Interview by Dan Skye
On December 24, 2008, a delegation of Lakota leaders delivered a message to the State Department announcing that their people were unilaterally withdrawing from treaties signed with the US. No longer would they tolerate the federal government’s gross violations of these agreements; America was put on notice that the Republic of Lakotah had been re-created. The new nation would issue its own passports and driving licenses, and living there would be tax-free—provided residents renounced their US citizenship. As has been the case for the past 40 years, Russell Means, the longtime Indian-rights activist, was there, helping see the declaration through and cosigning it. “We are no longer citizens of the United States of America, and all those who live in the five-state area that encompasses our country are free to join us,” he stated.
Means is one of the best-known, most influential activists in the Indian community. He rose to prominence as a leader of the American Indian Movement, and participated in the 1969 takeover of Alcatraz that lasted 19 months. He also participated in AIM’s takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs office in Washington, DC, and was one of the leaders in the famous standoff between Native Americans and the government at Wounded Knee in 1973. In recent years, he has directed Indian youth programs and worked vigorously to improve the conditions for his people in Pine Ridge, SD.
In addition to his lifelong commitment to Indian rights, Means has sought the governorship of New Mexico and battled Ron Paul for the Libertarian Party’s presidential nomination in 1987. Many probably know him best as a talented actor who has appeared in numerous films, most notably Last of the Mohicans and Natural Born Killers. In all his dealings, Means says that he strives “to speak from the heart.” That forthrightness has sometimes caused controversy, but Means remains a vital presence in the American Indian community.
Describe growing up as an Indian.
I was born on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, but I didn’t grow up there—I was five years old when we moved to California. My dad worked in the defense industry as a welder. In large part, I grew up in Northern California, in the Bay Area. I was the only Indian at San Leandro High School until my brother got there in the 10th grade. I was always very conscious of who I am. I always have been—through my relatives and extended family. I made continual visits back home.
When did your activism begin?
Not until after I got out of high school—then the Indian-relocation program was going full swing. [The Relocation Act of 1956 provided funding to establish “job-training centers” for American Indians in various urban areas, and financed the relocation of individuals and whole families to these locales. It was coupled with a denial of funds for similar programs and economic development on the reservations themselves—in fact, those who availed themselves of the “opportunity” were usually required to sign an agreement stating that they wouldn’t return to the reservation to live there.]
I started hanging around with Indian people at the bars in Los Angeles. The forced relocation of American Indians from their land into urban areas forced us to get together as independents. They didn’t put us in specific neighborhoods; they dispersed us throughout different ghettos and barrios. Our only social activity together would be at a local bar. But from the local bar, we formed athletic leagues and social events. That’s how we did our socializing as Indian people. It really opened us up to a whole range of different experiences in thinking from the different Indian peoples.
Talk about the early days of the American Indian Movement.
The American Indian Movement began in Minneapolis. Dennis Banks and Clyde Bellecourt were the founders of AIM. We sat in a hotel room one Saturday afternoon in Minneapolis, and we’re all drinking beer and socializing, and there’s about seven or eight of us, which included some of the women who were founders. We asked questions of ourselves: Who are we? Where did we come from? Why are we? And where are we going? It was the consensus that we return to our respective reservations and find out. We were fortunate that the real old people who had been born in the 1800s were still alive. They’d been raised by people who had been born free. None of them had been contaminated with the white man’s education; they had a clarity of mind and a purity of heart. They had our worldview intact as indigenous people—and, of course, our own language, our own songs.
AIM certainly caused concern for the government. Were you frightened of repercussions?
No, it was an exhilarating time. Freedom is an exhilaration. I believe if you have fear, you can’t be free. We come from a matriarchal society. Patriarchal societies are fear-based societies. Therefore, we had a head start on the rest of humanity, and we had no fear. We have trust in the unseen, to put it one way. The pride that was engendered, the self-dignity, was enormous—and it spread. It was thrilling.
Often there was dissension within the AIM ranks. What caused that?
We’ve all been colonized, unfortunately, and to what degree varies from individual to individual. Those disagreements were initiated out of misguided ego.
You became a prominent spokesperson, a handsome, articulate presence—even charismatic. How do you think you are perceived?
[Laughs] You know, I never thought of myself as good-looking. It wasn’t a consideration in my life. When I first joined AIM, a Crow man told me: “Now that you’ve joined AIM, you’ve made yourself a target. Remember that. But always speak from the heart and you can’t go wrong.” That’s all I’ve done my whole life is speak from the heart. Actually, our whole tradition is that way.
AIM often staged events and protests that were meant to tweak the government—like the Mount Rushmore event, where you and others planted a prayer staff there and renamed it “Mount Crazy Horse.”
The one thing I love in the American Indian Movement, and it was the first thing I learned: Don’t fool with bureaucracy—go right to the top. If you’re going to go to Washington, DC … figure it out. At Mount Rushmore, we went right to the top: These are our treaty rights, we own that land, and we’re going right to the top, man! Four white men up there, and I peed on George Washington’s head—one of the proudest moments of my life. Right in front of God and everybody.
What current obstacles do Natives face?
