Monday, May 18, 2009

Musings: Disasters of War

A cold breeze that lingered from yesterday’s welcome cooling rain was blowing intermittently, softened every now and then by a warm gust from the west, when Koko and I went walking this morning.

The wind disappeared altogether when the sun rose, staining gray fans and swirls in the eastern sky a vivid burnt orange that faded to coral pink, casting Waialeale’s base in an ethereal golden light.

Koko was the first to spot my neighbor Andy, greeting him with upraised paws and a whine as he asked whether I’d run into trouble getting my car back after it was towed in Honolulu. No trouble that money couldn’t solve, as is so often the case in America, although I later learned, when recounting the story to a friend who moved to Kauai years ago from Oahu, that his cousin owned the tow yard and so he could have gotten me a break on the towing fee. “You should have called me,” he said.

And Andy advised me that the art museum has its own lot, which I’ll certainly bear in mind next time I’m tempted to peruse the galleries there, where I saw, and am still haunted by, an exhibit of Goya’s “Disasters of War.” The etchings, though small, offered a graphic account of the rapes, beheadings, castrations, hangings, piles of dead bodies, firing squads, fleeing villagers and overall mayhem that are part and parcel of mankind’s strange propensity to wage war on itself and the land.

Goya made his prints, which were not shown until after his death, as a way to bear witness to the atrocities he witnessed when France invaded Spain in 1810.

“It was so personal back then,” I remarked to my friend. “And now it’s being done remotely, by Predator drones.”

Nearly every day we hear reports of people in Pakistan being killed by these unmanned drone attacks, which appear to be primarily launched by CIA operatives. The most recent was on Saturday, with Al Jazeera reporting:

More than 40 drone air raids have taken place since the beginning of last year, most of them since September.
More than 320 people have been killed in the raids, according to a tally of reports from Pakistani security officials, district government officials and residents.

Others put the overall death toll much higher, while noting that the drone attacks aren’t quite so accurate at targeting “Taliban fighters,” various and sundry “insurgents” and the catch-all “al Qaeda operatives” as America likes to claim. As The International News reported:

Of the 60 cross-border predator strikes carried out by the Afghanistan-based American drones in Pakistan between January 14, 2006 and April 8, 2009, only 10 were able to hit their actual targets, killing 14 wanted al-Qaeda leaders, besides perishing 687 innocent Pakistani civilians. The success percentage of the US predator strikes thus comes to not more than six per cent.

Indeed, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine using data collected in Iraq indicated that air attacks were the most deadly for civilians:

In events with at least one Iraqi civilian victim, the methods that killed the most civilians per event were aerial bombings (17 per event), combined use of aerial and ground weapons (17 per event), and suicide bombers on foot (16 per event). Aerial bombs killed, on average, 9 more civilians per event than aerial missiles (17 vs. 8 per event). Indeed, if an aerial bomb killed civilians at all, it tended to kill many. It seems clear from these findings that to protect civilians from indiscriminate harm, as required by international humanitarian law (including the Geneva Conventions),4 military and civilian policies should prohibit aerial bombing in civilian areas unless it can be demonstrated — by monitoring of civilian casualties, for example — that civilians are being protected.

This kind of “collateral damage” can cause backlash. As the New York Times reported, the strikes may actually be serving to unite warring tribal factions in Pakistan against America:

Even when precise, the drone strikes often kill women and children in militant compounds. When that happens, local Pashtun customs of “badal” obligate their survivors to seek revenge.

These attacks also tend to be under-reported and down-played, even as the U.S. has upped the ante by using the MQ-9 Reaper, a faster and more powerful craft that carries a lot more firepower than the Predator. As the Zurich-based International Relations and Security Network reports:

The phrase "war on terror" might have been quietly dropped from the United States's military lexicon - to be replaced (according to a memo to Pentagon staff) by "overseas contingency operation". But it is clear that to some degree there is continuity in practice in the tactics being pursued by the coalition in Afghanistan and Pakistan. An example is the relatively little reported campaign in western Pakistan characterised by what (in another euphemism) are commonly termed "drone incidents" but which would be better called air-raids.

As they operate the death machines from the comfort of their ground control stations in America, the drone operators and pilots can divorce themselves more easily from their dirty deeds. A youtube clip offers an indication of how detached — and deluded — they can be:

“You get the sense you’re a guardian angel, an eye in the sky for them,” gushed Capt. Catherine Platt, a sensor operator discussing how the drones support ground troops.

“When you step out [of the control station], you go back home to your family and live like anyone else,” added Maj. Clayton Marshall.

Meanwhile, back in Western Pakistan or Iraq or wherever these drones have left death and destruction in their wake, it’s very much upfront and personal for the folks on the ground. They're left with the same old burned homes, piles of dead, orphans, maimed citizenry and "disasters of war" that Goya witnessed two centuries before. The more things change, the more they stay the same.


Anonymous said...

It's the world we live in. It's not going to change in our lifetimes nor that of our grandchildren.

Best an individual can do is find a place "out of the wind" and isolated/insulated from the various ravages currently existing....if one can.

For the ones that can, good for them.

For the rest....

darwin_was_pretty_smart said...

the complexities of pak, as they have been for the last decade or so, make the problems of most any other country look simple by comparison

Dawson said...

