Focal Points Blog

Spitting in the Face of U.S. Troops

Snyder v. PhelpsCross-posted from the Dissent Magazine blog Arguing the World.

Last week, the Supreme Court took up a case regarding a right-wing fundamentalist pastor, Fred Phelps, whose anti-gay congregation has taken to protesting at military funerals, carrying signs that read “Fag Troops” or “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” Phelps doesn’t seem to care whether or not the dead soldiers in question were actually gay. He believes that the killing of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan is the result of America’s immorality and its tolerance for abortion and homosexuality—the latter supposedly expressed in the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

The father of one Marine killed in Iraq sued after his son’s funeral was protested, beginning a long legal battle. The Supreme Court ultimately heard arguments about whether his family’s right to grieve in peace should be taken into consideration in constraining the free speech of Phelps’s followers.

I’ll put aside the legal issues involved in this case going to the Supreme Court. (That the current court is taking on any free speech case probably bodes ill for civil liberties.) Instead, I want to consider for a moment the concept of demonstrating at military funerals—or targeting returning troops in general with protests.

The idea that the people rallying outside military funerals are “Fags Die, God Laughs” adherents of the religious Right, rather than godless leftists, will be a shock for many Americans, especially conservatives. It contradicts a deep-rooted myth.

A persistent narrative about the Vietnam War is that anti-war protesters of the 1960s and 70s vilified the troops, spitting in their faces upon their return to the United States. This storyline was perhaps most memorably presented by veteran John Rambo in the now-classic film First Blood. When he breaks down at the end of the movie, Rambo explains resentfully:

I come back to the world, and I see all those maggots at the airport, protesting me, spitting. Calling me baby killer and all kinds of crap! Who are they to protest me?! Who are they?! Unless they’ve been me and been there and know what the hell they’re yelling about!

I like Rambo as a series of action movies, and I’ve written about the franchise’s conflicted politics. But this point is definitely one that Rambo’s writers get wrong. Historian Jerry Lembcke, author of The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam, has done a very convincing job of debunking the story of spat-upon soldiers. As Jack Shafer summarized in an article for Slate, Lembcke

investigated hundreds of news accounts of antiwar activists spitting on vets. But every time he pushed for more evidence or corroboration from a witness, the story collapsed—the actual person who was spat on turned out to be a friend of a friend. Or somebody’s uncle. He writes that he never met anybody who convinced him that any such clash took place.

While Lembcke doesn’t prove that nobody ever expectorated on a serviceman—you can’t prove a negative, after all—he reduces the claim to an urban myth. In most urban myths, the details morph slightly from telling to telling….

Lembcke uncovered a whole lot of spitting from the war years, but the published accounts always put the antiwar protester on the receiving side of a blast from a pro-Vietnam counterprotester. Surely, he contends, the news pages would have given equal treatment to a story about serviceman getting the treatment. Then why no stories in the newspaper morgues, he asks?

Lastly, there are the parts of the spitting story up that don’t add up. Why does it always end with the protester spitting and the serviceman walking off in shame? Most servicemen would have given the spitters a mouthful of bloody Chiclets instead of turning the other cheek like Christ. At the very least, wouldn’t the altercations have resulted in assault and battery charges and produced a paper trail retrievable across the decades?

Despite its implausibility, the “spitting image” lives on. So persistent is the concept of progressive demonstrators confronting soldiers that if you mention to someone the picture of a “protest at a military funeral” I have no doubt that most would assume that anti-war activists are the ones doing the picketing. The idea that opponents of a given U.S. war must personally despise the troops is a notion central to demonstrating the rank unpatriotic disloyalty of the Left.

I think a version of this idea came into play in the recent Supreme Court arguments. During the session, Justices Roberts and Kagan pursued a line of questioning about whether the content of the protesters’ signs mattered in determining the scope of First Amendment rights:

Chief Justice Roberts asked, “What if the sign simply said, ‘Get out of Iraq?’” [plaintiff Albert Snyder’s lawyer, Sean Summers] answered that there would be no problem with that. Justice Sotomayor pressed him on whether it makes a difference if the person to whom the speech is directed is a public or private person. Mr. Summers said yes, and that you have to look at the context, that this was a private funeral, which was disrupted, and there were personal attacks on a private person.

“But suppose,” said Justice Kagan, “it was a standard anti-war demonstration, and the funeral was not disrupted, the protesters were just taking advantage of a private funeral?”

Later, Kagan asked if a wounded soldier could sue someone who demonstrates “outside the person’s home, the person’s workplace, outside the person’s church… saying these kinds of things: ‘You are a war criminal,’ whatever these signs say or worse?”

I understand that Kagan was positing hypothetical scenarios. But her reference to “these signs”—as if placards charging individual troops with war crimes are commonplace at a “standard anti-war demonstration”—reveals that a powerful imaginary is at work.

These days, this idea of anti-war protesters targeting individual troops for abuse, far less gathering at their funerals, is almost as mythical as the “spitting image.”

Can you find anti-war protest signs calling George W. Bush a war criminal? Sure. Cheney? Blair? Kissinger? Yes, yes, yes. But after attending plenty of anti-Iraq War rallies, I can’t recall a single person wielding the “baby-killer” or “war criminal” charge in the way that is typically assumed—to indict your average enlisted soldier. I think that anyone trying to document this type of incident would have a hard time. The closest they could come would be protest signs publicizing the notorious and grotesque Abu Ghraib photos. Of course, interpreting outrage among domestic anti-war activists over those atrocities as unpatriotic hatred for all people in military uniform would require several faulty leaps in logic.

Likewise, I think the closest thing you could find to anti-Iraq War leftists protesting at military funerals would be progressives denouncing the government ban on news coverage of returning war dead. But that stance was hardly anti-troop. The longstanding White House policy represented a propagandistic move to sustain support for military efforts by preventing flag-draped caskets from making it into the press, thereby keeping us ignorant of the true human cost of war.

In truth, those investigating anti-war protests are likely to spot signs saying, “Support the Troops, Bring Them Home,” and to see veterans themselves present as honored participants in marches—members of organizations such as Veterans for Peace. Retired military officials who have spoken out against the folly of the Vietnam and Iraq Wars have been crucial to resistance efforts, and anti-war movements have long emphasized the importance of including returning soldiers in demonstrations.

The recent documentary Sir, No Sir! documented the prevalence of anti-war activism within the ranks of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam, as well as among veterans. Part of Lembcke’s argument about the powerful negative impact of stories like Rambo’s is that “the myth of spat-upon Vietnam veterans…displaced from public memory the reality that thousands of GIs and veterans were integral to the anti-war movement, a fact that startles many Sir! No Sir! viewers when they see it so graphically revived on the screen.”

Outreach to returning veterans and to military families remained vital after George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. That is one reason that Cindy Sheehan exploded in the media as a leading protest figure in 2005.

Despite this, the anti-war Left has for decades been made to answer for a storyline that has little basis in reality. While someone in progressive circles expressing personal hatred for enlisted members of the military would be quickly and widely repudiated, homophobia remains rampant on the Right. The notion that “God Hates Fags”—or at least the unholy “homosexual lifestyle”—holds currency well beyond its extreme fringes. Last week’s Supreme Court case should make us ask: when will the homophobes and religious fundamentalists have to answer for the likes of Pastor Phelps?

Mark Engler can be reached via his website, Democracy Uprising.

To the ISI, Its Hidden Agenda for the Mumbai Attacks Made Perfect Sense

Political entities such as states are notorious for the hidden agendas behind their policies. The most obvious recent example is the Iraq War. First, the Bush administration used two reasons that were false — responsibility for 9/11 and hiding nonexistent weapons of mass destruction — to hide its real motives for invading and occupying Iraq.

Selections from that palette of pretexts included: establishing a more tractable base in the Middle-East than Saudia Arabia, staking a claim to Iraq’s oil, opening up the country to free markets, simply showing the Middle East who’s boss (never mind that the 9/11 attackers were predominantly Arab). But, looking back, the Bush administration wasted an opportunity to introduce some clarity to its hidden agenda — against the day when it was bound to be revealed. Instead of marginalizing its intelligence agencies, Bush & Co. would have been wiser to let organizations such as the CIA and DIA take the lead — like Pakistan does with its Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (the ISI, of course).

On Monday, Jason Burke of the Guardian reported on the interrogations that Indian investigators in America are conducting on David Headley, the Pakistani-American suspected of scouting targets for the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 168. His confirmation of ISI support for Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the Islamist organization that carried out the attacks, is no surprise. Just as it uses the Taliban to keep India from making incursions into Afghanistan, the ISI was presumably using the LeT to keep India off balance at home. Turns out there was more to the attacks.

Burke reports that “Headley . . . told the investigators that the ISI hoped the Mumbai attack would slow or stop growing ‘integration’ between groups active in Kashmir, with whom the [ISI] had maintained a long relationship, and ‘Taliban-based outfits’ in Pakistan and Afghanistan which were a threat to the Pakistani state.” It seems, said Headley, that the “aggression and commitment to jihad shown by [those groups] influenced many committed fighters to leave” LeT.

Apparently, to show that it could be as jihadic as the next Islamic extremist group, LeT conjured up, with the support of the ISI, this massive strike in the middle of a major Indian city. It would not only put LeT back in the headlines but, reports Burke, shift “the theatre of violence from the domestic soil of Pakistan to India.”

At Foreign Policy, David Rothkopf sheds more light on the ISI’s motives (emphasis added).

Further, [Headley tells] an unsettlingly logical story of how the Mumbai attacks were undertaken as part of a deliberate strategy by the historically more regionally-focused Lashkar-e-Taiba to remain relevant in a world in which competing terrorist groups were attracting members seeking the grander mission of jihad against the West.

It is a nauseating image: officials of a government nominally allied to the United States working with terrorists to plan a murderous attack on innocents as a marketing ploy on behalf of their stone cold terrorists of choice. Nauseating, but despite Pakistani denials that it is baseless, with the unmistakable ring of truth.

To put it another way: Nauseating, but damned if Pakistan’s hidden agenda, however baroque, was more logical than the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.

What Makes a Great Power Like China So Casual About Aiding and Abetting Nuclear Proliferation?

I have a friend who, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, worked with Russians on securing their nuclear weapons. To this day, the casualness she encountered about their loose nukes continues to puzzle her. It’s as if they didn’t take seriously or care about the consequences of a nuclear explosion on their own soil.

That was brought home to me yet again by an article in the Washington Post by John Pomfret that begins: “The Obama administration has concluded that” in violation of recent United Nations sanctions, Chinese firms and banks “are helping Iran to improve its missile technology and develop nuclear weapons, and has asked China to stop such activity.”

The Chinese government, which didn’t authorize these deals, has agreed, whether perfunctorily or not, to investigate. For its part, the United States, because of differences over the value of Chinese currency, among other things, is reluctant to press China on the issue.

Still, writes Pomfret, “China’s involvement in Iran’s energy sector and the role that some of its companies are believed to be playing in Tehran’s military modernization could disrupt U.S.-Chinese relations.” In fact, on over 60 occasions the U.S. government banned American companies from doing business “with Chinese companies during President George W. Bush’s first term, generally regarding dealing with Iran.”

While it’s thought that China has come to understand “that selling missile and nuclear weapons-technology, especially to neighbors such as North Korea, was a bad idea” it must be remembered that China is also “generally believed to have supplied Pakistan with a blueprint for a nuclear weapon in the 1970s.”

As one who’s as skeptical of sanctions as he is of recent tepid U.S. disarmament initiatives such as new START, I acknowledge that the United States at least pays lip service to disarmament. Of course, it’s much keener on nonproliferation — preventing states presently without them from acquiring or developing nuclear weapons — which we pretend isn’t contingent, as required by the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, on disarmament by the nuclear powers.

Developing nations, though, blinded by the prestige and the upgrade to national security that they anticipate from nuclear weapons, tend, like the Russians, to neglect one small detail — that they too can be destroyed in a nuclear attack. Or, out of nationalistic or religious zeal, they don’t care. (Please hold your calls and letters accusing me of claiming that the developing world, especially Muslims, doesn’t value human life!)

But when a large power such as China exhibits a willingness to abet or fail to prevent proliferation, it sends the message that helping the economy grow is worth the risks that a new nuclear state poses, to itself as well. If China thinks that, because it’s helping it develop nuclear energy and/or weapons, it can bend a state like Iran to its will, it’s kidding itself.

On an unconscious level, one can’t help but wonder if the seeming casualness of a nuclear power about proliferation is evidence of a deep-seated fatalism about the continuation of life on earth. But neither is the United States — with recent polls indicating the proliferation (sorry, couldn’t resist) of those who believe that the world will end in an Apocalypse — immune to that kind of thinking.

U.S. in Afghanistan: a Perpetual Motion Machine for the Generation of Grief

Afghans voteHow does our presence in Afghanistan harm it as well as the United States? Let us count the ways. On second thought, they’re too numerous to catalog. We’ll just cite some of the lesser-known examples instead.

For instance, last Sunday in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof wrote of having tea in Kabul with a woman named “Soora Stoda, who runs a logistics company serving the American military. [She] despises the Taliban and shudders as she remembers her terror as a seventh grader when the Taliban stormed her secret school for girls. . . . Yet Ms. Stoda, like all contractors, has to pay off the Taliban directly or indirectly to work in insecure areas. [For instance, last year] she had a $200,000 contract to transport laptop computers to the American military in Kandahar. The Taliban seized the shipment, and she says she had to pay $150,000 to get it released.”

Kristof concludes:

With the money they milk from the United States, the Taliban hire more fighters. One security expert here did the math for me. A single American soldier in Helmand Province, he estimated, causes enough money to leak to the Taliban to recruit another 10 fighters trying to kill that American.

No one writes more powerfully about how such Americans are killed and maimed in Afghanistan than Brian Mockenhaupt in his November Atlantic piece The Last Patrol. Along with wrenching readers’ guts as U.S. soldiers fall in action, he makes us feel other afflictions to which they’re subject. Of the squad he covered, he writes:

They moved east through a long, dense orchard south of the compound . . . the temperature now well over 100 degrees. Already some of the new soldiers, unconditioned to the heat, terrain, and weight of their gear, were falling behind. . . . A new soldier, underhydrated and overheated, passed out. Then another. . . . The two soldiers were unconscious—one had stopped breathing—and if their temperatures rose much more, their brains would bake. [Then] a third heat casualty. The soldier lay on the ground and moaned, his muscles racked by heat cramps. . . . Soon after, a fourth 101st soldier collapsed. . . . But the situation at the compound wasn’t much better. Two soldiers brought another man, barely conscious from heatstroke, into the dirt-floored room being used as an aid station. . . . Two more 101st soldiers were brought in, dazed and dehydrated.

Even the experienced soldiers suffered.

Pfc. Larry Nichols pitched a grenade to McDaniel, who was so exhausted from running that he had trouble pulling the pin. . . . The group stumbled across the road and into the next orchard. . . . Luke took point. Jackson, his muscles weak from dehydration, nearly collapsed. McDaniel vomited and kept running.

Why are we putting our young people through this again? Oh yeah, to institute, among other things, democracy in Afghanistan to fortify it against the incursions of Islamic insurents. Afghans are not exactly thrilled with the Taliban, but, beside abject fear of them — and even if civilian casualties caused by U.S. and NATO forces didn’t turn them against us — their priorities and values prevent them from aligning themselves with us.

Craig S. Barnes was an attorney as well as a mediator who once negotiated nuclear issues with Russia’s Academy of Sciences and facilitated talks in the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Theses days he hosts a radio show called Our Times on KSFR in New Mexico. What follows is from a transcript of the podcast of a speech he gave.

Late in September . . . I was in Chicago for four days participating in a seminar for nearly 60 Afghan Fulbright students who have been brought here to study in the United States. . . . . The Fulbrighters were asked to form groups of five or six and select values of their home culture from a stack of cards upon each of which was written a value. [Both young men and] women offered the following five: religion and spirituality, developing relationships, tradition, extended family, and reputation. Nothing was said by them about advancement, education, speed, prosperity or independence.

Then the groups were asked to identify the bottom five of the values that had been on the cards. They selected: equality, individual rights, law and order, privacy, self as individuals.

The leader of the workshop then provided us a typed page of values drawn from research about Americans. Among those top American values were: equality, privacy, individual rights, law and order, freedom.

Barnes’s conclusion may be an understatement, but it certainly bears repeating: “The conflict in Afghanistan today is therefore in some sense defined by these two poles.”

In other words, two ships passing in the night. Democracy is an abstraction to most Afghans, elections a curiousity.

Taking Advantage of Chile’s Moment in the Sun to Commemorate Letelier and Moffitt

This week, with its flawless mine rescue operation, the occasion on which Chile has captured the attention of the world has been an uplifting one. (Overlooking for the moment the poor safety record of the company that owned the mine and bribe-susceptible mine inspectors.) It’s a far cry from what once thrust Chile on the world stage — the junta which staged a coup over socialist president Salvador Allende in 1973.

Its leader, Gen. August Pinochet, ruled until 1990, all the while generating human rights abuses by the bushel. It also turned out to be yet another instance in which the United States positioned itself on the wrong side of not just the law, but human decency, by directing money to anti-Allende elements before the coup and then supporting the government that emerged.

Serendipitously, with Chile in the news, October 13 was the day that the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) issued its annual Letelier-Moffitt human rights awards. For those new to reading Focal Points or Foreign Policy in Focus, it might be a good time to revisit IPS’s encounter with Chilean politics and pay tribute to the namesakes of those awards.

Orlando Letelier served as President Allende’s ambassador to the United States, minister of foreign relations and the minister of defense. When Pinochet seized power, he was arrested and tortured. Upon his release in 1974, he moved to Washington, D.C., where he became an IPS senior fellow and a leading voice of the Chilean resistance. Ronni Moffitt was his 25-year-old assistant at IPS.

It was only two years later that a bomb placed under the driver’s seat of the car which he was driving with Ms. Moffitt seated on the passenger side exploded. The attack was carried out by Chilean secrect police, a former American CIA agent, and anti-Castro Cuban exiles. Peter Kornbluh, author of The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability, said of Pinochet, “It is clear that the Chilean secret police did not act without his authorization.”

As IPS Interim Director Joy Zarembka recently wrote last month in a memorial tribute to Ms. Moffit, “Until 9/11, most Americans didn’t believe that a terrorist attack could ever happen on U.S. soil. Yet one had occurred just a generation earlier — on September 21, 1976 on Embassy Row in Washington.”

Years later, after an investigation prompted by pressure from the Letelier and Moffit families, the FBI recommended that Pinochet be indicted, but the Bush administration let it die on the vine. Ms. Zarembka writes that “as I learn more about this particular case, I’m further struck by the U.S. government’s complicity.” President Bush’s father was CIA director at the time and evidence suggests that U.S. officials were aware the attack was imminent.

IPS continues to support the fight for justice in South America. The three recipients of the Letelier-Moffitt award (follow the links for details): Guatemala’s Historic National Police Archives, Honduras Human Rights Platform, and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.

We’re Hemorrhaging Jobs From the “War Wound” of Defense Spending

One Nation Working TogetherWhat happened the day after The One Nation Working Together rally on October 2? The rally’s organizers had their own – sometimes divergent – goals, from re-establishing a progressive pole in U.S. politics to mobilizing votes for the midterm elections. Although the ONWT organizers sought to keep the rally’s message squarely on jobs, another message also emerged: the solution to our economic crisis lies in drastically reducing our military budget. The day after the march, peace and economic justice groups met to discuss how to coordinate national efforts to move the money from war spending to community needs. For me, these glimpses of a broader movement uniting economic justice and peace were the most hopeful aspect of the weekend.

Peace Messages Abounded

According to unofficial accounts, all but a few of the speakers included an anti-war message in their speeches. Harry Belafonte, hands down delivered the most inspirational speech, recalling Martin Luther King’s hope that one day, “All of America will soon come to the realization that the wars we wage today in faraway lands are immoral, unconscionable, and unwinnable.” To thunderous applause, Belafonte drew a clear link between the U.S. government’s obscene military spending and the economic crisis at home. “The President’s decision to escalate the war in that region alone costs the nation $33 billion dollars. That sum of money could not only create 600,000 jobs here in America, but would even leave us a few billion to start rebuilding our schools, our roads, our hospitals and affordable housing. It could also help to rebuild the lives of the thousands of our returning, wounded veterans.” (You can view the video of Harry Belafonte’s speech here.)

But it wasn’t only the rally’s speakers who were calling to divert military spending towards investments in domestic needs. As I walked through the crowds, I saw hundreds of people carrying signs with the theme, “Fund Jobs, Not Wars.” While many of these were produced by the seasoned organizers who put together the Peace Table, other groups brought their own. SEIU members carried signs that read, “Fund Healthcare, Not Warfare,” and those carried by the National Education Association’s members bore a demand to “Fund Education, Not War.” It is significant that two of the country’s largest unions are carrying this message to bring the war dollars home.

Important Political Moment

Clearly the political moment called for strengthening the connection in the public’s mind between the economic crisis and war. The challenge will be whether a long-term movement can be built to do this. To help foster this direction, the day after the ONWT rally, 31 peace and economic justice organizations met in Washington, D.C. to see if that work could be coordinated nationwide. The meeting brought together grassroots organizers, policy analysts, researchers and lobbyists to discuss how to coordinate efforts to move the money from war to community needs.

The Sunday meeting was organized by a number of groups including US Labor Against the War, Peace Action, Mayors for Peace/Western States Legal Foundation, the 25% Campaign (Fund Our Communities – Cut Military Spending 25%), US Action, and the Institute for Policy Studies.

Several of these groups are already organizing broad coalitions uniting economic justice and peace groups to cut the defense budget and use the savings for services and jobs. The Maine Campaign to Bring Our War Dollars Home is passing town resolutions and connecting Pentagon spending with the budget cuts that are closing schools across the state. The mayors of Massachusetts’s largest cities have urged the President and Congress to redirect 25% of military spending, and the Boston 25% Coalition is rallying for jobs funded by war spending cuts. Peace Action of Montgomery County, Maryland, following Code Pink’s lead in Washington, D.C., defeated a tax cut for war contractor Lockheed Martin while the county is furloughing fire fighters, cutting library hours, and increasing the class sizes in the county’s schools. Similar organizing is now sprouting up in cities across the country, including Chicago, Chico, St. Louis and the San Francisco Bay Area. And US Labor Against the War is proposing a campaign of “fund us, not war” resolutions to be passed by city councils, school boards, unions, congregations, and grassroots organizations.

“What brings us together is a failed system,” said Michael Eisenscher, a member of US Labor Against the War and one of the organizers of the Sunday meeting. To the failed economic, foreign, military and political policies that created the crisis, Eisenscher added failed movement strategies. “We can no longer operate in our movement silos,” he said, especially in a political moment that is “pregnant with opportunity and possibility.”

The group explored ways to shift public discourse and debate, and to introduce alternative models, by building effective cross-movement and community alliances that might offer hope to working and poor people in the U.S. and around the world.

Grassroots, Long-Term, Big Tent

An analysis of the economic and political moment concluded that we face a triple crisis of economy, ecology and empire. The Pentagon is sucking up resources badly needed to resolve the economic and environmental crises. Everyone broadly recognized that neither the peace nor the economic justice movements alone can resolve these crises, and that our efforts must be grounded in grassroots organizing and reach a broad cross-section of people, especially those not involved in the anti-war movement.

While we recognized the need for regional and national collaboration, we concluded that any successful effort also requires building a grassroots base. “If we stay focused on enabling and empowering grassroots organizing,” said Judith Le Blanc of Peace Action, “this meeting will be a success and the collaborations will not only have short-term impact but long term, sustainable impact on the way things are going in the country.”

“In grassroots communities, the connection between militarism and the crisis that people are feeling in their day-to-day lives has never been a challenge we’ve had to make,” said Steve Williams of POWER in San Francisco. “People are able to connect the ecological crisis with the increasing criminalization that is happening in their communities, with the wars.” The challenge, he asserted, is to develop a tactical plan so people can act on that analysis.

Aaron Hughes of the Iraq Veterans Against the War added a critique of the existing peace movement. “The peace movement is not about base-building; it’s about messaging. There is a difference.” Hughes reflected that when he looked at organizations that have succeeded, “They won because they identified who had the power and organized the base that was able to overcome that power.” He suggested that the peace movement hasn’t been able to capitalize on the fact that 76 percent of the American people are against the Iraq War, because it doesn’t have the ground “troops” and mobilization networks necessary to force a complete U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.

