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Obama Takes the Cape

Pakistanizing the Libyan War

by FRANKLIN C. SPINNEY

Barcelona.

Taking the Cape is a time-honored term of art used in the Pentagon for luring your opponent into going for your solution, especially when it is not in his or her best interest.  The analogy is to waving the red cape in front of the bull.  While the psychological game of the dazzle and the stroke has been perfected in the Pentagon as a means for winning its domestic budget wars, the American military has been far less successful in beating its adversaries in a game that goes back to at least the time of Sun Tzu.  Consider please the following

On Thursday, April 22, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced President Obama approved the initiation of drone strikes in Libya.  The Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General James Cartwright claimed the drones were "uniquely suited" for attacks in urban areas because they can fly lower and get better visibility of targets, presumably, than pilots’s eyeballs in airplanes.  Gates went on to claim drone strikes Libya would be done for "humanitarian reasons."

In other words, someone has sold Obama on Pakistaning the Libyan War, i.e., pursuing a military strategy of relying on drone attacks to a destroy an adversary hiding in the environmental background.  What is astonishing is that Obama took the cape, despite the fact that only 12 days earlier, a  report in the Los Angeles Times by David Cloud illustrated once again the absurdity of Cartwright’s and Gates’ claims.  

Cloud’s report is worthy of very careful study, because it is loaded with all sorts of unexplored ramifications — none of them good.  Using actual transcripts of conversations among drone operators, David Cloud revealed the sinister psychological effects that so-called precision bombing and techno war has on its American participants.  Their sterile dialogue shows vividly how the idea of precision techno warfare fought from a safe distance desensitizes our "warriors" to the bloody physical effects of their actions on the people they are maiming, and killing and the property they are destroying.  There is no bravery or soldierly honor or spirit of self sacrifice among the bravado of the drone operators safely ensconced in Creech AFB, Nevada; they are simply cogs in a dysfunctional dehumanizing machine.  That dysfunction is revealed by the complete absence in their dialogues of any psychological appreciation of their "adversary." Nor is there even hint of a desire to make such an appreciation.  Consider for example, the emptiness in the following dialogue reported by Cloud:

The Afghans unfolded what looked like blankets and kneeled. "They’re praying. They are praying," said the Predator’s camera operator, seated near the pilot.

By now, the Predator crew was sure that the men were Taliban. "This is definitely it, this is their force," the cameraman said. "Praying? I mean, seriously, that’s what they do."

"They’re gonna do something nefarious," the crew’s intelligence coordinator chimed in.

The lack of inquisitiveness into the mind of the enemy stands in stark contrast to the Pentagon’s subtle psychological appreciation of its domestic adversaries (in this case the hapless President Obama, but also his predecessors reaching back to President Kennedy, as well as members of Congress) that has been so successful in waging and winning its budget battles to extract money from the American people.

Extreme psychological one-sidedness on our side is nothing new in our military operations, however.  It has been a central feature of the American way of techno war for a very long time.  Indeed, the theory of the adversary being merely a physical set of targets (a dehumanized set of critical nodes devoid of any mental agility or moral strength) that can be defeated by simply by identifying and physically destroying these nodes is a doctrine that has been evolving and becoming more extreme since the development of daylight precision "strategic" bombardment doctrine by the US Army Corps in the 1930s.  In WWII one set of critical nodes was the ball bearing factories, for example; today in Pakistan the critical nodes are Taliban and al Qaeda leadership targets (of course, history has shown repeatedly that the enemy is adaptable and so-call critical nodes can be worked around or replaced again and again).  In Libya, we may have reached a new low, however.  God only knows what a critical nodes are in the oxymoronic case of humanitarian attacks, other than assassinating Qaddafi. In fact as Patrick Cockburn has shown, we don’t even know who our allies among the Libyans are, and some may well be former anti-American Islamists.  Nevertheless, once again, the fallacious presumptions of techno war are coming into full flower.

At the center of the theory of techno war is the comforting idea that precision bombardment (in WWII, via the technical wizardry of the Norden bombsight and the blind bombing systems like the H2X radar) would enable us to attack precision "military targets" deep in hostile territory while avoiding  destruction of civilian lives and property.  In fact, many of its proponents claimed, absurdly as it turned out, that daylight precision bombing of Germany would save lives by obviating the need a land invasion of Europe.   The drone coupled with precision guided weapons merely evolves this original mentality to a new  level of recklessness, because its gripping effect on the our psychology further disconnects the killer, sitting in his air conditioned operations center thousands of miles away from the killed, from the consequences of the killers actions.  

This clinical detachment creates the illusion that war is cleaner and easier to fight from our perspective — civilian deaths become morally acceptable because they are merely accidents of good intentions. The clinical term "collateral damage" says it all.  Cloud closes his report by describing the American apologies and financial payoffs to family survivors of civilians we inadvertently killed — although given the emptiness of the dialogue revealed by Cloud, the idea of these deaths are collateral damage of a  precision killing machine approaches the bizarre, to put it charitably.

On the other hand, the idea that financial payoff of a few thousand dollars fits the dehumanizing model of techno war, because it ignores the mental and moral dimensions of war.

In this case, the psychological natures of Pashtun concepts of honor and the Pashtun warrior ethos guarantee that financial payoffs will not mitigate their thirst for revenge, which will last for generations.  But such psychological considerations have no place in the mechanistic mindset of techno war that views the adversary as a mere collection of physical targets and rationalizes civilian deaths as being unfortunate accidents of good intentions.

The illusions of techno war are very soothing to its generalissimos like Clinton, Bush, and Obama, and its accompanying video games provide a great distraction to an American public being impoverished by government policies to redistribute wealth to the super rich. Moreover, by making war at a distance easier to prosecute and less painless to us (at least in the short term), the fallacies of techno war set the stage for our current state of perpetual war.  Continuous small wars, or the threat of such wars, are necessary to prop up the sclerotic cold-war military – industrial – congressional complex, or MICC (see my essay The Domestic Roots of Perpetual War).  Perpetual small wars, or the threat thereof, create a never ending demand for the MICC’s high-tech, war-losing products, which are legacies of the now defunct Cold War, but without which the MICC could not survive in the post-cold war era.  Keeping MICC budgets at cold war levels and higher also serves to reinforce the government policies to redistribute wealth to the rich and super rich.  

And that is why, every time the techno strategy fails to deliver on its promises, as it did with strategic bombing in WWII, Korea, Vietnam, the first Iraq War, Kosovo, the Second Iraq  War, Afghanistan, and now in Libya, the solution is not a serious "lessons-learned" examination of why it did not deliver its promises of a quick clean victories, but instead, the solution is always the same: to recommend spending even more money for more expensive and complex versions of the same old idea, i.e., more and better sensors, more and better guidance systems, and more and better command, control, communications, computer, and intelligence systems. 

Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon. He currently lives on a sailboat in the Mediterranean and can be reached at chuck_spinney@mac.com