The war on the native

The nation state is a very new invention. It originated in Europe in war and conquest, as armies conquered some tribes and massacred others. It has expanded and grown and continues to do so to this day. The state was forged in war to subdue others. This basic form remains constant, though the scope of the state has grown, along with expectations about what it can and should do.

The nation was shaped by other processes. Benedict Anderson famously explains that print capitalism was the strongest driver of the forming of the nation and nationalism, as it spread a common language within the borders of the state that did not exist prior to conquest. Since then, the idea of a common culture has taken hold and the nation grows more certain of itself. The advance of media technology in the twentieth century continued this trend. Anderson called nations “imagined communities”, because they were huge groups of people who would never meet with a communitarian identity.

From a different angle, Ernest Gellner writes,

nationalism is, essentially, the general imposition of a high culture on society, where previously low cultures had taken up the lives of the majority, and in some cases of the totality, of the population. It means that generalised diffusion of a school-mediated, academy-supervised idiom, codified for the requirements of reasonably precise bureaucratic and technological communication. It is the establishment of an anonymous, impersonal society, with mutually substitutable atomised individuals, held together above all by a shared culture of this kind, in place of a previous complex structure of local groups, sustained by folk cultures reproduced locally and idiosyncratically by the micro-groups themselves.

In 1648, the Treaty of Westphalia, which ended the 30-Years War (yes, the history of the state is of chaos; it is hard to think one’s idea of “anarchy” could be as bad), effectively baptized the nation state. State borders grew stronger. It was assumed among states that sovereignty, meaning the mutual acceptance of the other’s monopoly on crime within its boundaries, was to be respected. Of course, the urge to use an army at one’s disposal is too great, and the fighting continued until the number of states in Europe shrank and the power of each one to kill grew.

Around 1789, the idea that the state should represent the people, preserve liberty, equality, fraternity, or other revolutionary slogans, caught on. National education systems were erected, inculcating everyone in the logic of the state and the primordiality of the nation. The nation state became timeless, obvious and unassailable. The nation state expanded beyond its borders, as European empires built big ships and conquered the globe. To reach their goals, they killed whomever they had to kill, on any continent they felt like taking.

Ultimately, what the empires left their conquered peoples with was the nation state. The nation state has broken down old social structures and erected new ones. It groups millions of disparate people and assumes they can be represented by a ruling class. It assumes rule by a ruling class is preferable to whatever it has destroyed. It has institutionalised theft and slavery. It has militarised the criminals and disarmed their victims. And even though it legally covers every inch of land in the world, its power over the people within those lines continues to expand. One result of modern state expansion is a war on the native.

Indigenous people all around the world have been persecuted since the inception of the state. They have been forcibly moved so they could be taxed or so the powerful could gain access to land and other resources. They have been killed when they have resisted. Many groups we have never heard of have been wiped out over the years. Others have been decimated and pacified and pushed onto “reservations”. In recent years, much of this wanton violence has been at the request of large extracting corporations. Such corporations, oil and gas concerns, for example, function almost as the right arm of the modern state. The state is a vehicle for accumulating power; the corporation is the most powerful modern tool for accumulating wealth. Heads of state and corporations work together to extract wealth and repress those who challenge them.

Under the nation-state system, the real owner of all land (and thus resources on that land) within the borders of the state is the state. Some states afford a measure of land or property ownership to those not connected to the state, but not many. Even Canada has seen a number of oil spills on supposedly-private land in recent months. Perhaps the people living on the poisoned land will be compensated. But the fact that someone else could ruin their land and they will need to petition the state for restitution is evidence they did not own the land to begin with. Moreover, secession is an option for free members of a federation, but not for citizens of the modern nation state.

Kayapó people being "evacuated"
Kayapó people being “evacuated”

A number of indigenous groups in the Amazon, such as the Kayapó, above, have protested the state’s plan for the Belo Monte Dam. This dam promises to flood a large area of land, dry up other land around the river, devastate parts of the rainforest and hurt fish stocks. Tens of thousands of people in the Xingu River basin are in danger. The locals have protested since the initial proposal of the dam in the 1980s and their demands have been ignored. They are now being attacked and moved. The dam will be built. The people with deep, spiritual ties to this land never had any recourse because those in power did not recognise their claim to the land. The state treats those it can use as tools and those it cannot as waste.

Similarly, in Indonesia, conflict is growing as large corporations have been tearing down forests and erecting palm oil plantations. Henry Saragih, founder of the Indonesian Peasant Union says

The presence of palm oil plantations has spawned a new poverty and is triggering a crisis of landlessness and hunger. Human rights violations keep occurring around natural resources in the country and intimidation, forced evictions and torture are common. There are thousands of cases that have not surfaced. Many remain hidden, especially by local authorities.

Naturally, no one is ever consulted or compensated when their habitat is stolen from them. Local security forces protect foreign corporations. The beneficiaries of globalisation and economic growth do not need to pay its prices.

Unsurprisingly, some people have resisted with violence. Under modern state parlance, they are called terrorists and insurgents. People who once farmed land in much of India until they were kicked off have formed a loose movement known as the Naxalites, led by Maoist intellectuals. Companies such as South Korea’s Posco Steel have appropriated other people’s land for their own purposes, with the help of local police. A peaceful anti-Posco movement has arisen, but protests have gone nowhere. Politicians are under pressure from the companies they have already promised to let build and the villagers who will lose their land; they make more money off the corporations so they just repress the villagers. The Naxalites oppose the advance of the state, and have killed civilians and security forces alike.

The Red Corridor, where Naxals are known to operate
The Red Corridor, where Naxals are known to operate

India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, has called the Naxalites “left-wing extremism” and “the single biggest internal-security challenge ever faced by our country”. Bolstered by the advent of 9/11 and the War on Terror, the Indian government has arrested and killed thousands of Naxalites and their supporters in order to maintain its monopoly on crime. On the violence committed by both sides, Arundhati Roy opines

I think you’ve got to look at every death as a terrible tragedy. In a system, in a war that’s been pushed on the people and that unfortunately is becoming a war of the rich against the poor, in which rich put forward the poorest of the poor to fight the poor, [security forces] are terrible victims but they are not just victims of the Maoists. They are victims of a system of structural violence that is taking place.

In some places the Naxalites enjoy popular support. As with other violent, persecuted groups, however, some Naxalites have used violence against unarmed locals, and have been less popular. As with the War on Drugs and countless other cases of aggression, violence begets violence.

At the same time, the Indian government has pursued a hearts-and-minds campaign of offering “development”, such as roads and schools. The simultaneous application of force and the promise of economic incentives has been praised by the Economist and others of similar persuasion. Vandana Shiva, on the other hand, believes “If the government continues its land wars in the heart of India’s bread basket, there will be no chance for peace.” This strategy is bound to fail as it does not address the roots of the problem. Indeed, it has failed. The people are not interested in being absorbed by the nation state. Explains BD Sharma, “[f]or them, development means exploitation.” This should not be surprising. The nation state views incorporation into its ambit a step up, from barbarism to civilisation. The discourse assumes a model of progress from life outside the state, thought of as unhealthy, backward and hostile to life as part of the state, meaning education, health and higher culture. It defends displacing people from their ancestral homes with its offer of schools, hospitals and integration into the wider economy. But the state always achieves its goals with violence.

James C. Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed explains the logic of the state and escape from it through the case of the highland people of Southeast Asia. The evidence is strong that many or all of the people living in the mountainous region recently dubbed Zomia are there because some time over the past thousand years or so they have chosen the life of barbarity over forcible incorporation into the state. One of a number of groups Scott considers is the Karen.


Many of those we now call the Karen consciously fled the predatory state to escape appropriation of their land and agriculture, forced relocation or slave labour. The Burmese military government has attempted to subdue and incorporate the Karen. They fought back for many years, but eventually, technology caught up and the last major Karen base was destroyed in 1995. The people continue to hold out, however, in small groups. The Burmese military continues to wage its campaign against them. It burns down fields and lays mines there. Soldiers fighting Karen guerrillas, conscripted and paid a pittance, take whatever they want from villages on the front lines, and end up terrorising their inhabitants. Like other persecuted groups of Zomia, the Karen have adopted flexible agricultural techniques, mobility, shifting ethnic identities and social structures that split easily over political, social or religious issues. But the state advances and the Karen get easier to destroy. Scott believes it is only a matter of time before the people of Zomia become tax-paying subjects of the state once again.

Nigeria has also seen terrorism as natives of the Niger Delta have defended themselves against oil companies. The campaign to defeat the locals long enough to extract oil and dump waste has involved police and military, who have done their best to turn ethnic groups against each other. As a result of two decades of conflict, the entire region has militarised. Royal Dutch Shell was implicated in the murder of activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. As with other corporate malfeasance punished by a monopolist court system, it cost a trifle and enabled the firm to return to business as usual. Shell is not the only company working the area, as Chevron and Nigeria’s national petroleum company are involved as well. The struggle for freedom from the state in the Niger Delta is not over.

Is there hope in democracy? Under Rafael Correa, the government of Ecuador sued Chevron for billions for the destruction of the environment of thousands of people. Of course, a few billion is a drop in the bucket for such a firm, but at least a symbolic victory is possible. Says Andrew Miller of Amazon Watch, Chevron

left hundreds of toxic waste pits. It dumped billions of gallons of toxic waste. And really, the whole time that this trial has been going on over the course of 18 years, the communities continue to live with that legacy, and they continue to suffer the impacts, the health impacts, the cultural impacts, the environmental impacts of that destruction. And so, this is an important day for the communities. It’s just one step; it’s not a victory. But it is very crucial for them. It’s also an important day for the broader struggle for corporate accountability around the world, for broader struggles for environmental justice and human rights.

Perhaps. Will it set a precedent? An example for other indigenous people? The damage has been done. The environment has been wrecked. And it might just leave the same people open to abuse from Petroecuador, which has caused its share of oil spills. And other Andean people are even less fortunate. (See here and here.) The people have been forced to work through state structures, further integrating them into the nation state, and have been lucky enough finally to have someone in the state who will fight for them. None of these things will last if their sovereignty, over their land and their labour, is not recognised.

It is important that we learn the history of both states and nations. On the history of the state, I recommend Franz Oppenheimer’s The State, James C. Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed, Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s Democracy: the God that Failed, Martin van Creveld’s The Rise and Decline of the State and Bruce D. Porter’s War and the Rise of the State. For more on the nation, Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, Ernest Gellner’s Nation’s and Nationalism and Eric Hobsbawm’s Nations and Nationalism since 1780 are basics of the canon.

Why war is wrong

“War does not determine who is right, only who is left.”  — Bertrand Russell

In Europe at the beginning of the 20th century, socialism was creeping into public life. Social democrats were gaining followers and attempting to forge international links with other left-wing groups. They wanted what is today known as social justice. The elites, the great union of political and economic power, felt threatened. We can’t let these people take power, they thought. Trouble brewed and in 1914, World War One began. World War One turned out to be not only the most costly and deadly war in human history but entirely pointless. But one effect it did have was to turn the internationalist socialists into nationalists; to abandon their hopes of improving their country, and to go to war for it. The elites stumbled into, and to an extent concocted, a war, and the people who had nothing to gain took the bait. They died in the millions as a result.

Distracting the people from problems on the home front is just one of many reasons those with militaries at their disposal choose to use them. Most wars start because of disputes between elites, or to maintain the privileged position of empires, states and corporations. Why should the rest of us get caught up in their personal squabbles? Let them have fistfights or duels and stop killing millions of innocent people and spending trillions of our dollars to secure their wealth. This series delves into the reasons we go to war, and the reasons we are fools to do so.