Well, as far as AIM is concerned, the obstacle has been and will always be the United States of America government and its subsidiaries—until it destroys itself.
Has activism changed over the past 40 years?
There’s a very big difference between then and now. When the civil-rights movement began, it wasn’t called “civil rights.” Everything was liberation—freedom, free speech, black freedom, women’s lib, gay liberation. Liberation, liberation! It was a great time in America. Everywhere you went, everywhere you turned, people were talking about liberation, and it lasted for a good 10 years. When you’re young, that’s a long time.
Then the government threw a couple words in there that killed it all: “civil rights.” All of a sudden, everybody lowered their sights on freedom down to “I want to ask the powerful white males for permission for the same rights and privileges that they have.”
We were now fighting for our “civil rights,” our “equality.” I don’t want to be “equal” to a white man—I don’t want to lower myself! Who wants to be a white male in terms of values? I come from a matriarchal society. Why women would want to lower themselves is beyond me!
How do you view Obama?
The problem is, everybody wants freedom as long as it’s easy—and that’s Obama.
Actually, I have to hand it to the controllers of Americas. They brought in the emperor with new clothes—and the whole world suddenly just changes. Obama offers hope because he’s like a preacher. Americans feel good about themselves. We were the worst people in the world under Bush. But now we’ve got Obama! We’re great Americans again! Even though Obama said before the election he’d consider invading Pakistan. And he’s not leaving Iraq—that’s the new Indian reservation.
Mass psychology, and it happened overnight! I have lived a very fortunate life in a fortunate time. In my lifetime, I witnessed this about America: In the late ’50s, it started turning itself from a producing, productive country into a consumer nation. By the mid-’80s, it was complete—a beautiful study of mass-psychological control of the masses. It was amazing. George Orwell saw it all. Americans are so easily led, like the slaves that they are.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about Native Americans?
There aren’t any misconceptions. There aren’t any conceptions, either—we’re out of sight, out of mind. And Hollywood is the second-most-racist, anti-Indian institution in America—just short of the American government. They’ve perpetuated stereotypes, and that’s what people think of us: We don’t have a brain, we’re still primitive. That’s why they won’t get rid of those sports-team names—we’re out of sight, out of mind. We don’t have any power in the white man’s world, so they don’t have to pay attention to us. They can’t be harmed politically or economically.
You must have distinct views on Hollywood’s Indian films. Give us your take on Dances with Wolves.
Remember Lawrence of Arabia? That was Lawrence of the Plains. The odd thing about making that movie is, they had a woman teaching the actors the Lakota language. But Lakota has a male-gendered language and a female-gendered language. Some of the Indians and Kevin Costner were speaking in the feminine way. When I went to see it with a bunch of Lakota guys, we were laughing.
Good movie … great movie. It was based on the truth—but, unfortunately, it was fictitious. I wish they had focused more on the story of Leonard Peltier itself.
One of the worst. One of the worst! One of the most anti-Indian movies ever. It’s a statement of the Jesuits.
Pathfinder, which you were in?
Huge disappointment. It was Marcus Nispel’s second movie. He remade The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; it made a $100 million, so he was hot at the time. He got to do his passion, which is American Indians. It’s all about violence, and there’s no story—it was a horrible, stereotypical movie and, of course, it starred a white superman who taught us how to fight, where to go, and how to walk across ice and everything else. The Native cast got together to change the dialogue, but it was all cut out. It got panned by critics.
Last of the Mohicans?
Great movie, except for that one scene—what I call the “African village” scene. Back before black liberation took hold on the African continent and in the United States, you always saw the star rescuing the fair maiden in the African village, with the chieftain on his throne and his sub-chiefs around him with all their plumage on. Of course, the entire village is yelling for blood.
I’ll name the movies that were good. In the ’50s, there was Broken Arrow, about Cochise. In the ’60s, there was Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here and Little Big Man. Then there’s The Outlaw Josey Wales and Last of the Mohicans.
One of the things Hollywood does to Indian people is, we’re only allowed to make two kinds of movies: Either we dress up in leather in the summertime, or we have to be drunken, dysfunctional misfits in movies like Skins or Smoke Signals.
In January, Lakota leaders withdrew from all treaties with the United States. You were at the forefront of this action. You even called some tribal councils “Vichy governments,” an allusion to French collaboration with the Nazis during World War II. Do you feel your rhetoric is divisive?
Listen, colonialism is divisive. Not only in America: look at Guatemala, at Africa, Pakistan, India. Colonialism takes its toll. I try to call a spade a spade—I can’t help it if people are brainwashed.
What challenges does the Republic of Lakotah face?
Back in the ’80s, under Carter, this whole five-state area, which is the Republic of Lakotah, was designated as a “national sacrifice area” because of its richness in coal and uranium and iron ore. The Black Hills Alliance defeated mining in the Black Hills through the lobbying of state legislators: Union Carbide, all of them—we beat those guys. That coalition was made up of Indian people, white ranchers—pure Westerners. Now they’re gone, our old people are gone, and just a few Indian people are hanging on.
