We are living in the century of militant atheism. People who have realised religion has harmful effects have taken it upon themselves to spread the word against God. So far, I have no problem. However, millions of the same people are willing to use the state to initiate violence against others. They have no problem with the growth of the state, as long as they have control over it to marginalise religion. Is that wise?
Bill Maher made an authoritative list of his problems with religion: “most wars, the Crusades, the Inquisition, 9/11, arranged marriages to minors, blowing up girls’ schools, the suppression of women and homosexuals, fatwas, ethnic cleansing, honor rape, human sacrifice, burning witches, suicide bombings, condoning slavery and the systematic fucking of children”. (I would add religious dogma that denies science.) Let us go through this list and see if we are attacking the root of the problem.
-First, most wars, the Crusades and the Inquisition. Wars are started because powerful men want to expand or maintain the territories and the people on them they consider their possessions. In the past, religion was indeed used frequently to justify going to war, and the Crusades are only the most obvious example. But we need to distinguish between wars that religious people take part in (which is most or all, since most of the world’s people can be considered religious) and wars started by invoking religion. Nowadays, religion has been largely replaced by nationalism as the source of appeals to go to war. Nationalism is far deadlier in the present moment, and it is no less a religion than Christianity. Conflicts between groups that seem to be of different religions, say in Israel/Palestine, are often colonial, racist and nationalist in nature.
Moreover, the War on Drugs has killed more people than any religious conflict going at the moment. It is a war that could be ended with the stroke of a pen. Religion takes centuries of education to eradicate. Why would we not concentrate on the former if we wanted to help people?
Condoning slavery is the same. Scripture gave religious justification for slavery, of course. Slavery is a very old institution. Any books written thousands of years ago and used to control people will include slavery. It is possible the reason it took so long to eliminate slavery was religion. But systematic slavery has been wiped out in much of the world and the religions continue to exist. That is because, contrary to what religious and irreligious people believe, religions change with time. Certain parts are emphasised at different times and places. If we still believe slavery is wrong, why not work to end debt slavery?
The deadliest religious conflict going at the moment is probably the fighting between Muslims and Christians in Nigeria. Nigeria is a very poor country with a poor education system. While poor education itself does not cause conflict, it facilitates manipulating people into attacking each other. When education is controlled by a corrupt state, it is the state who is to blame for poorly-educated citizens. Of course, the conflict is more complicated than I am making it out to be. I merely wish to point out that religious differences do not necessarily lead to violence.
-9/11 was probably the work of religious fanatics who had pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden. But was it religion that led them to destroy those buildings? People who make this claim have only Osama’s pronouncements from the Quran to back them up. But a closer look at the evidence reveals the attacks as what is often called “blowback”, or revenge for US foreign policy. To say Islam is what flew 19 men into two buildings begs the question, as it does not explain the millions of Muslims who denounced the attacks or the 1.5b Muslims who have never committed any act of terrorism.
-Arranged marriages to minors, blowing up girls’ schools, the suppression of women and homosexuals, honour rape, human sacrifice, burning witches and suicide bombings are not institutions of religion. Bill might have added male and female circumcision to this list. They are things that take place in some religious societies and some societies with different religions. Many anti-theists do not take the time to research the different cultures that comprise “Islam” and “Christianity”. If they did, they would see beyond the lenses their cultures provide to the fact that it is ignorance, not religion, that unites these practices; and while religion keeps us ignorant, so do state schools and propaganda. Many religious people would find all of these practices abhorrent and can point to places in the scripture to justify their positions. War is human sacrifice, and religion is just as likely as atheism to make someone oppose war.
Suicide bombing, in particular, has little to do with religion. We tend to see it as something justified by Islam, but only if we do not look at the reasons behind it. Robert Pape has done comprehensive research into this field, having looked at every suicide bombing that has taken place. He has concluded that, while religion may be a recruitment tool for suicide bombers (even though the irreligious Tamil Tigers were the pioneers of suicide bombing), nearly every such attack has had the same causes: an indigenous population feels under threat from occupation by an illegitimate foreign military, nearly always that of a democracy, and suicide bombing is an effective tool for making the foreigners withdraw. It is not a phenomenon of Islam, or religion, but merely a weapon of war. If we want to end it, we should end foreign occupation, not religion.
-Fatwas are religious legal opinions and are non-binding. Until the scholars begin enforcing their fatwas with police, the rule of law should be the target of all who are against arbitrary violence initiated to protect the elite. Or is ending religion is more important?
-Seeing ethnic cleansing on the list makes me wonder if Bill (and Richard Dawkins in the God Delusion) is clutching at straws. Any differences in identity, whether religious, ethnic or national, can be the reason we claim for committing acts of violence. But how does religion actually cause it? The problem here is the politics of identity. I am just as opposed to religious identity as I am to any other form of collectivism. People commit acts of ethnic cleansing in the name of their group, whatever the group. We should not be more or less opposed to it when religion is the excuse.
-The rape of minors by priests is indeed a problem and we are right to oppose it. However, it is a problem with a specific part of a specific religion. If it were possible for priests to get married, it is unlikely children would suffer anymore. Religions can be reformed, as time has shown us, and enough pressure on the Vatican could end this vile practice in our lifetimes. Someone who works against the priesthood for raping children but remains silent or approves of drone strikes that kill children is a hypocrite.
My main problem with religion is its emphasis on scripture, rather than science, as the method for ascertaining truth, and providing certainty where there should be mystery. All that means is humans, with their capacity for both fantasy and reason, should emphasise the latter over the former. That goes for the militant atheists as well. The question I pose to them is, what is truly important?
We see places like Saudi Arabia and Iran, where religious people have taken over, and we see the excesses of the state in forcing people to act in certain ways, and we blame religion. But if they had no power to force people, what would be the problem? People could still practice their religions and yet would not harm others. Any ideology can be warped when it is used by the state for legitimacy.
I liken the hatred of religion to the hatred of communism. In its time, communism needed to be opposed for the sake of freedom. Today, it is no longer a worry. The truly dangerous ideas of today are statism, the rule of law and nationalism, which millions of people claiming to be atheists hold in awe. If they have principles besides merely ruffling feathers, they should end their religious views of politics and oppose all violent ideologies.
Drawing on sources from political science, history, media and the psychology of nationalism, this paper explains how the Bush administration used what Americans perceive as the virtues of their nation and its foreign policy–freedom, democracy, peace, humanitarianism and God–to win support for its invasion of Iraq.
I do not say “fuck the troops”. It seems pointlessly hateful. I am not against “the troops” but the system that sends them to war and brings them back wounded if at all, and forces everyone to pay them for the dubious privilege of dying for the state. But I do believe the freedom to express such opinions should be valued. Facebook has removed a page called “Fuck the Troops” under pressure. Its action demonstrates society’s contempt for freedom of speech.
A new page of the same name sprouted in its place within the past 24 hours, and it has already been subject to the same venomous insults and threats as the old one. The “Support the Troops” people have returned in full force, replete with swearing and non sequiturs. They claim to value freedom but express their willingness to force others to stop talking or leave the country. They are convinced US soldiers have fought for freedom, but have no evidence of a causal link between whatever freedoms Americans have left and war. (In fact, wars are inevitably an opportunity for the state to expand and take away liberties.) They claim today’s wars are necessary to protect American lives, when they make not only troop deaths but the risk of terrorism rise. More importantly, they betray the very principle they purport to believe in–freedom–by telling others to shut up or risk violence.
Diversity of opinions is healthy, especially on issues of such moral implications. Uniformity of opinion benefits the ruling class so that it can be seen to appeal to it (as, for instance, when a politician gets photographed standing next to a group of soldiers in Afghanistan and his poll numbers rise the next day). The state thus spreads the idea soldiers are heroes through the school system and by honouring them for whatever reason, creating heroes when necessary. It is part of its efforts to spread nationalism, which helps support wars in the name of the nation. But open minds and intellectual honesty are essential for addressing social problems. The arguments of the Fuck the Troops page, along with the equally-provocative “Soldiers are not heroes. They are tools of war.” and “The Troops are Welfare Whores” are the troops should not be venerated as they are. People should listen to them.
In less complex, tribal societies, soldiers are defenders. They train in order to protect their people from aggression. It makes sense for us to respect, admire and support them. But modern nation states do not have such soldiers. War conducted by advanced democracies such as the US, the UK and Israel has nothing to do with defense and everything to do with expanding the state into new areas of the world. Soldiers have become the agents of this imperial conquest. We live in a world of information, where the truth about war (such as US Army Special Forces veteran Stan Goff’s admonition to young people considering a career such as his) is available. The modern soldier, whom I believe is a victim of war, nonetheless has the ability to reconsider working for the military. Removing the social pride that comes from enlisting and replacing it with a stigma could mean more refusal to go to war.
At any rate, at stake in this conflict is freedom of speech. Believing in freedom means tolerating those with different opinions, and taking comfort in the knowledge that if the truth prevails, they will be proven wrong. Telling those who disagree with you to shut up, leave the country or die means you do not believe in freedom.
”If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.” – Malcolm X
“When a well-packaged web of lies has been sold gradually to the masses over generations, the truth will seem utterly preposterous and its speaker a raving lunatic.” – Dresden James
“If we choose, we can live in a world of comforting illusion.” – Noam Chomsky
Many people live in a world of comforting illusion. They harbour the impression they are in charge of their democracy; they think the police protect their rights from bad guys; they think the military defends their freedom from foreigners; they do not want to challenge their own ideas; and they are convinced they are thinking for themselves. They are offered these illusions on a silver plate from every corner: governments, corporations, religious leaders and mainstream media. The collective term for the lies we choose to wrap ourselves in—or get caught up in—is propaganda.
The word “propaganda” is a widely used and potentially libelous term, so it requires definition up front. For the purpose of this post, propaganda refers to all lies and misleading images the government, corporations and the media tell you in order to control you. As you can imagine, there is plenty of it out there.
Among people who read non-mainstream newspapers, much has been made of a recent bill working its way through Congress, which Barack will probably threaten to veto again and will sign anyway, making psychological operations, meaning secretive propaganda, legal for use by the government within the US. It should frighten everyone, of course, that what was once used for war on third-world populations is soon going to be the norm for US citizens. But I wonder how much this bill will change what has been the norm for so long.
Because governments take as much of your money as you are willing to put up with, they can afford large “communications” teams. They use them to shape your views on their policies, to make you support their policies for all of their reasons. (Find some examples here.)
