April 28, 2009
Today, I was on “Your Call,” an hour-long call-in program on KALW 91.7 FM, the local Public Radio station in San Francisco, to talk about the impact of drones and robotics on war. To listen to show, click here. Hope you enjoy!
Blackwater – er, Xe – has been kicked out of Iraq. Now the other private security contractors should be banned as well.
February 17, 2009
After raking in more than a billion dollars from its contracts in Iraq, Blackwater is finally being forced to leave the country that it has terrorised for so long. But the notorious mercenary firm’s departure will likely have more symbolic significance than any real impact on the day-to-day lives of Iraqis.
First, only Blackwater as a corporate entity – which just changed its name to Xe in an effort to shake its bad reputation – is being given the boot. Iraqi officials have said that its operatives will be allowed to stay in the country by switching companies, as long as they have clean records. While this sounds reasonable, making that determination will be next to impossible. According to US officials and the contractors themselves, the actual number of shootings in Iraq by private military companies is far higher than is publicly acknowledged and they are rarely reported by the individuals involved.
Second, Blackwater never was a lone bad apple. The entire mercenary industry is rotten and needs to be discarded. Consider Dyncorp and Triple Canopy, the two mercenary outfits that will be filling the hole left by Blackwater. In 1999, for example, Dyncorp employees were implicated in a sex ring in Bosnia that involved the trafficking of women and children as young as 12 years old. When whistleblowers came forward to expose these heinous crimes, they were promptly fired.
And there is no sign that firm has cleaned up its act in Iraq and Afghanistan. The US state department has repeatedly rebuked Dyncorp for being unprofessional and “too aggressive”. In one embarrassing incident, a BBC correspondent actually saw a guard from the company slap the Afghan transport minister.
By comparison, Triple Canopy is a relative newcomer to the mercenary business. With hopes of cashing in on the most privatised war in history, the company was founded immediately after the invasion of Iraq by three US special forces veterans. According to a report from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service (pdf), Triple Canopy relies far more heavily on so-called “third-country nationals” to cushion its bottom line than either Dyncorp or Blackwater. Paid only $33 a day, these hired guns come largely from developing countries – especially those in Latin America – that have histories of human rights abuses.
Much like Blackwater, Triple Canopy was involved in one of the most infamous shooting sprees of the war in Iraq. On 8 July 2006 – after remarking “I want to kill somebody today” – a heavily armed Triple Canopy guard in Iraq reportedly shot multiple rounds into the windshield of an unthreatening pickup truck and later a taxi for amusement.
Many argue, including President Barack Obama, that these mercenaries can be reined in through the creation of a legal framework that can hold them accountable for any wrongdoing. The notion, however, that these hired guns – who number in the tens of thousands and are often better armed than US soldiers – can somehow be effectively monitored and brought to justice in the middle of a war zone is pure fantasy.
The only real solution to this mess is for either Iraq or the US to ban armed contractors altogether. The Stop Outsourcing Security Act would accomplish this by mandating “that all diplomatic security in Iraq be undertaken by US government personnel within six months of enactment.” The legislation also states that “the use of private military contractors for mission critical functions” in all conflict zones where the US is active must be phased out over a longer timeline.
Hillary Clinton offered a glimmer of hope when she endorsed this bill during her campaign for the presidency. But as Obama’s secretary of state, she has quickly abandoned her commitment to “show these contractors the door”. Unfortunately for Iraqis, it looks like the mercenary industry will have little to fear from the new administration.
January 5, 2009
In discussing his plans for the Iraq War during the presidential campaign, one group that Barack Obama seldom, if ever, mentioned as supporting his proposed policy was the Iraqi people.
Obama’s campaign website, which differs only slightly from his transition website, lays out very clearly what he sees as problematic with the Iraq War. It highlights U.S. casualties — without mentioning the hundreds of thousands (some studies estimate over one million) of Iraqi civilians who have died as a result of the invasion and occupation — and the exorbitant financial cost of the war, while arguing from a strategic perspective that the diversion of troops and resources to Iraq “continues to set back our ability to finish the fight in Afghanistan.”
Not only is Iraqi opinion completely ignored, but Obama’s website actually blames the victim — a popular line with both Democrats and Republicans — by stating that “the Iraqi government has not stepped forward to lead the Iraqi people.” How Iraqis are supposed to take control of their destiny with 146,000 U.S. troops — and an even larger number of U.S. contractors — in their country is apparently not a relevant question.
Failure to mention Iraqi opinion during the campaign, however, wasn’t due to a lack of knowledge about what they think. In fact, since the war began, the Iraqis have been extensively polled and the results are telling. Below is a sampling of these poll results, each compared with the president-elect’s proposed policy for the Iraq War.
1) A March 2008 poll by Opinion Business Research found that 70% of Iraqis wanted foreign troops to leave. Of that group, 65% said they wanted the troops to leave “immediately or as soon as possible,” and another 13% responded “within six months.” Such sentiment has remained fairly consistent since shortly after the U.S. invasion. In April 2004, for example, a USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll found that 57% of Iraqis wanted the U.S. and British forces to “leave immediately.”
Obama has repeatedly pledged to “responsibly end the war in Iraq,” convincing many of his supporters who didn’t dig beneath the campaign rhetoric that he was the “peace candidate.” Obama’s plan from the beginning, however, has consisted of withdrawing only the “combat brigades” over a 16-month period and leaving behind a “residual force in Iraq [that] would perform limited missions: going after any remnants of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, protecting American service members and, so long as the Iraqis make political progress, training Iraqi security forces.”
October 31, 2008
Those skeptical of voting – at least for either major party – are invariably confronted with some version of the “lesser of two evils” argument. It’s usually the last line of defense for Democrats, after they concede that their party has a long way to go on many of the issues that matter most to Americans. Indeed, whether it’s the economy, health care or the war, polls show that the policies of both parties are considerably to the right of public opinion, and have been so for a long time. This disconnect between the will of the people and their so-called representatives is evidence of a failing democracy.
Nevertheless, there is no denying that there are differences between the two major parties. Democrats would in all likelihood be slightly better on certain domestic issues than their Republican counterparts. Even Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, who generally critique the deep systemic nature of our problems, have admitted as much in recent interviews. On issues such as foreign policy, however, both parties are virtually identical. Any honest look at our history would admit that the Democrats have been just as avid – if slightly more subtle and sophisticated – in their support of war and empire as the Republicans. To take just a brief look at their record:
• A Democrat initiated US military involvement in World War I, World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam and the Balkans.
• Only a Democrat has ever dropped an atomic bomb on innocent civilians.
• During the 2000 campaign for the White House, Al Gore’s proposed increase for the military budget over the next 10 years was more than double what Bush was proposing at the time.
• Apart from the courageous Rep. Barbara Lee, Democrats unanimously voted for the
never-ending “War on Terror.”
• The subsequent invasion of Iraq could not have been pulled off without the support of key Democrats, such as Sen. Joe Biden.
• Since being swept to power in both Houses of Congress by a wave of antiwar sentiment nearly two years ago, Democrats have done nothing to end the war in Iraq.
October 27, 2008 issue
“If you don’t vote, then you can’t complain.” So goes a refrain that is reflexively regurgitated to anyone who questions the efficacy of voting. Generally it’s accompanied by a smug look, indicating that in their eyes you’re hopelessly out of touch with reality. But after cutting through the hype, are elections really worth the enormous amount of attention, energy and money they consume?
In explaining why he stayed home on election day, comedian George Carlin flipped this dictum on its head. “I believe that if you vote, you have no right to complain,” he argued. “If you vote, and you elect dishonest, incompetent people, and they get into office and screw everything up, well you are responsible for what they have done. You caused the problem. You voted them in. You have no right to complain.”
And Carlin wasn’t merely directing his ire towards Republicans. “This country was bought and sold and paid for a long time ago,” he acknowledged with disgust. “The shit they shuffle around every four years doesn’t mean a fucking thing.”
That may be a bit overstated, but the idea that pulling a lever every few years is actually going to bring about real change is delusional. How exactly is this supposed to happen, when the corporate media and wealthy campaign contributors filter out any candidate who may rock the boat long before the public is ever asked for its opinion? Just look at what has become of Ralph Nader, Dennis Kucinich and John Edwards for challenging the status quo. Despite espousing views on numerous issues that polls show are far more in line with public sentiment than either major party candidate, they are branded as out of touch. The media ridicules — or more often, simply excludes and ignores — them until they are forgotten. Out of sight, out of mind.
In contrast, Barack Obama has made it clear that he would not ruffle any feathers. To take just one example of his orthodoxy, when asked September 7, on ABC’s “This Week” which issues he would break with his own party on, he replied, “I’ve said that we need to increase the size of our military.” Apart from the fact that cutting military spending isn’t even a position held by his party, Obama’s response implicitly approves of the Pentagon’s already enormous baseline budget, which has increased by more than 60 percent since 2001, not including the more than $800 billion that has been wasted on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Therefore, he could slash $200 billion a year from the Department of Defense and it would merely bring military spending back to where it was under the Clinton Administration. Moreover, such a belligerent position is not even in line with public opinion, as a recent poll showed that 43 percent of Americans thought we spent “too much” on the military, while only 20 percent said “too little.”
Thus, while the predictable drama around the nefarious schemes used to exclude voters unfolds, few note that the system was effectively rigged from the start. No matter who wins, a friend of the corporate interests that actually run this country will be installed in the White House. And everyday folks will once again be fleeced by an election — and a political system — that remains little more than theater.
July/August 2008 issue
In October, Erik Prince, the 39-year-old CEO of Blackwater Worldwide, a leading private security company operating in Iraq, went into damage-control mode. Blackwater employees in Baghdad’s Nisour Square had killed 17 Iraqi civilians the previous month, causing an uproar and the suspension of official diplomatic convoys throughout the country for four days. Making the rounds with the media and testifying before Congress, Prince repeatedly said that his employees are not mercenaries, as critics contend. Citing the definition of a mercenary as “a professional soldier working for a foreign government,” Prince told the House Oversight Committee that in contrast, Blackwater’s employees are “Americans working for America, protecting Americans.”
This statement would come as a surprise—and a slap in the face—to the thousands of Latin Americans and others from outside the United States whom the company has hired to fill its contracts in Iraq since the war began. Greystone Limited, a Blackwater affiliate set up in 2004 in the tax haven of Barbados, has recruited Iraq security guards from countries throughout Latin America, including Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, El Salvador, Honduras, and Panama, as journalist Jeremy Scahill has reported.
But Blackwater is far from the only such company hiring “third-country nationals,” or employees who are not from the United States or Iraq. In the interest of improving profit margins, private military firms in Iraq are increasingly turning to the developing world for armed guards. Peter Singer, a leading expert on the private security industry at the Brookings Institution, has estimated that there are citizens from 30 countries employed as security contractors in Iraq. While ex-soldiers from the Balkans, Fiji, Nepal, the Philippines, South Africa, and Uganda are all common in Iraq, Latin America has proven to be a particularly fertile recruiting ground for these companies.
Latin America, says Adam Isacson, director of programs at the Center for International Policy, is a predictable site for U.S. mercenary companies to recruit personnel. In “what other region of the world are you going to find reasonably westernized people with military experience, in some cases with combat experience, who will work for low wages, who speak a language that a lot of our own military personnel speak,” he asks, noting that the U.S. Army is about a quarter Latino and that Latin America accounts for about 40% of U.S. military training programs worldwide. “It’s their natural ground to find people with military experience for whom $1,000 a month is a lot of money.”
September 19, 2007
One of the many stories that could be mentioned in this regard comes at the end of the Gospel of Matthew. Just before Jesus was capitally punished by the Roman Empire, he gave his followers an unequivocal lesson about violence that we can ill afford to ignore today.
When the authorities came to arrest Jesus, the apostle Peter did what most of us would do under similar circumstances. He drew his sword in defense of the life of his friend and teacher — who he also believed was the Son of God — and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his ear.
For Christians still wedded to the just war theory, a more “just cause” for the use of violence in all of history is hard to imagine.
Jesus responded, however, not with approval, but by emphasizing once again the centrality of love, even for the enemy, to his teachings. He rebuked Peter, saying: “Put your sword back in its sheath, for all who take the sword shall perish by the sword.”
The key word there is “all.” Jesus was not only condemning Peter’s violence in that moment some two thousand years ago, but explicitly issuing a warning to anyone, anywhere who chooses violence.
This story should make Christians in this country uncomfortable, because no other nation is currently taking up the sword with more zeal or recklessly wielding it around the world than our own.
August 31, 2007
Huffington Post, and a shorter op-ed version was published in: Topeka Capital Journal, KS; The Mirror, NV; Asheville Citizen-Times, NC; The Daily Journal, MN; Portland Observer, OR; Tri-County Press, WI. Distributed by Minuteman Media.
With the U.S. consuming a quarter of the world’s petroleum, President Bush courageously admitted the obvious during his 2006 State of the Union address: “America is addicted to oil.”
While recognizing that you have a problem is laudable, and the first step on the road to recovery, we must now be honest with ourselves and ask some tough questions.
Knowing that addiction can drive normally kind, law-abiding people to steal or even to violence in the single-minded pursuit of a fix, is America guilty of such behavior in Iraq?
With the third largest proven oil reserves in the world — estimated to be around 115 billion barrels — and much left to be discovered, Iraq does have quite the stash.
Critics of the war have never shied from making this connection. Neither, for that matter, have the vast majority of the Iraqi people.
According to one recent poll, 76 percent of Iraqis believe that the real reason for the invasion was a U.S. desire “to control Iraqi oil.”
The Bush administration, on the other hand, despite its ever-evolving rationale for attacking Iraq — from nonexistent WMDs to spreading democracy in the Middle East — has consistently denied such crude motives.
“This is not about oil,” Defense Secretary Rumsfeld flippantly told Al Jazeera on the eve of the invasion, “and anyone who thinks it is, is badly misunderstanding the situation.”
Recent moves in Washington, however, tell a different story.
by Eric Stoner and Bryan Farrell
August 20, 2007
Huffington Post, Yahoo! News
Manhattan’s cosmopolitan atmosphere has a way of making people forget what life is like for the rest of America. Coffee shops, book stores and night life are all tailored to meet the needs of even the most niche-oriented individual. But back on the mainland, a different, more monolithic — and at times scary — culture seems to prevail, as we discovered on a recent get-away to the Jersey Shore.
On our way to check out Seaside Heights’ notoriously sketchy boardwalk and have our fill of zeppoles, we pulled up behind an old pick-up truck. Plastered on its rear bumper was a sticker that read: “I love the sound of jet noise. It’s the sound of freedom.”
Reminiscent of the famous quote from Apocalypse Now, when the deranged Robert Duvall exclaims, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” this sticker was the first of many glaring signs that we had entered another world, influenced — like much of America — by the presence of a nearby military base.
Displaying such a statement reveals not only an ignorance about what U.S. military might is used for — namely the promotion of our economic interests abroad — but also a complete lack of empathy for those who have the bad fortune of finding themselves underneath our bombers. Most likely, the sound of our “jet noise” does not conjure happy thoughts of freedom for Iraqis, but rather a sense of abject terror that a stray bomb could land in their living room.
April 5, 2007
TomPaine.com, and a shorter op-ed version was published in: Topeka Capital Journal, KS; Hereford Brand, TX; Northwest Arkansas Times, AK; Asheville Citizen-Times, NC; Portland Observer, OR; Newberg Graphic, OR; Morris Sun Tribune, MN; Daily Globe, MN. Distributed by Minuteman Media.
Forty years ago this week, on April 4, 1967, and a year to the day before his tragic assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. rose to the pulpit of New York’s Riverside Church to deliver one of the most controversial speeches of his life.
Entitled ” Beyond Vietnam,” the address was King’s first public antiwar speech, and he gave it only after much trepidation and prayer. Believing that silence in the face of injustice is in fact complicity with evil, King wrote in his autobiography that, “The time had come—indeed it was past due—when I had to disavow and dissociate myself from those who in the name of peace burn, maim and kill.”
As anticipated, King was roundly criticized at the time for straying from civil rights, not only by the mainstream media, but also by allies such as the NAACP. “It was a low period in my life,” he wrote. “I could hardly open a newspaper.”
Now, however, history has vindicated the truths that King so bravely spoke that day, and his testimony is rightfully seen as a prophetic masterpiece.
While still mesmerizing, listening to the speech today can also be somewhat disconcerting. It painfully reveals how little has changed and how politicians, both then and now, use the same rhetorical devices to scare the public into supporting misguided policies. By simply swapping the word ” Iraq” for “Vietnam,” and “terrorism” for “communism” King’s speech could be given today, with little need for editing.