate. We hardly slept. We just attacked.”cviii

The doctrine under which this occurred was referred to asattrition”. On the surface it seemed to have a military logic, at least in the time from January to March of 1951 in which the Communists were conducting major offensives and the UN conducting counteroffensives. In Malkasian’s words Ridgwaysought to wear down their manpower. To do so, superior UNC firepower was to be exploited to the maximum effect. The hallmark of Ridgway’s doctrine of attrition was his directive to his subordinates to maximize enemy casualties while minimizing those of the Eighth Army. Given the daunting Communist numerical superiority, conserving casualties was absolutely crucial.”cix

Implicit in the logic of this “attrition” were three concepts which as yet had no terminology, but would become central in later genocides – “body count”, “kill ratio”, and “force protection”. To understand let us contrast this “attrition” with attrition as it was understood previously by theorists such as Clausewitz. When Clausewitz wrote of a “war of attrition” he referred to the gradual wearing down of strength through the requirement of movement which fatigued personnel and caused supply Attrition is primarily a function of ‘war of manouevre’ with the center of gravity here being lines of communication.cxi In the World Wars attrition was notably aimed at and achieved by the deprivation of strategic resources – the single most successful way of reducing the military strength of an adversary which was based so firmly in productive capacities. In Korea this sort of attrition was achieved by stretching supply lines, and this certainly provides one explanation for the two major retreats by ROK/US/UN forces. Interdiction was also a way open to the US to cause attrition. The US interdiction campaign during the Korean War was only very modestly successful. The main challenge to it was the fact that Communist forces used a far smaller tonnage of supplies than UN, or more acutely, US forces. They ran, as it were, on the smell of an oily rag.cxii Bear in mind, however, that the CPV were poorly equipped and the Communists lacked the ability to supply sustained offensives of more than about 14 days,cxiii but as the war progressed their diversified logistical operations supplied ever greater amounts of materièl to the front.cxiv (Communist logistics may have been robust and decentralised, but there was no Ho Chi Minh Trail, and one gets the inevitable impression from the partial success of the interdiction campaign that the Communists would have been highly vulnerable to a programme of interdiction which was as profligately supported as the “strategic” bombing and the “meatgrinder” version of attrition described below.)

My point, and I will return to and illustrate the point, is that the Communist forces had to be more vulnerable in their materièl inferiority than in their numerical superiority. This is true notwithstanding the early Chinese belief that “deception, stealth, and night fighting would enable their poorly armed soldiers to overcome Western technological and materiel superiority.cxv With offensives severely limited by logistical concerns the Communists could only hope to chip away slowly at UN positions, but there was nothing to stop the UN from using its superior firepower to regain ground as proved to be the case in early 1951. Malkasian writes:

Ridgway’s first use of attrition was successful. [CPV commander] Peng [Dehuai] launched the Third Phase Offensive in sub-zero conditions on 31 December 1950. Although Ridgway was forced to abandon Seoul, his withdrawal stretched the Communist supply lines to breaking point, forcing Peng to call off the offensive. Ridgway was anxious to seize the initiative. On 15 January 1951, he mounted a reconnaissance in force, Operation Wolfhound, followed by a full-blown counteroffensive.cxvi

Others agree that it was the logistical difficulties that ended Chinese offensive actions.cxvii After the failure of the Third Phase Offensive, Peng returned to Beijing to inform Mao that the Communists could not win the war because supply lines had reached their maximum length.cxviii

Apart from the withdrawal during the Third Phase Offensive, however, Ridgway’s “attrition” had little to do with exploiting and exacerbating logistical weakness. It was about killing. After the capture of Seoul Ridgway ordered a limited offensive north of the 38th to establish the “Kansas Line” on high ground, but his whole doctrine was more generally to avoid taking territory or holding positions at the expense of casualties, while at the same time inflicting as many casualties as possible through the offensive “attrition” that became known to soldiers as the “meat grinder”. This involved staging attacks purely aimed at inflicting as many casualties as possible.cxix This was “limited war”. In fact, near the start of the “Big Bug-Out”, only 12 days after the Chinese entry into the war, and only 8 days after threatening the use of atomic weapons, Truman publicly abandoned the goal of military unification.cxxLimited war” meant, therefore, killing as many people as possible while maintaining a military stalemate, bearing in mind that bombing and massacres were ongoing.

