09 June 2011

"America never went to war with a country that had a McDonald's"

The title for this post comes from a statement spoken by a U.S. soldier on patrol in Iraq, as we heard and saw in a documentary we previously posted, "Mission Accomplished." It speaks to the irreconcilable values between the counterinsurgents and those they deem to "liberate," and throughout the film we hear U.S. military personnel awkwardly recite the officially sanctioned belief that U.S. forces in Iraq are there to "free" the Iraqis from bondage. When one American in uniform is asked what if Iraqis want to be free of the U.S. presence, the interviewer (Sean Langan) gets a cold stare. "We are here to help you," blasts an American Humvee in thick Baghdad traffic as seen above, amplifying the U.S. presence as one that is an alien invasion, announced by heavily clad troops resembling imperial storm troopers. When someone says he is here to help you, one has to wonder: if it was obvious and welcome, why then is there a need to declare it? "Maybe we should slap down five or six McDonald's on this strip, then the people would be happy" (see "Mission Accomplished"). If you cannot make the locals "happy" with the foreign occupation, then you have to kill them: in the same film, following U.S. troops on a night raid, after an order to "go in hard," the microphone picks up the voice of one of the men saying to another, "you can kill anything if you want to." Anything.

Building rapport with the host nation civilians--and yet brutal violence on a staggering scale. Gaining trust--and yet the shocking night raids. Winning hearts and minds--and yet the widespread and routine sexual, physical, and psychological abuse against innocent inmates at Abu Ghraib. Helping to build a new nation--and yet the torture, arbitrary detention, and outright theft. Defeating terrorism--and yet attacking and occupying countries and peoples that never caused any harm to Americans or Canadians. Counterinsurgency, in actual practice, is as schizophrenic as it is frenetic. While the writers of doctrine preach "less is more," that never seems to apply to the foreign presence to begin with, which in both Iraq and Afghanistan underwent massive "surges". Never we do see an ability to recognize and understand that counterinsurgency, like all other forms of violent and imposed occupation, will always generate more and more reaction against it. We have had endless evidence of this fact after a decade of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq--no one has the right to treat the observation as if it were controversial any more. Counter-counterinsurgency (understood on many different levels) is not only inescapable, it is necessary and legitimate.

The need to see the world with reference to McDonald's symbolizes an approach to difference that treats the latter as a problem, to be cured (by candies or by cudgels). Jean Baudrillard put this best when he wrote in "The Despair of Having Everything,"
The West's mission is to make the world's wealth of cultures interchangeable, and to subordinate them within the global order. Our culture, which is bereft of values, revenges itself upon the values of other cultures.... 
Singularities are not inherently violent. Some can be subtle, unique characteristics of language, art, culture or the human body. But violent singularities do exist, and terrorism is one of them. Violence revenges all the varied cultures that disappeared to prepare for the investiture of a single global power. This is not really a clash of civilisations. Instead, this anthropological conflict pits a monolithic universal culture against all manifestations of otherness, wherever they may be found. 
Global power — as fundamentalist as any religious orthodoxy — sees anything different or unorthodox as heretical, and the heretics must be made to assume their position within the global order or disappear completely. The West's mission (we could call it the "former West" since it lost its defining values long ago) is to reduce a wealth of separate cultures into being interchangeable, of equal weight, by any brutal means possible. A culture that is bereft of values revenges itself on the values of other cultures. Beyond politics and economics, the primary aim of warfare (including the conflict in Afghanistan) is to normalise savagery and beat territories into alignment. Another objective is to diminish any zone of resistance, to colonise and tame any terrain, geographical or mental.
Military strategists and policy makers pay tribute to counterinsurgency (COIN) as a "new" way of winning hearts and minds and part of a nation-building strategy aimed at defeating "terrorism" (and many other ever shifting goals, all packed into one confusing jumble). The actual practice is much more sobering: both superficial and deadly, and at times inconsequential. Turning to Afghanistan, in the audio and video below produced by Stars and Stripes ("Marines wrestle with exasperation in battle for hearts and minds") this is what we get: a U.S. Marine says, "I wish I could go out and just shoot everybody"; another Marine says "If you facilitate the Taliban, then you're just as guilty, and that includes women and kids too." Then watch a patrol get stuck in the mud, out in the open, for hours, and as they start fearing a Taliban attack...what do they do? They bring in the village boys closer, and pay them to shovel mud. Had there been a Taliban attack, and those boys had been killed, inevitably the Taliban would have been blamed. There would be no official report, nor media discussion, about how this is a clear instance of U.S. Marines using locals as human shields.