But most people realise that the government lies. The real key to understanding how the ideology of statism is disseminated is to listen to intellectuals. Public intellectuals are the ones who come up with the ideas that the people end up taking for granted. Originally, it was the clergy that rationalised the state, and got its share of public revenues in return. Now, the state enlists experts to sell its ideas in the media, and why those experts debate what kind of sanctions or bombs to use against Iran and none of them suggest leaving Iran alone. It pays for public education, giving public-school teachers a stake in the status quo. It subsidises professors to sell its ideas to the best and brightest, which is why few ever teach anarchist philosophy or Austrian economics in school. The apologists for the state are rewarded with jobs, prestige and high positions in the planning of the state. It co-opts the people with the intellectual power in society to spread propaganda.
Propaganda, in its broadest conception, creates what Antonio Gramsci called hegemony. The various elements of society influence our consciousness, but the ruling class has the most influence. Since government requires not simply coercion but also some degree of consent, the ruling class projects an image of what the world is, turning what it wants us to believe into “common sense”. It is common sense that we need to be governed, for instance, and that democracy means the people are in charge. I studied government for years before I realised that it was based on the threat of violence, rather than consent and collective decision making. Hegemony is the pervasive belief in this common sense conception of the world that enables the ruling class to acquire the consent of the governed. The masses accept the morality, customs and rules handed down to them. Only by learning to think beyond the supposed universal truths imposed on their consciousness can the people shatter the illusions and break free of the ruling class.
Consider the national-security narrative we are exposed to over our lifetimes. We are all Americans/British/Chinese/Turkish. When one of us is under attack by foreigners, all of us are under attack. When foreigners attack or threaten to attack us, it is justified to attack them. When attacking them, whatever needs to happen to subdue them is justified. If innocents get killed, that’s the price of it. It is right to take huge amounts of money to build up militaries to enable these things. We are entirely moral in doing all these things, and if you disagree, you hate our country. We take all these things for granted, but why? This and other accepted wisdom is part of the hegemony.
Think of the images associated with this paradigm. Take the photo opportunity. Politicians love going to Afghanistan to get a photo with the troops. It makes their poll numbers rise. Do you think they add that to their calculations when they decide whether or not to prolong the war? But people have been told they are citizens, these are their representatives and their representatives’ visiting soldiers they sent to Afghanistan for a few minutes on their world tour helps those soldiers. As long as they believe all that, the politicians have their mandate for war. A magician will tell you his job is about what the eye sees: illusion, not truth. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
Take David Cameron’s posing with protesters in Tahrir Square in February 2011. All people who yearn for freedom were there in spirit with the protesters. What the shiny smiles hid was the fact that David had just come from touring other restive Arab states with a delegation of British arms dealers. But people do not see beyond the photo op, and are led to believe their government supports freedom.
Terrorism is massively overblown. Everyone is a potential terrorist now. We are programmed to be afraid. How does the use of the word “terrorism” affect us? When we are told that the people killed were terrorists, we are given the opportunity to presume the good guys, the soldiers, are killing the bad guys. Our consciences are assuaged, and the killing can continue. The word militant, for instance, really means anyone who was killed by the US military, such as 16-year-old Abdelrahman al Awlaki. Did more than a handful of people speak out against it?
Could they use another word that would give it a different meaning? Why didn’t they use that word? Why do we undergo ‘liberation’ or ‘intervention’ instead of invasion? Why do we kill “militants” instead of people? Does it change how we think about the thing? When detention and torture without trial are labeled “extraordinary rendition”, most people turn away in boredom. The most despicable acts are cloaked in jargon and made mundane. Do not worry about it: we don’t torture men, women or children; only insurgents, terrorists and the Taliban.
Like most subjects related to government, there is a double standard at work with propaganda. Surely a society that believed in basic freedoms would not criminalise speech. It grants us the freedom to be wrong and to lie, as long as we do not violate the non-aggression principle. The government is wrong (as when it said Iraq had weapons of mass destruction). The government lies (as when…well, all the time). It suffers no consequences when caught. Citizens, however, do. Muslims, the new enemy, are targeted in the US all the time for spreading “terrorist propaganda” by speaking out in favour of anti-US-empire terrorism. The US Department of Justice arrested Jubair Ahmad for uploading a video to Youtube that the DOJ considered “material support” for terrorists. He might be locked up indefinitely. The FBI called what he posted propaganda. One wonders how much of what the FBI says is not.
But who is the real terrorist? Anarchists frequently point out the hypocrisy of the state in its justification of everything it does as criminal (and immoral) for everyone else. In the words of Stefan Molyneux,
I can’t go next door and threaten my neighbour with force in order to get him to pay for my child’s education, but the government can through property rights and the educational system. I can’t find some guy in my neighbourhood who’s smoking some herb that I find objectionable, lock him up in some basement and then call myself an armed warrior for justice through the War on Drugs. I can’t print money based on nothing and use it as legitimate currency; the government can. And I can’t create debt that other people have to pay without any choice in the matter. That’s called fraud. But for the government it’s called deficit financing and it goes to future generations. So government, by definition, is that social entity which legalises whatever is criminal for everyone else in the population…. Law is an opinion with a gun.
(Stefan forgot to mention that invasion and occupation are called democracy promotion and nation building, but then he was in an interview, so we can forgive him.)
Yes, words matter. We are flooded with words like “national security”. Those two words have been used to justify everything from aggressive (sorry, “preventive”) war to secret meetings between politicians and lobby groups. The UK government told the world Afghanistan’s Helmand province is vital to British national security, presumably for the same reasons Guam is to that of the US. The term is ambiguous, because it is used for every priority of the ruling class. It is used so often as to be meaningless.
It is used to glorify military service, along with words like “sacrifice”, “duty” and “honour”. Militaries market themselves to the populaces that support them by various channels. The US military has been in bed with Hollywood for decades. The Pentagon provides moviemakers with real aircraft, tanks and soldiers for all manner of movies, in return for a favourable image. It has created an exciting, video game-like perception of what it does, instead of the reality of raining fire on villages in distant parts of the world to kill one person deemed a “high-value target”.
It is not only in security matters that the state lies. It misinforms and distorts the truth at every turn. Take, for instance, how it has skewed employment figures (in this, an election year) by quietly removing 1.2m unemployed people from the list and celebrating it as a win. People can believe the economy is picking up, even though they see no evidence of it, and will vote for the incumbent, even though Barack has made things worse.
But the state is not the only source of propaganda. Any medium that produces disinformation, lies, coverups, or deliberately misleading images and words is propaganda. The media have been lying to us about war for a hundred years. (Lots of examples here.) Look at the way some of the most popular media soften up the language of the war for Afghanistan. While Afghans protested the repeated killing and descration of their friends and family, media like the New York Times said they were protesting the burning of Qurans only. “Armed with rocks, bricks, pistols and wooden sticks, protesters angry over the burning of Korans at the largest American base in Afghanistan this week took to the streets in demonstrations in a half-dozen provinces on Wednesday that left at least seven dead and many more injured.” Not only were the protesters “armed”; as As’ad AbuKhalil observed, “notice that there is no killer in the phrasing.” People reading do not have to blame the killers—perhaps protesting killed the people. They portrayed the protests as irrational acts of outrage, just anger over a book. Glenn Greenwald gives an apt analogy:
[J]ust imagine what would happen if a Muslim army invaded the U.S., violently occupied the country for more than a decade, in the process continuously killing American children and innocent adults, and then, outside of a prison camp it maintained where thousands of Americans were detained for years without charges and tortured, that Muslim army burned American flags — or a stack of bibles — in a garbage dump. Might we see some extremely angry protests breaking out from Americans against them? Would American pundits be denouncing those protesters as blinkered, primitive fanatics?
There is no reason to trust the New York Times or the Washington Post. Their kowtowing to power in the run up to Operation Iraqi Freedom should have put them out of business and led their heads to hang in shame. Both papers issued apologies (here and here)—over a year too late—and no one in the newsrooms suffered any consequences. Why would we pay attention to them at all anymore?
Various estimates of the real death toll of that war have come out in the hundreds of thousands; the number may have reached a million. But mainstream media outlets do not report a million. They report low-end estimates of tens of thousands, sometimes adding the words “at least”. Regardless, people are more affected emotionally when shown a human face and story. Which Iraqi humans did the media choose to profile? The insurgents. All the more reason to dig in one’s heels and keep fighting.
The mainstream media benefit from the status quo and often end up the lapdogs of the powerful. Even when one TV station appears relatively right wing or left wing, that simply means they will defend a different party when it takes power. However, the task before the media is to give us the information we need in order to understand and question power, not to serve it. All corporations receive legal protection and indirect subsidy; in addition, the media that pander best to the powerful get access to top officials for interviews and sources. Media types socialise with government types. Instead of holding them to account through investigative journalism, many of them accept what the government says without question. They also need to fill in blanks due to deadlines, and may embellish or simply quote an official to complete their stories. Those poor people who cannot turn off their televisions are exposed to news that makes them think crime, terrorism and diseases are everywhere. They see one police drama after another, drinking in the image of the heroic cops catching gang leaders and stopping terrorists.
When all these things are taken together, they become our narrative, what we believe without questioning. It does not benefit us to leave this situation unquestioned; it only benefits the ruling class.
A fixation on the news is not conducive to understanding. Most news media focus on what is happening now. What is happening is a consequence of what has happened before. However, it is easy to forget or not know about what happened before. How many Americans understand the causes of any of the wars their rulers start? Or of 9/11? How many understand why Iran might want to build a nuclear weapon? We do not ask “why?” enough.
I have heard both Al Jazeera and Russia Today called propaganda. Perhaps that is because the angles from which they view the news and the people they interview are less commonly found in the more mainstream news outlets. To close one’s mind by calling something propaganda without having considered it is not wise. The reason we can safely call government communications propaganda is that they are consistently proved to be so. Critical thinkers consider various viewpoints. And in contrast to the records of the mainstream US media, the foreigners have more credibility.
Then there is Fox News. Wait. It’s too easy. (You may want to watch Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism for a look at how Fox has erased the line between journalism and propaganda.) Suffice to say, studies indicate Fox News viewers are less well informed than anyone else who watches television. Whatever Fox News says, I object to attacks on Fox from people who believe what they hear on CNN, MSNBC or other corporate news stations. Do you really believe any one of these channels consistently tells the truth? That they do not try to influence your point of view and subtly manipulate you? Why should we trust this source? Do they know what they are talking about? Why would they tell us what they are telling us? Might they have an ulterior motive? Can we speculate what that might be? Why do we only have the choices we are presented with? Why is it only either intervene militarily in Syria or let genocide take place? Why, why, why? We need to consider why they show what they show and what we are missing that they do not show.
