Category Archives: military

Assassination, Inc.

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The US government uses drones to murder its opponents. Drones are an ideal tool to minimise public outrage from military operations.

In Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan, there is an ever-present danger of death from missiles in the sky. US military drones fly high over these countries, controlled from bunkers thousands of kilometres away. Some drones are for surveillance; some are for killing.

A new book, The Assassination Complex, documents the US drone warfare programme. A great deal of information about this programme became available via a major leak, and this has been supplemented by comments from former employees. Much of the information was published by The Intercept, an online magazine set up in the aftermath of Edward Snowden’s revelations about US government surveillance. For those who like hard copy, The Assassination Complex provides a convenient package of material. The authors include Jeremy Scahill, author of books about the shady side of US military operations, Glenn Greenwald, one of the journalists who initially reported on Snowden’s material, and several staff members for The Intercept.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAJeremy Scahill

The drone warfare programme operates like this. Data is collected about possible targets: men considered dangerous enemies. Some information is gathered on the ground, but most is from electronic surveillance, for example metadata about phone calls. When a key figure is identified, drones track them continuously, often via sim cards in mobile phones. Authorisation for attack is obtained through a chain of command in the US, after which the CIA or military has 60 days to act. When a suitable occasion presents itself, attack drones launch missiles against the target.

Regular drone killings began after 9/11 under the presidency of George W. Bush and then greatly expanded under the Obama administration. Thousands of people have been killed by strikes.

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Double standards

From the point of view of those behind the programme, it is an effective way of eliminating terrorists with minimal risk to US personnel. Proponents believe the drone attacks are surgical, namely highly selective, with only enemies killed. The authorisation protocol, combined with US laws, provides justification for the programme.

Critics offer a completely different picture. According to information in The Assassination Complex, the strikes are not nearly as surgical as claimed: as well as the target, many others are killed: non-combatants including women and children. Furthermore, potential targets are becoming sophisticated in evading attacks, especially in Yemen and Somalia. Knowing that their sim cards are used to track them, groups can mix up the cards. Someone may be killed, but not necessarily the primary target.

The drone strikes do not provide targets with an opportunity to defend themselves in court. Killing is carried out on the basis of suspicion. No charges are laid, no trial is held and no judge or jury is allowed to see the evidence against those killed.

Finally, when strikes kill non-combatants, as so often occurs, this alienates the population, generating greater opposition. Drone killings radicalise a fraction of the population; rather than repressing the insurgency, they add fuel to resistance. In this way, drone killings perpetuate the very thing they are supposed to stop. They are part of a cycle of mutual provocation that fosters perpetual war.

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Imagine that a small group in one of the target countries, let’s say Pakistan, manages to obtain its own fleet of drones, or perhaps commandeers US drones through a sophisticated hacking operation. The group designates portions of US territory as a warzone and commences a surveillance and attack operation targeting leading US politicians and military figures, especially those who run the US drone programme. The operation is successful: strikes kill several US leaders, with some collateral damage (family members). Imagine the outrage in the US. “Murderous thugs! This is an outrage. This means war. We must strike back. They cannot be allowed to get away with this.”

Yet this scenario is an exact parallel of the US drone programme, except with the perpetrators and targets reversed. This example shows the incredible arrogance underlying the US programme, an assumption that “we” are righteous and can take action to kill “them” who are a dangerous threat (as judged by “us”). A reversal of “we” and “them” is unthinkable. Because it is unthinkable, the implicit double standard is invisible to US perpetrators.

Outrage management

Think of an injustice in which the perpetrator is more powerful than the target, for example torture, massacre of peaceful protesters, or genocide. Such injustices have the potential to generate outrage among those who witness or learn about it. Therefore, perpetrators regularly use five sorts of techniques to reduce public outrage: cover-up of the action, devaluation of the target, reinterpretation of the events (by lying, minimising consequences, blaming others or reframing), official channels that give an appearance of justice, and intimidation of people involved. Each of these techniques is readily apparent in the US drone programme.

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Cover-up is a key feature of drone killings. The programme operates largely in secret, and little would be known about it except for leaks and exposes such as The Assassination Complex. Of course survivors of strikes know about them, as do family members, but the US population is left in the dark. Video footage of strikes is kept secret, as indeed are the names of most of the victims. The US government does everything possible to keep the programme secret. Indeed, the choice to use drones for military purposes may reflect the relative ease by which the human costs are hidden.

Devaluation is a powerful technique for reducing outrage: when victims are lower in status, there is less concern about what is done to them. The targets of drone strikes are labelled terrorists and portrayed as serious threats.

Reinterpretation means explaining what happens in a way that reduces outrage. It can involve several methods, including lying, minimising consequences, blaming others, and reframing. According to White House guidelines released in 2003, drone strikes are only undertaken when there is “near certainty” that the target is present and “near certainty” that no one else, namely non-combatants, will be injured or killed. However, the part about non-combatants is not applied in practice: strikes are regularly carried out without satisfying this criterion, which means the guidelines are a public lie.

The harmful consequences of drone strikes are routinely minimised. Anyone killed in addition to the target is labelled an “enemy killed in action.” This includes women and children. In this way civilian injuries and deaths are reframed, namely looked at from a different perspective. Another aspect of reframing is the designation of target areas as “warzones.” However, setting aside that the US Congress never declared war, this is a unilaterally declared war, with the so-called warzones being designated by the US government.

Official channels include courts, expert committees, grievance committees and any other agency or process that ostensibly provides fairness and justice. The problem is that when powerful groups like the government commit crimes, official channels may give only an illusion of justice. In the case of the US drone programme, the closest thing to an official channel is the policy guidelines released in 2003, already mentioned. These give the illusion of justice – only terrorists are supposed to be targeted – when in practice many civilians are killed.

Intimidation is the use of threats, reprisals and attacks to deter people from expressing outrage. Drone strikes themselves are a potent tool of intimidation. Indeed, they are a form of terrorism, terrorism by the US government. As well, whistleblowers and journalists are subject to intimidation. Those working in the US national security system who speak out about abuses are potentially subject to dismissal and prosecution, and some go to prison.

Resistance

Although the drone programme is in many ways an ideal way to run a killing operation while minimizing the possibility of domestic protest, nevertheless there has been opposition. Each of the five techniques for reducing outrage can be countered.

Exposure of the programme is the counter to cover-up, and is crucial. This has been achieved through the combined efforts of insiders who speak out or leak information, investigative journalists who collect and analyse features of the programme, and editors who publish exposes. The Assassination Complex is a significant outcome of these efforts.

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Validation of targets is the counter to devaluation. Validation can occur by showing that many targets are innocent victims and by giving them names, faces and life histories. When targets are seen as real people rather than nameless “terrorists,” assassination seems less justified. The following quote illustrates devaluation and lying by the US government, and validation of the target by providing his name and some personal details.

The third – and most controversial – killing of a U.S. citizen was that of Awlaki’s son, sixteen-year-old Abdulrahman Awlaki. He was killed two weeks after his father, while having dinner with his cousin and some friends. Immediately after the strike anonymous U.S. officials asserted that the younger Awlaki was connected to al Qaeda and was in fact twenty-one. After the family produced his birth certificate, the United States changed its position, with an anonymous official calling the killing of the teenager an “outrageous mistake.” (p. 47)

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Abdulrahman al-Awlaki

Interpretation of the events as an injustice is the counter to the reinterpretation. Lies and minimising of consequences can be challenged with facts; reframing can be challenged by the frame of injustice. The labels “assassination,” “murder” and “killing” starkly articulate the realities of drone warfare.

Mobilisation of support is the counter to official channels. So far, there has been relatively little popular protest in the US against drone killings. Protest is the most potent challenge to the drone programme.

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Finally, resistance is the counter to intimidation. Everyone involved in producing the Assassination Complex and related outputs has to stand up to the possibility of coming under surveillance, being put on watchlists and jeopardising their jobs.

On an optimistic note, the escalation of drone warfare by the US government might be considered a sign that it is more difficult today to muster support for open warfare, hence the need for killing to be covert. The drone programme has an added bonus for the military-security establishment: fostering the very problem it is supposed to solve, namely radicalisation of populations (though of course this is not how establishment figures think about the programme). How to undermine the drone programme and foster alternatives such as nonviolent action remains a major challenge.

Jeremy Scahill and the staff of The Intercept, The Assassination Complex: Inside the US Government’s Secret Drone Warfare Programme (London: Serpent’s Tale, 2016)

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Was 9/11 really so special?

For many people, the attacks launched on 11 September 2001 were transformative, seen as an exceptional event in historical terms. Certainly they were seared on people’s consciousness through saturation media coverage and used as the rationale for invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

In this Friday, Oct. 16, 2015 photo, the charred remains of the Doctors Without Borders hospital is seen after being hit by a U.S. airstrike in Kunduz, Afghanistan. Christopher Stokes, general director of Doctors Without Borders, which is also known by its French abbreviation MSF, whose hospital in northern Afghanistan was destroyed in a U.S. airstrike, says the “extensive, quite precise destruction” of the bombing raid casts doubt on American military assertions that it was a mistake. (Najim Rahim via AP)Afghan hospital after US airstrike

But is it possible that 9/11 was not all that special, but actually reflected a long-running pattern? Mark Cronlund Anderson answers “yes” in his new book Holy War: Cowboys, Indians, and 9/11s. Anderson is an historian and he sees 9/11 as just one more example of a pattern in US history of self-righteous imperial aggression.

To make his argument, he draws on a number of historical events. One of them is the Mexican war of 1846–1848, in which the US military defeated Mexico and confiscated half of its territory. At the time, the US had a reputation, especially among its own population, as being anti-imperialistic. It had fought a war of independence against Great Britain, after all. But how could this image be squared with a land-grab against a weaker, disorganised neighbouring government?

Anderson explains the ideology of US aggression using several factors. A key factor was the belief in what was later called “manifest destiny,” namely that the US had a God-given expectation to fill the continent. James Polk, elected president in 1844, had run on a platform of expansionism, and he delivered.

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            Another factor was racism. The Mexicans were seen as inferior, as “greasers” or “half-breeds.”

Prior to the Mexican war, there were prominent voices in US politics and the media condemning imperial adventures. Another source of resistance stemmed from the likelihood that Texas, then independent, would become a slave state, unsettling the balance between free and slave states.

To launch the war, what was needed was a pretext, and there was one at hand. Mexican troops crossed the Rio Grande. It didn’t seem to matter that the US and Mexican governments had earlier agreed the border was the Nueces River. US leaders declared that the Mexican action was aggression and launched a war that won a huge swathe of North American territory.

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U
S troops during the Mexican war

            The Mexican war was a fairly short episode compared to a slow-burning war that lasted for centuries: the war waged by white settlers in North America on the indigenous inhabitants. Today in the US they are referred to as Native Americans, but Anderson calls them Indians, as they were referred to in the US until a few decades ago.

As is well known to scholars of colonialism, white settlement was a disaster for indigenous people, causing disease, dispossession and cultural devastation. Anderson’s interest is in the symbolic dimensions of the war against the Indians, and for this he looks at General George Custer. For Custer and many others, the Indians were savages to be subordinated and exterminated. When Custer and his troops were wiped out in 1876, this was another trigger event for US imperialists: the Indians were to be conquered. It didn’t matter, apparently, that Custer was a ruthless killer, including of women and children.

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George Armstrong Custer

            Anderson analyses several further imperialistic episodes in US history: interventions in the Mexican revolution (1916), Nicaragua (both the 1920s and 1980s) and Vietnam. Always there were pretexts for attack: the US government saw itself as the victim and hence fully justified in its aggression. The 1964 Tonkin Gulf incident, in which North Vietnamese PT boats supposedly fired on US vessels in international waters – though this probably never happened – was the pretext for a Congressional resolution allowing massive expansion of US military involvement in the Vietnam war (called in Vietnam the American war).

Anderson, in seeking to understand the mindset of US imperialism – an imperialism that cannot name itself – probes historical episodes less through recounting events and more through expressions of ideas through media and popular culture. Newspaper stories at the time of the Mexican war and the Mexican revolution provide ample evidence of racism and belief in manifest destiny. For the Vietnam war, Anderson examines the Rambo films for the same themes.

Anderson seems to find the evidence he exhumes at times excruciating in its self-righteousness. US imperialists have believed that God is on their side, that their enemies are lesser humans and that the United States is a special nation bringing enlightenment to the world. Anderson summarises his argument:

First, there exists the never-ending pattern of war since 1776, suggesting a deep psychological need to fight. Second, the patterning — portraying battles as defensive maneuvers against the savage Other, as noted — repeats itself without reference to temporal concerns, and the gambit is always some variety of how the savage Other attacked without provocation. Myth is eternal: it seduces and elides linear time. One result is that the Alamo or Pearl Harbor or 9/11 maintains cultural currency and emotional resonance, just so long as we choose to remember. Third, I have borrowed and applied two ideas from psychohistory: nation-states have explicable psychological makeups, and trauma demands repetition. We tend to know this anecdotally, that abused children are more likely to abuse others. Or that a nation born in violence becomes imprinted with a need to relive the trauma, which, for America, has been life-affirming. (pp. 202-3)

Mark Anderson
Mark Anderson

Other commonalities

Anderson sees 9/11 as being in a long tradition of episodes in US history in which the characteristic features of US imperialistic psychology are manifest. Taking a cue from Anderson, it is worth thinking of other ways in which 9/11 is not as special as it is often seen.

In the context of terrorism, 9/11 was dramatic but hardly unusual. Since the 1980s, thousands of people have been killed every year in non-state terrorist attacks. What is special about 9/11 is how much attention it garnered. Deaths of civilians in terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka or Nigeria gain little attention by comparison. Similarly, most of the world’s deadliest wars since 1990 have received little Western media attention.

9/11 is typical in that nearly all attention is focused on attacks by non-government groups. A different brand of terrorism is called state terrorism. This is when governments use their militaries to assault populations. The US-government-led invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 killed far more civilians than 9/11 but are not usually called terrorism, though the terror for those targeted is just as great. State terrorism is usually invisible so far as the media and home population are concerned. Anderson does not refer to the scholarship on state terrorism, but his analysis is quite relevant.

