spacebawl (the blog)

We thought about it. Now you have to read it.

Friday, March 07, 2008

On the Wisdom of Death Squads

In light of our failure in Iraq, many have come to question whether war as traditionally waged can be used to combat terror.

For the first few years of our presence, and particularly after it became clear that the war was not an accident but a matter of deliberately-applied military theory, the main question asked was one of "Did we send enough troops?" Surely our presence was disputed, and we needed a force large enough to suppress the country, so that stability could result and our will could be exercised. To this day, that question stays in my mind, and I say that as someone who rejected the strategy from the beginning.

Rumsfeld's war was supposed to be nimble and swift. As conquest shifted to occupation, however, it turned out to be nothing of the sort. Iraq became a leghold trap.

Naturally, another question emerged as the war dragged on. Perhaps Rumsfeld's error had not been recklessness, but clumsiness. Perhaps it wasn't a matter of not sending enough troops, but of sending too many. This thought found good company with another popular sentiment, expressed in both Iraq Wars: "Why the fuck didn't we just shoot the bastard?" Referring, of course, to Saddam Hussein.

And this thought intensified as every reason for a troop presence vanished. As the search for weapons of mass destruction shifted from a solemn goal to a bitter joke, most were forced to ask why the hell we were there at all. Conservative and liberal politicians alike attested to our responsibility to rebuild what we had shattered. This self-serving sanctimony couldn't last long in a rational mind; as word came back of our money wasted on crony contracts and useless mercenaries, of government infiltration amidst the intensifying civil war, of this or that cultural landmark destroyed by American negligence or Iraqi madness still unchecked, public faith in America's ability to fix anything in Iraq plummeted. It was very well to talk about World War Two or the building of the Panama Canal or of putting a man on the moon. The patriotic truism that America could do anything it put its mind to clashed very severely with the truth of what we actually were doing, and paying billions of dollars to do.

The pragmatic military justification of going to war had collapsed. The humanitarian justification for staying at war looked increasingly bankrupt. One reason remained, and in fact was the only strengthened by the continuation of our occupation: the fighting of terror. Even critics of the war agreed (and in fact were the first to argue) that Iraq had become a training ground for terrorists.

The new question became "How many people exactly do you need to hunt and kill terrorists?" The answer tends to be "Not many," and variations on this sentiment abound: from those who say Saddam's assassination would have done the trick; to split-the-difference Democrats who argue, like Joe Biden, for a reduction in troop levels but a continuing troop presence; and then there is the suggestion of special operations, of units pejoratively described as "death squads."

And let us be fair: I do not speak as a stranger to such opinions. I firmly believe that murder is an act preferable to war, and if one man may be murdered in cold blood to stop the deaths of thousands or even hundreds (even as those deaths may be, individually, more justified than the one executed in calculation), I would find it hard to argue against such an act. The tradition of cutting through thousands of men to get to one king and a handful of his closest advisers is something I find loathsome and, considering modern technology, increasingly unnecessary, no more practical than burying a Viking chieftain with his comeliest concubine, ritually strangled to mark the occasion, or throwing a wife on her deceased husband's funeral pyre. War is an exercise where 5% of the deaths may be necessary, or desirable, and 95% is decoration, prelude, or in the case of the War on Terror, distraction.

So why shouldn't we send in the assassination squads? Why are we holding back? This appears an instance where death-dealing prowess, calculated precision, and human compassion intersect.

Well, as I was digging around on the subject, I discovered that the funny thing is that we already have:

The close and largely clandestine relationship with Ethiopia also included significant sharing of intelligence on the Islamic militants' positions and information from American spy satellites with the Ethiopian military. Members of a secret American Special Operations unit, Task Force 88, were deployed in Ethiopia and Kenya, and ventured into Somalia, the officials said.

Task Force 88 was described in a little more depth in this uncritical article from Esquire:

Soon after, U.S. special operators flying out of Manda Bay were landing in southernmost Somalia, searching for survivors among the foreign fighters and Al Qaeda operatives just targeted in a furious bombardment by a U.S. gunship launched from a secret airstrip in eastern Ethiopia.

The 88's job was simple: Kill anyone still alive and leave no unidentified bodies behind....

In fact, Centcom was very eager for the operation. Most press leaks made it sound like our main targets were a trio of Al Qaeda senior operatives responsible for bombing American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania a decade ago. But the real story is one of pure opportunism, according to a knowledgeable source within the headquarters: "There were three thousand foreign fighters in there. Honestly, nobody had any idea just how many there really were. But we wanted to get them all."

When the invading Ethiopians quickly enjoyed unexpected success, Centcom's plan became elegantly simple: Let the blitzkrieging Ethiopian army drive the CIC, along with its foreign fighters and Al Qaeda operatives, south out of Mogadishu and toward the Kenyan border, where Kenyan troops would help trap them on the coast. "We begged the Kenyans to get to the border as fast as possible," the Centcom source says, "because the targets were so confused, they were running around like chickens with their heads cut off."

