Category Archives: military

Nuclear insanity

In the early 1980s, when the mass movement against nuclear war was at its height, a satirical poster offered light relief. Ostensibly from the US Office of Civil Defense, it listed instructions in case of nuclear attack. After five preliminary and sensible-sounding instructions, number 6 stated “Immediately upon seeing the brilliant flash of nuclear explosion, bend over and place your head firmly between your legs.” Finally, number 7: “Then kiss your ass goodbye.”

            The poster’s black humour drew on the assumption that no one would survive a nuclear strike, indeed that no one might survive a global nuclear war. That was my view too, until I started investigating more deeply, and concluded that nuclear war would not necessarily be the end, certainly not in Australia. But it would still mean catastrophic levels of death and destruction.

            By the end of the 1980s, the worldwide anti-nuclear movement had collapsed, in part due to exhaustion and loss of media interest, and in part due to the end of the Cold War and the immediate threat of nuclear annihilation. But there were still thousands of nuclear weapons, held by quite a few governments. The threat hadn’t gone away, but most people had simply lost interest.

            A new book by Annie Jacobsen, titled Nuclear War: A Scenario, is an attempt to reignite concern. It is engaging, in a morbid sort of way. More on the book shortly, but first a bit about my involvement with the issues decades ago.

Nuclear war: the end?

In the early 1980s, I was working as a research assistant in applied mathematics at the Australian National University, and active in the peace movement. Also working at ANU was Des Ball, in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre. Des was a sort of insider dissident. He had access to military intelligence, and used it to write exposés about US bases in Australia and their role in nuclear war-fighting.

            Des challenged my assumption that nuclear war was the end, leading me on a journey towards a different conclusion. Nuclear war would be an unprecedented disaster, but most likely a significant proportion of the world’s population would survive. I wrote about my change in viewpoint in Truth Tactics.

            Des and I talked about writing a book about the consequences of a nuclear attack on Australia. Des would write about targeting and I would calculate the likely death toll from blast, heat and fallout. Recently I was going through my old files and discovered folders with newspaper clippings about Australia as a nuclear target, booklets about civil defence (how to increase your odds of surviving an attack), and computer programs. To calculate the likely path of fallout from nuclear strikes, I needed figures for wind speeds and directions. I contacted the Bureau of Meteorology and obtained magnetic tapes with this data, and wrote a program to extract it.

            The prime targets in Australia were the US intelligence bases at Pine Gap, Nurrungar and North West Cape, and maybe some other installations. Canberra, where I then lived, is the national capital and a possible target. Back then, one of the main demands of the Australian peace movement was to get rid of the US bases, because they were a key part of the apparatus for fighting a nuclear war. Des’s writing gave substance to the movement’s concerns. (For up-to-date information about US bases in Australia, see publications by Richard Tanter and others at the Nautilus Institute.)


Pine Gap, in central Australia

            By writing about the consequences of a nuclear attack on Australia, Des and I hoped to raise people’s concerns. Well, our project never went very far, I think because it was becoming bigger than I anticipated, and I had other projects. But I did develop a keen interest in the effects of nuclear war. My 1982 article “The global health effects of nuclear war” was widely read. Around that time, new research showed that smoke and dust from nuclear strikes and firestorms, lofted into the upper atmosphere, would block sunlight, leading to cold and darkness, possibly for years. This effect, called nuclear winter, could cause mass starvation. Nuclear war wasn’t going to be a fun time. We knew that already. It was with this background that I read Annie Jacobsen’s book.

A scenario

Nuclear War: A Scenario is an attempt to raise the alarm. And it does so, quite effectively, though with some problems.

Jacobsen’s scenario starts with the firing of a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) from North Korea.


North Korean ICBM

US satellites immediately pick up the heat signature from the missile launch and the information is sent to secure stations. Before long, it is apparent the missile is aimed at the US, at Washington DC: it’s a nuclear attack, though a rather unlikely one, with no obvious motivation. Still, it is an excellent choice for a fictional scenario.

            Jacobsen tells what happens next second by second, and then minute by minute, taking us into decision-making forums in the US and, to a lesser extent, Russia and elsewhere. In developing the scenario, Jacobsen interviewed dozens of nuclear experts, military commanders, civilian leaders and others, with the result that the sequence of events comes across as all too realistic in its technical and human detail.


Submarine-launched ballistic missile

        But even before the ICBM arrives, another target is hit. A North Korean submarine has snuck close to the California coast and launches a missile whose payload, a nuclear weapon, hits the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, causing a nuclear meltdown, releasing vast quantities of radioactivity into the environment, far more than produced by the nuclear weapon. A farmer, at a distance, uploads a video of the explosion, and panic ensues across the country.


Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant

            In telling the story of this imagined nuclear war, Jacobsen pauses along the way to provide “history lessons” and technical information, covering for example the development of nuclear weapons and delivery systems, control systems, decision-making processes, radiation sickness, and the effects of explosions.

            The graphic horror of nuclear war comes after the one-megaton nuclear weapon in North Korea’s ICBM hits Washington DC. Jacobsen lists what is destroyed, for example the Pentagon and the Lincoln Memorial, and the human effects, with bodies liquefied, skin flayed and people fried alive. For example, for those not immediately incinerated, “The X-ray light of the nuclear flash burns skin off people’s bodies, leaving their extremities a shredded horror of bloody tendons and exposed bone. Wind rips the skin off people’s faces and tears away limbs. Survivors die of shock, heart attack, blood loss.” (p. 165).

            Most of the book covers the first 72 minutes. The US military launches a massive strike against North Korea, killing millions. Because US ICBMs, to reach North Korea, must travel over Russia, Russian leaders think they are under attack, and fear their missiles will be destroyed before they can be launched. To prevent being “decapitated,” they launch them in an all-out attack against the US, which returns fire.

            Meanwhile, the North Korean attack isn’t over. A nuclear bomb, contained in a satellite, explodes high over North America, generating a nuclear electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that shorts out circuits over most of the continent, and electricity supplies all close down as a result. Only military communications, designed to survive EMP,  remain uninterrupted.

A few quibbles

Jacobsen’s scenario vividly shows the possibility of a nuclear attack that triggers an escalation into global nuclear war, and the horrific consequences of such a war. In giving technical and human detail — for example, the US president being whisked away from Washington DC, and heated arguments about who is in command of nuclear forces — the scenario comes across as completely credible in its specifics, as exactly what might happen.

            The scenario is mostly from the US point of view. Nearly all the experts and officials who Jacobsen interviewed are from the US (and nearly all male), so it’s not surprising that the scenario mainly gives a US point of view with the US being the target of an unprovoked attack. Yet, historically, US leaders have repeatedly considered using nuclear weapons, for example against China in the 1950s and Vietnam in the 1970s. Furthermore, the US has been the trailblazer in developing nuclear weapons, with the Soviet Union playing catch-up and others following suit. The scenario, in contrast, paints the US primarily as the victim rather than an instigator or provocateur.

            In Jacobsen’s scenario, technological systems work remarkably well. The initial North Korean ICBM unerringly hits Washington DC with devastating consequences. The reality is that no one knows how well these weapons systems will operate in wartime because they have never been tested in battle conditions. Some missiles may fizzle or explode on launch.

Many are likely to miss their targets, exploding in the countryside with relatively few casualties. It’s also possible that some individuals involved in a nuclear crisis may decide not to escalate, but Jacobsen has all the soldiers involved following orders, from the top commanders to those tasked with firing missiles from land, sea and air.

The end?

In the scenario, the focus is on the US, Russia and Europe, all of which are pulverised as they expend their entire nuclear arsenals in the fear of having them destroyed before they can be used. Jacobsen repeatedly states or implies that this means “the end.”

  • “the end of civilization as we know it” (p. xii)
  • “… this is how it ends. With Armageddon. With civilization being destroyed.” (p. 238)
  • “Only time will tell if we humans will survive.” (p. 289) 

 

Jacobsen writes, “The fundamental idea behind this book is to demonstrate, in appalling detail, just how horrifying nuclear war would be.” (p. 298). In this, she undoubtedly succeeds. However, highlighting the horrors of nuclear war has never been shown to be an effective way to induce governments to give up their arsenals.

            If a nuclear winter lasts years and causes most of those who survive nuclear attacks to die of starvation, then things will be grim indeed.

            In a few sentences, Jacobsen summarises what happens in the rest of the world. “In this scenario, in all but a small region of the Southern Hemisphere (including Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, and parts of Paraguay), widespread famine grips the Earth.” (p. 288). She cites a study that concludes that five billion or more people might die in a nuclear-winter-induced famine. Horrific indeed, but this still leaves two or three billion alive, and they wouldn’t all be in the South Pacific and South America. Maybe India and sub-Saharan Africa?

            It so happens that this year, a study was published about post-nuclear-war survival in New Zealand. The author, Wren Green, was the leader of a team that, back in the 1980s, did an earlier study of the effects of nuclear war on New Zealand. The country isn’t likely to be attacked. It is buffered from nuclear winter effects by being in the southern hemisphere and surrounded by ocean. It has an agricultural surplus. Even so, life would be very difficult due to the major loss of imports, especially transport fuels, medicines, vehicles and electronics (including computers and phones). But a functioning society could potentially re-emerge and continue. Does New Zealand count as the survival of civilisation?

If societies were better prepared for major shocks, like economic collapse and pandemics, their capacity to recover from nuclear war would be greater.


Can you find New Zealand?

            Another quibble: Jacobsen assumes that after a nuclear attack, there will be “mayhem”: panic, chaos, a breakdown of social order.

  • “Democracy will be replaced by anarchy. Moral constructs will disappear. Murder, mayhem, and madness will prevail.” (p. 105)
  • “There is mayhem, everywhere.” (p. 171)
  • “Widespread chaos, violence, and anarchy have begun.” (p. 219)

Views about social breakdown may reflect fictional portrayals, such as the Mad Max movies and the dystopian novel and film “The Road”. However, since the 1950s, studies of actual disasters, including aerial bombing, have shown the contrary: most people behave rationally; they don’t panic, and many do what they can to help others.

Final remarks

Despite these limitations, there is much to learn from Jacobsen’s scenario. One important point is that governments have made extensive preparations for the survival of political and military leadership, but not the population: in the US, “there is no federal agency to help citizens survive a nuclear war per se.” (p. 100). In my slim collection of Australian material on civil defence, nothing is more recent than 1985.


Annie Jacobsen

            Jacobsen points to the shortcomings of the theory of deterrence, the idea that having nuclear weapons ready to use will deter attacks. She repeatedly highlights a problem: when deterrence fails, the whole house of cards comes tumbling down: the theory doesn’t work.

            Every figure Jacobsen interviewed said nuclear war would be horrific. The weird thing is that many of these figures were heavily involved in developing and maintaining nuclear arsenals. Is preparing for mass annihilation sane?

