The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars

The Deaths of OthersOne of the primary methods powerful states use to legitimize the resort to violence is the construction of elaborate myths about the ruthlessness and moral inferiority of their victims. Examples of this are plentiful from Thomas Jefferson’s demonization of North America’s indigenous population as “merciless Indian savages” to President Obama’s policy of declaring “all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants.” Imperial violence, rationalized by a culture of dehumanization, has long been a central component of American history which assumes varying forms depending on the official enemy. The latest iteration of this historical norm can be observed in President Obama’s drone war, a campaign of international terrorism that has claimed the lives of thousands of people in Pakistan. In his latest State of the Union Address the President vowed to impose “prudent limits” on the drone program. Nothing was said about the numerous reports of civilian casualties, most notably a drone strike that murdered 12 people at a wedding party in Yemen. A recent article from The Intercept refers to a Human Rights Watch report which “describes conflicting accounts of the December 12 attack, but nevertheless concludes that some, if not all, of the victims may have been civilians.” For those who wish to understand the toxic ideology that underlies the President’s chilling silence when it comes to addressing the fate of those victimized by US terror John Tirman’s The Death of Others is an indispensable source. Reviewing the “collective autism” of the American public in responding to the suffering of civilians on the other side of US bombs, Tirman illustrates how warped perceptions of “the other” coupled with an unusual capacity for denial has contributed to a society permeated with “vast carelessness” and puzzling “coldness.” Tirman begins his analysis of the historical roots of this “societal indifference” in what he calls the “frontier myth”, a Puritan ideology which he describes as “the über-narrative that encompassed values often linked to Americans–individualism and self-reliance, producing goods from the wilderness, and other ‘democratic’ values, as well as other ideological bents like Social Darwinism and Manifest Destiny.”

President Andrew Jackson was one of the more enthusiastic proponents of this imperial ideology and demonstrated his loyalty to “‘democratic’ values” by ethnically cleansing the southeastern regions of North America through the Indian Removal Act. In his message to the US Congress President Jackson stated his objective to “[open] the whole territory between Tennessee on the north and Louisiana on the south to the settlement of whites”, a move that would “incalculably strengthen the southwestern frontier.” In regard to the fate of the indigenous population Jackson made his genocidal aims more explicit, asking the assembled lawmakers “what good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns and prosperous farms … and filled with the blessings of liberty, civilization and religion?” Contemporary analogues to Jackson’s “civilizing mission” are not hard to find in the current public relations project surrounding the benefits of “modernization” which roughly translates into the subordination of the global commons, and by association those who depend on it, to the most predatory forms of state-corporate power.

Recent example of the “vast indifference” within the American intellectual class.

Tirman extends his analysis of this founding myth to more recent conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. The civilian massacres of No Gun Ri in Korea (in 1950 the US military killed approximately 400 Korean civilians in the course of 3 days), My Lai in Vietnam and Haditha in Iraq are given particular focus in the text as instructive samples of how Americans ignore the suffering of their victims. This “architecture of indifference” is attributed to three phenomena: the frontier myth, “racism or ethnocentrism”, and Just World Theory. That the widespread acceptance, and sometimes embrace, of cruelty towards foreign populations can be attributed to racism is not a particularly new idea yet Tirman supports this point of view with statistical data. Citing a study carried out by two psychologists examining American “attitudes toward the fate of Iraqis and Afghans compared with Americans during the wars of the last decade”, Tirman notes that “racial difference influences–intensifies–victim derogation and avoidance.” The practice of “victim derogation” (blaming the victim for their own suffering) took on particularly gruesome forms in America’s “twenty years’ war” against Iraq. Under the presidential administrations of George Bush Sr., Bill Clinton and Bush Jr. Iraq sustained a level of death and suffering that should outrage all except the most committed of sadists. Apart from causing the slow deaths of over 500,000 Iraqi children, the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of the US-imposed sanctions regime were made worse by a criminal bombing campaign, carried out with the stated intent to “accelerate the effects of the sanctions.”

