Tag Archives: al Qaeda

Zero Dark Thirty & American Exceptionalism

29 Jan

Zero Dark Thirty (ZD30) & American Exceptionalism

 

            ZD30 is the film narrative that tells the dramatic story of the special forces operation that on May 2, 2011 located and killed Osama Bin Laden in a compound on the outskirts of the Pakistani city of Abbottabad, which is not far from Islamabad. It is directed by the prominent director, Kathryn Bigelow, who had won big Hollywood awards for her brilliant 2008 film, Hurt Locker, about the impact of combat experience in Iraq on the American soldiers taking part. She knows her craft, and ZD30 is captivates an audience due to its screenplay, virtuoso acting, taut plot, vividly contoured characters, insight into the mentality of CIA operatives and their bosses, and the evidently realistic portrayal of grisly torture scenes. These filmic virtues have been displaced by a raging controversy as to whether ZD30 endorses torture as a valued and effective tool against extremist enemies of the United States and seems to imply that torture was instrumental in the successful hunt for Bin Laden.

 

            Certainly President Obama claimed and received much credit in the United States for executing this mission, and it has received very little critical scrutiny. It is hard to calculate the impact of this strike that killed Bin Laden on the 2012 election, but it many believe it made a crucial difference, at least psychologically, and particularly in relation to the outcome in swing states and with respect to the last minute decisions reached by independent voters. Such a success against Al Qaeda was registered as a major victory despite the absence of evidence that Bin Laden has been playing any significant role in Al Qaeda activities during recent years, including that of their so-called affiliates, in such countries as Yemen, Iraq, and Mali, and he was so removed from the scene of the conflict that there was serious speculation that he had died or was incapacitated long before 2011. As it did with the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. government fans the flames of suspicion by refusing to disclose the evidence relied upon to identify that the person killed at the compound in Abbottabad was indeed Bin Laden and by the related refusal even to allow journalists or others to see the body before it was unceremoniously dumped at sea (although after administering Muslim burial rituals and obtaining a quiet approval from the Saudi government, his birthplace).

 

            The deeper questions, of course, are the conduct of such a military mission without the permission, or even the knowledge, of the territorial sovereign; indeed there were American military units standing by in case Pakistan found out while the operation was underway and used its own military capabilities to abort it. Also, was it legally and morally appropriate to kill Osama Bin Laden despite his being unarmed when confronted in the compound and at that point in the raid there was no resistance? It would seem clear that it would not be acceptable to the U.S. Government for other governments to carry out such an extra-judicial killing to eliminate an enemy leader living in a distant country. Would not many governments have a comparable security argument if faced with real or imagined overseas enemies? Arguably, the immensity of the 9/11 crimes and the grandiosity of Osama Bin Laden’s self-declared war against ‘the crusader’ forces of the West set him apart to some extent.

 

            Yet, it would still seem that the particulars of this Operation Neptune Spear (the US Government code name) are ventures that only the United States, and possibly Israel, would undertake, and that their unabashed victory claim, is a notorious instance of American Exceptionalism, namely, an assertion that the United States can do what others must not dare to do, and can even provide for itself a legal rationale with the arrogant label ‘not for use by others,’ as has been the implicit message of the American debate, such as it is, about the legality of attack drones. With a posture of post-colonial insensitivity the United States is currently openly discussing ‘establishing’ a military base for drone aircraft in Africa as if such a decision could be made solely in Washington without regard for the precedent being set or the regional attitudes toward the reassertion of a Western military presence.

 

            The discussion generated by the movie is misleadingly framed as a kind of quarrel between those who insist on ‘political correctness’ when it comes to torture and militarism and those who champion freedom of speech and the amoral conscience of the artist. Matt Taibbi ends an otherwise stellar, provocative review in Rolling Stone of ZD30 with what he must regard as an ironic closing line that speculates on how Dick Cheney would respond, as if that clinches the anti-Bigelow arguments: “Isn’t it just a crazy coincidence that he’s probably going to love it?” Bigelow doesn’t do much to unmuddy the waters by declaring herself to be “a lifelong pacifist’ and then in the same LA Times op/ed (Jan. 15, 2013) ending with what sounds to me like a ringing statement of approval of what the film depicts, including its torture sequences. In Bigelow’s words, “Bin Laden wasn’t defeated by superheroes zooming down from the sky; he was defeated by ordinary Americans who fought bravely even as they sometimes crossed moral lines, who labored greatly and intently, who gave all of themselves in both victory and defeat, in life and in death, for the defense of this nation.” Besides being quite a stark departure from pacifism this observation contradicts her earlier dismissal of moral criticism: “Those of us who work in the arts know that depiction is not endorsement. It fit was, no artist would be able to paint inhumane practices, no author could write about them, and no filmmaker could delve into the thorny subjects of our time.”

 

            In the abstract, there can be no quibble with such sentiments, but let’s suppose that Picasso had coupled the unveiling of his Guernica with a glowing commentary that praised what Hitler’s and Mussolini’s pilots had accomplished by their attack on a Spanish village, insisting that the bombing of a defenseless village showed courage and resolve of the pilots who risked all in the defense of Franco’s Fascist side in the Spanish Civil War! By her insistence on being both an amoral filmmaker and an American patriot she attempts to please everyone, but ends up satisfying no one, least of all someone trying to decipher her true beliefs about such a course of behavior.

 

            Despite purporting to be non-committal, seeking only to tell the true story of the struggle to catch Bin Laden, the film does come down quite strongly in support of those who have long contended that torture works. On the one side the movie better than any other film I have seen, makes the undertaking of torture a distasteful enterprise in the extreme that sullies the torturer along with the victim (although the film suppresses any recognition of this blowback).  At the same time ZD30 normalizes torture as part of the routine of anti-terrorist warfare, and it scandalizes the torturers in the manner of Abu Ghraib, by merging brutality toward those who are helpless with humiliation that disgusts: forcing the Muslim victim to expose his genitals in the presence of females and leading the prisoners around with a dog leash in the manner given global notoriety by Lynndie England in an Iraq prison. Anyone who sees ZD30 will at least no longer be able to take refuge behind the euphemisms of the Bush Era that denied ‘torture’ ever took place, acknowledging only what it called ‘enhanced interrogation techniques,’ practices falsely alleged to be fully consistent with international humanitarian law.

