The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic and a killer.
– D.H. Lawrence
The realist in murder writes of a world in which gangsters can rule nations … where a judge with a cellar full of bootleg liquor can send a man to jail for having a pint in his pocket … where no man can walk down a dark street in safety because law and order are things we talk about but refrain from practicing.
– Raymond Chandler
American pop culture is certainly not unique in having a love affair with killers. Since the first cave man cracked his neighbor’s head open to control a water hole, eliminating others has been top on the list of problem-solving techniques.
Life today has evolved to the point the club has been improved and a young man can sit in an air-conditioned room sipping a Diet Pepsi as he whacks somebody 12,000 miles away. Or else an elite team of tricked-up killers with sophisticated air support can be dropped in at night to do the job.
That’s the state of the art of homicide 2012, America’s dirty little secret.
Our military is now establishing secret bases all over the world from which to launch these types of homicide assaults specifically focused on leaders of movements we don’t like. The Navy has even developed a fast, twin-hulled catamaran called the littoral combat ship that will deliver these killer teams from the littoral or shallow waters off shore. In the spirit of historic gunboat diplomacy, it’s quite fearsome looking to intimidate the natives.
This kind of projected violence is now going on big time in Yemen, the very poor country on the southern edge of the Arabian peninsula, which is dominated by the super-rich Saudi royal clan, an oily collaboration with which US leaders have had a half-century relationship.
As Jeremy Scahill’s excellent reporting from Yemen makes clear, our drone attacks and support for Yemeni government troops are aggravating poor Yemenis like crazy, driving them into the arms of al Qaeda elements. And, as we should all know by now, once the magic word “al Qaeda” is mentioned all reason and compassion goes out the window and homicide becomes the acceptable problem-solving recourse.
This new US military doctrine based on sophisticated intelligence and secret homicide raids virtually anywhere is growing at a time our military is linking more and more with local, domestic police agencies. This phenomenon has the potential for serious civil liberties abuse. National borders are fading and life is becoming more and more globalized; burgeoning communications technologies ironically make us less socially cohesive. Add economic, religious and political polarization to the mix and the symbiosis between the military and local police becomes quite scary.
For Americans, the ultimate dark question lurking in all this is: Are death squads within the domestic borders of the United States a possibility? Some will surely see such a question as hysterical — in both senses of the word. But for those who feel it can’t happen here, there’s the lesson of that mythic frog who doesn’t hop out of the pot because the temperature of the water is raised very slowly. For those on the right, there’s also the beloved metaphor of Munich, which says if you appease the initial signs of oppressive force and don’t act against it, you’re certain to be screwed later.
Creeping Militarism Arriving On a Street Near You
Several recent stories suggest how very deep militarism has seeped into the post-9/11, Drug War-obsessed American culture. The Bush Administration’s decision to invade two countries and engage in counter-insurgency wars for ten years is front and center as part of the problem. War has consequences. In the case of Vietnam, it divided the nation.
The first story is about how returning soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan are employing counter-insurgency tactics on the street in places like Springfield, Massachusetts. The enemy is drug gangs, the domestic suppliers of controlled substances illegally imported from places like South America. “Gang members and drug dealers operate very similarly to insurgents,” Massachusetts State Trooper Michael Cutone told the Times; he was a Green Beret in Iraq.
A second story is summed up in its headline: “U.S. Drug War Inside Honduras Waged Iraq-Style.” To interdict drug shipments from South America headed for the US, the US military has constructed three forward operating bases (or FOBs) in Honduras, one a former CIA airfield from the controversial Contra War days. This kind of military intervention inside Honduras would have been unlikely without the June 2009 military coup that overthrew elected President Manuel Zelaya. The Obama administration, as some may recall, did nothing to prevent or oppose this coup, which there’s little doubt was undertaken with the knowledge of elements in the US government.
Admiral Joseph Kernan, deputy commander of Southern Command, told the Times there are “insidious” parallels between drug traffickers and terror networks. “They operate without regard to borders,” he said. And, of course, so does the military of the United States of America. According to the Times, Admiral Kernan “spent years in Navy SEAL combat units,” the elite unit in the forefront of the new quick-and-lethal special operations doctrine.
The third story recounts the warm reception fired General Stanley McChrystal is getting at Yale, where he has been hired to lecture on leadership. McChrystal, of course, is a proven master at two things: public relations (he was the one-star briefing officer during the Iraq Invasion) and the management of special operations units. He’s arguably the key person in the successful use of killer teams in Anbar Province — known colloquially as “the Salvadoran option” — which developed into the US military’s current special operations doctrine relying on assassin teams and drones to weaken and destabilize enemy leadership. The bin Laden hit was a highly publicized example of this; most examples are top secret.
General McChrystal is famous for a stark and ascetic lifestyle. When reduced to its crude fundamentals, General McChrystal’s leadership expertise amounts to controlling information from the US public and organizing killers. In the 1960s, a man like McChrystal would have faced protests on a college campus. Today, he’s a rock star.
Even the former antiwar candidate President Obama knows how much Americans love a good killer, and he’s bragging about being the man who “took out” Osama bin Laden with a SEAL Team.
