foreign affairs

War Speech

By Noah Burns

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I was browsing the “New Releases” section in the college bookstore a few weeks ago, and after quickly glancing over a few titles, I stayed my eyes on one. It was a collection of American anti-war writings called No More War, which includes songs, poetry, speeches, essays, short stories, and other written materials. I glanced at the back cover to see who was included in the anthology, and was pleased to see many names that deserved to be there, such as Edna St. Vincent Millay, Mark Twain, Henry David Thoreau, and Kurt Vonnegut, among many others. I was disappointed not to see Noam Chomsky, who, whatever you think of his ideas, has been one of the most powerful critics of American wars in the country’s history. I was also disappointed to see only one short essay by Howard Zinn, which does not contain his sweeping arguments against all wars, which are quite interesting. I was most surprised to see included an entry by Barack Obama. Although, as the editor’s introduction to his speech reverentially points out, Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, as president he pursued eight years of expanding global war, including an assassination program that his killed thousands, more troops in Afghanistan, airstrikes in Syria, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, and Iraq, and the use of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) to fight dirty wars and fund and train militants throughout the Middle East. (For a comprehensive account of the second War on Terror from its origins in the 1990s through the Obama administration, see Jeremy Scahill’s book Dirty Wars.) As William Hartung wrote in a must-read article from July 26th 2016 at, called ‘How to Arm a Volatile Planet,’, “During President Obama’s first six years in office, Washington entered into agreements to sell more than $190 billion in weaponry worldwide – more, that is, than any U.S. administration since World War II.” The regimes who have received these weapons: vicious dictators and repressive governments in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. Hartung also notes that the Obama administration has loosened regulations on foreign arms sales, allowing 36 counties, including Erdogan’s Turkey, to buy weapons from U.S. manufacturers without a State Department license. The most egregious case is the continued, ongoing support of Saudi Arabia’s (and its coalition’s) attack on Yemen. Saudi Arabia has been bombing Yemen since 2015, using US made cluster bombs, which release many smaller bombs that do not immediately detonate and often injure curious children, and using other US made munitions (and also receiving US logistics and intelligence cooperation, as well as refueling) bombing hospitals, neighborhoods, schools, and public spaces. So far, the Saudi bombing campaign is estimated to have killed around 3,000 civilians, and is a major factor currently putting millions of Yemenis at risk of starvation.

But Obama’s later policies do not make his speech not anti-war. The content of the speech is what makes it not anti-war: while Obama lists several reasons why he is opposed to the Iraq war, including that many Americans will die, it will be very expensive, it will make the Middle East more unstable, and the war is a distraction from domestic issues, there is not one single word anywhere in it about the effects of a war on Iraqis. Obama did not once mention the innocent Iraqis who would inevitably be killed as a result of American bombing and occupation. In other words, his critique was not that killing innocent people is wrong, but that it would not be advantageous to kill these particular innocent people. Perhaps that sounds too harsh. We don’t kill innocent people, at least not intentionally: we are a force for good in the world, we think. And yet we don’t think about these consequences of our war policies very often, or we only think about them in embarrassingly superficial ways (“We will be greeted as liberators” comes to mind). We have to ask: What are we really doing? As Mark Twain observes in an essay included in the No More War anthology, called The War Prayer, prayers to grant our troops victory contain a second, implicit prayer. A sample of it:

O Lord our God, help us tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended in the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames in summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it…

Whatever the military or those who agitate for wars (but do not fight them) might say about only targeting the bad guys or only targeting civilians is either a lie, stupidity, or madness. This is obvious, stupidly obvious, but like with many truisms, we have convinced ourselves that there can be such a thing as a “targeted airstrike” that only kills the bad guys, and that it’s okay to bomb other people’s cities, fields, and countries because we are only “unintentionally” killing civilians. If I blew up a building full of people, and claimed when rightly arrested and prosecuted for murder that I didn’t intend to kill the people, just to destroy the building, you would say that I was either insane, stupid, or lying. Whatever the explanation, I would not successfully claim that the deaths of the people killed by the bombing were “unintentional” or “accidental.” And yet, these words are constantly used by highly educated and supposedly intelligent and sane people to describe the victims of our bombs, drones and missiles, like the children accidentally blown apart by a US cruise missile in al-Majalah, Yemen in 2009, or the thousands of civilians killed by the US bombing of Baghdad in 2003, which is not described as a war crime, because those deaths were, of course, merely “unintentional.”  But if we consider the predictable consequences of our actions to be our intentions, as we must, then there are no “unintentional” civilian deaths from our airstrikes.

War vocabulary is often designed to shield us from the consequences for the people on the other side of our bombs. We conduct “kinetic operations,” “targeted killings,” and “precision strikes” as part of “counterterrorism operations” against “high value targets” in “denied areas.” In real language, these are terms for killing people, usually by blowing them to pieces with missiles or bombs, often people who haven’t been convicted of any crime, and sometimes people whose identity is not even known. (For more on the targets of US drone strikes, see The Drone Papers, leaked classified documents hosted at War terminology also often helps us feel good about the force we use by casting us as the good guys, by definition. The words “aggression” and “defense” are classic examples. Anything we do will always be labeled “defense,” since good people don’t want war and we are good people. People who don’t want wars don’t start them, and only fight them in self-defense or defense of others. Therefore, everything we do is “defense.” Our “Defense Department” is perhaps the most blatant example of this. (As a side note, if we have a Department of Homeland Security, and it isn’t doing the same thing as the Department of Defense, and we are using the normal definitions of the words that we are supposed to believe apply here, then what is the Department of Defense defending exactly?)  Conversely, our enemies, who of course are not good, do start wars, and are therefore labeled as “aggressive.” We are never “aggressive,” except in the cause of righteousness. “Terrorism” and “counterterrorism” are very similar. “Terrorism” means any violence that we don’t like. “Counterterrorism” is the violence we commit when it is directed (at least partially) at people who are committing violence we don’t like, i.e. terrorists. Therefore, unless we disapprove of our own violence (which we can’t, since we only use violence for defense) we can never be terrorists. 9/11 killed over 3,000 innocent people, which, as I said above, was approximately the civilian (innocent person) death toll from our initial bombings of Iraq in 2003. The September 11th attacks are universally condemned (including by me) as a horrific terrorist act. Our “counterterrorism” bombings are, at most, criticized by people like Barack Obama as “dumb,” or “a mistake.” People who call them “terrorism” and “war crimes,” like Noam Chomsky, do not appear even in anti-war books. This is because such criticisms are clearly illogical, given the definitions of the terms of war speech.

The incoming Trump administration is unpredictable in many ways, especially on foreign policy, but will likely increase the historically high military budget further. (Although it should be noted that, even if he continues the policies of the Obama administration, that will mean a global war on terror, extrajudicial assassination, arms transfers to totalitarian regimes, and more. It is not as if Trump would be a uniquely violent president: most of the most extreme powers he will have he can thank Barack Obama for.) If those weapons are to be used, and are not being made for show, we must remember what they will be used for, and what really follows from our war speech.

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