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Augusto Sandino:
seen as a dangerous threat to the US occupation of Nicaragua

            9/11 illustrates how valuable it is for aggressors to see themselves as victims. After 9/11, there was a massive expansion in the military-security complex in the US and elsewhere. During the cold war, the Soviet Union was the enemy and the justification for militarisation. After the cold war, the peace dividend — the anticipated winding back of military establishments — did not occur. Leaders of the military-industrial complex searched for a pretext to justify their existence, and anti-terrorism has served this function well, although non-state terrorism is not a serious threat to states and in human lives is far less devastating than nuclear war.

Anderson’s book Holy War is a valuable reminder of the commonalities in history and the importance of belief systems. Rather than reacting to the latest events in lock-step with the agenda of governments, it is worthwhile stepping back and seeing continuities, and noticing how often the same patterns keep recurring.

Holy Wars

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

One-eyed in the sky

The recently released film “Eye in the sky” is a powerful drama. It also is a testament to the double standards at the heart of Western anti-terrorism strategy.

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In “Eye in the sky,” British military intelligence has identified terrorists in Nairobi, Kenya. The British in this case are cooperating with US and Kenyan forces. The terrorists are tracked to a particular house.

The film shows amazing surveillance capacities in action, including a high-altitude drone (the eye in the sky) whose camera provides real-time pictures of movie-theatre clarity and precision. However, to get inside the house where the terrorists are thought to be ensconced, a local operative uses a “bug”: a mechanical insect, a miniature drone if you like, that can be piloted to fly into the house and provide a continuous camera view, beamed to decision-makers in Britain and the US.

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The core of the plot revolves around a moral dilemma, namely a choice between two options, each with pluses and minuses that are not easily compared. Option 1 is to fire a missile  from the high-altitude drone to kill the terrorists. The main drawback is the possibility of civilian casualties and associated political blowback. Option 2 is not to fire a missile.

To personalise the dilemma, and make it more compelling for Western viewers, several of the terrorists are British or US citizens, while as viewers of the film we see a young girl selling bread near the targeted house. The decision about whether to attack is delayed by the need to obtain formal permission, a process involving British and US commanders, legal advisers, politicians and collateral damage assessors.

The film serves as an illustration of dilemmas long discussed by philosophers about causing death and saving lives. Is it justified to knowingly kill an innocent person in order to (possibly) save the lives of others?

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The film also falls into the category of the ticking time bomb scenario much beloved by apologists for torture. Is it justified to torture a suspect to gain information to stop a bomb going off that would kill large numbers of people? Setting aside the questionable assumption that torture is actually useful for obtaining information — critics, including FBI experts, say it is not — this is another moral dilemma: should a prohibition against torture override the urgent need to save lives?

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In “Eye in the sky,” the dilemma is made more acute by the information, obtained through the bug inside the house, that the terrorists are preparing for suicide bombings. Should the house be targeted immediately, with the likelihood of civilian casualties, or the attack postponed, with the risk of much higher civilian casualties in coming minutes from suicide bombings in crowded areas?

There is another dilemma portrayed, intertwined with the other dilemmas. If the attack proceeds and leads to civilian deaths, and information about these deaths becomes public, British politicians will have to answer to the media and the public. As stated by a character in the film, if the suicide bombers cause a massacre, the terrorists will be blamed, but if civilians are killed by a strike against the terrorists, British politicians will be blamed.

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Invisible dilemmas

“Eye in the sky” is a powerful piece of filmmaking, lauded by critics for its drama and acting. It draws the viewer into the moral dilemmas portrayed, with different perspectives conveyed via different characters, and indeed within a few of the characters who are anguished by the choices before them. Yet the film is also based on a number of assumptions that hide deeper, unmentioned dilemmas at the heart of Western anti-terrorism strategy.

The film is entirely from a Western military and political point of view (supplemented by perspectives from Kenyan allies). As viewers, we do not see the world from the perspectives of the terrorists.

Personally, I totally oppose the methods used by suicide bombers and other non-state terrorists. Not only do they involve killing people for political purposes, but they are often counterproductive, legitimating the violence used against any challenge to authorities.

Nevertheless, it is possible to ask, what right do Western governments have to serve as judges and executioners? The targets of Hellfire missiles may have committed crimes, but they have not been brought before a court of law and convicted. Instead, in the film, viewers are positioned to see assassination as a reasonable policy, as long as collateral damage is limited.

Extra-judicial killing of alleged terrorists and bystanders plays a large role in angering people in targeted populations and enabling extremist groups to recruit new members. Drone assassinations thus feed the very problem they are supposed to be countering. They are part of a cycle of perpetual war, of never-ending strike and counter-strike, in which killers on each side are their opponents’ best allies in maintaining the incentive to use violence.

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The assumption that assassination via drones is acceptable is pervasive in Western media. This assumption can be highlighted by alternative scenarios that almost certainly will never occur in real life.

