Wednesday, January 09, 2013 9:39 AM
This post originally appeared at TomDispatch.
looked great for 78 years old. (At least, that’s about how old he thought he
was.) His hair was thin, gray, and receding at the temples, but his eyes were
lively and his physique robust -- all the more remarkable given what he had
lived through. I listened intently, as I had so many times before to so many
similar stories, but it was still beyond my ability to comprehend. It’s
probably beyond yours, too.
Pham To told
me that the planes began their bombing runs in 1965 and that periodic artillery
shelling started about the same time. Nobody will ever know just how many
civilians were killed in the years after that. “The number is uncountable,” he
said one spring day a few years ago in a village in the mountains of rural
“So many people died.”
And it only got worse. Chemical defoliants came next, ravaging the land.
Helicopter machine gunners began firing on locals. By 1969, bombing and
shelling were day-and-night occurrences. Many villagers fled. Some headed
further into the mountains, trading the terror of imminent death for a daily
struggle of hardscrabble privation; others were forced into squalid refugee
resettlement areas. Those who remained in the village suffered more when the
troops came through. Homes were burned as a matter of course. People were
kicked and beaten. Men were shot when they ran in fear. Women were raped. One
morning, a massacre by American soldiers wiped out 21 fellow villagers. This
was the Vietnam War for Pham To, as for so many rural Vietnamese.
One, Two… Many Vietnams?
beginning of the Iraq War, and for years after, reporters, pundits, veterans,
politicians, and ordinary Americans asked
whether the American debacle in Southeast Asia
was being repeated. Would it be “another
Vietnam”? Would it become a “quagmire”?
The same held
true for Afghanistan.
Years after 9/11, as that war, too, foundered, questions about whether it was “Obama’s
Vietnam” appeared ever more frequently. In fact, by October 2009, a
majority of Americans had come to believe it was “turning
into another Vietnam.”
even proved a surprisingly two-sided
analogy -- after, at least, generals began
reading and citing revisionist
texts about that war. These claimed, despite all appearances, that
the U.S. military had
actually won in Vietnam
(before the politicians, media, and antiwar movement gave the gains away). The
same winning formula, they insisted, could be used to triumph again. And so, a
failed solution from that failed war, counterinsurgency, or COIN, was trotted
out as the military panacea for impending disaster.
between the two ongoing wars and the one that somehow never went away, came to litter
newspapers, journals, magazines, and the Internet -- until David Petraeus, a
top COINdinista general who had written his doctoral dissertation
on the “lessons” of the Vietnam War, was called in to settle the matter by
putting those lessons to work winning the other two. In the end, of course,
U.S. troops were booted
out of Iraq, while the war in Afghanistan continues to this day as a
dismally devolving stalemate, now wracked by “green-on-blue”
or “insider” attacks on U.S. forces, while the general himself returned to
Washington as CIA director to run covert wars in Pakistan
before retiring in disgrace
following a sex scandal.
all the ink about the “Vietnam analogy,”
virtually none of the reporters, pundits, historians, generals, politicians, or
other members of the chattering classes ever so much as mentioned the Vietnam
War as Pham To knew it. In that way, they managed to miss the one unfailing
parallel between America’s
wars in all three places: civilian suffering.
For all the
dissimilarities, botched analogies, and tortured comparisons, there has been
one connecting thread in Washington’s
foreign wars of the last half century that, in recent years at least, Americans
have seldom found of the slightest interest: misery for local nationals.
Civilian suffering is, in fact, the defining characteristic of modern war in
general, even if only rarely discussed in the halls of power or the mainstream
An Unimaginable Toll
Pham To was
lucky. He and Pham Thang, another victim and a neighbor, told me that, of the
2,000 people living in their village before the war, only 300 survived it.
Bombing, shelling, a massacre, disease, and starvation had come close to wiping
out their entire settlement. “So many people were hungry,” Pham Thang said.
“With no food, many died. Others were sick and with medications unavailable,
they died, too. Then there was the bombing and shelling, which took still more
lives. They all died because of the war.”
Leaving aside those who perished from disease, hunger, or lack of medical
care, at least 3.8 million Vietnamese died violent war deaths according to
researchers from Harvard Medical School
and the University
of Washington. The best
estimate we have is that 2 million of them were civilians. Using a very
conservative extrapolation, this suggests that 5.3 million civilians were
wounded during the war, for a total of 7.3 million Vietnamese civilian
casualties overall. To such figures might be added an estimated 11.7
million Vietnamese forced from their homes and turned into refugees,
up to 4.8
million sprayed with toxic herbicides like Agent Orange, an
estimated 800,000 to 1.3 million war orphans, and 1 million war widows.
are staggering, the suffering incalculable, the misery almost incomprehensible
to most Americans but not, perhaps, to an Iraqi.
No one will
ever know just how many Iraqis died in the wake of the U.S. invasion
of 2003. In a country with an estimated population of about 25
million at the time, a much-debated survey -- the results of which
were published in the British medical journal The
suggested more than 601,000
violent “excess deaths” had occurred by 2006. Another survey
indicated that more than 1.2
million Iraqi civilians had died because of the war (and the various
internal conflicts that flowed from it) as of 2007. The Associated Press
tallied up records of 110,600
deaths by early 2009. An Iraqi family health survey fixed the number
violent deaths by June 2006. Official documents made public by
Wikileaks counted 109,000 deaths, including 66,081 civilian deaths, between
2004 and 2009. Iraq Body Count has
tallied as many as 121,220 documented cases of violent civilian deaths alone.
are those 3.2
million Iraqis who were internally displaced or fled the violence to
other lands, only to find uncertainty and deprivation in places like Jordan, Iran,
and now war-torn Syria.
By 2011, 9% or more of Iraq’s
women, as many as 1
million, were widows (a number that skyrocketed in the years after
invasion). A recent survey found that 800,000 to 1 million
Iraqi children had lost one or both parents, a figure that only grows with the
continuing violence that the U.S.
unleashed but never stamped out.
country, which experienced an enormous
brain drain of professionals, has a total of 200 social workers and
psychiatrists to aid all those, armed and unarmed, who suffered every sort of
horror and trauma. (In just the last seven years, by comparison, the U.S.