But there are more battles in the future. We defeated the government interests once with the people of South Dakota, the landowners. And that’s what the Republic of Lakotah is all about: We want to include the landowners—especially family farmers and founding ranchers—in a free country.
The Northern Plains have been called by experts the “Saudi Arabia of wind energy.” The sun shines on the Northern Plains over 300 days a year. We have all of this free energy—we have enough wind, according to experts, to light up every major city in America 24/7, forever. But the coal companies control the energy of the West. Some may say that it’s an impossible dream to fight against those guys and expect to win, but we’re going to. People can only take a police state for so long, and you can’t mess with rural people. Because rural people are, by and large, mostly self-sufficient, or they have a very recent memory of self-sufficiency. They’re not used to being pushed around. So they will react like we did in the ’80s against the planned sacrifice that opened mining in the Black Hills. I can see that through arbitration and mass psychology in this country, they plan to colonize this rural area and the people. That’s another reason why the Republic of Lakotah was re-created. We can defeat them again.
We have non-Indians who have come in. These are new immigrants to the Republic of Lakotah, but these are all professional people, very skilled people. It’s amazing—they’re moving here. It’s not massive, and we wouldn’t want that, because we’re rebuilding the foundation of freedom. It’s going to be a free society. We have our four major plans: health, education, economics and politics.
You’ve run for tribal president in Pine Ridge four times. If you were elected, what would your agenda be?
Freedom—outright sovereignty. If you want to be sovereign, you have to act sovereign. Freedom isn’t free. You’re free to be responsible, and if you want to be responsible—therefore free—it’s hard work. But it’s pleasurable work.
I ran on the “Freedom” ticket on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and 45 percent of my people who voted wanted freedom.
Do you plan to run again?
No. We got a country to run.
Visit russellmeans.com or republicoflakotah.com
On April 2nd, 2009, A jury returned a decision stating that Ward Churchill had been wrongfully fired from his position as a tenured professor at Colorado University. The cause stemmed from the publication of his now infamous essay ‘The Ghosts of 9-1-1: Reflections on History, Justice and Roosting Chickens’. After its initial publication, three years passed until a section of the esay entitled ‘Some People Push Back’ was brought to light by a college newspaper reporter that the essay came under public criticism and caused the circumstances under which Churchill was subsequently fired.
In the full text, Churchill contends that the events of September 11th, 2001 were made inevitable by a foreign policy that puts the rights of corporations inexorably in front of the rights of people, histories or environments, and that the systemic amnesia engendered and perpetuated within the system is its own form of culpability.
Citing the failures of popular movements to cease the sanctions in Iraq during the 1990s, abolish the WTO or its colluding powers at the IMF/World Bank, he charges the left with acquiescing to state powers in deference to that which is comfortable and secure. The phrase, ‘Little Eichmans’ is largely credited for having drawn attention to the essay, a curious objection as the phrase itself was borrowed from a John Zerzan article, published in 1997.
The jury found for Churchill’s suit and held CU liable for the costs of his legal team and an additional one dollar.
The proceedings come at a time of increased scrutinity of college professors. From Norman Finkelstein’s being denied tenure, to Dr. Cornell West’s somewhat fiery departure from Harvard for Princeton, the high halls of academia have held witness to more power struggles than usual of late. The common thread underlying them all though would seem to be a charge of anti-zionism leveled at all the actors involved here. Finkelstein wrote ‘Beyond Ghutspa: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History’ and West chose to leave Harvard after a public row with Larry Summers, a man who equates Anti-Zionism, the refusal of the State of Israel to exist, and Anti-Semitism, the racist bigotry towards a Jewish person. All three, Churchill, Finkelstein and West are all outspoken critics of US Foreign policy, vis-a-vis Palestine. All three have faced massive scrutiny that others in their fields are hardly ever subject to.
The case in point, Churchill was a tenured professor, but was abruptly demonized at the hint of equivalency of complicity of those who oversaw speculative investing and those who who punched tickets for Auschwitz victims. To be sure, there is a very real difference between the two, but what of those who ran the books for the SS? What of those who currently oversee the World Bank funding of dams that have flooded out perhaps 60 million people in India. Tens of thousands of these were farmers who have now committed suicide. What of the one million farmers displaced by US agribusiness in Mexico in the last 8 years who have no choice but to leave their villages and either enter a sweatshop or take the uncertain road north? The US does not send any of these people to be incinerated, but what level of collusion is acceptably equivalent? At what point will the American or even the progressive voices in America cease being voices and become actions in solidarity against such practices? Until Americans, and in particular those Americans who know something is wrong, answer this question, there will continue to be rhetoric, but no response, and the chickens are still out in the field, waiting to come home.
For Churchill, he has been proved triumphant against the school system that fired him. Unrelenting, he is now seeking the school to either reinstate him or award him one million dollars in damages. A Denver District Court Judge will decide within 30 days of the ruling whether additional damages will be awarded.
Why is the USA the way it is? Colonialism! Why are American Indian Reservations in the deplorable state they are? Colonialism! Where are the Global Banking Powers leading the World to?
The (Former) Governor
Takes the Stand
by J. Robert Brown
Former Governor Bill Owens was on the stand for a couple of hours. Not long after the 9/11 essay surfaced, the Governor called on CU to fire Churchill.
