This week Trump is off to Vietnam to meet with Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea. Revealingly, the bar is already being set very low for what may be accomplished at this meeting. Trump’s original goal was denuclearization, meaning that North Korea would have to give up its nuclear weapons program and remove whatever atomic bombs or warheads it has. But North Korea isn’t stupid. They know what happened to Qaddafi when he got rid of his weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Libya. For North Korea, nuclear WMD is a sort of insurance policy — a rational arsenal to deter the U.S. from launching a regime-change war.
Coming out of the last summit in Singapore between these men, Trump essentially declared “peace in our time,” even though North Korea has yet to make any significant changes in its nuclear weapons program. Again, why should North Korea surrender its weapons?
If Ronald Reagan’s motto was “trust — but verify” with the Soviet Union, Trump’s motto with North Korea is simply “trust.” It’s encouraging that Trump is no longer threatening to bring nuclear fire and fury to the North Koreans, and that Kim Jong-un is no longer approving launches of missiles in the general direction of Hawaii. But is there any treaty being negotiated with substantive details of verification? Do the North Koreans truly have any intent to give up their nuclear weapons? I’d say the answer to both questions is no.
Interestingly, at the request of the Trump administration, the Japanese government has nominated Trump for a Nobel Peace Prize for his attempted rapprochement with North Korea. Perhaps Trump’s peculiar brand of diplomacy may ease tensions with North Korea. Detente may be followed by a negotiated settlement and an end to the rancor produced by the Korean War. Such an ending would indeed be prize-worthy.
Trump’s quixotic efforts seem more vanity project than a well-considered project for peace. Yet perhaps a vain wannabe dictator like Trump has an edge in understanding a vain and very real dictator like Kim Jong-un. Trump, after all, did speak of a special bond he has with Kim, one that’s akin to falling in love. And doesn’t love conquer all?
Trump, sadly, is probably being played by North Korea. But who cares if lives are saved? Facing possible famine, the North Korean people could surely use food and other aid. Let’s hope the U.S. is able to give them some in exchange for promises, however vague, of denuclearization, however defined.
At this point, I’m tired of thinking of countries and national egos. I’d rather think of saving lives. Why not start in North Korea?
This week, a Polish journalist wrote to me about this article and America’s squabbling over statues and monuments. Here is my reply to him. I start by agreeing with his suggestion that statues and monuments are arguably more important today for their sense of permanence in our increasingly digital and ephemeral world:
The past is always with us, isn’t it? And statues are a manifestation, a physical reminder, of that past. They have a sense of permanence that the digital world lacks. So I think you’re right: What makes them memorable, in part, is their very physicality, their sense of permanence, in a world of impermanent tweets and instant selfies.
They also serve as a marker, a reminder, to what we collectively believe is important. But part of what makes history fascinating is that we’re always arguing over its meaning. The USA today is especially disputatious, as politicians like Donald Trump appeal to statues and memorials as a way to rally supporters against changes in American culture. These statues serve as powerful symbols and convenient rallying points. Their public presence is not just a manifestation of memory, but a discourse about or display of democracy and its meanings in America.
And that’s what Americans are grappling with now. Think about Trump’s motto, “Make America Great Again.” Well, “greatness” is allegedly shown in our statues. These were “great” people; that’s why we built statues and monuments to them. In light of Trump’s motto, should we be returning to the times of men like Lee, Jackson, and other Confederate worthies? Is that what greatness means? Or does it have a much different definition, and also one that has shifted over time, as America has itself shifted and changed? If so, should we then be changing our statues in light of these shifts?
To counterbalance the perceived grimness of Maya Lin’s Vietnam wall memorial, more traditional statues depicting soldiers were added near it.
Historical statues and monuments are in the news, but sadly not because Americans have taken a new interest in understanding their history. Statues of men who supported the Confederacy, prominent generals like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, for example, have been appropriated by White supremacists (this is nothing new, actually). Such statues have been defended as “beautiful” by a man, Donald Trump, with little sense of history, even as other Americans have called for these and similar statues to be removed.
