Over the past several days, Russia and Israel have lost fighter jets over Syria. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to those countries. When jets attack people on the ground, those people tend to fire back (if they have weapons at hand), and sometimes they even hit their targets.
What is interesting is the Russian and Israeli reaction, which was in essence identical: immediate escalation. More air attacks. More bombs. All justified as “reprisal” raids that are couched in terms of self-defense.
The mentality goes something like this: How dare you little people on the ground have the temerity to fire back at us and actually hit our planes? For that you must be punished with more air attacks and more bombs until you stop firing at and hitting our planes.
I think this reaction is linked to the imagery of jet aircraft as a symbol of technological superiority, a marker of power, potency, and prowess. Losing a jet over Syrian lands isn’t just seen as a mundane loss of military equipment in combat: it’s seen as a loss of potency by the attacker. This “loss” necessitates a bigger show of force so as to punish the enemy while regaining that sense of inviolate power from the skies that advanced countries like Russia, Israel, and the USA believe they are entitled to, simply by being “advanced” countries, as measured by military hardware like sophisticated jets.
Air power is a tricky thing. Students of the American involvement in the Vietnam War may recall that in 1965 U.S. Marine units were initially sent in to guard air bases from attack. Of course, their mission quickly escalated from static defense to “active” defense to “taking the fight to the enemy,” i.e. full-scale, offensive, military operations.
Today, U.S. ground troops are similarly involved in places like the Middle East and Africa, helping to establish and protect air and drone bases. Yet, as history teaches us, those missions often expand quickly to aggressive military operations on the ground, often in the name of “securing” those very air bases. Air attacks may lead to ground operations, which lead to more air attacks in support of the ground ops, which lead to air planes being shot down and then reprisal attacks …
Air power, as I’ve written before, is neither cheap nor surgical nor decisive. It also often creates its own escalatory dynamic, which is what we’re witnessing now in the skies over Syria. Israeli jets, Russian jets, American jets, all attempting through force to alter the facts on the ground, but all instead creating conditions that are likely to generate more violence, more instability, and more war.
The term “collateral damage” is a terrifying euphemism. The U.S. military didn’t invent it, but it sure has embraced it. The dictionary definition is “unintended civilian casualties or damage in a war,” which is about as anodyne a description as one could imagine.
In common usage, “collateral” is something we put up to secure a loan, so it often has a positive meaning. (No worries: I have lots of collateral.) “Damage” is a neutral-sounding word: the book was damaged in shipping. Storm damage. And we also speak of “damages” when we sue someone. In sum, “collateral” and “damage” are impersonal and imprecise words.
Let’s think personally and precisely. What is “collateral damage” in the “war on terror”? Bodies blown to bits. Blood everywhere. Skin burnt and melted by Willy Peter (White Phosphorous). Eviscerated children. Rotting corpses.
The military has a colorful saying: “Don’t piss on my leg and tell me it’s raining.” Maybe we need a new saying: “Don’t murder my child and tell me it’s collateral damage.”
In his latest mini-essay introduction at TomDispatch.com, Tom Engelhardt notes how “collateral damage” has become a central and defining reality of America’s endless war on terror. The main article (Burning Raqqa) by Laura Gottesdiener details U.S.-led air strikes in Syria that go horribly wrong:
By the beginning of May, the Abdos’ neighborhood was under almost daily bombardment by the U.S.-led coalition forces. On May 3rd, coalition warplanes reportedly launched up to 30 airstrikes across Tabqa’s first, second, and third neighborhoods, striking homes and a fruit market and reportedly killing at least six civilians. The following night, another round of coalition airstrikes battered the first and third neighborhoods, reportedly killing at least seven civilians, including women and children. Separate airstrikes that same night near the city’s center reportedly killed another six to 12 civilians.
On May 7th, multiple bombs reportedly dropped by the U.S.-led coalition struck the building where Muhammed and Salam had taken shelter, killing them and their 12-year-old grandson. Three days later, the Syrian Democratic Forces announced that they had fully seized control of Tabqa and the dam. The militia and its U.S. advisers quickly set their sights east to the upcoming offensive in Raqqa.
But for the Abdo family, the tragedy continued. Muhammed and Salam’s bodies were buried beneath the collapsed apartment building. It took 15 days before Wassim’s brother Rashid could secure the heavy machinery required to extract them.
“Nobody could approach the corpses because of the disfigurement that had occurred and the smell emanating from them as a result of being left under the rubble for such a long period of time in the hot weather,” Wassim told me in a recent interview.
