Our Twisted Politics of Grief
Darwin observed that conscience is what most distinguishes humans from other animals. If so, grief isn’t far behind. Realms of anguish are deeply personal — yet prone to expropriation for public use, especially in this era of media hyper-spin. Narratives often thresh personal sorrow into political hay. More than ever, with grief marketed as a civic commodity, the personal is the politicized.
The politicizing of grief exploded in the wake of 9/11. When so much pain, rage and fear set the U.S. cauldron to boil, national leaders promised their alchemy would bring unalloyed security. The fool’s gold standard included degrading civil liberties and pursuing a global war effort that promised to be ceaseless. From the political outset, some of the dead and bereaved were vastly important, others insignificant. Such routine assumptions have remained implicit and intact.
The “war on terror” was built on two tiers of grief. Momentous and meaningless. Ours and theirs. The domestic politics of grief settled in for a very long haul, while perpetual war required the leaders of both major parties to keep affirming and reinforcing the two tiers of grief.
For individuals, actual grief is intimate, often ineffable. Maybe no one can help much, but expressions of caring and condolences can matter. So, too, can indifference. Or worse. The first years of the 21st century normalized U.S. warfare in countries where civilians kept dying and American callousness seemed to harden. From the USA, a pattern froze and showed no signs of thawing; denials continued to be reflexive, while expressions of regret were perfunctory or nonexistent.
Drones became a key weapon — and symbol — of the U.S. war trajectory. With a belated nod to American public opinion early in the century’s second decade, Washington’s interest in withdrawing troops from Afghanistan did not reflect official eagerness to stop killing there or elsewhere. It did reflect eagerness to bring U.S. warfare more into line with the latest contours of domestic politics. The allure of remote-control devices like drones — integral to modern “counterterrorism” ideas at the Pentagon and CIA — has been enmeshed in the politics of grief. So much better theirs than ours.
Many people in the United States don’t agree with a foreign policy that glories in use of drones, cruise missiles and the like, but such disagreement is in a distinct minority. (A New York Times/CBS poll in late April 2013 found Americans favoring U.S. overseas drone strikes by 70 to 20 percent.) With the “war on terror” a longtime fact of political life, even skeptics or unbelievers are often tethered to some concept of pragmatism that largely privatizes misgivings. In the context of political engagement — when a person’s internal condition is much less important than outward behavior — notions of realism are apt to encourage a willing suspension of disbelief. As a practical matter, we easily absorb the dominant U.S. politics of grief, further making it our politics of grief.
The amazing technology of “unmanned aerial vehicles” glided forward as a satellite-guided deus ex machina to help lift Uncle Sam out of a tight geopolitical spot — exerting awesome airpower in Afghanistan and beyond while slowing the arrival of flag-draped coffins back home. More airborne killing and less boot prints on the ground meant fewer U.S. casualties. All the better to limit future grief, as much as possible, to those who are not us.
However facile or ephemeral the tributes may be at times, American casualties of war and their grieving families receive some public affirmation from government officials and news media. The suffering had real meaning. They mattered and matter. That’s our grief. But at the other end of American weaponry, their grief is a world of difference.
In U.S. politics, American sorrow is profoundly important and revs up many rhetorical engines; the contrast with sorrow caused by the American military could hardly be greater. What is not ignored or dismissed as mere propaganda is just another unfortunate instance of good intentions gone awry. No harm intended, no foul. Yet consider these words from a Pakistani photographer, Noor Behram, describing the aftermath of a U.S. drone attack: “There are just pieces of flesh lying around after a strike. You can’t find bodies. So the locals pick up the flesh and curse America. They say that America is killing us inside our own country, inside our own homes, and only because we are Muslims.”
A memorable moment in the film Lincoln comes when the president says, “Things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other” — in 1865, a daring leap for a white American assessing race. Truly applying the same Euclidean theorem to grief would be just as daring now in U.S. politics. Let’s face it: in the American political culture of our day, all grief is not created equal. Not even close.
We might say ’twas ever thus: countries and ethnic groups mourn their own while yawning or even rejoicing at the agonies of some “others.” And when grief weighs in on the U.S. political scale, the heaviness of our kind makes any other secondary at best. No wonder presidents have always been wary of red-white-and-blue coffins at Andrews Air Force Base. No wonder “Bring our troops home” is such an evergreen slogan of antiwar activism. If the only grief that matters much is American, then just getting Americans out of harm’s way is the ticket. The demand — like empathy for the war-torn grief of Americans — is vital. And grievously incomplete.
The world’s only superpower has been operating with vast impunity to strike targets and, in effect, summarily execute. (President Obama’s big speech on May 23 reasserted that prerogative; as the ACLU’s president Anthony Romero pointed out, Obama “still claims broad authority to carry out targeted killings far from any battlefield, and there is still insufficient transparency.”) For American politics and mass media — perennially infatuated with the Pentagon’s latest tech advances in military capacities — such enormous power to smite presumptive evildoers has fed into a condition of jingo-narcissism. Some of its manifestations could be viewed as sociopathic: unwilling or unable to acknowledge, or evidently care much about, the pain of others.
Or the terror of others, if we are causing it. In the American political lexicon, terror — the keynote word for justifying the U.S. state of warfare so far in this century — is a supreme epithet, taken as ours to confer and to withhold. Meanwhile, by definition, it goes without saying, our leaders of the “war on terror” do not terrorize. Yet consider these words from New York Times reporter David Rohde, recalling his captivity by the Taliban in 2009 in tribal areas of Pakistan: “The drones were terrifying. From the ground, it is impossible to determine who or what they are tracking as they circle overhead. The buzz of a distant propeller is a constant reminder of imminent death.”
As part of tacit job descriptions, the U.S. network anchor or the president is highly selective in displayed compassion for the grieving. It won’t do to be seen with watery eyes when the Pentagon has done the killing (“friendly fire” a notable exception). No rulebook need be published, no red lines openly promulgated; the gist remains powerfully inherent and understood. If well acculturated, we don’t need to ask for whom the bell tolls; we will be informed in due course. John Donne, meet Orwell and Pavlov.
The U.S. Constitution — if not international law or some tenacious kind of idealism — could prevent presidential “kill lists” from trumping due process. But, as Amy Davidson wrote in a New Yorker online column last year, the operative approach is: “it’s due process if the president thinks about it.” Stephen Colbert summed up: “The Founders weren’t picky. Trial by jury, trial by fire, rock-paper-scissors — who cares?” After all, “Due process just means there’s a process that you do.” Satire from Colbert has been far more candid than oratory from President Obama, whose May 23 speech claimed a commitment to “due process” and declared: “I’ve insisted on strong oversight of all lethal action.”
Bypassing due process and shrugging off the human consequences go hand in hand. At the same time, it can be reassuring when the commander in chief speaks so well. But Obama’s lengthy speech at the National Defense University laid out a global picture with a big missing piece: grief due to U.S. military attacks. The only mention was a fleeting understatement (“for the families of those civilians, no words or legal construct can justify their loss”), instantly followed by a focus on burdens of top perpetrators: “For me, and those in my chain of command, these deaths will haunt us as long as we live…” As usual, the grief of the USA’s victims was quickly reframed in terms of American dilemmas, essential goodness and standing in the world. So, while Obama’s speech called for “addressing the underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremism, from North Africa to South Asia,” some crucial grievances stoking the conflicts were off the table from the outset; grief and rage caused by U.S. warfare remained out of the picture.
Transcendent and truly illuminating grief is to be found elsewhere, close to home. “The greatest country in the world” presumes to shoulder the greatest grief, with more access to profundities of death. No wailing and weeping at the scene of a drone strike, scarcely reported by U.S. media anyway, can hold a candle. For American grief to be only as weighty as any other just won’t do. We’re number one! A national narrative of emotional supremacy.
Our politics of grief, bouncing off the walls of U.S. media echo chambers, are apt to seem natural and immutable while fueling much of the domestic political rhetoric that drives U.S. foreign policy. The story goes that we’re sinned against yet not sinning, engaged in self-protection, paying to defend ourselves. Consider the Google tallies for two phrases. “U.S. defense budget”: nearly 4,000,000. “U.S. military budget”: less than 100,000.
But for those in communities grieving the loss of people struck down by the USA’s “Defense Department,” the outlook is inverted. To be killed is bad enough. But to be killed with impunity? To be killed by a machine, from the sky, a missile fired by persons unseen who do not see who they’re killing from hundreds or thousands of miles away? To be left to mourn for loved ones killed in this way?
When, from our vantage point, the grief of “others” lacks major verisimilitude, their resentment and rage appear irrational. Heaven forbid that such emotions could give rise to deadly violence approaching the level of our own. People who are uneducated and unclear on the American concept sometimes fail to appreciate that our perception is to be enforced as hegemonic reality. By a kind of fiat we can elevate with fervent validation some — some — others’ grief. As for the rest, the gradations of importance of their grief, and the legitimacy of their resort to violence, are to be determined by our judicious assessment; for further information, contact the State Department.
There may be no worse feeling of human powerlessness than inability to prevent the death of a loved one. The unmatched power of bereavement forces people to cope with a basic kind of human algebra: love + death = grief. Whether felt as a sudden ghastly deluge or as a long series of sleeper waves with awful undertows, real grief can turn upbeat memories into mournful ones; remembering becomes a source of anguish, so that, as Joan Didion wrote, “Memories are what you no longer want to remember.” Ultimately, intimately, the human conditions of loss often move people to places scarcely mapped by standard news coverage or political rhetoric.
Imagine living in a village in Pakistan or Afghanistan or Yemen. From the sky, death has been visited on neighbors, and drones keep hovering. (As now-former Times reporter Rohde pointed out: “Drones fire missiles that travel faster than the speed of sound. A drone’s victim never hears the missile that kills him.”) Overhead are drones named Reaper, shooting missiles named Hellfire. Have the heavens been grabbed by people who think their instruments of death are godly?
“When scientific power outruns moral power,” Martin Luther King Jr. said, “we end up with guided missiles and misguided men.” For America, drones and other highest-tech weapons are a superb technological means of off-loading moral culpability from public agendas; on the surface, little muss, less fuss.
Disembodied killing offers plenty of pluses in U.S. politics, especially when wars become protracted. From Vietnam to Afghanistan, the reduction of troop levels has cut the number of American deaths (easing the grief that “counts”) in tandem with more bombardment from the air (causing the “other” grief). Today’s domestic politics of grief are akin to what emerged after mid-1969, when President Nixon initiated a steady withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Vietnam. During the three years that followed, Nixon reduced the number of soldiers in Vietnam by nearly half a million, to 69,000. During the same three years, the U.S. government dropped 3.5 million tons of bombs on Vietnam — more than all the bombing in the previous five years.
Then, as now, the official scenario had U.S. troops thinning on the ground, native troops taking up more of the combat burden, and the Pentagon helpfully bombing from the sky as only Americans could “know how.” Independent journalist I. F. Stone astutely identified the paradigm in 1970, when the White House struggled with fading public support for the war. The revamped policy, Stone wrote, was “imperialism by proxy,” aiming to buy “low-wage soldier-power,” an approach that “will be seen in Asia as a rich white man’s idea of fighting a war: we handle the elite airpower while coolies do the killing on the ground.” Stone would have swiftly recognized the pattern in President Obama’s upbeat statement on May 23 that “we will work with the Afghan government to train security forces and sustain a counterterrorism force.”
The number of U.S. ground troops in Afghanistan was down by one-third, to 66,000, at the start of this year, when Obama announced plans to gradually withdraw the remaining troops over a period of two years. High-tech warfare would pick up the slack. The outgoing Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta, told a news conference that a key mission in Afghanistan, persisting after 2014, would be “counterterrorism,” a buzzword for heavy reliance on airpower like drones and cruise missiles. Such weapons would give others grief.
A top “national security” adviser to the president, John Brennan, said as much in an April 2012 speech. “As we have seen,” he noted, “deploying large armies abroad won’t always be our best offense. Countries typically don’t want foreign soldiers in their cities and towns.” The disadvantages of “large, intrusive military deployments” were many. “In comparison, there is the precision of targeted strikes.”
But such “precision” is imperfect enough to be an other’s calamity. Likewise, the extreme relativity of “agony.” At his Senate confirmation hearing to become CIA director in February 2013, Brennan spoke of “the agony we go through” in deciding which individuals to target with drones. Perhaps to square some circles of cognitive dissonance, those who inflict major violence often seem moved to underscore their own psychological pain, their own mental wounds. (As if to say, This hurts me as much as it hurts them; maybe even more, given my far more acute moral sensitivities.) When the focus is on the agony of the perpetrators, there may be less room left to consider the grief of their victims.
Shifting the burden of protracted war easily meshes with a zero-sum geopolitical game. Official enthusiasm for air strikes has correlated with assurances that Americans would be facing much less grief than allied others. So, near the end of 2012, the USA Today front page reported that “the number of U.S. deaths in Afghanistan is on track to decline sharply this year, reflecting the drawdown in U.S. forces” — while the death toll for Afghan government forces had climbed to ten times the U.S. level. These developments were recounted as progress all the way around.
As top officials in Washington move to lighten the political load of American grief, their cost-benefit analyses find major strategic value in actions that inflict more grief on others. Political respects must be paid. Elites in the war corps and the press corps do not have infinite tolerance for American deaths, and the Pentagon’s latest technology for remote killing is a perpetual favorite. In the long run, however, what goes around tends to come around.
Advice offered by scholar Eqbal Ahmad before 9/11 bears repeating and pondering: “A superpower cannot promote terror in one place and reasonably expect to discourage terrorism in another place. It won’t work in this shrunken world.”
After the “war on terror” gained momentum, Martin Luther King III spoke at a commemoration of his father’s birth and said: “When will the war end? We all have to be concerned about terrorism, but you will never end terrorism by terrorizing others.” That was more than nine years ago.
Norman Solomon is co-founder of RootsAction.org and founding director of the Institute for Public Accuracy. His books include “War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.” He writes the Political Culture 2013 column.