 

            The film handles well the intense bureaucratic pressures on CIA operatives from higher up to find some ‘actionable intelligence’ and making reliance on torture part of the job description. ZD30 also conveys the atmosphere within government, or at least the CIA, as one that takes it for granted that torture elicits reliable and valuable intelligence. There is no strong countervailing pressures evident except the vague appreciation that after Bush the new man in the White House, namely Obama, genuinely dislikes torture, and is unwilling to sweep the issue under the rug of mystification by calling torture enhanced interrogation techniques. There is a derisive implication in the movie that to the extent the governmental wind is blowing in a slightly different direction in Washington the ongoing global work of imperial America will grow more difficult. There is no suggestion in ZD30 or in other contexts that Obama seeks to dismantle the American overseas empire or even to revise the role of military force in the grand strategy of the country.

 

            The question of torture has been much discussed over the course of the last decade. It is usually defended by invoking an extreme situation, saving a city from a ‘ticking bomb’ or to locate someone about to massacre a school full of children, implying that torture will only be used when confronted by situations of exceptional and imminent danger. But the practice of torture become much more generalized once exceptions are made, as always in dealing with violent crime and politics, there is the possibility, however remote that access to information could avoid a disaster. Yet the taint of torture is not removable, and spreads; for this reason, only an unconditional prohibition, as written into international human rights law, is worthy of our moral, and political, respect.

 

            For me more disturbing even than the indirect whitewashing of torture is the nationalization of worldview that pervades the film (as well as the media and the political culture). There is no sense whatsoever that those who are killed or tortured might be innocent or have had unheeded grievances or that the American response to 9/11 was killing and wounding many more thousands than had been killed by Al Qaeda, a set of responses in which whole societies being torn asunder for little or no gain in American security, in effect, massive forms of collective punishment. There is a monumental insensitivity to the sovereign rights of other states, most obviously Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. The American military is understandably focused on operational effectiveness , while it is less understandable that its political leaders remain oblivious to the rights and wellbeing of others. Implicitly, in the film and in American statecraft the lives of others are simply stage props on the geopolitical stage of political violence. In this sense, objectively considered, the killing of Bin Laden seems little more than a costly and risky venture in vengeance that glorifies a militarist conception of security that can only bring massive doses of grief to societies around the world, and does great harm to the many young Americans being asked to put their mental and physical health in mortal jeopardy for very questionable purposes that are only marginally related to the defense and security of the country. The historically high suicide, crime, and social dislocation among war veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan should be heeded as a scream from the depths of the political culture rather than be treated as an awkward embarrassment that should not even factored into discussions of the costs of war.

Overdosing on ‘Breaking Bad’ (modified and revised)

19 Jan

Unknown(A Message to Readers: under the influence of further viewing, some conversation, comments, and reflections, I am re-posting a post devoted to the TV drama series, ‘Breaking Bad‘; this line of interpretation is based on viewing the first three (of five) seasons of the show. As it changes course frequently, it is likely that the two final years might alter my understanding of the series and its overall cultural and political significance. Is it a mirror of who we mostly are or a warning of who we are becoming or one more look at the dark side, and how it casts its shadows over the bright side of the American reality? I find that the debate on gun control in which the most assumptions of the NRA true believers are unquestioned gives a disturbing clue as to how these questions might be honestly answered. How many suggestions have you heard that suggest that ‘the right to bear arms’ is wildly out of date, and that if we love our children, grandchildren, and country we would propose some radical measures to restore ‘homeland security.’ Since 9/11 how many more citizens and innocent persons around the world have been killed by legally acquired guns in America than by Al Qaeda operatives? We are victimizing our own society by acquiescing in what can only be understood as a ultra-toxic form of auto-terrorism. If this is overheated rhetoric on my part, I would like to know why.)

 

            It could be a telling sign of being out of touch with popular culture to admit that until two weeks ago when our children showed up for the holidays, I had never heard of the cable TV drama series ‘Breaking Bad.’ Of course, this sort of admission damaged my already fragile credibility with those under 30. And when I discovered that ‘Breaking Bad’ was in its fifth season, and had received numerous awards, earning praise by leading media critics as ‘the greatest television drama of all time’ (according to the Megacritic website, ‘Breaking Bad’ is the highest rated cable show ever, gaining a rating of 99/100 on the basis of 22 reviews) my self-esteem took a big hit for being so out of the loop. Having overdosed on the series during the recent past I may be about to fall from one trap to another, now putting myself forward as an ‘instant expert,’ a role not more tasteful than instant coffee. Intimidated by such a prospect, I will myself to several random impressions with a goal of stimulating others to set me straight.

 

            At this time I admit to being in danger of becoming a ‘Breaking Bad’ junkie with serious addiction issues, having watched more than 25 of the early episodes with family members during what has become an almost obsessive nightly ritual. I am left wondering,  ‘what is the source of this fascination?’ ‘is ‘Breaking Bad’ tell us some dark things about ourselves, our inner reality as a nation and globe-girdling capitalist powerhouse state?’ Whatever else, ‘Breaking Bad’ as a tale of crime, violence, and personal adventure is quintessentially American, it could not be set elsewhere. On the most superficial level, the writing, acting, and cinematography are of a high caliber, holding one’s attention week after week due to an engagement with the lives of the characters and the subtle and innovative movements of the plot. It is obvious, as well, that both the technical and dramatic direction is impressive if measured by the industry metrics of craftsmanship and captivating storytelling. The form of episodic presentation, 47 minutes each week, imposes its own constraints. Each episode needs to combine a self-contained mini-drama with continuities of plot and character that create enough links to earlier segments to sustain a flow from week to week and create at the end of each episode sufficient suspense and curiosity about what will happen next to tune in on the following weak. This TV series in many ways incorporates the dramatic strengths of both the most spellbinding soap operas as well as the sweep of successful panoramic moviemaking. Each episode has its own director and is written by one or more of the team of nine writers. Somehow despite this shared responsibility ‘Breaking Bad’ comes across as a coherent, unified work that rarely disappoints. There is only one episode that seems negatively memorable in which the whole dramatic action consists of the pursuit of a hapless house fly that eludes capture, and is viewed by the expert on such matters as a dire threat to the purity of the crystal meth being produced in an underground elaborate lab.