That same day their bodies were finally recovered. On May 23rd, his parents and nephew were buried in the Tabqa cemetery.
Specifics such as these are generally not reported by the U.S. military or in the U.S. media. Instead, we get headlines about militants or terrorists being killed, along with snippets about collateral damage, “regrettable” but framed as unavoidable.
Tell that to the families of the dead.
George Orwell famously noted the political uses of language and the insidiousness of euphemisms. As I wrote a year ago, words about war matter. Dishonest words contribute to dishonest wars. They lead to death, dismemberment, and devastation. That’s not “collateral” — that’s a defining and terrifying reality.
As the end of Trump’s first 100 days in office approaches, we can already see the novice commander-in-chief’s approach to military action. The approach is to empower “his” generals. And the results? A triumph of image over substance. “Spin it to win it” is the byword for Trump’s military “strategy.”
A few examples:
The disastrous raid on Yemen that led to the death of a Navy SEAL as well as many civilians, including children, was spun by the Trump administration as a great success. At the same time, Trump pinned the death of the SEAL on his generals, saying “they” lost him.
The launch of 59 expensive cruise missiles against a Syrian airfield did little to change the actions of the Assad government. Nor did it knockout the airfield. Yet it was spun by Trump as a remarkable victory. In his words, “We’ve just fired 59 missiles, all of which hit, by the way, unbelievable, from, you know, hundreds of miles away, all of which hit, amazing. It’s so incredible. It’s brilliant. It’s genius. Our technology, our equipment, is better than anybody by a factor of five. I mean look, we have, in terms of technology, nobody can even come close to competing.”
The use of the “mother of all bombs” (MOAB) in Afghanistan was seized upon by Trump as an example of his toughness and decisiveness vis-à-vis the Obama administration’s use of force. Yet Trump didn’t even know about the bomb until after it was used. Nevertheless, he boasted “If you look at what’s happened over the last eight weeks [of my administration] and compare that really to what’s happened over the past eight years, you’ll see there’s a tremendous difference, tremendous difference.” Dropping MOAB, Trump claimed on scant evidence, “was another very, very successful mission.”
The Trump administration lost track of an aircraft carrier battle group, saying it was on its way as a show of force against North Korea even as it was headed in the opposite direction. This blunder was chalked up to a miscommunication between the White House and Pentagon, even as allies such as South Korea and Japan expressed concern about the credibility of U.S. support at a time of rising tensions.
As Tom Engelhardt notes in his latest must-read piece at TomDispatch.com:
President Trump did one thing decisively. He empowered a set of generals or retired generals — James “Mad Dog” Mattis as secretary of defense, H.R. McMaster as national security adviser, and John Kelly as secretary of homeland security — men already deeply implicated in America’s failing wars across the Greater Middle East. Not being a details guy himself, he’s then left them to do their damnedest. “What I do is I authorize my military,” he told reporters recently. “We have given them total authorization and that’s what they’re doing and, frankly, that’s why they’ve been so successful lately.”
Have the generals really been “so successful lately,” President Trump? The facts suggest otherwise. Meanwhile, Trump has not yet learned that generals always want more – they believe they can win if they just get more troops, more money, more weaponry. They’ll support Trump as long as he keeps funneling more of everything their way – and as long as he keeps spinning their blunders and missteps as victories.
For the moment, Trump’s generals may love him for his “spin it to win it” boosterism and his blank checks of support. But beware, men wearing stars. Trump has already shown he prefers to delegate responsibility as well as authority when things go bad (recall the failed raid on Yemen and the dead SEAL).
Trump may not be a micro-manager, but that’s because he doesn’t know anything. He just wants to spin military action as a win – for Trump. If the generals keep losing, Trump will turn on them. The question is, will they turn on him?
More disturbing still: When failed military actions are spun as alt-fact “victories,” the violence isn’t done simply to facts: it’s done to innocent people around the world. It’s no game when innocent children die in the false name of “winning.”
How about a contrary perspective on the Middle East, courtesy of my old globe? It dates from the early 1920s, just after World War I but before Russia became the Soviet Union. Taking a close look at the Middle East (a geographic term that I use loosely), you’ll notice more than a few differences from today’s maps and globes:
Iraq and Syria don’t exist. Neither does Israel. Today’s Iran is yesterday’s Persia, of course.
Instead of Iraq and Syria, we have Mesopotamia, a name that resonates history, part of the Fertile Crescent that encompassed the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers as well as the Nile in Egypt. Six thousand years ago, the cradle of human civilization, and now more often the scene of devastation caused mainly by endless war.
Ah, Kurdistan! The Kurds today in northern Iraq and southern Turkey would love to have their own homeland. Naturally, the Arabs and Turks, along with the Persians, feel differently.
Look closely and you’ll see “Br. Mand.” and “Fr. Mand.” With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire (roughly a larger version of modern-day Turkey) at the end of World War I, the British gained a mandate over Palestine and Mesopotamia and the French gained one over territory that would become Lebanon and Syria. The British made conflicting promises to Jews and Arabs over who would control Palestine while scheming to protect their own control over the Suez Canal. A large portion of Palestine, of course, was given to Jews after the Holocaust of World War II, marking the creation of Israel and setting off several Arab-Israeli Wars(1948-73) and the ongoing low-level war between Israel and the Palestinians, most bitterly over the status of the “Occupied Territories”: land captured by the Israelis during these wars, i.e. the West Bank (of the Jordan River) and the Gaza Strip (both not labeled on my outdated globe).
Improvisation marked the creation of states such as Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. Borders encapsulated diverse peoples with differing goals. Western powers like Britain and France cared little for tribal allegiances or Sunni/Shia sensitivities or political leanings, favoring autocratic rulers who could keep the diverse peoples who lived there in line.
Historically powerful peoples with long memories border the Middle East. The Turks and the Persians (Iranians), of course, with Russians hovering in the near distance. They all remain players with conflicting goals in the latest civil war in Syria and the struggle against ISIS/ISIL.
Three of the world’s “great” religions originated from a relatively tiny area of our globe: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Talk about a fertile crescent! Sadly, close proximity and shared roots did not foster tolerance: quite the reverse.
Remember when Saudi Arabia was just Arabia? Ah, those were the good old days, Lawrence.
Nobody talks much about Jordan, an oasis of relative calm in the area (not shown on my old globe). Lucky Jordan.
The presence of Armenia in Turkey on my old globe raises all kinds of historical ghosts, to include the Armenian genocide of World War I. Today, Turkey continues to deny that the word “genocide” is appropriate to the mass death of Armenians during World War I.
My fellow Americans, one statement: The idea that America “must lead” in this area of the world speaks to our hubris and ignorance. We are obviously not seen as impartial. Our “leadership” is mainly expressed by violent military action.
But we just can’t help ourselves. The idea of “global reach, global power” is too intoxicating. We see the globe as ours to spin. Ours to control.
Perhaps old globes can teach us the transitory nature of power. After all, those British and French mandates are gone. European powers, however grudgingly, learned to retrench. (Of course, the British and French, together with the Germans, are now bombing and blasting old mandates in the name of combating terrorism.)
I wonder how a globe made in 2115 will depict this area of the world. Will it look like today’s globe, or more like my globe from c.1920, or something entirely different? Will it show a new regional empire or more fragmentation? An empire based on Islam or a shattered and blasted infertile crescent ravaged by war and an inhospitable climate driven by global warming?
My wife and I watched the president’s speech last night. Overall, it was a solid, even praiseworthy, performance. First, we had to get past the NBC pre-speech fear-mongering. Lester Holt and Chuck Todd, the NBC commentators, were talking about how afraid Americans were, hinting that we all feared our holiday parties would be invaded by active shooters bent on murder. My wife and I looked at each other. Are you fearful, honey? Neither am I.
President Obama himself made many good points. Yes, we shouldn’t vilify Muslim-Americans or condemn all of Islam. Yes, we shouldn’t commit major ground forces to the Middle East to chase ISIL terrorists. Yes, we need sane gun control measures in the USA. Nobody needs an AK-47 or AR-15 (these are not hunting guns: they are military assault rifles designed to kill people). And nobody needs the right to buy a gun if they’re on a “no fly” list as a possible terror threat.
These were “common sense” points, and it pains me to think the president has to belabor what should be obvious. But he does. Because the National Rifle Association wants no restrictions on gun ownership, and the radical right does want to vilify Muslims, commit large numbers of U.S. ground troops to the Middle East, and extend a regimen of militarized surveillance and security at home that will make us even less safe.
Where President Obama consistently disappoints is what he leaves unsaid. That the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq essentially created ISIL; and that his policy of overthrowing the Syrian government by arming indigenous Arab forces contributed to it (according to Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, formerly head of the Defense Intelligence Agency). That his strategy of drone assassination (so-called signature strikes that are often based on faulty intelligence) is creating more terrorists than it kills, as several military drone operators have recently argued.
