Monday, June 04, 2007
History after 1917, wrote Eric Hobsbawm citing an officer during the French colonial war in Algeria, would be characterised by 'religious' wars - the sort of zero-sum 'total war' that is, if not in origin or stated aim then certainly in drift, annihilatory. Robert MacNamara, co-responsible for some of the worst atrocities during the Vietnam War, told audiences of The Fog of War about an even earlier set of much more disturbing atrocities: his involvement in the strategies for nuclear war against the civilian population of Japan. The message, in case you missed it, is that this is the way America does war. Some people were ready to insist (until the 2003 invasion of Iraq) that things have fundamentally changed since Vietnam, and have been harping on the 'revolution in military affairs' and the allegedly brilliant results this has for war's accuracy which, in conventional terms, can be most readily detected in the higher ratio of dead combatants to dead civilians. The argument pre-dated the term: during the 1991 war on Iraq, it was widely argued and accepted that the US military's bombing campaign was characterised by such extraordinary efficiency in targeting only military installations and so on that hardly a bomb had gone astray. 'Smart bombs' were very much the thing. It was later admitted that less then ten percent of the bombs dropped on Iraq had actually been 'smart bombs', and we may yet hear that the supposed 60% of bombs dropped on Afghanistan in 2001-2 that were supposed to be 'smart bombs' (actually conventional ones with sattelite guidance systems grafted on) were actually the usual array of cluster bombs and so on. However, the main references for reporters (faithfully reflected by the sociologist Martin Shaw, who has been predicting a post-military society for about fifteen years) have been the war on Yugoslavia in 1999, and the war on Afghanistan. In the former, it is widely accepted that deaths were limited: of course, since they were utterly unnecessary, those deaths are still the outcome of a massive crime. But they were limited because the campaign itself was limited, finished by a deal that didn't look anything like the Rambouillet Accords. In Afghanistan, there was initially a bit of controversy over Marc Herold's estimate of several thousand civilian deaths, compared with 1,000-1,300 estimated by Carl Conetta (based, alas, entirely on English-language sources, with an implicit assumption about the objectivity and detachment of Western hacks as compared with Pakistani newspapers, for example). A de-mining expert in Afghanistan said: "you can probably double Herold’s figures because so much goes unreported here. Most Muslims are buried within six hours of death. There’s no need to report births or deaths here and the hospitals do not having anything on the dead". But while Herold revised his figures downward in the face of criticism, later research published by Aldo Benini and Lawrence H Moulton in the Journal of Peace Research suggested a figure for total deaths closer to 10,000 in the period until July 2002. As regards the sweet, cloying, ethical innocence of the dead, I suppose I should mention that many of the Taliban's fighters were conscripts.
A look at some of the build-up to, and prosecution of, the war in Afghanistan reveals some of the reasons why deaths were so high (I take much of what follows from Michael Mann's Incoherent Empire). First of all, it would pay not to regard that war as a 'fait accompli'. It is easy to assume in retrospect that there was something inevitable about the war on Afghanistan, but it didn't have to be so. It is crucial to the ideology of war that it is a 'last resort', and that: 1) leaders are genuinely trying to do things which good people wish to see done (justice of war); 2) they do indeed exhaust all alternatives (unavoidability of war); and 3) war is effective in achieving the good goals claimed as their cause (superior efficacy of war). Yet, of course, Bush did not exhaust all alternatives, the war wasn't about all the nice things Bush said, and it didn't provide particularly effective at reducing the Al Qaeda network. On 15th September 2001, Bush delivered an ultimatum to the Taliban – hand over Bin Laden and close the camps or face the consequences. The Grand Islamic Council recommended that Mullah Omar persuade bin Laden to get out of the country, prompting George Tenet to say that the Taliban might split. On September 18th, Afghanistan's Foreign Minister said it might extradite bin Laden if the US could provide "solid and convincing" evidence of his involvement. Bush replied that "there will be no negotiations or discussions … there’s no need to discuss innocence or guilt … we know he’s guilty." Subsequently, Pakistani diplomats agreed with the regime that bin Laden would be handed over to an Islamic court in Peshawar, but Musharraf vetoed the deal under US pressure. Blair responded to domestic criticism by providing a dossier of evidence on October 4th, but it couldn't offer anything comprehensive, because that could only come from the United States. Powell favoured giving such evidence as they had, and Tenet believed it would split the Taliban – Rumsfeld was opposed any such idea, and his rationale is interesting: he said it would set a dangerous precedent for future wars. If gentlemen, we should start having to give reasons for our wars... Bush ordered up thousands of body bags, expecting the kind of fight that the Russians received. In the short-run, he didn't get it. The war was won with aerial bombardment, with 110 CIA officers and 316 American Special Forces personnel on the ground. 15 troops were killed by hostile fire (and 55 by friendly fire). CIA agents spread among the warlords with suitcases stuffed with dollars – amounting in all to $45 million (a major warlord might get $1m and a minor one $50,000). These are the guys who marched into Kabul when the Taliban melted away. Michael Mann notes that the air war, with a confessed 40% 'dumb' bombs - that is, bombs like 'daisy cutters' and cluster bombs - involved "state terrorism. The point of such indiscriminate bombs is to terrorise the enemy as a whole into submission, including its support population. That is what war is about. It is not the same as justice." The trouble was not only with the 'dumb' bombs: all the bombs were aimed at buildings or compounds contiguous with civilian structures, for Afghanistan’s government infrastructures had been devastated by decades of war. Few Afghan troops wore full uniform, and half of Afghan men carried guns. The 'smart' targeting of strictly combatant facilities
The strategy when bombs incinerated civilian areas was outlined by Chief Warrant Officer Dave Diaz, who told his Special Forces A-Team: "Yes, it is a civilian village, mud hut, like everything else in this country. But don’t say that. Say it’s a military compound. It’s a built-up area, barracks, command and control. Just like with the convoys: If it really was a convoy with civilian vehicles they were using for transport, we would just say hey, military convoy, troop transport." The Northern Alliance and warlord forces ethnically cleansed and – instead of insisting on the dread burqa – raped the women. 50,000 Pashtuns fled from northern Afghanistan. Al-Jazeera had been sucessfully bombed, (and now its chief reporter in Afghanistan at the time, Taysir Alouni, has been arrested and sentenced by a Spanish court on trumpted up charges of terrorism), and none of the Western reporters were going to pay much attention if the warlords exacted some bloody revenge for their exclusion over the previous five years. But some of it came out. For example, UN observers witnessed General Dostum’s soldiers packing several hundred Taliban prisoners into sealed trucks and took them for a long drive. Upon opening the trucks again, the bodies spilled out like fish. UN reports indicated that Dostum’s men intimidated and killed witnesses to the massacre.
Well, now you've recently had a wave of massacres which - if they can't say they've successfully struck Taliban - are always blamed on the recalcitrant Talibs who hide behind bushels, pebbles, and water fountains. They are, if nothing else, cartoonishly and imaginatively evil. Rumsfeld was still claiming in 2003 that the reason for the appearance of large numbers of corpses next to bomb sites was that the Taliban were theiving corpses from the local hospitals to put there. That's how evil. And of course we know that an infamous market-place bombing by the invaders during the 2003 war on Iraq was initially blamed on Saddam Hussein himself, who was also blamed for the US incineration of Iraqis in underground bunkers during the 1991 war (of course he would, he's that eeevvvilll). Because "the enemy" in both Iraq and Afghanistan now includes a large and growing base of civilian supporters, it is easy for US military strategists to return to the 'total war' motif of previous outings. The "enemy", for contemporary purposes, is most of the population of Iraq, as it was once virtually the entire population of Vietnam.
Does it make it any better if it isn't an 'ethnic' or a 'racial' thing? Certainly, the friend can be a suitable Iraqi (Talabani, Maliki etc), and the enemy can be a 'bad' American (Walker Lind). The friend/enemy opposition is more flexible than the "ethnic nationalisms" decried by Michael Ignatieff. Ignatieff waffles away, in Blood and Belonging, with the usual faux-democratic cadences, about the difference between 'civic nationalism' (Britain, France, America) and 'ethnic nationalism' (Germany, Poland, Serbia, Northern Ireland). He constructs a series of books, practically a three-volume novel, out of this conceit. The wars in Yugoslavia, Northern Ireland, Kurdistan etc are to be explained as a result of a sense of 'blood belonging'. Ignatieff criticises nationalism for its sentimentality, its kitsch, which abets ultra-violence with its appeal to a love "greater than reason, stronger than the will, a love akin to fate and destiny" - yet he appears to have no idea of the extent to which he partakes of that sentimentality. He accepts the unique animating force of these ideas, indeed credits them with paramount explanatory power. He sentimentalises these events with a passion, and is most rousing about the American empire "whose grace notes are free markets, human rights, and democracy" (I recall him telling New York Times readers this in 2004). He explains in his book how it happened that cosmopolitans like him are no longer surfing on a high wave: "Since 1989, we have entered the first era of global cosmopolitanism in which there is no framework of imperial order … The Americans may be the last remaining superpower, but they are not an imperial power: their authority is exercised in the defence of exclusively national interests, not in the maintenance of an imperial system of global order. As a result, large sections of Africa, Eastern Europe, Soviet Asia, Latin America and the Near East no longer come within any clearly defined sphere of imperial or great power influence. This means that huge sections of the world’s population have won the ‘right of self-determination’ on the cruellest possible terms: they have been simply left to fend for themselves. Not surprisingly, their nation-states are collapsing, as in Somalia and in many other nations of Africa. In crucial zones of the world, once heavily policed by empire – notably the Balkans – populations find themselves without an imperial arbiter to appeal to. Small wonder then, that, unrestrained by stronger hands, they have set upon each other for that final settling of scores so long deferred by the presence of empire." Cosmopolitan order "depends critically on the rule-enforcing capacities of the nation state. When this order breaks down, as it did during the Los Angeles riot of 1992, it becomes apparent that civilised, cosmopolitan multi-ethnic cities have as great a propensity for ethnic warfare as any Eastern European country". For Ignatieff, the worst thing that can happen is that the world is left without imperial governance, and that societies are left without the strong hand of the state. He is for free-markets, understand: he is with the orthodoxy which holds that peace grows where liberal polities and markets do. But he thinks that the empire of enlightened, civic nationalisms best answers the chaos and disorder of independent nation-states. Later on in his career, as you probably know, he went onto assert that the US was indeed an empire, and would be so much better if it took its imperial responsibilities seriously. Because he has taken such a reductionist attitude to civil wars, and has forgotten that the so-called 'civic nationalisms' had their origins in revolutionary class violence, racial subordination, indigenous genocide, scorthed earth repression (in the Deep South as well as in the Vendee) etc, Ignatieff thinks that the dehumanisation of Empire, with its friend/enemy apparatus, is superior to the dehumanisation of "ethnic nationalism". Because he has evacuated empire from the story of postcolonial or post-'communist' civil war, he can say talk about Northern Ireland as if the British Empire's role was largely historical; he can talk about Kurdistan as if the US was angelic; he can talk about Bosnia as if it was a simple implosion of ethnic hatreds; and so on. He has also evacuated the business of economics and finance, writing as if to mention anything as base as money (or, god forbid, capital) would taint him by association - he who wouldn't know a grand if it was deposited in his lobster bisque.
The friend/enemy distinction was insisted on by a Nazi legal scholar named Carl Schmitt. It was, for him, the basis of the political. It was postulated not as an ideal or instruction, but as a real fact about international life, something that - for example - could explain war without having to disappoint people with the idea that they were fighting for looms and car plants and the Reichsmark. It was an existential commitment, and needn't necessarily pertain to 'race' or 'nationhood'. Radiating from the centre outward, this passionate struggle became 'personal' for everyone who was 'patriotic'. And so it is: so deeply personal, so ingrained in every disciplined subject working in the media or academia, that few dare to even question it. Of course, the enemy! Not a word that could be said to assist them, nothing to harm our brave boys, nothing to place the commander-in-chief in an awkward situation.