 

            There is no doubt that the series creator, writer and director of some of the most riveting episodes in the series, Vince Gilligan, knows what he is doing (and came to ‘Breaking Bad’ with past credentials as a producer of another killer TV series, ‘The X-Files’), which is to interweave in compelling ways the complex inter-ethnic world of drug dealing in the American southwest with the humdrum nature of suburban living in Albuquerque, New Mexico: throughout, the ordinary is repeatedly trumped and undermined by extraordinary happenings in episode after episode as the perils, pleasures, and temper tantrums of Walter (Walt) White, the hero-villain’s life accumulate. In the process Walt’s struggle for survival is turned upside down, being transformed from an underachieving, overqualified high school chemistry teacher having trouble making ends meet to becoming all of a sudden a cash rich overachieving, under qualified supplier (in the harsh business of allocating and safeguarding drug markets) of crystal meth to local gangs linked to bigger drug cartels.

 

            Actually, Walt doesn’t exactly switch careers. He embarks on an elaborate double life, continuing to teach chemistry as his daytime job, a vocational calling, as well as employment, which he never abandons, and although distracted by the challenges of his drug life maintains an abiding concern for his students and exhibits talents as a teacher who knows his subject and how to convey it to young students. Eventually the strains of his secret life finally do take their toll, and Walt is forced by school administrators to take an extended leave of absence during the third season of the show. There is a certain ironic tension between his teaching routine in a high school setting and his use of sophisticated chemistry to produce the highest quality crystal meth available in the Albuquerque market, with an outreach that extends to the cutthroat operators south of the border. Although recourse to violence is characteristic of every major male character in ‘Breaking Bad’, the violence associated with the roles of the Hispanic characters in the series are by far the most sadistic, sustained, and extreme, and they are all given rather one-dimensional identities that leaves no room for sympathy or emotional complexity. A partial exception is the Aftican-American looking, but apparently Latino master dealer, Gustavo (‘Gus’) Fring, who is presented as the most sinister of all drug operatives, but possessing social skills that enable his to have a respectable public persona that embraces the material satisfaction of success in the market. We can only critically wonder why the darkest evil is reserved exclusively for ‘outsiders’ in America, the targets of a resurgent racism that is gospel for the rapidly expanding survivalist, anti-government militias active around the country and allied with such unsavory groups as the National Rifle Association (NRA) and extremist religious cults.

 

            There is no doubt that Walt White (brilliantly played by Bryan Cranston) is as intriguing a character as has ever flitted across my TV screen. Some critics have treated White merely as an acute casualty of a mid-life crisis, where the comforts of the bourgeois life are exchanged for the excitement of the drug underworld, with its violence, risk, double life, secrecy, and big payoffs, but this seems facile and almost willfully misleading. What gives White his fascinating edge is the fact that his ardent embrace of crime coincided with receiving a diagnosis of terminal lung cancer, giving rise, among other things to a desperate need for large sums of money to pay the huge bills for medicines and treatment, as well as to the realization that his family will be destitute after his death. Beyond this there is exhibited a rare dramatic tension between the loveable and hateful sides of his character, which is further heightened by unpredictable mood swings and sudden eruptions of repressed violence. Walt conveys by brilliantly expressive facial expressions and adept mastery of body language a sense of deep torment that is at odds with his endearing qualities normalcy when he displays the other side of his personality that allows him to be a tender and sensitive father, husband, and friend. The storyline also offers a bit of caviar to tease those who fancy themselves gourmets of high culture. White, as drug dealer, is known on the local meth scene by the moniker, ‘Heisenberg,’ a cute play on the idea of ‘indeterminacy,’ (just who is White is tantalizingly elusive; and trope that is literalized when a lookalike is actually hired to confuse the police). As well, there are various bonding lines and visual sequences tat draw connections between Walt White and Walt Whitman, especially invoking Whitman’s celebrated poem, ‘Song of Myself.’ Names are clearly given some forethought by the series creator: it cannot be accidental that Walt is ‘White’ while Gus looks ‘black,’ possibly a color coded grading system for degrees of evil, mildly reminiscent of the circles of Hell in Dante’s ‘Inferno.’

 

            To my way of thinking, one of the great achievements of the series is the interplay between Walt and Jesse Pinkman (convincingly played by Aaron Paul). Jesse is an almost likeable young punk who takes many hard knocks, and has a kind of magnetic purity displayed as a result of his commitments to romantic love, kindness to animals, genuine empathy with young children victimized by their innocent involvement in the drug trade or their proximity to maelstroms of pure violence, and by his own childhood victimization at the hands of hatefully insensitive parents. There is left the impression that Jesse manages to survive, but barely, periodically wants a cleaner, safe life, but can’t quite muster the will to escape one and for all. He is at once too tender a person to flourish in the cutthroat world of hard-core drug business and yet too dependent and addicted to overcome his the interrelated entrapments of use and dealing. Jess is unlike Walt in many ways, more consistently emotional and romantic, less calculating, as much an addict as a supplier, a cultural casualty rather than a good citizen who goes awry by succumbing to the lure of the gigantic drug profit margins. Despite these differences, Walt and Jesse need one another, save each other’s lives, and are one of those memorable examples of ‘an odd couple’ that is forever inscribed in our consciousness.

