Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch.
What a way to celebrate Torture Awareness Month!
According to an Amnesty International Poll released in May, 45 percent of Americans believe that torture is “sometimes necessary and acceptable” in order to “gain information that may protect the public.” Twenty-nine percent of Britons “strongly or somewhat agreed” that torture was justified when asked the same question.
For someone like me, who has been haunted by the daily existence of torture since the September 11, 1973 coup that overthrew Chilean President Salvador Allende, such percentages couldn’t be more depressing, but perhaps not that surprising. I now live, after all, in the America where Dick Cheney, instead of being indicted as a war criminal, sneeringly (and falsely) claims to anyone who asks him—and he is trotted out over and over again as the resident expert on the subject—that “enhanced interrogations” have been and still are absolutely necessary to keep Americans safe.
As for those Americans and Britons—and so many others around the world—who find such horrors justifiable, I wonder if they have ever met a victim of torture? Or do they think this endless pain is only inflicted on remote and dangerous people caught up in unfathomable wars and savage conflicts? If so, they should think again.
When I read these sorts of statistics a scene comes back to me. I remember a man I met 20 years ago, not in my native Latin America or in faraway lands where torture is endemic, but in the extremely English town of Berwick-upon-Tweed.
Everybody in the room that day was crying, except for the man who had moved us all to tears, the former prisoner of war whom my son Rodrigo and I had traveled thousands of miles to meet. We had hoped to do justice to his story in a biopic, Prisoners in Time, that the BBC wanted to make for television—based on the same autobiographical material used recently in The Railway Man, the film starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman now showing in theaters across America.
And what an extraordinary story it was!
Eric Lomax, a British officer in World War II, had been tortured by the Japanese in Thailand while working on the infamous Bangkok-Burma railroad, the one most people know about through another film, The Bridge on the River Kwai. Eric, like so many victims of atrocities, was plagued by the experience, his life destroyed by memories of his agony and the desire for revenge. What differentiated him from so many others persecuted worldwide was not only that, more than 40 years later, he tracked down the man he held responsible for his suffering, the anonymous interpreter at his beatings and waterboardings, but the astounding fact that this tormentor, Takashi Nagase, once found and identified, turned out to be a Buddhist monk. Nagase had spent the postwar decades denouncing his own countrymen for their crimes and trying to atone for his role in the atrocities he had helped commit by caring for innumerable orphans of the Asians who had died building that railroad. The one scorching image from the war he could not escape was that of a brave young British lieutenant over whose torture he had presided and whom he had presumed to be dead.
Once Eric Lomax resurfaced, once the two former enemies, now old men accompanied by their second wives, met in Kanchanaburi next to the River Kwai where they had last parted, once they were face to face, Nagase begged for forgiveness. It was not instantly forthcoming. But some weeks later, in Hiroshima of all places, Lomax offered Nagase the absolution that he needed in order to live and die in peace.
The BBC had chosen me to tell this tale because, in my play Death and the Maiden, I had already probed the issues of torture, memory, mercy, and vengeance from the perspective of my beleaguered country, Chile. But in that play there had been no pardon offered and no pardon sought, so writing about Lomax’s dilemma seemed a way of furthering that original exploration with a series of new questions. Is reconciliation ever really possible when the wounds are searing and permanent? Does anything change if the victimizer claims to have repented? How can we ever know if those claims are legitimate, if that remorse is not merely an ego-trip, an accommodation for the sake of outward appearances?
There was also an aesthetic challenge: given the extreme reserve of both antagonists, their inability to articulate to one another—no less anybody else—what they had been feeling all those years, how to imagine, for the screen, dialogueour two silent former enemies would never have said but that would remain true to their affliction? How to bring their story to people who can’t possibly imagine what torture does to the ones who suffer it and those who create that suffering?
Our visit with Eric and his wife Patti at their home in the far north of England was a way of trying to coax from that emotionally repressed man some information—entirely absent from the memoir he had written—about how he had dealt with the barren wilderness of his sorrow, what it meant to survive torture and war more dead than alive. We were accompanied by director Stephen Walker and celebrated psychiatrist Helen Bamberg, who had helped Eric name his demons, and so saved him and his troubled marriage.
That day in Berwick-upon-Tweed, Eric confided to us, after several hours of halting monosyllables, a painful, unbelievable story. When he returned to England by ship after those traumatic years as a prisoner of war, he discovered just before disembarking that the British Army had deducted from his back pay the cost of the boots he had lost during his captivity. Bamberg, who had managed to get Eric to speak out after many distressing sessions, asked him if he had told anyone about this at the time.
“Nobody,” Eric said. And then, after a pause that felt infinite, “There was nobody there, at the dock.” He stopped and again long minutes of silence went by before he added, “Only a letter from my father. Saying he had remarried, as my mother had died three years before.” Another long pause followed. “She died thinking I was also dead. I had been writing to her all that time and she was dead.”
That’s when we all started to cry.
Not just out of sympathy for his grief, but because Eric had delivered this story about his loss in a monotone devoid of any apparent sentiment, as if all that despair belonged to someone else. Such dissociation is typical of torture victims. Their mental survival during their ordeal and its unending aftermath depends on distancing themselves from the body and its fate. And it is in that distance that they dwell.
We were crying, I believe, for humanity. We were crying in the Lomax living room because we were being confronted with a reality and a realization that most people would rather avoid: when grievous harm has been done to someone, the damage may be beyond repair. Eric Lomax had been able to tame the hatred raging in his heart and, reaching into the deepest wells of compassion, he had forgiven one of the men who had destroyed him. And yet there was still something irreparable, a terror that ultimately could not be assuaged.
The film we wrote two decades ago tried to be faithful to that desolate moment of revelation and at the same time not betray the inner peace that Eric had attained, the fact that he no longer heard Nagase’s voice in his nightmares demanding, “Confess, Lomax, confess and pain will stop.” He had triumphed over fear and fury, but that spiritual victory had not been achieved in solitude. In addition to the support of his wife Patti, it was due to the healing process he had gone through with Helen Bamberg. Not until he had fully come to terms with what had been done to him, until he faced his trauma in all its horror, was he able to “find” Nagase, whose identity and location had, in fact, been within reach for decades.
Eric’s tragedy and his attempt at reconciliation had a special meaning for me: it connected his life to that of so many friends in Chile and other countries who had been subjected to inhuman interrogations. It was a way of understanding the common humanity of all torture victims. More so, as the method that Bamberg employed to resurrect Eric’s memories and restore his mental health had first been elaborated as a therapeutic response to the flood of damaged Latin Americans exiled in England during the 1970s and 1980s, those years when grim dictatorships dominated that continent. Eric Lomax, she said, had the sad privilege of being the first World War II veteran with PTSD who was able to take advantage of this new psychological treatment.
We could not know, of course, that 9/11 awaited us seven years in the future, that the waterboarding inflicted on Eric in the 1940s by the Japanese, and on the bodies of so many Latin Americans decades later by their own countrymen, would go global as the United States and its allies fought the “war on terror.” Nor could we have guessed or would we have dreamed that so many millions would in that future prove so indifferent to a form of punishment that has been classified as a crime against humanity and is against international treaty and law signed onto by most of the world’s nations.
It would seem, then, that Eric Lomax’s story is more relevant today than ever—a story that, one would hope, brings home again, during Torture Awareness Month, the ultimate reality and anguish of being tortured. Or can we accept that the questions Eric Lomax asked himself about forgiveness and revenge, about redemption and memory, no longer trouble contemporary humanity?
How would our friend Eric, who died in 2012, react to the news that so many Americans and so many of the very countrymen he served in the war now declare torture to be tolerable? Perhaps he would whisper to them the words he wrote to Nagase when he forgave his enemy: “Sometime the hatred has to stop.”
Ariel Dorfman, Chilean-American writer and TomDispatch regular, is the co-author, with his son Rodrigo, of Prisoners in Time, which won the 1995 Writers' Guild of Great Britain Award for Best Feature Film on TV. The film was seen in many countries, with one notable exception: the United States. Dorfman teaches at Duke University and lives with his wife, Angélica, in Durham, North Carolina, and, from time to time, in their native Chile. His latest book is the memoir Feeding on Dreams: Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile.
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Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch.
The United States has been at war—major boots-on-the-ground conflicts and minor interventions, firefights, air strikes, drone assassination campaigns, occupations, special ops raids, proxy conflicts, and covert actions—nearly nonstop since the Vietnam War began. That’s more than half a century of experience with war, American-style, and yet few in our world bother to draw the obvious conclusions.
Given the historical record, those conclusions should be staring us in the face. They are, however, the words that can’t be said in a country committed to a military-first approach to the world, a continual build-up of its forces, an emphasis on pioneering work in the development and deployment of the latest destructive technology, and a repetitious cycling through styles of war from full-scale invasions and occupations to counterinsurgency, proxy wars, and back again.
So here are five straightforward lessons—none acceptable in what passes for discussion and debate in this country—that can be drawn from that last half century of every kind of American warfare:
1. No matter how you define American-style war or its goals, it doesn’t work. Ever.
2. No matter how you pose the problems of our world, it doesn’t solve them. Never.
3. No matter how often you cite the use of military force to “stabilize” or “protect” or “liberate” countries or regions, it is a destabilizing force.
4. No matter how regularly you praise the American way of war and its “warriors,” the U.S. military is incapable of winning its wars.
5. No matter how often American presidents claim that the U.S. military is “the finest fighting force in history,” the evidence is in: it isn’t.
And here’s a bonus lesson: if as a polity we were to take these five no-brainers to heart and stop fighting endless wars, which drain us of national treasure, we would also have a long-term solution to the Veterans Administration health-care crisis. It’s not the sort of thing said in our world, but the VA is in a crisis of financing and caregiving that, in the present context, cannot be solved, no matter whom you hire or fire. The only long-term solution would be to stop fighting losing wars that the American people will pay for decades into the future, as the cost in broken bodies and broken lives is translated into medical care and dumped on the VA.
Heroes and Turncoats
One caveat. Think whatever you want about war and American war-making, but keep in mind that we are inside an enormous propaganda machine of militarism, even if we barely acknowledge the space in our lives that it fills. Inside it, only certain opinions, certain thoughts, are acceptable, or even in some sense possible.
Take for an example the recent freeing of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl from five years as a captive of the Haqqani network. Much controversy has surrounded it, in part because he was traded for five former Taliban officials long kept uncharged and untried on the American Devil’s Island at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It has been suggested that Sgt. Bergdahl deserted his post and his unit in rural Afghanistan—simply walked away—which for opponents of the deal and of President Obama makes the “trade for terrorists” all the more shameful. Our options when it comes to what we know of Bergdahl’s actions are essentially to decry him as a “turncoat” or near-voluntary “terrorist prisoner” or ignore them, go into a “support the troops” mode, and hail him as a “hero” of the war. And yet there is a third option.
According to his father, in the period before he was captured, his emails home reflected growing disillusionment with the military. ("The U.S. army is the biggest joke the world has to laugh at. It is the army of liars, backstabbers, fools, and bullies. The few good SGTs [sergeants] are getting out as soon as they can, and they are telling us privates to do the same.") He had also evidently grown increasingly uncomfortable as well with the American war in that country. ("I am sorry for everything here. These people need help, yet what they get is the most conceited country in the world telling them that they are nothing and that they are stupid, that they have no idea how to live.") When he departed his base, he may have even left a note behind expressing such sentiments. He had reportedly told someone in his unit earlier, "If this deployment is lame ... I’m just going to walk off into the mountains of Pakistan."
That’s what we know. There is much that we don’t know. However, what if, having concluded that the war was no favor to Afghans or Americans and he shouldn’t participate in it, he had, however naively, walked away from it without his weapon and, as it turned out, not into freedom but directly into captivity? That Sgt. Bergdahl might have been neither a military-style hero, nor a turncoat, but someone who voted with his feet on the merits of war, American-style, in Afghanistan is not an option that can be discussed calmly here. Similarly, anyone who took such a position here, not just in terms of our disastrous almost 13-year Afghan War, but of American war-making generally, would be seen as another kind of turncoat. However Americans may feel about specific wars, walking away from war, American-style, and the U.S. military as it is presently configured is not a fit subject for conversation, nor an option to be considered.
