Bush War I: Just Another War Or Was It the Beginning of the Endless War?

This is the sixth installment in a series on issues of War or Peace. There will only be two more installments. I promise.


I’m trying to gain some perspective on a century and a half of wars and empire-building by the United States. I think I have a thesis which is rather simple, so please hear me out.

The Persian Gulf War, what I will call Bush War I for simplicity sake, was not a war at all but rather the beginning of permanent war. Everything since is not a series of separate events but a continuation of what is now a normal state of affairs. It is the modus operandi of the empire; it’s what keeps the business running, the oil in the machine, if you will. It is the state religion and an integral part of our culture and so-called “civilized society.”

That quick and nasty little war that George Bush the First and all his henchmen brought us, the war that most Americans probably forgot about years ago, was in fact the most successful one of all. It was successful because it set the stage and opened the door to the ultimate objective: endless war to sustain the empire.

Remember Vietnam? Probably one of the most savage and senseless wars in human history, up to that point. So what was the one good thing to come out of that war, which took down a president and utterly destroyed an entire country in Southeast Asia? It was something called the Vietnam Syndrome.

No, it’s not a virus to be defeated with a dose of antibiotics. It’s the name that was given by the principalities and powers to the natural aversion of humans to military force, foreign intervention and war. It’s the natural predisposition that war should be avoided at all cost, except for the most justifiable of causes, and that there should be reasonable limits to national power. In other words, it was a disease that had crept into the American psyche and needed to be vanquished.

After Bush War I came Clinton’s war, which was war-by-another-name, but nearly as deadly and disastrous. And that flowed right into Bush War II, where that nasty syndrome seemed to rear its ugly head again for a moment. But then came the relief of the Obama years, when the liberals all agreed that war, state-sponsored assassination and repression were fine as long as there was a black face at the helm of the imperial ship of state.

My thesis is that Bush War I was truly unique: the war that would make all things possible (except peace). All wars are cruel and, Catholic doctrine aside, none are “just.” But this war went beyond cruelty to sadism and barbarism. Violence and barbarism were not means to an end, but the end itself.

It was the institutionalization of terror. The charge could be made that it was a pointless war, except that the war itself was the point.

It was probably the most hypocritical of wars in a long history of ignominious US foreign policy in which hypocrisy has always played a major role. Last but not least, this sordid little war was the one where our exalted “free press” officially became part of the machinery of death. Moving forward, we would have our “smart” weapons and a dumb and drugged media to do the bidding of the principalities and powers. No more speaking truth to power. The media would partner with those in power in speaking lies to the public.

So why was there a war? What was the motivation, and why did Bush and his cronies rush to war before peace had a chance to break out?

Les Aspin, a Wisconsin Congressman who was head of the House Armed Services Committee, said the goal was to determine “whether we can or cannot still call on force to achieve our goals abroad.” A former Strategic Air Command (SAC) general commented that the war was necessary to give “a demonstration to the world” of “the real capability of some weapons that a lot of us have been working on for decades.” The Wall Street Journal said the purpose of the war was to let “America, and above all its elite, recover a sense of self-confidence and self-worth.”

Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, hardly a left-wing radical, said the war “is about making money, about protecting governments loyal to America and punishing those which are not, and about who will set the price of oil.”

Diana Johnstone, in In These Times, may have said it best: “This is a war to prove that war works, that war is possible, that war is the future. It is the triumph of Henry Kissinger’s life work: to enable the US to overcome the inhibitions of nuclear deterrence and take up war as a normal instrument of foreign policy. It is the expression of our technological culture in which mastery of inert objects–missiles, electronic guidance systems, satellites–is so overwhelming that it allows our leaders to dispense altogether with the less quantifiable and more subtle science of human understanding.”

So yes, the war was a success. It was a feel-good pill for the wealthy and powerful. It was a show of force. It was an obscene display of “smart” new weapons and war technology and a beguiling invitation to Mideast countries to gorge themselves at the US arms bazaar.

What was the price? Only history can judge. Was it worth it? It depends on where you sit. If you happen to sit in the White House or a palace in Saudi Arabia, the answer is probably yes.

The US air campaign over Iraq and Kuwait was the most intensive, violent and sustained bombardment in human history.

The US dropped 82,000 tons of bombs during its six-week campaign. According to the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), the bombs measured ten times the explosive power of all the bombs dropped on Japan in the final 14 months of World War II.

How many people died in the war? The US wasn’t saying. General Norman Schwarzkopf, in charge of the slaughter, was quoted by the Wall Street Journal as saying: “I have absolutely no idea what the Iraqi casualties [are], and I tell you, if I have anything to say about it, we’re never going to get into the body-counting business.” But estimates from various sources placed the total number of Iraqi troops killed at 100,000 to 200,000. Fewer than 150 Americans lost their lives.

This was just the kind of war the US needed: quick, clean and brutal. As an article in The Progressive a couple months after the war pointed out, the government and its think tanks had determined, in a 1984 study, that the citizenry still had a tendency to “fear and resist involvement that may draw US forces into another foreign conflict.” (The syndrome.)

In wars in El Salvador and Guatemala, and proxy wars in Nicaragua, Angola, Cambodia and elsewhere, the US used mass assassination and other tactics to dispose of a third of a million people with only about 200 American casualties. Then they  perfected the formula with the invasions of Grenada and Panama: paint the enemy as evil, strike with disproportionate force, and get the killing done before Americans die.

In my file on Bush War I, I came across two essays by Edward Said, the Columbia University professor who died in 2003. I think they are worth quoting at length for their perspective and their prophetic nature. In the first, published in The Christian Science Monitor in August, 1990, Said wrote:

“Saddam is a deeply unattractive, indeed revoltingly tough and callous leader, who has suppressed personal freedoms, subjected his gifted and hard-working people to unimaginable rigors, and harassed and invaded his neighbors. But he is neither mad nor, I would suggest, an unexpected figure to emerge out of the desolation that has characterized recent Arab history. He is admired today by many Arabs who deplore his methods, but who say the world is essentially dominated by powers who invade, grab land, and attempt to change governments.

Turkey seized part of Cyprus a few years ago, the Russians invaded Afghanistan, the US has bombed or invaded Grenada, Libya, and only a matter of months ago, Panama, because it suited its interests, as defined by the president. Above all, every Arab is agonizingly aware that because of an American green light the Israeli army invaded Lebanon, killed 20,000 people, attempted to destroy the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), and set up a basically puppet government.

The US did not apply sanctions to Israel, and continues to subsidize the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights, and part of South Lebanon. At the UN, the US blocked any censure of Israel; together the two countries defied the entire world, with the US permitting only resolutions to pass that “regretted” the “violence on both sides,” a phrase both cynical and insulting. The habitual American leniency toward Israel confirms an indecent double standard …

We should not therefore underestimate Saddam’s appeal to Arabs who feel that nothing less than the future of Arab civilization is at stake. Historically opposed by the West, regarded with contempt and through a racist optic that considers Arabs mainly as greasy oil-suppliers, terrorists, or camel-jockeys, a resurgent Arab nationalism has taken heart from the resistance embodied in the Palestinian intifadah, the various Islamic groupings, and the Iraqi president …

Governments in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and perhaps Jordan are likely to recover badly, if at all, from the US rush to military reaction. Immense economic and ecological changes unforeseen in their scope will, I think, radically change the face of the whole Middle East. And I greatly fear that Arab nationalist hopes and cultural assertions will yet again be re-channeled into xenophobia, religious revivalism, and the politics of hostility and revenge.

No Arab can excuse today’s ghastly spectacle of corrupt or unjust regimes, massive social and economic inequities, horrendously backward educational and cultural establishments, overblown security apparatuses and abrogated democratic freedoms. But I submit, the Western–and especially the American–failure to draw out the Arabs in a real dialogue, to take their hopes and fears seriously, has contributed to much of what is unattractive in the Arab world.”


Saddam Hussein

An opinion piece published in the New York Times five months later, on January 11, 1991, six days before the US air offensive began, was titled A Tragic Convergence. What follows are a few paragraphs from that essay:

“Clearly, the major reason for the American buildup and the increasing likelihood of war is that the US still believes in its right to project its power where it pleases, for its own ends, wrapped in its own “higher” morality and principles.

This is an imperialist ideology. In the new world now dominated by one superpower, US policymakers feel an urgent need to confront challenges to American interests and, if necessary, to rout the challengers.

It is terrifying to watch Iraq now being readied for mass destruction. First its leader is transformed into the personification of evil, and our new allies “the embodiment of virtue.” Then Iraq’s people and society are reduced to “military assets” in a demonized “Islamic jihad.”

Finally, after some arbitrary deadline has expired, Iraqi society is declared a virtual nonentity, with cities to be smashed from great distances and heights, agriculture and industry to be torched, roads and bridges to be reduced to rubble. In all this, Western ignorance of Arab and Islamic culture becomes a useful mode of warfare: The enemy is easily dehumanized and readied for the final blow …

Who has given the US the right to project its power while simultaneously proclaiming its higher purpose and superior wisdom? The US is in fact repeating the practices employed by the British and French in the 19th Century. The big differences are that Washington today is capable of much greater destruction, and it refuses to admit that it is engaged in the business of empire …

The Gulf is not merely an empty desert with a large pool of “our” oil underneath and a whole bunch of sheiks, terrorists or Hitlers on top. It is a place with actual peoples, traditions and societies whose aspirations and values have to be viewed as having merit independent of our needs and attitudes …

So overbearing have Arab rulers become that the most grotesque situations are tolerated … No Arab president or king is accountable to his people; this is just as true of Saddam Hussein as of the others.

The bureaucracies and the secret police rule more or less unchallenged although they are universally hated and feared. Only some of this can be blamed on imperialism or Zionism for, after all, it was the Arab states that deserted the Palestinian intifada. There is no Arab country today that can adequately defend itself or its borders, yet national security arguments are used to justify gigantically large outlays of money for imported weapons, standing armies and praetorian guards …

The tragedy, then, is that there is a convergence between an imperialist American will to war against an upstart third world state and an almost equally remorseless Arab propensity to violence and extremism that began with Iraq’s aggression against Kuwait and continues in the Iraqi-Kuwaiti-Saudi-Egyptian drive to war.

A further irony is that this convergence is beginning to look like a conflict between Islam and the West, those two always convenient rubrics. A sobering look at the concretely terrible consequences of a war that seems ever more likely might set a different course–less imperious and dreary–for Americans and Arabs alike. There can be no real winner in this war, despite braggadocio and threats. It must not begin at all.”

Writing in New Statesman and Society, also in August, 1990, Eqbal Ahmad referred to the US’s “splendid affliction with the Vietnam Syndrome” and its subsequent recovery from the disease. “Their responses to the latest crisis in the Middle East suggest that Congress and the media have decisively overcome the nascent habit of casting critical eyes at flexed American muscles,” he commented.

Ahmad, who died in 1999, was a Pakistani writer, lecturer, historian and activist who studied and taught at Princeton and other universities in the United States. For ten years he was a senior fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington.  In 1971, he was indicted along with anti-war priest Phillip Berrigan and other militant priests, nuns, teachers and students on federal charges of conspiracy to kidnap Henry Kissinger in a plot to end the bombing of Southeast Asia. (The jury declared a mistrial.)

“In order … to establish the uniqueness of Iraq’s aggression in Kuwait,” Ahmad wrote, “the press has repeatedly stated that in the contemporary period no Arab country has invaded another. The statement obscures the more relevant fact that in recent decades invasions and annexations have been routinely carried out in the Middle East. Until it reacted to the Iraqi adventure, the United States had aided and condoned them all.”

Ahmad went on to point out that the United Nations was widely praised in the US for condemning Iraq and imposing sanctions. But he reminded readers that “in 1982 similar resolutions against Israel’s immensely more destructive invasion of Lebanon were repeatedly vetoed by the United States.”

“For the Arab people, this has been an era of grief and humiliation,” he wrote. “Since the end of the second world war, five Arab countries–Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt–have lost all or part of their land to Israel. Egypt finally regained Sinai but at the cost of betraying the others, and isolating itself from the Arab milieu.”

Ahmad went on to explain how a “power vacuum” came to exist in the Middle East, starting in the 1980s. When he signed a separate peace agreement with Israel, Egyptian  president Anwar Sadat anticipated a comprehensive resolution of the Israeli-Arab conflict that never materialized. “After making peace with its most populous and powerful Arab enemy, Israel proceeded to colonize and conquer the others with ruthless impunity,” he recounted.

Under the Camp David Accord, “A fraction of the Palestinian people (under one third of the whole) is promised a fraction of its rights (not including the national right to self-determination and statehood) in a fraction of its homeland (less than one-fifth of the area of the whole),” he said, quoting another commentator. Only days after the treaty had been signed, Israel announced the establishment of new Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories. This was a violation of promises made at Camp David, as Jimmy Carter would confirm.

“The sheikhs, led by Saudi Arabia, pleaded with Washington to save Arab face and their own dynastic future,” wrote Ahmad. “But they are prisoners of dependence and uneven development. They have acquired wealth without working and make enormous profits without producing. Their countries are littered with expensive machines but they have no technology. Their economies have tied them symbiotically to the United States. As expectations failed, they became objects of contempt. The power vacuum in the Arab world came to be palpably felt.

“The first clear sign that Iraq, not its Ba’athist rival Syria, was keen to fill the vacuum in the Middle East came when Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in 1980. Instead of discouraging his adventure, the United States quietly helped his ally, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait supplied Iraq with no less than US $60 billion in aid. The monster, if that is what Saddam is, was made by them.”

When Iraq invaded Iran in September, 1980, initiating a war that lasted for most of the decade, the US pursued a policy of playing both sides against the middle, with the objective of ensuring that neither nation would emerge with hegemony in the region. While maintaining what a White House official characterized as “55-45 percent neutrality” in favor of Iraq, the US helped both sides at one time or another. It secretly sold weapons to Iran in ’85 and ’86 while publicly asking its allies to embargo arms sales to that country. It provided reconnaissance information to Iraq via Saudi Arabia while clandestinely slipping information to Iran about Iraq. The US saw the Iran-Iraq war as an opportunity to increase its influence and military presence in the Gulf.

Despite this cynically opportunistic approach–a trademark of US foreign policy–the Reagan and Bush administrations consistently encouraged and supported Hussein during his rise to power. Early in 1983, when Iraq was near bankruptcy, the US granted $400 million in credit guarantees for the import of US wheat and agricultural commodities. Later that year, the “tilt” towards Iraq continued with the US informing its European and Gulf allies that an Iraqi defeat “would be contrary to US interests.”

In 1984, the same year the US confirmed Iraq’s use of chemical weapons against Iran, Ronald Reagan restored full diplomatic relations with Iraq. The US encouraged its allies to make major weapons sales to Iraq, since the Soviet Union had cut off sales when Iraq invaded Iran.

At an international conference on chemical weapons in Paris in 1989, the Bush Administration protected Saddam by opposing efforts of other countries to name Iraq as a violator of chemical weapons accords. In June, 1990, less than two months before Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, the Bush Administration refused to endorse attempts by members of Congress to impose sanctions against Iraq for its human rights record and the US vetoed a UN Security Council resolution condemning Iraq for using chemical weapons on its own people.

