Today, President Obama unfurled his shiny plan to keep 35,000 to 50,000 U.S. troops in Iraq under a “new mission of training, ” and to send 17,000 more troops into Afghanistan. This may seem like a sleight of hand artifice (removing troops from Point A, only to drop them in Point B,) but many hawkish pundits, columnists, and bloggers respond to criticism of Obama’s plan by deploying the straw-man directive for readers to “consider the alternative.”
Meaning, I guess, we’re supposed to concede the point that keeping armed forces in Iraq is better than some imagined, hypothetical scenario where all hell breaks loose the second our forces leave, the country dissolves into sectarian warfare (worse that the civil strife that has already occurred,) and some kind of apocalyptical genocide breaks out (the kind of genocide we care about, not the Darfur or Congo kind.)
Let’s set aside the points that sectarian violence may be declining because of mass exoduses from Iraq, a significant amount of the population being dead, and US forces bribing Iraqis not to shoot each other, (all of which the Washington Post described as troops “stop(ping) a sectarian civil war.”) What is this “alternative” I’m supposed to be considering?
Over at Politico, Yousef Munayyer imagines the alternative to permanent occupation as crafty foe behaving themselves only until the final US Blackhawk helicopter departs the Iraq landscape so they can then rain down terror upon the population.
The fundamental problem with measuring success in the fight against insurgency is that we can never be sure if they have stopped fighting because they have given up or because they are just laying low and waiting for us to leave. I don’t know if I would call 50,000 troops “residual” but the heart of the problem is that we simply can’t move out quicker because we just don’t know what will happen.
This is a variation of the “consider the alternative” argument. Because the US military does not yet possess the gift of clairvoyance, we have to remain committed in the region indefinitely because, gee, just consider what might happen in this hypothetical I’ve invented.
It’s like John McHugh (R-NY) said today after his meeting with Obama. We have to consider the possibility that something bad may happen, like “the situation on the ground deteriorat(ing) and violence increas(ing),” which may very well happen because, ya’ know, we totally ripped apart the Iraqi infrastructure and societal fabric. But how do US troops occupying the region convey a new era of autonomy and peace to the Iraqis? They don’t. They can’t. Their presence just delays the inevitable: US troops leaving the region, and chaos and strife following a tumultuous time, followed by (hopefully) rebuilding. That’s what will happen if the troops leave tomorrow. That’s what will happen if the troops leave in December. The only difference is less men and women of all nationalities will die if it happens tomorrow.
To be sure, Iraq and Afghanistan are tremendously volatile regions, but deploying the “consider the alternative” argument is manipulative. Sure, something bad can happen at any given moment. Something bad might be happening in Denmark right now, or rather, something bad may happen eventually. That’s a 1% chance, and Dick Cheney says that’s all we need. Shall we invade? Something bad is actually happening in Darfur and the Congo right now, so why aren’t our troops on their way there?
We don’t know what may happen, but we do know what has happened. The wars have been disastrous, and the explanations for the decrease in violence in Iraq ranges from speculative to insincere. Killing off the population and bribing those who remain isn’t a diplomatic strategy. It’s making the best of a fucked-up situation. It’s reason for shame, but it’s certaintly not a mandate to stay in the region indefinitely because a handful of hawkish pundits keep lobbing hypotheticals at the American population.
It’s just until December! comes the scream of rationalization for a new Magic Number pull-out date. We have to remain in the region until December to ensure a fair, free election. Mind you, we can’t figure out how to run our own elections, but we’re going to import democracy to the Iraqis. International organizations independently monitor elections all the time, but suddenly we need an occupying force to handle procedures. With the help of the UN, elections are held in 14 of Iraq’s 18 provinces, with about 15 million citizens eligible to vote. If we’re hanging around to see how the Iraqis really feel about the US occupation, they’ve already been abundantly clear that they want us gone. Furthermore, it’s more than a little insulting to imply that Iraqis can’t handle their own elections without Big Brother America holding their hands throughout the process. It’s also ridiculous to imply Iraqis are somehow better off with Americans in their country. In some respects, things in Iraq are worse now than they were pre-American invasion. Take, for example, the looting of museums, disappearance of electricity, and appearance of smoking craters.
“In an ideal world, the Iraqi security forces could handle the election security themselves,” says Dennis Hertel (D-MI), Vice-President of the International Elections Monitors Institute (IEMI). “Whenever there is a threat, you have to make sure the security is adequate so people can vote. Violence is intimidation for the people participating in the election.” And Hertel admits that the best possible scenario is for third party, international watch groups to monitor the elections without a military presence: “The best thing is if you don’t have to have armed forces, or even legal officers for elections.”
Surely, Iraqis may need help rebuilding, training their military, and protecting their citizens, but a unilateral occupation isn’t the answer to their problems. It is only a promise of continued strife and violence. If the United States is serious about helping (and not occupying,) they should throw full support behind the UN and look for partners in the international community to provide non-military aid.
I guess we’re supposed to take Obama’s new Iraq and Afghanistan plans very seriously because they suddenly have bipartisan support. But the fact that John McCain, the man who once said that it would be totally cool if our troops remained in Iraq “for 100 years,” now agrees with Obama’s wartime policies is a very, very bad sign. When McCain later had to explain his comment because it was tremendously awful, he cited a longstanding, ugly truth of American power: we occupy a lot of countries. It’s just part of that crazy stuff we do all the time.
There are 737 military bases scattered around the planet, which staff roughly 2,500,000 US military personnel. It’s become commonplace to send our troops to foreign countries and station them there indefinitely. It’s become so banal that the so-called Progressive candidate, Barack Obama, can admit to keeping 35,000-50,000 armed troops in Iraq (with no deadline,) toe the line with John McCain and John Boehner, and the mainstream media accepts that this is a responsible, sane plan. It’s accepted because, once again, something bad is out there…waiting.
The Taliban are bad news. Hardly anyone disputes that. They terrorize innocents (particularly women, young girls, and anyone trying to receive an education,) but unilateral military action has never nurtured diplomatic relations. America has been in Afghanistan for eight years, and all that has been accomplished is a resurgent Taliban insurgency that is busily overwhelming areas of Pakistan, a country with a nuclear weapon. But a continuation of unilateral firebombing of civilian-populated regions doesn’t work. Unlike the reasons to stay in the Middle East afforded to us by the mainstream media, that’s not speculation.
Occupying a country and terrorizing the population ensures only one thing: blowback. Yes, pulling out of Iraq may lead to bad things that will demand attention from the international community and the UN, but the United States galavanting across the region and crushing indigenous people inspires only hatred.
This isn’t some radical, new lesson we have to learn. We’ve known this since 1991 during the Gulf War, when our Saudi Arabia-stationed bases pissed off this guy named Osama bin Laden. How many little Osamas are witnessing the brute, awful strength of the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan? How many members of their families and communities have our troops killed?
This just doesn’t make sense for Obama’s administration, or for our country. Our military and money is spread preciously thin. As Paul Krugman explained in his column today, Obama’s economic plan just may work, as long as nothing bad happens (like blowback from our irresponsible and irrational actions abroad):
According to the Obama administration’s budget projections, the ratio of federal debt to G.D.P., a widely used measure of the government’s financial position, will soar over the next few years, then more or less stabilize. But this stability will be achieved at a debt-to-G.D.P. ratio of around 60 percent. That wouldn’t be an extremely high debt level by international standards, but it would be the deepest in debt America has been since the years immediately following World War II. And it would leave us with considerably reduced room for maneuver if another crisis comes along.
That doesn’t really sound like Era of Responsibility, does it? Everything will be fine as long as nothing bad happens ever again because of these stupid things we’re doing in other people’s countries, and none of the people we’re bombing remember it was us, who bombed them. I’m sure Krugman wasn’t imagining another 9/11 in his hypothetical, but it’s a distinct possibility considering we’re broke, and our military is crouched in a foreign desert, messing with the locals.
A long-term goal for this mess should be to make the Taliban and radicalism unappealing. That won’t happen if we keep bombing countries. Poor, desperate people tend to falls into the clutches of radicalism because radicals can point up to the American jets that just decimated entire villages and say, “They did it.” Militarism only fuels more anti-America fervor. Charity and multilateral efforts to help a people (not through occupation,) but through aid will gradually make such radicalism unappealing. It’s not a quick fix. It will take generations, but it’s worth adopting some patience into our foreign policy strategies.
And sure, there will always be a handful of baddies out there that hate us (and will always hate us,) and they’ll try to hurt us. But let’s consider this alternative: A surplus in the economy from the money saved not waging wars abroad, and a strong military at home (including care for veterans.) Imagine skilled interrogators, who know how to coax forth answers with a game of chess, and not waterboarding. Imagine well-trained intelligence officers networking abroad, or new, secure American infrastructure and a well-funded FDA to keep our food safe. Imagine justice and accountability, and the permanent banishment of secret prisons and tribunals so that future terrorist attacks cannot possibly be justified to the world as self-defense or “pay back.”
Even in this imagined alternative, we can never be fully protected from the possibility of something bad happening. We can only be properly equipped to deal with the aftermath in a rational way. What we certainly do not need is 35,000-50,000 troops in Iraq and 17,000 more troops in Afghanistan. No imagined alternative will justify this empirical behavior.
A newly declassified document gives a fascinating glimpse into the US military’s plans for “information operations” – from psychological operations, to attacks on hostile computer networks.
As the world turns networked, the Pentagon is calculating the military opportunities that computer networks, wireless technologies and the modern media offer.
From influencing public opinion through new media to designing “computer network attack” weapons, the US military is learning to fight an electronic war.
The declassified document is called “Information Operations Roadmap”. It was obtained by the National Security Archive at George Washington University using the Freedom of Information Act.
Officials in the Pentagon wrote it in 2003. The Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, signed it.
The “roadmap” calls for a far-reaching overhaul of the military’s ability to conduct information operations and electronic warfare. And, in some detail, it makes recommendations for how the US armed forces should think about this new, virtual warfare.
The document says that information is “critical to military success”. Computer and telecommunications networks are of vital operational importance.
The operations described in the document include a surprising range of military activities: public affairs officers who brief journalists, psychological operations troops who try to manipulate the thoughts and beliefs of an enemy, computer network attack specialists who seek to destroy enemy networks.
All these are engaged in information operations.
Perhaps the most startling aspect of the roadmap is its acknowledgement that information put out as part of the military’s psychological operations, or Psyops, is finding its way onto the computer and television screens of ordinary Americans.
“Information intended for foreign audiences, including public diplomacy and Psyops, is increasingly consumed by our domestic audience,” it reads.
“Psyops messages will often be replayed by the news media for much larger audiences, including the American public,” it goes on.
The document’s authors acknowledge that American news media should not unwittingly broadcast military propaganda. “Specific boundaries should be established,” they write. But they don’t seem to explain how.
“In this day and age it is impossible to prevent stories that are fed abroad as part of psychological operations propaganda from blowing back into the United States – even though they were directed abroad,” says Kristin Adair of the National Security Archive.
Public awareness of the US military’s information operations is low, but it’s growing – thanks to some operational clumsiness.
Late last year, it emerged that the Pentagon had paid a private company, the Lincoln Group, to plant hundreds of stories in Iraqi newspapers. The stories – all supportive of US policy – were written by military personnel and then placed in Iraqi publications.
And websites that appeared to be information sites on the politics of Africa and the Balkans were found to be run by the Pentagon.
But the true extent of the Pentagon’s information operations, how they work, who they’re aimed at, and at what point they turn from informing the public to influencing populations, is far from clear.
The roadmap, however, gives a flavour of what the US military is up to – and the grand scale on which it’s thinking.
It reveals that Psyops personnel “support” the American government’s international broadcasting. It singles out TV Marti – a station which broadcasts to Cuba – as receiving such support.
It recommends that a global website be established that supports America’s strategic objectives. But no American diplomats here, thank you. The website would use content from “third parties with greater credibility to foreign audiences than US officials”.
It also recommends that Psyops personnel should consider a range of technologies to disseminate propaganda in enemy territory: unmanned aerial vehicles, “miniaturized, scatterable public address systems”, wireless devices, cellular phones and the internet.
‘Fight the net’
When it describes plans for electronic warfare, or EW, the document takes on an extraordinary tone.
It seems to see the internet as being equivalent to an enemy weapons system.
“Strategy should be based on the premise that the Department [of Defense] will ‘fight the net’ as it would an enemy weapons system,” it reads.
The slogan “fight the net” appears several times throughout the roadmap.
The authors warn that US networks are very vulnerable to attack by hackers, enemies seeking to disable them, or spies looking for intelligence.
“Networks are growing faster than we can defend them… Attack sophistication is increasing… Number of events is increasing.”
US digital ambition
And, in a grand finale, the document recommends that the United States should seek the ability to “provide maximum control of the entire electromagnetic spectrum”.
US forces should be able to “disrupt or destroy the full spectrum of globally emerging communications systems, sensors, and weapons systems dependent on the electromagnetic spectrum”.