It’s been commonplace in official opinion and polling data for some time that the American public is “exhausted” with our recent wars, but far too much can be read into that. Responding to such a mood, the president, his administration, and the Pentagon have been in a years-long process of “pivoting” from major wars and counterinsurgency campaigns to drone wars, special operations raids, and proxy wars across huge swaths of the planet (even while planning for future wars of a very different kind continues). But war itself and the U.S. military remain high on the American agenda. Military or militarized solutions continue to be the go-to response to global problems, the only question being: How much or how little? (In what passes for debate in this country, the president’s opponents regularly label him and his administration “weak” for not doubling down on war, from the Ukraine and Syria to Afghanistan).
Meanwhile, investment in the military's future and its capacity to make war on a global scale remains staggeringly beyond that of any other power or combination of powers. No other country comes faintly close, not the Russians, nor the Chinese, nor the Europeans just now being encouraged to up their military game by President Obama, who recently pledged a billion dollars to strengthen the U.S. military presence in Eastern Europe.
In such a context, to suggest the sweeping failure of the American military over these last decades without sapping support for the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex would involve making the most breathtaking stab-in-the-back argument in the historical record. This was tried after the Vietnam War, which engendered a vast antiwar movement at home. It was at least conceivable at the time to blame defeat on that movement, a “liberal” media, and lily-livered, micromanaging politicians. Even then, however, the stab-in-the-back version of the war never quite stuck and in all subsequent wars, support for the military among the political class and everywhere else has been so high, the obligatory need to “support the troops” —left, right, and center—so great that such an explanation would have been ludicrous.
A Record of Failure to Stagger the Imagination
The only option left was to ignore what should have been obvious to all. The result has been a record of failure that should stagger the imagination and remarkable silence on the subject. So let’s run through these points one at a time:
1. American-style war doesn’t work. Just ask yourself: Are there fewer terrorists or more in our world almost 13 years after the 9/11 attacks? Are al-Qaeda-like groups more or less common? Are they more or less well organized? Do they have more or fewer members? The answers to those questions are obvious: more, more, more, and more. In fact, according to a new RAND report, between 2010 and 2013 alone, jihadist groups grew by 58%, their fighters doubled, and their attacks nearly tripled.
On September 12, 2001, al-Qaeda was a relatively small organization with a few camps in arguably the most feudal and backward country on the planet, and tiny numbers of adherents scattered elsewhere around the world. Today, al-Qaeda-style outfits and jihadist groups control significant parts of Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, and even Yemen, and are thriving and spreading in parts of Africa as well.
Or try questions like these: Is Iraq a peaceful, liberated state allied with and under Washington’s aegis, with “enduring camps” filled with U.S. troops on its territory? Or is it a riven, embattled, dilapidated country whose government is close to Iran and some of whose Sunni-dominated areas are under the control of a group that is more extreme than al-Qaeda? Is Afghanistan a peaceful, thriving, liberated land under the American aegis, or are Americans still fighting there almost 13 years later against the Taliban, an impossible-to-defeat minority movement it once destroyed and then, because it couldn’t stop fighting the “war on terror,” helped revive? Is Washington now supporting a weak, corrupt central government in a country that once again is planting record opium crops?
But let’s not belabor the point. Who, except a few neocons still plunking for the glories of “the surge” in Iraq, would claim military victory for this country, even of a limited sort, anywhere at any time in this century?
2. American-style wars don’t solve problems. In these years, you could argue that not a single U.S. military campaign or militarized act ordered by Washington solved a single problem anywhere. In fact, it’s possible that just about every military move Washington has made only increased the burden of problems on this planet. To make the case, you don’t even have to focus on the obvious like, for example, the way a special operations and drone campaign in Yemen has actually al-Qaeda-ized some of that country’s rural areas. Take instead a rare Washington “success”: the killing of Osama bin Laden in a special ops raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan. (And leave aside the way even that act was over-militarized: an unarmed Bin Laden was shot down in his Pakistani lair largely, it’s plausible to assume, because officials in Washington feared what once would have been the American way—putting him on trial in a U.S. civilian court for his crimes.) We now know that, in the hunt for bin Laden, the CIA launched a fake hepatitis B vaccination project. Though it proved of no use, once revealed it made local jihadists so nervous about medical health teams that they began killing groups of polio vaccination workers, an urge that has since spread to Boko Haram-controlled areas of Nigeria. In this way, according to Columbia University public health expert Leslie Roberts, “the distrust sowed by the sham campaign in Pakistan could conceivably postpone polio eradication for 20 years, leading to 100,000 more cases that might otherwise not have occurred.” The CIA has since promised not to do it again, but too late—and who at this point would believe the Agency anyway? This was, to say the least, an unanticipated consequence of the search for bin Laden, but blowback everywhere, invariably unexpected, has been a hallmark of American campaigns of all sorts.
Similarly, the NSA’s surveillance regime, another form of global intervention by Washington, has—experts are convinced—done little or nothing to protect Americans from terror attacks. It has, however, done a great deal to damage the interests of America’s tech corporations and to increase suspicion and anger over Washington’s policies even among allies. And by the way, congratulations are due for one of the latest military moves of the Obama administration, the sending of U.S. military teams and drones into Nigeria and neighboring countries to help rescue those girls kidnapped by the extremist group Boko Haram. The rescue was a remarkable success ... oops, didn’t happen (and we don’t even know yet what the blowback will be).
3. American-style war is a destabilizing force. Just look at the effects of American war in the 21st century. It’s clear, for instance, that the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 unleashed a brutal, bloody, Sunni-Shiite civil war across the region (as well as the Arab Spring, one might argue). One result of that invasion and the subsequent occupation, as well as of the wars and civil wars that followed: the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, Syrians, and Lebanese, while major areas of Syria and some parts of Iraq have fallen into the hands of armed supporters of al-Qaeda or, in one major case, a group that didn’t find that organization extreme enough.
Meanwhile, the U.S. war in Afghanistan and the CIA’s drone assassination campaign in the tribal borderlands of neighboring Pakistan have destabilized that country, which now has its own fierce Taliban movement. The 2011 U.S. intervention in Libya initially seemed like a triumph, as had the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan before it. Libyan autocrat Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown and the rebels swept into power. Like Afghanistan and Iraq, however, Libya is now a basket case, riven by competing militias and ambitious generals, largely ungovernable, and an open wound for the region. Arms from Gaddafi’s looted arsenals have made their way into the hands of Islamist rebels and jihadist extremists from the Sinai Peninsula to Mali, from Northern Africa to northern Nigeria, where Boko Haram is entrenched. It is even possible, as Nick Turse has done, to trace the growing U.S. military presence in Africa to the destabilization of parts of that continent.
4. The U.S. military can’t win its wars. This is so obvious (though seldom said) that it hardly has to be explained. The U.S. military has not won a serious engagement since World War II: the results of wars in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq ranged from stalemate to defeat and disaster. With the exception of a couple of campaigns against essentially no one (in Grenada and Panama), nothing, including the “Global War on Terror,” would qualify as a success on its own terms, no less anyone else’s. This was true, strategically speaking, despite the fact that, in all these wars, the U.S. controlled the air space, the seas (where relevant), and just about any field of battle where the enemy might be met. Its firepower was overwhelming and its ability to lose in small-scale combat just about nil.
It would be folly to imagine that this record represents the historical norm. It doesn't. It might be more relevant to suggest that the sorts of imperial wars and wars of pacification the U.S. has fought in recent times, often against poorly armed, minimally trained, minority insurgencies (or terror outfits), are simply unwinnable. They seem to generate their own resistance. Their brutalities and even their “victories” simply act as recruitment posters for the enemy.
5. The U.S. military is not "the finest fighting force the world has ever known" or "the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known," or any of the similar over-the-top descriptions that U.S. presidents are now regularly obligated to use. If you want the explanation for why this is so, see points one through four above. A military whose way of war doesn’t work, doesn’t solve problems, destabilizes whatever it touches, and never wins simply can’t be the greatest in history, no matter the firepower it musters. If you really need further proof of this, think about the crisis and scandals linked to the Veterans Administration. They are visibly the fruit of a military mired in frustration, despair, and defeat, not a triumphant one holding high history’s banner of victory.
As for Peace, Not a Penny
Is there a record like it? More than half a century of American-style war by the most powerful and potentially destructive military on the planet adds up to worse than nothing. If any other institution in American life had a comparable scorecard, it would be shunned like the plague. In reality, the VA has a far better record of success when it comes to the treatment of those broken by our wars than the military does of winning them, and yet its head administrator was forced to resign recently amid scandal and a media firestorm.
As in Iraq, Washington has a way of sending in the Marines, setting the demons loose, leaving town, and then wondering how in the world things got so bad—as if it had no responsibility for what happened. Don’t think, by the way, that no one ever warned us either. Who, for instance, remembers Arab League head Amr Moussa saying in 2004 that the U.S. had opened the “gates of hell” in its invasion and occupation of Iraq? Who remembers the vast antiwar movement in the U.S. and around the world that tried to stop the launching of that invasion, the hundreds of thousands of people who took to the streets to warn of the dangers before it was too late? In fact, being in that antiwar movement more or less guaranteed that ever after you couldn’t appear on the op-ed pages of America’s major papers to discuss the disaster you had predicted. The only people asked to comment were those who had carried it out, beaten the drums for it, or offered the mildest tsk-tsk about it.
By the way, don’t think for a moment that war never solved a problem, or achieved a goal for an imperial or other regime, or that countries didn’t regularly find victory in arms. History is filled with such examples. So what if, in some still-to-be-understood way, something has changed on planet Earth? What if something in the nature of imperial war now precludes victory, the achieving of goals, the “solving” of problems in our present world? Given the American record, it’s at least a thought worth considering.
As for peace, not even a penny for your thoughts on that one. If you suggested pouring, say, $50 billion into planning for peace, no less the $500 billion that goes to the Pentagon annually for its base budget, just about anyone would laugh in your face. (And keep in mind that that figure doesn’t include most of the budget for the increasingly militarized U.S. Intelligence Community, or extra war costs for Afghanistan, or the budget of the increasingly militarized Department of Homeland Security, or other costs hidden elsewhere, including, for example, for the U.S. nuclear arsenal, which is buried in the Energy Department’s budget.)
That possible solutions to global problems, possible winning strategies, might come from elsewhere than the U.S. military or other parts of the national security state, based on 50 years of imperial failure, 50 years of problems unsolved and wars not won and goals not reached, of increasing instability and destruction, of lives (American and otherwise) snuffed out or broken? Not on your life.
Don’t walk away from war. It’s not the American way.
Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.
Copyright 2014 Tom Engelhardt
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The following passages are excerpted at TomDispatch from Eduardo Galeano’s Soccer in Sun and Shadow (Nation Books, Open Road Media ebooks).
Have you ever entered an empty stadium? Try it. Stand in the middle of the field and listen. There is nothing less empty than an empty stadium. There is nothing less mute than stands bereft of spectators.
At Wembley, shouts from the 1966 World Cup, which England won, still resound, and if you listen very closely you can hear groans from 1953 when England fell to the Hungarians. Montevideo’s Centenario Stadium sighs with nostalgia for the glory days of Uruguayan soccer. Maracanã is still crying over Brazil’s 1950 World Cup defeat. At Bombonera in Buenos Aires, drums boom from half a century ago. From the depths of Azteca Stadium, you can hear the ceremonial chants of the ancient Mexican ball game. The concrete terraces of Camp Nou in Barcelona speak Catalan, and the stands of San Mamés in Bilbao talk in Basque. In Milan, the ghost of Giuseppe Meazza scores goals that shake the stadium bearing his name. The final match of the 1974 World Cup, won by Germany, is played day after day and night after night at Munich’s Olympic Stadium. King Fahd Stadium in Saudi Arabia has marble and gold boxes and carpeted stands, but it has no memory or much of anything to say.