When I am asked which news source I think is most reliable, I reply “none”. Take a look at the sources for this blog: they are from a variety of people and media. (However, I sometimes repeat some I perceive to be informed or wise. I must admit, I am more likely to believe Democracy Now than Fox News.) To truly understand a phenomenon is to know it from various perspectives. To understand a news story, it helps to read various accounts and ask ourselves several questions about what we read.
Without having witnessed an event ourselves, we do not know what happened. Every source has its own reasons to manipulate the facts, though probably not all do all the time. The best we can do is listen to varying accounts, consider carefully each one’s possible motives and assume we cannot be sure about any of them. The worst we can do is listen to accounts that do not vary significantly, pretend each source confirms the other and accept the information as given. At a more fundamental level, we need to question the entire hegemony and move away from thinking the world is as we are told it is.
In this post, I will outline the evidence that 9/11 was an “outside job”. If that upsets you, consider the following. I do not rule out the possibility that it was also an inside job. There is evidence that it was, and it is wrong to close one’s mind to evidence. I do not know if the terrorists were found or trained or paid off by some CIA operative. Because of government secrecy, it is extremely difficult to know the complete truth. Neither am I an engineer, least of all a demolitions expert, so it is hard for me to know which engineers are right and which are wrong. This post presents the evidence that a small group of radicals swore allegiance to Osama bin Laden, believed the US and Israel were at war with Islam, and took it upon themselves to destroy a symbol of American power, hoping to lure the superpower into a cosmic war in which Islam would prevail.
Ron Crelinsten, a terrorism expert at the University of Victoria, says that terrorism is about communication. Every terrorist attack sends a message. It is important to listen to them, or else how are we supposed to stop terrorism? Terrorists are not irrational. They are not crazy. Those accusations are a smokescreen designed to make you listen to the government and Thomas Friedman for explanations rather than the terrorists themselves. But the terrorists can tell you why they are angry, and if we had listened to them, we might not have witnessed their anger in September of 2001. Let us look at a timeline of events that could have given clues to those paying attention that something was going to happen.
May 31, 1996: Four Saudi men were executed for the bombing of a US military mission in Riyadh the year before. The attacks were aimed at American “infidels”, 6 of whom died. Three of the four men executed had fought in Afghanistan, and one had fought in Bosnia. This is where you could trace their radicalisation to. They all claimed to have links to Osama bin Laden. They felt that Islam was under attack worldwide, and that they were part of what they believed was a global jihad. They had discussed the Saudi state and were disgusted that it embraced secular law, rather than Quranic law, and how the ulema, Islamic scholars supposed to be independent of lawmakers, “were conspiring with the state to undermine Islam….Saudi Arabia [was] an infidel state.” Many Saudi dissidents believe the ulema should have a strong consultative role in politics, as this would mean policies along Islamic lines.
June 25, 1996, less than a month later: In Khobar, Saudi Arabia, an explosion killed 19 Americans and wounded hundreds more in a complex that housed foreign military personnel called the Khobar Towers.
It is around this time that Osama bin Laden begins appearing in the headlines. Naturally, after the 9/11 attacks, millions of Americans asked “why us?” Bin Laden had already outlined very clearly why, and if Americans had realised that, they might have been less likely to use words like “evil” and “senseless” after the attacks.
Journalist Robert Fisk met with bin Laden three times, in 1993, 1996 and 1997.
When I met him again in Afghanistan in 1996, he was 39, raging against the corruption of the Saudi royal family, contemptuous of the West. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, Bin Laden told the House of Saud that his Arab legion could destroy the Iraqis; no need to bring the Americans to the land of Islam’s two holiest places. The King turned him down. So the Americans were now also the target of Osama’s anger.
The House of Saud invited thousands of troops to Saudi Arabia as protection from Saddam Hussein. We can identify the first two causes of 9/11 here: the corruption of the House of Saud and the American military presence in the land of the Islam’s two holiest places.
In 1996, bin Laden said
When the American troops entered Saudi Arabia, the land of the two holy places [Mecca and Medina], there was a strong protest from the ulema [the religious scholars] and from students of the sharia law all over the country against the interference of American troops… After it insulted and jailed the ulema 18 months ago, the Saudi regime lost its legitimacy….
The Saudi people have remembered now what the ulema told them and they realise America is the main reason for their problems. The ordinary man knows that his country is the largest oil producer in the world, yet at the same time he is suffering from taxes and bad services. Now…our country has become an American colony… What happened in Riyadh and Khobar is clear evidence of the huge anger of Saudi people against America. The Saudis now know their real enemy is America.
What bin Laden was saying was basically truthful. Most Saudis objected to the presence of non-Muslim troops in the land of Islam’s holiest places, even though they had been asked by the House of Saud to come to protect them from Saddam Hussein, and they weren’t actually in the holy places themselves. But by 1996, the threat from Saddam was gone. He was under sanctions, no fly zones and bombing raids. But American troops were still there, just like they are still in Germany, Spain and Japan, long after the threat from a powerful army is gone.
In 1990, there were 31,636 US troops in Saudi Arabia.
1991: 14,943 troops
1993 and 4: fewer than 2,000
By 2001, it was clear that the US had not got the message the terrorist attacks over the 1990s had attempted to convey.
In 1997, bin Laden told Robert Fisk he would turn America into a shadow of itself.
We declared jihad against the US government, because the US government is unjust, criminal and tyrannical. It has committed acts that are extremely unjust, hideous and criminal whether directly or through its support of the Israeli occupation of the Prophet’s Night Travel Land [Palestine]. And we believe the US is directly responsible for those who were killed in Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq. The mention of the US reminds us before everything else of those innocent children who were dismembered, their heads and arms cut off in the recent explosion that took place in Qana [Lebanon]…. The US government hit Muslim civilians and executed more than 600,000 Muslim children in Iraq by preventing food and medicine from reaching them….”
At a different time, bin Laden called the war and sanctions on Iraq “the oppressing and embargoing to death of millions…the greatest mass slaughter of children mankind has ever known”.
Now we are adding reasons for 9/11: support for Israel and its war in Lebanon, the sanctions on Iraq that crippled the economy and the people. I do not know if 600,000 children and millions of other people truly died as a result of these policies, but it is not truth that makes decisions but perceptions. Most Americans had no idea about any of this, and were every time misled by their representatives. For nearly twenty years after the first Gulf War, Bin Laden issued specific demands, such as “get US troops out of Arabia” and American politicians responded with “stop trying to force our women into burkas”. As a result, we have millions of people believing that “the terrorists” cannot be reasoned with and must be killed. Their solution is to escalate the wars that are, in fact, the causes of the anger and hatred that might lead to another major terrorist attack. They are wars that do not make anyone safer or freer. They kill and terrorise innocent people, including Americans, for the purpose of strengthening the US government overseas and domestically.
Bin Laden issued a fatwa, a religious opinion on Islamic law by an Islamic scholar. (Incidentally, bin Laden is not an Islamic scholar and is thus not qualified to issue fatwas.) He called the US military presence in the Arabian Peninsula crusader armies spreading like locusts through the Muslim world and gobbling up its resources. “First, for over seven years the United States has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbors, and turning its bases in the Peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighboring Muslim peoples.” Second, he claimed that the “crusader-Zionist alliance” had killed more than a million Iraqis through war and embargo. (Bin Laden often refers to “crusaders” when talking about the US, in order to show that he sees little difference between the Crusades and current US foreign policy regarding the Muslim world. Right after the 9/11 attacks, George Bush called the War on Terror that was about to begin a crusade. Probably wasn’t the ideal choice of words for winning Muslim hearts and minds.) Third, “the aim is also to serve the Jews’ petty state and divert attention from its occupation of Jerusalem and murder of Muslims there. The best proof of this is their eagerness to destroy Iraq, the strongest neighboring Arab state, and their endeavor to fragment all the states of the region such as Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Sudan into paper statelets and through their disunion and weakness to guarantee Israel’s survival and the continuation of the brutal crusade occupation of the Peninsula.”
Why did he mention Jerusalem? What is so special about Jerusalem? Jerusalem is the third holiest site in Islam, because it is where the Prophet Muhammad is said to have ascended to heaven. And many Muslims in the world consider Jerusalem and all of Palestine under occupation by foreigners, supported by the US.
In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon. Here is what bin Laden said about it in 2004.
The events that affected my soul in a direct way started in 1982 when America permitted the Israelis to invade Lebanon and the American Sixth Fleet helped them in that…Many were killed and injured and others were terrorised and displaced. I couldn’t forget those moving scenes, blood and severed limbs, women and children sprawled everywhere. Houses destroyed along with their occupants and high rises demolished over their residents, rockets raining down on our home without mercy. The situation was like a crocodile meeting a helpless child, powerless except for his screams. Does the crocodile understand a conversation that doesn’t include a weapon? And the whole world saw and heard but it didn’t respond.
He is not just making stuff up. The US has been indirectly responsible for the deaths of many innocent Muslims at the hands of Israel.
April 18, 1996: During its occupation of southern Lebanon, Israel shelled the village of Qana, killing 106 civilians and injuring around 116 others who had taken refuge there to escape the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah. I’ll spare you the pictures. Look them up if you are not faint of heart.
Lawrence Wright, in his 2006 book The Looming Tower: al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, says that Mohamed Atta, one of the masterminds of the attacks, signed his will during the operation against Qana, because he was enraged and wanted to offer his life in response. So Israel was a major factor in perceptions of injustice against Muslims and desecration of Palestine and Jerusalem.
Bin Laden’s anger had foundation, and Muslims around the world knew it. Most Muslims do not support terrorism, but at least as many have the same complaints as the jihadis. For instance, though most Saudis do not like al-Qaeda, 95% of those asked wanted American troops to leave Saudi Arabia. Terrorists are supported by communities. If the communities are sympathetic to the terrorists’ causes, they will fund, shelter and supply them with recruits. People support al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, and whoever else not because they are under some misapprehension but because they have seen injustices before their own eyes and they know who did it.
Also in 1998, a memo from Mohamed Atef, al-Qaeda’s military chief, said that al-Qaeda was aware of negotiations between the US and the Taliban on a UNOCAL oil and gas pipeline through Afghanistan, and that a terrorist attack would be the way to draw the US in to Afghanistan, otherwise known as the graveyard of empires. Both Clinton and Bush administrations negotiated with the Taliban. After the embassy bombings, the Clinton administration imposed sanctions and continued talking to the Taliban, mostly pressuring them to hand over bin Laden.