Part 1: Democratic Wars

Though wars may be started by self-interested, psychopathic elites who feel no compunction about killing millions of people, they are held in place by well-meaning but ignorant people who believe that military power is a reasonable way to deal with the world’s problems. (And if you are a libertarian who supports war, I urge you to read this.) There is a dictator somewhere in the world? Let us, the good guys, go take him out. It’s not invasion—it’s liberation. It’s not occupation—it’s nation building. It’s not installing a friendly dictator—it’s democracy promotion. Most of those same people believe that the Allies—again, the good guys—entered the world wars to stop an evil, save the world and secure our freedoms. It is incredible to me how many people in democracies believe that the reason we should vote is because people died in the World Wars to defend our freedom. These people need a history book.

What makes us the good guys, anyway? Ethnocentrism. Our ideas are so good we would be wrong not to impose them on others. Sure, thousands or millions of people might die, but in the long run, they will have democracy, and they will be just as great as us. At the beginning of NATO’s intervention in Libya, Stephen Walt wrote

Of course, like his predecessors, Obama justifies his resort to force by invoking America’s special place in the world. In the usual rhetoric of “American exceptionalism,” he couched it in terms of U.S. values, its commitment to freedom, etc. But the truly exceptional thing about America today is not our values (and certainly not our dazzling infrastructure, high educational standards, rising middle-class prosperity, etc.); it is the concentration of military power in the hands of the president and the eroding political constraints on its employment.

Now, “America finds itself lurching from conflict to conflict often with little idea of how they will end, other than the hope that the forces of righteousness will prevail,” in the name of humanitarian intervention.

The manichean good guy-bad guy distinction is a great way to rally ignorant people around a war in a place they cannot find on a map. We know nothing about them except that they hate freedom. We like to think that we are the good guys, and our government, who we believe is an extension of our collective will, is the strong arm of our superiority. I am not a moral relativist, but to believe that the US Department of Defense, the Department of State, the CIA and so on are good guys by any measure is a joke. While the good-guy justification might be enough to keep the soldiers showing up and the public overlooking the enormous costs of war in blood and treasure, it is not why elites pick these fights.

My explanation that World War One was initiated to distract the people from socialism is of course incomplete. Different decisions were taken for different reasons by the closed circles of elites in each country that participated in the war. Britain’s, for instance, went to war largely to cripple its rival Germany. The alliance of Russia and France, and later Britain, all boxed Germany in geographically, and being a latecomer to the imperial game, Germany’s expansion would need to be mainly local, rather than overseas. It attacked its neighbours. Certainly, German decision makers (Kaiser Wilhelm not least among them) share the blame for the start of the war; all the powers do. Then came the Treaty of Versailles, which was obviously victor’s justice and not true justice. No one benefited from this war, least of all the lower classes; and everyone paid the price again one generation later.

The incalculable chaos—the post WW1 wars across Europe and the Middle East—caused by three men at Versailles who thought they could reorder the world should not be ignored when considering causes of today’s problems. The point is not that they or their countries were less moral, or that a Hitler or Stalin victory over Europe would have been better for anyone. Rather, the problem is that they were given so much power.

Hitler came to power on the back of the humiliating Treaty of Versailles and its devastating effects: hyperinflation in 1923 and deflation in 1929. (Not all historians will agree that Versailles led to those effects as much as the mismanagement of German governments of the time, but it was certainly an easy scapegoat. What the people can be led to believe always matters.) The closing of borders to trade after the start of the Great Depression also did nothing to help Germany, and in fact showed the Germans that, not only were they crippled by the punishments inflicted by foreign powers, but they were being left in the lurch when trade might have saved their economy. 6m Germans were unemployed when Hitler took office. He found a smooth road to fascism.

People condemn Germany’s bombing of Britain, but what did the British expect? Hitler never wanted to fight Britain, but Britain attacked Germany first. Then they show their ignorance by not knowing or their double standards by not caring about the firebombing of German cities, which in cases such as Dresden were solely punitive and had no strategic value. No one entered the war or bombed anything to end the Holocaust, either. If they had, the British would have allowed more Jewish refugees to enter Palestine, and neither Canada nor the US would have turned away the almost 1000 refugees aboard the MS St. Louis. Moreover, Hannah Arendt and other historians believed the Holocaust was an extension of the carelessness with which colonial bureaucrats signed orders for administrative slaughter of native peoples and the disdain they felt for them.

People say it was moral to defend Poland. But Poland’s government, just like Germany’s, was a racist dictatorship. (France was full of racism too; but I guess being a democracy it was more moral and thus the people deserved more help.) Then people say we should have attacked Germany in 1938 or before. But the only time Nazi Germany had invaded a country before the invasion of Poland was an intervention into Spain to take sides in the Spanish Civil War, and I think it is fair to say that anyone who approves of the NATO operation in Libya can understand that. When this kind of foreign military intervention results in suicide bombings, the whole religion of Islam is blamed and all Muslims look like terrorists, when the real culprit is staring us in the face. But attacking Germany was just and righteous, because they were different from us.

The US did not have to enter the war. Japan did not bomb Pearl Harbour so it could begin a takeover of the continental US. It did so to change the equation, to do something about the sanctions on Japan that were making it impossible for Japan to continue to subjugate China. FDR baited Hitler into declaring war on the US, as Hitler did not want war with the US either. A major overreaction ensued in the US, and FDR had his mandate for war.

Britain was not particularly moral and freedom-loving. It controlled the world’s largest empire and held down indigenous people by force. The scorched earth campaign in South Africa (where the concentration camp was invented), the Amritsar Massacre (not the only massacre in British India, just the most recent) and the killing of thousands of Iraqis in 1920 (in which everyone’s hero Winston Churchill played a major role) were not only immoral; they provided an example the new imperialists could profitably emulate. Territorial expansion and empire were rational. With policies that contributed the Great Depression, the great powers closed their borders to foreign goods; and as Frederic Bastiat once said, “if goods don’t cross borders, armies will.” In the absence of free trade, empires like Britain’s and Russia’s afforded enormous benefits. Countries like Japan that had did not have enough natural resources for industrialisation, and Germany, hobbled by the 1919 borders, saw empires as a great way to get what they needed to grow. Hitler mentioned natural resources that Germany did not have in his writing as chancellor.

(That said, a look at the pre- and post-imperial world gives us no reason to believe that uninterrupted rule by indigenous elites would have been any better than by empires. The liberation of most of the world from the colonial yoke was heralded as a new era of freedom, but in most cases results were very disappointing. Government by locals and foreigners alike leaves the governed wide open to abuse.)

The supposed paragons of democracy (the US, Britain, Canada, etc.) had given women the vote barely 20 years earlier (around the same time as Germany). The US was certainly no beacon of morality by WW2. As Albert Jay Nock wrote in 1939,

in order to keep down the great American sin of self-righteousness, every public presentation ought to draw the deadly parallel with the record of the American State. The German State is persecuting a minority, just as the American State did after 1776; the Italian State breaks into Ethiopia, just as the American State broke into Mexico; the Japanese State kills off the Manchurian tribes in wholesale lots, just as the American State did the Indian tribes; the British State practices large-scale carpetbaggery, like the American State after 1864; the imperialist French State massacres native civilians on their own soil, as the American State did in pursuit of its imperialistic policies in the Pacific, and so on.

And morality was obviously not a major consideration, or the moralisers (the British and US empires) would never have allied with Stalin. Unlike Hitler, Stalin had indeed killed many people—some 20m—and enslaved millions more in the gulags. It is no wonder many indigenous forces in Eastern Europe fought with the invading Germans against the Soviets, the side that had proven its barbarity against them. If the allies had become more moral after the war, they would have insisted on freedom for all people, instead of first attempting to occupy Iran, then escalating the war in Indochina against indigenous freedom fighters, followed by everything else that happened when the imperialists were allowed to go back to the work they preferred. Anyone who studies US foreign policy knows that during the Cold War, the US was responsible for coups, dictatorships, mass killings, wars, and various other crimes that suggest the allies’ winning of the war was not unequivocally good. World War Two had nothing to do with liberating anyone, and everything to do with eliminating a rival empire. The troops did not die to make us free; they died for nothing.

More importantly, the idea of taking out Hitler or the Nazi regime and imperial Japan worked all right in the medium term (notwithstanding the enormous costs in lives and wealth, the Cold War and the Soviet takeover of half of Europe), but simply tackling dictators and then replacing them does not strike the root of the problem. It is the same style of misguided policy that believes in combatting terrorism rather than ending the aggression and occupations that cause it.

The two real problems are, first, the existence of the means to build up a military in the first place, through government power to tax, conscript (or just pay security forces better than everyone else), disseminate propaganda, silence dissenters, and so on; and second, the unquestioning following of authority. If Hitler, Stalin, Mao et al. had not had access to the levers of the state, or if more people had defied them, they would just have been scheming loudmouths at town hall meetings. If we were to eliminate some dictatorship, if it were somehow an easy task, I would suggest building things up from the bottom, perhaps training them in basic security while letting the people figure out their own solutions, instead of imposing a new government on them. I do not believe it would be necessary to do many things on a national level when they could be done locally or regionally, across borders. You do not need the government to build highways or railroads, for example, when there are corporations all around the world that could compete for it.

Either way, World War Two has become a kind of fetish in anglophone culture. Men love to watch the heroic allies duke it out with the evil Nazis and Japanese. We are so proud of ourselves that we say things like “you would all be dead now if not for our boys”, which is, to say the least, a counterfactual that defies credulity. (There is no doubt that many amateur history buffs will be able to pick meat off the bones of my arguments on the causes of the World Wars, which evinces my point.) Hitler has become almost a cartoonish image of evil. Because of our uncomfortable relationship with fact, it is easy to manipulate the masses into believing that the next Hitler is right around the corner. Saddam Hussein, for instance, was compared to Hitler before both the 1991 and 2003 wars against him. We HAVE to eliminate him: he is Hitler!

The myths surrounding previous wars contribute to the next war. The goodness of the Good Gulf War (1991), for example, has been crushed under the evidence. I remember as a kid watching American tv during that time, listening to everyone shout about how bad Saddam was and how we needed to invade Iraq. It made sense to me and my simple mind. What did they say? One thing they said was that Saddam’s troops were ready to invade Saudi Arabia, our good friend, then entered Kuwait and threw babies out of incubators. That turned out to be a lie. No one realised until it was too late, and the public had already given the politicians the go-ahead to invade. And it was just one of the pieces in the propaganda puzzle; and we do not need every piece in place to approve of the war. But even though some of the lies had been exposed, all the public could remember on the eve of Operation Iraqi Freedom from a decade earlier was that Saddam was the bad guy.

The stated rationale for intervening in Iraq both times was that Saddam was evil. But when we declare war on anyone in a country, we are declaring war on that country. Individual countries are neither moral nor immoral. They contain mostly innocent people. When we declare war on a country, we are mostly declaring war on innocent people.

Do we go to war for freedom? Whose freedom, exactly? Certainly not the freedom of those in the country starting the war. Wars tend to produce “emergency” laws that jail people for dissent, muzzle the media, censor unfavourable stories and demonise anyone voicing an opposing opinion. Taxes usually go up (except in the case of Iraqi Freedom, when they went down, creating an enormous hole in the budget that has only deepened). When the war is over, the newly-enlarged and emboldened government, with its taste for higher tax rates and greater control of its people, is less accountable than ever. Is that what we should “thank a vet” for?

We do not fight for others’ freedom, either. Iraq is not, contrary to what you might believe, a “free” country. Predictably, the new regime has become more repressive, authoritarian and corrupt. Those who believe that, whether or not the war was justified, at least Iraqis have democracy, are not only misguided with regard to the value of democracy but to what is happening on the ground in Iraq. (See here, here and here.) Furthermore, in addition to the hundreds of thousands of people who have died and the millions who have been displaced in Iraq since the invasion of 2003, cancer rates and birth defects are exploding. (The Vietnamese might have been able to predict this turn of events.) War has long-term environmental effects that are themselves another reason why only the ignorant would declare war on a country in order to save it. (Find more on the causes of war in part 4 of this series.)

Contrary to common perception, democracy does not make war less likely or less dangerous. Operation Iraqi Freedom was a democratic decision, approved of by a majority of Americans. It was enabled by government fearmongering propaganda, falsified and politicised intelligence and media outlets that did not research government lies. And if you believe we just need to reform government so that it stops lying, you do not understand government very well. (I will continue to use the term Operation Iraqi Freedom to refer to this war. The term is such a distortion of the intended and eventual effects of the war that it reveals the moral bankruptcy of those who made the war happen.) Operation Cast Lead, the 22-day bloodbath in Gaza of 2008-9, was a democratic decision, with over 90% of Jewish Israelis approving. Democracy does not lead to peace; in fact, as Jack Levy (1988) has argued, democracies will often adopt a crusading spirit, attempting to rid the world of evils like terrorism and dictatorship. Democratic governments sometimes come under pressure from their people to start or continue a war in order to stay in power.  Governments repeatedly lie and cheat their citizens into supporting wars that do not benefit anyone but a few elites, and have done so for thousands of years.

Whether intended or not, a major outcome of war is the expansion of government power. The American Civil War introduced the draft, which is akin to slavery, censorship, the suspension of habeas corpus and thus perhaps the first major violation of the Bill of Rights (but not the last) and the placing of state power in the hands of the federal government. World War One brought back the draft, more censorship—criticise the war and you are in trouble—deportations and spying. World War Two conscripted people by the millions, introduced food rationing, placed citizens under surveillance and interned over 100,000 Japanese Americans. The War on Drugs has chipped away at the fourth and fifth amendments (which is why it is so convenient for the government to call it a war). The War on Terror introduced the Department of Homeland Security, enhanced pat-downs at the airport, the Patriot Act and Guantanmo Bay Prison. Eric Foner, professor at Columbia University and president of the American Historical Association, mocks the idea that somehow freedom loses a war. “It is hard to see how at any point in American history, whether it’s the Civil War, World War One, the Cold War or the War on Terror, it’s hard to see how these infringements on the right to dissent, infringements on basic civil liberties actually have any military value whatsoever. Does anybody think that Germany would have won World War One if Eugene Debs had been allowed to speak in the United States? Or is it really the case that we can’t allow people basic civil liberties, the right to a trial, the right to see the evidence against them, because otherwise Osama bin Laden is going to take over the world?” But a lie repeated often enough acquires the veneer of truth. In August 2011, 40% of Americans polled believed it was necessary to give up civil liberties in order to curb terrorism. War takes away everyone’s freedom, money and lives, and only a few benefit.

Operation Cast Lead, two years on

Two years ago, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) began the indiscriminate slaughter it named Operation Cast Lead. Some 1400 people were killed, thousands more wounded and displaced. Hundreds of sad people marched in Gaza in commemoration.

See here for the reasons Israel attacked Gaza.

Here I write about why the Mavi Marmara (the Gaza flotilla) incident may have been good for Israel, because it distracted the world from Operation Cast Lead and the Goldstone Report.

I wrote here about attempts to try Tzipi Livni as a war criminal, which apparently did not go anywhere.

And here I wrote about how Israel’s culture legitimised Cast Lead (and other violence in Israel’s name).

Gaza is still under blockade, which means little rebuilding gets done. Things had been relatively quiet along the Gaza border for the past two years until recently, when more rockets have been fired from Gaza, Israeli air strikes have followed, and thus tensions are higher. There are fears (or hopes?) that another Cast Lead-like massacre might be “necessary”. Gabi Ashkenazi, IDF Chief of Staff, said Israel “will not accept” more rockets from Gaza, and “holds the Hamas terrorist organisation solely responsible for any terrorist activity emanating from the Gaza Strip”, which means the IDF does not distinguish between rockets fired by Hamas or by any other group.

It is sad that this crime will go unpunished, and that it may even repeat itself.

"Ismail, Abed and Leila don't go to the infant clinic anymore"

The al-Qaeda label

What labels do you use to introduce yourself? Do any of them accurately describe you? Do any of them account for the nuances in your thinking or identity that make you unique?

Do you consider yourself a liberal? A conservative? Do others label you as such? If your answer to any of these last three questions is yes, you are playing a game that cannot be won. Such labels are useful to simplify our thinking and polarise disputes, erasing nuances and the colours in between. The more people call themselves liberals and conservatives, the more people we have on our team. There is no room for diversity of thought or deviation from orthodoxy: you are either with us or against us.

The same liberal-conservative false dichotomy is reflected in the terrorist-freedom fighter example (or perhaps today terrorist-martyr more accurately describes this inaccuracy). People cling to their labels as symbols of their identity, which is why simplistic labels are pernicious. Of many significant examples, this post will look at “Al-Qaeda” as one such label.

Al-Qaeda is not really one organisation like the Tamil Tigers or the PKK. It is a very loose network of people who violently oppose American occupation of traditional Muslim land. Al-Qaeda members in different regions have little or no contact. However, to read US government communications, it is a well-organised group inches away from taking over the world. (The US is not alone.) The label “al-Qaeda” is extremely useful for the US government to legitimise its actions. Whenever someone declares himself a member anywhere in the world, the US government feels justified in violating sovereignty, detaining anyone who might be “al-Qaeda” and engaging in so-called targeted killings (assassination). There is no legal basis for such action simply because someone says he is al-Qaeda: he needs to participate in hostilities to be targetable. But to the American people, al-Qaeda is evil and must be stopped at any cost.

The US government is currently targeting Anwar al-Awlaki for assassination. It says such a policy is justified because he is leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is associated with al-Qaeda, an organisation with which the US is at war. Awlaki is located in Yemen, and while he presumably poses some degree of threat to US interests in the Middle East, it is unlikely he can conduct any major terrorist attack on American soil. Dangerous, probably; worth invading Yemen and keeping Guantanamo open for, international law would say no.

Of course, the other side of the coin is just as important. People have rushed to form organisations named al-Qaeda in order to bait the US into a war, for the purpose of draining its military power, depleting its treasury and frustrating its people. The naming of al-Qaeda in Iraq (or Mesopotamia) illustrates this point. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi formed his organisation in 2003 to oppose American occupation, but it was not for another year that he renamed it al-Qaeda in Iraq. Zarqawi knew that by declaring his allegiance to Osama bin Laden and renaming his organisation al-Qaeda, he would be perceived as defender of Sunni Islam from the crusaders and get all the press he could want.

But the question was not, was he al-Qaeda, but rather, was al-Qaeda in Iraq deadlier than any of the other insurgent groups there? The Bush administration immediately assumed so in its external communication. George mentioned al-Qaeda 27 times in a speech in 2007, even though about 30 groups had claimed responsibility for attacks on American targets in Iraq and many experts at the time did not believe al-Qaeda in Iraq was a real threat. But it did not matter to Americans: al-Qaeda did 9/11; al-Qaeda might take over Iraq; give us more support for the mission and the recent surge. Al-Qaeda is there, and we must remain until it is defeated.

Wise people eschew collectivist labels that are designed to divide. Belligerents revel in them.

Counterterrorism: the fundamentals

This post is a review of the book Counterterrorism by Ron Crelinsten. Any quotes should be attributed to him unless otherwise stated.

Terrorism is communication. The selection of victims, the actions and their spectacular nature all have communicative functions. It uses violence against one group (the victims) to coerce another group (the audience). Terrorism is the weapon of the weak, either non-state actors who cannot put a guerrilla movement together, or a state that cannot spread the rule of law where it likes. It is singularly economical: “kill one, frighten 10,000”. To truly understand terrorist acts, we must view them in the context in which they occurred and listen to what message they send.

The 1990s brought terrorism into the world’s living room in a process that culminated on 9/11. Since 9/11, two basic schools have thought have emerged among the public, known pejoratively by the supposedly different eras they reflect. “September 10th thinking” holds that terrorism should be about domestic law enforcement. The right laws and the right policing can prevent and punish terrorism just as they do with other crimes. “September 12th thinking” defines counterterrorism purely in military terms, believing we are at war with an implacable foe that cannot be reasoned with or deterred, wants to kill us all and might take generations to defeat. If we have to suspend human rights to achieve victory, such thinkers maintain, it is worth it.

Both of these lines of argument are based on straw men, or painting one’s opponent’s argument as simplistic and then defeating it. More importantly, like the “liberal”-“conservative” divide, they limit how we perceive the problems in question and narrow our options in addressing them. Discourse following 9/11 was often polarised into such ideological camps without recognising the complexity of terrorism.

More robust and useful extensions of these patterns of thought are the criminal justice and war models of coercive counterterrorism, Prof. Crelinsten’s second chapter. In the criminal justice model, terrorism is a crime. It is punished without special anti-terror legislation that suspends suspects’ rights. This model has similar benefits to regular law enforcement: deterrence, incapacitation, stigmatising the criminal, and so on. On the other hand, if there is no law (nulla crimen, nulla poena sine lege), insufficient evidence, a compromised trial or unwillingness to extradite (for instance, EU members are not allowed to extradite criminals to countries where they might be tortured), the suspect goes free. It also does not address the root causes of the crime.

When the criminal justice system is badly used, in an unfair or unjust manner, or when criminal justice procedures become politicized, such as in political prosecutions or show trials, or are compromised, such as when amnesties and early release are given to people convicted of murder, then it can inflame grievances, trigger counter-grievances, or create the impression that violence is the only way to achieve anything. In such cases, a criminal justice approach to counterterrorism can prove counterproductive. In short, other approaches are necessary to address the grievances that charismatic leaders and ideologues use to mobilize recruits, supporters and sympathizers.

Proactive counterterrorism means preventing terrorists from acting. The norm in the criminal justice paradigm is reactive policing, solving crimes and arresting people after they are suspected of one. The proactive approach deals with detection, intelligence gathering and blocking terrorist financing. In this chapter, as in later ones, Dr Crelinsten warns of the dangers of intrusive measures that violate norms of privacy, racial profiling, incarceration without charge and torture.

Moreover, the either-or mentality–either you preemptively tap phones, incarcerate suspects without trial and invade rogue states or you get attacked–limits discourse and the imagination of alternatives. To September 10th thinkers, who hold the law paramount and who fear too much government, Dr Crelinsten says enhanced powers should be tried if they are considered essential. Nonetheless, they need to be accompanied by oversight of counterterrorist agencies and sunset clauses for laws that are only for emergencies. To September 12th thinkers, who advocate preemption at the cost of liberty, he urges the sensible use of intelligence that must be reliable and made available to oversight committees, not cherry-picked and politicised as it was in the lead up to Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Persuasive counterterrorism, like terrorism itself, is communicative. Its function is to dissuade potential or actual terrorists from carrying out their missions. Propaganda, appealing to hearts and minds, incentives to abandon violence and disincentives to engage in it are in this category. One form of preventive communication was nuclear deterrence and mutually assured destruction, or MAD. The message was, our retaliation will be so massive that both of us will be destroyed.

Persuasive counterterrorism can take four basic forms. The first is offensive external psychological operations (psyops). The terrorist organisation and its supporters are targeted (external), as counterterrorists assure the terrorists that their actions are pointless. Public demonstrations, media coverage that ignores the terrorist message and widely-viewed successful conviction and punishment of terrorists are examples. In 1998, the Real IRA killed 29 people in a bomb attack. The result was that leaders worked even harder to achieve peace at the negotiating table. It could also mean penetrating terrorist organisations and spreading disinformation.

The second form of persuasive counterterrorism is defensive external psyops, or preventing undesired perceptions among terrorists’ constituencies. Promising terrorist recruits that they can return to their group, or rehabilitation and reintegration, can prevent them from acquiring a fixation on violence or martyrdom and help them throw it off. The US State Department openly engages in dialogue on Arabic online forums, frequently to receptive audiences. Too often, people who are “radicalised” are exposed to very few perspectives on what they are angry about. Cross-cultural exchanges can thus soften attitudes on all sides.

Offensive internal psyops aims at preventing excessive fear or other behaviours among the counterterrorists’ public. The US government and media are guilty of fomenting fear through their words and confusion through the disconnect between the values they claim to espouse and their actions. What they could be doing is downplaying the real impact of terrorism (after all, even in the 9/11 attacks, only 0.001% of Americans were killed) and simultaneously condemning terrorism. I believe successfully breaking up terrorist plots and punishing conspirators through effective legal means would also constitute offensive internal psyops, as people would see that the justice system is effective, and that circumvention of rights and wild eyed wars on terror are not necessary.

Finally, you guessed it, defensive internal psyops are defensive measures that prevent undesired behaviours among the public. A terrorist attack is a symbol of the terrorists’ ability to strike anywhere, at any time, in spite of the security forces. Dr Crelinsten says governments need to establish trusting relationships with the public through sharing information that is not politicised. Officials must speak realistically about what they know. The media should provide coverage of terrorist groups’ perspectives without accusing them of being in bed with terrorists.

Defensive counterterrorism assumes that a terrorist attack will happen, so we must minimise the risk and the damage of such an attack. Target hardening means making potential targets harder to attack, say by surrounding VIPs or major sports events with armed guards, or by reinforcing cockpit doors on airplanes. Of course, target hardening is not perfect. Terrorists, like counterterrorists, learn and innovate. Moreover, it is subject to politicisation and the taint of inefficient government that claims that any price is worth saving just one life, when there could be much cheaper ways of saving it.

Critical infrastructure protection (CIP), attempting to secure energy, water, oil supplies (especially in Nigeria and Iraq), urban transport (especially since the Madrid and London bombings), is part of defensive counterterrorism. As the list grows (add to the above banks, electric plants, nuclear facilities (even hospitals have nuclear material), government buildings, computer systems and national monuments), so do the questions. How can we possibly protect all these potential targets at the same time? Who will pay for it? Is it worth it? In the US, funds for CIP were handed out by region, which meant that cities like New York and Washington received similar levels of funding as rural regions terrorists have no interest in (which to me is evidence that anything the government touches becomes a pork barrel slush fund). An integrated approach would mean prevention, preparedness, quick and effective response, and mitigation of adverse effects. Such methods would, of course, be part of a long-term solution.

While claiming their detractors need to think outside of the proverbial box, September 12 thinkers have created a new box in which they have trapped themselves: the “new terrorism”. There are many kinds of terrorism and many different contexts in which they occur. Lumping them all in together has given governments round the world the green light to go Colin Powell on groups as diverse as Chechen rebels and the Tamil Tigers while claiming they were all part of a global conspiracy.

If we want to end terrorism in the long term, we need to understand the causes. A 2003 conference of leading terrorism experts in Oslo came to a consensus, summed up in the book Root Causes of Terrorism: myths, reality and ways forward and available in concise form in this PPT. Poverty, religion and insanity are not root causes of terrorism, whereas repression, foreign occupation, racial or religious discrimination, charismatic demagogues and rapid leaps into modernity are major causes. Moreover, far from one or two of those preconditions leading inevitably to radicalisation, the panel concluded, “terrorism is better understood as emerging from a process of interaction between different parties”.

Despite our inability to find clear causes of terrorism, it is probably inadvisable to continue to spend billions of dollars attempting to pound terrorism into the ground as a long-term tactic. Pakistan has received US$10b in aid since 2002, and less than 10% of it has gone toward education, health and democratic reform. Most of the rest has gone to the military. Surely, the Pakistani military is not naive enough to think it can buy its citizens’ loyalty this way. Not only is attacking villages that may contain terrorists not likely to reduce the number and determination of terrorists, but the corruption that helps radicalise people can be seen as a form of western imperialism through corrupt local officials. As a result, Pakistan has seen hundreds of terrorist incidents since 9/11 and the number is rising

The long-term counterterrorist solution Dr Crelinsten discusses that I agree most with is building cross-cultural relations. Many of the worst problems in the world are due to a failure to respect and understand people outside our own exclusive groups, and exchange across groups (particularly at the grassroots, rather than the elite level, to my way of thinking) reverses this situation. One weakness of the thrust of such talks is that “the current fashion of focusing on Islamist terrorism and Salafist-jihadist extremism” has led to the privileging of religious leaders over secular ones. For instance, 80% of Muslims in Melbourne do not attend mosques. When religious leaders are called upon to speak on behalf of Muslims, the majority feel excluded. Moreover, sources of identity beside religious ones are marginalised when they should be emphasised. When people’s religion, nation or race is their single source of identity, or even just the dominant one, they are likely to respond violently to any slight against it. Appealing to other sides of a personality waters down the danger of one aspect’s dominating.

Education is also a major battleground in the fight against extremism. Education should teach respect and understanding of our differences, the ability to communicate across cultures and deal with misunderstandings, the ability to understand culture (I am convinced Sayyid Qutb became a radical because of his superficial understanding of American culture) and critical thinking in the face of propaganda and prejudice. Schools should also teach history in balanced ways that do not obscure a country or other group’s crimes or highlight those of others. All these measures can be more effective than a military approach to terrorism.

I found Ron Crelinsten’s Counterterrorism an excellent, comprehensive book on the theory of its subject. Its analysis is calm and clear and should be required reading for policymakers in the field.

Destroy the old world, forge a new world: Posters and the Cultural Revolution

In China today, one can find posters for sale in stores and on the street from the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76. The Cultural Revolution was a time of turmoil, in which so many Chinese people still alive today participated, but seem to prefer to forget about. To them, sorry. I simply find the subject a fascinating example of so many phenomena: mass movements and groupthink, propaganda and personality cult, imaginary enemies and violence.

When the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party kicked off the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, it called on revolutionaries (so everyone that did not want to get humiliated or killed) to write big-word posters (大字报) with images and slogans that appeal to Marxist ideals. This is a brief look at the posters of the Cultural Revolution and how they, like so much propaganda for revolution or war, whipped up public fervour for violence.

Of the posters I have seen, there are a few noticeable themes. (The captions, where there are captions, are translations of each poster. Where there is no caption, the words are my own interpretation.) First is gathering support for the revolution. Second is children. Third is military and defence. Fourth is reverence for Chairman Mao. I have added a poster of Red Guard taking down “counter-revolutionaries” and photos that illuminate the reality behind the posters.

Some points of note:

Mao Zedong is always smiling. The people are smiling at Mao, unless they are busy destroying counter-revolutionaries.

The colour red is employed more than any other. Red is not only important in Chinese culture (symbolising joy and good fortune) and communist culture (the blood of the workers), the colour red draws people in and elicits emotion from them (see more in this video on Nazi propaganda). Mao wanted his last revolution to channel the energies of his cult, and red helped ensure he did.

The first poster is of destroying the relics of the old world. Under the revolutionary’s foot are, among other things, a crucifix and a Buddha statue. The photo next to it is of a public burning of Buddha statues.

Many of the posters show people with guns next to people with farming implements. Mao’s Little Red Book is usually there, either in the hands of everyone or in the hands of those at the head of a long line. The book itself seems to be leading the way.

The animosity displayed during the Cultural Revolution was not only directed at internal bourgeois enemies but also at external ones, such as the Soviet Union, whoever planned to invade China and whoever was occupying Taiwan. I saw the poster reading “destroy the Soviet Union” when I lived in Beijing; it actually read “destroy [or ‘smash’] the Soviet Union” on the left and “destroy imperialist America” on the right. This photo was taken at Beijing University.

The posters depict masses of people all aligned behind Mao, as if all the people of China were following his every word. Millions, of course, were.

For similar posters, see these other sites:
or this site for more photos:

The Israel-Anti Israel Conference on Web 2.0

One of the many wonders of the internet is that one can carry on conversations indefinitely with anyone in the world with a connection. Of course, the same wondrous development leads to the hardening and polarisation of attitudes, and the reduction of serious issues to shouting matches.

Part of the modern battle for hearts and minds can be found on Web 2.0. Long gone are the days when the only people who mattered were one’s compatriots and constituents. Now, everyone considers him or herself a stakeholder in world affairs, and has no qualms about expecting their leaders to force others to conform to their worldviews. Due to what I call the illusions of modern politics (see my Facebook blog), the people think their representatives can resolve these issues.

However, high-level political arguments are often over minutiae that, even if resolved, would not affect the larger picture. A good example is the recent media frenzy over the building of new settlements in East Jerusalem. This is the current issue, but if it were resolved, would the Palestinians suddenly have a state? Would Israelis’ fears suddenly be allayed? An argument over settlements may even distract from the very real issues of Palestinian refugees, Israeli fears of terrorism and war, the occupation and the blockade of Gaza. But those issues, along with history that goes back two thousand years, are being debated in the comment sections of every website.

Some of the issues are as follows.
-Has there been a continuous Jewish presence in Canaan since the Jews were ejected 2000 years ago?
-What was promised to whom during World War One?
-Who was at fault for the Arab-Jewish violence in the British Mandate period?
-Were the Palestinians told to leave by invading Arab armies in 1948 or were they chased out by Jewish gangs?
-Were the Arab states bent on destroying Israel in the Six Day War of 1967 or is Israel guilty of aggression?
-Are the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights and East Jerusalem really occupied territories or do they rightly belong to Israel?
-Was Israel justified in blockading and then attacking the Gaza Strip after it was taken over by Hamas?

None of these issues has been resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, so everyone wants to continue the argument until they are.

I wonder how one can actually know facts when there are so many lies, distortions, exaggerations and poor memories. Facts are not as clear as ideologues make them out to be. For instance, one of the major points of contention is the Camp David talks of 2000. In 2000, Ehud Barak and his negotiating team met with Yasser Arafat and his at Camp David. The talks broke down, however, after something happened. What, precisely, happened? Well, we can never be sure: contradictory reports emerged about why the talks collapsed. However, the story the Israeli press latched onto immediately, and which has formed the dominant Israeli narrative since, was Barak’s: Arafat rejected a very generous
offer by Barak and started the second Intifada.

As a result of the clear thinking certainty can bring, the pro-Israel camp claims that one after another Israeli government have offered peace agreements and Arabs or Palestinians have rejected every one and renewed their struggle to eliminate the State of Israel. The anti-Israel camp (there is no unified Arab or Palestinian front) says the opposite: that the Arabs, including Hamas, has an open invitation to peace talks with Israel but Israel is not interested.

So the “discussion” continues. Racist comments about Muslim suicide bombers and Jewish Nazis, genocide, terrorism and so on are bandied about with such ease one would think hatred were a virtue. No problems are being resolved, no learning is taking place, only verbal violence.

Most people who read this post will say things like, “but Barak DID offer him 93% [or whatever the made-up number is] of the West Bank at Camp David” or “the Arabs are always offering peace but Israelis are expansionist and racist”. Those people prove my point. I am tired of disputing them. It takes a considerable amount of reading just to understand how people think and get a balanced perspective on such issues. People who take sides, dig trenches and adopt defensive stances have not done enough reading, unless they simply reject anything that conflicts with their prejudices.

But those people are everywhere. On every newspaper site that enables comments, every Youtube video that concerns Israel, every Facebook discussion becomes a forum to shout about which side is more evil. I have gone over most of the issues on this blog; suffice it to say, you are one keyword away from knowing all the extremist views. As you probably know, the same applies to any of the millions of other pointless conflicts in the world, from Russia and Georgia to India and Pakistan. Angry, prejudiced people are finding each other and getting angrier and more prejudiced with every comment.

The answer to the obvious question no one seems to be asking is to read and listen to the widest possible variety of perspectives and keep one’s mind equally open and critical to all of them. It is to engage constructively with one another. If the past is so important, let us work to understand each other to bring the truth into the light. We must shed our sensitivities to do so. My side cannot be right all the time, and I need to accept that if I want to work with others to make progress on these problems. Let us work together to forge a better future, instead of dwelling on the past. Or perhaps we cannot handle a future divorced from the past, and are doomed to relive it online.