The English Invasions
Outside a madhouse, in an empty lot in Buenos Aires, several blond boys were kicking a ball around.
“Who are they?” asked a child.
“Crazy people,” answered his father. “Crazy English.”
Journalist Juan José de Soiza Reilly remembers this from his childhood. At first, soccer seemed like a crazy man’s game in the River Plate. But as the empire expanded, soccer became an export as typically British as Manchester cloth, railroads, loans from Barings, or the doctrine of free trade. It arrived on the feet of sailors who played by the dikes of Buenos Aires and Montevideo, while Her Majesty’s ships unloaded blankets, boots, and flour, and took on wool, hides, and wheat to make more blankets, boots, and flour on the other side of the world. English citizens—diplomats, and managers of railroad and gas companies—formed the first local teams. The English of Montevideo and Buenos Aires staged Uruguay’s first international competition in 1889, under a gigantic portrait of Queen Victoria, her eyes lowered in a mask of disdain. Another portrait of the queen of the seas watched over the first Brazilian soccer match in 1895, played between the British subjects of the Gas Company and the São Paulo Railway.
Old photographs show these pioneers in sepia tones. They were warriors trained for battle. Cotton and wool armor covered their entire bodies so as not to offend the ladies in attendance, who unfurled silk parasols and waved lace handkerchiefs. The only flesh the players exposed were their serious faces peering out from behind wax-twirled mustaches below caps or hats. Their feet were shod with heavy Mansfield shoes.
It did not take long for the contagion to spread. Sooner rather than later, the native-born gentlemen of local society started playing that crazy English game. From London they imported the shirts, shoes, thick ankle socks, and pants that reached from the chest to below the knee. Balls no longer confounded customs officers, who at first had not known how to classify the species. Ships also brought rulebooks to these far-off coasts of southern America, and with them came words that remained for many years to come: field, score, goal, goalkeeper, back, half, forward, out ball, penalty, offside. A “foul” merited punishment by the “referee,” but the aggrieved player could accept an apology from the guilty party “as long as his apology was sincere and was expressed in proper English,” according to the first soccer rulebook that circulated in the River Plate.
Meanwhile, other English words were being incorporated into the speech of Latin American countries in the Caribbean: pitcher, catcher, innings. Having fallen under U.S. influence, these countries learned to hit a ball with a round wooden bat. The Marines shouldered bats next to their rifles when they imposed imperial order on the region by blood and by fire. Baseball became for the people of the Caribbean what soccer is for us.
In soccer, ritual sublimation of war, 11 men in shorts are the sword of the neighborhood, the city, or the nation. These warriors without weapons or armor exorcize the demons of the crowd and reaffirm its faith: in each confrontation between two sides, old hatreds and old loves passed from father to son enter into combat.
The stadium has towers and banners like a castle, as well as a deep and wide moat around the field. In the middle, a white line separates the territories in dispute. At each end stand the goals to be bombed with flying balls. The area directly in front of the goals is called the “danger zone.”
In the center circle, the captains exchange pennants and shake hands as the ritual demands. The referee blows his whistle and the ball, another whistling wind, is set in motion. The ball travels back and forth, a player traps her and takes her for a ride until he gets pummeled in a tackle and falls spread-eagled. The victim does not rise. In the immensity of the green expanse, the player lies prostrate. From the immensity of the stands, voices thunder. The enemy crowd emits a friendly roar:
“¡Que se muera!”
“Mach ihn nieder!”
“Let him die!”
“Kill, kill, kill!”
Tears Do Not Flow from a Handkerchief
Soccer, metaphor for war, at times turns into real war. Then “sudden death” is no longer just a name for a dramatic way of deciding a tied match. These days, soccer fanaticism has come to occupy the place formerly reserved for religious fervor, patriotic ardor, and political passion. As often occurs with religion, patriotism, and politics, soccer can bring tensions to a boil, and many horrors are committed in its name.
Some believe men possessed by the demon of the ball foam at the mouth, and frankly that image presents a fairly accurate picture of the frenzied fan. But even the most indignant of critics would concede that in most cases violence does not originate in soccer, any more than tears flow from a handkerchief.
In 1969 war broke out between Honduras and El Salvador, two small and very poor Central American countries that for more than a century had been accumulating reasons to distrust one another. Each had always served as the magical explanation for the other’s problems. Hondurans have no work? Because Salvadorans come and take their jobs. Salvadorans are hungry? Because Hondurans mistreat them. Both countries believed their neighbor was the enemy, and the relentless military dictatorships of each did all they could to perpetuate the error.
This war was called the Soccer War because the sparks that set off the conflagration were struck in the stadiums of Tegucigalpa and San Salvador. The trouble began during the qualifying rounds for the 1970 World Cup. There were tussles, a few injuries, several deaths. A week later, the two countries broke off relations. Honduras expelled a hundred thousand Salvadoran peasants who had always worked in that country’s plantings and harvests; Salvadoran tanks crossed the border.
The war lasted a week and killed four thousand people. The two governments, dictatorships forged at a U.S. factory called the School of the Americas, fanned the fires of mutual hatred. In Tegucigalpa the slogan was “Honduran, don’t sit still, grab a stick and a Salvadoran kill.” In San Salvador: “Teach those barbarians a lesson.” The lords of land and war did not lose a drop of blood, while two barefoot peoples avenged their identical misfortunes by killing each other with abandon.
The End of the Match
The ball turns, the world turns. People suspect the sun is a burning ball that works all day and spends the night bouncing around the heavens while the moon does its shift, though science is somewhat doubtful. There is absolutely no question, however, that the world turns around a spinning ball: the final of the '94 World Cup was watched by more than two billion people, the largest crowd ever of the many that have assembled in this planet’s history. It is the passion most widely shared: many admirers of the ball play with her on fields and pastures, and many more have box seats in front of the TV and bite their nails as 22 men in shorts chase a ball and kick her to prove their love.
At the end of the ’94 Cup every child born in Brazil was named Romário, and the turf of the stadium in Los Angeles was sold off like pizza, at twenty dollars a slice. A bit of insanity worthy of a better cause? A primitive and vulgar business? A bag of tricks manipulated by the owners? I’m one of those who believe that soccer might be all that, but it is also much more: a feast for the eyes that watch it and a joy for the body that plays it. A reporter once asked German theologian Dorothee Sölle, “How would you explain happiness to a child?”
“I wouldn’t explain it,” she answered. “I’d toss him a ball and let him play.”
Professional soccer does everything to castrate that energy of happiness, but it survives in spite of all the spites. And maybe that’s why soccer never stops being astonishing. As my friend Ángel Ruocco says, that’s the best thing about it—its stubborn capacity for surprise. The more the technocrats program it down to the smallest detail, the more the powerful manipulate it, soccer continues to be the art of the unforeseeable. When you least expect it, the impossible occurs, the dwarf teaches the giant a lesson, and a runty, bowlegged black man makes an athlete sculpted in Greece look ridiculous.
An astonishing void: official history ignores soccer. Contemporary history texts fail to mention it, even in passing, in countries where soccer has been and continues to be a primordial symbol of collective identity. I play therefore I am: a style of play is a way of being that reveals the unique profile of each community and affirms its right to be different. Tell me how you play and I’ll tell you who you are. For many years soccer has been played in different styles, unique expressions of the personality of each people, and the preservation of that diversity seems to me more necessary today than ever before. These are days of obligatory uniformity, in soccer and everything else. Never has the world been so unequal in the opportunities it offers and so equalizing in the habits it imposes. In this end-of-century world, whoever does not die of hunger dies of boredom.
For years I have felt challenged by the memory and reality of soccer, and I have tried to write something worthy of this great pagan mass able to speak such different languages and unleash such universal passion. By writing, I was going to do with my hands what I never could accomplish with my feet: irredeemable klutz, disgrace of the playing fields, I had no choice but to ask of words what the ball I so desired denied me.
From that challenge, and from that need for expiation, this book was born. Homage to soccer, celebration of its lights, denunciation of its shadows. I don’t know if it has turned out the way soccer would have liked, but I know it grew within me and has reached the final page, and now that it is born it is yours. And I feel that irreparable melancholy we all feel after making love and at the end of the match.
Eduardo Galeano is one of Latin America’s most distinguished writers. He is the author of a three-volume history of the Americas, Memory of Fire, and most recently, a history of humanity, Mirrors, as well as Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History. He is the recipient of many international prizes, including the first Lannan Prize for Cultural Freedom, the Casa de las Américas Prize, and the First Distinguished Citizen of the region by the countries of Mercosur. These excerpts are taken from Soccer in Sun and Shadow, his 1997 book, translated by Mark Fried, and updated to include World Soccer Cup matches through 2010.
Excerpted from Soccer in Sun and Shadow. Copyright © 1997 by Eduardo Galeano and Mark Fried, translation. Published in paperback by Nation Books, 2013. Published in ebook by Open Road Media, 2014; available wherever ebooks are sold. By permission of Susan Bergholz Literary Services, New York City and Lamy, New Mexico. All rights reserved.
Copyright 2014 Eduardo Galeano. Photo by Fotolia/Pavel Parmenov
This essay is from Rebecca Solnit’s new book, Men Explain Things to Me, and appears at TomDispatch.com with the permission of Haymarket Books and Dispatch Books.
The history of women’s rights and feminism is often told as though it were a person who should already have gotten to the last milestone or has failed to make enough progress toward it. Around the millennium lots of people seemed to be saying that feminism had failed or was over. On the other hand, there was a wonderful feminist exhibition in the 1970s entitled “Your 5,000 Years Are Up.” It was a parody of all those radical cries to dictators and abusive regimes that your (fill in the blank) years are up. It was also making an important point.
Feminism is an endeavor to change something very old, widespread, and deeply rooted in many, perhaps most, cultures around the world, innumerable institutions, and most households on Earth—and in our minds, where it all begins and ends. That so much change has been made in four or five decades is amazing; that everything is not permanently, definitively, irrevocably changed is not a sign of failure. A woman goes walking down a thousand-mile road. Twenty minutes after she steps forth, they proclaim that she still has 999 miles to go and will never get anywhere.
It takes time. There are milestones, but so many people are traveling along that road at their own pace, and some come along later, and others are trying to stop everyone who’s moving forward, and a few are marching backward or are confused about what direction they should go in. Even in our own lives we regress, fail, continue, try again, get lost, and sometimes make a great leap, find what we didn’t know we were looking for, and yet continue to contain contradictions for generations.
The road is a neat image, easy to picture, but it misleads when it tells us that the history of change and transformation is a linear path, as though you could describe South Africa and Sweden and Pakistan and Brazil all marching along together in unison. There is another metaphor I like that expresses not progress but irrevocable change: it’s Pandora’s box, or, if you like, the genies (or djinnis) in bottles in the Arabian Nights. In the myth of Pandora, the usual emphasis is on the dangerous curiosity of the woman who opened the jar—it was really a jar, not a box the gods gave her—and thereby let all the ills out into the world.
Sometimes the emphasis is on what stayed in the jar: hope. But what’s interesting to me right now is that, like the genies, or powerful spirits, in the Arabian stories, the forces Pandora lets out don’t go back into the bottle. Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of Knowledge and they are never ignorant again. (Some ancient cultures thanked Eve for making us fully human and conscious.) There’s no going back. You can abolish the reproductive rights women gained in 1973, with Roe v. Wade, when the Supreme Court legalized abortion—or rather ruled that women had a right to privacy over their own bodies that precluded the banning of abortion. But you can’t so easily abolish the idea that women have certain inalienable rights.
Interestingly, to justify that right, the judges cited the Fourteenth Amendment, the constitutional amendment adopted in 1868, as part of the post-Civil War establishment of rights and freedoms for the formerly enslaved. So you can look at the antislavery movement—with powerful female participation and feminist repercussions—that eventually led to that Fourteenth Amendment, and see, more than a century later, how that amendment comes to serve women specifically. “The chickens come home to roost” is supposed to be a curse you bring on yourself, but sometimes the birds that return are gifts.
Thinking Out of the Box
What doesn’t go back in the jar or the box are ideas. And revolutions are, most of all, made up of ideas. You can whittle away at reproductive rights, as conservatives have in most states of the union, but you can’t convince the majority of women that they should have no right to control their own bodies. Practical changes follow upon changes of the heart and mind. Sometimes legal, political, economic, environmental changes follow upon those changes, though not always, for where power rests matters. Thus, for example, most Americans polled would like to see economic arrangements very different from those we have, and most are more willing to see radical change to address climate change than the corporations that control those decisions and the people who make them.
But in social realms, imagination wields great power. The most dramatic arena in which this has taken place is rights for gays, lesbians, and transgender people. Less than half a century ago, to be anything but rigorously heterosexual was to be treated as either criminal or mentally ill or both, and punished severely. Not only were there no protections against such treatment, there were laws mandating persecution and exclusion.
These remarkable transformations are often told as stories of legislative policy and specific campaigns to change laws. But behind those lies the transformation of imagination that led to a decline in the ignorance, fear, and hatred called homophobia. American homophobia seems to be in just such a steady decline, more a characteristic of the old than the young. That decline was catalyzed by culture and promulgated by countless queer people who came out of the box called the closet to be themselves in public. As I write this, a young lesbian couple has just been elected as joint homecoming queens at a high school in Southern California and two gay boys were voted cutest couple in their New York high school. This may be trivial high school popularity stuff, but it would have been stunningly impossible not long ago.
It’s important to note that the very idea that marriage could extend to two people of the same gender may only be possible because feminists broke out marriage from the hierarchical system it had been in and reinvented it as a relationship between equals. Those who are threatened by marriage equality are, many things suggest, as threatened by the idea of equality between heterosexual couples as same-sex couples. Liberation is a contagious project, speaking of birds coming home to roost.
Homophobia, like misogyny, is still terrible, just not as terrible as it was in, say, 1970. Finding ways to appreciate advances without embracing complacency is a delicate task. It involves being hopeful and motivated and keeping eyes on the prize ahead. Saying that everything is fine or that it will never get any better are ways of going nowhere or of making it impossible to go anywhere. Either approach implies that there is no road out or that, if there is, you don’t need to or can’t go down it. You can. We have.
We have so much further to go, but looking back at how far we’ve come can be encouraging. Domestic violence was mostly invisible and unpunished until a heroic effort by feminists to out it and crack down on it a few decades ago. Though it now generates a significant percentage of the calls to police, enforcement has been crummy in most places —but the ideas that a husband has the right to beat his wife and that it’s a private matter are not returning anytime soon. The genies are not going back into their bottles. And this is, really, how revolution works. Revolutions are first of all of ideas.
A Full-Fledged War Over Gender Roles
The great anarchist thinker David Graeber recently wrote,
“What is a revolution? We used to think we knew. Revolutions were seizures of power by popular forces aiming to transform the very nature of the political, social, and economic system in the country in which the revolution took place, usually according to some visionary dream of a just society. Nowadays, we live in an age when, if rebel armies do come sweeping into a city, or mass uprisings overthrow a dictator, it’s unlikely to have any such implications; when profound social transformation does occur—as with, say, the rise of feminism—it’s likely to take an entirely different form. It’s not that revolutionary dreams aren’t out there. But contemporary revolutionaries rarely think they can bring them into being by some modern-day equivalent of storming the Bastille. At moments like this, it generally pays to go back to the history one already knows and ask: Were revolutions ever really what we thought them to be?”
Graeber argues that they were not—that they were not primarily seizures of power in a single regime, but ruptures in which new ideas and institutions were born, and the impact spread. As he puts it, “The Russian Revolution of 1917 was a world revolution ultimately responsible for the New Deal and European welfare states as much as for Soviet communism.” Which means that the usual assumption that the Russian revolution only led to disaster can be upended. He continues, “The last in the series was the world revolution of 1968—which, much like 1848, broke out almost everywhere, from China to Mexico, seized power nowhere, but nonetheless changed everything. This was a revolution against state bureaucracies, and for the inseparability of personal and political liberation, whose most lasting legacy will likely be the birth of modern feminism.”
So the cat is out of the bag, the genies are out of their bottles, Pandora’s box is open. There’s no going back. Still, there are so many forces trying to push us back or at least stop us. At my glummest, I sometimes think women get to choose—between being punished for being unsubjugated and the continual punishment of subjugation. If ideas don’t go back in the box, there’s still been a huge effort to put women back in their place. Or the place misogynists think we belong in, a place of silence and powerlessness.
More than 20 years ago, Susan Faludi published a milestone of a book called Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. It described the double bind of women in that moment: they were getting congratulations for being fully liberated and empowered while being punished by a host of articles, reports, and books telling them that, in becoming liberated, they had become miserable; they were incomplete, missing out, losing, lonely, desperate. “This bulletin of despair is posted everywhere—at the newsstand, on the TV set, at the movies, in advertisements and doctors’ offices and academic journals,” wrote Faludi. “How can American women be in so much trouble at the same time that they are supposed to be so blessed?”
Faludi’s answer was, in part, that, though American women had not succeeded nearly as well as so many imagined in gaining equality, they weren’t suffering nearly as much as was being reported either. The articles were backlash, an attempt to push back those who were still moving forward.
Such instructions on how women are miserable and doomed haven’t faded away. Here’s the magazine n+1 in late 2012 editorializing on a recent spate of backlash articles about women in the Atlantic:
“Listen up ladies, these articles say. We’re here to talk to you in a way that’s limited and denigrating. Each female author reports on a particular dilemma faced by the 'modern woman,' and offers her own life as a case study... The problems these women describe are different, but their outlook is the same: traditional gender relations are by and large bound to endure, and genuinely progressive social change is a lost cause. Gently, like a good friend, the Atlantic tells women they can stop pretending to be feminists now.”
A volunteer police force tries to keep women in their place or put them back in it. The online world is full of mostly anonymous rape and death threats for women who stick out —who, for instance, participate in online gaming or speak up on controversial issues, or even for the woman who recently campaigned to put women’s images on British banknotes (an unusual case, in that some of those who threatened her were actually tracked down and brought to justice). As the writer Caitlin Moran tweeted: “For those who say, ‘why complain—just block?’—on a big troll day, it can be 50 violent/rape messages an hour.”
Maybe there is a full-fledged war now, not of the sexes—the division is not that simple, with conservative women and progressive men on different sides—but of gender roles. It’s evidence that feminism and women continue achieving advances that threaten and infuriate some people. Those rape and death threats are the blunt response; the decorous version is all those articles Faludi and n+1 cite telling women who we are and what we may aspire to—and what we may not.
And the casual sexism is always there to rein us in, too: a Wall Street Journal editorial blaming fatherless children on mothers throws out the term “female careerism.” Salon writer Amanda Marcotte notes, “Incidentally, if you Google ‘female careerism,’ you get a bunch of links, but if you Google ‘male careerism,’ Google asks if you really meant ‘male careers’ or even ‘mahle careers.’ ‘Careerism’—the pathological need to have paid employment—is an affliction that only affects women, apparently.”
Then there are all the tabloids patrolling the bodies and private lives of celebrity women and finding constant fault with them for being too fat, too thin, too sexy, not sexy enough, too single, not yet breeding, missing the chance to breed, having bred but failing to nurture adequately—and always assuming that each one’s ambition is not to be a great actress or singer or voice for liberty or adventurer but a wife and mother. Get back in the box, famous ladies. (The fashion and women’s magazines devote a lot of their space to telling you how to pursue those goals yourself, or how to appreciate your shortcomings in relation to them.)
In her great 1991 book, Faludi concludes, “And yet, for all the forces the blacklash mustered ... women never really surrendered.” Conservatives are now largely fighting rearguard actions. They are trying to reassemble a world that never really existed quite as they imagine it (and to the extent that it did, it existed at the expense of all the people—the vast majority of us—forced to disappear, into the closet, the kitchen, segregated space, invisibility, and silence).
Thanks to demographics, that conservative push is not going to work, because genies don’t go back into bottles and queer people are not going back into the closet and women aren’t going to surrender. It’s a war, but I don’t believe we’re losing it, even if we won’t win it anytime soon either; rather, some battles are won, some are engaged, and some women are doing really well while others suffer. And things continue to change in interesting and sometimes even auspicious ways.
What Do Men Want?
Women are an eternal subject, which is a lot like being subjected, or subjugated, or a subject nation, even. There are comparatively few articles about whether men are happy or why their marriages also fail or how nice or not their bodies are, even the movie-star bodies. They are the gender that commits the great majority of crimes, particularly violent crimes, and they are the majority of suicides as well. American men are falling behind women in attending college, and have fallen farther in the current economic depression than women, which you’d think would make them interesting subjects of inquiry.
I think the future of something we may no longer call feminism must include a deeper inquiry into men. Feminism sought and seeks to change the whole human world; many men are on board with the project, but how it benefits men, and in what ways the status quo damages men as well, could bear far more thought. As could an inquiry into the men perpetrating most of the violence, the threats, the hatred—the riot squad of the volunteer police force—and the culture that encourages them. Or perhaps this inquiry has begun.
At the end of 2012, two rapes got enormous attention around the world: the gang-rape murder of Jhoti Singh in New Delhi and the Steubenville rape case, involving teenage assailants and victim. It was the first time I remember seeing everyday assaults on women treated more or less as lynchings and gay-bashings and other hate crimes had been: as examples of a widespread phenomenon that was intolerable and must be addressed by society, not just by individual prosecution. Rapes had always been portrayed as isolated incidents due to anomalous perpetrators (or natural uncontrollable urges or the victim’s behavior), rather than a pattern whose causes are cultural.
The conversation changed. The term “rape culture” started to circulate widely. It insists that a wider culture generates individual crimes and that both must be addressed—and can be. The phrase had first been used by feminists in the 1970s, but what put it into general circulation, evidence suggests, were the Slutwalks that began in 2011 as a protest against victim-blaming.
A Toronto policeman giving a safety talk at a university told female students not to dress like sluts. Soon after, Slutwalks became an international phenomenon, of mostly young, often sexily dressed women taking back public space (rather like the Take Back the Night walks of the 1980s, but with more lipstick and less clothing). Young feminists are a thrilling phenomenon: smart, bold, funny defenders of rights and claimers of space—and changers of the conversation.
That policeman’s “slut” comment was part of the emphasis colleges have put on telling female students how to box themselves in safely—don’t go here, don’t do that—rather than telling male students not to rape: this is part of rape culture. But a nationwide movement organized by mostly female college students, many of them survivors of campus sexual assault, has sprung up to force change in the way universities deal with such assaults. As has a movement to address the epidemic of sexual assault in the military that has also succeeded in forcing real policy changes and prosecutions.
The new feminism is making the problems visible in new ways, perhaps in ways that are only possible now that so much has changed. A study of rape in Asia drew alarming conclusions about its widespread nature but also introduced the term “sexual entitlement” to explain why so much of it takes place. The report’s author, Dr. Emma Fulu, said of rapists, “They believed they had the right to have sex with the woman regardless of consent.” In other words, she had no rights. Where’d they learn that?
Feminism, as writer Marie Sheer remarked in 1986, “is the radical notion that women are people,” a notion not universally accepted but spreading nonetheless. The changing conversation is encouraging, as is the growing engagement of men in feminism. There were always male supporters. When the first women’s rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, 32 of the 100 signers to its Declaration of Independence-echoing manifesto were men. Still, it was seen as a women’s problem. Like racism, misogyny can never be adequately addressed by its victims alone. The men who get it also understand that feminism is not a scheme to deprive men but a campaign to liberate us all.
