She was a funny, highly irreverent writer, and could be poignant describing the sometimes awful, sometimes rewarding aspects of her work, but was just as likely to be narrating her adventures getting the Pedicure from Hell or trying to purchase gemstones or have a ball gown made. She was obsessed with animals, and often took in stray dogs, cats, rabbits, tortoises …..
For me, this has been a most death-obsessed year, and some gears in the back of my mind have at all times been whirring away, calculating or processing what a life means, what it adds up to, what a death means, what is a good way to die (if there is one.) I always have in the back of my mind a (fictitious) kind of good death, that of a farmer quietly expiring among his hay ricks in (I think) a Wendell Berry story I read some years ago. And the epitome of a bad death–that of Mrs. Blankenship, Don Draper’s sad old secretary on Mad Men: “She died like she lived: Surrounded by the people she answered phones for.”
Certainly the circumstances of Dr. Woo’s death were horrible beyond imagining. But she died while performing selfless and heroic acts. To a stranger, it seems that hers was a wonderful life. And yet those she touched–her fiance, her family, her co-workers, the Afghans she cared for– have every right to be heartbroken and to miss her terribly.
Glenn Greenwald notices that now the Obama Administration doesn’t distinguish between U.S. citizens and non-citizens when it comes to targeting them for assassination. From the Post (italics are Greenwald’s):
After the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush gave the CIA, and later the military, authority to kill U.S. citizens abroad if strong evidence existed that an American was involved in organizing or carrying out terrorist actions against the United States or U.S. interests, military and intelligence officials said. . . .
The Obama administration has adopted the same stance. If a U.S. citizen joins al-Qaeda, “it doesn’t really change anything from the standpoint of whether we can target them,” a senior administration official said. “They are then part of the enemy.”
I almost always agree with Greenwald but I don’t quite share the outrage over the U.S. citizen part.
I mean, really, once the President declares he has the right to order someone killed, without anything resembling due process, in a country with which we may or may not be “at war”, the citizenship of that poor misfortunate bastard (or the equally misfortunate bastards who happen to be in the vicinity when the Hellfire missiles come screaming down) seems like a quibble.
The issue is that the President and some anonymous spooks can, as a matter of everyday routine business, get together and say “Today, we are going to smoke some guy in Yemen, who may be what we call a terrorist, and anyone standing near him. And if we miss him this time, we will keep trying to kill him WITH ROCKETS until we do.” Also, if you’re a major drug lord, but NOT one of OUR major drug lords, you’re on the list, too. Got that?
According to Jane Mayer’s New Yorker article last October there are ten–ten!–collateral damage kills for every successful murder of an intended target, and that’s taking the Government’s word that the target was indeed worth targeting. (Imagine a SWAT team blowing away ten women and children in a gunfight with a suspected terrorist, and then high-fives all around because they got the guy. Actually, not that hard to imagine….)
This has not always been OK. You can go back to Ronald Reagan, that high-minded man of peace, or even further to Abraham Lincoln. Targeted assassinations, extrajudicial murders, have always been forbidden (at least officially).
A 1981 Executive Order signed by Ronald Reagan provides: “No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.” Before the Geneva Conventions were first enacted, Abraham Lincoln — in the middle of the Civil War — directed Francis Lieber to articulate rules of conduct for war, and those were then incorporated into General Order 100, signed by Lincoln in April, 1863. Here is part of what it provided, in Section IX, entitled “Assassinations”:
The law of war does not allow proclaiming either an individual belonging to the hostile army, or a citizen, or a subject of the hostile government, an outlaw, who may be slain without trial by any captor, any more than the modern law of peace allows such intentional outlawry; on the contrary, it abhors such outrage. The sternest retaliation should follow the murder committed in consequence of such proclamation, made by whatever authority. Civilized nations look with horror upon offers of rewards for the assassination of enemies as relapses into barbarism.
The U.S. agency overseeing the multibillion dollar Afghanistan reconstruction effort is investigating 38 criminal cases ranging from contract fraud to theft – most involving non-Afghans, officials said Tuesday…Just 10 of the criminal cases under the microscope involve Afghans only, while the rest involve U.S. and other foreigners, according to Raymond DiNunzio, the agency’s assistant inspector general for inspections.
And in not unrelated news, the President is asking Congress for another “$33 billion to fight unpopular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, on top of a record request for $708 billion for the Defense Department next year.”
And this is yet another must-read piece from Tomdispatch about “a tale of a new-style battlefield that the American public knows remarkably little about, and that bears little relationship to the Afghan War as we imagine it or as our leaders generally discuss it.”
We don’t even have a language to describe it accurately. Think of it as a battlefield filled with muscled-up, militarized intelligence operatives, hired-gun contractors doing military duty, and privatized “native” guard forces. Add in robot assassins in the air 24/7 and kick-down-the-door-style night-time “intelligence” raids, “surges” you didn’t know were happening, strings of military bases you had no idea were out there, and secretive international collaborations you were unaware the U.S. was involved in. In Afghanistan, the American military is only part of the story. There’s also a polyglot “army” representing the U.S. that wears no uniforms and fights shape-shifting enemies to the death in a murderous war of multiple assassinations and civilian slaughter, all enveloped in a blanket of secrecy.