Mao, however, was not to reach the same conclusion as Peng regarding the impossibility of significant military gain until the failure of the Fifth Phase Offensive which came to a halt because of a lack of food and ammunition. The hungry and ill-armed CPV troops were panicked by the inevitable counteroffensive and the UN advanced somewhat north of the Kansas Line, and then stopped.cxxi Neither side was trying to win the war now, and the Chinese also began using “attrition” in the sense of trying to inflict disproportionate casualties in terms relative to total numbers available.cxxii Perhaps it made slightly more sense for the numerically superior force to engage in this behaviour, but in the broader picture it was really just playing into the US hands, allowing them to maintain deadly conflict when there was really no military purpose in the killing.

Whether one dates it to the end of the Fifth Phase Offensive or the end of the subsequent UN counteroffensive, the stalemate phase lasted more than twice as long as the mobile phase of the war, and cost more lives. The stalemate was characterised by “see-saw” battles, wherein the same ground was taken and retaken many times overcxxiii in a manner akin to the mindless butchery of World War I. But this time, off centre stage, civilians were dying in numbers much greater than the battlefield deaths and a bitter guerilla war was fought with napalm and atrocities.

Cease-fire negotiations began on 10 July 1951 and continued for just over two years. One writer characterises them thus: “Throughout the duration of the negotiations U.S. leaders produced harsh ultimatums rather than workable bargaining positions, thereby presumably obviating any form of enemy flexibility.cxxiv The Communists tried to maximise the propaganda value of the talks, setting things up originally to give an impression of the UN being there to sue for peace,cxxv and they were able to capitalise on US dishonesty by the use of dissident Western journalists.cxxvi Early on armed Chinese troops paraded bymistake” through the demilitarized area. They had mortars and machine guns, but the Chinese claimed that they were military police (MPs).cxxvii The US, however, made even more drasticmistakes”. On August 22 the conference site was bombed and strafed by aplane of unknown origin but flying from the south”.cxxviii In September the UN apologised for twoaccidental” attacks the second of which took the life of a 12 year old.cxxix According to Halliday and Cumings, the Communistsclaimed that these were deliberate attempts by sectors of the US military to sabotage the talks at key momentsand possibly to assassinate communist delegates. At the time the USA denied most of the charges. The official US military history later acknowledged that the USA carried out a large number of violations, including strafing and bombing the neutral zone and bombing the communist negotiators’ convoy en route to the site.”cxxx

If I were to characterise, very roughly, the nature of the negotiations it would be something like this: Often the Communists didn’t take the negotiations that seriously because the US positions were themselves so extreme as to render seriousness difficult. Nevertheless, on a number of issues the Communists would make major concessions, although with minor face-saving conditions. US officials would then vastly exaggerate the significance of such conditions and a compliant Western news media would follow the official line that it was in fact the Communists who were demonstrating a lack of good faith. The US was the only UN party at the talks and their British allies were frustrated and blamed the US rather than the Communists for the lack of progress in talks. They also believed that US military actions, publicly rationalised as being designed to force the Communists to negotiate in earnest, actually caused the Communists to harden their line.cxxxi When talks stalled over the issue of POW repatriation, the UK Foreign Office again held US intransigence to be the cause. From their Korea desk J. M. Addis minuted with words such asrapid and unexplained changes of front on the main question and a policy of stepping up demands after concessions have been madehas not contributed to removing the suspicion that undoubtably exists on the Communist side that the Americans do not sincerely want an armistice.”cxxxii

A compromise proposed by the PRC wherein POW’s who did not wish to be repatriated could be interviewed by a neutral country was scuppered by the US bombing of 5 power stations on Yalu undertaken without consulting the British. Omar Bradley claimed it was apurely military operation” designed to apply pressure for negotiations.cxxxiii The proposal had been a major concession by the PRC because the 1949 Geneva Convention Article 118 made repatriation compulsory without exception. At the outbreak of war the US (a ratified signatory) and the DPRK (a non-signatory) announced adherence to extant Geneva Conventions (the PRC, a non-signatory, made such an announcement in 1952).cxxxiv Additionally, while within in the camps their were many who wished to defect, others were coerced by right-wing elements by threatened starvation and torture sessions.cxxxv

On the 13th of May the US began a series of bombing raids against DPRK dams. Timed just after the laborious work of rice transplantation, before plants had taken root, the resultant floods cause utter devastation. The bombing of the Toksan dam, for example,scooped clean 27 miles of valley” with floodwaters reaching and inundating large parts of Pyongyang. Many thousands must have drowned.cxxxvi Both stores and people were made more vulnerable by having been driven underground. But the direct mortality may be less significant than that which was to follow due to the destruction of the rice crop. As a US intelligence report puts it:The Westerner can little conceive the awesome meaning which the loss of this staple food commodity has for the Asianstarvation and slow death.”cxxxvii

