The Next War?

I should have known it when I talked to “drug czar” Gen. Barry McCaffrey’s people a couple of weeks ago about the good general’s selective use of information from the Institute of Medicine report his office had commissioned and all they wanted to talk about was McCaffrey’s trip to Colombia and how dangerous it was that Colombia’s revolutionary guerrillas were openly cooperating with cocaine growers and narcotraffickers. This was before a heavily modified and customized De Havilland RC-7 reconnaissance plane crashed into a Colombian mountainside, killing five American soldiers and two Colombian military officers.

The drug warriors were already laying the propaganda groundwork, before the crash, to begin the process of softening up the public to the idea that the next major American military intervention might be in Colombia, to counteract the dangerous combinations of violent Marxist guerrillas and ruthless narcotics traffickers tearing up the fabric of Colombian society. And small wonder. To a career military officer formerly in charge of the southern command, a somewhat metaphorical “war on drugs” in which severe criticism of the warriors was permitted could hardly be as satisfying as a real shooting war with mobilizations, maneuvers and muzzling.


I got two kinds of responses to my comments last week on Drug Czar
Barry McCaffrey’s efforts to stir up a rationale for more intensive
U.S. intervention into the ongoing insurgency-cum-narco-trafficking
crisis in Colombia. One type came from a fellow whose e-mail address
suggested he was a retired military officer was indignant: “FARC
political insurgency? Try Marxist-Terrorist insurgency, bent on the
violent overthrow of the democratically elected government of
Colombia.” Speaking of his Colombian wife, the fellow also writes: “At
one time she saw the FARC as a business. But with 35,000 Colombians now
dead at their hands, she knows it’s a very deadly business indeed.”

The second variety was more like a defense of FARC. “Accusing the FARC
of being drug traffickers is grossly unfair, and shows that you have no
knowledge of Colombian history other than what has been in the U.S.
media lately,” wrote one correspondent. “It is the Colombian
paramilitaries who are clearly implicated in the international drug
trade, operating from the Middle Magdalena region and led by Carlos
Castano, who has a million dollar DEA price on his head. The U.S.
supports them indirectly, through its support of the Colombian armed
forces. In fact, the CIA had a clear role in the organization of the
paramilitary death squads led by CIA asset Gen. Ivan Ramirez.” This
writer also spoke of 35,000 dead but attributed the deaths to the
paramilitaries rather than to FARC.

Well. I had tried to cover myself with the weasel-phrase “as nearly as
somebody who hasn’t inspected the situation on the ground in Colombia
can figure,” but that didn’t do it for some. I also didn’t pretend to
be offering a comprehensive history of recent Colombian guerrilla
politics. Still, I must acknowledge something of value in both

It is certainly true that in recent times the paramilitaries,
organized and supported, sometimes openly and sometimes not by the
Colombian military to counteract leftist insurgency movements, have a
longer history of direct involvement in the international drug trade
than FARC does. It is also true that many of FARC’s roots are Marxist
in ideology, though it’s difficult to say how significant that is now
that neither Cuba nor the Soviet Union (indirectly) are in a position
to offer support. As to who bears responsibility for 35,000 deaths, I’m
content to plead ignorance, secure in the generalized conviction that
there’’ plenty of blame to spread around and numerous atrocities done
by all sides.

My second correspondent also sent an article from the respected Bogota
paper El Tiempo outlining the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s
view of the matter. “According to Donnie Marshall, Chief Administrator
of this organization,” the article said, “ ‘the DEA has not arrived at
the conclusion that the FARC are drug traffickers.’” But the article
went on to note that Marshall continued that “‘There is no doubt that
these groups are associated with drug traffickers, providing protection
or extorting money from them. But from the point of view of the DEA, we
judge the FARC from the perspective of enforcing the law. And at the
moment we haven’t come close to the conclusion that this group has been
involved as a drug trafficking organization,’ said Marshall.”

It is also worth noting that Colombian President Andres Pastrana, who
is reasonably independent but hardly a knee-jerk critic of the U.S. and
all its works, characterizes Barry McCaffrey’s description of FARC as
“narcoguerrillas” as incorrect. (

What might we conclude from all this (and from many more complicating
facts and circumstances)? While the DEA (and others, not all U.S.
government lackeys or right wingers) probably have a piece of the truth
in asserting that FARC has had dealings with narcotraffickers, there
seems to be little doubt that Barry McCaffrey is exaggerating the
relationship to justify more intensive U.S. involvement. The
political-guerrilla-trafficker situation in Colombia is quite complex
and probably not entirely knowable to an outsider or to many insiders,
who see only pieces of the whole picture.

I can hardly claim to understand all the intricacies and I trust few
observers to convey a completely disinterested story. To me, that makes
the case against more intensive U.S. involvement even more compelling.
The United States is almost certain to make blunders and to be
implicated in atrocities if it sends more military aid, troops and
paramilitary drug enforcers. And a simple respect for local control and
local dignity should militate against trying to dictate the outcome
from Washington.

So be careful about trusting commentators (including me) on the bare
facts. But let’s be especially careful to resist any and all efforts to
increase U.S. involvement in Colombia’s internal troubles, working
instead to scale back involvement. And however unlikely I consider
significant policy changes in the near future, my point that U.S.
prohibitionary policies make every aspect of the situation worse rather
than better still stands.


Among the most encouraging bits of news this week is that a provision
to shut down this country’s Selective Service System has been quietly
tucked into a military spending bill the House is due to take up when
it returns to session after Labor Day. It has been 26 years since any
American has actually been conscripted into the military, but the
Selective Service has continued to register 18-year-old males so as to
have a couple of weeks head start in the event U.S. policy changes and
conscription returns.

Comments from some who said they were shocked by the idea of ceasing to
spend $24 million or so a year to keep young Americans on a data base
(or vulnerable to selective prosecution) virtually made the case for
ending the draft. South Carolina Republican Rep. Floyd Spence, chairman
of the House Armed Services Committee, called the military’s recruiting
and retention problem “a desperate situation that keeps getting worse,”
according to Tom Raum’s AP news story. Spence, according to Raum,
“suggests increased peacekeeping deployments such as those in Bosnia
and Kosovo may force Congress to consider conscription in some form.”
Republican Reps Herbert Bateman of Virginia and Steve Buyer of Indiana,
along with South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond are among several in
Congress who have spoken recently of taking a “fresh look” at a
military draft.

These calls for a draft in the face of military commitments that don’t
inspire young Americans to rush out to volunteer highlight one of the
most important positive aspects of a volunteer military. Making the
government rely on pay, pensions and possibilities to attract people to
the military service imposes an important reality check on imperial

If young people aren’t rushing forward to fill the military ranks as
full as the Pentagon and Congress’s armchair warriors would like them
to be, that should be an indication that military policies are failing
an important test of consent in a free society. Instead of thinking
about resorting to slavery to meet generally arbitrary military
recruiting quotas, lawmakers should be looking at the military policies
that inspire such lukewarm enthusiasm rather than blaming a healthy

Even in the post-Vietnam, post-Gulf War, post-Kosovo political climate,
I have little doubt that a military policy of defending the United
States while declining to play Globocop would attract plenty of
volunteers to implement that limited task. And if a genuine threat of
invasion actually emerged, no doubt there would be more volunteers than
the military could handle, with or without a Selective Service system
to pre-process potential recruits.

The interventionists will use the current recess to try to drum up
opposition to ending the Selective Service System indeed, Tom Raum’s
story may (inadvertently or not) be part of the campaign. A letter,
phone, fax and e-mail campaign to urge Congressthings to go along with
the committee recommendation and end Selective Slavery would be one of
the more constructive things antiwar activists could do during these
hot August days and nights.

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Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).