Depraved Indifference: Drone Wars, Whack Jobs and Imperial Terror
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Written by Chris Floyd   
Wednesday, 28 October 2009 00:03

 I have often admired Jane Mayer's reportage. She has helped expose several elements of "the dark side" of America's worldwide Terror War. Her latest article in the New Yorker outlines the CIA's use of "Predator" drones to kill people by remote control in Pakistan. As the magazine notes, the Obama Administration is relying on these covert drone killers more and more, as it escalates America's military attacks in Pakistan -- ostensibly a sovereign nation allied to the United States.

Mayer's article relates a chilling story of suburban killers -- many of them stateside, firing their missiles from comfortable cubicles before heading home for dinner with the family -- operating in a secret program outside all traditional lines of legality and accountability. (Even the extremely low levels of legality and accountability that weakly adhere to the business of wholesale slaughter and destruction known as war.) For example, part of the program has been "outsourced" to private companies, who are killing people -- including hundreds of innocent civilians -- for profit, with American tax money.

The New Yorker's website has now published an interview with Mayer expanding on the original story. It too is chilling -- but not only for the further details of this state murder program. What is equally disturbing is the bloodless consideration of this bloody enterprise, based on the assumption that there is nothing essentially wrong with such an assassination program (with its inevitable "collateral damage"), as long it is more transparent, with the "legal, ethical and political boundaries" of the death squads clearly drawn.

The very first question gives us a glimpse into the bizarre, depraved moral universe of the American establishment:

How has the use of Predator drones by the United States changed the situation in Pakistan?

Well, there’s good news and bad news. According to the C.I.A., they’ve killed more than half of the twenty most wanted Al Qaeda terrorist suspects. The bad news is that they’ve inflamed anti-American sentiment, because they’ve also killed hundreds of civilians.

What is astonishing about this is that the interview doesn't end there, in a roar of outrage from Mayer and her interviewer: "They've killed hundreds of civilians!" Hundreds of Pakistani civilians, men, women and children with no involvement whatsoever in war or terrorism; just ordinary people living their lives as best they can -- just like your neighbor, just like your mother, just like you...or just like the people killed on September 11, whose deaths are used as an eternal justification for war and bloodshed on a global scale by the American state.

But these drone-murdered Pakistanis -- these human beings, these fathers and mothers, these grandparents, these toddlers, these brothers and sisters -- their lives are just statistics to be coldly weighed in the calibrations of imperial policy. The "bad news" about their deaths is not that they were murdered, not that these utterly defenseless men, women and children were blown to shreds without warning, without the slightest chance of escape, by flying robots controlled by unseen hands a world away; no, the "bad news" is that these that these killing might possibly hamper America's "counterinsurgency program":

How does the continued collateral damage from Predator drones square with General Stanley McChrystal’s order to the military to lay off the air strikes in Afghanistan and avoid civilian deaths?

Well, you could argue it either way. There is less collateral damage from a drone strike than there is from an F-16. According to intelligence officials, drones are more surgical in the way they kill—they usually use Hellfire missiles and do less damage than a fighter jet might.

At the same time, the fact that they kill civilians at all raises the same problem that McChrystal is trying to combat, which is that they incite people on the ground against the United States. When you’re trying to win a battle of hearts and minds, trying to win over civilian populations against terrorists, it can be counterproductive.

It can be counterproductive. When you kill hundreds of innocent people, it can be counterproductive. "Say, boys, how's my campaign shaping up these days?" "Well, Mr. Mayor, we're getting some negative feedback in the polls about your habit of machine-gunning people to death on the street every week. We've talked to some of our top PR people, and they say this kind of thing can be counterproductive."

And of course, this little passage also highlights the absurd hero-worship of our major "liberal" media toward the military chieftains who are increasingly dominating American policy, with increasing openness. Once again, as with the simpering hagiography offered up by the New York Times recently, we see the saintly image of noble Stanley McChrystal trying his darndest to avoid civilian casualties -- as he calls for 40,000 more troops (or "warfighters" as the Pentagon likes to call soldiers these days) to pour into the occupied land, spreading through the countryside and cities with bristling ordnance, backed always with close air support to provide "force protection."

This is the same General McChrystal who ran death squads and torture chambers in Iraq. As Fred Kaplan noted in Slate earlier this year:

McChrystal's command also provided the personnel for Task Force 6-26, an elite unit of 1,000 special-ops forces that engaged in harsh interrogation of detainees in Camp Nama as far back as 2003. The interrogations were so harsh that five Army officers were convicted on charges of abuse. (McChrystal himself was not implicated in the excesses, but the unit's slogan, which set the tone for its practices, was "If you don't make them bleed, they can't prosecute for it.")