Veterans Administration has hired 7,000
new mental health professionals to deal with Americans who have been
psychologically scarred by war.)
too, would surely be able to relate to what Pham To and millions of Vietnamese
war victims endured. For more than 30 years, Afghanistan has, with the rarest of
exceptions, been at war. It all started with the 1979 Soviet invasion and Washington’s
support for some of the most extreme of the Islamic militants who
opposed the Russian occupation of the country.
iteration of war there began with an invasion by U.S. and allied forces in
2001, and has since claimed the lives of many thousands of
civilians in roadside
attacks and helicopter
raids and outright
massacres. Untold numbers of Afghans have also died of everything
from lack of access to medical care (there are just 2 doctors for
every 10,000 Afghans) to exposure,
including shocking reports of children freezing to death in refugee camps last winter and again
this year. They were among the hundreds of thousands of Afghans who have been
internally displaced during the war. Millions more
live as refugees outside the country, mostly in Iran
Of the women who remain in the country, up to 2
million are widows. In addition, there are now an estimated 2
million Afghan orphans. No wonder polling
by Gallup this
past summer found 96% of Afghans claiming they were either “suffering” or
“struggling,” and just 4% “thriving.”
American Refugees in Mexico?
Americans, this type of unrelenting, war-related misery is unfathomable. Few
have ever personally experienced anything like what their tax dollars have
wrought in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Southwest
Asia in the last half-century. And while surprising
numbers of Americans do suffer from poverty and deprivation, few
know anything about what it’s like to live through a year of war -- let alone
10, as Pham To did -- under the constant threat of air strikes, artillery fire,
and violence perpetrated by foreign ground troops.
Still, as a
simple thought experiment, let’s consider for a moment what it might be like in
American terms. Imagine that the United States had experienced an
occupation by a foreign military force. Imagine millions or even tens of
millions of American civilians dead or wounded as a result of an invasion and
resulting civil strife.
country in which your door might be kicked down in the dead of night by
heavily-armed, foreign young men, in strange uniforms, helmets and imposing
body armor, yelling things in a language you don’t understand. Imagine them
rifling through your drawers, upending your furniture, holding you at gunpoint,
roughing up your husband or son or brother, and marching him off in the middle
of the night. Imagine, as well, a country in which those foreigners kill
American “insurgents” and then routinely strip
them naked; in which those occupying troops sometimes urinate on
American bodies (and shoot videos of it); or take trophy
photos of their “kills”; or mutilate
them; or pose with the body
parts of dead Americans; or from time to time -- for reasons again
beyond your comprehension -- rape
a moment, violence so extreme that you and literally millions like you have to
flee your hometowns for squalid refugee camps or expanding slums ringing the
nearest cities. Imagine trading your home for a new one without heat or
electricity, possibly made of refuse with a corrugated metal roof that roars
when it rains. Then imagine living there for months, if not years.
things getting so bad that you decide to trek across the Mexican border to live
an uncertain life, forever wondering if your new violence- and poverty-wracked
host nation will turn
you out or if you’ll ever be able to return to your home in the U.S.
Imagine living with these realities day after day for up to decade.
disasters like Hurricane Sandy or Katrina, small numbers of Americans briefly
experience something like what millions of war victims -- Vietnamese, Iraqis,
Afghans, and others -- have often had to endure for significant parts of their
lives. But for those in America’s
war zones, there will be no telethons, benefit
concerts, or texting
Pham To and
Pham Thang had to bury the bodies of their family members, friends, and
neighbors after they were massacred by American troops passing through their
village on patrol. They had to rebuild their homes and their lives after the
war with remarkably little help. One thing was as certain for them as it has
been for war-traumatized Iraqis and Afghans of our moment: no Hollywood
luminaries lined up to help raise funds for them or their village. And they
“We lost so
many people and so much else. And this land was affected by Agent Orange, too.
You’ve come to write about the war, but you could never know the whole story,”
Pham Thang told me. Then he became circumspect. “Now, our two governments, our
two countries, live in peace and harmony. And we just want to restore life to
what it once was here. We suffered great losses. The U.S. government should offer
assistance to help increase the local standard of living, provide better
healthcare, and build infrastructure like better roads.”
No doubt --
despite the last
decade of U.S. nation-buildingdebacles
in its war zones -- many
Iraqis and Afghans would express similar sentiments. Perhaps they will even be
saying the same sort of thing to an American reporter decades from now.
last years, I’ve interviewed hundreds of war victims like Pham Thang, and he’s
right: I’ll probably never come close to knowing what life was like for those
whose worlds were upended by America’s foreign wars. And I’m far from alone.
Most Americans never make it to a war zone, and even U.S. military personnel arrive only
for finite tours of duty, while for combat correspondents and aid workers an
exit door generally remains open. Civilians like Pham To, however, are in it
for the duration.
Vietnam years, there was at least an antiwar movement in this country that
included many Vietnam
veterans who made genuine
efforts to highlight the civilian
suffering they knew was going on at almost unimaginable levels.
In contrast, in the decade-plus since 9/11, with the rarest
Americans have remained remarkably detached from their distant wars, thoroughly
ignoring what can be known about the suffering that has been caused in their
As I was
wrapping up my interview, Pham Thang asked me about the purpose of the last
hour and a half of questions I’d asked him. Through my interpreter, I explained
that most Americans knew next to nothing about Vietnamese suffering during the
war and that most books written in my country on the war years ignored it. I
wanted, I told him, to offer Americans the chance to hear about the experiences
of ordinary Vietnamese for the first time.
American people know about these incidents, if they learn about the wartime
suffering of people in Vietnam,
do you think theywill sympathize?” he asked me.
I should finally know the answer to his question.
Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch.com and
a fellow at the Nation Institute. An award-winning journalist, his work has
appeared in the
Angeles Times, the Nation, and regularly at TomDispatch. He is the author most recently of Kill
Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (The American Empire Project, Metropolitan Books). Published on January
15th, it offers a new look at the American war machine in Vietnam and the
suffering it caused. His website is NickTurse.com. You can follow him on Tumblr and on Facebook.
