The Draft and the Drone: Distancing Ourselves from War

The biggest mistake the peace movement ever made was probably to push for abolishing the draft. Ending the draft did nothing to eliminate war; but it did eliminate most resistance to war from those who were no longer in danger of losing their lives in one of America’s many imperial adventures.

When the draft ended, it was easy for the empire to fashion what was called a “professional army.”  This translates to mean an army composed of those with no better options than to serve as cannon fodder: the working class and the poor.

“When Nixon ends the draft, he doesn’t do it because he thinks having a professional army would be in the nation’s interest. What Nixon is trying to do is to basically cut the antiwar movement off at the knees, and his calculation was that by ending the draft, kids would get out of the streets and go back to class.”

That was Andrew Bacevich speaking with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now in August of 2008. He is a professor of history and international relations who also happens to be a retired colonel who spent 23 years in the U.S. Army. “We, the people, have so distanced ourselves from the professional army that unless you have a family member serving in uniform–and most people don’t–you don’t know where this military is, you don’t know what it’s like, and you really don’t have much say in the way it’s used,” Bacevich said.

“President Bush exploits that after 9/11 … for the first time in our history, when we go to war, instead of a president turning to the Congress and turning to the country and saying “We’re going to have to change the way we do business, because we’re at war,” President Bush actually says, “Go to Disney World. Go shopping ” … and the great majority of the American people basically did what Bush said and tuned the war out and allowed the burden to fall on a very small percentage of the population, which I find, frankly, morally objectionable.”

But even these cast-offs from capitalism–the poor and working class–will not be needed much longer. Who or what will replace them? The same thing that replaced them in the labor market, the marvels of modern technology. What better way to eliminate all resistance to war than to make soldiers obsolete?  Just as with the autonomous car, the future is just around the corner.

And what does it look like? Like a giant metal bat, only uglier. It’s called the Reaper, (as in Grim Reaper), and it is the progeny of another ugly machine called the Predator. Boeing proudly asserts it’s the “autonomous solution” to “dominate every domain.” (Have you ever noticed how everything sold nowadays is marketed as the solution but they never say what the problem is?) In this case, the problem is probably any people who happen to get in the way of US “national interests.”

What’s the price for this “solution”? Somewhere in the neighborhood of $16.9 million each, with an $11.8 billion “program cost.” I suspect a program means a specific military contract, but we all know what happens with these contracts, (cost overruns often reach the stratosphere), and these were 2013 figures.

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Predator drone firing laser guided Hellfire missile

But let’s not quibble about the cost. It’s probably worth every penny. The MQ-9 Reaper is the “primary offensive strike unmanned aerial vehicle for the U.S. Air Force” and has also been used by the Navy, CIA and even U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Since 1995 it’s been providing solutions in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bosnia, Serbia, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Syria and Somalia.

Simple and sinister as it looks from the outside, the Reaper is loaded with all sorts of fancy, hi-tech gadgets: a “robust suite of visual sensors” for targeting, TV cameras, lasers and laser-guided munitions, synthetic aperture radar and, of course, Hellfire missiles, “which possess highly accurate, low-collateral damage, anti-armor and anti-personnel engagement capabilities.” And to top it off, the Reaper can be disassembled and stuffed in a single container for deployment worldwide. Sounds almost too good to be true.

And it is. Because  war is now pretty painless for the majority of the populace of this great peace-loving nation. No need to hear evil, see evil, smell evil or think evil. It’s all done far away, almost like magic, by faceless, autonomous machines. Go ahead; take a look at your hands. They’re as clean as mine, aren’t they? Not a speck of blood to be found.

And who more providential a person to have arrived on the scene to lead us into the land of innocence and oblivion than the Peace President? He was well-educated, affable, suave and articulate. What’s more, he had even been a community organizer, (working for the same national network that I did.) What liberal wouldn’t love him?

But before Obama came Clinton and Bush. The Predator drone was the brainchild of an Israeli aeronautical engineer who immigrated to the U.S. and began working on development of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Early models of the drone were employed for reconnaissance in the war in Serbia and by 2001 the Predator was being used in Afghanistan.

Way back in 1976, President Gerald Ford had issued an executive order stating that No employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination. This was in response to post-Watergate revelations that the CIA had staged many attempts on the life of Cuban President Fidel Castro. This prohibition was respected, for a while.

