36 – The Most Monstrous Lie of the Twentyfirst Century (19 Sep 2011)

    Following with half an eye the pap pouring forth from the commentariat about how it felt on the day and what it thought since the event “that changed everything”, I was heartened by a reminder from Douglas Lummis (a former US Marine living in Okinawa, and eminent observer of the American-Japanese vassalage relationship) that the anniversary deserving even more attention is tomorrow. It was on September 20th ten years ago that George W. Bush declared perpetual war on large chunks of the world. On that day he told Congress that terrorism would no longer be dealt with as a crime but as something to be confronted with military might. Judging by published mainstream opinion the monstrousness of that announcement has never sunk in. What it comes down to, as Lummis reminds us, is that the United States has granted itself the right to create suspects, murder them, and to invade countries for such a purpose. “And given that no other country, but only the U.S., claims these rights, the result is that in international law, the principle of equality under the law has been destroyed.”
     Bush and Cheney also began something, as Lummis understands well, that because of its nature can never end. The Washington Post, a virtual propaganda instrument for Bush’s administration, has also to my surprise discovered that “A Decade After the 9/11 Attacks, Americans Live in an Era of Endless War.” In the superficial ‘objective’ way that has become that paper’s hallmark, reporter Greg Jaffe writes that “in previous decades, the military and the American public viewed war as an aberration and peace as the norm.” But nowadays, by the logic of what he quotes from the Pentagon’s last major assessment of global security, “America’s wars are unending and any talk of peace is quixotic or naive.”
     In other words, America’s warmaking and the belief that it is necessary have become perfectly normal. As the Washington Post as well as official documents and supposedly ‘liberal’ pundits and professors tell us, we should all simply get used to it.
     I think that those who engage in the tracing of historical continuity in America’s self-aggrandizing and ‘imperialist’ impulses would do well to remind themselves that the American attitude toward war forty years ago was fundamentally different. Hanoi was not one of many ‘rogue’ enemies to be dealt with. The United States was in the 1960s and 1970s not primed for war as it is now. In 1975 supporters of the Vietnam war saw it as an exceptional operation, a terrible one, and agreed with the anti-war activists that nothing like it should be allowed to happen again. In contrast, those at the Pentagon today, including former Secretary Robert Gates, speak of planning and preparing for the wars of tomorrow. None did so in the aftermath of Vietnam.
     From the 20th of September 2001 warmaking became a permanent, normalized feature of American life, and entirely central to politics. When accepting the Nobel Peace Prize Obama spoke of it as if it belonged to America’s international duties.
     Many before me have written that the ‘war on terror’ is a fantasy because it cannot exist. Terrorism cannot roll over as it realizes the inevitability of its own defeat and sit down with you to talk peace. It is a method used by a force that can at best be contained, not defeated. Containment is possible in the way the police deal with crime. A police ‘victory over crime’ is nonsensical; not under the harshest totalitarian conditions has the total eradication of crime ever been achieved. A response to global terrorism that would make sense should be conceived of as a huge international police action, with the use of military facilities if these may contribute to containment. In a ‘war’ on this elusive entity, victory would require nothing short of extermination. Extermination campaigns have been successful against some agents of disease, think of smallpox and polio. But organisms bearing disease can be distinguished from those that are not harmful. We do not have medical laboratories to separate human beings inclined to engage in acts of terrorism from human beings who will never resort to such action.
     An extermination campaign aimed at people who by some human, hence fallible, standard are judged to be potential terrorists would turn all the world into a Guantanamo prison with tortured innocents. Success in a ‘war on terror’ would require divine powers as it would entail altering human nature. Human nature as we know it only produces more terrorism when existing terrorism is fought with methods of colonial control.
     There was of course never an American attempt to eradicate terrorism after 9/11. But that does not alter the calamitous effect of the lie. The ‘war on terror’ may not be taken seriously by the military itself but Iraqis and Afghans who resist the occupation of their countries, and their relations in Pakistan or unrelated dissidents in Yemen and other parts of the Arab world and central Asia are routinely described as terrorists. The fantasy of a war against them continues to be used for justifying budgets, further invasions and other forms of militarist expansionism.