            Jacobsen doesn’t report interviewing any peace activists or peace researchers. She even says, in the scenario, that people realise “that no one did anything substantial to prevent nuclear World War III.” (p. 268). This is wrong. For decades, millions of citizens have campaigned against nuclear weapons and nuclear war. They are our best hope to prevent the sort of scenario that Jacobsen has so vividly portrayed.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Anu Bissoonauth-Bedford and Wren Green for valuable comments.

Genocide reflections

The mass killings in Gaza have been called genocide. This got me thinking about other genocides, and how they are similar to or different from what’s happening in Gaza.

                  For years, I have read articles and books about genocide. It is a particularly horrific phenomenon that needs to be studied and addressed. It is a challenge for those, like me, who support nonviolent methods of resisting aggression and repression.

                  According to the United Nations Genocide Convention, genocide refers to intending to destroy all or part of an ethnic, religious or national group. Technically, then, the mass killings in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 do not constitute genocide, because the targets were members of the same national and ethnic group. The Cambodian killings could instead be called politicide. However, most scholars diverge from the Genocide Convention definition, instead applying the term genocide to any state-sponsored mass killing aimed at destroying groups of civilians.


Raphael Lemkin, the prime force behind the UN Genocide Convention

                  Some scholars are genocide specialists, devoting their entire careers to examining genocide in general, or specific ones. I have never been such a specialist, but I developed a framework for understanding the tactics used by powerful perpetrators of injustice, and found it applied to genocide, one of the greatest injustices of all.

                  In this framework, called the backfire model, powerful perpetrators commonly use five types of methods to reduce public outrage. They cover up their actions, devalue the targets, reinterpret events by lying, minimising, blaming and framing, use official channels to give the appearance of justice, and intimidate or reward people involved. I and others applied the model to censorship, sexual harassment, police brutality, massacres and torture.

                  I knew this model of outrage management would apply to genocide. For example, the Nazis used all these methods in their extermination of Jews, Slavs and others, known as the Holocaust, keeping the killing programme secret, devaluing their targets, and denying the extent of their culpability. The model would certainly apply, but given the massive documentation of the Holocaust, I decided to examine a different genocide, where it was more feasible to get on top of the evidence, and picked Rwanda.

Rwanda, 1994

In the course of studying the Rwandan genocide, I read about ten books and lots of articles, keeping an eye out for methods used by perpetrators to reduce outrage. It was shocking to read so much about the genocide. I knew it was bad, but it was much worse than I had imagined.

                  Rwanda is a small landlocked country in central Africa that had been a Belgian colony. The Belgian rulers introduced a formal racial distinction between the Hutu and the Tutsi, though they lived among each other and intermarried, and put Tutsi figures in charge, though they came from a much smaller group. These racial groups became a toxic legacy after independence, when Hutu politicians controlled the Rwandan government.

                  In 1994, the death of the president of Rwanda triggered a sudden and massive assault on the Tutsi minority, and on Hutu “moderates,” with over half a million people killed in a matter of months. Reading about the genocide, I learned several things that usually receive little attention.

                  Rwanda is the most Christian country in Africa. The genocide involved Christians killing Christians, some of them slaughtered in churches where they had sheltered. Yet the worldwide Christian community paid little attention to the implications of this shocking violation of Christian precepts.


Aftermath of the killing of thousands of people in a Rwandan church

                  Before the genocide, the Rwandan government had been at war with Tutsi exiles based in the neighbouring country Uganda. Many other genocides have occurred during wartime, including the genocide of the Armenians during World War I and of the Jews during World War II. War seems to facilitate the unleashing of military force against civilians.

                  In Rwanda in 1994, there was a United Nations peacekeeping force, introduced to constrain the outbreak of war between the Rwandan government and the Tutsi rebels, who called themselves the Rwandan Patriotic Front or RPF. After the genocide started, the RPF recommenced its attacks. The war was on again.

                  I found ample evidence of cover-up, devaluation and other methods of reducing outrage over the killings. For example, Western governments withdrew their nationals, thus aiding in cover-up. The head of the UN peacekeeping force, Canadian soldier Roméo Dallaire, desperately appealed to the UN for greater support and for permission to defend civilians, given that peacekeepers are normally expected to use force only to defend themselves. Dallaire’s hopes were dashed. Amid the worst killing, the UN withdrew most of the peacekeeping troops from the country.

                  Meanwhile, other governments did nothing to stop the ongoing massacres. Only the French government belatedly organised a military intervention, whose main purpose was to protect the killers.

Bangladesh, 1971

When India gained independence in 1947, it was accompanied by a horrific breakup, called the Partition, leading to the creation of Muslim-dominated Pakistan, which was divided geographically between West Pakistan (today called Pakistan) and East Pakistan (today called Bangladesh), separated by 2000km.

India operated as a parliamentary democracy, but Pakistan suffered from authoritarian politics. In 1971, the military ruler of Pakistan, General Yahya, called elections. To his surprise, a party in East Pakistan, the Awami League, won the majority of seats and should have become the government. To stop this, Yahya sent troops to East Pakistan that began a massive killing operation.


Yahya Khan

                  Most of the people in East Pakistan were Muslims, but there was a significant Hindu minority, perhaps 13 million people. They were prime targets in the killing. Soon there was a vast tide of refugees, mostly Hindus, fleeing East Pakistan for safety in India. Within a matter of months in 1971, there were nearly ten million refugees, while hundreds of thousands of people were massacred in East Pakistan.

                  In writing about this story, I’m relying heavily on Gary Bass’s book The Blood Telegram. Bass did extensive interviews and studied archives. There was a rich lode of information about the US role. President Richard Nixon secretly taped all his conversations, and those with national security advisor Henry Kissinger were especially revealing.

                  In Dacca (now Dhaka), the major city in East Pakistan, staff in the US Consulate witnessed the slaughter of Bengalis by West Pakistan troops. They reported their observations to the State Department in increasingly desperate terms. The consul general, Archer Blood, supported his staff, using the word genocide to describe the killings. They were supported by State Department staff in Washington DC.

                  Meanwhile, the Indian government and press were in an uproar about the killings and the refugees. Likewise, in the US, there was considerable media coverage. Senator Ted Kennedy, who obtained reports from the Dacca consulate, attacked the Nixon administration.

                  Lots of people knew about the killings, but this had little impact on US policy, because Nixon and Kissinger saw General Yahya as their friend, and they hated India and its prime minister Indira Gandhi. They were using Yahya as a go-between to engage with the Chinese government for the first time since the 1949 revolution. It was a strange configuration. Nixon and Kissinger supported a military dictator who was massacring his citizens, made friends with China’s Communist rulers, and were intensely hostile to the major democracy in Asia, India, which turned to the Soviet Union for arms and diplomatic support. Nixon and Kissinger illegally organised arms shipments to Yahya’s government and encouraged Chinese leaders to mount a military threat to India.

                  As in every genocide, things were more complicated than apparent on the surface. As the killings continued in East Pakistan, Bengalis organised a guerrilla resistance, supported by the Indian military. As the refugee numbers increased, and public pressure increased, Indira Gandhi prepared for war with Pakistan. When it happened, it took only two weeks for Indian troops to take Dacca, ending the genocide and enabling East Pakistan to become the independent country Bangladesh.

                  Nixon and Kissinger furiously condemned the Indian government, and cynically used the United Nations as part of their campaign. Yet, as Bass tells the story, the role of Nixon and Kissinger in supporting Yahya and one of the worst genocides in the twentieth century has largely been forgotten.


Kissinger and Nixon

Other genocides

Wars over the past century have killed more civilians than soldiers, and genocides may have killed even more than wars. Yet many genocides receive little attention.

                  Who now remembers the genocide in Indonesia in 1965-66, a pogrom of Communists and others, with over half a million people killed? Western governments did nothing to stop the killing. As documented by Vincent Bevins in his book The Jakarta Method, the US government helped the killers. This “benign bloodbath” was welcomed by Western anti-communist leaders.

                  The record shows a remarkable lack of interest by foreign governments in intervening against genocide. During World War II, Allied leaders knew about the Nazi death camps, such as Auschwitz, and could have ordered bombing of the camps or rail lines leading to them. But they didn’t. They prioritised defeating the Nazis over ending the mass extermination.

                  Nor were the Allies all that concerned about civilian lives. In the strategic bombing of Germany and Japan during the war, civilians were the main casualties, despite this doing little to hinder the enemy’s war efforts. Some scholars have pointed to similarities between this bombing and genocide, but there seems to be little interest in examining strategic bombing through the lens of genocide.

                  Some of the greatest human disasters in the past century were in Communist states, especially the Soviet Union and China, where millions perished in purges and famines. These atrocities were covered up. The famine in China resulting from the Great Leap Forward, initiated in 1958, resulted in tens of millions of deaths, but information about this only became known outside the country decades later. Inducing famine, as in the case of Stalin’s ruthless policies against Ukraine in the early 1930s, can be a genocidal tool.

                  The human rights group Article 19 published a revealing report titled Starving in Silence, arguing that famine can usually be avoided when there is a free press. This helps explain why, in India, there have been no famines since independence, whereas famines have ravaged several African countries with authoritarian governments.

                  After the Gulf War in 1991, in which the Iraqi military was driven out of Kuwait, economic sanctions were placed on Iraq, leading to mass deaths due to hunger and disease, with perhaps two million people dying as a result over the following decade. In a widely publicised exchange, Madeleine Albright, US ambassador to the UN, was asked whether the deaths of half a million children in Iraq was a price worth paying for keeping Saddam Hussein’s regime in check. She answered yes.


Madeleine Albright

                  Finally, it is necessary to mention colonialism. European militaries invaded, conquered and occupied much of the rest of the world — North and South America, Africa, Asia and Australia — leading to the mass death of Indigenous people due to war, disease and cultural destruction. On a per capita basis, deaths due to colonialism probably outnumber all other mass killings.

                  Despite the carnage, governments today are prepared for even greater slaughter. Every government with nuclear weapons — US, Russia, Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea — is poised to kill millions of civilians, and some of these governments reserve the right to launch a first strike. Nuclear arsenals are commonly justified as deterrence against aggression, but in human terms they are a form of collective insanity, a willingness to be prepared to kill millions of people. The Treaty on Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons came into force in 2021, but none of the governments holding them seems to care.

Gaza, 2023–24

The Israeli military assault on Gaza, killing tens of thousands of Palestinians, has generated outrage worldwide. What lessons are there from earlier mass killings?

                  One important difference is the role of cover-up. From Nazi Germany to Indonesia to Rwanda, perpetrators and their supporters have tried to hide killings from wider audiences. But the killings in Gaza are in the glare of publicity, which is a key reason for the much greater public uproar. Nevertheless, it is plausible that future exposés will reveal Israeli actions even worse than those now reported in the media.

