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American Militarism: Destroying Societies, Protecting No One

U.S. soldiers detonate firebombs in Iraq

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Anti-American sentiment across the world is not without its history. The United States regularly uses military drones to kill people without legal justification in six predominantly Muslim countries.[1] The U.S. Army, already imprisoning scores of kids as young as 11 or 12 in Afghanistan,[2] has recently claimed authority to target strikes on Afghan children.[3] The same Obama administration that supplies arms to repressive dictatorships like Bahrain[4] and refuses to charge Bush-era war criminals under international law (even in the case of death by torture)[5] simultaneously insists other countries submit to those same institutions.[6]

Yet widespread anti-U.S. anger continues to surprise Americans.[7] Election after election, the American voter is led to believe that U.S. militarism is a force for global good, benefiting foreigners as well as Americans. We are fed this message by politicians captured by a defense industry that annually boasts record-breaking profits and unprecedented sums spent on political lobbying.[8] Both parties package military spending in the language of freedom, democracy, and human rights.

The glaring logical inconsistency should be read at its face. U.S. military spending directly benefits only military contractors and the politicians whose reelection campaigns they fund. At home and abroad, the U.S.’s unrivaled militarism cripples entire societies. Recognizing this contradiction requires moving beyond domestic party politics and the mainstream media locked firmly in its shadow.

War, on the Ground

To wage war in modern times is to accept the premise that the men, women, and children of another country have intrinsically less valuable lives than those of our own. But this idea is too repellent to be sold directly. Today, the prevailing rhetoric underpinning American militarism is “counterterrorism.” Protecting our own, we are told, requires killing others. Thus, thousands of ordinary foreign citizens continue to be slaughtered and starved to benefit American military and economic interests. This logic of counterterrorism is as malignant as terrorism itself. More dangerously, it directly exacerbates the problem it purports to solve.

To recall a recent example we might consider the 2003 U.S-led invasion of Iraq, universally condemned by international lawyers and human rights experts[9] as an illegal war of aggression[10] motivated primarily by geostrategic interests but cloaked in the standard language of freedom, security, and democracy. Historically, the U.S. happily funded Saddam Hussein’s genocide and chemical warfare in Kurdistan, in which he massacred thousands, and stopped only when the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait threatened oil-rich U.S. ally Saudi Arabia.[11] Later we learned that in the course of the 2003 war buildup the White House knowingly lied about Iraqi WMDs, forging official documents to wage war under false pretenses.[12],[13]

In the years since the invasion of Iraq over 120,000 civilians have died. These are the officially disclosed deaths, but further analysis of the Wikileaks “Iraq War Logs” may bump the figure past 132,000.[14] Using only the conservative estimate, quick math shows that since March 19, 2003, an average of 33 civilians have died daily in occupied Iraq. All the while, America’s longest war (remember Afghanistan?) continues escalating, with civilian death tolls accelerating amid plummeting general health outcomes.[15] Yet recent reports suggest the Afghan War may stretch well past the advertised withdrawal date of 2014: maybe 2017,[16] maybe even 2024.[17]

How should members of any society react to such catastrophic destruction experienced firsthand everyday for a decade? “Counterterrorism” as executed can never succeed in combating terrorism, but it has already provoked global hatred of America, perpetuating a state of permanent war propelled by select defense contractors.

Expanding our focus beyond the official war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan makes this picture clearer.

A Portrait of Global Empire

The U.S. military has undergone such stunning growth in the past fifty years that an accurate count of the number of U.S. bases globally is unavailable. Most credible estimates place the figure between 1,000 and 1,200.[18] Overall U.S. military expenditures are similarly outsized, accounting for 46% of the world’s total military spending.[19] In terms of GDP-proportional military allocations the U.S. is in illuminating company. At 4.06% (considering only basic Pentagon spending, a very narrow scope) we occupy a similar range as Angola, Syria, Chad, Oman, and Turkmenistan, edged out only by Saudi Arabia, Eritrea, and North Korea.[20] Just last year the U.S. tripled its global arms sales, cornering roughly 78% of the world market, followed next by Russia with a paltry 5.6%.[21]

As disturbing as the readily available facts are, the war machine extends far deeper than these initial figures suggest. U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) forces now conduct an average of seventy covert missions each day in 60% of the world’s countries, doubling their Bush-era presence in sixty countries to an undisclosed list of 120 or more under Obama.[22] Established in 1987, SOCOM carries out the U.S. military’s most secret missions. In recent years it has snowballed into a full-fledged shadow paramilitary, described by outgoing SOCOM chief Eric Olson as “a microcosm of the Department of Defense, with ground, air, and maritime components, a global presence, and authorities and responsibilities that mirror the Military Departments, Military Services, and Defense Agencies.”[23] Since 9/11, the SOCOM budget has quadrupled to $9.8 billion, and its number of personnel deployed abroad has also increased fourfold.[24] While almost entirely opaque, SOCOM is highly sophisticated. “Black ops” troops conduct kill/capture campaigns across the Greater Middle East, while so-called “white” forces regularly conduct secret joint-training exercises with client militaries worldwide.