In another response to the embassy bombings, Bill Clinton signed off on Operation Infinite Reach, a series of US cruise missile strikes on terrorist bases in Afghanistan and Sudan. Operation Infinite Reach took place in August 1998. Does anyone remember anything else that was going on at this time? The Monica Lewinsky scandal. It has been speculated that Operation Infinite Reach was a way of deflecting attention from Clinton’s sex life and raising public opinion of him by killing terrorists. Anyway, one of the attacks destroyed al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan. The US claimed the factory was making VX nerve agent and its owners had ties to al-Qaeda. The US State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research said the evidence was highly dubious. Noam Chomsky and other critics say that tens of thousands of Sudanese civilians died because they would not have the drugs they needed.
In 2000, a suicide attack on the US Navy destroyer the USS Cole in Aden, Yemen. 17 US sailors were killed and more were injured. Al-Qaeda proudly claimed responsibility. Bill Clinton declared, “If, as it now appears, this was an act of terrorism, it was a despicable and cowardly act. We will find out who was responsible and hold them accountable”. (That said, being an attack on a military target, the USS Cole bombing does not actually meet the official US definition of terrorism.) The 9/11 Commission Report says that bin Laden supervised the bombing, chose the location, and provided the money, and that an unidentified source said bin Laden wanted the United States to attack, and if it did not he would launch something bigger. (By the way, bin Laden has been indicted for the USS Cole bombing but not for the 9/11 attacks.) The Report goes on to say that he
instructed the media committee… to produce a propaganda video that included a reenactment of the attack along with images of the al Qaeda training camps and training methods; it also highlighted Muslim suffering in Palestine, Kashmir, Indonesia, and Chechnya…Portions were aired on Al Jazeera, CNN, and other television outlets. It was also disseminated among many young men in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and caused many extremists to travel to Afghanistan for training and jihad.
Things were heating up, and not just for al-Qaeda.
The Report also says that during spring and summer 2001, US intelligence agencies received a stream of warnings that al-Qaeda was planning something huge, CIA Director George Tenet saying that “the system was blinking red.” Between January and September 2001, the FBI issued 216 internal warnings about the possibility of an al-Qaeda attack.
The form it did take was a kind of suicide bombing. Suicide bombing is a pretty new phenomenon in terrorism, going back about 30 years. Why suicide bombing? Under what conditions does suicide bombing occur? Since the most visible and horrific acts of terrorism are suicide bombings committed by Muslims, it might seem obvious that Islamic fundamentalism is the central cause. But it is not. Robert Pape has compiled a database of every suicide attack around the globe since 1980.
The data [for all attacks between 1980 and 2003] show that there is little connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, or any one of the world’s religions. In fact, the leading instigators of suicide attacks are the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, a Marxist-Leninist group whose members are from Hindu families but who are adamantly opposed to religion. This group committed 76 of the 315 incidents, more suicide attacks than Hamas.
Rather, what nearly all suicide terrorist attacks have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland.
Nearly all suicide attacks are parts of organised campaigns; democratic states are most vulnerable to suicide terrorists; they have a strategic objective: trying to establish or maintain political self-determination by compelling a democracy to withdraw from the territories they claim (nationalist, not religious, goals); their goals, if not necessarily their tactics (taboos on suicide exist in every culture, especially Islamic ones), are supported by the distinct national community they represent (enough people must think them worth defending that they will allow them to recruit, help them hide and consider them martyrs) (for instance, as I said, almost all Saudis want US troops out of the country); loyalty among comrades and devotion to leaders; suicide terrorism is more lethal than non-suicide attacks, which are used for a wider variety of goals; and finally, they work, at least sometimes.
To sum up the causes:
-The perceived occupation of Saudi Arabia
-The “infidel” House of Saud
-US support for Israel
-The 1991 invasion of Iraq and the sanctions that hurt Iraqi civilians
-And the conclusion from all of this that Islam itself was under attack.
Ten years ago today, these factors combined to cause the most spectacular terrorist attack in history.
The trend in warfare for the past hundred years or more has been to involve civilians gradually more in every conflict. Many of today’s wars, such as those in Iraq, Turkey, the Palestinian territories, Sri Lanka and Chechnya, pit a government against one or more terrorist organisations who consider their territory occupied by the government. The government, usually a democracy, is attempting to project its power over a wider territory than the people of that territory consider legitimate, with the added bonus of providing the government’s constituents with an enemy around which they can rally, distracting them from the government’s other crimes. They spend millions of dollars buying PR in order to paint themselves as the moral side in the conflict. (Indeed, the Israeli government and its supporters never tire of repeating that it has “the most moral army in the world”, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.) The enemy kills babies. We build homes. Because the organisations resisting occupation are non governmental, they are not militaries and are usually called “terrorists” (or more recently “insurgents”). Particularly since 9/11, soldiers have been the good guys who fight terrorists, and terrorists have been, in George W.’s mindless phrasing, “the evildoers”. Terrorists, insurgents and so on mix with the people, their base of support, which means that when militaries go after them, civilian casualties result. The occupying troops want to convince the locals that they are there to help, and the locals do not really buy it. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in Afghanistan epitomises this trend.
It seems that the ideal outcome of the mission in Afghanistan is the following. First, decimate the Taliban and al Qaeda, and the other insurgent groups, or at least lop their heads off. That should lead to the outcome of ending tyranny in Afghanistan once and for all. (Officially, as of March 2009, the ISAF is there “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.” Voters like that mission: the bad guys are mean, sexist, Islamist dictators; and even though we messed up Iraq, maybe we have learned something from it?) Second, help the local population build up infrastructure, improve their health and education, etc., both to win hearts and minds and for the good it would do them. Third, reduce terrorist attacks on Western and other targets. Sorry if this looks like a straw man. I am under the impression it is the vision of ISAF commanders and the public.
The first point regards the difficulty the foreign militaries face in fighting their chosen enemies. First, there is al Qaeda, which is highly resistant to decapitation because it does not really have a leader or a centre. (I suggest not buying into the Zawahiri or Awlaki hype. They are not terrorist masterminds. Let them actually succeed again before we start fearing them.) I do not know if it is possible to drop a bomb that would kill more than five of them. More centralised groups like Hamas and the PKK have survived the loss of leaders, partly because this kind of group is highly adaptive (more so than large, hierarchical militaries). Then there is the indigenous anti-occupation resistance. As far as I know there are three large groups fighting the foreign troop presence (not including a number of Afghanis recruited for government security forces who have turned on the ISAF). The Quetta Shura Taliban, the Haqqani Network and Hezb-i-Islami Gulbuddin are (I think, though I am by no means an expert on Afghanistan) examples of organisations that it would be very hard to destroy, because they are made up of locals banded together by the cause of ejecting foreigners. They are different from Iraqi resistance organisations, because many of the latter engaged in street warfare, whereas Afghan resistance groups populate the many villages of Afghanistan. In journalist Nir Rosen’s words,
It is impossible to live among the people the way the Americans did during the surge in Iraq, because there is no population concentration, and every home in a village is so far away from another, and there are few roads. You can rumble along a road for a few hours to shake hands and drink tea with some elders only to head back to the base to get a burger and ice cream before the chow hall closes, but the Taliban own the night and can undermine any deal you will make. They are part of the community.
There are some defections from these groups to national troops, but when that happens the defectors are usually enticed by the money. We could probably get most Afghans on our side for, say, $10 trillion over 5 years, but is Afghanistan really worth it? It is even worth the $10m in aid some say is being siphoned out of the country every day (that might be going to anti-ISAF militias)?
(I will not go too far into the regional instability that governments are only exacerbating, but insurgencies in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan give support to the Afghan resistance and render all attempts to “stabilise” Afghanistan impossible. Even the best “regional strategy” imposed from the top is likely to fail.)
No less significantly, according to Gen. Stanley McChrystal (and all other sources), the Taliban get a big part of their funding from the drug trade. Until the main drug consuming countries (mostly the US, but Canada too) legalise drugs and let legal competitors enter the market, the price of drugs will remain high, Afghanistan will continue to provide the vast majority (about 70%) of the world’s heroin and the Taliban will continue to make millions of dollars off it. Many supporters of the push against the Taliban and other bad guys is their claim that the Taliban are bad, therefore we must fight them. But this argument begs the question. What is missing is the major premise: if someone is bad we should fight them. However, that is not the case. Sure, another 20 years of killing and trillions more dollars and maybe the war could be won for the “good guys”. But besides being a waste of money and lives, I seriously doubt the political will exists for it. The fact is, Afghanistan will go to whomever wants it more, and the indigenous resistance have already shown who that is.
Second, helping the locals. Gordon Brown mapped his vision in 2009: “build basic services — clean water, electricity, roads, basic justice, basic health care, and then economic development.” What a warm feeling taxpayers must get from such a selfless and charitable mission. I am sure some local Afghans have benefited from what the ISAF governments have given them. (See some of those things here.) However, photos for Stars and Stripes tend to obscure reality. Journalist William Dalrymple describes the situation on the ground.
[T]here have been few tangible signs of improvement under the western-backed regime. Despite the US pouring approximately $80bn into Afghanistan, the roads in Kabul are still more rutted than those in the smallest provincial towns of Pakistan. There is little health care; for any severe medical condition, patients still have to fly to India. A quarter of all teachers in Afghanistan are themselves illiterate. In many areas, district governance is almost non-existent: half the governors do not have an office, more than half have no electricity, and most receive only $6 a month in expenses. Civil servants lack the most basic education and skills.
This is largely because $76.5bn of the $80bn committed to the country has been spent on military and security, and most of the remaining $3.5bn on international consultants, some of whom are paid in excess of $1,000 a day, according to an Afghan government report. This, in turn, has had other negative effects. As in 1842, the presence of large numbers of well-paid foreign troops has caused the cost of food and provisions to rise, and living standards to fall. The Afghans feel they are getting poorer, not richer.
The locals are not yet on their way to prosperity. In fact, they are suffering. (See Kate Brooks’ photo essay here.) The situation of women is not getting better, either. The cover of Time a year ago portrayed a frightening picture of an Afghan girl whose husband had cut off her nose, saying that this would happen more if “we” left Afghanistan. What it overlooked was that 9 years of occupation had still not ended the abuse of women. Neither the ISAF nor the Karzai government have brought education or rights to women, and they cannot unseat the people who are taking them away, and they have no credible plan to do so. Moreover, there is something larger that NATO is taking away from Afghans.
