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Depraved Indifference: Drone Wars, Whack Jobs and Imperial Terror
First published in Empire Burlesque earlier today, 28 October 2009
Mayer's article relates a chilling story of killers -- many of them stateside, firing their missiles from comfortable cubicles before heading home for dinner with the family -- operating in a secret program outside all traditional lines of legality and accountability.
I have often admired Jane Mayer's reportage. She has helped expose several elements of "the dark side" of America's worldwide Terror War. Her latest article in the New Yorker outlines the CIA's use of "Predator" drones to kill people by remote control in Pakistan. As the magazine notes, the Obama Administration is relying on these covert drone killers more and more, as it escalates America's military attacks in Pakistan -- ostensibly a sovereign nation allied to the United States.
Mayer's article relates a chilling story of suburban killers -- many of them stateside, firing their missiles from comfortable cubicles before heading home for dinner with the family -- operating in a secret program outside all traditional lines of legality and accountability. (Even the extremely low levels of legality and accountability that weakly adhere to the business of wholesale slaughter and destruction known as war.) For example, part of the program has been "outsourced" to private companies, who are killing people -- including hundreds of innocent civilians -- for profit, with American tax money.
The New Yorker's website has now published an interview with Mayer expanding on the original story. It too is chilling -- but not only for the further details of this state murder program. What is equally disturbing is the bloodless consideration of this bloody enterprise, based on the assumption that there is nothing essentially wrong with such an assassination program (with its inevitable "collateral damage"), as long it is more transparent, with the "legal, ethical and political boundaries" of the death squads clearly drawn.
The very first question gives us a glimpse into the bizarre, depraved moral universe of the American establishment:
What is astonishing about this is that the interview doesn't end there, in a roar of outrage from Mayer and her interviewer: "They've killed hundreds of civilians!" Hundreds of Pakistani civilians, men, women and children with no involvement whatsoever in war or terrorism; just ordinary people living their lives as best they can -- just like your neighbor, just like your mother, just like you...or just like the people killed on September 11, whose deaths are used as an eternal justification for war and bloodshed on a global scale by the American state.
But these drone-murdered Pakistanis -- these human beings, these fathers and mothers, these grandparents, these toddlers, these brothers and sisters -- their lives are just statistics to be coldly weighed in the calibrations of imperial policy. The "bad news" about their deaths is not that they were murdered, not that these utterly defenseless men, women and children were blown to shreds without warning, without the slightest chance of escape, by flying robots controlled by unseen hands a world away; no, the "bad news" is that these that these killing might possibly hamper America's "counterinsurgency program":
It can be counterproductive. When you kill hundreds of innocent people, it can be counterproductive. "Say, boys, how's my campaign shaping up these days?" "Well, Mr. Mayor, we're getting some negative feedback in the polls about your habit of machine-gunning people to death on the street every week. We've talked to some of our top PR people, and they say this kind of thing can be counterproductive."
And of course, this little passage also highlights the absurd hero-worship of our major "liberal" media toward the military chieftains who are increasingly dominating American policy, with increasing openness. Once again, as with the simpering hagiography offered up by the New York Times recently, we see the saintly image of noble Stanley McChrystal trying his darndest to avoid civilian casualties -- as he calls for 40,000 more troops (or "warfighters" as the Pentagon likes to call soldiers these days) to pour into the occupied land, spreading through the countryside and cities with bristling ordnance, backed always with close air support to provide "force protection."
This is the same General McChrystal who ran death squads and torture chambers in Iraq. As Fred Kaplan noted in Slate earlier this year:
McChrystal was not "implicated" in the "excesses" because in the American system, power and authority entail no responsibility; the buck always stops lower down the line, with a few "bad apples" or designated fall guys. The obscene spectacles of the Bush torture regimen -- and Barack Obama's frenzied efforts to shield the torture architects (and practitioners) from the slightest accountability -- give ample proof of this essential element of the system.
And yet here too, Mayer expresses the staggering blindness that afflicts the establishment media. Here she is explaining one of the problems of the CIA drone program: its lack of transparency, which she contrasts with the Pentagon system:
One doesn't know whether to laugh or cry at this. When is the last time that responsibility for military depredations -- such as the systematic abuses in the American Terror War Gulag (with Abu Ghraib as just one small example) -- has run "straight on up to the top of the government"? The schizophrenia that afflicts our great and good and bestest and brightest is painfully evident here: Mayer herself, in her reports on the Gulag abuse, has shown, in great detail, that they were not aberrations by "bad apples" but were imposed from the very top of the chain of command.
Yet here she is blatantly contradicting her own reportage, the indisputable facts that she herself has uncovered. But such are the inevitable, wrenching cognitive dissonances that arise when you accept the basic assumptions of the militarist system -- which you must do, to some extent, to get a seat at the "serious" table in America's media-political establishment. She is probably not even aware that she is doing it; she is simply following the standard template for "process stories," which require stark contrasts between the protagonists, who are usually cast in good guy-bad guy mold. In this case, the protagonists are the two state apparatuses -- the Pentagon and the CIA -- who wield the power of faceless, remote-control death over innocent, undefended human beings. In this "process," it is the unregulated CIA killers who are the bad guys, and so the Pentagon must be recast as a stickler for accountability all the way up the line, despite the mountain of evidence against this ludicrous interpretation -- evidence which, we must emphasize again, Mayer herself has been instrumental in compiling.