2013 Nick Turse
Image by the U.S. Army,
licensed under Creative
Thursday, June 14, 2012 2:28 PM
This post originally appeared on Tom Dispatch.
It looked like
a scene out of a Hollywood movie. In the inky
darkness, men in full combat gear, armed with automatic weapons and wearing
night-vision goggles, grabbed hold of a thick, woven cable hanging from a MH-47
Chinook helicopter. Then, in a flash, each “fast-roped” down onto a ship below.
Afterward, “Mike,” a Navy SEAL who would not give his last name, bragged to an
Army public affairs sergeant that, when they were on their game, the SEALs
could put 15 men on a ship this way in 30 seconds or less.
Once on the aft
deck, the special ops troops broke into squads and methodically searched the
ship as it bobbed in Jinhae Harbor,
Below deck and on the bridge, the commandos located several men and trained
their weapons on them, but nobody fired a shot. It was, after all, a training
All of those
ship-searchers were SEALs, but not all of them were American. Some were from
Naval Special Warfare Group 1 out of Coronado, California; others hailed from South Korea’s Naval Special
Brigade. The drill was part of Foal Eagle 2012, a multinational, joint-service
exercise. It was also a model for -- and one small part of -- a much publicized
U.S. military “pivot” from the Greater Middle East to Asia, a move that
includes sending an initial contingent of 250 Marines to Darwin, Australia,
basing littoral combat ships in Singapore, strengthening military ties with Vietnam and India, staging war games in the Philippines (as well as a
drone strike there), and shifting the majority of the Navy’s ships to the
Pacific by the end of the decade.
That modest training exercise also reflected another kind of pivot. The
face of American-style war-fighting is once again changing. Forget full-scale
invasions and large-footprint occupations on the Eurasian mainland; instead,
think: special operations forces working on their own but also training or
fighting beside allied militaries (if not outright proxy armies) in hot spots
around the world. And along with those special ops advisors, trainers, and
commandos expect ever more funds and efforts to flow into the militarization of
spying and intelligence, the use of drone aircraft, the launching of
cyber-attacks, and joint Pentagon operations with increasingly militarized
“civilian” government agencies.
Much of this
has been noted in the media, but how it all fits together into what could be
called the new global face of empire has escaped attention. And yet this
represents nothing short of a new Obama doctrine, a six-point program for
twenty-first-century war, American-style, that the administration is now
carefully developing and honing. Its global scope is already breathtaking, if
little recognized, and like Donald Rumsfeld’s military lite and David
Petraeus’s counterinsurgency operations, it is evidently going to have its day
in the sun -- and like them, it will undoubtedly disappoint in ways that will
surprise its creators.
For many years,
military has been talking up and promoting the concept of “jointness.”
An Army helicopter landing Navy SEALs on a Korean ship catches some of this
ethos at the tactical level. But the future, it seems, has something else in
store. Think of it as “blur-ness,” a kind of organizational version of
war-fighting in which a dominant Pentagon fuses its forces with other
government agencies -- especially the CIA, the State Department, and the Drug
Enforcement Administration -- in complex, overlapping missions around the
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld began his "revolution in military
affairs," steering the Pentagon toward a military-lite model of high-tech, agile forces. The concept came to a grim end in Iraq’s
embattled cities. A decade later, the last vestiges of its many failures
continue to play out in a stalemated war in Afghanistan against a rag-tag
minority insurgency that can’t be beaten. In the years since, two secretaries
of defense and a new president have presided over another transformation --
this one geared toward avoiding ruinous, large-scale land wars which the U.S. has
consistently proven unable to win.
Obama, the U.S.
has expanded or launched numerous military campaigns -- most of them utilizing
a mix of the six elements of twenty-first-century American war. Take the
American war in Pakistan
-- a poster-child for what might now be called the Obama formula, if not
doctrine. Beginning as a highly-circumscribed drone assassination campaign backed by
limited cross-border commando raids under the Bush administration,
U.S. operations in Pakistan have expanded into something close to a full-scale
robotic air war, complemented by cross-border helicopter attacks, CIA-funded “kill teams” of Afghan proxy forces, as well as
boots-on-the-ground missions by elite special operations forces, including the SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
The CIA has conducted clandestine intelligence and surveillance missions in Pakistan,
too, though its role may, in the future, be less important, thanks to Pentagon
mission creep. In April, in fact, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced the creation of a new CIA-like espionage agency
within the Pentagon called the Defense Clandestine Service. According to the Washington
Post, its aim is to expand “the military’s espionage efforts beyond war
Over the last
decade, the very notion of war zones has become remarkably muddled, mirroring
the blurring of the missions and activities of the CIA and Pentagon. Analyzing
the new agency and the “broader convergence trend” between Department of
Defense and CIA missions, the Post noted that the “blurring is also evident in
the organizations’ upper ranks. Panetta previously served as CIA director, and
that post is currently held by retired four-star Army Gen. David H. Petraeus.”
Not to be
outdone, last year the State Department, once the seat of diplomacy, continued
on its long march to militarization (and marginalization) when it
agreed to pool some of its resources with the Pentagon to create the Global Security Contingency Fund. That program will allow
the Defense Department even greater say in how aid from Washington
will flow to proxy forces in places like Yemen and the Horn of Africa.
One thing is
certain: American war-making (along with its spies and its diplomats) is
heading ever deeper into “the shadows.” Expect yet more clandestine operations
in ever more places with, of course, ever more potential for blowback in the
Light on “the Dark Continent”
likely to see an influx of Pentagon spies in the coming years is Africa. Under President Obama, operations on the
continent have accelerated far beyondthe more limited interventions of the Bush years.
Last year’s war in Libya; a regional drone campaign with missions run out of airports and
bases in Djibouti, Ethiopia, and the Indian Ocean archipelago nation of
Seychelles; a flotilla of 30 ships in that ocean supporting regional operations; a
multi-pronged military and CIA campaign against militants in Somalia, including
intelligence operations, training for Somali agents, secret prisons, helicopter attacks, and U.S. commando raids; a massive influx of cash for
counterterrorism operations across East Africa; a possible old-fashioned air war, carried out on the sly in the region
using manned aircraft; tens of millions of dollars in arms for allied mercenaries
and African troops; and a special ops expeditionary force (bolstered by State Department experts) dispatched to help capture or kill
Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony and his senior commanders, operating
in Uganda, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Central African Republic (where U.S. Special Forces now
have a new base) only begins to scratch the surface of Washington’s
fast-expanding plans and activities in the region.
Even less well
known are other U.S.
military efforts designed to train African forces for operations now considered
integral to American interests on the continent. These include, for example, a
mission by elite Force Recon Marines from the Special Purpose Marine Air Ground
Task Force 12 (SPMAGTF-12) to train soldiers from the Uganda People's Defense
Force, which supplies the majority of troops to the African Union Mission in Somalia.
year, Marines from SPMAGTF-12 also trained soldiers from the Burundi National
Defense Force, the second-largest contingent in Somalia; sent trainers into Djibouti
(where the U.S. already maintains a major Horn of Africa base at Camp
Lemonier); and traveled to Liberia where they focused on teaching riot-control
techniques to Liberia’s military as part of an otherwise State Department
spearheaded effort to rebuild that force.
The U.S. is also conducting counterterrorism training and equipping
militaries in Algeria, Burkina Faso, Chad,
Mauritania, Niger, and Tunisia. In addition, U.S. Africa
Command (Africom) has 14 major joint-training exercises planned for 2012,
including operations in Morocco,
Cameroon, Gabon, Botswana,
South Africa, Lesotho, Senegal,
and what may become the Pakistan of Africa, Nigeria.
however, doesn’t encompass the full breadth of U.S.
training and advising missions in Africa. To
take an example not on Africom’s list, this spring the U.S. brought together 11 nations, including Cote d’Ivoire, The Gambia, Liberia, Mauritania,
and Sierra Leone
to take part in a maritime training exercise code-named Saharan Express 2012.
founding, the United States
has often meddled close to home, treating the Caribbean as its private lake and
intervening at will throughout Latin America.
During the Bush years, with
some notable exceptions, Washington’s
interest in America’s
“backyard” took a backseat to wars farther from home. Recently, however, the
Obama administration has been ramping up operations south of the border using
its new formula. This has meant Pentagon drone missions deep inside Mexico to aid that country’s
battle against the drug cartels, while CIA agents and civilian operatives from
the Department of Defense were dispatched to Mexican military bases to take part in the
country’s drug war.
In 2012, the
Pentagon has also ramped up its anti-drug operations in Honduras.
Working out of Forward Operating Base Mocoron and other remote camps
there, the U.S. military is
supporting Honduran operations by way of the methods it honed in Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition, U.S.
forces have taken part in joint operations with Honduran troops as part of a
training mission dubbed Beyond the Horizon 2012; Green Berets have been assisting Honduran Special Operations forces in
anti-smuggling operations; and a Drug Enforcement Administration
Foreign-deployed Advisory Support Team, originally created to disrupt the poppy
trade in Afghanistan, has joined forces with Honduras’s Tactical Response Team,
that country’s most elite counternarcotics unit. A glimpse of these operations
made the news recently when DEA agents, flying in an American helicopter, were involved in an aerial attack on civilians that killed two men and two pregnant women in the
remote Mosquito Coast region.
have been U.S. efforts in Guyana, where
Special Operation Forces have been training local troops in heliborne air
assault techniques.“This is the first timewe have
had this type of exercise involving SpecialOperations Forces
of the United States on such
a grandscale,” Colonel Bruce Lovell of the Guyana Defense
Force told a U.S.
public affairs official earlier this year. “It gives us a chance to validate
ourselves and see where we are, what are our shortcomings.”
The U.S. military has been similarly active
elsewhere in Latin America, concluding training exercises in Guatemala, sponsoring “partnership-building”
missions in the Dominican Republic,
El Salvador, Peru, and Panama, and reaching an agreement
to carry out 19 “activities” with the Colombian army over the next year,
including joint military exercises.
in the Middle of the Middle East
Despite the end
of the Iraq and Libyan wars, a coming drawdown of forces in Afghanistan, and
copious public announcements about its national security pivot toward Asia, Washington is by no means withdrawing
from the Greater Middle East. In addition to continuing operations in Afghanistan, the U.S. has consistently been at work
training allied troops, building up military bases, and brokering
weapons sales and arms transfers to despots in the region from Bahrain to
In fact, Yemen, like its neighbor, Somalia, across the Gulf of
Aden, has become a laboratory for Obama’s wars. There, the U.S. is
carrying out its signature new brand of warfare with “black ops” troops like
the SEALs and the Army’s Delta Force undoubtedly conducting kill/capture
missions, while “white” forces like the Green Berets and Rangers are training indigenous troops, and robot planes hunt and kill members of al-Qaeda and its affiliates,
possibly assisted by an even more secret contingent of manned aircraft.
The Middle East has also become the somewhat unlikely
poster-region for another emerging facet of the Obama doctrine: cyberwar
efforts. In a category-blurring speaking engagement, Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton surfaced at the recent Special Operations Forces Industry
Conference in Florida where she gave a speech talking up her department’s eagerness to join in the
new American way of war. “We need Special Operations Forces who are as
comfortable drinking tea with tribal leaders as raiding a terrorist compound,''
she told the crowd. “We also need diplomats and development experts who are up
to the job of being your partners."
Clinton then took the opportunity to tout her agency’s online efforts, aimed at websites used by
al-Qaeda's affiliate in Yemen.