Statues, of course, are just that. Inanimate objects. Places for pigeons to poop. It’s we who invest them with meaning. Most people, I think, take little notice of statues and monuments until they become controversial, after which everyone has an opinion.
Most Americans would say we have a military for national defense and security. But our military is not a defensive force. Defense is not its ethos, nor is it how our military is structured. Our military is a power-projection force. It is an offensive force. It is designed to take the fight to the enemy. To strike first, usually justified as “preemptive” or “preventive” action. It’s a military that believes “the best defense is a good offense,” with leaders who believe in “full-spectrum dominance,” i.e. quick and overwhelming victories, enabled by superior technology and firepower, whether on the ground, on the seas, in the air, or even in space or cyberspace.
Thus the “global war on terror” wasn’t a misnomer, or at least the word “global” wasn’t. Consider the article below today at TomDispatch.com by Stephanie Savell. Our military is involved in at least 80 countries in this global war, with no downsizing of the mission evident in the immediate future (perhaps, perhaps, a slow withdrawal from Syria; perhaps, perhaps, a winding down of the Afghan War; meanwhile, we hear rumblings of possible military interventions in Venezuela and Iran).
Here’s a sad reality: U.S. military troops and military contractors/weapons dealers have become America’s chief missionaries, our ambassadors, our diplomats, our aid workers, even our “peace” corps, if by “peace” you mean more weaponry and combat training in the name of greater “stability.”
We’ve become a one-dimensional country. All military all the time. W.J. Astore
Mapping the American War on Terror Now in 80 Countries, It Couldn’t Be More Global
By Stephanie Savell
In September 2001, the Bush administration launched the “Global War on Terror.” Though “global” has long since been dropped from the name, as it turns out, they weren’t kidding.
When I first set out to map all the places in the world where the United States is still fighting terrorism so many years later, I didn’t think it would be that hard to do. This was before the 2017 incident in Niger in which four American soldiers were killed on a counterterror mission and Americans were given an inkling of how far-reaching the war on terrorism might really be. I imagined a map that would highlight Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Syria — the places many Americans automatically think of in association with the war on terror — as well as perhaps a dozen less-noticed countries like the Philippines and Somalia. I had no idea that I was embarking on a research odyssey that would, in its second annual update, map U.S. counterterror missions in 80 countries in 2017 and 2018, or 40% of the nations on this planet (a map first featured in Smithsonian magazine).
As co-director of the Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, I’m all too aware of the costs that accompany such a sprawling overseas presence. Our project’s research shows that, since 2001, the U.S. war on terror has resulted in the loss — conservatively estimated — of almost half a million lives in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan alone. By the end of 2019, we also estimate that Washington’s global war will cost American taxpayers no less than $5.9 trillion already spent and in commitments to caring for veterans of the war throughout their lifetimes.
In general, the American public has largely ignored these post-9/11 wars and their costs. But the vastness of Washington’s counterterror activities suggests, now more than ever, that it’s time to pay attention. Recently, the Trump administration has been talking of withdrawing from Syria and negotiating peace with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Yet, unbeknownst to many Americans, the war on terror reaches far beyond such lands and under Trump is actually ramping up in a number of places. That our counterterror missions are so extensive and their costs so staggeringly high should prompt Americans to demand answers to a few obvious and urgent questions: Is this global war truly making Americans safer? Is it reducing violence against civilians in the U.S. and other places? If, as I believe, the answer to both those questions is no, then isn’t there a more effective way to accomplish such goals?
Combat or “Training” and “Assisting”?
The major obstacle to creating our database, my research team would discover, was that the U.S. government is often so secretive about its war on terror. The Constitution gives Congress the right and responsibility to declare war, offering the citizens of this country, at least in theory, some means of input. And yet, in the name of operational security, the military classifies most information about its counterterror activities abroad.
This is particularly true of missions in which there are American boots on the ground engaging in direct action against militants, a reality, my team and I found, in 14 different countries in the last two years. The list includes Afghanistan and Syria, of course, but also some lesser known and unexpected places like Libya, Tunisia, Somalia, Mali, and Kenya. Officially, many of these are labeled “train, advise, and assist” missions, in which the U.S. military ostensibly works to support local militaries fighting groups that Washington labels terrorist organizations. Unofficially, the line between “assistance” and combat turns out to be, at best, blurry.
Some outstanding investigative journalists have documented the way this shadow war has been playing out, predominantly in Africa. In Niger in October 2017, as journalists subsequently revealed, what was officially a training mission proved to be a “kill or capture” operation directed at a suspected terrorist.
Such missions occur regularly. In Kenya, for instance, American service members are actively hunting the militants of al-Shabaab, a US-designated terrorist group. In Tunisia, there was at least one outright battle between joint U.S.-Tunisian forces and al-Qaeda militants. Indeed, two U.S. service members were later awarded medals of valor for their actions there, a clue that led journalists to discover that there had been a battle in the first place.
In yet other African countries, U.S. Special Operations forces have planned and controlled missions, operating in “cooperation with” — but actually in charge of — their African counterparts. In creating our database, we erred on the side of caution, only documenting combat in countries where we had at least two credible sources of proof, and checking in with experts and journalists who could provide us with additional information. In other words, American troops have undoubtedly been engaged in combat in even more places than we’ve been able to document.
Another striking finding in our research was just how many countries there were — 65 in all — in which the U.S. “trains” and/or “assists” local security forces in counterterrorism. While the military does much of this training, the State Department is also surprisingly heavily involved, funding and training police, military, and border patrol agents in many countries. It also donates equipment, including vehicle X-ray detection machines and contraband inspection kits. In addition, it develops programs it labels “Countering Violent Extremism,” which represent a soft-power approach, focusing on public education and other tools to “counter terrorist safe havens and recruitment.”
Such training and assistance occurs across the Middle East and Africa, as well as in some places in Asia and Latin America. American “law enforcement entities” trained security forces in Brazil to monitor terrorist threats in advance of the 2016 Summer Olympics, for example (and continued the partnership in 2017). Similarly, U.S. border patrol agents worked with their counterparts in Argentina to crack down on suspected money laundering by terrorist groups in the illicit marketplaces of the tri-border region that lies between Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay.
To many Americans, all of this may sound relatively innocuous — like little more than generous, neighborly help with policing or a sensibly self-interested fighting-them-over-there-before-they-get-here set of policies. But shouldn’t we know better after all these years of hearing such claims in places like Iraq and Afghanistan where the results were anything but harmless or effective?
Such training has often fed into, or been used for, the grimmest of purposes in the many countries involved. In Nigeria, for instance, the U.S. military continues to work closely with local security forces which have used torture and committed extrajudicial killings, as well as engaging in sexual exploitation and abuse. In the Philippines, it has conducted large-scale joint military exercises in cooperation with President Rodrigo Duterte’s military, even as the police at his command continue to inflict horrific violence on that country’s citizenry.
The government of Djibouti, which for years has hosted the largest U.S. military base in Africa, Camp Lemonnier, also uses its anti-terrorism laws to prosecute internal dissidents. The State Department has not attempted to hide the way its own training programs have fed into a larger kind of repression in that country (and others). According to its 2017 Country Reports on Terrorism, a document that annually provides Congress with an overview of terrorism and anti-terror cooperation with the United States in a designated set of countries, in Djibouti, “the government continued to use counterterrorism legislation to suppress criticism by detaining and prosecuting opposition figures and other activists.”
In that country and many other allied nations, Washington’s terror-training programs feed into or reinforce human-rights abuses by local forces as authoritarian governments adopt “anti-terrorism” as the latest excuse for repressive practices of all sorts.