Finally, on July 25, 1990, just one week before the Iraqi invasion, US Ambassador April Glaspie met with Hussein in Baghdad and told him: “President Bush is an intelligent man. He is not going to declare an economic war against Iraq.” She added, “we have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border dispute with Kuwait.”

Three days later the CIA informed Bush that there “was a high degree of probability” that Iraq was going to invade Kuwait. Still, the only action the US took was to kill a Voice of America broadcast warning Iraq against invading Kuwait.

All indications were that the US was giving Iraq a green light and that the intent was to trap Saddam in a war.  This is certainly not beyond the realm of possibility given that Bush was “an intelligent man,” as well as the nation’s former chief spook.

Jonathan Ide, a Madison, Wisconsin researcher, published a well-documented paper titled The Gulf War: A Citizen’s Questions, shortly after the war. In his 20-page paper, he detailed the various grievances that motivated Hussein to invade Kuwait, his efforts to negotiate, and the US response. As Ide explained, Hussein had three main grievances:

First, that during its war with Iran, Kuwait’s border with Iraq had “crept north” until 900 square miles had been incorporated into Kuwait territory, including a tip of the rich oil reserve at Rumaila. Iraq also claimed that Kuwait was slant-drilling wells in order to extract Iraqi oil from Rumaila.

Second, Iraq had long sought naval access to the Gulf. It wanted rights to two uninhabited islands that belonged to Kuwait, and had offered to lease the islands. Kuwait had refused.

Third, Kuwait had been depressing world oil prices by overproduction, costing Iraq billions in lost revenue. Since Iraq was in a desperate economic state, this was something it could not afford to lose.

Overproduction by Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), in violation of OPEC quotas, had forced the price of oil as low as $11 or $12 a barrel, while Iraq wanted an oil price of $25 a barrel. During spring and summer of 1990, Iraq held negotiations with Kuwait, the Emirates and Saudi Arabia. At one point, the oil ministers of all these countries agreed to push their oil prices gradually higher, but the following day the Kuwaiti oil minister announced that Kuwait would significantly increase production instead.

To make matters worse, Iraq had entered the war with Iran with $40 billion dollars in the bank, but left it $80 billion in debt. Kuwait had provided about $10 billion to Iraq during the war, which Saddam thought had been a grant. When the war ended, Kuwait demanded repayment and refused to restructure the debt.

As Ide pointed out, after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the US refused to respond to at least five Iraqi overtures to negotiate. These offers were documented by The Nation, Der Spiegel, The Progressive and other publications. On August 9, 1990, one week after its invasion, Iraq sent a proposal to Washington offering to withdraw its troops in exchange for three things: control of the Rumaila oil field, access to the Persian Gulf, and US-Iraqi negotiations on oil prices.

Two weeks later, Iraq went further, offering to release all hostages, asking for sanctions to be lifted when a settlement was reached, and calling for the two countries to work together to “improve stability in the Gulf and to ease Iraq’s economic problems.”

At the start of the new year, as reported in Newsday, Iraq offered “to withdraw from Kuwait if the United States pledges not to attack as soldiers are pulled out, if foreign troops leave the region, and if there is agreement on the Palestinian problem and on the banning of all weapons of mass destruction in the region.” Furthermore, the New York Times reported that Yasser Arafat and Hussein were willing to drop their demands for “linkage” to the Palestinian problem provided there were assurances that the problem would be addressed in the future. This offer did not even mention the Rumaila oil field or access to the Gulf.


Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr. and President George H.W. Bush visiting troops during the Gulf War

On January 14, the eve of war, France urged the UN Security Council to call for “a rapid and massive withdrawal” from Kuwait, together with a pledge that the Council would help settle regional matters, especially the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, by convening an international conference to work out “the security, the stability, and development of this region of the world.”

In exchange for no war, all the US was obliged to do was agree to a peace conference. But the French resolution was vetoed by the US and Britain. On February 15, Baghdad Radio announced an offer of “conditional “ withdrawal from Kuwait, asking only that it not take place under fire. The White House called the offer a “cruel hoax,” insisting the withdrawal must come before a cease-fire.

By February 21, Iraq had agreed to terms of a Soviet peace initiative, which included a specific timetable for withdrawal. But the US rejected the Soviet plan and gave Iraq 24 hours to start withdrawing under their terms. As the New York Times reported, “some American officers in Washington have said privately that an Iraqi retreat is “the last thing they want to see.”

As Jonathan Ide remarked in his paper, it was not really a war, it was a massacre, or, to use General Schwarzkopf’s words, “a war of annihilation.” This was most evident in the “ground war,” which was not a ground offensive at all. It appears that Iraqi forces had already started to withdraw on February 21, two days before the US launched its offensive, when Iraq accepted the Soviet peace initiative.

Although the White House and the military tried to hide the fact that the US was attacking Iraqi troops trying to withdraw, some US pilots gave the Washington Post a different story. They described a “massive, disorderly retreat” and termed the bombing offensive a “turkey shoot” and “like shooting fish in a barrel.”

As I’m writing this, I have in front of me, pulled from my files, a letter from Kathy Kelly, the Nobel Peace Prize nominee and Chicago activist who works with Voices for Creative Nonviolence. The letter is dated February 23, 1991 and addressed to an old friend of mine, Laurie Hasbrook, whom I knew from my years in Milwaukee. Kathy is writing from Amman, Jordan, where she has traveled with the Gulf Peace Team. The team had been evacuated from Baghdad on February 1 and she had felt “chilled and dismal,” she wrote. The letter is impeccably typed, which seems to belie the gravity of the situation.

“On the road between Baghdad and Amman, we passed numerous smoldering vehicles. Tankers, buses, cars … the route is vital for civilians who want to flee from the war and for humanitarian convoys that evacuate the wounded or bring supplies for the needy,” Kathy wrote.


Kathy Kelly

She went on to describe how a donor had sent a huge shipment of milk supplement and baby food, none of which could be included in their convoy because UN sanctions only allowed Jordan’s Red Crescent to send medical supplies. Janet, a doctor from Scotland, is shedding tears while she hoists heavy bags of milk supplement off one of the trucks, so as not to compromise Jordan’s neutrality.

Already 14 Jordanian drivers have been killed while traveling on the road, but Kathy described the Red Crescent convoy drivers as playful and full or energy. “It was wonderful to see them clamber into the seven vehicles that formed our convoy, the first international relief convoy sponsored by the Red Crescent.” Fifteen tons of medical supplies were delivered.

Later, in a Red Cross international refugee camp, Kathy’s team is visited, late at night, by two doctors. One is an Algerian Red Cross doctor, the other the director of International Development for the Iraqi Red Crescent. Both had just left Baghdad on route to Amman. “The Algerian doctor described the situation in Baghdad as a siege on civilians,” Kathy wrote. “He said that average healthy people won’t die from going without food for several weeks. It’s the babies, the nursing mothers and the elderly pensioners who will suffer needlessly.” The 1949 Geneva Conventions endorse the basic rights of civilian victims of war, she notes.

Jean Dreze, a Belgian member of the peace team, had done extensive research on the impact of famine caused by the Gulf War. Millions of civilians, not only in the Gulf but elsewhere, suffer severely from the ravaging disruption of ordinary life caused by the war, she reported. Deep economic recession in many countries, famine in large parts of Africa, and a catastrophic oil slick in the Persian Gulf were only a few examples of devastation caused by the conflict.

The infant mortality rate had doubled in Iraq, Kathy added. From 1989 to 1990, Iraq had imported $2 million worth of medical supplies daily, she wrote. Since the embargo, it had dropped to less than $2 million a month. “If only nations would wage war on poverty and hunger with the same determination and political will as they are currently waging war against Iraq,” Kathy wrote near the end of her letter home.

Kathy Kelly’s peace contingent departed Baghdad on February 1 and Ramsey Clark arrived in Iraq the following day. Clark was the Attorney General in Lyndon Johnson’s administration. (His father, Tom Clark, had served as Attorney General under Harry Truman and later as a conservative Supreme Court justice under Earl Warren).

In a March editorial in The Nation, Clark described his week-long visit to Iraq with two filmmakers and an Iraqi-born American citizen. They traveled over 2,000 miles and “saw probably several hundred damaged or destroyed vehicles along the road. All were civilian vehicles: oil tankers, tractor-trailers, flatbeds, pickups, buses, minibuses, taxicabs and many private cars. In those we examined, we found no evidence of any military use,” he wrote.


                     Destroyed Iraqi civilian and military vehicles on the “Highway of Death”.  Credit: Tech. Sgt. Joe Coleman

The group examined civilian damage in Baghdad, Basra and Diwaniya, as well as smaller towns and communities. “No city, town or roadside stop we visited had running water, electricity, telephone service or adequate gasoline for transportation,” Clark wrote. “The effect on the cities has been disastrous.” The Minister of Health reported that the pollution of public water systems was the greatest health problem in the country, with tens of thousands known to be sick, hundreds of thousands assumed to be, and several thousand dead.

Basra was the most heavily damaged place the team visited, with hundreds of homes destroyed and hundreds of people killed and injured. Bombs had hit a low-cost, public housing development, killing 46 people and injuring more than 70, and other bombs hit an elementary and a high school. On the outskirts of Basra, a mosque was bombed to rubble and a family of at least ten were killed in the blast.

“Damage elsewhere in the cities and towns we visited was similar,” Clark reported. “There was no “collateral” military damage; all the destruction was to civilians. Bridges, telephone exchange, electric generator plants, water-processing and pumping stations, even government office buildings are essentially civilian and entirely noncombatant. We saw no evidence of military presence in any of the bombed areas we visited … The air assault deliberately targeting the civilian population of Iraq is a war crime.”

In an interview in The Progressive the following month, Clark described the systematic destruction of water systems, telecommunications, hospitals and everything pertaining to civilian life in Iraq. “It’s heartbreaking to witness,” he said. “The people are the ones getting bombed. You can’t bomb a city without killing people, and the idea that there’s pinpoint precision is ridiculous, a great falsehood.”

“I believe America must liberate itself from its love of violence and its love of wealth–which are closely integrated,” Clark commented in response to a question from the interviewer. “We are a plutocracy in the purest sense of the word–a government of wealth … you can’t see the autopsy photos of John Kennedy and Martin Luther King and Bob Kennedy and you can’t read the history of the Philippine-American war, and watch what we were doing in Vietnam, without rejecting violence. I completely reject violence. And yet, at the sacrifice of everything else, America spends hundreds of billions of dollars annually on violence. We really believe that might makes right, and that leads us to perpetual war.”

Kathy Kelly and Ramsey Clark visited Iraq in February. On March 20, the United Nations released a report on conditions of life in Iraq. It read in part:

Nothing that we had seen or read had quite prepared us for the devastation which has now befallen the country. The recent conflict has wrought near-apocalyptic results upon the economic infrastructure of what had been, until January 1991, a rather highly urbanized and mechanized society. Now, most means of modern life support have been destroyed or rendered tenuous. Iraq has, for some time to come, been relegated to a pre-industrial age.

The Reuters news service estimated the damage to Iraq’s civilian infrastructure at $180 billion.

As with most wars, it was not just innocent people, civilian infrastructure and the environment that suffered in Bush War I. It was also the concept of truth and the right of citizens to know what their government is doing that was damaged, perhaps beyond repair.

Bush I used the same ploy that his son would employ a decade later to sell a gullible public on war with Iraq: the pretext that Iraq was dangerously close to developing weapons of mass destruction. On November 22, 1990, Bush was warning a divided country about the grave threat of Saddam’s atomic program. But a comprehensive survey of Iraq’s nuclear weapons program in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists a few months later would show that “Iraq was many years away from developing usable nuclear weapons.”

All the same, the US chose to attack all of Iraq’s major nuclear-research facilities, including the Tuwaitha reactor complex just 25 miles south of Baghdad. It was the first attack ever on an operational nuclear reactor. According to the Bulletin, the two small research reactors at Tuwaitha “were unconnected to Iraq’s bomb program.”

As noted in In These Times a couple of months after the war, the US won a minor PR victory at home “but defeated years of progress in international nuclear-arms control.” Just before the war, the UN General Assembly had passed a resolution urging against such attacks.

In the six-month build-up to the war, the American public was fed a steady stream of stories about Iraq’s fearsome arsenal of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. Only after the war did Americans learn that Iraq lacked the technology to deploy those weapons. The New York Times reported that “captured Iraqi soldiers said most units had inadequate chemical-protection equipment, in some cases not even gas masks.” Newsweek reported that “not a single [Iraqi] chemical weapon has been found.” Does this sound all too familiar? Exactly. The whole script would be replayed a little over a decade later with another Bush in the starring role.

The media also speculated that Saddam possessed exotic fuel-air explosives (FAEs), powerful bombs that spread a highly inflammable mist over a wide area that they then ignite. An article in the New York Times warned that “Hussein might be planning to use [a] … horrific weapon, never before employed in combat, known as the fuel-air bomb.”

The In These Times article after the war pointed out that the fuel-air bomb had, in fact, been used before, by the US in Vietnam. If Iraq did have FAEs, it chose not to use them. The Boston Globe reported, on February 6, that “fuel-air bombs may have been dropped over Iraq” the previous weekend. The next day the Los Angeles Times reported that journalists touring a US air base in the Gulf spotted FAEs stockpiled on the tarmac. A few days later, a military spokesman admitted the US was dropping FAEs on Iraqi troops. On February 16, the Times reported that the largest FAE in the US arsenal, the 15,000-pound BLU-82/B, was being dropped on Iraqi targets. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute noted that this bomb “produces a concussive blast greater than that of the smallest nuclear devices.”

Not all the weapons employed by the US were “high-tech.” More than six months after the war, stories began to appear in the mainstream media about how the US Army had “used plows mounted on tanks and combat earth-movers to bury thousands of Iraqi soldiers–some still alive,” during the early stages of the ground attack. New York Newsday and the Philadelphia Inquirer gave the story front-page coverage, while the New York Times waited a few days and then “buried” the story.

An article in a veteran newspaper called On Guard reported on this heinous act of burying Iraqi soldiers and the subsequent response of the press. In an accompanying article in On Guard, Professor Francis Boyle, an expert on international law at the University of Illinois, inventoried a number of the atrocities committed by US troops and sharply refuted a report by Greenpeace which he claimed whitewashed US conduct of the war. Here are a few of the examples he cited:

  • When the US gave its final ultimatum for Iraq to withdraw its forces from Kuwait, it promised it would not attack retreating Iraqi forces. But attacking retreating Iraqi forces is exactly what Bush did. “This is clearly a war crime,” Boyle said.
  • When Marine Corps aircraft joined ground troops and began to bomb Iraqis fleeing Kuwait, it was not just Iraqis but innocent Kuwaiti people fleeing Kuwait City who died on the “highway to hell,” Boyle pointed out. “My guess is that at least 5,000 Kuwaiti citizens were killed by US military forces on this highway,” he wrote.

“Notice the order by Schwarzkopf “not to let anybody or anything out of Kuwait City” was a war crime itself. It called for the indiscriminate destruction of these vehicles irrespective of whether civilians or military personnel were in them.” The US Air Force had been given instructions to make the area a “free fire zone,” Boyle said, and this was a violation of international law because of the refusal to discriminate between military and civilian targets.