     The war on terrorism fantasy serves to sell America’s current wars, but is not the animating force behind them. Nothing is, besides the self-preservation mechanism of American militarism. Something essential to be understood about the current pathology is logical enough: when things have gone out of control they can no longer serve a clear purpose. That also means that a rethinking of the reasons for their existence is by definition no longer possible. Systems that make gone-out-of-control things run are, as it were, immunized against their re-examination. In all the sadness and anger after 9/11, the world expressed a hope through occasional commentary that the tragedy might lead to a serious rethinking of America’s political purposes. This would have required a powerful political agent outside American politics, which does not exist.
     American militarism did, of course, not come out of nowhere. What transformed the United States into an international force for chaos, had slipped political control long before the transformational president George W. Bush announced his war on terrorism. The American tragedy could be seen as the most momentous illustration of good intentions corrupted by unwarranted fear, and exploited for political gain and huge business profits, leading to the undoing of a great nation. Instead of demobilizing, as had been the American habit after previous wars, Washington, suspicious about Stalin’s motives, kept up its state of military readiness. President Harry Truman’s National Security Act of 1947 was followed by the establishment of military and civilian entities – the CIA, the Joint Chiefs, the National Security Council and, especially, the Pentagon – that could partially operate in secret, and therefore expand their budgets in ways common to organizations not held to public account. Top military officials gained power beyond constitutional provisions, and entire industries were established to refine and add to American firepower. One crucial aspect was the establishment of contractors and subcontractors in most congressional districts, as that linked the preservation of the various parts of the arms industry to the political fortunes of a majority of members of Congress. Defense procurement began to serve over-all American economic demand, and built an important engine underlying American economic prosperity.
     If known military-related costs handled by other departments are added to the Pentagon’s 2011 defense budget of $708 billion, the American military is kept going with more than one trillion dollars – twice as much as what all the other countries in the world combined spend on defense. Unless substitute national industrial projects were created, a cut in defense spending to bring it down to what other countries consider a reasonable level would cripple the Keynesian engine and cause economic collapse. Having reached such a state of existence, you have something on your hands that is predictably out of control.
     The Pentagon runs on a mindset as well as a budget. Those who built it may not have wished for what it became; what emerged just happened as they were swept along by true and imagined crises, by theories of implacable enemies, by the false populism of opportunistic politicians stoking fears, and by the logic of bureaucratic expansionism. Disdainful Americans would sum up the result as the ‘national security state’, something that no president or any of his secretaries of defense could mitigate. Strategic thought and budget priorities in it were determined by what a small group of policy makers believed to be necessary as a deterrent and counterforce to what Ronald Reagan was later to call the ‘Evil Empire’. Some presidents, notably Jimmy Carter, have tried to curtail the power of security state institutions, without making a dent. George W. Bush, on the other hand, used it shamelessly to arrogate unconstitutional powers to his office.
     President Eisenhower understood that the function of unaccountable institutions may gradually change, and wander away from original intentions to the point, even, of undermining the purposes for which these institutions were set up. He saw that they can become cancerous growths as they are corrupted. In his televised farewell speech to the nation he famously warned against the direct threat to American democracy of what in the original draft of his speech he called the ‘military-industrial-congressional-complex’. But no president after him has dared do anything effectively to reverse its trends, and a surfeit of secrecy and internal rivalry has since then turned the Pentagon even more into a Frankensteinian entity. It is trapped on a course set by countless irrevocable past decisions. A number of America’s military officers, retired as well as still serving, have added their testimony to that conclusion. But it will not be touched. It is sacrosanct, and thereby lifted above political control. It serves a higher aim, one that needs no further re-examination as far as the mindset that comes with it is concerned. Hence it is literally out of control.
     But today, ten years after the onset of the ‘war on terror’, this out-of-control militarism cannot be understood with analogies from America’s past; the list of countries invaded, the overthrown governments or the inevitable Vietnam comparison. Equating these with what the United States does today diminishes its horror and undermines a fledgling anti-war movement. I covered the Vietnam war as a reporter in several of its phases, and for all its gruesomeness and warcrimes, I do not believe it can properly be seen as a prelude to America’s current military activities. It began as part of a general containment policy against the Soviet Union. It was justified with lies, yes, but it was fought to stop the conquest of a relatively free Southeast Asian country by a northern neighbor under communist dictatorship linked to Moscow. The South Vietnamese, ethnically only partially related to the Northerners, did not welcome the rule of Hanoi, and the original Viet Cong fighters were betrayed and became victims of the eventual Northern conquest. Whatever stupidity and disdain for human life led Washington to continue this fight, the United States was not the invader.