 

            Throughout ‘Breaking Bad’ there are numerous implicit and explicit commentaries on the tawdry character of American life, replete with contradictions and complex filmic and cultural juxtapositions that link benign pretentious hypocrisies with lethal, violent realities that lie just beneath the surface. The relationship between law and crime is examined from many different angles, and it can be no accident, that the lead lawyer puts himself forward falsely as a Jew, Saul Goodman, when in fact he is a shabby abettor of criminality whose ethnicity in Irish, and presumably Catholic. It is almost a joking commentary on anti-Semitism that Saul would want to ‘pass’ as a Jew to foster an image of being the sort of lawyer who knows how to twist the law in whatever direction will help his shady clientele.

 

            The lies at the heart of Saul law practice is multiply signaled: a huge balloon version of the Statue of Liberty is attached to the roof above his office, the room where he meets and greets clients uses the text of the U.S. Constitution as wallpaper, and his professional interest in lawyering is to make use of law and lawyers for the sake of promoting crime and safeguarding criminals, and all for the sake of making some extra bucks. There is in the series a second more ‘honorable’ lawyer who is no more loveable, using his knowledge of the intricacies of law to further the cruelties of capitalism. Actually, doctors fare only slightly better than lawyers, offering treatments motivated more by their professional ambitions than a patient’s likelihood of cure, and in the spirit of Michael Moore’s ‘Sicko,’ making even the most urgent health care a slave of one’s bank balance. Implicit in ‘Breaking Bad’ is an indictment of the cultural ethos of capitalism, and its tendencies to commodify every aspect of life except family relations and intimate love, and even then there is tautness between doing well and doing good. There is an ironic note added here in the sub-text in which Hank Schrader, a kind of loser character who works as a middle level enforcer for the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), loses his cool, brutally beats Jesse, is demoted and discredited, but helped to pay his medical bills by drug money given to his wife, Marie, and eventually rehabilitated. There is an important coded message here: everything interacts. There is no true separation between criminality and legality, and perhaps, never has been. Are we learning about human nature, the specifics of America, the degeneracy of 21st century modernity?

 

            “Breaking Bad’ also making a damning commentary on the failures of urban development in America. The city scenes amount to a sequence of snapshots of the ugliness and tastelessness of the society, the wasteland that developers and city planners have inflicted on society, signposts directing the citizenry toward alienation and escape. This aesthetic indictment also extends to the middle class home furnishings and decorations that are ever-present in the series as exhibits of cultural decline. Only the natural splendor of the desert and the museum housing the masterpieces of Georgia O’Keefe are put before us as contrasts to this general condition of ugliness and banality.   

 

            The TV series also takes a hard look taken at the hypocrisies that commingle with family values and community camaraderie. Walt is the main focus of attention, but is not alone, being portrayed as someone driven to crime, allegedly by a true and abiding love for his wife and children, and in return receives the unconditional love of his disabled son. He says over and over again that all that he cares about is his family, and this provides him with a mask of decency no matter how pervasively he falsifies his life. Walt faced with the prospect of his own assured death within a couple of years due to cancer and lacking the capacity to provide a decent future on the basis of legitimate work as a gifted high school chemistry teacher or as a helper in an auto repair shop turns to the lucrative work of ‘cooking’ high quality meth in large quantities. In effect, we are informed only a turn to crime can achieve what hard, honest work of a constructive nature cannot provide for most people living in 21st century America.

 

            The message within the message is that there is the scantest difference between Princeton graduates embarking on Wall Street careers with a clear conscience and those making their living from the drug trade, although the former is far less obviously violent and dangerous, but also contains fewer illusions about normalcy, decency, honesty, and morally and socially acceptable life styles. Another note of irony is that those most driven to success on the Wall Streets of the country often use coke to calm down. Of course, ‘Breaking Bad’ portrays those on the top of the drug trade as mimicking in dress and life style the paragons of business and societal virtue, further blurring the boundaries between criminality and legitimacy. Indeed, ‘Breaking Bad’ has a vivid relevance to the entire social space in Gilligan’s America as there seems to be no available option that encourages breaking good!

 

            Part of what makes Walt such a memorable character is his mercurial personality that contain unpredictable, yet plausible swerves and shifts, and is dramatically expressed by completely irrational and frightening out-of-control moments that he often apologizes for on the next day, and are counterpoised against ultra-rational mini-lectures on what line of action is wisest to take. For instance, at a silly poolside party (epitomizing what goes on in polite middle class Albuquerque) when for no apparent reason, Walt diabolically pressures his disabled teenage son, Walt Jr., to get disastrously drunk on tequila. He then gets furious when Hank, his DEA brother in law, Hank Schrader, in a good natured way interferes to prevent this patently improper father-son interaction from doing further self-inflicted damage to Walt. This disturbing incident is out of character for Walt as he normally treats his son with loving kindness.

 

            In another episode, Walt is stopped by a highway patrol officer while driving at a normal speed in the desert countryside. The policeman explains that Walt’s car was stopped because its windshield was shattered, making it unsafe and unlawful to drive. When the officer starts writing out a ticket for driving such a vehicle, Walt goes ballistic. He had earlier told the policeman that the damage to the windshield was caused by debris that fell from a fatal plane crash that had occurred in the city a few days earlier. The policeman responded by saying that it does not matter how the damage was done, that driving a car in this condition is against the law and deserves a ticket. Walt becomes wildly defiant, disobeys orders to stay in his car, yelling insults and obscenities at the officer, uncontrollably shouting he has ‘rights’ that are being denied. After being warned more than once, Walt is bloodied and taken into custody. The police like the drug enforcers seem to have no instruments of control other than when obedience to the norms fails, to have recourse to the excesses of violence. Hank, his DEA brother in law, comes to his rescue, intercedes to obtain Walt’s immediate release from prison. Once again the law, such as it is, takes a back seat to the corrupting play of personal relations. In both of these incidents Walt after the fact apologizes in a tone of solemnity, insisting that he was acting out of character, including vague intimations that his medical condition may have been indirectly responsible.