Defenders of the U.S. drone assassination program argue that it’s not the intent of the U.S. government to kill innocents, therefore the U.S. is free from blame. Try telling that to those who have lost loved ones to drones. (So sorry: We didn’t mean to kill your mother/brother/loved one. Wrong place/wrong time: an explanation as infuriating as it is unconvincing.)
President Obama concluded by arguing that he needed even more of a blank check (in the form of a Congressional authorization) to prosecute the war on terror. All in the name of keeping Americans safe, naturally. But he has it exactly backwards. Congress needs to exercise more oversight, not less. Imagine giving President Donald Trump a Congressional blank check to exercise the war on terror. Not such a good idea, right?
Finally, and disappointingly, Obama misunderstands the solemn duty of his office. As commander in chief, Obama believes his first duty is to keep Americans safe and secure. Wrong. His first duty is to “preserve, protect and defend” the U.S. Constitution and the rights, freedoms, and responsibilities defined within. Put bluntly, you can’t keep Americans safe and secure by abridging their rights to freedom of speech or to privacy or to dissent. “Safety” and “security” were not the bywords of America’s founders. Liberty was. And liberty entails risks.
A saying popular on the right is Thomas Jefferson’s “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” In the USA today, “tyranny” is most likely to come in the form of a leader who promises to keep us safe and secure at any cost. (Just look at the Republican candidates for president with their calls for Muslim detention camps, mass expulsion of immigrants, the shuttering of houses of worship, and similar measures of repression.)
The president was right to argue that we must not betray our values. He was right to talk about human dignity. He was right to say that freedom is more powerful than fear. Now we as Americans need to live up to those words. And so does he.
In April 2009, I wrote an article for TomDispatch.com recounting Mary McCarthy’s critique of the American experience in Vietnam, and how her lessons applied to President Obama’s “surge” in Afghanistan. A central lesson cited by McCarthy was the American desire never to be labeled a loser. That desire explains, at least in part, the persistence of folly within the Obama Administration today, as Peter Van Buren explains in his latest article for TomDispatch, “Apocalypse Now, Iraq Edition: Fighting in Iraq Until Hell Freezes Over.”
Here’s what McCarthy had to say in 1968 about the American moment and the Vietnam War:
The American so-called free-enterprise system, highly competitive, investment-conscious, expansionist, repels a loser policy by instinctive defense movements centering in the ganglia of the presidency. No matter what direction the incumbent, as candidate, was pointing in, he slowly pivots once he assumes office.
Obama campaigned in 2008 as a “hope” and “change” candidate who as president would end the war in Iraq (so he could prosecute the “better” war in Afghanistan). Yet the U.S. finds itself yet again bombing widely in Iraq (and now Syria) while deploying thousands of military “advisers” (combat troops in plain speak). And after six weeks of airstrikes in Iraq against ISIS, with indecisive results, how long before those U.S. “advisers” start taking the fight directly to the enemy on the ground?
The questions I posed for President Obama back in 2009 were these:
Have you, like Vietnam-era presidents, pivoted toward yet another surge simply to avoid the label of “loser” in Afghanistan? And if the cost of victory (however defined) is hundreds, or even thousands, more American military casualties, hundreds of billions of additional dollars spent, and extensive collateral damage and blowback, will this “victory” not be a pyrrhic one, achieved at a price so dear as to be indistinguishable from defeat?
Similar questions apply to our latest military operations in Iraq and Syria. Is the U.S. surging militarily just to avoid the label of “loser”? And even if the U.S. “wins” this latest round (whatever “win” means), won’t the price paid be indistinguishable from defeat?
In his article, Van Buren offers an excellent summary of the U.S. experience in Iraq since the overthrow of Saddam in 2003. In his words:
The staggering costs of all this — $25 billion to train the Iraqi Army, $60 billion for the reconstruction-that-wasn’t, $2 trillion for the overall war, almost 4,500 Americans dead and more than 32,000 wounded, and an Iraqi death toll of more than190,000 (though some estimates go as high as a million) — can now be measured against the results. The nine-year attempt to create an American client state in Iraq failed, tragically and completely. The proof of that is on today’s front pages.
According to the crudest possible calculation, we spent blood and got no oil. Instead, America’s war of terror resulted in the dissolution of a Middle Eastern post-Cold War stasis that, curiously enough, had been held together by Iraq’s previous autocratic ruler Saddam Hussein. We released a hornet’s nest of Islamic fervor, sectarianism, fundamentalism, and pan-nationalism. Islamic terror groups grew stronger and more diffuse by the year. That horrible lightning over the Middle East that’s left American foreign policy in such an ugly glare will last into our grandchildren’s days. There should have been so many futures. Now, there will be so few as the dead accumulate in the ruins of our hubris. That is all that we won.
