Check Out John Oliver on Drones

MQ-9_Reaper_2Last weekend, John Oliver, host of the HBO comedy news show Last Week Tonight offered a helpful reminder to the world at large that US drone strikes are still happening.

On the day this episode broadcast, four suspected militant were killed by a drone strike in northwest Pakistan. Earlier in the week, as Oliver noted, the US hit Pakistan (10 dead) and Yemen (two killed, some children reportedly injured) and barely anyone reported on it. Were the individuals killed in the strikes Al-Qaeda, militants of some kind? Sure, maybe. Or maybe not. Hard to tell — not that the US government wants us to tell.

Oliver’s funny, angry piece is a great summary of the lawlessness of the US’s drone policy, going from President Obama’s ill-advised drone striking the Jonas Brothers joke in 2009, to the fact that “imminent threat” and “civilian casualty” mean whatever the government wants them to mean.

The highlight in terms of gut punches is footage of Yemeni civilians testifying to the psychological terror that drones bring.

Watch it:

Or, send it to people who know less about drones than you do, so that they get the picture. Iraq and Syria are a fair distraction, but we need to remember that this stuff is happening, too. Oliver gets many props for summing up the dark absurdity of the drone program in such an accessible, and grimly hilarious fashion.



Support the Christmas Truce Troops

Imperial War Museum
Imperial War Museum

Almost 100 years ago, nearly 100,000 men on the Western Front in Europe stopped fighting the Great War for a while. Some stopped for a few days, some — especially those who began the truce on Boxing Day or later — lasted until the start of 1915. In some places, this friendliness only stopped because the higher-ups got nervous. Some battalions were moved from the front lines with little warning, ostensibly because they had fraternized with the enemy. With the war only a few months old, but not, as had been promised, “over by Christmas” hundreds of thousands of men tried, briefly, to make that so. Had they succeeded, the world might be incomprehensibly different than it is today. It’s likely the second world war would never have been fought. So different would country borders, human lives, and events have been, that it’s sort of pointless to think about it. But it’s difficult not to.

For the last week or so, a few newspapers and magazines — mostly British — have published pieces on the famous, seemingly mythic, but quite true Christmas Truce. Either in celebration of its 99th year, or in a banal effort to update it for modern, troubled times, or just as an excuse for a soccer game,  people still remember it because it’s a powerful,  almost-cinematic story. But they don’t remember it the way we remember “the troops” as an abstract, vaguely positive concept. They don’t remember it as something that could be more than a nice Christmas story.

The brilliant film The Americanization of Emily doesn’t simply satirize war, but it also critiques the way we remember it — through memorials, parades, and war widows who wring their hands. It’s much harder and arguably crueler to go after the well-intentioned mourning the dead like that. But it has a larger purpose. We are told that the soldiers fight for us and for our freedom. They even fight for those of us who are ungrateful. Like Jesus dying for heathens who weren’t interested in his sacrifice, we are guilt-tripped by slogans, flags, and bumper stickers into assuming — at least initially — that a conflict is good by virtue of American participation in it.

And though nobody should condemn individuals mourning, the mass mourning for troops is what must end. When one soldier or another dies in Afghanistan, I didn’t lose a loved one. The only one who lost a loved one is the friends and family of that one soldier. And they may have participated in the war in miniscule. They may have joined up because of limited economic opportunity. They definitely may have meant well and caused relatively little harm. But that is not heroism. And at least for the politicians, war must stop being forgivable simply because you expressed noble virtues when you began it. And thoughtlessly supporting the troops is a nasty, sneaky crack through which more and more forgiveness and moral relativism sneaks through until it doesn’t matter what happened because America means well.

What does that have to do with the truce, now winding down 99 years ago across Western Europe? The men who truced had seen six months of war and thought, that’ll about do. They traded buttons and baubles from their uniforms. They played soccer. They shook hands. Next year, a grand soccer game will be held in Ypres, Belgium, in honor of the truce and where it first began. Hopefully the sports won’t be all that is celebrated.

