Filed under: Digital/Star War, Nonviolence, Politics of Empire | Tags: Afghanistan, conscience, counter insurgency, digital war, drones, Nonviolence, pacifism, robotic warfare
Last week Predator drones attacked in Helmand province in Southern Afghanistan and mistakenly killed civilians. We don’t know how many. The incidents are another warning like the messages of protest that Pakistanis have been trying to send Americans for the past few years. Despite the much ballyhooed precision of these air crafts and their weapons, they still kill civilians because corroborating intelligence on the ground is unreliable and this leads to flawed targeting.
The protection of civilians has been a most basic plank of all notions of just war for many nations going back 1600 years. The slide towards increased killing of civilians in war by national armies and as a corollary, the use of civilians as human shields is often overlooked. Tactics arising from the use of robotic weapons of war may increase the slide of disrespect for civilian life in war. This trend that brought us civilian casualties from Dresden to Hiroshima, from IEDs in Iraq to drones in Pakistan reflect the broad lines of increased disrespect for civilian life into the 21st century warfare in regular and insurgent armies.
During the final week of Lent this year I expect to travel to Las Vegas and to Creech AFB 45 miles northwest where the Predator pilots and their staffs are trained and local control rooms guide the planes in the 24 hour surveillance and attack assignments over Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan. As I go I know that the Predators are just a tip of a vast array of robotic technology now being developed to make modern warfare “safer” for soldiers but more lethal for civilians.
The Predator and their Hellfire missiles are the air weapon delivery system of choice right now but maybe not for long. In the future the work of disarmament will be made even more complicated by robotic instruments of all kinds. The U. S. Army is working with universities to build micro fliers, tiny bird like flyers to be used for intelligence gathering and surveillance through its Micro Autonomous Systems and Technology Collaborative Alliance. Joseph Mait, manager of the Army Research Laboratory says,“ Our long-term goal is to develop technologies that can produce a map of a building interior or detect bombs,”
Big unmanned Predator like aircraft have lots of problems. They are still expensive to build, maintain and fly although they are much cheaper than the earlier generations of bombers. They can also be easy to spot. In Pakistan I was told that children in remote areas have games they play called, “spotting the Predators”. Shrinking those vehicles to a few ounces will not only change the children’s games but will give an up-close view of who is doing what, when and where.
According to Discovery Magazine, Haibo Dong of Wright State University is working on a four-winged robot, the Wright Dragon flyer. The designers complain that it is more difficult to create than a two-winged flapping system but promises more speed and manoeuverability. Dong expects to have a prototype, about the size of a real dragon-fly, completed this year. “This small craft could perform surveillance, environmental monitoring and search and rescue,” he says.
At Harvard University roboticist Robert Wood is working on mechanical bee-like instruments to create a colony of RoboBees. These swarming robots will incorporate optical and chemical sensors as well as communications systems to make autonomous flight decisions and to coordinate with colony members during tasks such as searching for objects or people.
Robotic technology is already heavily used in all of America’s wars. As many as 4000 robots are already on the ground in Iraq. Tiny information gathering devices are complemented by robotic instruments designed to identify and disarm bombs. With ground mobility they can enter into dangerous settings where enemy soldiers are heavily armed. Some of these instruments are being adapted for or are already used for in the homeland security. Their phenomenal growth will change forever the arms race, the balance of power(s) in the world and the nature of police work.
The ethical implications of this revolution of arms, force and information gathering are daunting.
1. The development, deployment, and use of the instruments of robotic warfare are being carried out in at least 40 countries around the world. A robotic arms race is already under way. There are few if any forums that address the implications of this race for the future of life on earth and for the quality of life-like basic freedoms.
2. As the robotic arms movement unfolds, the possibility for back yard development of instruments of destruction reaches to the limits of imagination. Violent video games were just a beginning although they may have helped dull our sensitivity and create a culture of acceptance. The IED (improvised explosive device) an interim instrument for defence and attack for insurgents will have been just the first generation of a long line of sophisticated adaptation of off the shelf technology for killing. The distance between the safe researcher silently working in a sanitized laboratory and the field practitioner is narrowing. The absence of meaningful work for so many in this generation may become the void where new waves of imagination in the service of violence are unleashed. Nonviolence movements will match this challenge only with keen understanding of the implications of robotic developments and solid healthy organizations.
3. As civilian casualties grow, persons who believe that life is sacred are faced with enormous new challenges. Peacemakers and human rights workers have only begun to grasp the implications of robotic warfare. People on the ground in Pakistan told me that just 10% of the victims of Predator drone bombings are insurgent combatants. Ninety percent are civilians. The Pakistan Security Monitor, a project of the School for International Studies at Simon Fraser University disputes these figures. I have travelled in Pakistan and have heard the estimated 90% figure from persons with access to the areas of impact with accompanying stories of travail and death to women and children..
For Christian pacifists the reach of research, development, and manufacture dips into every one of our communities. We are now faced with new challenges to our convictions about not killing. Unless we face those oncoming ambiguities without falling into legalism, the convictions will morph into fluffy cotton decoration over a core of words that are not backed up with action.
4. As we enter this new frontier of ethics and robotic warfare, our methods of witness for a nonviolent way will be forced to adapt. The centralization of the development and manufacture of killer instruments into fewer and fewer corporations and selected political powers is over. The time is here when ordinary people can go to the local computer store or amazon.com to order component parts for assembling a weapon. What will we do if the computer store owner even goes to our church or parish? What will we do if people in our church own stock in companies that produce the components? We won’t have to go to Washington or to some well-mannered legislative office to begin the discussion and to engage in public witness.
We are now swimming in the culture of robotics, a technology that is being adapted every day by nations around the world to myriad roles that include security and killing. We can watch in admiration or distaste as the magic is unveiled . In periods of transition and unfolding violence it takes a little time for our consciences to be awakened and the gift of stubborn resistance to become clear. The time has arrived.
Filed under: Afghanistan and Pakistan, Pakistan | Tags: Afghanistan, Afghanistan troop surge, counter insurgency, drones, Pakistan, peace, Pukhtoon
The President Obama – General McCrystal surge in Afghanistan is now in full motion. Last week US Marines, NATO, and Afghan forces attacked in Helmand Province, southern Afghanistan to set the stage for negotiations. The Pentagon and the White House hope that the show of force will create the conditions for the their eventual departure. Taliban resistance includes multiple improvised explosive devices (IEDs), also known as homemade roadside bombs, the weapons of choice for insurgencies today, and widely scattered landmines to inhibit foreign and Afghan government forces. By chasing down the Taliban and holding territory the US hope is that the occupying forces from abroad will weaken regional Taliban commanders and thereby force negotiations that can lead to normalization over the coming 18 months.
The multi-year strategy, the surge, attack, negotiate, withdrawal (probably with residual forces left behind) was outlined by President Obama at his West Point speech in December. This is a familiar strategy for nations when they see that a foreign occupation has become expensive, unwinnable and unpopular. Something like this was contemplated for Afghanistan by the Soviets 20 years ago, and 40 years ago by the US in Viet Nam. Both were intended to cover the negative consequences of a withdrawal where success was not achieved. In both cases the hoped for solution backfired and the imperial armies were pushed out by circumstances at home. A similar strategy is now proceeding in Iraq but we won’t know the real outcome for several years.
The process of winding down the Afghan war by means of a surge will be lubricated with generous financial incentives rumoured to be as much as 1.5 billion dollars, available for use by US commanders as encouragement to create the path for realignment. Despite Afghan President Karzai’s tenuous mandate to rule, the negotiations and leaky reconciliation effort will plod forward under his leadership. The Taliban movement is a loosely coordinated effort that does not function under unified command. Last year some Taliban leaders participated in an early attempt at conversations in Saudi Arabia. Most Taliban leaders, however, have sworn loyalty to Mullah Omar who is the closest to a human symbol of a unifying figure.
In the background veteran State Department diplomat, Richard Holbrooke who pushed through the Dayton accords precursor to the Bosnia surge, monitors progress, and provides stimulation for all the parties, Pakistan, India, Central Asia, the U N security council, NATO and other big powers. Holbrooke has estimated that 70% of the Taliban fight for local reasons or money and can be won over.
The Afghan Taliban leadership which is Pakhtoon will be weaned from their need for safe havens in Pakistan where two-thirds of the ethnic Pakhtoon population lives. American, Canadian and other officials hope that incentives like money and positions in Karzai’s Afghan government will bring Taliban commanders and their followers into Kabul’s orbit. There is plenty of precedent for incorporating Taliban-like warlords into Kabul’s government. In 2001 when the Taliban government, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan fell, the US supported forces were led by the Northern Alliance one of several warlord groups that had been beaten back earlier by the Taliban. Karzai’s government has consistently included warlord leaders who still command militias from non Pakhtoon, sectors of Afghanistan. Though the non Pakhtoon peoples make up only slightly more than half of Afghanistan’s population, the Taliban now has shadow governors in thirty-three of Afghanistan’s thirty-four provinces. However their real strength remains in the Southern provinces populated by Pakhtoon people.
In a November 2009 press release for the festival of Eid which celebrates the end of Ramadan Mullah Omar hinted at flexibility while urging fighters on with a jihad that will lead to peace. The “negotiations” last year between the Afghan government (by implications the US and NATO) and the Taliban may or may not have started to move things toward a longer term negotiating process. Renunciation of Al-Qaeda is probably Washington’s one non-negotiable demand despite the fact that U. S strategists believe Al-Qaeda’s strategic importance still centred in Pakistan is much diminished. The principal demand of the Taliban is that foreign forces must announce a timetable to leave Afghanistan. President Obama hinted at a 18-month timetable in his West Point address.
In December 2009 President Karzai called for a Laya Jirga to which the Taliban would be invited as a way to bring the insurgency to an end. A Laya Jirga or grand council in the Pakhtoon tradition has been used among the tribes to settle disputes going back to ancient times and is rooted in Pashtunwali, the code of ethics of the Pakhtoon people. Karzai is said to have insisted that Mullah Omar be invited to participate. The response of the international community, the language used by Karzai to refer to the Americans, was caution. In addition to demanding assurances that the Afghan Taliban have revoke any relationship with Al-Queda the international community urged that Karzai demand that the Taliban accept the Afghan constitution. This points to the debate about the role of Sharia law in a future Afghanistan. Karzai has also called for an end night raids and that all prisoners be turned over to the Afghan government. He has continued his criticisms of the use of bombing raids by international forces that lead to massive death for civilians. In Helmand province, the site of the current U. S. and allied offensive up to ten civilians were killed in a Hellfire missile attack by a drone last week.
Even if the outlines of this precarious plan are successfully stitched together, it holds little promise of ending the work of the dragon, 9/11, whose fangs ignited this era of international terror, revenge and invasion. The end game leaves Afghanistan desperately poor and probably alone when the international community heads home as it will. The U. S. will finally have to attend to paying the sky-rocketing debt for its military adventures.
Surge, attack, negotiations have a ring of familiarity. Not all of us are confident that it will bring peace. What if the Taliban refuses to abandon their covenant with Al-Qaeda? What if Pakistan decides that an Afghanistan of warlords including Taliban warlords no longer tethered to Pakistan is too dangerous because India, its primary adversary, may exploit the situation?
What if the momentum of distrust and corruption can’t be stopped and the scaffolding for negotiations never develops? What if the better angels in Afghan culture and village life cannot be called forth to rescue everyone from the 30 year habits of violence? What if the external forces often called stakeholders, Pakistan, India, Iran, China, the neighbours to the North of Afghanistan, and the big powers including the US, NATO and Russia, all with interests in Afghanistan will not agree? What if violence, anarchy and warlords resurface with a vengeance as they did when the Soviets departed in the early 1990s? Will Afghanistan be turned back again to the warlords to compete for the spoils and grind the people down even more?
Stay tuned to this blog site as we explore some other approaches to Afghanistan and the region.
Filed under: Afghanistan and Pakistan, Blaming the Victim, Politics of Empire | Tags: Afghanistan, Canada, corruption, counter insurgency, military contractors
Corruption is in the news again always with tough talk about what the next phase of US troops in Afghanistan will look like. As a young volunteer in Viet Nam in the early 1960s I was assigned to work with a USAID (United States Agency for International Development) sponsored program called hamlet education. At the time I thought that education was always good and it never occurred to me that I might be part of a larger plan to entice the Vietnamese government to embrace the U. S. Government agenda. As I got into my work I was warned of corruption. American government advisors told me that money for the program was lifted all along the way from Saigon ministry people, through province leaders and on down to district governments that administered the disbursement of money. I was never told what to do about it. I had not enrolled in a class that might have been called History of Corruption in the Western World although given the soiled history of US intervention in so many places over the last 40 years it should have been a required course.
At the local level where I worked, the district chiefs contracted to have the schools built. Vietnamese and Americans warned me that the contractors would cut corners by using insufficient amounts of cement and lower quality construction materials. According to these same people contractors were required to kick back a certain percentage to the district chief. It took forever for the paperwork and the money to work its way through the system down to the hamlets. So American advisors along the way were encouraged to pressure, nice talk, and occasionally throw a fit to get hamlet education and all the other counter insurgency programs moving. Eventually I figured out that I was the final link in that pressure process.
District chiefs told me that the blame for the slow pace of implementation order was due to the Viet Cong, or the general slowness of the Vietnamese way. Eventually schools were built, dedicated and opened. There were plenty of children. Occasionally when I visited schools there was propaganda on the school walls condemning American imperialists. I learned that when those signs appeared the schools usually closed shortly thereafter and if I went to those villages people continued to be polite and there was still tea to drink but the villagers didn’t want to talk about the school.
As the military build up proceeded I noticed that the US military civic action people took great interest in schools, loved to paint schools, and give support to projects. Like me they also believed that schools would bring a better future As security broke down such projects lost their luster. But many of the programs continued to be carried on the Saigon government books and something called corruption grew as the distance from money to effective implementation became more remote, often impossible, due to war. This led to more accusations of corruption and an influx of more American advisors always with their generous hardship pay. Like me they arrived generally underqualified in the local arts of communication, culture and corruption. Back in the White House situation room war councils were a weekly affair.
President Obama has promised to announce his Afghanistan decision next week in time for Christmas. West Point, his choice of location does not suggest to me that he or his advisors have learned what I thought I learned in Viet Nam about how war and corruption embrace each other usually with the language of economic improvement and development for the people. I can hear the generals and other senior advisors now in the situation room fine tune the use of new miracle weapons and at the same time integrating Canada, NATO and whoever else into the strategy of targeting the foe. And then some highly medaled general or civilian security advisor will ask about how the counter insurgency plans are coming along. Somebody pontificates about “the people” and someone else describes a conversation they had in Afghanistan recently. Maybe there is a silence in the room and then someone from USAID, the civilian counter insurgency agency, reports on how many new people have been sent in to advise and track roads, schools and other development work. Overall the mood is sombre and no one wants to say the strategy won’t work. Someone asks about negotiations. But that discussion doesn’t seem to go anywhere either. One of the elephants in the room reminds the solemn gathering how embarrassing it is to give money to a government that is corrupt so someone suggests that we have to get the press to cover a success story.
Corruption usually gets worse in war because people’s survival instinct tell them to think short term and clutch at every opportunity for golden nuggets, money, or anything that has value and can be traded. I doubt that the $500 dollar per day civilian advisors will stamp out survival corruption. I have not heard evidence that these pricy civilians are any more prepared with communication, culture and corruption medicine than I was 45 years ago. An Afghan’s monthly salary is less than half the amount a U. S. aid worker earns each day. It costs about $500,000 per year to put these pricy civilian advisors and corruption doctors in the field, including the cost of their housing, transport, and security (usually provided by even higher paid contractors). A soldier costs the American people about one million dollars per year.
But the suspension of legal and moral strictures so evident in conditions of war has its first cousins in New York and Washington where there isn’t a war. We don’t use the word corruption unless it’s a Ponzi scheme. By keeping the boundaries of the law as wide as possible in order to encourage free enterprise our rule of law here is respected even though people, corporations and syndicates plunder one another and feed on those who are not organized to escape the insatiable grasp for more money. It is this kind of condition that incensed the Old Testament prophets when they warned Israel about the fate that awaits the greedy nation. Corruption doctors are needed right here in North America, not the $500 a day kind that are sent to Afghanistan but the kind who have demonstrated with a life of bold words, or prudent action that the future is worth protecting. Preachers and modern day prophets whose thought and wisdom have tasted from the well of sustainable economy can help. Listeners and readers should, however, beware of the false gospel of perpetual prosperity celebrated in so many religious and economic holy places like some mega churches and Wall Street.
In Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan the word corruption is used when sharply dressed foreign advisors, who should know better, need someone to blame. Let’s face it, corruption is universal. Publius Cornelius Tacitus, roman senator, and historian who prosecuted a proconsul of Africa on corruption in the first century said “The more corrupt the state, the more laws.” We still have a habit of passing more laws to build a moat around corruption and deal with lapses in moral judgement.
The terms of the debate on Afghanistan are in need of change from corruption and blaming to respect and honest talk. Foreign power and might will not change the outcome in Afghanistan although generous doses of explosives from outside will certainly lengthen the war. The challenge of American powerlessness in Afghanistan now faces President Obama and his advisors. If he reaches back to his time as a community organizer he will get some hints of how to address the nation and the world when faced with powerlessness. Community organizers don’t take on campaigns that are not good for the community. A healthy campaign reaches out with the possibility of real gain for all the participants
Foreign fighters in Afghanistan from the Muslim or the Christian world can ill afford to pay for this war. This chapter of warfare can be closed by loading up the trains, trucks, and air planes with all existing and spent war equipment. By bringing instruments of war past and present, mines, spent tanks, everything, home for recycling it will not be used by anyone in Afghanistan or elsewhere to extend anyone’s conflict. Then the world can turn its attention to binding up the wounds from broken relationships, the tangle of terrorism, and building a world that is incorruptible.
Filed under: Afghanistan and Pakistan, Politics of Empire, Taliban | Tags: Afghanistan, Afghanistan troop surge, counter insurgency, military contractors
This week General McChrystal’s review of what is needed in Afghanistan began to make its rounds. Although the unclassified “multi disciplinary assessment” might not titillate your breakfast musings, it sets the tone for the coming debate and if we want to engage in the discussion, we better know what it says. In a word the report calls for the ISAF, the International Security Assistance Force which includes NATO and other forces to change its internal culture by getting closer to the people, protecting the people, and tightening up its command structure while it decentralizes in order to respond to local conditions. It repeatedly calls for the mission to be properly “resourced” which is Pentagonese for more troops and it urges more ability in language and cultural skills to relate to local people.
The memo reminds the Afghan government that it needs to clean up its act. It alludes to the mantra of corruption as if this is a new characteristic of a “counter insurgency” situation. The pages note that the abuse of power and privilege by the Afghan government has not helped. However it does not remind its readers that corruption, abuse of power and opportunism, also standard form in US politics at home, in Iraq and in Afghanistan, are common themes in war and particularly where there are insurgencies.
The report is silent about religion or traditional communal decision making of Afghan village culture as a component for healing – well the memo actually does not use the term healing. It makes no mention of gender roles or how traditional justice processes work among the various ethnic groups. It vaguely acknowledges the possibility of selective negotiations and uses the term reconciliation. But the central theme is a call for what it names as a new strategy and warns that without it and proper resourcing things can get worse, much worse.
The memo lets us know that “conventional warfare culture is part of the problem”. Immediately I thought of the US Air Force or the newly conventionalized robotic war machine at Creech Air Force Base near Las Vegas. Would these projects and units like them that do so much damage to relationships, trust and long term confidence be shut down? I tried to conjure up images of how a marine unit might look, devoid of its Hummers, trucks, and helicopters and ready access to a plethora of communication devices just a few of the elements of the conventional warfare culture that I know.
It’s a stretch to think of a marine unit “tasked” to build relations with the local people, sitting in circles of elders, sharing food, brain storming about what works and what doesn’t work. I imagine those marines travelling by bicycle, without arms, uniform or even candy to give out. Maybe a sign somewhere on the bicycle would say “I am an unarmed soldier and I am here to help”. I thought that General McChrystal should know that imaginations like the one implanted within me creates images for an army that could embrace serious internal cultural change.
For the record, McChrystal should be reminded that beginning one century ago an unarmed nonviolent army of 100,000 like the marine unit I described once existed among the tribesmen like the people McChrystal’s army now fights in border area of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Badshah Khan, its leader, was buried in Jalalabad, Afghanistan in 1988. The cultural changes advocated here are not as remote to Afghanistan as conventional thinking might consider them to be. I know that General McChrystal would still be worried about the security of his unarmed troops. Should he be worried? Yes! Would ISAF death rate be worse than it is presently with all the armour, the weapons, and airplanes removed.. Probably not!
A bonus to a major cultural shift towards simplicity for foreign forces in Afghanistan may be its attractiveness back home in a society that is rooted in notions of sacrifice. For conservatives it would mean lowering the costs. For liberals it would appeal to notions of really helping rather than breaking things. Going low budget with constant self reflection has been tried by private groups and it works. Implementation will require a different kind of consultant, contractor, trainer and analyst. The new strategy could silently eliminate all the armed mercenaries that repeatedly sully the image of our country. Everybody would win with this strategy, Afghans, Americans, conservatives, liberals even the Pakistani and Iranian neighbours who would feel less pressure to keep up in terms of missiles and military hardware. Successful implementation of the new culture of the International Security Assistance Force would clearly mean less troops, not more, as the values behind the new culture take root.
Another suggestion that I liked in this memo is the call for people to think. To break through the fog of the more than 130 military acronyms in this document does require thinking. But why not take General McChrystal at his word and think more deeply with him about what might work. Neither President Obama nor his White House staff are particularly experienced in Afghanistan although some of them have done unarmed community projects and that is a plus if they take time to remember how they connected with communities.
One of the ways in which the Afghanistan effort has been “under resourced” for the last 8 years is thinking. I don’t presume to have all the answers about security. However I believe that the people I have known and worked with in villages, provincial towns, and cities across this world including Afghanistan really have useful thoughts and solutions. The problem is that no one can get to them because the contractors, the Hummers, the drones and the conventional warfare culture gets in the way. It’s a big deal to change a culture. General McChrystal will need a lot of support because he will get mean opposition if he in fact survives long enough to work out a vision.
The memo is reaching for something that may have a moral equivalency to conventional war. Any soldier who resolves to find a way for change outside the standard instruments of war is stepping into testy waters. That is why he or she thinks more troops are needed just in case nothing works. The memo fails to show how more resources will bring the mission closer to success. Military thinkers like the rest of us stumble around when we know we must work outside the box. If more resources just brings escalation and deepens the resolve of both sides for victory using terrorism if necessary, the mission will fail. If this process of culture change can turn us to deeper things, like how justice is accomplished, the conversation before us may help.
Filed under: Iraq | Tags: conscience, counter insurgency, Human Rights, ICRS, listening to the people, Nonviolence, torture
The most terrifying condition in a culture where terror is practised is the disappearance of the suspect. The victim is at the mercy of the captors. The family is totally devoid of information and feels helpless. Responses from supporters range from outrage to violence or depression. Absolute uncertainty and raw fear fills the void created by the absence of information. A person may be tortured, molested, and killed and no one may know for a generation or forever.
State officials normally deny or claim an absence of information that the vanished person is in fact detained. The final days of Jesus life included attack on his spirit and body. We don’t know all the details. However, experiences with US and other foreign forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and domestic armies in Latin America help us fill in some of that detail. By tuning ourselves more closely to these tragedies we gain greater access to the core of the Jesus we read about in the gospels. According to a study by the Pew Research Center 62% of white American evangelical Christians polled said it is “often” or “sometimes” justified to engage in torture to gain information from suspected terrorists. Would a faith that fully understands Jesus’ last days lead contemporary Christians to a more confident life of nonviolent sacrifice?
In my work with Christian Peacemaker Teams I spent time in Baghdad in 2003, four months after the occupation began. Before I arrived in late July families had already begun to contact the team seeking help and information on disappeared family members who were snatched by American units. In our search for information on the status of disappeared persons we tried various tactics. One day we went to Abu Ghraib prison to seek entry and information.
When we arrived we were greeted by hundreds of family members of the disappeared who overwhelmed us with tragic stories. Because we stopped to listen to some of their appeals for help it took a long time to approach the gates of the prison. We were denied both entry or information. The anger and raw fear outside the gates was palatable. For several hours we listened. Some in our group took notes.
In explosive conditions like that day my conscience vacillates between two responses, don’t give false hope or delve deeply into each case. On the one hand I hesitate to listen too much because even listening is an indication of commitment to find information and create a strategy of intervention. At Abu Ghraib on that particular day my colleagues and I had no response method for individual cases except to publicize the trends through our church and human rights channels. This was not enough.
My second response was to lean more deeply into each individual case to follow through with specific actions and to accompany the fear stricken families to the few offices in the occupation administration that existed. We had tried that route before with no success. With hundreds screaming for help we were overwhelmed. In those days we could have set up a table for complaints outside of Abu Ghraib every day and we could have taken stories from sun up to sun down. Such a strategy would could have been dangerous but danger is inherent in authentic nonviolent work. We didn’t do that in part because we had so few ways to help the desperate family members. Maybe we should have.
On another day we went to Baghdad Airport to seek information about prisoners held there too. Once again we encountered hundreds of persons outside the gates who were beside themselves seeking information on disappeared family members. Again we were overwhelmed with stories. The American guards tried to help. A sargent even went to get his lieutenant to talk to us. He could not help. Finally, in desperation the sargent pleaded with us to go but promised to take the matter up with his colonel, the senior officer . We never heard anything and the disappearances continued as house raids increased throughout Baghdad. Later we went to military bases, holding areas and restricted offices set up to support Iraqis where we encountered more scenes of desperate people literally grasping for help and information. Only months later when a low level military person gave us access to a data base of detainees were we able to provide at least rudimentary information for some desperate families.
Each day before we departed on these missions of fact finding and intervention among foreign soldiers we gathered for prayer, reflection and strategizing. We were reminded of the efforts of Jesus’ followers and family to keep track of him during his interrogation, trial and execution. Little did we know that Jesus’ last days of torture were being reenacted inside the walls of the places that we visited. We saw his bold and pushy follower, Peter, in a new light. We remembered Peter’s denial as he sat in the courtyard around the fire with the religious leadership who instigated the arrest. But now we recognized the Peter within ourselves who went to the place of disappearance, interrogation and mocking to try to track Jesus’ treatment. Peter wanted to protect the disappearing one, but his own survival meant denial of association, a kind of quick interim ethic that shows its face among allies convinced they must help the targets of torture..
We remembered the women of Jesus’ life at the execution and seeking the body at the tomb in order to perform the rites of death and purification of the corpse. For them, disappearance of the corpse was shocking. Even the apparent appearance of two unexpected persons at the tomb did not overcome their terror until their memories were jolted about his earlier words. When they went to inform friends and supporters of Jesus’ absence from the tomb the story was treated as an idle tale. Belief, disbelief, rumours, depression, and urgent attempts to do something and keep the network informed, are all present in this story, a story that reflects the culture of the disappeared and their supporters today.
In the modern world we have two widely acknowledged resources to follow the disappeared. The International Committee for the Red Cross is charged by international customary law to make contact between prisoners and their families through letters. In August 2003 the Baghdad offices of the ICRC were bombed, severely curtailing the ability of the ICRC from doing its work in the unfolding emergency. Secondly, we have the widely established principal of habeas corpus in modern law, a writ ordering that the prisoner be brought before a judge in order to protect the prisoner from illegal imprisonment. Those rights were suspended for detainees in Iraq.
Disappeared (the word is now used as a verb) detainees is one of the most terrifying forms of control that political authorities engage in. According to the UN more than 70 countries have “disappeared” people since 1980. The story of the interweaving of the culture of fear surrounding the arrest of Jesus is one in the long history of the use of this tactic to control populations.
Among Peter and the women who were close to Jesus we see a very personal and moral response more akin to what families everywhere must do in their reach for information and hope. At Abu Ghraib I learned that our responses in those moments calling for urgent action are determined by a lifetime of preparation.
Filed under: Afghanistan and Pakistan, Detainees, Impunity, Iraq, Viet Nam | Tags: Afghanistan, counter insurgency, torture
Torture has been on my mind. I know that I need to push back its cover from where it dwells in the shadows. I know that my nation may refuse to do so when they use torture as a means of waging war as a path to peace. Lecturing others about torture comes more easily. I have learned in the last fifty years that laws preventing torture, and molestation will not stop it. But law will help. However, only a moral conversion will change things. People tell me human nature will never change. I believe change is always happening. It’s what we do with change that counts.
Six years ago this month I was in Baghdad where I talked to some of the earliest prisoners to be freed from detention after the American occupation began. I wanted a profile of what was happening and maybe some hints on how to intervene with protective actions. The interrogation routines reflected patterns, revolvers pointed at heads, loud sounds, sleeplessness, shouting, taunting, accusations and more. When these descriptions ended very often there was a sigh and the former detainee would look at me and say “and there were things about which I cannot talk”. I could not imagine what the unspeakable things might be until I saw the pictures from Abu Ghraib. Then the unspeakable “things about which I cannot talk” took shape, sexual humiliation, nakedness, and molestation. Similar interrogation methods were described to me years earlier in Viet Nam, and the Philippines.
According to the record Jesus was flogged, a process designed to hurt and humiliate the prisoner. After Jesus was handed over to the Roman soldiers, themselves foreign occupiers, he was mocked, given a crown of thorns, dressed in courtly purple and taunted. The digital photos from Abu Ghraib may be the closest representation of what might have happened when Jesus was alone with soldiers, better even than Mel Gibson’s more macho representation in The Passion of Jesus. What would a hidden camera among the Roman soldiers who taunted Jesus have revealed that we don’t know from the existing record?
A crucifixion was an extreme formula of execution in Roman times. At first, under the Republic it was used for slaves, but under the empire its use was enlarged to include criminals and persons involved in revolts. Cicero called crucifixion “the most cruel and disgusting punishment” and the Apostle Paul talks of Jesus’ end, “even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8) almost to suggest that there are all kinds of less humiliating, less painful and quicker ways to be put to death. Jesus may have been crucified naked as was often practised in crucifixion formulas of the time. The first century historian, Josephus called crucifixion, “the most pitiable of deaths”.
The response of the Obama administration which is to place torture at arms length with more study reflects an ambivalence about dealing with it now. The brave words heard in the campaign reflected a belief that we are better than the events of Abu Ghraib depict us to be, something we all want to believe about ourselves and our nation. But denial also has even wider cultural support. No leader can take on torture trials without using up considerable political capital and without exceptional support in the population. President Obama does not have that support because people like me take so long to uncover and admit the depth of our own revulsion.
When the photos from Abu Ghraib surfaced I was forced to look deeper into the interrogation process than I had before. The people who supported me now could believe me too because the media gave confirmation. But what if I could not depend upon media confirmation particularly in an era when being embedded with the military went largely unquestioned? What if a soldier had not leaked his digital photos for the world to see? How many more people would have been taunted, and betrayed, by state sponsored torture in Iraq because of my insistence upon evidence that would hold up with sceptics?
* For a more thorough study of these themes read Prisoner Abuse: From Abu Ghraib to The Passion of Christ by David Tombs in Religion and the Politics of Peace and Conflict, ed. Linda Hogan and Dylan Lee Lehrke, Pickwick Publication, Eugene Oregon (Princeton Theological Monograph Series)
Filed under: Militarism, Politics of Empire | Tags: conscience, counter insurgency, digital war, military contractors, Robert McNamara, robotic warfare
There once was a very smart man who built cars and figured out ways for big organizations like governments and businesses to do things better. He had what a lot of people called a liberal sense of morality towards the world. Many people were liberal at that time. He wanted to do good and make things better, more democratic. He was a good father who welcomed friends of his children into his home even when they demonstrated against the big military system that he supervised.
At the beginning of the reign of JFK, the emperor called him in Detroit where he was making cars. Emperor JFK asked him to oversee the Defence of the Empire. He replied that he was not trained to take on such a responsibility. The emperor told him there is no school that prepares people for these jobs. So Robert McNamara like many people of his time went to Babylon to serve the people with the best intentions. He wanted to do good, make things more efficient, save the people’s money, and create systems where there was a better chance for good decisions.
His country was about to enter a very big war in a little known area of the world, Viet Nam. The country was already locked in a very hot fight that had the strange name, Cold War. When he took up his job as Defence Secretary his generals believed that if that Cold War went nuclear there must be massive retaliation and as much of the enemy as possible should be destroyed. Within a few years he realized that such massive retaliation might lead to a terrible outcome, mutually assured destruction. So he started looking for ways to trim the atomic weapons. Also in the year of our Lord 1963 Robert McNamara ordered the entire defence system to implement Equal Opportunity for All Minorities. Because of the order the military became the most integrated unit in all of the empire, ahead of churches, restaurants, and businesses.
But sadly most of his time went into that old fashioned war at the edge of the empire. He was a loyal servant of the emperors of the time and tried his best to understand the enemy. Despite misgivings he sent 535,000 soldiers and air planes to that distant land to decimate villages, and roads – anything that would kill or destroy the enemy’s spirit. But bombs, chemicals and killing only made the enemy stronger and smarter. One and a quarter million people in that land, more than the population of the capital of the empire, were killed during his time. He travelled to that distant land many times and tried to be nice to the people. Even that didn’t work very well. One time when he left Viet Nam he tried to say “Long Live Viet Nam” in the local language. His tones and accent was severely lacking and what he said was “Viet Nam wants to lie down”.
Robert liked good information. He felt like he failed to understand the enemy so he invented something called counter insurgency, a collection of programs intended to make the enemy like his people and the empire’s other allies. It didn’t work very well. The intelligence people around him couldn’t get the right information. Even if they found information they didn’t know how to separate truth from falsehood. They got into the habit of buying and trading information although they never actually went so far as to commercialize it on Wall Street. Even expensive information was not very reliable.
One time he said, war is “impossible” to win. He hinted that if his country had lost World War II the people who engineered the bombing in that war may have been prosecuted for genocidal destruction. But Robert, like the liberals of his day, persisted despite their troubled consciences. He did not resign his work or speak out except many years later when from hindsight he identified his doubts and mistakes. Many blamed him for defeat. Many more blamed him for overseeing the overwhelming outrage of that war.
His country would not be the same again. The nations of the earth would no longer trust the good intentions of his country’s people. When the war finally ended seven years after he stopped serving the emperor, his country was tired and spent. People did not utter the word, Viet Nam. No one said defeat, not even Robert, but almost everyone knew that they had been part of a dreadful epic fight where something had gone horribly wrong. And the people pushed their pain, confusion and guilt deep inside themselves where it festered and made them sick.
Robert McNamara died this week at age 93 and people are unsure how they should remember him. Some people used to think that the world had set a limit to war beyond which the empire dare not go because of the moral outrage surrounding Robert’s war. But now 40 years later it seems like those limits have not been learned or honoured. Others in the empire, those who wanted Robert to send more troops and bombs, believe that the innovations and organization that Robert brought to war, counter insurgency, military might, tricks of the intelligence community and electronic barriers to the enemy still can make things come out right.
Some people search their belief system, and their confidence in the great myths of the time wanes. In these days like in the days of Robert McNamara a new emperor has been crowned and the people want things to turn out better. They want to believe that they are a special righteous race who deserve prosperity. And the new emperor tells the people what they want to hear. Hope is mixed with warnings and forgetfulness.
The Emperor’s soldiers of the new age are turning to smarter bombs, better missiles, and more intelligent machines called robots. But these don’t bring victory. Others have turned to nonviolence, an old force but newly discovered by those who resisted Robert. Even non-violence is studied for ways it can be used or manipulated for imperial ends. Bits and pieces are borrowed but disembodied nonviolent tactics are lifeless without authentic love, a vision for transformation and conviction behind them.
The Emperor and his entourage two generations after Robert still can not find a way to explain to the world why a big powerful country would pound the life out of very poor people. The enemy is still described as a terrorist. But some people of the world have become wiser and they know the real meaning of terrorist. They use the term terrorist for those who operate the foxy new robotic weapons, missiles and smart bombs in the same breath as surprise attacks from below by people who build road side bombs and use hi-jacked air planes as missiles to destroy great buildings.
The people of the world remain restless about the empire. And at home, out of sight of the great weapons factories, polished floors of lobbyist offices, and defence contractors, all those who live from the fruits Robert’s systems, there are bands of street people and broken lives now made even worse by hard times.
Robert McNamara is about to be buried. An aging street person in Colombus, Ohio limps past the statue of another Emperor, William McKinley assassinated 102 years before JFK. The street person fought bravely for the empire, and remembers the day that Robert sent him off to battle. He curses and talking to no one in particular asks if the lessons from Robert’s time will be buried with him.