You know what's cool are those awesome ads for the U.S. Army. The ones where hawt looking babes are working the control consoles of the most awesome weapons you ever saw! Like the most awesome video game gear in the world, but ten times better!

Makes me want to chuck my Game Boy and join up! Blow the shit outta some commies!! Or terrorists, or whatever!!!


Anonymous said...

Steve Coll, who writes about the Pak/Afghan battles ("Ghost Wars", highly recommended) says the CIA refers to the use of drones as "Radio Shack warfare".


Anonymous said...

Hey, I'd sign up. It ads a nice visceral "reality" quality to skill-based point-and-shoot games.

I wonder if they have a cup holder in the easy chairs in front of those vid consoles?

It's a nice way to do your army hitch...worse injury you face is carpal tunnel.

Anonymous said...

At least we're not amoral like those indigenous savages.

darwin_was_pretty_smart said...

"At least we're not amoral like those indigenous savages."

-- that was weak (at least be funny)

Anonymous said...

Steve Coll's reference to "Radio Shack warfare" in Ghost Wars" is on-the-mark, but read "Full Spectrum Disorder" by Stan Goff for why techno-death from above really doesn't win the day. Goff is a retired veteran of Army Special Forces, Delta Force, and Rangers. "His prose is awash in that distinct aura that comes from those who have been there, and managed to return. What is special about Goff, however, is that he refuses to simply bear witness....he does that as well....but he undertakes a rather exhaustive investigation of the theoretical foundations of what he has spent a good portion of his adult life experiencing first hand".

As the US discovered after literally "blowing millions" in Iraq, a $200 microwave oven rigged with the door open can fool a million dollar "Patriot" missile into thinking a ground radar site is coming online, or a 13 year old Somali kid with a cel phone can help bring a Black Hawk down.

As any hacker (in the best sense of the word) knows technological complexity is seldom a match for the elegant simplicity of an imaginative idea. - Ed Coll

Anonymous said...

More from "Full Spectrum Disorder"
Goff understands and respects soldiers; he only decries the purposelessness of dying for corporate greed. He reserves his contempt for the criminally insane like Don Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney.

"The US military has become a high tech weapon of mass destruction, following a trajectory of development that began before the end of the cold war and leading into an era that is nothing like the cold war. It is eroding its own ability to engage in military occupation except at phenomenal international cost, and undermining its own ability to maintain a coherent doctrine by destroying states and assuring the global expansion of Mogadishu. And occupy it must, or it will fail... If the Asians, Latin Americans, and Africans who are being bled gray by external debt ever get together and say they will default, US power will drop like it's been shot through the brain stem." (p. 157-158)

Goff sees rather clearly the implications of our militarized economy and both the hegemony and fragility of US financial clout. The desperate death throes of the US Imperial leviathan have rarely been revealed so clearly and cogently.

Anonymous said...

I leave you with this quote:

"The old official masculinity, enduring, quiet, emotionally distant, and unconcerned with its coiffure -- illusory and oppressive as it was -- now looks almost attractive in the face of the new one -- immodest, loud, and fascistic -- vicariously played out on stages and in studios by a lumpen-bourgeoisie with its own gangster aesthetic. Found attractive by the nazi-fying anti-intellectual sector of the American white "middle" class as its standard of living comes under attack from some mystifying force and is itself blinded to the origins of its fatal malady by a culture of huckster anticommunism and commodified resistance, the new machismo of George W. Bush is politics as low performance art by those who have the freedom to indulge l'imaginaire, that habit of consciousness that Sartre characterized as an escape from social reality.

There is certainly plenty from which to escape for our intrepid neo-con adventurers, and the pitiful cowering Democrats (who will almost certainly replace them), as the private school thugs atop the world's hierarchy thrash this way, then that, seeking a way out. But they cannot escape from value, only make it ever more top heavy, and they cannot leap over the Grand Canyon of ecological collapse that lies ahead." (p. 227)

darwin_was_pretty_smart said...

"If the Asians, Latin Americans, and Africans who are being bled gray by external debt ever get together and say they will default, US power will drop like it's been shot through the brain stem." (p. 157-158)"

-- whatever

"implications of our militarized economy "

-- you never see it b/ it does not support well the quoted contention, but would be nice to also have cites to the % of GDP we spent on military now relative to other years going back to the 30s

sorry nothing really new or enlightening there (in those excerpts at least). was expecting more per the stated author resume, but then again - he was just a spec forces guy (an area which i am sure he prob knows well)...but so was former MN jesse governor ventura (he was a seal)...gonna accept ventura's take on the last 50 odd years of global geopolitics as dogma? hope not

Anonymous said...

Hey, it's Wednesday already...when are we going to get another steaming pile of musings to kick around??

Anonymous said...

If one is on the front lines enforcing US policy then one may have direct experience with what works and what doesn't esp with regards to effectiveness of hi-tech warfare.

"i am sure he prob knows well)...but so was former MN jesse governor ventura (he was a seal)...gonna accept ventura's take on the last 50 odd years of global geopolitics as dogma? hope not"

darwin_was_pretty_smart said...

"If one is on the front lines enforcing US policy then one may have direct experience with what works and what doesn't esp with regards to effectiveness of hi-tech warfare."

-- well put, and i totally agree