An American blindness
We’re 10 years past the Twin Towers attack and still fighting wars in its name. Can we open our eyes in time?
After witnessing the first jetliner crash into the twin towers on that Sept. 11 morning, a friend’s wife and 7-year-old daughter fled to their nearby Manhattan loft and ran to the roof to look around. From there, they saw the second plane explode in a rolling ball of flaming fuel across the rooftops. It felt like the heat of a fiery furnace.
Not long after, the girl was struck with blindness. She rarely left her room. Her parents worked with therapists for months, trying various techniques including touch and visualization, before the child finally recovered her sight.
“The interesting new development,” my friend reports, “is that she no longer remembers very much.”
That’s what happened to America itself 10 years ago this Sunday on 9/11, though it might be charged that many of us were blinded by privilege and hubris long before.
But 9/11 produced a spasm of blind rage arising from a pre-existing blindness as to the way much of the world sees us. That in turn led to the invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq, Afghanistan again, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia—in all, a dozen “shadow wars,” according to The New York Times. In Bob Woodward’s crucial book, Obama’s Wars, there were secret and lethal counterterrorism operations active in more than 60 countries as of 2009.
From Pentagon think tanks came a new military doctrine of the “Long War,” a counterinsurgency vision arising from the failed Phoenix program of the Vietnam era, projecting U.S. open combat and secret wars over a span of 50 to 80 years, or 20 future presidential terms.
The taxpayer costs of this Long War, also shadowy, would be in the many trillions of dollars and paid for not from current budgets, but by generations born after the 2000 election of George W. Bush. The deficit spending on the Long War would invisibly force the budgetary crisis now squeezing our states, cities and most Americans.
Besides the future being mortgaged in this way, civil liberties were thought to require a shrinking proper to a state of permanent and secretive war, and so the Patriot Act was promulgated. All this happened after 9/11 through democratic default and denial. Who knows what future might have followed if Al Gore, with a half-million popular-vote margin over George Bush, had prevailed in the U.S. Supreme Court instead of losing by the vote of a single justice?
In any event, only a single member of Congress, Barbara Lee of Berkeley-Oakland, voted against Bush’s initial Sept. 14, 2011, request for emergency powers—a war authorization—to deal with the aftermath of the attacks. Only a single senator, Russ Feingold, voted against the Patriot Act.
Were we not blinded by what happened on 9/11? Are we still? Let’s look at the numbers we almost never see.
Fog of war
As to American casualties, the figure now is beyond twice those who died in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., on 9/11. The casualties are rarely totaled, but they are broken down into three categories by the Pentagon and Congressional Research Service.
There is Operation Enduring Freedom, which includes Afghanistan and Pakistan but, in keeping with the Long War definition, also covers Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Second, there is Operation Iraqi Freedom and its successor, Operation New Dawn, the name adopted after September 2010 for the 47,000 U.S. advisers, trainers and counterterrorism units still in Iraq. The scope of these latter operations includes Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.
These territories include not only Muslim majorities, but also, according to former Centcom Commander Tommy Franks, 68 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves and the passageway for 43 percent of petroleum exports, another American geo-interest that was heavily denied in official explanations. (See Michael Klare’s Blood and Oil and Antonia Juhasz’s The Bush Agenda for more on this.)
A combined 6,197 Americans were killed in these wars as of Aug. 16, 2011, in the name of avenging 9/11, a day when 2,996 Americans died. The total American wounded has been 45,338, and rising at a rapid rate. The total number rushed by Medivac out of these violent zones was 56,432. That’s a total of 107, 996 Americans.
The fog around Iraqi and Afghan civilian casualties will be seen in the future as one of the great scandals of the era. Briefly, the United States and its allies in Baghdad and Kabul have relied on eyewitness, media or hospital numbers instead of the more common cluster-sampling interview techniques used in conflict zones like the first Gulf War, Kosovo or the Congo.
The United Nations has a conflict of interest as a party to the military conflict, and acknowledged in a July 2009 U.N. human-rights report footnote that “there is a significant possibility that the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan is underreporting civilian casualties.” In August, even the mainstream media derided a claim by the White House counterterrorism adviser that there hasn’t been a single “collateral,” or innocent, death during an entire year of CIA drone strikes in Pakistan, a period in which 600 people were killed, all of them alleged “militants.”
As a specific explanation for the blindness, the Los Angeles Times reported on April 9 that “Special Forces account for a disproportionate share of civilian casualties caused by western troops, military officials and human rights groups say, though there are no precise figures because many of their missions are deemed secret.”
