We sleep safe in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.
- Quote attributed to George Orwell
Everybody loves a good killer. American pop culture is saturated with the love of killers. The more sexy and elite the killer, the more reverence he or she receives and the more the obvious moral questions are parried away. As the Orwell quote, above, suggests, all societies revere “rough men” with the capacity to ruthlessly kill members of threatening nations or outlaw bands.
Nowadays, official killing demands the nurturing of an elite esprit-de-corps among the killers. Their work must be done in strict secrecy so we, the public, can remain ignorant and “safe in our beds” while the killer elite remain aloof and unaccountable. Furthermore, it’s important to be able to easily marginalize those of us deemed by the killer elite and their promoters to be overly-delicate, moral scolds.
This sense of embattled esprit-de-corps in conjunction with unaccountability is even seeping into our domestic police departments. In some cases, cops are too quick to shoot when things don’t go right for them or they are dis’ed; in other cases, the connection to elite special-ops killers seems aspirational. Since 9/11 we’ve witnessed many linkages (like regional Fusion Centers and the distribution of surplus war weaponry) between the military and local police departments. In analytic stories focused on the “black lives matter” movement and policing, we’re told our local police forces have moved from a Community Policing model to a Broken Windows model and now to something called an Intelligence-Based model. This sounds ominously close to the special-ops, manhunter formula.
Like the frog in a pot of slowly heating water who doesn’t realize he’s being boiled to death, whether it’s fear of attacks from outside or fear of violence and crime from inside, it seems time for the public to ask whether Orwell’s “rough men” idea is applicable in today’s confusing world or whether the sense of unaccountable, elite institutions focused on violence can become a threat in and of themselves.
Last Sunday, The New York Times ran a big front-page story that makes the case that lethal special-operations have become the military’s “new way of war,” what The Times calls a “global manhunting machine.” Seal Team Six is the unquestioned top-of-the-line elite unit. Think Chris Kyle and the hagiographic film bio American Sniper. Seal Team Six is expanding with The Omega Program, which undertakes what The Times calls “deniable operations … modeled after the Vietnam Phoenix Program.” Then there’s the team’s global intelligence gathering force called The Black Squadron. Both have been given hip, pop-culture-friendly names. All this is part and parcel of the rise of the Pentagon as an unaccountable intelligence and covert operating force of its own parallel to the CIA.
These capacities, of course, work in conjunction with other “new ways of war” like highly sophisticated media intelligence gathering and lethal drones. All sorts of robotic weapons, space-to-earth weapons and cyber weapons are coming on-line every day. All of it secret as far as the American people go. The issues The Times piece raise are the grisly and cavalier killing of too many civilians on night raids, the physical and psychological effect all this has on the men (and women) doing the killing, how it angers local residents and the fact there is zero accountability. All investigations within Special Operations command are internal, and when a soldier is suspected of excessive and unnecessary killing on a mission, he’s sent home for a rest. At home, of course, he’s the ultimate hero with all the mitigating benefits that role provides when his PTSD flares up at home.
In the introduction to his 2014 book World Order, Henry Kissinger points out that economic globalization threatens the sovereign nation-state era established at the end of the Thirty Years War in 1648 by the Treaty of Westphalia. With the rise of globalism in the realm of capitalism as well as in the realm of “terrorism,” the old world order is breaking down. Kissinger is known for many things, among them his famous statement that “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.” He’s better known for the killing of millions of Indochinese long after Robert MacNamara secretly concluded in 1966 the Vietnam War was doomed to failure.
Kissinger concludes his book by assuring his readers of America’s “humane and democratic values.” Don’t worry; we’re the good guys. With no irony at all, he writes that “American military power provided a security shield for the rest of the world, whether its beneficiaries asked for it or not. …[T]he developing countries were protected against a threat they sometimes did not recognize, even less admit.” Think of those three million dead Indochinese; if only they knew it was all for their own good. We should not forget that Paul Bremer, George W. Bush’s proconsul in Iraq who disbanded the Iraqi military and the Bath Party, was at the time an employee of Kissinger Associates. Bremer learned his strategic noblesse oblige from the master.
