FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

“Draining the Swampof Terrorists”

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 rahul@tao.ca.

More articles by:

Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men. He can be reached atrjensen@austin.utexas.edu or online at http://robertwjensen.org/.

September 19, 2018
Bruce E. Levine
When Bernie Sold Out His Hero, Anti-Authoritarians Paid
Lawrence Davidson
Political Fragmentation on the Homefront
George Ochenski
How’s That “Chinese Hoax” Treating You, Mr. President?
Cesar Chelala
The Afghan Morass
Chris Wright
Three Cheers for the Decline of the Middle Class
Howard Lisnoff
The Beat Goes On Against Protest in Saudi Arabia
Nomi Prins 
The Donald in Wonderland: Down the Financial Rabbit Hole With Trump
Jack Rasmus
On the 10th Anniversary of Lehman Brothers 2008: Can ‘IT’ Happen Again?
Richard Schuberth
Make Them Suffer Too
Geoff Beckman
Kavanaugh in Extremis
Jonathan Engel
Rather Than Mining in Irreplaceable Wilderness, Why Can’t We Mine Landfills?
Binoy Kampmark
Needled Strawberries: Food Terrorism Down Under
Michael McCaffrey
A Curious Case of Mysterious Attacks, Microwave Weapons and Media Manipulation
Elliot Sperber
Eating the Constitution
September 18, 2018
Conn Hallinan
Britain: the Anti-Semitism Debate
Tamara Pearson
Why Mexico’s Next President is No Friend of Migrants
Richard Moser
Both the Commune and Revolution
Nick Pemberton
Serena 15, Tennis Love
Binoy Kampmark
Inconvenient Realities: Climate Change and the South Pacific
Martin Billheimer
La Grand’Route: Waiting for the Bus
John Kendall Hawkins
Seymour Hersh: a Life of Adversarial Democracy at Work
Faisal Khan
Is Israel a Democracy?
John Feffer
The GOP Wants Trumpism…Without Trump
Kim Ives
The Roots of Haiti’s Movement for PetroCaribe Transparency
Dave Lindorff
We Already Have a Fake Billionaire President; Why Would We want a Real One Running in 2020?
Gerry Brown
Is China Springing Debt Traps or Throwing a Lifeline to Countries in Distress?
Pete Tucker
The Washington Post Really Wants to Stop Ben Jealous
Dean Baker
Getting It Wrong Again: Consumer Spending and the Great Recession
September 17, 2018
Melvin Goodman
What is to be Done?
Rob Urie
American Fascism
Patrick Cockburn
The Adults in the White House Trying to Save the US From Trump Are Just as Dangerous as He Is
Jeffrey St. Clair - Alexander Cockburn
The Long Fall of Bob Woodward: From Nixon’s Nemesis to Cheney’s Savior
Mairead Maguire
Demonization of Russia in a New Cold War Era
Dean Baker
The Bank Bailout of 2008 was Unnecessary
Wim Laven
Hurricane Trump, Season 2
Yves Engler
Smearing Dimitri Lascaris
Ron Jacobs
From ROTC to Revolution and Beyond
Clark T. Scott
The Cannibals of Horsepower
Binoy Kampmark
A Traditional Right: Jimmie Åkesson and the Sweden Democrats
Laura Flanders
History Markers
Weekend Edition
September 14, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Carl Boggs
Obama’s Imperial Presidency
Joshua Frank
From CO2 to Methane, Trump’s Hurricane of Destruction
Jeffrey St. Clair
Maria’s Missing Dead
Andrew Levine
A Bulwark Against the Idiocy of Conservatives Like Brett Kavanaugh
T.J. Coles
Neil deGrasse Tyson: A Celebrity Salesman for the Military-Industrial-Complex
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail