The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Category: War Crimes

Remember 9/11, When America Went Mad

So, it’s the anniversary of when America went even more insane, because they lost less people than their sanctions on Iraq had killed during the preceding years. (But those people were important people, not faceless masses.)

I remember 9/11 well, I was working in a big corporate office. My customers were American. Everything ground to a halt, a big screen was put up so people could watch the events, since clearly no work was going to get done. We even had customers in the Towers, though my personal closest customer was a couple blocks away.

I turned to a co-worker and said, “Jesus, I hope the Americans don’t attack the wrong people.” He thought that was absurd.

We all know how that turned out, In addition 9/11 was used to turn the US into a police state thru the Patriot Act, which only one Senator, Russ Feingold, had the guts to oppose. (Some time later he lost a re-election, since the last thing most Americans want in a Senator is judgment, bravery and integrity as a package.)

America went on to openly torture, invade a country which had nothing to do with 9/11, set up a worldwide assassination program, and Senators also signed over essentially all the remains of their war powers, so that any President could declare war any time for any reason. (Lucky that, so far, Trump hasn’t taken advantage of that. Obama, of course, did and there are open-air slave markets in Libya now.)

Bin Laden’s plan was to get the Americans to stop the proxy wars and invade and occupy using their own troops, so they could be defeated and the myth of their superiority destroyed, while they suffered the effects of imperial over-reach: wasting resources and time on far foreign wars. (In many schema of imperial collapse, this is one of the primary causes.)

At first it looked like he’d failed. Afghanistan in the first couple years didn’t do much to America. Then, in what Bin Laden must have viewed as Allah intervening, the Americans went mad and attacked Iraq, which had nothing to do with 9/11 and whose leader was a secular Arab and enemy of Bin Laden’s.

Anyway, great and good are not synonyms and bin Laden was the first great man of the 21st century. He may have died, but so what, he basically accomplished his goals, and so much of US rapidity of decline can be traced back to 9/11.

Bin Laden understood himself and he understood his enemy. He won. America, despite being overwhelmingly more powerful, understood neither itself nor its enemies, and lost.

Nothing important to stop American decline or even slow it has been done since 9/11, it’s all been pedal to the metal, and now there are nationwide protests; riots; the most important state in America (that’s California, because it creates the future) is on fire, and the US is ruled by a reality TV star who wasn’t even a good billionaire.

On the anniversary of 9/11 remember, Bin Laden punked America. He won. You lost. You lost because you acted like monsters and fools, lived down to his opinion of you. Bin Laden was evil, to be sure, but he knew America was evil and stupid, bet hard on America’s evil and stupidity, and won.

If Americans want to save their country from decline and collapse, all they have to do is be smart and good.

So far the smart money is that they’ll do neither of those things.

I wish it were otherwise.

Everything I write here is free, but rent isn’t, so if you value my writing, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.


Bin Laden’s insights and the Egyptian Coup

This is the sort of post that makes people mad, but in light of what’s happening in Egypt it’s necessary to talk about bin Laden.

Most people who hate bin Laden have never read read his writings.  They’re quite extensive, and they’ll reward your time in reading them. (Obligatory bin Laden is a bad man, just like George Bush Jr. disclaimer.)  Bin Laden was very smart, and and he understood America very well, and had a good take on the world system.  He was not stupid, he was not a coward (he lead troops from the front line against the Soviets), and he was very effective at accomplishing many of his goals.  Along with George Bush Jr, who was his greatest ally and enemy, he was was one of the first great men of the 21st century.  Great men, of course, do not need to be good men.  Hitler and Churchill and Gandhi were all great men, they weren’t all good men.

Let’s start in relation to Egypt.  A lot of people in Egypt and elsewhere see the Egyptian coup (it was a coup, don’t tell me otherwise) as being US backed.  Add to this the fact that they see the defeat of the Muslim brotherhood in the past as being aided by the US, they believe that Egypt is ruled by its current oligarchy (an extension of the Mubarak era oligarchy, and again, don’t even try and lie and say otherwise), because of the US.

What bin Laden said was that despotic regimes in the Middle East and elsewhere are backed by America in specific, and the West in general.  That backing is powerful.  In Islam there is an idea that you should deal with your local tyrant, your local problems, first, and not worry about the far enemy.  Bin Laden believed that, in the current circumstance, you could not do that.  Revolution at home was close to impossible because of the far enemy, because of the United States.  Even if you did, by some miracle succeed, as long as the US was the global hegemon, your success would be undermined and destroyed by the US by crippling your economy, escalating, if necessary, to economic sanctions backed by force.  If you don’t believe this, see what was done to Iraq in the 90s and what is being done to Iran today.  A lot of children and adults are dying and suffering because of these sanctions.