One of the important tactical masters of all this is General Stanley McChrystal, an enigmatic, ascetic general who rocketed up the ranks from one-star to four-star at the point the stumbling Bush administration realized it had whacked a huge hornet’s nest in Iraq. McChrystal was instrumental in developing the lethal manhunting machine that kept the insurgency off-balance — skills that are now becoming new war doctrine.
I had a brief exchange with General McChrystal at the Philadelphia Public Library a couple years ago when he was promoting his memoir. He told the audience that when he arrived to clean up the insurgency west of Baghdad he found rooms piled high with un-analyzed laptops, cell phones and documents from night raids. A leader of incredible focus and intelligence, he whipped the system into shape so material from early-evening raids would be instantly analyzed by a bank of computer-nerdy intelligence specialists, leading to maybe a half-dozen more kill or capture raids throughout the night on unsuspecting leaders and go-to names found in the material.
Here’s how journalist Michael Hastings described McChrystal’s Iraq manhunting operation: “Figure out how your enemy operates, be faster and more ruthless than everybody else, then take the fuckers out” … along with anyone who gets in the way. Hastings’ profile of McChrystal in Rolling Stone (“The Runaway General”) led to McChrystal’s firing, thanks to some disrespectful things he’d said of his commander-in-chief, VP Biden and others. In June 2013, Hastings told friends he was going to be out of contact working on an important intelligence story when he ended up dead in a very mysterious, late-night auto crash in Los Angeles.
Mark Bowden, the author of Black Hawk Down and other paeans to our military prowess, shared the stage with McChrystal at the Philadelphia Library. Bowden fielded questions for the general. (Full disclosure: I’ve had a few cordial but argumentative e-mail bouts with the Philadelphia-based Bowden.) With a man like McChrystal — a master at manhunting and public relations — I figured it was best to load my question, since I concluded he would never give me a straight answer. Bowden saw my veteran’s hat and pointed to me. So I asked the general a classic have-you-stopped-beating-your-wife question.
“I’m a Vietnam veteran and I’ve been a peace activist for the past 30 years. You were a one-star PR general in Baghdad who gave press briefings during the shock-and-awe invasion of Iraq. Then the insurgency began to grow in Baghdad and Anbar Province. You’re obviously very brilliant and you quickly rose up the ranks to four-star general in charge of special ops. The so-called Surge involved a lot of very secret, focused killing, all under your command. My questions is: Do you ever have difficulty sleeping at night knowing you live in a democracy and the electorate of that democracy is kept in the dark as to what you are so good at?”
Bowden scowled at me. McChrystal grinned charmingly and, with a chuckle, said, “It’s funny: I feel like I’ve been a peace activist for the past 30 years.” I made a mock choking sound. Then McChrystal pretended he didn’t understand my question and Bowden quickly moved on. Some of the democratic citizens in the audience looked at me like I was a madman.
Later, as McChrystal was signing the book I purchased, in a friendly tone I took the moment to rub it in: “How can you say with a straight face you’ve been a peace activist for the past 30 years?” All the humanitarian, nation-building work his soldiers had done in villages in Iraq and Afghanistan building things like schools and roads, he said, was about making peace. (This was before the rise of ISIS in Anbar Province. Now, I’d ask him how the invasion and his elite-killer, manhunting raids advanced peace in Anbar Province. All the COIN construction projects and the bribes didn’t seem to do much good.)
“Oh, c’mon!” I said to him in my best man-to-man good humor. “What you are is a brilliant manager of killers.”
He weighed this and simply shrugged. He handed me my book and smiled toward the next person in line. My friend and I joked that he was so nice we felt like asking him out for a beer.
The Times credits McChrystal for advancing the new manhunter mode of warfare linking intelligence-gathering capacity with killing. Except for that slip-up granting Michael Hastings access, McChrystal’s most important management skill is his ability to manage an array of lethal, surgical operations while keeping it all secret and making sure the PR makes it all look good.
But Do Killers Always Keep Us Safe?