There’s more that we need to be liberated from: maybe a system that prizes competition and ruthlessness and short-term thinking and rugged individualism, a system that serves environmental destruction and limitless consumption so well—that arrangement you can call capitalism. It embodies the worst of machismo while it destroys what’s best on Earth. More men fit into it better, but it doesn’t really serve any of us. You can look to movements, such as the Zapatista revolution, which has a broad ideology that includes feminist as well as environmental, economic, indigenous, and other perspectives. This may be the future of feminism that is not feminism alone. Or the present of feminism: the Zapatistas rose up in 1994 and are still going, as are myriad other projects to reimagine who we are, what we want, and how we might live.
When I attended a 2007 Zapatista encuentro in the Lacandon forest, focusing on women’s voices and rights, at the end of 2007, women testified movingly about how their lives had changed when they had gained rights in the home and the community as part of their revolution. “We had no rights,” one of them said of the era before the rebellion. Another testified, “The saddest part is that we couldn’t understand our own difficulties, why we were being abused. No one had told us about our rights.”
Here is that road, maybe a thousand miles long, and the woman walking down it isn’t at mile one. I don’t know how far she has to go, but I know she’s not going backward, despite it all—and she’s not walking alone. Maybe it’s countless men and women and people with more interesting genders.
Here’s the box Pandora held and the bottles the genies were released from; they look like prisons and coffins now. People die in this war, but the ideas cannot be erased.
This is the concluding essay in Rebecca Solnit’s new book, Men Explain Things to Me (Dispatch Books, Haymarket Books), whose title comes from the essay (now updated) that Solnit published at TomDispatch in 2008, which has been making the rounds ever since.
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Copyright 2014 Rebecca Solnit
“I Have Been to the Darkest Corners of Government, and What They Fear Is Light”
This essay is a shortened and adapted version of Chapter 1 of Glenn Greenwald’s new book, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Security State, and appears at TomDispatch.com with the kind permission of Metropolitan Books.
On December 1, 2012, I received my first communication from Edward Snowden, although I had no idea at the time that it was from him.
The contact came in the form of an email from someone calling himself Cincinnatus, a reference to Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, the Roman farmer who, in the fifth century BC, was appointed dictator of Rome to defend the city against attack. He is most remembered for what he did after vanquishing Rome’s enemies: he immediately and voluntarily gave up political power and returned to farming life. Hailed as a “model of civic virtue,” Cincinnatus has become a symbol of the use of political power in the public interest and the worth of limiting or even relinquishing individual power for the greater good.
The email began: “The security of people’s communications is very important to me,” and its stated purpose was to urge me to begin using PGP encryption so that “Cincinnatus” could communicate things in which, he said, he was certain I would be interested. Invented in 1991, PGP stands for “pretty good privacy.” It has been developed into a sophisticated tool to shield email and other forms of online communications from surveillance and hacking.
In this email, “Cincinnatus” said he had searched everywhere for my PGP “public key,” a unique code set that allows people to receive encrypted email, but could not find it. From this, he concluded that I was not using the program and told me, “That puts anyone who communicates with you at risk. I’m not arguing that every communication you are involved in be encrypted, but you should at least provide communicants with that option.”
“Cincinnatus” then referenced the sex scandal of General David Petraeus, whose career-ending extramarital affair with journalist Paula Broadwell was discovered when investigators found Google emails between the two. Had Petraeus encrypted his messages before handing them over to Gmail or storing them in his drafts folder, he wrote, investigators would not have been able to read them. “Encryption matters, and it is not just for spies and philanderers.”
“There are people out there you would like to hear from,” he added, “but they will never be able to contact you without knowing their messages cannot be read in transit.” Then he offered to help me install the program. He signed off: “Thank you. C.”
Using encryption software was something I had long intended to do. I had been writing for years about WikiLeaks, whistleblowers, the hacktivist collective known as Anonymous, and had also communicated with people inside the U.S. national security establishment. Most of them are concerned about the security of their communications and preventing unwanted monitoring. But the program is complicated, especially for someone who had very little skill in programming and computers, like me. So it was one of those things I had never gotten around to doing.
C.’s email did not move me to action. Because I had become known for covering stories the rest of the media often ignores, I frequently hear from all sorts of people offering me a “huge story,” and it usually turns out to be nothing. And at any given moment I am usually working on more stories than I can handle. So I need something concrete to make me drop what I’m doing in order to pursue a new lead.
Three days later, I heard from C. again, asking me to confirm receipt of the first email. This time I replied quickly. “I got this and am going to work on it. I don’t have a PGP code, and don’t know how to do that, but I will try to find someone who can help me.”
C. replied later that day with a clear, step-by-step guide to PGP: Encryption for Dummies, in essence. At the end of the instructions, he said these were just “the barest basics.” If I couldn’t find anyone to walk me through the system, he added, “let me know. I can facilitate contact with people who understand crypto almost anywhere in the world.”
This email ended with more a pointed sign-off: “Cryptographically yours, Cincinnatus.”
Despite my intentions, I did nothing, consumed as I was at the time with other stories, and still unconvinced that C. had anything worthwhile to say.
In the face of my inaction, C. stepped up his efforts. He produced a 10-minute video entitled PGP for Journalists.
It was at that point that C., as he later told me, became frustrated. “Here am I,” he thought, “ready to risk my liberty, perhaps even my life, to hand this guy thousands of Top Secret documents from the nation’s most secretive agency—a leak that will produce dozens if not hundreds of huge journalistic scoops. And he can’t even be bothered to install an encryption program.”
That’s how close I came to blowing off one of the largest and most consequential national security leaks in U.S. history.
The next I heard of any of this was 10 weeks later. On April 18th, I flew from my home in Rio de Janeiro to New York, and saw on landing at JFK Airport, that I had an email from Laura Poitras, the documentary filmmaker. “Any chance you’ll be in the U.S. this coming week?” she wrote. “I’d love to touch base about something, though best to do in person.”
I take seriously any message from Laura Poitras. I replied immediately: “Actually, just got to the U.S. this morning... Where are you?” We arranged a meeting for the next day in the lobby at my hotel and found seats in the restaurant. At Laura’s insistence, we moved tables twice before beginning our conversation to be sure that nobody could hear us. Laura then got down to business. She had an “extremely important and sensitive matter” to discuss, she said, and security was critical.
First, though, Laura asked that I either remove the battery from my cell phone or leave it in my hotel room. “It sounds paranoid,” she said, but the government has the capability to activate cell phones and laptops remotely as eavesdropping devices. I’d heard this before from transparency activists and hackers but tended to write it off as excess caution. After discovering that the battery on my cell phone could not be removed, I took it back to my room, then returned to the restaurant.
Now Laura began to talk. She had received a series of anonymous emails from someone who seemed both honest and serious. He claimed to have access to some extremely secret and incriminating documents about the U.S. government spying on its own citizens and on the rest of the world. He was determined to leak these documents to her and had specifically requested that she work with me on releasing and reporting on them.
Laura then pulled several pages out of her purse from two of the emails sent by the anonymous leaker, and I read them at the table from start to finish. In the second of the emails, the leaker got to the crux of what he viewed as his mission:
The shock of this initial period [after the first revelations] will provide the support needed to build a more equal internet, but this will not work to the advantage of the average person unless science outpaces law. By understanding the mechanisms through which our privacy is violated, we can win here. We can guarantee for all people equal protection against unreasonable search through universal laws, but only if the technical community is willing to face the threat and commit to implementing over-engineered solutions. In the end, we must enforce a principle whereby the only way the powerful may enjoy privacy is when it is the same kind shared by the ordinary: one enforced by the laws of nature, rather than the policies of man.
“He’s real,” I said when I finished reading. “I can’t explain exactly why, but I just feel intuitively that this is serious, that he’s exactly who he says he is.”
“So do I,” Laura replied. “I have very little doubt.”
I instinctively recognized the author’s political passion. I felt a kinship with our correspondent, with his worldview, and with the sense of urgency that was clearly consuming him.
In one of the last passages, Laura’s correspondent wrote that he was completing the final steps necessary to provide us with the documents. He needed another four to six weeks, and we should wait to hear from him.
Three days later, Laura and I met again, and with another email from the anonymous leaker, in which he explained why he was willing to risk his liberty, to subject himself to the high likelihood of a very lengthy prison term, in order to disclose these documents. Now I was even more convinced: our source was for real, but as I told my partner, David Miranda, on the flight home to Brazil, I was determined to put the whole thing out of my mind. “It may not happen. He could change his mind. He could get caught.” David is a person of powerful intuition, and he was weirdly certain. “It’s real. He’s real. It’s going to happen,” he declared. “And it’s going to be huge.”
“I Have Only One Fear”
A message from Laura told me we needed to speak urgently, but only through OTR (off-the-record) chat, an encrypted instrument for talking online securely.
Her news was startling: we might have to travel to Hong Kong immediately to meet our source. I had assumed that our anonymous source was in Maryland or northern Virginia. What was someone with access to top-secret U.S. government documents doing in Hong Kong? What did Hong Kong have to do with any of this?
Answers would only come from the source himself. He was upset by the pace of things thus far, and it was critical that I speak to him directly, to assure him and placate his growing concerns. Within an hour, I received an email from Verax@******. Verax means “truth teller” in Latin. The subject line read, “Need to talk.”
“I’ve been working on a major project with a mutual friend of ours,” the email began. “You recently had to decline short-term travel to meet with me. You need to be involved in this story,” he wrote. “Is there any way we can talk on short notice? I understand you don’t have much in the way of secure infrastructure, but I’ll work around what you have.” He suggested that we speak via OTR and provided his user name.
My computer sounded a bell-like chime, signaling that the source had signed on. Slightly nervous, I clicked on his name and typed “hello.” He answered, and I found myself speaking directly to someone who I assumed had, at that point, revealed a number of secret documents about U.S. surveillance programs and who wanted to reveal more.
“I’m willing to do what I have to do to report this,” I said. The source—whose name, place of employment, age, and all other attributes were still unknown to me—asked if I would come to Hong Kong to meet him. I did not ask why he was there; I wanted to avoid appearing to be fishing for information and I assumed his situation was delicate. Whatever else was true, I knew that this person had resolved to carry out what the U.S. government would consider a very serious crime.
“Of course I’ll come to Hong Kong,” I said.
We spoke online that day for two hours, talking at length about his goal. I knew from the emails Laura had shown me that he felt compelled to tell the world about the massive spying apparatus the U.S. government was secretly building. But what did he hope to achieve?
“I want to spark a worldwide debate about privacy, Internet freedom, and the dangers of state surveillance,” he said. “I’m not afraid of what will happen to me. I’ve accepted that my life will likely be over from my doing this. I’m at peace with that. I know it’s the right thing to do.” He then said something startling: “I want to identify myself as the person behind these disclosures. I believe I have an obligation to explain why I’m doing this and what I hope to achieve.” He told me he had written a document that he wanted to post on the Internet when he outed himself as the source, a pro-privacy, anti-surveillance manifesto for people around the world to sign, showing that there was global support for protecting privacy.
“I only have one fear in doing all of this,” he said, which is “that people will see these documents and shrug, that they’ll say, ‘We assumed this was happening and don’t care.’ The only thing I’m worried about is that I’ll do all this to my life for nothing.”
“I seriously doubt that will happen,” I assured him, but I wasn’t convinced I really believed that. I knew from my years of writing about NSA abuses that it can be hard to generate serious concern about secret state surveillance.
This felt different, but before I took off for Hong Kong, I wanted to see some documents so that I understood the types of disclosures the source was prepared to make.
I then spent a couple of days online as the source walked me through, step by step, how to install and use the programs I would need to see the documents.