An important tactical question arose: Should the national effort focus solely on withdrawing troops from Afghanistan? After all, the war in Afghanistan is in the news and is an increasingly unpopular war. Many people argued, however, that the costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars only account for 22% of the military budget. We need deeper cuts than that in military spending. Furthermore, our efforts must extend beyond opposition to a particular war; we must take on the military industrial complex itself, including the 1,000 military bases around the world.

This suggestion raised a corresponding concern that an emphasis on larger cuts in military spending threatens the real livelihoods of thousands of workers in this country. Others saw this as an opportunity to begin a genuine transition from weapons production to green jobs. One former machinist who had spent ten years working on military equipment for General Electric believed this was possible. She said we might begin by simply talking with industrial workers about the possibility of conversion, of turning their skills towards building infrastructure for the country.

One Movement, Many Campaigns

Those attending chose not to focus on creating a single national campaign, but on supporting the many local and state campaigns sprouting up across the country. Four working groups were established to further the work, taking advantage of the diverse movements, skills, and capacities represented in the room. Michael Leon Guerrero of Grassroots Global Justice summed it up this way: “We’ve agreed that we want to build towards a broader effort; we have some ideas and there still are some challenges, but at least we have identified a structure and process moving forward. It feels like the commitment is there to make it work.”

We agreed that this is the right political moment to make the link between America’s endless wars and the economic crisis. At the same time, it was clear that we must pay full attention to the real pain that the economic crisis is causing in people’s lives right now. Organized efforts to fight foreclosures and pink slips are vital local struggles, but we are also in a position to offer a national solution: the money we need to solve our problems is right in front of us — in the military budget. It was clear that to succeed in moving that money, we would need to break out of our competitive and single-issue silos and instead share resources in a time of scarcity and work towards a vision of a peace economy that is, indeed, possible.

For groups that want to get involved with the national effort, contact Mike Prokosch at [email protected] and 617-282-3783.

Do Nuclear Weapons Keep India and Pakistan From Each Other’s Throats?

There are those who believe that nuclear proliferation on the part of India and Pakistan has deterred not only nuclear, but conventional war between the two hostile states. Sumit Ganguly and S. Paul Kapur debate this in a new book, India, Pakistan, and the Bomb (Columbia University Press, 2010).

Ganguly falls under the heading of “nuclear optimists,” who, the authors write, “tend to stress the ultimately stable outcomes of past crises between nuclear powers.” Meanwhile, “nuclear pessimists,” such as Kapur, “focus on the potentially catastrophic processes by which the crises erupted and escalated.” Of that flashpoint of a region, Kashmir, Ganguly writes:

By the end of the 1990s India had managed to restore a modicum of order, if not law in Kashmir. Indeed it can be argued that it was the very success of India’s counterinsurgency strategy [in Kashmir] that promoted Pakistan’s [presumably frustrated — RW] decision makers to pursue a “limited probe” in the Kargil region of Kashmir in 1999. In this war the overt possession of nuclear weapons on both sides played a critical role in preventing an escalation or an expansion of the conflict.

Others, however, believe that it was Pakistan’s possession of nuclear weapons that prompted it to pursue said “limited probe.” On top of that, both sides received information, however flawed, that the other was moving nuclear missiles to the border.

Further evidence of the tenuousness of nuclear peace between India and Pakistan is provided by Jason Fritz in his 2009 paper for the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament, Hacking Nuclear Command and Control.

India’s . . . command and control must be able to survive and continue functioning after absorbing a first (attempted decapitation) strike. To do so requires [among other things] frequent moves and relocation of these assets [which increases the] risk of a weapon being captured or misplaced. For example, falsifying the orders for transport and passing it off as a dummy warhead. [Also, launching] a nuclear retaliatory strike within a very short time . . . increases the risk of decisions being made on poor intelligence.

Furthermore . . .

The close proximity of [India and Pakistan] significantly reduces the transit time of an incoming missile, making the rush to react even greater. Further, India’s delivery systems can carry both nuclear and conventional warheads. Under heightened circumstances, a traditional missile launch could be mistaken for a nuclear strike. . . .

Additionally, India has stated that it will retain the option of using nuclear weapons in response to biological or chemical attacks, thus providing another way for terrorists to provoke a nuclear response.

For the purposes of this argument, we’ve avoided the subject of Islamic extremists attempting to seize Pakistan’s nukes or, the actual subject of Fritz’s paper, terrorists hacking nuclear systems. Here’s more from Ganguly, the Little Miss Sunshine of Indian subcontinent nuclear programs.

Multiple crises subsequently wreaked havoc in Indo-Pakistani relations since their mutual acquisition of nuclear weapons. . . . But despite intense tensions, none of these crises have culminated in full-scale war. Decision makers in both countries have steadily and increasingly realized that the initiation of a major conventional conflict could . . . tempt one side to consider the use of nucelear weapons. Consequently, both sides have exhibited considerable retraint and have chosen to eschew horizontal escalation and not to violate certain tacit thresholds.

In the case of Kargil, it might be said that an optimist’s positive outcome — the avoidance of nuclear war — was achieved via a pessmists’ “process” — nuclear brinkmanship. To believe, though, that nuclear brinkmanship will continue to produce positive outcomes is truly delusional.

Aid Worker Linda Norgrove Victim of the “Entebbe Fantasy”?

Yesterday at Newshoggers, Steve Hynd wrote: “Marc Ambinder and others are now confirming the Guardian story today that a U.S. SEAL killed kidnapped aid worker Linda Norgrove when he threw a fragmentation grenade instead of a smoke one, fatally wounding her.”

A recently mustered-out special forces member of our acquaintance provided testimony to the extent — heavy fire or no — of the ineptitude involved.

A smoke grenade and a fragmentation grenade are COMPLETELY different in size, shape, and feel. Hell, they are probably designed like that to help avoid accidents like this. I don’t see how a private in a regular infantry unit could have made this mistake much less a professional soldier.

The Guardian story reveals an even more tragic element to Ms. Norgrove’s death.

A delegation of Afghan elders tasked with negotiating the freedom of British hostage Linda Norgrove was close to the mountain hut where she was being held when US special forces launched the rescue mission that resulted in her death, Afghan officials said yesterday.

“We had already arrived in the area but then the fighting started and it was hopeless, so we turned back,” said Haji Ghulam Ehsan Adil, head of the Kunar provincial council. . . . There had been “a complete lack of co-ordination” between the Afghan group’s efforts and those of Nato, he added. . . .

Meanwhile, a senior western official in Kabul said it was difficult to see why the US and UK governments did not give negotiation a greater chance. “We’ve had over seventy abductions of NGO people this year, with just three or four killed. That’s a 5% chance of being killed,” he said.

Paul Refsdal, a Norwegian journalist who was kidnapped for six days in the same part of Kunar last November, criticised the rescue bid: “When I was in captivity I called my embassy and I was very clear that I didn’t want any rescue attempt,” he said. “I understand that every politician wants to take credit for the raid on Entebbe,” he added, referring to the successful 1976 Israeli commando raid on a hijacked airliner in Uganda.

It’s bad enough when aid workers are singled out for assassination or kidnapping. But when one is killed due to a combination of human error and politicians pursuing their onw agenda, those supposedly on her side — Britain, the United States, and NATO — become as complicit in her death as her kidnappers. Worse, when a rescue that on the surface seems immeasurably more challenging — that of the Chilean miners — comes off without a hitch, it only rubs salt in the wound of Ms. Norgrove’s family and aid workers everywhere.

How Will U.S. Handle Shortage of Tritium, aka Explosive Power, for Its Nukes?

Cross-posted from the IPS blog.

In a recent report to the U.S. House Armed Services Committee, the Government Accountability Office concluded that the National Nuclear Security Agency (NNSA) in the Energy department is “unable to overcome technical challenges” to producing tritium (H3) in a commercial power reactor for the U.S. nuclear arsenal. As a result the ability to provide new supplies of this radioactive isotope used to enhance the explosive power of nuclear weapons “is in doubt.”

Tritium is a radioactive isotope of hydrogen and is an important part of any modern nuclear arsenal. It is why thermonuclear weapons are known as “H-bombs.” It is used in modern nuclear weapons to boost the explosive power of plutonium, which in turn, creates enough heat to cause hydrogen atoms to fuse together. This releases a tremendous amount of destructive energy, in the same process that fuels the sun and stars.

Because of its half-life of 12.3 years, tritium has to be periodically replenished in weapons. From 1954 to 1988, tritium was produced in government reactors, which were closed for safety reasons. In 1993, GAO concluded that tritium supplies from nuclear arms reductions were adequate to meet warhead needs until 2012. After that year, GAO concluded that a new tritium production capability would be needed.

In response, the Department of Energy decided in the late 1990s to produce new supplies in a commercial power reactor, using new tritium-producing burnable absorber rods (TBARs). They contain lithium-aluminate pellets lined with zirconium, and are clad into long pencil-shaped, stainless steel rods. Tritium is produced when the atoms of lithium-6 absorb neutrons in the reactor core.

However, the rods cannot fully contain the tritium, which is permeating into the reactor cooling system, approaching safety limits set by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). To meet projected tritium requirements, additional TVA reactors may be required. NNSA has not yet coordinated this with the NRC, which must approve any such reactor changes.

A reserve stockpile of tritium has yet to be tapped and its size remains classified. Nor is it clear how much more tritium is expected to come from the pending START II arms reduction agreement with Russia, now before the U.S. Senate. Nonetheless, GAO remains concerned. “If NNSA takes longer than expected to increase tritium production, even reserve quantities may be insufficient to meet requirements for an extended period of time.”

Tritium production alternatives include building a new government production reactor or the development of linear accelerators. Both are likely to cost billions of dollars and take several years to bring on line.

However, expanding the production of tritium for nuclear weapons in commercial nuclear power plants further undermines the long-standing barrier between military and civilian nuclear energy applications — a key element of U.S. nuclear non-proliferation policy.

This is a situation where public debate and greater transparency by the U.S. nuclear weapons program is sorely needed.

The Passing of the State, Part 47 — It’s Not Just the Talib, Folks

It’s obvious to everyone now – except, of course, the usual Washington ‘patriots’ and lotus eaters – that the fat lady is singing in Afghanistan, and the US is down to looking for a political frame to cover its defeat and departure. As shocking as that may be to those who still believe in the absolute sovereignty and power of nation states, it’s just the most visible example of a trend US policymakers – and governments at large – refuse to acknowledge.

The ‘Other Guys’ are winning.

The simple fact is that the days of nation states fighting and winning wars is just about over. Modern wars, such as Afghanistan, are far more likely to be between states and non-state entities than between/among states. And, if we’re willing to look at it objectively, we can see that the OGs (gangs, tribes, sects and all those miscellaneous ‘post national’ groups that constitute ‘Other Guys’) have a very good chance of winning those wars.

Here’s why.

First, ‘winning’ is defined differently by OGs. Different crews have different goals and different metrics for success. It might be to seize the levers of state power. Or it might be a ‘picador’ model – just enrage, bleed, weaken and limit the options of the beast, whether for profit, payback, or so it can’t effectively interfere with you. Or a ‘Baghdad Bazaar’ model – create a ‘sinkhole’ where your crew can control a given resource, such as electricity, diesel fuel, water, security or even property rentals as a means of livelihood. While states play for power and control, OGs play for autonomy and enterprise, and their ‘profits’ include belonging, fun, prestige and group security as well as livelihood.

Second, the ‘evolution of lethality’ means states no longer have a monopoly on violence, nor exclusive access to/control of deadly technologies. It’s open source and anybody can play. Today, the great levelers are small arms and IEDs which, as Mexico and dozens of other examples demonstrate, allow OGs to resist and even defeat state forces to assume local control. As reverse engineering, ‘fab labs’ and 3D printers proliferate. However, OGs will be able to field state of the art weapon systems, including highly effective man-portable anti-air and anti-armor missiles. With that kind of ordnance, conventional military units offer OGs a target rich environment.

Strategy and tactics have developed and distributed, too. Anyone, almost anywhere, can now go online and download training materials from the US Army and a plethora of other players. From Sun Tzu to small unit tactics, mortar gunnery and weapon-specific guides, everything you ever wanted to know about warfare is accessible and free.

Third, the ‘porosity’ of globalization means there are lots of boundaries, seams, edges and overlaps where OGs can live, hide and thrive. One consistent characteristic of successful OGs is access to safe havens for respite and refit. Think Cambodia for the North Vietnamese, Venezuela for the FARC and Pakistan for the Taliban. Those boundaries and seams also provide access to resources, and markets for OG entrepreneurs.

Fourth, a growing percentage of the global population – in developing and industrialized regions – has legitimate grievances that, left unresolved, provide sympathy, support and recruits for OGs. Just as Mao spoke of guerillas swimming in the sea of the people, OGs survive and thrive among a population that resents the state – whether for acts of omission or commission. As life gets worse for the majority of the planet’s inhabitants – and even more important, their hopes for a better future fade – OG habitat expands.

Fifth, ROI is on the side of the OGs. It’s a lot cheaper and easier to be the opposition than the state. Credible estimates suggest that pulling off the 9-11 attacks cost Al Qaeda somewhere in the neighborhood of $250,000. Contrast that with the fact that the US has spent on the order of $3 trillion since that time with its various reactions, and you start to see the advantages of the OG approach.

Or consider the near meltdown of the Washington, DC area a few years ago when the sniper was doing his thing. One lunatic, with nothing more than a confused kid for a companion, a beater Chevy and a Bushmaster XM-15 currently available online for $1,250, virtually shut down the area. Contrast that investment, plus a couple dozen rounds fired, with 10 dead and millions of dollars lost through averted economic activity and direct intervention / mediation costs.

Now imagine what might have happened if the sniper had intention beyond pathology and was part of a capable network. That kind of return on investment is easily available to OGs, and nation states cannot begin to respond in a cost-effective way.

Sixth, traditional state methods of suppression are both inefficient and insufficient. You can’t fight ideas and information flows with firepower. Success in a complex social system comes from strong identity, networking and relationships, which states are increasingly unable to provide. And while states actually have to redress issues to prevail, OGs only have to relentlessly point them out and exploit them. Most critically, states have to win. OGs only have to not lose.

In this volatile environment, stability and success – within and among states – can only come from forging ‘mutually assured security’. Nation states must move beyond their legacy thinking derived from colonial roots and Cold War paranoia, and begin to build mutually beneficial relationships that foster genuine security, equity, justice and well-being for all.

If not, they’re headed for the dust bin of history – sooner rather than later.

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