Here is my latest, slightly expanded column for the print version of CounterPunch, which came out last month.
A former colleague of mine died recently, although I didn't know he had been my colleague until I read his obituary in the New York Times last month -- six months after his obscure and unmarked death in the small East Tennessee town where I'd worked as a reporter.
Charles Varnadore and I worked together for five years at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, part of the vast research complex that midwifed the atom bomb. Curiously enough, my grandfather had helped build Oak Ridge. A sharecropper turned carpenter, my grandfather Lon been recruited, like thousands of other workers and artisans, to construct the "secret city" in the midst of World War II. He wasn't allowed to tell his family what he was doing; he would just get on the train in the rural deeps outside Nashville and be gone for weeks at a time. Varnadore's grandfather had worked there too, and his father as well.
But I never met Varnadore during my time at ORNL. It wasn't that kind of place. It was like a huge, sprawling college campus -- a heavily militarized campus, with machine-gun-toting guards, iron gates, walls topped with barbed wire. The kind of campus where people went only where they were authorized to go, subject always to the arbitrary dictates of security. (It was a prevision of 21st century America, but we didn't know that then.)
So there wasn't much mixing and mingling. Varnadore was a technician, working in the analytic chemistry division. I had no idea where that was. I was working -- after a fashion -- as an editor in an unusual enclave of leftish researchers dealing with issues like energy conservation and the still somewhat recherché matter of global warming. My services weren’t much needed by these very articulate scientists, most of whom had been war protestors and civil rights campaigners. I spent much of my time hiding out in one cubby-hole or another, reading books: the entire corpus of George Eliot, the complete works of Colette, the Alexandria Quartet, Gore Vidal by the yard, Tillich, Buber, Arendt, Celan -- whatever treasure I fetched up from the magical milk-crates of McKay's Used Books in nearby Knoxville.
Varnadore took his work more seriously -- and that was his downfall. After years elsewhere in the Oak Ridge system, his first job at ORNL was analyzing soil samples from decommissioned nuclear plants. But, as the New York Times reports, he soon found the samples weren't being maintained properly, making them conveniently useless in measuring the amount of radiation left behind by the closed plants. He duly reported the situation to the bosses, along with a number of other concerns about the mishandling of dangerous materials, which left even office workers exposed to radiation hazards.
Now in our ultra-modern, super-savvy 21st-century world, we all know what happens to whistleblowers. But Varnadore probably thought he was still living in the kind of country he'd been told about in Civics class. He thought the federal government would want to know about these dangerous glitches, and correct them.
You can guess what happened next. No remedies -- but plenty of punishment for the ‘troublemaker.’ Varnadore -- who was recovering from cancer -- was shuttled from one assignment to another, then finally parked in a room full of radioactive and chemical waste. When a company medical tech flagged the risk, he was moved again: to a room where poisonous mercury was left lying in pools. After years of exemplary performance reviews, he suddenly began getting negative evaluations.
He sought whistleblower protection under federal law -- garnering an appearance on the national news -- and took his concerns to the Labor Department. An administrative judge ruled in his favor, saying that ORNL had tried to shut Varnadore up by "intentionally [putting] him under stress with full knowledge that he was a cancer patient recovering from extensive surgery." The judge sent the case on to Bill Clinton's labor secretary, the liberal lion Robert Reich, to levy damages against the facility's corporate overseer, Martin Marietta.
Now all those of a dissident hue know Mr. Reich well. Today you can read his earnest pleas for hard-hit working folk and his jeremiads against elitist economics in any number of progressive media venues. So you can imagine what this stalwart champion of the people did next.
That's right: he flushed the whistleblower down the toilet. Reich dismissed Varnadore's claims and had the judge's ruling reversed. The corporate overseer got away clean, and the truth-teller, after years of lonely battle, working within the system like citizens are told to do, was crushed. But that’s no surprise: a little taste of state power can bend even the most liberal of lions to the agenda of elite domination.
Broken, and near broke, Varnadore soon took early retirement. But the arc of immoral power is long, and it bends toward destruction; the state wasn’t through squashing this inconvenient gadfly. Two years after leaving ORNL, Varnadore was imprisoned for selling some of his guns at flea markets, as men in those rural climes have done since the days of the flintlock. Even though by this time Washington was ruled by George Bush’s gun nuts, with Attorney General John Ashcroft himself boldly defending the rights of any terrorist with ready cash to buy weapons at gun shows and baby showers, for some reason the full weight of the law fell on the ageing, ailing retiree from the Appalachian foothills. He served 27 months of hard time, struggled on for awhile, and finally died this spring, his death unnoted until his former lawyer alerted the NYT this month. So much for truthtelling.
Bush, of course, started a war that killed a million people. He’s a whimsical painter now. Reich’s boss Clinton killed half a million children with his Iraqi sanctions; he’s now the beloved “Big Dawg” of our savvy liberalistas.
As often noted here, one of the very best analysts of the Middle East writing today is the acerbic and astute As'ad AbuKhalil, the "Angry Arab." Below he offers up a critique of Noam Chomsky's recent take on the situation in Syria, and finds it marred by false analogies:
I don't know who Chomsky talks to learn about the Syrian non-revolution and I don't know what he is relying on to follow-up developments on Syria but he seems to me woefully ill-informed. I am quite displeased with his analysis here. The worst part is when he draws an analogy to the Vietcong. Vietcong? The Syrian rebels are reactionary and conservative and anti-revolutionary forces (and I am talking about the armed bands of the Free Syrian Army which the US considers "moderate" and not about the obvious right-wing reactionaries of the Jihadi groups) and can't be compared to communist liberation movements. To Chomsky I say: the Syrian rebels are the Contras of Syria, and not the Sandinistas of Syria. And also, it is not a coincidence that Prince Bandar, who had helped fund the Contras--as Chomsky remembers--is the same man who is now organizing all funding and arming for the Syrian rebels. I don't want to invoke analogies too much because I detest the Asad regime much more than I dislike the Sandinistas, especially Ortega. So I am on board in considering the Asad regime also a counter-revolutionary regime and his regime is not revolutionary like the Sandinistas when they came to power. But the Syrian rebels (supported and armed by the likes of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Jordan, US, France, Germany, UK among other non-progressive forces) have to be considered for what they are: counter-revolutionary forces who are responsible for the GCC hijacking of a potential revolution in Syria….