                  In nearly every genocide, there is devaluation of the targets. There is ample evidence of contemptuous Israeli attitudes towards Palestinians, for example as documented in the South African application to the International Court of Justice alleging Israeli responsibility for genocide in Gaza.

                  When mass killings are exposed, perpetrators and their allies provide explanations, or rationalisations, for their actions. I’ve called this reinterpretation, and it includes lying, minimising, blaming and framing. Lies include the claim that Hamas cut off the heads of babies. The Israeli government blamed Hamas’ 7 October attacks for its attack on Gaza, and framed the assault as defending against terrorists.

                  The US government has publicly warned the Israeli government about its actions, meanwhile providing arms for the Israeli military. In this context, foreign governments are a sort of official channel, giving the appearance of providing justice without much substance. The United Nations has been impotent.

                  Finally, there is the tactic of intimidating critics of the Israeli military attack on Gaza, including campaigns in several countries against critics of Israel, and the killing of journalists in Gaza itself.

                  According to the backfire model, counter-tactics to increase outrage include exposing the injustice, validating targets, interpreting actions as unjust, not relying on official channels but instead mobilising support, and resisting intimidation and rewards. Protesters against killings in Gaza have been using all these methods, including circulating information, humanising Palestinians through personal stories, emphasising the injustice of mass killing of Palestinian civilians, organising public protests, and standing up against threats.

**************

                  Reflecting on genocides past, present and future can be demoralising. It seems that social institutions are set up to be humans’ own worst enemies. But there are also many examples of sustained efforts to oppose domination, exploitation and killing. Just don’t rely on national leaders to be our saviours.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

For valuable comments, thanks to Mark Diesendorf, Jørgen Johansen, Janet Mayer, Michael McKinley and Dalilah Shemia-Goeke.

The technology of occupation

What should we think about the Israeli government and companies selling weapons to repressive governments?

Before I get to this question, let me tell you a bit about Steve Wright. He was amazing. For years, he worked at the Omega Research Foundation in Manchester, which investigates the production and trade in military and police technologies. Steve would regularly visit security fairs. These “fairs” are like arms fairs where weapons manufacturers exhibit their products to potential buyers from around the world. At security fairs, the products for sale include surveillance equipment, leg irons and thumb cuffs, sound cannons, and instruments used for torture such as electroshock batons and stun belts.

Steve would visit these fairs, pretending he was a potential buyer, chat up staff at company stalls, collect brochures and covertly take photos. This was a risky activity, especially for fairs in repressive states like Turkey. Steve and I began corresponding in the 1980s. Once, after visiting me in Australia and before leaving for a security fair in China, he left behind all evidence that might indicate his real intentions.


Steve Wright

After getting back home to Britain, Steve would provide relevant information to human rights groups like Amnesty International, which ran an anti-torture campaign. If, for example, he found German equipment being used for surveillance or torture in some other country, he would notify German human rights groups. Most companies and governments keep quiet about their trade in technologies used to repress dissent. Sometimes Steve would write articles using a pseudonym.

Sadly, Steve died in 2019. I thought of him and his work when reading a new book by Antony Loewenstein titled The Palestine Laboratory. The subtitle of the book shows the connection: How Israel Exports the Technology of Occupation around the World. Loewenstein tells a shocking story, backed up with comprehensive referencing.

Israeli military exports

The Israeli government and Israeli companies are major producers and exporters of military equipment and training. There’s nothing all that special about being involved in arms manufacture and sales. After all, this is a huge global enterprise, with the United States, Russia, France, China and Germany being the biggest exporters. What’s surprising is that Israel, with a fairly small population, punches far above its weight — and in the way it pursues arms sales.

Loewenstein documents how Israeli companies export arms to just about any country in the world, including ones whose governments are highly repressive, known for gross human rights abuses. He writes, “The sheer number of dictatorships with whom Israel has had relations is staggering,” and goes on to discuss connections with South Africa under apartheid, Iran under the Shah, Indonesia under Suharto, Romania, Haiti, Paraguay, Nicaragua and others. Among the recipients of Israeli arms are regimes that are officially hostile to Israel, and regimes that have persecuted Jews. You can open just about any page of the book and find damning material. For example, during the dictatorship in Argentina,

“The military junta tortured Jews in its prisons, and declassified documents show that Israel did not seem to care.
Israel knew about the repression from the beginning, but did not express any opposition because it viewed its agenda of getting Argentinian support for its West Bank occupation as more important. It claimed that weapons sales to the junta would help Argentinian Jews, but this was a feeble excuse. Blatant anti-Semitism was ubiquitous across Argentina, special torture techniques were reserved for Jewish women, and Argentinian concentration camps were filled with pictures of Hitler and Nazi emblems.” (p. 38)


Members of  Madres de Plaza Mayo hold photos of victims who were “disappeared” during Argentina’s dictatorship.

It seems that Israeli arms export is not limited by any ethical barriers. This could serve as an example of realpolitik, which means making decisions based on the interests of the state, disregarding morality. The Israeli government uses arms sales as a means of cultivating support among governments throughout the world, despite the use of the weapons against populations. This is common internationally but Israeli leaders seem to have taken it to an extreme level.


Rubble in Gaza after Israeli shelling

That is shocking enough, but there’s another crucial element of Israeli arms sales. A key selling point is that the arms have been “battle-tested.” In Palestine. For decades, the Israeli military has been running operations against Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. These are one-sided affairs, with the numbers of deaths and injuries of Palestinians vastly outnumbering those of Israelis. Perhaps this too is a selling point, because many of the customers of Israeli weaponry face no external threats, only internal opposition. The title of Loewenstein’s book, The Palestine Laboratory, references the value to Israeli weapons exporters of the desirable attribute “battle-tested.”

Israeli surveillance exports

But it’s not just weapons. Israeli firms are leading producers of surveillance technology such as facial recognition and spyware for listening in on people’s conversations.

One of the most significant exports is software called Pegasus, which can be used to extract information from the phones of targets. Any government wanting to monitor dissidents is keen to intercept phone communications, especially when they are encrypted. Israeli firm NSO has sold Pegasus to a large number of buyers, including some of the world’s most repressive regimes.

In Togo,

“ … the regime could read activists’ private WhatsApp messages. Arrests and torture were based on details contained in these conversations. How that had occurred was revealed in a 2018 report by Citizen Lab, a Canadian cybersecurity research group, after they uncovered the presence of Israeli company NSO Group Pegasus spyware on activists’ smartphones, a tool that allows the complete capture of all data on the device. It was bought from NSO by the regime in 2016.” (p. 163)

The Israeli government sometimes disowns responsibility, saying it does not control the activities of private firms. Loewenstein provides information to the contrary, showing that surveillance exporting companies are tightly linked to the Israeli government’s security operations.

Once again, Palestine is a selling point. Surveillance of Palestinians, in Israel, Gaza, the West Bank and beyond, is pervasive. It occurs via face recognition technology and monitoring of electronic communication, among other means, and enables the creation of detailed dossiers on numerous individuals.

Border control

As well as exporting arms, Israel provides a different sort of export: a model of what Loewenstein calls ethnonationalism, a combination of policies and beliefs that support a national group at the expense of outsiders. For Israeli policy-makers, the outsiders are Palestinians. For the European Union, they are asylum seekers fleeing wars and oppression in Africa and elsewhere. For the United States, they are asylum seekers from Central America.

The ethnonationalist response to undesired peoples is to put up barriers. That includes walls, such as the one in Palestine.

It also includes weapons.

“At the Evros land border with Turkey, Greece uses deafening long-range sound cannons to scare refugees. Although only the size of a small TV set, it emits sounds as loud as an airplane or shotgun blasted right next to the ear. It can cause permanent hearing damage. Greece purchased the devices from US company Genasys, and they have been deployed by law enforcement officers around the world.” (p. 112)

This example reminded me of Steve’s work. In “Looming struggles over technology for border control,” we wrote, in the abstract,

“New technologies under development, capable of inflicting pain on masses of people, could be used for border control against asylum seekers. … We focus on taser anti-personnel mines, [and] also outline several other types of ‘non-lethal’ technology that could be used for border control and raise human rights concerns: high-powered microwaves; armed robots; wireless tasers; acoustic devices/vortex rings; ionizing and pulsed energy lasers; chemical calmatives, convulsants, bioregulators and malodurants. Whether all these possible border technologies will be implemented is a matter for speculation, but their serious human rights implications warrant advance scrutiny.”

It seems Israeli exporters are now at the forefront of border-control technology. It comes along with an endorsement that might be called “occupation-tested.”

Controlling the narrative

Just when you think Loewenstein has provided sufficient damning material, there’s more. Israeli government actions have led to concern not just among the Palestinians but more widely, in international circles, as exemplified in the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement to support Palestinian rights. Israeli exports of weapons and surveillance technology serve to counter this by winning diplomatic support from autocratic regimes. There’s another dimension: discrediting and harassing critics.

An important battleground is the media, both mass media and social media. Prominent critics can expect to be criticised online, sometimes harassed. Loewenstein documents the attempts by supporters of the Israeli government to censor or discredit critics.

“When Palestinian homes in the occupied East Jerusalem area of Sheikh Jarrah were slated for removal by Israel in April 2021, activists found that posts with the hashtag #SaveSheikhJarrah were disappearing from Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Twitter accounts were suspended and Facebook posts removed. Graphic warning labels were placed on text-only Instagram posts and live streams from Sheikh Jarrah were made inaccessible.” (p. 183)

This illustrates how Western tech companies serve Israeli government agendas.

A key rhetorical technique is to label any criticism of Israeli policies as anti-Semitic, in other words as anti-Jewish. This is a powerful technique because there is a great deal of anti-Semitism in the world today, following a long history of hostility to Jews, including pogroms and, most notoriously, the Holocaust, in which Nazis systematically murdered millions of Jews during World War II. This history is important in several ways. It provides a rationale for defending a Jewish state. It generates sympathy for Jews as victims of one of the most horrendous crimes in history. And it serves as a way to associate any criticism of Israeli policies with anti-Semitism.

This raises a more general issue. When a group is subject to a crime, generating sympathy, at what point does it become acceptable to criticise the group for its own actions? In Rwanda, there was a genocide in 1994 targeting the Tutsi minority population. It was only brought to an end by the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front, which defeated the Rwandan government that was leading the genocide. Paul Kagame, commander of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, has been president since 2000; it is more difficult to criticise his government because of what was done to the Tutsis.

Managing outrage

Steve and I collaborated on an article examining the tactics associated with the export and use of torture technology. The same sorts of tactics are readily observable in relation to Israeli technology exports. Consider some methods to reduce public outrage over these exports, and counter-methods to increase outrage.

1. Cover-up and exposure. The Israeli government and companies operate behind the scenes as much as possible, so few members of the public know about their production and trade in weapons and surveillance equipment. Loewenstein’s book is a prime example of the counter to cover-up: documenting the exports.

2. Devaluation and validation. The Israeli government, and many Israelis, denigrate Palestinians, for example labelling them terrorists, and treating them as a subject people by extensive surveillance, destruction of property and attacks. Critics of the government are called anti-Semitic. In contrast, Loewenstein and others treat Palestinian human rights as important as anyone else’s.

3. Interpretation struggles. The Israeli government regularly lies about its military exports and, when there are abuses, blames companies. Loewenstein exposes lies and the falsity of blaming companies. He points out double standards internationally, for example Western governments’ condemnation of Russian attacks that kill Ukrainian civilians but silence about Israeli attacks that kill Palestinian civilians.

4. Intimidation and resistance. Defenders of the Israeli government threaten and harass critics. Some of these critics persist despite attacks. Loewenstein is one of them.

Conclusion

The Palestine Laboratory is a powerful exposé of the Israeli arms and surveillance export industry. It is relentless in providing facts and figures about unsavoury deals, showing Israeli leaders as seemingly indifferent to the harmful uses of its technology exports, even against Jews in other countries, so long as this serves the interests of the Israeli state.


Antony Loewenstein

Loewenstein’s exposé is powerful but can also be demoralising. On a positive note, he reports on the efforts of a range of critics of Israeli policies. For greater hope, you can turn to accounts of Palestinian resistance, especially nonviolent resistance, for example Souad Dajani’s Eyes without Country, Marwan Darweish and Andrew Rigby’s Popular Protest in Palestine, Maxine Kaufman-Lacusta’s Refusing to be Enemies, and Mary Elizabeth King’s A Quiet Revolution.

Despite Israeli government efforts to build international support, Loewenstein reports that public opinion in much of the world is turning against it due to awareness of the oppression of Palestinians, which is increasingly seen as a form of apartheid. How long Israeli military exports can continue to win friends among rulers worldwide and stave off a reckoning over human rights abuses remains to be seen.

Brian Martin, bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Anita Johnson, Olga Kuchinskaya and Andrew Rigby for valuable comments.

The narrow corridors of US power

A new documentary film, “The corridors of power,” portrays how US government decision-makers agonised over what to do about genocide. It also shows, unwittingly, their narrow perspective.

At the Sydney Film Festival in June this year, I saw a new film, “The corridors of power.” It is about human rights violations and US policymakers, showing how they responded — or didn’t. The background was World War II. The Allies had reliable evidence that the Nazis were undertaking genocide against the Jews, now known as the Holocaust, but did nothing about it, not even bombing rail lines conveying Jews to Auschwitz and other death camps.

The filmmakers don’t try to explain this but present it as the motivation for the United Nations genocide convention, passed soon after the war. The slogan was “Never again.” Never again should the world — meaning governments — be bystanders to genocide.

            The film focuses on events following the end of the Cold War in 1989. It features high-level policy-making discussions under US presidents George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. The film is built around interviews with high-level players in the decision-making process, plus photos and videos of the victims of massacres and genocides. There is vintage footage of presidential speeches, UN Security Council meetings, and meetings of world leaders.

            The filmmakers were able to obtain interviews with many high-level figures and their advisers. A few, like Colin Powell and Hillary Clinton, are prominent public figures. Others are well-known to those who follow US foreign affairs, like Madeleine Albright, George Moose, George Schultz and Paul Wolfowitz.


Colin Powell

            As the film presents it, the end of the Cold War unleashed ethnic warfare in former Yugoslavia, and in 1992 there was a war in Bosnia with so-called “ethnic cleansing,” which included forced relocation by ethnicity plus much killing. For US policymakers, the question was “What to do?” If this was genocide, then by the Genocide Convention there was a responsibility to do something about it.

            Next was the Rwandan genocide in 1994, in which a half million or more members of the minority Tutsi ethnic group were massacred in just a hundred days. Rather than intervening, Western governments withdrew their citizens and then the United Nations withdrew most of its peacekeeping force.


Roméo Dallaire was head of the UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda during the genocide

            The film continues with the story of Serbian massacres in Srebrenica and Kosovo, the NATO bombing of Serbia, 9/11, the 2003 invasion of Iraq and then the election of Barack Obama in 2008. Obama came to office with a human rights rhetoric. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 before he had done anything for peace. The film tells of the advisers who helped with Obama’s Nobel lecture, including how it was carefully worded not to make definitive promises of action.


Barack Obama giving his Nobel address

            If the film could be said to have a central figure, it is Samantha Power. She had direct experience with US policymaking and wrote a book, “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide. Published in 2002, it is a scathing critique of US government policy in relation to genocide. She wrote, “The United States had never in its history intervened to stop genocide and had in fact rarely even made a point of condemning it as it occurred,” the only possible exception being the 1999 bombing of Serbia. She said that US politicians saw no political cost — namely, citizen protest — in doing nothing. I read the book when working on an article about the Rwandan genocide.

            Obama, before he ran for president, read Power’s book and sought her out for discussions. She joined his administration and became US ambassador to the UN, and was a persistent voice pushing for US government action against genocide and mass killing.

            In 2010 and 2011 there were uprisings in Tunisia and then Egypt, overthrowing long-time dictators, and these inspired uprisings elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa, including Libya and Syria. The governments of the US and European allies led a military attack in Libya to stop impending massacres, but then withdrew as fighting spread throughout the country.


Bombing of Libya, 2011

Chastened by this disastrous intervention, the next question was what to do about horrendous violence in Syria, including chemical weapons attacks. Obama initially supported US military intervention but then had second thoughts, and sought Congressional approval, which meant no intervention although the Syrian government, by using chemical weapons, had transgressed Obama’s “red line.” Through this time, Power was the voice arguing for doing something, with the argument that early intervention could prevent worse consequences later.

            “The corridors of power” is a long film and, with so much graphic footage of bombings and dead and mutilated bodies, is not easy to watch. For me, it was incredibly frustrating, because for decades I’ve studied these issues and I had a good idea of what was missing.

Nonviolent action

Throughout the film, there is no mention of nonviolent action. Over previous decades, there have been numerous dictatorships overthrown via people power — protests, strikes, boycotts, sit-ins and other methods — so it might be imagined that this sort of resistance could be supported by policymakers. Maybe some of them knew about it, but it doesn’t come through in the film.

            In Kosovo, there was a society-wide nonviolent struggle for a decade, but it was not supported by the US government, perhaps not even known about or understood by policymakers. Instead, the US government only took notice when an armed group in Kosovo took action.

            The Arab spring uprisings are discussed briefly, but without acknowledgement that in nearly every country — including Libya and Syria — the protests began largely peacefully. Policymakers seemed completely unaware of the dynamics of nonviolent action.

            The 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia is covered, with no mention that a year later the authoritarian Serbian president, Slobodan Milosevic, was ousted from power following a massive nonviolent movement led by the group Otpor. US policymakers, as shown in the film, seem oblivious to people’s movements.


Otpor protest

Military intervention

The president and his advisers seemingly discussed only two options: do nothing or use military force. In only one case was a diplomatic resolution discussed. Not only were nonviolent alternatives ignored, so were arms embargoes, offering safe havens for defectors, and collecting documentation of human rights crimes.

            Imagine a different sort of intervention: providing information and training in nonviolent strategy and tactics. Of course, that might get out of hand, with skills used against US-backed rulers in places like Saudi Arabia.

US perspective

The film shows the world as seen from the perspective of US leaders, and this may lead viewers to see the world the same way. It’s all about whether and how to use US military power to fix other people’s problems. How different it would be to see discussions in a peace movement or in other countries. In the film, that others might see things differently only arose when joint operations were considered. Everything that happens seemingly is from a US government point of view. Policymakers regularly refer to “we,” taking for granted their identification with the US government.

Invisible conflicts

The plotline of the film follows the major international crises involving major human rights violations, as recognised by US policymakers. What it omits are massacres and genocides that don’t conform to the assumption that the US is the solution.

            In 1965-1966, there was a genocide in Indonesia, with up to a million people killed. It was an anti-communist purge, and the US government did nothing about it except aid the killers behind the scenes. So much for “never again.” In 1971, there was genocide in Bangladesh, with one to three million killed. Unmentioned. In 1975, the Cambodian genocide began. The conditions for it were laid by covert US bombing as part of the Indochina war. This genocide is mentioned in the film, but not the US government’s role in its genesis. Nor is there any mention that when, in late 1978, Vietnamese forces invaded Cambodia and stopped the genocide, the US government continued to support the deposed genocidal Cambodian regime. So much for “the responsibility to protect.”

            Those cases were during the Cold War. Subsequently, there was a genocide in Iraq, almost entirely hidden and forgotten. During the 1991 Gulf war, Iraqi troops were driven out of Kuwait, but Saddam Hussein remained in power. International sanctions were imposed, and they had a devastating impact on ordinary Iraqis. In the 1990s, as many as two million Iraqis died because of the sanctions, which were led by the US government.

Madeleine Albright was interviewed in the film, and sympathetically presented. No mention was made of the time she was questioned about half a million Iraqi children dying due to sanctions. She replied that the price was worth it.


Madeleine Albright

            If there is an imperative to intervene against human rights violations, then why has the US government supported so many ruthless governments, for example Argentina 1974-1983, Brazil 1964-1985, Chile 1973-1990, Iran 1954-1979, and others since?

            Virgil Hawkins wrote a revealing book titled Stealth Conflicts. He documented how and why most major lethal conflicts have been ignored by governments, media, academics and the public — including human rights organisations. How much have you ever heard about the world’s most deadly wars since 1989, which include those in the Congo, Burundi, Algeria, Angola and Zaire, each with hundreds of thousands of deaths? The deadliest was in the Congo, where as many as five million died.

The blob

Ned Dobos is the author of Ethics, Security, and the War Machine, in which he presents a powerful non-pacifist argument against having a military. Recently, Ned alerted me to a recent article titled “The beliefs of the blob,” by political scientist Christopher J. Fettweis. Contrary to my usual mental image, “the blob” here refers to a set of assumptions underlying US foreign policy. These assumptions are familiar to many political scientists. Fettweis summarises them beautifully. Watching “The corridors of power” reminded me of the six beliefs he outlines.


Christopher Fettweis

#1. The US is the indispensable world leader. Several of the interviewees say explicitly that the US is the world’s superpower and needs to use its power accordingly. Fettweis notes that this belief leads to overconfidence and a preference for action over inaction.

#2. The world is dangerous. The entire film is about how the US government should respond to international dangers, especially to US citizens and soldiers. As well as shots of the 9/11 attacks, there is a scene showing the desecration of corpses of US soldiers killed in the 1993 mission in Somalia.