An armistice was finally signed on 27 July 1953, but Korean suffering was far from over. Today one is accustomed, for very good reasons, to contrasting the impoverished and repressive DPRK with the wealthy and democratic ROK. One might think that the massive destruction and proportionately far greater death in the DPRK would leave them much worse off than those to the South. On the contrary, however, the people of the ROK were in fact worst off. The US was determined that the ROK should be a Third World state producing primary goods only.cxxxviiiIn 1961, eight years after the end of its fratricidal war with North Korea, South Koreas yearly income stood at $82 per person. The average Korean earned less than half the average Ghanaian citizen ($179).”cxxxix They were ruled by a US client who allowed the US to dictate economic policy and then blamed him for the policies they themselves forced on the ROK.cxl The US pursued a policy of keeping de-industrialisation,cxli it destabilised the ROK economy even during the war,cxlii it caused destructive inflation,cxliii used coercion to get the ROK to effectively abdicate economic sovereignty in 1952,cxliv and when people were starving to death due to these policies, the US repressed reports of this and created false statistics claiming that ROK citizens ate more food than they had before the war.cxlv As Tony Mitchell observes, the poverty and dependency thus created acted to increase US power, US control.cxlvi

In 1961 the new military dictatorship forced the US to accept a programme of economic nationalism in the ROK, something which was probably only possible because of the existence of the DPRK. Nevertheless it is a testament to the destructiveness of the antidevelopmentalist economic regime forced on poorer states by the US that it was not until at least the mid-1970s that ROK living standards caught up with those of the DPRK, reaching an average $1000 per capita per annum income in 1977.cxlvii

In terms of repression, the torture and killings under military rule have been discussed, and it was only with great sacrifice and bravery that the South Korean people seized democracy from below in 1987. North Korea also remained a dependencyso much so that the collapse of the Soviet Union destabilised the heavily industrialised and petrochemical dependent agriculture required in a state which is sorely lacking in fertile land. This led within a few years to devastating famines precipitated by flooding.cxlviii

For US imperialists the Korean War must be counted as a resounding success. Koreans were weakened and divided into two dependencies, China weakened and tied more firmly to the USSR, Japan and Taiwan were both strengthened economically but yet made increasingly dependent on the US. The US inaugurated an interventionist imperial military system, complemented by economic, ideological and political power, which allowed it almost free rein to intervene in any state outside of the Soviet Bloc up to and including full-scale military interventions where such a thing was practicable.

What had happened to Korea can be understood in those terms used by Lemkin to subdivide elements of genocide. They had suffered genocide in the physical, social, economic, political, cultural and moral senses, leaving out only the religious and biological elements which complete Lemkin’s enumeration. The trauma lasts even to this day, even south of the “demilitarized zone” (DMZ). The suffering, the loss and grief, the crushing of the national hopes of an oppressed people, the social disintegration, the loss of heritage, the millions of dead – these were not unfortunate by-products, these were not “collateral damage”, they were the means. The US had conducted a successful functional genocide, and its very success was to bring about repetition.

iHalliday and Cumings, Korea, p 200.

iiChristopher Coker, Humane Warfare, London: Routledge, 2001, p 2.

iiiStueck, The Korean War, p 361.

ivCumings, The Korean War, p 160.

vCoker, Humane Warfare, p 80.

viMillett, The War for Korea, p 4.

viiGrace M. Cho, HauntingtheKoreanDiaspora:Shame,Secrecy,andtheForgottenWar,Minneapolis:UniversityofMinnesotaPress,2008, p 82

viiiCho, Haunting the Diaspora, p 75.

ixHalliday and Cumings, Korea, p 180.

xCumings, The Korean War, p 202.

xiThe figures on which this is based are discussed below.


xiiiCumings, The Korean War, p 186.


xvCumings, The Korean War, p 187.

xviCumings, The Korean War, p 202.

xviiSee Appendix 1.

xviiiLemkin, Axis Rule, p 80.

xixFigures for civilian deaths at US and ROK hands are given below. I have not encountered any suggestion that other United Nations forces committed atrocities on a scale which would change the proportions by inclusion or exclusion from the total.

xxJudith Greer, “What Really Happened at No Gun Ri?”, Salon, 4 June 2002. Retrieved 17 November 2010 from

xxiSuhi Choi, “Silencing SurvivorsNarratives: Why Are We Again Forgetting the No Gun Ri Story?, Rhetoric & Public Affairs, 11:3, 2008, p 373.

xxiiIbid, p 367.