Yet the Marines claim this is a successful COIN Op. Having armed men pay a young boy to do work for them is treated as if support had been won. There is no open admission about how paying people to do something, does not mean that they like and support you. The Marines cannot even communicate verbally with the locals. Even as they claim to have built bridges, one of the Marines finds his equipment has been stolen by the local boys.

Canadian forces in Afghanistan are supposedly about to bring their combat mission to an end. A Canadian soldier was killed just a few days ago, as an ill conceived mission shifts, not having achieved any of its broader goals. What has been the outcome of years of Canadian counterinsurgency in Afghanistan?

  • A war fought without legitimacy, consistently opposed by the majority of the Canadian public;
  • The unacceptable complicity of Canadian Forces in human rights abuses;
  • Our government's disrespect for parliament and senior diplomats in covering up its complicity;
  • The increasingly shrill politics of the pro-war crowd that would seek to militarize mainstream Canadian values and appropriate Canadians' democratic achievements to the military;
  • Over $18.5 billion spent (and more spent than in any other Canadian foreign development assistance);
  • Mounting Canadian casualties;
  • Continuing deaths of civilians;
  • An Afghan resistance that has never been more powerful and never more legitimate;
  • Rather than some fabled war against misogyny, women's rights have receded dramatically under a regime dominated by warlords, which our government and our taxes support;
  • The occupation has spread war into Pakistan;
  • And, yet the public statements of several high-ranking NATO military officers attesting to the fact that the war cannot be won.
The armour-plating, the longing for a Big Mac and porno, the loud speakers that blare peace from a vehicle of military occupation--these wars were unjust and immoral to start with, but now they are not even slightly credible, on the very terms of those doing the fighting. What we need to still fight is the blowback of increased militarization at home, erosion of democracy, and the domestic application of counterinsurgency. If Canadians opposed counterinsurgency abroad, they have all the more reason to counter it at home.
"The state – an institution that is defined in terms of enjoying a monopoly on the use of violence – is particularly attractive to men and women whose 'dark sides' are closer to the surface than those of more tolerant and peaceful persons. When the state energizes this 'dark side' – which it does particularly in wartime, the quality that led Randolph Bourne to identify war as 'the health of the state' – otherwise decent men and women can turn themselves into agents of savage brutality. When their murderous acts are conducted on behalf of the state – with which most people identify themselves – their actions acquire an aura of legitimacy that would not have obtained under other circumstances.... 
"Identifying ourselves with the state, in other words, has a way of turning us into sociopaths. It is not that the state does this to us, but that our willingness to attach ourselves to external entities – and the values upon which they are grounded – separates us from our focused inner sense of being. This applies not just to the pilots of helicopter gun-ships over Baghdad, but to more visible political figures such as Madeleine Albright – who defended her Clinton-era policies that led to the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children – and Janet Reno, who defended her massacre of Branch Davidian men, women, and children at Waco. More recent application of these dynamics are found in George W. Bush’s fascination with starting pre-emptive wars against the rest of the world, and Barack Obama’s apparent willingness to use nuclear weapons in future pre-emptive attacks, as well as to assassinate Americans. 
"People who are willing to embrace – or even to tolerate – such sociopathic conduct, have lost all touch with what it means to be human; have lost their souls. No federal bailouts; no increase in the Dow Jones Industrial Average, or decrease in unemployment levels, will overcome this loss. Nor can any “stimulus package” be enacted – with or without bipartisan support – to restore the personal integrity long since lost." (Butler Shaffer, "How We Lost Our Souls")
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