The very presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan results in civilian deaths, either in the crossfire of firefights, misplaced (or just really big) bombs, drone attacks that have killed a number of civilians that is still unknown, or when foreign troops go on a killing spree. For example, on May 19, 2011, the Taliban killed 35 people working on US-financed road projects which, at least according to journalist Hashim Shukoor, “the insurgents believe threaten their access to refuges in the tribal regions of Pakistan.” They would not have killed these people had the US not been in the picture. Foreign troops attempting to protect civilians from the Taliban tend to increase civilian casualties directly or indirectly. Brutal weapons are systematically destroying innocent people: they are not as discriminating as those who order their use would have us believe. A tribal elder told William Dalrymple, “How many times can they apologise for killing our innocent women and children and expect us to forgive them? They come, they bomb, they kill us and then they say, ‘Oh, sorry, we got the wrong people.’ And they keep doing that.” The recent escalation of the war is presumably why risk to minorities grew more in Afghanistan this year than in any other country (“Civilian deaths have climbed every year for the past five years, totalling nearly 3,000 in 2010 according to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.”), and almost certainly why so many Afghans are angry with the foreigners and can’t wait to see the back of them. People tend not to fall for the “throw off your oppressors and we’ll stop bombing you” approach. Rightly or wrongly, people tend to blame the foreigners for their plight, turning to the devil they know to protect them from the one they don’t. As long as the madness of the occupation persists, Afghans will not be turned against the indigenous oppressors in favour of the foreign ones. How many civilians need to die before “the country” is “free”?
The intervening powers might be even less welcome in Pakistan. The ISAF has pushed some of Afghanistan’s problems into Pakistan, and as a result, Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan have become “AfPak”, a stronghold of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The Pakistani army has lost many soldiers fighting what many Pakistanis complain (ever more frequently with bombs strapped to their chests) is the US’s war. The US has been using drones, an unmanned airplane controlled from the other side of the world. In doing so, it is able to target suspected militants for assassination while exposing no Americans to danger. The number of drone attacks has increased dramatically under Barack Obama, and drones are killing civilians. How many is uncertain, but the painstaking work of Noor Behram suggests that for every 10 to 15 people killed, one militant goes down. (The Brookings Institute finds roughly the same proportion, though it encourages the strikes as a way to prevent al Qaeda terrorism.) One report identified 168 children killed in drone strikes as of August 2011. The strikes injure countless more and “radicalise” (which I believe means “infuriate to the point of violent retaliation”) the locals. There are also certain legal questions regarding drone attacks that have not been resolved, and unsurprisingly the Barack administration does not seem interested in them. As a result of all this unthinking intervention, Pakistan, a country riddled with Islamic extremism and terrorism, armed with nuclear warheads, is becoming less stable by the day. Anatol Lieven fears not so much the Islamist terrorist threat but that a portion of the Pakistani army will mutiny, and the state of Pakistan will collapse. The US destabilised Cambodia while fighting in Vietnam, and we can only hope the fate of Pakistan is less bad than that of Cambodia.
The other thing the ISAF is inflicting on the locals is the single most corrupt and ineffectual government in the world, the government of Hamid Karzai. I know a Taliban or whoever government would be bad, but I don’t really see what good the present one is doing anyone. Karzai knows his people see him as a foreign puppet, and has attempted to distance himself from his backers. He accused the US, UK and UN of orchestrating an election fraud, called NATO an “army of occupation” and threatened to join the Taliban. Attempts to strengthen the central government will not work, as, according to Professor Paul Staniland, “there is very little evidence that winning hearts and minds through legitimate state-building is a path to victory. Building a strong state is often in direct opposition to the will of the population (or at least a significant part of it).” (That should not be surprising to anyone reading this blog. Governments fail to win hearts and minds not because of lack of money or posters but because they are self-interested, violent and irretrievably rapacious.) The Afghan state is not likely to retract its hand from poppy money any time soon, however much control the ISAF governments think they have over it. (Find more on the Afghan drug business and corruption here.) Any government with any hand in Afghanistan is likely to do whatever it can to take the trillion dollars’ worth of minerals reportedly lying under the ground from the locals. Attempts to train locals in being the military or police of a central Afghan state (and the $9b spent on it in 2010) are, needless to say, not going according to plan. More and more “inside attacks” are occurring as Afghans the ISAF trusted turn on the coalition. If the foreign militaries really want to help the people, my suggestion is to help people defend themselves from oppression on the local level and don’t try to prop up or take down any kind of government.
Regarding terrorism, I do not think foreign occupation will reduce terrorism anywhere in the world. There are a few things to note here. Though terrorism itself has various motivations in various situations, a major cause is perceived foreign occupation. In Dying to Kill and Cutting the Fuse, Robert Pape explains a clear pattern in suicide bombings leading to that conclusion, among others. (I’ll let you read those books—they are excellent.) And on the whole, suicide bombings are deadlier than other forms of terrorism. There were no real terrorist attacks by foreign nationals on Western soil until 9/11. After the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, there were a bunch.
Terrorism is designed to send a message. When the recent invasion of Libya began, my parents said, “good: get the guy who orchestrated the Lockerbie bombing.” I was initially surprised that they did not realise that Lockerbie had been in retaliation for the attempt on Gaddafi’s life that killed his adopted daughter. Apparently the news, which my parents watch every night, does little to explain that terrorism has causes. In 2006, 18 young Muslims were arrested in Toronto for plotting to detonate truck bombs, storm the Canadian parliament and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and behead the PM. According to Mubin Shaikh, one of the two guys who infiltrated the group, the ringleader’s main point of contention was that “troops are in Afghanistan raping Muslim women”. In 2004, bombs went off in Madrid three days before a general election that were obviously a protest of Spain’s involvement in Iraq. With little regard to Spanish politics at the time, some accused the Spanish people of caving in by electing a new government and immediately ending Spain’s commitment to Operation Iraqi Freedom. However, pre-election polls suggested Spanish voters had been at best lukewarm on the war and the government who had led them to war. For two days following the Madrid bombing, the government tried to manipulate information and blame the Basque militant group, ETA; the public’s finding out it was in fact an offshoot of al Qaeda added anger to shock. A few days after the election, Martin Wolf of the Financial Times wrote an article headed “The world must unite against terrorism”, in which he called the removal of Spanish troops from Iraq a victory for the terrorists. Whether or not that is true is irrelevant. A more important question is, was it the right thing to do? He proceeded to conclude that Britain must not follow suit. A year later, Britain suffered its own terrorist bombing, almost definitely in protest of the UK government’s killing and debasement of Muslims in Iraq. There is no reason to believe that foreign interventions will reduce terrorism. In fact, as Anatol Lieven points out, “U.S. and British soldiers are in effect dying in Afghanistan in order to make the world more dangerous for American and British peoples.” One possible reason for ongoing wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and so on is to increase the foreign terrorist threat that elites can use to take away more of your freedom. It has worked out that way so far.
But there are other, less official but nonetheless very good reasons for being in Afghanistan.
One is that the US military and its political sponsors have come to regard failure as inconceivable, not an option. This is partly due to the fact that a superpower abhors defiance (which was one reason for Operation Iraqi Freedom), and partly because the military-civilian establishment of the US sees military power as a solution to everything from flexing muscles in order to menace rival powers to staying in power by continuing to supply Americans with cheap consumer goods so they do not have to ask them to lower their standards of living and pay off their credit cards.
Remember how Unocal was trying to build a pipeline through Afghanistan in the 90s? Did you know about that? Well anyway, a natural gas pipeline is still being built. It is a long pipeline, about 1700km long, from Turkmenistan south through Afghanistan and Pakistan to India. It is not owned by Unocal but is still expected to supply gas to the US and Europe, bypassing Russia and Iran, the traditional routes. The US and its allies have an interest in protecting the pipeline.
Even bigger is Afghanistan’s $1 trillion in mineral deposits: “huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals like lithium — are so big and include so many minerals that are essential to modern industry that Afghanistan could eventually be transformed into one of the most important mining centers in the world”. Do you think ordinary Afghans will benefit from this find? Finding billions worth of diamonds in Sierra Leone didn’t help the people. Let’s ask Libyans and Nigerians how much of their countries’ oil revenue they got. I think fighting over these minerals will make things worse for them.
It almost seems futile to protest the war, because every few months politicians promise they are about to end the mission and draw down troops. Every year they say that this will be “the decisive year”. Then things get more violent, as the opponents of the occupation get more desperate and recruit more people, and the politicians say “just a little bit longer”, like children asking their parents’ permission to stay up late. But the parents are unaware how devious their kids are, and what their kids are doing when the parents’ backs are turned. There is no reason to believe the occupiers and their sneaky, underhanded attempts to hide the truth from those funding the war. The ISAF has 700 bases in Afghanistan, with a $100m expansion of Special Operations headquarters approved only last year. Do you think they are about to leave any time soon? The best we can hope for is enough reporters on the scene who exposes the abuses of all sides, as violence by any party in the name of this war is an indictment of it.
Why do you think Afghanistan is the way it is? It is because war has been imposed on it for decades. Desperate people under pressure for so long do not turn out like us rich-world people. The most competent NATO general will never understand what it is like to be an Afghani. What hearts-and-minds strategy could he possibly contrive? Now we have these self-important democracy promoters, who could do a little better than to prop up the least effective government in the world, and who seem to think we just need a little bit more war before Afghanistan will be fine again. Governments of the ISAF have given no vision—that’s something leaders do—for what Afghanistan should look like, and have no plans that have worked so far. And the heads of state shuffle their national security teams and nothing changes. Now, you can say that the troops are in Afghanistan helping people, but they are also killing people. So whom are they really helping? If foreign troops are there and Afghans who do not like them try to kill them—I know, such ingrates, right?—regular people will get caught in the crossfire. That means the presence of those troops is a cause of the violence. It does not matter who pulled that particular trigger. But these people who think democracy is so important it is worth keeping up this kind of war believe that we have to win and impose our values on these ignorant yokels, and that if some die in the meantime, well, that’s the price you pay. Little bit more war, then we’ll defeat the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, and any other groups that pop up in the meantime, and Afghanistan will be on the road to democracy! Some roads are so bumpy you are better off not driving on them.
Saigon fell to bad guys and the world did not end. Stop trying to control everything. Stop chasing the illusion of stability through dictatorship or military force. It is having the opposite effect.