xxiiiCharles J. Hanley and Martha Mendoza, “US Policy was to Shoot Korean Refugees”, Associated Press, 29 May 2006. Retrieved 17 November 2010 from

xxivJeremy Williams,Kill ’em All’: The American Military in Korea, BBC, updated 17 February 2011. Retrieved 15 November 2011 from

xxvCharles J. Hanley, “No Gun Ri: Official Narrative and Inconvenient Truths”, Critical Asian Studies, 42:4, 2010, p 589.

xxviIbid, p 590.


xxviiiWilliams, “Kill ’em All….”

xxixCumings, The Korean War, p 167.

xxxIbid, p 168.

xxxiWilliams, “Kill ’em All….”

xxxiiValerie Perry, LookingforNoGunRi,KyotoJournal,49,2001.Retrieved15November2011from

xxxiiiDonghee Sinn, “Room for archives? Use of archival materials in No Gun Ri research, Archival Science, 10, 2010, pp 117-40.

xxxivKim, “Forgotten War…’, p 534.

xxxvIbid, p 523.

xxxviStueck and Yi, “An Alliance Forged in Blood…”, p 192.

xxxviiCumings, The Korean War, p 158.

xxxviiiPhilip Caputo, A Rumour of War, London: Arrow, 1978, p 137.

xxxixStueck, The Korean War, p 20.

xlAndrei Lankov, From Stalin to Kim Il Song: the formation of North Korea, 1945-1960, London: C. Hurst, 2002, p 6.

xliStueck and Yi, “An Alliance Forged in Blood…”, p 185.

xliiCumings, Korea’s Place in the Sun, p 198.

xliiiStueck and Yi, “An Alliance Forged in Blood…”, p 190.

xlivIbid, p 194.

xlvIbid, pp 195-6.

xlviBrewer, Why America Fights?…, p 142.

xlviiKorea, p 88.

xlviiiKim, “Forgotten War…”, p 531.

xlixIbid, p 536.

lIbid, p 532.

liCumings, The Korean War, p 195.

liiIbarra, “The Culture of Terror…”, p 198.

liiiTariq Ali, Bush in Babylon: The Recolonisation of Iraq, London: Verso, 2003, pp 87-8.

livMax Fuller, “Crying Wolf: Media Disinformation and Death Squads in Occupied Iraq, GlobalResearch, 10 November 2005. Retrieved 16 April 2006 from

lvMichael Moss, “How Iraq Police Reform Became Casualty of War”, New York Times, 22 May 2006; Max Fuller, “Silence of the Lambs? Proof of US orchestration of Death Squads Killings in Iraq”, GlobalResearch, 14 March 2007. Retrieved 16 April 2007 from

lviPeter Dale Scott, “The United States and the Overthrow of Sukarno, 1965-1967”, Pacific Affairs, Summer 1985, pp 239-264.

lviiFrankL.Jones,‘Blowtorch:RobertKomerandtheMakingofViet NamPacificationPolicy’,Parameters, Vol.35,No.3 (Autumn2005),p104;Prados,The Hidden History of the Viet Nam War,pp204-5.

lviiiRoger Morris, “Donald Rumsfeld’s Long March”.

lixStokes, “Why the End of the Cold War…”, pp 583-4.

lxPrados, The Hidden History of the Viet Nam War, pp 204-5, 210.

lxiBlum, Killing Hope, pp 38, 226, 279.

lxiiIbid, pp 128-9, 200-5, 239.

lxiiiIbid, pp 72, 116, 171, 219-21, 232, 359-61, 375.

lxivKim, “Forgotten War…”, p 533.

lxvIbid, p 534.

lxviIbid, p 535.

lxviiCumings, The Korean War, p 173.

lxviiiIbid, p 175.

lxixKim, “Forgotten War…”, p 536.

lxxIbid, p 532.

lxxiSuh Hee-Kyung, “Atrocities Before and During the Korean War”, Critical Asian Studies, 42:4, p 579.

lxxiiCumings, Korea’s Place in the Sun, p 295.

lxxiiiKolko, Century of War, p 404.

lxxivCumings, Korea’s Place in the Sun, pp 295-6.

lxxvKim, “Forgotten War…”, p 542, n 31.

lxxviIbid, p 532.

lxxviiCumings, The Korean War, p 149.

lxxviiiMalkasian, The Korean War, p 20.

lxxixHalliday and Cumings, Korea, p 82.

lxxxStueck, The Korean War, p 47.

lxxxiMalkasian, The Korean War, p 24.

lxxxiiHalliday and Cumings, Korea, p 82.

lxxxiiiStueck, The Korean War, p 48.

lxxxivMalkasian, The Korean War, p 24.

