James Bond is not just our hero, but the model for our geopolitical strategy

I enjoyed Ian Fleming’s books about James Bond, and some of the movies too (esp. Casino Royale).  But should we base our geopolitical strategyon fielding teams of “00” agents (and special operators) to kill our enemies?  Will this make us safer, or make more likely what we most wish to avoid?

Consider this:

  1. Many (most?) nations have used assassination in exceptional circumstances.
  2. Some nations have made occasional use of assassination (e.g., our Phoenix Program in Vietnam).
  3. Some nations have made extensive — even routine — use of assassination (e.g., the USSR, Israel).

Since our entry into WWII, and esp during the Cold War, America moved from group 1 to group 2.  Now we are moving from group 2 to group 3.  This post discusses the history of assassination as a geopolitical tool (i.e., by government against foreign enemies), how we are making more use of it, and what this might mean for America.  At the end are links to the other chapters in this series.


  1. History of assassination
  2. Today’s news
  3. Implications of routine assassination
  4. Legalities
  5. Recommended sources  for an introduction to this subject
  6. Afterword and where to go for more information

(1)  History of assassination

Assassination as a tool of statecraft or war is nothing new.  In Chapter 13 of The Art of War, Sun Tzu wrote:

Whether the object be to crush an army, to storm a city, or to assassinate an individual, it is always necessary to begin by finding out the names of the attendants, the aides-de-camp, and door-keepers and sentries of the general in command.

For a look at our time, here is an excerpt from the Wikipedia entry about the history of assassination (click through to Wikipedia to see the many links). 

However, the 20th century likely marks the first time nation-states began training assassins to be specifically used against so-called enemies of the state. During World War II, for example, MI6 trained a group of Czechoslovakian operatives to kill the Nazi general Reinhard Heydrich (who did later perish by their efforts – see Operation Anthropoid), and repeated attempts were made by both the British MI6, the American Office of Strategic Services (later the Central Intelligence Agency) and the Soviet SMERSH to kill Adolf Hitler …

The Cold War saw a dramatic increase in the number of political assassinations … During the Kennedy era Fidel Castro narrowly escaped death on several occasions at the hands of the CIA (a function of the agency’s “executive action” program) … The assassination of the FBI agent Dan Mitrione, a well known torture teacher, in hands of the Uruguayan guerrilla movement Tupamaros is a perfect proof of United States intervention in Latin American governments during the Cold War.

At the same time, the KGB made creative use of assassination to deal with high-profile defectors such as Georgi Markov, and Israel’s Mossad made use of such tactics to eliminate Palestinian guerrillas, politicians and revolutionaries …

Most major powers were not long in repudiating such tactics, for example during the presidency of Gerald Ford in the United States in 1976 (Executive Order 12333, which proscription was relaxed however by the George W. Bush administration). Many allege, however, that this is merely a smoke screen for political and moral benefit and that the covert and illegal training of assassins by major intelligence agencies continue, such as at the School of the Americas run by the United States.

… {M}any accuse Russia of continuing to practice it in Chechnya and against Chechens abroad, as well as Israel in Palestine and against Palestinians abroad (as well as those Mossad deems a threat to Israeli national security, as in the aftermath of the Munich Massacre during “Operation Wrath of God”). Besides Palestine Liberation Organization members assassinated abroad, {Israel’s military} has also often targeted Hamas activists in the Gaza strip.

Are attacks on military leaders during wartime called “assassinations”?  See the answer here.

(2)  Today — routine use of assassination

(a)  “Filling the skies with Assassins” by Tom Engelhardt, 17 April 2009 — Excerpt:

Our drone wars also represent a new chapter in the history of assassination. Once upon a time, to be an assassin for a government was a furtive, shameful thing. In those days, of course, an assassin, if successful, took down a single person, not the targeted individual and anyone in the vicinity (or simply, if targeting intelligence proves wrong, anyone in the vicinity). No more poison-dart-tipped umbrellas, as in past KGB operations, or toxic cigars as in CIA ones — not now that assassination has taken to the skies as an every day, all-year-round activity.

Today, we increasingly display our assassination wares with pride. To us, at least, it seems perfectly normal for assassination aerial operations to be a part of an open discussion in Washington and in the media. Consider this a new definition of “progress” in our world.

(b)  US choice hardly McChrystal clear“, Gareth Porter, Asia Times, 14 May 2009 — This has much interesting detail about General McChrystal; I recommend reading it in full.  Excerpt:

The choice of Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal to become the new United States commander in Afghanistan has been hailed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and national news media as ushering in a new unconventional approach to counter-insurgency.  But McChrystal’s background sends a very different message from the one claimed by Gates and the news media. His long specialization in counter-terrorism operations suggests an officer who is likely to have more interest in targeted killings than in the kind of politically sensitive counter-insurgency program that the Barack Obama administration has said it intends to carry out.

In announcing the extraordinary firing of General David McKiernan and the nomination of McChrystal to replace him, Gates said that the mission in Afghanistan “requires new thinking and new approaches by our military leaders” and praised McChrystal for his “unique skill set in counter-insurgency”.  Media reporting on the choice of McChrystal simply echoed the Pentagon’s line.

  • The Washington Post said his selection “marks the continued ascendancy of officers who have pressed for the use of counter-insurgency tactics, in Iraq and Afghanistan, that are markedly different from the Army’s traditional doctrine”.  {link}
  • The New York Times cited unnamed “Defense Department officials” in reporting, “His success in using intelligence and firepower to track and kill insurgents, and his training in unconventional warfare that emphasizes the need to protect the population, made him the best choice for the command in Afghanistan.” {link}
  • The Wall Street Journal suggested that McChrystal was the kind of commander who would “fight the kind of complex counter-insurgency warfare” that Gates wants to see in Afghanistan, because his command of special operations forces in Iraq had involved “units that specialize in guerilla warfare, including the training of indigenous armies”. {link}

But these explanations for the choice of McChrystal equate his command of the special operations forces with expertise on counter-insurgency, despite the fact that McChrystal spent his past five years as a commander of special operations forces focusing overwhelmingly on counter-terrorism operations, not on counter-insurgency.  Whereas counter-insurgency operations are aimed primarily at influencing the population and are primarily non-military, counter-terrorism operations are exclusively military and focus on targeting the “enemy”.

  • As commander of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) from April 2003 to August 2008, he was pre-occupied with pursuing high-value al-Qaeda targets and local and national insurgent leaders in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan – mostly through targeted raids and airstrikes.
  • It was under McChrystal’s command, in fact, that JSOC shifted away from the very mission of training indigenous military units in counter-insurgency operations that had been a core mission of special operations forces. …
  • Special operations forces under McChrystal’s command also engaged in raiding homes in search of Taliban suspects, angering villagers in Herat province to the point where they took up arms against the US forces, according to a May 2007 story by Carlotta Gall and David E Sanger of the New York Times.

(c)  This is greeted with applause by some experts.  Such as Pat Lang (Colonel, US Army, retired), from a post at Sic Semper Tyrannis, 12 May 2009:

What is the message in this change? McChrystal’s background, his “issues” over supposed abuse of prisoners by his commandos in Iraq and a reputation for operational aggressiveness do not “telegraph” the coming of a policy aimed at a political settlement in Afghanistan.

This sounds like a paradigm shift in which Obama’s policy of destroying the leadership of Al-Qa’ida in Afghanistan and Pakistan takes priority over everything else.

I might like this.

(d)  Afghan Graveyard“, Ralph Peters, 14 May 2009 — Very much worth reading in full!  Excerpt:

The conflict in Afghanistan was a special-operations war in 2001, and it’s a special-operations war in 2009. Everything in between was deadly make-believe.