Consider that for a moment.
The US military seeks the capability to knock out every telephone, every networked computer, every radar system on the planet.
Are these plans the pipe dreams of self-aggrandising bureaucrats? Or are they real?
The fact that the “Information Operations Roadmap” is approved by the Secretary of Defense suggests that these plans are taken very seriously indeed in the Pentagon.
And that the scale and grandeur of the digital revolution is matched only by the US military’s ambitions for it.
South Korea has railed for years against the Japanese government’s waffling over how much responsibility it bears for one of the ugliest chapters in its wartime history: the enslavement of women from Korea and elsewhere to work in brothels serving Japan’s imperial army.
Now, a group of former prostitutes in South Korea have accused some of their country’s former leaders of a different kind of abuse: encouraging them to have sex with the American soldiers who protected South Korea from North Korea. They also accuse past South Korean governments, and the United States military, of taking a direct hand in the sex trade from the 1960s through the 1980s, working together to build a testing and treatment system to ensure that prostitutes were disease-free for American troops.
While the women have made no claims that they were coerced into prostitution by South Korean or American officials during those years, they accuse successive Korean governments of hypocrisy in calling for reparations from Japan while refusing to take a hard look at South Korea’s own history.
“Our government was one big pimp for the U.S. military,” one of the women, Kim Ae-ran, 58, said in a recent interview.
Scholars on the issue say that the South Korean government was motivated in part by fears that the American military would leave, and that it wanted to do whatever it could to prevent that.
But the women suggest that the government also viewed them as commodities to be used to shore up the country’s struggling economy in the decades after the Korean War. They say the government not only sponsored classes for them in basic English and etiquette — meant to help them sell themselves more effectively — but also sent bureaucrats to praise them for earning dollars when South Korea was desperate for foreign currency.
“They urged us to sell as much as possible to the G.I.’s, praising us as ‘dollar-earning patriots,’ ” Ms. Kim said.
The United States military, the scholars say, became involved in attempts to regulate the trade in so-called camp towns surrounding the bases because of worries about sexually transmitted diseases.
In one of the most incendiary claims, some women say that the American military police and South Korean officials regularly raided clubs from the 1960s through the 1980s looking for women who were thought to be spreading the diseases. They picked out the women using the number tags the women say the brothels forced them to wear so the soldiers could more easily identify their sex partners.
The Korean police would then detain the prostitutes who were thought to be ill, the women said, locking them up under guard in so-called monkey houses, where the windows had bars. There, the prostitutes were forced to take medications until they were well.
The women, who are seeking compensation and an apology, have compared themselves to the so-called comfort women who have won widespread public sympathy for being forced into prostitution by the Japanese during World War II. Whether prostitutes by choice, need or coercion, the women say, they were all victims of government policies.
“If the question is, was there active government complicity, support of such camp town prostitution, yes, by both the Korean governments and the U.S. military,” said Katharine H. S. Moon, a scholar who wrote about the women in her 1997 book, “Sex Among Allies.”
The South Korean Ministry of Gender Equality, which handles women’s issues, declined to comment on the former prostitutes’ accusations. So did the American military command in Seoul, which responded with a general statement saying that the military “does not condone or support the illegal activities of human trafficking and prostitution.”
The New York Times interviewed eight women who worked in brothels near American bases, and it reviewed South Korean and American documents. The documents do provide some support for many of the women’s claims, though most are snapshots in time. The women maintain that the practices occurred over decades.
In some sense, the women’s allegations are not surprising. It has been clear for decades that South Korea and the United States military tolerated prostitution near bases, even though selling sex is illegal in South Korea. Bars and brothels have long lined the streets of the neighborhoods surrounding American bases in South Korea, as is the case in the areas around military bases around the world.
But the women say few of their fellow citizens know how deeply their government was involved in the trade in the camp towns.
The women received some support for their claims in 2006, from a former government official. In a television interview, the official, Kim Kee-joe, who was identified as having been a high-level liaison to the United States military, said, “Although we did not actively urge them to engage in prostitution, we, especially those from the county offices, did often tell them that it was not something bad for the country either.”
Transcripts of parliamentary hearings also suggest that at least some South Korean leaders viewed prostitution as something of a necessity. In one exchange in 1960, two lawmakers urged the government to train a supply of prostitutes to meet what one called the “natural needs” of allied soldiers and prevent them from spending their dollars in Japan instead of South Korea. The deputy home minister at the time, Lee Sung-woo, replied that the government had made some improvements in the “supply of prostitutes” and the “recreational system” for American troops.
Both Mr. Kim and Ms. Moon back the women’s assertions that the control of venereal disease was a driving factor for the two governments. They say the governments’ coordination became especially pronounced as Korean fears about an American pullout increased after President Richard M. Nixon announced plans in 1969 to reduce the number of American troops in South Korea.
“The idea was to create an environment where the guests were treated well in the camp towns to discourage them from leaving,” Mr. Kim said in the television interview.
Ms. Moon, a Wellesley College professor, said that the minutes of meetings between American military officials and Korean bureaucrats in the 1970s showed the lengths the two countries went to prevent epidemics. The minutes included recommendations to “isolate” women who were sick and ensure that they received treatment, government efforts to register prostitutes and require them to carry medical certification and a 1976 report about joint raids to apprehend prostitutes who were unregistered or failed to attend medical checkups.
These days, camp towns still exist, but as the Korean economy took off, women from the Philippines began replacing them.
Many former prostitutes live in the camp towns, isolated from mainstream society, which shuns them. Most are poor. Some are haunted by the memories of the mixed-race children they put up for adoption overseas.
Jeon, 71, who agreed to talk only if she was identified by just her surname, said she was an 18-year-old war orphan in 1956 when hunger drove her to Dongduchon, a camp town near the border with North Korea. She had a son in the 1960s, but she became convinced that he would have a better future in the United States and gave him up for adoption when he was 13.
About 10 years ago, her son, now an American soldier, returned to visit. She told him to forget her.
“I failed as a mother,” said Ms. Jeon, who lives on welfare checks and the little cash she earns selling items she picks from other people’s trash. “I have no right to depend on him now.”
“The more I think about my life, the more I think women like me were the biggest sacrifice for my country’s alliance with the Americans,” she said. “Looking back, I think my body was not mine, but the government’s and the U.S. military’s.”
Several bloggers today have pointed to this obviously disturbing article from Army Times, which announces that “beginning Oct. 1 for 12 months, the [1st Brigade Combat Team of the 3rd Infantry Division] will be under the day-to-day control of U.S. Army North” — “the first time an active unit has been given a dedicated assignment to NorthCom, a joint command established in 2002 to provide command and control for federal homeland defense efforts and coordinate defense support of civil authorities.” The article details:
They’ll learn new skills, use some of the ones they acquired in the war zone and more than likely will not be shot at while doing any of it.
They may be called upon to help with civil unrest and crowd control or to deal with potentially horrific scenarios such as massive poisoning and chaos in response to a chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or high-yield explosive, or CBRNE, attack. . . .
The 1st BCT’s soldiers also will learn how to use “the first ever nonlethal package that the Army has fielded,” 1st BCT commander Col. Roger Cloutier said, referring to crowd and traffic control equipment and nonlethal weapons designed to subdue unruly or dangerous individuals without killing them.
“It’s a new modular package of nonlethal capabilities that they’re fielding. They’ve been using pieces of it in Iraq, but this is the first time that these modules were consolidated and this package fielded, and because of this mission we’re undertaking we were the first to get it.”
The package includes equipment to stand up a hasty road block; spike strips for slowing, stopping or controlling traffic; shields and batons; and, beanbag bullets.
“I was the first guy in the brigade to get Tasered,” said Cloutier, describing the experience as “your worst muscle cramp ever — times 10 throughout your whole body”. . . .
The brigade will not change its name, but the force will be known for the next year as a CBRNE Consequence Management Response Force, or CCMRF (pronounced “sea-smurf”).
For more than 100 years — since the end of the Civil War — deployment of the U.S. military inside the U.S. has been prohibited under The Posse Comitatus Act (the only exceptions being that the National Guard and Coast Guard are exempted, and use of the military on an emergency ad hoc basis is permitted, such as what happened after Hurricane Katrina). Though there have been some erosions of this prohibition over the last several decades (most perniciously to allow the use of the military to work with law enforcement agencies in the “War on Drugs”), the bright line ban on using the U.S. military as a standing law enforcement force inside the U.S. has been more or less honored — until now. And as the Army Times notes, once this particular brigade completes its one-year assignment, “expectations are that another, as yet unnamed, active-duty brigade will take over and that the mission will be a permanent one.”
After Hurricane Katrina, the Bush administration began openly agitating for what would be, in essence, a complete elimination of the key prohibitions of the Posse Comitatus Act in order to allow the President to deploy U.S. military forces inside the U.S. basically at will — and, as usual, they were successful as a result of rapid bipartisan compliance with the Leader’s demand (the same kind of compliance that is about to foist a bailout package on the nation). This April, 2007 article by James Bovard in The American Conservative detailed the now-familiar mechanics that led to the destruction of this particular long-standing democratic safeguard:
The Defense Authorization Act of 2006, passed on Sept. 30, empowers President George W. Bush to impose martial law in the event of a terrorist “incident,” if he or other federal officials perceive a shortfall of “public order,” or even in response to antiwar protests that get unruly as a result of government provocations. . . .
It only took a few paragraphs in a $500 billion, 591-page bill to raze one of the most important limits on federal power. Congress passed the Insurrection Act in 1807 to severely restrict the president’s ability to deploy the military within the United States. The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 tightened these restrictions, imposing a two-year prison sentence on anyone who used the military within the U.S. without the express permission of Congress. But there is a loophole: Posse Comitatus is waived if the president invokes the Insurrection Act.
Section 1076 of the John Warner National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2007 changed the name of the key provision in the statute book from “Insurrection Act” to “Enforcement of the Laws to Restore Public Order Act.” The Insurrection Act of 1807 stated that the president could deploy troops within the United States only “to suppress, in a State, any insurrection, domestic violence, unlawful combination, or conspiracy.” The new law expands the list to include “natural disaster, epidemic, or other serious public health emergency, terrorist attack or incident, or other condition” — and such “condition” is not defined or limited. . . .
The story of how Section 1076 became law vivifies how expanding government power is almost always the correct answer in Washington. Some people have claimed the provision was slipped into the bill in the middle of the night. In reality, the administration clearly signaled its intent and almost no one in the media or Congress tried to stop it . . . .
Section 1076 was supported by both conservatives and liberals. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the ranking Democratic member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, co-wrote the provision along with committee chairman Sen. John Warner (R-Va.). Sen. Ted Kennedy openly endorsed it, and Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), then-chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, was an avid proponent. . . .
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, warned on Sept. 19 that “we certainly do not need to make it easier for Presidents to declare martial law,” but his alarm got no response. Ten days later, he commented in the Congressional Record: “Using the military for law enforcement goes against one of the founding tenets of our democracy.” Leahy further condemned the process, declaring that it “was just slipped in the defense bill as a rider with little study. Other congressional committees with jurisdiction over these matters had no chance to comment, let alone hold hearings on, these proposals.”
As is typical, very few members of the media even mentioned any of this, let alone discussed it (and I failed to give this the attention it deserved at the time), but Congressional Quarterly‘s Jeff Stein wrote an excellent article at the time detailing the process and noted that “despite such a radical turn, the new law garnered little dissent, or even attention, on the Hill.” Stein also noted that while “the blogosphere, of course, was all over it . . . a search of The Washington Post and New York Times archives, using the terms ‘Insurrection Act,’ ‘martial law’ and ‘Congress,’ came up empty.”
Bovard and Stein both noted that every Governor — including Republicans — joined in Leahy’s objections, as they perceived it as a threat from the Federal Government to what has long been the role of the National Guard. But those concerns were easily brushed aside by the bipartisan majorities in Congress, eager — as always — to grant the President this radical new power.
The decision this month to permanently deploy a U.S. Army brigade inside the U.S. for purely domestic law enforcement purposes is the fruit of the Congressional elimination of the long-standing prohibitions in Posse Comitatus (although there are credible signs that even before Congress acted, the Bush administration secretly decided it possessed the inherent power to violate the Act). It shouldn’t take any efforts to explain why the permanent deployment of the U.S. military inside American cities, acting as the President’s police force, is so disturbing. Bovard:
“Martial law” is a euphemism for military dictatorship. When foreign democracies are overthrown and a junta establishes martial law, Americans usually recognize that a fundamental change has occurred. . . . Section 1076 is Enabling Act-type legislation—something that purports to preserve law-and-order while formally empowering the president to rule by decree.
The historic importance of the Posse Comitatus prohibition was also well-analyzed here.
As the recent militarization of St. Paul during the GOP Convention made abundantly clear, our actual police forces are already quite militarized. Still, what possible rationale is there for permanently deploying the U.S. Army inside the United States — under the command of the President — for any purpose, let alone things such as “crowd control,” other traditional law enforcement functions, and a seemingly unlimited array of other uses at the President’s sole discretion? And where are all of the stalwart right-wing “small government conservatives” who spent the 1990s so vocally opposing every aspect of the growing federal police force? And would it be possible to get some explanation from the Government about what the rationale is for this unprecedented domestic military deployment (at least unprecedented since the Civil War), and why it is being undertaken now?
UPDATE: As this commenter notes, the 2008 National Defense Authorization Act somewhat limited the scope of the powers granted by the 2007 Act detailed above (mostly to address constitutional concerns by limiting the President’s powers to deploy the military to suppress disorder that threatens constitutional rights), but President Bush, when signing that 2008 Act into law, issued a signing statement which, though vague, seems to declare that he does not recognize those new limitations.
UPDATE II: There’s no need to start manufacturing all sorts of scare scenarios about Bush canceling elections or the imminent declaration of martial law or anything of that sort. None of that is going to happen with a single brigade and it’s unlikely in the extreme that they’d be announcing these deployments if they had activated any such plans. The point is that the deployment is a very dangerous precedent, quite possibly illegal, and a radical abandonment of an important democratic safeguard. As always with first steps of this sort, the danger lies in how the power can be abused in the future.
Source: Chalmers Johnson, Tomdispatch.com
For decades these self-professed saviors of the Western world helped precipitate U.S. foreign policy disasters like the Vietnam War.
The RAND Corporation of Santa Monica, California, was set up immediately after World War II by the U.S. Army Air Corps (soon to become the U.S. Air Force). The Air Force generals who had the idea were trying to perpetuate the wartime relationship that had developed between the scientific and intellectual communities and the American military, as exemplified by the Manhattan Project to develop and build the atomic bomb.
Soon enough, however, RAND became a key institutional building block of the Cold War American empire. As the premier think tank for the U.S.’s role as hegemon of the Western world, RAND was instrumental in giving that empire the militaristic cast it retains to this day and in hugely enlarging official demands for atomic bombs, nuclear submarines, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and long-range bombers. Without RAND, our military-industrial complex, as well as our democracy, would look quite different.
Alex Abella, the author of Soldiers of Reason, is a Cuban-American living in Los Angeles who has written several well-received action and adventure novels set in Cuba and a less successful nonfiction account of attempted Nazi sabotage within the United States during World War II. The publisher of his latest book claims that it is “the first history of the shadowy think tank that reshaped the modern world.” Such a history is long overdue. Unfortunately, this book does not exhaust the demand. We still need a less hagiographic, more critical, more penetrating analysis of RAND’s peculiar contributions to the modern world.
Abella has nonetheless made a valiant, often revealing and original effort to uncover RAND’s internal struggles — not least of which involved the decision of analyst Daniel Ellsberg, in 1971, to leak the Department of Defense’s top secret history of the Vietnam War, known as The Pentagon Papers to Congress and the press. But Abella’s book is profoundly schizophrenic. On the one hand, the author is breathlessly captivated by RAND’s fast-talking economists, mathematicians, and thinkers-about-the-unthinkable; on the other hand, he agrees with Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis’s assessment in his book, The Cold War: A New History, that, in promoting the interests of the Air Force, RAND concocted an “unnecessary Cold War” that gave the dying Soviet empire an extra 30 years of life.
We need a study that really lives up to Abella’s subtitle and takes a more jaundiced view of RAND’s geniuses, Nobel prize winners, egghead gourmands and wine connoisseurs, Laurel Canyon swimming pool parties, and self-professed saviors of the Western world. It is likely that, after the American empire has gone the way of all previous empires, the RAND Corporation will be more accurately seen as a handmaiden of the government that was always super-cautious about speaking truth to power. Meanwhile, Soldiers of Reason is a serviceable, if often overwrought, guide to how strategy has been formulated in the post-World War II American empire.
The Air Force Creates a Think Tank
RAND was the brainchild of General H. H. “Hap” Arnold, chief of staff of the Army Air Corps from 1941 until it became the Air Force in 1947, and his chief wartime scientific adviser, the aeronautical engineer Theodore von Kármán. In the beginning, RAND was a free-standing division within the Douglas Aircraft Company which, after 1967, merged with McDonnell Aviation to form the McDonnell-Douglas Aircraft Corporation and, after 1997, was absorbed by Boeing. Its first head was Franklin R. Collbohm, a Douglas engineer and test pilot.
In May 1948, RAND was incorporated as a not-for-profit entity independent of Douglas, but it continued to receive the bulk of its funding from the Air Force. The think tank did, however, begin to accept extensive support from the Ford Foundation, marking it as a quintessential member of the American establishment.
Collbohm stayed on as chief executive officer until 1966, when he was forced out in the disputes then raging within the Pentagon between the Air Force and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. McNamara’s “whiz kids” were Defense intellectuals, many of whom had worked at RAND and were determined to restructure the armed forces to cut costs and curb interservice rivalries. Always loyal to the Air Force and hostile to the whiz kids, Collbohm was replaced by Henry S. Rowan, an MIT-educated engineer turned economist and strategist who was himself forced to resign during the Ellsberg-Pentagon Papers scandal.
Collbohm and other pioneer managers at Douglas gave RAND its commitment to interdisciplinary work and limited its product to written reports, avoiding applied or laboratory research, or actual manufacturing. RAND’s golden age of creativity lasted from approximately 1950 to 1970. During that period its theorists worked diligently on such new analytical techniques and inventions as systems analysis, game theory, reconnaissance satellites, the Internet, advanced computers, digital communications, missile defense, and intercontinental ballistic missiles. During the 1970s, RAND began to turn to projects in the civilian world, such as health financing systems, insurance, and urban governance.
Much of RAND’s work was always ideological, designed to support the American values of individualism and personal gratification as well as to counter Marxism, but its ideological bent was disguised in statistics and equations, which allegedly made its analyses “rational” and “scientific.” Abella writes:
“If a subject could not be measured, ranged, or classified, it was of little consequence in systems analysis, for it was not rational. Numbers were all — the human factor was a mere adjunct to the empirical.”
In my opinion, Abella here confuses numerical with empirical. Most RAND analyses were formal, deductive, and mathematical but rarely based on concrete research into actually functioning societies. RAND never devoted itself to the ethnographic and linguistic knowledge necessary to do truly empirical research on societies that its administrators and researchers, in any case, thought they already understood.
For example, RAND’s research conclusions on the Third World, limited war, and counterinsurgency during the Vietnam War were notably wrong-headed. It argued that the United States should support “military modernization” in underdeveloped countries, that military takeovers and military rule were good things, that we could work with military officers in other countries, where democracy was best honored in the breach. The result was that virtually every government in East Asia during the 1960s and 1970s was a U.S.-backed military dictatorship, including South Vietnam, South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Taiwan.
It is also important to note that RAND’s analytical errors were not just those of commission — excessive mathematical reductionism — but also of omission. As Abella notes, “In spite of the collective brilliance of RAND there would be one area of science that would forever elude it, one whose absence would time and again expose the organization to peril: the knowledge of the human psyche.”
Following the axioms of mathematical economics, RAND researchers tended to lump all human motives under what the Canadian political scientist C. B. Macpherson called “possessive individualism” and not to analyze them further. Therefore, they often misunderstood mass political movements, failing to appreciate the strength of organizations like the Vietcong and its resistance to the RAND-conceived Vietnam War strategy of “escalated” bombing of military and civilian targets.
Similarly, RAND researchers saw Soviet motives in the blackest, most unnuanced terms, leading them to oppose the détente that President Richard Nixon and his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger sought and, in the 1980s, vastly to overestimate the Soviet threat. Abella observes, “For a place where thinking the unthinkable was supposed to be the common coin, strangely enough there was virtually no internal RAND debate on the nature of the Soviet Union or on the validity of existing American policies to contain it. RANDites took their cues from the military’s top echelons.” A typical RAND product of those years was Nathan Leites’s The Operational Code of the Politburo (1951), a fairly mechanistic study of Soviet military strategy and doctrine and the organization and operation of the Soviet economy.
Collbohm and his colleagues recruited a truly glittering array of intellectuals for RAND, even if skewed toward mathematical economists rather than people with historical knowledge or extensive experience in other countries. Among the notables who worked for the think tank were the economists and mathematicians Kenneth Arrow, a pioneer of game theory; John Forbes Nash, Jr., later the subject of the Hollywood film A Beautiful Mind (2001); Herbert Simon, an authority on bureaucratic organization; Paul Samuelson, author of Foundations of Economic Analysis (1947); and Edmund Phelps, a specialist on economic growth. Each one became a Nobel Laureate in economics.
Other major figures were Bruno Augenstein who, according to Abella, made what is “arguably RAND’s greatest known — which is to say declassified — contribution to American national security: … the development of the ICBM as a weapon of war” (he invented the multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle, or MIRV); Paul Baran who, in studying communications systems that could survive a nuclear attack, made major contributions to the development of the Internet and digital circuits; and Charles Hitch, head of RAND’s Economics Division from 1948 to 1961 and president of the University of California from 1967 to 1975.
Among more ordinary mortals, workers in the vineyard, and hangers-on at RAND were Donald Rumsfeld, a trustee of the Rand Corporation from 1977 to 2001; Condoleezza Rice, a trustee from 1991 to 1997; Francis Fukuyama, a RAND researcher from 1979 to 1980 and again from 1983 to 1989, as well as the author of the thesis that history ended when the United States outlasted the Soviet Union; Zalmay Khalilzad, the second President Bush’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, and the United Nations; and Samuel Cohen, inventor of the neutron bomb (although the French military perfected its tactical use).
Thinking the Unthinkable
The most notorious of RAND’s writers and theorists were the nuclear war strategists, all of whom were often quoted in newspapers and some of whom were caricatured in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. (One of them, Herman Kahn, demanded royalties from Kubrick, to which Kubrick responded, “That’s not the way it works Herman.”) RAND’S group of nuclear war strategists was dominated by Bernard Brodie, one of the earliest analysts of nuclear deterrence and author of Strategy in the Missile Age (1959); Thomas Schelling, a pioneer in the study of strategic bargaining, Nobel Laureate in economics, and author of The Strategy of Conflict (1960); James Schlesinger, Secretary of Defense from 1973 to 1975, who was fired by President Ford for insubordination; Kahn, author of On Thermonuclear War (1960); and last but not least, Albert Wohlstetter, easily the best known of all RAND researchers.
Abella calls Wohlstetter “the leading intellectual figure at RAND,” and describes him as “self-assured to the point of arrogance.” Wohlstetter, he adds, “personified the imperial ethos of the mandarins who made America the center of power and culture in the postwar Western world.”
While Abella does an excellent job ferreting out details of Wohlstetter’s background, his treatment comes across as a virtual paean to the man, including Wohlstetter’s late-in-life turn to the political right and his support for the neoconservatives. Abella believes that Wohlstetter’s “basing study,” which made both RAND and him famous (and which I discuss below), “changed history.”
Starting in 1967, I was, for a few years — my records are imprecise on this point — a consultant for RAND (although it did not consult me often) and became personally acquainted with Albert Wohlstetter. In 1967, he and I attended a meeting in New Delhi of the Institute of Strategic Studies to help promote the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which was being opened for signature in 1968, and would be in force from 1970. There, Wohlstetter gave a display of his well-known arrogance by announcing to the delegates that he did not believe India, as a civilization, “deserved an atom bomb.” As I looked at the smoldering faces of Indian scientists and strategists around the room, I knew right then and there that India would join the nuclear club, which it did in 1974. (India remains one of four major nations that have not signed the NPT. The others are North Korea, which ratified the treaty but subsequently withdrew, Israel, and Pakistan. Some 189 nations have signed and ratified it.) My last contact with Wohlstetter was late in his life — he died in 1997 at the age of 83 — when he telephoned me to complain that I was too “soft” on the threats of communism and the former Soviet Union.
Albert Wohlstetter was born and raised in Manhattan and studied mathematics at the City College of New York and Columbia University. Like many others of that generation, he was very much on the left and, according to research by Abella, was briefly a member of a communist splinter group, the League for a Revolutionary Workers Party. He avoided being ruined in later years by Senator Joseph McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI because, as Daniel Ellsberg told Abella, the evidence had disappeared. In 1934, the leader of the group was moving the Party’s records to new offices and had rented a horse-drawn cart to do so. At a Manhattan intersection, the horse died, and the leader promptly fled the scene, leaving all the records to be picked up and disposed of by the New York City sanitation department.
After World War II, Wohlstetter moved to Southern California, and his wife Roberta began work on her pathbreaking RAND study, Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision (1962), exploring why the U.S. had missed all the signs that a Japanese “surprise attack” was imminent. In 1951, he was recruited by Charles Hitch for RAND’s Mathematics Division, where he worked on methodological studies in mathematical logic until Hitch posed a question to him: “How should you base the Strategic Air Command?”
Wohlstetter then became intrigued by the many issues involved in providing airbases for Strategic Air Command (SAC) bombers, the country’s primary retaliatory force in case of nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. What he came up with was a comprehensive and theoretically sophisticated basing study. It ran directly counter to the ideas of General Curtis LeMay, then the head of SAC, who, in 1945, had encouraged the creation of RAND and was often spoken of as its “Godfather.”
In 1951, there were a total of 32 SAC bases in Europe and Asia, all located close to the borders of the Soviet Union. Wohlstetter’s team discovered that they were, for all intents and purposes, undefended — the bombers parked out in the open, without fortified hangars — and that SAC’s radar defenses could easily be circumvented by low-flying Soviet bombers. RAND calculated that the USSR would need “only” 120 tactical nuclear bombs of 40 kilotons each to destroy up to 85% of SAC’s European-based fleet. LeMay, who had long favored a preemptive attack on the Soviet Union, claimed he did not care. He reasoned that the loss of his bombers would only mean that — even in the wake of a devastating nuclear attack — they could be replaced with newer, more modern aircraft. He also believed that the appropriate retaliatory strategy for the United States involved what he called a “Sunday punch,” massive retaliation using all available American nuclear weapons. According to Abella, SAC planners proposed annihilating three-quarters of the population in each of 188 Russian cities. Total casualties would be in excess of 77 million people in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe alone.
Wohlstetter’s answer to this holocaust was to start thinking about how a country might actually wage a nuclear war. He is credited with coming up with a number of concepts, all now accepted U.S. military doctrine. One is “second-strike capability,” meaning a capacity to retaliate even after a nuclear attack, which is considered the ultimate deterrent against an enemy nation launching a first-strike. Another is “fail-safe procedures,” or the ability to recall nuclear bombers after they have been dispatched on their missions, thereby providing some protection against accidental war. Wohlstetter also championed the idea that all retaliatory bombers should be based in the continental United States and able to carry out their missions via aerial refueling, although he did not advocate closing overseas military bases or shrinking the perimeters of the American empire. To do so, he contended, would be to abandon territory and countries to Soviet expansionism.
Wohlstetter’s ideas put an end to the strategy of terror attacks on Soviet cities in favor of a “counter-force strategy” that targeted Soviet military installations. He also promoted the dispersal and “hardening” of SAC bases to make them less susceptible to preemptive attacks and strongly supported using high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft such as the U-2 and orbiting satellites to acquire accurate intelligence on Soviet bomber and missile strength.
In selling these ideas Wohlstetter had to do an end-run around SAC’s LeMay and go directly to the Air Force chief of staff. In late 1952 and 1953, he and his team gave some 92 briefings to high-ranking Air Force officers in Washington DC. By October 1953, the Air Force had accepted most of Wohlstetter’s recommendations.
Abella believes that most of us are alive today because of Wohlstetter’s intellectually and politically difficult project to prevent a possible nuclear first strike by the Soviet Union. He writes:
“Wohlstetter’s triumphs with the basing study and fail-safe not only earned him the respect and admiration of fellow analysts at RAND but also gained him entry to the top strata of government that very few military analysts enjoyed. His work had pointed out a fatal deficiency in the nation’s war plans, and he had saved the Air Force several billion dollars in potential losses.”
A few years later, Wohlstetter wrote an updated version of the basing study and personally briefed Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson on it, with General Thomas D. White, the Air Force chief of staff, and General Nathan Twining, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in attendance.
Despite these achievements in toning down the official Air Force doctrine of “mutually assured destruction” (MAD), few at RAND were pleased by Wohlstetter’s eminence. Bernard Brodie had always resented his influence and was forever plotting to bring him down. Still, Wohlstetter was popular compared to Herman Kahn. All the nuclear strategists were irritated by Kahn who, ultimately, left RAND and created his own think tank, the Hudson Institute, with a million-dollar grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.
RAND chief Frank Collbohm opposed Wohlstetter because his ideas ran counter to those of the Air Force, not to speak of the fact that he had backed John F. Kennedy instead of Richard Nixon for president in 1960 and then compounded his sin by backing Robert McNamara for secretary of defense over the objections of the high command. Worse yet, Wohlstetter had criticized the stultifying environment that had begun to envelop RAND.
In 1963, in a fit of pique and resentment fueled by Bernard Brodie, Collbohm called in Wohlstetter and asked for his resignation. When Wohlstetter refused, Collbohm fired him.
Wohlstetter went on to accept an appointment as a tenured professor of political science at the University of Chicago. From this secure position, he launched vitriolic campaigns against whatever administration was in office “for its obsession with Vietnam at the expense of the current Soviet threat.” He, in turn, continued to vastly overstate the threat of Soviet power and enthusiastically backed every movement that came along calling for stepped up war preparations against the USSR — from members of the Committee on the Present Danger between 1972 to 1981 to the neoconservatives in the 1990s and 2000s.
Naturally, he supported the creation of “Team B” when George H. W. Bush was head of the CIA in 1976. Team B consisted of a group of anti-Soviet professors and polemicists who were convinced that the CIA was “far too forgiving of the Soviet Union.” With that in mind, they were authorized to review all the intelligence that lay behind the CIA’s National Intelligence Estimates on Soviet military strength. Actually, Team B and similar right-wing ad hoc policy committees had their evidence exactly backwards: By the late 1970s and 1980s, the fatal sclerosis of the Soviet economy was well underway. But Team B set the stage for the Reagan administration to do what it most wanted to do, expend massive sums on arms; in return, Ronald Reagan bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Wohlstetter in November 1985.
Wohlstetter’s activism on behalf of American imperialism and militarism lasted well into the 1990s. According to Abella, the rise to prominence of Ahmed Chalabi — the Iraqi exile and endless source of false intelligence to the Pentagon — “in Washington circles came about at the instigation of Albert Wohlstetter, who met Chalabi in Paul Wolfowitz’s office.” (In the incestuous world of the neocons, Wolfowitz had been Wohlstetter’s student at the University of Chicago.) In short, it is not accidental that the American Enterprise Institute, the current chief institutional manifestation of neoconservative thought in Washington, named its auditorium the “Wohlstetter Conference Center.” Albert Wohlstetter’s legacy is, to say the least, ambiguous.
Needless to say, there is much more to RAND’s work than the strategic thought of Albert Wohlstetter, and Abella’s book is an introduction to the broad range of ideas RAND has espoused — from “rational choice theory” (explaining all human behavior in terms of self-interest) to the systematic execution of Vietnamese in the CIA’s Phoenix Program during the Vietnam War. As an institution, the RAND Corporation remains one of the most potent and complex purveyors of American imperialism. A full assessment of its influence, both positive and sinister, must await the elimination of the secrecy surrounding its activities and further historical and biographical analysis of the many people who worked there.
The RAND Corporation is surely one of the world’s most unusual, Cold War-bred private organizations in the field of international relations. While it has attracted and supported some of the most distinguished analysts of war and weaponry, it has not stood for the highest standards of intellectual inquiry and debate. While RAND has an unparalleled record of providing unbiased, unblinking analyses of technical and carefully limited problems involved in waging contemporary war, its record of advice on cardinal policies involving war and peace, the protection of civilians in wartime, arms races, and decisions to resort to armed force has been abysmal.
For example, Abella credits RAND with “creating the discipline of terrorist studies,” but its analysts seem never to have noticed the phenomenon of state terrorism as it was practiced in the 1970s and 1980s in Latin America by American-backed military dictatorships. Similarly, admirers of Albert Wohlstetter’s reformulations of nuclear war ignore the fact that that these led to a “constant escalation of the nuclear arms race.” By 1967, the U.S. possessed a stockpile of 32,500 atomic and hydrogen bombs.
In Vietnam, RAND invented the theories that led two administrations to military escalation against North Vietnam — and even after the think tank’s strategy had obviously failed and the secretary of defense had disowned it, RAND never publicly acknowledged that it had been wrong. Abella comments, “RAND found itself bound by the power of the purse wielded by its patron, whether it be the Air Force or the Office of the Secretary of Defense.” And it has always relied on classifying its research to protect itself, even when no military secrets were involved.
In my opinion, these issues come to a head over one of RAND’s most unusual initiatives — its creation of an in-house, fully accredited graduate school of public policy that offers Ph.D. degrees to American and foreign students. Founded in 1970 as the RAND Graduate Institute and today known as the Frederick S. Pardee RAND Graduate School (PRGS), it had, by January 2006, awarded over 180 Ph.D.s in microeconomics, statistics, and econometrics, social and behavioral sciences, and operations research. Its faculty numbers 54 professors drawn principally from the staffs of RAND’s research units, and it has an annual student body of approximately 900. In addition to coursework, qualifying examinations, and a dissertation, PRGS students are required to spend 400 days working on RAND projects. How RAND and the Air Force can classify the research projects of foreign and American interns is unclear; nor does it seem appropriate for an open university to allow dissertation research, which will ultimately be available to the general public, to be done in the hothouse atmosphere of a secret strategic institute.
Perhaps the greatest act of political and moral courage involving RAND was Daniel Ellsberg’s release to the public of the secret record of lying by every president from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Lyndon Johnson about the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. However, RAND itself was and remains adamantly hostile to what Ellsberg did.
Abella reports that Charles Wolf, Jr., the chairman of RAND’s Economics Department from 1967 to 1982 and the first dean of the RAND Graduate School from 1970 to 1997, “dripped venom when interviewed about the [Ellsberg] incident more than thirty years after the fact.” Such behavior suggests that secrecy and toeing the line are far more important at RAND than independent intellectual inquiry and that the products of its research should be viewed with great skepticism and care.
By Norman Solomon at Alternet.org
While the Iraqi government continued its large-scale military assault in Basra, the NPR reporter’s voice from Iraq was unequivocal on the morning of March 27: “There is no doubt that this operation needed to happen.”
Such flat-out statements, uttered with journalistic tones and without attribution, are routine for the U.S. media establishment. In the War Made Easy documentary film, I put it this way: “If you’re pro-war, you’re objective. But if you’re anti-war, you’re biased. And often, a news anchor will get no flak at all for making statements that are supportive of a war and wouldn’t dream of making a statement that’s against a war.”
So it goes at NPR News, where — on Morning Edition as well as the evening program All Things Considered — the sense and sensibilities tend to be neatly aligned with the outlooks of official Washington. The critical aspects of reporting largely amount to complaints about policy shortcomings that are tactical; the underlying and shared assumptions are imperial. Washington’s prerogatives are evident when the media window on the world is tinted red-white-and-blue.
Earlier in the week — a few days into the sixth year of the Iraq war — All Things Considered aired a discussion with a familiar guest.
“To talk about the state of the war and how the U.S. military changes tactics to deal with it,” said longtime anchor Robert Siegel, “we turn now to retired Gen. Robert Scales, who’s talked with us many times over the course of the conflict.”
This is the sort of introduction that elevates a guest to truly expert status — conveying to the listeners that expertise and wisdom, not just opinions, are being sought.
Siegel asked about the progression of assaults on U.S. troops over the years: “How have the attacks and the countermeasures to them evolved?”
Naturally, Gen. Scales responded with the language of a military man. “The enemy has built ever-larger explosives,” he said. “They’ve found clever ways to hide their IEDs, their roadside bombs, and even more diabolical means for detonating these devices.”
We’d expect a retired American general to speak in such categorical terms — referring to “the enemy” and declaring in a matter-of-fact tone that attacks on U.S. troops became even more “diabolical.” But what about an American journalist?
Well, if the American journalist is careful to function with independence instead of deference to the Pentagon, then the journalist’s assumptions will sound different than the outlooks of a high-ranking U.S. military officer.
In this case, an independent reporter might even be willing to ask a pointed question along these lines: You just used the word “diabolical” to describe attacks on the U.S. military by Iraqis, but would that ever be an appropriate adjective to use to describe attacks on Iraqis by the U.S. military?
In sharp contrast, what happened during the All Things Considered discussion on March 24 was a conversation of shared sensibilities. The retired U.S. Army general discussed the war effort in terms notably similar to those of the ostensibly independent journalist — who, along the way, made the phrase “the enemy” his own in a followup question.
It wouldn’t be fair to judge an entire news program on the basis of a couple of segments. But I’m a frequent listener of All Things Considered and Morning Edition. Such cozy proximity of world views, blanketing the war maker and the war reporter, is symptomatic of what ails NPR’s war coverage — especially from Washington.
Of course there are exceptions. Occasional news reports stray from the narrow baseline. But the essence of the propaganda function is repetition, and the exceptional does not undermine that function.
To add insult to injury, NPR calls itself public radio. It’s supposed to be willing to go where commercial networks fear to tread. But overall, when it comes to politics and war, the range of perspectives on National Public Radio isn’t any wider than what we encounter on the avowedly commercial networks.