Bin Laden’s argument, then, was that the US had to be defeated.  That the evils being done by local regimes (such as the extensive use of torture and routine rape in Egypt under Mubarak) could not be ended by simply fighting the local regime, but that the far regime, the US, must be defeated.

This is a pragmatic argument, and it is an ethical argument.  When Madeline Albright said that half a million dead Iraqi children from US sanctions was “worth it”, bin Laden’s response was to ask if the lives of Muslim children were not equal to those of Christian children.  Rhetorically, he asked, “is our blood not red too?”

Whatever you think of bin Laden, this is a powerful ethical statement.

What this leads to is that the US is responsible both for the suffering it causes directly, and the suffering it causes indirectly, by keeping monstrous regimes in power, or, in many cases, helping create them.

This critique is not just a critique from an Islamic perspective, it strikes to the heart of the West’s ostensible ethics, to the equality of all humans, to the right of self-determination, and even to the western theoretical preference for democracy.  Democracy is a powerful idea, but bin Laden (and others) have observed that the West only believes in elections when the right people win.  This was best on display when Hamas, in Palestine, won elections the US had insisted occur (over Israeli objections) and the US then backed a Fatah coup to make sure that Hamas did not take power.  (Hamas later kicked Fatah out of Gaza, leading to the current divided rule of Palestine.)  It doesn’t take a genius to see that this applies to the current Egyptian situation. Whatever one thinks of Morsi’s government, it was elected in what seem to have been fair elections.

So, if you play the West’s rules, if you win fair and square in elections, and the West doesn’t like who came to power, they will help undo the results of the elections.  If you try and get rid of a regime you don’t like through violence, the West will support the regime, making it unlikely you will win, and if you do win despite all that, they will undermine or destroy your regime through economic sanctions.  All that failing, as in Iraq, they may well invade.

The problem with this critique is that it is, substantially, accurate.  Hate bin Laden or not, this is a model of the world which has predictive and analytical utility. It explains the past, it predicts the future, and it does both well.  The fact that bin Laden’s critique is fairly similar to various left-wing critiques is not accidental.  It is not because bin Laden and the left are fellow travellers (Islamists are strongly opposed to genuine leftists), it is because any set of model that track reality fairly well will tend to look alike.  Of course, that they look the same is used to discredit people by association.  “You agree with bin Laden” they say, and shut down discussion of how the world actually works.

The power of bin Laden’s critique is its accuracy, the elements of it which are true.  What bin Laden added (though I’m sure others have as well), was one main thing: the directive to attack the US.

Bin Laden was, in certain respects, born of the Afghan war against the USSR.  Those of you who are young tend to view what happened to the USSR as inevitable.  Creaky, economically broken, it was going down.  Nothing is so inevitable as what has already happened.  You’re not wrong, the USSR had real internal problems it couldn’t fix, but you’re not quite right, either.  Absent Afghanistan, the USSR might have toddled on for a lot longer.  Decades, perhaps.

Looked at from the outside, even in the 90s (heck, even in the 80s, with some prescience), the US does not look healthy.  It looks economically sick, with stagnation of wages even in the 90s, a gutting of real productivity, soaring inequality, and political sclerosis leading to the creation of an elite detached from the actual economy, but instead playing financial games which do not track real economic power.    It looks, like the USSR did, like a society which, with a push, could collapse.

Bin Laden set out to give the US that push.

Let’s go back to the USSR.  The Soviet military was not a joke.  It was large, powerful, had good equipment (especially compared to Afghan tribesmen).  Even the post Soviet Russian military is no joke (take a look at what they did to Georgia, recently.)  The USSR was POWER.

And in Afghanistan, the USSR was worn down.  All that power died in the grave of Empires.  And soon thereafter, the USSR ceased to be.

Bin Laden was there.  He saw it. He participated in it as a fighter.

He looked at the West, and the US in specific and believed that the US was ripe for something similar.  As with the USSR the US in the 90s had a very scary reputation.  Remember how decisively Saddam was defeated in the first Gulf War.  The US looked undefeatable.  And, in certain respects it was, and still is.