David Lane’s main point was to show that the Governor, with line item veto authority over the University of Colorado, applied pressure to get the University to fire Ward Churchill.
The jury heard the former president of CU, Betsy Hoffman, describe a conversation with the Governor where she said he told her to fire Ward Churchill “tomorrow,” that his tone was “threatening,” and that if she didn’t he would “unleash his plan.”
Governor Owens did not specifically recall the conversation but doubted that it was not “in that tenor” and that he did not have a “plan.”
Later, when a partial transcript of an interview on the O’Reilly Factor was put up on the screen, Lane pointed to an exchange where Owens denied he had the authority to fire Churchill but then admitted: “I do have some budget authority over the budget.” Owens declined to admit that this was a threat, noting that its a true statement and repeated over and over that he had actually raised the CU budget during his administration.
On recross, Lane asked whether in fact Governor Owens had a “strategy” for CU if Churchill wasn’t fired. He answered in the negative. Lane then pointed to this exchange on the O’Reilly transcript:
- O’REILLY: One more question for you. You have basically a strategy, and I want to get this right. You’re not going to pay him off, so he’s not going to get the big bucks. You’re going to go through the lengthy process to prove that he did something that you can legitimately fire him [for], and then he goes — “See you.”
- OWENS: That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right. That process is starting. I think it will ultimately result in him being fired.
The quick denial followed by the reference in the O’Reilly Factor caused a slight stir in the courtroom. Governor Owens then repeated that he didn’t have a strategy and that he was merely acknowledging that based on the evidence that he knew, there was sufficient basis to fire Churchill.
Governor Owens did acknowledge in his testimony that he was glad the University had not heeded his advice and fired Churchill immediately after the 9/11 essay surface.
Saturday March 14 – 5:00 PM Mountain Time
Title: RADIO – Russell on Restore the Republic
Location: cyber radio
Link out: Click here
Description: Karen Tostado will the host and Russell will be sharing the latest developments in Sovereignty, Global Economics and South Dakota’s unlawful prosecution for fishing in the TREATY Areas.
“Hau Mi Kola (Hello My Friends). The following missive which I am forwarding to you all, is nothing more than a mirror and this is for those that can think critically.”
The Dictionary of American Empire-Speak
[Note to TomDispatch Readers: This week, the website Foreign Policy In Focus, whose work I greatly admire and whose co-director John Feffer is a TomDispatch regular, will be using this piece to kick off its new strategic focus on empire. FPIF will be exploring the question of whether the Obama administration is likely to wind down our empire or will simply try to implement a somewhat kinder and gentler version of the same. Its weekly e-newsletter, World Beat, is particularly useful and can be subscribed to by clicking here. Tom]
The Imperial Unconscious
Afghan Faces, Predators, Reapers, Terrorist Stars, Roman Conquerors, Imperial Graveyards, and Other Oddities of the Truncated American Century By Tom Engelhardt
Sometimes, it’s the everyday things, the ones that fly below the radar, that matter.
Here, according to Bloomberg News, is part of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s recent testimony on the Afghan War before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee:
“U.S. goals in Afghanistan must be ‘modest, realistic,’ and ‘above all, there must be an Afghan face on this war,’ Gates said. ‘The Afghan people must believe this is their war and we are there to help them. If they think we are there for our own purposes, then we will go the way of every other foreign army that has been in Afghanistan.’”
Now, in our world, a statement like this seems so obvious, so reasonable as to be beyond comment. And yet, stop a moment and think about this part of it: “there must be an Afghan face on this war.” U.S. military and civilian officials used an equivalent phrase in 2005-2006 when things were going really, really wrong in Iraq. It was then commonplace — and no less unremarked upon — for them to urgently suggest that an “Iraqi face” be put on events there.
Evidently back in vogue for a different war, the phrase is revelatory — and oddly blunt. As an image, there’s really only one way to understand it (not that anyone here stops to do so). After all, what does it mean to “put a face” on something that assumedly already has a face? In this case, it has to mean putting an Afghan mask over what we know to be the actual “face” of the Afghan War — ours — a foreign face that men like Gates recognize, quite correctly, is not the one most Afghans want to see. It’s hardly surprising that the Secretary of Defense would pick up such a phrase, part of Washington’s everyday arsenal of words and images when it comes to geopolitics, power, and war.
And yet, make no mistake, this is Empire-speak, American-style. It’s the language — behind which lies a deeper structure of argument and thought — that is essential to Washington’s vision of itself as a planet-straddling goliath. Think of that “Afghan face”/mask, in fact, as part of the flotsam and jetsam that regularly bubbles up from the American imperial unconscious.
Of course, words create realities even though such language, in all its strangeness, essentially passes unnoticed here. Largely uncommented upon, it helps normalize American practices in the world, comfortably shielding us from certain global realities; but it also has the potential to blind us to those realities, which, in perilous times, can be dangerous indeed. So let’s consider just a few entries in what might be thought of as The Dictionary of American Empire-Speak.