I kept apologizing for my lack of proficiency, for having to take hours of his time to teach me the most basic aspects of secure communication. “No worries,” he said, “most of this makes little sense. And I have a lot of free time right now.”
Once the programs were all in place, I received a file containing roughly twenty-five documents: “Just a very small taste: the tip of the tip of the iceberg,” he tantalizingly explained.
I unzipped the file, saw the list of documents, and randomly clicked on one of them. At the top of the page in red letters, a code appeared: “TOP SECRET//COMINT/NO FORN/.”
This meant the document had been legally designated top secret, pertained to communications intelligence (COMINT), and was not for distribution to foreign nationals, including international organizations or coalition partners (NO FORN). There it was with incontrovertible clarity: a highly confidential communication from the NSA, one of the most secretive agencies in the world’s most powerful government. Nothing of this significance had ever been leaked from the NSA, not in all the six-decade history of the agency. I now had a couple dozen such items in my possession. And the person I had spent hours chatting with over the last two days had many, many more to give me.
As Laura and I arrived at JFK Airport to board a Cathay Pacific flight to Hong Kong, Laura pulled a thumb drive out of her backpack. “Guess what this is?” she asked with a look of intense seriousness.
“The documents,” she said. “All of them.”
For the next 16 hours, despite my exhaustion, I did nothing but read, feverishly taking notes on document after document. One of the first I read was an order from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court, which had been created by Congress in 1978, after the Church Committee discovered decades of abusive government eavesdropping. The idea behind its formation was that the government could continue to engage in electronic surveillance, but to prevent similar abuse, it had to obtain permission from the FISA court before doing so. I had never seen a FISA court order before. Almost nobody had. The court is one of the most secretive institutions in the government. All of its rulings are automatically designated top secret, and only a small handful of people are authorized to access its decisions.
The ruling I read on the plane to Hong Kong was amazing for several reasons. It ordered Verizon Business to turn over to the NSA “all call detail records” for “communications (i) between the United States and abroad; and (ii) wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls.” That meant the NSA was secretly and indiscriminately collecting the telephone records of tens of millions of Americans, at least. Virtually nobody had any idea that the Obama administration was doing any such thing. Now, with this ruling, I not only knew about it but had the secret court order as proof.
Only now did I feel that I was beginning to process the true magnitude of the leak. I had been writing for years about the threat posed by unconstrained domestic surveillance; my first book, published in 2006, warned of the lawlessness and radicalism of the NSA. But I had struggled against the great wall of secrecy shielding government spying: How do you document the actions of an agency so completely shrouded in multiple layers of official secrecy? At this moment, the wall had been breached. I had in my possession documents that the government had desperately tried to hide. I had evidence that would indisputably prove all that the government had done to destroy the privacy of Americans and people around the world.
In 16 hours of barely interrupted reading, I managed to get through only a small fraction of the archive. But as the plane landed in Hong Kong, I knew two things for certain. First, the source was highly sophisticated and politically astute, evident in his recognition of the significance of most of the documents. He was also highly rational. The way he chose, analyzed, and described the thousands of documents I now had in my possession proved that. Second, it would be very difficult to deny his status as a classic whistleblower. If disclosing proof that top-level national security officials lied outright to Congress about domestic spying programs doesn’t make one indisputably a whistleblower, then what does?
Shortly before landing, I read one final file. Although it was entitled “README_FIRST,” I saw it for the first time only at the very end of the flight. This message was an explanation from the source for why he had chosen to do what he did and what he expected to happen as a result—and it included one fact that the others did not: the source’s name.
"I understand that I will be made to suffer for my actions, and that the return of this information to the public marks my end. I will be satisfied if the federation of secret law, unequal pardon, and irresistible executive powers that rule the world that I love are revealed for even an instant. If you seek to help, join the open source community and fight to keep the spirit of the press alive and the internet free. I have been to the darkest corners of government, and what they fear is light.
Edward Joseph Snowden, SSN: *****
CIA Alias “***** ”
Agency Identification Number: *****
Former Senior Advisor | United States National Security Agency, under corporate cover
Former Field Officer | United States Central Intelligence Agency, under diplomatic cover
Former Lecturer | United States Defense Intelligence Agency, under corporate cover"
Glenn Greenwald, a former constitutional lawyer and a Guardian columnist until October 2013, has earned numerous awards for his commentary and investigative journalism, including most recently the 2013 George Polk Award for national security reporting. In early 2014, he cofounded a new global media outlet, The Intercept. This essay is adapted from his new book, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Security State (Metropolitan Books), out now.
Excerpted and adapted from No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Security State by Glenn Greenwald, published by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC.
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Copyright 2014 Glenn Greenwald
Photo courtesy Thierry Ehrmann, licensed through Creative Commons
Speaking Truth From the Robotic Heavens
This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.
Enemies, innocent victims, and soldiers have always made up the three faces of war. With war growing more distant, with drones capable of performing on the battlefield while their “pilots” remain thousands of miles away, two of those faces have, however, faded into the background in recent years. Today, we are left with just the reassuring “face” of the terrorist enemy, killed clinically by remote control while we go about our lives, apparently without any “collateral damage” or danger to our soldiers. Now, however, that may slowly be changing, bringing the true face of the drone warfare campaigns Washington has pursued since 9/11 into far greater focus.
Imagine if those drone wars going on in Pakistan and Yemen (as well as the United States) had a human face all the time, so that we could understand what it was like to live constantly, in and out of those distant battle zones, with the specter of death. In addition to images of the "al-Qaeda" operatives who the White House wants us to believe are the sole targets of its drone warfare campaigns, we would regularly see photos of innocent victims of drone attacks gathered by human rights groups from their relatives and neighbors. And what about the third group—the military personnel whose lives revolve around killing fields so far away -— whose stories, in these years of Washington’s drone assassination campaigns, we’ve just about never heard?
After all, soldiers no longer set sail on ships to journey to distant battlefields for months at a time. Instead, every day, thousands of men and women sign onto their computers at desks on military bases in the continental United States and abroad where they spend hours glued to screens watching the daily lives of people often on the other side of the planet. Occasionally, they get an order from Washington to push a button and vaporize their subjects. It sounds just like—and the comparison has been made often enough—a video game, which can be switched off at the end of a shift, after which those pilots return home to families and everyday life.
And if you believed what little we normally see of them—what, that is, the Air Force has let us see (the CIA part of the drone program being off-limits to news reporting)—that would indeed seem to be the straightforward story of life for our drone warriors. Take Rene Lopez, who in shots of a recent homecoming welcome at Fort Gordon in Georgia appears to be a doting father. Photographed for the local papers on his return from a tour in Afghanistan, the young soldier is seen holding and kissing his infant daughter dressed in a bright pink top. He smiles with delight as the wide-eyed child tries on his military hat.
From an online profile posted to LinkedIn by Lopez last year, we learn that the clean-cut U.S. Army signals intelligence specialist claims to be an actor in the drone war in addition to being a proud parent. To be specific, he says he has been working in the dark arts of hunting and killing “high value targets” using a National Security Agency (NSA) tool known as Gilgamesh.
That tool is named after a ruthless Sumerian king who ruled over Uruk, an ancient city in what is now Iraq. With the help of the massive trove of NSA documents leaked by Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill recently explained that Gilgamesh is the code name for a special device mounted on a Predator drone that can track the mobile phones of individuals without their knowledge by pretending to be a cell phone tower.
Lopez's resumé yields more details on what Gilgamesh is capable of. The profile writer claims that he "supervised a team of four personnel supporting the lead targeting force in Laghman and Nuristan provinces [in Afghanistan]. Assisted top-level commanders with developing concepts, approaches, and strategies to Capture/Kill HVTs [high value targets]."
Last year, on completing his time in the military, Lopez says he took a civilian job operating Gilgamesh for Mission Essential, an intelligence contractor providing technical support for Pentagon drones. For that company, he says he conducted "pattern of life analysis" and provided support for "targeting and strike operations." Lopez lives in Grovetown, Georgia, home to a joint Army-NSA code-breaking and language translation operation, involving 4,000 personnel that, since 9/11, has taken the lead in analyzing real-time data feeds from Central Asia and the Middle East.
Gilgamesh is just one of several NSA tools used on drones to track targeted cell phones. Another program, Shenanigans, was designed specifically for use by the Central Intelligence Agency. According to other documents leaked by Snowden, an operation code-named Victorydance used these tools in March 2012 to map every computer, router, and mobile device in Yemen.
What do men like Lopez actually think about the sort of human destruction, not to speak of the destabilization of whole regions, that Gilgamesh and its like help to unleash? In his online job pitch, Lopez indicates straightforward pride in his work: "My efforts, both as a contractor and in the military, yielded success in identifying, locating, and tracking high value targets, and protection of U.S. and coalition forces." It would be easy enough to assume that the kind of analytical work such remote pilots do would result in a sense of job satisfaction and little more. And that, it turns out, would be a mistake.
Haunted by Death
In recent months, the first evidence that drones are not only killing thousands in distant lands, but also creating an unexpected kind of blowback among the pilots themselves, provides a curious parallel to the Epic of Gilgamesh, the 5,000-year-old poem about the Sumerian king. In the ancient saga, the gods are said to have sent Enkidu to befriend the cruel king and divert him from the oppression of his subjects. When the pair travel together to slay a monster named Humbaba, Gilgamesh begins to have nightmares about death and war, causing him to question their plan.
Today, like Gilgamesh of old, signals intelligence personnel connected to the drone programs have started reporting themselves haunted by the deaths that they have participated in, and plagued by the knowledge that, in the end, they often had next to no idea who they were actually killing. The publicity about a “kill list” in the White House has left the impression that those who find themselves on the other end of a drone-launched missile have been carefully identified and are known to the drone pilots. "People get hung up that there's a targeted list of people," one drone pilot told the Intercept two months ago. His view, however, was quite different: "It's really like we're targeting a cell phone. We're not going after people—we're going after their phones, in the hopes that the person on the other end of that missile is the bad guy."
Brandon Bryant, a 28-year-old U.S. airman, whose squadron has been credited with 1,626 kills, was among the first to be openly critical of the impact of remote tracking and targeting, of, that is, robot war. Bryant was a "sensor operator," which meant that he operated the cameras on the drone aircraft as part of a three-person team that included a pilot and an intelligence analyst.
In an interview with GQ magazine last October, Bryant offered a vivid description of a targeting operation in Afghanistan he took part in when he was just 21. "This figure runs around the corner, the outside, toward the front of the building. And it looked like a little kid to me. Like a little human person," he said. "There's this giant flash, and all of a sudden there's no person there."
Bryant says he asked the pilot: "Did that look like a child to you?" The message came back from another intelligence analyst: "Per the review, it's a dog."
After six years, Bryant couldn’t take it any more. He saw a therapist who diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder. This was a novel, even shocking development for an airman who had hardly ever come close to a battlefield. Bryant was suitably taken aback and, as a result, began speaking out against the system of killing he had been enmeshed in and what it does both to the killers and those killed. "Combat is combat. Killing is killing. This isn't a video game," he wrote in an angry tirade on Facebook. "How many of you have killed a group of people, watched as their bodies are picked up, watched the funeral, then killed them, too?"
Killing for the CIA
Bryant's campaign against drone war without accountability took on new life in late April when Tonje Hessen Schei, a Norwegian filmmaker, released her film Drone. In it, Bryant reveals that his former colleagues in the Air Force had not just been carrying out drone strikes on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq where the military was involved in open warfare. They were also conducting the strikes in the supposed CIA drone assassination campaigns in Pakistan and Yemen.
This was news. The CIA’s “covert” drone wars in those countries were, it turns out, secretly Air Force operations. "The CIA might be the customer, but the Air Force has always flown it,” Bryant says in the film. “A CIA label is just an excuse to not have to give up any information. That is all it has ever been."
