Posted by TD Steiger, PhD on 30th June 2013
There are two recent works of investigative journalism that should be required for all American citizens. The first is a book called “Drift” by Rachel Maddow, and the second is the film “Dirty Wars” by Jeremy Scahill. Both tackle the issue of American military power and its use in the post-9/11 world, but with very different granularity.
In “Drift” – subtitled “The Unmooring of American Military Power” – Maddow takes a very high-level view and documents the gradual shift in the way in which the US decides to go to war. The US Constitution mandates that a declaration of war be accomplished through an act of Congress, however, the last time that Congress formally declared war was 70 years ago in 1942 for World War II. It is worth noting that there were actually 6 declarations of war associated with WWII as we declared war on Japan, Germany, Italy, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania with separate Congressional votes. Such niceties seem almost incomprehensible today.
Instead Congress has gradually ceded its oversight of military matters to the Executive Branch to such a degree that today the President can unilaterally order a military action virtually anywhere on the globe via drone-launched missile strikes without even having to admit that a strike took place. The reason for this is clear: The public does not like war. In an open democracy the lack of popularity of war could infringe upon the government’s ability to act freely in pursuit of its policy goals. Hence, the less the public knows the better.
As Maddow points out, this process started before 9/11. In fact, it was a key driver of the elimination of the draft in 1973, since it is difficult to hide the fact that we are at war when people are being randomly plucked from the street to go and fight. However, the process accelerated dramatically after 9/11 when we, as a nation, accepted without question the ludicrous proposition that we were going to war with a noun.
Merriam-Webster defines war as: “A state of usually open and declared armed hostile conflict between states or nations.” And herein lies the problem. Terrorism is not a state or a nation. Neither is al Quaeda. A classically defined war ends when one of the nations involved surrenders. “Terrorism” will never surrender.
On a side note, it is true but not often pointed out that George W. Bush was actually correct when he stood on that aircraft carrier under the infamous “Mission Accomplished” banner: The war between the US and Iraq ended as soon as Saddam Hussein was overthrown. What followed for a good decade longer was not a war, but rather an occupation. This is inconvenient because history doesn’t tend to paint occupiers in a favorable light and so Americans don’t like to think of themselves as occupiers. Nevertheless, words have meanings and when the government of Iraq fell the war was over, by definition.
While the trend toward less public oversight of the military is certainly worrying, Maddow takes a fairly academic tone and paints this as primarily an issue of public policy. By contrast, in “Dirty Wars” Jeremy Scahill puts his boots on the ground and examines the direct consequences of this policy up close and personal. While important, the film is difficult to watch because Americans are brought up to think of themselves as the Good Guys. When talking to the survivors of the collateral damage caused by hellfire missiles it becomes difficult to see Americans as the Good Guys.
In one particularly chilling episode, Scahill is interviewing a Somali warlord in Mogadishu who is known for his ruthlessness. It is worth pointing out that he is not known for ruthlessness when compared to average citizens; he is known for ruthlessness when compared to other Somali warlords. This warlord calls Americans the “masters of war” and claims that he has learned a lot from us. Think about that for a moment.
Scahill backed into this story almost unintentionally. He was a reporter in Kabul doing fairly standard war reporting when he became curious about the terse summaries of “night raids” that were being issued on an almost daily basis. Little more than a location and the number of al Quaeda killed and usually containing the phrase “no civilians injured” these updates made Scahill curious as to who, exactly, was conducting these raids with such incredible precision.
So he went to find out.
His first stop was Gardez, Afghanistan, a place far outside any zone considered remotely green where journalists seldom, if ever, went. What he found there was a family who told a horrific story about a joyful family gathering to celebrate a recent birth that was terminated by a hail of gunfire from US Navy SEALs. The dead included an American-trained local police commander and two pregnant women. From a strategic perspective in the War on Terror this was an unfortunate failure of intelligence resulting in collateral damage. These things happen. But from the perspective of this Afghan family it was not only an event of life-altering devastation, but also an act of incomprehensible evil. The next time you’re at a baby shower try to imagine soldiers from a far-off nation dropping out of the sky from helicopters and shooting up the festivities.
One of the men Scahill interviewed said that he had wanted to strap on a suicide vest and go kill as many Americans as possible. Not because he hated our freedom, but because we killed his pregnant wife and his sister for no reason that he could discern or comprehend. Fortunately his father talked him out of it, but the episode illustrates the difficulty in attacking an ideology through military means. There is a tendency to create more enemies than you eliminate.
Initially, unfortunately, the military denied the version of events reported by Scahill and others and tried to discredit the journalists. In fact, the Afghans claimed that the American soldiers had actually used knives to dig the bullets out of the dead bodies in order to leave no evidence behind. But eventually the commander of the SEALs who conducted the raid, Vice Adm. William McRaven, visited Gardez to apologize to the family in person, oddly offering to sacrifice a goat in penance.
At the time McRaven was in charge of the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC: a shadowy counter-terrorism organization that reports directly to the President. And it is with JSOC that Maddow’s book and Scahill’s film really overlap. JSOC is, effectively, the personal hit squad of the President of the United States. They operate on direct orders from the President, with no Congressional oversight and without the knowledge of the normal military command structure or even the CIA, much less the American public. JSOC is the ultimate logical conclusion of Maddow’s drift from America being a country that goes to war rarely, but goes to war together, to us being a country in a continual military conflict that takes place out of sight and is conducted by a tiny few.
One of the consequences of this policy that Scahill documents is the extrajudicial execution of an American teenager at the order of the President. This was not collateral damage; this 16yo US citizen was the intended target. Regardless of how you feel about the President, the military, or the effectiveness of the War on Terror, surely this sort of power is too easily abused to be tolerated.
Neither Maddow nor Scahill argue that the US is evil or that we are killing innocent people on purpose. And neither deny that US policy has been incredibly effective at dismantling al Quaeda. Rather they point out that our (perfectly understandable) desire for safety has created a system without checks and balances that single-mindedly pursues its goals with no thought to any unintended consequences.
How did we get here?
I believe that the American public tacitly adopted a “zero tolerance” policy after 9/11. Those events were so horrific and traumatizing that we, as a nation, declared “Never again!” The government, as is perfectly correct in a democracy, took us seriously and started going about the business of figuring out what would be required to completely eliminate terrorism. Unfortunately, as is so often the case in American foreign policy, the military option was not only the primary solution considered, but was really the only solution considered. This put us on a slippery slope, and the public’s agreement to look the other way as long as there were no more attacks led us straight to JSOC.
The problem, I believe, was in the initial assumption of zero tolerance. This was perhaps understandable as we were reeling in the aftermath of 9/11, but it was never revisited. We just sort of assumed that obviously as Americans we should not have to put up with terrorist attacks and we never questioned whether that makes any sense.
It doesn’t make any sense.
This may sound radical at first blush but it really is not. Let me explain. Let’s take a look at a couple causes of preventable deaths that are far more common than terrorist attacks: gun violence and traffic accidents. Both gun violence and traffic accidents cause a little over 30k deaths per year in America. Each. Roughly speaking that’s a 9/11 per month. Each. A 9/11’s worth of people are killed by guns in this country and another 9/11’s worth of people are killed by cars in this country each and every month. And we tolerate it.
It’s tempting to say that this is sad and unfortunate, but it is unavoidable. Let’s put aside guns and just look at traffic deaths. Are they really unavoidable? Anyone who has ever watched a NASCAR race has seen a car slam into a brick wall at 200MPH only to have the driver walk away without a scratch. What this tells me is that there is really no technological reason for people to die in car crashes. We have the technology to make cars essentially totally safe. The downside, of course, is that these totally safe cars would only cary one person and would cost a couple hundred thousand dollars. Alternatively, we could mandate that all cars be constructed so that they are physically incapable of exceeding a certain safe speed. Pick a number: 25MPH? 35MPH? Sure it would take longer to get places, but think of the lives saved!
We don’t do this, of course, because either of these solutions would be an incredible imposition on what we have come to accept as the American way of life revolving around individual freedom of movement. You can dress it up in fancy patriot language, but the bottom line is that we don’t do it because it would be inconvenient. We don’t generally think of it in these terms, but essentially we as a culture have decided that we are willing to tolerate the equivalent of a 9/11 attack each and every month in exchange for the convenience of owning an affordable car.
Shouldn’t we be willing to tolerate a 9/11 attack a decade – or heck every year – in order to guarantee that our President cannot kill pregnant women or American teenagers on a whim without repercussions? Benjamin Franklin once famously said, “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” In other words: Freedom isn’t free. For the incalculable benefit of living in a free and just society we should, nay we must, accept the cost of increased danger. This would be true even if the danger were appreciable, but it is not. The death rate from terrorism never has and never will remotely approach the death rate from traffic accidents. And no one is arguing that we should eliminate cars.
It is time that we reign in our out-of-control security apparatus, restore a system of checks and balances, and bravely accept a future that is (slightly) less certain. Please vote accordingly.