… Dave McKiernan didn’t fail the Army. The Army failed him. Sent to Afghanistan to herd NATO cats, he operated by the book. But the book the Army gave him was wrong.  That book — our Counterinsurgency Manual — was midwifed by Gen. David Petraeus, who did a dazzling job of turning around the mess Rumsfeld-era policies made in Iraq.

But Petraeus was nimble. When he hit the ground in Baghdad, he promptly surged beyond the prescriptions in his politically correct manual. Petraeus did what needed to be done. That included staying out of Stan McChrystal’s secret fight against al Qaeda and other bad actors in Iraq. We turned the blood tide during the hours of darkness, while journalists snored in their bunks.

Of all the factors that enabled the turnaround in Iraq, the first was the speed with which al Qaedaalienated the locals. The second was the incisive, relentless elimination of terrorists by our special-ops forces: Killing works.

… Will McChrystal, our special operator without peer, be allowed to do what’s necessary — and to jettison huggy-bear programs that sound good but don’t work? Can he focus on the destruction of our enemies? Can he throw away the book?

McChrystal’s boss, Petraeus, remains the key. If this supremely talented man can overcome his preconceptions about the fight we’re in, he and McChrystal may be the team that rescues another failing effort. But Petraeus has to think like a Pashtun tribesman, not a Princeton man.

As this column has pointed out repeatedly, Afghanistan’s worthless in and of itself. Securing hundreds of premedievalvillages means local progress at the cost of strategic paralysis. To fight a mobile enemy, we need to be hypermobile. The dirt doesn’t matter.  That’s where special-ops come in. Our efforts should concentrate on supporting our black-program professionals. It’s their fight. We need fewer troops, but a clear vision and more guts.

… Getting it right in Afghanistan — and across the frontier in Pakistan — means digging fewer wells and forcing our enemies to dig more graves. I’ll bet on McChrystal to get it right. If he’s allowed to.

(3)  Implications of a world where assassination is a routine tool

(a)  Does it work strategically as well as tactically?

“Killing works” as a tactic.  Wars are won by good strategy, not just good tactics (or else everyone in Europe would be singing Deutschland Uber Alles before their soccer games).  Basing our operations on “killing works” not just violates most COIN theory, but might fatally compromise key strategic interests.

David Kilcullen (Lt. Colonel, Australian Army, retired) gently but clearly discusses on aspect of this in “Death From Above, Outrage Down Below, co-author with Andrew McDonald Exum (US Army, retired), op-ed in the New York Times, 16 May 2009 — Excerpt:

The use of drones in military operations has steadily grown — we know from public documents that from last September to this March alone, C.I.A. operatives launched more than three dozen strikes.

The appeal of drone attacks for policy makers is clear. For one thing, their effects are measurable. Military commanders and intelligence officials point out that drone attacks have disrupted terrorist networks in Pakistan, killing key leaders and hampering operations. Drone attacks create a sense of insecurity among militants and constrain their interactions with suspected informers. And, because they kill remotely, drone strikes avoid American casualties.

But on balance, the costs outweigh these benefits for three reasons.

  • First, the drone war has created a siege mentality among Pakistani civilians. …
  • Second {such strikes} offend people’s deepest sensibilities, alienates them from their government, and contributes to Pakistan’s instability.
  • Third, the use of drones displays every characteristic of a tactic — or, more accurately, a piece of technology — substituting for a strategy.

About the author:  For Kilcullen’s bio and links to his many articles about counter-insurgency, see The Essential 4GW reading list: David Kilcullen.

(b)  Does it encourage attacks on the US?

There is another possible result.  Our enemies can retaliate, and perhaps even reciprocate.  It’s not clear — except in the nightmares that substitute for strategic thought in the US — that any Afghanistan tribes have an objective interest in attacking America.  What would be the military objective, the potential benefit?  But each killing adds to the number of individuals with a reason to do so, among the friends and relatives of the dead.

Chet Richards (Editor of DNI; Colonel, USAF, retired) says “The pointlessness of attacking the US might not stop them from trying.  History shows that all sides in every war are vulnerable to the temptation of putting tactics ahead of strategy.”

Routine use of assassination might make inevitable what we most wish to avoid.  If so, it will be — unlike 9-11 — a legitimate operation of war.  America has made it so.

(c)  What does it do to us?

We are shaped by our actions as well as our aspirations and beliefs.  Assassination is a form of war, but it differs from war as we usually think of it in the West.  The effects of routine use of assassination on our hearts, minds, and souls might prove to be the most important long-term result.

With the routine use of assassination we join a dirty roster of nations.  Perhaps the most important factor to ponder:   few of the nations on this list are successful nations, by any standard.

(5)  Legalities

After the revelations of our government’s legal justification for torture, there is no point in discussing the legalities of targeted killing vs. assassination, and the fine distinctions involved.  Plus we are in the long war, in which our enemies are both ill-defined and changing over time.  As has been shown in elaborate detail, both on this site and many others, essentially the US government now reserves the right to kill whoever it wants to, US citizens included (incidents such as Waco and esp Ruby Ridge demonstrated that to all but the exceptionally slow learners among us).  That is, self-restraint and fear of consequences are the major factors constraining government action.

Perhaps the key aspect of these laws and regulations is that the term “assassination” is not defined.  However, for you legal beagles:

Assassination section of the Lieber Code, U.S. Army General Order No. 100, 1863

Executive Order 11905 — United States foreign intelligence activities, 18 February 1976

  • (g) Prohibition of Assassination. No employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination.

Executive Order 12333 — United States intelligence activities, 4 December 1981

  • 2.11 Prohibition on Assassination. No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.
  • 2.12 Indirect Participation. No agency of the Intelligence Community shall participate in or request any person to undertake activities forbidden by this Order.

DoD Directive 5240.1 – DoD Intelligence Activities, 25 April 1988 

  • 4.4. “Under no circumstances shall any DoD employee engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.”

Assassination Ban and E.O. 12333: a Brief Summary, Congressional Research Service (CRS), January 2002

(5)  Recommended sources for more information about assassinations

The two best reports I have found of these issues are the CRS report (above) and  Operations against Enemy Leaders, Stephen T. Hosmer, RAND, 2001 (151 pages).   This report was sponsored by US Air Force. I recommend reading it if you are interested in learning about these complex issues. From the summary:

An analysis of some 24 cases of leadership attacks from World War II to the present provides insights about the comparative efficacy of different forms of leadership attacks, the potential coercive and deterrent value of such operations for shaping future enemy policy and behavior, and the possible unintended consequences that may result from the ill-considered use of such attacks.

… With the single exception of the shoot-down of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s aircraft in World War II, all U.S. operations to neutralize senior enemy leaders by direct attack have failed.

(6)  Afterword

If you are new to this site, please glance at the archives below.  You may find answers to your questions in these.

Please share your comments by posting below.  Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them brief (250 words max), civil, and relevant to this post.  Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp interest these days:

Other articles about our government’s assassination programs

  1. James Bond is not just our hero, but the model for our geopolitical strategy, 18 May 2009
  2. Another nail put in the Constitution’s coffin, but we don’t care, 9 February 2010
  3. Stratfor looks at “The Utility of Assassination”, 26 February 2010
  4. Another step towards fascism: “Silencing the Lawyers”, 31 May 2010
  5. Code red! The Constitution is burning, 5 August 2010
  6. An Appalling Threat to Civil Liberties and Democracy, 8 August 2010
  7. Every day the Constitution dies a little more, 1 September 2010
  8. What do our Constitution-loving conservatives say about our government’s assassination programs?, 2 September 2010

58 thoughts on “James Bond is not just our hero, but the model for our geopolitical strategy”

  1. We are fighting an asymmetrical war. The enemy uses un-uniformed personnel to conduct surprise attacks against innocent civilians to generate terror among other civilians. We respond by using our technological advantage to target individual terrorists to minimize our own as well as innocent civilian casualties through aerial attacks with PGMs. And I’m supposed to get upset because some wing nut compares it to assassination? Would they prefer we bring back carpet bombing?