A Vast Military Footprint
As we were trying to document those 65 training-and-assistance locations of the U.S. military, the State Department reports proved an important source of information, even if they were often ambiguous about what was really going on. They regularly relied on loose terms like “security forces,” while failing to directly address the role played by our military in each of those countries.
Sometimes, as I read them and tried to figure out what was happening in distant lands, I had a nagging feeling that what the American military was doing, rather than coming into focus, was eternally receding from view. In the end, we felt certain in identifying those 14 countries in which American military personnel have seen combat in the war on terror in 2017-2018. We also found it relatively easy to document the seven countries in which, in the last two years, the U.S. has launched drone or other air strikes against what the government labels terrorist targets (but which regularly kill civilians as well): Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. These were the highest-intensity elements of that U.S. global war. However, this still represented a relatively small portion of the 80 countries we ended up including on our map.
In part, that was because I realized that the U.S. military tends to advertise — or at least not hide — many of the military exercises it directs or takes part in abroad. After all, these are intended to display the country’s global military might, deter enemies (in this case, terrorists), and bolster alliances with strategically chosen allies. Such exercises, which we documented as being explicitly focused on counterterrorism in 26 countries, along with lands which host American bases or smaller military outposts also involved in anti-terrorist activities, provide a sense of the armed forces’ behemoth footprint in the war on terror.
Although there are more than 800 American military bases around the world, we included in our map only those 40 countries in which such bases are directly involved in the counterterror war, including Germany and other European nations that are important staging areas for American operations in the Middle East and Africa.
To sum up: our completed map indicates that, in 2017 and 2018, seven countries were targeted by U.S. air strikes; double that number were sites where American military personnel engaged directly in ground combat; 26 countries were locations for joint military exercises; 40 hosted bases involved in the war on terror; and in 65, local military and security forces received counterterrorism-oriented “training and assistance.”
A Better Grand Plan
How often in the last 17 years has Congress or the American public debated the expansion of the war on terror to such a staggering range of places? The answer is: seldom indeed.
After so many years of silence and inactivity here at home, recent media and congressional attention to American wars in Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen represents a new trend. Members of Congress have finally begun calling for discussion of parts of the war on terror. Last Wednesday, for instance, the House of Representatives voted to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, and the Senate has passed legislation requiring Congress to vote on the same issue sometime in the coming months.
On February 6th, the House Armed Services Committee finally held a hearing on the Pentagon’s “counterterrorism approach” — a subject Congress as a whole has notdebated since, several days after the 9/11 attacks, it passed the Authorization for the Use of Military Force that Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and now Donald Trump have all used to wage the ongoing global war. Congress has not debated or voted on the sprawling expansion of that effort in all the years since. And judging from the befuddled reactions of several members of Congress to the deaths of those four soldiers in Niger in 2017, most of them were (and many probably still are) largely ignorant of how far the global war they’ve seldom bothered to discuss now reaches.
With potential shifts afoot in Trump administration policy on Syria and Afghanistan, isn’t it finally time to assess in the broadest possible way the necessity and efficacy of extending the war on terror to so many different places? Research has shown that using war to address terror tactics is a fruitless approach. Quite the opposite of achieving this country’s goals, from Libya to Syria, Niger to Afghanistan, the U.S. military presence abroad has often only fueled intense resentment of America. It has helped to both spread terror movements and provide yet more recruits to extremist Islamist groups, which have multiplied substantially since 9/11.
In the name of the war on terror in countries like Somalia, diplomatic activities, aid, and support for human rights have dwindled in favor of an ever more militarized American stance. Yet research shows that, in the long term, it is far more effective and sustainable to address the underlying grievances that fuel terrorist violence than to answer them on the battlefield.
