“Civilian Casualty Incidents”

3450
Just another civilian casualty incident?  Original caption: Mourners carry the coffin of a child at the funeral procession for those killed in an airstrike on a bus in Yemen. Photograph: Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images

W.J. Astore

Last night, as I was watching the PBS News Hour, I snapped to attention as I heard a new euphemism for murdered innocents from bombing: “civilian casualty incidents.”

A PBS reporter used it, unthinkingly I believe, repeating bureaucratic jargon about all the innocents in Yemen smashed to bits or shredded by “dumb” bombs, cluster munitions, and even “smart” bombs that are really only as smart as the pilots launching them (and the often imperfect “actionable intelligence” gathered to sanction them).

The overall tone of the PBS report was reassuring.  General Mattis appeared to comfort Americans that the Saudis are doing better with bombing accuracy, and that America’s role in helping the Saudis is limited to aerial refueling and intelligence gathering about what not to hit.  Of course, the Saudis can’t bomb without fuel, so the U.S. could easily stop aerial massacres if we wanted to, but the Saudis are our allies and they buy weapons in massive quantities from us, so forget about any real criticism here.

I’ve written about Orwellian euphemisms for murderous death before: “collateral damage” is often the go-to term for aerial attacks gone murderously wrong.  To repeat myself: George Orwell famously noted the political uses of language and the insidiousness of euphemisms.  Words about war matter.  Dishonest words contribute to dishonest wars.  They lead to death, dismemberment, and devastation. That’s not “collateral” — nor is it merely a “civilian casualty incident” — that’s a defining and terrifying reality.

What if innocent Americans were being killed?  Would they be classified and covered as regrettable if inevitable “civilian casualty incidents”?

Our Enemy, Ourselves

W.J. Astore

In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I suggest how America can pursue a wiser, more peaceful, course.  This is exactly what our leaders are not doing (and haven’t been doing for decades), as I document in the first half of my article, which I’m sharing here.  Bottom line: perpetual war doesn’t produce perpetual peace.  Nor does it make us safer.

Whether the rationale is the need to wage a war on terror involving 76 countries or renewed preparations for a struggle against peer competitors Russia and China (as Defense Secretary James Mattis suggested recently while introducing America’s new National Defense Strategy), the U.S. military is engaged globally.  A network of 800 military bases spread across 172 countries helps enable its wars and interventions.  By the count of the Pentagon, at the end of the last fiscal year about 291,000 personnel (including reserves and Department of Defense civilians) were deployed in 183 countries worldwide, which is the functional definition of a military uncontained.  Lady Liberty may temporarily close when the U.S. government grinds to a halt, but the country’s foreign military commitments, especially its wars, just keep humming along.

As a student of history, I was warned to avoid the notion of inevitability.  Still, given such data points and others like them, is there anything more predictable in this country’s future than incessant warfare without a true victory in sight?  Indeed, the last clear-cut American victory, the last true “mission accomplished” moment in a war of any significance, came in 1945 with the end of World War II.

Yet the lack of clear victories since then seems to faze no one in Washington.  In this century, presidents have regularly boasted that the U.S. military is the finest fighting force in human history, while no less regularly demanding that the most powerful military in today’s world be “rebuilt” and funded at ever more staggering levels.  Indeed, while on the campaign trail, Donald Trump promised he’d invest so much in the military that it would become “so big and so strong and so great, and it will be so powerful that I don’t think we’re ever going to have to use it.”

As soon as he took office, however, he promptly appointed a set of generals to key positions in his government, stored the mothballs, and went back to war.  Here, then, is a brief rundown of the first year of his presidency in war terms.

In 2017, Afghanistan saw a mini-surge of roughly 4,000 additional U.S. troops (with more to come), a major spike in air strikes, and an onslaught of munitions of all sorts, including MOAB (the mother of all bombs), the never-before-used largest non-nuclear bomb in the U.S. arsenal, as well as precision weapons fired by B-52s against suspected Taliban drug laboratories.  By the Air Force’s own count, 4,361 weapons were “released” in Afghanistan in 2017 compared to 1,337 in 2016.  Despite this commitment of warriors and weapons, the Afghan war remains — according to American commanders putting the best possible light on the situation — “stalemated,” with that country’s capital Kabul currently under siege.

How about Operation Inherent Resolve against the Islamic State?  U.S.-led coalition forces have launched more than 10,000 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria since Donald Trump became president, unleashing 39,577 weapons in 2017. (The figure for 2016 was 30,743.)  The “caliphate” is now gone and ISIS deflated but not defeated, since you can’t extinguish an ideology solely with bombs.  Meanwhile, along the Syrian-Turkish border a new conflict seems to be heating up between American-backed Kurdish forces and NATO ally Turkey.

Yet another strife-riven country, Yemen, witnessed a sixfold increase in U.S. airstrikes against al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (from 21 in 2016 to more than 131 in 2017).  In Somalia, which has also seen a rise in such strikes against al-Shabaab militants, U.S. forces on the ground have reached numbers not seen since the Black Hawk Down incident of 1993.  In each of these countries, there are yet more ruins, yet more civilian casualties, and yet more displaced people.

Finally, we come to North Korea.  Though no real shots have yet been fired, rhetorical shots by two less-than-stable leaders, “Little Rocket Man” Kim Jong-un and “dotard” Donald Trump, raise the possibility of a regional bloodbath.  Trump, seemingly favoring military solutions to North Korea’s nuclear program even as his administration touts a new generation of more usable nuclear warheads, has been remarkably successful in moving the world’s doomsday clock ever closer to midnight.

Clearly, his “great” and “powerful” military has hardly been standing idly on the sidelines looking “big” and “strong.”  More than ever, in fact, it seems to be lashing out across the Greater Middle East and Africa.  Seventeen years after the 9/11 attacks began the Global War on Terror, all of this represents an eerily familiar attempt by the U.S. military to kill its way to victory, whether against the Taliban, ISIS, or other terrorist organizations.

This kinetic reality should surprise no one.  Once you invest so much in your military — not just financially but also culturally (by continually celebrating it in a fashion which has come to seem like a quasi-faith) — it’s natural to want to put it to use.  This has been true of all recent administrations, Democratic and Republican alike, as reflected in the infamous question Madeleine Albright posed to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Colin Powell in 1992: “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”

With the very word “peace” rarely in Washington’s political vocabulary, America’s never-ending version of war seems as inevitable as anything is likely to be in history.  Significant contingents of U.S. troops and contractors remain an enduring presence in Iraq and there are now 2,000 U.S. Special Operations forces and other personnel in Syria for the long haul.  They are ostensibly engaged in training and stability operations.  In Washington, however, the urge for regime change in both Syria and Iran remains strong — in the case of Iran implacably so.  If past is prologue, then considering previous regime-change operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, the future looks grim indeed.

Despite the dismal record of the last decade and a half, our civilian leaders continue to insist that this country must have a military not only second to none but globally dominant.  And few here wonder what such a quest for total dominance, the desire for absolute power, could do to this country.  Two centuries ago, however, writing to Thomas Jefferson, John Adams couldn’t have been clearer on the subject.  Power, he said, “must never be trusted without a check.”

The question today for the American people: How is the dominant military power of which U.S. leaders so casually boast to be checked? How is the country’s almost total reliance on the military in foreign affairs to be reined in? How can the plans of the profiteers and arms makers to keep the good times rolling be brought under control?

As a start, consider one of Donald Trump’s favorite generals, Douglas MacArthur, speaking to the Sperry Rand Corporation in 1957:

“Our swollen budgets constantly have been misrepresented to the public. Our government has kept us in a perpetual state of fear — kept us in a continuous stampede of patriotic fervor — with the cry of grave national emergency. Always there has been some terrible evil at home or some monstrous foreign power that was going to gobble us up if we did not blindly rally behind it by furnishing the exorbitant funds demanded. Yet, in retrospect, these disasters seem never to have happened, seem never to have been quite real.”

