Reprinted from Truthdig
Indonesia's former President Suharto. It was in Suharto's brutal three-decade reign that Indonesia invaded East Timor, where investigative journalist Allan Nairn covered atrocities the general's troops committed.
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Terror, intimidation and violence are the glue that holds empire together. Aerial bombardment, drone and missile attacks, artillery and mortar strikes, targeted assassinations, massacres, the detention of tens of thousands, death squad killings, torture, wholesale surveillance, extraordinary renditions, curfews, propaganda, a loss of civil liberties and pliant political puppets are the grist of our wars and proxy wars.
Countries we seek to dominate, from Indonesia and Guatemala to Iraq and Afghanistan, are intimately familiar with these brutal mechanisms of control. But the reality of empire rarely reaches the American public. The few atrocities that come to light are dismissed as isolated aberrations. The public is assured what has been uncovered will be investigated and will not take place again. The goals of empire, we are told by a subservient media and our ruling elites, are virtuous and noble. And the vast killing machine grinds forward, feeding, as it has always done, the swollen bank accounts of defense contractors and corporations that exploit natural resources and cheap labor around the globe.
There are very few journalists who have covered empire with more courage, tenacity and integrity than Allan Nairn. For more than three decades, he has reported from Central America, East Timor, Palestine, South Africa, Haiti and Indonesia -- where Indonesian soldiers fractured his skull and arrested him. His reporting on the Indonesian government massacres in East Timor saw him branded a "threat to national security" and officially banned from occupied East Timor.
Nairn returned clandestinely to East Timor on numerous occasions. His dogged reporting of torture and killing of civilians by the Indonesian military contributed to the U.S. Congress suspending military aid to Jakarta in 1993. He exposed U.S. complicity with death squads and paramilitary organizations carrying out murderous rampages in El Salvador, Guatemala and Haiti. During the 2014 presidential elections in Indonesia, where he spends much of his time, Nairn was threatened with arrest for exposing presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto's role in atrocities. Nairn's reporting on army massacres was an important component in the trial of former Guatemalan President Efrain Ros Montt. Gen. Montt ordered the killing of over 1,700 people in the Ixil region of the country in the early 1980s and was convicted in 2013 of genocide and crimes against humanity. He was sentenced to 80 years in prison. The conviction was later overturned.
Nairn, whom I spoke with in New York, reaches back to the genocide carried out against Native Americans, the institution of slavery and the murder of hundreds of workers and labor union organizers in the 19th and early 20th century to explain the roots of American imperial violence. He noted that, although wholesale massacres have become taboo on American soil in recent generations, the FBI was carrying out selective assassinations of black radicals, including Fred Hampton, in the 1960s. And police show little constraint in gunning down unarmed people of color in poor communities.
But overseas there are no restrictions. The indiscriminate slaughter of real or imagined opponents is considered a prerogative of imperial power. Violence is the primary language we use to speak to the rest of the world. Equivalents of Wounded Knee and My Lai take place beyond our borders with an unacknowledged frequency.
"To this day," Nairn said, "it is politically permissible for U.S. forces to carry out or sponsor assassinations of civilians -- students, journalists, religious leaders, peasant organizers, whomever. In fact, in U.S. politics, if presidents are reluctant, or seem reluctant to do this, they get castigated. They get called a wimp. George Bush Sr. came under vicious attack when he attempted through covert means to mount a coup in Panama against [Manuel] Noriega and it failed. And there was a cover[of Newsweek, with the headline 'Fighting the "Wimp Factor"'] where they were attacking Bush Sr. for not being strong enough."
"I think it was within a week after that he invaded Panama formally, an invasion that included the burning of the neighborhood called El Chorrillo, where hundreds were killed, a poor neighborhood. The New York Times then ran a front-page analysis by R.W. Apple which said that Bush Sr. had completed his presidential initiation rite by demonstrating his willingness to shed blood," Nairn went on. "Not his own blood, but the blood of foreigners, including of foreign civilians."
"It's basically a refusal on the part of American society to enforce the murder laws when the killings are done by presidents or generals, and where the victims are foreigners," he said. "Now, all big powers do this. But in the recent period, because the U.S. has been the dominant power, the U.S. has the biggest death toll. If you added all the operations up it would go into the several millions. Just to list the ones that I've personally seen and tried to expose and fight against: Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Haiti, South Africa, Palestine, East Timor, Indonesia, southern Thailand. I'm sure I'm leaving out a few. The U.S. has used the Pentagon, the CIA, occasionally the State Department to set up or back local forces, help them gather intelligence on dissidents, and help them provide the means to carry out systematic assassinations."
Assassinations and torture are often accompanied in these wars and proxy wars by massacres by government troops that routinely "wipe out whole villages," Nairn said,
"The Guatemalan military did that, especially during the early '80s when the Reagan administration was backing them enthusiastically under the time of the dictator Gen. Rios Montt," Nairn said. "They would go into villages in the Mayan highlands in the northwest. ... I was there, I spoke to the soldiers as they were doing it, I spoke to survivors ... [and] they would decapitate people. They would crucify people. They would use the tactics that ISIS today puts on video that are now shocking the world."
"The powers have always been willing to use these tactics," he said. "And for centuries they were proud of it. All you have to do is look at the holy texts of the major religions -- the Bible, the Quran, the Torah. They're full of one massacre after another. People forget. The story of David and Goliath is put forward as a great story. At the end of that story David decapitates Goliath. He parades around holding up his head. For years and years the powers were proud of these tactics. They advertised it."
"As recently as the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt, U.S. presidents were still boasting about it," Nairn said. "Go back and read [Roosevelt's] writings. He's repeatedly ... talking about the necessity to shed blood, the necessity to kill. Otherwise a person could not be healthy, otherwise a polity could not be healthy. This was Teddy Roosevelt. You can't do that in today's U.S. You can't do that really in any major country today. The only partial exception to that at the level of rhetoric is Israel. Israeli generals and politicians still talk openly about the need to shed Palestinian blood. But they're really the only ones. Everywhere else -- Europe, Russia, China, the U.S. -- they have to hide their [activities]."
I first met Nairn in 1984 while I was covering the war in El Salvador. In that year he published an explosive investigative piece in The Progressive magazine titled "Behind the Death Squads." The article detailed U.S. backing, training and arming of the death squads in El Salvador that were murdering, and often torturing and mutilating, hundreds of people a month. His article led to an investigation by the Senate Intelligence Committee.
U.S. commanders in Iraq, attempting to quell the Sunni insurgency in 2004, reached back to the terror tactics used in El Salvador. They formulated a plan called "The Salvador Option" to train and arm Shiite paramilitary units. Former U.S. Army Col. James Steele, who in the 1980s in El Salvador headed the U.S. Military Group or MilGroup, which advised the Salvadoran army during the war, was sent to Iraq by Donald Rumsfeld as a civilian adviser. Steele, who had fought in Vietnam, was assigned to the Iraqi paramilitary Special Police Commandos, a unit known as the "Wolf Brigade."