“A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.” – Napoleon
Soldiers are agents of the state and agents of war. As such, they are outside of peaceful society. Soldiers are trained to follow orders unquestioningly and kill people without knowing who they are. They have their most important human qualities, such as compassion, squeezed out of them through indoctrination. They are put into uniforms to strip them of their individuality and thus their ability to act independently of orders. They are forced to conform. They are chosen when they are young: able to kill but less able to think critically about killing. After they kill, they turn into nervous wrecks. Saddest of all, they believe they are keeping us safe. Well, some of them do.
I wonder what the “Support the Troops” people think when they find out some soldiers have been killing civilians for sport. (See here and here.) And though most are isolated incidents, like collateral damage (a euphemism for killing civilians accidentally, such as these nine children killed from a helicopter in Afghanistan), friendly fire (a euphemism for soldiers’ killing their fellows) and rape (See here and here.) (sometimes a deliberate policy of intimidation or ethnic cleansing), they are inevitable in war. Do you know why? Because when people are given the kind of power over others that a big gun or an army grants you, many of them will choose to use that power however they want. We call soldiers brave, but how brave is it to beat, rape and kill unarmed men, women and children? How brave is dropping bombs on or shooting cruise missiles at people? These people are heroes?
Let us briefly examine the killing of innocents. It occurs in every war. The soldiers and civilians in the country prosecuting the war have been told that they are at war with an entire country, and as such, civilian casualties are easier to stomach. Their media report little in the way of dead innocents, and use a variety of euphemisms to soften the blow when they do. In Afghanistan, for instance, thousands of innocent people have died from air strikes (3000 in the first six months alone, though estimates vary). (It makes one wonder if there is really such a thing as targeted, “smart” weapons; and if not, what it is we are paying billions of dollars to develop.) How many newspapers reported the figures at the time? Perhaps they were afraid of looking unpatriotic. If patriotism means dropping bombs on people, or letting it go unreported, you can have it. However, we could still kill people who are harming innocents—the only enemies we should ever have—and leave innocents alone. We do not need a state to have special ops teams that get into tight spots to cut the head off the snake. We will always have people who want to do this type of work. Large-scale wars are just not necessary. But while they continue, expect hundreds of innocent people to get caught in the crossfire every year from it.
I also wonder what “Support the Troops” really means. Which troops? All of them? What about the racist ones? What about the ones who are just mindless killers? We should support even the ones who deliberately kill innocent civilians and take trophy photos with them? Putting a sticker on your car is cute and all, but the idea “Support the Troops” lacks all nuance. (A politician’s idea of supporting the troops is to use them and get photographed next to them.) Besides, are these the same troop-supporting people who do not take their governments to task for reducing funding for body armour, pensions, medical and psychiatric treatment for veterans? Did you know that 17.4% of soldiers in Afghanistan report acute stress? Did you know that some 20% of suicides in the US are veterans, even though they make up less than 1% of the population? Between 100,000 and 200,000 Vietnam vets have killed themselves. Plenty of suicides take place among current soldiers as well. Posttraumatic stress disorder is believed to afflict up to 30 percent of close to 2 million active-duty soldiers and veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Unemployment among young male veterans is now more than 22 percent, and hundreds of thousands of US military vets are homeless or at risk of homelessness. I don’t think we should have any troops, but while we have them, how about they get what they were promised and what they need? Is that what it means to support the troops? Because that is not what is happening. Don’t expect government to make it happen, either. Government is bankrupt, morally and now economically. Finally, if you really want to support the troops, take away the government’s ability to send them to their deaths in pointless imperial wars.
What is the difference between soldiers and terrorists? Or insurgents or enemy combatants or whatever word the propaganda machines are using this week. Well, let’s see. First, soldiers are employed by a state and terrorists are not. That means soldiers are pursuing the state’s interests and terrorists are pursuing private interests. Most wars are concocted by elites and wrapped in flags and slogans. Flags lend wars and the actions of soldiers legitimacy in the eyes of nationalists. They get it: soldiers=good, terrorists=bad. Terrorism, on the other hand, is usually born of desperation. Therefore, in general, terrorists have real grievances and soldiers take for granted that their commanding officers have the best interests of the country at heart. To argue that terrorists are less moral than soldiers because they target civilians is wrong because soldiers sometimes target civilians, sometimes as an aim of war and sometimes for fun; and those branded as terrorists sometimes target agents of the state (as when al Qaeda attacked the USS Cole, and Bill Clinton declared it “an act of terrorism”).
And when there are such abuses, we rightly call for the guilty soldiers to be prosecuted. What tends to happen, though, is that the military will throw the book at a few soldiers whose abuses have been made public, and it will attempt to cover up any more so the military’s image remains professional and just (much like they try to cover up images of coffins with flags draped over them). (The Iraq War Logs have revealed plenty of examples.) One point of the book The Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimbardo is that individual responsibility, asking who did the crime, should not be the only consideration when apportioning blame. An additional question is, who created the conditions where all this was allowed to happen? Donald Rumsfeld’s deliberate sidestepping of international law and basic human morality trickled down to his army in Iraq, which is how we got Abu Ghraib.
Deep down I cannot bring myself to blame the troops. Soldiers are lied to. They are told that their actions, whether occupying a foreign country, shaking down a village, killing whomever they are told to kill without question, are all in the service of a good cause. Soldiers are not only taught to kill, and that killing is right, but to believe in the utmost honourability of their organisation and their superiors, and thus the uncritical, unquestioning acceptance of their orders. That’s called indoctrination. But I guess since we are mostly taught not to question through government-run schools, what would we expect? Besides, many people who go into the military want to follow authority and want to kill. But why should we pay for their training, their guns, tanks and bombs?
But not all soldiers want to kill. Most are persuaded, much like the public is, that, in extreme circumstances, it is noble to kill. I am not a big fan of killing anyone, but of course I can understand that killing can be the right thing to do: if you are defending your own life or the life of an innocent, it may be necessary to kill someone. But states do not fight defensive wars very often anymore. The US has not fought a defensive war for 200 years. (Contrast that with the evil Iran, which has not fought an aggressive war in 200 years.) Wars against terrorism are usually results of state, not terrorist, aggression. Every war for humanitarian ideals (if there has ever truly been one) has just set the intervening powers further down the road to the next imperial war by enlarging the state, legitimising aggression and spreading the lie that war is not so bad on the people. Soldiers need to begin to think very critically about their role as agents of the lies, the plunder and the killing.
One problem is that the US, British, Canadian and other public constituencies do not care enough about the turmoil abroad caused by their governments’ policies. Most of them will never fight in a war, nor will they see the war brought home to them (until the next terrorist attack, at any rate; and then they will not realise the war was the cause of it). Many of them do not care what happens abroad, as long as they can keep the car full of gas. Many others support these wars, believing they are self-sacrificial and good for everyone. When the public is not exposed to the bloodshed and the costs of war, it can give its seal of approval willingly.
When, after many battles past,
Both, tired with blows, make peace at last,
What is it, after all, the people get?
Why! Taxes, widows, wooden legs and debt. — Samuel B. Pettengill
Your money is going toward killing people you do not know. The War on Terror, Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, the War on Drugs, the drone wars… Can we awaken from this nightmare yet? Can we at least stop paying for wars that are bankrupting us? Unfortunately, as with everything governments do, we do not have a choice.
The full costs are hard to count. Modern governments finance wars with debt, which means we will be paying for many years to come. When we are shown the costs of wars, we usually only see the direct budgetary costs. As such, it is widely reported that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost about $1 trillion. Though a truly enormous figure in itself, the one trillion statistic obscures the money the warmakers cannot account for, the costs of treatment and pensions for soldiers, compensation to the families of the over 6000 US troops killed (not much compensation for Iraqi or Afghani families, though) and debt financing. The war in Iraq almost definitely made oil prices rise by at least $10 a barrel. The actual figure for the costs of the war may well be over $3 trillion. Three trillion dollars. Barack’s first defense budget came to $685.1b, which means it grew, and hit $708.3b for 2011, which means it is growing. Oh, and $20b has been spent just on air conditioning, but wars in the desert will require that. It is also going toward military bands, but only to the tune of a billion dollars a year.
A keynesian might say that this money has been well spent because it has stimulated the economy. No, it hasn’t. It can’t. It has dragged down the economy with higher debt, higher oil prices, higher costs to veterans, fewer jobs, higher interest rates and trillions of dollars diverted from the productive sector of the economy to the destructive government sector. The wars exacerbated the economic crisis in which the US is still entangled. But if even keynesianism worked, how do we account for the money that is missing?
In October 2009, the Inspector General of the US Department of Defense released a report that exposed various “significant deficiencies” in Pentagon balance sheets from fiscal years 2004 to 2008. The Department of Defense has never been audited. But by examining the various internal audits that have been carried out, along with the opaque system of contracting, the report uncovered more than $1 trillion in unsupported account entries.The Senate Finance Committee wrote a report a year later that took the Pentagon to task for its “total lack of fiscal accountability” for “leaving huge sums of the taxpayers’ money vulnerable to fraud and outright theft.” Fraud and theft are typical of all governments; but not all governments can raise and waste a trillion dollars and not have to face the guillotine. And since a democracy’s only real way to hold anyone at all to account is elections, the unelected bureaucrats at the departments have little to fear.
One example of this wastage is the $6.6b in cash the Pentagon for some reason thought it wise to fly in a plane over to Iraq. It has presumably been stolen, but who knows? How could any organisation, especially one that is barely accountable to anyone, account for all the trillions of dollars it goes through? It is too big and too opaque to audit. The role of special interests in taking your money to spread war is well documented. (Here is a primer.) If you need an example of profligate handouts to war contractors, consider this: even after the scandal of the missing trillion dollars, the Pentagon requested another trillion to operate the fleet of Lockheed F-35s. Where do they get all this money from? They steal it from the private sector through taxation. Do you know how many hospitals that money could build for war victims? How many people we could educate with that money? Can the government ever stop spending and let us try?
In War Is a Racket, Major General Smedley Butler begins “[War] is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.”
Only insiders benefit, of course, and they make big money. As such, they have a major interest in keeping wars going and lying to everyone about why they must. According to Butler, at least 21,000 new millionaires and billionaires were made in the United States during the first World War.
How many of these war millionaires shouldered a rifle? How many of them dug a trench? How many of them knew what it meant to go hungry in a rat-infested dug-out? How many of them spent sleepless, frightened nights, ducking shells and shrapnel and machine gun bullets? How many of them parried a bayonet thrust of an enemy? How many of them were wounded or killed in battle?