Sticker shock of war
Among the most bizarre symptoms of the blindness is the tendency of most deficit hawks to become big spenders on Iraq and Afghanistan, at least until lately. The direct costs of the war, which is to say those unfunded costs in each year’s budget, now come to $1.23 trillion, or $444.6 billion for Afghanistan and $791.4 billion for Iraq, according to the National Priorities Project.
But that’s another sleight-of-hand, when one considers the so-called indirect costs like long-term veterans’ care. Leading economists Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes recently testified to Congress that their previous estimate of $4 trillion to $6 trillion in ultimate costs was conservative.
Nancy Youssef, of McClatchy Newspapers in D.C., in my opinion the best war reporter of the decade, wrote recently that “it’s almost impossible to pin down just what the United States spends on war.” The president himself expressed “sticker shock,” according to Woodward’s book, when presented cost projections during his internal review of 2009.
The Long War casts a shadow over not only our economy and future budgets, but our unborn children’s future as well. This is no accident, but the result of deliberate lies, obfuscations and scandalous accounting techniques. We are victims of an information warfare strategy waged deliberately by the Pentagon.
As Gen. Stanley McChrystal said much too candidly in February 2010, “This is not a physical war of how many people you kill or how much ground you capture, how many bridges you blow up. This is all in the minds of the participants.”
This new “war of perceptions,” relying on naked media manipulation such as the treatment of media commentators as “message amplifiers” as well as high-technology information warfare, only highlights the vast importance of the ongoing WikiLeaks whistle-blowing campaign against the global secrecy establishment.
Consider just what we have learned about Iraq and Afghanistan because of WikiLeaks: tens of thousands of civilian casualties in Iraq never before disclosed; instructions to U.S. troops not to investigate torture when conducted by U.S. allies; the existence of Task Force 373, carrying out night raids in Afghanistan; the CIA’s secret army of 3,000 mercenaries; private parties by DynCorp featuring trafficked boys as entertainment; and an Afghan vice president carrying $52 million in a suitcase.
The efforts of the White House to prosecute Julian Assange and persecute Pfc. Bradley Manning in military prison should be of deep concern to anyone believing in the public’s right to know.
The news that this is not a physical war but mainly one of perceptions will not be received well among American military families or Afghan children, which is why a responsible citizen must rebel first and foremost against The Official Story. That simple act of resistance necessarily leads to study as part of critical practice, which is as essential to the recovery of a democratic self and democratic society.
Read, for example, this early martial line of Rudyard Kipling, the English poet of the white man’s burden: “When you’re left wounded on Afghanistan’s plains and the women come out to cut up what remains/ just roll to your rifle and blow out your brains/And go to your God like a soldier.” Years later, after Kipling’s beloved son was killed in World War I and his remains never recovered, the poet wrote: “If any question why we died/ Tell them because our fathers lied.”
A hope for peace
An important part of the story of the peace movement, and the hope for peace itself, is the process by which hawks come to see their own mistakes. A brilliant history/autobiography in this regard is Daniel Ellsberg’s Secrets, about his evolution from defense hawk to historic whistleblower during the Vietnam War. Ellsberg writes movingly about how he was influenced on his journey by contact with young men on their way to prison for draft resistance.
The military occupation of our minds will continue until many more Americans become familiar with the strategies and doctrines in play during the Long War. Not enough Americans in the peace movement are literate about counterinsurgency, counterterrorism and the debates about “the clash of civilizations”—i.e., the West versus the Muslim world.
The writings of Andrew Bacevich, a Vietnam veteran and retired Army lieutenant colonel whose own son was killed in Iraq in 2007, is one place to begin. Bacevich, a professor at Boston University, has written The New American Militarism and edited The Long War, both worth absorbing.
For the military point of view, there is the 2007 Army-Marine Counterinsurgency Field Manual developed by Gen. David Petraeus, with its stunning resurrection of the Phoenix model from Vietnam, in which thousands of Vietnamese were tortured or killed before media outcry and Senate hearings shut it down. David Kilcullen, Petraeus’ main doctrinal adviser, even calls for a “global Phoenix program” to combat al Qaeda-style groupings.
Not enough is being written about how to end the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, but experts with much to say are the University of Michigan’s Scott Atran (Talking to the Enemy) and former U.K. envoy Sherard Cowper Coles (Cables from Kabul). Also, there is my own 2007 book, Ending the War in Iraq, which sketches a strategy of grassroots pressure against the pillars of the policy (public opinion, trillions of dollars, thousands of available troops, and global alliances; as those fall, the war must be resolved by diplomacy).