Of course, historical analogies are always dicey -- witness Kerry and Obama's witless evocations of Hitler, and the neocon warhawks' endless cries of "Munich" in any and every situation where the Imperium refrains from (or, in most cases, merely delays) the mass, indiscriminate slaughter of human beings. However, used judiciously, and informed by historical knowledge and nuance, they can be of some use in helping put current situations in a broader context.
In the case of Syria, I think the most useful historical analogy might be Afghanistan in late 70s and 80s. Then, as now, you have an unsavory and often brutal one-party state committed to secularism and modernity beset by an insurgency led by retrograde religious fundamentalists armed and financed by Saudi Arabia and the United States. In both cases, the secular government is backed by the Kremlin.
(On a side note, the Soviets didn't actually send troops into Afghanistan -- at the request of the sitting government --until the US/Saudi-backed holy war (along with inter-party feuding on the government side) had reduced the country to a state of violent chaos -- which, as Zbigniew Brzezinski tells us, was the plan all along: to destroy Afghanistan's secular society, kill off its imperfect but impressive strides toward social equality and progress, and bait the Soviet Union into a quagmire by creating an armed global jihad movement. This American-Saudi golem of global jihad has long since escaped the control of its creators, of course, and gone rampaging around the world -- although, as we see now in Syria and saw in Libya, sometimes the golem and its fashioners are happily reunited and work together toward the same ends.)
The Kremlin won't be sending in troops to rescue an ally this time, of course, but if American-Saudi efforts to bring down the Syrian government are successful, the result will likely be a good deal like what we saw in Afghanistan: the ultimate triumph of violent extremism, after years of vicious sectarian conflict and warlordism. But our own gilded warlords and their scurrying sycophants won't care about that; it will just be yet another boiling pot of danger and instability to keep the money and power flowing to their system of fear-based rule.
II. Many people are rightly pointing to an analysis of the Syrian situation by William Polk, which I ran across while writing the above. While Polk is very much a man of the Establishment, he has put together a dispassionate, informative overview of the situation that, in the end, makes a compelling case for the immediate idiocy and long-term tragedy of Western intervention in the Syrian civil war. Polk gathers up what is known for certain about the gas attack (very little), what is not known for certain (almost everything), and what has been reported (almost all of it specious, speculative, and spin-ridden when it is not brazenly false). He also provides a cogent encapsulation of the hydra-headed Syrian opposition, and lays out the arguments on who would actually benefit from launching a chemical attack in this situation.
But beyond this, Polk also points to the very specific, physical realities underlying the outbreak of the uprising, which goes back to bedrock realities that have bedevilled human communities from the beginning of time: drought, hunger, the basic need for food, water, shelter, sustenance. These basic issues have a modern twist, however, having been exacerbated by the effects of climate change, which is even now sending destructive if largely hidden shockwaves through human civilization, long before any worst-case dystopian scenarios of sunken cities and parched continents become a reality.
As Polk points out, Syria has been struggling with a drought of Biblical proportions since the middle of the last decade. The results have been devastating:
In some areas, all agriculture ceased. In others crop failures reached 75%. And generally as much as 85% of livestock died of thirst or hunger. Hundreds of thousands of Syria’s farmers gave up, abandoned their farms and fled to the cities and towns in search of almost non-existent jobs and severely short food supplies. Outside observers including UN experts estimated that between 2 and 3 million of Syria’s 10 million rural inhabitants were reduced to “extreme poverty.”
The domestic Syrian refugees immediately found that they had to compete not only with one another for scarce food, water and jobs, but also with the already existing foreign refugee population. Syria already was a refuge for quarter of a million Palestinians and about a hundred thousand people who had fled the war and occupation of Iraq. Formerly prosperous farmers were lucky to get jobs as hawkers or street sweepers. And in the desperation of the times, hostilities erupted among groups that were competing just to survive.
Here we see physical realities like drought and climate change are compounded by the political realities of war and aggression, as Syria continues to bear the burden of the American invasion of Iraq and the Israeli displacement of Palestinians. The effect of power politics was also evident in a decision made in Washington that worsened the situation and sent it spiraling toward the flashpoint of conflict and repression. As Polk notes:
The senior UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) representative in Syria turned to the USAID program for help. Terming the situation “a perfect storm,” in November 2008, he warned that Syria faced “social destruction.” He noted that the Syrian Minister of Agriculture had “stated publicly that [the] economic and social fallout from the drought was ‘beyond our capacity as a country to deal with.’” But, his appeal fell on deaf ears: the USAID director commented that “we question whether limited USG resources should be directed toward this appeal at this time.” (reported on November 26, 2008 in cable 08DAMASCUS847_a to Washington and “leaked” to Wikileaks ).
Syria's suffering people were not to be helped, because their government was now on the outs with the Potomac Imperium. Just a few years before, Washington was happy to "render" innocent people like Maher Arar to be tortured in Syrian prisons as part of the great GWOT jihad. (See "The Inhuman Stain: Saying Yes to State Terror" and this follow-up.) But by 2008, Syria was once again a "pariah" state, chiefly due to its alliance with Iran. So a chance for a true "humanitarian intervention" in Syria -- one that might have helped stave off social breakdown and the horrific violence that has followed -- was thrown away.
Left to its own devices, the cack-handed Asad regime then bungled and brutalized its way into an uprising that was very quickly hijacked by outside forces, as AbuKhalil noted above. Polk writes:
Lured by the high price of wheat on the world market, it sold its reserves. In 2006, according to the US Department of Agriculture, it sold 1,500,000 metric tons or twice as much as in the previous year. The next year it had little left to export; in 2008 and for the rest of the drought years it had to import enough wheat to keep its citizens alive.
