“The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.”
— candidate Barack Obama
"NO MEN!” the massed ranks of tired, mud-spattered women shouted a I , a lone man, timidly approached their Greenham Common “peace camp” in spring ’82. The handholding women at female-only “Green Gate” were protesting the British government’s decision to allow cruise missiles to be based at this RAF/USAF air base in Berkshire. As a CND veteran, I merely wanted to help, maybe cook food, dig latrines, whatever. But “No Men!” turned me back. However, it was the start of my education on the cheap death tools called cruise missiles that kill without the killers being killed.
In the current Libyan adventure over a hundred and sixty ship- or land-based cruise missiles already have been fired in Operation Odyssey Dawn – who dreams up these rock-album titles? And more to come. At one to one and a half million dollars apiece, do the math.
Cruise missile specs are simple. They are unmanned, single-use, pre-programmed fanjet-engine aerial torpedoes that carry a 1000-pound bomb or those cruel cluster bomblets that shred so many civilians especially children long after combat ends. Inertially guided, the hi-tech missiles fly very close to the ground jinking around obstacles using an terrain-recognition system.
Today they’re called Tomahawks and are a direct descendant of, and a vast improvement on, the Nazi V-1 buzz-bombs of World War Two that killed over 6,000 Britons. Present-day cruise missiles are made by the U.S. corporation Raytheon whose chief lobbyist, William Lynn III, was picked by Obama as his deputy defense secretary, second only to Robert Gates, days after the inauguration.
In the coming days we will hear how “precise” and “accurate” cruise missiles are. The fact is, even in perfect test conditions, they have a history of going wrong and veering off course, killing as they go wild. So along with the current clichés being taken off the shelf from the Iraq and Afghan invasions -– brutal tyrant, coalition, unspeakable atrocities – add the Vietnam era euphemism “collateral damage” for burned and dismembered corpses.
Cruise missiles on-target are deadly, as British survivors of the Exocet-sunk HMS Sheffield and Atlantic Conveyor will recall from the Falklands war. Maggie Thatcher’s war in the South Atlantic badly split the UK left, as Libya is doing in Germany where the normally pacifist Greens are quarreling among themselves whether to intervene or stand fast. In the U.S. some left-fractures, and alliances, are unpredictable. Marc Cooper, Juan Cole and John Judis "for" war while Dennis Kucinich and Senators Lugar and Webb asking the right questions. Some budget-and-Constitution conscious Republicans line up with the antiwar crowd.
The military loves cruise missiles because they’re (relatively) inexpensive to make, easy to house and maintain, and can be fired with a deafening shock-and-awe roar from great distances. They make for great orgasmic TV. You aim from a faraway computer. No pilot needs to be trained or lost. Hence, no Arlington cemetery funerals with flag-draped coffins – yet. Despite Obama’s pious promise that U.S. “boots on the ground” won’t be used, I note (usually buried deep in print stories) that the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsage lurks off Libya carrying 1600 Marines.
All we need now, to complete the hackneyed script is another “Curveball”, the defecting Iraqi chemist who duped the CIA into lying us into the horrific Operation Enduring Freedom, to swear on his mother’s honor that Qaddafi is about to nuclear bomb Disneyland.
The Libyan adventure comes at just the right time for various Allied – yes, they’re using that word again – western politicians. France’s president Nicolas Sarkozy is widely predicted to have a rough time in the upcoming elections. Polls indicate he is running behind the rightwinger Marine Le Pen, and a good little war can do wonders for a battered politician. And with all David Cameron’s troubles, sending in Tornadoes and Typhoons and Trafalgar-class submarines, makes him look “presidential”. (Forget for the moment that the U.K. helped train Qaddafi’s special forces and how eagerly British weapons companies vied for his custom.)
If the seven Berkshire stones commemorating the 70,000 Greenham Common women could weep, they would. After Maggie Thatcher and Madeleine Albright, we shouldn’t be surprised that the strongest voices pushing Obama into his third war were three strong, powerful, liberated women – Samantha Powers, Susan Rice and Hilary Clinton.
CLANCY SIGAL is a novelist and screenwriter in Los Angeles. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org