When al-Qaeda recruitment messages appeared on the latter, she said, “our team plastered the same sites with altered
versions… that showed the toll al-Qaeda attacks have taken on the Yemeni
people.” She further noted that this information-warfare mission was carried
out by experts at State’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications
with assistance, not surprisingly, from the military and the U.S. Intelligence
on-line efforts join more potent methods of cyberwar being employed by the Pentagon and the CIA, including the recently revealed “Olympic Games,” a program of sophisticated
attacks on computers in Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities engineered and
unleashed by the National Security Agency (NSA) and Unit 8200, Israeli’s
equivalent of the NSA. As with other facets of the new way of war, these
efforts were begun under the Bush administration but significantly accelerated
under the current president, who became the first American commander-in-chief
to order sustained cyberattacks designed to cripple another country’s
Brushfires to Wildfires
globe from Central and South America to Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, the Obama administration is working out its formula
for a new American way of war. In its pursuit, the Pentagon and its
increasingly militarized government partners are drawing on everything from
classic precepts of colonial warfare to the latest technologies.
The United States
is an imperial power chastened by more than 10 years of failed, heavy-footprint
wars. It is hobbled by a hollowing-out economy, and inundated with hundreds of
thousands of recent veterans -- a staggering 45% of the troops who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq -- suffering from
service-related disabilities who will require ever more expensive care. No
wonder the current combination of special ops, drones, spy games, civilian
soldiers, cyberwarfare, and proxy fighters sounds like a safer, saner brand of
war-fighting. At first blush, it may even look like a panacea for America’s
national security ills. In reality, it may be anything but.
light-footprint Obama doctrine actually seems to be making war an ever more
attractive and seemingly easy option -- a point emphasized recently by former
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Peter Pace. "I worry about
speed making it too easy to employ force," said Pace when asked about recent efforts to make it
simpler to deploy Special Operations Forces abroad. "I worry about speed
making it too easy to take the easy answer -- let's go whack them with special
operations -- as opposed to perhaps a more laborious answer for perhaps a
better long-term solution."
As a result,
the new American way of war holds great potential for unforeseen entanglements
and serial blowback. Starting or fanning brushfire wars on several continents
could lead to raging wildfires that spread unpredictably and prove difficult,
if not impossible, to quench.
By their very
nature, small military engagements tend to get larger, and wars tend to spread
beyond borders. By definition, military action tends to have unforeseen
consequences. Those who doubt this need only look back to 2001, when three
low-tech attacks on a single day set in motion a decade-plus of war that has
spread across the globe. The response to that one day began with a war in Afghanistan, that spread to Pakistan, detoured to Iraq,
popped up in Somalia and Yemen, and so
on. Today, veterans of those Ur-interventions find themselves trying to
replicate their dubious successes in places like Mexico
and Honduras, the Central Africa
Republic and the Congo.
History demonstrates that the U.S. is not very good at winning
wars, having gone without victory in any major conflict since 1945. Smaller
interventions have been a mixed bag with modest victories in places like Panama and Grenada
and ignominious outcomes in Lebanon
(in the 1980s) and Somalia
(in the 1990s), to name a few.
The trouble is,
it’s hard to tell what an intervention will grow up to be -- until it’s too
late. While they followed different paths, Vietnam,
Afghanistan, and Iraq all began
relatively small, before growing large and ruinous. Already, the outlook for
the new Obama doctrine seems far from rosy, despite the good press it’s getting
today like a formula for easy power projection that will further U.S. imperial
interests on the cheap could soon prove to be an unmitigated disaster -- one
that likely won’t be apparent until it’s too late.
is the associate editor of TomDispatch.com. An award-winning journalist, his
work has appeared in the
Los Angeles Times, the
Nation, and regularly at TomDispatch.
He is the author/editor of several books, including the just published Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare,
2001-2050 (with Tom Engelhardt). This piece is the latest article in
his new series on the changing face of American empire, which is
being underwritten by Lannan
Foundation. You can follow him on Twitter @NickTurse,
and on Facebook.
Image by Charles
McCain, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, August 11, 2011 10:34 AM
For those who strive for inner peace but don’t take themselves too seriously: A list of 20 thoughts to think while pretending to meditate.
What does a real life superhero look like? Photographer Peter Tangen will show you.
Is the story of finding Osama bin Laden a cover for the real story?
Before the EPA was a “Job-Killer,” Michele Bachmann thought it could bring “long-term benefits to…the economy.”
A smart young woman launches an activist website to help her parents’ native country, Yemen, in its grassroots battle to oust 33-year-dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh.
A 417 million-year-old oil deposit is drawing the oil industry to North Dakota, “the only state in the country that had more residents in 1930 than it does today,” Governing reports.
How fast fashion takes a toll on the earth.
High school girls earn ‘A’s for asexuality.
It’s no surprise that Kanye West and Jay-Z would make a collaborative album about how awesome they are. But, Grantland asks, is it any good?
Not to harsh your buzz, but Tom Wolfe’s book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is no longer the authoritative work of art on Ken Kesey’s psychedelic school bus ride.
From banjo to violin to blues guitar, street performers offer a primer on the art of busking.
Forget the book of love. Meet the kindly author who wrote the Book of Raunch.
With lots of enticing buttons, flashy animations, pop-ups, and hyperlinks, the Internet can be a pretty distracting place. How is anyone supposed to get any writing done? Answer: Head to QuietWrite, the web’s private writer’s nook.
Image by Drab Makyo, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, June 23, 2011 10:22 AM
This article was originally published at
Now that Washington has at least six wars cooking (in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Yemen, and more generally, the global war on terror), Americans find themselves in a new world of war. If, however, you haven't joined the all-volunteer military, any of our 17 intelligence outfits, the Pentagon, the weapons companies and hire-a-gun corporations associated with it, or some other part of the National Security Complex, America’s distant wars go on largely without you (at least until the bills come due).
War has a way of turning almost anything upside down, including language. But with lost jobs, foreclosed homes, crumbling infrastructure, and weird weather, who even notices? This undoubtedly means that you’re using a set of antediluvian war words or definitions from your father’s day. It’s time to catch up.
So here’s the latest word in war words: what’s in, what’s out, what’s inside out. What follows are nine common terms associated with our present wars that probably don’t mean what you think they mean. Since you live in a twenty-first-century war state, you might consider making them your own.
Like defeat, it’s a “loaded” word and rather than define it, Americans should simply avoid it.