We live in an age of fear. “Bad guys” are out to get us. As our leaders give the obligatory assurances about American Exceptionalism and as Americans more and more absorb that assurance, the rest of the world is on the rise. Many people around the world are aware of US actions and don’t buy the American line. We all know patriotic Americans are not supposed to mention the world Imperialism — but, blinders down, that’s the big question looming over the future of America: Do we as a nation maturely assess the mess we’re in and begin to ratchet down the imperial arrogance of the past century and pay more attention to the many festering problems here at home? Or do we assail the weaknesses of our black president and re-mobilize the America that maintains over 1000 foreign bases to once again be the feared Ruler of the World many Americans see as our God-given destiny?
As an institution, American war-making has become a runaway train. With fear afoot and the rise of globalism and technological advances, efforts to get the imperialist US military institution under control are more ineffectual than they’ve ever been. Recently, I attended a conference in Washington DC focused on the Vietnam War peace movement. There was a lot of embracing of old friends and talk how the peace movement had stopped the war in Vietnam. And maybe it did. However, the problem that loomed over the conference was our current over-extended military. The lesson our military learned from the Vietnam War was not what many of us learned, that the war was a tragedy or, worse, a crime. What they learned was how to reinforce their institution so it’s immune to electoral politics, how to control the population and how to run wars in secret. Since Vietnam, we no longer seek to “win” wars; our military is now about disrupting opposition and keeping it off balance. The problem haunting our future is that those we deem enemies and send in SEAL teams to eliminate are also learning about us.
How do you convince Americans that, while unaccountable lethal manhunting may disrupt people we’ve declared our enemies, in the long run it only infuriates them even more than they were before a campaign of focused killing was unleashed on them. Counterinsurgency expert William Polk says scorched earth is the only effective tactic in this field, and that’s out-of-bounds politically. ISIS (aka ISIL, the Islamic State or Daesh) is the neon-sign example of this. Personally offended by the rise of ISIS, Lindsey Graham, a non-macho, bachelor candidate for president, declared as president he would bring back the feared America of the past. This no doubt meant a new wave of killing necessary to transcend Obama’s weakness and return America to greatness. We will hear a lot of this over the next 18 months.
Richard Slotkin best summed up this political line in his book Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860.
“The first colonists saw in America an opportunity to regenerate their fortunes, their spirits, and the power of their church and nation; but the means of that regeneration ultimately became the means of violence, and the myth of regeneration through violence became the structuring metaphor of the American experience.”
Besides eliminating undesired humans, killing makes things simple. It purges the mind of all the difficult challenges of diplomacy. Plus, if things go off the rails, the militarist never admits making a mistake and always has a ready answer: They employ the tried-and-true stabbed-in-the-back myth and blame those of us against the violence in the first place for not supporting the violence.
Hastings wrote that McChrystal conceded, “We’ve shot an amazing number of people.” A savvy political general, no one knows better than McChrystal that killing lots of civilians eventually creates a PR challenge. He’s written that drone attacks are seen as cowardly by local people in places like Pakistan and, thus, drones create more animosity than good. When he got to Afghanistan, where there was pressure from President Hamid Karzai, McChrystal worked to cut down on civilian killings. Hastings reported there was even talk of creating a new medal for “courageous restraint.”
Award medals for not killing people? That’s a brilliant idea. Think of all the authentic peace activists who might be awarded such a national medal for advocating restraint of our warmongers. On February 15, 2003, that would have entailed about ten million people worldwide. Think of presidential acts that might be honored for the restraint of killing.
JFK used courageous restraint not caving in to bomb-crazy Curtis LeMay over Cuba. Consider if Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger had employed courageous restraint in Indochina. And let’s not forget George W. Bush, who we don’t hear much from these days. If it had been more important to him to be smart and restrained than to strut around as a macho Texas killer, think how much better off the world would be today. OK, Iraq might not be a democratic paradise of freedom, but there would be no You Tubes of ISIS fanatics slicing off heads. And Iran would not have been handed the keys to Iraq.
The quote at the top attributed to George Orwell has always troubled me, since I admire Orwell as a man of the left. But he was right: There are many dangers in life, and anyone who denies “rough men” — in the role of a military and community police — are often necessary to keep a community “safe” is living a delusion. At the same time, if those “rough men” begin to see themselves narcissistically as an elite, insular, secret unit apart from the rest of us … then, I hope Orwell would agree, we’re in trouble.