Insyriated (2017): What Not To Conclude

 

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Available among recent releases to watch for free on Sky Movies right now is Insyriated (2017), a Belgian film directed by Philippe van Leeuw, which is set in the midst of the current civil war raging in Syria. The film could just as well have been called “Iniraqated” or “Inlibyated” or “Inyemenated”, or just substitute the name of any other country where war is currently raging.

This is a story about each and every war zone, for it depicts the lawless world into which all citizens are plunged once the powers that be, whether at home or abroad, decide to opt for war as a way to resolve conflict. Some will doubtless see in Insyriated a pretext for continued international intervention in Syria. The clearly identified bad guys are two government security agents who search terrified families’ homes and commit crimes along the way. The good guys here are the rebels, who we are made to believe fall into the category of “appropriately vetted moderate rebels” embroiled in a protracted and bloody conflict with the government of Bashar al-Assad.

In reality, we know nothing about the rebels depicted in this film, beyond the fact that they have families. Are they affiliated with Al Qaeda, ISIS, Al Shabaab, Al Nusra, or other official enemies of the West? It may not matter in the least. Certainly the “appropriately vetted moderate rebels” in Syria have more in common with “unvetted radical rebels” than some in the US government supposed when they unwisely opted covertly to bestow upon the former some 600 tons of weapons from 2012 to 2013. The result was plain for everyone to see: a massive expansion of ISIS across both Syria and Iraq. Groups such as ISIS are non-state entities, devoid of any form of military industry. They are able to take up arms only when formal military institutions provide them with the means to do so. Seems so obvious, and yet the flow of weapons to the Middle East from the West continues unabated.

It also may not matter all that much from the perspective of the civilians “Insyriated”, trapped in a terrifying war zone where bombs are falling all around and snipers are shooting all day long, that the government of Syria is not staffed primarily by saints (in contrast to Western governments!). The family and those whom they shelter depicted in this film are confined to a small apartment, unable to go outside, whether to work or to school. All that these people seem to want is for the war to end, so that they might finally resume their normal lives. Recall that in the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq, many Iraqis voiced their considered opinion that, for ordinary people, the quality of life under dictator Saddam Hussein was far better than any time since he was deposed.

It would be a non sequitur of gargantuan proportion to conclude from the fact that some government security agents are thugs, rapists and thieves (in this film, two of them are identified as such) that we must jump into the ring and help to eject the Syrian government. For the truth is that the dynamics displayed in this film are more about the reality of wartime than about any particular context. Throughout history, men on both sides of every conflict have seized the opportunity to conduct themselves as though “Everything is permitted,” as though they had been flung back into the state of nature, where the law of the jungle is the only one which matters: Might makes right. Only the strong survive.

The tendency of wars to spiral into vicious, horrifying scenes of murder and mayhem has been witnessed over and over again, throughout history, and should, therefore, be regarded as a foreseeable consequence of any decision to go to war. In the twentieth century, World War II and the US intervention in Vietnam were particularly grisly examples of what can happen when young men are told that the proscription to homicide no longer applies, but every other war has also involved similar atrocities, if on a somewhat smaller scale.

Most recently, we know that during the US occupations of both Afghanistan and Iraq, many crimes were committed by US troops and privately contracted security forces, all paid for by well-intentioned US citizens. There is nothing unique about the horrific situation in Syria, where women and children are terrorized, raped, maimed and killed because the rules are no longer thought by some to apply. Nor does it matter in the least that some of the people fighting may have good intentions.

In fact, all of the parties to this conflict believe in what they are doing. The government forces believe that they are defending Syria from terrorists. The moderate rebels believe themselves to be rising up against the oppressive government. The radical rebels wish to establish a permanent Caliphate. “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” makes every military conflict difficult to grasp, but in Syria the situation is about as complicated as they ever get. There are no clear heroes and villains, for murder and rape and destruction have been committed on all sides. This is a multifaceted conflict with a long history, and it is sophomoric to suppose that “We are good and they are evil” tropes might somehow apply. (See Reese Erlich, Inside Syria (2014) for a detailed account of just how multifaceted this conflict is.)