In his last press conference before retirement, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was asked whether the U.S. was “winning in Afghanistan.” He replied, “I have learned a few things in four and a half years, and one of them is to try and stay away from loaded words like ‘winning’ and ‘losing.’ What I will say is that I believe we are being successful in implementing the president's strategy, and I believe that our military operations are being successful in denying the Taliban control of populated areas, degrading their capabilities, and improving the capabilities of the Afghan national security forces.”
In 2005, George W. Bush, whom Gates also served, used the word “victory” 15times in a single speech (“National Strategy for Victory in Iraq”). Keep in mind, though, that our previous president learned about war in the movie theaters of his childhood where the Marines always advanced and Americans actually won. Think of his victory obsession as the equivalent of a mid-twentieth-century hangover.
In 2011, despite the complaints of a few leftover neocons dreaming of past glory, you can search Washington high and low for “victory.” You won’t find it. It’s the verbal equivalent of a Yeti. Being “successful in implementing the president’s strategy,” what more could you ask? Keeping the enemy on his “back foot”: hey, at $10 billiona month, if that isn’t “success,” tell me what is?
Admittedly, the assassination of Osama bin Laden was treated as if it were VJ Day ending World War II, but actually win a war? Don’t make Secretary of Defense Gates laugh!
Maybe, if everything comes up roses, in some year soon we’ll be celebrating DE (Degrade the Enemy) Day.
Any super-evil pipsqueak on whose back you can raise at least
a year for the National Security Complex.
“I actually consider al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula with Al-Awlaki as a leader within that organization probably the most significant risk to the U.S. homeland.” So said Michael Leiter, presidential adviser and the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, last February, months before Osama bin Laden was killed (and Leiter himself resigned). Since bin Laden’s death, Leiter’s assessment has been heartily seconded in word and deed in Washington. For example, New York Times reporter Mark Mazzetti recently wrote: “Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen is believed by the C.I.A. to pose the greatest immediate threat to the United States, more so than even Qaeda’s senior leadership believed to be hiding in Pakistan.”
Now, here’s the odd thing. Once upon a time, statements like these might have been tantamount to announcements of victory: That’s all they’ve got left?
Of course, once upon a time, if you asked an American who was the most dangerous man on the planet, you might have been told Adolf Hitler, or Joseph Stalin, or Mao Zedong. These days, don’t think enemy at all; think comic-book-style arch-villain Lex Luthor or Doctor Doom -- anyone, in fact, capable of standing in for globe-encompassing Evil.
Right now, post-bin-Laden, America’s super-villain of choice is Anwar al-Awlaki, an enemy with seemingly near superhuman powers to disturb Washington, but no army, no state, and no significant finances. The U.S.-born “radical cleric” lives as a semi-fugitive in Yemen, a poverty-stricken land of which, until recently, few Americans had heard. Al-Awlaki is considered at least partially responsible for two high-profile plots against the U.S.: the underwear bomber and package bombs sent by plane to Chicago synagogues. Both failed dismally, even though neither Superman nor the Fantastic Four rushed to the rescue.
As an Evil One, al-Awlaki is a voodoo enemy, a YouTube warrior (“the bin Laden of the Internet”) with little but his wits and whatever superpowers he can muster to help him. He was reputedly responsible for helping to poison the mind of Army psychiatrist Major Nidal Hasan before he blew away 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas. There’s no question of one thing: he’s gotten inside Washington’s war-on-terror head in a big way. As a result, the Obama administration is significantly intensifying its war against him and the ragtag crew of tribesmen he hangs out with who go by the name of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
It used to mean secret war, a war “in the shadows” and so beyond the public’s gaze. Now, it means a conflict in the full glare of publicity that everybody knows about, but no one can do anything about. Think: in the news, but off the books.
Go figure: today, our “covert” wars are front-page news. The top-secret operation to assassinate Osama bin Laden garnered an unprecedented 69% of the U.S. media “newshole” the week after it happened, and 90% of cable TV coverage. And America’s most secretive covert warriors, elite SEAL Team 6, caused “SEAL-mania” to break out nationwide.
Moreover, no minor drone strike in the “covert” CIA-run air war in the Pakistani tribal borderlands goes unreported. In fact, as with Yemen today, future plans for the launching or intensification of Pakistani-style covert wars are now openly discussed, debated, and praised in Washington, as well as widely reported on. At one point, CIA Director Leon Panetta even bragged that, when it came to al-Qaeda, the Agency’s covert air war in Pakistan was “the only game in town.”
Think of covert war today as the equivalent of a heat-seeking missile aimed directly at that mainstream media newshole. The “shadows” that once covered whole operations now only cover accountability for them.
In the American way of war, military bases built on foreign soil are the equivalent of heroin. The Pentagon can’t help building them and can’t live without them, but “permanent bases” don’t exist, not for Americans. Never.
That’s simple enough, but let me be absolutely clear anyway: Americans may have at least 865 bases around the world (not including those in war zones), but we have no desire to occupy other countries. And wherever we garrison (and where aren’t we garrisoning?), we don’t want to stay, not permanently anyway.
In the grand scheme of things, for a planet more than four billion years old, our 90 bases in Japan, a mere 60-odd years in existence, or our 227 bases in Germany, some also around for 60-odd years, or those in Korea, 50-odd years, count as little. Moreover, we have it on good word that permanent bases are un-American. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said as much in 2003 when the first of the Pentagon's planned Iraqi mega-bases were already on the drawing boards. Hillary Clinton said so again just the other day, about Afghanistan, and an anonymous American official added for clarification: "There are U.S. troops in various countries for some considerable lengths of time which are not there permanently." Korea anyone? So get it straight, Americans don’t want permanent bases. Period.
And that’s amazing when you think about it, since globally Americans are constantly building and upgrading military bases. The Pentagon is hooked. In Afghanistan, it’s gone totally wild -- more than 400 of them and still building! Not only that, Washington is now deep into negotiations with the Afghan government to transform some of them into “joint bases” and stay on them if not until hell freezes over, then at least until Afghan soldiers can be whipped into an American-style army. Latest best guesstimate for that? 2017without even getting close.