  • Boyle noted that Greenpeace admitted that a rationale of the bombing was “to achieve a psychological effect on the Iraqi people.” That meant these were “terror bombings” … “clearly prohibited by international law and constituted war crimes,” Boyle attested.

When the war broke out in January, 1991, I wrote a letter to my then congressman, Scott Klug. His response was unsatisfactory but, since he ended by saying “I hope you will continue to keep in touch,” I followed up my first letter with an eleven-page missive that included a lot of history concerning Iraq, Iran and the Middle East. I mentioned the impact of European colonialism and US imperialism on the region, Winston Churchill’s bombing of Iraq in the 1920s to secure British domination of the Iraqi oil fields, and the British use of poison gas and other weapons when villages failed to pay their tribute to the British Empire.

I quoted Alexander Cockburn quoting Churchill, who defended his use of chemical weapons as “the application of Western science to modern warfare” and as saying “We cannot … acquiesce in the non-utilization of any weapons that are available to procure a speedy termination to the disorder that prevails on the frontier.”

The “disorder on the frontier” induced the United States, around 1948, (the year I was born), to gradually assume the role of dominant power in the Middle East. The US spent the late 40s and early 50s wrestling and shadow boxing with Britain for control of Middle East oil. The US used strong diplomatic pressure to oust Russia from a province in northern Iran where the Soviet Union had secured an oil concession with a 51-49 division of profits. (This was embarrassing to the Brits, who had allowed Iran only a 20 percent cut of oil profits.)

On May 1, 1951, three days after Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh was elected Prime Minister, and with some egging on by the US, Iran nationalized the billion-dollar British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. The US then collaborated with Britain to boycott Iranian oil and cut off its markets, while simultaneously giving Iran monetary aid. The US played with Mossadegh like a puppet on a string.

When Eisenhower came to office in 1952, the US resolved its differences with Britain and the puppet’s strings were promptly cut. John Foster Dulles was appointed Secretary of State and his brother, Allen Dulles, became Director of the CIA. (For those of you unfamiliar with US history of this era, picture Al Capone and John Dillinger on an international scale.)

The following August, a CIA-directed coup overthrew the Iranian government and replaced it with one led by a former Nazi collaborator. The CIA agent who managed the coup, Kermit Roosevelt, grandson of Teddy, later left the CIA to join the Gulf Oil Corporation as “government relations director” in Washington. No, I’m not making this up. It gets worse.

As the intrigue in Iran was being plotted, Kermit was joined in Teheran by Brigadier General H. Norman Schwarszkopf, who had reorganized the Shah’s police force in the 1940s. That’s right, as if two George Bushes were not bad enough, there were also two “Stormin Norman”s. (Like father, like son.) Schwarszkopf was an old friend of the Nazi collaborator and he claimed he was in Teheran “just to see old friends again.” In truth, he was part of the operation that overthrew the Iranian government.

Schwarzkopf and Bush at Victory Parade in 1991

George H.W. Bush and Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf at Gulf War Victory Parade in 1991.       Credit: Associated Press

As a result of the coup, Britain lost its oil monopoly and Iranian oil was turned over to a consortium of England, France, Holland and the US.

In January, 1957, Eisenhower delivered a proposal to Congress, known as the Eisenhower Doctrine, which asked for authority for the president to use armed force in the Middle East “to secure and protect the territorial integrity and political independence of such nations requesting aid against armed aggression from any nation controlled by International Communism.” Six months later, the US sent marines into Lebanon, accompanied by an armada off the coast of Beirut. It was a response to a rebellion against a pro-Western and crooked government, as well as a revolution in Iraq against the British-installed and pro-Western monarchy there.

The US first contemplated armed intervention in Iraq to oust the new government, but could not find anyone to collaborate with against the popular revolution. Instead, the US and Britain announced, according to the New York Times, that they would not invade Iraq unless the government failed to “respect western oil interests.”

In The Causes of World War III, a book he published shortly after the coup in Iraq, C. Wright Mills cited a Congressional document indicating that US concern had more to do with access to oil than any threat of “International Communism.” In fact, Colonel Karim Kassem, who took power in the coup, outlawed the Communist Party and slaughtered thousands of communists immediately after assuming control.

Shortly after, Kassem was toppled in another coup, which the French press said was inspired by the CIA. Kassem had announced formation of a national oil company and, according to an interview in Le Monde days before the coup, he had been threatened with sanctions by the US State Department. The Brits, aware of plans to oust Kassem, stipulated that the new government must abandon any claims to Kuwait, (still under the aegis of the British Empire), and must not proceed with plans to exploit the oil in areas recently recovered by Iraq.

Next followed the Nixon Doctrine, with Iran designated to play the role of surrogate policeman in the Persian Gulf. US arms merchants sold over $8 billion worth of weapons to the Shah during the 1970s and 50,000 US advisors helped expand and train his army and hated secret police.

The popular revolution that deposed the Shah in 1979 significantly altered the power equation in the Middle East. This and other events in the region led Washington to revert again to a strategy of direct military intervention. Soon after Jimmy Carter took office in 1977, his national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, dusted off an idea that had been around at least since the Vietnam War. The US should create a military force that could be dispatched rapidly to the Persian Gulf or anywhere else in the Third World.

In his State of the Union address in January, 1980, Carter declared: “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” This became known as the Carter Doctrine.

Saudi Arabia, with a population too sparse to play a role like Iran had under the Nixon Doctrine, was ideally suited to assume a key role under the Carter Doctrine, which required not armies but bases in the Gulf. The kingdom of Saudi Arabia had courted US favor since its birth in 1932. Within a year, the Standard Oil Company of California cut a lucrative deal with Abdul Aziz ibn Abdul Rahman al Saud, the tribal leader who created the country by seizing territory from the Ottoman Turks.

The US government and US oil corporations have stood staunchly by the Saudi autocrats ever since, a relationship of mutual convenience. In what became known as the Irangate scandal, Congress refused the Reagan Administration funding for the Nicaraguan contras, so CIA chief William Casey called on the Saudi ambassador, who wrote a million dollar personal check for the contra account in Switzerland and promised another one every month.

Saudi princes have reaped hundreds of millions of dollars in kickbacks on contract with western firms, particularly in the area of arms acquisitions. Between 1970 and ’79, Saudi Arabia had already purchased $3.2 billion worth of US weapons and military services. By 1978, nearly 700 US military personnel and 10,000 civilians employed by US defense contractors were constructing military installations in the country. The pattern persisted into the next decade, with over $18 billion in arms sold to Saudi Arabia by the US, France, Great Britain and other nations between 1983 and 1987.

The Carter Administration couldn’t find a pawn in the Gulf region willing to openly play host for the Rapid Deployment Force headquarters, but Iraq’s invasion of Iran in 1980 provided the necessary leverage for the US to extract more concessions from Saudi Arabia. Over the next decade, Saudi Arabia dumped over $50 billion into building a Gulf-wide air defense system to US and NATO specifications. By 1988, the US Army Corps of Engineers had designed and constructed a $14 billion network of military facilities across the country. In August, 1990, the Corps returned to construct more facilities for the US troops there, since original scenarios hadn’t anticipated such a large deployment of ground forces.

Caspar Weinberger, Secretary of Defense under Reagan in the 1980s, wrote in a classified Defense Guidance report that US troops, not Saudis, would be the first-line forces in any crisis. “Whatever the circumstances,” he wrote, “we should be prepared to introduce American forces into the region should it appear that the security of access to Persian Gulf oil is threatened.”

US naval intervention became reality in July, 1987, when Reagan responded to a Kuwaiti request to place its oil tankers under US protection. The US sent an armada that grew to nearly 50 ships in and near the Gulf. There were several confrontations with Iranian forces–opportunities to test sophisticated new weapons–including the missile system that shot down an Iranian civilian plane, killing 291 people.

Which pretty much brings us back up to 1991 and Bush War I, and my letters to Congressman Klug. I sent copies of the letters to US Senators Robert Kasten and Herb Kohl, Congressmen Les Aspin, James Moody and Robert Kastenmaier, and the mayors of Madison and Milwaukee.

My long second letter went out on February 15, but Senator Kasten replied on the 14th that, “with a heavy heart,” he had voted for the resolution authorizing Bush to use all necessary means to oust Iraqi forces from Kuwait. “I believe that the President made every effort for a peaceful solution,” he wrote.

I wonder if he ever bothered to read the second letter, which clearly, extensively and unequivocally documented the fact that the US had been preparing for three decades or more for a non-peaceful solution.

Michael Klare, a professor of Peace and World Security Studies, wrote in The Progressive a couple months after the war that “American war aims in the Persian Gulf were truly predatory. The intensity of the bombing and the determination to destroy everything of industrial or military value in Iraq suggest a goal that exceeds battlefield considerations.”

It was “Iraq’s future military capabilities that US officials worried about most,” Klare wrote, “it’s theoretical ability to emerge as a regional superpower in the late 1990s and thereby constrain Washington’s intent to dominate the oil-rich Persian Gulf region. American leaders viewed the destruction of Iraq as a warning to other rising Third World powers of the terrible risks they will incur if they contest US primacy in areas the United States deems critical.”

Later in his article, Klare noted that some pundits were speaking of a new “Pax Americana” based on US domination of the international community. Bush himself had labeled this arrangement a “New World Order.” But Klare warned that it would be a terrible mistake to assume all challenges to US domination would disappear.

“The Iraqi experience is likely to lead other aspiring nations to move more rapidly toward the development of nuclear weapons so that they can effectively deter military intervention by the United States and its allies,” he wrote. “And those angry people who do not have access to powerful weapons will find other ways of expressing their hostility, producing an endless need for US “peacekeeping” throughout the vast sweep of the Third World … The destruction of Iraq may endow America with a sense of omnipotence, but it will not bring us peace.”

▪ ▪ ▪

Afghanistan: Slaughtering hearts and minds in the longest war

This is the fifth installment in a series on issues of War or Peace.

What’s there to say about this war? It’s the oldest in US history. It seems like it’s been dragging on forever, and yet it also seems to be a forgotten war. I wonder if anyone even thinks about it anymore?

Perhaps the Afghans, who lost family members, or lost their poor pillaged country, once again, to endless destruction, terror and violence? Perhaps the soldiers, sent once again to fight a senseless war, and lost their limbs, lost their buddies, or loss their sanity? Perhaps the brave peace activists from Voices for Creative Nonviolence, who never fail to care?

The media never seemed to pay it much attention. I have a whole file drawer stuffed with articles and news clippings about the Bush wars in Iraq, but only one meager file folder about the never-ending war in Afghanistan. I search my brain: what was the war called? The Americans, (as well as their Israeli pals), are always adept at coming up with catchy code names before they invade a country and wreak havoc. So I looked it up. They called it Operation Enduring Freedom when they attacked Afghanistan way back in October, 2001.

I suppose it may be hard to determine if the Afghan people feel more free than they did 17 years ago. I suspect it’s mostly about enduring.

I recall that I wrote a poem about the war back in early 2010, later published in the Atlanta Review. Even the poem seems ancient now. I had just heard General Stanley McChrystal say on NPR that “We’ve got a government in a box, ready to roll in.” Now I wonder: what happened to the box? Was it big enough to do the job? What happened to the government? And what happened to all the lucky people who were going to get this government, a gift courtesy of Uncle Sam?

So what was the pretense for this war? That Afghan people needed a government? No, not quite. As it happened, they’d already had quite a few governments, most provided by an assortment of other generous foreign benefactors.

But the September 11 attacks had happened. Much of the world was in sympathy with the US and this sympathy could have been parlayed into a plan to bring peace, stability and social development to the Mideast. Uncle Sam had new-found friends willing to help with this task. But Bush and the military decided an enemy would be more useful. Why not Afghanistan? No matter that Afghanistan had nothing to do with September 11. The attacks were planned, funded and carried out by people connected with Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s worst dictatorships but also a US ally. So Bush bombed Afghanistan instead and thus began the realm of permanent warfare in the US empire.

This war for “enduring freedom” has been a long one, even if you start the clock on October 7 of 2001, but the war has deeper roots. US involvement in that country actually began around 1979, nearly 40 years ago. I learned this from an article in my file from CovertAction Quarterly, (CAQ), a magazine founded by former CIA officer turned agency critic Philip Agee. (The magazine ceased publication in 2005).

In May 1979, seven months before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, a CIA station chief in Islamabad met with Afghan mujahideen in Peshawar, Pakistan and agreed to supply them with arms. (This tidbit was actually attributed to Alfred McCoy, the University of Wisconsin historian and expert on CIA drug trafficking).

Once the Soviets invaded on December 24, 1979, and installed their own pro-Soviet government, the US began to support the Pakistan-based resistance more fully. From 1979 to ’89, more than half of the $5-6 billion in CIA aid went to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a warlord with an unsavory reputation and renowned for his violence, who was both anti-Soviet and anti-US. With Uncle Sam’s money, he made war on the Soviets, as well as other resistance groups, while becoming the country’s leading drug lord.

Guns, money and aid from the CIA and Saudi Arabia were funneled through Pakistan’s intelligence agency, which “ensured that the more Islamist elements among the resistance got the plums of foreign assistance,” noted the CAQ article. “From the start, the US was aware that its aid was fostering a form of warlordism within the Afghan resistance … and that the … strategy of rewarding some resistance factions at the expense of others was undermining any chance of developing a “credible” non-Communist leadership.”

The US continued to supply Hekmatyar with arms even after the Soviets left and even after the US ambassador to Pakistan attested that the aid had stopped. Fighting between the various mujahideen factions intensified, with much of the struggle over who would control the drug trade rather than who would lead the state.

Training camps for Islamist fighters sprung up in eastern Afghanistan, in areas under Hekmatyar’s party’s control and “many of the participants in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center claimed to have had combat experience with Hekmatyar’s troops.” Someone convicted in the 90’s of plotting to blow up US airliners supposedly bragged of getting training in terrorist tactics in bases such as these.

“It became clear by 1994, five years after the Soviet withdrawal, that the so-called Afghan freedom fighters had turned their country into “a breeding ground for drugs and terrorism,”” the CAQ article concluded, citing stories in the New York Times and New York Times Magazine.

Then came the Taliban, fanatical students from the madressas, Islamic religious schools, many in Pakistan, and funded by the Saudis. Launching their first assault from a base in Pakistan in October 1994, they took advantage of all the discord and corruption among the Mujahideen warlords and quickly seized Kabul and about two-thirds of the country’s provinces. It’s not clear if the US had supported the Taliban all along, certainly Pakistan and Saudi Arabia had, but on the day the rebels captured Kabul, a State Department spokesperson acclaimed they might be “the group that might finally bring stability to Afghanistan.”

Stability was the one thing that Uncle Sam yearned for in Afghanistan, not so much so that the people could live in peace, but because it was good for business. Business in Afghanistan, as in Iraq, revolved around oil. Uncle Sam wanted to be warm and snugly with a government in Kabul so that it could pursue plans for a natural gas pipeline and an oil pipeline project involving the US firm Unocal, (now merged with Chevron), and the Saudi group Delta Oil.

Way back in the mid-90s, the two companies reached an agreement with Turkmenistan, the former Soviet republic, for a Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline. It would stretch from the oil and gas rich Caspian Sea region of Turkmenistan, south through Afghanistan to Pakistan and into India.