    We’re at war. That means we kill the enemy. If we do so knowing the name of the enemy when we kill him, does that make it wrong when not knowing his name does not?

    How much does OBL pay these wackos to come up with this nonsense?
    Fabius Maximus replies: What you call “nonsense” is counter-insurgency theory, based on 50 years of nations (developed, undeveloped, democracies, tyrannies) losing when fighting foreign insurgencies. Killing alienates the local people, increasing support for the insurencies (both material and recruitment). Hence it is a two-edge sword, to be used with care. Perhaps you should add Field Manual 3-24 — the Army/Marines counter-insurgency field manual — to your reading list. It’s very well written, and explains these things in an easy to understand form. Some of the smartest guys in the US military participated in writting it, based on a wide range of work in the social sciences.

    One of “those wackos” contributed to FM 3-24: Kilcullen, co-author of the NYT op-ed excerpted in this post. Lt Colonel in the Australian Army (retired). Phd Political anthropology. Senior Advisor to the US State Department, General Petraeus, NATO, the UK and Australia governments.

  2. I find it interesting that only FM and Toms Dispatch consider drone attacks assassinations while all the other articles and experts cited in this post make no mention of assassinations what so ever. Given that Chet Richards comments on this blog now and again I’m curious if he would agree that these are actually assassinations.
    Fabius Maximus replies: First, from a tactical perspective the only thing that counts is the perception of the folks on the other end of these attacks. That you will not learn from reading the American media.

    Second, assassination is a loaded term. People in the national security business cannot use such plain language. Note Kilcullen’s op-ed. He makes the same case as I do about their effectiveness, but speaks more gently. This is a commonplace of modern military writing. Targets are eliminated, not people killed. Collateral damage means women and children killed. Don’t read too much into the terms used; you have to look through to the meaning.

    Perhaps if we spoke more clearly about these things, using fewer euphemisms, we might be able to think more clearly aboout these things.

  3. The whole point of justice, benevolence, and morality is that these are the only long-term strategies that actually work. America is in such a terrible tailspin now that up is down, bad is good, and cats are dogs.

  4. Nice non-sequitur. The question remains would you prefer broad based anonymous killing to focused narrow-band killing? Because killing is what happens in war and the debate is about how to end the war most quickly, no violence, focused violence or broad based violence. And no tactic should be the exclusive tactic in any war, nor is any tactic applicable in all theaters of any war.

    My concern here is about the use of the term assassination. It is a hot, loaded term, as you acknowledge. It is the killing of an unsuspecting individual in peace time for political purposes. To me Heydrich was not assassinated, hew was a war time casualty. Nor was John Lennon assassinated. There was no political motive. The term assassination is being tortured into something unrecognizable.
    Fabius Maximus replies: There were two elements of my reply. First, you labeled as “wackos” some very distinguished experts with whom you disagree. This displays the incredible self-esteem so often found in 21st century Americans, it is bizarre.

    Second, my reply was only a non-sequitur if you are unaware of the debate. One side advocates COIN theory, a carefully crafted alternative to losing such wars (which is what we and almost everybody else has done when fighting foreign insurgencies). Or relying instead on mass use of “target killings” — or whatever euphemism you prefer.

    “It is the killing of an unsuspecting individual in peace time for political purposes.”

    Can you provide a citation from some recognized authority for this definition? It reads like something you made up.

  5. Comment #4 by Mrs. Davis:

    I can’t see any mention of peace time killing of an unsuspecting indiviual in Merriam-Webster’s definition of assassination.

    1 : to injure or destroy unexpectedly and treacherously
    2 : to murder (a usually prominent person) by sudden or secret attack often for political reasons

    So it seems a rather unofficial definition of assassination you use. And as for the political side. Isn’t war just politics by other means?
    Fabius Maximus replies: You last line is esp interesting, as the laws prohibiting assassination often mention a political purpose as an element of the act. From page 2 of the Congressional Research Service report cited in the post:

    The term “assassination” is not defined in E.O. 12333, nor was it defined in the predecessor orders. In general, it appears that an assassination may be viewed as an intentional killing of a targeted individual committed for political purposes. However, the scope of the term seems to be the subject of differing interpretations, both generally, and depending upon whether the killing at issue took place in time of war or in time of peace.

  6. Assassinations were quite the rage during the Renaissance. A good read would be The Awful End of Prince William the Silent: The First Assassination of a Head of State with a Hand-Gun (Hardcover) by Lisa Jardine. Jardine notes that William’s assassination ( sponsored by Philip II ) set off a shockwave through the crowned heads of Europe, causing among other things for Elizabeth I to loose her sense of humor over Mary Queen of Scotts’ various plots. Elizabeth was not purely the target of assassination plots. Sir Walter Raleigh in Ireland by John Pope Hennessy describes her assassination plots against various Irish rebel leaders.

    Renaissance plots have a long history.
    * Notorious was the Pazzi conspiracy, in which a rival Florentine banking family attempted to assassinate Lorenzo the Magnificient and his brother.
    * Pistol and knives were not the only weapons. Poison was useful. And women could use it. Lucretia Borgia and her poison ring are well remembered.
    * Catherine de Medici carried these habits into France. Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France (Paperback) provides an overview of her career.
    * Sometimes assassination plots get messy. The St. Bartholomew Day’s Massacre began with a botched assassination attempt against the Huguenot leader, Gaspard de Coligny. Then things got out of hand.
    * Sometimes assassinations were quite judicial. Upon arriving in the Low Countries, the Spanish Duke of Alba tried and executed two of the three rebel leaders, Counts Egmont and Horne. The third, William the Silent, got away – to cause much trouble until duly assassinated fifteen years later, as Jardine describes.

    For those of you more literary, Shakespeare’s Richard III describes a career built upon assassination; while for those of you looking for non-Renaissance examples, Robert Graves’ I, Claudius provides a picture of Roman plotting.

  7. Robert Petersen

    FM note: I recommend reading this comment.
    I consider assassination to be like money: A little money is good, more money is better and a lot of money is a disaster because of inflation.

    There is certainly a case to make for the use of assassination based on a cost-benefit calculation. The killing of SS Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich in Prag in 1942 had horrible consequences: More than 5.000 people were subsequently killed in retaliation and the village of Lidice was razed to the ground. On the other hand it killed one of the leading Nazis and a key architect of the Holocaust. It also assured that Czechoslovakia would be restored to its former borders (until 1942 that wasn’t certain – the Munich agreement was not yet repudiated).