Once boxed in by the sea and the Kenyans, the killing zone was set and America's first AC-130 gunship went wheels-up on January 7 from that secret Ethiopian airstrip. After each strike, anybody left alive was to be wiped out by successive waves of Ethiopian commandos and Task Force 88, operating out of Manda Bay. The plan was to rinse and repeat "until no more bad guys," as one officer put it.

I say "uncritical" because the rest of the article makes clear that, in the author's opinion, secrecy wasn't the problem. The author even admits Ethiopia's authoritarianism, but doesn't see that as relevant to the story. No, the problem was that the truth got published in the New York Times (which strikes me as a delightful miracle). For a measure of his bizarre optimism, marvel, as I did, at what secret knowledge might permit the writer to judge for the reader: "It was a good plan."

Well, how good? How precise was the military strike? Not very. The Kenyan border, used as a net by the herding operation, was also gathering refugees.

NAIROBI, Kenya, Jan. 4 (UPI) -- Kenya is defending its action in turning back Somali refugees trying to enter the country to escape violence in their homeland....

The newspaper quoted the UNHCR's acting country representative, Eddy Gedalos, as saying U.N. officials were being denied access to refugees.

"We at the U.N. are genuinely concerned the fate of women and children turned away by Kenyan authorities, as it is likely to worsen the humanitarian situation in the war-torn country. There is no reason why genuine asylum seekers should not be allowed into the country."

In the end, no accusations can be cast because we still don't know what they did. What we do know is alone staggering: that our government plotted with an authoritarian regime to wage war in a country without telling the American people it was doing so. And that it carried out missions intended to exterminate thousands of people in the midst of a humanitarian crisis (caused by our surgical strikes and precise, efficient task forces) in which hundreds of thousands were put to flight.

And for believers in the death squad, which theoretically holds promise but in reality offers no alternative, guided as it is by the same strategic blindness that blunders elsewhere in the world, perhaps hope will survive. After all, if we don't know about its use, we can't be aware of its failures, and that means that there's always a chance for success. But I would say that we should really look at Somalia. That was the Pentagon's chance for Iraq done right, and I'll be damned if it doesn't look a hell of a lot like Iraq. Maybe it's not a matter of how we do things, but what we do, and why, and how we think about ourselves, and the world.

Sadly, this is not new. When poor students of history end up leading us, they lead us through history's darkest episodes. We also used death squads and assassinations in Vietnam, but we've already decided that we didn't lose that one. Dolchstosslegende and all that. And just look at all the success we had in Iran after we took out Mossadegh, or Guatemala after the coup that replaced Jacobo Arbenz with a military dictatorship. As with most matters, we've been down these roads before.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

More of the Same

On March 4, John McCain, just declared nominee for the Republican Party, stressed the need for leadership in Iraq, raising the specter of that most terrible crime:

The next President must explain how he or she intends to bring that war to the swiftest possible conclusion without exacerbating a sectarian conflict that could quickly descend into genocide...

Conservatives have been saying it for a while. Rick Perlstein addressed it last year.

This is important to address because there are many in moderate, liberal, and left camps who, no doubt troubled by the war, fear what could take place should we leave. What's important for these people to realize is that mass-murder is already taking place. The Iraq War has not been a problematic or incomplete solution. It has been the problem, attempting to fix what cannot be fixed by a foreign power: an internal power struggle.

The best way to address these solemn claims of what will follow is by asking what should follow, should we remain in Iraq. What, exactly, is McCain's plan for victory? Kill all the people who want their country back? If we kill all the participants in the civil war, who's going to be left in the country? As Perlstein explained regarding the case of Vietnam:

Finally, let us assume the premise of the conservatives' magical thinking: that we should have stayed and stayed and stayed, amidst the slaughter of yet more hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, by fellow Vietnamese and by us until our side eventually "won," leaving only then. If so, our Saigon allies would probably have likely been just as bloody-minded in their score-settling as the Communists. This was the bunch that, in 1960, reacted to the mere hint of an impending Communist insurgency by detaining 50,000 of their own citizens in their own re-education camps, the Pentagon Papers noting "the consensus of the opinion" of rural Vietnamese that "the majority of the detainees are neither Communists nor pro-Communist." This was the government whose vice president Nguyen Cao Ky—the power behind the throne, actually—said, "People ask me who my heroes are. I have only one—Hitler." Indeed, another anti-Communist Asian strongman, Indonesia's General Suharto, enacted a genuine genocide, one to make the Vietnamese Communists look like pikers. "In terms of the numbers killed," as the CIA described it, "massacres in Indonesia rank as one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century."