But after 9/11, the Bush Administration decided it would not allow the directive banning assassination to deter it from fighting the “war on terror.” The Washington Post reported on October 21, 2001, that Bush had signed an intelligence “finding” a year earlier instructing the CIA to engage in “lethal covert operations” to destroy Osama bin Laden and the al Qaeda organization. White House and CIA lawyers argued the intelligence finding was constitutional because the ban on political assassination does not apply in wartime. Since 9/11, as we know, the country has been engaged in permanent war, undeclared or not.

The U.S. had about 200 drones in operation at the time of the 9/11 attacks and well over 7,500 by 2014. President Bush, some have said, deployed drones reluctantly, particularly in Pakistan.

But all that changed when the Peace President came to power. About five months before the end of Obama’s first term, writer Tom Engelhardt posted a story he titled Praying at the Church of St. Drone, in which he said that no matter whom voters chose in November they would be electing an assassin-in-chief. “An American global killing machine (quite literally so, given the growing force of drones) is now at the beck and call of a single, unaccountable individual. This is the nightmare the founding fathers tried to protect us from,” Engelhardt wrote.

Engelhardt’s article was actually a critique of an extremely long and detailed story by two New York Times reporters that had appeared in the Times a few days earlier. The article described “the strangest of bureaucratic rituals” in which more than 100 members of the government’s sprawling national security apparatus meet by secure video teleconference to nominate the names of terror suspects, which are then presented to the president and his aides and advisors on what came to be known as “Terror Tuesday.”  Then, “guided by Mr. [John] Brennan, Mr. Obama must approve any name. He signs off on every strike in Yemen and Somalia and also on the more complex and risky strikes in Pakistan–about a third of the total.”

What was remarkable about the Times article, Engelhardt noted, was that it was not an exposé in any normal sense of the word. It was mere months before the election and three dozen of Obama’s current and former advisors agreed to be interviewed. One columnist even suggested the story was “planted.” In other words, the president and his team were proud of their kill list and wanted the public to know about it.

The Times called Obama’s role in the global killing machine “without precedent in presidential history.” The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported that Obama oversaw more drone strikes in his first year in office than Bush did in his entire presidency. In all, there were ten times more air strikes in the covert war on terror during Obama’s presidency than under Bush.berko-obama - Z communications

During his first year in office, Obama ordered 54 drone strikes, all of which took place in Pakistan. (Bush could only claim 57 strikes for his entire presidency). Strikes in Pakistan peaked in 2010 with 128 CIA drone attacks and at least 89 civilians killed, according to the Bureau.

Obama also launched an air campaign against Yemen early in his tenure. The first strike, on December 17, 2009, not only killed the intended target but also two neighboring families. A trail of cluster bombs took out many more innocent civilians. In all, 55 people died; 21 were children, ten of them under five, and 12 were women, five of them pregnant. Video footage of children’s bodies and angry tribesmen holding up American missile parts flooded You Tube, noted the Times, fueling a ferocious backlash that Yemeni officials said served to bolster al Qaeda.

But it was only in the last few paragraphs of the Times article that there was a hint of actual criticism of Obama’s reign of terror. “Both Pakistan and Yemen are arguably less stable and more hostile to the United States than when Mr. Obama became president,” the authors noted. “Justly or not, drones have become a provocative symbol of American power, running roughshod over national sovereignty and killing innocents. With China and Russia watching, the United States has set an international precedent for sending drones over borders to kill enemies.”

Dennis Blair, former director of national intelligence, (who was fired in May, 2010), was quoted as saying that the drone campaign was dangerously seductive. “It is the politically advantageous thing to do: low cost, no U.S. casualties, gives the appearance of toughness. It plays well domestically, and it is unpopular only in other countries. Any damage it does to the national interest only shows up over the long term.”

But fortunately for our leaders, the American public seldom thinks long term and history is something only foreigners study. Of course, Obama didn’t just set a precedent closely observed by other countries.  The man who followed him to the White House was also taking notes.

During Donald Trump’s first 100 days in office, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, more US strikes hit Yemen than in all of 2015 and 2016 combined. In March and April of 2017 alone, US jets and drones carried out 80 air attacks, more than twice the number than in the previous year.

An investigation by the Bureau revealed that at least 25 civilians died in a US ground raid aided by multiple air strikes just a week after Trump’s inauguration. The findings were confirmed by Human Rights Watch and The Intercept. The assault came just days after Trump exempted Yemen from Obama’s policies and rules designed to reduce civilian casualties and limit the circumstances for US strikes in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia.

While Obama reserved for himself final responsibility for determining drone strikes, Trump has instead delegated this authority to his generals. Trump also restarted the drone war in Pakistan during his first 100 days, and returned the power to authorize strikes to the director of the CIA. An NBC story this past September reported that the Trump Administration was considering more policy changes to expand the CIA’s power to conduct drone strikes in countries in and out of war zones.

Brian Terrell of Voices for Creative Nonviolence (VCNV) reported in a 2015 newsletter how President Obama had blamed the death of an American and an Italian hostage killed in a drone attack on the “fog of war.” Terrell explained that the phrase fog of war was introduced by a Prussian military analyst in 1832 to describe the uncertainty experienced by commanders and soldiers on the battlefield.

But the two hostages “were not killed in the fog of war,” Terrell argued. “They were not killed in war at all, not in any way war has been understood until now. They were killed in a country where the United States is not at war. No one was fighting at the compound where they died. The soldiers who fired the missiles that killed these two men were thousands of miles away in the United States and in no danger, even if anyone were firing back,” he wrote. “The decision that led to the deaths … was not reached in the crucible of combat but in the comfort and safety of offices and conference rooms.”

Although government propaganda praises the ability of drone technology to precisely target only the intended victim, the reality is that, like all modern air warfare, it is civilians that bear the brunt of the violence. At the peak of Obama’s drone campaign in Pakistan in 2010, an article in Der Spiegel noted that casualties from drone strikes are rarely counted and most casualties are civilians. The news magazine reported how 15 drone attacks were carried out to kill a Pakistani Taliban leader, and he was finally killed on the 16th attempt, along with ten friends and relatives. “According to sources in Islamabad, CIA drones killed some 700 civilians in 2009,” Der Spiegel said.

An article by Australian journalist Tony Iltis published in Toward Freedom in late 2010 cited a report by Philip Alston, a UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions, as saying that armed drones were a way of avoiding accountability for conduct in war. “The result has been the displacement of clear legal standards with a vaguely defined license to kill, and the creation of a major accountability vacuum,” he said.

The article went on to describe how Israel uses remotely operated weapons to enforce a 300 metre buffer zone on the inside perimeter of the Gaza strip, “reserving for itself the right to kill anyone who strays into it. One of the weapons Israel uses is Sentry Tech, a system of machine guns on towers all along the Gaza wall operated by remote control.

On the horizon is the development of “fully autonomous” weapons including a new generation of drones “controlled by an internal computer on the basis of information it acquires from a bewildering array of sensors. The drones will be able to decide to attack a target without human intervention.”

The article asks: “If a computer automatically decides to commit a war crime, then who is responsible?”

▪ ▪ ▪

North Korea and the US: Whose finger is really on the button?

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is a journal founded in 1945 by former Manhattan Project physicists after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The journal keeps a clock called the Doomsday Clock, which monitors how close we are–via nuclear weapons and other emerging technologies–to wiping out humanity and the planet. Fairly recently the scientists at the Bulletin pushed the hands of the clock forward 30 seconds. It now reads two minutes to midnight.

There are probably a variety of factors that the scientists considered in concluding that we are dangerously close to the end of life as we know it. There is the ongoing animosity between the US and Russia, tensions over the South China Sea and global warming, to name just a few. But the greatest threat to global security is undoubtedly the volatile and juvenile sparring match between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un that has persisted for over half a year.

Trump has taunted Kim, referring to him as “Little Rocket Man,” and has threatened to rain down “fire and fury” and totally obliterate North Korea. More recently, the two leaders have clashed over who has the “biggest button,” with Trump bragging that his is “much bigger & more powerful.” Wouldn’t it be more interesting and a little reassuring if they were bickering over which one had the biggest brain?

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Dueling Missiles

The truth is that we are frightfully close to a monstrous catastrophe. The risk of nuclear war is real. Policy experts have been busy mapping out various scenarios of what could or might happen if the current war of words escalates to actual combat. All the potential outcomes would be disastrous. Even if a preemptive first strike by the US were to knock out North Korea’s nuclear capacity, (an unlikely prospect), millions of South Korean civilians and many of the 154,000 American civilians and 28,000 US service members stationed in South Korea would be killed in a conventional retaliatory attack.

There were lots of scary stories in the press this past December concerning the imminence of all-out war with North Korea. While North Korea was testing nuclear bombs and ICBMs, the US was ramping up its presence near the Peninsula and conducting military exercises with South Korea. When Secretary of State Rex Tillerson indicated that negotiations were a possibility, Trump quickly undercut his efforts and denigrated the idea of diplomacy, tweeting “save your energy, Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!”