War Hidden in Plain Sight: There has recently been much reporting on, and even some debate here about, the efficacy of the Obama administration’s decision to increase the intensity of CIA missile attacks from drone aircraft in what Washington, in a newly coined neologism reflecting a widening war, now calls “Af-Pak” — the Pashtun tribal borderlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Since August 2008, more than 30 such missile attacks have been launched on the Pakistani side of that border against suspected al-Qaeda and Taliban targets. The pace of attacks has actually risen since Barack Obama entered the Oval Office, as have casualties from the missile strikes, as well as popular outrage in Pakistan over the attacks.
Thanks to Senator Diane Feinstein, we also know that, despite strong official Pakistani government protests, someone official in that country is doing more than looking the other way while they occur. As the Senator revealed recently, at least some of the CIA’s unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) cruising the skies over Af-Pak are evidently stationed at Pakistani bases. We learned recently as well that American Special Operations units are now regularly making forays inside Pakistan “primarily to gather intelligence”; that a unit of 70 American Special Forces advisors, a “secret task force, overseen by the United States Central Command and Special Operations Command,” is now aiding and training Pakistani Army and Frontier Corps paramilitary troops, again inside Pakistan; and that, despite (or perhaps, in part, because of) these American efforts, the influence of the Pakistani Taliban is actually expanding, even as Pakistan threatens to melt down.
Mystifyingly enough, however, this Pakistani part of the American war in Afghanistan is still referred to in major U.S. papers as a “covert war.” As news about it pours out, who it’s being hidden from is one of those questions no one bothers to ask.
On February 20th, the New York Times’ Mark Mazzetti and David E. Sanger typically wrote:
“With two missile strikes over the past week, the Obama administration has expanded the covert war run by the Central Intelligence Agency inside Pakistan, attacking a militant network seeking to topple the Pakistani government… Under standard policy for covert operations, the C.I.A. strikes inside Pakistan have not been publicly acknowledged either by the Obama administration or the Bush administration.”
On February 25th, Mazzetti and Helene Cooper reported that new CIA head Leon Panetta essentially bragged to reporters that “the agency’s campaign against militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas was the ‘most effective weapon’ the Obama administration had to combat Al Qaeda’s top leadership… Mr. Panetta stopped short of directly acknowledging the missile strikes, but he said that ‘operational efforts’ focusing on Qaeda leaders had been successful.” Siobhan Gorman of the Wall Street Journal reported the next day that Panetta said the attacks are “probably the most effective weapon we have to try to disrupt al Qaeda right now.” She added, “Mr. Obama and National Security Adviser James Jones have strongly endorsed their use, [Panetta] said.”
Uh, covert war? These “covert” “operational efforts” have been front-page news in the Pakistani press for months, they were part of the U.S. presidential campaign debates, and they certainly can’t be a secret for the Pashtuns in those border areas who must see drone aircraft overhead relatively regularly, or experience the missiles arriving in their neighborhoods.
In the U.S., “covert war” has long been a term for wars like the U.S.-backed Contra War against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua in the 1980s, which were openly discussed, debated, and often lauded in this country. To a large extent, when aspects of these wars have actually been “covert” — that is, purposely hidden from anyone — it has been from the American public, not the enemies being warred upon. At the very least, however, such language, however threadbare, offers official Washington a kind of “plausible deniability” when it comes to thinking about what kind of an “American face” we present to the world.
Imperial Naming Practices: In our press, anonymous U.S. officials now point with pride to the increasing “precision” and “accuracy” of those drone missile attacks in taking out Taliban or al-Qaeda figures without (supposedly) taking out the tribespeople who live in the same villages or neighboring compounds. Such pieces lend our air war an almost sterile quality. They tend to emphasize the extraordinary lengths to which planners go to avoid “collateral damage.” To many Americans, it must then seem strange, even irrational, that perfectly non-fundamentalist Pakistanis should be quite so outraged about attacks aimed at the world’s worst terrorists.
On the other hand, consider for a moment the names of those drones now regularly in the skies over “Pashtunistan.” These are no less regularly published in our press to no comment at all. The most basic of the armed drones goes by the name of Predator, a moniker which might as well have come directly from those nightmarish sci-fi movies about an alien that feasts on humans. Undoubtedly, however, it was used in the way Col. Michael Steele of the 101st Airborne Division meant it when he exhorted his brigade deploying to Iraq (according to Thomas E. Ricks’ new book The Gamble) to remember: “You’re the predator.”
The Predator drone is armed with “only” two missiles. The more advanced drone, originally called the Predator B, now being deployed to the skies over Af-Pak, has been dubbed the Reaper — as in the Grim Reaper. Now, there’s only one thing such a “hunter-killer UAV” could be reaping, and you know just what that is: lives. It can be armed with up to 14 missiles (or four missiles and two 500-pound bombs), which means it packs quite a deadly wallop.
Oh, by the way, those missiles are named as well. They’re Hellfire missiles. So, if you want to consider the nature of this covert war in terms of names alone: Predators and Reapers are bringing down the fire from some satanic hell upon the peasants, fundamentalist guerrillas, and terrorists of the Af-Pak border regions.