McChrystal was not "implicated" in the "excesses" because in the American system, power and authority entail no responsibility; the buck always stops lower down the line, with a few "bad apples" or designated fall guys. The obscene spectacles of the Bush torture regimen -- and Barack Obama's frenzied efforts to shield the torture architects (and practitioners) from the slightest accountability -- give ample proof of this essential element of the system.

And yet here too, Mayer expresses the staggering blindness that afflicts the establishment media. Here she is explaining one of the problems of the CIA drone program: its lack of transparency, which she contrasts with the Pentagon system:

Well, the problem with this program is that it’s invisible; I would guess there must be all kinds of legal safeguards, and lawyers at the C.I.A. are discussing who we can kill and who we can’t, but none of that is available to the American people. It’s quite a contrast with the armed forces, because the use of lethal force in the military is a transparent process. There are after-action reports, and there’s a very obvious chain of command. We know where the responsibility runs, straight on up to the top of the government. This system keeps checks on abuses of power. There is no such transparency at the C.I.A.

One doesn't know whether to laugh or cry at this. When is the last time that responsibility for military depredations -- such as the systematic abuses in the American Terror War Gulag (with Abu Ghraib as just one small example) -- has run "straight on up to the top of the government"?  The schizophrenia that afflicts our great and good and bestest and brightest is painfully evident here: Mayer herself, in her reports on the Gulag abuse, has shown, in great detail, that they were not aberrations by "bad apples" but were imposed from the very top of the chain of command.

Yet here she is blatantly contradicting her own reportage, the indisputable facts that she herself has uncovered. But such are the inevitable, wrenching cognitive dissonances that arise when you accept the basic assumptions of the militarist system -- which you must do, to some extent, to get a seat at the "serious" table in America's media-political establishment. She is probably not even aware that she is doing it; she is simply following the standard template for "process stories," which require stark contrasts between the protagonists, who are usually cast in good guy-bad guy mold. In this case, the protagonists are the two state apparatuses -- the Pentagon and the CIA -- who wield the power of faceless, remote-control death over innocent, undefended human beings. In this "process," it is the unregulated CIA killers who are the bad guys, and so the Pentagon must be recast as a stickler for accountability all the way up the line, despite the mountain of evidence against this ludicrous interpretation -- evidence which, we must emphasize again, Mayer herself has been instrumental in compiling.

"Process stories" -- reports on the inner workings of the power structure, almost always told from the point of view of interested insiders pushing factional agendas -- have become one of the chief staples of mainstream journalism in recent years. While they occasionally yield nuggets of useful information, they are, in essence, little more than scraps of court gossip, mixed with the poisonous whispers of conniving courtiers and scheming ministers and generals -- "packs and sects of great ones, that ebb and flow by the moon." It is surely no coincidence that these stories have come to dominate our journalism more and more as the imperial nature of the Permanent War State becomes more open and entrenched.

This blindness, this "institutional capture" of a journalist who comes to identify completely with the aims and ethos of her imperial sources, is perhaps best illustrated in this exchange:

Are people in Pakistan scared to move around because of the drones?

According to some recent studies, terrorists are scampering around only at night and accusing each other of being spies and informing on one another. So it’s had the desired effect in unraveling terror cells.

Note that the interviewer asked about the effect these terror strikes from the sky are having on the people in Pakistan. Have their daily lives been maimed and constricted by the American terror? A reasonable question, you would think, and an issue that should certainly be a factor in any "serious" examination of American policy in the region.

But Mayer answers in the language of the state terrorists themselves. Ignoring the plight of ordinary civilians in the ever-expanding number of areas in Pakistan now under the dread edict of American drones, Mayers reiterates the triumphalist propaganda of her sources, talking only of the drones' effects on the accused terrorists that have been targeted. The ordinary, innocent human beings being killed, hounded and terrorized by these imperial operations are, as always, invisible.

(Yet even a cursory glance at the headlines in the past week gives the bitter lie to this propaganda; reading the daily reports of deadly bombings at the very heart of Pakistan's security apparatus, we can see just how effective the drone attacks have been at "unraveling terror cells" in that country. What the American attacks in Pakistan have actually done, of course, is the opposite: they have expanded, embittered and emboldened opposition to an Islamabad government allied with foreign forces that rain death on innocent people out of the clear blue sky.)