     While the ‘war on terror’ terminology became politically stale around 2007, it keeps re-appearing. Pointing out its misapplication is either dismissed as nitpicking or as belittling the severity of what was done to the US on 9/11. American voices explaining that the ‘war on terror’ is not part of reality have become weak, with most critics now saying that it is not being fought in the right way.
     Quite how dreadfully damaging this fantasy has been is, I think, not generally understood. It has towered above all significant lies of the early twentyfirst century, having made a plethora of other lies possible. These compound lies have created the freakish forms of official reality Americans have been asked to accept by their government and mainstream media. You may shoot down the concept, as many American commentators have done, demolish it verbally, and yet it remains, ominously, standing. One of the justices on the Supreme Court dissenting on a decision concerning Guantánamo prisoners warned that it would ‘hinder the war on terror’, pundits keep adding phrases like ‘especially in times of war’ to their columns.
    One overlooked aspect of the misnomer is that it has made it much more difficult to be against it, and has proven fatal to an effective anti-war movement. If protest is aimed at the occupation of a foreign nation one may count on the potential support of probably a majority of Americans who remember that such a thing belonged to the habits of Hitler and Stalin but that, after giving up the Philippines, it has absolutely not been part of the American tradition. Ending an occupation is in line with basic American political principles. But once your country fights a war, you can only openly cheer for victory, if you are to avoid the accusation of lacking in patriotism. For what used to be called the ‘free world’, anything other than full public support for ‘victory’ for the United States amounts to alliance disloyalty.
     Domestically the fiction about the United States being at war against terrorists met hardly any opposition when it was first launched. Aside from the deep indignation raised by the assaults, so horrendous that the term ‘crime’ did not express what most Americans felt, the nation had long been used to fighting metaphorical wars – against poverty, against drugs, against crime, against cancer and whatever not. The ‘war on drugs’ also involved guns and death, but in its case the metaphorical and literal meanings could still be mentally separated. With the ‘war on terror’ they blended beyond conceptual rescue.
     What it has served, as a façade, could only happen in a post-Cold-War world, from which the real military rival, and thus an earlier curb on excess, had been removed. Neither America’s general population, almost unimaginably ignorant of the world’s realities, nor its politicians, geared to exploit fear and romantic delusion for electoral purposes at the cost of the common good, were prepared for America’s unchallenged hegemony. Neither its business nor its intellectual class mustered the imagination to see the potential of this unprecedented power and make the best of it for itself and the world. When the Cold War ended in 1989 it appeared for a moment as if an earlier American vision, one of collective security advocated by president Wilson, would have a chance to be realized. But a contributing cause of America’s tragedy is that the Democrats, from whom any initiatives to drive the country in that direction would have had to come, have long been intimidated by the prospect of being portrayed as ‘being soft’ on national enemies.
     The McCarthy anticommunist witch hunt destroyed a generation of ambitious internationalist policy thinkers. Nixon and Reagan exploited popular fears of the unknown outside world, portraying the Democrats as weak in the face of it. And the eight years of George W. Bush have forced Democratic Party candidates to take utterly defensive positions, well illustrated by the manner in which Obama waged his campaign. The accusation of appeasement in the ‘war on terror’ has worked wonders for the rightwing.
     America’s foreign policy exists in a separate class from that of all other countries. After the demise of the Soviet Union it gained a position never before occupied by any country in history. The Roman Empire or Imperial China, the Dutch and the British colonial empires had stretched over only a part of the globe. The reach of the US had in 1989 become unbroken. Its sphere of influence did not have borders, and was only pockmarked by less than a handful of tiny dictatorial preserves which refused to be on amical terms, like North Korea or Burma.
     At the same time, this new condition of being a great power without peer, with political reach spanning the planet, allowed hubris to flourish in ways not seen before. It set free domestic expansionist forces that until then had been curtailed by the existence of an adversary. The United States had no relevant true enemies in 1989, but desperately required them for domestic political and economic purposes, since its security obsession had created institutions that could simply not be done away with as they had gradually begun living lives of their own.
     Losing its great post-World-War-II enemy was thus, inevitably, a traumatic experience for such political figures as Cheney and Rumsfeld, and, indeed, Colin Powell. The then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had in 1991 told the Army Times newspaper: “Think hard about it, I’m running out of demons. I’m running out of villains. I’m down to Castro and Kim Il Sung”. The formula he eventually came up with replaced the one rival superpower with a collection of ‘rogue states’, two of which might want to wage war against the United States simultaneously. Sending enough troops to two rogue belligerents at the same time would require military readiness comparable to that required during the Cold War, so Powell insisted.
     Seen in such a perspective, the September 11 attacks could hardly have come at a better moment. When the ‘rogue states’ were not all that convincing, we suddenly had the essence of rogueness televised and repeated again and again for all the world to see. Theory became vivid reality; a windfall for the Pentagon and Bush’s military-industrial connections. To get around international treaties and conventions regulating warmaking activity, a new political category was created for ‘regimes sheltering terrorists’. In that category ‘rogue states’ with ‘outlaw governments’ took on identifiable contours. And while it had been politically risky for Democrat members of Congress to touch earlier defense spending, the conclusive proof of the existence of ‘rogueness’, made opposition to more of such spending politically impossible. No Democratic Party politician or mainstream commentator dared ridicule Bush as he announced that his defense budget would see the largest increase in two decades: “Because while the price of freedom and security is high, it is never too high”. Before September 20th, the media had rarely investigated where the hundreds of billions of defense dollars went. With the ‘war on terror’ it became a virtually forbidden subject.
     Already, while the real potential threats vanished, American militarism had gradually consolidated. The most important brake on it had been removed by Nixon when he abolished the draft. Before then America’s politicians ran the risk of strong public protest against wars, since middle class families might have to deal sons or neighbors returning in coffins. Enlisted men and women today come for the most part from the poorest layers of American society. For many of them signing up is a last economic option. It offers regular employment, as well as the opportunity to get an education and vocational training. Fighting besides the downtrodden, mercenaries – soldiers for hire – have become well-organized by increasingly powerful corporations. Without this privatization of American warfare, and its economic significance for the poor, today’s American militarism would not be possible. Also, arms merchant lobbyists now play important policy making roles, and high political positions are occupied by former military officers and military-industry related representatives.
     Vietnam was, with daily TV images of battle and death, the last ‘democratic’ war. I was there. From what I read and hear from former colleagues and photographer friends, there is no comparison with journalistic activity in Iraq or Afghanistan. Reporters and photographers are allowed a look at American military action only if they accept a position of being buddies with the soldiers, remaining under their supervision. This has not delivered the kind of journalism that would give the American nation and everyone else in the world a firsthand view of what it is up to in the countries it occupies.
     On top of the out-of-control military, the ‘war on terror’ has brought forth a new ‘Homeland Security’ monster that has rapidly grown into a bureaucratic nightmare whose elements are uninformed about what others do, and whose entirely ineffective and hugely wasteful parts cannot be closed down for that reason. It has been described by Dana Priest and William Arkin in their Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State. This multi-entity, whose isolated parts intercept billions of emails and phone calls, X-ray us at airports, and develop new methods of spying on civilians has attained a bureaucratic might over which no elected or career officials has any grip, since their top security clearance forbid its more than eighthundred thousand employees from talking about what they do. I have just bought a new suitcase, which has a keyhole next to its number lock. Only America’s security agents have keys with which they may look in my absence at what I may be carrying with me if I ever pass through an American airport.
    Over a thousand new agencies operating in strict secrecy, suck up so much money that no one can have a reliable overview of what this apparatus accomplishes besides sowing confusion about genuine threats, and delivering fortune to new types of entrepreneurs in the supposedly ‘private’ sector.
     Meanwhile the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which has ballooned to some 25.000 soldiers operating in the greatest secrecy, carries out assassinations, keeps secret prisons and has been reported to engage in torture.
     While numerous obstacles have since the demise of the Soviet Union hindered the United States in formulating a foreign policy beneficial to itself and the world, the ‘war on terror’ has completely incapacitated the country from doing so. The United States is today not run by a political elite capable of perceiving the world’s realities, and is therefore acting blind, and therefore dangerous. President Obama is surrounded by people who must give the impression that they are thinking things through. But that is not what they do. They are careerists who think of the best next move for themselves. In the background of what they do we may identify an ever larger community of beneficiaries of American warmaking in politics, business, academic life, the media and of course the military. These form a new political elite that has gradually taken the place of an earlier elite based on experience and merit. Their power, prestige and income depend on keeping wars going. Judicious political decision making usually gets in the way of the opportunism aimed at achieving immediate goals.