Especially disconcerting among the SOCOM spectrum are the activities of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), a clandestine sub-command tasked mainly with the tracking and killing of suspected terror suspects.[25] Reporting directly to the President, JSOC effectively functions as the President’s private global army, maintaining an extrajudicial hit list that includes American citizens.[26] John Nagl, a counterinsurgency advisor to ex-CIA director David Petraeus, has called it “an almost industrial-scale counterterrorism killing machine,” completely outside of any democratic accountability.[27]

Constant War, Everywhere

It is difficult to overstate the scope of the American military. What analysts have described as the U.S.’s “new ‘Scramble for Africa’” again underlines its true global reach.[28] The U.S. has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in military infrastructure this past year across Africa. An average of 5,000 U.S. military and Department of Defense personnel are now deployed at any one time, monitoring drone wars as far as Mali and Somalia, while ground troops conduct operations in Uganda and Ethiopia.[29]

The pattern on display in Africa — significant military action in undeclared conflict zones, underreported and virtually unknown to the American public — illustrates the shadowy paradigm under which U.S. militarism largely functions. The message of protecting freedom does not begin to square with the reality of multiple secret wars violating foreign countries’ sovereignty across continents.

In Iran, the push for military action continues building despite an overwhelming lack of evidence justifying intervention. Iranian civilians continue to suffer under crippling sanctions[30] intended to dissuade their government from pursuing a nuclear weapons program that most credible sources — including the U.S.’s own official National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs)[31] — agree does not exist. The sanctions on Iranian civil society flagrantly violate U.N. prohibitions on torture and collective punishment. In addition to targeting civilians economically, the U.S. continues to expand its military presence in the region[32] despite a sea of bases in the Gulf that already encircle the country.[33]

Troublingly, the buildup augments an ongoing covert war led by the CIA and Israel’s Mossad that has been underway for years. Like SOCOM, the CIA in recent years has become yet another paramilitary arm of the U.S. government, waging war under false or totally absent pretexts. U.S. officials have openly stated[34] that the Mujahadin-e Khalq (MEK), a cult terrorist organization, has worked alongside Mossad operatives to assassinate Iranian nuclear scientists in shootings, car bombings and poisonings.[35] Earlier this year, revelations were made that JSOC secretly trained MEK operatives in Nevada as early as 2005, while they were still officially listed as a terrorist organization.[36] A Foreign Policy report shows how Israeli agents, supplied with CIA intelligence, have coordinated a number of mosque bombings and deadly explosions at nuclear facilities.[37] And since 2009, a joint U.S.-Israel cyber warfare campaign has seen at least three virulent worms damage nuclear centrifuges.[38]

It should come as no surprise that the hypocritical funding of terrorists in the name of counter-terrorism breeds distrust and resentment globally. The logical connection is obscured, however, by a mainstream American press that effectively keeps these details secret. Why, they reason, would we want to report on policy developments so uncontroversial in Washington? Thinking along these lines, the mainstream media has itself become complicit in the U.S.’s growing militarization, offering no third voice of reason outside of the captured parties.

Extrajudicial assassinations such as those authorized by the CIA showcase the tragic consequences of this tripartite silence. Once, George W. Bush’s policy of indefinitely detaining terror suspects without charges at Guantanamo Bay was controversial. But since his Democratic successor cemented and superseded this practice a suffocating mainstream silence has prevailed.

Pakistan is an official U.S. ally in the war on terror. Nonetheless, U.S. drones have killed over 3,000 Pakistanis from 2004-2012, of whom 600-800 were civilians, including 176 children.[39] A recent collaborative study by Stanford and NYU’s law schools documents the severe social toll of drone strikes, noting a “breakdown in the region’s basic social engagements.”[40] Afraid of the ever-present threat of a drone strike, people avoid congregating in groups of three or four. Parents fear sending their children to school. Ancient social gathering places like the jurga, community dispute resolution councils, are now largely avoided. Journalists and medical doctors will not go to the scene of an attack for six hours afterward, fearing a secondary drone strike known as a “double tap,” a second missile designed to eliminate those assisting victims. The U.S. government has in the past derided such assaults as heinous terrorist acts despite itself repeatedly targeting civilian mourners at victims’ funerals.[41] Even more troublesome under international human rights law is the growing use of  “signature strikes,” which are carried out on unknown targets based on “patterns of life,” though these criteria remain opaque.

For years, the Department of Justice has refused to formally justify drone killings while publicly insisting they reduce the threat of terrorism.[42] Testimony from actual terrorists and basic social science data suggest the polar opposite.[43] The study notes only 2 percent of those killed by drones have been identified as high-value targets, meaning 98 percent are either low-level insurgents or civilians. Unsurprisingly, drones are immensely unpopular among the Pakistani people, with 97% of informed Pakistanis opposed. In fact, the U.S. remains the sole country in the world where a majority of people favor drone use.[44]

War Abroad, Decay at Home

At home, our President’s institutionalization of drone killings into a “kill list” and then a “disposition matrix”[45] has cemented executive paramilitarization at historic heights. Constitutional lawyer and journalist Glenn Greenwald summarizes the situation succinctly: “If you believe the President should have the power to order people, including U.S. citizens, executed with no due process and not even any checks or transparency, what power do you believe he shouldn’t have?”[46]

The candidate that ran on a “sunshine” transparency policy has classified more documents than any other prior administration, while using the WWI-era Espionage Act to persecute more government whistleblowers than all other previous administrations combined. Simultaneously, his own officials leak information perceived as politically advantageous, making the expansive New York Times hagiography of the President and his “kill list” possible.[47]

While seemingly unlimited funds are pumped into the American war machine and interest-free Federal Reserve loans to prop up swollen banks, an austerity-rotten economy continues to eat away at ordinary Americans’ lives. For the first time in U.S. history, white Americans’ lifespans have actually shortened,[48] and overall U.S. life expectancy has plummeted to 49th in the world.[49] Child poverty rankings place the U.S. 31st out of 34 OECD countries,[50] while for the first time since the Great Depression children can expect to be poorer than their parents, on average by 12%.[51] More Americans now toil through low-wage jobs than in any other developed society.[52]

Yet Obama’s drastic expansion of global war evokes remarkably little mainstream controversy, emphasizing the need to escape the bipartisan framework. If we are to reclaim our captured country and the world that it is in turn attempting to capture, we must join the global mainstream. Identifying the giant economic forces driving U.S. militarism — defense contractors, energy multinationals — and highlighting the odious activities they make possible is the first step. The next step is to hold our elected representatives individually accountable for their complicity in these crimes, withholding our support for a system that has proven itself incapable of doing so.

Politicians on the campaign trail like to posture and paint themselves as “tough on terror,” working to “keep America safe.” Destruction of societies at home and abroad does not do either of these things. Let’s accomplish this the right way. We can keep our communities, schools, and collective futures safe by standing together firmly against American militarism.

Lead image courtesy U.S. military. U.S Soldiers detonate firebombs in an Iraqi palm grove, Dec. 22, 2008. Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Walter Pels, Joint Combat Camera Center Iraq.

Prashanth Kamalakanthan is a junior at Duke University, where he is studying political science, environmental policy, and film. Prashanth is chair and co-founder of Duke Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), a student activism group, and an avid documentary film enthusiast.

[1] Ricky Keitner, “U.S. Launches Drone Strikes In Sixth Muslim Country,” Business Insider (30 June 2011): http://www.businessinsider.com/us-launches-drone-strikes-in-sixth-muslim-country-2011-6#ixzz2FFmofKUu

[2] Peter Spielmann, “US: 200 Teens Have Been Detained in Afghan War,” Associated Press (8 December 2012): http://hosted.ap.org/dynamic/stories/U/US_US_AFGHANISTAN_TEENS_DETAINED?SITE=AP&SECTION=HOME&TEMPLATE=DEFAULT&CTIME=2012-12-08-04-54-10

[3] “Washington’s Blog: U.S. Army Starts Targeting Children,” Naked Capitalism (11 December 2012): http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2012/12/washingtons-blog-u-s-army-starts-targeting-children.html#5A7WcvOPWC05bLDg.99

[4] Kristen Chick, “US resumes arms sales to Bahrain. Activists feel abandoned,” Christian Science Monitor (14 May 2012): http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Middle-East/2012/0514/US-resumes-arms-sales-to-Bahrain.-Activists-feel-abandoned

[5] Glenn Greenwald, “Obama’s justice department grants final immunity to Bush’s CIA torturers,” The Guardian (31 August 2012): http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/aug/31/obama-justice-department-immunity-bush-cia-torturer

[6] “Statement by President Obama on the International Criminal Court announcement,” whitehouse.gov (15 December 2010): http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2010/12/15/statement-president-obama-international-criminal-court-announcement