    I think – however – that the use of wide-spread assassination is simply inflation. The effect of intimidating your enemy gradually wears of and especially the Israelis have discovered that killing political leaders of the Hamas only results in greater fragmentation of the Palestinian resistance – not its disappearance. An organization like Hamas simply adapts to the new circumstances and relies less on key leaders and instead more on networks. So use it, but use it with caution.
    Fabius Maximus replies: The NAZI retailiation for Heydrich’s assassination was so large that the assassination is usually considered a mistake, and the reason that few other such attempts were made by the Brits (e.g., on Rommel). From Wikipedia:

    Infuriated, Hitler ordered the arrest and execution of 10,000 randomly selected Czechs, but, after consultations with Karl Hermann Frank, he reduced his response. Upon Himmler’s orders, the Nazi retaliation was brutal. About 13,000 people were arrested, deported, imprisoned or killed. On 10 June all males over the age of 16 in the village of Lidice, 22 km north-west of Prague, and another village, Ležáky, were murdered. The towns were burned and the ruins leveled.

    In hindsight, the cost was great and the benefit nil. From “Conscience and Power” by Stephen A. Garrett (1996):

    The main defence that can be offered for Operation Anthropoid in terms of its practical consequences was that it managed to rid the world of a truly loathsome individual. Yet the German occupation of Czechoslovakia involved a whole host of loathsome individuals, as indeed did the NAZI movement as a whole. To kill one of them regardless of the effects on the welfare of the Czech people as a whole seems to have been a basically futile exercise.

    Hitler himself was persuasive on this point … the Czechs would discover that “when they shoot down one, someone else much worse will follow.”

    Hitler’s words might be a fitting summary of the consequences of assassination.

  8. Comment #1 by Mrs. Davis: “We’re at war. That means we kill the enemy.”

    What if the “war” is fabricated? What if it was of our own choosing? What if the enemy is indistinguishable from civilians? What if there is no enemy, in the sense that, if our troops weren’t on their soil, they would be no threat to us. What if, as FM points out, the use of “targeted” missile attacks produces anger in the civilian population that makes our mission there harder? What if the real purpose of these missile strikes was intimidation as much as eliminating specific targets? What if the tables were turned, someday, and Iran, against whom we’ve threatened to go to war, began targeting our political leaders?

    Because we have the technical means, the technical superiority, does not mean we should use it, for the same reasons that torture should not be used, even if one can get away with it. Bad behavior tends to spread, and comes back to bite you.

    Issues involving ones own country are sometimes hard to see clearly. So, consider Israel’s use of assassination instead. Israel is not at war with Gaza, it is simply trying to change the political leadership there. Is assasination a proper tool of politics?

  9. Duncan, you crack me up! A one-man mission to raise the literacy level of the internet!!

  10. BTW, the latest James Bond movie is quite different from the original. The bad guys in A Quantum of Solace are not foreign enemies, but domestic corporations, like Blackwater, destabilizing foreign countries in collusion with members of the British government. And Bond, played by Daniel Craig, is a far cry from the dashing, romantic Sean Connery — tired, disillusioned, beaten and scarred, disgusted with the whole game — almost a proletarian hero!
    Fabius Maximus replies: Daniel Craig is IMO the movie version of Bond by far the most similar to Fleming’s Bond (including the scar). Also, Bond’s disillusionment with the game at the end of the movie “Casion Royale” is exactly as described at the end of the book. In both movie and book Bond then encounters real evil, and from this finds a new motivation for his work. For example, in chapter 2 of “Live and Let Die” M assigns Bond to go after the SMERSH agent Mr. Big. Bond replies (with the understatement that gives Fleming’s writing such power):

    “I’d like to meet him” said Bond. Then he added, mildly, “I’d like to meet any member of SMERSH.”

    The organization Quantum in the movies is not a domestic corporation like Blackwater (legal, public, mostly government clients), but a secret global criminal organization. Much like SPECTRE in Fleming’s book “Thunderball”.

  11. Arms Merchant

    Counter-insurgency vs. counter-terrorism is not an either-or proposition. Yes, you should secure the population, and yes, one effective strategy can be to target the leaders of the insurgency. The supporters of the insurgency often have legitimate grievances that must be addressed if you are to have any success, but the leaders can be a mixed bag of ideologues, radicals, whackos, and thugs.

    The post-Vietnam thinking on LIC covered this extensively. The important thing is that if you are going to use assassinations or targeted killings of individuals, those actions must support the overall strategy, usually involving winning the population. Of course, that’s precisely the problem with the drone attacks.

    (BTW, what’s the difference between sending a SOF team to, say for example, slit Saddam’s throat, dropping a bomb on him, or sending him a letter with poison pixie dust? Ans: Nothing, as a uniformed soldier he’s a legitimate target of war. Just because a terrorist doesn’t wear a uniform doesn’t make him any less a target for military attack, including assassination. Is a sniper an assassin because he shoots one at a time?)
    Fabius Maximus replies: Nicely said! As for you last paragraph, there is no difference in this single event. But that’s not the subject of this discussion. Rather its the frequency of use, the degree on which we rely on targeted killing, drones, etc. Magnitudes matter.

  12. Well, if the enemies of the US had half a brain they would be looking to find a way to assasinate president Obama. They wouldn’t even have to be careful to conceal who did it. A large percentage of americans would automatically believe it to be a plot by ‘evil’ conservatives resulting in a huge domestic crisis. I figure said enemies would assume a distracted US to be a good thing.

  13. Comment #4 was to the point, and has not been responded to. I agree; the question remains that since we are at war and wars are won by destroying the enemy’s will to resist, is it strategically advantageous to use indiscriminate killing techniques or to discriminate?

    Perhaps the real problem here is that we (USA) are not clear on just who our opponent is. Do we really care about the Taliban, or is it Al Qaeda… and is there a difference between the two? This is the same question we finally asked ourselves in Iraq (who is our enemy, the Sunnis or the foreign Al Qaeda types?) and answered successfully with the Surge strategy of co-opting the Sunni leaders and getting them on our side against the foreigners and intransigents.

    One of Sun Tzu’s maxims was never to back your enemy into a corner, but instead to give him a way out. Otherwise, his only choice is to fight to the death because otherwise he will surely die. Are we working hard enough to give the Taliban a choice, to allow them to come over from the Dark Side? I can’t believe there’s a lot of love between Pashtuns and Arabs either. Are we working to make it so that the Pashtuns can start to believe that they can work with America to become Us against the foreign Al Qaeda Them?
    Fabius Maximus replies: How odd that you say that #4 was not responded to when there is a response attached to it.

  14. I find I often disagree with FM’s opinions, but the accuracy of some observations is what keeps me returning here, as well as the possibility of some sort of dialog over matters of great importance to concerned citizens (if we indeed still are citizens, rather than subjects). For example, “The effects of routine use of assassination on our hearts, minds, and souls might prove to be the most important long-term result.”

    Stan Goff’s “McChrystal & Pelosi” (Huffington Post, 14 May 2009), in addition to asserting that the general’s job in Iraq was to run torture camps, and reminding us of McChrystal’s role in concealing Pat Tillman’s “friendly fire” death, meditates on the evolution of the culture of Special Ops (and he’s been in some of the same units as McChrystal, although not at the same time, and as an enlisted man, not an officer)

    When I was there, some years back now, we were mostly reprobates — hyper-profane macho drunks a lot of us — with no time for religion. Over time, reports are indicating, the End Times Weaponized Jesus religion has gained a lot of ground in Special Operations and in the military generally. So now we are growing a culture within the military that doesn’t obey rules (impunity), that kills to prove masculinity, and that fuels bloodlust with a crackpot philosophy that tells them killing Arabs, et al., is a deliverance of God’s justice.

  15. Pingback: James Bond is not just our hero « Provoking the Muse

  16. While I’m always in favor of a smarter, less brutal solution, I keep thinking that there are plenty of examples where fairly rough tactics carry the say. It seems to me that there was a time when the entire Middle East was not Islamic. My understanding of this period of history is pretty sketchy, but didn’t Islam grow to its present position largely by employing all of these techniques you say are so ineffective?
    Fabius Maximus replies: No, I don’t believe it is accurate to attibute the spread of Islam to the use of targeted killings or assassination. More broadly, I know of no major historian that says the use of force was the primary factor in the spread of Islam.

  17. Ralph Hitchens

    In general, state-sponsored assassination doesn’t seem like a great idea. It smacks of “silver bullet” thinking, the notion that eliminating one or a few individuals will somehow make a significant difference in the “correlation of forces” (as the Soviets used to call it).

    During WW-2 the US Pacific Command did apparently analyze the postulated impact of the Yamamoto assassination and concluded that they would be removing the enemy’s most effective military leader and thereby make the forthcoming Central Pacific campaign a lot easier. From a larger perspective they were also removing a prestigious leader who might have been able, at some point, to stand up to the Army warlords and bring the war to a quicker end, but this did not figure in our calculations. Given that the material factors were already stacked against Japan by mid-1943 and the fact that Yamamoto was past his prime and possibly on the verge of a health breakdown, it seems to me that this act accomplished very little if anything.

    Looking at the present day, the Israeli Defense Forces’ “targeted killing” program seems to have been effective to some degree as it did generate a lot of anxiety among the Palestinian groups, but it obviously had absolutely no effect on the underlying grievances and political factors that prolong this confrontation. And yes, the occasional collateral damage hurts the Israelis and probably offsets the impact of the selective assassinations.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Thank you for these historical examples. I strongly agree with your comment about Israel. I suspect that would be far better today if starting in the 1970’s they used the techniques in the COIN manual, rather than relying on force and targeted killings to suppress the Palistinians.

  18. senecal in comment #8: ‘Israel is not at war with Gaza’ – but Gaza’s certainly been – fitfully, and with limited means thus far – at war with Israel. We have been at war in Afghanistan because the erstwhile Taliban leadership allowed the place to be used as a 3C locale for attacks on the US. You could even say Bin Laden got there first – a 767 isn’t exactly a Predator but it was close enough for their purposes.

    RPV strikes could be looked at a couple different ways. Is it assassination, or is it a more targeted and persistent form of the sort of interdiction for which one would traditionally use conventional air forces? Do we use RPV strikes not because they’re militarily the most effective technique, but because there’s a greater political cost – not necessarily in-country, but in the “world community” or whatever you want to call it – to traditional high-explosive landscaping?

    Is use of RPVs more or less likely to engender a response than any other weapon? Would they hate us less if we hurt them more?

    Whenever a new weapon or tactic is introduced, it’s eventually met by some form of response. Indecisive use – either through ineptitude (tanks on the Somme), insufficient capacity (V2), or intentional low-intensity application (Predators now) give the adversary a chance to learn and adapt. The US used airpower over Vietnam tentatively and selectively enough to give the NVA and VC an opportunity to go underground, and to learn what we would attack and what we wouldn’t – the cost of that ‘education’ was high, but they learned.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Why are we “at war in Afghanistan” because of something al Qaeda did 8 years ago? Are the Pashtun people to be forever oppressed because of their distant connection to 9-11 (its not clear that the Afghanistan training bases were relevant to 9-11)? Is there no limit to the killing we can do in the name of 9-11 to people totally unrelated to 9-11? Are we to become like the people of the Balkins, nursing grievances and killing in memory of events years — generations — or centuries ago?

  19. Regarding the definition of “assassination.” If assassination is…

    1 : to injure or destroy unexpectedly and treacherously
    2 : to murder (a usually prominent person) by sudden or secret attack often for political reasons

    … then indeed the term does not fit the current situation with US UAVs. The UAV attack is neither “murder” nor “treacherous” if it occurs as part of a war, aimed against enemy combatants. Naturally, if you premise that our attacks are treacherous and murderous, you have little trouble finding derogatory terms for those attacks.
    Fabius Maximus replies: These things are subjective. I suspect you do not fear an UAV cruising overhead will bomb your daughter’s wedding party, leaving dozens dead. Or your mother’s funeral. Perhaps you might feel differently then. Will a nice apology from the government satisfy you?

    Also, the large number of non-combatants killed is precisely the point at issue. These are not citizens of a State with which we are war. They are people going about their business, bombed without the consent or approval of their government. How they react to this will be a major factor in the outcome of this conflict. The moral highground has been decisive in many wars, and it is paramount in 4GW.

  20. “What if there is no enemy, in the sense that, if our troops weren’t on their soil, they would be no threat to us[?]”

    It might be the case that if we removed ourselves from the Afghanistan/Pakistan area, our enemies would then be no threat to us. However, we went in because our enemies there were already threats to us, i.e., running terrorism training camps, and sending some of those terrorists out to attack us, including at a rather obscure pair of events in Manhattan and Arlington, Virginia.

  21. Assignation can go both ways. The Romans and Jewish leaders thought taking out Jesus would be a big blow to his cult, didn’t work out for either very well. The Jews were cleared out (as a political/military threat) by the Romans within 100 years, and the Christians were running things 400 years later. Then again, 400 years is a long time.

    The main thing for the US is we refuse to run colonies, that is the first limiter in our options. From Rome through Great Britain colonial powers handled things like insurgency quite well provided the colony was worth holding and the power had the resources. Afghanistan isn’t worth holding beyond being able to make the Russians pissed off, having the Iranians surrounded, and a good spot to take out Paki nukes from. But it seems like the democracy project is the wrong way to do this. And the drug war we are fighting isn’t helping.

    In terms of assassination, generally we don’t use it enough. The next time Hezbollah does something bad, we should covertly blow up the Iranian Mullahs – that would be a nice marriage of GWB’s doctrine that state sponsors of terrorism are responsible, and real conservatism of not getting tangled in a war. But if at the end of the day your going to occupy, setup a 10 year colonial plan. Once you become a colony, you’ll be occupied for ten years to setup the government, and then when we’ll leave.
    Fabius Maximus replies: It seems to have escaped your notice that since WWII colonialism is not only considered illegitmate by almost everyone around the world, but every colony that has attempt to become free has (often only after long struggles) succeeded.

    “we should covertly blow up the Iranian Mullahs”

    You have been reading too many pulp novels, to think that such a thing would remain secret. Also, I admire your confidence that our enemies will not retailiate, your feeling of invulnerability. I suspect it is unjustified. Also, when the attacks on America start you will find that most of the world’s people will consider them justified acts of war. This combination of hubris and paranoia threatens to unleash widespread war, evils corked (a leakey cork) at great cost during and after WWII.

    Bellecose views such as yours probably contribute to the growing perception that the US has become a major threat to world peace, as seen in this June 2006 poll by the Pew Research Center. Not only is this inherently a bad thing in our interdependent world, but we should also consider if these people are correct.

  22. If assination means specific targeted attacks, then I am all for it.

    Killing just the people who need killing and avoiding killing large groups of innocents and foot soldiers, seems as antiquated to me as methods used by Brittan against the US colonies. Even uniformed soldiers are ultimately only pawns in much more complicated machinations. Particularly in the case of conscripts, it seems unjust to kill them when more targeted methods are available.

    I do not believe assassination tactics can be morally compared to the 9/11 attacks. The people in the building were innocents. It could potentially be compared to the attacks on the Pentagon.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I am astounded that so many people posting comments are ignorant of the high rate of civilian casualties from our drone attacks and other “target killing” programs. Do none of these people read the news?