Afghan mapA consortium to construct the pipeline, led by Unocal, was formed in 1996 and Robert Oakley, the US ambassador to Pakistan, joined up the following year. In January 1998, the Taliban signed an agreement to allow the project to proceed. But when two American embassies were bombed later than year, the US alleged that Osama bin Laden was behind the attacks, which led to a falling out with the Taliban. Unocal withdrew from the consortium that December and closed its offices in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

When negotiations with the Taliban stalled again in late 2001, the Bush Administration threatened them with war, according to some accounts, wrote Frank Blair and Julie Byrnes Enslow in an issue of the Peace Action Wisconsin newsletter in September 2010. “The attack on 9/11 was the needed trigger to launch a war on Afghanistan. Plans had been drawn up in advance,” they wrote.

Hamid Karzai, whom the US installed as Afghan president after the invasion, had been a Unocal adviser and a key collaborator in the pipeline plans, Blair and Enslow pointed out. Karzai signed the December 2002 deal on the pipeline along with the leaders of Turkmenistan and Pakistan.

Although Bush may have started it, Afghanistan became Obama’s war. He embraced it from the start, calling it a “good war” during his presidential campaign. What was bad under Bush became abominable under Obama. Hardly a month into his presidency he announced he would withdraw 100,000 troops from Iraq while ordering three brigades of troops – 17,000 soldiers and Marines – to Afghanistan to join the 30,000 Americans already there. The ugly pattern would continue to repeat itself: every time the US increased its forces, the insurgency grew stronger and the influence of the Taliban spread.

Not that he wasn’t warned. Most of the articles in my file are from the first two Obama years, with everyone from former Wisconsin Congressman David Obey to Amy Goodman cajoling, pleading and demanding that the president take a different path than his predecessor. He didn’t listen.

Here was Joe Galloway, writing for McClatchy Newspapers, the week Obama made his first fateful decision to send more troops: “The nation we set out to free from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein and visit with the blessings of democracy has paid a hellish price for its salvation: Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have been slaughtered in civil war and ethnic cleansing and as collateral damage in the war. Millions more have been forced from their homes and turned into refugees … Now we wait to hear how many of the American troops leaving Iraq will be retrained and recycled into a potentially disastrous war in Afghanistan that’s dragged on even longer.

“The Taliban insurgents now have a chokehold on as much as 70 percent of Afghanistan, and they’re proving to be flexible and adaptive in their attacks on American, NATO and Afghan forces.

“If the new American team has some new ideas about how to succeed in Afghanistan, now would be the time to lay them out. Nothing that Alexander the Great, Queen Victoria or Leonid Brezhnev tried in their attempts to subdue the quarrelsome Afghan tribes worked, and nothing we’ve tried in the last eight years has, either.”

And here’s Joseph Gerson, director of the Peace and Economic Security Program of the American Friends Service Committee, in a column published in the Madison Cap Times: “The mistaken “logic” underlining the contradictions of massively increasing the number of US warriors sent to Afghanistan is to increase bargaining leverage with the Taliban. Obama wants to augment US influence in Afghanistan before the US approves Karzai negotiations with the Taliban or publicly begins them on its own.

“Unfortunately, like LBJ and Nixon, Obama’s approach won’t work. With its corruption, its reliance on repressive and misogynist warlords, and the deaths and suffering of civilians caused by US-NATO attacks, Afghan hearts and minds will not rally to the Karzai government or to US forces. Similar to the failures of “Vietnamization” in the early 1970s, the idea that the US will be able to triple the size of the Afghan military, isolate it from corrupting warlord and Karzai government influences, and provide it with modern warfighting capabilities in just two years is a deadly pipe dream.

“This leads to a situation analogous to that described in the Pentagon Papers in which 85 percent of the reason for continuing the Vietnam War, and even escalating it, will be “perception,” to defend the image of the US as a military superpower that must not be challenged.”

One of the most cogent arguments to end the war was written by Sonali Kohlhatkar, co-director of the Afghan Women’s Mission, less than a year into the Obama presidency. It was published in Foreign Policy in Focus and reprinted in Toward Freedom. With little debate among progressives about how bad the war was, she warned that the opportunity to end the war “is slipping through our fingers.”

She outlined the way that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were similar: how they killed both civilians and soldiers, made women less safe, the occupations were both unpopular on the ground and led to greater instability, and that “our tax dollars are being disappeared into a sinkhole of destruction rather than human needs.” Where they differed, she said, was that progressives were clear from the start about Iraq but Afghanistan “seems to confuse our moral compass.”

“Our actions in Afghanistan have caused a perfect storm of untold numbers of civilian deaths, fundamentalist resurgence, and women’s oppression … If ever the Afghanistan war had any legitimacy, it’s irreversibly gone,” she wrote.

“One of the original justifications for the war that seemed to resonate most with liberal Americans was the liberation of Afghan women from a misogynist regime,” she said. “What this logic misses is that the United States chose right from the start to sell out Afghan women to its misogynist fundamentalist allies on the ground. The US armed the

Afghan refugee girl

Afghan girl named Nasila in refugee camp in Passau, Germany in August, 2015. Credit: Jazzmany

Mujahideen leaders in the 1980s against the Soviet occupation, opening the door to successive fundamentalist governments including the Taliban. In 2001, the United States then armed the same men, now called the Northern Alliance, to fight the Taliban and then welcomed them into the newly formed government as a reward. The American puppet president Hamid Karzai, in concert with a cabinet and parliament of thugs and criminals, passed one misogynist law after another, appointed one fundamentalist zealot after another to the judiciary, and literally enabled the downfall of Afghan women’s rights over eight long years … add to this the unacceptably high number of innocent women and children killed in US bombing raids, which has also increased the Taliban’s numbers and clout.


“Those who make the case that withdrawing US troops will unleash another bloody civil war where Afghan women and men will be at the mercy of the Taliban and warlords, are raising the exact same justification made for the war in 2001: that it’s our moral duty to protect Afghans from fundamentalist violence. This logic ignores the fact that we have nurtured and created the very fundamentalist violence that targets Afghans.”

In March, 2011, Sojourners magazine ran a number of articles about the war in Afghanistan. Jim Wallis, the editor, in a column called Hearts & Minds, wrote that the monetary cost of the war was more than $100 billion a year and that the two wars together had already cost the country about $1.3 trillion in the preceding decade.

We are paying billions for weapons systems the military didn’t ask for and doesn’t need, Wallis said. “The amount of money spent on war is no longer tenable. It is time for the war in Afghanistan to end. Our financial and spiritual health depends on it.”

In another article, David Cortright, director of policy studies at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, wrote that military means had always been the first resort, not the last, in Afghanistan. More than 90 percent of all spending for the country had gone through the Pentagon, he said, and Bob Woodward’s account of Obama’s 2009 strategic review showed that nonmilitary options were never considered.

“Pakistani military and intelligence agencies have long supported the Taliban,” Cortright wrote. “The United States has responded to this dilemma by pressuring a reluctant Pakistani army to wage war against its own people. The US has also taken matters into its own hands by mounting frequent drone bombing strikes, commando raids, and targeted assassinations across the border. These actions have alienated and enraged many Pakistanis and are generating greater support for the insurgency the US is attempting to suppress, threatening to destabilize Pakistan itself and fueling extremism across the region.”

“The number of US military raids has increased sharply with the administration’s military surge, and this has created deepening resentment and anger among many Afghans, including President Hamid Karzai … The current strategy of large-scale counterinsurgency and targeted bombing is questionable morally, unwinnable militarily, and unsustainable politically.”

In yet another Sojourner’s article, Eric Stoner, a professor and freelance journalist, reported on his travels to Afghanistan in late 2010 with Voices for Creative Nonviolence. More than 30 years of war had left the country in a “perpetual state of crisis,” Stoner reported. Afghanistan had the lowest life expectancy in the world, he said, as well as the worst infant mortality rate, with one of every four children not surviving to see their fifth birthday.

He recounted visiting a refugee camp on the outskirts of Kabul, full of people who had fled their homes in Helmand province after a US military offensive. A man showed him black-and-white photos of his children, killed during a US bombardment.  “To add insult to injury,” Stoner noted, residents of the camp “must look every day at the enormous US military base that is being constructed on a hill overlooking the squalid camp.”

For the cost of just 246 soldiers in Afghanistan for a year, he said, the US could fully pay for higher education for the entire country.

Robert Scheer, the award-winning journalist and editor-in-chief of Truthdig, penned an essay in 2010 called The High Price of Patriotism. “Our military investments recruit rather than combat terrorists, but that is not a bad outcome if the goal is greater instability as an excuse to keep defense spending absurdly high despite the end of the Cold War two decades ago,” he wrote. “Our military budget … is nothing more than a profit and jobs center for the defense industry, which has its tentacles in every congressional district. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were never about combating terrorism, which is a supranational phenomena anchored in neither country.

“Patriotism is always in the eye of the beholder, so why is Karzai’s patriotism tawdrier than that of the executives of Lockheed and Boeing who still build planes designed to evade Soviet air defenses that were never created?, Scheer said.

“Karzai is now playing the patriot who will line the pockets of his most influential countrymen … He is proving to be a substantial leader, corrupt as he may be, in that he is no longer willing to play the puppet. This sort of rebellion happened before in Vietnam when Ngo Dinh Diem, the US-imposed liberator, turned against us and our CIA assassinated him. How long before Karzai meets a similar fate?

“This fatal syndrome in American imperial designs is well known to Richard Holbrooke, President Barack Obama’s key civilian adviser, who played a similar role in Vietnam. Back then, when Holbrooke was involved in the Phoenix assassination program (he now is involved with the drone assassinations), the reckless murder of civilians was aimed at winning their hearts and minds. It didn’t work because we destroyed too many of their bodies in the process.

“The arrogance of these adventures in nation-building represents an enduring example of America’s deeply provincial and blindingly self-centered role in the world. That Holbrooke has learned nothing from his trail of deceit posing as diplomacy is not so startling given the obtuse nature of the man, but that Obama has entrusted this most critical aspect of his foreign policy to the likes of a hack like Holbrooke is truly depressing.”

On October 3, 2015, two Nobel Peace Prize winners came head-to-head with each other in Kunduz, Afghanistan. One bombed the hell out of the other. (The US and Britain had officially ended their combat operations in the country one year earlier, but more on that later.)

Doctors Without Borders, (Médecins Sans Frontieres, (MSF) as they are known elsewhere), opened the Kunduz Trauma Center in August 2011. It was the only facility of its kinds in northeastern Afghanistan, providing high-quality, free surgical care to victims of general trauma, including traffic accidents and conflict-related injuries. During 2014, the hospital had cared for more than 22,000 patients and performed 4,241 surgeries.

Before the facility opened, Doctors Without Borders participated in comprehensive negotiations with all parties to the conflict, discussing the nature of their work and reaching agreements regarding respect for the neutrality of the medical facility and activities. The agreement was grounded in International Humanitarian Law (IHL). MSF affirmed that a strict “no weapons” policy would be enforced at all times in the compound. The location and GPS coordinates of the facility were shared repeatedly with all relevant parties.

As heavy fighting broke out in Kunduz, the MSF staff launched a mass casualty plan for wounded patients and increased the number of beds. At first, government troops composed the bulk of those wounded in the fighting, then it shifted to more Taliban seeking treatment. In the week before the bombing, staff treated 376 patients in the ER, more than a quarter women and children under 15.

On the night of October 2, it was calm around the hospital. There was no fighting and no planes overhead. The staff was busy trying to catch up; there were 150 patients in the hospital and about 150 staff too. The building was brightly lit and spread across the roof was a large white and red flag reading Médecins Sans Frontieres.

Here’s a couple paragraphs from an MSF report about what happened next:

Between 2:00 am and 2:09 am on October 3, the first in what would be a sustained series of precise airstrikes was launched targeting the main hospital building. The first strike killed two patients on operating tables, among others, and drove staff to seek shelter in the sterilization room. The explosions woke MSF international staff members sleeping in the administrative building, where an MSF nurse arrived covered in debris and blood, his left arm hanging from a small piece of tissue. Medics provided immediate treatment to stabilize him.

Amidst ongoing volleys of fire and a series of ground-shaking explosions, many staff heard something that sounded like a propeller plane circling the hospital–consistent with reports that an American AC-130 gunship carried out the attacks. Many staff described seeing people shot as they ran from the main hospital building. Staff also recounted a patient in a wheelchair killed by shrapnel as he attempted to escape, an MSF doctor getting his leg blown off, people running while on fire before falling to the ground, and a staff member decapitated by shrapnel. Fire also hit the southern area of the compound, where two unarmed MSF guards were later found dead from shrapnel wounds.

The airstrikes stopped between 60 and 75 minutes after they started. About 42 people were killed in the attack, including 14 staff members. Six intensive care patients were burned to death in their beds. Surviving medical staff collected supplies, converted an administrative office into a makeshift emergency room, triaged patients, and began treating the wounded. Surgeries were performed on an office desk and a kitchen table.

Kunduz hospital bombing

At the time of the airstrikes on MSF’s hospital in Kunduz, the operating facilities were in use. There were patients on the tables being attended to by surgeons and other medical staff. Credit: Dan Sermand/MSF

The US military initially claimed the airstrike was carried out to defend US forces on the ground. Later, the US commander in Afghanistan, General John Campbell, said the strike was requested by Afghan forces that had come under Taliban fire. After an investigation, Campbell said the incident was “the direct result of avoidable human error, compounded by process and equipment failures.” Sixteen members of the US military were disciplined but none were criminally charged. Cockpit recording showed that the AC-130 crew questioned the strike’s legality.


Doctors Without Borders was clear about calling the attack a war crime. “This is not solely about whether or not Yemen or Afghanistan are safe for aid workers … It’s about how countries fighting wars under the banner of counterterrorism too often seek to extricate themselves from the bounds of international treaties and conventions. This was part of the post-9/11 rhetoric coming out of the US, when Bush administration officials labeled the Geneva Conventions “quaint,” and it relates to how the US’s drone program, to name one, operates now. This is how Russia conducted itself in Chechnya and elsewhere and is now conducting itself in Syria, where it bombed several medical centers in the first weeks of its overt involvement in the country. This is certainly how the Assad regime directs its campaign against its people.”

Bombing the hospital was just one of many incidents in the war that served to lose “the hearts and minds” of the Afghan people.

There was the case, on March 4, 2007 when US Marines, reacting to a suicide attack in Spinpul in Nangarhar Province, proceeded to slaughter a dozen civilians, including a one-year-old child. The soldiers sprayed bystanders “with machine-gun fire in a rampage that covered 10 miles of highway,” according to the New York Times.

A 16-year-old newly-married girl was killed while carrying a bundle of grass to her farmhouse to feed the animals. A car was hit and shredded by 250 bullets; the driver survived but two elderly men and a 16-year-old boy died. A 75-year-old man walking to his shop was hit by so many bullets that his son couldn’t recognize the body when he arrived at the scene.

Later that year, eight civilians, including a pregnant woman and a baby, died when a Polish unit shelled the village of Nangar Khel a few hours after an insurgent IED ambush damaged a Polish armored vehicle. Seven soldiers were charged with war crimes after locals stated that the unit fired mortar rounds and machine guns into a wedding celebration without provocation.