Schei's film also reveals the name of the U.S. Air Force unit that does the CIA killing—the 17th Reconnaissance Squadron at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. "From what I was able to gather, it was pretty much confirmed they were flying missions almost exclusively in Pakistan with the intent to strike," Michael Haas, another drone pilot, told Chris Woods at the Guardian.
Thanks to the film, Bryant made an unusual connection in the world of drone pilots—to the victims of Washington’s drone campaign, previously just so many pixels on a screen to him. Invited to Belgium and Norway to speak at the premieres of Schei's film, he met with Shahzad Akbar, a Pakistani lawyer who runs the Foundation for Fundamental Rights and has been leading a campaign to put a face—quite literally—on the death and destruction CIA drone strikes have caused in his country.
Faces of the Victims of Drone Warfare
Up in the mountains of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in northern Pakistan, a giant image of an orphan girl is now laid out next to the mud houses of the locals. She is nameless, but according to her photographer, Noor Behram, she lost her parents in a drone strike in 2010 in the village of Dande Darpa Khel. Her picture, the size of a soccer playing field, is a product of Akbar's planning with the help of JR, a French street artist, and Clive Stafford-Smith, the founder of Reprieve, a British human rights organization. Their intent: to create images of the victims of Washington’s drone wars that could be seen from the sky. Smaller images have, in fact, been placed on rooftops in Waziristan. Their target audience: drone pilots like Bryant, Haas, and Lopez who, searching for targets to kill, might just see the face of the child of one of their previous victims. (The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which keeps a tally of drone victims in Pakistan, offers a provisional figure of up to 957 civilians, including as many as 202 children, killed between 2004 and the present day.)
For the last five years, Akbar and Smith have worked tirelessly on similar projects. One of their first efforts was to reveal the name of the CIA station chief in Pakistan: Jonathan Banks. In December 2010, they brought a $500 million lawsuit against him in that country, causing him to flee. The next summer they put together a collection of Noor Behram’s photographs of the dead, as well as their relatives and neighbors, that was exhibited in London.
Last year, Akbar even made plans to take the relatives of drone victims to testify before the U.S. Congress. Though he himself was denied entry to the country, he succeeded. Rafiq-ur-Rehman and his two children, nine-year-old Nabila-ur-Rehman and 13-year-old Zubair-ur-Rehman, did speak at a special hearing arranged by Representative Alan Grayson.
Now, with the unexpected support of a small but growing group of former drone pilots, a campaign against “targeted killings” might well take on a new life in the U.S. At least six other drone pilots have already spoken anonymously to Woods, largely confirming what Bryant and Haas have said publicly.
The Strain of Long-Distance War
There is evidence that other drone pilots are also beginning to crack under the pressure of drone war. Two recent studies by the Air Force strongly suggest that Bryant's PTSD diagnosis is no anomaly, that no matter how far you may be from the battlefield, you never quite leave it.
Published in June 2011, the first study by Wayne Chappelle, Joseph Ouma, and Amber Salinas of the School of Aerospace Medicine at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio concluded that nearly half of the drone pilots studied had "high operational stress." A number also had "clinical distress"—that is, anxiety, depression, or stress severe enough to affect them in their personal lives. The study attributed this to long “flying” hours and erratic shifts, but did not compare drone pilots to those in combat aircraft fighting above the battlefield.
A second study by Jean Otto and Bryant Webber of the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center and the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, published in March 2013, compared drone pilots to those performing standard military missions. The level of stress, it found, was almost the same, a surprising conclusion for those who assumed that drone pilots were essentially video gamers.
"Remotely piloted aircraft pilots may stare at the same piece of ground for days," Otto told the New York Times. "They witness the carnage. Manned aircraft pilots don't do that. They get out of there as soon as possible."
Some believe that drone stress is significantly related to a major shortage of pilots for such planes. A Government Accountability Office report released in April tersely notes that "high work demands on RPA [remotely piloted aircraft] pilots limit the time they have available for training and development and negatively affects their work-life balance."
Speaking from the Heavens
There is, however, likely to be far more to it than that. After Bryant came forward, for instance, Heather Linebaugh, a former drone intelligence analyst, broke her silence, too. Writing in the Guardian in late December, she summed up the largely unpublicized failure of Washington’s drones this way: "What the public needs to understand is that the video provided by a drone is not usually clear enough to detect someone carrying a weapon, even on a crystal-clear day with limited cloud and perfect light. The feed is so pixelated, what if it's a shovel, and not a weapon? We always wonder if we killed the right people, if we destroyed an innocent civilian's life all because of a bad image or angle." (And she didn’t even point out that, in the areas being attacked in Pakistan and Yemen, carrying a weapon is commonplace and not necessarily a sign that you are a “terrorist.”)
Linebaugh explained that, under these circumstances, a “mistake” had terrible consequences, and not just for those erroneously targeted, but even for the pilots. "How many women and children have you seen incinerated by a Hellfire missile? How many men have you seen crawl across a field, trying to make it to the nearest compound for help while bleeding out from severed legs?" She added, "When you are exposed to it over and over again it becomes like a small video, embedded in your head, forever on repeat, causing psychological pain and suffering that many people will hopefully never experience."
And don’t count on Linebaugh being the last drone analyst to speak out, either. Whether future Rene Lopezes ever actually look down from the computerized “heavens” and see the picture of that little Pakistani orphan girl, we already know that they will see horrors that are likely to prove hard to absorb.
It is this third face of war, along with those of the “enemy” and innocent victims, which provides the crucial evidence that the drone project, Obama’s remote control campaign, is a failure; that it is not clinical but bloody and riddled with error; that it creates enemies even as it kills others; that it is, above all, no more a video game for those who fly the planes and loose the missiles than it is for those who die in distant lands.
Pratap Chatterjee, a TomDispatch regular, is executive director of CorpWatch and a board member of Amnesty International USA. He is the author of Halliburton’s Army and Iraq, Inc.
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The Unreported Story of How the Haqqani Network Became America's Greatest Enemy
This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.
It was a typical Kabul morning. Malik Ashgar Square was already bumper-to-bumper with Corolla taxis, green police jeeps, honking minivans, and angry motorcyclists. There were boys selling phone cards and men waving wads of cash for exchange, all weaving their way around the vehicles amid exhaust fumes. At the gate of the Lycée Esteqial, one of the country’s most prestigious schools, students were kicking around a soccer ball. At the Ministry of Education, a weathered old Soviet-style building opposite the school, a line of employees spilled out onto the street. I was crossing the square, heading for the ministry, when I saw the suicide attacker.
He had Scandinavian features. Dressed in blue jeans and a white t-shirt, and carrying a large backpack, he began firing indiscriminately at the ministry. From my vantage point, about 50 meters away, I couldn’t quite see his expression, but he did not seem hurried or panicked. I took cover behind a parked taxi. It wasn’t long before the traffic police had fled and the square had emptied of vehicles.
Twenty-eight people, mostly civilians, died in attacks at the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Justice, and elsewhere across the city that day in 2009. Afterward, U.S. authorities implicated the Haqqani Network, a shadowy outfit operating from Pakistan that had pioneered the use of multiple suicide bombers in headline-grabbing urban assaults. Unlike other Taliban groups, the Haqqanis’ approach to mayhem was worldly and sophisticated: they recruited Arabs, Pakistanis, even Europeans, and they were influenced by the latest in radical Islamist thought. Their leader, the septuagenarian warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani, was something like Osama bin Laden and Al Capone rolled into one, as fiercely ideological as he was ruthlessly pragmatic.
And so many years later, his followers are still fighting. Even with the U.S. withdrawing the bulk of its troops this year, up to 10,000 Special Operations forces, CIA paramilitaries, and their proxies will likely stay behind to battle the Haqqanis, the Taliban, and similar outfits in a war that seemingly has no end. With such entrenched enemies, the conflict today has an air of inevitability -- but it could all have gone so differently.
Though it’s now difficult to imagine, by mid-2002 there was no insurgency in Afghanistan: al-Qaeda had fled the country and the Taliban had ceased to exist as a military movement. Jalaluddin Haqqani and other top Taliban figures were reaching out to the other side in an attempt to cut a deal and lay down their arms. Tens of thousands of U.S. forces, however, had arrived on Afghan soil, post-9/11, with one objective: to wage a war on terror.
As I report in my new book, No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes, the U.S. would prosecute that war even though there was no enemy to fight. To understand how America’s battle in Afghanistan went so wrong for so long, a (hidden) history lesson is in order. In those early years after 2001, driven by the idée fixe that the world was rigidly divided into terrorist and non-terrorist camps, Washington allied with Afghan warlords and strongmen. Their enemies became ours, and through faulty intelligence, their feuds became repackaged as “counterterrorism.” The story of Jalaluddin Haqqani, who turned from America’s potential ally into its greatest foe, is the paradigmatic case of how the war on terror created the very enemies it sought to eradicate.
The Campaign to Take Out Haqqani: 2001
Jalaluddin Haqqani stands at about average height, with bushy eyebrows, an aquiline nose, a wide smile, and an expansive beard, which in its full glory swallows half his face. In his native land, the three southeastern Afghan provinces known collectively as Loya Paktia, he is something of a war hero, an anti-Soviet mujahedeen of storied bravery and near mythical endurance. (Once, after being shot, he refused painkillers because he was fasting.) During the waning years of the Cold War, he was beloved by the Americans -- Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson called him “goodness personified” -- and by Osama bin Laden, too. In the 1980s, the U.S. supplied him with funds and weapons in the battle against a Soviet-backed regime in Kabul and the Red Army, while radical Arab groups provided a steady stream of recruits to bolster his formidable Afghan force.
American officials had this history in mind when the second Afghan War began in October 2001. Hoping to convince Haqqani (who had backed the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the post-Soviet years) to defect, they spared his territory in Loya Paktia the intense bombing campaign that they had loosed on much of the rest of the country. The Taliban, for their part, placed him in charge of their entire military force, both sides sensing that his could be the swing vote in the war. Haqqani met with top Taliban figures and Osama bin Laden, only to decamp for Pakistan, where he took part in a flurry of meetings with Pakistanis and U.S.-backed Afghans.
His representatives also began meeting American officials in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, and the United Arab Emirates, and the Americans eventually offered him a deal: surrender to detention, cooperate with the new Afghan military authorities, and after a suitable period, he would be free to go. For Haqqani, one of Loya Paktia’s most respected and popular figures, the prospect of sitting behind bars was unfathomable. Arsala Rahmani, an associate of his, who would go on to serve as a senator in the Afghan government, told me, “He wanted to have an important position in Loya Paktia, but they offered to arrest him. He couldn’t believe it. Can you imagine such an insult?”
Haqqani declined the American offer, but left the door open to future talks. The prevailing ethos in the U.S., though, was that you were either with us or against us. “I personally always believed that Haqqani was someone we could have worked with,” a former U.S. intelligence official told journalist Joby Warrick. “But at the time, no one was looking over the horizon, to where we might be in five years. For the policy folks, it was just ‘screw these little brown people.’”
In early November, the U.S. began bombing Loya Paktia. Two nights later, warplanes attacked Haqqani’s home in the town of Gardez, near the Pakistani border. He was not present, but his brother-in-law and a family servant died in the blast. The next evening, U.S. planes struck a religious school in the village of Mata China, one of many Haqqani had built in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which provided room, board, and education to poor children. Malem Jan, a Haqqani family friend, showed up the next morning. “I had never seen anything like it,” he said. “There were so many bodies. The roof was flattened to the ground. I saw one child who was alive under there, but no one could get him out in time.” Thirty-four people, almost all children, lost their lives.
Haqqani was in his primary residence in the nearby village of Zani Khel, a dusty cluster of mud houses that had once been an anti-Soviet stronghold. “We heard the blast, and then the sound of planes in the sky,” a cousin, who lived next door, told me. “We became very afraid.” Haqqani retreated to the house of Mawlawi Sirajuddin, a village chief. Not long after, the house shook violently from a direct airstrike. Haqqani was grievously wounded but managed to climb out of the rubble and escape. Sirajuddin, though, was not so lucky: his wife Fatima, three grandsons, six granddaughters, and 10 other relatives were killed.