So tens of thousands of frightened, angry, hungry and impoverished former farmers flooded constituted a “tinder” that was ready to catch fire. The spark was struck on March 15, 2011 when a relatively small group gathered in the town of Daraa to protest against government failure to help them. Instead of meeting with the protestors and at least hearing their complaints, the government cracked down on them as subversives. The Assads, who had ruled the country since 1971, were not known for political openness or popular sensitivity. And their action backfired. Riots broke out all over the country, As they did, the Assads attempted to quell them with military force. They failed to do so and, as outside help – money from the Gulf states and Muslim “freedom fighters” from the rest of the world – poured into the country, the government lost control over 30% of the country’s rural areas and perhaps half of its population. By the spring of 2013, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), upwards of 100,000 people had been killed in the fighting, perhaps 2 million have lost their homes and upwards of 2 million have fled abroad. Additionally, vast amounts of infrastructure, virtually whole cities like Aleppo, have been destroyed.
In his conclusion, Polk also draws an analogy between the current situation in Syria and the Saudi-American intervention in Afghanistan 30 years ago. After noting the near-inevitability of "mission creep" involved in Obama's plan to kill Syrians, Polk asks the question: "What could we possibly gain from an attack on Syria?" His answer is grim:
Even if he wanted to, could Assad meet our demands? He could, of course, abdicate, but this would probably not stop the war both because his likely successor would be someone in the inner circle of his regime and because the rebels form no cohesive group. The likely result would be something like what happened after the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, a vicious civil war among competing factions.
No one, of course, can know what would happen then. My hunch is that Syria, like Afghanistan, would be torn apart not only into large chunks such as the Kurds in the northeast but even neighborhood by neighborhood as in the Iraqi cities. Muslims would take revenge on Alawis and Christians who would be fighting for their lives. More millions would be driven out of their homes. Food would be desperately short, and disease probably rampant. If we are worried about a haven for terrorists or drug traffickers, Syria would be hard to beat. And if we are concerned about a sinkhole for American treasure, Syria would compete well with Iraq and Afghanistan. It would probably be difficult or even impossible to avoid “boots on the ground” there. So we are talking about casualties, wounded people, and perhaps wastage of another several trillion dollars which we don’t have to spend and which, if we had, we need to use in our own country for better heath, education, creation of jobs and rebuilding of our infrastructure.
We need to remind ourselves what Afghanistan did – bankrupting the Soviet Union - and what Iraq cost us -- about 4,500 American dead, over 100,000 wounded, many of whom will never recover, and perhaps $6 trillion. Can we afford to repeat those mistakes?
Of course we can't afford to repeat those 'mistakes' (a rather demur term for what in the latter case was a brazen, conscious, deliberate crime); we couldn't afford them in the first place. But that doesn't mean such actions will not be repeated. In fact, it is almost certain they will be. Obama has already proclaimed his right to kill Syrians no matter what Congress says when it returns next week. Congress actually voted against Obama's killing of Libyans, but it didn't make the slightest difference. In any case, it almost certain that Congress will approve the killing of Syrians; indeed, many powerful figures in both parties are eager to kill even more Syrians than Obama is proposing to kill at the moment. So barring some unforeseen turn, the killing will come -- and the tragedy in Syria will be darkened with new blood.
As we all know, the use of chemical weapons -- or even the alleged use of chemical weapons -- is the most heinous crime that can be committed by a government. It is worse that murdering civilians at weddings and funerals with drone missiles; it is worse than murdering teenage children for the crime of having fathers who had earlier been murdered for uncharged, unproven crimes; it is worse than launching wars of aggression on false premises that result in the murder of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians; it is worse that imposing murderous sanctions that cause the unnecessary deaths of more than half a million innocent children; it is worse than dropping napalm on thousands of innocent civilians and literally burning them alive with unquenchable fire, and so on. Any nation or national leader that uses chemical weapons -- other than napalm, white phophorous, depleted uranium and atomic bombs, of course -- is cast beyond the pale of the human community, and must be summarily punished in order to preserve the "moral credibility" of the civilized world.
We know all this, because titans of moral rectitude like John Kerry and the Peace Prize Laureate his own self, Barack "Dronebomba" Obama, have told us this, at great, even nauseating length in the past few days. Indeed, Kerry went on the national teevee just the other day and declared that Bashar al-Assad was the equivalent of -- wait for it -- Hitler and Saddam Hussein because of his alleged use of chemical weapons.
It's odd that Kerry didn't include, say, Lloyd George in his list of beyond-the-pale villains who have used chemical weapons. Or even the deity of all interventionists, Winston Churchill, who was -- as we've oft noted here -- an enthusiastic advocate of the use of chemical weapons. The Guardian gave us a useful reminder of St. Winston's predeliction for airborne poisons in Monday's edition:
Secrecy was paramount. Britain's imperial general staff knew there would be outrage if it became known that the government was intending to use its secret stockpile of chemical weapons. But Winston Churchill, then secretary of state for war, brushed aside their concerns. As a long-term advocate of chemical warfare, he was determined to use them against the Russian Bolsheviks. In the summer of 1919, 94 years before the devastating strike in Syria, Churchill planned and executed a sustained chemical attack on northern Russia.
The British were no strangers to the use of chemical weapons. During the third battle of Gaza in 1917, General Edmund Allenby had fired 10,000 cans of asphyxiating gas at enemy positions, to limited effect. But in the final months of the first world war, scientists at the governmental laboratories at Porton in Wiltshire developed a far more devastating weapon: the top secret "M Device", an exploding shell containing a highly toxic gas called diphenylaminechloroarsine. The man in charge of developing it, Major General Charles Foulkes, called it "the most effective chemical weapon ever devised".
Trials at Porton suggested that it was indeed a terrible new weapon. Uncontrollable vomiting, coughing up blood and instant, crippling fatigue were the most common reactions. The overall head of chemical warfare production, Sir Keith Price, was convinced its use would lead to the rapid collapse of the Bolshevik regime. "If you got home only once with the gas you would find no more Bolshies this side of Vologda."The cabinet was hostile to the use of such weapons, much to Churchill's irritation. He also wanted to use M Devices against the rebellious tribes of northern India. "I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes," he declared in one secret memorandum. ...
