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Back to the future (we fail because we do not learn)

30 May 2012

Summary:  Death to the enemies of America!  The US government acts as prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner. We’ve tried this before.  It failed then.  It will fail again.  But this time we’re killing on a larger geographic footprint, outside the context of “war”, for longer.  We risk blowback, when somebody who has lost a loved one decides to strike back.  Somebody competent, with friends — or allies.

To the US government our enemies come in four kinds (source):

  1. Known insurgents
  2. Suspected insurgents
  3. people who would possible become insurgents if they lived to adulthood
  4. people who would be insurgents but for the fact that they are not insurgents

From The Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam (1972):

Occasionally {General} Harkins would mouth phrases about this being a political war, but he did not really believe them. the American military thought this was like any other war” you searched out the enemy, fixed him, killed him and went home. The only measure of the war the Americans were interested in  was quantitative; and quantitatively, given the immense American fire power, helicopters, fighter-bombers and artillery, it went very well.

And this:

That the body count might be a misleading indicator did not penetrate the command; large stacks of dead Vietcong were taken as signs of success.  that the French statistics had also been very good right up until 1954, when the gave up, made no impression.  The French had lost the war because of a lack of will and a lack of fire power; Americans lacked neither will nor fire power.

And this:

At an early intergovernmental meeting on the importance of psychological warfare, one of {General} Harkins’ key staffmen, Brigadier General Gerald Kelleher, quickly dismissed that theory. His job, he said, was to kill Vietcong.  But the French, responded a political officer named Donald Pike, had killed a lot of Vietcong and they had not won. “Didn’t kill enough Vietcong,” answered Kelleher.

From today’s Obama advertisement pretending to be news in the New York Times: “Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will“.  Read it carefully.  Imagine how Adams, Jackson, or Lincoln would react to this.

Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.

Counterterrorism officials insist this approach is one of simple logic: people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good. “Al Qaeda is an insular, paranoid organization — innocent neighbors don’t hitchhike rides in the back of trucks headed for the border with guns and bombs,” said one official, who requested anonymity to speak about what is still a classified program.

This counting method may partly explain the official claims of extraordinarily low collateral deaths. In a speech last year Mr. Brennan, Mr. Obama’s trusted adviser, said that not a single noncombatant had been killed in a year of strikes. And in a recent interview, a senior administration official said that the number of civilians killed in drone strikes in Pakistan under Mr. Obama was in the “single digits” — and that independent counts of scores or hundreds of civilian deaths unwittingly draw on false propaganda claims by militants.

But in interviews, three former senior intelligence officials expressed disbelief that the number could be so low. The C.I.A. accounting has so troubled some administration officials outside the agency that they have brought their concerns to the White House. One called it “guilt by association” that has led to “deceptive” estimates of civilian casualties.

“It bothers me when they say there were seven guys, so they must all be militants,” the official said. “They count the corpses and they’re not really sure who they are.”

For more information

See Glenn Greenwald’s articles as Salon, one of America’s few remaining true journalists:

Running for President in 2016?

  1. Tom Friedman offers a perfect definition of ‘terrorism’”, 14 January 2009 — “The New York Times war cheerleader urges that Hamas be “educated” by “inflicting heavy pain on the Gaza population”.”
  2. The omnipotence of Al Qaeda and meaninglessness of ‘Terrorism’”, 23 July 2009 — “The news reaction to the Oslo events clarifies the real meaning of ‘terrorism’”
  3. The true definition of ‘Terrorist’”, 22 June 2011 — “Two Iraqi nationals are so branded for fighting against U.S. troops in their country”
  4. Iran and the Terrorism game“, 12 January 2012 — “When Iran allegedly engages in targeted assassination, that’s terrorism; when it’s the victim of that, it isn’t”
  5. Washington’s high-powered terrorist supporters“, 12 March 2012 — “As investigations begin into paid D.C. advocates of a dissident Iranian group, their self-defenses are revealing”
  6. Report: U.S. trained terror group“, 6 April 2012 — “The New Yorker documents ample material support from the U.S. to MEK: A clear felony if true”
  7. America’s drone sickness“, 19 April 2012 — “The U.S. slaughters at will, then shields its actions from all forms of judicial and democratic accountability”
  8. Obama the Warrior“, 29 May 2012 — “A new NYT article sheds considerable light on the character of the Democratic Commander-in-Chief”
  9. ‘Militants': media propaganda“, 29 May 2012 — “To avoid counting civilian deaths, Obama re-defined “militant” to mean “all military-age males in a strike zone”
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19 Comments leave one →
  1. Duncan Kinder permalink
    30 May 2012 4:28 am

    Without characterizing the Indian Wars as good or bad, they differed from the present “War One Terror” in that they were peripheral to the American society of that time. The great Civil War army had been demobilized; Custer restored to his rank in the “regular army,” and so forth. The incessant, “Support the Troops” fetish was not present; nor was the rest of the glorification of the military.

    Like

    • 30 May 2012 4:33 am

      “in that they were peripheral to the American society of that time.”

      I don’t believe that is accurate, in any way. From Jackson through the end of large-scale wars (roughly) in 1877 they were central to development of America. They were economically important, a political focus and unifier, and had a high profile in society (white society).

      Like

  2. 30 May 2012 9:57 am

    A very interesting book on the Plains Wars is Scalp Dance (Amazon). Those wars were not always popular at the time, at least not in the east. But, from what I can tell, they were not necessarily unpopular either. While many Americans voiced concern for Indian Women and Children, they didn’t actively try to find another course for those wars. Indeed, they were economically important.

    Like

    • 30 May 2012 1:00 pm

      I would like to see an analysis showing that the Indian Wars were not highly popular in the East (among whites), at least until they were won. William Henry Harrison became President campaigning on his victory at the small battle of Tippecanoe. The removal of Indians from the SE (aka Trail of Tears) in the 1830s was very popular. Custer was a major hero after Little Big Horn, and the punitive expeditions which followed were popular. General Sherman’s genocidal policies were well-known, and I’ve not read of any substantial opposition.

      That’s not to say that everybody thought the wars were heroic or dandy, but so far as I’ve read they had widespread and broad support.

      Like

    • 30 May 2012 6:54 pm

      FM,
      I was speaking of the Plains Wars, which primarily happened after the Civil War, not the wars of the east, which were at minimum a generation before. At the time of the Plains Wars, most people living east of the Appalachians had never seen an Indian and naturally had myths surrounding them. They were far removed from the threat of violence. Sand Creek was a wonderful thing until the truth got out about it. News in History website. Point being, people didn’t take kindly to the treatment of women and children in such a manner, especially in a friendly camp. (I know, that’s just the one example, I wish I could cite more…That would take some time.)

      Custer was glorified after his death as was Sitting Bull in the post war years. Many of Custer’s men were immigrants, by the way.
      I’m not arguing with you, but, making the point, elements of those wars were questioned at times.
      As for the removal of the civilized tribes, I’ve mainly gotten the impression that it popular in Georgia. I can’t defend this statement, being from what I read years ago, but, North Carolina tolerated it. (I’m from the back 40 of NC, and until this day, that’s what we are to Raleigh, the back 40. The Cherokee were at that time what is now the furthest western county, Cherokee and part of Swain.)

      Tippecanoe was in 1811. It was widely believed that the British were instigating Tecumseh. That was a time too when much of the previous century’s conflict were still in mind, spoken of around the fire places at night. And we all know Sherman’s middle name was Tecumseh.

      Most folks have a Hollywood version in their head when it comes to the Indian Wars, from King Phillips War to Wounded Knee. Allot can be learned from them. So, yeah…We ought to study them more.

      Like

    • 31 May 2012 12:02 am

      I wish people would reply to quotes. This is rebuttal to things I never said plus some I explicitly said I agree with. Since explanations seldom appear to accomplish anything, I’ll move on.

      What’s the point of theappalachianist’s comment? I said: “From Jackson through the end of large-scale wars (roughly) in 1877 they were central to development of America. They were economically important, a political focus and unifier, and had a high profile in society (white society).” Not that everybody applauded (although he grossly underestimates the support for these programs; talking to people today is like asking about the benefits of slavery).

      He appears to disagree. Why? Let’s speculate. Looking at American society we see two reactions to the genocidal programs waged against the Indians in the 19th century (“extermination” was a common term at the time). Both were seen then — and today.

      One is denial, which is think theappalachianist’s intent — in the sense of minimizing American’s support (much as German’s did after WWII — it was just a few bad guys). The historical record shows this to be false. The second is to romanticize and enoble the Indians. Like the first, this involves exaggerating selective aspects of the historical record.

      Both of these are attempts to avoid the horrible truth, a blot on the grand if largely mythical pagent of American history. From Ta-Nehisi Coates:

      It’s also the result of the American — and perhaps even the human — inability to admit fault. No one wants to be wrong. It is a great failing, not simply of morality and honor, but of imagination. Being wrong is painful.

      Like

    • 31 May 2012 3:28 pm

      FM,

      You said: “I wish people would reply to quotes”. My apologies.

      “That’s not to say that everybody thought the wars were heroic or dandy, but so far as I’ve read they had widespread and broad support.”
      My response was to provide food for further thought on that statement. I said: “I’m not arguing with you, but, making the point, elements of those wars were questioned at times.”

      You said: “From Jackson through the end of large-scale wars (roughly) in 1877 they were central to development of America. They were economically important, a political focus and unifier, and had a high profile in society “. I wasn’t arguing with that other than pointing out, it wasn’t absolute. Nor is support for our present wars.