Out of war nations acquire additional territory, if they are victorious. They just take it. This newly acquired territory promptly is exploited by the few — the selfsame few who wrung dollars out of blood in the war. The general public shoulders the bill. And what is this bill? This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all its attendant miseries. Back-breaking taxation for generations and generations.
He goes on to outline the financial interests that guided pre-WW2 Allied policy from supporting to opposing Japan, and how the costs of war and expansion are borne by taxpayers. Foreign involvement from 1898 saw the origin of the debt crisis that the US is struggling with today. Smedley details the enormous earnings of various corporations from WW1, some of whom produced things that were never used. Aside from the probable fact that today’s wars are more costly and more groups have their hands out, little has changed.
The main imperialist powers will naturally be the richest ones. States with liberalised economies have strong economies. Oppressive states do not have free economies and thus have trouble sustaining wars. Only a state with a strong economy could afford to keep a powerful military machine going indefinitely. The US went through Vietnam and survived to learn nothing from it; the USSR lost the war in Afghanistan and collapsed.
Military powers continue to spend countless sums developing new weapons that make killing easier and more efficient. The contractors make big money, with Lockheed Martin coming out on top, pocketing $36b from the US government in 2010 alone. Though the government contracting business is a somewhat opaque process, we see big corporations making tens of billions from governments who like war as a way to suck the people’s money from them and enlarge their own budgets. They ostensibly aim at eliminating civilian casualties, but in the wars they fight, insurgents, terrorists or whoever your enemy is blend with civilians, and the proportion of civilian casualties to bad guys has not gone down. Pilots still bomb or gun down people on the ground from thousands of feet in the air and get called brave heroes by the politicians benefiting from the war.
So inside the US, the current imperial power, is very liberal, and as such its economy is strong. However, because it is able to project its power, it does so, to disastrous effect for large parts of the rest of the world. The American people believe in the freedom the US has internally and want the best for others, so they are easily won over to illiberal wars by promises to free the people of their dictator. But the differences between the countries the US (and now NATO) goes to war with are not moral ones. The rich countries simply have the power to project themselves into other people’s affairs, they can get away with it because only voting keeps them in check (and foreign policy does not hold voters’ attention), and the countries they pick on are so weak—Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Yemen—they could not possibly put up a real fight.
Libya is a case in point. Barack did not ask Congress for permission to go to war, even though he is required to do so according to the Constitution. (I like the US Constitution but it does not seem to be much more than a piece of paper anymore.) Barack’s people said the war would last “days, not weeks”, and it lasted six months. The interveners’ original mandate was a no-fly zone to protect people that was soon expanded without authorisation from the Security Council to picking sides, assassination and regime change. On May 13, after nearly two months of fighting, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced that the war had cost $750m. It doesn’t seem like a lot for an organisation that spent $3t on Iraq, but then that figure is an official government figure and probably includes only the costs of bullets, missiles and fuel, not the planes themselves, the salaries of the soldiers, the money for the rebels, the post-conflict reconstruction (if there is any), and whatever else we do not know about. And the interveners were quick to recognise the rebel forces as government, which means a) there was no consultation of the people (so at least the decision was democratic), b) the world will be expected to look away when the rebels, now the good guys, commit atrocities, and c) the rebels will be pliable to the demands of foreign governments (which will presumably mean no-bid contracts to their oil friends). Is this self-determination for the Libyan people?
That said, for the sake of fairness, the war is over and Qaddafi is gone, which might be the best outcome we could have expected, and some credit must go to NATO. Even though this post condemns war, it seems to me wise to judge events on their eventual outcomes. If Libya becomes much freer and more prosperous as a result of NATO intervention, it may have been worth it. If history is anything to go by, Libya will not be much better off after Qaddafi.
All these invasions send a clear message to states like North Korea that have or are developing nuclear weapons: keep them. Nuclear weapons are a highly rational statist enterprise. It is fundamentally out of the question to attack a country with a nuclear weapon because it might use it. So North Korea, Iran and whomever else the US and Israel talk tough about, hold on tight to your nukes if you want to hold on to your regime.
Only spending by an organisation with an unlimited budget could have produced the nuclear bomb. North Korea could never have built such a bomb from scratch. Only a democracy could. Only a democracy has the money and the ability for scientific openness, and yet the ability to appropriate billions of dollars (in 1940s money) for secret projects. And for the incalculable sum spent on research and development to gain an advantage in killing others, the advantage often does not even last until the end of the war, because another state can steal secrets or develop its own special killing machines.
You do not benefit from war. You only lose. Imperialists benefit, as they get to control more and more territory; military hardware firms benefit from generous contracts; civilians, soldiers and so on do not benefit. Unfortunately, those people are mostly sheep. Every society has a few “deep thinkers” and a large number of “sheep thinkers”. Sheep thinking not only limits our imagination; it could have enormous consequences. In Nuremberg Diary, Gustave Gilbert recounts a conversation he had with Hermann Goering, Hitler’s second in command, who revealed a deep understanding of the ability of the elites to control the sheeplike masses.
Why, of course the people don’t want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece?…But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a parliament or a communist dictatorship…. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.
History shows innumerable examples of the public’s approval of or even pushing for war. So often the elites throw the war into the open because of some high political squabble and make everyone think they need to go to war. As the idea of war mixes and churns in political discourse, in the media and in the minds of the people, it soon becomes a given that we must go to war. After all, we are under attack.
“War does not determine who is right, only who is left.” — Bertrand Russell
In Europe at the beginning of the 20th century, socialism was creeping into public life. Social democrats were gaining followers and attempting to forge international links with other left-wing groups. They wanted what is today known as social justice. The elites, the great union of political and economic power, felt threatened. We can’t let these people take power, they thought. Trouble brewed and in 1914, World War One began. World War One turned out to be not only the most costly and deadly war in human history but entirely pointless. But one effect it did have was to turn the internationalist socialists into nationalists; to abandon their hopes of improving their country, and to go to war for it. The elites stumbled into, and to an extent concocted, a war, and the people who had nothing to gain took the bait. They died in the millions as a result.
Distracting the people from problems on the home front is just one of many reasons those with militaries at their disposal choose to use them. Most wars start because of disputes between elites, or to maintain the privileged position of empires, states and corporations. Why should the rest of us get caught up in their personal squabbles? Let them have fistfights or duels and stop killing millions of innocent people and spending trillions of our dollars to secure their wealth. This series delves into the reasons we go to war, and the reasons we are fools to do so.
Part 1: Democratic Wars
Though wars may be started by self-interested, psychopathic elites who feel no compunction about killing millions of people, they are held in place by well-meaning but ignorant people who believe that military power is a reasonable way to deal with the world’s problems. (And if you are a libertarian who supports war, I urge you to read this.) There is a dictator somewhere in the world? Let us, the good guys, go take him out. It’s not invasion—it’s liberation. It’s not occupation—it’s nation building. It’s not installing a friendly dictator—it’s democracy promotion. Most of those same people believe that the Allies—again, the good guys—entered the world wars to stop an evil, save the world and secure our freedoms. It is incredible to me how many people in democracies believe that the reason we should vote is because people died in the World Wars to defend our freedom. These people need a history book.
What makes us the good guys, anyway? Ethnocentrism. Our ideas are so good we would be wrong not to impose them on others. Sure, thousands or millions of people might die, but in the long run, they will have democracy, and they will be just as great as us. At the beginning of NATO’s intervention in Libya, Stephen Walt wrote
Of course, like his predecessors, Obama justifies his resort to force by invoking America’s special place in the world. In the usual rhetoric of “American exceptionalism,” he couched it in terms of U.S. values, its commitment to freedom, etc. But the truly exceptional thing about America today is not our values (and certainly not our dazzling infrastructure, high educational standards, rising middle-class prosperity, etc.); it is the concentration of military power in the hands of the president and the eroding political constraints on its employment.
Now, “America finds itself lurching from conflict to conflict often with little idea of how they will end, other than the hope that the forces of righteousness will prevail,” in the name of humanitarian intervention.
The manichean good guy-bad guy distinction is a great way to rally ignorant people around a war in a place they cannot find on a map. We know nothing about them except that they hate freedom. We like to think that we are the good guys, and our government, who we believe is an extension of our collective will, is the strong arm of our superiority. I am not a moral relativist, but to believe that the US Department of Defense, the Department of State, the CIA and so on are good guys by any measure is a joke. While the good-guy justification might be enough to keep the soldiers showing up and the public overlooking the enormous costs of war in blood and treasure, it is not why elites pick these fights.
My explanation that World War One was initiated to distract the people from socialism is of course incomplete. Different decisions were taken for different reasons by the closed circles of elites in each country that participated in the war. Britain’s, for instance, went to war largely to cripple its rival Germany. The alliance of Russia and France, and later Britain, all boxed Germany in geographically, and being a latecomer to the imperial game, Germany’s expansion would need to be mainly local, rather than overseas. It attacked its neighbours. Certainly, German decision makers (Kaiser Wilhelm not least among them) share the blame for the start of the war; all the powers do. Then came the Treaty of Versailles, which was obviously victor’s justice and not true justice. No one benefited from this war, least of all the lower classes; and everyone paid the price again one generation later.
The incalculable chaos—the post WW1 wars across Europe and the Middle East—caused by three men at Versailles who thought they could reorder the world should not be ignored when considering causes of today’s problems. The point is not that they or their countries were less moral, or that a Hitler or Stalin victory over Europe would have been better for anyone. Rather, the problem is that they were given so much power.
Hitler came to power on the back of the humiliating Treaty of Versailles and its devastating effects: hyperinflation in 1923 and deflation in 1929. (Not all historians will agree that Versailles led to those effects as much as the mismanagement of German governments of the time, but it was certainly an easy scapegoat. What the people can be led to believe always matters.) The closing of borders to trade after the start of the Great Depression also did nothing to help Germany, and in fact showed the Germans that, not only were they crippled by the punishments inflicted by foreign powers, but they were being left in the lurch when trade might have saved their economy. 6m Germans were unemployed when Hitler took office. He found a smooth road to fascism.
People condemn Germany’s bombing of Britain, but what did the British expect? Hitler never wanted to fight Britain, but Britain attacked Germany first. Then they show their ignorance by not knowing or their double standards by not caring about the firebombing of German cities, which in cases such as Dresden were solely punitive and had no strategic value. No one entered the war or bombed anything to end the Holocaust, either. If they had, the British would have allowed more Jewish refugees to enter Palestine, and neither Canada nor the US would have turned away the almost 1000 refugees aboard the MS St. Louis. Moreover, Hannah Arendt and other historians believed the Holocaust was an extension of the carelessness with which colonial bureaucrats signed orders for administrative slaughter of native peoples and the disdain they felt for them.