All told, it should be clear that another kind of grand plan is needed to deal with the threat of terrorism both globally and to Americans — one that relies on a far smaller U.S. military footprint and costs far less blood and treasure. It’s also high time to put this threat in context and acknowledge that other developments, like climate change, may pose a far greater danger to our country.
“It’s complicated” is one description of race relations in America. The current controversy in Virginia involving Governor Ralph Northam is an example of this. As a college student, Northam claims he donned blackface as an homage to Michael Jackson, even as Jackson, tragically, was beginning to alter his own physical appearance via painful surgical procedures, apparently to appear more “white.”
Why do white people don blackface? When they do, is it always racist? Take the case of Prince Harry, who as a young man wore a Nazi Swastika to a costume party. Most people assumed he was simply trying to shock, and that he’d made a poor choice, not that he was a neo-Nazi bent on reviving the Third Reich. In Northam’s yearbook page from 35 years ago, were the young men donning blackface and wearing KKK hoods simply (and dumbly) trying to shock? Were they engaged in transgressive behavior to elicit groans as well as laughs? Or were they white supremacists and racists, actualizing white privilege, privilege that is always present, even when not acknowledged, in American culture and society?
When you combine images of whites in blackface with other whites in KKK hoods, the message is clear. Racial oppression, a murderous record, is being referenced, in a way that trivializes past horrors. Governor Northam claims he didn’t appear in the blackface/KKK photo shown on his yearbook page, but he also apparently never complained about it nor did he express regret after the fact.
What are we to make of all this? My friend M. Davout, who teaches political science in the American South, asks us to think about the wider historical context of blackface performers in the United States, including its role in the assimilation of immigrant groups into a racialized American identity. W.J. Astore
Blackface and White Nationalism
What a Virginia Governor’s Problem Reveals about American Identity
The controversy surrounding Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook photo displaying a person in blackface alongside a person in a KKK hood and a college yearbook entry referring to him as “coonman” has been mostly reduced to the question whether decades-old racist expressions disqualify him from continuing to occupy his current office. To the extent the issue remains framed in this narrow way, an opportunity is missed to understand the nature and durability of racist expression in U.S. society. By uncritically accepting the conventional association of blackface with racist animus, we overlook how racist hostility is twinned with racial attraction in the very definition of what it means to be an American.
In his thought-provoking work, Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot, the late Berkeley political theorist Michael Rogin raised a central question: What accounts for the long and pervasive career of blackface in American entertainment? Consider the minstrel shows of the Jacksonian era, the Tin Pan Alley songs and vaudeville skits of the late 19th century, followed by the silent film era that featured DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) through the introduction of synchronized sound in Hollywood movies starting with The Jazz Singer (1927).
Rogin’s key to answering that question is his recognition of the important role of outsider groups such as the Irish Catholics of the mid-19th century and immigrant Jews of the late-19th and early-20th centuries as purveyors and consumers of blackface entertainment.
Singling out the vaudeville performer Al Jolson’s role as Jack Robin in The Jazz Singer as the immigrant son (“Jackie Rabinowitz”) who transcends his Jewish roots to become an American success story via blackface performance (his blacked-up rendition of “My Mammy!” to an audience, including his adoring mother, concludes the film), Rogin suggests how blackface entertainment performed the American dream of upward mobility by making immigrant ambition acceptable to nativists.
It was not unusual for past blackface entertainers to see their performances as manifesting a sympathetic bond with African-Americans—after all, Jewish immigrants from Russia knew what it meant to be treated as pariahs and were arguably as much a target of the newly resurgent 1920s KKK as were African-Americans. In this regard, Northam’s admission, in one of his earliest public responses to the controversy, that he dressed up in blackface as Michael Jackson for a medical school dancing contest may have been an effort, however ineffective, to evoke cross-racial sympathy and distance himself from blackface images more transparently driven by racist aversion as was arguably the case in the medical school yearbook photo (which Northam now claims is not of himself).