This incident was interesting to research in that reports from the Polish military command were included in the 91,731 classified documents released by WikiLeaks on

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Afghan family protests at White House after US Army Staff Sargent Robert Bales charged with 17 counts of murder for killing 8 adults and 9 children in Afghanistan. Washington, DC, March 25, 2012. Credit: Will E. Davis, Shutterstock

July 25, 2010. A “consequence management team” from the Polish Battle Group (PBG), including a general and colonel and a Governor Khapalwak, visited the village a day after the attack, just as the last of the victims was being buried.

The Governor addressed the entire burial party and then heard complaints from the people gathered. “Men speaking on behalf of the crowd stated that they are a very poor people,” read the official report. “They hate the Taliban because the Taliban come into their village and steal money from them and tell them to feed their troops. They hate the Americans because they bomb our homes. (The villagers were not aware that Polish troops were now working the area.) The villagers felt the Americans acted the same as the Soviets, coming to Afghanistan under the pretense of helping the country but then proceeding to kill villagers.”

In 2011, a Polish military court cleared the soldiers of all crimes. “The mistaken killing of civilians by foreign forces, usually during air strikes or night-time raids, is a major source of friction between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his Western backers, and has complicated efforts to win support from ordinary Afghans,” the Reuters account noted.

On September 4, 2009, it was a Colonel Georg Klein, a German officer with a NATO unit, who ordered US jets to bomb two tankers that had been hijacked in the Taliban-controlled district of Chahar Dora near Kunduz. About 142 people, primarily civilians, died in the attack, but German lawyers and journalists later claimed that 179 civilians were killed.

Nearly a year later, Der Spiegel reported that the German armed forces, the Bundeswehr, had agreed to compensate relatives of civilian victims with a payment of $5,000. Initially the army did not take any action on the case, the report noted, and, contrary to NATO regulations, did nothing to investigate the impact of the air strikes.

The compensation agreement did not include any admission of guilt. Military attorneys said that Germany’s recent reclassification of the Afghanistan mission as a “non-international armed conflict,” (a war), meant that the victims no longer had any legal claims.

So what should Americans call this conflict that was once called a war, our longest war, the war for “enduring freedom”? Is it still a war? I don’t know; perhaps you can figure it out. I scrolled through page after page of Wikipedia’s account of the conflict, hoping to gain some clarity.

What I found was that the “ending” of this war is elusive; it’s as never-ending as the war itself. Part of it is probably just the sticky nature of imperial counterinsurgency. Part of it is probably Obama’s great gift for getting liberals to believe one thing while he was doing another. About the same time he was surging, he was promising to withdraw.

In January of 2012, Karzai and Obama met in the United States and the US stated it was willing to withdraw all its troops by the end of 2014. In May of 2012, the NATO countries began announcing their intended exit from Afghanistan and Obama and Karzai signed an “Enduring Strategic Partnership Agreement.” (There’s that word enduring again.)

But as troops began to withdraw from Afghanistan, they were replaced by private security companies. (Eric Stoner pointed out that, for the first time in history, more private contractors lost their lives than did soldiers during the first six months of 2010 in Afghanistan.)

On May 27, 2014, Obama announced that US combat operations in Afghanistan would end that December. On October 26, both the US and Britain officially ended their combat operations in Afghanistan. But unofficially nothing much seemed to change.

In 2015, according to Wikipedia, “American forces increased raids against Islamist militants, moving beyond counterterrorism missions.” This was partially due to improved relations between the two countries when Ashraf Ghani was elected president in September, 2014. “Reasoning used for these raids include protecting American forces, which has been broadly interpreted,” Wikipedia noted.

In March, Reuters reported that US military bases in Kandahar and Jalalabad were likely to remain open beyond 2015, as the US considered slowing its withdrawal to help the new government fight the Taliban. Throughout 2015, the US launched about 1,000 bombs and missiles at targets in Afghanistan, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.

In January 2016, the Obama administration sent a directive to the Pentagon granting new legal authority for the military to go on the offensive in Afghanistan. In June, Obama approved a policy to give the US military greater ability to “accompany and enable Afghan forces fighting the Taliban,” a decision allowing greater use of US air power. In July, Obama announced plans to leave 8,400 troops in Afghanistan when he finished his term.

That September, the Afghan government signed a peace deal with Hezb-i-Islami, the organization led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. (Remember him?). The group agreed to cease hostilities, cut ties to extremist groups and respect the Afghan constitution. Hekmatyar was promised an honorary position in the government.

In February 2017, the Huffington Post reported that, according to a UN report, US aircraft conducted about 30 air strikes in Helmand Province in the preceding week. In April of last year, the Trump Administration deployed an additional 5,000 US Marines to Southern Helmand Province. On April 13, the US dropped the largest non-nuclear bomb, the 21,600 pound Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB), known endearingly as the “Mother of All Bombs,” on a village in eastern Afghanistan.

And so it goes.

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Next Time:  Bush War I: The Beginning of Permanent War

Violence in America: The Chickens Come Home to Roost

This is the fourth in a series of posts on the theme of War Or Peace

It’s one of those old sayings where everyone knows the meaning but it’s difficult to pinpoint the origin. Why chickens? Pretty harmless creatures, (if a bit quirky), aren’t they? They never struck me as fierce or nefarious. What does it matter if they happen to come home to roost?

The rallying cry of some on the left during the Vietnam War was Bring the War Home. Little did they know, I suspect, that it would happen, but probably not in quite the way they imagined or intended. But pick your proverb. The chickens came home and so did the war. If not the war, then at least the violence.

The ugly irony is that, with each new war America wages, fewer and fewer soldiers fight and fewer get killed. (More come home and kill themselves than die in combat.) But the home front, largely unscathed by foreign war for most of its history, grows more and more violent with each passing year.

I suspect that’s the nature of violence: it is a malignant virus that affects the perpetrator as well as the victim. The violence of warfare doesn’t lead to peace, just to an escalation of violence; and on the home front it permeates the body politic and infects it like a cancer.

“More and more, the United States resembles a giant laboratory researching death–its seduction and profitability,” wrote priest and peace activist Philip Berrigan at the start of the first Gulf war in early 1991. But who are the lab rats in this laboratory of death? The poor people of Iraq and Afghanistan, for sure, and Palestinians and Syrians, and last but not least, the citizens of the United States, who pay the bills to run the lab. They pay the bills and they are also the rats: the victims, intended or not, of the heinous research and experimentation that is transforming the whole country into a monstrosity that makes Frankenstein’s creature look mild-mannered.

Does this sound like hyperbole? I’m afraid it isn’t.

Recently, my life in transition, I spent a lot of time sorting through old magazines, newspaper articles and assorted files and papers. Here’s an article from the front page of the Wisconsin State Journal asserting that the United States is “the most violent and self-destructive nation on Earth,” according to a report from the Senate Judiciary Committee. The year? 1991. Based on FBI data, the report said Americans were killing, raping and robbing one another at a furious rate, surpassing every other country that keeps crime statistics.

“When viewed from the national perspective, these crime rates are sobering” the report stated. “When viewed from the international perspective, they are truly embarrassing.”  The report noted that the US murder rate was twice that of Northern Ireland, then torn by civil war, and eleven times that of Japan.

An article a few months earlier, published in a Catholic weekly in Milwaukee, quoted a priest that I had known from community organizing on the west side of the city. Milwaukee had just surpassed its old homicide record and the priest described the neighborhood as in a state of “paralysis.  It’s not just the poor inner city community that says life is cheap,” he said. “The larger community cheapens life” by not taking action to curb the violence.

In the same dog-eared file folder was an essay from the National Catholic Reporter by the late Jesuit priest Robert Drinan lamenting the fact that 36 percent of American households owned a gun. This was 2003 and the death rate by guns for young black men was 25 times the rate for white males, he said, decrying the “compelling power over members of Congress” exercised by the NRA. Drinan had been elected to Congress as an opponent of the Vietnam War and was the first member of Congress to call for the impeachment of Richard Nixon, not because of the Watergate scandal but for Nixon’s secret bombing of Cambodia.

Rummaging further in the file folder, I found an article about “a new video game in which the player stalks and shoots fellow students and teachers in school settings.” School Shooter: North American Tour 2012 is “a first-person game that allows the player to move around a school and collect points by killing defenseless students and teachers,” the news story states. Sandy Hook happened in late 2012 but the article is from April of 2011.

[I drafted this post you are reading in February, right after Parkland. On May 29th, I came across an online petition announcing that the Valve Corporation of Bellevue, child with gunWashington was planning to launch a new video game on June 6th that allows players to simulate a school shooting. “Valve is considered to be one of the most important and influential companies in the gaming industry,” according to Wikipedia. Most, if not all of its games, are violent. I hope the school shooter game was never released. I hope the company goes bankrupt. I hope the video entrepreneurs die peacefully in their sleep and then go to hell, if there is such a place.]

The next newspaper article, faded yellow now, is from the Madison Isthmus, a 1993 opinion piece by Milwaukee-based conservative commentator Charles Sykes. The average American child sees 15,000 television murders by age 18, Sykes pointed out, and homicide was then the second leading cause of childhood death.

“Recent Senate Judiciary Subcommittee hearings on television violence documented the mounting evidence linking televised violence with an increasingly violent society,” Sykes wrote. “The nonstop diet of beatings, assaults, rape, sadism and murder … sends very direct messages to children. On television, violence is the ultimate problem-solver; it provides the instant gratification of instant resolution. Faced with problems of their own, youngsters increasingly turn to violence as the first, rather than last, resort.”

Does that last sentence sound to you, as it does to me, like US foreign policy for the last 25 years or so?

Down near the bottom of this same file folder lurks the most fascinating article of all. It’s from the June, 1999, issue of U.S. Catholic magazine and written by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, who had recently retired from the US Army. Grossman was an expert on the psychology of killing, what he termed “killology,” and he had already penned a book titled On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society.

Grossman argued that kids aren’t just turning to violence on their own; American culture is training and teaching them to kill. He should know. He spent nearly 25 years as an army infantry officer and psychologist, “learning and studying how to enable people to kill.” According to Grossman, and this may be the best news in my essay, killing doesn’t come naturally. It is a learned skill. Even soldiers, he says, have a “God-given resistance” to killing their own kind.

In the Civil War, he points out, the average firing rate was incredibly low. In World War II, Army researchers discovered that only 15 to 20 percent of riflemen could bring themselves to fire at exposed enemy soldiers. “Men are willing to die, they are willing to sacrifice themselves for their nation, but they are not willing to kill,” he wrote.

This surprising insight into human nature was obviously a “problem” for the Army, so it systematically set about “fixing” it. By the Korean War, according to Grossman, 55 percent of soldiers were willing to fire to kill, and this increased to more than 90 percent by Vietnam.

Grossman then listed some of the methods the military uses to improve the killing rate of soldiers in combat. His premise is that our culture uses similar techniques to teach kids to kill.

Brutalization and desensitization is one of the training methods used in boot camp on 18-year-olds, he says. But the violence our children are exposed to in the media begins to affect them at the age of 18 months, as they begin to discern and become desensitized to the brutality depicted on the screen. He notes that the Journal of the American Medical Association published the definitive epidemiological study on the impact of TV violence. “In every nation, region or city with television, there was an immediate explosion of violence on the playground, and within 15 years there is a doubling of the murder rate. Why 15 years? That is how long it takes for the brutalization of a three to five-year-old to reach the “prime crime age.” That’s how long it takes for you to reap what you have sown when you brutalize and desensitize a 3-year-old.”

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Demonstration in Tallahassee, FL, Feb. 21, 2018. Credit: Shutterstock.com

What I’ve failed to mention is that Grossman’s hometown is Jonesboro, Arkansas. About a year before his article was published, a school massacre occurred there, when four girls and a teacher were killed and ten others injured. The two boys who shot them were ages 11 and 13. It was the deadliest school shooting in the country until, a month before his article appeared, the massacre at Columbine happened. And that was the deadliest high school shooting until the recent school massacre in Florida.

After the Jonesboro shooting, Grossman said that a teacher at the high school told him how her students reacted when informed about the shooting at the middle school. “They laughed,” she told him. Grossman calls this classical conditioning. Children watch images of human suffering and death and learn to associate it with whatever enticing products are being sold on the commercials. “A similar reaction happens all the time in movie theaters when there is bloody violence. The young people laugh and cheer and keep right on eating popcorn and drinking pop. We have raised a generation of barbarians who have learned to associate violence with pleasure, like the Romans cheering and snacking as the Christians were slaughtered in the Colosseum,” Grossman wrote.

Operant conditioning, says Grossman, is the method the military and law enforcement uses to make killing a conditional response. “Whereas target training in World War II used bull’s-eye targets, now soldiers learn to fire at realistic, man-shaped silhouettes that pop up in their field of view–that’s the stimulus. The trainees only have a split second to engage the target, and then it drops. Stimulus-response–soldiers or police officers experience hundreds of repetitions of this. Later, when they’re out on the battlefield, or a police officer is walking a beat, and somebody pops up with a gun, they will shoot reflexively–and shoot to kill. Seventy-five to 80 percent of the shooting on the modern battlefield is the result of this kind of stimulus-response training.”

“Every time a child plays an interactive point-and-shoot video game, he is learning the exact same conditional reflex and motor skills,” Grossman noted.” This process is extraordinarily powerful and frightening. The result is ever more homemade pseudo sociopaths who kill reflexively and show no remorse. Our children are learning to kill and learning to like it.”

Role modeling is another method used to teach people to kill. In the military, Grossman says, it is the drill sergeant who “personifies violence and aggression.” I suspect that Grossman and many of my readers will not agree with me but who are the role models most likely to influence impressionable young minds? Just turn on your TV if you’ve missed these serial killers, but I’ll name just a few: George Bush I and II, Henry Kissinger, Bill Clinton, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Madeleine Albright, Barack Obama, Donald Trump. Not to mention most of the members of Congress. But they didn’t fire the guns, you say? Oh, of course not. Too messy, all that blood.

In my estimation, kids lose either way. If they embrace these role models, it means they aspire to follow in the footsteps of the Bushes and Obamas. Why not use a few of their school mates for target practice while they prepare for the real challenge of life in the greatest country on Earth: to dominate, oppress and slaughter as many innocent people as possible, while also devastating their homelands and holding the whole world hostage with the threat of a nuclear nightmare? If, on the other hand, they choose to reject these role models and the hypocrisy, hollowness and horror that their supposedly “civilized” culture has to offer, then they are opting to live a life of profound alienation and exile. Paul Goodman wrote about this existential dilemma in the 50s and 60s. He called it Growing Up Absurd, but who reads him anymore?

Teach Your Children Well, and that we do. But not in the way Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young probably had in mind. Kids are not stupid. They are perceptive and can see right through the dishonesty and hypocrisy and double standards of the adult world, the do as I say, not as I do. Like when Bill and Hillary, the darlings of American liberals, preached “it takes a village to raise a child” while simultaneously bombing several countries and killing a half million innocent children in Iraq. With lots of help from Madeleine (“it was worth it”) Albright.

Like many people who were children during the height of the Cold War, I remember the air raid drills, how we crouched under our puny wooden desks and prepared for the bombs to fall. They never did. But today children do similar drills in their schools to prepare for the more likely eventuality that one of their own classmates or some other youngster will go on a shooting rampage.