Scenario. A group of health activists has access to far-reaching surveillance capabilities. They have been observing plans to develop a drug; company scientists know it is ineffective and likely to kill thousands of patients, but managers are proceeding because of the promise of billions of dollars in sales. The health activists have access to a bug that can fire a poison dart, killing the company president and thwarting the launch of the drug. Should they proceed?

Absurd? Of course. But the dilemmas involved are quite similar to the “Eye in the sky” scenario.

Other scenarios with similar dynamics can be imagined. An arms exporter is about to seal a deal that will see deadly weapons sold to a ruthless and aggressive ruler. A political leader is about to approve a massive invasion of a foreign country. A company is on the verge of gaining approval for a development that will have disastrous environmental effects. And so on.

Such scenarios are unlikely because most of today’s activists realise that assassination, however well justified, is likely to be counterproductive. For both ethical and pragmatic reasons, they pursue their objectives in more peaceful ways.

Omitted options

“Eye in the sky” highlights dilemmas in the military option against terrorism, and thereby sidelines other anti-terrorism approaches. Terrorism can be challenged by promoting social justice, by involving citizens in gathering intelligence, by getting the media to reduce its attention to terrorism, and by promoting methods of nonviolent action that are far more effective than terrorism. These alternatives — especially the promotion of social justice using nonviolent action — are invisible in the film, as they are in nearly all media treatments.

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The film actually portrays quite well what has been called “state terrorism“, the use of violence by governments that strikes terror into populations. State terrorism causes far more death and destruction than the non-state variety, yet because media and education present the world from the point of view of the state and its operatives, state terrorism as a concept is virtually unknown outside of a few scholarly and activist circles.

We can wait in hope, but probably in vain, for big-screen portrayals of nonviolent campaigns, using grassroots collection of information to challenge western state crime. There may be a script for “The eye of the people” but don’t hold your breath for the feature film.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Jørgen Johansen, Majken Sørensen and Steve Wright for useful comments.

The politics of American Sniper

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Recently I saw the film American Sniper, directed by Clint Eastwood, screenplay by Jason Hall. The film is a dramatisation of the life of Chris Kyle, the most deadly military sniper in US history, with 160 officially credited kills over four tours of duty in Iraq. Kyle is played by actor Bradley Cooper. Here I examine the perspective presented in the film without entering debates about how accurately it portrays Kyle and his actions.

Part of the film shows fighting in Iraq, with visually compelling recreations of combat conditions. The other part of the film shows Kyle before and between his combat tours. He grew up in Texas, learning to shoot from an early age. Lacking direction in his life, he was galvanised to join the military after seeing television reports of the 1998 bombings of US embassies in East Africa. He joined the Navy and did SEAL training, and we watch Kyle going through the arduous exercises involved. Meanwhile, he meets his future wife, and they go on to have two children.

After each of his combat tours in Iraq, Kyle becomes more estranged from suburban life back home. He switches off from his wife and children. It seems that, compared to combat, civilian life is insipid and almost pointless. Kyle is suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, and prone to violent outbursts in inappropriate situations. He volunteers to return to Iraq despite his wife’s appeals for him to stay home with his family.

Eventually a psychologist helps Kyle by putting him in contact with other war veterans, who have horrendous physical and psychological wounds. Kyle finds purpose in supporting some of these veterans, coaching them in shooting in a forest location. American Sniper thus is in part a film about the human consequences of war for soldiers, and the need to support survivors to recover from their trauma.

The combat scenes in the film show why Kyle found civilian life so inadequate. Combat is about life and death, about loyalty and comradeship, about defending one’s country from enemies. It is here that American Sniper buys into a conventional mythology about US war-fighting.

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9/11 and Iraq

Early in the film, Kyle and his wife are horrified as they watch television news of the 9/11 attacks on the US Trade Towers. The next thing we see is Kyle in Iraq, a marksman supporting troops undertaking dangerous door-to-door searches for insurgents. The unstated implication is that being in Iraq had something to do with the 1998 bombings and the 9/11 attacks.

George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and others in the US government justified the 2003 invasion of Iraq with two main deceptions. First, they claimed that the Iraqi government was obtaining weapons of mass destruction: nuclear, chemical and/or biological weapons. However, no such weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq; the intelligence claiming they existed was fatally flawed. Secondly, Bush implied that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11. However, there was no decent evidence that the Iraqi regime had any connections with al-Qaeda. To the contrary, the regime was secular and opposed to al-Qaeda.

In American Sniper, Kyle and his team have the goal of opposing al-Qaeda in Iraq, and this group was certainly part of resistance to the US occupation. But the presence of al-Qaeda in Iraq was a consequence of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, not a justification for the invasion.

The film frames the Iraq conflict from the US perspective. US troops are shown fighting an unscrupulous enemy willing to torture and murder collaborators. The enemy insurgents are mostly anonymous. However, they also include women and children who carry explosives intended to kill US troops.