            Fettweis notes one consequence of this assumption: there is no limit to military expenditure, because more of it means greater safety. In the film, there is no hint that some military spending might be usefully redirected to diplomacy or foreign aid.

#3. US rivals are realists. Hence, enemies are assumed to respond only to force, and lack any concerns beyond their national interests. Repeatedly in the film, policymakers assume that the only alternative to doing nothing is the use of force, which will achieve their objective: peace.

#4. US foreign involvement is beneficial. In the film, the only question for many interviewees is whether to intervene. They always assume that any such intervention is beneficial to everyone concerned, except to enemies.

#5. It’s worth maintaining credibility. Several times in the film, the point is made that the US government, especially the US president, must avoid making any promise that is not fulfilled. For Obama’s Nobel lecture, his advisers didn’t want him to say anything that would constrain policy options. The assumption was that promises were somehow binding, and this only makes sense if credibility is crucial. Indeed, one of the segments of the film is titled “credibility.”

            A corollary is that credibility is assumed to be maintained by aggressive action, not inaction. This comes across repeatedly in the film.

#6. Don’t appease dictators.

Fettweis notes that sometimes appeasement is better. But viewers of “The corridors of power” would never get this impression.


Obama and Power

One of the central tensions in the film is disagreements about intervention, notably the disagreements between Obama and Samantha Power. But these disagreements are not fundamental: they all take place within the blob.

            Although I found “The corridors of power” annoying because of its unarticulated assumptions about the role of the US government and military in world affairs, on reflection I think there could be value in students reading Fettweis’s article and other critiques of US policymaking and then undertaking a minute-by-minute scrutiny of the film, pointing to examples of each of the beliefs of the blob.


Nothing can stop the blob!

            By the way, at the film festival “The corridors of power” was “presented” by the human rights organisation Amnesty International.

Brian Martin, bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Ned Dobos, Anneleis Humphries and Michael McKinley for valuable comments.

Defending Ukraine: an untried option

Imagine a different way to defend Ukraine — a way that costs less, leads to less death and destruction, and has a chance of bringing about a revolution in Russia. It sounds good, but it’s not going to happen. It’s too late.

            Let’s go back a step and look at military defence, and how it affects the psychology of enemy soldiers. Many Russian soldiers have no personal grudge against Ukraine. Indeed, many didn’t want to join the army. They were fed propaganda about the purpose of the invasion and then brought to the front lines. And what did they encounter? Ukrainian troops trying to kill them. So naturally they were going to fight back.

            This is perfectly logical. The best way to turn someone into an enemy is to threaten and assault them. To make them hate you, attack and keep attacking. The process works on everyone involved in the war. Troops, commanders and civilian populations, outraged by enemy atrocities, are brought together in a common cause.

            This twisted process is inherent in the system of militaries throughout the world, because militaries can be used for both attack and defence. My defence is a threat to you, and your defence is a threat to me. This is the basis for arms races. Why else do military expenditures continue even when there is little threat of war?

An alternative?

Imagine a plan to tempt Russian soldiers to defect, call in sick, not do their jobs, sabotage machinery or just go slow. This would be a plan to undermine their morale, make them less likely to perform their duties and ultimately undermine their willingness to support the Russian state.

            How about this? The Ukraine government solicits support from allies to offer an attractive package to any Russian soldier who defects. Perhaps a job, a house or a million euros. That might be tempting, especially to young conscripts looking for a way to avoid killing and being killed. (Dave Grossman in his well-known book On Killing showed that most front-line soldiers do not fire their rifles at the enemy unless they have been given special training to overcome their natural reluctance to kill.)

            A million euros for each defecting soldier? It sounds impossibly expensive. But even if one hundred thousand soldiers defected, the cost would be less than the cost of the Ukraine war.

            There’s another important part of this plan. The threat of hurting Russian soldiers needs to be removed. The solution, this time, saves money: get rid of the Ukraine military. Then there would be only civilians, who pose no personal danger to Russian soldiers.

No army?

This would mean the country has no army. Surely that is a prescription for being taken over by any aggressive neighbouring state. No military defence means certain defeat, doesn’t it?

            Since World War II, countries in Central America — think, for example, of El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala — have been plagued by repressive governments, civil wars, criminal violence and even genocide, leading to massive emigration. There is one shining exception: Costa Rica. In 1948, its army was abolished. Since then, it hasn’t been involved in any wars. Instead, it has experienced decades of peace and prosperity, with an enviable life expectancy.

            Not having a military seems to have helped Costa Rica to thrive, in many ways. One example isn’t proof, but it does raise the question of whether Ukraine might have been safer without an army.

Social defence

Getting rid of the army is only one step towards improving security. Just as important is preparing to defend against attack without using force. There is much that can be done. Citizens can learn foreign languages so they can easily communicate with potential invading soldiers. They can learn about cultures, to better understand how to communicate effectively. They can build up relationships with citizens in other countries. With this sort of preparation, it becomes harder for any foreign government to convince its population to support aggression.

            There’s more. Industry could be decentralised so there are no easy targets. A big power plant, when put out of commission, leads to blackouts. In contrast, energy efficiency and local renewable energy sources offer meagre targets. When most of the population can get around by walking and cycling, there is less heavy industry vulnerable to attack.


Not a likely military target

            Communication systems could be set up to support resistance to aggression, enabling defenders to talk with each other, with attackers and with people around the world. Citizens could be prepared to deal with propaganda, disinformation, fake videos and other means of deception, and have practised how to prove authenticity in their own messages. They would have developed several independent publicly-shared intelligence operations, monitoring potential threats and opportunities.

            Put these and other measures in place and the result is a system of defence. It has been called social defence, nonviolent defence, civilian-based defence and defence by civil resistance.

A Czechoslovak story

In 1968, the Soviet Union still existed, and it held sway over the Communist-controlled countries in Eastern Europe. In Czechoslovakia, the Communist government introduced reforms to ease heavy-handed repression and respond to popular demands. This flowering of enlightenment was a threat to the Soviet government, which in August invaded Czechoslovakia with a Warsaw-Pact force of half a million soldiers. The leaders of the Czechoslovak military, which was prepared to defend against an attack from the capitalist countries to the west, decided armed resistance was futile and did not act. Instead, there was a spontaneous unarmed people’s resistance.

            Czechoslovaks had learned Russian in school. They talked to the invading soldiers, who had been told they were there to stop a capitalist takeover, saying them “We are socialists too.” This process of fraternisation led many of the invading troops to be “unreliable” and withdrawn. Meanwhile, people removed street signs and house numbers to make it harder for the invaders to track down leaders of the resistance. The radio network — built for military use — was used to support morale, provide information about troops and counsel against using violence. When the Soviets brought in jamming equipment, the radio raised the alarm and the train was stranded on a siding.

            The active resistance lasted only a week because Czechoslovak leaders unwisely made concessions. Even so, the Soviets were unable to impose a puppet government for eight months. Meanwhile, Western governments did little to aid the Czechoslovak resisters.

Preparation

Military personnel go through intensive training to become effective in their jobs in front-line fighting, surveillance, intelligence, weapons development and every other aspect of a high-functioning force. The same applies to developing a system in which citizens have the skills and organisation to deter and defend against aggression without arms.

            Would you judge the potential of military defence by referring to an army in which the soldiers had no training, there was no planning and no industry infrastructure? Of course not. Likewise, it’s inappropriate to judge the potential of unarmed citizen defence by looking only at the Czechoslovak example, as promising as it is. The real test is when a society is fully prepared and trained to defend itself without arms.

            Even after the war started, there are ways Ukrainians have resisted nonviolently and ways to encourage Russian soldiers to defect. But such important efforts are undermined by Ukrainian military resistance.

An untried option

So why hasn’t it happened? Why haven’t governments moved to educate all citizens in nonviolent defence methods, and set up training for anyone interested? The benefits are obvious enough: reduced military expenditure, an empowered citizenry, and technological systems resilient against both external and internal threats.

            No one has carried out a comprehensive study into why governments show so little interest in unarmed defence systems. A plausible explanation is that governments don’t want to empower their populations with skills to resist aggression, because those same skills could be used against the government and against groups in charge of the economy.

            If an aggressor tried to take control of a factory, the workers could be prepared to resist by shutting down production. Eminent peace researcher Johan Galtung suggested that a factory could be designed with a crucial piece of equipment that could be disabled in an emergency, with a replacement available only from another country. Coercing the workers then would not get the factory working again. But designing factories this way would put a lot of power in the hands of workers. No wonder managers and governments prefer military defence.

            Every single aspect of a nonviolent defence system requires giving power and responsibility to ordinary citizens, in agriculture, transport, health and education. That’s the lesson from long-term unarmed struggles in Kosovo and Palestine. It is also, plausibly, why governments do not want to build their citizens’ capacity to resist. Instead, citizens are treated as children who need protection provided by professionals, namely by governments and militaries.

            For years, leading nonviolence researcher Gene Sharp tried to promote civilian-based defence. He tried to convince US military and government leaders that this sort of defence would be more effective, but his efforts, despite being lauded, had little impact. Governments, least of all the US government, are simply not interested in these sorts of alternatives, even to investigate them or run experiments to test their feasibility.


Gene Sharp

            Ukraine, like all other major governments, relied on military defence. We will never know whether a different sort of defence system, one based on citizen resistance without arms, would have been more effective in deterring and resisting invasion. All we know is that military defence is the standard model, and so far it seems to be part of the problem.

Brian Martin, bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Tonya Agostini and Julia LeMonde for helpful comments.

Korean translation

Prophetic witness against the war machine

On 28 September 2016, a group of five people calling themselves “Peace Pilgrims” entered a prohibited zone around Pine Gap, a US military base in Australia. They were arrested and tried for trespass. The maximum penalty for their act was seven years in prison.

The story of this action and its aftermath is told with care and sympathy by Kieran Finnane in a new book titled Peace Crimes: Pine Gap, National Security and Dissent. Finnane is a long-time resident of Alice Springs, a town in central Australia. Although she was aware of the nearby Pine Gap base, she had never paid much attention to the issues involved until the protesters took their action in 2016. With Peace Crimes, she has provided the most detailed account yet available of this form of protest in Australia and the response of the government to it.

            I’m interested in this story for several reasons. In 1979, I became involved in the peace movement, with a special interest in nonviolent alternatives to military defence. I’ve studied the likely effects of nuclear war and followed disclosures about mass surveillance. Not least, for many years I’ve known one of the Peace Pilgrims, Margaret Pestorius, an incredibly knowledgeable and committed activist.

In the following, I first tell about Pine Gap and the Peace Pilgrims and then present a series of perspectives for understanding one or both of them. I’m omitting a lot of the detail and complexity of the story. For example, in addition to the group of five Peace Pilgrims, another Peace Pilgrim protested individually and was tried at the same time. For these and other aspects, and an engaging narrative, read Peace Crimes.