A staggering 50,000 M Devices were shipped to Russia: British aerial attacks using them began on 27 August 1919, targeting the village of Emtsa, 120 miles south of Archangel. Bolshevik soldiers were seen fleeing in panic as the green chemical gas drifted towards them. Those caught in the cloud vomited blood, then collapsed unconscious.
The attacks continued throughout September on many Bolshevik-held villages: Chunova, Vikhtova, Pocha, Chorga, Tavoigor and Zapolki. But the weapons proved less effective than Churchill had hoped, partly because of the damp autumn weather. By September, the attacks were halted then stopped. Two weeks later the remaining weapons were dumped in the White Sea. They remain on the seabed to this day in 40 fathoms of water.
Even in later years, St Winston was an eager advocate of mass murder with chemical weapons. I wrote about this almost 10 years ago, in a column for the Moscow Times, in which I also noted that Churchill eagerly "slaughtered his own people" in the firebombing of Dresden. Here is the column:
Entertain conjecture of a national leader, in the midst of a ferocious war, plotting to drop tens of thousands of anthrax "superbombs" on the civilian population of his enemy. At his order, his generals draw up a detailed plan for a chemical attack on six major cities: they estimate that millions will die immediately "by inhalation," with millions more succumbing later through skin absorption of the poisons.
In the end, the leader is thwarted by objections from his aides and allies. To assuage his frustration, he launches another pet idea: "Operation Thunderclap," a massive conventional bombing raid on the enemy's capital, also aimed at civilians, designed to "castrate" the enemy population. In a single night, allied forces kill 25,000 people, almost all of them from the city's working class and poorest districts.
Emboldened, he presses for yet another feast of fire and death. He gets it: a bombing raid on a non-military target, a cultural center, a city glutted with refugees, slave laborers and prisoners of war -- his own soldiers and those of his allies. The raid kills 35,000 people or more; no one knows for sure, because the city is completely pulverized -- and is bombed again immediately afterward, with special high explosives, in an attempt to kill any survivors hiding in the ruins.
A portrait of Saddam Hussein, at the height of the murderous Iran-Iraq war? No, it's Winston Churchill, whose shadow looms so large over the carnage being conducted by his historically ignorant successors in the Anglo-American "coalition." Churchill has long been anointed a secular saint by the chewed cud of received wisdom, especially in America, although those who knew him best seemed to like him least -- he was booted out of office by his own people not once but twice: the first time before the end of World War II (which we are now told he won almost single-handedly).
As Mike Davis reports in his book, "Dead Cities," Churchill's plan to blanket Germany with 40,000 anthrax bombs was narrowly averted by Franklin Roosevelt. But Winston was allowed to wield his more conventional "thunderclaps" on the civilians of Berlin and then Dresden. Finally, the once-reluctant Americans succumbed to his policy of "terror bombing" and launched "Operation Meetinghouse," the firebombing of Tokyo that killed more than 100,000 civilians in a single night. Although American war planners called the raid "nothing short of wonderful," it was, in some respects, a disappointment: they had originally planned a six-city extravaganza with the carefully calibrated target of 584,000 civilian fatalities.
Oddly enough, these attacks were launched over the strenuous objections of some of America's most battle-hardened military brass, Davis notes. Air Force General George McDonald railed against "indiscriminate homicide and destruction," which "repudiates our past purposes and practices." War Secretary Henry Stimson warned, "We don't want the United States to get the reputation of outdoing Hitler in atrocities." Major General Laurence Kuter declared "it is contrary to our national ideals to wage war against civilians."
These honorable stances cut no ice with Churchill (or Roosevelt, in the end). Of course, the pendulously jowled prime minister was a mass-destruction fan from way back. In 1919, Churchill called for airborne chemical assaults on "uncooperative Arabs" (actually Kurds and Afghans, but your great men need not make such petty distinctions). "I do not understand the squeamishness about the use of gas," he declared. "I am strongly in favor of using poison gas against uncivilized tribes." Some years later, a certain A. Hitler would apply this gaseous philosophy to another troublesome "tribe."
The two Teutonically-derived statesmen also shared a loathing for the lesser breeds. As Churchill put it with customary eloquence in 1937: "I do not agree that the dog in a manger has the final right to the manger even though he may have lain there for a very long time. I do not admit that right. I do not admit that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race, has come in and taken their place." Hear! Hear! cried Hitler, as he sent his "higher-grade" hordes swarming eastward into the vast Slavic manger.
Churchill's understandable thirst for revenge against the Nazis who had bombed English cities took a curious turn, however. The mass British counter-raids aimed at "breaking the enemy's morale" were targeted almost exclusively against the "lower orders," who died by the hundreds of thousands in the "area bombing" that neither broke civilian morale nor substantially hampered German war production (although it did waste the lives of thousands of allied airmen). Yet the sumptuous, undefended villas of Nazi leaders (the very men who had ordered the blitz on English cities) and major Nazi industrialists (who, along with their American partners like Prescott Bush, had built Hitler's war machine) were specifically excluded from the attacks. What stirring chivalry among the warrior elite!
Today, Churchill's bust adorns the office of George W. Bush -- a gift from his loyal tributary, Tony Blair. Churchill is their lodestar, their magic totem, the mythic foundation of their "moral authority" as war leaders. But as history shows, there is no "moral authority" in war, even in a "good war": There is only "indiscriminate homicide and destruction," the unleashing of the beast within all of us -- even the "great ones," made drunk with power and terror.
At some point in the next few hours or days, it is likely that deeply damaged collection of moral cretins known as "Western leaders" will sit down behind the gargantuan phalanxes of heavily armed security that keeps their well-wadded rumps safe and cozy and give the nod to some close-cropped flunky laden with medals for mendacious time-serving and relentless butt-covering to launch the airstrikes that will kill a large number of human beings who had absolutely nothing to do with the alleged chemical weapon attacks allegedly carried out by Syrian government forces.
That is to say, the leaders of the West, particularly the notoriously bloodthirsty nations of the United States and Great Britain, will murder a number of their fellow human beings for no reason whatsoever. What's more, they know this and admit it beforehand, speaking under oath, as the U.S. military chief did this week, of the inevitable "collateral damage" the coming attacks will cause.