Reporting violence

Karen Cerulo wrote an insightful book titled Deciphering Violence. She analysed media reports of violence — murder, bombings, massacres, invasions — and classified the texts into four sequences: victim, performer, contextual and doublecasting.

deciphering violence

An example of a victim sequence is the headline “Three children killed by terrorists”. In this sort of sequence, the reader is more likely to identify and sympathise with the victim, so these sequences are likely to be used when the violence is seen as illegitimate. An example of a performer sequence is “Police shoot wanted man”. In a performer sequence, the reader is more likely to identify with the perpetrator of violence, and these sequences are likely to be used when violence is by legitimate authorities. There is much more to Cerulo’s nuanced analysis, but this is enough to appreciate the distinction between victim and performer sequences.

In American Sniper, the perspective is nearly always that of Kyle or other US troops. As viewers, we see the battle from their point of view, and watch their weaponry cause dozens or hundreds of deaths. The film mostly uses performer visual sequences and thus operates as a US-military-sympathetic prism on the Iraq war.

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            Imagine a different perspective, from the viewpoint of an Iraqi. During and after the 1991 Gulf war, Iraq was subject to international sanctions that prevented import of goods, including medical supplies and sanitation equipment. The result was that something like two million Iraqis died in the two decades subsequently due to disease and malnutrition. Some call this genocide, because the massive death toll was known to the outside world but the sanctions were maintained nevertheless.

Then came the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It was not endorsed by the UN: it was illegal according to international law. The rationales for the invasion were shown to be false.

From an Iraqi point of view, their country was being invaded — and some Iraqis were fighting back with whatever weapons were available. US and Iraqi troops were killing civilians, and torturing some of them, most famously in Abu Ghraib prison.

The invasion of Iraq was justified on false claims. After Saddam Hussein’s regime was toppled, why were US troops still there? An Iraqi perspective might portray Kyle as a foreign killer, part of an illegal and illegitimate occupying force.

Kyle in the film says he is defending America, and that the alternative is confronting the enemy in San Diego or New York. This seems almost a caricature of arguments for “defence” by invading a faraway country, one whose military had no capacity of threatening the US.

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Alternatives?

American Sniper has been a tremendous commercial success, grossing more than $500 million. Presumably some of its popularity in the US is due to its congruence with US-centric perspectives on war-fighting, with US troops as the good guys fighting evil opponents. A different sort of film, Iraqi Sniper, would be unlikely to receive such an enthusiastic response in the US.

I had better make my view clear. I’m an opponent of war and terrorism, and have long advocated nonviolent action as a better option. I was opposed to Saddam Hussein’s regime, and also opposed to an invasion to overthrow it. It would have been far more humane and effective to promote nonviolent action by Iraqis to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

However, nonviolent action is mostly invisible in Hollywood films. American Sniper is an excellent war film, but it is a war film, fitting squaring within the genre. It is based on the assumption that war, despite its horrific consequences, is a necessary evil. That assumption needs to be challenged.

PS There are many other critical reviews of American Sniper, some by US veterans, for example Brock McIntosh.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Paula Arvela, Kathy Flynn and Mark Richardson for helpful comments.

Military research dilemmas

Should peace activists care about corruption and exploitation in military research?

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In May 2015, a new law will take effect in Australia concerning military-related research and development. The law has many critics, including leaders of Australian universities. Among the law’s opponents is Brendan Jones, a high-tech entrepreneur. In a strongly argued article in the December issue of  Australasian Science, he lays out the case against the new law. The article begins:

From 17 May 2015, when the Defence Trade Controls Act (DTCA) comes into effect, the federal Department of Defence will gain control over a very large share of high-tech and science research in Australia. Under the Act, publication, discussion or communication of research without a Defence permit will be punishable by up to 10 years jail, a $425,000 fine and forfeiture of research to the government. This includes scientists, academics, librarians, engineers, high-tech workers and companies that have never had a prior relationship with the Department of Defence.

Jones has been passionate in raising the alarm about the DTCA. He claims his business was the victim of depredations by the Australian Department of Defence, which took over his intellectual property without any compensation, causing his business to fail. If it had just been him, he might not have tried to expose it, but after he found out about several other similar cases, he decided he had to act.

It appears the Defence Department has its own favoured business partners. The department seeks out promising research and uses the ideas for its own purposes, without permission or compensation. The DTCA will legalise this sort of extractive process, backing it with punitive penalties for resistance.

Jones quotes several organisations and high-tech entrepreneurs who are critical of the DTCA. And not just critical — some of the entrepreneurs are planning to leave Australia. Jones is one of them, but not without a fight.

For months, Jones has been writing the most amazingly comprehensive treatments of the problems facing whistleblowers in Australia, typically in the form of open letters to politicians. It’s because of his interest in whistleblowing that I have been in touch with him. I’ve commented on drafts of several of his open letters, and posted a couple of them on my website.

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Jones wrote a highly informative treatment of how whistleblowers should interact with journalists. In preparing his article, he contacted numerous journalists for feedback and advice. His article, “A whistleblower’s guide to journalists,” is the best available treatment on this topic. One of his recommendations for whistleblowers is to always remain anonymous if possible.

Several of Jones’ open letters are impressive pieces of research, with dozens or even hundreds of footnotes with references, quotes and examples. If you want a compendium of serious cases of corruption in Australia, Jones’ “Royal petition concerning federal government corruption” is the best available. Likewise, for a powerful indictment of the state of free speech in Australia, it is hard to go past his “Debunking Dreyfus on free speech and freedom.

Corruption in the military

Military expenditures are huge and highly subject to corruption. In many countries, the government runs a monopoly. In others, notably the US, the government buys from favoured suppliers. Because of secrecy and the pretext of national security, shonky operations prosper. In the US, where the processes are best documented, there is a revolving door for top-level military personnel, who join companies and lobby to obtain lucrative contracts.

One of the most famous early whistleblowers in the US was A. Ernest Fitzgerald, who in the 1980s exposed a $2 billion cost overrun in a military aircraft project. Taking inflation into account, this would be more like $20 billion in today’s dollars. For his efforts, Fitzgerald was subject to the usual methods of discrediting, harassment and sidelining. He wrote two books exposing corruption in US military contracting: The High Priests of Waste and The Pentagonists.

high-priests-of-waste

Over the years I’ve talked with quite a few military whistleblowers. They seldom have an easy time. Corruption is as common in the military as in any other part of society, perhaps more common; speaking out about it is quite a bit riskier, because reprisals can be severe, and sometimes whistleblowers are physically attacked. Few areas pose this level of danger to whistleblowers.

There’s a fascinating connection between military corruption and whistleblower laws. During the US civil war, President Abraham Lincoln was disgusted by companies cheating the government when providing military supplies, because their shoddy goods were undermining the war effort.

Lincoln-memorial

The government passed the False Claims Act, allowing whistleblowers who exposed companies defrauding the government to take legal action on behalf of the government, sometimes with the backing of the Department of Justice. The act provides financial rewards to these whistleblowers when prosecutions of corrupt companies are successful. The False Claims Act was revived in 1986 in response to corruption during a massive expansion in military expenditures, and is now widely seen as one of the most powerful pieces of whistleblower legislation. In Australia, the government has long resisted introduction of a similar law.

A dilemma for peace activists?

I’ve been involved with peace issues since the 1970s, and occasionally pondered the question of military corruption and waste. Should a peace activist care? Perhaps military waste is better than military efficiency!

In 1982, Mary Kaldor, a prominent figure in the European peace movement, authored a book entitled The Baroque Arsenal. She argued that military technology was becoming ever more gigantic in scale, high-cost and elaborate, rather like baroque churches that took decades to build. The result was that many weapons systems were becoming almost irrelevant for actual war-fighting: they were not rational from the point of view of military efficiency.

Baroque-arsenal

After I read Kaldor’s book, not long after it was published, I wrote in my notes about it, “But all this has little direct relevance to how to move against war. It seems more useful for those military and civilian planners who would like to truly modernise their armaments towards new industries and simplicity.”

Another thought: perhaps it is better for money to be wasted on inefficient, pointless technological monstrosities, especially if they don’t work. Billions of dollars spent on fighters or bombers that were never deployed might be better than less money spent on lean, efficient tools for killing.

On the other hand, when a military force has more than enough firepower for its purposes, additional expenditures may be pure waste and a drag on society. Furthermore, military corruption and waste may lead to lobbying for more funding: beneficiaries of boondoggles will seek to find ways to continue and increase their income streams. And even if some projects for new fighters or submarines are dropped after the expenditure of billions of dollars, this doesn’t mean other weapons disappear. Whatever the level of waste, rifles keep being produced.

Recently I read Paul Koistinen’s book State of War. His analysis of US military systems supports Kaldor’s analysis. Koistinen writes:

As a form of state capitalism, the defense sector was freed from practically all competitive market pressures. Under those circumstances, the industry became characterized by inefficiency, waste, and corruption; defense contractors too often turned out defective or failed weapons and equipment. Over time, massive expenditures for defense have had a very deleterious effect on the economy. These outlays have led to the hoarding of capital and human resources, especially among scientists and engineers, and to the diverting of public assistance from civilian enterprises. Of crucial significance, according to numerous critics, DOD [Department of Defense] budgets have distorted public priorities and spending, denying adequate attention and resources to infrastructure, education, medical care, and other public services and interests. (p. 235)

state-of-war

Activists have long stated that military spending would be more beneficial if redirected to human needs. However, making the military more efficient does not guarantee that savings will be redeployed for clean water, housing, education or health. Military efficiency might simply mean more money is available for weapons systems.

The DTCA brought back memories of these issues. The DTCA can be thought of as a straitjacket for Australian military-related research. Arguably, it will hinder research and development, with the additional side effect of undermining related civilian research, especially concerning so-called dual-use technologies, which can be adapted for military or civilian purposes.

Another possibility is that military systems that are fair and honest might be more open to switching to nonmilitary production. For decades, there has been a small but dedicated push for what is called “economic conversion” or “peace conversion,” which means switching from military production to production for civilian needs, for example from military vehicles to public transport. After the end of the cold war in 1989, there were great hopes that much such conversion would take place, as it did after the end of World Wars I and II. But these hopes were dashed: the military-industrial complex continued pretty much as before while searching for a new rationale. (Terrorism turned out to be the prime justification.)

peace-conversion-task-force-cartoon-sized-down-adapted-300x235

It does seem plausible that military research and development that is riddled with corrupt and exploitative practices will be resistant to change, because corrupt operators are less subject to rational argument and planning. On the other hand, corrupt systems are less likely to lead to efficient killing machines. Perhaps the world is a safer place if nuclear weapons contractors cut corners in manufacturing, design and maintenance, so that weapons, if ever used, miss their targets or simply won’t work. In this scenario, the baroque arsenal that Mary Kaldor warned about is not such a bad thing: incredibly wasteful but less deadly than it might otherwise be.

militarywastetitle2

An alternative research agenda

There is an alternative to military defence based on civilian methods of nonviolent action such as rallies, strikes, boycotts and occupations. Many people, because they believe violence always triumphs over nonviolence, see this as totally implausible, but there is good evidence that nonviolent methods can be more effective than armed struggle in challenging repressive regimes, because the goal is to win over the opponent, including the opponent’s troops.

The arguments about nonviolent defence – also called civilian-based defence, social defence and defence by civil resistance – have been canvassed elsewhere. Their relevance here is that if this alternative is taken seriously, it leads to an entirely different agenda for research, development and infrastructure. For example, decentralised renewable energy systems are much more suited for surviving an occupation, a blockade or a terrorist attack than centralised energy systems based on fossil fuels or nuclear power. Analogous considerations apply to communications, transport, agriculture and construction. A nonviolence-driven research agenda would give far more attention to social sciences and would change priorities in nearly every field of study.

From this point of view, the DTCA and problems of corruption in the military seem almost irrelevant. Research continues to be driven by military priorities, whether done efficiently or not.

Back to practicalities

A reorientation of military expenditures towards nonviolent alternatives is almost completely off the agenda. It proceeds only to the extent that developments, for example in energy and communications, increase the capacity of citizens to take action. As seen in the Arab spring and other nonviolent movements, network communication systems help citizens organise and coordinate actions.

For now, I will continue to support two seemingly disparate agendas: one is nonviolent defence and the other is dissent, including those who challenge the DTCA and other such legislation.

censored-igor-saktor
Image: Igor Saktor, The Australian

I’ve talked to a number of people in the military about nonviolent defence. Although most are sceptical about whether it could work, they recognise a common interest in thinking strategically about defending against aggression. Indeed, many officers would prefer to never have to fire a weapon in anger, seeing deterrence and prevention as superior to fighting.

In the same way, there can be a worthwhile dialogue and sharing of concerns when it comes to supporting integrity and free speech in the military. I will continue to support military whistleblowers and hope others will too.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

I thank Anu Bissoonauth-Bedford, Jørgen Johansen, Brendan Jones, Anne Melano, Brian Rappert and Kim Sawyer for valuable comments on drafts.

Jørgen Johansen comments

There are several discussions running in parallel here: one about the waste in military spending, one on the corruption in the military-industrial complex, one on defending a country without violent means, and one on the morality of having an inefficient military system compared to an efficient one. Even if they are related I think these should be held separate. One reason is that addressing topics separately makes it easier to understand, analyse, and act.

More importantly, for anyone who wants to oppose military/violent/corrupt systems, it is strategically important to confront them one at a time. To lump them together makes it almost impossible to “sell the arguments” and/or build alliances with those who are engaged in only one of these topics.

Too many activists are trapped in a fundamentalist attitude; “If you don’t agree with us on veganism, feminism, pacifism, sustainable energy, bi- and trans-sexuality, … we cannot have you in our group.” Almost all successful movements have focused on more limited questions, such as universal voting rights, anti-slavery, civil rights (anti-segregation), anti-personnel mines and anti-whaling.

If you don’t plan to write a huge book, there is no way you can properly describe all the complexities of the issues you mention in a single blog. This is of course not an argument against your topic for the blog, but advice for those who want to take up any of the issues you present and to run a campaign.

A final thought: it should not be on the peace movement’s agenda to discuss what sort of military means we want to see. Leave that to others.