No peacenik MacArthur.  Other famed generals like Smedley Butler and Dwight D. Eisenhower spoke out with far more vigor against the corruptions of war and the perils to a democracy of an ever more powerful military, though such sentiments are seldom heard in this country today.  Instead, America’s leaders insist that other people judge us by our words, our stated good intentions, not our murderous deeds and their results.

For ten suggestions (plus a bonus) on how the U.S. can pursue a wiser, and far less bellicose, course, please read the rest of my article here at TomDispatch.com. 

Sun Tzu, Steve Bannon, and the Trump White House “Warriors”

steve-bannon-interview-on-donald-trump
Steve Bannon, self-professed student of the Art of War (Getty Images)

W.J. Astore

A favorite book of Steve Bannon’s is Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.  A classic of military strategy, The Art of War was compiled during the Warring States period (403-221 BCE) in ancient Chinese history.  It was a time of intense civil warfare in China, a time when a cessation in fighting was merely a pause between the next round of battles among warlords.  It’s still widely read today for its insights into war, its clever stratagems and tactics, and its lessons into human nature and behavior.

Bannon, who served in the U.S. Navy, is an armchair strategist with an affinity for military history books.  He appears to believe in inevitable conflict between the Judeo-Christian West, which he favors due to its “enlightened” values, and the World of Islam, which he sees as retrograde and barbaric when compared to the West.  He sees the world as already being in a “warring states” period writ large, a realm of conflict marked by “holy war” to be mastered by warrior/scholars like himself.

Joining him in this belief is Donald Trump, who took great pains to recite the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” in his speech before Congress, as if using these words were a mark of personal courage on his part.  Trump has boasted about winning the “next” war, as if war during his presidency is inevitable.  And I suppose it is, with Trump at the helm and advisers like Bannon, Sebastian Gorka, and Stephen Miller pursuing a bellicose hardline against Islam.

Be careful what you wish for, Trump and cronies, and be especially careful about declaring victory in wars before you’ve even fought them.  Here Sun Tzu has much to teach our “warriors” in the White House.

For one thing, Sun Tzu writes that a battle is best won without fighting at all.  Said Sun Tzu: “Fighting and winning a hundred wars is not the greatest good.  Winning without having to fight is.”  In other words, you set the stage so carefully that the enemy must surrender or face obliteration before the curtain is even raised on war.

Secondly, Sun Tzu warns about the folly of protracted wars, how they deplete the national budget and weaken a state, especially when support among the people is tepid.  Warfare, notes Sun Tzu, must be treated with the greatest caution, even as it is waged with great cunning.  Best of all is to outsmart the enemy; next best is to form alliances, to build a much bigger army than the enemy, which may force them to capitulate.  Worst of all is to get bogged down in long wars, especially in cities, which require expensive sieges that wear on both sides (just ask the Germans at Stalingrad about this).

Ultimately, Sun Tzu writes that by understanding oneself and one’s enemy, a skilled leader can engage in a hundred battles without ever being in serious danger.  But an unskilled leader who does not truly know his own nature or that of his enemies is one who is fated always to lose.  Trump, who fancies himself a great leader and who is ignorant of foreign nations and peoples, does not inspire confidence here, even as he promises the American people that we’re going to win so much, we’ll get bored with winning.

Sun Tzu puts great emphasis on careful planning and sober deliberation before launching attacks.  If the recent Yemen raid is any indicator, Trump is neither a careful planner nor a sober deliberator.  Indeed, Trump’s personal qualities expose him to being manipulated by a cunning enemy.  In listing the personal traits that are dangerous in a commander, Sun Tzu mentions “quick to anger” as well as “self-consciousness” or vanity.  One who’s quick to anger can be goaded by insults into making poor decisions; one who’s vain and self-conscious can be humiliated or manipulated into rash action.

Trump promises an American military that is so big and so strong that no country will dare attack us.  Yet Trump himself, surrounded by his “warrior” advisers, isn’t content to build a huge military while not using it.  Indeed, Trump is already using it, notably in Yemen, pursuing policies that are fated to perpetuate warfare around the globe.  And it’s hardly encouraging that, after the failed Yemen raid, Trump shifted the blame to his generals rather than taking it himself.

Remember what Sun Tzu warned about vanity as well as perpetual warfare, especially when your own people are increasingly divided?  Something tells me this lesson is lost on Trump, Bannon, and crew.  Embracing the stratagems of The Art of War, its emphasis on surprise, subterfuge, deception, and quick strikes, is not enough.  You must seek the wisdom at its core, which is very much against war except as a last resort.

Know thyself, said Sun Tzu, echoing the Greek philosopher Socrates.  Face yourself squarely, recognize your flaws, your vanity (“All is vanity,” say the Christian Bible, a book Trump professes to treasure), and be careful indeed in unleashing war.

Do Trump, Bannon, and company know themselves, admit to their flaws and vanities, and recognize that war, in all its perils and costs, should be a course of last resort?  So far, evidence is wanting.

Update (8/12/17): Bannon has said his concern about a civilizational conflict with Islam dates from his time in the Navy and a visit to Pakistan.  Apparently, however, his ship visited Hong Kong rather than Pakistan.  Bannon also recalls specific details of Iran — its resemblance to a “primeval” wasteland — that he apparently was not privy to.  All this is revealed in an article at The Intercept.  Either Bannon’s memory is faulty or he is an esteemed member of the “alternative fact” club, where you just make things up to fit your preconceived notions.

As Peter Maass at The Intercept notes: “It turns out that Bannon, who has drawn a large amount of criticism for his exclusionary stances on race, religion, and immigration, has also inaccurately described his military service, simultaneously creating an erroneous narrative of how he came to an incendiary anti-Muslim worldview that helps shape White House policy.”

Cynicism: It Defines Trump’s Words and Deeds

trump
He can read from a teleprompter without barking: presidential?

W.J. Astore

One word defines Trump and his cronies: cynicism.  His cabinet picks illustrate this; many of them are against the very agencies’ missions that they’re supposed to uphold, like public education, environmental protection, and decent health care.  He hires billionaires for his cabinet in the name of draining the swamp and championing the cause of the working classes.  Meanwhile, even as Trump poses as commander-in-chief, he ducks responsibility for the failed raid on Yemen, shifting it to “his” generals, whom he otherwise praises as super-capable and deeply respected.

Under Trump, Americans are witnessing the negation of idealism.  Some might say that America’s ideals such as liberty and freedom and democracy have been observed more in the breach than in practice (consider slavery, for example, or the treatment of Native Americans), but at least we had ideals.  They were imperfectly practiced, but with Trump ideals no longer matter.  It’s just cynicism, a naked grab for wealth and power.

Cynics don’t believe in much of anything, except perhaps their own perspicacity in seeing the world “as it is.”  If you don’t believe in anything, you can lash out at anything, without guilt.  And Trump is a lasher.  He attacks everything: “failed” generals, “murderous” Mexicans, “terrorist” Muslims, the “lying” press, unfair judges, even Rosie O’Donnell , beauty queens, and Nordstrom (!).  Anyone and everything can be attacked and vilified when you’re a cynic with no core beliefs other than your own rectitude.

Trump is not a leader, he’s a cynic.  A negator of meaning.  What’s amazing to me is that some in the media recently suggested he looked presidential just because he read a speech written by others off a teleprompter without barking or snarling.  Of course, cynicism is not unique to Trump; Hillary and the Democrats have their share, as Chris Hedges has noted.  Recall, for example, the silencing of anti-war protesters at the Democratic National Convention in July.  Trump just has less class, even trotting out a war widow while passing the buck on taking responsibility for her grief.

Why is cynicism so dangerous?  I recall watching a documentary on the Holocaust in which a witness to a massacre described the horrific events.  He ended with a cry against cynicism.  The negation of human life he’d witnessed had, at its core, the cynical belief that human life simply didn’t matter.  That people were just so much matter, just things to be exploited or disposed of as their “masters” decreed.