But bin Laden saw, accurately, the US weakness.  He believed that while the US was good at open field warfare, American troops were nothing special at the sort of guerrilla warfare that had occurred in Afghanistan.  He believed that if they could be brought into Afghanistan, and kept there, instead of coming in and leaving quickly, they could be defeated. He believed that the legend of American invincibility, as with that of the Red Army, could be shattered.

9/11 was about getting the US to overreact.  About getting it into Afghanistan.  It succeeded in doing that, but bin Laden must have known some despair, because at first, Afghanistan wasn’t proving to be much of a graveyard at all.  The majority of Afghans hadn’t liked the Taliban, didn’t mind them being blown over, and were willing to give the US and the West, a chance.

Then Bush stepped in, used 9/11 as the de-facto pretext, and invaded Iraq.  And in Iraq, much of what bin Laden wanted to have happen in Afghanistan happened, with the bonus that Hussein (whom, as a secular Arabist, bin Laden was an enemy of) was gotten rid of too.  Win/win.  And meanwhile, in Afghanistan, coalition forces managed to alienate the Afghan population and ensure the return of the Taliban, while destabilizing Pakistan in addition.  Bonus!

(Bush was able to rewrite the unwritten US constitution, however, and his victory in changing the nature of America has been confirmed by the fact that Obama has institutionalized almost all essential Bush policies and extended many of them.)

Now one can say that bin Laden lost (not because he was killed, that’s irrelevant and people who think it matters much are fools), because the US is still around, still powerful, and hasn’t collapsed.

But it isn’t over yet.  The cost of the Iraq war, of 9/11, was huge, both in financial terms and in the changes wrought to the American psyche, unwritten constitution and society.   Those lost years, and they were lost, should have been used to transition the US economy. Instead the money that should have done that was used to fund the Iraq war, and to  keep money flowing a housing bubble was not just allowed, but encouraged, both by the Fed and by actively turning a blind eye to illegal activity.

The US economy has never recovered.  Five to six years out, the absolute number of jobs hasn’t recovered, the actual standard of living for most people is dropping, income and wealth inequality is worse, and unsustainable spending is occurring without any plan to create an economy which can pay for it.  Political sclerosis is worse, not better, the economic plan is to frack, frack, frack (which won’t work in the long run) and the US and the West are doubling down on a surveillance state and continuing to erode freedoms, which not only has much larger economic effects than most people realize, but weakens Western ideological power.

So bin Laden hasn’t lost yet.  The reaction to 9/11 may yet be seen to be the precipitating event that made it essentially impossible for the US to reverse its decline, and made that decline far faster and far worse.

We started with Egypt, so let’s bring it back there. If you’re an Egyptian who believes (accurately) that there was a coup which overthrew a democratically elected government, and that the US was complicit at best, and actively involved at worst (John Kerry constantly insisting there was no coup is not in America’s interests here), then the basic critique still resonates. Even if you don’t want bin Laden’s end goal of a new Islamic caliphate, if you want independence, if you want to be able to defeat your local tyrants, well, the US is your enemy, the far enemy whose existence makes defeating the near enemies impossible. It is not a country you feel you can make peace with, a devil you can ignore because it is far away, but a country whose ability to intervene in your country must be somehow destroyed.

This basic analysis of the situation remains extremely powerful and convincing.

Bin Laden was the first great man of the 21st century.  George Bush Jr. was the second (Obama is important, but is a secondary figure to Bush.)

And as long as bin Laden’s insights seem to explain the world, someone is likely to act on them.

May God, should he or she exist, aid us.  We’re going to need it.

(Oh, and part of the opportunity cost of the Iraq war may well be hundreds of millions of deaths from climate change. You’re welcome.)

Those to whom evil is done, do evil in return—and so the wheel turns.


The comment thread you should read

Is this one.  It’s one of the reasons why I have no time for Iraq war pushers.  It’s one of the reasons why one of my friends used to say that the person who will wipe a major US city off the face of the planet has probably been born.

Read it.  Feel the hatred.

I’m not against all war.  But the bar is VERY high. This is why.

The entire Iraq war was one large war crime.  Everyone who voted for it in Congress is a war criminal. It is the exact same crime Nazis were hung for at Nuremberg. The exact same one.

Weep bloody tears, and pray that you don’t reap as you have sowed.  And understand that this is one reason you have to live in a surveillance state. It is, in part, a desperate attempt to manage “blowback.”

