Special Report from the Fronts: June 1967

Israel

Egypt

Syria

Jordan

Iraq

USSR

US

Lebanon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(OK, I got carried away.  This was intended to be short and timely reflection on the Occupation, but the historian kicked in and produced this swollen document.)

Fifty years ago last month Israel began the Six Day War (5-10 June) by launching air strikes against the Egyptian Air Force. Initially the Israelis claimed they were attacked first, but later admitted they had struck the initial blow in their own defense, a “preemptive strike” in reaction to a build-up of Arab forces on their frontiers and Egypt’s closing of the Straits of Tiran, through which most of Israel’s maritime trade passed.  Israel had warned Egypt that blocking the Straits would be considered an act of war and in part had gone to war in 1956 because of precisely that.  President Nasser claimed that Israeli warships in the Gulf of Aqaba threatened Egypt and that Egypt had not signed the international convention declaring a right of passage through the Straits.  Ironically, Israel would later use the reverse argument when they were accused of violating the Geneva Convention in the Occupied Territories: the Palestinians had never signed it.

In any case, the Israeli population certainly felt seriously threatened, and because unlike the Arab forces the Israeli militia-army could not be kept on high alert for very long, Israel was forced to settle the issue more or less immediately. On the other hand, while the preemptive strike may be justified by the closing of the Straits, this was in many ways the beginning of the legitimizing of military action without a traditionally accepted casus belli.  Now we have invaded Iraq because we thought they had chemical weapons and might use them, and Israel, a nuclear power, threatens Iran with air strikes because they might be making a nuclear weapon.

The Six Day War took place just as I was graduating from college, and while I was on my way to becoming an historian of antiquity, my understanding of Israel was still shaped by the popular image of Exodus, of David versus Goliath, of the beleaguered democracy, of making the desert bloom.  I was thrilled by the marvelous victories of the Israeli Defense Force and the triumph of Jewish democracy over Arab autocracy, taunting a pair of Lebanese brothers who lived in my dorm.

This all changed rapidly as I learned more of the history of modern Israel and of the war itself.  Did two millennia of persecution and the Holocaust really justify displacing the Palestinians, who were certainly innocents in what Europe had done to the Jews?  Initially, in fact, Theodor Herzl and the Zionists simply wanted a state for Jews anywhere, recognizing that as part of the Ottoman Empire, Palestine was clearly not an option for state-building.  And the creation of a Jewish homeland was hardly high on the list of European priorities.

Theodor Herzl

With the outbreak of the Great War, however, the situation changed.  The desire of both the Allies and the Central Powers to cultivate European Jewry because of their supposed financial resources (yes, governments actually believed some of the anti-Semitic fantasies) provided the Zionists a more receptive audience.  On the other hand, British (and to a lesser degree French) military and political interests in the Arab regions of the Turkish Empire also provided a forum for Arab nationalism.  The Allies of course dealt with all this by making clearly conflicting promises to everyone in the region.

Arthur Balfour

The pivotal moment came in November 1917 with the publication of the intentionally vague Balfour Declaration:

His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.

The political calculation behind this seems to have been to garner support from German, Russian and American Jews, who would, respectively, undermine the German war effort, keep Russia in the war and attract more American support (another case of dramatically overestimating Jewish influence and power).  None of these things would happen.  Instead, already suspicious Arab allies were outraged, and Britain ended up being saddled with Mandatory Palestine for the next thirty years.  Many later labeled the Balfour Declaration one of the worst mistakes ever made by the British Empire.

For centuries Muslim, Christian and Jewish Palestinians had lived peacefully as neighbors, but that changed with the establishment of the British Mandate in 1920.  Jews began to pour into the territory: in 1920 they constituted about 11% of the population; in 1936 it was close to 30%, a huge increase given the high Arab birth rate.  The financial backing of the Jewish settlers was immense compared to that of the Muslims, allowing them to buy land and develop infrastructure.  Muslims considered the Jews a People of the Book, but having occupied the land for more than a millennium, they certainly did not share the enthusiasm of the Christian West for the resurrection of ancient Israel, which policy was increasingly viewed as another example of European imperialism.

The growing influx of European Jews was seen – quite understandably – as an invasion supported by the British, and most Arab leaders refused to cooperate in creating Muslim-Jewish institutions.  Sectarian strife began in the twenties, producing the first Palestinian terror groups, and a full blown Arab revolt exploded in 1936, Arabs attacking Jews and destroying their farms and the British Army, supported by 6000 armed Jewish auxiliaries, attempting to suppress them.  When the revolt ended in 1939 some 5000 Arabs, 200 British and 400 Jews were dead.  The British, incidentally, began the policy of collective punishment of Palestinians by destroying their houses, a policy later adopted by the new state of Israel.

Jews leaving Jerusalem

Arabs “escorted” from Jerusalem by British troops

A British-Jewish Special Night Squad

Palestinian fighters

Abd al-Rahim al-Hajj Muhammad “General Commander of the Revolt”

Dead also was any idea of peaceful coexistence.  The Jews responded to Arab opposition and terrorism by organizing their own militias, such as the relatively disciplined Haganah, which would become the core of the Israeli Defense Force, and less savory groups, like the Irgun and Lehi (Stern Gang), outright terrorist organizations.  Meanwhile, the British soldiers, who ultimately were targeted by both sides, were likely cursing the name of Arthur Balfour.

Irgun: bombed Arab bus 1947

Stern: assassination of peace mediator Folke Bernadotte 1948

Avraham Stern – founder of Lehi (and supporter of the Nazis)

Irgun: King David Hotel 1946

Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Supreme Commander of the Irgun

Irgun: hanged British soldiers 1947

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Second World War brought matters to a head.  The slaughter of some six million European Jews could hardly fail to magnify the Zionist cause and the guilty consciences of Europe and America, which had turned away many Jewish refugees before the war.  The British Empire was in full retreat, and London was certainly open to any measures that would get them out of Palestine.  Finally, the war had produced an organization, the United Nations, which could serve as an international mechanism for the creation of a Jewish state.  Also crucial was the immense power of post-war America, whose President, Harry Truman, favored the creation of a new Israel, despite the objections of most of his advisors.  Joseph Stalin also supported the idea, which makes one wonder.

In November 1947 the UN voted to partition the Mandate, creating separate Jewish and Arab states and an international status for Jerusalem.  In hindsight the Arabs, now seemingly forever caught in a growing apartheid web of Israeli occupation, clearly should have taken the deal, but the Arab world did not see the self-determination talked about by the Americans, just another exercise in western manipulation of their affairs.