      You said: “I would like to see an analysis showing that the Indian Wars were not highly popular in the East (among whites), at least until they were won”. I would too. It would be something we can learn from.

      You said: “One is denial, which is think theappalachianist’s intent…” No. On a personal level, it’s hard to deny that when my ancestors had their homes and corn burned on the Tuckasegee and Little Tennessee Rivers. And during removal time melted off into what is now the south slopes of NCs Balsam Range. And I won’t deny that they killed and scalped people on the Yadkin River. I read evidence that said the Indian wars were a humanitarian concern (for lack of better terms) but, that thought did not persist. Which, if so, we can learn from.

      You said: “Both of these are attempts to avoid the horrible truth,” No. I’m trying to find the truth.

      “Let’s speculate.” I’m a man, flesh, blood and bones. Why don’t you just straight up ask me? And why respond to me as if the third person?

      Like

    • 1 June 2012 12:07 am

      “Why don’t you just straight up ask me? And why respond to me as if the third person?”

      That’s an important question, part of the larger question as how to run comments. There are many methods for this.

      1. Many major Internet gurus just close to comments (Instapundit, Lawfare, Prof Piekle Sr).
      2. Some reply rarely, but often harshly (Glenn Greenwald at Salon).
      3. Some moderate heavily, imposing censorship (Prof Brad DeLong, Real Climate, Joe Romm).
      4. Some run lightly moderated comments (WUWT, Climate Audit).

      I do none of the above, running a dialog — replying to most comments, moderating very seldom (mostly for length and relevance, since WordPress provides no “more” button). But critically, as the world is already full of fluff and error — assuming the world can live with one place where viewpoints clash in search of hard truth.

      The problem is that this often decays into hurt feelings (on the other side, I’m often too critical — often from time pressure). One technique I’ve adopted, with some success (I think) is to keep the comments very impersonal. Not just in discussing the ideas, not the author, but in replying impersonally.

      Any thoughts? Like the FM website itself, the comment section is a work in progress.

      Like

  3. Buzz Killington permalink
    30 May 2012 11:11 am

    As depressing as it may be, I feel I may have to vote for Romney in November in hopes that these issues may get sufficient attention again if the President has an (R) next to his name. What a perverse calculation…

    Like

    • Bluestocking permalink
      30 May 2012 5:10 pm

      Ah, but will they get attention from the people who are both 1) committed to making a difference and 2) in a position which would make it possible for them to do this? Three words…not bloody likely.

      With all due respect, since Category 1 and Category 2 (unfortunately) seem to be mutually exclusive in modern politics for the most part, I think you’re deluding yourself. Category 1 would not include the overwhelming majority of people in Congress, the Department of Defense, the Department of State, the mainstream media, and the hypothetical Romney administration — and since the people are also most if not all of the same ones who make up Category 2, I quite frankly don’t see any chance of seeing what you want actually happen. Maybe these issues will get more attention from ordinary people, sure…but it’s becoming increasingly clear that the people who have the power to make changes are no longer interested in what ordinary people think or want and are only interested in what will promote their own interests and those of their major contributors.

      Like

  4. Bluestocking permalink
    30 May 2012 5:19 pm

    “To the US government, our enemies come in four kinds: (1) known insurgents, (2) suspected insurgents, (3) people who would possibly become insurgents if they lived to adulthood, and (4) people who would be insurgents but for the fact that they are not insurgents.’

    Which basically suggests that everyone in the entire world is either an enemy or a potential enemy — a belief system which is an absolutely perfect breeding ground for galloping paranoia of a kind which has the distinct potential to turn into a self-fulfilling and self-reinforcing prophecy (regarding and treating everyone as an enemy or potential enemy increases the likelihood that someone will regard and treat you as an enemy, which only strengthens the original belief that everyone’s a potential enemy).

    Like

  5. 30 May 2012 6:15 pm

    “Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.”

    And so how much government effort is going to go towards looking for intelligence about who is not a terrorist? Very little I suspect. The genius of this, of course, is that it allows Obama and his government to retain its sense of self-righteousness as long as their intelligence is lousy. If we just close our minds and ignore any evidence that someone is ‘not a combatant’ — then we can kill random Muslims with a clear conscious. It turns Washington’s most abundant resource, bad intelligence, into an asset.

    Of course, the whole problem is that it is simply evil. Maybe someday this will catch up with them — though, this can take a long time. What I suspect comes first, is that this method, while being good for our leader’s delicate conscious, will be a stupendously lousy way to fight a war. We’ll just get more and more fail, while whoever is President ramps up the killing.

    Like

  6. 30 May 2012 8:17 pm

    This is what we are talking about. Buh…Yah! Max Keiser: Shame.

    Like

  7. david jones permalink
    31 May 2012 1:42 am

    This fragment of a sentence jumped out at me:

    “… Barack Obama, a realist who, unlike some of his fervent supporters, was never carried away by his own rhetoric..”

    The whole article is too dark and twisted to be an “Obama advertisement”… more like some kind of warning.

    Like

    • 31 May 2012 2:00 am

      It was obviously intended as a pro-obama advert. Even the GOP loves the strong Obama-ruler, as they prepare for the GOP-fuhrer to come. See Kenneth Anderson, member of the atni-Constitutional attorney squadron at the Volkoh Conspiracy:

      The Obama administration is more aware than most administrations just how important it is to hold a certain legitimacy high ground, and that starts with its framing among opinion-elites.

      Second, there is also likely a signal here to the judicial branch that this is not unconsidered or purely discretionary; far from it. More exactly, there is a signal that the judiciary would have no ability to do a better job, as an effectiveness question, quite apart from the Constitutional and other domestic legal questions. It is highly unlikely that the judicial branch, taken as a whole, has any appetite for getting involved in these questions – particularly on the front end, of signing off in advance on targeting, effectively death warrants, given the Constitutional and other domestic legal issues raised. Even in an indirect, informal way, this kind of article helps set the picture of a process with serious mechanisms for discussion and review; it helps establish the legitimacy of the process – and so also helps establish the legitimacy of the judiciary staying out of it.

      Third, the administration wants to send a clear signal that the President considers and signs off on these personally, and that this is far from a perfunctory or unconsidered sign-off. I applaud the President for this level of personal review; I think it is right. … But, while setting a presidential burden, this also gives future presidents important institutional legitimacy, through the weight of precedent established by the acts of a prior president, and institutional stability – to targeted killing, specifically, but also by implication to the emerging paradigm of covert and small-scale self-defense actions against non-state terrorist actors which, in the future, may or may not have anything to do with Al Qaeda and might be addressed to wholly new threats.

      … It is obvious from how I’ve framed the ambiguity that I believe that the administration has an obligation to create lasting institutional structures, processes, institutional settlement around these policies. It owes it to future presidencies; every current president is a fiduciary for later presidents. It also owes it to the ordinary officials and officers, civilian and military, who are deeply involved in carrying out killing and death under the administration’s claims of law – it needs to do everything it can to ensure that things these people do in reliance on claims of lawfulness will be treated as such into the future.

      Like

    • david jones permalink
      1 June 2012 4:34 am

      Ok. I had to read that one a couple of times.

      So the NYT article is a message, I agree with that much. It’s long and wordy and heavily loaded with double-meanings, so it makes sense that it’s for a specialized audience. Paints Obama as a master of applying his lawyerly skills to redefine right and wrong, but we should be reassured that it is for the greater good. Fine. Deeply disturbing, but really not that new.

      The new thing, I thought, was the wholesale abandonment of the Hope-and-Change / positive attitude image, but maybe that’s just because I haven’t been paying attention to Obama in the last year or two. Now in the NYT article there’s a sort-of pride in the habit they’ve made of the targetted killings, which reminds me of the Israeli attitude- a hidden assumption is that the conflict with the Islamists is permanent and unavoidable and that it’s a waste of time to try to find a way out.

      Also a pride in the “toughness” of it. I always thought the Democrats are supposed to be the “good cop”, so this new attitude is scary if you think about it that way — what’s the “bad cop” going to be like? Is that what the GOP-fuhrer remark was about?

      Now this Kenneth Anderson … not sure where he is coming from, but he is analyzing the story as a “claim of lawfulness” ???? There is an argument of “necessity”, in some cases. But not lawfulness. Lawfulness would involve (1) law (2) the judicial system. It doesn’t get more basic than that. Some very serious Orwellian mind-bending taking place in that blog post.

      Like

    • 1 June 2012 4:41 am

      Jones,

      None of this is new. It’s been front-page news for years. Team Obama boasting about his drones and spec ops assassination teams, his undeclared wars, etc.

      I don’t believe we’ve heard about “hope and change” for several years.

      As for executive supremacy, that does back to claims made during Bush Jr’s terms. Obama has expanded, not innovated. I suggest you read Anderson’s work at the VC, and Posner’s book. All the theory is well-developed by now. It’s our future.

      Like

  8. david jones permalink
    1 June 2012 2:15 pm

    > None of this is new. It’s been front-page news for years. Team Obama boasting about his drones and spec ops assassination teams, his undeclared wars, etc.

    I was aware of this, but this pair of articles was still a shock.

    Like

    • 1 June 2012 2:36 pm

      I agree, in the sense that we’ve become so accustomed to the Imperial Presidentcy (a post-Constitutional system) that they can boast about it.

      Like

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