Just this spring, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley led a boycott of UN talks on outlawing nuclear weapons. “We would love to have a ban on nuclear weapons,” Haley said, “but in this day and time, we can’t honestly say that we can protect our people by allowing the bad actors to have them, and those of us who are good, trying to keep peace and safety, not to have them.”

Former CIA director Mike Pompeo replaced Tillerson and yet another right-wing hawk now had the president’s ear. As Zack Beauchamp wrote in Vox in mid-December, the reality of war with North Korea was “almost too terrifying to imagine.” He noted that, when the US invaded Iraq in both 1990 and 2002, “the US military engaged in a massive buildup of troops and materiel in the region. North Korea learned a lesson from that: If America suddenly starts ramping up its military presence in your area, war is coming.”

He then quoted Joshua Pollack, an expert on North Korea’s nuclear program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies: “Going back as far as 1994, [the North Koreans] have said that they would not sit there like Iraq did and wait for the United States to build up its forces. They would strike first under those circumstances. And now they’ve said that we’re going to strike you with nuclear weapons, specifically.”

The article went on to note that there were no good lines of communication between Trump and Kim and quoted US Senator Chris Murphy, a member of the Committee on Foreign Relations, as saying that the US was “flying blind” in regards to North Korea’s intentions. Murphy proposed a bill to require Congressional approval for a strike on North Korea but got no support from his colleagues. “These are muscles that we haven’t used in decades, having not authorized military action for 14 years,” Murphy said. “It’s hard, given how much authority we’ve abdicated to the president over the past decade.”

Beauchamp wrote that the word coming from North Korean defectors was that the regime’s forces were on hair-trigger alert, one where authority to launch an attack is delegated down to individual battlefield commanders who may have little or no understanding of what the US is doing. “There are tens of thousands of North Korean artillery and short range missiles, ready to fire at any moment,” one former high-level North Korean diplomat testified to Congress. “North Korean officers are trained to press the button without further instruction from the general command if something happens on their side,” he said.

When North Korea tested its largest nuclear weapon this past September, it was estimated that the device was at least ten times greater than the bomb the US dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. Alex Wellerstein, a nuclear weapons scholar, developed a modeling tool called NUKEMAP to estimate how many people would die in a nuclear strike. A 100 kiloton bomb like North Korea is believed to have could kill 440,000 people in seconds if detonated above the South Korean port city of Busan.  Over Seoul, it would kill 362,000 and 323,000 over San Francisco. But these are just immediate fatalities; secondary effects from fire and radioactive fallout would likely double the number. All told, one million people would die on the first day of a second Korean war, Scott Sagan wrote this past December in Foreign Policy magazine.

Second Korean War, huh? I would be willing to wager that if a survey were taken on any street in this country, the majority of the respondents would not even be aware that the United States ever fought a first war with Korea. But citizens of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) remember the war well.

Writing in The Intercept last May, British journalist Mehdi Hasan reminded readers that North Koreans both fear and loathe the United States and the hate is not all manufactured by their leaders. It is based in facts that “the United States blithely forgets.”  The war took place between 1950 and 1953, but is not really over, Hasan noted, since it was halted with an armistice agreement, not a peace treaty. “Despite the fact that the conflict saw the United States engage in numerous war crimes, which, perhaps unsurprisingly continue to shape the way North Koreans view the United States, even if [its] residents remain blissfully ignorant of their country’s belligerent past,” Hasan wrote.


Playing with our world

He quoted a University of Chicago historian, Bruce Cumings, who wrote that few Americans know or recall that the United States carpet-bombed the North for three years with little concern for civilian casualties. How many Americans are aware that US planes dropped more bombs on the Korean peninsula (635,000 tons) and more napalm (32,557 tons) than during the entire Pacific campaign against Japan in the Second World War?, Hasan asks. How many Americans know that, “over a period of three years or so,” to quote Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay, head of the Strategic Air Command during the Korean War, “we killed off … 20 percent of the population?” Hasan points out that the Nazis exterminated 20 percent of Poland’s pre-World War II population. Quoting LeMay again, “We went over there and fought the war and eventually burned down every town in North Korea.”

He also quotes Secretary of State Dean Rusk as saying that the US bombed “every brick that was standing on top of another, everything that moved.” Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas toured Korea in 1952 and was stunned by the “misery, disease, pain, suffering and starvation” he saw. US planes, having run out of military targets, had bombed farms, factories, dams, schools and hospitals. “I had seen the war-battered cities of Europe,” Justice Douglas lamented, “but I had not seen devastation until I had seen Korea.”

Many Americans believe that Donald Trump is unhinged, and rightly so, but how many know of Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s plan to win the Korean War in ten days? MacArthur, who led the United Nations Command during the war, wanted to drop “between 30 and 50 atomic bombs … strung across the neck of Manchuria” that would have “spread behind us … a belt of radioactive cobalt.”

“How many Americans,” Hasan asks, “are taught in school about the Bodo League massacre of tens of thousands of suspected communists on the orders of the US-backed South Korean strongman, Syngman Rhee, in the summer of 1950?” (Estimates are that 100,000 to 200,000 civilians were killed.)

After reading Hasan’s piece, I downloaded an article by Charles Armstrong, who was cited by Hasan. Armstrong is a professor of history and Director of the Center for Korean Research at Columbia University. His article was published in The Asia-Pacific Journal in 2009.

Armstrong wrote that the US may have considered the Korean conflict a “limited war,” but for the Koreans it was “total war … The US Air Force estimated that North Korea’s destruction was proportionally greater than that of Japan in the Second World War, where the US had turned 64 major cities to rubble and used the atomic bomb to destroy two others.” More than three million civilians are believed to have been killed in the Korean War, the vast majority in the North, which had half the population of the South.

The US dismissed British concerns that mass bombardment would turn world opinion against them, Armstrong noted, and “Russian accusations of indiscriminate attacks on civilian targets did not register with the Americans at all. But for the North Koreans, living in fear of B-29 attacks for nearly three years, including the possibility of atomic bombs, the American air war left a deep and lasting impression.

“The DPRK never forgot the lesson of North Korea’s vulnerability to American air attack,” Armstrong wrote, “and for half a century after the Armistice continued to strengthen anti-aircraft defenses, build underground installations, and eventually develop nuclear weapons to ensure that North Korea would not find itself in such a position again. The long-term psychological effect of the war on the whole of North Korean society cannot be overestimated. The war against the United States, more than any other single factor, gave North Koreans a collective sense of anxiety and fear of outside threats that would continue long after the wars’ end.”

Who knows what Trump’s threats of “fire and fury” might have on Kim Jong-un, but can you imagine what impact they have on the people of Korea?donald-trump-kim-jong-un-moon-jae-cartoon-vector-illustration-september-drawing-100456938

Which brings us back to the question: whose finger is on the button? It would be frightening enough if it was just the finger of the maniac in the White House. But just as with the authorization of drone strikes, the word is that Trump has also delegated the authority to push the nuclear button to various military commanders.

Amy Goodman and Juan González interviewed Daniel Ellsberg about nuclear war planning on Democracy Now this past December. Ten years prior to leaking the “Pentagon Papers” to the press during the Vietnam War, Ellsberg had been a consultant to the Pentagon and White House, drafting plans for nuclear war. González asked him about the capacity of people other than the president to push the nuclear button.

“To start with,” Ellsberg replied, “even if it were only the president, no one man–really, no one nation–should have the ability to threaten or to carry out a hundred Holocausts at his will. That machinery should never have existed. And it does exist right now, and every president has had that power, and this president does have that power.

“But the recent discussions … which emphasize his sole authority to do that, don’t take account of the fact that he has authority to delegate. And he has delegated. Every president has delegated … Every president in the Cold War, right through Carter and Reagan, had delegated, in fact, to theater commanders in case communications were cut off.

“How many fingers are on buttons? Probably no president has ever really known the details of that. I knew, in ’61, for example, that Admiral Harry D. Felt in CINCPAC, commander-in-chief of Pacific, for whom I worked as a researcher, had delegated that to 7th Fleet, down to various commanders, and they, in turn, had delegated down to people.

“There was even a plan to do that automatically by computer,” Ellsberg continued, “as a number of our military always recommended, to make the whole thing computerized, as in the doomsday machine of Herman Kahn and Stanley Kubrick. But, generally they allow for lower-level majors, colonels to decide.”

Amy Goodman then asked about the exchange during a White House meeting when Rex Tillerson allegedly called the president a “f___ing moron,” supposedly in response to Trump asking three times: “If we have nuclear weapons, why don’t we use them?”

Ellsberg responded that, according to others, Trump had asked the same question during the presidential campaign. “And he is using them right now,” Ellsberg said. “He’s using them the way you use a gun when you point it at somebody in a confrontation, whether or not you pull the trigger.

“But, at the moment, they’re being pointed. And they’re being pointed by two people who are giving very good imitations of being crazy. That’s dangerous. I hope they’re pretending. They might be pretending. But to pretend to be crazy with nuclear weapons is not a safe game. It’s a game of chicken. Nuclear chicken.”



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