Cynicism, a denial of idealism, of higher meaning, and of humanity, was a propellant to, an accelerant of, the Holocaust.  We see cynicism in Trump’s reference to the dead Navy SEAL in the Yemen raid.  His service and death is celebrated as uniquely heroic and noble (“etched in eternity”), whereas the many Yemeni people killed, including several children, are forgotten.  They simply don’t count; they are beneath being noticed.

Cynicism is spreading in America, with Jewish tombstones being toppled over, with darker-skinned immigrants being shot and killed in the name of “taking back one’s country,” of certain Muslims being excluded solely on their country of origin.  Policies are being driven by cynicism – a cold calculus of profit and power.

To a cynic, all facts are “alternative,” which is to say a lie is judged the same way truth is, by the criterion of whether it advances one’s agenda and one’s power.  What’s “true” is what’s expedient.  To a cynic, facts are unimportant.  All that matters is what you can get people to believe, how you can manipulate them and get them to act to fulfill your agenda.

Cynicism is the enemy of idealism, of truth, of humanity.  Where it ends I truly hesitate to say.

Lessons and Propaganda from the Botched Raid on Yemen

170130-nora-anwar-al-awlaki
Nora al-Awlaki, 8 years old, killed in the Yemen raid

W.J. Astore

The Trump administration’s first “kinetic” military action, last weekend’s raid on Yemen that killed a Navy SEAL as well as fifteen women and children, was an operational failure. Aggravating that failure has been the aggressive propaganda spin applied by the White House. According to White House spokesman Sean Spicer, the operation was a major success:

“Knowing that we killed an estimated 14 AQAP [Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] members and that we gathered an unbelievable amount of intelligence that will prevent the potential deaths or attacks on American soil – is something that I think most service members understand, that that’s why they joined the service.”

Later, Spicer doubled down, accusing Senator John McCain (and other critics of the raid) of defaming the dead Navy SEAL when he suggested the raid had been something less than a towering success. McCain, Spicer said, owed the dead SEAL an apology.

Trump himself then joined the fray, accusing John McCain in a tweet of emboldening the enemy and suggesting he’d “been losing so long he doesn’t know how to win anymore.”

Yet, by Spicer’s logic, President Trump himself owes an apology to all U.S. troops killed in the Iraq and Afghan wars, since Trump has criticized these wars as either unnecessary or botched in execution. Recall here that Trump said he was against the Iraq invasion in 2003, but once the U.S. invaded, he said the U.S. government botched it by not taking Iraq’s oil, which, he claimed, would have prevented the rise of ISIS.

The Iraq war, Trump has said, was a mistake, a failure, a loss.  He promised to show America how to “win” again.  Is the recent Yemen raid what he meant by a “win”?

yemen1-871x1024

Nearly everything went wrong in the Yemen raid.  Surprise wasn’t achieved.  U.S. troops were killed and wounded.  Far too many non-combatants (innocent civilians) were killed, including an eight-year-old girl.  A $75 million Osprey malfunctioned and had to be destroyed.

To hazard a guess, this raid probably cost the U.S. in the neighborhood of $250 million while failing to achieve its main objective.  Meanwhile, the enemy put up fierce resistance with weaponry, mainly small arms and explosives, that probably cost less than $100,000.

In brief, the U.S. raid on Yemen was prodigal in cost, profligate in resources, and unproductive in results.

Of course, I can’t say for certain that the raid didn’t secure vital intelligence.  According to Spicer, an “unbelievable” amount of intelligence was seized.  But early signs are unpromising.  The U.S. military chose to share, in the immediate aftermath of the raid, a video of bomb-making training by al-Qaeda (apparently from a seized laptop), only to remove it when they learned the training video was a decade old and readily available on YouTube.  Some intelligence coup!

The Trump administration is promising to launch more raids, featuring an “easier approval cycle” than witnessed under President Obama.  Indeed, some reports suggest President Trump was goaded into approving the Yemen raid by being told his predecessor wouldn’t have approved it.

If the Yemen raid is the new face of “winning” under Trump, America may yet long for the days of “losing” under previous presidents.