 

            There is an unusual structural feature throughout the series. There are several dyads or pairings of character. Walt and Skyler (his wife), Walt and Jesse, Walt and Gus, Walt and Hank (DEA), Skyler and her sister, Marie (also Hank’s wife), two lawyers, two drug enforcers, two child foot soldiers for neighborhood drug dealing. In various episodes either Walt and his wife or Walt and Jesse are placed at the center of the action. Skyler is the seemingly good woman and loyal wife, but also dipping her toes deeper and deeper into dirty water by covering up the crimes of her boss as well as indulging in a workplace romance with this sleazy character, and soon shifting from abhorrence about Walt’s meth money to a pragmatic use of such funds for the sake of family values, paying the medical bills of Hank. Nothing is as it seems, especially nothing that purports to be good is really good, except perhaps the sincerity of the biologically damaged Walt, Jr., who also at least flirts with indeterminacy by adopting the name ‘Flynn’ to alter his identity until he reverts to Walt, Jr., when his cherished father is banished from home by Skyler after she finally discovers that he has been lying to her for many months, maintaining a secret double life, and obtaining funds far beyond his salary by dealing in drugs, and not as he has insisted, through the generosity of (hated) rich friends who had actually made a fortune by stealing his ideas.

 

            As with any imagined fiction, from Shakespeare to Gilligan (and his team of nine writers) what engages an audience is the vividness of the characters and the suspense, illuminations, and hypnotic strangeness of the narrative. The message and cultural critique are secondary to these dramatic qualities, and definitely, ‘Breaking Bad’ holds our attention mainly by taking us on a wild roller coaster ride with its principal characters that envelops the viewers in the unfolding drama. The series brilliantly holds our attention, and doesn’t really need the scenes of extreme violence that are present in almost every episode– bloody beatings and killings with gory details, almost unwatchable brutality, but these are made to seem thematically integral, and punctuate with exclamation points the crude justice of both the underworld of drugs and the socially proper world of law, police, and business. There is even one grisly murder in which a stolen ATM machine is used as a weapon to crush a totally unsympathetic victim’s head. A symbolic eloquence is present in such a crime: the complex interplay of money, violence, and criminality is epitomized. Why? In some ways I believe that ‘Breaking Bad’ is itself a symptom of what it decries. It ‘entertains’ us by its exhibitions of extreme violence and criminality because anything less seems assumed not to engage sufficiently the modern public imagination, especially here in America where even the idea of minimal gun control proposed after a series of horrific domestic massacres is met with collective rage and derision. The gun lobby’s incredibly influential NGO, the NRA, tells us that there will be no ban on even assault weaponry while gun enthusiasts stock up such killing machines because they are fearful that a ban may be imposed, and this would be intolerable, for gun extremists by itself grounds to take up arms against the already hated government in Washington. Also, of course, AMC network and Sony Pictures Television are both providers of the ATM used for making ‘Breaking Bad’ at $3 million per episode, and reap the monetary benefits and prestige of the show’s deserved critical success.  

 

            In the end, the question posed for me by ‘Breaking Bad’ is whether moral, political, and societal authenticity is any longer possible given the overall present nature of American popular culture. The government is far from exempt from such criticism if account is taken of the heavy militarist and carbon American footprint throughout much of the world, and the damage done to young Americans sent off to die in wars of no meaningful consequences for the protection of the homeland. I am someone who has spent his entire life in this country, appreciating its freedoms and supportive of its various achievements of moral progress (for instance, the selection of an African-American to be its president), although long critical of the gap between its proclaimed values and behavior, especially in relations with the non-Western world.

 

            I find myself now for the first time contemplating the adoption of an  ‘expatriate consciousness.’ I interpret this temptation as an expression of political despair on my part, a giving up on the future of the country after eight decades of hope and struggle. It is not only discouragement with the failures of substantive democracy that leaves the 99% in a permanent condition of precarious limbo, while the supposedly ‘liberal’ leadership and citizenry seems to sleep well despite terrorizing distant foreign communities with drone violence inflicted for the supposed sake of our ‘security.’ It is also the increasing failures of procedural democracy, the chances offered to the public by elections and political parties, that makes me feel that the most I can hope for during my lifetime is ‘the lesser of evils,’ allowing me recently the pleasure of a sigh of relief that it was Obama not Romney who was elected in 2012. Yet this was an electoral campaign in which both sides refused to confront any of the deeper challenges confronting the country. Each side refused to take the presumed political risks of raising such issues as the predatory nature of neoliberal globalization, the ecological death trip of climate change, and the idiocy of ‘the long war’ with its global battlefield unleashed after the 9/11 attacks. I fully realize that I am transforming ‘Breaking Bad’ into a metaphor for my own malaise, and I am unsure how Vince Gilligan would react if confronted with such reactions. But does that matter? The autonomy of the viewer is as valid as the intentions of the creator!

 

            Whatever may be the intention of those who put the series together, I do think ‘Breaking Bad,’ whether deliberately or not, raises disturbing political and cultural questions, somewhat analogous to issues powerfully posed a generation ago by David Lynch in ‘Blue Velvet.’ This Lynch movie remains one of the great filmic chronicles of the underside of America that has become almost indistinguishable from the self-congratulatory America of patriotic parades and holiday speeches by politicians. This dark criminality that lurks just below the surface of polite society is air brushed out of our collective consciousness by the mega-escapism of spectacles, sports, celebrations of militarism, and a pacifying mainstream media. What I am saying, in effect, is that ‘Breaking Bad’ works fantastically well as entertainment, but that it is also a reliable journalistic source confirming the bad news about several uncontrolled wild fires burning up the country, and the world.

Rethinking Afghanistan After a Decade

19 Sep

This post is a short essay responding to a question about my dramatic change of position on the Afghanistan War with regard to its initial justification and flawed execution. It is both a reconsideration of errors of judgment and reflections on how the world has changed in the course of this decade, focusing on the inability of the United States to grasp either its own decline or the related decline in the historical agency of hard power approaches to security.