… Today, in Afghanistan, a militarized mix of CIA operatives and ex-military mercenaries as well as native recruits and robot aircraft is fighting a war “in the shadows” (as they used to say in the Cold War era). This is no longer “intelligence” as anyone imagines it, nor is it “military” as military was once defined, not when U.S. operations have gone mercenary and native in such a big way. This is pure “lord of the flies” stuff — beyond oversight, beyond any law, including the laws of war. And worse yet, from all available evidence, despite claims that the drone war is knocking off mid-level enemies, it seems remarkably ineffective. All it may be doing is spreading the war farther and digging it in deeper.
Talk about “counterinsurgency” as much as you want, but this is another kind of battlefield, and “protecting the people” plays no part in it. And of course, this is only what can be gleaned from afar about a semi-secret war that is being poorly reported. Who knows what it costs when you include the U.S. hired guns, the Afghan contractors, the bases, the drones, and the rest of the personnel and infrastructure? Nor do we know what else, or who else, is involved, and what else is being done. Clearly, however, all those billions of “intelligence” dollars are going into the blackest of black holes.
In a grisly calculus known as the “collateral damage estimate,” U.S. military commanders and lawyers often work together in advance of a military strike, using very specific, Pentagon-imposed protocols to determine whether the good that will come of it outweighs the cost.
We don’t know much about how it works, but in 2007, Marc Garlasco, the Pentagon’s former chief of high-value targeting, offered a glimpse when he told Salon magazine that in 2003, “the magic number was 30.” That meant that if an attack was anticipated to kill more than 30 civilians, it needed the explicit approval of then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld or President George W. Bush. If the expected civilian death toll was less than 30, the strike could be OKd by the legal and military commanders on the ground.
And pause for a minute to let that soak in. LEGAL commanders on the ground. Whose job involves calibrating the number of innocent lives that can be snuffed out without raising any eyebrows back home….. And pause for another minute to realize we can no longer pin this on Rumsfeld and Bush.
Obama’s Delusion, David Bromwich’s essay on the slowly unfolding disaster that is the Obama presidency, is about the best thing I have read to date on the subject. It’s more charitable than I tend to be towards the current ruling party and its head, and at the same time more damning.
Blame goes in all directions: to the right-wing noise machine and the unseemly machinations of Limbaugh, Cheney, Bob Woodward and the generals; and also, to Obama himself, whose political instincts are shown pretty convincingly to amount to a delusion.
Yet he is also encumbered by the natural wish of the moderate to hold himself close to all the establishments at once: military, financial, legislative, commercial. Ideally, he would like to inspire everyone and to offend no one. But the conceit of accommodating one’s enemies inch by inch to attain bipartisan consensus seems with Obama almost a delusion in the literal sense: a fixed false belief. How did it come to possess so clever a man?
Worthy of note, this beautiful and concise characterization of the opposition party:
The Republican Party of 2009 is a powerful piece of contrary testimony. It has become the party of wars and jails, and its moral physiognomy is captured by the faces of John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, faces hard to match outside Cruikshank’s drawings of Dickens’s villains, hard as nails and mean as dirt and with an issue still up their sleeve when wars wind down and the jails are full: a sworn hostility towards immigrants and ‘aliens’.
(Even his supporters would probably be content to see “money is speech” engraved on McConnell’s tomb. It’s an epithet the unpleasant man who represents my woebegone state seems perversely proud of. “Hard as nails and mean as dirt” seems more apt.)
As for Obama himself, it would be hard to find a better chronology of the president’s serial missteps than you’ll find here. And there are plenty of harsh words left over for the “prosperous neoliberal consensus,” something with which Bromwich, who teaches at Yale, is intimately familiar:
Equality in the United States in the early 21st century has become a gospel preached by the liberal elite to a populace who feel they have no stake in equality. Since the Reagan presidency and the dismemberment of the labour unions, America has not known a popular voice against the privilege of the large corporations. Yet without such a voice from below, all the benevolent programmes that can be theorised, lacking the ground note of genuine indignation, have turned into lumbering ‘designs’ espoused by the enlightened for moral reasons that ordinary people can hardly remember. The gambling ethic has planted itself deep in the America psyche – deeper now than it was in 1849 or 1928. Little has been inherited of the welfare-state doctrine of distributed risk and social insurance. The architects of liberal domestic policy, put in this false position, make easy prey for the generalised slander that says that all non-private plans for anything are hypocritical.
This is not a pretty picture, and Bromwich concludes in an unsatisfactory manner, by addressing only one of the many traps faced by the president. This particular trap, Afghanistan, is the one most of Obama’s own making. “The best imaginable result just now, given the tightness of the trap, may be ostensible co-operation with the generals, accompanied by a set of questions that lays the groundwork for refusal of the next escalation. But in wars there is always a deep beneath the lowest deep, and the ambushes and accidents tend towards savagery much more than conciliation.”
