Dirty Wars, Nasty Reviews (post 1 of 2)

The other night two things happened. I’ll save part two [updated] for the next blog post. First, I saw Dirty Wars, the documentary that follows Jeremy Scahill’s investigative reporting into the once highly secret Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). The film was actually much better than I had expected, and I would highly recommend it. JSOC is responsible for night raids in Iraq and Afghanistan, targeted killings and assassinations, missile and drone strikes, and liaisons with warlords and mercenaries around the globe. The take-home for me was simple: the lethal aspect of US empire is limitless, everywhere, and autopoietic. That last term, which I learned back in a former life as an editor of an oncology journal and re-encountered in some structuralist social theory, indicates my sense, drawn from Scahill’s work, that JSOC’s operations produce far more enemies than they "neutralize," thus justifying its existence and further operations. Arguably, US empire has always done this, as have other empires. Repression breeds resistance, to put it easy slogan form.* Or, in the words of The Dicks, a band referenced in an earlier post, “they can kill us but we’ll be back in a couple of days.”

What is different, however, is that JSOC is not interested in ye olde trappings of empire. It has almost no footprint. It occupies no territory. It extracts no resources. And it apparently makes only the barest efforts at working with local political powers. Compradors are absent, as JSOC’s operations neither stand nor fall on their political legitimacy. They are so shadowy, mercurial, and lightning-fast that the only way locals know they have occurred is by seeing the smoking wreckage, the cell-phone photos of dead children, and maybe, just maybe intrepid investigative reports (which the White House in any case has tried to squelch). This is a different form of empire and counterinsurgency from the one I am studying for my dissertation, which occurred in the 1960s and early 1970s. (It continued into the 1980s especially in Central America, but that is not my bailiwick.) 

The film also makes clear that the endless debates among historians and some social scientists about US empire—Does it or does it not exist? Is it caused by economic interests or ideology? And so on—are antiquated at best. To call it autopoietic is to say that empire appears increasingly to be justified, motivated, catalyzed only by itself. There is no firmament or fundament to which one can point to say that, stripped of all else, here is the cause. Of course, US empire is not reducible to JSOC. So perhaps the historians can continue their debates. And Scahill’s work on Blackwater showcases another (related) aspect of US empire and its entanglement with multinational firms and a transnational capitalist class that is qualitatively different from that of the Vietnam era. I do not envy, though, the task of future historians who will be writing about today’s moment. So shrouded in secrecy, so multifarious, so geographically extensive: it may require nothing short of a reinvention of the craft. Then again, forty years from now we may all be submerged under risen seas, or gasping in the toxic air.

Although the focal point of critiques of US empire in the 1960s remains Vietnam, scholars working on counterinsurgency, myself included, are showing that Vietnam, especially after US ground troops arrived, was anomalous. Instead, counterinsurgency was geographically extensive, encircling the globe—or at least its “Gray Areas.” The primary form of counterinsurgency, I argue, was police assistance, under the auspices of US-AID’s Office of Public Safety (OPS), which was active from Iran to Indonesia, across Central and South America, and throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. These, today, are the lands in which JSOC operates. But JSOC has no pretense of modernization, no desire for tutelage and uplift. In that guise, OPS provided technologies, hardware, and consultation on implementation, as well as money, training, and classroom exercises (an adjunct to AID's other assistance and military "civic action"). No sympathizer with modernization am I, but I’ll be damned if I don’t say that JSOC is far more ruthlessly selfish than even the bloody proxy wars of the Cold War era were. In some cases, JSOC does work with local warlords, as Scahill discovered in the Ouroboros-like war in Somalia, in one harrowing scene. But these proxies are not yesterday’s proxies. Though they are occasionally used, the bulk of the killing is committed directly by US specialists, exactly the reverse of the counterinsurgent 1960s.

Afghanistan’s police training today, noted at the beginning of the film, is a descendent of OPS’s efforts, of course. But there the idea is to try to get the state in an upright position so that the United States can withdraw. With an exception or two, all of OPS’s work took place in not-yet-invaded countries, not countries in which the United States had “boots on the ground.” OPS’s training and arming of civil security forces was meant to prevent the contingencies that might require boots on the ground. Today, it is difficult to imagine the Somali warlords in Dirty Wars sitting in a classroom listening to a lecture about the importance of upholding Western standards of rule of law. (Not that many officers trained by OPS in the 1960s did much more than smile and nod during class lectures as they waited for the more desirable assistance: money, weapons, vehicles, and radios.)

While watching the film, I kept thinking of the Phoenix program of targeted killings in Vietnam, which both utilized the OPS structure and superseded it, fundamentally shifting the modality of counterinsurgency there. Doug Valentine, the author of one of the definitive accounts of Phoenix, though, disapproves of the film, chiefly for lacking historical contextualization and for being narrowly focused on the heroic Scahill. For me, that artifice seemed like a device to entice people otherwise not initiated into a critique of US empire to give credence to and enjoy the film (see Derek Gregory for other thoughts on the artifice). The first part of Valentine's review, which gives a great deal of historical background that the film lacks, is very useful and could be a good example of what a review can do if it is written generously. The second part, the nasty critique of Scahill and the use of his POV in the film, however, is supercilious at best. Together, both halves are united in being a critique of the film not on its own terms but for what it does not do. And I find that type of review ultimately a missed opportunity. I bring this up because in the second part of this blog post—now up—I will talk about what happened when I got home from seeing Dirty Wars, which also involves a nasty review.

* I was reminded of the deeply unsettling, but extremely useful and generous, review by Alfred McCoy of the deeply unsettling book Kill Anything That Moves by Nick Turse on the US war in Vietnam, in which McCoy wonders whether so much of the killing of civilians in that conflict resulted from counterintelligence. Perhaps, he argues, the breeding of resistance was intentional, on the part of the anticolonial fighters, trying to rally support for their cause among civilians or sympathizers with the United States and the government of South Vietnam. Tips that provided the intelligence on which raids were based may have been intentionally false, in order to lead the US troops to kill the wrong people. The killing of the wrong people (even within the terms of a war that was itself wrong) characterized the Phoenix program through and through. JSOC, hungry for targets and fed by what we are learning now is an almost unquantifiably large information dragnet, must be so tricked, duped, and misled—even outside the questions of whether the "threats" they are to neutralize actually constitute such a thing, or whether the elimination of all "threats" to the United States is possible, necessary, or desirable.




Submitted by Adam Goodman on Fri, 06/14/2013 - 13:25

Is JSOC "more ruthlessly selfish" or just bolder in the sense that it's directly involved where proxies would have been used (for appearances) in the past? In a counterintuitive way, is JSOC more transparent than predecessors like OPS because of its direct involvement? As you allude to, perhaps a more brazen form of US empire, in your words, because they no longer feel the need to go through others and don't care as much about appearances?

Look forward to part 2, and this is also a nice teaser for your larger project.

Submitted by Stuart on Fri, 06/14/2013 - 17:07

Adam, thanks for your comment. I think this is a good question, and you're on the right track: what does the use of proxies tell us about the politics behind the effort to create security? One idea I have would be to say that JSOC's more brazen form indicates how little legitimacy on a global scale the US security obsession has. But I also would hesitate to call anything the United States is doing transparent. The use of proxies certainly conferred the necessary "plausible deniability" in the past, but JSOC was almost completely unknown even to specialists until the Bin Laden assassination.

What I meant to suggest by the selfishness thing is that the killing of targets (whether the right ones or the wrong ones) unaccompanied by even the pretense of aid and uplift is something new, even for US empire, which arguably had a different view about tutelage than did the British or French empires.


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