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Reading what I wrote about Afghanistan a decade ago reminded me of how much my understanding of the role of war and hard power in upholding security for the nation and the world has changed. Actually, it seems clear to me that my views on Afghanistan back in 2001 were an exception to my general skepticism about Western interventions in the non-Western world, a view formed during ten years of opposition to the American role in the Vietnam War. At the time, with the Al Qaeda attacks so recently seared into my political consciousness, and some anxiety that more attacks of a similar kind were likely to follow, it seemed logical and helpful to adopt a war strategy as part of an overall effort to disrupt the mega-terrorist capabilities to inflict further harm either in this country or somewhere else on the planet. Although I realized that the international law argument for attacking Afghanistan, with the clear objective of regime change, was weak absent the exhaustion of diplomatic remedies, but such considerations were overcome in my mind by the political argument for doing immediately whatever was necessary to uphold security in this country and generally, and the moral argument that any successor government to what was being imposed on the Afghan people by the Taliban would almost inevitably be a step in the right direction. At first, these early assessments of mine seemed vindicated, but now with the benefit of ten further years of military engagement and retrospective insight, a reappraisal is long overdue.

 

There were some reasons for skepticism and worry from the outset of the approach to Afghanistan. The manner by which the air war was conducted, and its failure to adopt tactics designed to have a maximum impact on Al Qaeda capabilities were disturbing to me from the beginning of the military operations. The American military undertaking seemed poorly conceived and implemented, naively relying on untrustworthy coordination with Afghan ground forces that had their own distinct agendas often at odds with U.S. counter-terrorist priorities. This unreliability should have been known on the basis of intelligence and prior counterinsurgency experience. The United States Government, and especially the Rumsfeld Pentagon, were ideologically committed to fighting the war with minimum American ground involvement, thereby avoiding heavy American casualties, and yet achieve the goals of the intervention. This was proclaimed at the time to represent a test case for a ‘revolutionary’ transformation of warfare in which technology displaced troops on the ground. We learned very soon that virtually the entire Al Qaeda leadership had managed to escape across the border to Pakistan along with its main cadre of militant trained fighters.

 

Beyond this central mission failure, the promised regime change in Afghanistan quickly became a costly and obvious fool’s errand. The authority of the new political leadership in Kabul, handpicked by Washington, could hardly extend its writ beyond the capital city despite its dependence on the delegitimizing presence of foreign occupying forces. This led over time to the resurgence and regrouping of a variety of forces of national resistance to foreign occupation, as well as the unexpected revival of the Taliban as both a fighting force and a serious political challenger for control of the country.

 

Faulty perceptions in this post-9/11 period, including my own, ignored the lessons of Vietnam. It was one thing to mount a counter-terrorist operation against the Al Qaida presence in Afghanistan, which was itself an alien intrusion on national political space, but another for the leading country in the West to seek to override the workings of self-determination within Afghanistan so as to impose a governing structure and political culture more to its liking. This renwed reliance on counterinsurgency thinking, of which General David Petraeus, was the most influential voice within the military, sought to overcome memories of defeat in Vietnam by adopting an approach more friendly to and respectful of the indigenous culture and the human rights of the people supposedly being protected. But it is one thing to be abstractly sensitive in these ways, but it is another to remain a benevolent presence while killing the inhabitants of the country, especially its women and children, while simultaneously doing everything possible to minimize risks of injury and death to one’s own troops. In the circumstances that exist in Afghanistan these two sincerely held objectives are often in tension with notable incidents leading to anger either at the scene in Afghanistan or at home in the United States. It is ironic that Petraeus, despite his historical knowledge, political acumen, and his own prior efforts to right the mistakes of the past, relied on drone strikes at a rate of ten times that of his predecessor, resulting in a predictable rise in civilian casualties and popular alienation. The use of sophisticated unmanned aircraft firing missiles at human targets carries to new heights the technological one-sidedness of such counterinsurgency warfare where as much of the risk as possible is shifted to the territorial society and those who pick targets in safety have neither accountability for deliberate or accidental wrongs nor possess any leverage over the political dynamics within the country. It is this disabling irony that has yet to have its proper impact on American policymaking. Our political leaders seem unwilling to learn that military dominance rarely translates into favorable political outcomes at acceptable costs in the early 21st century.

 

Despite the evidence supporting such an interpretation of recent historical trends the mistakes of the past are stubbornly repeated, and such a pattern calls for an explanation. It is necessary to consider the impact of factors that overcome the expected rationality of government decision-making and problem solving. Perhaps, the most important of these is the emergence of what Mark Selden calls ‘the permanent warfare state’ in the United States. The country has for decades made a disproportionate investment in achieving military dominance on a global scale. The existence of such expensive capabilities generate strong bureaucratic and ideological pressures to rely on military approaches to ensure a favorable outcome of international conflicts. After all at present, if the United States spends more than the next ten countries in the world combined, there must be a commensurate political payoff, or else it is extremely discrediting with respect to the use of taxpayer revenues in a setting of intense fiscal concern about government spending..

 

It is this hard power dogmatism that has led the United States, along with its Western junior partners, to engage in a nation-building war in Afghanistan that seems destined for defeat and humiliation. As the Afghan saying goes: “You got the watches, we got the time.” Because the benefits to the United States of persisting in Afghanistan despite the costs seem so uncertain as compared to the clear goals of the opposition to rid the country of foreign occupiers, it seems likely that the longer-term and deeper commitments of the Afghan national resistance will reap eventually the rewards of its persistence. Of course, this prediction is reinforced by the low quality of the Karzai government that undermined its democratizing claim by stealing the most recent faux elections and through its corrupting links to the drug trade and warlords. In the twenty-first century those who cooperate with foreign invaders and occupiers rarely are able to claim ‘mission accomplished’ with any credibility at the end of the day. It is important also to realize that this was not true in the colonial era during which the superior military technology of the colonialists generally prevailed without large losses or major expenditures. Prior to World War II, there was insufficient confidence in the capacity of most non-Western societies to mount an effective national resistance to a determined military intervention, although even here Afghanistan stood out as the one country in Asia that colonial powers found impossible to pacify in a manner that served their interests, with both Britain and Russia failing in their attempts to do so. It is difficult for Americans to appreciate that foreign occupation poses such a stiff challenge to self-determination as to be very rarely viewed as liberating or legitimate by the civilian majority in a country subject to military intervention.

