Later, as McChrystal was signing the book I purchased, in a friendly tone I took the moment to rub it in: "How can you say with a straight face you've been a peace activist for the past 30 years?" All the humanitarian, nation-building work his soldiers had done in villages in Iraq and Afghanistan building things like schools and roads, he said, was about making peace. (This was before the rise of ISIS in Anbar Province. Now, I'd ask him how the invasion and his elite-killer, manhunting raids advanced peace in Anbar Province. All the COIN construction projects and the bribes didn't seem to do much good.)
"Oh, c'mon!" I said to him in my best man-to-man good humor. "What you are is a brilliant manager of killers."
He weighed this and simply shrugged. He handed me my book and smiled toward the next person in line. My friend and I joked that he was so nice we felt like asking him out for a beer.
But Do Killers Always Keep Us Safe?
We live in an age of fear. "Bad guys" are out to get us. As our leaders give the obligatory assurances about American Exceptionalism and as Americans more and more absorb that assurance, the rest of the world is on the rise. Many people around the world are aware of US actions and don't buy the American line. We all know patriotic Americans are not supposed to mention the world Imperialism -- but, blinders down, that's the big question looming over the future of America: Do we as a nation maturely assess the mess we're in and begin to ratchet down the imperial arrogance of the past century and pay more attention to the many festering problems here at home? Or do we assail the weaknesses of our black president and re-mobilize the America that maintains over 1000 foreign bases to once again be the feared Ruler of the World many Americans see as our God-given destiny?
How do you convince Americans that, while unaccountable lethal manhunting may disrupt people we've declared our enemies, in the long run it only infuriates them even more than they were before a campaign of focused killing was unleashed on them. Counterinsurgency expert William Polk says scorched earth is the only effective tactic in this field, and that's out-of-bounds politically. ISIS (aka ISIL, the Islamic State or Daesh) is the neon-sign example of this. Personally offended by the rise of ISIS, Lindsey Graham, a non-macho, bachelor candidate for president, declared as president he would bring back the feared America of the past. This no doubt meant a new wave of killing necessary to transcend Obama's weakness and return America to greatness. We will hear a lot of this over the next 18 months.
Richard Slotkin best summed up this political line in his book Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860.
"The first colonists saw in America an opportunity to regenerate their fortunes, their spirits, and the power of their church and nation; but the means of that regeneration ultimately became the means of violence, and the myth of regeneration through violence became the structuring metaphor of the American experience."
Besides eliminating undesired humans, killing makes things simple. It purges the mind of all the difficult challenges of diplomacy. Plus, if things go off the rails, the militarist never admits making a mistake and always has a ready answer: They employ the tried-and-true stabbed-in-the-back myth and blame those of us against the violence in the first place for not supporting the violence.
Hastings wrote that McChrystal conceded, "We've shot an amazing number of people." A savvy political general, no one knows better than McChrystal that killing lots of civilians eventually creates a PR challenge. He's written that drone attacks are seen as cowardly by local people in places like Pakistan and, thus, drones create more animosity than good. When he got to Afghanistan, where there was pressure from President Hamid Karzai, McChrystal worked to cut down on civilian killings. Hastings reported there was even talk of creating a new medal for "courageous restraint."
Award medals for not killing people? That's a brilliant idea. Think of all the authentic peace activists who might be awarded such a national medal for advocating restraint of our warmongers. On February 15, 2003, that would have entailed about ten million people worldwide. Think of presidential acts that might be honored for the restraint of killing.
JFK used courageous restraint not caving in to bomb-crazy Curtis LeMay over Cuba. Consider if Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger had employed courageous restraint in Indochina. And let's not forget George W. Bush, who we don't hear much from these days. If it had been more important to him to be smart and restrained than to strut around as a macho Texas killer, think how much better off the world would be today. OK, Iraq might not be a democratic paradise of freedom, but there would be no You Tubes of ISIS fanatics slicing off heads. And Iran would not have been handed the keys to Iraq.
The quote at the top by George Orwell has always troubled me, since I admire Orwell as a man of the left. But he was right: There are many dangers in life, and anyone who denies "rough men" -- in the role of a military and community police -- are often necessary to keep a community "safe" is living a delusion. At the same time, if those "rough men" begin to see themselves narcissistically as an elite, insular, secret unit apart from the rest of us ... then, I hope Orwell would agree, we're in trouble.
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