Every Christmas Eve I toast the truce with some kind of semi-appropriate alcohol — whisky, scotch, or gin. I anachronistically read the war poems of Wilfred Owen and his mentor Siegfried Sassoon. Those two Brits hadn’t yet joined up, but their bitter, antiwar poems fit with the mood. I have no reason to feel the sense of ownership for the truce that I do. My country hadn’t even joined the fight. I have only the faintest knowledge of a great great uncle or two who was in the war somewhere. But if the American fighting men (and women) are supposed to be fighting for us, no matter the conflict or the cause or their actions, why can’t I pick the truce instead? Why can’t I have a piece of it, and a piece of Raoul Wallenberg, and a piece of all the draft dodgers, from the ones who burned their draft cards in protest, to the ones who quietly slinked away to Canada? Why can’t we have holidays and parades for them, those real people who chose to do something besides take the war that was offered them? And why can’t we forget the hazy, pillowy-soft repetition that says the Spanish American War is the Great War, is World War II, is Vietnam, is Iraq. And as long as you joined up, you’re a hero? Because we don’t want to tell grieving families that the war their loved one died in was a mistake? What’s the cost of that mass politeness? Well, it’s Iraqi car bombs that are blurbs, not front page news. And it’s the war in Afghanistan becoming staggeringly unpopular 12 years too late. But maybe, finally,  it’s also how America didn’t go into Syria, even though for a few stomach-twisting weeks, it felt inevitable. It always feels that way.

Wars, once they began, seem like they will never end. But once in a while, a few — or a few thousand men — try to stop them. And there are still soldiers who willingly sign up for war, then turn against it. Support those troops. Remember those troops.

November 11 Should Still be Called Armistice Day

L'Armistice_à_Paris,_1918The British and the Canadians call today Remembrance Day, or Armistice Day. In the United States, it’s been known as Veterans Day since the end of the Korean War. Americans are much more divorced from WWI than people in Europe or Canada. Understandable, since the conflict  never touched our soil, and it killed “only” 125,000 men in less than two years.

Today Veterans Day is an excuse to salute living veterans of various wars, and to thank them all. But never mind what the calendar says, we should keep calling it Armistice Day. Because that’s what happened on November 11 — World War One endd.

It’s not as if when the U.S. called it Armistice Day, it was a peacenik’s holiday. No holiday officially mandated by President Woodrow Wilson could ever be that. But all the same, the switch — signed by President Dwight Eisenhower, after a WWII veteran rallied for it — to a day for all veterans suggests a diminishing amount of critical thought about the meaning of the holiday. Or, at least an end to more peaceful platitudes and a drift towards more dangerous ones.

World War I was a terrible thing. Its existence assured the world of a second, much worse conflict. The Treaty of Versailles’s draconian terms hit Germany with blame for everything. Hyperinflation, depression, and resentment paved a road to Hitler. But on November 11, 1918, the war stopped. A war ending — one particular war that included particular, real men is something worth celebrating and considering. Because what is being celebrated on Veterans Day is an abstraction. Nobody is thanking of the individuals who may have been well-intentioned, and then changed their minds. Not the ones who were aching to play warrior, or the ones who had limited economic opportunities. Definitely not the ones who came back with PTSD-addled brains, or antiwar ideas.

Today is not the day to remember how the armed forces aren’t dealing with what they’ve made. Individuals in society may want soldiers to have medical care, and they definitely want to salute them in parades. They will happily change their Facebook statuses to “thank you” today.  But nobody really wants to deal with what happens after wars — with skyrocketing suicide rates or traumatic brain injuries in Americans. The other side of our wars won’t even get a mention today, and the numbers of dead are a hell of a lot higher there.

One exception to the fever of banal kindness is Justin Doolittle’s Salon essay headlined “Stop thanking the troops for me.” At one point in the piece, he notes that sporting events often involve explicitly pro-military raw-raw rabble-rousing. Even sports advertising is closely tied with heart-warming military ads. One example is the Bank of America ad that played incessantly during baseball season.  

“Bank of America and the Hughes family” tells us about Caroline Hughes, William Hughes, John Hughes Jr, John Anderson Hughes, and Robert Hughes who have served in Haiti, Vietnam, World War II (specifically Normandy), World War I (cavalry), and the Spanish-American war. A long line of folks all in the U.S. military, with the artifacts and the photographs to prove it.

This is a very tidy version of a popular idea, mainly among the more conservative, that all soldiers should be praised. But it doesn’t even gel with professed conservative ideals.

Conservatives hate false “equality.” Capitalism rewards ingenuity and drive. The clunky hand of the state just hands out cash. Liberals want everyone to have a participation trophy, and nobody to get unfair benefits. Conservatives want hard work, winners and losers, and pulling yourself up by your boot straps. So why so they constantly reaffirm this notion that to serve your country is noble, regardless of the conflict or its effects on the rest of the world? Why is war — the biggest state endevour there is — the time to turn your politics into a bumper sticker and a ribbon?

“Supporting the military, though, and expressing gratitude for what the military is actually doing around the world, are nothing if not explicitly political sentiments,”writes Doolitttle. It’s true. What are you thanking each soldier for if not for what they do, and what they are a part of? Are we supposed to ignore blowback, and the disastrous state of Iraq, and the continued occupation of Afghanistan when we thank soldiers? Are we supposed to forget the insanity of Vietnam, and the civilian bombings during WWII?

Even World War I shouldn’t be seen as 1000 years ago, with all of its idiotic, wasteful carnage now just restful poems about poppies. World War I was a disaster, too. Maybe more than most wars. Why are we trying to forget that it ended today? Why has thanking replaced remembering?

This is a sincere question for conservatives and Republicans and anyone who would frame wars the way the silly Bank of America ad does — if every war is equally noble, which one is the good war? If beating Hitler is losing in Vietnam, is 600,000 dead at the Somme is remembering the Maine, why should we ever believe anyone swearing that this time it’s really Munich in 1938, and we can’t afford to stand down from [Insert International Threat Here]? The warmongerers cry wolf every time. A good way to prove that is to pretend that every war and every soldier is the same, so every war must be the one we just have to fight.

War is life and death. Even one — or two — days a year, we cannot afford to treat it like an apolitical platitude. Don’t blame individual soldiers, but don’t thank them either.

Instead, think about November 11 and think about the end of a war.

Chelsea Manning Rejects Antiwar, Conscientious Objector, and Peace Activist Labels (and That’s Okay)

It must be strange to be Chelsea Manning. The former Army Private (previously known as Bradley Manning) did a very decisive thing by leaking thousands of documents to Wikileaks. In spite of some initial suggestions that she did this in some apolitical — possibly mentally ill — fashion (Ann Coulter’s particularly asshole-ish summation was that Manning leaked while in a bad gay snit), it eventually became clear that agree or not, Manning had leaked for some very clearly principled reasons. Turns out she was damned articulate even.

But this decisive action turned into (relatively) passive captivity the moment she was arrested in 2010. It was mostly left to other activist to take up the banner and turn Manning from a whistleblower to the subject of various activist campaigns; well-intentioned and heroic campaigns, but that turnaround may well be frustrating to someone with only a limited ability to communicate her views for the past several years.

Credit: William Hennessy/AP
Credit: William Hennessy/AP

And today — two months after she was sentenced to 35 years in prison — Manning delivered her first official statement (besides announcement of her gender identity) since her sentencing. The content of the letter might bewilder some. Within it Manning clarified that she didn’t leak for any kind of explicitly pacifistic reasons. And she definitely wasn’t “overwhelmed” to have the 2013 Sean MacBride peace award accepted on her behalf last month by Ann Wright, a peace activist and retired Army Colonel.

Manning’s letter said that she considers herself first and foremost a “transparency activist.” “I don’t consider myself a ‘pacifist,’ ‘anti-war,’ or (especially) a ‘conscientious objector.’ “Now – I accept that there may be ‘peaceful’ or ‘anti-war’ implications to my actions – but this is purely based on your [Wright’s] subjective interpretation of the primary source documents released in 2010-11.”

Neither Wright — who apologized for misinterpreting Manning’s wishes — nor the International Peace Bureau were alone in perhaps overstating Manning’s peacenik bonafides. It’s difficult not to see the release of hundreds of thousands of documents, including detailed war logs on the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the infamous “Collateral Murder” video, as furthering the cause of peace and antiwar activism. But Manning’s stressing of the transparency angle of her actions is not new. In February, when she plead guilty to some of the crimes for which she was later convicted, Charlie Savage of The New York Times wrote:

Pfc. Bradley Manning on Thursday confessed in open court to providing vast archives of military and diplomatic files to the antisecrecy group WikiLeaks, saying that he released the information to help enlighten the public about “what happens and why it happens” and to “spark a debate about foreign policy.”

Appearing before a military judge for more than an hour, Private Manning read a statement recounting how he joined the military, became an intelligence analyst in Iraq, decided that certain files should become known to the American public to prompt a wider debate about foreign policy, downloaded them from a secure computer network and then ultimately uploaded them to WikiLeaks.

Later in the piece, Savage describes Manning’s dislike of many aspects of the war in Iraq while seeing them in-country, but the idea of the public’s right to know reads as the most fundamental motivation — even when what the public doesn’t know is war crimes, torture, and other dirty-dealings.

Manning also wrote in her statement today that “I believe it is also perfectly reasonable to subjectively interpret these documents and come to the opposite opinion and say ‘hey, look at these documents, they clearly justify this war’ (or diplomatic discussion, or detention of an individual).” That’s a bit of a stretch. But there is a type of hawk who will at least rhetorically admit that war ain’t pretty, but will then brush off critiques of it based on such “emotional” pleas as, say, a bunch of dead civilians. So, not having combed though all 700,000 documents Manning leaked, perhaps she is not entirely wrong there.

Fundamentally, we may disagree on the interpretation of Manning’s actions, but she definitely knows her own motivations, opinions, and feelings best. She doesn’t need to be the antiwar martyr now suffering for our sins. It would be great if she went full-on libertarian peacenik tomorrow, but she helped show us what war looks like. And she has proven how harshly the government will come down on anyone who dares to tell its secrets. She wrote today, ” I feel that the public cannot decide what actions and policies are or are not justified if they don’t even know the most rudimentary details about them and their effects.” That’s a hell of a start. And it may prove a better avenue to stopping wars than most.

Additionally, in respect to whispers that Manning might get the Nobel Peace Prize (she was nominated with 258 other individuals) — well, that would be a pleasant turnaround, considering that historical choices for that dubious honor include Barack Obama, Henry Kissinger, and Woodrow Wilson. But if Manning’s document leak says nothing inherently antiwar, winning the Nobel Peace Price would say even less. She definitely deserves better that that insult.

Congress Responds to Bradley Manning Conviction With Satisfaction or Silence

SecrecyOn Tuesday, Pfc. Bradley Manning was found guilty of a long list of crimes, and  in a few hours comes the sentencing hearing, leading to what may be a very long prison term for the leaker and whistleblower. The one bright spot for Manning supporters — and First Amendment advocates — was that though this still sets a precedent for prosecution under the 1917 Espionage Act, Manning at least wasn’t found guilty of “aiding the enemy.” As various commentators, journalists, activists, and supporters have noted, the inference from that tacked-on charge was that the media, and by extension the public, American or otherwise, was the enemy. Also, that if making information freely available (and therefore probably accessible to any old terrorist with a WiFi connection or a New York Times subscription) is all that’s needed for that charge to stick, we’re all in for a serious cold snap when it comes to freedom of the press.

To the hawkiest of hawks in Congress, the failure to pin Manning with that most serious charge is a downer. But South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham (R) told Slate‘s Dave Weigel that everything seems to have worked out pretty well. Even Graham admitted that a leaker probably has to mean to do it, but said “I think [Manning] should have been tried for all the crimes, including aiding the enemy.” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif) has been gunning for Manning and Wikileaks’ Julian Assange since 2010, so she was no doubt disappointed by the scrap of good news Tuesday.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the quality spectrum in politics, should-be friends to the whistleblower  remained oddly quiet. Congressman Justin Amash (R-Mich), whose anti-NSA amendment came heartstoppingly close to success last week had no comment for Buzzfeed’s Rosie Gray. Neither did Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky), or Ron Wyden (D-Ore), or Mark Udall (D-Colo), three of the senate’s toughest fighters for privacy and government accountability on behalf of the American people. (If you haven’t read Wyden’s anti-NSA speech from July 23, please do. It’s great, and scary as hell.) Gray briefly muses that even for most civil liberty – and leak-friendly — politicians, there’s a difference between pushing for the government to voluntarily release information and actually praising someone who dared to take the law into their own hands and supposedly endangered national security, the military, or the public.

And again, poor, heroic Manning, maybe more than his comrade Edward Snowden, faced an uphill battle in gaining support for his actions. This website and other high-profile supporters not withstanding, Manning was still seen by many as having betrayed his duties as a soldier. For example, on June 6 a Rasmussen poll reported that 52% percent of people said Manning was a “traitor.” A July 29 poll revealed that a third of people believed Manning deserved life in prison, and just a little over half believed that he had damaged national security. A June 12 Gallup poll reported that 44% of total respondents approved of Snowden’s decision to become a leaker. Even if people disapprove of government spying, they often seem to be waiting for a morally pure angel to acquire important information without sullying themselves in any way.

Regardless, the job of a politician is to uphold the law, or, at best to rally to change the is as Amash, Wyden, Udall, and Paul do. It’s tempting to ask why they don’t all support Snowden and Manning hell-bent for leather. Maybe they were all too busy to comment, but even the best politicians (which is…them) have to sell out daily as part of their job. And we need those men in Congress. This means they probably need to stay timid on some issues the rest of us should be shouting about.

We should be shouting about Bradley Manning. Or  at least thanking him for treating us all like adults and individuals who deserve to know the truth about what’s done in our name;  even while most officials demand we put our fingers in our ears and scream that no, no, no, we don’t want to know what war really looks like.

The Fourth Amendment was Mortally Wounded by the Drug War Long Before National Security Tried to Kill It

06paul-blog480New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie recently trashed Sen. Rand Paul, and other members of the more freedom-friendly corner of the GOP (like Rep. Justin Amash and his noble effort to reign in the NSA). Christie, sounding like Rudy Giuliani circa 2007, said that pro-privacy folks like Paul need to stop all their dangerous libertarianish thoughts because it’s offensive to 9/11 victims and it endangers us all. Christie also spoke approvingly of both Bush and Obama’s security efforts. Terrorism, to the Gov., is still such a big threat that it justifies certain scary-sounding, privacy-violating programs. And he’s not alone in believing that nonsense.

It is nonsense. But what if it were true? What if terrorism was as big a threat as security hawks claim, and that we could — at least — believe that the NSA is working to protect the American people from being killed? What if the FBI was actually stopping more threats than it was inciting? And what if they and other law enforcement hadn’t failed to stop planned attacks from the Boston Bombing to 9/11? What if secret courts, secret laws, and secret interpretations really could be trusted because they’re “legal”? And what if the NSA only searched through the metadata of millions of Americans when they were really, really, looking for something serious? They need the haystack to find the needle, but maybe they really have no interest in a few million innocent needles?

Even if this narrative about national security and the level of threat presented by terrorism were true — and of course it isn’t — powerful people simply do not keep these serious violations of privacy under glass until the most dire emergency. Consider, for a moment, the drug war’s history in the decline of the Fourth Amendment.

In 1971, Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs and tested the waters with a DC bill that made no-knock raids legal on private homes. Some years later, Ronald Reagan stepped up that war, and unlike Nixon, most of the powers that Reagan claimed — and the Supreme Court frequently confirmed — were not ever taken away. The cop, court, and Constitutional drug war mess needs more detail than there is space here (check out Radley Balko’s Rise of the Warrior Cop, as well as Antiwar’s interview with him for more of that history) but  really, once upon a time, when terrorism wasn’t keeping the paranoid up at night, a bunch of people decided that enemy number one was drugs. And no violation was too serious, no quarter was to be given in this fight. Sound familiar?

The effects of that decision to go to “war” can now be seen in the prison-industrial complex, militarized police and their mission creep, and our comatose Fourth Amendment.

Here are just a few figures: in 2012 87 percent of state and federal law enforcement wiretaps were over narcotics, with stats from the past decade showing similar numbers. “Sneak and peak” warrants — legalized by the PATRIOT Act — between 2009 and 2010 were used for narcotics investigations 76 percent of the time. And what is the NYPD’s contentious “stop and frisk” policy if not a massive violation of the privacy of (mostly black and Hispanic) New Yorkers?

Previously at Antiwar I critiqued libertarian John Stossel’s bizarre refusal to admit that the NSA spying is dangerous. But Stossel did indeed have a point within the madness –the drug war started it. Not only are terror-fighting tools used to investigate drug crimes much of the time, but many privacy protections were already chipped away by the drug war decades before 9/11.

Recently Rand Paul pestered the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for clarification about their use of domestic drones. The FBI responded with a few details including that drones have been used for “eight criminal cases and two national security cases” since 2006.  The most notable thing mentioned in their report is that the FBI did not see fit to get a search warrant for their drone use, since the targets of their investigations didn’t have an expectation of privacy. This isn’t particularly surprising, more a depressing confirmation of what we would already have suspected.

As noted by The Verge, the Supreme Court ruled in Florida v. Riley (1989) — a drug war case! — that a warrant wasn’t necessary when the police wanted to use a helicopter to hover 400 feet above a suspect’s property. If the Fourth Amendment has withered in the face of the cops’ need to catch those damn weed growers, it’s difficult not to feel frightened at the prospect of cheap, quiet, drones in the thousands creeping into our airspace; technology getting ahead of any lingering protections the Fourth Amendment still offers. And there is no doubt that the same people now defending the NSA, wiretapping, and anything else done in the name of keeping us safe from big bad terrorists will not say a word when drones become the next tool in fighting the lunatic war on drugs.