"Process stories" -- reports on the inner workings of the power structure, almost always told from the point of view of interested insiders pushing factional agendas -- have become one of the chief staples of mainstream journalism in recent years. While they occasionally yield nuggets of useful information, they are, in essence, little more than scraps of court gossip, mixed with the poisonous whispers of conniving courtiers and scheming ministers and generals -- "packs and sects of great ones, that ebb and flow by the moon." It is surely no coincidence that these stories have come to dominate our journalism more and more as the imperial nature of the Permanent War State becomes more open and entrenched.
This blindness, this "institutional capture" of a journalist who comes to identify completely with the aims and ethos of her imperial sources, is perhaps best illustrated in this exchange:
Note that the interviewer asked about the effect these terror strikes from the sky are having on the people in Pakistan. Have their daily lives been maimed and constricted by the American terror? A reasonable question, you would think, and an issue that should certainly be a factor in any "serious" examination of American policy in the region.
But Mayer answers in the language of the state terrorists themselves. Ignoring the plight of ordinary civilians in the ever-expanding number of areas in Pakistan now under the dread edict of American drones, Mayers reiterates the triumphalist propaganda of her sources, talking only of the drones' effects on the accused terrorists that have been targeted. The ordinary, innocent human beings being killed, hounded and terrorized by these imperial operations are, as always, invisible.
(Yet even a cursory glance at the headlines in the past week gives the bitter lie to this propaganda; reading the daily reports of deadly bombings at the very heart of Pakistan's security apparatus, we can see just how effective the drone attacks have been at "unraveling terror cells" in that country. What the American attacks in Pakistan have actually done, of course, is the opposite: they have expanded, embittered and emboldened opposition to an Islamabad government allied with foreign forces that rain death on innocent people out of the clear blue sky.)
But we should not leave the impression that the interview evinces no human compassion at all. Toward the end, the interviewer and Mayer focus on one set of victims who are genuinely suffering from the drone program: the brave suburban warriors sitting on their well-wadded behinds in cozy offices and well-appointed command centers as they push a button and blow up a house, a street, a village:
Oh yes, may the Lord protect and preserve all of our detached killers from the tremendous emotional toll inflicted upon them by their noble work!
Again, the point here is that a truly serious and sophisticated analysis of the situation would have stopped at the very beginning: "We are killing hundreds of innocent civilians, with robots, in a country we're not at war with -- one of our allies, in fact. What in the name of all that's holy – and all that's human – is driving our nation to commit these monstrous crimes, and how can we stop it?" That would be the issue under discussion. A truly serious and sophisticated analysis would not accept the hideous assertions and assumptions of state terrorists at face value, would not concern itself with the "process" by which imperial factions fight it out for the honor of perpetrating these atrocities – and would certainly not offer as its conclusion the earnest hope that the authors of these war crimes will find some way of doing them better:
International lawyers want to know just how many people we can "take out" when we launch missile attacks in civilian areas. Our political philosophers want to know the ethical boundaries of assassinating someone who is suspected of being part of a group that our government currently does not like or find useful for its purposes. This program of systematic extrajudicial murder and mass slaughter of innocent civilians – often by private contractors whose profits depend on war and death –"raises interesting legal questions," Mayer says.
Such are the depraved parameters within which our most "serious" and "sophisticated" – indeed, our most "liberal" and "progressive" -- political analysis now takes place.
Just as I was finishing this piece, I ran across Arthur Silber's latest essay, which explicates the implications of these depraved parameters far more thoroughly than I have done. You should read his entire post – and the links – but I think a few extended excerpts here will help will underscore some of the points I was trying to make.
Silber's piece was sparked by the resignation of Matthew Hoh, a former combat officer in Iraq who had become of the top U.S. civilian officials in Afghanistan. Hoh resigned his post as a matter of principle, he said, because he could no longer see any good purpose in America's military involvement in what is "essentially a far-off civil war," as the Washington Post puts it.
Hoh's "principled" action has won widespread acclaim among critics of the Afghan adventure. But as Silber notes, the "principles" behind Hoh's actions include a whole-hearted approval of – and keen participation in – the very policies of imperialism and war crime that have led to the murderous war in Afghanistan, and are certain to spawn other such depredations:
Here Silber cuts to the absolute crux of the matter – in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and in those Langley offices where "cubicle warriors" are suffering so much emotional turmoil from their "whack jobs" on hundreds of innocent civilians: We have no right to be doing these things in the first place.
And someone who stands foursquare behind an abominable war crime like the invasion of Iraq has no "principles," as this term is commonly understood. As Silber puts it:
Hoh doesn't like the war crime in Afghanistan because it doesn't seem to be working out too well – not because it's wrong. Mayer doesn't like the CIA Predator program of targeted assassination and massive "collateral damage" because it's too unregulated, too opaque, and we need to find ways to make it work better – more like the Pentagon program of targeted assassination and massive "collateral damage."
But hey, isn't it good that a high American official has refused to take further part in the Af-Pak Terror War? Of course it is – relatively speaking. As Silber notes:
Silber then notes that war critics who applaud Hoh's action have missed a critical point that makes hollow any claim of deeply held principle behind his resignation: his enthusiasm for "whacking" people in a country that American forces invaded in a savage and lawless act of aggression:
Chris Floyd has been a writer and editor for more than 25 years, working in the United States, Great Britain and Russia for various newspapers, magazines, the U.S. government and Oxford University. Floyd co-founded the blog Empire Burlesque, and is also chief editor of Atlantic Free Press. He can be reached at email@example.com.
This column is republished here with the permission of the author.
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This story was published in the Baltimore Chronicle on October 28, 2009.
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