The question, then, remains: what to do? And the answer should be obvious: not more of the same. Sending more troops to Syria, continuing the flow of arms to the region, and lobbing missiles and bombs on territories thought to harbor either terrorists or the central government is the worst policy of all, as should be evident from the outcomes of the stupid wars in both Iraq and Libya. Unfortunately, the latest chemical attack in Syria is being used to drum up support, once again, for more Western engagement in Syria. But what we know about this most recent attack is only that it occurred. We know that both the rebels and the government of Syria have had access to chemical weapons and may well have used them in the past. It is naive beyond belief to assume that every time chemical weapons are used, this constitutes the crossing of a proverbial red line which necessitates intervention.

It is, needless to say, highly suspicious that the latest attack occurred only shortly after President Trump’s announcement of an intention to remove troops from Syria. But would Western powers be so pernicious as to perpetrate a false flag chemical attack, effectively torturing and sacrificing innocent people for the purpose of perpetuating US involvement in the civil war? They’ve done it before, and it seems safe to say that they’ll do it again. After the abject failure of US intelligence agencies in the build-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, I find it remarkable that anyone continues to pay any heed to what they say. Yellow cake, aluminum tubes and chemical attacks all sound like reasonable pretexts to Joe Q. Public for Western governments to get involved. But only assuming that the stories being told to promote war are not based on falsehoods or, even worse, lies.

Injecting more weapons and troops into Syria will result only in more families being raided, more children being terrorized and more women being raped. If the central government is overthrown, then there will be more, not less, drowning of people in cages. The chaos to ensue, as rival factions rush in to fill the government void, might even, as in postwar Libya, fling open the door to slavery.

In the light of the recent history of the Middle East, Insyriated is most plausibly interpreted as a call to end the slaughter in Syria. It’s time to bring all of the troops home. From everywhere. Now.

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The Lethal Foreign Policy of Military Experts

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Libya was bombed by the US government yesterday, but you wouldn’t know it because the media have been obsessed with the #TakeAKnee dispute between the president and the NFL. Trump may not even be aware that Libya was bombed under his authority, because he has put his trusty “Mad Dog” on a very long leash, in the hopes that he’ll be able to figure out how to clean up the mess in the Middle East.

I’ve picked on General James “Helluva Hoot to Shoot Some People” Mattis before, pointing out, among other things, the fact that he’s part of the revolving door of military officers and war profiteers. Was the Fallujah siege of 2004 a splendid show of US military prowess? I beg to differ. Perhaps it was for his moniker alone that General Mattis was called out of semi-retirement by Trump to serve as the Secretary of Defense. But rather than revisit my particular concerns about Mattis’ ability to solve the crises in the Middle East—or elsewhere—given the demonstrated failures of the US military since 2001, while he was running large parts of the show, I’d like to consider a more general question:

Should generals be diplomats?

ColinPowellRetired General Colin Powell was appointed US Secretary of State under President George W. Bush, and you may recall his colorful powerpoint presentation before the UN General Assembly in the run-up to the 2003 war on Iraq—yellow cake, aluminium tubes, mobile chemical laboratories (think: Breaking Bad). Powell did not convince very many of his colleagues at the UN that Iraq needed to be invaded in order to thwart Saddam Hussein’s allegedly imminent transfer of WMD (weapons of mass destruction) to Al Qaeda, but the US government went to war anyway. Why? Because the Bush administration wanted to, and UK Prime Minister Tony “Poodle” Blair had pledged that he was “absolutely” with Bush, “no matter what”. (See the Chilcot Report and its implications.) Even more important than having a tiny “coalition of the willing” was the congressional conferral on Bush of the 2002 AUMF (Authorization for Use of Military Force), giving him the liberty to wage war on Iraq as he saw fit and at a time of his choosing. The rest is history.

The Middle East is in shambles, and the same pundits and so-called foreign policy experts (including MIC revolving door retired military officers) are regularly trotted out to opine about the latest international crises: in Syria, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, and of course the never-ending wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. How did Libya become a part of the War on Terror? That was Obama’s idea or, rather, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s. She and a few others managed to persuade Obama that “Gaddafi must go.” Obviously, Hillary Clinton is not a general, so I am not going to focus on her specific reasons for wanting to repeat, in Libya, the mistake she made in supporting the overthrow of the government of Iraq. As a matter of fact, Clinton has characterized the 2011 Libya intervention as an example of “smart power at its best”. Of course, she also believes that she lost the 2016 election because of misogyny and the Russians (not sure where antiwar voters fit in there), and (assuming she really wrote What Happened) that the point of Orwell’s 1984 was to bolster our trust in “leaders, the press, experts”. May HRC eventually retire from public life in peace.

People have wondered why the United States was at war for every single day of the eight years of Obama’s presidency. Some were disillusioned by Obama’s hawkish foreign policy and decision to normalize assassination, even of US citizens, using unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) or lethal drones. Others were naturally elated, and the antiwar voters whose support Obama had lost by 2012 were more than made up for by the gain in people impressed by the fact that he had hunted down and killed Osama bin Laden.

Trump, too, sounded to some voters like the least bellicose of the two viable presidential candidates, once the DNC had completed their coronation of Clinton. He railed against interventionism, nation building, and fighting wars abroad when our own infrastructure is crumbling. Sound familiar? Bush and Obama did more or less the same. No nationbuilding! the candidates cried. US Marines do not walk children to school!

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The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, occurred under Bush’s watch, and his subsequent policies appear to have been largely crafted by Vice President Cheney, former CEO of military contract behemoth Halliburton, along with a contingent of chomping-at-the-bit neocons, who had been scheming about invading various countries in the Middle East for years. Obama and Trump seemed, refreshingly to antiwar voters, not to be swamp denizens but outsiders, who would not fall prey to the Deep State war-making apparatus. So what happened?

Trump, even more so than Obama before him, has depended upon the expert opinions of military personnel in deciding what to do next. Surprise: decorated generals tend to think that more military resources should be poured into the Middle East and the war machine should be expanded to new, uncharted territories as well. That’s because, in the infamous words of George W. Bush: “Our best defense is a good offense.” (National Security Strategy of the United States of America 2002).

It would be difficult for anyone seriously to deny that military experts have been trained primarily to do one thing: destroy things, including people. The most ambitious of the lot rise in the ranks through obedience to their superior officers and their readiness and willingness to carry out deadly missions. Which is not to say that military officers do not also sometimes exhibit courage, early in their careers, before having been deemed important enough to watch war on a big screen far from the bloody fray.

Now imagine that you were a general called upon to advise Obama or Trump about what to do in Afghanistan or Iraq. Because you’re an ambition-driven human being, you’re probably not going to deny that those wars can be won. You’re highly unlikely to apologize for your abject failure to craft a winning strategy over the course of the past fifteen years. Instead, you’ll ask for more and better tools so that you can, at last, get the job done, which no one else, including you, were able to before. The excuse for your prior failure, then, becomes that you did not have enough missiles, planes, drones; or else your hands were tied, making it impossible for you to achieve victory because the president was too involved in short-leash micromanagement and had no idea what the battlefield is like. Or something along those lines.

The point of the military corps is to serve the foreign policy aims of the executive, but when the military is given a say in, or even allowed to determine, what those aims should be, then we should expect to see more death and destruction, not less. So there you have it: the explanation of why the US military budget was recently increased by $80 billion, bringing the total to $700 billion. After consulting closely with military experts, Trump asked for the increase, and Congress gave it to him, despite the fact that Democrats continue to claim that they are part of some sort of anti-Trump Resistance movement.

You might nonetheless suppose that the executive will still be constrained by the legislative branch, given the US Constitution. You would be wrong, as the Congress has left the crusty and arguably misinterpreted 2001 AUMF in place, forsaking yet again its responsibility, right, and duty to decide when and where the United States should go to war. (NB: if the 2001 AUMF had been sufficient to permit the president to bomb anywhere on the planet, then there would have been no need for the 2002 AUMF. QED)

Viewed from the outside, this massive increase in the US military budget looks like the biggest con job in history. The Pentagon, which incidentally has “lost track” of trillions of dollars, is never held accountable, and has done nothing but sow chaos throughout the Middle East, disrupting the lives of millions of persons by killing, maiming, and traumatizing them, in addition to directly causing a massive refugee crisis. Induction on Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and Syria might lead a rational person to be wary about following the advice of military experts in crafting appropriate responses to tensions with Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, Syria (Trump, like Obama before him, cannot seem to decide whether the enemy is ISIS or Assad!), possibly Russia, and who knows where the next hot bed of conflict requiring US intervention will be found! Yet Congress has been persuaded to believe, because its members believe that voters have been persuaded to believe, that not only does the US military deserve their support, but it should be given even more money than before.

The ultimate problem here is a colossal failure of strategic intelligence. Stated starkly: homicide is not a strategy but a tactic. Foreign policy involves resolving conflicts with other members of the international community. Your nation is said to have a problem with another nation, so you can talk it out with the source of the problem, attempt to craft some sort of compromise solution, or explain to other members of the international community why you are right and they are wrong, in the hope that those nations will be able to exert some helpful influence in resolving the dispute. The military is called in when all of that sort of work, formerly known as “diplomacy”, has failed. Unfortunately, the US foreign policy of the twenty-first century has become more and more lethal because civil servants continue to depend upon military experts (again, often with ties to military industry) for advice on how to proceed. But this is not purely a matter of mercenary corruption, though that does play a role. The military mindset is itself geared toward achieving victory, not to retreat or compromise, which can be perceived of, and is often painted as weak.

The approach since September 11, 2001, has been to attempt to erase the problem of factional terrorism, to raze from the face of the earth the evil terrorists, wherever they may be. There has been no motivation for anyone in the administration to take seriously questions of etiology because they know that they can use their trusty drone killing machine in even the remotest corners of the world to incinerate the alleged enemy, wherever he may be said to hide. Advocates of drone killing retort, of course, that radical jihadists are beyond the reach of reason, but that has been intoned reflexively of every enemy against whom missiles have ever been deployed.

In truth, a number of suicide and would-be suicide bombers have quite lucidly articulated the source of their outrage: it is US foreign policy itself, what from the receiving end of missiles looks just like a vicious war on Muslim people. Ask yourself sincerely: What would a vicious war on Muslim people look like? Now take a look at the Middle East. The answer to the question “Why do they hate us?” could not be clearer to anyone who has paid any attention to US foreign policy in recent decades. But so long as the words of jihadists themselves are ignored, and slogans such as “They hate us for our freedom” are mindlessly parroted as the explanation for what they do, the killing machine will continue on in high gear. When the killing machine fails to eradicate the problem, then the constraints will be loosened, as under Trump, generating even more “collateral damage”, which will be used to recruit more and more jihadists to the cause, thereby keeping the killing machine in perpetual motion.

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No one being killed by US missiles today had a hand in the attacks of September 11, 2001. Some of the younger and younger jihadist recruits being eliminated have lived in countries under continuous bombing for as long as they can remember. Lots of other people have died as well. In 2011, Obama killed Anwar al-Awlaki’s sixteen-year-old son, Abdulrahman; in 2017, Trump killed Anwar al-Awlaki’s eight-year-old daughter—both were in Yemen. Surely the solution to the turmoil in the Middle East is not the annihilation of every Arabic-speaking person of color born abroad. All of them do have the potential to become terrorists one day, but none of them were born that way.

Even former directors of the CIA have acknowledged that “You cannot kill your way out of this.” (Unfortunately persons in positions of power tend not to arrive at such enlightened views until after they retire.) And yet that is the logical endpoint of an approach whose only real goal has been to eliminate potential threats to the US homeland. Kill them all before they have the chance to make it to US shores! It’s an offensive policy, in both senses of the word, for it values the lives of people in the United States above all other human lives. Now that the lethal scepter has been handed off to Trump, he has not changed anything so much as made patent what US foreign policy has been about all along. Make America Great Again! Even if it involves eliminating everyone else on the planet.

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Level Talk. We Kill Because We Can: The Advancement of Drones

1020549159In this 27-minute interview on Sputnik Radio Edinburgh, author Laurie Calhoun, Professor David Stupples of the City University of London, and host John Harrison discuss current and future problems with the use of lethal drones:

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US Drone Killing Machine Now on Autopilot

For years now I have been pointing out that Obama’s lasting legacy would be his ill-advised decision back in 2009 to normalize assassination, which his administration successfully rebranded as “targeted killing”. This was supposed to be the latest and greatest form of “smart war”: the use of unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), or lethal drones, to go after and eliminate evil terrorists without risking US soldiers’ lives.

It all sounds so slick and, well, Obama cool. The problem is that any sober consideration of Obama’s foreign policy over the course of his eight years as president reveals that the reality is altogether different. Judging by the murder and mayhem being perpetrated all across the Middle East, “smart war” was not so smart after all.

It’s not easy to tease out how much of the mess in the Middle East is specifically due to Obama’s accelerated use of lethal drones in “signature strikes” to kill thousands of military-age men in seven different lands. For he also implemented other, equally dubious initiatives. Planks of Obama’s bloody “smart power” approach included deposing Libya’s dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, and massively arming (from 2012 to 2013) a group of little-understood “appropriately vetted moderate rebels” in Syria.

Adding fuel to the fire, Obama oversaw the largest exportation of homicidal weapons to the Middle East ever undertaken by a single US president. Saudi Arabia wasted no time in using its US (and also UK) military provisions to lay Yemen to waste. Conjoined with Obama’s use of drones in that land, the result has been a horrific civil war in which many civilians have been killed and many civilian structures destroyed.

As if all of this were not bad enough, Obama also managed to drop more than 26K bombs in 2016, after having dropped more than 23K in 2015. Given all of this very warlike behavior in undeclared wars, no one can truly say precisely how much drones are to blame for the ongoing carnage throughout the Middle East. What is beyond dispute is that together these measures culminated in a huge expansion and spread of ISIS and other radical jihadist groups.

At the same time, given the tonnage of bombs dropped by Obama in seven different countries, the use of drones does seem to have led directly to a willingness of the president to use also manned combat aerial vehicles, notably in countries with which the United States was not at war when Obama assumed his office. While his predecessor, George W. Bush, can be properly credited with the destruction of Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama managed to contribute heartily to the destruction of Libya, Yemen, and Syria, while attacking the people of Somalia as well.

Enter Donald J. Trump, who became the new US president on January 21, 2017. On that same day, two drone strikes in Yemen killed a slew of people, three of whom were said to be “suspected Al Qaeda leaders”. The US government has not confirmed that it launched the strikes. It is the policy of the CIA, put in charge by Obama of the drone program “outside areas of active hostilities” (in countries such as Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, et al.), not to share the details of its covert operations. This would seem to imply that the drone strikes on January 21, 2017, were not the doings of the Pentagon, now under the direction of General James “Mad Dog” Mattis, who was sworn in on the same day as the new president.

Trump’s choice for CIA director, Mike Pompeo, has not yet been sworn in, as his confirmation process is still underway. In other words, the drone strikes carried out under the auspices of the CIA this past weekend were done so without a director in place. Obama therefore succeeded not only in normalizing assassination as “targeted killing” when the implements of homicide used are missiles, and they are launched under the direction of the CIA, but he also left the killing machine on autopilot. Note that the former CIA director, John Brennan, who first served as Obama’s drone killing czar, before being promoted to director, has spent his time in recent days bashing the new president, not serving as Trump’s interim adviser.

The incineration of military-age men using missiles launched from drones has become so frequent and commonplace that US citizens, including legislators, did not blink an eye at the fact that the killing machine set in motion by President Obama is now effectively on autopilot. It’s worth remembering that, once upon a time, acts of war were to be approved by the congress. Now even acephalic agencies such as the directorless CIA are permitted to use weapons of war to kill anyone whom they deem to be worthy of death. All of this came about because Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Barack “no boots on the ground” Obama wanted to be able to prosecute wars without appearing to prosecute wars. Fait accompli.

Note: above photo credit mikechurch.com

ROAR Magazine “State of Control” issue in the mail…

UPDATE: Full text now available here.

Happy 2017!

My essay, “The Drone [Assassination] Assault on Democracy,” appears with several other provocative pieces in issue #4, “State of Control”, of ROAR magazine:

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This new publication is produced, edited and mailed from the Netherlands. Hoping one day to see the drone assassins standing trial for crimes against humanity at The Hague.

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https://roarmag.org/2016/12/06/subscribe-now-roar-issue-4/

ROAR Magazine “State of Control” issue coming soon…

Very happy to be a contributor to ROAR magazine. My essay, “The Drone Assassination Assault on Democracy,” appears in issue #4, “State of Control”, of this exciting new publication.

Check it out, and subscribe if you can:

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https://roarmag.org/2016/12/06/subscribe-now-roar-issue-4/

BBC Radio 4 Thinking Allowed. Drone Warfare: From Soldiering to Assassination?

In this 17-minute discussion, BBC Radio 4 host Laurie Taylor interviews Laurie Calhoun and David Galbreath about issues raised in We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age. Topics covered include the dawning of the Drone Age on November 3, 2002; its relation to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001; the international principles of justice being ignored and subverted as a result of this easy-to-use and seemingly low-risk technology; the effects on civilians; whether drone strikes are more about counterterrorism or foreign policy by other means; and the psychological effect of drone strikes on drone operators themselves.

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Note: discussion of drone warfare between Laurie Calhoun, host Laurie Taylor, and interlocutor David Galbreath begins at 11:30 in this recording of the live program produced on November 2, 2016…

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