It is in blood that empires, like humans, are born, it is in blood that they die (reprint)

Photo by Chris Hondros, RIP

I think we all remember the year before the Iraq war, the drumbeat of propaganda, the horrible certainty that nothing we could do would stop George Bush’s messianic belief that he must have a war with Iraq because he was ordained by God, and all the great presidents were war presidents. We argued at the time that there is no decision a politician can make which he or she should think on harder than going to war.

The reason should be obvious. In war bad things happen. Wars are always sold as if they are going to be brief, as if only the “bad guys” will be killed, as if “precision munitions” have made horrors a thing of the past. They are sold as easy, and glorious. And they almost never are. War is the archetype of “rubber hits the road”, of a situation you can’t control. They have a way of turning into messes we never intended.

World War I was supposed to be brief. So was the Iraq war. A quick march in, lots of flowers, rework Iraq into a libertarian paradise by applying Republican economic and social dogma, then on to Tehran!

We could run through the numbers of dead, of maimed, of orphaned, but I think this story from the San Antonio Express-News speaks more directly to what happens in war. Some time ago some US soldiers raped an Iraqi girl repeatedly, then tried to conceal the crime by burning the corpse and killing her family.

Iraqis were outraged, and later some soldiers were captured. And for four months they were tortured. The antiseptic language in the article is somehow worse than saying it outright: “foot bones detached from commingled remains of Fouty and Jimenez, and finger bones wrapped in a blanket. Part of a pair of handcuffs was found.” And a broken nose that had healed.

The men were kept alive, in other words, and tortured. They were probably cut up while still alive.

You can’t control war. Even the best disciplined army in the world (and the American is not even close to being that) will kill people it shouldn’t. Rapes will occur, they do in every war. Brutality and torture are almost certain to occur, even if the army tries to avoid it, rather than institutionalizing it. War, by its nature, requires making the enemy into something less than human, so you don’t mind shooting them. It almost always spills over onto the locals, who likewise are viewed as animals by occupiers or invaders and treated as such by many of them.

War, then, is hell. This isn’t news, everyone knows it. But as with most of what everyone “knows” they don’t really get it, because most people don’t get things that have never effected them or people they love. And if you’re in Congress, well, with very few exceptions, no one you care about is going to fight, no one you know is going to risk their life and maybe even get captured and tortured. The same is true of most people serving in the administration.

That boy being tortured, that girl being raped. All the deaths, murder, rapes, torture, were inevitable. You go to war with the army you have, and the president you have, but even if Jimmy Carter had been in charge there would have been murder, rapes, torture—just less of them. But “less” doesn’t matter much when it’s your daughter who was raped repeatedly at gunpoint; your son who was cut into pieces over a period of months.

And so we come back to the heart of the war. We rarely talk about it anymore, but it’s simple enough. All those people who supported the war, and most especially all those who voted for it, bear the moral responsibility for the results of the war. At least 100,000 dead Iraqis (and probably closer to a million). 4,000 and rising dead US soldiers. Rape. Murder. Torture. Orphans who got to watch their parents being killed. Husbands who saw their wives die, or wives who watched their husbands gunned down or blown into bloody carrion. Families who have buried multiple children.

All because members of Congress didn’t care and because they were gutless. Because they though to themselves “I might have to face attack ads if I vote against this war.” Can you think of anything more weak, anything more pathetically evil, than to care more about your reelection than about thousands dying? Than about the certainty that from your vote will come rape and torture and murder?

And can you think of anything more pathetic, more redolent of bad judgment than to say “but I didn’t know. I trusted George Bush?”

As far as I am concerned most of Congress doesn’t just have blood on their hands, they are in it up to their chins. Their gutlessness, cupidity and selfishness is such that most of them, in a just world, would be preparing their defenses for a Nuremburg trial. They attacked a country which had not attacked the US, based on lies that were debunked at the time, for petty personal reasons of political ambition or cowardice.

We all know that won’t happen, but what I will tell you is this. Without the Iraq war, the financial crisis happening right now either wouldn’t be, or would be much less harsh. It is quite likely that Iraq is the last mistake of the American century and marks the end of America as a superpower.

This is only fitting. Those who have proven they cannot be trusted with power must have that power taken away. America had its chance, in 2004, to take that power away from the worst of its elites. It didn’t. For an outsider, whether the election was stolen in 2004 or not is irrelevant, all that matters was the lesson of the result—that Americans are no longer capable of disciplining their own elites.