     Those in the National Security precincts especially breathe intellectually stale air. This includes defense officials who may be conscious of the fatefulness of the things they advocate; but they still dwell in a world of money and promotions. Staffs are trained not to suggest a policy rationale that goes beyond the boundaries of what is understood to be politically kosher, or that contradicts what has already been decided. Think tanks may help give a veneer of professionalism or even ‘science’ to it all, but the thinkers in them almost always conclude and write what they are paid to believe and write. Misguided old metaphors and misapplied historical analogies serve as guideposts in this universe, as they must substitute for realistic assessments when these do not suit preconceived ideas.
     Sad for Americans who have understood the extent of their country’s tragic metamorphosis is that America’s Cold War allies have allowed themselves to be turned into vassals. Their politicians while often personally disgusted or deeply disturbed by America’s undeniably self-destructive conduct dare not raise their voices, let alone create a choir of governments that might have a bit of an impact across the Atlantic. Europe is saddled with political elites that are, in the light of the challenges they face, at best mediocre and at worst simply incompetent. The conclusion that the United States has become unsuited to its earlier leadership role because of domestic political developments is studiously avoided by Europeans and the rest of what used to be called the ‘free world’. The obvious is, in this case, horribly inconvenient at the same time. Reliance on the United States constitutes about as huge a psychological and institutional investment by as large a group of countries in geopolitical history as ever existed as a basis of any preceding hegemonic power.
     It has become easier to accept American warmaking as normal through the manner in which much of its unpleasantness is kept out of the picture. Americans became very tired of negative news from Iraq, so the tactic, which continues under Obama, has been to make it disappear as a problem. The subject has been changed. This is done with success stories about ‘the surge’ and other ‘counterinsurgency’ campaigns. This has been so amazingly successful that many Americans now believe that their country is actually a positive factor for Iraqi and Afghan society. When the bleak side of war becomes the subject, attention is centered on the sacrifice of Americans for a supposed patriotic cause.
     The casualties on the other side for which Americans and a handful of ‘allied’ troops are responsible, are haphazardly recorded, or not at all, and are rarely a subject of conversation. When they enter newspaper commentary, it is amazing to what extent euphemism has become the rule. We see references to “tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed”, while it has become pretty much established that over one million Iraqi lives have been lost as a result, direct and indirect, of the invasion.
     American warmaking has been sterilized. ‘Killer robots’ have made this even easier. Much of the ‘fighting’ in Afghanistan, and especially the Afghan border regions in Pakistan is now carried out by ‘drones’, unmanned remote controlled aircraft, which drop their load of bombs at the click of a switch by a soldier sitting at a control panel some twelve thousand kilometers away. For the soldier on the ground, in Virginia or Florida or wherever, it is hardly different from playing a video game. For the enemy … well robots are not perfect, and they cannot be trained to distinguish between soldiers and civilians (a recent report acknowledged the accidental death through drone attacks of some 160 Pakistani children). This most advanced form of industrial murder is the future of American warmaking, and the future of a warmaking machine out of control.
     The high number of suicides among veterans returned from Iran and Afghanistan has raised significant concern in the United States. The appalling prospect of continuing one’s life with a couple of limbs missing or with irreversible brain damage is obviously a cause. But it is also known from accounts by relatives that some of America’s soldiers cannot cope with the knowledge of having participated in war crimes.
     Douglas Lummis says something profound about the remedy against guilt feelings built into the ‘war on terror’, that I have not seen written anywhere else: “you try to hide from yourself the horror of what you are doing by saying it is those other people who are doing it. Then you kill those other people, hoping that your guilt will die with them, but it does not. Rather, the more you kill, the greater the guilt, and the greater the need for more enemies on which to project it. Thus, no matter from what angle you look at it, the ‘war on terror’, very much like a perpetual motion machine, is so constructed as to go on forever. Surely, from the standpoint of the war industry, this is the Best of All Possible Wars.”
     It has also turned the United States into the world’s biggest threat to global peace. And it is replacing what is left of America’s democracy with a totalist political something that as yet does not have a name.