    Perhaps you should start with this article: “Afghan civilian deaths: Who is to blame?“, Los Angeles Times, 17 May 2009 — An LA Times Investigation. “Commanders and villagers give conflicting accounts of the attack that Afghan officials say killed 140 civilians, a toll disputed by the U.S. But injured girls make clear the costs for two families.”

  23. What a bunch of lying, preening, fools here. This is a true barbarian enemy, an anachronism, outside all law and the very course of history, except to the extent that they have acquired the means to buy, maintain and use modern weaponry and other instruments of war, and have been made into the dupes of intelligence agencies and other powers for use as a weapon against certain nexes of the international system. Assassination is simply one of the tools considered necessary to the reduction of the problem; surely bribery, corruption, co-option, blackmail, ridicule, provocation, and other techniques are also concurrently in play. These people, to the extent they are justly selected as enemies, deserve no quarter, are outside the considerations of which your own ruminations are but one expression, are clearly unrecognized by you for what they are: a barbarian, pedarastic, war-loving, insensate shariah cult who have somehow managed to be so repellant and so uninspired that no one ever bothered to conquer them and they themselves never developed anything at all of value.

    The real question is, Why should civilization, which has required infinite bloodshed and toil and self-discipline to reach its present state, suffer even the debates of FM when it comes to people who might as well be from Saturn, let alone the destablization which is these aliens’ ambition? If that sounds hard-hearted of me, it is only because your imagination is completely incompetent to imagine exactly who it is we are fighting against.

    Continue the assassinations; a sufficient number of them hate us already. They will still be shepherding jihadi plundering warmaniacal barbarian scum who have no right to impose their way as against our right to simply be free of their will in any way – which, by the way, they entirely were before they gave succor to bin Laben/Zawahiri/SVR.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Thank you for this comment. It just reaks of blood-lust, desire for vengence, probably enjoyment in contemplating the killing. It’s a wonderful example to America of the importance of keeping such things restrained, least the world again be drowned in blood. We have had two world wars in the past century, each with mega-deaths. This shows that there are people who would re-ignite these fires, without any thought that the people on the other end will strike back.

    Fortunately we have people like Kilcullen, John Nagl, and Andrew Bacevich both in the government and as outside advisors. Let’s hope that our leaders listen to them.

  24. HaloJones-Fan

    You might want to re-think this essay a bit. According to your definition of “assassination”, any soldier who aims before firing is an assassin.

    I know that you desperately want to believe otherwise, but there is indeed a difference between “targeted killing of enemy combatants during a period of established hostilities” and “assassination”. The former could be described as “assassination”, but only in an adjectival sense, a la “slaughter” or “decimation”(*) or “murder”.

    As DWPittelli points out, this essay is a massive example of petito principii. If you take it as a given that the US occupation of Afghanistan is an unjustified act of pointless aggression, and that there’s no organized anti-US force of any kind anywhere in the world, then of course it’s illegal to conduct military operations to kill specific individuals. But…you ARE taking that as a given, and it’s NOT proven.

    Although you ensure that few beyond the True Believers will take you seriously by capping off this twaddle with a “Ruby Ridge/Waco” rant.

    (*) yes, I know. The fact that it’s the wrong word is kind of my whole point!
    Fabuis Maximus replies: Since I do not give a definition (see comment #43 for details), how do you know what is my definition?

    (2) “there is indeed a difference between ‘targeted killing of enemy combatants during a period of established hostilities’ and ‘assassination’.”

    This is clearly false, as I show in comment #40 by specific examples.

    (3) ‘If you take it as a given that … there’s no organized anti-US force of any kind anywhere in the world”

    Why would I — or anyone — assume such a bizarre thing? What’s the relevance of this nutty statement to this post? In fact, much your comment makes little sense, and appears unrelated to anything in this post.

    (4) About Ruby Ridge

    The record is quite clear, based on judical rulings and government investigations.

    The surviving members of the Weaver family filed a wrongful death suit and Randy Weaver received a $100,000 settlement while his daughters received $1 million each. Kevin Harris received a $380,000 settlement. FBI director Louis Freeh disciplined or proposed discipline for twelve FBI employees over their handling of the incident and the later prosecution of Randy Weaver and Harris. (Wikipedia)

    From Director Weaver’s statement before the Senate on 19 October 1995:

    “Moreover, some FBI SWAT personnel on-scene interpreted the rules as a “shoot-on-sight” policy — which they knew was inconsistent with the FBI’s deadly force policy. … {It} has become synonymous with the exaggerated application of federal law enforcement.”

    The outside investigations and opinions of the various Judges were far more critical of the incident than Director Weaver, mostly harshly so. The initital reaction by the FBI and Federal Marshalls was commendations and promotions for those involved, which tells us their actual views better than the later apologies.

    Enough said. I leave research into the Waco incident to you.

  25. Captain Ramen

    Ralph @17,

    Yamamoto toured the United States sometime before the war; he knew that attacking Hawaii would be suicidal for Japan. I don’t think American planners knew he felt this way at the time. Also, I don;t think you should underestimate the morale boost we got from getting the guy that snuck up on us at Pearl Harbor.

    fustian @16,

    They also got something out of it too. For them, it was worth the cost of being total bastards because they ended up with half of the known world. Then again, their continued brutality – such raiding places as far away as England to capture galley slaves – prompted Christendom – usually warring amongst themselves – to band together to put an end to the green menace.

    IMO the strategic interest of the United States is to prevent Al Qaeda from festering in stateless areas. What we are doing however goes far beyond that – and we are doing a half assed job to boot. Remember that GWB ran on a platform of no more nation building. Then 9/11 happened and believed that the only way to keep Europeans on board was to engage in a nation building campaign. 8 years later Afghanistan is no closer to being a nation state than it was when we started.

    We should either bite the bullet and spend a ton of money nation building Afghanistan and Pakistan (unlikely) or leave and let SOCOM handle it. We’re trying to please everyone and end up pleasing no one.
    Fabius Maximus replies: It is not certain that Yamamoto believed “attacking Hawaii would be suicidal for Japan.” The “sleeping giant” quote is considered apocryphal by most historians. The strongest evidence for this belief is this statement (whose meaning I find elusive):

    Should hostilities once break out between Japan and the United States, it is not enough that we take Guam and the Philippines, nor even Hawaii and San Francisco. To make victory certain, we would have to march into Washington and dictate the terms of peace in the White House. I wonder if our politicians.. [who speak so lightly of a Japanese-American war].. have confidence as to the final outcome and are prepared to make the necessary sacrifices. (source)

  26. Joseph Somsel

    Was/is Salman Rushdie a legitmate assassination target? He was a political, cultural, and theological target of the Iranian theocracy.

    As to using drones for targeted killing, did we ever carpet bomb a city in hopes of decapitating a leadership cadre? We certainly intended to use nuclear weapons in such a role. Most of us bystanders and potential collateral damagees would greatly prefer the Hellfire missile tactic against the B41 method.

  27. Seems to me that successful COIN requires BOTH (1) killing the irreconcilables with all deliberate speed and violence, and (2) winning hearts and minds by securing the remaining populace, probably in that order, but in rapid succession. I think maximum speed of implementation of both would minimize conflicts between the two. That probably means overwhelming manpower on the ground coming in just behind the drones (and other air assets) to clean up the mess and assist any reconcilable civilians.

    Ideally, drones would be only one component of such a comprehensive strategy. Otherwise, they strike down the most prominent bad guy and another one pops up. I don’t see how this game ends until our guys enter Pakistan.