 

Such generalizations need to be distinguished from the sorts of interventions that seem to have been effective in Kosovo in 1999, and maybe again this year in Libya.  In Kosovo, the foreign intervention was a rescue operation in support of a domestic struggle of the Albanian overwhelming majority against what was perceived to be Serbian alien rule sustained by atrocities against Kosovars and posing an imminent threat of violent ethnic cleansing. It was, to the extent that the people of Kosovo enjoyed the status of being ‘a people’ in international law, possible to consider the NATO intervention as being in furtherance of self-determination rather than as an attempt to impose a Western oriented outcome. True, the clarity of such an endorsement of the Kosovo War is qualified by the absence of any UN Security Council authorization for the use of force and by NATO’s controversial reliance on high altitude bombing that killed an estimated 500 civilians on the ground. The post-conflict establishment of Camp Bonsteel, a huge NATO military base also raises questions about the purity of the alleged protective intentions.

 

In the case of Libya, although the NATO operations ignored the limits of the UN Security Council authorization, the military action reinforced a struggle already underway in the country, and backed by a majority of the population, against a hated dictator that was engaging in indiscriminate violence against his own people, and threatening to do worse. It remains to be seen whether the victors in Libya can bring constitutional democracy and an equitable economy to the country, but at least the intervention is highly unlikely to engender national resistance as there is no foreign occupation contemplated. There are already concerns about the prospect of manipulation behind the scenes by the intervening parties to bring big profits to NATO oil companies and construction firms. If these concerns materialize it could be quite discrediting to the nationalist claims of the new Transnational National Council leadership. Nevertheless, as of now, the main point stands: with UN backing, without any intention of foreign occupation and military bases, against an existing cruel, exploitative, and oppressive rule, and in support of an existing oppositional movement, a Western military intervention can achieve its initial goals, but even then not without evoking considerable controversy and raising suspicions about ulterior motives. Phase one is regime change as has taken place with the defeat of the Qaddafi regime, phase two is constitutional state building and equitable and sustainable development that remains to be achieved, and depends on national will and capabilities.

 

There was another major dimension of the Afghanistan War as it appeared in 2001 as compared to the way it seems in 2011. What I failed to appreciate then, and has still not been properly registered in mainstream foreign policy thinking, is that during the presidency of George W. Bush, the grand strategic emphasis was placed on control of the Middle East. This objective of grand strategy took precedence over the successful prosecution of the post-9/11 struggle against terrorism.  The two different undertakings were misleadingly merged in public consciousness by relying on the unifying, yet diversionary label of ‘global war on terror,’ but in fact while Afghanistan was directly linked to the 9/11 attacks the government of Saddam Hussein in Iraq was only indirectly, if at all, linked. The Iraq War launched in 2003 increased anti-American resentment throughout the Islamic world, and was at odds with an all out struggle against Al Qaeda, which would have given continuing priority to consolidating the early gains in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. Instead, after the military attacks on Afghanistan produced the collapse of Taliban rule, the American emphasis immediately shifted dramatically to the Iraq War, and Afghanistan became a forgotten sideshow, which encouraged the steady deterioration of political order in the country, making a mockery of early claims of achieving a liberating political change welcomed by the population. Obama tried to overcome this unfortunate legacy of neo-conservative foreign policy by both promising to end the Iraq War, a commitment that remains problematic and unfulfilled, and a commitment to view the Afghanistan War as requiring renewed attention due to its relevance to the challenge of terrorism.

 

Finally, ten years after 9/11 the road not taken of law enforcement, intelligence collaboration, occasional special forces covert undertakings in foreign countries seems attractive on a number of grounds, and the defense of human rights at home and abroad. It would have avoided the costly, mostly failed efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. It would have avoided national humiliation associated with the panicky recourse to torture that led to the globally discrediting disclosures of  systematic abuse of detainees at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, and a homeland security apparatus containing many features of authoritarian governance. It would have strengthened claims by the United States to provide benevolent world order leadership based on minimizing the role of war and military solutions, while maximizing the role of law, international police cooperation, and diplomacy, including efforts to take steps to acknowledge and overcome the legitimate grievances of the Arab World, especially the American failure to push for a fair and balanced solution to the Palestine/Israel conflict. This approach would have also allowed a greater concentration of the political imagination and the resources of the country on meeting domestic infrastructure problems and addressing such rising global challenges as climate change and persistent extreme poverty. Furthermore, such non-war path in response to the 9/11 attacks could have demonstrated a realization of the limits of hard power approaches to the solution of conflict and security problems in the early 21st century, and avoided falling again into the traps unwittingly set for the country by pro-interventionists and counterinsurgency advocates. Of course, a counter-factual portrayal of the decade is by definition unaware of the bumps in the road that would undoubtedly have been encountered, especially if further attacks had been successfully launched on high value targets within the United States.  Even conceding this unknowability, this alternative path would have been in closer accord with out ‘better angels,’ and corresponded with American continuing claims on the global stage to be the home of moral exceptionalism. If it failed once having been tried, the grounds for a more muscular approach would have been responsibly laid.

 

These retrospective comments are meant to be non-partisan as far as internal American politics are concerned. The Bush approach after 9/11 enjoyed  overwhelming support among the citizenry and in Congress. There were no influential dissenting voices. The mobilization of national unity on the basis of fear and anger, and reinforced by patriotic pride, was intense, effective, and unconditional. My regrets about the policies pursued are mainly preoccupied with the deficiencies of American political culture given the realities and challenges of our world. Unless the political mind of the country becomes quickly disenchanted with military approaches to conflict resolution there is every likelihood of repeating the mistakes of the past decade that will increase dangerous storm clouds that already cast dark shadows menacing the future wellbeing of the country and world.

Interrogating the Arizona Killings from a Safe Distance

11 Jan


I spent a year in Sweden a few years after the assassination of Olaf Palme in 1986, the controversial former prime minister of the country who at the time of his death was serving as a member of the Swedish cabinet. He was assassinated while walking with his wife back to their apartment in the historic part of the city after attending a nearby movie. It was a shocking event in a Sweden that had prided itself on moderateness in politics and the avoidance of involvement in the wars of the twentieth century. A local drifter, with a history of alcoholism, was charged and convicted of the crime, but many doubts persisted, including on the part of Ms. Palme who analogized her situation to that of Coretta King who never believed the official version of her martyred husband’s death.

I had a particular interest in this national traumatic event as my reason for being in Sweden was a result of an invitation to be the Olaf Palme Professor, a rotating academic post given each year to a foreign scholar, established by the Swedish Parliament as a memorial to their former leader. (after the Social Democratic Party lost political control in Sweden this professorship was promptly defunded, partly because Palme was unloved by conservatives and partly because of a neoliberal dislike for public support of such activities)

In the course of my year traveling around Sweden I often asked those whom I met what was their view of the assassination, and what I discovered was that the responses told me more about them than it did about the public event. Some thought it was a dissident faction in the Swedish security forces long angered by Palme’s neutralist policies, some believed it was resentment caused by Palme’s alleged engineering of Swedish arms sales to both sides in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, some believed it was the CIA in revenge for Palme’s neutralism during the Cold War, some believed it could have criminals in the pay of business tycoons tired of paying high taxes needed to maintain the Swedish maximalist version of a welfare state, and there were other theories as well. What was common to all of these explanations was the lack of evidence that might connect the dots. What people believed happened flowed from their worldview rather than the facts of the event—a distrust of the state, especially its secret operations, or a strong conviction that special interests hidden from view were behind prominent public events of this character.

In a way, this process of reflection is natural, even inevitable, but it leads to faulty conclusions. We tend to process information against the background of our general worldview and understanding, and we do this all the time as an efficient way of coping with the complexity of the world combined with our lack of time or inclination to reach conclusions by independent investigation. The problem arises when we confuse this means of interpreting our experience with an effort to provide an explanation of a contested public event. There are, to be sure, conspiracies that promote unacknowledged goals, and enjoy the benefit of government protection. We don’t require WikiLeaks to remind us not to trust governments, even our own, and others that seem in most respects to be democratic and law-abiding. And we also by now should know that governments (ab)use their authority to treat awkward knowledge as a matter of state secrets, and criminalize those who are brave enough to believe that the citizenry needs to know the crimes that their government is committing with their trust and their tax dollars.

The arguments swirling around the 9/11 attacks are emblematic of these issues. What fuels suspicions of conspiracy is the reluctance to address the sort of awkward gaps and contradictions in the official explanations that David Ray Griffin(and other devoted scholars of high integrity) have been documenting in book after book ever since his authoritative The New Pearl Harbor in 2004 (updated in 2008). What may be more distressing than the apparent cover up is the eerie silence of the mainstream media, unwilling to acknowledge the well-evidenced doubts about the official version of the events: an al Qaeda operation with no foreknowledge by government officials. Is this silence a manifestation of fear or cooption, or part of an equally disturbing filter of self-censorship? Whatever it is, the result is the withering away of a participatory citizenry and the erosion of legitimate constitutional government. The forms persist, but the content is missing.

This brings me to the Arizona shootings, victimizing both persons apparently targeted for their political views and random people who happened to be there for one reason or another, innocently paying their respects to a congresswoman meeting constituents outside a Tucson supermarket. As with the Palme assassination, the most insistent immediate responses come from the opposite ends of the political spectrum, both proceeding on presuppositions rather than awaiting evidence.

On one side are those who say that right-wing hate speech and affection for guns were clearly responsible, while Tea Party ultra-conservatives and their friends reaffirm their rights of free speech, denying that there is any connection between denouncing their adversaries in the political process and the violent acts of a deranged individual seemingly acting on his own.  If we want to be responsible in our assessments, we must restrain our political predispositions, and get the evidence. Let us remember that what seems most disturbing about the 9/11 controversy is the widespread aversion by government and media to the evidence that suggests, at the very least, the need for an independent investigation that proceeds with no holds barred.

Such an investigation would contrast with the official ‘9/11 Commission’ that proceeded with most holds barred.  What has been already disturbing about the Arizona incident are these rival rushes to judgment without bothering with evidence. Such public irresponsibility polarizes political discourse, making conversation and serious debate irrelevant.

There is one more issue raised, with typical candor and innocence, by the filmmaker, Michael Moore. If a Muslim group has published a list of twenty political leaders in this country, and put crosshairs of a gun behind their pictures, is there any doubt that the Arizona events would be treated as the work of a terrorist,, and the group that had pre-identified such targets would be immediately outlawed as a terrorist organization. Many of us, myself included, fervently hoped, upon hearing the news of the shootings, that the perpetrator of this violence was neither a Muslim nor a Hispanic, especially an illegal immigrant. Why? Because we justly feared the kind of horrifying backlash that would have been probably generated by Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly,  Sarah Palin, and their legion of allies. Now that the apparent perpetrator is a young white American, the talk from the hate mongers, agains without bothering with evidence, is of mental disorder and sociopathology. This is faith-based pre-Enlightenment ‘knowledge.’

What must we learn from all of this? Don’t connect dots without evidence. Don’t turn away as soon as the words ‘conspiracy theory’ are uttered, especially if the evidence does point away from what the power-wielders want us to believe. Don’t link individual wrongdoing, however horrific, to wider religious and ethnic identities. We will perish as a species if we don’t learn soon to live together better on our beautiful, globalizing, and imperiled planet.

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