And, as has been extensively documented, ethnic cleansing is underway. My God, there are some 4 million internal and external Iraqi refugees in the world. Yes, by all means, let's keep up the American violence. Better the atrocity you know, I suppose.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Domestic Abuse

As Patty's armchair foreign affairs analyst, I'll leave any discussion of the primaries to her. But I do want to make one note before I get to my daily gripe:

Keith Olbermann observed last night during the election coverage that McCain's comeback was comparable to Winston Churchill's. The British leader's political demise was also predicted prematurely. The liberal anchor instantly noted, of course, that he meant no undue comparison of quality. And that's fine. Now if it was Chris Matthews, that'd be something, but I think this was just Olbermann seizing the first example.

If I could talk to the MSNBC anchor, I'd remind him, however--he's thinking of Nixon. Nixon's career was considered over, and then he came back in an older, more virulent form to take over after a brutal war and terrible corruption. God, people in the 70s sure were dumb. Can you imagine anybody seeing LBJ and Vietnam and political consolidation and rampant dishonesty and then saying "You know who'll fix all this? Nixon!" Thank the Almighty we live in a more enlightened age.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Vital Background: Ethiopia

It's a common sentiment in America, uttered in thousands of ways using various vocabulary, all expressing the same assumptions.

1. They hate us.
2. They hate us for no good reason.
3. They ought to get off our backs.

Why do they hate us so? Don't they appreciate the disaster relief and the Hollywood movies and the hand-wringing and blood-letting that we've offered over Iraq? Don't they appreciate that we're trying to help?

Well sometimes they do. Not that you'd ever learn Farsi to be able to tell. Not that our media would relay. Besides, we don't want too much of a love-fest leading to more rigorous humanitarian effort. Better to label the world ingrates so that you can support only military intervention and arms sales. Besides, defense contracting is so exciting when you see it in films like Transformers.

Hell, I can hear some radio blow-hard laughing already. We pay to see US fighter jets do their stuff in Hollywood films. Dropping missiles on some Somali fucks' houses? That's like a free show!

Well, I certainly feel better, but if you're still troubled by the prospect of other people not liking us very much, you might have the sick desire to read about something other than the free fireworks displays and general love-in that is the American presence abroad.

For example, let's meet our ally (for our warships assisted in their destruction of Somalian peace back in 2006 and 2007), Ethiopia.

Most famous as a place where people starve on television commercials, Ethiopia is actually a state in the throes of post-communist despotism. Ideology may be dead, but authoritarianism is alive and well and, freed up of any philosophy or responsibilities, it's actually thriving, able now to pursue the ageless desire of power for its own sake. It's the new world order! Nothing new, nothing orderly, and eventually, there'll be no world left! Swell.

Well, oddly enough, as we were supporting Ethiopia in its fight for freedom against Islamic extremism, they were butchering the political opposition and, though they were released last year, it seems that political chaos will still spell victory for the ruling party.

Now, the people of Ethiopia may see their oppressors allying with the United States, but they don't see the whole story. They only see the rape, disappearances, and massacres committed by Ethiopia. And they might think America hates them. But we don't. We clearly don't. We don't even know Ethiopians exist. Only a madman could think that someone hates when, in reality, we just don't care.

International No-Knock Policy

So we bombed a village in Somalia today, killing at least 6, wounding at least 20. Said an unnamed military source:

We launched a deliberate strike against a suspected bed-down of known terrorists.

A crucial doubt sandwiched by irrelevant certainties. Yeah, he sounds like he works for the state. No word on whether the dead were these known terrorists. I suppose it doesn't matter.

You hear a lot of talk in the States about limited government. I've always wondered what that means beyond low taxation. Does a limited government get carte blanche to commit acts of war against other nations? Does legality exist only in isolation? Does it only matter in a domestic sense?

It's been one of the greatest philosophical crises of our age, and one that affects us in the real world and not just in some ideal scenario: how does one act as a tyrant abroad while fostering freedom at home? It's an old question really. It destroyed democrats of various ideology in the wake of World War One. And it has devastated American political philosophy in the wake of the Cold War (of which the War on Terror is a thematic and psychological sequel). Everywhere one sees the acrobatics of liberals, libertarians, and supposed small-government advocates who believed that America could do as it pleased to the Arabs or the Pashtuns while respecting the citizenry at home. Well, it isn't true, and it never has been true. All politics is local. The war always comes home.

Maybe we've been losing so long that we can no longer raise our voices in outrage. Maybe all the liberals, libertarians, and anti-state conservatives really do have a problem with killing six people with missile fire because their village just might have also contained a terrorist. Maybe we watch this all, throats hoarse, eyes watering with exhaustion, powerless to stop the clear cases of excess, powerless to even question our government's claims of higher wisdom, a wisdom which, never revealed to the initiate, is assumed to be beyond him, beyond us.

Maybe that's all true, but I already hear the screaming that will no doubt reach a maddening pitch by November, that if anything, America is too soft, too yielding, that we must be more aggressive, harder, fiercer, more frightening, less relenting, less respectful of granting barbarians the protection of law, more willing to do anything, more capable of doing anything, and less willing to tell us, for public knowledge is an insecurity, and we will stomach no gap through which a human being may pass.