The Merchants of Death and Me

I attended a recent talk on “defense cooperation” between the United States and the Arab world. Inevitably, no one on the panel of five bothered to ask why the United States should be fueling an arms race by selling to nearly every country in the region, but as each speaker had a personal interest in arming everyone to the teeth, the omission was perhaps understandable. It reminded me of Upton Sinclair’s famous quip that “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

One panelist was a senior employee of a major defense contractor. The other speakers were also cogs in the military-industrial complex. Most of the panelists were somewhat nuanced in their pronouncements even if they could not avoid slipping into government-speak with its mixture of acronyms and expressions like “kinetic” and “COIN doctrine” that are only used when Pentagon guys get together over a brewski (or when they are trying to impress a congressional committee).

The defense contractor representative made clear that his comments had not been reviewed by his employer, so one has to assume that he spoke from the heart, though he was obviously conditioned by the snake oil that he sells to make a living. He started out by saying that there are a lot of “irreconcilables” out there in the world who are plotting to kill Americans and carry out terrorist acts. They represent a serious threat to the United States and the American people. He stated his belief that something has to be done about such people and went on to describe the use of drones and Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) assassination teams to kill targets in those foreign countries where they shelter as “constabulary action,” repeating the expression a number of times. He likened the situation to a U.S. marshal serving a warrant while being supported by a police SWAT team, which is heavily armed to deal with a possible violent reaction from the miscreant. These “irreconcilables” are unwilling to submit to the forces of law and order, so they are most often killed, justice being served by their deaths in what is, after all, a “constabulary action.” You have to understand that it is just law enforcement going about its business in a slightly unusual way, traveling around the world and delivering the last judgment on those who are enemies of the United States.

Conceding that there is considerable controversy over the use of drones, the defense contractor representative noted that the program speaks for itself. Frontline leaders of terrorist groups used to be in their thirties and are now in their twenties, indicating that the mortality rate at middle levels has reduced their effectiveness, with new, inexperienced cadre replacing those who are killed. He also praised the technical advances, improved training of the joystick Air Force pilots in Nevada, and better targeting information that has enabled the program to approach the goal of “acceptable levels of collateral damage” whenever a Hellfire missile is fired into a group of people on the ground. He admitted that there were a lot of lethal mistakes in the past, but the situation has improved. As for the targeted killing of American citizens by drones, he commented that there are plenty of lawyers involved in the approval process and that they look at everything very carefully.

The defense contractor panelist concluded with some parting shots at the government’s inability to emulate Hollywood in selling a product. He noted that the “enemy” has been very good at promoting its narrative, particularly among the young, and that the U.S. government has lagged in getting its story out. He described the failure to do so as a matter of some concern.

Another panelist let drop that he had recently attended a classified briefing that revealed there are a lot of targeted killings taking place regularly, presumably carried out by JSOC and possibly CIA paramilitaries, in all parts of the world. He praised the assassination program as exemplary because, unlike the publicity generated by the drone strikes, no one talks about it or leaks it to the press and it gets the job done.

Where to begin? First of all, America’s lashing out at the world is the product of a phony narrative that suggests that there are thousands of rabid terrorists standing by waiting to board the next Icelandic Air flight to arrive in Newark and start spreading havoc. It just ain’t so. Most of the people we regard as terrorists are local folks who are fed up with their own governments and wouldn’t be able to do anything if transplanted into another culture in another land even if some obliging FBI agent were to provide them with a phony bomb to use. The shrinking handful who might be able to operate internationally have not exactly been enjoying a run of success of late, pursued as they are by virtually every government and intelligence service. If one excludes war zones, when was the last time an American was killed by someone linked to a terrorist group? June 2009, when a soldier was shot dead outside a military recruiting center in Arkansas by a convert to Islam who somewhat implausibly claimed to be tied to al-Qaeda.

As for justice being signed, sealed, and delivered by drones and killer teams, it is quite a stretch to see such instruments of death as analogous to the Gary Cooperesque amiable local sheriff in the white hat riding out to capture the desperado. To put it simply, there can be no justice where the accused has no right to confront the accusations against him and defend himself. Consider for a moment that if America is empowered to carry out “constabulary action” worldwide, so is everyone else. Laws, criminal justice systems, and constitutions have been created in many countries precisely to inhibit the arbitrary exercise of power by government, particularly the power to kill. If a senior employee of a major corporation cannot see and understand that point, he probably needs to read through the first 10 amendments to the United States Constitution, otherwise known as the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights was created to restrain the government, not to empower it to behave arbitrarily, and it certainly does not give the government carte blanche to kill anyone anywhere, be they a U.S. citizen or not. That means there can be no “constabulary action” causing an “acceptable level of collateral damage” when Predator drones and assassination teams are unleashed.

Apparently quite a few Americans now believe that the United States can, without any acceptable legal framework, assassinate anyone anywhere and that there are no consequences related to such activity. As this panel demonstrated, many would even praise the willingness to do so and the technical marvels that make the killing possible. As an American citizen, I for one would like to learn just how many foreigners have been killed extralegally by my government using drones or special-ops soldiers and paramilitaries since 9/11. I would like to know what the standard of evidence is for setting up an assassination, and I would further like to know how much collateral damage has been done along the way, and by collateral damage I mean the dead bodies of people who have been killed either because they were misidentified or were standing too close to a target. And I want to hear what accountability there has been for all those people killed because of intelligence errors or technical failures in Nevada. What exactly do all those government lawyers look at to render a verdict when they set up a killing? Who exactly are those lawyers, and whom do they answer to?

But perhaps the most startling insight revealed by the panel is the inability to understand why the United States has been unable to sell its message “Hollywood style.” Well, it should be obvious even to the masters of war who create the ordnance that goes off with a bang all around the world that the narrative proposed by the United States, i.e., that “we are here to protect you,” doesn’t sell too well in any part of the world where the people can look around and see the devastation that has actually been delivered. Garbage is still garbage no matter how you gift wrap it.

When the panel left the stage, with congratulations all around, I thought to myself, “What monsters we have become. Someone hand me a tomato so I can throw it.” Alas, there were no tomatoes.

Author: Philip Giraldi

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is a contributing editor to The American Conservative and executive director of the Council for the National Interest.