But we should not leave the impression that the interview evinces no human compassion at all. Toward the end, the interviewer and Mayer focus on one set of victims who are genuinely suffering from the drone program: the brave suburban warriors sitting on their well-wadded behinds in cozy offices and well-appointed command centers as they push a button and blow up a house, a street, a village:

You mention in your piece that drone pilots, who work from an office, suffer from combat stress.

Someone sitting at C.I.A. headquarters in Langley, Virginia, can view and home in on a target on the other side of the world with tremendous precision, even at night, and destroy it. Peter Singer, who wrote a book on robotic warfare, said that cubicle warriors experience the same stress as regular warriors in a real war. Detached killing still takes a tremendous emotional toll inside our borders. 
 

Oh yes, may the Lord protect and preserve all of our detached killers from the tremendous emotional toll inflicted upon them by their noble work!

Again, the point here is that a truly serious and sophisticated analysis of the situation would have stopped at the very beginning: "We are killing hundreds of innocent civilians, with robots, in a country we're not at war with -- one of our allies, in fact. What in the name of all that's holy – and all that's human – is driving our nation to commit these monstrous crimes, and how can we stop it?" That would be the issue under discussion. A truly serious and sophisticated analysis would not accept the hideous assertions and assumptions of state terrorists at face value, would not concern itself with the "process" by which imperial factions fight it out for the honor of perpetrating these atrocities – and would certainly not offer as its conclusion the earnest hope that the authors of these war crimes will find some way of doing them better:

What would the outlines of a more transparent drone program look like?

Michael Walzer, the political philosopher, has noted that when the United States goes about killing people, we usually know who they can kill and where the battlefield is. International lawyers are calling for a public revelation of who is on this list, where can we go after them, and how many people can we take out with them. They want to know the legal, ethical, and political boundaries of the program.

International lawyers want to know just how many people we can "take out" when we launch missile attacks in civilian areas. Our political philosophers want to know the ethical boundaries of assassinating someone who is suspected of being part of a group that our government currently does not like or find useful for its purposes. This program of systematic extrajudicial murder and mass slaughter of innocent civilians – often by private contractors whose profits depend on war and death –"raises interesting legal questions," Mayer says.

Such are the depraved parameters within which our most "serious" and "sophisticated" – indeed, our most "liberal" and "progressive" -- political analysis now takes place.

II.
Just as I was finishing this piece, I ran across Arthur Silber's latest essay, which explicates the implications of these depraved parameters far more thoroughly than I have done. You should read his entire post – and the links – but I think a few extended excerpts here will help will underscore some of the points I was trying to make.

Silber's piece was sparked by the resignation of Matthew Hoh, a former combat officer in Iraq who had become of the top U.S. civilian officials in Afghanistan. Hoh resigned his post as a matter of principle, he said, because he could no longer see any good purpose in America's military involvement in what is "essentially a far-off civil war," as the Washington Post puts it.

Hoh's "principled" action has won widespread acclaim among critics of the Afghan adventure. But as Silber notes, the "principles" behind Hoh's actions include a whole-hearted approval of – and keen participation in – the very policies of imperialism and war crime that have led to the murderous war in Afghanistan, and are certain to spawn other such depredations:

And [the issue of] Iraq returns us to Matthew Hoh, and why his resignation is ultimately meaningless. In fact, it is much worse than that. To underscore the very limited nature of Hoh's protest, consider the conclusion of the Washington Post story:

If the United States is to remain in Afghanistan, Hoh said, he would advise a reduction in combat forces.

He also would suggest providing more support for Pakistan, better U.S. communication and propaganda skills to match those of al-Qaeda, and more pressure on Afghan President Hamid Karzai to clean up government corruption -- all options being discussed in White House deliberations.

"We want to have some kind of governance there, and we have some obligation for it not to be a bloodbath," Hoh said. "But you have to draw the line somewhere, and say this is their problem to solve."

In this passage, you see how even Hoh supports the overall purposes of U.S. foreign policy. He refers to "combat forces," but this is deceptive terminology, which I analyzed in detail when the same device was used in connection with Iraq. And Hoh urges "more support for Pakistan," and "more pressure" on Karzai -- that is, he recommends continued and even greater involvement in countries that should not concern us because they do not threaten us, but he suggests we alter the emphasis and particular form of our involvement. This is tinkering around the edges, and it does nothing to address the actual problem.

But the worst is this passage earlier in the story:

"I'm not some peacenik, pot-smoking hippie who wants everyone to be in love," Hoh said. Although he said his time in Zabul was the "second-best job I've ever had," his dominant experience is from the Marines, where many of his closest friends still serve.

