Bloody hands

News outlets in the US and all over the world acted as though it were news that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen claimed WikiLeaks’ editor-in-chief Julian Assange had blood on his hands. Why the shock? Do they think it’s a case of man bites dog? Or is there something else going on?

Perhaps it is their ironical way of pointing out how over-the-top rantings by a military adviser may cause our “enemies” to think that our “liberal democracy” is reigned in by military figures. This would no doubt harm our efforts to show the benefits of democracy, which we claim is our goal. It might also cause our “enemies” to redouble their efforts to harm us — the very thing that the Chairman claims he is against or at least against Assange doing. In other words, is this shock really a clever meta-critique of the Chairman?

Or maybe these outlets thought that Admiral Mullen was really high minded or liberal. This mistake could have come from his shocking testimony to the Senate that “I have served with homosexuals since 1968.” That a chairman of the Joint Chiefs could have said something, under oath too, that was true, and what is more, was patently obvious, was something that official Washington and its official retainers, the media, were unused to. The conservative media (that is, almost all the commercial media) went completely dark on the whole subject, thus contributing to the impression that he had said something profound. Even John McCain, who has so perfected his ability to go on endlessly in his bland manner saying nothing that he caused his hero General David Petraeus to pass out (see Tr. at p16), even this very John McCain was speechless at the audacity of Admiral Mullen. The Voice of America was so delighted at this moment of candor by a military official that it published the remarks as “Pentagon Begins Process to Allow Homosexuals into US Military.” (I suspect that it was the popularity of the 1960s-set Mad Men that caused both Admiral Mullen and the Voice of America to talk as though they were in the 1962 movie Advice and Consent.) Those who thought this was high mindedness, however, probably failed to consider his quick follow-up: “I also want to reemphasize what I said–I am not all-knowing in terms of the impact, and any impact, and understanding readiness and effectiveness [aspect], is absolutely critical.” I’m not sure exactly what he meant, but I guess it has to do with not being too sure about the reliability of those “homosexuals” with whom he served.

Or the surprised news outlets could just be displaying a pretended or willful ignorance that this is exactly what happens every time the military is shown not to be particularly honest about how things are going. It’s always a matter of national security to protect a democracy from a knowledge of the failings of its military, especially when the military has been explaining how it’s been succeeding. That’s why the military spends so much money managing the news here and abroad. That’s also why it makes such a fuss to prevent the public from seeing that what it says in secret is different from what it says in public and before Congress under oath. When the Pentagon papers were published in the early 1970s, the Nixon administration made great clamor about felony treason and national security. That’s because what the documents showed was that the Johnson and Nixon administrations purposely violated the constitution, laws and morality and put soldiers in deadly situations under statements that they knew themselves to be lies. That is why the government argued it would be the newspapers’ fault if any further damage occurred; governments are never wrong when using force. The argument was bought by only one Supreme Court Justice, Harry Blackmun, who at the time was still one of the “Minnesota Twins” with conservative Chief Justice Warren Burger. He was nonetheless able to put his Nixonian rage in language more restrained than our Chairman:

“I hope that damage has not already been done. If, however, damage has been done, and if, with the Court’s action today, these newspapers proceed to publish the critical documents and there results therefrom

‘the death of soldiers, the destruction of alliances, the greatly increased difficulty of negotiation with our enemies, the inability of our diplomats to negotiate,’

to which list I might add the factors of prolongation of the war and of further delay in the freeing of United States prisoners, then the Nation’s people will know where the responsibility for these sad consequences rests.” New York Times Co. v. United States, 403 U. S. 713, 763 (1971) (Blackmun, J., dissenting).

Unfortunately there was no judge to entertain a case about how many tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers and how many hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, Cambodians and others had died or been maimed by the deceptions, incompetence, stupidity and lies revealed in the papers which the government claimed were so dangerous to the Republic. Napalm, Agent Orange, flame-throwers, kalishikovs, grenades, and the rest, when employed under commands of the blockheads and liars who ran the effort, more likely than not, caused more “damage” than the high-level history ordered by the brass to try to get a grip on how they led the country down a rat hole.

Anyone who genuinely feels surprise at Admiral Mullen’s display, should consider this: our Chairman has been showing a personality closer to the testosterone-celebrating, locker room mindset of Stanley McChrystal than the clear-thinking, broadminded officer who was able to put up with the homosexuals he knew, despite their potentially negative effect on readiness and effectiveness (as to which, he was admittedly “not all-knowing in terms of the impact”). In a highly touted speech at Kansas State University on March 3, 2010, Mullen, as though he were making a commercial for using the armed forces, explained how we should never forget that we can use force, sometimes even before we try any other policy:

“The first [of three things he learned about dealing with Al-Qaida in two administrations] is that military power should not – maybe cannot – be the last resort of the state.  Military forces are some of the most flexible and adaptable tools to policymakers.  We can, merely by our presence, help alter certain behavior.  Before a shot is even fired, we can bolster a diplomatic argument, support a friend or deter an enemy.  We can assist rapidly in disaster-relief efforts, as we did in the aftermath of Haiti’s earthquake.  We can help gather intelligence, support reconnaissance and provide security.

“And we can do so on little or no notice.  That ease of use is critical for deterrence.  An expeditionary force that provides immediate, tangible effects.  It is also vital when innocent lives are at risk.  So yes, the military may be the best and sometimes the first tool; it should never be the only tool.”