In Washington, when the Af-Pak War is discussed, it’s in the bloodless, bureaucratic language of “global counterinsurgency” or “irregular warfare” (IW), of “soft power,” “hard power,” and “smart power.” But flying over the Pashtun wildlands is the blunt-edged face of predation and death, ready at a moment’s notice to deliver hellfire to those below.
Imperial Arguments: Let’s pursue this just a little further. Faced with rising numbers of civilian casualties from U.S. and NATO air strikes in Afghanistan and an increasingly outraged Afghan public, American officials tend to place the blame for most sky-borne “collateral damage” squarely on the Taliban. As Joint Chiefs Chairman Michael Mullen bluntly explained recently, “[T]he enemy hides behind civilians.” Hence, so this Empire-speak argument goes, dead civilians are actually the Taliban’s doing.
U.S. military and civilian spokespeople have long accused Taliban guerrillas of using civilians as “shields,” or even of purposely luring devastating air strikes down on Afghan wedding parties to create civilian casualties and so inflame the sensibilities of rural Afghanistan. This commonplace argument has two key features: a claim that they made us do it (kill civilians) and the implication that the Taliban fighters “hiding” among innocent villagers or wedding revelers are so many cowards, willing to put their fellow Pashtuns at risk rather than come out and fight like men — and, of course, given the firepower arrayed against them, die.
The U.S. media regularly records this argument without reflecting on it. In this country, in fact, the evil of combatants “hiding” among civilians seems so self-evident, especially given the larger evil of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, that no one thinks twice about it.
And yet like so much of Empire-speak on a one-way planet, this argument is distinctly uni-directional. What’s good for the guerrilla goose, so to speak, is inapplicable to the imperial gander. To illustrate, consider the American “pilots” flying those unmanned Predators and Reapers. We don’t know exactly where all of them are (other than not in the drones), but some are certainly at Nellis Air Force Base just outside Las Vegas.
In other words, were the Taliban guerrillas to leave the protection of those civilians and come out into the open, there would be no enemy to fight in the usual sense, not even a predatory one. The pilot firing that Hellfire missile into some Pakistani border village or compound is, after all, using the UAV’s cameras, including by next year a new system hair-raisingly dubbed “Gorgon Stare,” to locate his target and then, via console, as in a single-shooter video game, firing the missile, possibly from many thousands of miles away.
And yet nowhere in our world will you find anyone making the argument that those pilots are in “hiding” like so many cowards. Such a thought seems absurd to us, as it would if it were applied to the F-18 pilots taking off from aircraft carriers off the Afghan coast or the B-1 pilots flying out of unnamed Middle Eastern bases or the Indian Ocean island base of Diego Garcia. And yet, whatever those pilots may do in Afghan skies, unless they experience a mechanical malfunction, they are in no more danger than if they, too, were somewhere outside Las Vegas. In the last seven years, a few helicopters, but no planes, have gone down in Afghanistan.
When the Afghan mujahedeen fought the Soviets in the 1980s, the CIA supplied them with hand-held Stinger missiles, the most advanced surface-to-air missile in the U.S. arsenal, and they did indeed start knocking Soviet helicopters and planes out of the skies (which proved the beginning of the end for the Russians). The Afghan or Pakistani Taliban or al-Qaeda terrorists have no such capability today, which means, if you think about it, that what we here imagine as an “air war” involves none of the dangers we would normally associate with war. Looked at in another light, those missile strikes and bombings are really one-way acts of slaughter.
The Taliban’s tactics are, of course, the essence of guerrilla warfare, which always involves an asymmetrical battle against more powerful armies and weaponry, and which, if successful, always depends on the ability of the guerrilla to blend into the environment, natural and human, or, as Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong so famously put it, to “swim” in the “sea of the people.”
If you imagine your enemy simply using the villagers of Afghanistan as “shields” or “hiding” like so many cowards among them, you are speaking the language of imperial power but also blinding yourself (or the American public) to the actual realities of the war you’re fighting.
Imperial Jokes: In October 2008, Rafael Correa, the president of Ecuador, refused to renew the U.S. lease at Manta Air Base, one of at least 761 foreign bases, macro to micro, that the U.S. garrisons worldwide. Correa reportedly said: “We’ll renew the base on one condition: that they let us put a base in Miami — an Ecuadorean base. If there’s no problem having foreign soldiers on a country’s soil, surely they’ll let us have an Ecuadorean base in the United States.”
This qualifies as an anti-imperial joke. The “leftist” president of Ecuador was doing no more than tweaking the nose of goliath. An Ecuadorian base in Miami? Absurd. No one on the planet could take such a suggestion seriously.
On the other hand, when it comes to the U.S. having a major base in Kyrgyzstan, a Central Asian land that not one in a million Americans has ever heard of, that’s no laughing matter. After all, Washington has been paying $20 million a year in direct rent for the use of that country’s Manas Air Base (and, as indirect rent, another $80 million has gone to various Kyrgyzstani programs). As late as last October, the Pentagon was planning to sink another $100 million into construction at Manas “to expand aircraft parking areas at the base and provide a ‘hot cargo pad’ — an area safe enough to load and unload hazardous and explosive cargo — to be located away from inhabited facilities.” That, however, was when things started to go wrong. Now, Kyrgyzstan’s parliament has voted to expel the U.S. from Manas within six months, a serious blow to our resupply efforts for the Afghan War. More outrageous yet to Washington, the Kyrgyzstanis seem to have done this at the bidding of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who has the nerve to want to reestablish a Russian sphere of influence in what used to be the borderlands of the old Soviet Union.