Beyond real political people like General McChrystal and President Obama, Americans’ fascination with killers is clear from just a cursory survey of popular culture. Everywhere, in films, in popular books on the grocery store shelves and in video games, there’s an obsession with hit men, serial killers, sexual psychopaths and government agents with a license to kill; popular killers range from those in an underground, criminal world to those wearing badges and working under the lethal rights granted by national sovereign.
There’s Lawrence Block’s lovable hit man Keller who knocks people off between trips to stamp-collector shops, the swimming pool and other mundane tasks his middle-class readers can identify with. There’s Dexter, the lovable serial killer who offs only scum of the earth we’re glad to see eliminated. And there’s Jake Grafton, Steven Koonts’ CIA agent in The Assassin, who hunts down al Qaeda demons — as do a hundred others in the same genre within a genre.
Then there’s Keith Hayward in Peter Straub’s macabre gem of a novella A Special Place: The Heart of a Dark Matter. Hayward is actually a very unpleasant character. He starts out as a 12-year-old killing local cats. His Uncle Till, who likes to kill women with a knife, recognizes his nephew’s talents and trains him in the discipline of killing so he can safely fulfill his true potential. As I was reading Straub’s dark little fairy tale I couldn’t help but wonder if Keith Hayward had the discipline to enter the realm of sovereign killing and to become a special ops killer for America. Again, some may see this as a cheap shot at our national heroes of the moment; I’m not sure.
At this juncture, I should say I’m not a pacifist and, to be perfectly candid, when the luxury of personal security is lifted I think I’d agree some people may need killing. (I apologize to all my pacifist friends.) But this only shifts the argument from the act of killing to the question who is one killing and why. In the case of the US government, when it comes to the combined War On Terror and the Drug War, there’s a clear, on-going history of intervention, invasion and occupation that provokes people to oppose us with violence, which means killing them is only exacerbating the problem and making more enemies to kill later. The process of violence is a vicious cycle with no end, as Martin Luther King so eloquently pointed out before he was assassinated.
When the Englishman D.H. Lawrence describes the American soul as “hard, isolate, stoic and a killer,” he doesn’t include as a trait a devotion to history. No. History is something too many Americans like to avoid at all costs — unless like “remember the Alamo!” it can be used to mobilize an army for purposes of homicidal revenge. History that digs in and explains the American soul is like a ball and chain. Better to remain ignorant, or as Susan Sontag put it after 9/11: “By all means let’s mourn together, but let’s not be stupid together.” Sadly, the American leaders at the time and the American mob all chose to be stupid.
Add to this volatile cultural stew the polarization of fundamentalist religion and the promotional power of the National Rifle Association and pretty soon you’re back to the wild west where everybody feels they have the need, and the right, to solve their problems lethally. It’s not only your right — it’s your duty — to stand your ground with a .40 caliber Glock.
The anxiety I feel today is exactly what Raymond Chandler alluded to in the epigram at the top, about “a world in which gangsters can rule nations.” The militarization of the police inside the US is a perfect example of this.
The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 makes it illegal to use Army units within the domestic United States. (The Air Force was added to the act in 1956.) The militarization of police forces, on the other hand, has no such brake.
It’s interesting to look at the issue as a hemisphere problem. In Latin America, the overlap between military and police forces has been notoriously problematic, with many instances of human rights abuses. US military trainers are now being deployed to places like Honduras to train the police and the military; and one of the things they preach is the separation of military and police functions. It’s ironic that those very separations are breaking down here in North America. We’re becoming more like Latin America as they become more like us.
“The Salvador option” was the informal name given to General McChrystal’s Special Operations “death squads” in Anbar Province in Iraq. In El Salvador such units were referred to as “paramilitary.” My dictionary defines “para-“ as “distinct from, but analogous to.”
Recently, York County, Pennsylvania, purchased a $296,000 up-armored Lenco Bearcat for its SWAT Team; the funds came from cash and property seized from drug dealers. This kind of self-aggrandizing spoils system is notorious in police forces across the nation. The more property confiscated, the more sophisticated military equipment and weapons a department can buy. The problem is, if you buy a tank you naturally want to use it. The more military equipment and training you get, the more you will become a paramilitary unit — “distinct from, but analogous to” a military unit.
There’s also a vast network of associations and training enterprises that reinforce the militarization of local police forces. An article in the Spring issue of the National Tactical Officers Association’s magazine The Tactical Edge specifically addresses the military/police relationship. It’s a review of a book called Field Command by Charles “Sid” Heal.
“The book is a first of its kind,” reviewer John Gnagey writes. “The concepts and principles are taken from tactical texts and military field manuals but are presented in scenarios that commonly confront law enforcement officers.” The book is divided into sections: At the Scene, Understanding and Developing Strategy, Command Staff, Planning and Decision Making and Multi-Dimensional Battlespace.
In the early fifties, I recall my mom literally telling me police officers were my friend. Those days are gone — if they were ever anything more than perception. It’s now an entrenched war of gangs on the streets of America, with the police being the most powerful gang. And police thinkers are using terms like “counter-insurgency” and “battlespace” to talk about policing the streets of America.
Like any civilian caught in the middle of a dangerous warzone, it’s becoming less a matter of right and wrong, and more a matter of prudently choosing sides to cover your ass.