Fortunately, we plan to turn those many bases we built to the tune of billions of dollars, including the gigantic establishments at Bagram and Kandahar, over to the Afghans and just hang around, possibly “for decades,” as -- and the word couldn’t be more delicate or thoughtful -- “tenants.”
And by the way, accompanying the recent reports that the CIA is preparing to lend the U.S. military a major covert hand, drone-style, in its Yemen campaign, was news that the Agency is building a base of its own on a rushed schedule in an unnamed Persian Gulf country. Just one base. But don’t expect that to be the end of it. After all, that’s like eating one potato chip.
We’re going, we’re going... Just not quite yet and stop pushing!
If our bases are shots of heroin, then for the U.S. military leaving anyplace represents a form of “withdrawal,” which means the shakes. Like drugs, it’s just so darn easy to go in that Washington keeps doing it again and again. Getting out’s the bear. Who can blame them, if they don’t want to leave?
In Iraq, for instance, Washington has been in the grips of withdrawal fever since 2008 when the Bush administration agreed that all U.S. troops would leave by the end of this year. You can still hear those combat boots dragging in the sand. At this point, top administration and military officials are almost begging the Iraqis to let us remain on a few of our monster bases, like the ill-named Camp Victory or Balad Air Base, which in its heyday had air traffic that reputedly rivaledChicago’s O’Hare International Airport. But here’s the thing: even if the U.S. military officially departs, lock, stock, and (gun) barrel, Washington’s still not really planning on leaving.
In recent years, the U.S. has built near-billion-dollar “embassies” that are actually citadels-cum-regional-command-posts in the Greater Middle East. Just last week, four former U.S. ambassadors to Iraq made a plea to Congress to pony up the $5.2 billion requested by the Obama administration so that that the State Department can turn its Baghdad embassy into a massive militarized mission with 5,100 hire-a-guns and a small mercenary air force.
In sum, “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh” is not a song that Washington likes to sing.
Drone War (see also Covert War):
A permanent air campaign using missile-armed pilotless planes that banishes both withdrawal and victory to the slagheap of history.
Is it even a “war” if only one side ever appears in person and only one side ever suffers damage? America’s drones are often flown from thousands of miles away by “pilots” who, on leaving their U.S. bases after a work shift “in” a war zone, see signs warning them to drive carefully because this may be “the most dangerous part of your day.” This is something new in the history of warfare.
Drones are the covert weaponry of choice in our covert wars, which means, of course, that the military just can’t wait to usher chosen reporters into its secret labs and experimental testing grounds to reveal dazzling visions of future destruction.
To make sense of drones, we probably have to stop thinking about “war” and start envisaging other models -- for example, that of the executioner who carries out a death sentence on another human being at no danger to himself. If a pilotless drone is actually an executioner’s weapon, a modern airborne version of the guillotine, the hangman’s noose, or the electric chair, the death sentence it carries with it is not decreed by a judge and certainly not by a jury of peers.
It’s assembled by intelligence agents based on fragmentary (and often self-interested) evidence, organized by targeteers, and given the thumbs-up sign by military or CIA lawyers. All of them are scores, hundreds, thousands of miles away from their victims, people they don’t know, and may not faintly understand or share a culture with. In addition, the capital offenses are often not established, still to be carried out, never to be carried out, or nonexistent. The fact that drones, despite their “precision” weaponry, regularly take out innocent civilians as well as prospective or actual terrorists reminds us that, if this is our model, Washington is a drunken executioner.
In a sense, Bush’s global war on terror called drones up from the depths of its unconscious to fulfill its most basic urges: to be endless and to reach anywhere on Earth with an Old Testament-style sense of vengeance. The drone makes mincemeat of victory (which involves an endpoint), withdrawal (for which you have to be there in the first place), and national sovereignty (see below).
Something inherent in the nature of war-torn Iraqis and Afghans from which only Americans, in and out of uniform, can save them.
Don’t be distracted by the $6.6 billion that, in the form of shrink-wrapped $100 bills, the Bush administration loaded onto C-130 transport planes, flew to liberated Iraq in 2003 for “reconstruction” purposes, and somehow mislaid. The U.S. special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction did recently suggest that it might prove to be "the largest theft of funds in national history"; on the other hand, maybe it was just misplaced... forever.
Iraq’s parliamentary speaker now claims that up to $18.7 billion in Iraqi oil funds have gone missing-in-action, but Iraqis, as you know, are corrupt and unreliable. So pay no attention. Anyway, not to worry, it wasn’t our money. All those crisp Benjamins came from Iraqi oil revenues that just happened to be held in U.S. banks. And in war zones, what can you do? Sometimes bad things happen to good $100 bills!
In any case, corruption is endemic to the societies of the Greater Middle East, which lack the institutional foundations of democratic societies. Not surprisingly then, in impoverished, narcotized Afghanistan, it’s run wild. Fortunately, Washington has fought nobly against its ravages for years. Time and again, top American officials have cajoled, threatened, even browbeat Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his compatriots to get them to crack down on corrupt practices and hold honest elections to build support for the American-backed government in Kabul.
Here’s the funny thing though: a report on Afghan reconstruction recently released by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Democratic majority staff suggests that the military and foreign “developmental” funds that have poured into the country, and which account for 97% of its gross domestic product, have played a major role in encouraging corruption. To find a peacetime equivalent, imagine firemen rushing to a blaze only to pour gasoline on it and then lash out at the building’s dwellers as arsonists.
1. Something Americans cherish and wouldn’t let any other country violate; 2. Something foreigners irrationally cling to, a sign of unreliability or mental instability.
Here’s the twenty-first-century credo of the American war state. Please memorize it: The world is our oyster. We shall not weep. We may missile [bomb, assassinate, night raid, invade] whom we please, when we please, where we please. This is to be called “American safety.”
Those elsewhere, with a misplaced reverence for their own safety or security, or an overblown sense of pride and self-worth, who put themselves in harm’s way -- watch out. After all, in a phrase: Sovereignty ‘R’ Us.
Note: As we still live on a one-way imperial planet, don’t try reversing any of the above, not even as a thought experiment. Don’t imagine Iranian drones hunting terrorists over Southern California or Pakistani special operations forces launching night raids on small midwestern towns. Not if you know what’s good for you.
A totally malleable concept that is purely in the eye of the beholder.
Which is undoubtedly why the Obama administration recently decided not to return to Congress for approval of its Libyan intervention as required by the War Powers Resolution of 1973. The administration instead issued a report essentially declaring Libya not to be a “war” at all, and so not to fall under the provisions of that resolution. As that report explained: "U.S. operations [in Libya] do not involve  sustained fighting or  active exchanges of fire with hostile forces, nor do they involve  the presence of U.S. ground troops, U.S. casualties, or a serious threat thereof, or  any significant chance of escalation into a conflict characterized by those factors."
This, of course, opens up the possibility of quite a new and sunny American future on planet Earth, one in which it will no longer be wildly utopian to imagine war becoming extinct. After all, the Obama administration is already moving to intensify and expand its [fill in the blank] in Yemen, which will meet all of the above criteria, as its [fill in the blank] in the Pakistani tribal borderlands already does. Someday, Washington could be making America safe all over the globe in what would, miraculously, be a thoroughly war-less world.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book isThe American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s (Haymarket Books).
[Note: My special thanks go to three websites without which I simply couldn’t write pieces like this or cover the areas that interest me most: Antiwar.com, Juan Cole’s Informed Comment, and Paul Woodward’s the War in Context. All are invaluable to me. In addition, two daily services I couldn’t do without are Today’s Terrorism News, which comes out of New York University’s Center for Law and Security (and to which you can subscribe by clicking here), and the Af/Pak Channel Daily Brief, which comes out of the New America Foundation (and to which you can subscribe by clicking here). Both represent monumental effort and are appreciated.]
Image by thomashaugen, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, April 08, 2010 10:32 AM
American drone warfare was the subject of a report on Public Radio International's The World on Wednesday, April 8. The subject of the story was President Obama's decision to add an American citizen to the list of people targeted for capture or assassination by the U.S. military and intelligence services. Toward the end of the report there is a rather jarring quote from the ACLU's Jonathan Manes:
"One thing that's a little bit strange is that right now we know more about when the government can get a warrant to wiretap a citizen abroad than to kill a citizen abroad."
Source: The World
Thursday, January 14, 2010 11:05 AM
Did you know that half the population of Yemen is under the age of 15? I didn’t. There’s a lot I don’t know about Yemen, which is striking given how much I am hearing and reading about it. But I’m not really hearing and reading about Yemen at all, am I? I know that a man who tried to blow up a plane bound for Detroit had been in Yemen. I know that there is an organization in Yemen that is tied to Al-Qaeda. I know that Yemeni men favor ornamental daggers.
What do Yemenis know about America? They know what we’ve done in Iraq and Afghanistan. They know we are willing to travel with artillery and deadly aircraft to countries we know precious little about. In short: they know they should be worried.
Heather Murdock captures some of that worry in a piece she filed from Sanaa, Yemen’s capital city, for Global Post.
The people of Sanaa, Murdock writes, are already “facing a Shiite insurgency, a secessionist movement in the south, a looming water crisis and crushing poverty. And now the government is shifting its focus to fighting Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a Yemen-based offshoot of Osama bin Laden’s organization.”
For weeks now, the chatter on the streets of Sanaa has focused on just how far the U.S. intends to go in this fight.
In December, U.S.-ordered air strikes killed at least 60 suspected Al Qaeda militants, Yemeni officials said. And since a Nigerian born radical, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, tried to blow up a plane over Detroit after living in Yemen, it has become clear that the U.S. intends to retaliate.
…Yemenis insisted that reports are overblown about the dangers of life in their country.
In Sanaa’s medieval Old City, on the serene rooftop of Center for Arabic Language and Eastern Studies, Administrative Director Mohammad Saleh Risk said the media scares people away by only presenting one aspect of the country.
…“There are other things that could kill terrorism,” he said. “Young people have no jobs, and the government should fix it.”
All of this is quite striking. But what stuck with me long after I had read the piece was the charming understatement of a 17-year-old girl Murdock interviews in a market: “Everybody should stay in his own country.”
Source: Global Post
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Tuesday, January 05, 2010 3:11 PM
One of the earliest Thousand Yard Stare posts was An Expert’s Guide: How Not to Write About Afghanistan. Now we're all going to school on Yemen—and that includes plenty of journalists. We all know what that can mean: plenty of broad, misleading statements delivered with utter confidence. Not to worry. Yemen expert Brian O’Neill, who blogs at Waq Al-Waq, is on it. Here’s an excerpt from their critique of a Daily Beast article by Bruce Riedel, who writes that “Yemenis are desperately poor, half illiterate, and very young, but armed to the teeth. Every male always carries a large dagger with him and usually an automatic weapon”:
The armed to the teeth thing is particularly aggravating. The large dagger that “every male always carries with him”—a statement that isn't true, by the way—is a curved ceremonial and decorative blade. This has nothing to do with being armed. Hell, I have one, and I am the least dangerous person you'd ever meet. As for the automatic weapons, there are obviously a lot of guns in Yemen, and that is a threat, but the numbers are greatly exaggerated. Derek Miller of the Small Arms Survey argued in 2003 that the number of weapons in Yemen is less than 10 million—a large and worrisome number, sure, but one that doesn't give credence to the admittedly more dramatic “armed to the teeth” phraseology. This does far more to confuse than it does to help. We don't want to underestimate the problem of arms, but we also don't want to overestimate it.
…Then there is this throwaway: "Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula strongholds are mostly in Yemen’s south, in the remote Sunni tribal provinces that the British, communists, and Saleh have never really governed, and where Osama bin Laden’s family comes from."
You should know by now that steam is literally pouring out of my ears. Riedel here has committed the cardinal sin of Yemen-writing: mentioning Osama bin Laden's familial ties as if they mean something (though he avoided the traditional cliche of "the ancestral homeland of Osama bin Laden"). If you are reading an article where the writer mentions this, immediately treat everything else as suspect. This is the best advice we can give you here.
Source: Waq Al-Waq
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