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Redefining the Language of War: Nine Words With New Meanings

Victory? Let's say "successfully implementing the president's strategy" instead.

| Thu Jun. 23, 2011 5:53 PM EDT

Permanent bases: In the American way of war, military bases built on foreign soil are the equivalent of heroin. The Pentagon can't help building them and can't live without them, but "permanent bases" don't exist, not for Americans. Never.

That's simple enough, but let me be absolutely clear anyway: Americans may have at least 865 bases around the world (not including those in war zones), but we have no desire to occupy other countries. And wherever we garrison (and where aren't we garrisoning?), we don't want to stay, not permanently anyway.

In the grand scheme of things, for a planet more than four billion years old, our 90 bases in Japan, a mere 60-odd years in existence, or our 227 bases in Germany, some also around for 60-odd years, or those in Korea, 50-odd years, count as little. Moreover, we have it on good word that permanent bases are un-American. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said as much in 2003 when the first of the Pentagon's planned Iraqi mega-bases were already on the drawing boards. Hillary Clinton said so again just the other day, about Afghanistan, and an anonymous American official added for clarification: "There are US troops in various countries for some considerable lengths of time which are not there permanently." Korea anyone? So get it straight, Americans don't want permanent bases. Period.

And that's amazing when you think about it, since globally Americans are constantly building and upgrading military bases. The Pentagon is hooked. In Afghanistan, it's gone totally wild — more than 400 of them and still building! Not only that, Washington is now deep into negotiations with the Afghan government to transform some of them into "joint bases" and stay on them if not until hell freezes over, then at least until Afghan soldiers can be whipped into an American-style army. Latest best guesstimate for that? 2017 without even getting close.

Fortunately, we plan to turn those many bases we built to the tune of billions of dollars, including the gigantic establishments at Bagram and Kandahar, over to the Afghans and just hang around, possibly "for decades," as — and the word couldn't be more delicate or thoughtful — "tenants."

And by the way, accompanying the recent reports that the CIA is preparing to lend the US military a major covert hand, drone-style, in its Yemen campaign, was news that the Agency is building a base of its own on a rushed schedule in an unnamed Persian Gulf country. Just one base. But don't expect that to be the end of it. After all, that's like eating one potato chip.

Withdrawal: We're going, we're going... Just not quite yet and stop pushing!

If our bases are shots of heroin, then for the US military leaving anyplace represents a form of "withdrawal," which means the shakes. Like drugs, it's just so darn easy to go in that Washington keeps doing it again and again. Getting out's the bear. Who can blame them, if they don't want to leave?

In Iraq, for instance, Washington has been in the grips of withdrawal fever since 2008 when the Bush administration agreed that all US troops would leave by the end of this year. You can still hear those combat boots dragging in the sand. At this point, top administration and military officials are almost begging the Iraqis to let us remain on a few of our monster bases, like the ill-named Camp Victory or Balad Air Base, which in its heyday had air traffic that reputedly rivaled Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. But here's the thing: even if the US military officially departs, lock, stock, and (gun) barrel, Washington's still not really planning on leaving.

In recent years, the US has built near-billion-dollar "embassies" that are actually citadels-cum-regional-command-posts in the Greater Middle East. Just last week, four former US ambassadors to Iraq made a plea to Congress to pony up the $5.2 billion requested by the Obama administration so that that the State Department can turn its Baghdad embassy into a massive militarized mission with 5,100 hire-a-guns and a small mercenary air force.

In sum, "So Long, It's Been Good to Know Yuh" is not a song that Washington likes to sing.

Drone War (see also Covert War): A permanent air campaign using missile-armed pilotless planes that banishes both withdrawal and victory to the slagheap of history.

Is it even a "war" if only one side ever appears in person and only one side ever suffers damage? America's drones are often flown from thousands of miles away by "pilots" who, on leaving their US bases after a work shift "in" a war zone, see signs warning them to drive carefully because this may be "the most dangerous part of your day." This is something new in the history of warfare.

Drones are the covert weaponry of choice in our covert wars, which means, of course, that the military just can't wait to usher chosen reporters into its secret labs and experimental testing grounds to reveal dazzling visions of future destruction.

To make sense of drones, we probably have to stop thinking about "war" and start envisaging other models — for example, that of the executioner who carries out a death sentence on another human being at no danger to himself. If a pilotless drone is actually an executioner's weapon, a modern airborne version of the guillotine, the hangman's noose, or the electric chair, the death sentence it carries with it is not decreed by a judge and certainly not by a jury of peers.

It's assembled by intelligence agents based on fragmentary (and often self-interested) evidence, organized by targeteers, and given the thumbs-up sign by military or CIA lawyers. All of them are scores, hundreds, thousands of miles away from their victims, people they don't know, and may not faintly understand or share a culture with. In addition, the capital offenses are often not established, still to be carried out, never to be carried out, or nonexistent. The fact that drones, despite their "precision" weaponry, regularly take out innocent civilians as well as prospective or actual terrorists reminds us that, if this is our model, Washington is a drunken executioner.

In a sense, Bush's global war on terror called drones up from the depths of its unconscious to fulfill its most basic urges: to be endless and to reach anywhere on Earth with an Old Testament-style sense of vengeance. The drone makes mincemeat of victory (which involves an endpoint), withdrawal (for which you have to be there in the first place), and national sovereignty (see below).

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