Of course, both then and now, however much the performer sympathizes with the group he is masquerading as, the effect of blackface performance is to help win acceptance for the performer (and his group) at the cost of keeping African-Americans at the bottom, unassimilable.
Irish and Jewish blackface performers signaled the transformation of despised and racialized European immigrant groups into true (i.e., white) Americans. In arguing that Al Jolson’s character “washes himself white by painting himself black,” Rogin points to how “whiteness” was (and, to an extent, remains) a powerful component of what it means to be an American.
Maybe “white nationalism” is not a fringe idea, after all, but a central part of what it means to be American and explains a significant part of Donald Trump’s appeal to his white working-class base: he refuses to hide or repress or ignore the racialized origins of American identity.
M. Davout, a professor of political science, teaches in the American South.
As a young captain in the Air Force, I visited Los Alamos National Lab in 1992. The mood there was grim. What use for a lab that develops and tests nuclear weapons when the Cold War with the Soviet Union was over and America was downsizing its nuclear forces? The people I talked to said the lab would have to reinvent itself; its nuclear physicists and engineers would have to adapt. Perhaps they might move to more commercial applications of technology. Better that than closing down the lab, they said.
Who knew that, 25+ years later, nuclear weapons would make their own “surge” and that the U.S. would plan to “invest” more than a trillion dollars in nuclear modernization, beginning with smaller, more “usable,” low-yield nuclear warheads for the Navy’s Trident missiles, as James Carroll wrote about yesterday at TomDispatch.com. Even “small” warheads have genocidal implications, however, for once you start launching nuclear-tipped missiles, no matter how “small,” escalation is likely to follow.
That sunny day in New Mexico in 1992, I could not have imagined a new American surge in nuclear weapons, beginning with the Obama administration and now championed by men like Donald Trump, Mike Pompeo, and John Bolton. That day, it seemed the end of the era of MAD — mutually assured destruction — the end to fears of nuclear war. Soon even conservatives like Henry Kissinger and George Schultz were calling for the elimination of nuclear weapons.
But that was 2007-08, and this is now. The madness is back, America. I urge you to read and heed James Carroll’s warning at TomDispatch.com. If we want to save ourselves as well as our planet’s biosphere, we need to eliminate nuclear weapons, not build more of them.
Three news items caught my eye, courtesy of FP: Foreign Policy. The first involves the U.S. Navy, which has “inked a $14.9 billion contract for two Ford-class aircraft carriers, according to Defense News. The service claims the purchase of two carriers at once will save $4 billion.”
All credit to the Navy: As the Trump administration throws money at the Pentagon, to the tune of $750 billion next year, the Navy is moving at flank speed to order two new aircraft carriers of the Ford class. The problem is that first Ford-class carrier, which has been a $13 billion disaster: three years behind schedule, billions over budget, with catapults that don’t work, among other serious problems. But no matter. Let’s build another two of these mammoth ships while “saving” $4 billion in the process.
Three Ford-class carriers will cost at least $43 billion (despite the $4 billion “savings”), but you hear few dissenting voices in Congress. Anchors Aweigh, my boys!
The Navy says it needs at least twelve large carriers to perform its mission, but no rival navy has more than one. Carriers are all about imperial power projection across the globe; does the USA really need more of this for national “defense”?
The second news item comes from America’s endless Afghan war, in which the USA continues to throw billions of dollars at Afghan government security forces despite the always-disappointing results, as documented by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR):
“The size of Afghanistan’s armed forces is shrinking even as its military faces a sustained challenge from Taliban insurgents. The [SIGAR] report finds that ‘the [Afghan] army and police are at a combined total of just over 308,000, down from 312,000 a year earlier and nearly 316,000 in 2016,’ the AP reports. ‘The cost of arming, training, paying and sustaining those forces falls largely to the U.S. government at more than $4 billion a year.’”