People say it was moral to defend Poland. But Poland’s government, just like Germany’s, was a racist dictatorship. (France was full of racism too; but I guess being a democracy it was more moral and thus the people deserved more help.) Then people say we should have attacked Germany in 1938 or before. But the only time Nazi Germany had invaded a country before the invasion of Poland was an intervention into Spain to take sides in the Spanish Civil War, and I think it is fair to say that anyone who approves of the NATO operation in Libya can understand that. When this kind of foreign military intervention results in suicide bombings, the whole religion of Islam is blamed and all Muslims look like terrorists, when the real culprit is staring us in the face. But attacking Germany was just and righteous, because they were different from us.
The US did not have to enter the war. Japan did not bomb Pearl Harbour so it could begin a takeover of the continental US. It did so to change the equation, to do something about the sanctions on Japan that were making it impossible for Japan to continue to subjugate China. FDR baited Hitler into declaring war on the US, as Hitler did not want war with the US either. A major overreaction ensued in the US, and FDR had his mandate for war.
Britain was not particularly moral and freedom-loving. It controlled the world’s largest empire and held down indigenous people by force. The scorched earth campaign in South Africa (where the concentration camp was invented), the Amritsar Massacre (not the only massacre in British India, just the most recent) and the killing of thousands of Iraqis in 1920 (in which everyone’s hero Winston Churchill played a major role) were not only immoral; they provided an example the new imperialists could profitably emulate. Territorial expansion and empire were rational. With policies that contributed the Great Depression, the great powers closed their borders to foreign goods; and as Frederic Bastiat once said, “if goods don’t cross borders, armies will.” In the absence of free trade, empires like Britain’s and Russia’s afforded enormous benefits. Countries like Japan that had did not have enough natural resources for industrialisation, and Germany, hobbled by the 1919 borders, saw empires as a great way to get what they needed to grow. Hitler mentioned natural resources that Germany did not have in his writing as chancellor.
(That said, a look at the pre- and post-imperial world gives us no reason to believe that uninterrupted rule by indigenous elites would have been any better than by empires. The liberation of most of the world from the colonial yoke was heralded as a new era of freedom, but in most cases results were very disappointing. Government by locals and foreigners alike leaves the governed wide open to abuse.)
The supposed paragons of democracy (the US, Britain, Canada, etc.) had given women the vote barely 20 years earlier (around the same time as Germany). The US was certainly no beacon of morality by WW2. As Albert Jay Nock wrote in 1939,
in order to keep down the great American sin of self-righteousness, every public presentation ought to draw the deadly parallel with the record of the American State. The German State is persecuting a minority, just as the American State did after 1776; the Italian State breaks into Ethiopia, just as the American State broke into Mexico; the Japanese State kills off the Manchurian tribes in wholesale lots, just as the American State did the Indian tribes; the British State practices large-scale carpetbaggery, like the American State after 1864; the imperialist French State massacres native civilians on their own soil, as the American State did in pursuit of its imperialistic policies in the Pacific, and so on.
And morality was obviously not a major consideration, or the moralisers (the British and US empires) would never have allied with Stalin. Unlike Hitler, Stalin had indeed killed many people—some 20m—and enslaved millions more in the gulags. It is no wonder many indigenous forces in Eastern Europe fought with the invading Germans against the Soviets, the side that had proven its barbarity against them. If the allies had become more moral after the war, they would have insisted on freedom for all people, instead of first attempting to occupy Iran, then escalating the war in Indochina against indigenous freedom fighters, followed by everything else that happened when the imperialists were allowed to go back to the work they preferred. Anyone who studies US foreign policy knows that during the Cold War, the US was responsible for coups, dictatorships, mass killings, wars, and various other crimes that suggest the allies’ winning of the war was not unequivocally good. World War Two had nothing to do with liberating anyone, and everything to do with eliminating a rival empire. The troops did not die to make us free; they died for nothing.
More importantly, the idea of taking out Hitler or the Nazi regime and imperial Japan worked all right in the medium term (notwithstanding the enormous costs in lives and wealth, the Cold War and the Soviet takeover of half of Europe), but simply tackling dictators and then replacing them does not strike the root of the problem. It is the same style of misguided policy that believes in combatting terrorism rather than ending the aggression and occupations that cause it.
The two real problems are, first, the existence of the means to build up a military in the first place, through government power to tax, conscript (or just pay security forces better than everyone else), disseminate propaganda, silence dissenters, and so on; and second, the unquestioning following of authority. If Hitler, Stalin, Mao et al. had not had access to the levers of the state, or if more people had defied them, they would just have been scheming loudmouths at town hall meetings. If we were to eliminate some dictatorship, if it were somehow an easy task, I would suggest building things up from the bottom, perhaps training them in basic security while letting the people figure out their own solutions, instead of imposing a new government on them. I do not believe it would be necessary to do many things on a national level when they could be done locally or regionally, across borders. You do not need the government to build highways or railroads, for example, when there are corporations all around the world that could compete for it.
Either way, World War Two has become a kind of fetish in anglophone culture. Men love to watch the heroic allies duke it out with the evil Nazis and Japanese. We are so proud of ourselves that we say things like “you would all be dead now if not for our boys”, which is, to say the least, a counterfactual that defies credulity. (There is no doubt that many amateur history buffs will be able to pick meat off the bones of my arguments on the causes of the World Wars, which evinces my point.) Hitler has become almost a cartoonish image of evil. Because of our uncomfortable relationship with fact, it is easy to manipulate the masses into believing that the next Hitler is right around the corner. Saddam Hussein, for instance, was compared to Hitler before both the 1991 and 2003 wars against him. We HAVE to eliminate him: he is Hitler!
The myths surrounding previous wars contribute to the next war. The goodness of the Good Gulf War (1991), for example, has been crushed under the evidence. I remember as a kid watching American tv during that time, listening to everyone shout about how bad Saddam was and how we needed to invade Iraq. It made sense to me and my simple mind. What did they say? One thing they said was that Saddam’s troops were ready to invade Saudi Arabia, our good friend, then entered Kuwait and threw babies out of incubators. That turned out to be a lie. No one realised until it was too late, and the public had already given the politicians the go-ahead to invade. And it was just one of the pieces in the propaganda puzzle; and we do not need every piece in place to approve of the war. But even though some of the lies had been exposed, all the public could remember on the eve of Operation Iraqi Freedom from a decade earlier was that Saddam was the bad guy.
The stated rationale for intervening in Iraq both times was that Saddam was evil. But when we declare war on anyone in a country, we are declaring war on that country. Individual countries are neither moral nor immoral. They contain mostly innocent people. When we declare war on a country, we are mostly declaring war on innocent people.
Do we go to war for freedom? Whose freedom, exactly? Certainly not the freedom of those in the country starting the war. Wars tend to produce “emergency” laws that jail people for dissent, muzzle the media, censor unfavourable stories and demonise anyone voicing an opposing opinion. Taxes usually go up (except in the case of Iraqi Freedom, when they went down, creating an enormous hole in the budget that has only deepened). When the war is over, the newly-enlarged and emboldened government, with its taste for higher tax rates and greater control of its people, is less accountable than ever. Is that what we should “thank a vet” for?
We do not fight for others’ freedom, either. Iraq is not, contrary to what you might believe, a “free” country. Predictably, the new regime has become more repressive, authoritarian and corrupt. Those who believe that, whether or not the war was justified, at least Iraqis have democracy, are not only misguided with regard to the value of democracy but to what is happening on the ground in Iraq. (See here, here and here.) Furthermore, in addition to the hundreds of thousands of people who have died and the millions who have been displaced in Iraq since the invasion of 2003, cancer rates and birth defects are exploding. (The Vietnamese might have been able to predict this turn of events.) War has long-term environmental effects that are themselves another reason why only the ignorant would declare war on a country in order to save it. (Find more on the causes of war in part 4 of this series.)
Contrary to common perception, democracy does not make war less likely or less dangerous. Operation Iraqi Freedom was a democratic decision, approved of by a majority of Americans. It was enabled by government fearmongering propaganda, falsified and politicised intelligence and media outlets that did not research government lies. And if you believe we just need to reform government so that it stops lying, you do not understand government very well. (I will continue to use the term Operation Iraqi Freedom to refer to this war. The term is such a distortion of the intended and eventual effects of the war that it reveals the moral bankruptcy of those who made the war happen.) Operation Cast Lead, the 22-day bloodbath in Gaza of 2008-9, was a democratic decision, with over 90% of Jewish Israelis approving. Democracy does not lead to peace; in fact, as Jack Levy (1988) has argued, democracies will often adopt a crusading spirit, attempting to rid the world of evils like terrorism and dictatorship. Democratic governments sometimes come under pressure from their people to start or continue a war in order to stay in power. Governments repeatedly lie and cheat their citizens into supporting wars that do not benefit anyone but a few elites, and have done so for thousands of years.
Whether intended or not, a major outcome of war is the expansion of government power. The American Civil War introduced the draft, which is akin to slavery, censorship, the suspension of habeas corpus and thus perhaps the first major violation of the Bill of Rights (but not the last) and the placing of state power in the hands of the federal government. World War One brought back the draft, more censorship—criticise the war and you are in trouble—deportations and spying. World War Two conscripted people by the millions, introduced food rationing, placed citizens under surveillance and interned over 100,000 Japanese Americans. The War on Drugs has chipped away at the fourth and fifth amendments (which is why it is so convenient for the government to call it a war). The War on Terror introduced the Department of Homeland Security, enhanced pat-downs at the airport, the Patriot Act and Guantanmo Bay Prison. Eric Foner, professor at Columbia University and president of the American Historical Association, mocks the idea that somehow freedom loses a war. “It is hard to see how at any point in American history, whether it’s the Civil War, World War One, the Cold War or the War on Terror, it’s hard to see how these infringements on the right to dissent, infringements on basic civil liberties actually have any military value whatsoever. Does anybody think that Germany would have won World War One if Eugene Debs had been allowed to speak in the United States? Or is it really the case that we can’t allow people basic civil liberties, the right to a trial, the right to see the evidence against them, because otherwise Osama bin Laden is going to take over the world?” But a lie repeated often enough acquires the veneer of truth. In August 2011, 40% of Americans polled believed it was necessary to give up civil liberties in order to curb terrorism. War takes away everyone’s freedom, money and lives, and only a few benefit.