These Western leaders, primarily Barack Obama and the pathetic, feckless ex-PR shill David Cameron, will knowingly murder an unknown number of people while braying all the while of their own righteousness and the strict "legality" of their acts of mass murder. They will be supported in these murders by the leaders of the so-called opposition parties, who will, as always, line up like automatons and spew out mindless, spineless rhetoric in favor of murdering people, because they too are deeply damaged moral cretins who hope one day to have the opportunity to sit in well-wadded comfort and order human beings to be killed.
These wretched, cowardly weaklings -- the leaders, their opposition, their minions -- believe that the exercise of brutal, death-dealing power (at a distance; always, always at a safe distance!) will somehow fill up the howling emptiness inside them. It will not, of course, but they are too stupid to know this -- or else they are already so far steeped in blood that they can't stop, can't go back, their humanity is already lost.
These leaders know that their action will murder innocent people (as so many of their actions do, week after week, year after year), they know (because their own analysts and experts tell them) that it will exacerbate extremism, worsen the conflict in Syria, destabilize the region, increase global tensions and lead directly and indirectly to the needless death and horrific suffering of countless people in the days and years to come.
They know all this, they will do it anyway. They know all this, but they do not care. They don't know how to care. They have given themselves over to Moloch -- to the insane, inhuman force of violent domination -- and they must blindly follow its dictates. Nothing can stop them, no reasoned argument, no moral objection, not even self-interest, national or personal. They are insane. They are stupid. They are enslaved to murderous power -- so they will kill.
A brief compendium to contemplate while the Burlesque disappears into the rural deeps for a time.
First, a reprise piece for Chelsea Manning, who, as many have pointed out, has been given a far harsher sentence for revealing war crimes than Lt. William Calley and his My Lai massacrers were given for actually committing war crimes. 35 years for leaking documents -- while the mass murderers, drone bombers and death-squadding assassins of the Potamac Empire live free in pomp and privilege. "Good corporal, good corporal, what have you done? You've laid out the dead in the light of the sun."
Two points about Bradley Manning's mitigation plea, which, the Guardian tells us, "will disappoint Manning's thousands of supporters around the world, who believe he undertook a courageous act of whistleblowing because his conscience demanded it."
First point: as Arthur Silber has noted, the importance of these 'whistleblower' cases has nothing to do with the personalities involved. Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden: it doesn't matter what kind of people they are, if you think they are 'heroes' or 'bad people,' if you'd 'like to have a beer with them' or would run a mile if you saw them coming. What matters is what they have done; what matters are the fragments of truth they have made available. If the sexual charges against Assange turned out to be true, it would have no bearing whatsoever on the importance of what Wikileaks has accomplished, the fissures it has made in the bristling walls of deceit that our brutal, stupid and venal elites around the world have erected to hide their misdeeds. The same goes for Snowden, Manning, or anyone else whose actions have made similar fissures.
It's always a great temptation to succumb to the cult of celebrity, of course, to live vicariously through the snippets we happen to read here and there about some famous person, to see them as "heroes" who live out the courage or accomplishments or glamor that we can only dream of, and so on. And that's fine for a flip-through of People magazine in the check-out line. But this is serious business. The actions of these whistleblowers involve taking on the power of corrupt and murderous state structures that can and will destroy individual lives and entire nations -- structures that are wildly out of control and are devouring the very substance of human society. Actions that put a spoke of truth in the wheels of this monstrous machine are of incalculable importance. The 'character' of those who put in the spokes is of vastly minor importance.
Second point: I invite any critic of Bradley Manning's mitigation plea to stand in his shoes for two seconds and show us how 'tough' they would be. Manning is facing a lifetime of penal servitude in a system that has already tortured him, battered him, humiliated him, abused him. He is facing the prospect of spending decades -- decades -- in a system run by people who demonstrably despise him. He will be housed with people -- and more importantly, guarded by people -- who hate 'traitors' and 'queers' and 'weirdos' and 'sissies' with a violent, virulent hatred. This is what he faces: years and years and years of it. What are you facing? If I were Bradley Manning and facing a life like that, I'm sure I’d proclaim my 'repentance' too. I'd apologize, I'd weep, I'd throw myself on the mercy of the court, if it meant I had the chance to cut some time from my sentence in hell. Does anyone really believe, even for a moment, that a blazing statement of political principle would have somehow moved the judge – the same judge who has made a relentless series of rulings cramping Manning’s defense at every turn, and ensuring that the trial was a ludicrous, sinister sham which never addressed – and was designed not to address – the substance of Manning’s action and the crimes that he revealed? What good, then, would be an empty effusion whose only purpose would be to make all of us sitting safely behind our keyboards feel all wiggly for a moment or two?
In his statement, Manning didn't name any names, sell anyone out, implicate anyone else. He tried to mitigate his own further torture -- but he didn't betray anyone. A plea for mercy, an apology -- however sincere or feigned -- is an entirely different thing from betrayal. I'm sure that at almost any point in his long, torturous captivity, Manning could have turned 'state's evidence' against Julian Assange and cut the sweetest of deals, perhaps even get a pardon or total immunity. He didn't do that. He took the entire burden on himself, went through the entire ordeal by himself -- and now he is standing there, by himself, waiting to feel the full draconian force of military law. No one else is there but him. No one else is at risk but him.
As far as I'm concerned, he can say whatever he has to say in that situation to try to mitigate the horror that is about to descend upon him. If the apologies and regrets and explanations that he is offering the court "disappoint" you, then that's just too bad. Again I say: go stand in his shoes, face what he's facing, and see what you'd do. Manning brought these truths to light; he has endured torture and captivity without betraying another living soul. If that's not 'heroic' enough for some people, if he is now to be abandoned because he's "let us down" -- like a pop star who's put out a bad record after a string of hits -- then their “dissent” must be shallow indeed.
