UNC Students for a Democratic Society and UNC Young Americans for Liberty disagree on many issues, which makes it all the more telling when our views do converge. Tonight the two groups co-hosted a teach-in on campus on the atrocities of drone strikes and the military-industrial complex. Prashanth Kamalakanthan, a writer and activist with Duke University SDS, opened the event with the poignant speech reprinted below.
Thank you all for letting me speak tonight. I’m glad to see so many people interested in the resistance in a time when living in the heart of empire makes it particularly hard to learn about, let alone feel, the visceral damage American foreign policy does on the global scale every moment.
So we find ourselves in the shadow of a decade of war still unfolding in Iraq, many of us not fully understanding how we got here, or even what “here” looks like to most of the world.
The unholy trinity of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, a bought-off, embedded corporate journalism culture, and private defense contractors bring us through lies and secrecy ten years after March 19, 2003, to an entire region embroiled in cross-border conflict. Anywhere from 190,000 to 2.4 million Iraqis, at least 70% of them civilians, are now dead. The initial invasion comprised about 30,000 strikes, using cluster bombs, white phosphorus, highly carcinogenic depleted uranium, and a new kind of napalm dropped in dense urban areas. What we might call weapons of mass destruction.
Two trillion dollars were spent, a number that will double when paid with interest, and more than a half trillion is still owed to veterans. For context, the UN thinks $30 billion dollars a year would end world hunger. That’s 150 years of no hunger.
The occupation actually introduced al-Qaida for the first time into Iraq, and women’s rights and access to healthcare have been set back centuries. Since 80% of Iraq’s teachers fled it now leads the region in illiteracy. The leading cause of death among U.S. military personnel, meanwhile, is suicide. About a quarter of recent veterans come home injured either physically or emotionally, and 18 veterans commit suicide every day.
Yesterday’s anniversary was marked in Iraq with 65 people dying and over 200 seriously wounded in the bloodiest single day of 2013.
Despite all this, you have Tony Blair recently telling the press it was a “balanced decision,” the right thing to do. Dick Cheney says he’d “do it all over again.” The inability to learn lessons from the U.S.’s catastrophic failed interventions I think points to a deeper psychosis at the heart of empire, which is instructive for those in the resistance. It can’t be negotiated or reformed. It must collapse entirely. When U.S. sanctions in Iraq killed more than a half million children, a higher number than those that died in the bombing of Hiroshima, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said simply “we think the price is worth it.”
We think the price is worth it.
I think first off, historically speaking, she’s amazingly, incredibly wrong. None of it has been worth it. But her statement also introduces the question of who is “we” if not us, the common American and definitely not the common Iraqi? I also want to introduce the added premise that war as perpetrated today is indistinguishable from terrorism insofar as it seeks to create political change through the mass murder of civilians. The only difference is whether or not the violence is state-sanctioned, and if it is, you get the additional bonus of governing.
Who would have guessed that arming violent Islamic militants against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s would lead to the 9/11 attacks and a never-ending occupation? Or that equipping and training similar militants in Libya, where the oil sector was slowly being nationalized, alone among Arab Spring countries to be bombed in the name of democracy, would lead to a civil war in Mali, where the West is now fighting? Who could have predicted that forcing open the Kingdom of Japan at the point of U.S. Navy guns would eventually lead to bombs falling on that same navy at Pearl Harbor? That helping out French colonialists in 1950s Indochina would end in tripartite U.S. failures in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos twenty years later? But over and over, the price is apparently worth it.
So we have to view the current shift to drone warfare through the same lens of failed interventions and naked imperial geopolitics. The U.S. has used drones to kill people in at least six Muslim countries, including at least four U.S. citizens, without trial or charge: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. Pakistan, an official U.S. ally, has withstood the brunt of these, with as many as 3,500 killed, more than 800 civilians, nearly 200 of them children. The Pakistani government has told the U.S. repeatedly to stop, and the U.N. says they’re an illegal violation of sovereignty. The Constitution doesn’t allow the Executive Branch acting through the CIA as a paramilitary to do this without congressional authorization. In fact Obama himself defends the surgical precision of the strikes publicly while the CIA continues to claim in court it can’t “deny or confirm the existence of the program” because that would be a security threat. In other words, we do what the hell we want, no questions asked.
Testimony from actual terrorists and reports from the ground shows us moreover that war is the real security threat. Reports from the countries we’re drone-bombing sound like sci-fi future colonialism if that ever were a genre. Drones flying overhead 24/7 in tribal Pakistan so, as the landmark Stanford/NYU report showed, “children are afraid to go to school” and community life has been totally eviscerated, that’s the real security threat. The tribal regions of Pakistan are now ripe recruiting grounds for terrorist cells, and it’s not hard to see why. While we moralize on what types of resistance are allowed, the CIA conducts signature strikes on unnamed targets based on suspicious “patterns of life,” that we know nothing about, and carries out double taps, or repeat hits on initial targets, so even paramedics and journalists are afraid to approach for up to eight hours. There are repeat documented instances of funerals for drone victims, weddings, being hit like this. Zero accountability. The CIA considers all military age males in the radius of a drone strike to be suspected combatants, which is just a pure distillation of violent racism. High-value targets comprise less than 2% of those killed in drone strikes, meaning 98% are either low-level insurgents or civilians. The few named, high-level operatives are judged, sentenced, and summarily executed all within the White House’s imperial presidency, where on “Terror Tuesday” meetings Obama meets with top intelligence staff and insists on approving names personally.
We have to ask what war does to societies on both sides of the equation. At home, the post-9/11 NCTC and NSA continue to coordinate broad, dragnet surveillance on all communications in contravention of the law, while the FBI conspires with the NYPD to spy on regular Muslim shopkeepers, cabbies, and students across the northeast, coordinating plans to diffuse antiwar and Occupy protests alongside banks and college administrators. Maybe more disconcertingly, drones in the post-9/11 era signal moves to institutionalize war as a permanent feature of our lives, which we must resist at every step. We’re not officially at war in six countries, but we are actively bombing them. U.S. special ops forces are now deployed in 120 countries, over 60% of the world, a number that has doubled under Obama. And there is no end-game, because the end-game is what we have now: a state of imposed globalized control, enforced by history’s most violent military empire.
But I wanted to end with some notes on the resistance. We recently learned how the U.S. exported leadership and tactics from its dirty wars in Central America to Iraq in the mid-2000s. Programs endorsed at the highest levels used “all means of torture to make detainees confess … using electricity, hanging [them] upside down, pulling out their nails.” Interrogation rooms were stained with blood, according to official reports; children in extreme stress positions were beaten until their bodies became discolored. The U.S.-trained ISOF, the Iraqi Special Operations Forces, also known as the dirty brigade, carried out summary executions, searches, and kidnappings a lot like the U.S.-trained death squads in Cold War-era El Salvador and Guatemala.
Also recently, the Open Society Initiative documented how the CIA recruited 54 countries to participate in its sprawling post-9/11 torture regime of secret prisons and interrogation sites, with the wholesale exception of Latin America, where public opinion is fiercely opposed to American interests and no countries participated. Latin America has long been abused by Washington’s military interventionism, and after 9/11 its leaders stood together to firmly rebuff the United States. To me this looks like a promising symptom of the global community gaining strength in anti-American solidarity.
But it’s not enough, and we have to do more at home, where the policy is made. John Brennan, an outspoken proponent of Bush-era torture and wiretapping, also known as Obama’s assassinations czar and drone architect, was recently rewarded with the CIA directorship. Before his time at the CIA he made $760,000 a year as CEO of a McLean, Virginia-based private intelligence contractor called The Analysis Corporation, and after that he raked in $30,000 for an hour’s worth of work a week as chairman of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, the industry mouthpiece for private war contractors.
So the figure of Brennan alone shows us where the goods are. There is a noxious revolving door spinning the foreign policy establishment and political parties around immensely powerful private interests that deserve equal infamy as direct action targets. In that vein, there’s a march on the White House and a war contractors’ headquarters in DC in April that I’d be happy to share information about after this. The other most powerful node of domestic resistance — outside of the totally feeble federal judiciary, which should be enjoining every single thing I’ve been talking about — is the watchdog press. Interestingly, Rand Paul’s recent drone filibuster heavily cited independent investigative journalists and outlets doing the reporting the commercialized mainstream media has not. So we also need to support the work of the Freedom of Press foundation and others fostering real, adversarial journalism in our country.
War waged in our name, with our money and labor, is the greatest affront to humanity I can imagine. And I think the struggle for peace is in the end a struggle to prove our worth as human beings.
More of Prashanth’s work can be found on his website: http://www.prshnth.com/.