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The Dictionary of American Empire-Speak

Empire-speak can both shield us from global realities and blind us to them.

| Mon Mar. 2, 2009 2:15 PM EST

[Note to TomDispatch Readers: This week, the website Foreign Policy In Focus, whose work I greatly admire and whose co-director John Feffer is a TomDispatch regular, will be using this piece to kick off its new strategic focus on empire. FPIF will be exploring the question of whether the Obama administration is likely to wind down our empire or will simply try to implement a somewhat kinder and gentler version of the same. Its weekly e-newsletter, World Beat, is particularly useful and can be subscribed to by clicking here. Tom]

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The Imperial Unconscious

Afghan Faces, Predators, Reapers, Terrorist Stars, Roman Conquerors, Imperial Graveyards, and Other Oddities of the Truncated American Century
By Tom Engelhardt

Sometimes, it's the everyday things, the ones that fly below the radar, that matter.

Here, according to Bloomberg News, is part of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates's recent testimony on the Afghan War before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee:

"U.S. goals in Afghanistan must be 'modest, realistic,' and 'above all, there must be an Afghan face on this war,' Gates said. 'The Afghan people must believe this is their war and we are there to help them. If they think we are there for our own purposes, then we will go the way of every other foreign army that has been in Afghanistan.'"

Now, in our world, a statement like this seems so obvious, so reasonable as to be beyond comment. And yet, stop a moment and think about this part of it: "there must be an Afghan face on this war." U.S. military and civilian officials used an equivalent phrase in 2005-2006 when things were going really, really wrong in Iraq. It was then commonplace—and no less unremarked upon—for them to urgently suggest that an "Iraqi face" be put on events there.

Evidently back in vogue for a different war, the phrase is revelatory—and oddly blunt. As an image, there's really only one way to understand it (not that anyone here stops to do so). After all, what does it mean to "put a face" on something that assumedly already has a face? In this case, it has to mean putting an Afghan mask over what we know to be the actual "face" of the Afghan War—ours—a foreign face that men like Gates recognize, quite correctly, is not the one most Afghans want to see. It's hardly surprising that the Secretary of Defense would pick up such a phrase, part of Washington's everyday arsenal of words and images when it comes to geopolitics, power, and war.

And yet, make no mistake, this is Empire-speak, American-style. It's the language—behind which lies a deeper structure of argument and thought—that is essential to Washington's vision of itself as a planet-straddling goliath. Think of that "Afghan face"/mask, in fact, as part of the flotsam and jetsam that regularly bubbles up from the American imperial unconscious.

Of course, words create realities even though such language, in all its strangeness, essentially passes unnoticed here. Largely uncommented upon, it helps normalize American practices in the world, comfortably shielding us from certain global realities; but it also has the potential to blind us to those realities, which, in perilous times, can be dangerous indeed. So let's consider just a few entries in what might be thought of as The Dictionary of American Empire-Speak.

War Hidden in Plain Sight: There has recently been much reporting on, and even some debate here about, the efficacy of the Obama administration's decision to increase the intensity of CIA missile attacks from drone aircraft in what Washington, in a newly coined neologism reflecting a widening war, now calls "Af-Pak"—the Pashtun tribal borderlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Since August 2008, more than 30 such missile attacks have been launched on the Pakistani side of that border against suspected al-Qaeda and Taliban targets. The pace of attacks has actually risen since Barack Obama entered the Oval Office, as have casualties from the missile strikes, as well as popular outrage in Pakistan over the attacks.

Thanks to Senator Diane Feinstein, we also know that, despite strong official Pakistani government protests, someone official in that country is doing more than looking the other way while they occur. As the Senator revealed recently, at least some of the CIA's unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) cruising the skies over Af-Pak are evidently stationed at Pakistani bases. We learned recently as well that American Special Operations units are now regularly making forays inside Pakistan "primarily to gather intelligence"; that a unit of 70 American Special Forces advisors, a "secret task force, overseen by the United States Central Command and Special Operations Command," is now aiding and training Pakistani Army and Frontier Corps paramilitary troops, again inside Pakistan; and that, despite (or perhaps, in part, because of) these American efforts, the influence of the Pakistani Taliban is actually expanding, even as Pakistan threatens to melt down.