Under a new president, elected in 2008 in part on his promise to end American military involvement in Iraq, Washington’s strategy morphed into the more media-palatable mantra of “no boots on the ground.” Instead, backed by aggressive intel and the “surgical” application of drone strikes and other kinds of air power, U.S. covert ops were to link up with the “moderate” elements in Islamic governments or among the rebels opposing them — depending on whether Washington was opting to support a thug government or thug fighters.
The results? Chaos in Libya, highlighted by the flow of advanced weaponry from the arsenals of the dead autocrat Muammar Gaddafi across the Middle East and significant parts of Africa, chaos in Yemen, chaos in Syria, chaos in Somalia, chaos in Kenya, chaos in South Sudan, and, of course, chaos in Iraq.
And then came the Islamic State (IS) and the new “caliphate,” the child born of a neglectful occupation and an autocratic Shia government out to put the Sunnis in their place once and for all. And suddenly we were heading back into Iraq. What, in August 2014, was initially promoted as a limited humanitarian effort to save the Yazidis, a small religious sect that no one in Washington or anywhere else in this country had previously heard of, quickly morphed into those 1,600 American troops back on the ground in Iraq and American planes in the skies from Kurdistan in the north to south of Baghdad. The Yazidis were either abandoned, or saved, or just not needed anymore. Who knows and who, by then, cared? They had, after all, served their purpose handsomely as the casus belli of this war. Their agony at least had a horrific reality, unlike the supposed attack in the Gulf of Tonkin that propelled a widening war in Vietnam in 1964 or the nonexistent Iraqi WMDs that were the excuse for the invasion of 2003.
And this is how Van Buren concludes his article:
We’ve been here before, as the failures of American policy and strategy in Vietnam metastasized into war in Cambodia and Laos to deny sanctuary to North Vietnamese forces. As with ISIS, we were told that they were barbarians who sought to impose an evil philosophy across an entire region. They, too, famously needed to be fought “over there” to prevent them from attacking us here. We didn’t say “the Homeland” back then, but you get the picture.
As the similarities with Vietnam are telling, so is the difference. When the reality of America’s failure in Vietnam finally became so clear that there was no one left to lie to, America’s war there ended and the troops came home. They never went back. America is now fighting the Iraq War for the third time, somehow madly expecting different results, while guaranteeing only failure. To paraphrase a young John Kerry, himself back from Vietnam, who’ll be the last to die for that endless mistake? It seems as if it will be many years before we know.
That is indeed the question. As Mary McCarthy noted about the Vietnam War, “The more troops and matériel committed to Vietnam, the more retreat appears to be cut off — not by an enemy, but by our own numbers. To call for withdrawal in the face of that commitment… is to seem to argue not against a policy, but against facts, which by their very nature are unanswerable.”
Back to 2014 and the present moment: The more troops committed against ISIS, the more bombing raids made, the more money spent, the more prestige put on the line, the fewer the options the United States has in the Middle East. Indeed, the only option that remains is “to win,” since losing is unacceptable for the reason Mary McCarthy indicated.
But as Michael Murry, a Vietnam Veteran and regular contributor to this site, noted about Vietnam (citing Bernard Fall’s classic book, Street Without Joy), “You can’t do a wrong thing the right way,” and “We lose the day we start (these stupid imperial wars) and we win the day we stop.” Put differently, just as with Vietnam, the Middle East is not an incredibly complex puzzle for us to solve; it’s simply an impossible situation. Impossible for us. Until we admit this, the U.S. can never “win”; it can only lose.
The U.S. finally “won” in Vietnam when we admitted defeat and left. How long before we come to this realization in the Middle East? Tragically, the persistence of American hubris, amplified by resistance to the very idea of being labeled a “loser,” suggests yet another long, bloody, learning curve.
Here is the letter that I sent to my senators and congressman on Syria. Whether you agree or disagree, I urge you to email or call your representatives. Let them hear your voice!
I implore you to vote “no” on military intervention in Syria. No vital U.S. interest is at stake, and an attack will have unforeseen consequences that are nearly impossible to predict. The proper response to the Assad regime’s use of poison gas is not more killing. I don’t want American cruise missiles slamming into Syrian bodies in my name. Neither should you.
William Astore, professor and retired lieutenant colonel (USAF)