To compensate for the poor performance of Afghan government security forces, the U.S. “has stepped up airstrikes and special operations raids in the country to the highest levels since 2014 in what Defense Department officials described as a coordinated series of attacks on Taliban leaders and fighters. The surge, which began during the fall, is intended to give American negotiators leverage in ongoing peace talks with the Taliban, The New York Timesreports.”
Just what we need: another American “surge” in Afghanistan. This time, it’s not to win the war; it’s all about gaining “leverage” in ongoing peace talks with the Taliban. This calls to mind all the bombing the Nixon administration did during its peace talks with North Vietnam in the early 1970s, also in the name of “leverage.” Look at how well that worked out.
Finally, the third item mentions America’s ongoing and undeclared drone war in Somalia. Citing a Nation report, FP: Foreign Policy notes that
“Since Donald Trump took office, the U.S. military has approximately tripled the number of strikes that it conducts each year in Somalia, according to figures confirmed by the Pentagon, while such actions—and the reasons behind them—have become increasingly opaque.”
“An investigation by the magazine ‘identified strikes that went unreported until they were raised with AFRICOM, but also others that AFRICOM could not confirm—which suggests that another US agency may also be launching air attacks in the region. The investigation also tracked down evidence that AFRICOM’s claim of zero civilian casualties is almost certainly incorrect. And it found that the United States lacks a clear definition of terrorist, with neither AFRICOM, the Pentagon, nor the National Security Council willing to clarify the policies that underpin these strikes.’”
In other words, a war is being waged with no accountability to the American people. One has to admire the chutzpah of the Pentagon, however, in declaring these drone attacks have only killed “terrorists,” even if that term hasn’t even been defined clearly.
Well, there you have it: Overpriced ships that enable imperialism, overpriced foreign militaries that require more U.S. bombing and special ops raids as a prop “for peace,” and finally a wider, undeclared, war in Africa. Just another manic Monday in Empire America.
When do humans count in drone warfare, and when do they not?
I thought of this question as I read Christopher Fuller’s “See It/Shoot It: The Secret History of the CIA’s Lethal Drone Program.” Revealingly, U.S. pilots and crews who operate these drones, such as Predators and Reapers, reject the terminology of “drones” and UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) or UAS (unmanned aerial system). They prefer the term RPA, or remotely piloted aircraft. They want to be known as the essential humans in the loop, they want to stand out, they want to count for something, and in fact the Department of Defense at various times has suggested a new “drone medal” to recognize their service.
Whereas American pilots want to stand up and be recognized as the pilots of their “remote aircraft,” the Pentagon doesn’t want to think about the targets of these drones as human beings. Civilian casualties are grouped and shrouded under the term “collateral damage,” a nasty euphemism that combines a banking term (collateral) with the concept of damage that hints at reversibility and repair. But collateral damage really means innocents blown up and blasted by missiles. Shouldn’t these humans count?
Another term that Fuller discusses is “neutralization.” The U.S. counterterrorism goal is to “neutralize” opponents, meaning, as Fuller notes, “killing, rendition, and imprisonment.” Again, with a word like neutralization, we’re not encouraged to think of those being attacked as humans. We’re just “neutralizing” a threat, right? A terrorist, not a fellow human being. Right?
Interestingly, the whole idea of terrorism is something they do, not us. Why? Because the U.S. defines terrorism as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.” Note that word: subnational. By this definition, nations do not commit terrorism, which is handy for the U.S., which presents its drone attacks as defensive or proactive or preemptive.
Finally, the Pentagon and the CIA are at pains to assert they take the utmost care in reducing “collateral damage” in their “neutralization” efforts. Yet as Fuller notes in his book (page 214), “the U.S. government did not always know the identity or affiliations of those killed in its drone strikes.”
So who counts, and who doesn’t? Whose humanity is to be celebrated (pilots of RPAs?), and whose humanity (innocent victims) is to be suppressed?
Addendum: On how the U.S. seriously undercounts civilian deaths in its air strikes, see this article.