World Zionist Organization 1919 territorial claim

UN Partition Plan 1947

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Zionism was a European phenomenon, the Holocaust (and to a great degree the persecution of Jews in general) was a European phenomenon and there had not been a Jewish state for almost two millennia. Why should there be one now?  And more important to the Arabs, why here?  Palestine had been Muslim and under the control of Islamic states for more than a thousand years (and had generally treated the Jewish minority far better than the Christian west).  I certainly could feel at least a twinge of the outrage when having met Arab families who could demonstrate possession of their land back into the nineteenth century and further, I had to listen to someone speaking English with a New York accent explain how it was in fact his land.

Well, for all the persecution and hatred of the people who “murdered the Christ” ancient Israel and Judah were an inseparable part of Christianity, which had after all accepted the Hebrew Testament, and Israel was where Jesus had walked. Today, many American Protestants, notably Evangelicals and sundry fundamentalists, are enthusiastic supporters of not just Israel but of its most extreme policies.  The British had painted themselves into a corner with the Balfour Declaration, and Hitler had made that corner virtually inescapable for them and the Americans.

The immediate response to the partition was violence, as Arab armies converged on the territory assigned to Israel, and it turned into inter-state warfare when Israel proclaimed her status as a sovereign state on 14 May 1948.  Here was the first of the “David versus Goliath” wars, at least in popular imagination.  In fact, Israel fielded almost twice as many troops as her opponents, and the OSS (predecessor of the CIA) estimated that Israel would handily defeat the forces of Jordan, Syria, Iraq and Egypt.

And so they did.  When the war ended in March 1949, Israel had acquired 60% of the territory initially assigned to the Arabs and now had a foothold in Jerusalem.  More than 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled; yes, contrary to the popular mythic version of their history, the Israelis did engage in ethnic cleansing.  (In the next three years about 700,000 Jews entered Israel, many fleeing Arab countries.)  In the state of Israel itself some 400 Palestinian villages (against 10 Jewish communities) were emptied of people, creating a class of Internally Displaced Persons among the Arab citizenry, and by 1950 one in four Israeli Arabs was an IDP, barred from their homes and land, which were confiscated by the state.  The laws applied also to descendants, so the situation continues to this day.

King Farouk I of Egypt

King Abdullah I of Jordan

1948 Arab-Israeli War

First Israeli Expansion

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For Palestinians this was al-nakba, “the Catastrophe.” In 1950 Jordan annexed the remaining non-Israeli territory, the West Bank (Gaza was occupied by the Egyptians), and offered the inhabitants Jordanian citizenship.  Many Palestinians turned this down, and only Britain recognized the annexation, while the Arab states, anxious to keep the Palestinian question alive, pressured the Jordanian King, Abdullah I, to declare the annexation “temporary.”  This temporary arrangement would last 17 years and be replaced with something much more onerous.

In 1956 Israel joined in a secret coalition with Britain and France, who were responding to the nationalization of the Suez Canal, and fielded 175,000 troops (twice that of her allies) to attack Egypt. Worldwide outrage erupted, mainly directed against the French and British for their blatant assault on a sovereign state in order to protect their imperial interests, and domestic and international pressure soon forced them to withdraw, leaving President Nasser in power.  Israel was primarily – and understandably – concerned about regular terrorist attacks coming out of Gaza and Soviet weaponry going into Cairo and would be delighted to see a weakened Egypt without Nasser.  They occupied Gaza and Sinai and refused to leave when their erstwhile allies gave it up, and it took two more weeks of threats of sanctions and lifting of American aid by President Eisenhower (the first and last American President to stand up to Israel) to finally force them out.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower

Prime Minister David Ben Gurion

President Gamal Abdel Nasser

Suez Crisis

 

Unlike the humiliated French and British, Israel benefited from the brief war, her defiance of the US and international community winning important guarantees: a UN presence in Sinai and the opening of the Straits of Tiran, which had been closed by Egypt in 1951. Nasser kept the canal and his power and emerged with an enhanced reputation, but he failed to understand that he had been saved by American diplomacy not the Egyptian military.  While the Israelis correctly concluded that their citizen soldiers were better trained and could conduct large scale operations, Nasser deceived himself and his people by concluding that his forces could take on the new kid on the block.

The Suez Crisis set the stage for the Six Day War, suggesting to Egypt, Syria and Jordan that together they could defeat Israel. They could not, and while much of the world marveled at tiny David facing the Arab Goliath again, the CIA in fact concluded that it would take Israel less than two weeks to defeat the Arabs.  It took less than one, and Israel made out like a bandit.

Battle for Sinai

Battle for the Golan Heights

Battle for the West Bank

(Whether the Egyptians shot retreating soldiers or the Israelis murdered some POWs is still debated, but another more disturbing incident of the war is now perfectly clear: Israeli aircraft and torpedo boats deliberately attacked the intelligence ship USS Liberty, killing 34 and wounding 174 American sailors; see my post “Our Best Ally and the USS Liberty” (https://qqduckus.com/2012/06/07/our-best-ally-and-the-uss-liberty/) 

Prime Minister Levy Eshkol of Israel

 

President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt

 

King Hussein I of Jordan

 

Sallah Jadid of Syria

President Abdul Rahman Arif of Iraq

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

President Lyndon Johnson

 

General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Washington finally forced the Israelis to accept a ceasefire (they were ultimately dependent on American resupply), they had seized Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria. Eretz Yisrael had attained its greatest territorial extent – ever – and possession of all of Jerusalem, which meant control of sites sacred to all three Abrahamic religions: the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the el-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock.  (Perhaps the most iconic image from the war is that of jubilant Israeli soldiers at the Western Wall; less well known is the immediate destruction of 135 Arab houses and a mosque to create the plaza that now fronts the Wall.)

The Second Israeli Expansion

Israeli soldiers at the
Western Wall

Clearing the area before the Wall

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Israelis now also controlled the West Bank, which was promptly named the Judea and Samaria Area, though the term did not come into regular use until Menachem Begin became Prime Minister in 1977. The territory of the West Bank was in fact the heart of ancient Israel, Judea being the southern state of Judah (which ended up composing the history found in the Old Testament) and Samaria the northern state of Israel (completely maligned in the Bible).  A great irony of the creation of modern Israel is that inasmuch as the partition was based on demographics most of ancient Israel fell to the Arabs.  And this is certainly on of the central facts behind the sad fate of the Palestinians.

Ancient Israel Based on the Bible

Israel and Judah 9th century BC

 

Israel now occupied all that “homeland” (real or imagined), and while Israel was initially concerned with security – the occupation would quickly fuel Palestinian terrorism – the extremists saw the possibility of recreating ancient Israel, or at least the swollen image of it in the Judah-edited Old Testament.  Reestablishing a state that had ceased to exist two millennia earlier was questionable enough, but claiming territory for that state on basis of a clearly unhistorical holy book strikes me as absurd.  But because Christianity has also accepted that book as sacred, many clearly do not see Israel’s actions as absurd – or as violations of international law.

Before the end of June Israel brought East Jerusalem and surrounding land under its administration, calling it “municipal integration,” but it was clearly annexation, which was confirmed by the Jerusalem Law of 1980.  The occupied Golan Heights were to be retained for security reasons and settlements began to appear, leading in 1981 to the Golan Heights Law, by which the region was formally annexed.  Only Costa Rica recognized the Jerusalem annexation and Micronesia the Golan annexation – one wonders why these two states.

One of the fundamental provisions of the post-World War II international agreements, such as the Fourth Geneva Convention and the United Nations Charter, is the prohibition of annexing or settling territory acquired through war, whatever the reason.  Israel apparently felt exempt from this, for security reasons but increasingly in the West Bank simply because it was believed to be the land of Israel.  These settlements were not merely “obstacles to peace,” as the United States calls them, but gross violations of international covenants the United States is pledged to uphold.  Nevertheless, Israel was continually protected from hostile resolutions of the United Nations by the American veto in the Security Council.

Already in 1967 Israel reestablished the old settlement of Kfar Etzion, whose inhabitants had been massacred in the 1948 war.  More ominous was the foundation on the outskirts of Hebron of Kiryat Arba in 1968: the land was confiscated from Palestinians on the grounds of military needs, but it was in fact intended for a Jewish settlement.  Because of the connection between Hebron and Abraham (who might have once been a local cult figure), the city is sacred to everyone and has attracted a particularly nasty group of Jewish settlers, who are holed up in the old town, protected by the Israeli military.  Kiryat Arba has a park dedicated to Meir Kahane, whose Kach party is considered a terrorist organization even by the Israeli government, and nearby is the grave of Baruch Goldstein (an associated shrine, attracting thousands of visitors, has been bulldozed by the government), who slaughtered 29 Palestinians praying in a mosque. Both these men grew up in Brooklyn.

Kahane Tourist Park

Meir Kahane

Kiryat Arba

Baruch Goldstein

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The confiscation of land for Jewish settlements became standard policy during the 1970s, though it was denied by the Israeli government.  When a Likud government under Menachem Begin (former leader of the terrorist Irgun; a later Prime Minister, Yitzhak Shamir, led the Stern Gang) took power in 1977, the process accelerated, and later the government began subsidizing housing in the settlements (which continues to this day), drawing huge numbers of Israelis who were moved far less by the dream of ancient Israel than by cheap available housing.  Whatever the motivation, these colonists were creating the “facts on the ground,” a growing Jewish population that made it more and more difficult for the land to be returned to the Palestinians.

Ytizhak Shamir, Prime Minister and former terrorist

Menachem Begin, Prime Minister and former terrorist.

Yasir Arafat, President and former terrorist

 

 

 

 

In 1983, as part of the peace treaty with Egypt, Israel removed the settlements from Sinai, and in 2005 those in Gaza, in both cases facing serious resistance from the settlers.  Unfortunately, with Israel controlling Gaza’s frontiers, waters and air space this rump Palestinian state became the world’s largest open air prison, periodically blasted by the IDF because some Hamas jerk shoots a rocket into Israel.  As of today, approximately 1,730,000 Palestinians are living in a semi-wasteland, and malnutrition has become a serious problem.

Meanwhile, the Jewish population in the Occupied Territories continues to swell, as increasingly right wing governments blithely paint Israel into a corner.  There are now some 800,000 Israeli Jewish citizens residing in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights and a growing number of Israeli-only roads slicing up Palestinian territory.  Israeli and foreign governments still talk about the “two state solution,” but it has become an impossibility.  Even were the government willing – an extremely unlikely development – attempting to evacuate the settlements would almost certainly lead to extreme violence and civil strife.

What then?  There are now some 2,754,000 Palestinians in the West Bank (and 5,000,000 in Arab countries), and their birth rate is much higher than that of the Jews – excepting the ultra-Orthodox Haredi (who are producing a growing number of Israeli males who know virtually nothing but the Torah).  They certainly cannot be simply expelled, and that leaves two possibilities: annex the territory and give the citizenship to the Palestinians or continue with the current policy.  The first will not happen because Jews would then be a minority, a difficult proposition if Israel is to be a “Jewish” state, and one could expect the new voters to be unsympathetic to many Israeli institutions.

That leaves the status quo, which can lead only to some form of an apartheid state, which is already taking shape in the West Bank.  I visited Israel/Palestine about twenty-five years ago, when the settler presence was much smaller and the Israelis-only road network was just getting underway, and even then the West Bank was beginning to look like something out of the Middle Ages.  The settlements are for the most part on hill tops or ridges, looming like little fortified cities over the Palestinian communities below.  The traditional whitewashed houses of the villages, where water is increasingly in short supply, are in dramatic contrast to the modern accommodations, malls and swimming pools of the settlements, which are like bits of American suburbia planted in the Holy Land.

Settlement life

Israel has now occupied Palestine longer than the Soviet Union controlled Eastern Europe, a tragedy for the Palestinians and ultimately the Israelis.  The Palestinian leadership, such as it is, has been frequently corrupt and seems to have a special knack for doing just the wrong thing, but consider a half century of rather unpleasant (by contemporary western standards) occupation: how would you feel after a lifetime of second class status – at best – and watching your ancient homeland being recolonized?   Or seeing your home destroyed because someone in your family was arrested (collective punishment, another violation of international law)?  Or being shot with relative impunity because you were defending your olive trees from settler vandals?

Back a quarter century ago I and a companion visited a Palestinian family in Bani Naim, five miles east of Hebron, and when we entered the children began crying.  They thought we were Israelis.

The sad history of Palestine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Dying for History: Khaled al-Asa’ad

Khaled al-Asa'ad Hero

                           Khaled al-Asa’ad
                                     Hero

The city of Palmyra is at least 4000 years old and has survived the Assyrians, the wars between Rome and the Persian Empire, the Arab conquest, the Seljuk Turks and the Mongols. Now it is being destroyed by a group of stateless barbarians, ostensibly in the name of their twisted god, but in fact as a public relations program. These buildings are part of the human heritage, and they simply cannot be replaced. That the ISIS scum have been staging mass executions in the theater at Palmyra is horrific enough, but once again, these treasures, these stone messages from worlds long gone are irreplaceable. They are far more worth dying for than a flag.

Palmyra  street

                    Palmyra street

Palmyra theater

                 Palmyra theater

Palmyra

                                    Palmyra

Such was seemingly the conclusion reached by Khaled al-Asa’ad, an archeologist specializing in Palmyra and custodian of the site for forty years before his retirement. When ISIS approached Palmyra/Tadmur in May, he refused all calls for him to flee, and in August he and his son and successor at the site, Walid, were detained by the dogs who call themselves Muslims. Even under torture this magnificent 81 year old man refused to reveal where some of the treasures of Palmyra had been hidden, and on August 18 he was publically beheaded and hung from a lamppost. What has happened to his son is as yet unknown, but thirteen other employees of the Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums have been murdered.

Would I die to defend the Parthenon? I don’t know.

In May the ISIS infidels destroyed the tomb of Mohammed bin Ali, a descendant of the Prophet’s cousin, and the shrine of Nazir Abu Bahaeddine, a prominent 16th century sufi. In June they destroyed the two millennia old Lion of Al-Lat, which had been reconstructed and placed before the Palmyra Museum, and in August they blew up the Temple of Baalshamin, which dated back to the time of the Emperor Hadrian. Never before have I wanted a group of people to suffer in ways rejected by a truly civilized society. Such brings me down to their level, but I don’t care. There is a difference: they all have blood on their hands and I do not. If I could believe in the existence of evil, ISIS would be it.

Pure evil at work

Pure evil at work

The Lion of Al-Lat

              The Lion of Al-Lat

Temple of Baalshamin

           Temple of Baalshamin

And the world does nothing. The United States was at the very least midwife to the birth of this monstrosity, but with no taste for yet another war can do little but hurl death from the heavens and squander even more money on Baghdad, trapped by the now obsolete notion that Iraq is in fact a state. My country would better serve the world by aiding the millions of refugees created by the assault on Saddam’s Iraq. The countries most threatened by the plague of ISIS – Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states – are willing to do very little, disinclined to fight fellow Sunnis, no matter how disgusting, and thus aid Iran or in the case of Turkey more interested in blowing up Kurds. Perhaps if the ISIS terrorists attacked Mecca…

Meanwhile, Khaled al-Asa’ad is dead, sacrificing himself defending the beautiful city to which he had dedicated his life. After a lifetime in academe I cannot say that I have encountered many scholar-heroes.

 

 

Je Suis Charlie (Mais Non Est Obama)

 

What is wrong with Barack Obama?  On January 11 1.6 million people, including more than forty presidents and prime ministers, gathered in the Place de la République in Paris for a show of solidarity against Islamic terrorism.  But unless you recognized the face of the American ambassador in Paris you would search in vain for a representative of the United States among the heads of state marching with linked arms.  The American Attorney General happened to be in France, but did not attend the rally.

Surely the American President, the leader of the global anti-terror war, had no business more important (a fund raiser?) than showing his face in Paris.  The White House then added another insult by bringing up concerns about the President’s safety (though the Secret Service was never consulted), suggesting that the French security forces are inept, an opinion apparently not shared by the leaders who did show up.  Since the President may presumably ignore the concerns of his advisors, Obama ends up looking a bit like a coward or an aloof jerk, especially since the very first national leader to hurry to the US after 9/11 was Jacques Chirac, the President of France.

Je suis Barack

Je suis Barack

One leader who did show up, apparently against the wishes of the French President, Francois Hollande, was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, prompting Hollande to immediately invite Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority.  Netanyahu proceeded to make a fool of himself, waving to the crowd, unlike the others in the somber march, and inviting French Jews to emigrate to Israel, where they would be safe, a completely outrageous statement for a guest of the French to make.  Of course, the presence of people like Vladimir Putin and the representative of Saudia Arabia was a study in hypocrisy as they memorialized the Charlie Hebdo journalists, all of whom would be in prison in their countries.

Slaughtering innocents, especially children, is certainly barbaric, but the assault on the writers and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo was a blow against what I believe to be the most important of our rights, that of free expression.  If one cannot say what one pleases, short of creating an immediate physical danger, all other political freedoms become meaningless.  Limiting free speech because someone, be it an individual or an entire group of people, may be offended is tantamount to eliminating free speech.  Freedom of expression comes with a sometimes onerous responsibility: tolerating the offensive or inane speech of others.  “Hate” speech and certainly stupid speech are unfortunately facets of free speech.

Islamic extremism, at least when it targets what it considers offensive expression, might be considered a sort of political correctness gone wild.  Instead of facing censure or job loss because of criticism of some group, you now face death threats and violence.  There are well meaning-people who believe that if we do not insult these individuals by criticizing or lampooning their bizarre and brutal interpretation of Islam, they will not be moved to such barbarous behavior, a ludicrous idea.  And there are far less well-meaning people (see for example the official Turkish press), who suggest this sort of violence is happening because of excessive free speech, implying that the victims at Charlie Hebdo deserved what they got.  Well, all governments (and university administrations) are uncomfortable to some degree with real free speech, and it is a never ending struggle to secure our right to say what we will.

Free speech aside, these jihadi scum are reminiscent of a violent group that has actually contributed a common noun to the English language – the Thuggees or Thugs.  The Thugs were a criminal/religious association plaguing India since at least the fourteenth century, until they were virtually eliminated by the British in the nineteenth.  The Thugs originally traced their roots back to seven Muslim tribes, but their theology was Hindu during their reign of terror.  They were essentially a criminal underclass, specializing in strangling and robbing travelers, but they believed themselves (Muslims notwithstanding) to be the children of the violent goddess Kali, consort of Shiva, thus providing a kind of religious justification for their murderous activities.  The Thugs were at root thieves, but they inevitably murdered their victims, making them something more than just another robber band.  Estimates vary wildly, but the Thugs may have killed as many as two million people during their centuries of terror.

Kali, unofficial deity of Isis

Kali, unofficial deity of Isis

Thugs

Thugs

And what to do about the wave of Muslim fanaticism that is rolling around the planet?  I wish I knew.  These deluded jihadists are like the Terminator: they can’t be reasoned with, they can’t be bought off and they can’t be intimidated.  The British were able to turn many Thugs by sparing them the death penalty, but how can one do this with someone who believes that getting blown up is a good thing?