The "disappointment" also bespeaks an historical ignorance of what life is really like in brutal systems bent on crushing all effective opposition to the ruling elite. Anna Akhmatova -- who displayed more moral courage in her lifetime than a whole stadium full of keyboard 'dissidents' -- submitted to the humiliation of writing odes to Stalin in an attempt to save her son from the ravages of the Gulag. Osip Mandelshtam -- another bold truth-teller, an ardent upholder of the "supreme value of a single human life" (Silber again) against the implacable, inhuman brutality of the state -- was forced to do likewise, in an attempt, like Manning, to mitigate a punishment he knew he could not survive. And like Manning, they did this without betraying anyone else, taking the pain and ignominy upon themselves alone. Yet the work of both helped give hope and sustenance and meaning to the lives of multitudes of people, over many decades.
Reality in such systems -- systems that have openly demonstrated their willingness to torture people, lock them up for years without trial or kill them outright at the arbitrary order of the leader and his minions -- is not a TV show, not a movie with well-marked 'character arcs' ending in triumph for the bruised but unbowed hero. It's a dirty, ugly, degrading business, an uneven fight, pitting unarmed truth against vast, implacable, dehumanizing forces of violent domination. It is a war with many bitter defeats, both outwardly and in the souls of those caught up in it. It involves loss, destruction, humiliation, torment, ruin and doubt. There are no "heroes" in it, only human beings: some of them fighting to hang on to their humanity as best they can -- and others who have surrendered their humanity to the forces of domination.
Bradley Manning doesn't have to be a "hero." He doesn't have to make a stirring speech to give people a vicarious thrill for a moment before they click over to check their Facebook page or pop in another box set. He has shown clearly that he stands on the side of humanity -- and now he is paying the price for it. The very fact of his case has revealed the true nature of the system arrayed against him, and against us.
If you can do better, go do it.
UPDATE: Arthur Silber has much more to say about Manning's plight and its broader implications in a powerful new essay that, as so often, lifts the analysis of the situation to new levels of insight. You should go there and read the piece in full; mere excerpts would do it, and you, a disservice.
However, I do want to quote one passage from Silber's piece which helps clarify something I wrote in my post above. When taking issue with those who expressed their 'disappointment' in Manning for his mitigation plea, for not being the 'hero' they craved, I noted that despite all of the torture he had endured -- much of it focused on breaking him and getting to denounce others, specifically Julian Assange -- he did not do so. I noted that he faced all the risks of his action, and all the unjust punishment he has received for it, alone, protecting others, taking the burden solely on himself. This, it seemed to me, matched even the most simplistic, romanticized and juvenile notion of a 'hero' that anyone can have. And as I was addressing people who seemed to be thinking in those terms, I used this fact to point that even by their own occluded lights, Manning could be regarded as a hero (if heroes you must have), and therefore their pique was childish, unworthy and wrong.
However, Silber goes further and makes a point about the situation that I fully share: that even if Manning had "rolled," the onus of that act -- and any consequences that followed from it -- would fall entirely on those who had tortured him and put him in that brutal, inhuman position. Silber makes a searing comparison to impossible situation faced by the main character in Sophie's Choice, who was forced by the Nazi guards in Auschwitz to decide which of her two children will be killed (with the proviso that both would be killed immediately if she didn't make the choice). Silber writes:
When a human being is subjected to a living nightmare in this manner, when a person is forced to endure barbaric, monstrous cruelty, when the only choice is between death and death, the concept of "choice" has been destroyed. The Nazis understood very well that the destruction of this capacity to choose in any meaningful manner, the destruction of the capacity to judge, the destruction of any measurable difference between life and death themselves, is critical to the destruction of the human being, of even the possibility of being human; the concentration camps were a laboratory in which they perfected the means of achieving this end, as Hannah Arendt has so powerfully described.
I refuse to try to "explain" Manning's statement, just as I refuse to judge it. Anything and everything Manning says, anything and everything he has said or will ever say as long as he remains in custody and in prison, constitute statements obtained through torture. As such, they are not to be credited in any manner, and they are beyond judgment. His torturers have placed Manning's actions and statements beyond judgment.
I do not want to be misunderstood on this point. Thus far, Manning has said nothing to implicate even one other person; he has certainly not cooperated with the government in the sense of turning "State's witness," to build a case against Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, for example. But even if he did that, I would still refuse to judge Manning in terms of his personal character. I would view it as a terrible tragedy, especially terrible if it led to serious danger for anyone else. But I would not blame Manning himself for such an outcome. I would blame his torturers. My view would be as simple as this: Manning is being tortured, and he is trying to survive. Whatever he does is understandable, and there is nothing further to be said about it. Just as we cannot judge Sophie, we cannot judge Manning or anyone else in a similar situation.
There is much more in Silber's piece. Do go read it as soon as you can.
Below is a version of my most recent column for the print version of Counterpunch.
It is a commonplace of our commentariat to say that American society is deeply divided -- indeed, perhaps more polarized than it's ever been before. Of course, this leaves out any number of emblematic events that might possibly undermine their blazing insight -- like, say, the Civil War, Haymarket, Selma, Little Rock, Watts or Kent State, to name but a very few historical instances of “polarization." But then, willful ignorance has always been the coin of our realm, the golden ticket to the circles of power -- or, for the commentariat, the fearful, bootlicking fringes of power. For these sages, history begins and ends with whatever is gurgling in the unflushed toilet of Beltway politics right here and now.
So it should come as no surprise to find that the truth about American society today is the opposite of what these cud-dripping masticators of conventional wisdom are wont to opine. Far from being a house divided, America is actually in the midst of an era characterized by remarkable unanimity. In fact, I would go so far as to say that American society has never been so united and uniform than it is today.
Yes, "hot button" issues -- centered, as always, around genital activity and gender roles -- remain heatedly contentious. Yes, the chronic, virulent racism on which our society was (literally) built continues to sicken the body politic. And yes, Tea Party trogs and NetRootsy progs still hurl insults across an ever-widening cultural abyss, each side increasingly regarding the other more as separate species than political opponents. Who can deny that our public discourse grows ever more harsh, frenzied, aggressive and stupid?
And yet, the fact remains that on those issues which truly concern our elites -- the issues on which their continued (and expanding) dominance and privilege depend -- here we find remarkable (not to say alarming) agreement across a depressingly broad swath of American society.
