America’s Long War & Its Consequences – Intended & Not


Washington DC:  Bus advert 'The last good phone call was Watergate' 3/7/13
Washington DC: Bus advert ‘The last good phone call was Watergate’ 3/7/13

          The names we choose for events and concepts matter.

           America’s post 9/11 ventures we called the Global War on Terror (GWOT).  It included a host of military and security measures.  In May President Obama abandoned the term:

We must define our effort not as a boundless ‘Global War on Terror,’ but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America.

 Disposing of the term – as inappropriate and undescriptive as it is – still has the effect, intended or not, of concealing the general in a welter of specifics.  It is Obama’s reformulation that is ‘boundless’.


           GWOT briefly had another name.  It survives in the name of the neo-conservative organ, The Long War Journal.

           In a must-read article, ‘Naming Our Nameless War’, scholar-soldier Andrew J. Bacevich says ‘the Long War’, coined by senior military, ‘never gained traction with either civilian officials or the general public’.   It should have, I believe.

           First, as Prof. Bacevich argues, it is a war of long duration.  Very long.

           He sardonically suggests it might be called ‘the Second Hundred Years War’, dating to Turkey’s disastrous entry into World War I on the German side.  From that great blunder came the remapped ‘Middle East’.  Its straight-edge boundaries – accommodating its new colonial masters, Britain and France – have caused a century’s grief and promise decades more.  

          Prof. Bacevich prefers to combine the struggle over the eastern Mediterranean littoral with that for Pakistan and Afghanistan into ‘the War for the Greater Middle East’.  While geographically accurate, it fails to capture either the duration or the distance ‘the Long War’ does.


           Like many four-letter Anglo-Saxon words, ‘long’ has several meanings and still more suggestive implications.

           ‘The Long War’ is one fought over a time and at distances only recently conceivable.  The image of a drone pilot, in an air-conditioned Nevada office launching missiles over Yemen, was out of ‘Star Trek’ a generation ago.

           Gradually, we are becoming aware this new technology has implications beyond its ability to kill without risking direct American casualties.  So points out Mark Bowden in ‘The Killing Machines’ in the September Atlantic.

           Drone warfare deadens American responses to the deaths it inflicts.  John Yoo, the Bush II lawyer who justified the use of torture in the Long War, told Bowden:

           …you ought to be much more upset about the drone than Guantánamo and interrogations.  Because I think the ultimate deprivation of liberty would be the government taking away someone’s life.  But with drone killings, you do not see anything, not as a member of the public.  You read reports perhaps of people who are killed by drones, but it happens 3,000 miles away and there are no pictures, there are no remains, there is no debris that anyone in the United States ever sees.  It’s kind of antiseptic….

           In a broader context, long-distance war at once grants greater status to American opponents and perverts our system of justice.  We are not dealing with a national foe, like Japan in World War II, but rather with a gang, like Whitey Bulger’s.  Writes Bowden:

           Once the “war” on al-Qaeda ends, the justification for targeted killing will become tenuous.  Some experts on international law say it will become simply illegal.  Indeed, one basis for condemning the drone war has been that the pursuit of al-Qaeda was never a real war in the first place.

           Sir Christopher Greenwood, the British judge on the International Court of Justice, has written:  “In the language of international law there is no basis for speaking of a war on al-Qaeda or any other terrorist group, for such a group cannot be a belligerent, it is merely a band of criminals, and to treat it as anything else risks distorting the law while giving that group a status which to some implies a degree of legitimacy.”  Greenwood rightly observes that America’s declaration of war against al-Qaeda bolstered the group’s status worldwide.  But history will not quarrel with Bush’s decision, which was unavoidable, given the national mood.

 On Bowden’s riposte, history will quarrel with the means – war, torture, non-combatant surveillance – Bush chose to pursue al-Qaeda, so long as history can be written.

           Bowden is on surer ground when he points out the responses to drone attacks.