Killing them is the only immediate answer, but without an effective army actually engaging ISIS in Syria and Iraq this will be a long and difficult process.  Cutting off the supply of new recruits means improving living conditions, including education, for young Muslim men, a tough enough challenge in Europe, especially France, where there is a rising tide of Islamaphobia, and perhaps impossible in the Middle East.  Of course, droning innocents in Pakistan and Yemen is not helping the cause, although the ISIS fanatics would likely still be trying to build their caliphate even if the West had no history of colonialism in the Middle East and no war on terror.

Perhaps western leaders need to begin thinking outside the box.  Declare that Syria is a province of the Israeli empire and let them take care of the situation.  Or make it clear to the jihadists that if captured they will be put in stocks and pelted with pork and forced to listen to historians and theologians explaining Islam to them.  Or send in attorneys and administrators to help ISIS construct a true bureaucratic state, in the wake of which they will be unable to get anything done.  Just saying. enhanced-30843-1420643123-9[1]enhanced-15505-1420644639-7[1]

The Gifts Terrorists Bear

The prime directive of virtually all governments is to defend and expand their power. This holds true whether that government is authoritarian or democratic, whether its intentions are malevolent or benign, whether the head of state is King Tiglath-Pileser or President Obama.  Of course, an Assyrian king and an American President face different problems when it comes to defending their government’s power.  If you have absolute power and are ruling as an agent of divine forces, you need only keep an eye on the priesthood and your family members, whereas a modern autocrat must mind the army, bureaucracy and the people.  Naturally, the democratically elected ruler has more constraints and a limited tenure, but there appears nevertheless to be a common inclination that your government should exercise as much power as possible, even if that government may pass into the hands of the opposition.  And certainly the unelected bureaucracy that underpins the government and its agencies wishes to retain as much authority as it can.

 

The premier mechanism for expanding a government’s power is dealing with threats, domestic or foreign, real or imagined.  War has traditionally been a way, at least for authoritarian regimes, to deal with domestic discontent and unite the population behind the government in a burst of nationalism, though one must of course win the war, as the Argentinian generals discovered.  Exterminating Chechens is popular with Russians, so Putin has engaged in wars in Chechnya to improve his standing; now it is the Ukraine.  On the other hand, wars, even the limited ones that have characterized the post-WW II world, are very expensive, though guaranteed money-makers for sundry corporations.

 

Wars typically produce emergency powers, which then tend to remain even when the threat is gone.  The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, enacted in 1964, gave the President the power to wage war without a Congressional declaration of such, and though it was limited by the War Powers Act of 1973, the fact is that fifty years later the US President still essentially has the power to send troops around the planet and bomb countries against whom we have not declared war.

 

Domestic threats are excellent, since they are more immediate and more easily engender the fear that governments can take advantage of.  The classic example has been the burning of the German Reichstag in 1933 by a Dutch communist, which act provided Hitler with the excuse to assume dictatorial powers.  This has now been supplemented by the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US, which resulted in the constitutionally questionable Patriot Act and dramatically increased powers of surveillance and policing.  Note that President Obama, a liberal, has not surrendered those powers, despite their seemingly being against his general political philosophy.

 

The greatest example of the usefulness of domestic threats to the government is found in the USSR under Stalin.  The constant threat of spies, counter-revolutionaries and “wreckers” allowed the General Secretary to rid himself of anyone he desired and develop the largest security apparatus the world has seen.  The young Soviet government did of course fight a civil war and suffer foreign intervention, but one might question why a decade and more later the most totalitarian state on the planet was still suffering wave after wave of treasonous plots and sabotage.  Could virtually all the Old Bolsheviks be traitors?  How could it be that in the thirties the vast majority of the military hierarchy were conspiring against the regime and working for foreign powers?  Why were ardent Stalinists being arrested?

 

The often farcical Stalinist Terror is a wonderful demonstration of how people will believe what they want.  Many intellectuals of course saw through things like the Show Trials, but it is amazing how many intelligent people believed it was a mistake when they were arrested and sent off to the gulag: “If only Comrade Stalin knew…”  Building socialism was not child’s play, and fulfilling the dream required harsh methods inasmuch as it spurred such destructive responses from the reactionary elements, who despite being imprisoned and executed by the millions apparently still constituted a huge percentage of the population.  And Stalin was able to play this game until he died of old age in 1953.

 

Communism was a great resource for non-communist governments.  Communists were not only a foreign threat, justifying all sorts of military expenditures and silly conflicts, but they were a magnificent fifth column, providing an excellent domestic threat, useful for pumping up governmental power.  There was also a wonderful kind of vagueness about this threat, allowing anyone with leftist leanings to be identified as a “communist” and thus someone inclined to overthrow the state, perhaps even as an agent of the Evil Communist Empire.  We now know that some American clients would alert Washington to an imaginary “communist threat” in their countries in order to squeeze military and financial aid from the gullible Yankees.  And communist Cuba with its aid to anti-government movements in Latin America provided the US with the perfect excuse to claim every popular uprising against an authoritarian state (usually supported by the US) was communist inspired.

 

Well, the communists are pretty much gone now (and czarist Russia has reemerged, this time with nuclear weapons), so what is a government interested in putting paranoia to work to do?  Enter terrorism.  As far as the purposes of the government are concerned, “communism” and “terrorism” are virtually synonymous; one could take a government document on communism and substitute the word terrorism and it would still make sense.   But terrorism is even better!  Exactly what constitutes terrorism is even more vaguely defined than communism, and while the base definition involves killing or conspiring to kill innocents for ideological reasons, that can cover a mighty lot of people, from ISIS to a mental case – and of course freedom fighters who are not necessarily targeting innocents.

 

While primarily Muslims, terrorists can be anyone and can be anywhere, the perfect threat for any security apparatus.  The intelligence services are especially delighted, now having an excuse to spy on virtually everyone (including that hotbed of terrorism, the US Congress).  No longer are the spooks limited to governments and groups, but can now claim justification for monitoring everyone on the planet, including American citizens.

 

And now there is ISIS, the Rolls Royce of terrorism.  They kill anyone who is not with them, they kill women and children, they make women sex slaves and they do it all with great enthusiasm.  They are well organized, they have heavy weapons (thank you, Uncle Sam) and they actually control territory and constitute something of a state.  Far more than any other group they are the face of Evil, crucifying and beheading people, forcing victims to dig their own graves and doing it all on camera.  Instead of tedious filmed ideological diatribes they produce snappy, if often gruesome videos, and are attracting gullible and/or sociopathic recruits from Europe and America.  It just does not get any better than this when it comes to providing a government with potent material for establishing fear.

 

Being situated in Syria and Iraq of course makes it difficult for them to be construed as a direct threat to American shores, but they are terrorists and have obligingly made it clear they will attack the United States, which automatically makes them a threat to “national security.”  The fact that guns and drunk driving kill far more Americans than any terrorist could dream of does not seem to bother anyone when it comes to the issue of national security, which may be why we constantly hear of the possibility that they may acquire a nuclear weapon.  I expect the scientists and research labs of the Islamic State are working diligently to produce such a weapon.  Odd that our friends, the eighth century monarchies in the Gulf, do not seem as worried as we do about this threat, despite having these barbarians (that may be an insult to the average barbarian) right next door.  On the other hand, that they are finally using some of their expensive weaponry and bombing fellow Sunnis might indicate a bit of concern for their oppressive little kingdoms.

 

If the regional powers (excepting Israel of course) could get together and launch a serious war against this ISIS scum, the Islamic State would be doomed.  Turkey alone could roll over them, but Erdoğan is playing his own short-sighted game and will not even allow his supposed NATO allies use of his airfields.  Perhaps ISIS will be stupid enough to attack Israel.

 

 

Is Everything a Threat to National Security?

I was recently sent a gun camera video clip of an American aircraft, presumably a helicopter, “degrading” (what a wonderful euphemism for slaughtering) a unit of ISIS troops after dark.  The fighters, who seemed confused, were mostly taken out by canon fire from the helicopter, though a few guided weapons were called in, a seemingly pricey way to kill one man.  Though I understand that dehumanizing the enemy is valuable to any military, I am normally uncomfortable with this video game warfare, but not this time.  The victims in this case have in effect dehumanized themselves, making traditional bad guys, like the Huns or Mongols or Waffen SS, look relatively benign.  Evil exists in the world, and this is it.

Guys with small dicks

Guys with small dicks

Consequently, I am delighted to see my country participate in blowing these guys up, even if it means the military will clamor for more money.  After all, we bear some considerable responsibility by taking out Saddam Hussein, who for all that he was a thug did maintain a seemingly stable and secular state.  All we did was leave another thug, this one of the Shia persuasion, and a sham Iraqi army equipped with American weaponry just asking to be stolen.

Threat to national security

Threat to national security

Threat to national security

Threat to national security

But is ISIS really a threat to American national security?  They are definitely a threat to Turkey because of its long frontier with Syria and Iraq, and Turkey seems finally to be waking up to the danger and has announced it will respond if ISIS destroys the Suleyman Shah Shrine commemorating the grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire. Oddly enough, though this shrine is in Syria, it is legally part of Turkey and technically would trigger a NATO response if attacked, which of course would involve the US.  They are obviously a threat to Iraq, but it has never been clear to me why this jury-rigged and now collapsing state is a major concern to the security of American citizens.  They could threaten Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states, which because of oil do involve American interests, but most of these places have serious if small military forces and immense amounts of money.  Lebanon, the new Kurdistan and Jordan are friends and already swamped with refugees, but what they have to with the security of the American homeland is not immediately apparent.

Ottoman tomb in Syria

Ottoman tomb in Syria

ISIS is theoretically a threat to Israeli security, but the opinion of the American Congress notwithstanding, Israel is not the United States and to my mind is an ally of questionable value.  She also has perhaps the strongest military in the region and is clearly willing to employ it, regardless of civilian casualties inflicted on the Arab populations.  The Israelis in fact seem disinterested, knowing that Washington cannot call upon them because of the bad publicity, and Tel Aviv had never shown much concern over Muslims killing one another.  As Prime Minister Netanyahu just demonstrated in a speech to the UN, they have their own interests, Iran and Hamas.  The possibility that Iran might obtain a nuclear weapon and then be so inconceivably stupid as to use it on Israel was clearly a much bigger concern for Bibi.  And while Hamas, an organization midwifed by Israeli security services, is a loathsome group, comparing them to ISIS as he did is like comparing a Brown Bess musket to a Kalashnikov.

Threat to national security

Threat to national security

Threat to national security

Threat to national security

Of course Washington has not claimed that we risk seeing an ISIS expeditionary force landing on American shores; the threat is the export of jihadists from the so-called Caliphate, trained terrorists who will kill Americans.  There is no denying this, but unless they are able to kill large numbers of citizens this would appear a rather expansive definition of “national security.”  Domestic security in the wake of 9/11 is such that it is now extremely unlikely that any attack even remotely close to that scale could take place, and in any case if the deaths of thousands of Americans is a national security question, we have far more compelling issues.  According to the FBI, in a five year period – 2008 to 2012 – 45,105 Americans were murdered with firearms, yet the government seems disinclined to take any real action on this issue.  In the same period 52,793 Americans died from drunk driving, but this is never mentioned as a threat to national security.  Apparently it only counts if some foreign ideology is involved.

One would suppose that the people who are directly threatened by ISIS, the Turks and sundry Arab states, would be the ones most concerned about stopping these sociopaths, but ancient tribal hostilities prevent that.  Turkey – or at least Recep Erdoğan – would like to see ISIS destroy the Kurds, even though the jihadists are the greater danger and new oil-rich Kurdistan offers an unprecedented opportunity for cooperation.  The Gulf states, medieval kingdoms with 21st century weaponry, are reluctant to attack fellow Sunnis, who are in fact attacking the Alawites (a Shia group) in Damascus, and are afraid of Shiite and non-Arab Iran.  Iran, which has no qualms about killing ISIS Sunnis, is reluctant to cooperate with the Gulf states and especially the United States.  The government in Baghdad seems more interested in maintaining its sectarian-based political power than protecting their rump state, which actually makes them more like the American Congress than their medieval friends.

Threat to national security

Threat to national security

Threat to national security

Threat to national security

Well, ISIS may not be a threat to American national security, but for once my government is bombing people who seriously need killing.  The Taliban are medieval creeps and al-Qaeda are anti-American jerks, but ISIS is truly evil and an offense to civilization.

This is ISIS

This is ISIS

 

Iraq Redux

(My apologies for the long delay between posts, but I had a lot of distractions.  I hope to return to a post every week to week and a half.)

 

The Romans often fought series of wars, returning to the same battlefield because of unfinished business or a failed settlement.  Examples abound in the later Republic: three Punic wars over a century, four Macedonian wars in sixty-six years, three Mithridatic wars in a quarter century.  (During WW I there were twelve battles of the Isonzo River in Italy in two and a half years, surely some sort of record.)  America has fought two Iraqi wars: driving Saddam out of Kuwait in 1990-1991 and destroying the Saddam government in 2003-2011.  And now we are creeping towards a Third Iraqi War, as the US desperately searches for a way to repair the damage resulting from a completely botched post-war settlement.

 

Invading Iraq in 2003 was utterly pointless in terms of American interests.  Saddam had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11; he was in fact second only to the Saudi Royal family on Al-Qaeda’s to-do list.  His was a thoroughly secular administration, one of the places Gulf royalty went to in order get a drink and get laid.  His government was oppressive, but it was stable and anti-Islamist, and when was Washington ever troubled by oppressive governments?  He was an implacable enemy of Iran, for which we have a hatred bordering on the completely irrational, and he was zero threat to anyone except his own people.

former ally

former ally

Why the Neocons were so determined to go to war with this character is not at all clear.  Frustration from the government’s inability to strike back at the actual terrorists?  Embarrassment from seeing our accusations against Saddam prove baseless?  Israeli interests?  Whatever the case, we were forced to invent hidden weapons of mass destruction in order to create some threat to the United States and ultimately justified our invasion with the claim that Saddam had violated provisions of the armistice or 1991.  In effect, we declared war on a country that had done us no harm and was not threatening us.  This is the sort of thing that makes our demands that persons like Vladimir Putin observe international law ring a bit hollow.

 

The war, which was not to be paid for by Iraqi oil as promised, was easily won, but as is generally the case, the peace was not.  Not only did the Bush administration have no plan for securing a stable post-Saddam Iraq, apparently presuming it would just spring into being, but it sometimes seemed that they were trying to plunge the country into chaos.  Disbanding the Iraqi army rather than co-opting it left Iraq with no indigenous force to police the country, presenting the American military with a task for which it was not really prepared.  The Americans would consequently look more like occupiers than liberators, especially when the Pentagon began hiring foreign mercenaries for many policing duties.  Dismissing every public servant who was a member of the Ba’athist party was utterly foolish, immediately robbing the country of much of its human infrastructure.  Most of these people were Ba’athists simply because it was a requirement for keeping their jobs; even the Nazis were not treated to such a drastic measure.

 

Seemingly the only plan for post-war Iraq was to make it a democracy, which all Iraqis would eagerly embrace, as did the Germans and Japanese after WW II.  At least that is what Cheney and friends kept reminding us, conveniently ignoring the vast differences between those countries and Iraq.  Germany and Japan were actual nations with relatively homogeneous populations, and they had centuries of history as established communities.  Iraq has never been a nation.  For millennia it has simply been the center or part of a variety of empires, most recently the Ottoman, and it only became a “state” in 1920, when according to the Sykes-Picot Agreement it became a British mandate under a client king, Faisal.  It became an independent kingdom in 1932 and a republic in 1958 after a coup.  The borders of this state, determined by the French and British according to their interests, enclose three distinct and generally hostile populations: the Kurds in the north, the Sunni Arabs in the center and the Shiite Arabs in the south.

 

This is not a country.  It is an arena, and with the removal of the authoritarian regime of Saddam the games began, even while the American military was still present.  A devastating civil war was prevented only by sending in more American troops and massively bribing Sunni leaders.  It could easily be predicted (as I and others did) that with the withdrawal of American forces the society would begin to unravel.  Washington’s man, Nouri al-Maliki, immediately began establishing a Shia dictatorship and taking action against the Sunni minority (35%).  He established relations with Hezbollah, designated a terrorist organization by the US, and Shiite Iran, considered an enemy by the US since 1979.  Democracy is crumbling, sectarian violence is on the rise and threatening to break up the country and Baghdad now courts Teheran and aids their interests.

Shiite thug and "ally"

Shiite thug and “ally”

Now, Dick Cheney, in a flight of fancy that even by his lofty standards is mind-boggling, is blaming the whole crisis in Iraq on Obama because he pulled out our troops.  Cheney of course ignores, as do other Republican critics, that Obama had absolutely no choice inasmuch as Malaki refused to agree to the Status of Forces conditions required by the US, namely, that American troops be granted legal immunity.  So what do Cheney and other right-wing idiots think Obama should have done?  He could have agreed that American forces were subject to Iraqi law, which would have had the conservatives howling, or he could simply kept the troops there on American terms, which would have made the American army an occupying force, which the hawks probably would not have any trouble with.  (Why does the media waste time interviewing Cheney the Undead and providing a soapbox for his nonsense and outright lies?)

the Undead

the Undead

 

And through our utter mismanagement of Iraq we have helped create ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), a Muslim fundamentalist group so despicable and cruel that even al-Qaeda will have little to do with them.  One of the circumstances that led to the emergence of these barbarians is the Syrian civil war, but their spectacular success in Iraq is clearly due to Malaki’s Shiite dictatorship.  The average Iraqi Sunni wants nothing to do with the ISIS murderers, but the enemy of my enemy is my friend and Sunni communities are supporting them, a deal with the devil.

the golden age of the 7th century

the golden age of the 7th century

 

This places Washington in a very tough spot, one reminiscent of Vietnam’s invasion of communist Cambodia in 1978, which presented the US with a choice between two unpleasant regimes.  Obviously, ISIS is the far more disgusting group (as was the Khmer Rouge) and threatens America with terrorism, but supporting Maliki presents some serious problems.  Propping up a dictator has never been a problem for Washington, and this is a dictator we pretty much created, but the Maliki government is aligned with Iran, which is supposedly the big threat in the region and a country we have despised since they had the temerity to overthrown the oppressive regime of the American-installed Shah.  We would consequently be indirectly working with a country that Israel thinks should be bombed immediately.  Malaki has also joined Iran in supporting Hezbollah, designated a terrorist organization, and is sympathetic to Bashir Assad, currently the biggest mass murderer in the region.  More important, helping Maliki means taking sides in the growing sectarian strife between Sunnis and Shiites and can only lead to more trouble, since anti-America terrorists are all Sunnis, as are our “friends” in the gulf.

 

Well, it seems we will be helping Maliki, though constantly trumpeting that the price he must pay is to create a more inclusive government, which absolutely no one believes he will do.  The advisors are already arriving, though what they can do for an army that is riddled with corruption and lacking any motivation, at least in the case of the Sunni soldiers, is not at all clear.  Of course American involvement in Vietnam also began with advisors, but popular disgust with our recent wars should keep actual fighting forces out of Iraq, though you never know how stupid politicians will be.  Air strikes then, and according to the President, airstrikes without collateral damage, which I suppose means declaring that anyone killed by a strike is by definition the enemy.

 

And why are we getting involved at all?  Because ISIS clearly represents a threat to American national security, which in reality of course means little, since it appears that virtually everything is a threat to national security.  If they prevail, they will establish an Islamic state that will be churning out terrorist to send to America.  I have written previously on why I feel the terrorism threat has been stretched completely out of proportion in the interest of enhanced government power.  9/11 was the Reichstag fire for the Bush administration, and Obama, as would be expected of any administration, is not about to surrender any of the powers gained by his predecessors.  Has not more than a decade of homeland security made us any safer?  No one, even those armed with firearms, will ever again be flying planes into buildings, and how does one get a bomb onto a planes these days?

 

It is quite easy to put together a car bomb in this country, and that can happen whether or not ISIS rules in Iraq.  Yes, an American citizen could get training from ISIS and then reenter the US, but it hardly takes a genius to build a bomb (see Timothy McVeigh or the Zarnaev brothers) and in any case one can get instruction in plenty of places, including our ally Pakistan.  And one cannot fail to notice that the people crying the loudest about terrorism and national security seem completely unconcerned about the now regular shootings in American schools.  (One might also notice that while our intelligence apparatus is snooping on virtually everyone on the planet, it failed completely regarding the Crimea and ISIS.)

 

Oh, there is the oil, but I thought we were on the edge of energy independence.

 

What to do then?  Jordan must receive serious aid and be protected (a useful job for Israel) but otherwise ignore the whole thing.  Why are we so damned concerned that Iraq not break up into three states?  Because it would further accentuate the total failure of our ill-considered invasion of Iraq?  Iraq is manifestly not a real state and the hostilities are simply too great, especially for a culture that seems to slip so easily into violence (which is perhaps hypocritical for an American to say).  The Kurdish north is essentially now an independent state, and if anything, this has created more stability in the area.  Given the history of Iraq in the past half century, it is simply impossible for us to guarantee peace without occupying the entire country for a very long time.

 

ISIS actually establishing a “caliphate” of any permanence is a bit hard to believe.  The Iraqi Sunnis have already made it clear that they do not like the ISIS fanatics, and one can expect a violent falling out should this Sunni alliance actually topple the Malaki “democracy.”  It is difficult to see how a group with essentially no real support among the Iraqi (or any other) population can erect a state with any hope of lasting.  Political entities based solely on terror are incredibly unstable; ask the Assyrians.  Meanwhile, the moment the caliphate begins training terrorists for a campaign against America, we blow away every government/military facility we can identify, while pumping resources into the hands of the opposition.  We can pretend they are clients of the Soviet Union – it will be like old times.

 

A final note: Syria has just bombed suspected ISIS positions inside Iraq, apparently killing for the most part innocent Iraqis.  Assad versus ISIS.  Now there is a great choice, reminiscent of choosing between Hitler and Stalin.  In any case, Assad has now attacked another country, which used to be an act of war, but this is something the US can hardly complain about anymore.  It would be wonderful to shoot down Syrian warplanes, but then we would be aiding both Malaki the Thug and ISIS.  The Middle East is certainly an interesting place.

Secretary of State Dumpty Speaks

          

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master— that’s all.”

                                                                        Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass

 

It would appear that the Obama administration has chosen to pursue this looking-glass linguistic philosophy, and Secretary of State Kerry is clearly the Humpty Dumpty in Chief.  And while they probably are aware of the deceit that is being practiced, they certainly do not see the silliness.  Politicians have of course always needed to be careful of exactly what they say, and this is all the more a concern in an age when there are microphones and cameras everywhere.  But inasmuch as a politician has an agenda and is inclined to keep it simple for the voters (and his colleagues), this care does not lead to clear and unambiguous statements but rather distortions of the truth and ultimately outright lies.

John Kerry, hero and patriot

John Kerry, hero and patriot

John Kerry, Secretary of State

John Kerry, Secretary of State

John Kerry, politician

John Kerry, politician

 

It begins with euphemisms, which is an easy approach since Americans are accustomed to dealing in euphemisms for all sorts of things that are for some reason embarrassing, such as sex and body functions.   The most notorious, and clever, euphemism is well known: collateral damage.  This illustrates perfectly the goal of such expressions, that is, to defuse statements that are unpleasant or counterproductive by attempting to remove the accompanying imagery.  Unlike “civilian casualties,” “collateral damage” is colorless, suggesting broken windows rather than mangled bodies of women and children.

 

Less prominent but a favorite of mine is “degrade” as a substitute for destroy, blow apart or kill, as in “the Republican Guard division was degraded.”  Most listeners will not immediately imagine what that actually means: burned and dismembered bodies scattered all over the place.  “Degrading” Assad’s assets sure sounds more mellow than blowing things apart, including Syrians.  It is a pity that generals are not required to explain in precise detail what occurred or is about to occur.

a degraded unit

a degraded unit

 

We have now reached the point where euphemisms will not suffice and words are simply redefined to mean what the speaker wants them to mean.  This had already caught my attention when a car bomb parked in Times Square was described as a “weapon of mass destruction,” dramatically increasing the magnitude of the charges against the perpetrator.  Or when people who leak classified information to the press are labeled “spies,” despite the absence of any foreign power, which I had thought integral to the definition of espionage.  Also, when did every inquiry about future developments (e.g., if x happens what will you do) become a “hypothetical” and thus not worthy of an answer?

 

Well, Secretary Dumpty has now raised the bar extremely high, asserting that bombing Syria would not constitute a “war” because no American troops would enter the country.  Indeed?  For millennia humans have defined war as doing violence to another tribe or state, whether it was undertaken with spears or cruise missiles.  Certainly, virtually all Americans, including Kerry and his friends, would consider it an act of war if someone bombed this country, and because of such an attack we went so far as to declare war essentially against an idea, terrorism.  According to Secretary Kerry the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor would not constitute an act of war since there were no Japanese “boots on the ground.”

 

This is all blatant misuse of the language in the service of dissembling, but no one really cares.  The military is after all simply using technical terms, which they do all the time, and people, I suspect, now think first of collateral damage rather than civilian casualties.  For the most part, however, Americans do not care because all but the stupidest no longer believe anything politicians say.  Besides, the citizen who agrees with the policy will be quick to embrace the Humpty Dumpty philosophy.