I can’t help thinking that, at some level, these two dreadful rituals, a half century apart, are intrinsically related.

When Nikolas Cruz, 19, walked into his former high school in Parkland, Florida to commit his wanton act of depravity, it was Valentine’s Day, the day of love. It was also Ash Wednesday, the Christian holy day for peace. He had an AR-15 in his hands and wore a maroon shirt with the logo from the Army Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program as he proceeded to murder 17 students and school staff. It was the 18th school shooting in the country this year, according to the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety. That’s 18 school shootings in a month and a half; fortunately, no one was injured in almost half the shootings.

NPR journalist and commentator Scott Simon had this to say a few days later: “We can and should add up the number of students and teachers who are killed in school shootings and not forget their names, or forget the gift of their lives. But the casualties of school shootings don’t just include those killed or wounded. Each child who has to run for their life from their own school, each parent who has felt a stab in their heart to hear a child is in danger and even children and parents who may be thousands of miles away from the crime but terrified by it, have been inflicted with fear.

“I have covered enough gang shootings, civil wars and mob murders, and interviewed too many survivors of school shootings to believe some magic new law could make gangs, criminals, psychopaths, the mentally ill and anyone else who shouldn’t have guns line up to surrender them. But the Congressional Research Service says there are already more than 300 million guns in the United States. Should those who blame many mass shootings on poor access to mental health counseling be comfortable that Americans have mass access to so many guns?”

Exactly two weeks before the school shooting in Florida, I attended a presentation by the Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort (WAVE) on the outskirts of Milwaukee. The anti-gun group provided a power point with a daunting parade of statistics on gun ownership in America and the futility of trying to achieve domestic safety or security with more guns.

Recent data from the Small Arms Survey and Congressional Research Service shows that there are now 112.6 guns for every 100 people in the United States, a gun ownership rate that has roughly doubled since 1968 and the highest in the world. Has the rise in gun ownership made our citizens safer? Statistics show that 82 percent of firearm deaths (in 23 higher-income countries) occur in the US. And 91 percent of all children (ages 0-14) killed by guns live in the US, as well as 90 percent of all women. There were 300 mass shootings in the United States in 2017, but most gun deaths occur “in the privacy of one’s own home.” The WAVE people pointed out that the number of American soldiers killed in battle since the Revolution, roughly 664,560, is about the same as the number of men, women and children killed in their homes in the last 20 years.

The chickens have surely come home to roost. Or maybe you reap what you sow is a more apt axiom?

Just now, I turn on the internet and learn that a Missouri youth baseball team is holding an AR-15 raffle. The coach says the fundraiser will go on, despite heavy criticism. Teach Your Children Well. But the children are pushing back, in a good way. Rising up and speaking out against the hypocrisy. They are organizing protests and there is a die-in in front of the White House.

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Rally to protest and change gun laws, Tallahassee, FL. Credit: KMH Photovideo/Shutterstock.com

Two days after the Florida shooting, the Associated Press revealed that the NRA has been providing grants and other support to schools across the country for their ROTC programs. There are over 1,700 high school ROTC programs in the country. They receive support from the US military, as well as $2.2 million across 30 states from the NRA Foundation, according to the AP. More than $400,000 of that was in cash grants. A total of 18 schools in Florida received NRA donations in 2016, the highest of any state.


Nikolas Cruz was a cadet with the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School ROTC team. He reportedly excelled in the air-rifle marksmanship program that was supported by a grant from the NRA.

The same day as the shooting, Bess Kalb, a writer for the Jimmy Kimmel Live TV show, started publicly responding to the parade of politicians and lawmakers who were tweeting condolences over the Florida murders, taking them to task for taking money from the NRA. As Kalb pointed out, the Congressmen were busy praying and weeping elephant tears over the latest school tragedy while lining their pockets with the NRA’s blood money. Here’s a few from her list:

  • Senator Marco Rubio, praying, $3,303,064 from NRA
  • Senator Cory Gardner, heartbroken, $3,879,064 from NRA
  • Senator Rob Portman, also heartbroken, $3,061,941 from NRA
  • Senator Bill Cassidy, praying, $2,861,047 from NRA
  • Senator Thom Tillis, praying, $4,418,012 from NRA
  • Congressman Ken Burk, devastated and praying, $800,544
  • Senator Joni Ernst, praying, $3,124,213 from NRA
  • Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, heartbroken and praying. GOP candidates took $17,385,437 from NRA in 2015-16 election cycle, not counting $21 million to Donald Trump.

“Sorry to be crass, but we have the motherfucking receipts,” Kalb tweeted at 4 pm on February 14th.

Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut , who had been elected just prior to the Sandy Hook massacre, slammed his colleagues on the Senate floor just after the Florida shooting: “This happens nowhere else other than the United States of America,” he said. “This epidemic of mass slaughter … It only happens here, not because of coincidence, not because of bad luck, but as a consequence of our inaction.”

Fr. Robert Drinan, a principled congressman of the type so rare today, had said in 2003 that the NRA held a compelling power over the members of Congress. Perhaps it would be more precise to say that it is a compelling power of money over morality.

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Another kind of home front violence that has reached near epidemic proportions in recent years is the killing of citizens by law enforcement officers.

In 2017, police in the US killed 1,147 people, according to a report, Mapping Police Violence. The Washington Post, which maintains a running tally, put the number killed last year at a little below one thousand. In any case, killing by cops does not appear to be lessening, despite all the public attention. The Post reported that there were 24 more fatal shootings last year than the year before and that mental illness played a role in a quarter of the incidents.

Just a few months ago, nine police officers in Vermont surrounded a 32-year-old white man near the high school he had once attended. The man was holding a realistic-looking BB gun, was a drug addict, and may have been suicidal. After a long standoff, the nine officers pumped him full of bullets as he stood passively on a football field. There was video of the execution and students inside the school took photos. A crisis negotiation team was present, but supposedly there was no indication of any negotiations or meaningful communication with the suspect. Two of the officers had been involved in another killing of a 32-year-old man just last summer by five officers. A crisis intervention team was also present at that incident.

This past September, Magdiel Sanchez, a 35-year-old deaf man was shot and killed by police outside his home in Oklahoma City. Sanchez was on his porch, carrying a metal walking stick, when officers arrived and one cop fired multiple shots at him. Neighbors shouted at the police that Sanchez was unable to hear, but to no avail.

A neighbor said that Sanchez had developmental disabilities and was non-verbal. “He didn’t speak, he didn’t hear, mainly it is hand movements. That’s how he communicates. I believe he was frustrated trying to tell them what was going on,” the neighbor said. Maybe it was his “hand movements” that got Sanchez killed.

Just recently, a police officer won a $175,000 settlement with a West Virginia municipality. The officer, Stephen Mader, had been fired by the city. His crime? Opting to talk to rather than shoot a citizen.

Mader, a Marine vet who had served in Afghanistan, had responded to a domestic disturbance call and found the suspect, Ronald Williams Jr., holding an unloaded handgun. Williams was “visibly choked up” and told Mader to shoot him. The officer determined that Williams was not a threat and tried to de-escalate the situation. Then two other police officers arrived at the scene and one of them shot and killed Williams. The police department terminated Mader for “apparent difficulties in critical incident reasoning.”

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New York City, N.Y. Credit: Brent Eysler/Shutterstock.com

This spring, police in Sacramento, California shot Stephon Clark seven times from behind as he was running into his grandmother’s backyard. Police officers opened fire on Clark, a 22-year-old black man, after shouting “gun, gun, gun.” Clark staggered sideways and fell on his stomach while officers continued to fire. After twenty shots, the officers called to him, apparently thinking he might still be alive and armed. When they finally approached him, they found no gun, just a cellphone. A physician determined it took three to ten minutes for Clark to die; police waited about five minutes before rendering medical aid.

And just a couple weeks ago, police in East Pittsburgh shot 17-year-old Antwon Rose, Jr. three times in the back and killed him. He too was unarmed. After the shooting, a poem that Rose wrote for a high school English class circulated on social media. The poem read, in part:

I am confused and afraid. I wonder what path I will take. I hear that there’s only two ways out. I see mothers bury their sons. I want my mom to never feel that pain. I am confused and afraid.

With the year only half over, the Washington Post’s running tally indicated that nearly 500 people had already been killed by police. The Post documented more than 980 deaths at the hands of police in 2017, while the Guardian put the number at more than 1,090.

But just in case you think black lives are cheap in this country, think again. Juries are willing to pay a handsome price as recompense when police kill a black man. Like the case in Florida where white deputies shot and killed a black man in his garage. The jury recently found the officers not at fault but generously awarded the dead man’s family $4.00. One dollar was for funeral costs and one dollar for each of the man’s three young children.

In 2015, the Washington Post did a massive study, working with researchers from Bowling Green State University, examining data since 2005 on all police officers who faced charges after a fatal shooting. Officers who actually faced charges accounted for only a small fraction of fatal police shootings, and few officers suffered any consequences. In an overwhelming majority of cases where an officer was charged, the victim was unarmed.

Rally for Justice - CTA Anti-Racism Team member Myra Brown, Rochester, NY

Rev. Myra Brown, ordained priest and member of Call to Action Anti-Racism Team, Rochester, New York. Copyright photo by Tom Boswell

Among the officers charged for fatal shootings in the decade the Post examined, more than three-quarters were white and two-thirds of their victims were minorities, all but two of them black. Nearly all other cases involved black officers who killed black victims.

The Post found that, even in the most blatant situations, the majority of officers whose cases are resolved have been acquitted. Even when they are convicted or plead guilty, their sentence is usually light. Prosecutors are reluctant to prosecute police officers and juries are reluctant to punish them.

Prosecutors usually insist on compelling evidence to pursue a case in court. In half the criminal cases identified by the Post, forensic and autopsy evidence indicated the unarmed suspects had been shot in the back. In a third of the cases where officers faced charges, video evidence showed the slain suspect had posed no threat when they were killed. In nearly a quarter of the cases, the officers’ colleagues gave statements testifying that the officer opened fire even though the suspect posed no danger.

In one of these cases, not yet resolved at the time of the study, a white police officer in Cleveland was indicted for killing a pair of black suspects after a grand jury reviewed a wide range of evidence, including nearly two dozen video recordings. The two suspects had driven by a police station when their car backfired. Officers mistook the sound for gunfire and 62 police vehicles raced in pursuit. The suspects, later found to be under the influence of drugs, were surrounded in a school parking lot by police. Eleven officers got out of their cars and formed a semicircle around the pairs’ auto. The officers opened fire, shooting 139 times. The officer who was indicted fired 34 shots at the car, then climbed onto its hood and fired 15 more times at close range through the windshield.

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Action in Solidarity with Ferguson demonstrators, Toronto, Canada. Credit: nisargmediaproductions/shutterstock.

Anyone who is not aware by now that our police departments are becoming increasingly militarized and increasingly violent must be living in la-la land. Unfortunately, it appears that there are quite a number of people who claim citizenship in that euphoric country. For a number of years, I lived in a rural region south of Madison, Wisconsin. Sprinkled like dandelions all over the lawns in the small towns and on the farms the last few years were signs asserting I Back the Badge or I Stand with the Blue.

Signs like these are springing up all over the country, it seems, but these were produced by the Janesville Gazette (and its radio affiliates), the daily newspaper in Paul Ryan’s hometown. Do the people who post these signs really know what they signify, in the context of what is happening in our country today? I suspect that maybe they have an inkling.  The ominous slogan I Back the Badge is a euphemism for Law and Order, which is a euphemism for Might Over Right, which is a euphemism for White Over Right, which is a euphemism for fascism is right around the corner. Thank you, Janesville Gazette.

Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, a war correspondent who reported from more than 50 countries, a Presbyterian minister and a Princeton University professor. Among his eleven books is one titled War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. I quote him often in this blog.

Four years ago, in one of his regular posts on the Truthdig website, Hedges wrote about The Rhetoric of Violence. He started with a litany of violent acts: nine people killed and 35 others wounded in shootings on one weekend in Chicago; a man arrested for firing on motorists on Kansas City-area highways; three people, including a child, murdered at two Jewish-affiliated facilities in Kansas, leading to the arrest of a white supremacist; and armed militias in Nevada forcing the federal government to retreat so rancher Cliven Bundy could continue to graze his cattle on public land. “All this happened over a span of only nine days in the life of a country where more than 250 people are shot every day,” he wrote. “In America, violence and the threat of lethal force are the ways we communicate.

“Violence–the preferred form of control by the state–is an expression of our hatred, self-loathing and lust for vengeance. And this bloodletting will increasingly mark a nation in terminal decline.

“Violence … has a long and coveted place in US history,” he continued. “Vigilante groups including slave patrols … gangs of strikebreakers … and the Ku Klux Klan, which boasted more than 3 million members between 1915 and 1944 … formed and shaped America. Heavily armed mercenary paramilitaries, armed militias such as the Oath Keepers and the anti-immigration extremist group, Ranch Rescue, along with omnipotent and militarized police forces, are parts of a seamless continuation of America’s gun culture and tradition of vigilantism.”

The reason given by vigilante groups for the need to bear arms is that these weapons protect us from tyranny and keep us safe and secure, “but history does not support this contention,” Hedges argued, citing cases such as the Communist Party during the rise of fascism in Nazi Germany and citizens of Iraq and Yugoslavia. “I watched in Iraq and Yugoslavia as heavily armed units encircled houses and those inside walked out with hands in the air, leaving their assault rifles inside. And neither will American families engage in shootouts should members of the US Army or SWAT teams surround their homes. When roughly 10,000 armed miners at Blair Mountain in West Virginia rose up in 1921 for the right to form unions and held gun thugs and company militias at bay, the government called in the Army. The miners were not suicidal. When the Army arrived, they disbanded.

“America’s vigilante violence, rather than a protection from tyranny, is an expression of the fear by white people, especially white men, of the black underclass. This underclass has been enslaved, lynched, imprisoned and impoverished for centuries. The white vigilantes do not acknowledge the reality of this oppression, but at the same time they are deeply worried about  retribution directed against whites. Guns, for this reason, are easily available to white people while gun ownership is largely criminalized for blacks. The hatred expressed by vigilante groups for people of color, along with Jews and Muslims, is matched by their hatred for the college-educated elite, who did not decry the steady impoverishment of the working class. People of color, along with those who espouse the liberal social values of the college-educated elites, including gun control, are seen by the vigilantes as contaminants to society that must be removed to restore the nation to health …

“Our inability to formulate a coherent, militant , revolutionary ideology, meanwhile, leaves us powerless in the face of mounting violence. We wander around in a daze. We lack the toughness and asceticism of the radicals who went before us–the Wobblies, the anarchists, the socialist and the communists. We preach a mishmash of tolerance and Oprah-like hope and exude a fuzzy faith in the power of the people. And because of this we are run over like frogs blindly hopping up and down a road.

“Our most cherished civil liberties have been taken from us. Our incomes are in free fall while obscene wealth is in the hands of a few oligarchs. We are watched and monitored by the most pervasive security and surveillance system in human history. We are hemmed in by archipelagos of prisons. And the ecosystem on which we depend for life is being destroyed. And, through it all, we are bombarded with propaganda, manipulated and mocked by our elites as we dance in their choreographed political charades.