Bombing targets included dams, oil facilities, shipyards and even water treatment facilities. In the middle of this terrorist assault a cable from the Defense Intelligence Agency reported that “incidences of disease, including possible epidemics, will become probable,” and “the entire Iraqi water treatment system will not collapse precipitously, but its capabilities will decline steadily.” During the First Gulf War American journalist Barton Gellman cited a senior Air Force officer justifying Iraqi civilian deaths under the pretext that “‘the definition of innocents gets to be a little unclear,'” because many Iraqis supported the invasion of Kuwait and “‘ultimately the [Iraqi] people have some control over what goes on in their country.'” Putting aside the fact that the laws of war explicitly outlaws attacks on innocent civilians, the Air Force officer’s rationale for bombing civilians is worth further examination. If it was legitimate for this American Air Force officer to murder Iraqi civilians because they had “some control over what goes on in their country,” what can be said about widespread support for countless wars of aggression in America, a country where people not only have “some control over what goes on in their country” but, theoretically, have the most control over policy decisions as citizens of “the land of the free”, the world’s greatest “democracy”? It doesn’t require much thought to predict what would happen if an Afghan soldier justified the murder of a US civilians on similar grounds citing the fact that the invasion of Afghanistan was supported by large majorities of the US public.

Maybe the most penetrating commentary of this book appears in Tirman’s investigation of the psychological underpinnings of this dangerous worldview. Insight in this domain can be gained through an examination of American intellectual culture, journalism and popular forms of entertainment. Central to the psychological response to civilian suffering is a habit of “containing, dispersing, and abstracting culpability, all the while displacing victims.” Ideological subservience of this kind led to the silencing of Vietnamese victims after the My Lai massacre and Iraqi victims under US occupation. When Wikileaks founder Julian Assange appeared on The Colbert Report in 2010 comedian Stephen Colbert criticized Assange as someone out to make a profit off of images of death and various forms of “manipulation.” Colbert also attempted to minimize the significance of the Collateral Murder video on the grounds that it was not “objective” and its title represented an “editorial” (not an accurate description of what occurred on the video i.e. murder). No comment was made on the condition of the children who survived the savage attack or if criminal charges should be brought against the perpetrators (Colbert called the attack “regrettable”). Colbert also asked Assange if he notified the Apache helicopter pilots (the criminals!) before publishing the video. When Assange said they did not need “harm minimization” Colbert, in a textbook example of “displacing victims”, asked “who needed it.” Assange replied “the families of those on the ground” and the “children in the [attacked] van.”  This interview represented what Tirman called “the third stage” of “public reaction to civilian casualties” namely “a more aggressive public stance of questioning the motives of journalists or others who revealed the incident, a tactic readily joined by the war’s supporters, rendering justice (as with My Lai, among others) haphazard or vitiated.”

Tirman concludes his study with an analysis of Just World Theory, a psychological phenomenon of “denial” and “withdrawal”  demonstrating that “[Americans] simply do not want to witness suffering and therefore naturally seek to avoid it,” particularly when the suffering can be traced back to the United States. In all, Tirman describes this socially sanctioned practice of eye-aversion as an example of the American public’s “psychological distancing from the horror of innocent victimization.” Psychological distancing of this kind is only more likely with the advent of remote control warfare where victims are seen as little more than “bugsplats” on a video monitor. It is therefore incumbent that this grotesque culture of state-directed mass killing be challenged as aggressively as possible. Fortunately, we have an example of this in the recent sentencing of 12 of the Hancock 17, a group of anti-drone resisters arrested for staging a protest outside  Hancock Field Air National Guard Base in Syracuse, New York. Town of Dewitt Court Judge David Gideon “gave the defendants the maximum sentence – 15 days in jail (starting immediately) and a $250 fine with a $125 court surcharge.” Among the impassioned closing statements at this shamefully under-reported trial was that of Elliot Adams who stated the following: ” When people talk about Nazi Germany they often talk about the so called ‘Good German’, a name used for those people who could not see the holocaust even as it happened before their eyes, who stood quietly by as their government shifted from a democratic government to a dictatorship, from a progressive liberal country to a demonic empire. One day people may talk about the ‘Good Americans’ who stood by when the balance of power remained broken and found various excuses for not using the portion of power they had to fix it.” In this respect, reading Tirman’s work is much more than an academic inquiry.  Current events make this type of education a moral imperative.