lxxxvIbid, p 26.

lxxxviHalliday and Cumings, Korea, p 97.

lxxxviiMalkasian, The Korean War, p 29.

lxxxviiiStueck, The Korean War, p 86

lxxxixMichael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations (4th ed.), New York: Basic Books, 2006, p 118.

xcCumings, The Korean War, p 23.

xciMalkasian, The Korean War, p 29.

xciiUNGAR 376, The Problem of the Independence of Korea, 7 October 1950. Retrieved 24 November 2011 from

xciiiWalzer, Just and Unjust Wars, p 118.

xcivCumings, Korea’s Place in the Sun, pp 283-4.

xcvIbid, p 287.

xcviMalkasian, The Korean War, p 36.

xcviiCumings, Korea’s Place in the Sun, pp 289-91.

xcviiiIbid, pp 292-3.

xcixMarilyn Young, “Hard Sell: The Korean War” quoted in Steven Casey, Selling the Korean War: Propaganda, Politics, and Public Opinion in the United States, 1950-1953, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008, 19501953, p 221.

cBrewer, Why America Fights, p 159.

ciHalliday and Cumings, Korea, p 144.


ciiiMalkasian, The Korean War, p 45.

civHalliday and Cumings, Korea, p 141.

cvIbid, p 144.

cviKolko, Century of War, p 404.

cviiI am not going to delve into the ‘controversy’ of MacArthur’s dismissal, except to point out that one possible interpretation was that MacArthur would have been very unlikely to have supported the stalemated ‘attrition’ strategy – the ‘meatgrinder’ – that was to be employed for the rest of the war.

cviiiMalkasian, The Korean War, p 38.

cixIbid, pp 38-9.

cxClausewitz, On War, 8.1, p 264.

cxiSee for example discussion of those times when a belligerent does not seek a decisive (or any) engagement, 7.16.

cxiiBilly C. Mossman, The Effectiveness of Air Interdiction During the Korean War, Arlington: Office of the Chief of Military History, 1966. Historical Manuscripts Collection, file number 2-3.7 AD.H.

cxiiiIbid, p 5.

cxivIbid, pp 16-7.

cxvMalkasian, The Korean War, p 30.

cxviIbid, p 39.

cxviiHalliday and Cumings, Korea, p 144; Stueck, The Korean War, p 232.

cxviiiHalliday and Cumings, Korea, p 144.

cxixMalkasian, The Korean War, p 40.

cxxStueck, The Korean War, p 138.

cxxiMalkasian, The Korean War, p 45.

cxxiiIbid, p 46.

cxxiiiIbid, p 48.

cxxivRon Robin,Behavioral Codes and Truce Talks: Images of the Enemy and Expert Knowledge in the Korean Armistice Negotiations, Diplomatic History, 25:4 (Fall, 2001), p 625.

cxxvStueck, Rethinking the Korean War, p 151.

cxxviHalliday and Cumings, Korea, p 162.

cxxviiIbid, p 160.

cxxviiiStueck, Rethinking the Korean War, p 153.

cxxixIbid, p 156.

cxxxHalliday and Cumings, Korea, p 161.

cxxxiDockrill,The Foreign Office, Anglo-American Relations…, pp 101-2.

cxxxiiIbid, p 105.

cxxxiiiIbid, p 107.

cxxxivCallum A. MacDonald, “’Heroes Behind Barbed Wire’: The US, Britain and the POW issue in the Korean War”, in James Cotton and Ian Neary (eds), The Korean War in History, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1989, p 135.

cxxxvIbid, pp 136-7.

cxxxviHalliday and Cumings, Korea, p 195.

cxxxviiIbid, p 196.

cxxxviiiTony Mitchell,Control of the Economy During the Korean War: The 1952 Co-ordination Treaty and its Consequences, in James Cotton and Ian Neary (eds), The Korean War in History, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1989, p 152.

cxxxixHa Joon Chang, Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism, London: Bloomsbury, 2008, p ix.

cxlMitchell, “Control of the Economy…”, p 154.

cxliIbid, pp 152-3.

cxliiIbid, p 156.

cxliiiIbid, pp 156-7.

cxlivIbid, p 159.

cxlvIbid, pp 159-60.

cxlviIbid, p 160.

cxlviiChang, Bad Samaritans, xiii.

cxlviiiMarcus Noland, “Famine and Reform in North Korea”, Asian Economic Papers, 3:2, pp 1-40.

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


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 (, 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



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.


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


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.


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


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


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.

Drone 5860787655_2b5f5feff3_z

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?


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


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.


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.


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.


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).


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


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.