"There are plenty of dudes who need to be killed," he said of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. "I was never more happy than when our Iraq team whacked a bunch of guys."

The critical facts are few in number, and remarkably easy to understand: Iraq never threatened the U.S. in any serious manner. Our leaders knew Iraq did not threaten us. Despite what should have been the only fact that mattered, the U.S. invaded and occupied, and still occupies, a nation that never threatened us and had never attacked us. Under the applicable principles of international law and the Nuremberg Principles, the U.S. thus committed a monstrous, unforgivable series of war crimes. Those who support and continue the occupation of Iraq are war criminals -- not because I say so, but because the same principles that the U.S. applies to every other nation, but never to the U.S. itself, necessitate that judgment and no other.

While it may be true that some "dudes" threatened Hoh's life and the lives of those with whom he served, Hoh could never have been threatened in that manner but for the fact that he was in Iraq as part of a criminal war of aggression. In other words, he had no right to be in Iraq in the first place. And if he had not been, he would never have been in a position to "whack[] a bunch of guys."

Here Silber cuts to the absolute crux of the matter – in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and in those Langley offices where "cubicle warriors" are suffering so much emotional turmoil from their "whack jobs" on hundreds of innocent civilians: We have no right to be doing these things in the first place.

And someone who stands foursquare behind an abominable war crime like the invasion of Iraq has no "principles," as this term is commonly understood. As Silber puts it:

The significance of Hoh's own judgment of his actions in Iraq, and his own failure to acknowledge the true nature of the U.S. presence there, lies in the fact that it undercuts his protest about U.S. strategy in Afghanistan on the most fundamental level. Hoh offers no principled opposition to wars of aggression: he approves of a criminal war in Iraq, but opposes it in Afghanistan. And he opposes it in Afghanistan not because it's a crime and morally abhorrent -- which it is -- but because it's not "working." It's "ineffective." This perfectly mirrors the typical liberal criticism of the Iraq crime: that it was executed "incompetently." Opposition of this kind finally reduces to no opposition at all, except on specifics. Such opposition is futile, inconsistent and contradictory, and ultimately worthless. It fails to challenge U.S. policy on the critical, more fundamental level -- and it invites a future catastrophe on an equal or, which is horrifying to contemplate, an even greater scale.

Hoh doesn't like the war crime in Afghanistan because it doesn't seem to be working out too well – not because it's wrong. Mayer doesn't like the CIA Predator program of targeted assassination and massive "collateral damage" because it's too unregulated, too opaque, and we need to find ways to make it work better – more like the Pentagon program of targeted assassination and massive "collateral damage."

But hey, isn't it good that a high American official has refused to take further part in the Af-Pak Terror War? Of course it is – relatively speaking. As Silber notes:

I view Hoh's resignation as a positive development in only one very limited sense. If a sufficient number of U.S. personnel resigned, for reasons similar to Hoh's or even for no reason at all, if they simply resigned, the U.S. would be unable to continue its current policy. But that will not happen, not in the numbers required.

Silber then notes that war critics who applaud Hoh's action have missed a critical point that makes hollow any claim of deeply held principle behind his resignation: his enthusiasm for "whacking" people in a country that American forces invaded in a savage and lawless act of aggression:

For me, the worst omission on [Glenn] Greenwald's part is his failure to comment on this statement from Hoh: "I was never more happy than when our Iraq team whacked a bunch of guys." I urge you to consider again the arguments as to why the U.S. invasion and continuing occupation of Iraq constitute an ongoing series of monstrous war crimes, and how Hoh's actions are only one part of an incomprehensibly awful larger criminal project. But Hoh "was never more happy" than when he "whacked a bunch of guys" -- "guys" that neither Hoh nor any other U.S. soldier should ever have been in a position to kill. And Greenwald finds none of this worthy of even momentary interest.

Yet in that single statement of Hoh's, and in all the assumptions that underlie it and all the policies to which it necessarily leads and to which it will lead again as long as those policies remain unaltered, lies a world of endless horror -- a world of agony, dismemberment, maiming, torture, of countless personal tragedies and lives forever changed and ended, and of growing instability and threats that are increased by U.S. actions. As long as the forces that drive U.S. policy are ignored or denied, as long as we do not engage this argument on those terms that are most crucial -- and as long as we will not identify the nature of U.S. actions for what they are, and in these instances, they are war crimes -- these horrors will continue without end.

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