    Still, without the political will to enter Pakistan, it seems that we have three choices: (1) let them organize and train with impunity in NWFP to send fighters to Afganistan, (2) hit their camps with drones, or (3) carpet bomb the entire region. Drones sound like the least bad option.
    Fabius Maximus replies: You so casually suggest carpet-bombing a nation with whom we are not at war, the overwhelming majority of whose people have done nothing to us. I suggest a long look at yourself in the mirror and picture the blood running from the bodies of the dead women and children. No doubt you are unaware of this, but most people alive today would consider your statement to be evil. Try it out on some people on the street, asking if Russia could carpet bomb a nation under such circumstances.

  28. “FM replies: “This ‘nonsense’ is called counter-insurgency theory, based on 50 years of nations (developed, undeveloped, democracies, tyrannies) losing when fighting foreign insurgencies.

    Interestingly, one of those “nations” waging war, almost exclusively relying on assassination, is that of the Islamic terrorists. They have done quite well with their tactics and interestingly you fail to mention them anywhere in your lengthy discussion of the use of assassination. You discuss the Israeli assassination program against the PLO, Hamas etc with no reference whatsoever to the much greater initiatives of the PLO, Hamas, etc. actually targeting assassination of benign individuals, not just killing them in the process of attacking key individuals. Also, I see you are concerned about our self-defense provoking reprisals or retaliation. I would find that more credible, if you were concerned about their inconceivably brutal outrages provoking reprisals from us. I suppose if it doesn’t support your argument, just pretend it doesn’t exist.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Since the discussion is about how best to fight them, that seems unnecessary.

  29. If our enemy is a tyrant who controls a nation by force, is it more moral to bomb cities and kill a bunch of draftees in large set-piece battles while leaving the tyrant who’s running the operation inviolate because it’s not “sporting” to asassinate him?

    If the enemy is a terror network that deliberately targets and hides among the innocent, recruiting by coercion and fraud, is it moral to kill off the poor duped cannon fodder while, again, leaving the people who direct the organization (and write the checks to finance it) alone?

    That’s not to say the issues you raise aren’t important. I just think the people who are behind the evil need to have the consequences visited directly upon them.
    Fabius Maximus replies: First, the women and children in the Afghanistan villages are not “poor duped cannon fodder”. Second, the discussion is about how to best fight al Qaeda (we have no interest in fighting the Tailiban other than their association with al Qaeda). Most of these comments display an ignorance of counter-insurgency theory that is amazing after 8 years of war.

  30. Interesting thoughts. My take on it is slightly different though. By the Geneva Convention, if the “enemy combatant” is not in uniform, then they can be considered a spy. As such, they have no rights whatsoever, and can be treated in any manner. Summary execution, torture of any kind, held infinitely without any sort of trial, tried in any way(including by any uniformed combatant) etc. How does this play into your thoughts?
    Fabius Maximus replies: First, your statement about the Geneva Convention is incorrect. Second, the point — made in my post and in the news during the past year — is that our “target killing” is not well targeted. The number of unrelated civilian casualties is so high as to be imperiling our success in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

  31. Kevin R. C. O'Brien

    Gee. Let’s begin by misdefining assassination. Then let’s repeatedly cite Wikipedia, your basic F-6 source at best. (Or E-5 source. For example, the Wikipedia page on the Phoenix Program relies heavily on a book exposed as a fraud (Valentine’s) and a big pull quote from a guy who was a green butterbar not directly involved in the Phoenix Program).

    The real problems with the Predator attacks are twofold. One, precision strikes without eyes on the target are worthless to counterproductive (that was the main lesson from Kosovo in 1999, not that all involved took it onboard). Two, we might even be eviscerating the enemy’s infrastructure (as Phoenix successfully did, although it did it mostly by co-opting, not killing, enemies). We might not. But we’re definitely getting creamed in information operations, something the sluggish, bureaucratic US military doesn’t even put good people on, or even try to do well. We’re getting creamed on perception, and FM’s post reflects that.

    It doesn’t matter who was in the building that got zapped, it matters who people *think* were in the building. The Taliban get their press release (and video) right on Al-Jazeera and directly, through their controlled stringers, onto bylined stories by hotel-bound American journalists. The people in the building become a bunch of schoolgirls. Meanwhile, a series of task forces haggle about a press release and issue it a week or two down the road. (And then the PR weenies get peeved that the American press prefers the red meat, right now, from the Taliban to the task force’s predigested pabulum).

    Solutions? 1. Know your target — or develop your knowledge before you hit it. 2. Get off the first shot in the information battle. And treat reporters as you would any other hostile force — understand them, and target them (in this case with information that will carry your message through to their readers).
    Fabius Maximus replies: Do you have anything concrete to offer, other than this? The evidence about the high level of civilian casualties is not even disputed by the US government. To say that this is just a matter of info operations is bizarre.

    Re: the Phoenix Program. Your statement about our sources of information about the Phoenix Program is not correct. Information about it comes from a wide range of sources, including many news reports from that period. The data is not definitive, as usual for covert operations, but adequate to draw soem conclusions. A good place to start, for those not familar with Phoenix, is the transcript of the 1970 Senate hearings poured whitewash everywhere, but could not cover the outlines of the darker aspects of the program. And more information has surfaced to confirm this over the years since then.

    BTW — The Wikipedia entry has an excellent bibliography for anyone wanting to research this history. Certain with more evidence than you’ve provided, without the sneering.

    Update — New RAND report: “The Phoenix Program and Contemporary Counterinsurgency“, William Rosenau and Austin Long of RAND, 40 pages. Lightly debunks the rumors about assassination, although presenting no contrary evidence.

  32. If we had sent a bomber raid out to destroy the bunker of the Nazi high command, that would have been a legitimate act of war (according to the rules then in place, and generally since). If we had sent a bomber raid to kill Adolph Hitler, Hermann Goering, Albert Speer, etc, who all happened to be gathered in one place (said bunker) at one time, would that have been assassination?

    Does it matter whether we call them by name before we kill them? Is that the only difference between “warfare” and “assassination”?
    If the bomb loader for the first mission chalks “This one’s for you, Adolf” on the side of a blockbuster, does the bombing mission suddenly become assassination?

    … I have a hard time understanding how it is somehow more “moral” to kill a million clueless teenage infantry grunts, than to kill the top fifty or so generals/leaders responsible for sending them to war.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Have you read any of the news about the Afghanisan War (it’s obvious you did not read this post). First, we are not at war with Afghanistan. Its people had nothing to do with 9-11; it’s not even clear that al Qaeda’s training camps in Afghanistan were relevant to 9-11. So the comparison to WWII is bizarre. Second, the key point is not killing Hitler or soldiers — its the civilian casualties that are imperiling our project. This is a major change of emphasis from the counter-insurgency methods with are our offical doctrine. This change does not appear to have been well-thought out or discussed.

  33. The way I see it, the extreme application of the rule to minimize collateral damage is to use targeted killing.

  34. you are mostly right maximus. the way we are fighting this in iraq s totally wrong. it’s crazy if you look at the occupation of iraq and the war in afghanistan. two totally different things and we are fighting them the opposite way we should.

    in iraq, we’re fighting as if we were fighting a war against a hostile, organized enemy force. and in afghanistan, we’re fighting it as if we were fighting a rebel insurgency. it’s ridiculous. we should go in with guns blazing in afghanistan and use some tact in iraq. for example, in afghanistan, SpecOps operators do this thing where they implant themselves with locals. Delta operators hang out with the locals, wear local clothing and even grow beards to make the locals more comfortable. they also help out with village chores like harvesting crops and working the wells and stuff. and the people trust them. if the people know where the bad guys are, they’ll tell the operators and our guys will go and get em. that’s how it should be done in iraq instead of going in there with army regulars (which are pretty much just cannon fodder) and expecting them to blend with locals. that’s not what the army regs do. they should send the SO’s over to iraq and send the regulars over to afghanistan to actually fight a war, which is what the army is good at. that would make the most sense, but like you said, these wars aren’t based on strategy. it’s ridiculous.