The more we know about the Long War doctrine, the more we understand the need for a long peace movement. The pillars of the peace movement, in my experience and reading, are the networks of local progressives in hundreds of communities across the United States. Most of them are citizen volunteers, always immersed in the crises of the moment, nowadays the economic recession and unemployment. Look at them from the bottom up, and not the top down, and you will see:
• the people who marched in the hundreds of thousands during the Iraq War;
• those who became the enthusiastic consumer base for Michael Moore’s documentaries and the Dixie Chicks’ anti-Bush lyrics;
• the stalwarts who formed the anti-war base for Barack Obama;
• the voters who dumped a Republican Congress in 2006 on the Iraq issue, when the party experts said it was impossible;
• the millions who elected Obama president by a historic flood of voluntary enthusiasm and get-out-the-vote drives;
• the majorities who still oppose the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and want military spending reversed.
This peace bloc deserves more. It won’t happen overnight, but gradually we are wearing down the pillars of the war. It’s painfully slow, because the president is threatened by Pentagon officials, private military contractors and an entire Republican Party (except the Ron Paul contingent), all of whom benefit from the politics and economics of the Long War.
But consider the progress, however slow. In February of this year, Rep. Barbara Lee passed a unanimous resolution at the Democratic National Committee calling for a rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan and transfer of funds to job creation. The White House approved of the resolution. Then 205 House members, including a majority of Democrats, voted for a resolution that almost passed calling for the same rapid withdrawal. Even the AFL-CIO executive board, despite a long history of militarism, adopted a policy opposing Afghanistan.
The president himself is quoted in Obama’s Wars as opposing his military advisors, demanding an exit strategy and musing that he “can’t lose the whole Democratic Party.”
At every step of the way, it must be emphasized, public opinion in congressional districts has been a key factor in changing establishment behavior.
In the end, the president decided to withdraw 33,000 American troops from Afghanistan by next summer, and continue “steady” withdrawals of the rest (68,000) from combat roles by 2014. At this writing, it is unclear how many remaining troops Obama will withdraw from Iraq, or when and whether the drone attacks on Pakistan will be forced to an end.
The Arab Spring has demolished key pillars of the Long War alliance, particularly in Egypt, to which the CIA only recently was able to render its detainees for torture.
Obama’s withdrawal decision upset the military but also most peace advocates he presumably wanted to win back. The differences revealed a serious gap in the inside-outside strategy applied by many progressives. From their point of view, 33,000 would seem a disappointing too little, too late.
While it was definite progress toward a phased withdrawal, bridging the differences between the Democratic liberal establishment and the idealistic progressive networks will remain an ordeal through the 2012 elections.
As for al Qaeda, there is always the threat of another attack, like those attempted by militants aiming at Detroit during Christmas 2009 or Times Square in May 2010. In the event of another such terrorist assault originating from Pakistan, all bets are off: According to Woodward, the United States has a “retribution” plan to bomb 150 separate sites in that country alone, and there are no apparent plans for The Day After.
Assuming that nightmare doesn’t happen, today’s al Qaeda is not the al Qaeda of a decade ago. Osama bin Laden is dead, its organization is damaged, and its strategy of conspiratorial terrorism has been displaced significantly by the people-power democratic uprisings across the Arab world.
It is clear that shadow wars lie ahead, but not expanding ground wars involving greater numbers of American troops. The emerging argument will be over the question of whether special operations and drone attacks are effective, moral and consistent with the standards of a constitutional democracy. And it is clear that the economic crisis finally is enabling more politicians to question the trillion-dollar war spending.
Meanwhile, the 2012 national elections present an historic opportunity to awaken from the blindness inflicted by 9/11.
Diminishing the U.S. combat role by escalating the drone wars and Special Operations could repeat the failure of Richard Nixon in Vietnam. Continued spending on the Long War could repeat the disaster of Lyndon Johnson. A gradual winding down may not reap the budget benefits or political reward Obama needs in time.
With peace voters making a critical difference in numerous electoral battlegrounds, however, Obama might speed up the “ebbing,” plausibly announce a peace dividend in the trillions of dollars, and transfer those funds to energy conservation and America’s state and local crises. His answer to the deficit crisis will have to include a sharp reduction in war funding, and his answer to the Tea Party Republicans will have to be a Peace Party.