The next morning, Haqqani sent word to his subordinates and former sub-commanders advising them to surrender. The Americans, however, had already found the local ally in Loya Paktia that they’d been looking for, a would-be warlord and supporter of the exiled Afghan king named Pacha Khan Zadran. With a thick uni-brow and handlebar mustache, PKZ (as he came to be known to the Americans) looked something like an Afghan Saddam Hussein. Flamboyant, illiterate, and quick-tempered, he was in many ways the opposite of Haqqani, under whom he had briefly fought during the anti-Soviet jihad. He had arrived in Loya Paktia shortly after the Taliban fled in mid-November and promptly declared himself governor of the three provinces. In no time, he had sealed his ties to the Americans by promising to deliver the man they now wanted most: Jalaluddin Haqqani.
“The last time I saw him,” Malem Jan said, “he was worried and upset. He told me to save myself and leave, because Pacha Khan would not allow us to live.” One early morning in late November, Haqqani slipped across the border into Pakistan. He would never be seen in public again.
An Attempt at Reconciliation Up in Flames: 2001
On December 20, 2001, the American-backed Hamid Karzai was preparing for his inauguration as interim president of Afghanistan. Nearly 100 of Loya Paktia’s leading tribal elders set out that afternoon in a convoy for Kabul to congratulate Karzai and declare their loyalty, a gesture that would go far in legitimizing his rule among the country’s border population. From Pakistan, Haqqani sent family members, close friends, and political allies to participate in the motorcade -- an olive branch to the new government.
About 30 vehicles long, the convoy drove through the desert for hours. Near sunset, it reached a hilltop and was forced to stop: PKZ and hundreds of his armed men were blocking the road. Malek Sardar, an elder from Haqqani’s tribe, approached him. “He was demanding that the elders should accept him as leader of Loya Paktia,” Sardar told me. “He wanted our thumb prints and signatures right then and there.” Sardar promised to return after the inauguration to discuss the matter, but PKZ would not budge, so the convoy backed up and headed off to find a different route to Kabul.
On his satellite phone, Sardar called officials in the Afghan capital and at the U.S. consulate in Peshawar, Pakistan, looking for help, but he was too late. PKZ, who had the ear of key American military figures, had informed them that a “Haqqani-al Qaeda” cavalcade was making its way toward Kabul. Shortly thereafter, amid deafening explosions, cars started bursting into flames. “We could see lights in the sky, fire everywhere. People were screaming and we ran,” Sardar said. The Americans were bombing the convoy. The attacks would continue for hours. As Sardar and others took cover in a pair of nearby villages, planes circled back and struck both locations, destroying nearly 20 homes and killing dozens of inhabitants. In all, 50 people, including many prominent tribal elders, died in the assault.
It was now late December, and in Qale Niazi, a village that had been a Haqqani stronghold in the 1980s, the bombing had frightened elders into taking control of a decades-old weapons dump. “We did not want Pacha Khan to take these weapons and use them,” said elder Fazel Muhammad. “They should belong to the government of Karzai, so we guarded it until they came.”
He was on his way to the village one night for a wedding party when he heard the American planes. A moment later, mud houses ahead of him exploded in a direct hit. A second bomb struck the weapons depot, setting off a series of eruptions. The night sky lit up, illuminating fleeing women and children. “Some helicopters came,” Muhammad said, “and then these people were no more.”
In the morning, Fazel Muhammad went looking for the house of his relatives, where the wedding party had been, but all he found there were pulverized mud bricks, twisted picture frames, deformed pots, a child’s shoe, a scalp with braided hair, and severed human fingers. Later, a tribal commission set up to investigate the massacre determined that PKZ had fed the Americans “intelligence” that Qale Niazi was a Haqqani stronghold. According to a United Nations investigation, 52 people had died: 17 men, 10 women, and 25 children.
Reconciliation and Flames: 2002
In six weeks, America’s campaign to kill Jalaluddin Haqqani had resulted in 159 dead civilians, a flattened village, 37 destroyed homes, a fractured tribal leadership, and the ascendancy of one man, Pacha Khan Zadran, as the most important player in Loya Paktia. Meanwhile, Haqqani and his followers were in hiding in Pakistan, watching the three provinces in which they had enjoyed prestige and riches slip out of their grasp. Life inside Pakistan proved little better. While Haqqani hid in Peshawar, his family had retreated to a suburb of Miram Shah, the capital of the tribal agency of North Waziristan. The Pakistani military was, at that point, working closely with Washington to round up al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects. In December, its troops raided the Miram Shah home, arresting his son Sirajuddin. Weeks later, they stormed the Peshawar hideout, with Haqqani barely escaping.
In the following months, U.S. Special Forces teams staged secret incursions into Pakistan to raid Haqqani homes and seminaries, inciting anger in the local community. “We will never allow anybody to destroy our religious institutions,” said Hajji Salam Wazir, a tribal elder. “I am surprised how the Americans use the Muslims,” he added. “Until yesterday, Haqqani was a hero and freedom fighter for the U.S., and they sent their own military experts to train him. Now he is a terrorist.”
Caught between the threat of Pakistani arrest and American assassination, Haqqani decided to reach out again to the new Afghan government. In March 2002, he dispatched his brother Ibrahim Omari to Afghanistan in a bid to reconcile with Karzai. In a public ceremony attended by hundreds of tribal elders and local dignitaries, Omari pledged allegiance to the new government and issued a call for Haqqani followers to return from Pakistan and work with the authorities. He was then appointed head of Paktia province’s tribal council, an institution meant to link village elders with the Kabul government. Soon, hundreds of Haqqani’s old sub-commanders, who had been hiding in fear of PKZ, came in from the cold.
Malem Jan was one of them. With long, curling eyelashes, daubs of kohl under his eyes, and polished fingernails, he had a taste for dancing, which he often performed solo to the delight of his comrades. He was also an accomplished commander, having fought under Haqqani during the early 1990s against the Communist government. In the spring of 2002, he rounded up his old fighters and soon they were working for the CIA as a paramilitary unit, providing security for American missions in search of al-Qaeda.
“It was a good time,” Malem Jan recalled. “We were working closely together, sharing meals, sharing gossip.” The CIA militias, of which there were a half-dozen in Loya Paktia, would soon enough grow into a 3,000-man shadow army, collectively called Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams, which operates to this day outside of the Afghan government’s jurisdiction and answers only to U.S. forces.
Contacts between Haqqani and the CIA were rekindled, with his brother Omari acting as the intermediary. Plans were made for a meeting between Haqqani himself and Agency representatives. Key to a deal was the assurance that he would be allowed to return to Afghanistan and take part in Loya Paktia politics. The trouble was PKZ, who viewed such maneuverings with jealousy and was still angling to control the three provinces outright. “I must be allowed to take over as governor,” he declared to the Austin American-Statesman. “If it’s not me, it will be someone from al-Qaeda.”
When Karzai appointed a new man to head Paktia province, PKZ made his move, laying siege to the governor’s mansion and killing 25 people. At the same time, he convinced American military officers to clamp down on the Haqqanis. One evening, as Omari was visiting the house of a government official near Kabul, U.S. Special Operations forces showed up -- without the CIA’s knowledge -- and arrested him. That week, similar arrests of Haqqani followers took place across Loya Paktia.
As soon as Malem Jan realized what was happening, he fled to Pakistan, but a number of his subordinates were rounded up and dispatched to the new American prison at Bagram Air Base, a quickly expanding military command center. Swat Khan, his deputy, said that in his initial questioning he was hung by his wrists from the ceiling. Later, he was beaten. Finally, he was shipped to Guantanamo, where, a few years later, he attempted suicide. “It’s all there when I close my eyes,” he told me after his release. “The nightmare never leaves me.”
It took the CIA months to realize that Omari was in an American lockup. When he was finally released, he looked like a different man. It was a cold autumn day, on a hilltop near the town of Khost, when hundreds of tribal elders and government officials came to receive him. There were dignitaries from villages that had been bombed and attacked by American planes and PKZ’s forces, elders who had survived the disastrous convoy, farmers whose sons had been sent to Guantanamo.
“At first I couldn’t even recognize him,” said tribal elder Malek Sardar. “He wouldn’t talk about what they had done to him. It seemed too painful to ask.” Slowly, his voice quivering, Omari addressed the crowd. There was no hope in this government or the Americans, he told them. Some elders shouted insults at Karzai. Others said the Americans were no different from the Russians. Omari swore he would never set foot on Afghan soil again until it was free of “the infidels.” Not long after, he left for Pakistan.
The Haqqani Network: 2004-2014
In the summer of 2004, Malem Jan was sitting with Sirajuddin Haqqani, the second son of Jalaluddin, in their Pakistani base in the North Waziristan town of Miram Shah when they heard their names on the BBC. The Americans were offering $250,000 and $200,000, respectively, as rewards for information leading to their capture. Introverted, religious, and fiercely intelligent, the younger Haqqani was rapidly taking over the reins of his ailing father’s network, and he smiled at the thought of his deputy, Malem Jan, fetching a larger reward than him. “They say he who has the highest bounty on his head is the closest to God,” he joked.
The Haqqanis were now in open war against the Americans. Whereas his father had presided over Loya Paktia with popular support, Sirajuddin ruled from the shadows through fear -- assassinations, kidnappings, extortion, and roadside bombings. Miram Shah had become the world capital of radical jihad, home to al-Qaeda and an assortment of Chechens, Uzbeks, and Europeans fighting under Haqqani’s banner. The ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence service, was now supporting the Haqqanis as way of influencing events inside Afghanistan, even as Islamabad publicly allied with Washington.
By classifying certain groups as terrorists, and then acting upon those classifications, the U.S. had inadvertently brought about the very conditions it had set out to fight. By 2010, the Haqqani network was the deadliest wing of an increasingly violent insurgency that was claiming the lives of countless civilians, as well as American soldiers. It was hard, by then, even to recall that, back in mid-2002, U.S. forces had been without an enemy: the remnants of al-Qaeda had fled to Pakistan, the Taliban had collapsed, and the Haqqanis were attempting to reconcile.
If Pacha Khan Zadran was able to convince his American allies otherwise, it was because of the logic of the war on terror. “Terrorism” was understood not as a set of tactics (hostage taking, assassinations, car bombings), but as something rooted in the identity of its perpetrators, like height or temperament. This meant that, once designated a “terrorist,” Jalaluddin Haqqani could never shake the label, even when he attempted to reconcile. On the other hand, when PKZ eventually broke with the Karzai government and turned his guns on the Americans, he was labeled not a terrorist but a “renegade.” (He eventually fled to Pakistan, was arrested, turned over to the Afghan government, and later was elected to parliament.)
In recent years, the U.S. has waged an intense drone campaign against the Haqqanis in their North Waziristan stronghold. Dozens of their commanders have been killed, including their top military chief, Badruddin Haqqani. Many others have been arrested. Today, the Haqqani network is a shadow of its former self.
The group’s influence, however, lives on. In 2012, I received a phone call from the family of Arsala Rahmani, the Afghan senator with whom I’d become friendly. That morning, a gunman had pulled up alongside Rahmani’s vehicle, idling in a crowded intersection, and shot him point blank. Later, I learned that a former Haqqani-aligned commander named Najibullah was the culprit; he had launched his own faction, Mahaz-e-Fedayeen, whose ruthlessness made the Haqqanis look like amateurs. Now in the crosshairs of U.S. counterterrorism forces, his group is but the latest enemy in a war that never seems to end.
Anand Gopal, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of the just-published No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes (Metropolitan Books). He reported on the Afghan War for the Wall Street Journal and the Christian Science Monitor and is now a fellow of the New America Foundation. You can follow him on twitter @Anand_Gopal.
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