           “The political message [of drone strikes] emphasizes the disparity in power between the parties and reinforces popular support for the terrorists, who are seen as David fighting Goliath,” Gabriella Blum and Philip B. Heymann, both law professors at Harvard, wrote in their 2010 book, Laws, Outlaws, and Terrorists: Lessons From the War on Terror.  “Moreover, by resorting to military force rather than to law enforcement, targeted killings might strengthen the sense of legitimacy of terrorist operations, which are sometimes viewed as the only viable option for the weak to fight against a powerful empire.”

           Is it any wonder that the enemy seizes upon targets of opportunity – a crowded café, a passenger jet, the finish line of a marathon?  There is no moral justification for deliberately targeting civilians, but one can understand why it is done….

           Bowden makes too little of the drones’ lasting effects on the people who can conceive of themselves as targets.  They and their descendants won’t forget for generations.  Our Long War will have a long tail.


Drones are not America’s only major long-range, low-American-casualty weapons.  ‘Sanctions’ – bars on international trade with countries whose governments we oppose – however are the opposite of ‘surgical’.

In ‘A Very Perfect Instrument’ ((Harper’s Sept. 2013) behind pay wall, but well worth the price), Andrew Cockburn explains modern blockades in theory and practise.  Writes Cockburn:

 Just as air power has evolved from the area bombing of entire cities during World War II to “precision” drone strikes, so the theory and practice of sanctions has evolved from straightforward blockades into a more ambitious and intricate system known as “conduct-based targeting,” aimed at the economic paralysis of thousands of designated “entities” – people, companies, organizations.

 ‘Economic paralysis’ means people die from malnutrition’s effects, for want of medicines.

But, sanctions don’t achieve their often-stated objective of so poisoning the relationship of the government and the governed that regime change occurs.  We are now into our sixth decade of sanctions on Cuba.  But the Castros still rule.

So did Saddam Hussein until we invaded a second time.  Says Cockburn:

           …although sanctions are frequently promoted as … “a heck of a lot better than war,” Iraqi sanctions are conservatively estimated to have killed at least half a million children, while estimates of the total death toll from subsequent violence – a still horrific 174,000 – are lower.

           As Cockburn notes, the intellectual and lobbying support for sanctions comes from groups like ‘the Foundation for Defense of Democracies [FDD], chaired by former CIA director James Woolsey.’

           “A friend told me recently that we are the Special Forces of the Washington think-tank community,” Woolsey said cheerfully when I called.  “I liked that.” Founded in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the group has in the past secured its funding, currently around $8 million a year….  Fusing in one entity the parallel tracks of sanctions and drone warfare, the FDD also publishesThe Long War Journal, a chronicle of American military conflict in the twenty-first century.


           From a safe distance and without risk to military personnel or materiel, sanctions impose a collective punishment on a civilian population.

           The blockade that cost, perhaps, a quarter million German lives after the Armistice in 1918 continued, wrote John Maynard Keynes (a chief adviser to the British Treasury), due

most profoundly to a cause inherent in bureaucracy.  The blockade had become by that time a very perfect instrument.  It had taken four years to create and was Whitehall’s finest achievement; it had evoked the qualities of the English at their subtlest.  Its authors had grown to love it for its own sake; it included some recent improvements which would be wasted if it came to an end; it was very complicated, and a vast organization had established a vested interest.  The experts reported, therefore, that it was our one instrument for imposing our peace terms on Germany, and that once suspended it could hardly be re-imposed.

           Keynes perfectly described the US sanctions bureaucracy today.  And Cockburn aptly concludes:

As for those “skinny and bloated children” who so disgusted the British [occupation] troops in Germany a century ago, a later survey of 600 young Nazis on their motivations for supporting Hitler suggested that a major influence was their vivid memories of childhood hunger and privation.


           Long wars have still longer consequences.  History offers clear examples of them.  But very few are the countries that have rethought their long war strategies in light of the predictable consequences.

           The US shows no signs of becoming one of them.


