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Archive for May, 2011

Posted by DownWithTyranny on May 6th, 2011

From our partners at DownWithTyranny!

Republicans, quick to claim that torture works — though of course this country doesn’t torture, but if it did, that would have been the key to getting clues to Osama’s hideout — said Obama just followed the map President Bush II handed him.

Democrats countered by reviving the failure to get Osama on Tora Bora.

Some folks tried to give President Clinton credit as well, since he launched that missile attack against bin Laden in 1998 and the early CIA operation tracking bin Laden. Others note that John F. Kennedy, in 1962, set up the SEAL teams that carried out the operation. And FDR set up the precursor to the CIA.

We’re pretty sure President Millard Fillmore had a hand in all this too, but still checking that out.

– from Al Kamen’s “In the Loop”
Jousting over credit for getting Osama

by Ken

Further to my rueful note last night about the apparently infinitely changing story of Seal Team Six’s Amble in Abbottabad, I was going to write a post about the hopelessness of puzzling out, even as we’re inundated with dozens if not hundreds of “inside” accounts, most of which don’t have a lot more in common than the names “Osama bin Laden,” “Abbottabad,” and “Barack Obama,” that the chance of piecing together what actually happened — what led up to it, how it was planned and executed, who was involved in what ways, etc. — at any time in the near future is nonexistent, because all those insider accounts are at best tainted with and more likely awash in raw self-interest on the part of the various parties participating in the “information” chains of each of these stories.

In the paragraphs I’ve quoted above from Al Kamen’s report on the Village jousting tournament, Al touches on only the grandest and most obvious playgrounds for self-promotion: the question of who gets “credit” and the lurking issue of what the Amble in Abbottabad “proves” about the value of torture — “though of course,” as Al points out, “this country doesn’t torture, but if it did, that would have been the key . . .”

In fact, these issues are only the tiniest tip of the agenda iceberg. Anyone who delves even lightly into such matters knows that there are hundreds if not thousands of strands of policy doctrine at issue among people who have their hooks in (or hope to get their hooks into) the national-security gravy train — er, apparatus. Often the disputes do appear to be matters of philosophical or practical belief; often they appear to be pissing matches for personal aggrandizement. In the national-security wars — as, I suppose, in most bureaucratic infights — the line between the two is microscopically thin.

Eventually historians will probably be able to . . . well, not construct a plausible narrative, but at least chart the principal areas of contention and who was lined up where and why. For now, I guess we could take the Bob Woodward Approach to History and assume that if we gather enough of these self-aggandizing (or enemy-punishing) testimonies, the biases will somehow or other cancel each other out, though instinct says that instead the “consensus” will actually be the views expressed by the canniest self-aggrandizers.

Which means that the only thing we have to go on as we sift through these unharmonious inside accounts is what we would like to be true — in otherwise, the Modern Orthodox Right-Wing Approach to History.

If I had gone ahead and written that post, I might have pointed out that one thing we can be sure of is that the pro-torture crowd will be claiming vindication, whereas it seems to all but certain that any “information” allegedly gleaned through torture could have been obtained faster and more accurately by persons with genuine competence in interrogation, and almost certainly the case that any such information had weeded out of doodyloads of misinformation which quite likely delayed the discovery of the cunningly hidden bin Laden by years.

(Of course, even as the drones of the Bush-Cheney national-security team rise from their slimy holes to claim credit for putting the discovery process in motion, I suppose it would be too much to expect them for once in their miserable lives to stop lying and admit that they not only stopped looking for bin Laden but didn’t want to find him, given all the awkwardnesses that would have caused their patrons, starting with the Bush regime’s butt-licking relationship with the Saudi royal family. But there’s no self-aggrandizer like a right-wing self-aggrandizer, for whom “lying” is just an unkind work for “speaking.”)

Still, I can’t claim much beyond my biases in support of my assumptions, though they seem to me way better biases than those of the legions of right-wing crackpots and thugs who love them some torture, and think that an orgy of ignorance and insanity like 24 is a slice of life. Well, for people who judge human nature by their own, it really is a mélange of ignorance and prejudice leavened by savagery and psychosis.

So I asked myself what the point would even be in trying to write that post, and will instead confine myself to a small instance of pathological self-aggrandizement on the local level.


This isn’t exactly breaking news, since it happened on April 18, but it just hit my e-mailbox in a May 4 NYC Dept. of Parks and Recreation e-newsletter. Do you notice anything odd about this first paragraph of the Parks release, “”?

Parks Renames S.I. Field In Honor Of Fallen 9/11 Firefighter

Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe joined Assembly Member Matt Titone, Council Member Deborah Rose, FDNY Staten Island Borough Commander Michael Marrone and members of the Margiotta family on April 18 to cut the ribbon on a new synthetic turf field at Prall Playground. The field was named in honor of Charles Margiotta, a local fireman who lost his life at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Staten Island Pipes and Drums performed “God Bless America” and “America the Beautiful” at the ceremony.

Let me put it another way. What do the following people have in common?

Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe
Assembly Member Matt Titone
Council Member Deborah Rose
FDNY Staten Island Borough Commander Michael Marrone

Answer: These folks who bestirred themselves to show up for the April 18 photo op are all, apparently, more important even than “members of the Margiotta famliy,” let alone Lieut. Charles Margiotta himself, the “fallen 9/11 firefighter” of the headline, for whom the new synthetic-turf field was being named. (After we finally learn his name in paragraph 1, we learn in paragraph 2  that, according to Commissioner Benepe, he was “a true hero who served our city admirably.” Eventually, in paragraph 4, we learn that he was a fire lieutenant and 20-year veteran of the FDNY.)

I suppose I’m just being cranky. After all, Commissioner Benepe, Assembly Member Titone, Council Member Rose, and Borough Commander Marrone didn’t write this release. They just made sure, or more likely had their people make sure, that their names were spelled right. They might even have the good grace to be embarrassed if it were pointed out to them that the press-release writer judged their names more important than that of the “true hero.”

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Posted by on May 5th, 2011

From our partners at

By Steve Hynd

Last night I asked Pakistani ambassador to the US, Hussain Haqqani, "What's the plan if the US now finds Zawahiri and Mullah Omar in compounds in major Pakistani cities?" I didn't really expect a direct answer from the ambassador – after all, who am I? But today's news brings an answer of sorts.

A Pakistani official has, not very helpfully, described the action at Bin laden's compound as "cold-blooded". Pakistani army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani has said that US military personnel must be cut to "minimum essential" levels. And the good general, who was head of the ISI at the time of the attacks on Mumbai in 2006 which the Pakistani intelligence service are believed to have been complicit in, also says that "any similar action violating the sovereignty of Pakistan will warrant a review on the level of military/intelligence cooperation with the United States."

So that's my answer. The plan, if Mullah Omar is found in a safe house in Quetta or Zawahiri in Islamabad, is to sulk and simply stop co-operating with the international community.

You know, I think the U.S. should expect more for its $23.5 billion dollars in direct military aid and payments over the decade from 2002 to 2012 (PDF).

In The Australian today, Camilla Cavendish gets to the heart of the White House's problem – that consistently over administrations it has allowed Pakistan to play the victim:

The West cannot turn its back on Pakistan, which is a nuclear power, but it must rewrite the script so that the army cannot continue to play the victim card with Washington, asking for aid to combat extremism while blatantly failing in the mission and exporting terrorism elsewhere.

Best of luck with that. As I say, it's not a new problem or a partisan one in the corridors of DC – and even now, most American experts and policymakers are afraid to call a spade a terrorism-enabling state.

And even if D.C. should finally decide Pakistan isn't even worth the name of "fair weather' ally, nothing is going to change there without changing the dynamic whereby a "deep state" military and feudal elite make a charade of democracy. In a must-read post, A.A. Khalid writes:

Pakistan’s establishment has now put the country at grave risk. To international observers, Pakistan is either dishonest or incompetent, and to our domestic nutcases Pakistan has committed the ultimate betrayal, while the ordinary Pakistani just feels this strange mix of humiliation, shock, sadness, happiness (Bin Laden is gone) and bewilderment at the whole affair. In short, Pakistan comes out of this whole sorry affair as a Judas-like figure in the West, while Pakistanis have to ask some deep questions and face brutal retaliation. As ever, normal innocent Pakistani civilians and brave Pakistani soldiers, security personnel and police will pay the price for the establishment’s adventures.

This latest adventure the establishment has taken the country on leads only to destruction. But this latest incident has perhaps delivered a blow to the Deep State internationally and perhaps this will filter through in Pakistan. Time to ask questions and finally confront the demon within.

Real democracy, with intra party elections with a free and fair electoral process and where politicians are not tainted by corruption, feudalism and army collusion is something that Pakistan has never experienced. This latest episode could mark a turning point or watershed moment. It could be the ‘’Eureka’’ moment when Pakistanis realize it’s time for civilian to control the political process and for the soldiers to back to the barracks once and for all.

Without the death of the Deep State all anti-terror measures and reform initiatives will ultimately fail.

But as Mosharraf Zaidi wrote back in February, don't go expecting any Pakistani Spring revolution.

Elections come and go in Pakistan, and there is a vocal set of voices to counter the military’s dominance of the national discourse. Yet, the military continues to be an all-weather navigator for Pakistan—with ample assistance from the US.

That's been the dynamic for a long time now, and that's the way the dynamic is likely to stay.

Update: Pakistan pays U.S. lobbyists to deny it helped bin Laden. And now you know why the dynamic is likely to stay the same. One lobbyist has received $2 million from the Pakistani government in two years – and given the way things work between the two nations that money probably originated in US taxpayers pockets!

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Posted by alexthurston on May 5th, 2011

Osama bin Laden’s American Legacy
It’s Time to Stop Celebrating and Go Back to Kansas

By Tom Engelhardt

Back in the 1960s, Senator George Aiken of Vermont offered two American presidents a plan for dealing with the Vietnam War: declare victory and go home. Roundly ignored at the time, it’s a plan worth considering again today for a war in Afghanistan and Pakistan now in its tenth year.

As everybody not blind, deaf, and dumb knows by now, Osama bin Laden has been eliminated.  Literally.  By Navy Seals.  Or as one of a crowd of revelers who appeared in front of the White House Sunday night put it on an impromptu sign riffing on The Wizard of Oz: “Ding, Dong, Bin Laden Is Dead.”

And wouldn’t it be easy if he had indeed been the Wicked Witch of the West and all we needed to do was click those ruby slippers three times, say “there’s no place like home,” and be back in Kansas.  Or if this were V-J day and a sailor’s kiss said it all.   

Unfortunately, in every way that matters for Americans, it’s an illusion that Osama bin Laden is dead.  In every way that matters, he will fight on, barring a major Obama administration policy shift in Afghanistan, and it’s we who will ensure that he remains on the battlefield that George W. Bush’s administration once so grandiosely labeled the Global War on Terror.   

Admittedly, the Arab world had largely left bin Laden in the dust even before he took that bullet to the head.  There, the focus was on the Arab Spring, the massive, ongoing, largely nonviolent protests that have shaken the region and its autocrats to their roots.  In that part of the world, his death is, as Tony Karon of Time Magazine has written, “little more than a historical footnote,” and his dreams are now essentially meaningless.

Consider it an insult to irony, but the world bin Laden really changed forever wasn’t in the Greater Middle East.  It was here.  Cheer his death, bury him at sea, don’t release any photos, and he’ll still carry on as a ghost as long as Washington continues to fight its deadly, disastrous wars in his old neighborhood.

The Tao of Terrorism

If analogies to The Wizard of Oz were in order, bin Laden might better be compared to that film’s wizard rather than the wicked witch.  After all, he was, in a sense, a small man behind a vast screen on which his frail frame took on, in the U.S., the hulking proportions of a supervillain, if not a rival superpower.  In actuality, al-Qaeda, his organization, was, at best, a ragtag crew that, even in its heyday, even before it was embattled and on the run, had the most limited of operational capabilities.  Yes, it could mount spectacular and spectacularly murderous actions, but only one of them every year or two.   

Bin Laden was never “Hitler,” nor were his henchmen the Nazis, nor did they add up to Stalin and his minions, though sometimes they were billed as such.  The nearest thing al-Qaeda had to a state was the impoverished, ravaged, Taliban-controlled part of Afghanistan where some of its “camps” were once sheltered.  Even the money available to Bin Laden, while significant, wasn’t much to brag about, not on a superpower scale anyway.  The 9/11 attacks were estimated to cost $400,000 to $500,000, which in superpower terms was pure chump change. 

Despite the apocalyptic look of the destruction bin Laden’s followers caused in New York and at the Pentagon, he and his crew of killers represented a relatively modest, distinctly non-world-ending challenge to the U.S.  And had the Bush administration focused the same energies on hunting him down that it put into invading and occupying Afghanistan and then Iraq, can there be any question that almost 10 years wouldn’t have passed before he died or, as will now never happen, was brought to trial?

It was our misfortune and Osama bin Laden’s good luck that Washington’s dreams were not those of a global policeman intent on bringing a criminal operation to justice, but of an imperial power whose leaders wanted to lock the oil heartlands of the planet into a Pax Americana for decades to come.  So if you’re writing bin Laden’s obituary right now, describe him as a wizard who used the 9/11 attacks to magnify his meager powers many times over.

After all, while he only had the ability to launch major operations every couple of years, Washington — with almost unlimited amounts of money, weapons, and troops at its command — was capable of launching operations every day.  In a sense, after 9/11, Bin Laden commanded Washington by taking possession of its deepest fears and desires, the way a bot takes over a computer, and turning them to his own ends.

It was he, thanks to 9/11, who insured that the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan would be put into motion.  It was he, thanks to 9/11, who also insured that the invasion and occupation of Iraq would be launched.  It was he, thanks to 9/11, who brought America’s Afghan war to Pakistan, and American aircraft, bombs, and missiles to Somalia and Yemen to fight that Global War on Terror.  And for the last near-decade, he did all this the way a Tai Chi master fights: using not his own minimal strength, but our massive destructive power to create the sort of mayhem in which he undoubtedly imagined that an organization like his could thrive.

Don’t be surprised, then, that in these last months or even years bin Laden seems to have been sequestered in a walled compound in a resort area just north of the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, doing next to nothing.  Think of him as practicing the Tao of Terrorism.  In fact, the less he did, the fewer operations he was capable of launching, the more the American military did for him in creating what collapsing Chinese dynasties used to call “chaos under heaven.”

Dead and Alive

As is now obvious, bin Laden’s greatest wizardry was performed on us, not on the Arab world, where the movements he spawned from Yemen to North Africa have proven remarkably peripheral and unimportant.  He helped open us up to all the nightmares we could visit upon ourselves (and others) — from torture and the creation of an offshore archipelago of injustice to the locking down of our own American world, where we were to cower in terror, while lashing out militarily.

In many ways, he broke us not on 9/11 but in the months and years after.  As a result, if we don’t have the sense to follow Senator Aiken’s advice, the wars we continue to fight with disastrous results will prove to be his monument, and our imperial graveyard (as Afghanistan has been for more than one empire in the past).

At a moment when the media and celebratory American crowds are suddenly bullish on U.S. military operations, we still have almost 100,000 American troops, 50,000 allied troops, startling numbers of armed mercenaries, and at least 400 military bases in Afghanistan almost 10 years on.  All of this as part of an endless war against one man and his organization which, according to the CIA director, is supposed to have only 50 to 100 operatives in that country.

Now, he’s officially under the waves.  In the Middle East, his idea of an all-encompassing future “caliphate” was the most ephemeral of fantasies.  In a sense, though, his dominion was always here. He was our excuse and our demon.  He possessed us. 

When the celebrations and partying over his death fade, as they will no less quickly than did those for Britain’s royal wedding, we’ll once again be left with the tattered American world bin Laden willed us, and it will be easy to see just how paltry a thing this “victory,” his killing, is almost 10 years later.

For all the print devoted to the operation that took him out, all the talking heads chattering away, all the hosannas being lavished on American special ops forces, the president, his planners, and various intelligence outfits, this is hardly a glorious American moment.  If anything, we should probably be in mourning for what we buried long before we had bin Laden’s body, for what we allowed him (and our own imperial greed) to goad us into doing to ourselves, and what, in the course of that, we did, in the name of fighting him, to others.

Those chants of “USA! USA!” on the announcement of his death were but faint echoes of the ones at Ground Zero on September 14, 2001, when President George W. Bush picked up a bullhorn and promised “the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!”  That would be the beginning of a brief few years of soaring American hubris and fantasies of domination wilder than those of any caliphate-obsessed Islamic fundamentalist terrorist, and soon enough they would leave us high and dry in our present world of dismal unemployment figures, rotting infrastructure, rising gas prices, troubled treasury, and a people on the edge.

Unless we set aside the special ops assaults and the drone wars and take a chance, unless we’re willing to follow the example of all those nonviolent demonstrators across the Greater Middle East and begin a genuine and speedy withdrawal from the Af/Pak theater of operations, Osama bin Laden will never die.

On September 17, 2001, President Bush was asked whether he wanted bin Laden dead.  He replied: “There’s an old poster out West, as I recall, that said ‘wanted dead or alive.’”  Dead or alive.  Now, it turns out that there was a third option.  Dead and alive.

The chance exists to put a stake through the heart of Osama bin Laden’s American legacy.  After all, the man who officially started it all is theoretically gone.  We could declare victory, Toto, and head for home.  But why do I think that, on this score, the malign wizard is likely to win?

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute’s His latest book is The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s (Haymarket Books). To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which Engelhardt discusses covert war and the killing of Osama bin Laden, click here, or download it to your iPod here.

Copyright 2011 Tom Engelhardt

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Posted by on May 4th, 2011

From our partners at

Commentary By Ron Beasley

As a follow up to Robert Greenwald's post below I'm going to re-publish a post I did at my old site, Middle Earth Journal, in March of 2006.  It should come as no surprise that Hillary Clinton is a hawk.


George W. Bush has certainly brought some unlikely characters together. I had just become used to seeing liberals and progressives on the Libertarian site but I was shocked to see that Justin Raimondo of had done the cover story for The American Conservative. In Hillary the Hawk Justin takes on not just Hillary but as an added benefit he cuts Marshall Wittmann to shreds as well. Let's start with more Bull than Moose, Marshall Wittmann.

When “the Moose” talks, Democrats listen—just like the Republicans did when he was flacking on their behalf. And the Democrat listening the closest to this Trotskyist-turned-neoconservative is Hillary Rodham Clinton, supposedly the leader of the party’s far-left wing. With his reputation for giving good quote, “the Moose,” a.k.a. Marshall Wittmann, formerly John McCain’s communications director and now a bigwig at the Democratic Leadership Council, is a legendary character in Washington circles. Once a member of the Trotskyist Spartacist League and an officer in the Young People’s Socialist League, Wittmann, like many admirers of the Red Army’s founder, moved rightward during the Reagan era and eventually wound up as the Christian Coalition’s political director. From this strategic vantage point he jumped on McCain’s Straight Talk Express—and then jumped ship entirely, falling into the arms of the DLC and landing, as always, on his feet. From Leon Trotsky to Ralph Reed to Hillary Clinton is a long, torturous road to follow, yet the chameleon-like Wittmann—who styles himself a Bull Moose progressive in the tradition of his hero, Theodore Roosevelt—has navigated it expertly.

After this none to flattering bio of "The Moose" he he does a perfect segue into his crucifiction of Hillary.

Eager to overcome her reputation as the leader of the party’s left wing, Hillary is “repositioning” herself, in modern parlance, as a “centrist,” i.e. a complete opportunist. She could have no better teacher than Wittmann, who from the pulpit of his “Moose-blog,” advises her to “seize the issue of Iranian nukes to draw a line in the sand.” While paying lip service to multilateralism, she should “make it clear that while force is the last resort, she would never take it off the table in dealing with the madmen mullahs and the psychotic leader of Iran.” This advice was proffered on the morning of Jan. 18. By that evening, when Hillary gave her scheduled speech at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School, it had clearly been taken to heart: “I believe that we lost critical time in dealing with Iran,” she averred. Accusing the White House of choosing to “downplay the threats and to outsource the negotiations,” she disdained Team Bush for “standing on the sidelines.” “Let’s be clear about the threat we face now,” she thundered. “A nuclear Iran is a danger to Israel, to its neighbors and beyond. The regime’s pro-terrorist, anti-American and anti-Israel rhetoric only underscores the urgency of the threat it poses. U.S. policy must be clear and unequivocal. We cannot and should not—must not—permit Iran to build or acquire nuclear weapons.” To be sure, we need to cajole China and Russia into going along with diplomatic and economic sanctions, but “we cannot take any option off the table in sending a clear message to the current leadership of Iran—that they will not be permitted to acquire nuclear weapons.” [....] Hillary’s newfound centrism isn’t completely insincere. Her bellicose interventionism has a history: it was Hillary, you’ll recall, who berated her husband for not bombing Belgrade soon enough and hard enough. As Gail Sheehy relates in Hillary’s Choice: Hillary expressed her views by phone to the President: ‘I urged him to bomb.’ The Clintons argued the issue over the next few days. [The president expressed] what-ifs: What if bombing promoted more executions? What if it took apart the NATO alliance? Hillary responded, ‘You cannot let this go on at the end of a century that has seen the major holocaust of our time. What do we have NATO for if not to defend our way of life?’ The next day the President declared that force was necessary. Together with Madeleine Albright—who famously complained to Colin Powell, “What good is it having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”—Hillary constituted the Amazonian wing of the Democratic Party during the years of her husband’s presidency. Her effort to outflank the Republicans on the right when it comes to the Iran issue is a logical extension of her natural bellicosity.

There is a lot more and it's worth read so go check it out.


Little has changed in the last five years with Hillary but at least Marshall Wittmann seems to have disappeared.


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Posted by The Agonist on May 3rd, 2011

From our partners at The Agonist

Richard Haass explains what Osama bin Laden’s death means for America’s relations with Pakistan. (05:19)

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Posted by alexthurston on May 3rd, 2011

Where Have All the Graveyards Gone?
The War That Didn’t End War and Its Unending Successors

By Adam Hochschild

What if, from the beginning, everyone killed in the Iraq and Afghan wars had been buried in a single large cemetery easily accessible to the American public? Would it bring the fighting to a halt more quickly if we could see hundreds of thousands of tombstones, military and civilian, spreading hill after hill, field after field, across our landscape?

I found myself thinking about this recently while visiting the narrow strip of northern France and Belgium that has the densest concentration of young men’s graves in the world. This is the old Western Front of the First World War. Today, it is the final resting place for several million soldiers. Nearly half their bodies, blown into unrecognizable fragments by some 700 million artillery and mortar shells fired here between 1914 and 1918, lie in unmarked graves; the remainder are in hundreds upon hundreds of military cemeteries, still carefully groomed and weeded, the orderly rows of headstones or crosses covering hillsides and meadows.

Stand on a hilltop in one of the sites of greatest slaughter — Ypres, the Somme, Verdun — and you can see up to half-a-dozen cemeteries, large and small, surrounding you. In just one, Tyn Cot in Belgium, there are nearly 12,000 British, Canadian, South African, Australian, New Zealander, and West Indian graves.

Every year, millions of people visit the Western Front’s cemeteries and memorials, leaving behind flowers and photographs of long-dead relatives. The plaques and monuments are often subdued and remarkably unmartial.  At least two of those memorials celebrate soldiers from both sides who emerged from the trenches and, without the permission of their top commanders, took part in the famous informal Christmas Truce of 1914, marked by soccer games in no-man’s-land.

In a curious way, the death toll of that war almost a century gone, in which more than 100,000 Americans died, has become so much more visible than the deaths in our wars today. Is that why the First World War is almost always seen, unlike our present wars, not just as tragic, but as a murderous folly that swept away part of a generation and in every way remade the world for the worse?

To Paris — or Baghdad

For the last half-dozen years, I’ve been mentally living in that 1914-1918 world, writing a book about the war that killed some 20 million people, military and civilian, and left large parts of Europe in smoldering ruins. I’ve haunted battlefields and graveyards, asked a Belgian farmer if I could step inside a wartime concrete bunker that now houses his goats, and walked through reconstructed trenches and an underground tunnel which protected Canadian troops moving their ammunition to the front line.

In government archives, I’ve looked at laconic reports by officers who survived battles in which most of their troops died; I’ve listened to recordings of veterans and talked to a man whose labor-activist grandfather was court-martialed because he wrote a letter to the Daily Mail complaining that every British officer was assigned a private servant. In a heartbreakingly beautiful tree-shaded cemetery full of British soldiers mowed down with their commanding officer (as he had predicted they would be) by a single German machine gun on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme, I found a comment in the visitors’ book: “Never Again.”

I can’t help but wonder: Where are the public places for mourning the mounting toll of today’s wars?  Where is that feeling of never again?

The eerie thing about studying the First World War is the way you can’t help but be reminded of today’s headlines. Consider, for example, how it started. High officials of the rickety Austro-Hungarian Empire, frightened by ethnic nationalism among Serbs within its borders, wanted to dismember neighboring Serbia, whose very existence as an independent state they regarded as a threat. Austro-Hungarian military commanders had even drawn up invasion plans.

When a 20-year-old ethnic Serb fired two fatal shots at Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife at Sarajevo in the summer of 1914, those commanders had the perfect excuse to put their plans into action — even though the killer was an Austro-Hungarian citizen and there was no evidence Serbia’s cabinet knew of his plot. Although the war quickly drew in many other countries, its first shots were fired by Austro-Hungarian gunboats on the Danube shelling Serbia.

The more I learned about the war’s opening, the more I thought about the U.S. invasion of Iraq. President George W. Bush and his key advisors had long hungered to dislodge Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from power. Like the archduke’s assassination, the attacks of September 11, 2001, gave them the excuse they had been waiting for — even though there was no connection whatsoever between the hijackers, mainly Saudis, and Saddam Hussein’s regime.            

Other parallels between World War I and today’s wars abound. You can see photographs from 1914 of German soldiers climbing into railway cars with “To Paris” jauntily chalked on their sides, and French soldiers boarding similar cars labeled “To Berlin.”

“You will be home,” Kaiser Wilhelm II confidently told his troops that August, “before the leaves have fallen from the trees.” Doesn’t that bring to mind Bush landing on an aircraft carrier in 2003 to declare, in front of a White House-produced banner reading “Mission Accomplished,” that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended”? A trillion dollars and tens of thousands of lives later, whatever mission there may have been remains anything but accomplished. Similarly, in Afghanistan, where Washington expected (and thought it had achieved) the most rapid and decisive of victories, the U.S. military remains mired in one of the longest wars in American history.

The Flowery Words of War

As the First World War made painfully clear, when politicians and generals lead nations into war, they almost invariably assume swift victory, and have a remarkably enduring tendency not to foresee problems that, in hindsight, seem obvious. In 1914, for instance, no country planned for the other side’s machine guns, a weapon which Europe’s colonial powers had used for decades mainly as a tool for suppressing uppity natives.

Both sides sent huge forces of cavalry to the Western Front — the Germans eight divisions with 40,000 horses. But the machine gun and barbed wire were destined to end the days of glorious cavalry charges forever. As for plans like the famous German one to defeat the French in exactly 42 days, they were full of holes. Internal combustion engines were in their infancy, and in the opening weeks of the war, 60% of the invading German army’s trucks broke down. This meant supplies had to be pulled by horse and wagon.  For those horses, not to mention all the useless cavalry chargers, the French countryside simply could not supply enough feed. Eating unripe green corn, they sickened and died by the tens of thousands, slowing the advance yet more.

Similarly, Bush and his top officials were so sure of success and of Iraqis welcoming their “liberation” that they gave remarkably little thought to what they should do once in Baghdad.  They took over a country with an enormous army, which they promptly and thoughtlessly dissolved with disastrous results. In the same way, despite a long, painfully instructive history to guide them, administration officials somehow never managed to consider that, however much most Afghans loathed the Taliban, they might come to despise foreign invaders who didn’t go home even more.

As World War I reminds us, however understandable the motives of those who enter the fight, the definition of war is “unplanned consequences.” It’s hard to fault a young Frenchman who marched off to battle in August 1914. After all, Germany had just sent millions of troops to invade France and Belgium, where they rapidly proved to be quite brutal occupiers. Wasn’t that worth resisting? Yet by the time the Germans were finally forced to surrender and withdraw four and a half years later, half of all French men aged 20 to 32 in 1914 had been killed. There were similarly horrific casualties among the other combatant nations.  The war also left 21 million wounded, many of them missing hands, arms, legs, eyes, genitals.

Was it worth it?  Of course not.  Germany’s near-starvation during the war, its humiliating defeat, and the misbegotten Treaty of Versailles virtually ensured the rise of the Nazis, along with a second, even more destructive world war, and a still more ruthless German occupation of France.

The same question has to be asked about our current war in Afghanistan. Certainly, at the start, there was an understandable motive for the war: after all, the Afghan government, unlike the one in Iraq, had sheltered the planners of the 9/11 attacks. But nearly ten years later, dozens of times more Afghan civilians are dead than were killed in the United States on that day — and more than 2,400 American, British, Canadian, German, and other allied troops as well. As for unplanned consequences, it’s now a commonplace even for figures high in our country’s establishment to point out that the Afghan and Iraq wars have created a new generation of jihadists.

If you need a final resemblance between the First World War and ours of the present moment, consider the soaring rhetoric. The cataclysm of 1914-1918 is sometimes called the first modern war which, among other things, meant that gone forever was the era when “manifest destiny” or “the white man’s burden” would be satisfactory justifications for going into battle. In an age of conscription and increasing democracy, war could only be waged — officially — for higher, less self-interested motives.

As a result, once the conflict broke out, lofty ideals filled the air: a “holy war of civilization against barbarity,” as one leading French newspaper put it; a war to stop Russia from crushing “the culture of all of Western Europe,” claimed a German paper; a war to resist “the Germanic yoke,” insisted a manifesto by Russian writers, including leftists. Kaiser Wilhelm II avowed that he was fighting for “Right, Freedom, Honor, Morality” (and in those days, they were capitalized) and against a British victory which would enthrone “the worship of gold.” For English Prime Minster Herbert Asquith, Britain was fighting not for “the advancement of its own interests, but for principles whose maintenance is vital to the civilized world.” And so it went.

So it still goes.  Today’s high-flown war rhetoric naturally cites only the most noble of goals: stopping terrorists for humanity’s sake, finding weapons of mass destruction (remember them?), spreading a “democracy agenda,” protecting women from the Taliban. But beneath the flowery words, national self-interest is as powerful as it was almost a hundred years ago.

From 1914 to 1918, nowhere was this more naked than in competition for protectorates and colonies. In Africa, for instance, Germany dreamed of establishing Mittelafrika, a grand, unbroken belt of territory stretching across the continent. And the British cabinet set up the Territorial Desiderata Committee, charged with choosing the most lucrative of the other side’s possessions to acquire in the postwar division of spoils. Near the top of the list of desiderata: the oil-rich provinces of Ottoman Turkey that, after the war, would be fatefully cobbled together into the British protectorate of Iraq.

When it comes to that territory, does anyone think that Washington would have gotten quite so righteously worked up in 2003 if, instead of massive amounts of oil, its principal export was turnips?

Someday, I have no doubt, the dead from today’s wars will be seen with a similar sense of sorrow at needless loss and folly as those millions of men who lie in the cemeteries of France and Belgium — and tens of millions of Americans will feel a similar revulsion for the politicians and generals who were so spendthrift with others’ lives.  But here’s the question that haunts me: What will it take to bring us to that point?

Adam Hochschild is the San Francisco-based author of seven books, including King Leopold’s Ghost.  His new book To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), has just been published.  To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which Hochschild discusses the folly of war, his latest book, and why no one attends to the lessons of history, click here, or download it to your iPod here.

Copyright 2011 Adam Hochschild

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Posted by on May 2nd, 2011

From our partners at

By Steve Hynd
So, the most important thing about Osama Bin Laden's death to my mind isn't that he's dead. That's nice, sure – but as conservative-leaning national security pundit David Gartenstein-Ross writes today, just because Osama is dead doesn't mean Al Qaeda is. In fact:
bin Laden's death does not close this chapter in history. Two points are worth bearing in mind. First, bin Laden's strategic ideas for beating a superpower (which U.S. planners never fully understood) have permeated his organization, and are widely shared by al Qaeda's affiliates. Second, one critical lesson of 2001 is that we should not allow bin Laden's death to cause us to lose sight of the continued threat that al Qaeda poses.

And Australian counter-terrorism expert Leah Farrall, one of the best in the business, writes:

It’s leadership will go to ground and close ranks while they try to protect themselves and ascertain the degree of damage to their comms channels and other elements of operational security.

External operations (AQ’s attacks against the west) are not likely to be impacted. OBL really only got involved in ops planning to approve spectaculars, particularly those using a new means of attack or against a new target. Second tier leaders deal with external operations for the most part. Aside from communications disruptions (which do little to disrupt those already deployed) this section will continue on business as usual.

Leadership will automatically pass to the second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri. If he goes too, then the position goes to the head of the command council, or potentially the head of AQ’s shariah council, although this is a more informal body. It’s unlikely to go to a vote in the short term due to operational requirements.

AQ’s branch and franchises will stay on board.

As for retributive attacks, AQ is unlikely to waste operatives on hasty retaliation. It will incite others to do so, but it’s own efforts will come later. AQAP may not be so pragmatic and it already has permission to carry out attacks against the west.

No, what's most important is what Pakistan knew about Bin Laden's massive, $1 million dollar compound which had stood for half a decade a stone's throw away from their military academy and the homes of retired military officers. Over the years, Pakistani officials have repeatedly claimed they had no idea where Bin Laden was hiding, or stated that he was definitely not in Pakistan. But he was right under their noses, a half hour's drive from ISI headquarters, the whole time.

Despite early rumors that pakistani authorities had co-operated with the US operation to kill Bin Laden, fresh reports seem to suggest that was not the case at all. The ISI says that the US operation was mounted from Afghanistan and was undetected by Pakistani air defense. The BBC's Jon Williams reports that this was becaiuse the US helicopters flew low to avoid Pakistani radar. Why do that if the two nations were co-operating?

Moreover, no less than Admiral mullen, the chair of the Joint Chiefs, has recently verbally lashed out at Pakistan's ISI for aiding the Haqqani network of militants, who pass with impunity across the border into Afghanistan. And over the years American Afghan, Indian, Spanish, UK and NATO intelligence reports have suggested that the Taliban's head, Mullah Omar, is living in an ISI compound in the Pakistani city of Quetta.

There are some tough questions coming about the nature of the West's alliance with pakistan, and the worth of the billions in aid sent there.

Update: more from emptywheel at FDL.

Update 2: From Foreign Policy Magazine: great moments in Pakistani leaders pretending they didn't know where Bin Laden was over the last decade.

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Posted by The Agonist on May 2nd, 2011

From our partners at The Agonist

The central lesson to be learned today from Osama’s death is that counter-terrorism and the patient long term development of good human intelligence, not COIN, not invasion and occupation, not cruise-missile diplomacy, is what was ultimately successful.

From the beginning of this humble blog in September of 2002 to today I have always called for smart counter-terrorism policies. Always. Through the snarky-shrillness this has always been the main message. I have always maintained there was a better way to get Al Qaeda than invading Iraq, laying waste to Afghanistan, threatening Iran, freedom bombing Libya, torturing other human beings and creating an American overseas gulag. Smart counter-terrorism and the cultivation of solid, reliable human intelligence was always the way to go. Osama’s death that was the result of a successful and patient USSOCOM and JSOC and CIA operation is proof that everything else was unnecessary and horribly wasteful of both treasure and innocent human life. That there would be reverses, false starts and the regrettable loss of innocent life was always a reality. But on the scale we’ve witnessed the last ten years? No, that was never necessary or inevitable.

Had we engaged in counter-terrorism from the get-go we would have saved ourselves trillions and not ended tens of thousands of innocent lives. Weigh that in the balance. I was right all along.

But Al Gore wore earth tones and John Kerry windsurfed and John Edwards was a serial philanderer and there were always justifications to do the objectively vile and immoral things we did in pursuit of bin Laden.

I take no satisfaction in being right. But I was.

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Posted by Just Foreign Policy on May 2nd, 2011

From our partners at Just Foreign Policy

We got our man. Wave the flag, kiss a nurse, and start packing the equipment. It’s time to plan to bring all our boys and girls home from Afghanistan. When the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks rolls around, let the world see that we are on a clear path to bringing home our troops from Afghanistan and handing back sovereignty to the Afghan people.

With more Sherlock Holmes than Rambo, and judging from press accounts, not much role for the 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, U.S. intelligence tracked Osama bin Laden to a safe house in a well-appointed suburb of Pakistan’s capital and a small U.S. force raided the compound. Press reports say Osama bin Laden was killed in a firefight in the compound and that his body has been buried at sea, in accordance with Islamic tradition that expects a burial within 24 hours.

Success typically has many authors, and I don’t doubt the ability of some to argue that our occupation of Afghanistan has contributed to this result. Perhaps it will turn out that some prisoner captured in Afghanistan by U.S. forces contributed a key piece of information that helped investigators find bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

And of course it will be argued, correctly, that Osama bin Laden’s death is not necessarily the end of al Qaeda nor of groups inspired by al Qaeda; indeed, that there will be an incentive now for al Qaeda and al Qaeda-inspired groups to retaliate and to prove that they can still carry out actions against the United States.

read more

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Posted by on May 2nd, 2011

From our partners at

By BJ Bjornson

Just a brief couple of thoughts on what will probably be the main story for the next couple of days, Osama bin Laden has been killed. The analysis will have to wait for better details on where, when, and how, but for the most part, I doubt this will really make much of a impact to anything, anywhere. I mean, when was the last time there was any real serious discussion regarding the threat the man posed? I can’t even remember the last time the guy issued an audio tape, let alone made any real impact on world events.

Watching CNN try and hype this announcement as being some major milestone is leaving me dumbfounded. I won’t argue that its a big deal, in the sense that bin Laden was a worthy target to be found and eliminated, but the organization he started has long been a spent force, used more as an excuse and all-purpose label than an actual effective organization.

The real story will be on what happens to U.S. relations with Pakistan given his presence living high near Islamabad, and what effect it will have on ongoing operations in Afghanistan. Politically speaking, bin Laden’s death offers an opportunity to realign priorities. Whether or not that opportunity is seized or ignored will be what I am watching for in the next few weeks.

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