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“I have authorized a small number of combat-equipped U.S. forces to deploy to central Africa to provide assistance to regional forces… On October 12, the initial team of U.S. military personnel with appropriate combat equipment deployed to Uganda. During the next month, additional forces will deploy… These forces will act as advisors to partner forces that have the goal of removing from the battlefield Joseph Kony and other senior leadership of the LRA [Lord’s Resistance Army]… Subject to the approval of each respective host nation, elements of these U.S. forces will deploy into Uganda, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.” So stated Barack Obama, the elected representative of the American people and the leader of our empire, in a short note to the leaders of the US congress. Thus began yet another immoral military adventure into foreign lands at a time when America itself is crumbling to such an extent that its own citizens have (finally) begun long-term occupations of its cities and towns.
There is no doubt whatsoever that the Lord’s Resistance Army is a brutal scourge on the African people. Its members have indeed “murdered, raped, and kidnapped tens of thousands of men, women, and children in central Africa” as Obama has stated. For example, according to Human Rights Watch, over the course of just four days in 2009, the LRA viciously killed at least 321 civilians and abducted more than 250 others (likely for use as child soldiers, sex slaves, and other horrible purposes). Most of those killed (including a three year-old girl and a 72-year old man) were first tied up, then hacked or beaten to death with machetes, axes, or clubs. We should all hope for the end of this organization, and on an individual level do whatever we can to speed its demise.
As an individual, I could choose to travel to central Africa to volunteer as a human shield, standing between the LRA and its victims. Or, as a less extreme option, I could donate my time and/or money to a non-governmental organization that is working to end the violence in the region through capacity-building and demobilization of child soldiers. I could engage in any number of actions as an individual that would be both moral and beneficial to the people of Uganda and other affected countries.
If only we could trust governments to make good and moral decisions that would always reflect what we would do as individuals. Unfortunately for us all, the US government is not known for this, especially when it comes to propping up authoritarian regimes, arming dictators with weapons to use against their own people, and training military-types to more effectively and efficiently torture and otherwise “control” human beings. See, for example, US military “aid” to Afghanistan, Bahrain, Colombia, Indonesia, Israel, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Pakistan, Peru, the Philippines, Lebanon, Oman, Turkey, and the West Bank/Gaza, all of whom received more than $100 million each just between 2002 and 2004 and tend to be regularly cited by even the US State department for things such as ethnic/minority oppression, oppression of women, threats to civil liberties, child exploitation, religious persecution, and judicial/prison abuses.
The simple truth is that throughout history, violence perpetrated by governments (often against their own people) tends to far outstrip violence perpetrated by non-state actors, including terrorist organizations, rebel groups, and individual criminals. This is not because governments are any less moral than violent non-state actors, but rather because governments have more resources at their disposal with which to wreak their terror.
In his statement celebrating the enactment of the Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act of 2009, Barack Obama commended the government of Uganda “for its efforts to stabilize the northern part of the country” against the LRA and noted that we “have supported regional governments as they worked to provide for their people’s security.” The people of Uganda might wonder exactly when it is that their government is providing for their “security”: is it when Ugandan women are gang raped by members of the military and/or police? Or perhaps it is when state security forces mutilate the genitals of Ugandan men through kicking, beating with sticks, puncturing with hypodermic needles, and tying the penis with wire or weights. These are just a few examples of the “efforts” of the Ugandan government in what Human Rights Watch describes as a “state-sanctioned campaign of political suppression” which includes “illegal and arbitrary detention and unlawful killing/extrajudicial executions, and using torture to force victims to confess to links to the government’s past political opponents or current rebel groups” in its 2004 report State of Pain: Torture in Uganda.
The details of violence and torture are difficult to even read, but it is important to understand exactly what sort of activities our government is supporting in our names. Put yourself, for instance, in Derrick’s shoes – his story was also recounted in the Human Rights Watch report mentioned above. One day in Uganda, Derrick was riding in a bus which was hijacked by five or six armed members of the Ugandan military in civilian clothes. The men pulled two passengers from the bus, executed them, and then asked Derrick if he knew them. When he denied it, they started beating him, shoved a gun into his mouth, then dragged him to the headquarters of the Ugandan military intelligence organization. He was there beaten with an electrical wire and a hammer, cut deeply with a knife across his back, stabbed in his testicles with needles, and finally shocked and burned with electricity before he lost consciousness. He woke up under the steps of a nearby building; his captors apparently had no more use for him.
Now put yourself more realistically in the shoes of his torturers and their employer, the Ugandan government, which Barack Obama commends. Make no mistake: it is they who we support with our “aid” – not Derrick, and certainly not the people of Uganda. Ending the threat to Ugandan civilians posed by the Lord’s Resistance Army is a noble goal (for who and under what authority are separate questions). But at what moral cost do American military personnel “advise” the Ugandan military? When we support brutal governments in foreign countries – be it through aid, training, or troops on the ground – there are real and lasting consequences for the people who live there. There are many reasons to oppose the US incursion into Uganda (the risk of blowback, the chance of escalation, the furtherance of the imperial presidency, the financial cost, the practical fact that we can’t intervene everywhere, and so on), but the most important argument is moral.
In 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. rightly called the United States government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” He was not seeking merely to criticize, but rather to acknowledge the moral hypocrisy of his calls for non-violence in the civil rights movement while implicitly supporting the violent actions of his own government. “For the sake of those boys,” he continued, “for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.” For the sake of us all, we cannot be silent now. It is fundamentally immoral to arm, train, or otherwise “advise” any government that engages in torture and/or other forms of repression, no matter who our common enemy may be. As the still-reigning greatest purveyor of violence worldwide, the single most important action the United States government could take against the horrors of the world would be to stop contributing to them. Please join me in demanding an immediate end to US military operations in and aid to the Ugandan government.
Nicholas Kramer is a former associate investigator for an oversight & investigations (O&I) committee in the United States Senate. He no longer lives or works in Washington, D.C. He may be reached through his website at TakingResponsibilityForEmpire.com.