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America: Its Own Worst Enemy

by ARNO J. MAYER

America is at war.  To be sure, the global and perpetual war on terror has not been declared—by Congress.  The enemy the U.S. is fighting is neither a nation-state nor an empire but a largely spectral hydra-headed nebula without nerve center.  Washington and its allies claim to be defending themselves against this anomalous non-state transnational actor which has neither sovereignty nor a government, nor an army.  In Orwellian speak, the Defense Departments—not War Departments—of the First World, attuned to the Pentagon, are nonplussed in the face of an enemy beyond the reach of the full panoply of their modern and post-modern weapons of individual and mass destruction.

Henceforth the battle against the nebulous and elusive enemy, who is being relentlessly diabolized, is guided and fought by a seamless network of “intelligence” and counter-terrorist CIA-FBI-FSA work and listening stations and operatives in countless countries around the globe.   The latest weapon of choice of the vastly overstretched American empire of military, “intelligence,” security, cyber and corporate bases: the remote-controlled unmanned aerial vehicle, insidiously dubbed drone, presumably to evoke the stingless male honeybee.

The Brothers Tsaraev, who perpetrated the horrendous Boston Marathon Massacre, succeeded beyond their wildest, not to say quixotic, dreams, which were fired by crosswired social, political, religious, and psychological pulsations.   The detonation of their artisanal bombs packed with low-grade explosives and ball-bearings killed three people and wounded 260.   Sixteen of the injured had limbs blown off by the blast or had to endure amputations.  Although small beer in the annals of recent terrorist attacks, the unconscionably willful and indiscriminate Boston carnage resonated far and wide, in large measure thanks to its instrumentalization and exploitation by America’s political class and the mainline media, especially cable television.   Indeed, they presented Greater Boston’s vast manhunt and mandatory lockdown by thousands of policemen and National Guardsmen reinforced by SWAT teams, SWAT tanks, and helicopters as a reality show, interspersed with advertisements for palliatives for erectile dysfunctions and facial wrinkles, for cut-rate vacations in the sun, and for the  timely investment in gold and silver.   The highlight of the Hollywoodian psychodrama came with the invasive and persecutorial interrogation of the sister, parents, and friends and acquaintances of—in Vice President Joe Biden’s carefully crafted words—“the two twisted, perverted, cowardly, knock-off jihadists.”

Presently President Obama set the tone for America’s deep-felt aggrievement and patriotic outrage.  The opening sentence in his homily at the Interfaith Service in Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross: “Scripture tells us to ‘run with endurance the race that is set before us’.”  He led the congregation in prayer for the victims and for the recovery of the injured.  The President commended Greater Boston, by then out from under martial law, for showing “us . . . that in the face of evil, Americans will lift up what’s good” and that “in the face of cruelty, we will choose compassion.”  This was in keeping with “Scripture [that] teaches us, ‘God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.”

But the President also spoke in another key.  Addressing “those who carried this out and anyone who would do harm to our people: yes, we will find you.  And you will face justice.   (Applause)  We will hold you accountable.” Indeed, the President asserted that if they knew “who we are . . . the perpetrators of such senseless violence—these small, stunted individuals” would know that “a bomb can’t beat us.”
Even or especially in moments like these “we come together to celebrate life, and to walk our cities, and to cheer for our teams.”  In the spirit of late Republican and early Imperial Rome’s panem et circenses, or bread and circuses, President Obama averred that “when the Sox and Celtics and Patriots and Bruins are champions again . . . the crowds will gather and watch a parade go down Boylston Street.”  (Applause)   He concluded his homily with the same Biblical citation with which he had opened it, followed by the invocation “may God hold close those who’ve been taken from us too soon.  May He comfort their families.   And may He continue to watch over these United States of America.”  (Applause)   Following Cardinal O’Malley’s closing benediction the congregation rose to intone America the Beautiful, the national hymn on a par with The Star-Spangled Banner, America’s national anthem.   This hymn invokes God in four out of seven verses, concordant with the tenor of the President’s address.

The unwritten text of the media frenzy and the hortatory Presidential address is that America is not only uniquely innocent and beautiful but, above all, virtuous, righteous, and powerful.  The American peuple noble mourns and shows compassion for the victims of the heinous terrorist attack and mourns and iconizes the American servicemen and servicewomen who make the supreme sacrifice fighting the nebula in distant lands as well as from the high seas and the open skies.  But Americans, writ large, are conditioned to be relatively blind and deaf—insensitive—to the innocent victims of the fallout and collateral damage of America’s direct or indirect anti-jihadist war, nay counter-crusade, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lybia, Mali, Niger, Somalia, Yemen, Kenya, Syria—and counting.

To be sure, from 2003 to 2012 on the Iraqi battlefield close to 4,500 U. S. soldiers were killed; and from 2001 to 2013 in the Afghan theater of war over 2,200 U. S. soldiers sacrificed their lives.   But whereas the number of American military casualties in these two theaters of the war without borders against terror is beyond dispute, there is not even remotely the same precision about the number of Iraqi and
Afghan casualties, both military and civilian.   For Iraq, estimates range between 110,000 and 600,000, and though the estimates of civilian deaths among them vary widely, they most likely run into the tens of thousands.  In Afghanistan, while a total of some 14,000 anti- and pro-government military combatants are estimated to have lost their lives, there are not even any ballpark body counts of civilian casualties.  The media make little, if any, effort to inform and enlighten the American peuple about the incidence, nature, scale, and aftereffects of civilian casualties.  This may be congruent with the near total neglect by American historians of civilian casualties and afflictions–including those of widows, orphans, and the elderly—in America’s own Civil War in which some 750,000 men died, out of a population of 30 million.

Presently the 11-page Federal complaint accuses Dzhokbar Tsarnaev, the younger and surviving terrorist, with having “used a weapon of mass destruction . . . against persons and property.”  This (mis)use of the toxic term “weapon of mass destruction” for a ball-bearing-packed pressure-cooker bomb staggers belief.  The U. S. holds the palm in the development, production, stockpiling, and deployment of weapons of mass destruction: nuclear, chemical, and biological.   It also leads the world in delivery systems.   To boot, America is the only country ever to have used a weapon of mass destruction: on August 6-9, 1945, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which took a toll of an estimated 200,000 lives.   That was five months after the “conventional” firebombing of Tokyo in which some 100,000 people are estimated to have died.  To be sure, this air strike on the Japanese capital was one of the deadliest and most destructive of World War II.  But it was the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, including the post-attack blight of sickness and death due to radiation-induced leukemia and other cancers that marked a radical qualitative “game-change” in military and diplomatic statecraft.

Of course, the pressure-cooker bombs and the jihadis are all the more terrifying because of that ominous Chechen connection.  Just as in its anti-Soviet obsession Washington not so long ago partnered with Osama bin Laden and the Taliban in Afghanistan, so until only yesterday it extolled the Sunni Islamists—jihadis—of the Caucasus as valiant freedom fighters against an oppressive and repressive post-Soviet Russia.  It is nothing short of reassuring that President Vladimir Putin, a tried and true ex-KGB operative, execrated and distrusted by America’s foreign-policy wonks, is now praised for ordering his anti-terrorist and security apparatus to lock arms with President Obama’s CIA and FBI—“intelligence” and security “community”—in tracking down that ominous Al-Qaeda trail that purportedly led to the Boston Marathon Massacre.

This is only the beginning of the reinflammation of the Sunni-Shiite fratricide reminiscent of the fratricide between Protestants and Catholics, and the attendant religious wars, in 16th-17th -century Europe.  Judging by developments in the Greater Middle East, notably what the West hastened to label the “Arab Spring,” grosso modo, the United States and its allies tend to support the Sunnis, including the Sunni states, while the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China) are inclined to support the Shiites, including the Shiite states.  Needless to say, the interventions of both coalitions of powers are driven primarily by geopolitical and mercantile interests shrouded in ideological mist.   In today’s non-Western precincts, Sunnis and Shiites, and their external backers, are equally close to or distant from Allah, just as the Protestants and Catholics in 16th-17th-century Europe were equally close to or distant from God.

Meanwhile the analogue of the Peace of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), might serve as a guide in thinking about the incipient general crisis and thirty years war in today’s Greater Middle East—and beyond.  To be sure, the negotiations between May and October 1648 in Münster and Osnabrück resulted in peace treaties between and among the major belligerents which included territorial adjustments.  But above all, in addition to ringing down the curtain on the Holy Roman Empire, Westphalia marked the triumph of national sovereignty and rule over the principle and practice of imperial ascendancy.  Indeed, Westphalia articulated and warranted the emergent principle of the sovereignty of the state along with the equality of sovereign states in an embryonic European state system.  Though implicit and unwrought, the Westphalian settlement also spawned not only the principle of non-intervention in the affairs of other states but also that of self-determination.

In its post-colonial and waning imperial era the Western World, not to say the First World, continues to approach the problems facing so many of the non-Western, not to say Third World political and civil societies in the spirit of Westphalia, leavened or exploded by a latter-day “orientalist” mission civilisatrice.  To be sure, the states of the Greater Islamic Middle East, notably the Arab states, are sovereign, have frontiers, and have autonomous political regimes.  But most of the borders were drawn and most of the regimes were invested by the colonial-imperial powers with little or no concern for the principle of cuius region (whose realm), cuius religio (whose religion), except perhaps with a view to play on religious divisions to better divide ut regnes (divide in order to rule).

Today especially the Western powers artlessly intervene, directly or indirectly, in the internal affairs of sovereign states to foster, weigh in the balance, or prevent regime change.  Targeted drone and cyber strikes merely symbolize and facilitate such interventions, most of them in countries caught up in religiously, ethnically, tribally, and socially charged civil wars whose outcome will affect the ongoing regional geopolitical refiguration, including frontier revisions.

Of course, whereas the interventions by the West and its regional allies are cried up for legitimately and overtly promoting the cause of democratic governance, secularization, women’s emancipation, antiseptic free-market capitalism, those by the non-Western countries—most notably Iran and Russia—are decried for illegally and covertly encouraging and supporting the antithesis, or polar opposite.

The so-called Arab and kindred springs in the West’s far-flung bygone colonial-imperial realms are neither mere rebellions, nor popular uprisings, nor full-blown revolutions.  Indeed, as yet there is no heuristic term or concept with which to characterize and capture their essence and thrust.  Meanwhile it seems evident, however, that their course will be all but determined by the headlong global geopolitical realignment along with the major powers, trapped in globalizing corporate and finance capitalism, bent on pursuing neo-mercantilist policies in an emergent cut-throat competition for critical energy resources, rare metals, and commodities.

One can only hope—against hope?—that the current great transformation of the political and civil societies of the nation-states of the West’s ex-imperial realms will be less turbulent, violent, and interminable than the great transformation in early modern Europe.  Specifically, that their civil and sectarian wars as well as foreign wars and internal political skullduggery will be less ferocious and bloody than in England in the time of Oliver Cromwell, in France in the time of the Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre, and in Greater Europe during the General Crisis and Thirty Years War of the Twentieth Century.

In the Greater Middle East, given its tried statehood, governance, moderness, and national identity Israel may be said to be  best steeled to weather the high winds of change were it not for its indeterminate and unrecognized borders, which make for a crying deficit of sovereignty compounded by a boundless expansion into Palestinian land.  This will continue to feed a deep-felt hostility throughout the turbulent region and sap Israel’s ethnic coherence and nationhood.   Indeed, governed by a hubristic and parochial political class Israel is a formidable wild card in a neighborhood of seething geopolitical and international power plays fraught with potentially grave, nay existential self-endangerment for a country which has been its own worst enemy all these years and can no longer claim to be “a light unto the nations.”

Arno J. Mayer is emeritus professor of history at Princeton University. He is the author of The Furies: Violence and Terror in the French and Russian Revolutions.and Plowshares Into Swords: From Zionism to Israel (Verso). 

Arno Mayer is the Dayton-Stockton Professor of History, Emeritus, at Princeton. He can be reached at mayer@princeton.edu.

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