The Obama years have given us an America that looks something like a bad Kurt Russell movie from the 80s: a weird, garish dystopia, where the president runs a death squad out of the White House, wages robot wars in foreign lands, operates a techno-panopticon sucking up every message, musing and secret desire of the populace, and lets tens of millions of citizens sink into poverty and despair in their gutted communities and crumbling infrastructure while he doles out trillions of dollars to rapacious elites gleefully bleeding the country dry. Actually, if you tried to run this scenario past a few coked-up studio execs in those halcyon years, they would have rejected it out of hand as too unrealistic, even for a bad Kurt Russell movie. Yet this is our reality.
Add to this such things as the corporate-backed ALEC movement stifling the ability of the people’s elected representatives to pass measures on matters of vital importance to their communities, such as gun violence, pollution, collective bargaining, etc; the return of Jim Crow laws openly designed to rob the dusky races (and poor white trash) of access to the ballot box; the incarceration of a greater percentage of its own population than any regime in human history; the reckless sell-off of public services, public lands and the environment itself to frackers, venture cap vultures and other corporate profiteers; and the relentless persecution of any government employee who dares to inform the people of even a few of the sickening crimes being done in their name.
This hardly exhausts the litany of abuses, punishments and humiliations to which Americans are subjected daily. They live in a pestilent swelter of authoritarianism and militarism, of fear and insecurity, of ugliness and hopelessness that few if any generations of Americans before them have ever known. And yet …
Where are our Selmas, our Haymarkets, our Marches on Washington? Where is the anger, the outrage, the action? True, the Occupy movement blossomed for a season, and the seeds it sowed may yet bear good fruit. But for the most part, most sectors of American society have remained notably quiescent, when they have not been downright supportive. (This includes the African-American community, which today, as always, is bearing the brunt of our elites’ depredations. For more on this tragic development, see Glen Ford and his indispensible Black Agenda Report.) Congressional and media ‘liberals’ take to the airwaves to defend Obama’s Stasi-like spy ops, his death squads, his drone wars, his force-feeding torture of Guantanamo prisoners long cleared for release. They hotly condemn the ‘narcissistic’ Edward Snowden for revealing state crimes – yet happily revel in leaks that depict our noble, thoughtful president consulting Thomas Aquinas before ordering American citizens (and countless, nameless others) to be murdered without charge, trial or defense.
Every day, all across the world – and in the holy-moley Homeland itself – Obama commits and countenances crimes beyond the wildest dreams of LBJ and Richard Nixon. Every day he helps tighten the stranglehold of rampant militarism and corporate power on the lives of the people. Yet there are no riots, no uprisings, no public or institutional dissent that might trouble the complacency of our overlords.
A “divided society?” Would to god we had one. For beneath the gaudy spectacle of hot button-pushing and the scattering of a few crumbs of cultural change, a drab, grim conformity to the overarching agenda of elite power reigns supreme.
This week, super-compassionate, deeply caring progressive David Atkins (of Hullabaloo) read a story in the New York Times about farmers in the "Deep South" suffering from ruined crops after weeks of unusually heavy rains. The farmers face economic disaster not only from the loss of this summer's crops, but also from the effects that the swampy weather is likely to have on fall crops as well. This follows last year's ravaging droughts, which also left many farmers with ruinous losses.
But super-compassionate, deeply caring progressive David Atkins doesn't give a damn about these farmers, or their families, or their communities. Why? Because he doesn't believe they are fully human. He thinks that all the people in the "Deep South" are a single undifferentiated monolithic mass -- not individual human beings with their own particular thoughts, feelings, beliefs, concerns, interests and allegiances. And he believes that this blank, subhuman entity that he calls "the Deep South" deserves to suffer.
Why? Apparently because not enough of the individuals in these states vote the way David Atkins thinks they should vote. These states -- or rather, a subset of individuals in these states which sometimes accounts for a majority of those who bother to vote, but not the actual majority of the population -- keep electing cranks who deny the existence of global climate change. (As do subsets of populations in, say, the Southwest, the West, and the Midwest.) And because of these subsets and politicians in the "Deep South," it is not only fitting that the region's farmers should suffer, but, in Atkins' weighty thought, we are also intellectually justified in condemning the entire region, collectively, without the slightest nuance or differentiation.
Atkins reads the NYT story and writes: "I wish I could make myself feel more sympathy for the plight of farmers in the Deep South, but it's difficult." He then quotes 11 paragraphs from the story detailing said plight. He finishes with this biting rhetorical flourish:
One would hope that even the Deep South wakes up and realizes that whatever ideological reasons they might have to protect the oil industry, they're not worth the cost.
The entire NYT story has 24 paragraphs. In not a single one of them is there the slightest mention allusion to the issue of global climate change one way or another. Nor a single mention of the farmers' political beliefs or ideological inclinations or scientific knowledge. Nor how they voted in any election, local, state or national. Unless Atkins has carried out some hitherto undisclosed survey of all the farmers in the "Deep South," he has absolutely no way of knowing what the farmers quoted in the story -- or any single individual farmer in the entire region -- thinks about global climate change. He has no information on this. Zero. Yet to him, they are all either vicious Tea Party types or ignorant dupes of the oil industry.
Atkins' collective denigration rests on the entirely George Zimmerman-like assumption that certain kinds of people -- kinds of people "we" don't like -- must all think and act in the same way. "They" are all "like that." A black teenager in a hoodie is always a dangerous thug; a peach farmer in Georgia (of whatever race, creed, color, political affiliation, personal history, psychological makeup or national origin) is always a reactionary ignoramus.
But wait -- that's not an entirely accurate portrayal of Atkins' stance. He doesn't just believe that farmers in the "Deep South" are dangerous cretins who are killing the planet; he clearly believes that every single person in the "Deep South" is a dangerous cretin who is killing the planet. "They" are all "like that." That is the import of what he actually says.
Consider again that stirring flourish: "One would hope that ... the Deep South wakes up and realizes, etc., etc." Not "politicians in the Deep South." Not "the vested corporate interests who buy and sell politicians in the Deep South just like they do all over the country." Not even "the majority of voters in the Deep South who keep backing politicians who won't take action on climate change." No, there is not the slightest differentiation in Atkins' thought here: it is the "Deep South" as a whole, a single entity, that needs to wake up -- and is scorned for not doing so.