Put in a nutshell, despite the crumbling U.S. economic situation and the rising costs of the Afghan War, we still act as if we live on a one-way planet. Some country demanding a base in the U.S.? That’s a joke or an insult, while the U.S. potentially gaining or losing a base almost anywhere on the planet may be an insult, but it’s never a laughing matter.
Imperial Thought: Recently, to justify those missile attacks in Pakistan, U.S. officials have been leaking details on the program’s “successes” to reporters. Anonymous officials have offered the “possibly wishful estimate” that the CIA “covert war” has led to the deaths (or capture) of 11 of al Qaeda’s top 20 commanders, including, according to a recent Wall Street Journal report, “Abu Layth al-Libi, whom U.S. officials described as ‘a rising star’ in the group.”
“Rising star” is such an American phrase, melding as it does imagined terror hierarchies with the lingo of celebrity tabloids. In fact, one problem with Empire-speak, and imperial thought more generally, is the way it prevents imperial officials from imagining a world not in their own image. So it’s not surprising that, despite their best efforts, they regularly conjure up their enemies as a warped version of themselves — hierarchical, overly reliant on leaders, and top heavy.
In the Vietnam era, for instance, American officials spent a remarkable amount of effort sending troops to search for, and planes to bomb, the border sanctuaries of Cambodia and Laos on a fruitless hunt for COSVN (the so-called Central Office for South Vietnam), the supposed nerve center of the communist enemy, aka “the bamboo Pentagon.” Of course, it wasn’t there to be found, except in Washington’s imperial imagination.
In the Af-Pak “theater,” we may be seeing a similar phenomenon. Underpinning the CIA killer-drone program is a belief that the key to combating al-Qaeda (and possibly the Taliban) is destroying its leadership one by one. As key Pakistani officials have tried to explain, the missile attacks, which have indeed killed some al-Qaeda and Pakistani Taliban figures (as well as whoever was in their vicinity), are distinctly counterproductive. The deaths of those figures in no way compensates for the outrage, the destabilization, the radicalization that the attacks engender in the region. They may, in fact, be functionally strengthening each of those movements.
What it’s hard for Washington to grasp is this: “decapitation,” to use another American imperial term, is not a particularly effective strategy with a decentralized guerrilla or terror organization. The fact is a headless guerrilla movement is nowhere near as brainless or helpless as a headless Washington would be.
Only recently, Eric Schmitt and Jane Perlez of the New York Times reported that, while top U.S. officials were exhibiting optimism about the effectiveness of the missile strikes, Pakistani officials were pointing to “ominous signs of Al Qaeda’s resilience” and suggesting “that Al Qaeda was replenishing killed fighters and midlevel leaders with less experienced but more hard-core militants, who are considered more dangerous because they have fewer allegiances to local Pakistani tribes… The Pakistani intelligence assessment found that Al Qaeda had adapted to the blows to its command structure by shifting ‘to conduct decentralized operations under small but well-organized regional groups’ within Pakistan and Afghanistan.”
Imperial Dreams and Nightmares: Americans have rarely liked to think of themselves as “imperial,” so what is it about Rome in these last years? First, the neocons, in the flush of seeming victory in 2002-2003 began to imagine the U.S. as a “new Rome” (or new British Empire), or as Charles Krauthammer wrote as early as February 2001 in Time Magazine, “America is no mere international citizen. It is the dominant power in the world, more dominant than any since Rome.”
All roads on this planet, they were then convinced, led ineluctably to Washington. Now, of course, they visibly don’t, and the imperial bragging about surpassing the Roman or British empires has long since faded away. When it comes to the Afghan War, in fact, those (resupply) “roads” seem to lead, embarrassingly enough, through Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Russia, and Iran. But the comparison to conquering Rome evidently remains on the brain.
When, for instance, Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post recently, drumming up support for the revised, age-of-Obama American mission in Afghanistan, he just couldn’t help starting off with an inspiring tale about the Romans and a small Italian city-state, Locri, that they conquered. As he tells it, the ruler the Romans installed in Locri, a rapacious fellow named Pleminius, proved a looter and a tyrant. And yet, Mullen assures us, the Locrians so believed in “the reputation for equanimity and fairness that Rome had built” that they sent a delegation to the Roman Senate, knowing they could get a hearing, and demanded restitution; and indeed, the tyrant was removed.
Admittedly, this seems a far-fetched analogy to the U.S. in Afghanistan (and don’t for a second mix up Pleminius, that rogue, with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, even though the Obama-ites evidently now believe him corrupt and replaceable). Still, as Mullen sees it, the point is: “We don’t always get it right. But like the early Romans, we strive in the end to make it right. We strive to earn trust. And that makes all the difference.”