Going to Tehran: Why the United States Must Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic

9780805094190When marketing state terror it’s always necessary distort the identity of so-called enemies. Oppressive policies are easily portrayed as legitimate if the victims are understood to be ungrateful savages or demons anxiously waiting to destroy “civilization.” Few conflicts validate this principle of imperial power more emphatically than America’s multi-decade assault on the Islamic Republic of Iran, a country that liberated itself from US control in 1979. On the 35th anniversary of the revolution the elite press was uniform in their willingness to caricature Iran as a villainous opponent of the United States intent on achieving nothing less than our total annihilation. Cries of ‘Death to America’ as Iranians Celebrate 35th Anniversary of Revolution read the headline in the New York Times. “Mixing exhortations of death to America with admonishments to children about healthy teeth and gums, Iran celebrated the 35th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution,” read the opening sentence. Joining the chorus was the Los Angeles Times which opened its article on the revolution’s anniversary by describing Iran as “a defiantly anti-Washington government.” This article, authored by Ramin Mostaghim and Alexandra Sandels, concludes with the scene of “a white-turbaned young mullah,” named Mohammad Mobaraki chanting “Death to America!” Any casual observer would look upon these exclamations as indicative of a society gone mad with fanaticism and irrational hatred but an honest investigation into the underlying causes of these statements tells a radically different story. Details of this story can be learned in Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett’s deeply insightful and incisive history of US-Iran relations Going to Tehran. Central to the Leveretts’ study is a vigorous refutation of what they term “a powerful mythology of the Islamic Republic”: “the irrationality myth”, “the illegitimacy myth”, and “the isolation myth.” Quite apart from the cognitive scripts passing for “news” in the American press, the Leveretts explain how Iran promotes rational policies based on safeguarding national independence (esteqlal), freedom (azadi) and the right to self-defense. Since the early 1800s Iran has been forced to deal with European, Russian or US intervention in its internal affairs.

Before Iran became the punching bag of the United States, Britain and Russia “subverted Iran’s 1906 Constitutional Revolution–when Iranians created both their first written constitution and their first elected parliament.” British, Russian and American control of Iran persisted during the Pahlavi monarchy until 1951 when Iranians finally liberated themselves from external control with the election of Mohammad Mossadeq who governed on a platform that “urged the nationalization of Western oil interests and an independent (even if not anti-American) foreign policy.” The CIA and British intelligence responded to these policies in 1953 by orchestrating a coup, overthrowing the democratically elected prime minister and installing to power the Shah, “an autocrat so unpopular that he was ultimately deposed by one of the most broadly based revolutions in modern history.” None of this crucial history merited comment in the Los Angeles Times’ orientalist depiction of a “white-turbaned young mullah” chanting “Death to America!” Also unmentioned in media accounts of Iranian politics and history are the repeated efforts on the part of the Iranian leadership to cooperate with the US government. Notable examples include Iran’s cooperation in freeing American hostages in Lebanon, its cooperation with the Clinton administration to “supply weapons to beleaguered Bosnian Muslims when American law prevented Washington from doing so,” and its decision to work with the Bush administration to combat Al-Qa’ida and the Taliban. In the case of the Clinton administration, President Rafsanjani offered a $600 million contract to ConocoPhillips to “develop two oil and gas fields off Siri Island in the Persian Gulf”, a stunning offer given Iran’s history. Clinton responded to this offer by rejecting it and passing two executive orders, one which “[barred] American companies from participating in the development of Iran’s hydrocarbon resources,” and another that “effectively imposed a comprehensive American economic embargo on the Islamic Republic.” More than anything, this hostile response demonstrated that the Clinton White House did not want to work with Iran based on principles of mutual aid and consultation. Clinton’s model, like his successors, demanded Iran’s obedience and nothing more.

Following closely behind Washington’s hegemonic stance on the diplomatic front is an enduring campaign of international terrorism. This campaign ranged from backing Saddam Hussein’s gassing of Iranians in the Iran-Iraq war to the shooting down of an Iranian civilian airliner over the Strait of Hormuz, killing all 290 people on board (including 66 children). 48 hours after the destruction of Iran Air 655 Vice President George H.W. Bush reacted to the mass slaughter by saying “I’ll never apologize for the United States of America. Ever. I don’t care what the facts are.” Contrast the savage response of Bush Sr. after this act of international terrorism with that of President Khatami two months after the September 11th attacks. Visiting New York for a UN General Assembly meeting, Khatami “asked to visit Ground Zero so that he might offer prayers and light a candle in memory of the 9/11 victims.” In accord with the irrationality myth, these expressions of Iranian compassion must be forgotten in favor of leaders who are “bat-shit insane” (as comedian Jon Stewart described Ahmadinejad) or reside in a country that is “a backward, repressive, and misogynistic place where, as Jay Leno jokes, the Flintstones are known as the Jetsons.”

It therefore should come as no surprise that the Iran mythology persists under the Obama administration. Despite the absence of any empirical evidence pointing to a nuclear weapons program, the Obama administration continues to impose harsh economic sanctions on Iran, a clear violation of international law. In a recent speech on the topic, Obama warned foreign companies contemplating business deals with Iran that the US would “come down on them like a ton of bricks,” if they violated the sanctions regime. Few, if any, commentators noted that this statement constituted an act of coercion, plausibly in violation of the UN Charter’s prohibition on the threat of force, a triviality for President Corleone. Incidentally, the “ton of bricks” suspended over the heads of foreign businesses also hovers over Iranian cancer patients, a consequence of economic sanctions that “have blocked access to the best chemotherapy drugs …”

Coupled with this policy of economic warfare are assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists and covert operations to destabilize Iranian civil society. In 2011 “the Obama administration opened a ‘virtual embassy’ to Iran, set up to bypass the government and engage the Iranian public directly, for the express purpose of stimulating popular discontent with the existing order”, a flagrant violation of the 1981 Algiers Accord which legally obligates the US “not to intervene, directly or indirectly, politically or militarily, in Iran’s internal affairs.” Obama also “removed the MEK’s terrorist designation,” thus “positioning it to become the vanguard of an explicit regime change strategy.” This effort on the part of the Obama administration to bring about regime change has received ample ideological support from the commissar class.

Prominent Iran “experts”, “scholars” and expatriates have been enlisted by the Obama administration to spin a false narrative about Iran. The so-called Green Movement formed a vital part of this propaganda offensive. When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad defeated Hossein Mousavi in the 2009 elections American journalists immediately blamed the outcome on electoral fraud. Inquiries into these allegations produced zero evidence to substantiate these claims. In one comical illustration of this ideological norm, Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council “excitedly [cited] MSNBC’s proclamation of a Mousavi victory while the actual return showed something else,” namely that Ahmadinejad was “declared the winner … with 62.5 percent of the vote.” Iran “experts” found Ahmadinejad’s victory difficult to accept, understandable for those captured by the illegitimacy myth, the idea that “the Islamic Republic is an illegitimate and deeply unstable political order at serious risk of implosion.” Now that Hassan Rouhani has assumed the presidency in Iran the expected herd of “experts” have interpreted his rise as an opportunity to ram through US demands. A recent CBS News report suggests another possibility. Responding US threats of military force Rouhani condemned the “delusional people [in the US] who say the military option is on the table,” adding that Iran “regards the language of threat as rude and offensive” (he could have added “criminal” as well). Unless the American public interferes with the plans of these “delusional people” in Washington, the Iran mythology will grow, as will the influence of “analysts” and “experts” itching for another terrorist war. Going to Tehran is therefore mandatory reading for those of us opposed to conventional, stereotypical explanations and the potentially devastating human consequences they entail.