Pine Gap

Beginning in the 1950s, the US government made arrangements with the Australian government to set up a number of military bases in Australia. Officially they are joint facilities, and in some bases today half the workers are Australians. However, Richard Tanter, who has carried out research on the bases, has a useful counter to the idea that they are genuinely “joint” facilities. He says that considering that the bases were built by the US government, their operations are paid for by the US government and their only functions are as part of a network of US military and spying facilities, it is reasonable to call them US bases to which Australian personnel have a degree of access.


Source: Richard Tanter, “Tightly bound“, GlobalAsia

            For decades, the most important US bases were Pine Gap and Nurrungar in central Australia and North West Cape on the western coast of Western Australia. These days, with changing technology, Pine Gap is the most important base.

One part of the base receives and analyses data from US surveillance satellites that collect vast amounts of electronic communications from land, sea, air and space origins. These satellites are in orbits that position them permanently in the same location above the earth. Another part of the base intercepts transmissions from foreign satellites, especially Russian and Chinese ones. The base also is a relay station for signals indicating potential enemy nuclear missile launches, though this function is now redundant given that signals can go direct to the US via satellite-to-satellite transmissions.


Pine Gap from the north (photo: Felicity Ruby, 23 January 2016)

Pine Gap is part of the Five Eyes network that sucks up electronic communications of all sorts, a massive surveillance operation that aims to collect everything sent via phone, email, social media, you name it. The so-called Five Eyes are the US, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. They share surveillance information, though the US National Security Agency plays the dominant role.

Over the years, a number of writers and researchers have exposed aspects of this highly secret network. One of them was New Zealand investigator Nicky Hager in his 1996 book Secret Power, which received relatively little public attention. In 2013, Edward Snowden leaked massive numbers of NSA documents to the media, generating international awareness of the extent of government surveillance.

Pine Gap’s surveillance capacities assist in US counter-terrorism and other military operations. US systems collect information about possible human targets. When a decision is made and an opportunity arises, drones are instructed to unleash missiles to destroy a target. Some of these drone attacks are in war zones such as Afghanistan; others are in places like Pakistan and Yemen. Drone killings can be called assassinations. Alleged enemies are not arrested and brought to trial, but simply killed. As well, quite a number of civilians die in the attacks. Via Pine Gap, the Australian government is implicated in a system of extrajudicial murder.

            The most significant US bases were installed in the 1960s when Australia had a conservative government, run by the Liberal-Country Party coalition that had held power since 1949. The opposition Labor Party, at the time having a socialist and nationalist orientation, had a platform that rejected US bases. However, after Labor was elected in 1972, it did nothing to implement its bases policy. Later, after Labor lost office in 1975, opponents of the bases struggled with how to proceed.

In the early 1980s, there was a huge expansion of the worldwide movement against nuclear weapons, which invigorated sentiment against the US bases. Activists argued that the bases contributed to the possibility of nuclear war and made Australia a nuclear target. Indeed, to the extent that nuclear arsenals were “counterforce” — targeted at the enemy’s nuclear war-fighting facilities — then Pine Gap was a prime target in a nuclear exchange. Without US bases, there was little reason for the Soviet military to aim nuclear missiles at Australia.

            Australian anti-base activists argued that the goal should be to get the Labor Party to change its platform to again oppose the bases, and then to get the Labor Party elected. These hopes were forlorn. After Labor was elected in 1983, it took steps to give the impression of Australian partnership in running the bases, while more deeply integrating Australia’s military posture with the US’s.

By the late 1980s, the Australian peace movement was in steep decline. Then in 1989 Eastern European communist regimes collapsed. The Cold War was over, and the Soviet Union dissolved two years later. US bases in Australia fell completely off the public agenda, though they continued their crucial role in US nuclear war-fighting operations, surveillance of electronic communications, and information gathering for military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.

Peace Pilgrims

After the 1980s, Australian peace movement activity was low-key except for huge surges in public opposition to foreign wars, including the 1990–1991 Gulf war and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Some activists, though, maintained attention to US bases. There have been quite a few protests, including major ones at Pine Gap in 1983 (the Women’s Peace Camp), 1987 and 2002. Of special interest here are religiously motivated activists.

            There is a long history of religious opposition to war. In countries with universal male military service, there have been resisters, those who refuse to participate, and many have been driven by their religious beliefs. In the US and several other countries, small numbers of activists have taken direct action against weapons systems, for example sneaking into military bases and using hammers to damage missiles. They are called ploughshares activists, because as Christians they take inspiration from passages in the Bible, such as this one from the book of Isaiah:

“He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”

Ploughshares actions, although occasionally damaging military equipment, are largely symbolic. The activists take full responsibility for their actions and do not attempt to evade arrest. They feel driven to bear witness against war. Some US activists have spent many years in prison. Their stories are documented in The Nuclear Resister, published for many years by Felice and Jack Cohen-Joppa, who I see whenever I visit Tucson, Arizona.

The 2016 action at Pine Gap was in the tradition of radical Christian peace action. The group of five protesters — Franz Dowling, Jim Dowling, Andy Paine, Margaret Pestorius and Tim Webb — expressed their commitment to the Biblical commandment “Thou shalt not kill” and, as well, adopted lives of voluntary poverty and service to others in need.

The contrast between their lives and the mainstream churches is stark. Mainstream Christianity has adapted to the surrounding culture and political system. Soldiers, arms manufacturers and political leaders might be Christians, but have accepted the need for killing, and indeed have supported the development and deployment of weapons systems with the potential for mass slaughter. The Christian vow of poverty — exemplified by the Biblical saying that “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” — has been displaced by materialism. Some churches espouse the “prosperity gospel” that glorifies making money.

The protesters who called themselves “Peace Pilgrims” wanted to intervene against Pine Gap operations to hinder what they saw as its death-dealing. However, border security around the base is tight. The area is actively monitored for trespass. The outer fence is easy to get through, but not the high inner double barbed-wire fence. In practice, the Peace Pilgrims were making a statement by the simple fact of going into a prohibited area.

The Pilgrims made careful preparations. To get as close to the base facilities as they could, they needed to walk through the night in rather treacherous territory. Andy prepared to film the base and their efforts. Margaret brought her viola and Franz his guitar so they could play a lament.


Margaret and Franz

Peace Crimes provides plenty of fascinating detail about the Pilgrims’ preparations, action and arrest. They expected to be arrested, and they were. Then there was a different sort of drama: in the courtroom. The Pilgrims were charged under a piece of federal legislation called the Defence (Special Undertakings) Act. The maximum penalty was seven years in prison.

Finnane attended the case, which went on for days in the Northern Territory Supreme Court, and reported on it in the Alice Springs News.

The prosecution was led by a top-gun lawyer who did everything possible to achieve a conviction and push for harsh penalties, including imprisonment. The government was obviously doing what it could to deter anyone who might try to follow the Pilgrims’ lead.

The Pilgrims had little money and were unable to afford legal representation — so they represented themselves. Margaret and Andy led their effort to develop questions and an argument for the court. They received a bit of free general legal advice, but actually they preferred to run the case themselves since that gave them the most freedom to do it the way they wanted. A lawyer would have been more constrained.

In Peace Crimes, you can read about the legal machinations: decisions about the appropriate jurisdiction, choosing members of the jury, questioning of the judge’s objectivity, attempts to keep the proceedings closed, efforts to exclude evidence and witnesses, giving of evidence and cross-examination, and the subtle factors that determined what could be raised in testimony and what couldn’t. The Pilgrims pleaded not guilty, their grounds being that Pine Gap played an active role in committing crimes, namely in facilitating extrajudicial murder. Peace Crimes also provides fascinating information about the lives of each of the activists.

If you are familiar with any of the issues involved, you may have a view about Pine Gap and the Peace Pilgrims or both. Here, I offer a variety of perspectives for looking at the issues. Each perspective can potentially offer insights.

Moral versus legal

The Pilgrims were driven by a deep sense of what is right and wrong, and they believed that military systems — especially those involved in foreign assassinations — are wrong. They confronted an opponent, comprising the government, the military and parts of the legal system, that justified its position based on law. The court case, described in detail in Peace Crimes, can be read as an extended conflict between morality and legality.


Northern Territory Supreme Court building, Alice Springs

The Pilgrims defended their actions in terms of morality, and tried on every occasion to bring morality into the picture. This occurred when they were arrested and questioned, and it occurred in the courtroom. They liked to bring up Biblical examples of the breaking of unjust laws.

The prosecution, taking its cues from the federal government, attempted to exclude morality from the discussion. The prosecution repeatedly objected to testimony that brought up the Pilgrims’ motivations and instead focused on a narrow legal matter, whether they had knowingly trespassed on the prohibited area around the Pine Gap base. From the prosecution’s viewpoint, it was immaterial why the Pilgrims were there. All that had to be proved was that they were there, aware that they were breaking the law.

Power

The interaction between the Australian government and the Peace Pilgrims can be seen as a power struggle. On the surface, it is a very unequal struggle. The government has the power to make and enforce laws, and has at its disposal police and prisons. Then there is the wider power of the US government and military, which supports the Pine Gap operation.

On the other side, the Pilgrims seem to have relatively little power, but this is deceptive. Why would the Australian government bother with an expensive trial against a seemingly harmless and nonthreatening group of activists who never had any realistic prospect of interrupting activities at the base? The reason is that the Pilgrims represented the potential power of citizen opposition. These few individuals posed no direct threat to Pine Gap operations but if their example were followed, a much greater threat might develop.


The Peace Pilgrims including Paul Christie, third from the right

The Pilgrims, in their action, were setting an example. The government, by prosecuting them, was also trying to set an example.

Nonviolent action

Suppose you want to change the government’s policy on Pine Gap. How could you go about it? You might write scholarly articles, set up a newsletter, lobby politicians, join political parties and campaign for politicians who support your viewpoint. You might launch an online petition or form a citizens group. All these methods are what might be called conventional political action. In Australia, they are commonplace and widely considered acceptable.

At the other end of the spectrum, you might join with a few others to launch an armed attack on Pine Gap or, more easily, on its workers or on politicians supporting it. This approach can be called armed struggle or, by its critics, terrorism.

In between conventional political action and armed struggle are a variety of methods, including ostracism of politicians supporting the base, boycotts of companies supplying it, strikes by workers opposed to the base, sit-ins in parliament — and entering the restricted zone around the base, taking photos and playing music. These sorts of methods are called nonviolent action or, alternatively, civil resistance. They go beyond the routine and acceptable methods but refrain from any physical violence.

The Pilgrims were committed to this sort of action. It can make things difficult for authorities, because it involves noncooperation, yet avoids physical violence and so cannot easily be stigmatised as terrorism.

Within the nonviolence field, two approaches are commonly distinguished: principled and pragmatic. Principled nonviolence, associated with Mohandas Gandhi, is based on a moral commitment. Pragmatic nonviolence, associated with scholar Gene Sharp, is undertaken because it is seen as more effective than violence. The Pilgrims obviously fit into the principled camp. But this distinction is a bit academic in Australia, where all activists refrain from using arms.

Activist and researcher Stellan Vinthagen offers an insightful definition of nonviolence: it is without violence and against violence. The Pilgrims, like most people in their daily lives, did not use physical violence. However, unlike most other people, they acted against violence, namely against Pine Gap and its role in military operations.

Antiwar strategy

Nearly everyone says they are against war. Those who support military defence say it is needed to deter war. Many soldiers are strongly in favour of peace.

The question is not whether to oppose war, but how. For those in what is called the peace movement, who question the current military posture, there have been a variety of views about goals. Some oppose use of Australian troops in foreign wars, as in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some support the Australian government cutting ties with foreign powers and having an independent defence policy. Others favour disarmament. Yet others support development of a nonviolent defence system.

Despite this wide range of visions, amazingly the peace movement has mobilised large numbers of Australians to protest against war and war preparations — but only on some occasions, such as just before the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In between such mobilisations, few have maintained their activism.


Australian rally against 2003 invasion of Iraq

What about strategy for the peace movement? How will it achieve its goals? Some favour public education, aided by critical analyses of military preparations. Others pursue peace movement goals by lobbying politicians and joining political parties. More visible are public protests. Another approach is to undermine the war system by challenging its roots, including the state, militarism and patriarchy.

In this context, the Pilgrims pursue peace by prophetic witness. Through their actions, they show their commitment and their vision of an alternative world. They are less worried about effectiveness than being true to their beliefs.

Evil

Steven Bartlett, a philosopher and psychologist, made an exhaustive study of evil, which he uses in a non-religious sense to refer to the propensity of humans to harm each other and the environment that supports their life. In his epic book The Pathology of Man he traverses a wide range of classic writings about disease, ethology, psychology, genocide, ecological destruction and war. His central conclusion, suggested by the title of his book, is that the human species is pathological, namely having the characteristics of a disease. He argues that aspects of human thought and behaviour are so dysfunctional that they are a danger to survival, yet most humans participating in damaging activities are psychologically normal.

One of Bartlett’s case studies is war. He observes war preparations and the willingness of humans to harm each other, face to face or remotely. War preparations involve only a fraction of the population. What is significant is that so few people do anything to resist. Bartlett concludes that most people do not want to stop war preparations and war. This is a testament to the pathology of the human species.

The stark contrast between the peace Pilgrims and the power of the state used to restrain them is compatible with Bartlett’s analysis. Although there have been large protests at times, most Australians have been content to support or at least tolerate Australian military preparations and their links to foreign wars and assassinations.

One feature of this human shortcoming, according to Bartlett, is the low level of most people’s moral intelligence. Very few develop a strong feeling of disgust about cruelty, violence and other forms of human evil and have the conviction to act on their beliefs. Bartlett’s analysis suggests that the Peace Pilgrims are among these few with high moral intelligence.

Media

From the perspective of communication and the media, the role of Pine Gap and the challenge by the Peace Pilgrims can be seen from several angles. One obvious point is that the role of Pine Gap, or even its existence, receives very little attention. Arguably, Pine Gap is Australia’s most important target in the event of nuclear war, and, if Australia lacked any foreign bases, the country might not be thought worth targeting at all. Yet this existential issue is seemingly off the agenda in the mass media.

No doubt the reluctance to cover Pine Gap-related matters is in part due to the two major political parties having the same stance, which means there are no significant political disagreements to report on. The government’s draconian laws restricting media coverage of matters of “national security” no doubt play a role. Government secrecy about the role of US bases makes reporting more difficult. Also important is the absence of a strong peace movement. Social media are far less inhibited, but even there, Pine Gap is not a major issue.

The Peace Pilgrims, and other direct actions at Pine Gap, provide a news angle. Unusual events, especially arrests, are newsworthy. Imagine that the Pilgrims had asked, “What can we do to generate attention to US bases?” Their protest would have been as good an answer as any.

Finally, there is the important role of Kieran Finnane, the journalist who reported on the protests and trial and whose book Peace Crimes provides an engaging introduction into the issues — and stimulated me to write about it. Those who seek media coverage often want the largest possible audience, but just as important is the depth of impact, which can be influential when only a few individuals are affected. The Peace Pilgrims had a loyal following, in part because of the government’s heavy-handed response. Their action, as a form of communication, was not widely covered but the coverage it did receive has been quite influential.


Kieran Finnane

Moral foundations

Jonathan Haidt has written an insightful book titled The Righteous Mind. In it, he explains research by himself and collaborators concerning what he calls “moral foundations.” These are values that influence what people think is right or wrong. Haidt identifies six principal moral foundations: care, fairness, liberty, authority, loyalty and sanctity. Each one has played a role in human evolution.

Consider care, the value people place on protecting and nurturing others. The protection and support that parents give to their children has obvious survival value. In many cases, people expand their sense of caring to those outside their immediate family or tribe, as when a person risks their life to save a stranger.

Haidt argues that the influence of moral foundations operates on each person’s intuitive, fast acting mind, usually without conscious awareness. Through ingenious experiments, he has shown that people make moral judgements intuitively and then try to justify them with rational arguments, which are sometimes highly contorted. In other words, people commonly reach conclusions quickly and automatically and only justify them later. More intelligent people can be better at coming up with rational-sounding explanations for their intuition-driven choices.

Haidt’s framework can be applied to the contrasting views about Pine Gap and the Peace Pilgrims. Each of the six moral foundations is relevant, but they are applied in quite different ways.

Care for others is a key driving force for the military establishment: the care is for those being defended from enemies. The Peace Pilgrims, in contrast, direct their care concerns to the victims of drone attacks and to the world population threatened by wars, especially nuclear war.

Haidt in The Righteous Mind is especially interested in differences between US liberals and conservatives. He found that liberals draw more from the moral foundations of care, fairness and liberty whereas conservatives draw more evenly from all six foundations. Consider authority, a value commonly associated with conservatives. The military is based on obedience to the authority of the military hierarchy and more generally to the authority of the government. The prosecutions of the Pilgrims were backed by the authority of the state, as manifested in the legal system.

Arguably, the Pilgrims were also drawing on authority. However, in their case, the authorities to which they responded were God and their own consciences.

Another moral foundation is sanctity, which can be expressed in rules for eating and hygiene. For example, many people find the eating of the flesh of certain animals to be disgusting. The Pilgrims might be said to be driven by their concern for the sanctity of human life, including individuals killed, far away, in drone strikes. The role of sanctity for the prosecutors does not seem so obvious until we think of Pine Gap as a sacred territory. Authorities were alarmed about the Pilgrims transgressing on the Pine Gap prohibited zone, and prosecutors took great pains to prevent images of the area surrounding the base being made public or even being seen in open court. It seems as if Pine Gap is analogous to a church; entering its grounds and taking graven images are a sacrilege to its holy mission.


Pine Gap by night. Photo by Kristian Laemmle-Ruff

It would be possible to consider each one of the six moral foundations to see its role in the thinking and actions of the Pilgrims and the defenders of Pine Gap. Each foundation plays a role, but with different anchors. A key point is that the influence of moral foundations is usually unconscious, providing an emotional drive for particular thoughts and actions often without individuals being aware of the source of their thoughts and choice of actions. It is fascinating to imagine that the careful, and sometimes torturous, legal argumentation presented in the trial is a rationalisation for choices influenced by unconscious commitments about what is right and wrong.

Outrage management

When a powerful group does something that others see as wrong, the group can take various steps to reduce the level of public outrage. For example, after the 1991 Dili massacre, when Indonesian troops opened fire on peaceful East Timorese protesters at Santa Cruz cemetery, the Indonesian government and military took steps to reduce international concern. They tried to cover up the existence of the massacre, denigrated the protesters, minimised the scale of the killing, set up investigations and gave minimal sentences to a few low-level perpetrators, and intimidated the surviving East Timorese population.

Despite these efforts, the Dili massacre triggered a large increase in international support for East Timorese independence. The massacre, intended to subjugate the resistance to its rule over East Timor, backfired on the Indonesian government. Perpetrators of a wide range of injustices, from sexual harassment to genocide, use the same outrage-management techniques as those used following the Dili massacre.

The same set of tactics can be observed in relation to Pine Gap, which some people might see as contributing to a number of injustices. The key tactic is cover-up: the intense secrecy about the base and its functions and activities serves to reduce public concern. In relation to drone assassinations, there is an additional tactic: devaluation of the targets, who are portrayed as dangerous terrorists. Then there is the tactic of reinterpretation, namely providing a benign explanation for actions. Defenders of drone killings never use the word assassination. They claim that few civilians are killed, using the euphemism “collateral damage.” Finally, anyone who challenges the programme may be subject to intimidation. This is where the Defence (Special Undertakings) Act comes into play, with its severe penalties for even trivial offences.

The arrest and trial of the Pilgrims can be seen as a form of intimidation of protest, deterring anyone who might follow their example. However, the arrest and trial of the Pilgrims were potentially a new source of public outrage, so it is to be expected that the same sorts of tactics would be used by the government. The tactic of cover-up is most obvious in the concerted attempts by the prosecution to exclude evidence about Pine Gap activities.

The tactic of devaluation is apparent in the prosecution of the Pilgrims as serious criminals who should serve time in prison for their actions. A key tactic of reinterpretation is the assumption underlying the prosecution that the case is about obeying the law, with the possibility of questioning the law off the table.

One of the methods used by powerful perpetrators to reduce outrage from their action is to use official channels to give the appearance of justice. In the case against the Pilgrims, the legal system itself was the most important official channel. By going to court, the prosecution might be seen to reassure observers that it was ensuring justice — even though the legal process in this case was one-sided, with the government throwing enormous resources into the case and using its power to restrict testimony.

Powerful perpetrators do not have it all their own way. The Dili massacre illustrates how attacks can backfire on the perpetrators. To counter the tactics commonly used, challengers can use counter-tactics. They can expose the action, validate the targets, interpret the actions as unfair, avoid official channels and instead mobilise support, and resist intimidation.

The Pilgrims and their supporters used all of these counter-tactics. To counter cover-up, they publicised their arrest and trial.

To counter devaluation, the Pilgrims had only to describe their beliefs and activities: their lives of voluntary poverty and service undermined the prosecution’s portrayal of them as dangerous threats. Furthermore, they organised to get famous and not-so-famous people to write to the Australian Attorney-General requesting that the charges dropped — and to have the letter published in the Saturday Paper.

To counter reinterpretation, they described the prosecution as a gross overreaction, as itself unjust. Rather than relying solely on legal defences, they mobilised support. Finally, to counter intimidation, they valiantly resisted throughout the entire case, refusing to capitulate.

In light of the different methods used by the government and the Pilgrims, did the arrests and prosecution backfire on the government, drawing more attention to Pine Gap and resistance to it than might otherwise be the case? That is hard to judge because there is no easy way to guess what might have happened had the government decided not to press charges. In any case, the issue has not gone away. Pine Gap continues its activities and the Pilgrims, and others, bide their time.


Pine Gap. Photo by Kristian Laemmle-Ruff

Conclusion

Reading Kieran Finnane’s book Peace Crimes inspired me to write something about the issues it raises. One issue is Pine Gap and military bases more generally. Another is the Peace Pilgrims and their principled challenge to military systems. Yet another is the existence of different ways of understanding protests against Pine Gap.

The dominant mainstream framing is that Pine Gap is a valuable part of Australia’s defence and that the Pilgrims, however well intentioned, should not be permitted to threaten the base’s security. Then there is the peace-movement framing, seeing Pine Gap as part of the US military machine that endangers lives around the world. It is useful to understand these positions and to be aware that they are ways of understanding Pine Gap and the Pilgrim challenge — but not the only possible ways. There are many others, including peace movement strategy, the contrast between moral versus legal imperatives, the role of human evil, and outrage management tactics.

Is there a best way of understanding Pine Gap and the Pilgrims? It all depends on your purpose. If you want to pass judgement, some perspectives are more useful than others. If you want to know what you might do to take action, that’s another matter. It is quite useful to draw a key insight from the study of moral foundations, namely that people commonly form a judgement based on their intuitive response and then subsequently find or create rational-sounding justifications for their views. The implication is that it can be extremely difficult to change someone’s mind by providing evidence and rational arguments. When judgements are grounded in gut reactions, changing them usually requires something other than reason.

In the case of Pine Gap and the Pilgrims, a key judgement is whether it is worth paying any attention to them at all. Because there is little mainstream media coverage, many people assume nothing important is happening. If you decide there is, and you want to know more, then it is valuable to seek information from a variety of perspectives. One crucial source is Kieran Finnane’s Peace Crimes.

P.S. The Peace Pilgrims were found guilty. The prosecution had called for imprisonment but the judge instead imposed fines of a few thousand dollars each. For the Pilgrims and their supporters, this was good news.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

For assistance and valuable comments, thanks to Cate Adams, Sharon Callaghan, Jack Cohen-Joppa, Kieran Finnane, Margaret Pestorius, Yasmin Rittau, Richard Tanter and Tom Weber.

Understanding global conflict

To get a handle on what’s happening in the world, read books like Paul Rogers’ Losing Control.

 

How can you make sense of world affairs? There are so many countries, politicians and power plays. If you follow the news, you hear about developments concerning tariffs, wars, elections and bombings. But how does it all fit together? The news tells mostly about events, with seldom anything much deeper to help put the events into context.

I’ve found that I learn far more by reading a book by a well-informed author, one that provides a framework for understanding. To aid my comprehension, whenever I read a book I take notes on it, including bibliographic details, a summary of the contents and specific points (with page and paragraph numbers) that are relevant to my interests. Sometimes the notes are just half a page; sometimes they are many pages long.

Going through my files recently, I came across my notes about a book by Paul Rogers titled Losing Control: Global Security in the Twenty-first Century. Published in 2000, I read the book two years later, and wrote in my notes that Rogers was remarkably prescient: his analysis seemed to have anticipated world events. In particular, between publication in 2000 and when I read the book, there were the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.

Looking at my notes in 2020, I was again impressed with Rogers’ assessments. Losing Control was a useful guide to understanding world affairs. I decided to read the book again, in the process discovering that there had been a second edition in 2002 and a third in 2010. Conveniently, these new editions were the original book with supplementary chapters.

Nuclear war-fighting

Losing Control starts off with a detailed analysis of nuclear politics during the Cold War. This may now seem irrelevant given that the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 as did concern about nuclear war. Actually, though, it is a useful reminder that, for several decades, that the world was worryingly close to devastation. Furthermore, Rogers goes on to point out that, contrary to the impression you might get from the news, the threat of nuclear war has not disappeared. Governments have been “modernising” their arsenals, namely making them more effective.

Rogers says that the major nuclear weapons states — US, Russia, UK, China, France, Israel, India and Pakistan — have no intention of ever relinquishing their arsenals. Instead, hypocritically, political leaders roar with indignation should some other state seek to acquire nuclear weapons. Just think of the attention given to the possibility of Iraqi, North Korean and Iranian weapons.

During the Cold War, the standard theory concerning nuclear weapons was that they served as a deterrent against attack: US and Soviet nuclear forces, by being poised to destroy each other’s population centres, discouraged initiating an attack. This was called mutually assured destruction. However, unbeknownst to most members of the public, both sides had strategic plans and targeting policies that were based on war-fighting: they hoped to be able to destroy their opponent’s communication and weapons systems in a first strike, thus winning a nuclear war.

            Back in the 1980s, I studied the effects of nuclear war and read about plans for nuclear war-fighting. The information was available but not widely known, with the result that most people did not appreciate how dangerous the so-called strategic balance was in those years. Rogers, in recounting these matters, provides a corrective to mistaken ideas about past and present nuclear threats.

Three drivers

Rogers argued that international conflict over the next two or three decades would be driven by three factors. The first is economic inequality, which is exacerbated by neoliberal economic policies. Inequality is a source of tension: some of the have-nots may want to challenge the dominant order violently; others may seek to migrate to more prosperous regions, triggering tensions over immigration.

            The second factor is environmental constraints. The massive expansion of human activity puts strain on land, water and the air. Resources, especially oil, become bones of contention. The wars in the Persian Gulf are partly resource-related. Rogers was initially writing in 2000, after the first Gulf war in 1991 but before the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Today the most obvious environmental constraint is climate change. Already in 2000 Rogers identified this as a crucial factor in international conflict. Affluent industrialised countries have generated the most greenhouse gases, yet they want to keep consuming despite the looming dangers. It is at this point that environmental constraints interact with economic inequality.

            The third factor is the commitment by dominant powers to address these issues by attempting to maintain the status quo, if necessary by force. Instead of addressing inequality and environmental constraints, Western governments have tried to subdue challengers, especially those that use force themselves. The context is that groups with relatively little resources and technological expertise have the capacity to wreak havoc in rich developed societies. Putting this another way, industrial societies have developed in ways that make them vulnerable to attack.

Security paradigms

Rogers describes two security paradigms, namely assumptions and ways of thinking that guide action. The first paradigm, which he dubs “old,” is based on attempting to maintain control. This is called “liddism”: the dominant powers attempt to keep a lid on the discontent stimulated by continuing economic inequality and escalating environmental impacts. Rogers’ second paradigm is quite different. Instead of trying to maintain the status quo and keep a lid on discontent, this alternative “new” paradigm involves addressing the roots of conflict: inequality, environmental impacts and military deployments to maintain them.

Rogers gave considerable attention to the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. A truck filled with explosives was driven into an underground parking station and detonated. However, the plotters had not positioned the location quite right to achieve their goal of bringing down the tower. If they had succeeded, 30,000 people might have been killed. Concerning this possibility, Rogers rhetorically asked “… would it have resulted in any rethinking of security? Probably not. A more likely result would have been a massive and violent military reaction against any groups anywhere in the Middle East that were thought to have had even the slightest connection with the attack.” (p. 118)


Damage from the 1993 World Trade Center bombing

            How’s that for a prediction made in the year 2000? We now know that this is the security trajectory followed after 9/11. There was a declaration of a “war on terror” with no possibility of peace envisioned, the invasion of Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq, a continuation of neoliberalism and economic inequality and a slow and tepid response to climate change. In contrast, the new-paradigm response to 9/11 would have been to treat the attacks as a criminal matter. It didn’t happen.

The 1993 attack highlighted the interaction of the three factors that Rogers identified. Resource factors, namely the location of cheap and abundant oil in the Gulf region, led to US military involvement in the Gulf, including troops stationed in Saudi Arabia. The quest for control over energy supplies aggravated the perception of inequality, with Western affluent countries seeking control. The attack did not lead to any change in ways of thinking about security.

Learning from Rogers

There is a lot to learn from Losing Control. It contains all sorts of information about international security, from nuclear arsenals to political grievances to neoliberalism. The information is presented in a coherent way, enabling an appreciation of trends and impacts.


Paul Rogers

            More important than the information is the framework that Rogers developed to understand the driving forces underlying the security environment: economic inequality, environmental constraints (especially Gulf oil politics and climate change) and the old security paradigm of trying to maintain control. Grasping these three factors and their interactions provides a remarkably powerful way of understanding geopolitical developments.

Reading and digesting Losing Control offers a way of making sense of the crush of current affairs. You could spend years watching or reading current affairs in the news and still have less idea of what it all means than by spending a few hours reading this book. Alternatively, if you prefer shorter treatments, Rogers writes a regular column for openDemocracy.

This speaks to a more general issue. By acquiring an understanding of patterns and driving forces, it’s possible to make sense of the world far more efficiently and accurately than by taking in one event after another. If you can find the right book or article, one that cuts to the core, you can know far more with far less time and effort.

To find works like Losing Control isn’t easy. If you want to acquire powerful conceptual tools for making sense of the world, the initial challenge is to find lucid, insightful expositions. This can take a bit of effort. Then it’s a matter of spending some time reading history, politics, psychology or whatever fascinates you and of keeping doing this despite the temptations to read the latest headlines and social media commentary.

Postscript

How’s this for a prediction made in 2010, in the third edition of Losing Control, before the emergence of Islamic State?

 “Even if US troops are largely in barracks, they can still be readily represented by al-Qaida propagandists and others as ‘ghost’ occupiers of a major Islamic state. Given the decades-long timescale of the al-Qaida movement’s aims, and the potentially decades-long significance of Persian Gulf oil, the value of Iraq to the al-Qaida movement may be far from over.” (p. 168)

There may be a fourth edition in 2021. Stay tuned.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Assassination, Inc.

predator-firing-missile4

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.

no-more-drones-protest

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.

military-surveillance-drone

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.

the-assassination-complex

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)

abdulrahman-al-awlaki
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.

child-protesting-drone-killings

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.

mexicanwarresults

            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.

siege_of_veracruz
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.

general-custer-550
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.

augusto-csar-sandino-4
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.

 predator-drone

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.

Barkhad-Abdi

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?

Glover

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?

timebomb

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.

Alan-Rickman

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.

predator-firing-missile4

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.

mirrensky-xlarge

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.