Perhaps we're being unfair here. After all, as Atkins never stops reminding us, he is himself an honest-to-God working politician, a middling muckety-muck in California's Democratic Party apparatus. And no one expects a politician to be accurate, or nuanced, or even humane when they are pouring out partisan bile. So in that sense, we are wrong to hold Atkins to any kind of journalistic -- or moral -- standard. He's a party hack; subsets of the various state populations in the South support his political enemies; therefore that whole region is "bad," and everyone who lives there must pay for their sins by suffering Biblical plagues of drought and rain. In this, he is no different than the partisan hacks on the other side who glory in the ruin of Detroit or New Orleans because they don't like the politics -- and the certain kind of people -- who live there.
Global climate change is a real threat. Many millions of people in the "Deep South" -- including some farmers! -- know this. Many of them are actively working to understand and address this threat. I have personally worked with many of these people, on the issue of climate change, right there in the "Deep South," as long as 25 years ago (when I doubt climate change was even a gleam in Atkins' eyes). But Atkins doesn't know or care about these many millions of people. Even though he has made himself an ardent champion of global climate change, and preaches often about how this universal threat transcends all borders and political ideologies, he still can't refrain from using it to score partisan points against his own ideological enemies, while denigrating entire populations who happen to live within the "wrong" borders.
This is modern "progressivism" in action: compassionate, caring, open, embracing -- unless you're the wrong kind of person, living in the wrong place. Then you are ripe for collective punishment. In Atkins' case, of course, this blind, blanket "signature strike" is merely rhetorical. But in the hands of the national leader of Atkins' party, the Peace Laureate himself, the modern "progressive" principle of undifferentiated dehumanization takes on a more literal -- and far more sinister -- cast.
Here's one for all those who look on horrors and desperate needs, yet still stand paralyzed, distracted, bowing to the world; for all of us who've let someone else call the tune and tell the story -- and fight the fight.
Everything I see condemns me for the years I've thrown away Everything I see condemns me for the waste Everything I see condemns me for the evil I've let stand Everything I see condemns me to my face.....
Many people have worried about the fate of Bradley Manning, a lone soldier who informed the world of war crimes being committed by the War Machine that has devoured the American republic and turned its ravaging, profit-reaping fury on the world. As we all know, Manning is now in the iron grip of that Machine, facing the prospect of life in prison for his truth-telling, having already endured a long incarceration marked by episodes of relentless psychological torture. Many people quite reasonably dread what awaits Manning when the Military Court hands down its inevitable verdict against him.
But wait -- perhaps all is not lost after all. In the long dark night of our military imperium, a shaft of light, of hope, has suddenly appeared. And it comes from -- of all places -- the very pinnacle of the military justice system that is bearing down on Manning: the Court of Appeal of the Armed Forces of the United States.
For it turns out that if a military prisoner has faced the least mistreatment during incarceration, even a temporary abuse of due process, then all charges against him will be dropped and he can walk free. And since Manning has manifestly faced any number of abuses of due process and egregious mistreatment, then we can be supremely confident that the military Court of Appeal -- which enshrined this Solomonic principle in a recent case -- will act with perfect consistency and release Bradley Manning in good time, whatever the eventual outcome of his current trial.
After all, that's what the Court has done for poor Lawrence Hutchins III, the good Marine who has been persecuted for years merely for carrying out his duty during America's "extraordinary achievement" -- as Barack Obama so aptly termed it -- in ousting the dictator Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. (It seems there were some other reasons adduced for the invasion back in the day -- something sort of dubious? even spurious? -- but thankfully, these have long been forgotten as America has put aside the petty squabbles of the past and returned once more to implacable sense of righteousness that wraps the nation's every action in a golden, godly glow.)
All Sgt. Hutchins did was lead his team on a night raid against a private home in the Iraqi town of Hamdania. All he and his team did was break into the house, grab an innocent retired policeman named Hashim Ibrahim Awad, drag him down the road to the site of a IED attack, tie him up, shoot him dead in cold blood, then dump his body in the IED hole, remove the plastic restraints, and leave a stolen AK-47 rifle next to the corpse to pretend Awad was a terrorist who had been killed in a firefight. That's all Hutchins did. Oh yes, that, and have his men shoot Awad repeatedly in the face, in the hope of obliterating his identity. But family members recognized the body and demanded justice from their American military occupiers.
Then came the real crime, the misdeed that would later lead the Court of Appeals of the Armed Forces of the United States to carry out its humanitarian intervention and set Hutchins free. As AP reports, Hutchins was arrested by the military brass and held "in solitary confinement without access to a lawyer for seven days during his 2006 interrogation in Iraq." Thus Hutchins -- who was facing a term of 11 whole years for kidnapping an innocent man, shooting him in the face then covering up the crime -- was released from custody last month by the Court of Appeals, which cited the six-day spell in solitary as the basis for overturning his conviction.
Who knew that the American military justice system was so fiercely adherent to due process that it would even let a killer go free on a "technicality", like a bunch of wimpy ACLU lawyers? Who knew they would act with such exemplary exactitude in applying letter of the law down to the last jot and tittle? Yet this is the principle they have firmly established with their ruling on Hutchins: the failure to safeguard a military prisoner's full panoply of legal rights in every respect must result in the overturning of any subsequent verdict against that prisoner, and his release from captivity.
I think we can all rest easier knowing that this principle will now be guiding the decisions of the U.S. military justice system from now on. For surely it will be applied universally, not only to Bradley Manning but also to, say, the captives in Guantanamo Bay, who are subject to the same military justice system. Surely, it cannot be that this strict adherence to the legal niceties will only be applied in cases where an American soldier has brutally murdered some worthless towelhead in some piece-of-shit foreign hellhole we had to invade for some reason or another a long time ago, so who cares anyway.
No, surely, that cannot be. For as our recent history clearly shows, the operators of our War Machine always adhere strictly and consistently to the highest and most noble principles, applying them to all equally, the great and the low, without fear or favor, or the slightest hypocrisy.