Mullen is, it seems, the Aesop of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and, in his somewhat overheated brain, we evidently remain the conquering (but just) “early” Romans — before, of course, the fatal rot set in.
And then there’s the Washington Post’s Thomas Ricks, a superb reporter who, in his latest book, gives voice to the views of Centcom Commander David Petraeus. Reflecting on Iraq, where he (like the general) believes we could still be fighting in “2015,” Ricks begins a recent Post piece this way:
“In October 2008, as I was finishing my latest book on the Iraq war, I visited the Roman Forum during a stop in Italy. I sat on a stone wall on the south side of the Capitoline Hill and studied the two triumphal arches at either end of the Forum, both commemorating Roman wars in the Middle East… The structures brought home a sad realization: It’s simply unrealistic to believe that the U.S. military will be able to pull out of the Middle East… It was a week when U.S. forces had engaged in combat in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan — a string of countries stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean — following in the footsteps of Alexander the Great, the Romans and the British.”
With the waning of British power, Ricks continues, it “has been the United States’ turn to take the lead there.” And our turn, as it happens, just isn’t over yet. Evidently that, at least, is the view from our imperial capital and from our military viceroys out on the peripheries.
Honestly, Freud would have loved these guys. They seem to channel the imperial unconscious. Take David Petraeus. For him, too, the duties and dangers of empire evidently weigh heavily on the brain. Like a number of key figures, civilian and military, he has lately begun to issue warnings about Afghanistan’s dangers. As the Washington Post reported, “[Petraeus] suggested that the odds of success were low, given that foreign military powers have historically met with defeat in Afghanistan. ‘Afghanistan has been known over the years as the graveyard of empires,’ he said. ‘We cannot take that history lightly.’”
Of course, he’s worrying about the graveyard aspect of this, but what I find curious — exactly because no one thinks it odd enough to comment on here — is the functional admission in the use of this old adage about Afghanistan that we fall into the category of empires, whether or not in search of a graveyard in which to die.
And he’s not alone in this. Secretary of Defense Gates put the matter similarly recently: “Without the support of the Afghan people, Gates said, the U.S. would simply ‘go the way of every other foreign army that’s ever been in Afghanistan.’”
Imperial Blindness: Think of the above as just a few prospective entries in The Dictionary of American Empire-Speak that will, of course, never be compiled. We’re so used to such language, so inured to it and to the thinking behind it, so used, in fact, to living on a one-way planet in which all roads lead to and from Washington, that it doesn’t seem like a language at all. It’s just part of the unexamined warp and woof of everyday life in a country that still believes it normal to garrison the planet, regularly fight wars halfway across the globe, find triumph or tragedy in the gain or loss of an air base in a country few Americans could locate on a map, and produce military manuals on counterinsurgency warfare the way a do-it-yourself furniture maker would produce instructions for constructing a cabinet from a kit.
We don’t find it strange to have 16 intelligence agencies, some devoted to listening in on, and spying on, the planet, or capable of running “covert wars” in tribal borderlands thousands of miles distant, or of flying unmanned drones over those same borderlands destroying those who come into camera view. We’re inured to the bizarreness of it all and of the language (and pretensions) that go with it.
If The Dictionary of American Empire-Speak were ever produced, who here would buy it? Who would feel the need to check out what seems like the only reasonable and self-evident language for describing the world? How else, after all, would we operate? How else would any American in a position of authority talk in Washington or Baghdad or Islamabad or Rome?
So it undoubtedly seemed to the Romans, too. And we know what finally happened to their empire and the language that went with it. Such a language plays its role in normalizing the running of an empire. It allows officials (and in our case the media as well) not to see what would be inconvenient to the smooth functioning of such an enormous undertaking. Embedded in its words and phrases is a fierce way of thinking (even if we don’t see it that way), as well as plausible deniability. And in the good times, its uses are obvious.
On the other hand, when the normal ways of empire cease to function well, that same language can suddenly work to blind the imperial custodians — which is, after all, what the foreign policy “team” of the Obama era is — to necessary realities. At a moment when it might be important to grasp what the “American face” in the mirror actually looks like, you can’t see it.
And sometimes what you can’t bring yourself to see can, as now, hurt you.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the American Age of Denial. He also edited The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), a collection of some of the best pieces from his site and an alternative history of the mad Bush years.
[Note: In thinking about a prospective Dictionary of American Empire-Speak, I found four websites particularly useful for keeping me up to date: Juan Cole's invaluable Informed Comment (I don't know how he stays at day-in, day-out, year after year); Antiwar.com and the War in Context, where editors with sharp eyes for global developments seem to be on the prowl 24/7; and last but by no means least, Noah Shachtman's Danger Room blog at Wired.com. Focused on the latest military developments, from strategy and tactics to hunter-killer drones and "robo-beasts," Danger Room is not only a must-follow site, but gives an everyday sense of the imperial bizarreness of our American world. Finally, a deep bow of thanks to Christopher Holmes, who keeps the copyediting lights burning in Japan, and TomDispatch eternally chugging along.]
Copyright 2009 Tom Engelhardt