Fast. Flexible. Peaceful. Intelligent. Good thing he was not asked when the military ever acted like that. On the other hand, he fails to mention that by relying on force we often can be held captive by a corrupt, stupid or double-dealing client that costs us tragic amounts of blood and treasure. And he forgets that once force is unleashed “leaders” are no longer in control and can’t get off the back of the tiger very easily. And he glosses over that the “flexibilitiy” of the soldiers in unconscionably deadly situations too often causes them to mix up goals and end up resenting and harming the people they are supposed to be saving. And he doesn’t consider that while the military is being flexible, and intelligent, and peaceful, the people back home are at least paying for the experience in money and relatives. And when the people get sick of paying for it, the military must leave, frequently before it likes, and often leaving the place in a worse condition than before they showed up as one of the “tools” of American policy.

His speech, however, should at least be credited for what it is: A rarely heard endorsement by top brass of the fire-first-ask-questions-later method of pacifying Dodge City. This speech was thought to be so lucid and so important a statement that the Joint Chiefs of Staff posted it on its website. Yes, indeed! the JCS has a website to communicate with the common man. You see, it’s not that it doesn’t want the public to know something, it just wants the public to know only what the JCS thinks it should.

So let’s see. Sometimes we should just use force before anything else. Isn’t that what we did in Iraq? And because we were so “flexible” and could turn en pointe, Al Qaida is now in Pakistan, which, as we learned from the dangerous documents just disclosed, is not doing its utmost to root them out. So perhaps Iraq is not the best example. And perhaps we shouldn’t even talk about it, because if we don’t talk about it, things might get better.

But even when the admiral is not making sense, we can rest assured that he is conveying the thoroughly vetted mindset of the Pentagon. It is Assange who has blood on his hands. Not the military that authorizes the long-range drone attacks, or planned the use of white phosphorous at Fallujah and then lied about it, or authorized or whitewashed the numerous instances of criminal behavior disclosed in the leaked files (and many things not disclosed). And of course the serviceman who leaked the Apache helicopter assault in Iraq also has blood on his hands, not the ones who callously killed civilians. It is the leaker who is being prosecuted. The Pentagon cleared the soldiers involved in the killing of the civilians, presumably because what they did was perfectly legal. Showing the public this perfectly legal operation of the armed forces who are fighting in their name, however, is so dangerous that it may land Pfc. Bradley Manning in prison for half a century.

If showing a lawful encounter justifies that punishment, then certainly Julian Assange is guilty of murder just as the Chairman says. And if that is true consider what White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said, according to The Hill: “Based on what we’ve seen, I don’t think that what is being reported hasn’t in many ways been publicly discussed, either by you all or by representatives of the U.S. government, for quite some time.” Perhaps, therefore, all the press and the entire Congress has blood on its hands as well. After all, this is not how serious matters of war and peace should be discussed in a mature, democratic superpower. This is. No blood on that guy’s hands.

Update, August 1: Admiral Mullen was on “Meet the Press” today, largely because he made the inflammatory statement about blood on the hands. So, he was prepared for the first question — to explain what he meant by using language so strong he simply had to be the first interview on the most important Sunday morning interview show — and this is what he said:

“These–the, the, the scope and the volume of these leaks are unprecedented, and, and the specifics of them, and I’ve been through some of them, but we’ve still got a lot of work to do to, to really put the details together.  But I think the, the leaks themselves don’t look clearly at the war that we’re in.  There is an ability to put this kind of information together in the world that we’re living in and the potential for costing us lives, I think, is significant.  I said, when it first occurred, I was appalled–I remain appalled–and that the potential for the loss of lives of American soldiers or coalition soldiers or Afghan citizens is clearly there.”

You can see now why Admiral Mullen believes in that force should be the first policy tool: it’s because rational discourse is not something he is familiar with. But on the specific question of what he meant, we’ve learned this lesson:  The next time we hear the Chairman say that blood is on someone’s hands, we will know he means that he is appalled at what the person did and that there is the potential for someone to lose his life in Afghanistan. The expression thus seems to have wide applicability.

Pressed specifically to explain how Julian Assange endangered US troops, he replied:

“The, the fact that they would look at what our tactics are, how we report, where we’re fighting, who’s involved, the, the kinds of things that we do.  And, and yet, there’s–the volume is such that we really haven’t put it all together to be able to say this is exactly what the potential is in terms of that.”

It couldn’t be clearer, could it?

Now, some of those more cynical than I might suggest that all this bloody hands business “perhaps is a distraction from the larger point of these documents, and that is that it goes in an unvarnished way to the core question of whether the strategy is actually working.” Actually that cynic was David Gregory. But Mullen was loaded for bear for that one. He knocks it out of the park:

“I don’t think that the Taliban being stronger than they’ve been since 2001 is, is news.  I mean, I’ve been concerned about the growing insurgency there for a number of years.  We really are at a time in Afghanistan, after the president’s review, where we’ve got the right strategy, the right leadership, and the right resources.  And, and we really are in the second year of that aspect of Afghanistan.  I certainly understand it is the ninth year, it is a long time, the sacrifices have been significant, and yet, at the same time, I think the strategy’s right.  And the release of these documents, best that I can tell, have not affected the strategy.  Many of them were very, very old.  That said, it’s still–I think we’ve got to work our way through exactly what the potential impact would be; and I think, from my perspective, we’re headed in the right direction.”

The Chairman seems to have difficulty transitioning from one subject to another. He seems not to have the same flexibility that he attributes to armed force as a tool of policy.

There does appear to be one armed force that is able to turn en pointe. Despite (or maybe because of) all of Admiral Mullen’s encouraging talk, today the Dutch contingent ended its four year participation in the deteriorating NATO occupation. We will soon hear the Chairman blame this on Julian Assange. Or maybe the Dutch have blood on their hands.

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