“We must begin to speak in the language of revolution, not accommodation. We must direct the rage that grips huge swaths of the population not against the oppressed but against the structures of corporate power that create oppression. We will have to begin from scratch, for America has no revolutionary intellectual tradition, with the exception of Thomas Paine. We have produced notable anarchists–Randolph Bourne, Alexander Berkman, Emma Goldman and Noam Chomsky.” (I would add Paul Goodman.) “We have an array of great black radicals, including W.E.B. Du Bois, Malcolm X, James Cone and Cornel West, as astute about the evils of empire as white supremacy. We once had some fine socialists, Eugene V. Debs among them. But we lack genuine revolutionists such as Alexander Herzen, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, Antonio Gramsci and Frantz Fanon, and because of this we are losing the class war …

“A revolutionary language and consciousness must replace the current murderous nihilism. The government is banking on the fact that we are not hard-wired for revolution. The state, for this reason, permits the population to load itself up with weapons, including assault rifles, because it understands that they are almost never turned against centers of power. There are some 310 million firearms in the United States, including 114 million handguns, 110 million rifles and 86 million shotguns. There is no reliable data on the number of military-style assault weapons in private hands, but one estimate is 1.5 million. The United States has the highest rate of gun ownership in the world … We shoot each other or we shoot ourselves. Of the 282 people shot every day in the US, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, 32 die in murders and 51 commit suicide.

“As we build a revolutionary consciousness, we must never place our faith in violence, [emphasis added] even as we understand that violence, especially by vigilantes, criminals and militarized police forces, will be used against us. Our strength is our truth. And this truth terrifies our power elites. Truth, not force, is the real power of revolutionaries … Revolutions do not succeed because of violence, although violence is often a component of revolutions. The glorification of violence as the principal agent of change is a lie. Revolutions succeed because of revolutionary thinking. Such consciousness takes years to build. It slowly, invisibly burrows into the organs of power. It leads those on the inside to defect to the revolution. And once that happens, state power crumbles.”

Next time: Afghanistan: Slaughtering Hearts & Minds in the Longest War

There’s No Business Like War Business

This is the third installment in a series on issues of War and Peace.  Future posts will examine the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, violence at home, and the US addiction to war.

Remember that iconic line from The Graduate? Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) has recently graduated from college and his parents are throwing a cocktail party in his honor. A friend of Ben’s parents, a Mr. McGuire, pulls Ben outdoors to the patio, alongside the swimming pool:

Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.

Benjamin: Yes, sir.

Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?

Benjamin: Yes, I am.

Mr. McGuire: Plastics.

Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?

Mr. McGuire: There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?

Well, Mr. McGuire may have been right, even prophetic. There was a great future in plastics, as it turned out. But it was nothing compared to the business potential of another simple little word: war.

It was six years before The Graduate hit the big screen that Dwight D. Eisenhower gave what came to be known as his farewell address to the nation. In the speech, Eisenhower coined the term military-industrial complex. Looking back, it seems apparent that Ike’s insights and misgivings were also prophetic. The military-industrial complex has become a big business, unlike any other business in its magnitude and malignity. It’s a business with a few big winners and a lot of big losers.

Here’s an excerpt of what he said in that farewell speech:

“We now stand ten years past the midpoint of a century that has witnessed four major wars among great nations. Three of these involved our own country. Despite these holocausts America is today the strongest, the most influential and most productive nation in the world. Understandably proud of this pre-eminence, we yet realize that America’s leadership and prestige depend, not merely upon our unmatched material progress, riches and military strength, but on how we use our power in the interests of world peace and human betterment.

“Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.

Ike and Military Industrial Complex“This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence—economic, political, even spiritual—is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist … Disarmament, with mutual honor and confidence, is a continuing imperative. Together we must learn how to compose differences, not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose. Because this need is so sharp and apparent, I confess that I lay down my official responsibilities in this field with a definite sense of disappointment. As one who has witnessed the horror and the lingering sadness of war—as one who knows that another war could utterly destroy this civilization which has been so slowly and painfully built over thousands of years—I wish I could say tonight that a lasting peace is in sight.”

While Eisenhower acknowledged the US was “compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions,” I wonder if he ever imagined it would lead, not to peace and security, but to permanent war? Or that this new industry, this military-corporate complex, in its insatiable lust for profit, would soon propel and dictate foreign policy? Or that the very notion of disarmament would become little more than a chimera because a major market strategy of this new industry would be to arm a good portion of the world?

It is only since World War II that the US has relied on private industry to produce most of its weaponry. I learned this in a 1987 newsletter from the Center for Defense Information (CDI), an organization founded in 1971 by retired military officers. (CDI merged with the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) in 2012.) Before the “Great War,” the nation used a mix of government-owned factories and private corporations to make its weapons. The “private sector” has accounted for the vast majority of arms production since the Korean War.

Making weapons was already a very big business back in 1987—30 years ago— according to the CDI newsletter. About 35,000 businesses received contracts directly from the Defense Department and another 150,000 or so were subcontractors. Most US industrial corporations had their hands in military work.

If the US arms industry were a national economy, CDI reported, it would be (in 1987) the 13th largest in the world. Ten giant enterprises accounted for a third of all weapons contracts. The top contractors were heavily subsidized by taxpayers, using $40 billion worth of government property free of charge.

Military sales were nearly $185 billion in 1985: $166 billion to the Pentagon, $6 billion to the Department of Energy and $13 billion in arms exports. By then, six major aerospace firms had become dependent on Uncle Sam for at least 60 percent of their sales. Lockheed, for instance, had evolved from a commercial aircraft business to “essentially an appendage of DoD, with 88 percent of its sales to the US government,” CDI noted. “These corporations have a vital interest in the continued sale of arms and bring all of their enormous economic and political leverage to bear to promote military and congressional support for their weapons programs.”

In the absence of effective competition in the arms industry, the profit motive gives corporations the incentive to sell as many weapons at as high a price as possible. A massive increase in military spending that began in 1979 made for a lucrative business for arms manufacturers. Between 1980 and 1985, annual military sales exploded from $84 billion to $163 billion.

Hard to believe that an industry that profits off of death, destruction and devastation could also be dishonest, but that seems to have been the case. “In the torrent of spending, the industry was awash in cash and scandal, registering record profits paralleled by record numbers of cases of contractor fraud and waste,” CDI reported. “Fifty-nine of the top 100 contractors were under investigation by 1986.”

A comprehensive 1985 study by the DoD found that defense contractors were getting a fair profit as a percentage of sales, but, as a return on assets, the profits were “grossly out of line.” The standard logic in business is: the greater the risk, the greater should be the profit. But in the arms business, CDI noted, contractors get higher profits for lower risk. The government and taxpaying public assume all the risk.

Of course, waste, fraud and high profits proved not to be a temporary aberration in the arms business. In an issue of the Nukewatch Quarterly in late 2010, my friend John La Forge wrote about a “war” on military waste that the Pentagon waged for one day … and lost. Donald Rumsfeld had just taken over as Pentagon chief and admitted in a press conference: “According to some estimates, we cannot track $2.3 trillion dollars in transactions.” (That’s about $8,000 for each child, woman and man in the country, La Forge noted.)

Rumsfeld blamed the mess on “the Pentagon bureaucracy” and called the military-industrial complex a serious threat, “a matter of life and death.” (Investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill wrote about this in more depth in the preface to his book Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army). Unfortunately, Rumsfeld’s press conference took place the day before 9/11. Soon after, George Bush announced a military budget that called for $48 billion in new spending. Before long another trillion dollars (one thousand billion) would go missing, La Forge noted. He cited a report from the San Francisco Chronicle from May, 2003, that the Pentagon’s efforts in cost control failed to even control the fiscal control programs. The government’s non-partisan Government Accounting Office (GAO) reviewed the Pentagon’s Corporate Information Management System (CIM), an attempt to consolidate 2,000 overlapping systems used for billing, inventory, payroll, etc. After spending over $20 billion, the CIM initiative was scrapped, the GAO said.

Rumsfeld and Bush

Donald Rumsfeld and George W. Bush

Then came the news that the US had flown nearly $12 billion in shrink-wrapped $100 bills from New York City to Baghdad in 2004, the year after the invasion of Iraq. The cash, about 281 million bills weighing 363 tons, was shipped in C-130 cargo planes, with deliveries occurring once or twice a month. The biggest shipment of $2,401,600,000 happened on June 22, six days before the interim Iraqi government was to take control of Iraqi funds.

This biggest transfer of cash in the history of the Federal Reserve was revealed by a US congressional committee and reported in The Guardian of London in February, 2007. Rep. Henry Waxman, the committee’s chair and a critic of the war, said that the way the money had been handled was mind-boggling. “The numbers are so large that it doesn’t seem possible that they’re true,” he said. “Who in their right mind would send 363 tons of cash into a war zone?”

Cash payments were made from the back of pickup trucks and money was stashed in unguarded sacks in Iraqi ministry offices. One official was given $6.75 million in cash and ordered to spend it in one week, the Guardian reported. The US-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) was supposed to appoint an independent, certified public accounting firm to oversee the expenditures. Instead, the CPA hired an obscure consulting firm that operated out of a private home in San Diego. The special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction found that the company “did not perform a review of internal controls as required by the contract.”

Paul Bremer, head of the CPA and responsible for much of the chaos that ensued after the US occupation of Iraq, excused the mismanagement of the funds. He rationalized that the money, which came from Iraqi oil sales, surplus funds from the UN oil-for-food-programme and seized Iraqi assets, actually belonged to Iraqis and not US taxpayers.

Retired Admiral David Oliver, Bremer’s financial adviser, when asked by the BBC news what had happened to the funds, answered: “I have no idea. I can’t tell you whether or not the money went to the right things or didn’t, nor do I actually think it’s important.”

Although the billions of dollars that disappeared was supposedly Iraqi money, it is likely that Bremer and his ilk cared not a whit for the billions more in US taxpayer money that was wasted on the war. Did I say billions?

Sorry, my mistake. Would it were only so. Let’s try trillions.

Twenty days after publishing the exposé about the pallets stacked with shrink-wrapped $100 bills, The Guardian ran another article on the true cost of the war in Iraq. It was an interview with Joseph Stiglitz, who had co-authored a book on that subject and would soon be testifying before Congress. After several years of painstaking research and calculations, Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes concluded that this second Iraq war would cost the United States “a conservatively-estimated $3 trillion. The rest of the world, including Britain, will probably account for about the same amount again,” the article reported.

Stiglitz is a Nobel prize-winning economist who spent four years on Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers and another three as chief economist at the World Bank. At the time the Guardian interviewed him, the US had already been in Iraq for five years, longer than the country had spent in either world war. Daily military operations had already cost taxpayers more than 12 years in Vietnam and twice as much as the Korean War.

At that time, the US was spending $16 billion per month on running costs alone in Iraq and Afghanistan, equal to the entire annual budget for the United Nations. Many more millions were falling through the cracks at the Department of Defense, which “had failed every official audit of the past ten years. The DoD’s finances, based on an accounting system inaccurate for anything larger than a grocery store, are so inadequate that it is impossible to know exactly how much is being spent, or on what,” Stiglitz charged.

The economist said there were a number of reasons why the Bush administration and Pentagon’s estimates for the cost of the war were deceptively low. For instance, the government claimed the infamous “surge” would only cost $5.6 billion, but it counted only combat troops, not the 15,000 to 28,000 support troops that would be required. Official tallies neglect to count the cost of death payments or caring for the wounded, Stiglitz said, even though the ratio of wounded to dead in Iraq–seven to one–was the highest in US history.

And then there were the costs related to Bush and Rumsfeld’s new strategy of privatization of war-making. The fact that a private contractor working as a security guard gets about $400,000 a year, for example, as opposed to a soldier, who might get about $40,000. The administration insisted on “sole-source bidding” to award lucrative contracts to corporations like Halliburton while forcing free market and privatization ideals on Iraq. Many reconstruction jobs went to expensive American corporations rather than cheaper Iraqi ones, and American companies would hire cheap labor from countries like Nepal, while one of every two Iraqi men were out of work.

While many believe, perhaps rightly, that Bush bombed Iraq for oil, Stiglitz and Bilmes pointed out that cheap oil was not an outcome of the war. The price of oil climbed from $25 to $100 a barrel in five years, a benefit for oil-producing countries and contractors, but no one else. The economists projected that the US would pay an extra $1.6 trillion more on oil alone by 2015.

The cost to oil-importing countries in Europe and the Far East would be nearly as much, not to mention the trillions the rest of the world would shoulder due to a devastated Iraqi economy, tens of thousands of Iraqis dead, and the price of neighboring countries absorbing thousands of refugees.

Stiglitz and Bilmes calculated what just one trillion dollars wasted on the war could have paid for: eight million housing units, 15 million public school teachers, scholarships to university for 43 million students, or healthcare for 530 million children for a year. The entire three trillion could have fixed America’s social security problem for half a century.

When Donald Trump delivered his first joint address to Congress a year ago, he called for a staggering increase in Pentagon spending in order to “rebuild the military.” Every few years a president or members of Congress demand more funds for the Pentagon in order to “rebuild” our fighting forces, even as the military budget grows steadily, along with the waste and corruption.

An email letter from the Council for a Livable World the day after the President’s speech pointed out that US forces are hardly under-funded. “The United States spends over $600

1024px-The Pentagon

Photo by Master Sgt. Ken Hammond, US Air Force

billion on defense every year–more than the next seven countries combined,” the letter said. And there is no transparency about how the money is spent, the Council added, claiming “the Pentagon has never successfully completed an audit … In 2016, the Defense Department’s Inspector General reported that the Army made $2.8 trillion worth of inaccurate or wrongful accounting adjustments in one quarter alone–and $6.5 trillion for the year–to make it appear that their books were balanced.”

Nobody probably knows for sure exactly how much the US spends (or wastes) on the military, and how that compares to other nations, but the fact is that there is no comparison. In his State of the Union address in January, 2016, President Obama said “We spend more on our military than the next eight nations combined.” The Peter G. Peterson Foundation, (citing sources such as the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute), concurred with the president, naming the eight trailing countries, in order of spending, as: China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, India, France, the United Kingdom, Japan and Germany. Total US military spending for 2016 was $611 billion, contrasted with $595 billion for the other eight nations.

Shuffling back through a pile of papers in my file folder on the military budget, I see that the situation hasn’t really changed in decades, no matter who controlled Congress or who resided in the White House. Democrat President Clinton and the Republican-led Congress back in 1995 were taking pains to “balance the budget” by slashing federal spending for housing, job training, school lunches, education and other domestic programs. But they made sure that the military was spared the axe.

The Center for Defense Information reported that Clinton proposed a Fiscal Year (FY) 1996 budget that included $258 billion in new “budget authority” and $261 billion in projected “outlays” for National Defense. The Administration’s six-year projection of military spending through FY 2001 was set at $1.6 trillion.

CDI noted that Clinton’s new military budget request was a full $20 billion more in current dollars than was spent on the military in the 1980s, a time of great Cold War tension in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. “America’s military budget is nearly as large as the military budgets of all the other nations in the world combined,” reported CDI. “It is more than three times the military budget of Russia, six times that of Japan, and eight times that of Germany.”

A 1999 newsletter from a Colorado peace group, borrowing CDI data, indicated that the US military budget was then five times greater than the seven countries usually perceived by the Pentagon as most likely adversaries: Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan and Syria.

In 2004, a group of 16 UN-appointed military experts reported that global military spending would rise to nearly $950 billion by the end of the year, up from $900 billion the year before. By contrast, they said, rich nations spend only $50 to 60 billion on development aid each year. In other words, (employing very primitive math), nations were using only five percent as much of their wealth to help each other as they were using to kill each other.

The 2004 spending estimates would be “substantially higher if the costs of major armed conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq were included,” the UN experts said. The US Congress had authorized spending of about $25 billion for Afghanistan and Iraq that year, but the figure was expected to more than double by years’ end.

The same article noted that the US budget for 2005 would allocate $1.15 billion a day, or $11,000 per second, for “defense,” according to Frida Berrigan, a senior research associate at the World Policy Institute’s Arms Trade Resource Center. The defense allocation does not include the cost of ongoing fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, about $15 billion per month, Berrigan said. “These costs are paid through emergency supplementals,” she said, of which Congress had already signed off on $190 billion worth of “emergencies” for war and occupation in these two countries.american-imperialism-military-spending cartoon

It’s important to recognize that total funds for “national defense” are not easy to calculate and no two organizations calculate them the same. The newsletter for the Wisconsin chapter of Peace Action, in late 2006, also borrowing information from CDI, reported that Congress had just passed a $377.6 billion Defense Appropriation bill for FY 2007. It had also voted for an additional $70 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But the brief article pointed out that the figures are deceptive. The appropriations bill did not include $17 billion for nuclear weapon expenditures by the Department of Energy, nor $4.8 billion for “other defense-related activities,” nor $58.9 billion for military construction and “quality of life” programs President Bush had requested.

So the total was going to be $458 billion plus $70 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which equals $528.3 billion. “Are we done yet?” Peace Action asked. Nope. According to CDI, another $60 billion would be requested for the war in FY 2007 and, when all was said and done, the final figure for defense would be between $576.9 billion and $596.9 billion. Give or take a few billion.

Do you know where you tax dollars go? Not a chance. But you can bet your bottom dollar that the vast majority go to death and destruction.

Another Peace Action Wisconsin newsletter in March, 2008 informed us that Bush II was not done yet. He was proposing a FY 2009 budget of $515.4 billion for the DoD, which would be the biggest military budget since WWII, (adjusted for inflation). Of course, that budget did not include $140 billion projected costs for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, nor $17.1 billion for nuclear weapons, nor $40 billion for Homeland Security nor … well, you get the picture.

In another article from the same period, Robert Scheer wrote on Truthdig.com that “Bush totally betrayed his campaign 2000 promise to reshape the post-Cold War US military when he seized upon the 9/11 attack as an opportunity to reverse the “peace dividend” that his father had begun to return to taxpayers. Instead Bush II ushered in the most profligate underwriting of weapons systems that are grotesquely irrelevant for combatting terrorism.”

But Bush was on his way out the door and Obama and Clinton were campaigning for the right to take over. “Curb your enthusiasm,” Scheer cautioned. “Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have treated the military budget as sacrosanct with their Senate votes and their campaign rhetoric.”

Now it’s January, 2009. Deepak Chopra is writing a memo to Barack Obama, who is now in the White House. He tells the president how “America has been on a war footing since the day after Pearl Harbor, 67 years ago. We spend more on our military than the next 16 countries combined … Since aerospace and military technologies remain the United States’ most destructive export, fostering wars around the world, what steps can we take to reverse that trend and build a peace-loving economy?”

He outlines nine steps Obama can take. Number four is to convert military bases to housing for the poor. Five is to phase out all foreign military bases. (The US had over 1,000 in 120 countries, costing $140 million to maintain. China had none.)

Deepak is a great dude, don’t get me wrong. He’s reportedly “one of the world’s greatest leaders in the field of mind-body medicine,” but what kind of Kool-Aid was he drinking? Needless to say, the president never got the memo.

April, 2009. Another Peace Action newsletter with the headline: Where is the Change? Obama Continues Bloated Military Budget. It’s beyond bloated. It’s over $700 billion a year and $6,000 per household, the article says. The Progressive Democrats of America say the military budget has increased by over 60% since 2001. The article ends by saying: “A rationale society would have the abolition of war as one of its primary goals. A rational society would try to minimize the use of scarce resources to produce weapons that, unlike all other products, are used optimally when they are not used at all.”

Sounds great, but we are a rational society. The rationale is money and profit. It’s a business, a better business than plastics. Who profits? The arms-makers, of course, but also the politicians. And the politicians rely on the arms-makers to help them buy votes.

One more article in that file folder, this time from the Washington Post. It’s still early 2009 and Obama is promising to fight defense spending he considers wasteful and inefficient. But who is he fighting with? None other than liberal Democrats. (You know, his own Peace Party, the one that all good liberals vote for rather than those nasty, brutish Republicans.)

It seems that Democrats had stuffed an estimated $524 million in defense earmarks (that the Pentagon did not request) into the appropriations bill, $220 million more than the Republicans did. It seems that 44 senators had begged Defense Secretary Robert Gates to build more F-22 Raptors, a fighter plane conceived during the Cold War that Pentagon officials said was not suited to 21st Century conflicts. It seems that most of these senators were Democrats.

It seems the Navy’s top brass had decided to stop producing their newest class of destroyers in response to classified intelligence reports highlighting their vulnerability. It seems that “seven Democratic senators quickly joined four Republicans to demand a reversal.” Within a month, Gates and the Navy changed course and endorsed production of another destroyer, at a cost of $2.7 billion.

“A lot of these weapons systems that are big-ticket items now have no purpose,” said the director of the Arms and Security Initiative at the New American Foundation, a Washington think tank. “The Taliban doesn’t have an air force. China and Russia are at least a generation behind us.”

The problem, he was quoted as saying, is that the defense industry is dominated by a handful of large firms with offices or subcontractors in key congressional districts, and they play the political game extremely well.

One example was the F-22, an aircraft with a price tag of $145 million, one which senior defense officials noted had not been used in Iraq or Afghanistan. The fighter had been conceived in the 1980s and, even though Defense Secretary Gates said that building 183 of the planes was enough, 194 House members had signed a letter to continue the program. It seems that tens of thousands of jobs directly related to production of the F-22 were spread across 44 states. Those who signed the letter to build more planes read like a Who’s Who of liberal Dems: Joe Biden, Edward Kennedy, Patty Murray, Barbara Boxer, Christopher Dodd, Barbara Mikulski and Diane Feinstein.

During the 2008 election cycle, the Post article noted, more than half of the defense industry’s estimated campaign contributions of $25.4 million went to Democrats. Of the two committees that control military spending in the House, Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chair John Murtha (D-PA) garnered the most industry cash, $743,275. Armed Services Committee Chair Ike Skelton (D-MO) placed second with $268,799 in contributions.

Murtha added more than $100 million in earmarks to the FY 2008 defense bill, the article noted, nearly a fifth of the total inserted by all Democrats. Every earmark reflected a project the Pentagon did not seek in its budget request. Some of Murtha’s earmarks benefitted clients of a lobbying firm called PMA Group, under FBI investigation for possible violation of federal election law. PMA was run by a former Murtha aide and some of its clients were donors to his campaigns.

Murtha joined other Dems, including Boxer, in adding billions to the war budget for 15 Boeing C-17 cargo planes that the Pentagon did not request. “We have said we have enough, but members keep adding them to every spending bill,” a senior defense official complained.

The article also singled out Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Evan Bayh (D-IN) and Kennedy for adding nearly a billion dollars to the Pentagon budget for an alternate engine for a jet fighter that the Pentagon said was unnecessary. The plane was already $55 billion over budget. And Kennedy joined Senators John Kerry (D-MA), James Webb (D-VA), Herb Kohl (D-WI) and other Dems in demanding funding for a third unwanted and obsolete DDG-1000 Navy destroyer.

In 2011, Jim Wallis of Sojourners interviewed Ben & Jerry’s co-founder Ben Cohen and they talked at length about the military budget.

“Spending money on unnecessary weapons is taking away from our schools and hospitals and housing, and taking away the hopes of our children and the genius of our times,” Cohen said. “It’s just amazing to think about the huge expenditures of money on these unneeded weapons and what could be done with that same amount of money, if we used it to actually help people, especially people in poverty.”

Military spending accounted for 58 percent of the US discretionary spending budget for FY 2011, according to research by the National Priorities Project. Cohen pointed out that the US was spending five times as much on the military as its nearest competitor, China, which was also its biggest trading partner.

Which brings us all the way up to last fall, when the US Senate voted to increase military spending by $81 billion. In an article by Adam Johnson of FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), the author wondered where all the “deficit hawks” in the mainstream media had gone, the ones who badgered and berated Bernie Sanders for his campaign proposals for universal health care, free college and a living wage. “How will we pay for it?” they had demanded to know.

Just the increase in the military budget alone was greater than the total spent annually on state university tuition by every US student, Johnson pointed out. If the military budget had just stayed the same, “the US could have paid the tuition for every public college student, with $11 billion left over for board and books.”

Defense cartoon

Why were the media deficit hawks quiet now? Johnson asked. One answer, he suggested, was that their notion of policing the deficit probably meant “keeping government money out of the hands of the poor–and in the coffers of weapons makers, banks and other wealthy interest groups.”

Of course, the American taxpayer isn’t the only one purchasing all the weapons the arms industry churns out. There are plenty of foreign markets for made-in-America weapons of mass destruction. (If you’ve got a good product, why not share it with the whole world? No harm there.) Since the end of the Cold War, Uncle Sam has been the top salesman in the international arms trade. Last year, the State Department set a new record for clearing weapons sales, with nearly $76 billion cleared for sale.

That was certainly cheery news for those in the arms business. They were feeling quite perky as evidenced by an article in Defense News in September. A Pentagon spokesman said that “sales continue to be strong and continue to indicate the interest of our partners in seeking the quality products and services we offer.”

Remy Nathan, vice president of international affairs with the Aerospace Industries Association, commented that “any growth in defense trade is positive. It supports high-skill, high wage American jobs and funds innovation, lowers unit costs and delivers a better deal for the taxpayer.”

By jingo! That sounds swell. Not to mention all the side benefits of this booming industry, such as more murder, mayhem and devastation throughout the Middle East, millions of refugees, endless instability, and potential annihilation of  a region, if not the whole planet.

In an article a year ago, financial analysts Michael Sauter and Samuel Stebbins reported that the US sent nearly $10 billion worth of military vehicles and weapons systems to foreign governments in 2016. Uncle Sam is by far the world’s largest purveyor of armaments, surpassing countries like Russia and China by billions of dollars. In the past five years, over 100 nations have directly purchased aircraft, ships, armored vehicles and missiles from the US government.

So who are Uncle Sam’s best customers? Sweden, Switzerland, Finland and Costa Rica, perhaps? Guess again. The one place on the planet that needs weapons least, the most volatile region, the one that the US has done its dogged best to devastate for three decades or so: the Middle East.

A snippet from the Peace Action newsletter from December, 2000, begins to tell the story: how the US began flooding the Middle East with weapons in the 1990s, right after its first Gulf War. Over $51 billion in arms were peddled to this tormented region between 1992 and 1999 according to the Congressional Research Service.

Saudi Arabia led the way, with $27.8 billion in arms purchases, followed by Egypt, $8.7 billion; Kuwait, $4.9 billion; United Arab Emirates, $1.1 billion; and Bahrain, Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia and Morocco with purchases in the millions. Oh, let’s not forget Israel, which bought $5.8 billion in arms, along with its annual gift of $6 billion in military aid. But Israel, as we know, is a western-style “democracy,” which just coincidentally is burdened with supporting a brutal occupation, so it needs all the help it can get.

An accompanying article in this newsletter noted that Israel would be getting Apache helicopters, Blackhawk helicopters and Beechcraft light patrol aircraft, mostly paid for with US funds. Uncle Sam attested that the arms sales would “contribute to the foreign policy and national security” of the US by helping a country that “continues to be an important force for political stability … in the Middle East.”

In their article last year, Sauter and Stebbins reported that 13 countries accounted for almost 70 percent of US arms exports. Using figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s Arms Transfers Database, the authors identified the countries that were the biggest winners in Uncle Sam’s 2016 arms bazaar.

Saudi Arabia led the list with $1.9 billion in arms imports from the US. Iraq was second with $893 million in purchases. Close behind were Australia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Israel, Italy and South Korea.

Saudi Arabia, that oil-rich beacon of democracy in the Middle East, had never spent more than about $600 million on US arms between 2006 and 2013. Then their spending shot up to well over $1 billion in 2014 and up to $1.9 billion in 2016. In the final weeks of his administration, Obama blocked the sale of 16,000 guided munitions kits to the Kingdom, amid growing concern over civilian casualties in Yemen.

But when Trump came to power, he opted to move forward with the sale and announced $110 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia, with an additional $240 billion committed over a ten-year period. As Andrew Exum noted in an article in The Atlantic last May, many of these sales were already in the works under Obama.

“The Obama Administration spent eight years quietly selling a lot of arms to Saudi Arabia: When President Obama left office, for example, the United States had $100 billion in the foreign military sales pipeline with Saudi Arabia and, in 2011, had inked what was previously the largest arms sale in US history with the Kingdom–a $29 billion deal to sell F-15s to the Saudis,” wrote Exum.

“Overall, the Arab Gulf states went on a spending spree during the Obama years, and most of the money was spent on American arms,” he added.

What lesson did Exum want you to learn from this, at least if you consider yourself a “progressive elite” or a Democratic politician trying to get elected? Basically, that you need to get savvy and brag about all the billions of dollars in weapons that Democratic administrations are selling (or giving) to foreign countries. Why? Because Democrats need to win back working class voters, because Boeing employs 157,000 people, most of them in the US, because Lockheed Martin employs 97,000 workers, and because Raytheon employs another 60,000.

Oh, don’t get him wrong. Exum is not that crass. He expresses grudging admiration for Senator Chris Murphy, “one of the most eloquent and consistent critics of US arms sales in the Senate, even though his own state has a very robust defense industrial base.”

He even admits that he harbors “a lot of respect for these progressives and their values.” And he confides that he “spent too much time in Sunday school … not to feel a little uneasy about the business of selling weapons.” But business is business and politics is politics and people need jobs and, of course, the best way to create jobs is to make weapons to kill people and destroy countries and possibly incinerate the entire planet.

This is the liberal mainstream media speaking. I don’t know which is more pathetic and disgusting, the paucity of morality or the paucity of imagination and vision. Am I just another “progressive elite” who is “out of touch” with voters, or is it conceivable that the American workers who produce such marvelous instruments of destruction that the whole world wants to buy could also be trained to build schools and houses and hospitals and roads and bridges and mass transit systems and all the other things that our country so desperately needs?

Here’s one last clipping, from a Catholic Worker newsletter from 1999: The US Dwight D. Eisenhower, one of the ships used in Iraq, cost $5 billion dollars to build. I wonder what Ike would think if he were here today, after trying to warn us about the “military industrial complex”? Would he be proud of this $5 billion dollar warship with his name on it? Would his chest swell with pride to see what this nation has become?

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?”

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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.”