  35. I think the unspoken reason political/military elites shun the use of assassination is because it has the potential to put themselves in the cross hairs; and we couldn’t have that now could we?
    Fabius Maximus replies: That has been the usual rule. But we are using assassination of al Qaeda and Tailiban leaders. I assume this change of historical practice (i.e., very careful use of assassination) results from America’s elites considering themselves invulnerable to retailiation. Just a guess, but they might be wrong.

  36. BTW – the “B41 method” refers to the Cold War decapitation technic of using 25 megaton B41 thermonuclear gravity bombs in “laydown” mode to kill off Soviet leadership in their special bunkers. Besides the tremendous blast, the fission-fusion-fission design of a B41 in a ground burst would render thousands of square miles uninhabitable due to intense and long lasting fallout. Millions of Russian peasants could have died for the US to reach and kill a few hundred legitimate Communist targets.

    No, thank goodness for “assassination” via human agents or via drone. War is brutality, there is no disguising it. Limiting the brutality to just those who will allow winning the war is the most humane method.
    Fabius Maximus replies: You seem to have missed the entire discussion. At least you show no awareness of the key issues, such as the high rate of error in drone attacks, and the damage that is doing to our counter-insurgency programs. I suggest you read Kilcullen’s NYT op-ed, as a start.

    That you consider any discussion of nukes relevant to this is amazing, and sad.

  37. The premise of this post is ridiculous. “Drone attacks” are not “assassinations.” What would you call the successful attack on Admiral Yamamoto’s airplane in the South Pacific, when he was tracked down by smart intel? Was it not a military attack on the enemy’s command and control system?

    Our current enemy is al Quaeda and its Taliban allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This enemy is not a regular force and hides and operates among the civilian population. We now have an intelligence-driven capoability — an air-based artillery capability — that targets and hits that enemy. In the case of strikes inside Pakistan, which will not permit US ground forces on its territory but winks at the drones, it is the ONLY weapon we have to hit the enemy.

    Articles like this aim to delegitimize an appropriate, effectice military weapon by calling it “assassination” and strongly implying that it is the same as US plans to kill Castro or Russian-Chechen plots to shoot down Chechen dissidents on Vienna streets.

    Nonsense — shameful nonsense.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Like so many of the people commenting here, you obviously have not understood the post. Probably, as a guess, because you have not read it. I suggest reading Kilcullen’s op-ed, as a start.

    (2) “What would you call the successful attack on Admiral Yamamoto’s airplane in the South Pacific… ”

    Yes, this incident is commonly called assassination. For more details see comment #40.

    (3) “Articles like this aim to delegitimize an appropriate, effectice military weapon by calling it ‘assassination'”

    Playing “lets pretend” in wartime is a dangerous and expensive vice. Let’s play grown-up instead and deal with things as they are, and move beyond the lablels.

  38. The choice is not between drone strike or carpet bombing (what an idiotic response!), it is over whether we should use the dromnes or not. No one seems to have made the observation that the drones are being launched into the territory of an ally.

    I am going to go out on a limb here, and make the point, that killing innocent children, and women, and boys, is morally wrong, under almost any circumstances. Of course, they died in WWII, in bombings. But we didn’t bomb our allies, as I recall. Also, it was a big war, and the chance was large that we would lose. This is a small war, with no chance of losing.

    Are American snipers encouraged to kill children, for practice? Then why is it acceptable for Air Force personnel to do so, when the weapon is just as precise? Does not greater precision obligate greater marksmanship? Kill the target, but only the target, or go home! I will leave out the comment that it is stupid to kill the children of people we would hope to make our friends, for stupidity is not the reason to refrain from murder.

    How soon, will it come to pass, that passers by in the streets, call American servicemen, muderers, and child killers? And be correct? The people who espouse these attacks are every bit as much the enemy of America, and what it stands for, as the terroists are. Remember, when the drones hit LA, Miami, Boston, that you said it was allright.

    Fabius Maximus replies: Also note that the governments of both Afghanistan and Pakistan have objected to the widespread use of drones, and said that this is not helping them.

  39. It is reasonable (arguably obligatory) to object to the use of drones because they kill a lot of noncombatants — or even because many people of good will believe the claims that they kill a lot of noncombatants, to the detriment of our reputation and that of our allies.

    But it does not thus become reasonable to equate these attacks to assassinations. They do not fit standard dictionary definitions, and your use cheapens the language; if shooting a specific military target is assassination, then assassination should lose its negative connotations. And then we have to find a new word, with the narrower definition, to fit the reality when a killing is treacherous and political.

    Object to the killing of noncombatants, of course, but their deaths have nothing to do with whether the UAV attacks are properly called assassinations. Further, the only part of the UAV attacks that resembles an assassination is the fact that their accuracy, expense and limited fire-power allow for and necessitate specific targeting; and that, certainly compared to other aerial attack and artillery, minimizes the risk to noncombatants.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Your second paragraph is not factually correct. See the following comment for details.

  40. Several of the above comments state (in various fashions) that “targeted killing” during wartime are not considered to be assassinations. None state a basis for this belief. Probably because it is not so. The debate among historians and attorneys concerns the legality of specific assassinations.

    Recommended reading

    The best analysis I have found of these issues is Operations against Enemy Leaders, Stephen T. Hosmer, RAND, 2001 (151 pages) — The report was sponsored by US Air Force. I recommend reading it if you are interested in learning about these complex issues. From the summary:

    An analysis of some 24 cases of leadership attacks from World War II to the present provides insights about the comparative efficacy of different forms of leadership attacks, the potential coercive and deterrent value of such operations for shaping future enemy policy and behavior, and the possible unintended consequences that may result from the ill-considered use of such attacks.

    … With the single exception of the shoot-down of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s aircraft in World War II, all U.S. operations to neutralize senior enemy leaders by direct attack have failed.

    Are attacks on military leaders during wartime called “assassinations”?

    Here are two instances from history, each with specific examples of this usage (for each hundreds more can easily be found on Google).

    (A) Operation Anthropoid (1942) is usually described as the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich.

    (1) As in the CIA library page titled “The Assassination of Reinhard Heydrich.”

    (2) Radio Praha (Czech Republic) “Exhibitions mark 60th anniversary of assassination of Nazi governor Heydrich

    (3) Terrorism and Heroism: The Assassination of Reinhard Heydrich“, Milan Hauner (Czech historian), World Policy Journal (MIT Press), Summer 2007

    (4) Reinhard Heydrich: Assassination, Ray R. Cowdery (1994)

    (B) The “Navy A Incident” — death of Admiral Yamamoto in 1943

    (1) Time to Kill: State-sponsored assassination and International Law“, JASON D. SÖDERBLOM, World ICE Group, 12 February 2004 (25 pages) — See case study #2 on pp 12-13: “The American assassination of Admiral Yamamoto.”

    (2) The Morality of Assassination: A Response to Gross“, Daniel Statman (U of Haifa), Political Studies, 2003

    (3) The Southwest Pacific Campaign, 1941-1945: Historiography and Annotated Bibliography, Eugene L. Rasor; 1996 (284 pages) — List of key people, p72: “Isoroku Yamamoto … assassinated as the result of a successful intelligence coup.”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: