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It is odd to hear a U.S. secretary of defense borrow metaphors from Mao Tse-tung during a Washington press briefing.
But it is frightening when that metaphor is turned on its head to announce matter-of-factly that the most powerful nation on earth intends to directly target civilians, and so few seem to notice or care.
Last week Donald Rumsfeld explained to reporters that one of the ways the U.S. military intended to go after terrorist networks was “to drain the swamp they live in.”
The phrase has roots in Mao’s description of guerilla fighters as fish swimming in the sea of the people. U.S. counterinsurgency experts after World War II took up the phrase in their strategies of “draining the sea” to counter guerilla warfare.
Drain the sea: Deprive a fighting force of cover. Drain the civilian population.
For those unlucky civilians who make up the sea, to be “drained” mean one of two things. Either they are forcibly driven out of their villages and towns, often with their homes, property, and crops destroyed, or they simply are killed.
In Rumsfeld’s formulation, the sea has become a swamp. But the effect will be the same: the creation of refugees and/or mass murder.
No matter how often this kind of direct targeting of civilians is done by cruel and cynical nations, it is a war crime. Article 51 of the Geneva Conventions states clearly: “The civilian population shall not be the object of attack. Acts or threats of violence the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population are prohibited.”
But many will counter that when terrorists hide among the people, the rules change. Article 50 of the Conventions: “The presence within the civilian population of individuals who do not come within the definition of civilians does not deprive the population of its civilian character.”
Though these laws — and the moral principles that underlie them — apply equally to the United States, our record is not pretty. Counterinsurgency techniques targeting civilians were “perfected” during the Vietnam War. Large areas were declared “free-fire zones” in which civilians were unprotected. To “protect” civilians, the “strategic hamlet” program herded people out of villages and into barbed wire-ringed camps. Others were driven into the camps by B-52 raids on densely populated areas — what journalist Bernard Fall described as “unlimited aerial warfare inside the country at the price of literally pounding the place to bits.”
U.S. allies are fond of the concept as well. It was a staple of Saddam Hussein’s operations against the Kurds in northern Iraq in the 1980s (back when he was a friend of the United States because he was training his guns on Iran, our enemy at the time). Israel employed the same strategy in Lebanon; in fact, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak used the same terms in 2000, when he likened fighting terrorism to “fighting mosquitoes. You can chase them one by one, but it’s not very cost effective. The more profound approach is to drain the swamp.”
Civilians also were the most common targets of the so-called Contras, a terrorist army created by the United States in the 1980s to attack Nicaragua because revolutionaries there had overthrown a brutal U.S.-backed dictator and dared to try to break out of the U.S. system of control. The Contras preferred to hit what were called “soft targets” rather than take on the Nicaraguan army.
Some of the most brutal attempts to drain the sea were carried out by the U.S.-backed military regimes of Central America throughout the 1970s and ’80s. In December 1981, an elite battalion of the Salvadoran army destroyed the village of El Mozote, killing everyone except for one woman who managed to crawl to safety. Together with similar operations in nearby villages, the operation left at least 750 dead, none a guerilla. But that was irrelevant, just as it seems to be irrelevant to Rumsfeld that the vast majority of Afghanis don’t support Osama bin Laden. A U.S. adviser to the Salvadoran battalion explained the idea:
“You try to dry those areas up. You know you’re not going to be able to work with the civilian population up there, you’re never going to get a permanent base there. So you just decide to kill everybody. That’ll scare everybody else out of the zone. It’s done more out of frustration than anything else.”
Although there is much talk in Washington about how this new war of the 21st century cannot be fought like old wars, military planners seem ready to draw on old tactics.
It’s a safe bet that our secretary of defense knows this military history. If we assume he does not choose his words carelessly, then we can conclude that the illegal and immoral tactics used to combat guerilla warfare will now be applied to the new enemy, international terrorism.
But a new target does not change the enduring truth: Under international law — under any standard of morality — we cannot punish civilians simply because they are unfortunate enough to be near our enemies.
Robert Jensen is a professor of journalism at the University of Texas. Rahul Mahajan serves on the National Board of Peace Action. Both are members of the Nowar Collective. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.