  1. Tom Welsh said:

    ‘Long Wars’ are the direct outcome of implicit ‘reform’ movements conducted with evangelical fervour. Since the Lutheran reformation the west has sought to reform the world in its own image. Recent secularisation now gives primacy to the economic-individualism and ‘the invisible hand’ forces of reform. At the same time, like Lutheran Reform and its Catholic predecessor, , the ‘evangelists’ assumed the right to call in the civil authority to execute their judgment on the non-conformist community and individuals. I am sure they would have used a drone or blockade or a sanction if it had been available given that they did exclude a bothersome nation from access to eternity! So look behind the ‘long war’ for the ‘longer reform intention’.

    September 11, 2013
  2. The silent military coup that took over Washington – from The Guardian

    This time it’s Syria, last time it was Iraq. Obama chose to accept the entire Pentagon of the Bush era: its wars and war crimes
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    John Pilger
    John Pilger
    The Guardian, Tuesday 10 September 2013 14.15 EDT
    Jump to comments (1196)
    Vietnam dioxin
    Children, many of whose deformities are believed to be the results of the chemical dioxin that the US used in the Vietnam war, play outside a hospital in Ho Chi Minh City. Photograph: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
    On my wall is the Daily Express front page of September 5 1945 and the words: “I write this as a warning to the world.” So began Wilfred Burchett’s report from Hiroshima. It was the scoop of the century. For his lone, perilous journey that defied the US occupation authorities, Burchett was pilloried, not least by his embedded colleagues. He warned that an act of premeditated mass murder on an epic scale had launched a new era of terror.

    Almost every day now, he is vindicated. The intrinsic criminality of the atomic bombing is borne out in the US National Archives and by the subsequent decades of militarism camouflaged as democracy. The Syria psychodrama exemplifies this. Yet again we are held hostage by the prospect of a terrorism whose nature and history even the most liberal critics still deny. The great unmentionable is that humanity’s most dangerous enemy resides across the Atlantic.

    John Kerry’s farce and Barack Obama’s pirouettes are temporary. Russia’s peace deal over chemical weapons will, in time, be treated with the contempt that all militarists reserve for diplomacy. With al-Qaida now among its allies, and US-armed coupmasters secure in Cairo, the US intends to crush the last independent states in the Middle East: Syria first, then Iran. “This operation [in Syria],” said the former French foreign minister Roland Dumas in June, “goes way back. It was prepared, pre-conceived and planned.”

    When the public is “psychologically scarred”, as the Channel 4 reporter Jonathan Rugman described the British people’s overwhelming hostility to an attack on Syria, suppressing the truth is made urgent. Whether or not Bashar al-Assad or the “rebels” used gas in the suburbs of Damascus, it is the US, not Syria, that is the world’s most prolific user of these terrible weapons.

    In 1970 the Senate reported: “The US has dumped on Vietnam a quantity of toxic chemical (dioxin) amounting to six pounds per head of population.” This was Operation Hades, later renamed the friendlier Operation Ranch Hand – the source of what Vietnamese doctors call a “cycle of foetal catastrophe”. I have seen generations of children with their familiar, monstrous deformities. John Kerry, with his own blood-soaked war record, will remember them. I have seen them in Iraq too, where the US used depleted uranium and white phosphorus, as did the Israelis in Gaza. No Obama “red line” for them. No showdown psychodrama for them.

    The sterile repetitive debate about whether “we” should “take action” against selected dictators (ie cheer on the US and its acolytes in yet another aerial killing spree) is part of our brainwashing. Richard Falk, professor emeritus of international law and UN special rapporteur on Palestine, describes it as “a self-righteous, one-way, legal/moral screen [with] positive images of western values and innocence portrayed as threatened, validating a campaign of unrestricted political violence”. This “is so widely accepted as to be virtually unchallengeable”.

    It is the biggest lie: the product of “liberal realists” in Anglo-American politics, scholarship and media who ordain themselves as the world’s crisis managers, rather than the cause of a crisis. Stripping humanity from the study of nations and congealing it with jargon that serves western power designs, they mark “failed”, “rogue” or “evil” states for “humanitarian intervention”.

    An attack on Syria or Iran or any other US “demon” would draw on a fashionable variant, “Responsibility to Protect”, or R2P – whose lectern-trotting zealot is the former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans, co-chair of a “global centre” based in New York. Evans and his generously funded lobbyists play a vital propaganda role in urging the “international community” to attack countries where “the security council rejects a proposal or fails to deal with it in a reasonable time”.

    Evans has form. He appeared in my 1994 film Death of a Nation, which revealed the scale of genocide in East Timor. Canberra’s smiling man is raising his champagne glass in a toast to his Indonesian equivalent as they fly over East Timor in an Australian aircraft, having signed a treaty to pirate the oil and gas of the stricken country where the tyrant Suharto killed or starved a third of the population.

    Under the “weak” Obama, militarism has risen perhaps as never before. With not a single tank on the White House lawn, a military coup has taken place in Washington. In 2008, while his liberal devotees dried their eyes, Obama accepted the entire Pentagon of his predecessor, George Bush: its wars and war crimes. As the constitution is replaced by an emerging police state, those who destroyed Iraq with shock and awe, piled up the rubble in Afghanistan and reduced Libya to a Hobbesian nightmare, are ascendant across the US administration. Behind their beribboned facade, more former US soldiers are killing themselves than are dying on battlefields. Last year 6,500 veterans took their own lives. Put out more flags.

    The historian Norman Pollack calls this “liberal fascism”: “For goose-steppers substitute the seemingly more innocuous militarisation of the total culture. And for the bombastic leader, we have the reformer manqué, blithely at work, planning and executing assassination, smiling all the while.” Every Tuesday the “humanitarian” Obama personally oversees a worldwide terror network of drones that “bugsplat” people, their rescuers and mourners. In the west’s comfort zones, the first black leader of the land of slavery still feels good, as if his very existence represents a social advance, regardless of his trail of blood. This obeisance to a symbol has all but destroyed the US anti-war movement – Obama’s singular achievement.

    In Britain, the distractions of the fakery of image and identity politics have not quite succeeded. A stirring has begun, though people of conscience should hurry. The judges at Nuremberg were succinct: “Individual citizens have the duty to violate domestic laws to prevent crimes against peace and humanity.” The ordinary people of Syria, and countless others, and our own self-respect, deserve nothing less now.

    September 13, 2013
  3. Peter Kinder said:

    Thanks, Bill. I’m a great admirer of Pilger.

    September 17, 2013
  4. Peter Kinder said:

    Some reform! I note in the NYRB that the US government/military has proposed to the ‘stans the types of internal improvements and human resource development inconceivable at home under Republican rule. Afghanistan is to get a national rail service! In the US, we’re undergoing a reformation, and as with its 16th century predecessor, many of us don’t like it.

    September 17, 2013
  5. Tom Lewis said:

    Not a military coup. A political coup by incumbent politicians of both parties using the military as a stage prop without concern for the effects. Were it a military coup, the sequester would not be having the effect it is. The fact that the US dumped tons of dioxin on Vietnam, a horror that damaged US soldiers and their children, as well, does not mean Obama, indecisive and incomprensable as he is, cannot make an argument against Syrian use. Hell, we dump tons of toxic chemicals on US farms and lawns causing untold medical misery. By the logic here, we should (or shouldn’t) Hellfire a Scott manufacturing site. Pilger pulls together interesting points but makes a selective argument. It devolves into a rant. Nor is irony a useful argument for or against a foreign policy. Nor can we just throw up our hands and say, It’s all going to hell. One’s only choice is to keep picking away at what we can effect in Congress and Parliament. It’s easy to blame the big bullies but the other side has a role and a vote at times of their choosing. In the matter of Syria, the Congress, for once, appears to be listening to their constituents: we don’t want another foreign war, enough, enough!

    September 18, 2013

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