Tom Englehardt has a spot-on analysis of what went down last Tuesday night. Obama’s West Point speech announcing the Afghanistan escalation was a Big Moment in America’s recent history, and one that shows just how desperate straits we’re in. Who among us thought that when the Democrats swept into power in the 2006 midterms, presaging their control of everything in the 2008 election, that the Dems would not only NOT end Bush’s wars and Constitutional crimes, but that they would extend them?
But nobody talks about it. I see and hear a lot of chatter about the last spasms of health care reform, Wall Street excesses, and New York state’s gay marriage doublecross, but I’m not hearing a lot of “what the fuck is he doing with this Afghanistan bullshit?”–in spite of the fact that no one–NO ONE–thinks there’s a chance in hell of this mini-surge succeeding.
With my usual gratitude for Englehardt’s keen powers, but with an unusually heavy heart because what he says is so fricking depressing, I present “Meet the Commanded in Chief”, in which a very convincing case is made for this being Obama’s “anti-MacArthur moment”:
In April 1951, in the midst of the Korean War, President Harry Truman relieved Douglas MacArthur of command of American forces. He did so because the general, a far grander public figure than either McChrystal or Centcom commander Petraeus (and with dreams of his own about a possible presidential run), had publicly disagreed with, and interfered with, Truman’s plans to “limit” the war after the Chinese intervened.
Obama, too, has faced what Robert Dreyfuss in Rolling Stonecalls a “generals’ revolt” — amid fears that his Republican opposition would line up behind the insubordinate field commanders and make hay in the 2010 and 2012 election campaigns. Obama, too, has faced a general, Petraeus, who might well have presidential ambitions, and who has played a far subtler game than MacArthur ever did. After more than two months of what right-wing critics termed “dithering” and supporters called “thorough deliberations,” Obama dealt with the problem quite differently. He essentially agreed to subordinate himself to the publicly stated wishes of his field commanders. (Not that his Republican critics will give him much credit for doing so, of course.) This is called “politics” in our country and, for a Democratic president in our era, Tuesday night’s end result was remarkably predictable.
The dysfunction here is quite intense. There is an unquestioned trend toward increased presidential power in the last half century or so, but not for a president who wants to buck the consensus in Washington. I’m not defending Obama, but I also really can’t imagine ANY president doing the right thing and sacking his insubordinate subordinates in the Pentagon for their brazen challenge to his authority. One wishes for more from the guy, but he never led us to believe he’d do anything different than what he’s doing. Still, the landscape is pretty dismal.
Unfortunately, the most essential problem isn’t in Afghanistan; it’s here in the United States, in Washington, where knowledge is slim, egos large, and national security wisdom is deeply imprinted on a system bleeding money and breaking down. The president campaigned on the slogan, “Change we can believe in.” He then chose as advisors — in the economic sphere as well, where a similar record of gross error, narrow and unimaginative thinking, and over-identification with the powerful could easily be compiled — a crew who had never seen a significant change, or an out-of-the-ordinary thought it could live with — and still can’t.
As a result, the Iraq War has yet to begin to go away, the Afghan War is being escalated in a major way, the Middle East is in some turmoil, Guantanamo remains open, black sites are still operating in Afghanistan, the Pentagon’s budget has grown yet larger, and supplemental demands on Congress for yet more money to pay for George W. Bush’s wars will, despite promises otherwise, soon enough be made.
A stale crew breathing stale air has ensured that Afghanistan, the first of Bush’s disastrous wars, is now truly Obama’s War; and the news came directly from West Point where the president surrendered to his militarized fate.
From aljazeera english, this is a pretty good discussion on Afghanistan/Iraq, featuring a host who, in spite of his outrageous accent, is extremely well-informed and aggressive when he needs to be with both his guests. One of whom is Richard Myers*, former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and currently professor of military history at Kansas State, who seems to be wondering why he agreed to this gig, and As’ad AbuKhalil, professor of political science at California State, Stanislaus, and author of the terrific blog the Angry Arab. Witty, digressive to an extreme, and in-your-face, AbuKhalil doesn’t seem to be able to decide on what he hates most: U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, Islamism, or “the Usurping Entity”.
What if American political television featured discussions at this high level of discourse? Just askin’.
* Myers is also a member of the Board of Directors of Northrop Grumman Corporation, the world’s third largest defense contractor, as well as United Technologies Corporation.
Tonight, in response to the realities of Afghanistan as I’ve just described them to you, I’ve put aside all the subjects that ordinarily obsess Washington, especially whether an American president can reverse the direction of a war and still have an electoral future. That’s for the American people, and them alone, to decide….
Given that, let me say as bluntly as I can that I have decided to send no more troops to Afghanistan. Beyond that, I believe it is in the national interest of the American people that this war, like the Iraq War, be drawn down. Over time, our troops and resources will be brought home in an orderly fashion, while we ensure that we provide adequate security for the men and women of our Armed Forces. Ours will be an administration that will stand or fall, as of today, on this essential position: that we ended, rather than extended, two wars.
It’s quite a thought. And of course the consequences of NOT making this speech are cataclysmic for the rest of us. But for the ruling party, short-term calculations trump everything. Better to keep spending a trillion a year on defense keeping the war juggernaut going, than to risk losing a couple seats in the mid-terms.