American hegemony rose out of the ashes of WWII. World War II was an unprovoked war. Germany attacked those that did not threaten it. At Nuremburg Americans hung Nazis who had not been involved in the Holocaust, for no crime other than unprovoked war, declaring that it was a capital offense. Out of that war, and out of Nuremburg, America was born as the leader of the free world. Not just the mightiest, but the nation that said “never again”.

It is fitting then that an unprovoked war is what is bringing an end to America’s leadership of the free world, to its economic and military hegemony. Having done what it once condemned, having proven unwilling or unable to correct itself, America has reaped what it sowed.

Alas that a young man had to be chopped into bits; a young girl raped repeatedly, as part of the process—that hundreds of thousands had to be killed.

It is in blood that empires, like humans, are born.

It is in blood that they die.

(Originally posted October 5th, 2008)

Enough BS About “I can’t judge because I’ve never been a soldier”

Seriously, Sean-Paul’s my friend, but this sort of thing (which is hardly unique to him) in reference to the video of the killing of reporters and other civilians is waffling of the highest order:

As for the actions of the soldiers? At first, I wasn’t sure how to feel, but I know enough about war to know I know nothing of war, so I reserve judgment. Alas, I can’t help but to think that the rules of engagement were violated here in some fashion. But again, I cannot say with any certainty and so withhold judgment.

Waffle irons have nothing on this.

No, the fact that you haven’t been to war doesn’t mean you can’t judge, and especially the fact that you aren’t a civilian doesn’t mean you can’t judge.   This constant mantra of “oh, the troops aren’t to blame” excuses acts of barbarity.

And as a civilian, it’s in your best interest to not brush aside acts of barbarity by militaries.

Somehow the argument “I don’t understand” never gets applied in reverse.  It gets applied to American soldiers, but not to say, Taliban or al-Qaeda fighters.  They commit atrocities and we have no hesitation in condemning them.

Imagine you did understand.  What possible reason could these soldiers have for their actions which would excuse them?  That they’re under pressure?  So what?  That may make it understandable, it doesn’t make it excusable.  Any more than if I think I understand why some terrorist kills a bunch of civilians, that understanding makes it acceptable.

The knee-jerk “support the troops! Never say anything bad about our boys” stuff is noxious.  A proper functioning military in a civilized society court-martials people who do things like this.

And this is not an isolated incident.  As Siun notes:

At the time the New York Times reported that “the military has paid more than $32 million to Iraqi and Afghan civilians for noncombat-related killings, injuries and property damage, an Army spokeswoman said. That figure does not include condolence payments made at a unit commander’s discretion.” And given that the average payment for a dead adult civilian was $3,000, you begin to get some sense of the scale of devastation we have brought to the people of Iraq and Afghanistan.

You do the math…  And that’s just deaths where they felt they had to pay someone off, where payments are on the record.

This is military policy.  The reason it was covered up is that it’s not an aberation, it’s policy.  As Greenwald notes, this is what the US military does. The rot goes all the way to the top.

And no, “following orders” is not an excuse.

Enough waffling.  What happened in that video was wrong.  What’s even worse is that there’s no reason to believe it was an isolated incident.

Is Comparing America to Germany Absurd?

Since I made the comparison between America and Germany today, I have been told that my argument is absurd. Here is my response.

Nuremburg chief prosecutor Ferencz said pre-emptive war against Iraq was a war crime, the same as that committed by the Germans in WWII.

If someone wants to make the case that America is better in kind, not just scale, make it.  (I guess one can say “we still haven’t tried to kill an entire racial group even if we did engage in pre-emptive war.”  Feel free to do so.)

  • Pre-emptive war: Check
  • Systematic Torture: Check
  • Genocide: Nope
  • Number of dead: Much less but still plenty, especially if you’re an Iraqi

But just trying to dismiss the comparison out of hand only tells me that some people aren’t looking hard enough in the mirror.  It is understandable, of course.  No one likes having the standards they apply to others applied to them.

However, I would find it intellectually honest if Americans were to apologize to those Germans they hung for pre-emptive war and other non-Holocaust crimes and say that those crimes, in retrospect, aren’t that big a deal, and that in any case, America after WWII should have been looking ahead, and not behind.  You can also apologize to the Japanese who were tried for waterboarding.

Go ahead and be the first.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén