Tuesday, October 17, 2023
“When we humans see instances of violence, we are often quick to respond, sometimes with efforts to assist the victims, often with efforts to punish the perpetrators. It is important that we are able to feel the pain of each individual case. It is equally important to find out why there are so many cases. For this to take place it is important to examine what common underlying levers are causing the human family to engage in such protracted and recurrent violence.”
— Marc Pilisuk and Jennifer Achord Rountree, The Hidden Structure of Violence: Who Benefits from Global Violence and War, Monthly Review Press, 2015.
The Tragedy of Our Times
We are living in a time when people are killers or victims, or often both. If people are in the line of fire they bleed. If they are observers from afar they shed a tear. And behind this extraordinary human tragedy are capitalists, arms manufacturers, media liars, power hungry politicians who will promote any policy, and masses of people who do not have enough information to just say “no,” or “we have had enough killing.”
Let us consider this as “the war system.” It is a system that promotes war and violence such that masses of people become killers and the killed while ruling classes literally make out like bandits. The ongoing crisis between Israel and the Palestinian people (which has its modern roots in 1948 and the establishment of Israel) is truly a tragedy with deaths of innocents on both sides. We appropriately grieve for those who died while enjoying a music concert on the Israel side and the masses of Palestinians who lose loved ones, their homes, and now are without food and water as ethnic cleansing proceeds in Gaza.
And we should have nothing but disdain for President Biden and the US foreign policy team, the neo-fascist Israeli leadership, and the leadership of Hamas who have made this killing yesterday, today, and tomorrow a reality.
It is time to build a movement that opposes the war system, a system that was borne in the global economy of capitalism, with a military class, a culture that celebrates killing, and a media that mystifies and distorts reality. What has been the outcome-massive slaughter, millions of fleeing migrants, grotesquely expanding economic inequality, starvation and brutal destruction of the environment.
What Do We Mean by Violence
For centuries, theologians, philosophers, scholars, and activists have studied the meaning and causes of violence in human affairs, primarily motivated by a desire to reduce or eliminate it.
Some have pointed out that, for the most part, human beings have engaged in cooperative forms of behavior. The vast majority of human interactions are designed to sustain life, maintain communities, and support individual development. But, it is true that the dark side of history manifests massive slaughter, starvation, enslavement, and destruction of natural environments.
Contemporary theorists identify three kinds of violence; each separate but all three are inextricably interconnected. Direct violence refers to the immediacy of killing, maiming, bombing, gassing. It is the physical form of human interaction we usually associate with war, murder, rape, and terrorist acts. Structural violence refers to those forms of violence that are institutionalized--embedded in economic, political, and social systems--and destroy life gradually. Class exploitation, economic sanctions, racism, sexism, homophobia, and environmental destruction are examples of these slow, steady, and historical forms of violence. Cultural violence refers to the patterns of habits, beliefs, states of consciousness, forms of intellectual justification for cut-throat competition, demonization of others, normalizing hate, and killing. It is the intellectual glue that gives legitimacy to direct and structural violence and is the byproduct of killing and the structures that crush human potential.
The disaggregation of the concept of violence is vital to understanding killing today. While most discussions of violence would not challenge this trifold definition, conventional scholarly or journalistic methods of study of violence are limited in their efforts to understand its occurrence or how to address solutions. These methods, often based on narrow statistical or anecdotal conceptions of cause and effect, tend to ignore the historical and current context of violence.
However, if the reality of killing in the twenty-first century is to be addressed, history and context become profoundly important. Such an examination requires a frank evaluation of human history, the brutality of contemporary economics and politics, international relations and how they help to understand acts of brutality, whether by alliances, states, groups, or individuals.
The historical context in which direct, structural, and cultural violence arise begins at various times and places. In the United States case, it is critical to be aware of the slaughter of ten million Native Americans who lived on the land expropriated by Europeans and their descendants from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries. In addition, slavery and racism established the structures and consciousness that made the capitalist economic system flower and grow. Along with the slaughter and kidnapping to plant the seeds of a capitalist system, European settlers began the process of clear-cutting the natural environment that was the North American continent. Violence against nature paralleled the violence against humans.
Therefore history is a necessary template for reflecting on violence, the institutionalization of oppression and exploitation, and the justification for the development of a culture of manifest destiny, racial superiority, and the normalization of killing.
Part of the context of American economic and political life today involves the inculcation in the popular consciousness the idea that society is a collection of atomized individuals and groups, each in competition with others. Sometimes groups of people with socially constructed identities--physical, cultural, religious-- are defined as in competition with other such groups. Other times it is individuals and/or families that are portrayed as in stark struggle against all others. In a world of individuals and groups. not communities, security is bolstered by accumulating enormous wealth, building fences and walls, and stock-piling arms while disseminating these deleterious narratives.. Governments are collective manifestations of potential enemies. The only positive function government can play, according to this popular rendition of cultural violence, is when it kills others (preferably peremptorily) who might be a challenge.
21st Century Techniques of War
The world has come a long way from the days of Roman Legions slogging across land pillaging and killing. The days of nineteenth century colonial rule--clumsy and arrogant with foreign occupants of land lording over exploited local workers--has changed. However, it is important to reflect on the new or more developed techniques of empire, while never forgetting that there are centuries long continuities of techniques of imperial rule.
For starters, Marc Pilisuk reported in Who Benefits From Global Violence and War: Uncovering a Destructive System that the character of war has changed over the years and centuries. Wars today are not usually between nations. Casualties of wars are overwhelmingly civilians rather than soldiers. The weapons used in wars today are more likely than in the past to temporarily or permanently damage the natural habitat as well as kill people. Wars in recent years have been likely to be fought over natural resources. Nations and groups now are more likely to be supplied with weapons produced by a handful of corporations that specialize in the production of military supplies. These weapons are provided by a small number of nations. Finally, wars fought in modern times, the last 100 years, have caused more deaths than any other comparable period of human history.
According to Pilisuk since World War II (his book was published in 2015) 250 wars occurred causing 50 million deaths and millions homeless. (The United States participated significantly in 75 military interventions).
Recently a number of journalistic and scholarly accounts have added to our understanding of newer techniques of empire, particularly US empire.
Global Presence. Pilisuk, Chalmers Johnson (The Sorrows of Empire) and others have estimated that the United States has over 700, perhaps 800 U.S. military installations in more than 40 countries. Some years ago the Pentagon determined that huge Cold War era military bases needed to be replaced with smaller, strategically located bases for rapid mobilization to attend to “trouble-spots” in the Global South. Although forward basing in South Asia and in nations formerly part of the Soviet Union has received some attention, seven new US bases being established in Colombia (within striking distance of Venezuela) and increased naval operations in the Caribbean have not. In addition, there are some 6,000 domestic military bases, many that anchor the economies of small towns.
Privatization of the US Military. David Isenberg (“Private Military Contractors and U.S. Grand Strategy,” PRIO, Oslo, 2009) refers to “…the US government’s huge and growing reliance on private contractors” which “…constitutes an attempt to circumvent or evade public skepticism about the United States’ self-appointed role as global policemen.” While PMCs provide many services, such as combat, consulting, training armies, and military support, their combat presence in the two major wars of the 21st century, Afghanistan and Iraq, generated the most, if limited, public attention. Isenberg reported that between 1950 and 1989 PMCs participated in 15 conflicts in other countries and from 1990 to 2000 another 80. PMCs were employed in civil wars such as in Angola, Sierre Leone, and the Balkans.
A Washington Post investigation a decade ago compiled a data base, “Top Secret America,” “that found 1,931 intelligence contracting firms” doing top secret work “for 1,271 government organizations at over 10,000 sites.” TSA indicates that 90 percent of the intelligence work is done by 110 contractors. Defense department spokespersons and legislators claim that the United States needs to continue allocating billions of dollars to private contractors to maintain military performance levels that are minimally acceptable.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. Nick Turse, The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives describes the introduction of unmanned aerial weapons in the 1990s and their current weaponry of choice for the White House and others who prefer antiseptic and bloodless (on our side) technologies to eliminate enemies. New predator drones can be programmed to fly over distant lands and target enemies for unstoppable air strikes. Drones have been increasingly popular as weapons in fighting enemies in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen.
Connecting drone strikes to assassination teams and other war-making techniques, Shane, Mazzetti, and Worth, (“Secret Assault on Terrorism Widens on Two Continents,” The New York Times, August 16, 2010) refer to shadow wars against terrorist targets. “In roughly a dozen countries--from the deserts of North Africa, to the mountains of Pakistan, to former Soviet republics crippled by ethnic and religious strife--the United States has significantly increased military and intelligence operations, pursuing the enemy using robotic drones and commando teams, paying contractors to spy and training local operatives to chase terrorists.”
Assassinations. The United States has initiated campaigns to identify and assassinate presumed enemies. CIA operatives and private contractors join teams of army specialists under the Joint Special Operations Command (13,000 assassination commandoes around the world) to kill foreigners alleged to be affiliated with terrorist groups. These targets can include US citizens living abroad who have been deemed to be terrorist collaborators. In the Western Hemisphere, the United States, through Latin American military personnel trained at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly called the School of the Americas, has long supported assassination programs that now seem to be “globalized,” that is administered everywhere.
Fred Branfman (Alternet, August 24, 2010) starkly describes the assassination policy: “The truth that many Americans find hard to take is that mass US assassination on a scale unequaled in world history lies at the heart of America’s military strategy in the Muslim world, a policy both illegal and never seriously debated by Congress or the American people.”
Missionary Humanitarian Interventions. While most techniques of empire involve the direct use of violence, public and private organizations expand the presence of empire through so-called “humanitarian assistance.” While the work of the missionary has often followed the flag, never has such activism impacted so heavily on global politics as today.
For example, The New York Times (July 6, 2010) reported that Christian evangelical groups have transferred substantial amounts of funds to Jewish settlements in occupied territories of the West Bank. Furthermore, fund raising for settlements that stand in the way of the creation of a Palestinian state receive tax exemptions. The newspaper reports on “…at least 40 American groups that have collected more than $200 million in tax-deductible gifts for Jewish settlement in the West Bank and East Jerusalem over the last decade.”
The newspaper correctly points out that so-called “humanitarian” and tax deductible donations to entities in other countries tied to US foreign policy are not new. But, the article suggests that donations to the settler movement are special “because of the centrality of the settlement issue in the current talks and the fact that Washington has consistently refused to allow Israel to spend American government aid in the settlements. Tax breaks for the donations remain largely unchallenged, and unexamined by the American government.”
Military Spending is Central to the US Economy
Like a festering cancerous growth that has not been exorcised from the body politic for over 70 years, militarists continue to defend escalating military spending. Leaders of both political parties endorse lavish spending on the military, warning of the dangers of China and the spread of “authoritarianism.” Wars in Ukraine and the Middle East, and the rise of China to economic prominence have been blessings for the arms industry, think tanks, universities, and every other institution benefits from, wasteful military spending.
Of course, military imperatives have a long history. NATO was formed in 1949 and the United States militarily and financially was its anchor. National Security Document 68 in 1950 called for military spending to be every president’s top priority. With subsequent “crises” in Korea, the Persian Gulf, the Caribbean, Indochina, Southern Africa, Iraq, and Afghanistan, military spending continued to grow, taking up about half of all discretionary government spending.
Anticipating changes in challenges to US global hegemony, President Carter in 1980 called for the establishment of a “Rapid Deployment Force” which could quickly move into trouble spots to address threats to allied regimes. Such a RDF might have prevented the overthrow of the Shah of Iran, Carter’s advisers argued. President Reagan, of course, boosted military spending beyond the costs of the entire historical period before he came into office. He advocated a “Strategic Defense Initiative or “Star Wars” to shield North America from Soviet attack. And President Clinton, remained committed to being able to fight one and half wars and to be able to engage in “humanitarian interventions.”
The Bush Administration began a shift in defense doctrine even before the 9/11 tragedy was used to justify two huge, long, and unwinnable wars. Defense intellectuals warned of an “arc of instability” all along the equator from the northern portion of Latin America, to North Africa, the Persian Gulf, and East Asia. With this new threat the military needed to be transformed into a new high speed force to move on a moment’s notice to any threatened area; a new high tech RDF.
After 9/11 the Bush Doctrine considered any military action as justified if the US perceived that an enemy, state, or non-state actor might be considering an attack on the United States. The new high tech RDF required literally hundreds of military installations on every continent. Given the new technology, these bases did not have to be mini-cities like the old Cold War military installations of the past. And as Chalmers Johnson, Nick Turse, and others have documented, close to 800 military bases were in place before Bush left office.
David Vine, an anthropologist, (“The Lily-Pad Strategy: How the Pentagon Is Quietly Transforming Its Overseas Base Empire and Creating a Dangerous New Way of War,” at TomDispatch.com , July 17, 2012) used an interesting metaphor, the “lily-pad,” to describe the latest generation of US global military bases. The metaphor, Vine says, comes from the military who conceptualize bases as lily-pads, where like frogs, troops alight then jump across a pond to attack their prey. Vine describes the "lily-pads” as “small, secretive, inaccessible facilities with limited numbers of troops, spartan amenities, and prepositioned weaponry and supplies.”
He points out that while hundreds of bases in Iraq and Afghanistan are being closed, the lily-pads are expanding. Consequently, the US today still has some kind of military presence in 150 countries on every continent, 11 aircraft carrier task forces, and untold space-based military capabilities. So while the troops are being brought home, unbeknownst to the American people, the US global military presence is growing.
A recent document prepared by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) suggested that “in cognitive warfare, the human mind becomes the battlefield. The aim is to change not only what people think, but how they think and act. Waged successfully, it shapes and influences individual and group beliefs and behaviors to favor an aggressor's tactical or strategic objectives.”
This NATO document, of course, is addressing the world of international relations but the concept of “cognitive warfare” seems to parallel efforts “to change not only what people think, but how they think and act.” This project animates the efforts of media conglomerates--print, electronic, social media platforms. Changing how people think and act has its historic roots in campaigns to convince citizens to support wars, consume cigarettes, forget climate disasters, and to find flaws in populations because of class, race, gender, sexual preference, and/or religion. Creating images of enemies is central to launching wars. The processes of “branding” have become similar in all realms of human experience.
So now in the midst of violent attacks on Israel, a brutal genocidal Israeli response against residents of Gaza, US threats against Iran. an ongoing war in Ukraine, increased US talk about a New Cold War with China, the vast majority of the world’s population need ever so desperately to mobilize against a war system that makes everyone killers or victims of killers. Say No to the military/industrial/academic complex; No to virulent nationalism and racism; No to economic sanctions that are designed to starve populations; And no to all the forces of greed, exploitation, environmental devastation and murder who rule most of the world. And for those of us in the US our struggles begin at home.