Mystifyingly enough, however, this Pakistani part of the American war in Afghanistan is still referred to in major U.S. papers as a "covert war." As news about it pours out, who it's being hidden from is one of those questions no one bothers to ask.

On February 20th, the New York Times' Mark Mazzetti and David E. Sanger typically wrote:

"With two missile strikes over the past week, the Obama administration has expanded the covert war run by the Central Intelligence Agency inside Pakistan, attacking a militant network seeking to topple the Pakistani government... Under standard policy for covert operations, the C.I.A. strikes inside Pakistan have not been publicly acknowledged either by the Obama administration or the Bush administration."

On February 25th, Mazzetti and Helene Cooper reported that new CIA head Leon Panetta essentially bragged to reporters that "the agency's campaign against militants in Pakistan's tribal areas was the 'most effective weapon' the Obama administration had to combat Al Qaeda's top leadership... Mr. Panetta stopped short of directly acknowledging the missile strikes, but he said that 'operational efforts' focusing on Qaeda leaders had been successful." Siobhan Gorman of the Wall Street Journal reported the next day that Panetta said the attacks are "probably the most effective weapon we have to try to disrupt al Qaeda right now." She added, "Mr. Obama and National Security Adviser James Jones have strongly endorsed their use, [Panetta] said."

Uh, covert war? These "covert" "operational efforts" have been front-page news in the Pakistani press for months, they were part of the U.S. presidential campaign debates, and they certainly can't be a secret for the Pashtuns in those border areas who must see drone aircraft overhead relatively regularly, or experience the missiles arriving in their neighborhoods.

In the U.S., "covert war" has long been a term for wars like the U.S.-backed Contra War against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua in the 1980s, which were openly discussed, debated, and often lauded in this country. To a large extent, when aspects of these wars have actually been "covert"—that is, purposely hidden from anyone—it has been from the American public, not the enemies being warred upon. At the very least, however, such language, however threadbare, offers official Washington a kind of "plausible deniability" when it comes to thinking about what kind of an "American face" we present to the world.

Imperial Naming Practices: In our press, anonymous U.S. officials now point with pride to the increasing "precision" and "accuracy" of those drone missile attacks in taking out Taliban or al-Qaeda figures without (supposedly) taking out the tribespeople who live in the same villages or neighboring compounds. Such pieces lend our air war an almost sterile quality. They tend to emphasize the extraordinary lengths to which planners go to avoid "collateral damage." To many Americans, it must then seem strange, even irrational, that perfectly non-fundamentalist Pakistanis should be quite so outraged about attacks aimed at the world's worst terrorists.

On the other hand, consider for a moment the names of those drones now regularly in the skies over "Pashtunistan." These are no less regularly published in our press to no comment at all. The most basic of the armed drones goes by the name of Predator, a moniker which might as well have come directly from those nightmarish sci-fi movies about an alien that feasts on humans. Undoubtedly, however, it was used in the way Col. Michael Steele of the 101st Airborne Division meant it when he exhorted his brigade deploying to Iraq (according to Thomas E. Ricks' new book The Gamble) to remember: "You're the predator."

The Predator drone is armed with "only" two missiles. The more advanced drone, originally called the Predator B, now being deployed to the skies over Af-Pak, has been dubbed the Reaper—as in the Grim Reaper. Now, there's only one thing such a "hunter-killer UAV" could be reaping, and you know just what that is: lives. It can be armed with up to 14 missiles (or four missiles and two 500-pound bombs), which means it packs quite a deadly wallop.

Oh, by the way, those missiles are named as well. They're Hellfire missiles. So, if you want to consider the nature of this covert war in terms of names alone: Predators and Reapers are bringing down the fire from some satanic hell upon the peasants, fundamentalist guerrillas, and terrorists of the Af-Pak border regions.

In Washington, when the Af-Pak War is discussed, it's in the bloodless, bureaucratic language of "global counterinsurgency" or "irregular warfare" (IW), of "soft power," "hard power," and "smart power." But flying over the Pashtun wildlands is the blunt-edged face of predation and death, ready at a moment's notice to deliver hellfire to those below.

Imperial Arguments: Let's pursue this just a little further. Faced with rising numbers of civilian casualties from U.S. and NATO air strikes in Afghanistan and an increasingly outraged Afghan public, American officials tend to place the blame for most sky-borne "collateral damage" squarely on the Taliban. As Joint Chiefs Chairman Michael Mullen bluntly explained recently, "[T]he enemy hides behind civilians." Hence, so this Empire-speak argument goes, dead civilians are actually the Taliban's doing.

U.S. military and civilian spokespeople have long accused Taliban guerrillas of using civilians as "shields," or even of purposely luring devastating air strikes down on Afghan wedding parties to create civilian casualties and so inflame the sensibilities of rural Afghanistan. This commonplace argument has two key features: a claim that they made us do it (kill civilians) and the implication that the Taliban fighters "hiding" among innocent villagers or wedding revelers are so many cowards, willing to put their fellow Pashtuns at risk rather than come out and fight like men—and, of course, given the firepower arrayed against them, die.

The U.S. media regularly records this argument without reflecting on it. In this country, in fact, the evil of combatants "hiding" among civilians seems so self-evident, especially given the larger evil of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, that no one thinks twice about it.

And yet like so much of Empire-speak on a one-way planet, this argument is distinctly uni-directional. What's good for the guerrilla goose, so to speak, is inapplicable to the imperial gander. To illustrate, consider the American "pilots" flying those unmanned Predators and Reapers. We don't know exactly where all of them are (other than not in the drones), but some are certainly at Nellis Air Force Base just outside Las Vegas.

In other words, were the Taliban guerrillas to leave the protection of those civilians and come out into the open, there would be no enemy to fight in the usual sense, not even a predatory one. The pilot firing that Hellfire missile into some Pakistani border village or compound is, after all, using the UAV's cameras, including by next year a new system hair-raisingly dubbed "Gorgon Stare," to locate his target and then, via console, as in a single-shooter video game, firing the missile, possibly from many thousands of miles away.

And yet nowhere in our world will you find anyone making the argument that those pilots are in "hiding" like so many cowards. Such a thought seems absurd to us, as it would if it were applied to the F-16 pilots taking off from aircraft carriers off the Afghan coast or the B-1 pilots flying out of unnamed Middle Eastern bases or the Indian Ocean island base of Diego Garcia. And yet, whatever those pilots may do in Afghan skies, unless they experience a mechanical malfunction, they are in no more danger than if they, too, were somewhere outside Las Vegas. In the last seven years, a few helicopters, but no planes, have gone down in Afghanistan.

When the Afghan mujahedeen fought the Soviets in the 1980s, the CIA supplied them with hand-held Stinger missiles, the most advanced surface-to-air missile in the U.S. arsenal, and they did indeed start knocking Soviet helicopters and planes out of the skies (which proved the beginning of the end for the Russians). The Afghan or Pakistani Taliban or al-Qaeda terrorists have no such capability today, which means, if you think about it, that what we here imagine as an "air war" involves none of the dangers we would normally associate with war. Looked at in another light, those missile strikes and bombings are really one-way acts of slaughter.

The Taliban's tactics are, of course, the essence of guerrilla warfare, which always involves an asymmetrical battle against more powerful armies and weaponry, and which, if successful, always depends on the ability of the guerrilla to blend into the environment, natural and human, or, as Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong so famously put it, to "swim" in the "sea of the people."

If you imagine your enemy simply using the villagers of Afghanistan as "shields" or "hiding" like so many cowards among them, you are speaking the language of imperial power but also blinding yourself (or the American public) to the actual realities of the war you're fighting.

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