[7] Glenn Greenwald, “The PSY scandal: singing about killing people v. constantly doing it,” The Guardian (8 December 2012): http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/dec/08/psy-lyrics-anti-us-anger

[8] Dina Rasor, “Defense Companies Use Congress to Save Their Profits, No Matter What (Part One),” Truthout (2 August 2012): http://truth-out.org/news/item/10648-congress-as-enabler-defense-companies-use-congress-to-save-their-money-no-matter-the-consequences-part-one

[9] “War Would be Illegal,” The Guardian (7 March 2003): http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2003/mar/07/highereducation.iraq

[10] Peter Schwarz, “International legal experts regard Iraq war as illegal,” World Socialist Web Site (26 March 2003): http://www.wsws.org/articles/2003/mar2003/ilaw-m26.shtml

[11] “Once-secret Reagan administration documents on Iraq,” CNN (28 November 2008): http://www.cnn.com/2008/WORLD/meast/11/20/sbm.documents/index.html

[12] “White House knew there were no WMD: CIA,” Reuters (22 April 2006): http://www.smh.com.au/news/breaking-news/white-house-knew-there-were-no-wmd-cia/2006/04/22/1145344306427.html

[13] “How Bogus Letter Became a Case for War,” The Washington Post (3 April 2007): http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/04/02/AR2007040201777_pf.html/

[14] Iraq Body Count: http://www.iraqbodycount.org/

[15] Costs of War: Afghanistan: http://costsofwar.org/article/afghan-civilians

[16] Michael R. Gordon, “Time Slipping, U.S. Ponders Afghan Role After 2014,” The New York Times (25 November 2012): http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/26/world/asia/us-planning-a-force-to-stay-in-afghanistan.html?_r=0

[17] John Glaser, “Panetta: US Will Battle Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan for Years to Come” (29 November 2012): http://news.antiwar.com/2012/11/29/panetta-us-will-battle-al-qaeda-in-afghanistan-for-years-to-come/

[18] Nick Turse, “The Pentagon’s Planet of Bases,” TomDispatch (9 January 2011): http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/175338/tomgram%3A_nick_turse%2C_the_pentagon%27s_planet_of_bases__

[19] Anup Shah, “World Military Spending,” Global Issues (6 May 2012): http://www.globalissues.org/article/75/world-military-spending

[20] Military expenditure as a percentage of GDP map: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Military_expenditure_percent_of_GDP.svg

[21] Thom Shanker, “U.S. Arms Sales Make Up Most of Global Market,” New York Times (26 August 2012): http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/27/world/middleeast/us-foreign-arms-sales-reach-66-3-billion-in-2011.html

[22] Nick Turse, “A Secret War in 120 Countries,” TomDispatch (3 August 2011): http://www.tomdispatch.com/archive/175426/nick_turse_a_secret_war_in_120_countries

[23] Eric Olsen’s testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee (1 March 2011): http://www.armed-services.senate.gov/statemnt/2011/03%20March/Olson%2003-01-11.pdf

[24] Nick Turse, “A Secret War in 120 Countries,” TomDispatch (3 August 2011): http://www.tomdispatch.com/archive/175426/nick_turse_a_secret_war_in_120_countries

[25] Dana Priest, “U.S. military teams, intelligence deeply involved in aiding Yemen on strikes,” Washington Post (27 January 2010): http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/01/26/AR2010012604239.html

[26] Dana Priest, “U.S. military teams, intelligence deeply involved in aiding Yemen on strikes,” Washington Post (27 January 2010): http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/01/26/AR2010012604239.html

[27] Gretchen Gavett, “What is the Secretive U.S. ‘Kill/Capture’ Campaign?” PBS Frontline: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/kill-capture/what-is-kill-capture/

[28] Nick Turse, “Obama’s Shadow Wars in Africa,” TomDispatch (12 July 2012): http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/175567/tomgram%3A_nick_turse,_america’s_shadow_wars_in_africa

[29] Nick Turse, “Obama’s Shadow Wars in Africa,” TomDispatch (12 July 2012): http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/175567/tomgram%3A_nick_turse,_america’s_shadow_wars_in_africa

[30] Prashanth Kamalakanthan, “Sanctioning Iran’s Society and Punishing its Poor,” Diplomacist (16 October 2012): http://www.ciartest.diplomacist.org/?p=2214

[31] “U.S. still believes Iran not on verge of nuclear weapon,” Reuters (9 August 2012): http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/08/09/us-israel-iran-usa-idUSBRE8781GS20120809

[32] David Cloud, “U.S. boosts its military presence in Persian Gulf,” Los Angeles Times (12 January 2012): http://articles.latimes.com/2012/jan/12/world/la-fg-us-persian-gulf-20120113

[33] John Reed, “All Hands on Deck,” Foreign Policy (19 July 2012): http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/07/19/all_hands_on_deck

[34] Richard Engel and Robert Windrem, “Israel teams with terror group to kill Iran’s nuclear scientists, U.S. officials tell NBC News,” NBC News (9 February 2012): http://rockcenter.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/02/08/10354553-israel-teams-with-terror-group-to-kill-irans-nuclear-scientists-us-officials-tell-nbc-news

[35] Hamed Aleaziz, “Tracking the Secret War on Iran,” Mother Jones (9 February 2012): http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/02/iran-covert-war-timeline

[36] “Training Terrorists in Nevada: Seymour Hersh on U.S. Aid to Iranian Group Tied to Scientist Killings,” Democracy Now! (10 April 2012): http://www.democracynow.org/2012/4/10/training_terrorists_in_nevada_seymour_hersh

[37] Mark Perry, “False Flag,” Foreign Policy (13 January 2012): http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/01/13/false_flag?page=full

[38] Hossein Jaseb, “Iran says has detected Duqu computer virus,” Reuters (13 November 2012): http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/11/13/us-iran-computer-duqu-idUSTRE7AC0YP20111113

[39] “Covert War on Terror — The Data,” Bureau of Investigative Journalism: http://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/category/projects/drone-data/

[40] Living Under Drones, Stanford Law School & NYU School of Law (September 2012): http://livingunderdrones.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Stanford_NYU_LIVING_UNDER_DRONES.pdf

[41] Glenn Greenwald, “U.S. Again Bombs Mourners,” Salon.com (4 June 2012): http://www.salon.com/2012/06/04/obama_again_bombs_mourners/

[42] “Obama Defends Illegal Drone Attacks,” Al-Jazeera English (31 January 2012): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2TASeH7gBfQ

[43] Jerry Markon, “Shahzad pleads guilty in failed Times Square bombing, warns of future attacks,” Washington Post (22 June 2010): http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/06/21/AR2010062102468.html?hpid=moreheadlines

[44] Nick Turse, “Tomorrow’s Blowback Today?” TomDispatch (9 August 2012): http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/175580/

[45] Glenn Greenwald, “Obama moves to make the War on Terror permanent,” Guardian (24 October 2012): http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/oct/24/obama-terrorism-kill-list

[46] Glenn Greenwald, “Excuses for assassination secrecy,” Salon.com (12 July 2012): http://www.salon.com/2012/07/12/excuses_for_assassination_secrecy/

[47] Tom Engelhardt, “The Washington Straitjacket,” Tom Dispatch (4 December 2012): http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/175624

[48] Sabrina Tavernese, “Life Spans Shrink for Least-Educated Whites in the U.S.” New York Times (20 September 2012): http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/21/us/life-expectancy-for-less-educated-whites-in-us-is-shrinking.html?_r=0

[49] “U.S. Life Expectancy Falls to 49th,” Democracy Now! (29 October 2010): http://www.democracynow.org/2010/10/29/headlines/us_life_expectancy_falls_to_49th

[50] OECD, “Comparative Child Well-being across the OECD,” Doing Better for Children, 2009: http://www.oecd.org/social/familiesandchildren/43570328.pdf

[51] Jason DeParle, “Harder for Americans to Rise from Lower Rungs,” New York Times (4 January 2012): http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/05/us/harder-for-americans-to-rise-from-lower-rungs.html

[52] Bonnie Kavoussi, “U.S. Has Highest Share Working In Low-Wage Jobs, OECD Says,” Huffington Post (16 April 2012): http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/16/oecd-low-wage-work_n_1424343.html

  • groupuscule

    The cognitariat thinks they are privileged, and they’re right, but they are also paying a high price with minds occupied by a fictional world so elaborate no one participant could comprehend the whole thing. And you are right about the challenges to the ‘class consciousness’ model, as workers are atomized and the fruits of their labor is increasingly ephemeral. This will only become more true as we find data and identities can be given and taken away through an increasingly well-controlled “cloud”. Meanwhile on the outside, the politics of “class” difference divide people like never before, with human beings actually unable to acknowledge each other’s existence or think about the mutually shared experiences of consciousness. Although the outward trappings of feudalism are gone, we are closer than ever to a Brave New World caste system where different being are bred for different roles in the hierarchy.

  • http://twitter.com/rhizomatic rhizomatic

    Further reading: On the “emotional labour” of capitalism.. http://mindhacks.com/2013/02/01/emotions-are-included/