The Fate of the Earth
See Page Five
By Tom Engelhardt
Let me betray my age for a moment. Some of you, I know, will be shocked, but I still read an actual newspaper. Words on real paper every day. I’m talking about the New York Times, and something stuck with me from the January 9th edition of that "paper" paper. Of course, in the world of the Internet, that's already ancient history -- medieval times -- but (as a reminder) it came only a few days after Donald Trump’s drone assassination of Iranian Major General Qassem Suleimani.
So you won’t be surprised to learn that its front page was essentially all Iran and The Donald. Atop it, there was a large photo of the president heading for a podium with his generals and officials lined up on either side of him. Its caption read: “‘The United States is ready to embrace peace with all who seek it,’ President Trump said Wednesday at the White House.” Beside it, the lead story was headlined “U.S. and Iranians Lower Tensions, at Least for Now.” Below were three more Iran-related pieces, taking up much of the rest of the page. (“A President’s Mixed Messages Unsettle More Than Reassure,” etc.)
At the bottom left, there was a fifth Iran-related article. Inside that 24-page section of the paper, there were seven more full pages of coverage on the subject. Only one other piece of hot news could be squeezed (with photo) onto the bottom right of the front page. And whether you still read actual papers or now live only in the world of the Internet, I doubt you’ll be shocked to learn that it focused on Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, already involved in a crisis among the British Royals that was almost Iranian in its intensity. The headline: “In Stunning Step, Duke and Duchess Seek New Title: Part-Timers.”
Had you then followed the “continued on page A5” below that piece, you would have found the rest of the story about the Duke and Duchess of Sussex (including a second photo of them and an ad for Bloomingdales, the department store) taking up almost all of that inside page. If, however, you had been in a particularly attentive mood, you might also have noticed, squeezed in at the very bottom left of page 5, an 11-paragraph story by Henry Fountain. It had been granted so little space that the year 2019 had to be abbreviated as ’19 in its headline, which read in full: “’19 Was the 2nd-Hottest Year, And July Hottest Month Yet.”
Of course, that literally qualified as the hottest story of the day, but you never would have known it. It began this way:
“The evidence mounted all year. Temperature records were broken in France, Germany and elsewhere; the Greenland ice sheet experienced exceptional melting; and, as 2019 came to a close, broiling temperatures contributed to devastating wildfires that continue in Australia. Now European scientists have confirmed what had been suspected: 2019 was a very hot year, with global average temperatures the second highest on record. Only 2016 was hotter, and not by much -- less than one-tenth of a degree Fahrenheit.”
As Fountain pointed out, however briefly, among the records broken in 2019, “The past five years have been the five warmest on record” (as had the last decade).
In another world, either that line or the actual headline should reasonably have been atop that Times front page in blazing letters. After all, that’s the news that someday could do us all in, whatever happens in Iran or to the British royal family. In my own dreamscape, that piece, headlined atop the front page, would have been continued on the obituary page. After all, the climate crisis could someday deliver an obituary for humanity and so many other living things on this planet, or at least for the way of life we humans have known throughout our history.
What’s the value of an American life in the age of Donald Trump? If you were judging by the death of Nawres Hamid, an Iraqi-American contractor killed in late December after an American base in Iraq was mortared by a Shiite militia believed to have ties to Iran, the answer would be obvious: enough to risk war. After all, the president cited Hamid’s death in going after that militia and then drone-assassinating Iranian Major General Qassem Suleimani. In response to the mortar attack, U.S. air strikes in Iraq and Syria killed at least 25 Iraqi militia fighters and then, as January began, that drone strike near Baghdad International Airport took out a figure who was often considered the number-two man in Iran, as well as its possible future leader. In addition, it killed an Iraqi militia commander and eight other people.
So you might say that the president considers any American death under such circumstances worth not just 35 Iraqis and Iranians, but the possibility of adding in a significant way to America’s forever wars (that he’s long denounced). Of course, you would have to reach a different conclusion if you considered the deaths in early January of an American soldier and two American contractors at an airport in Kenya after an attack by the Somali terror group al-Shabaab. In that case, there was no obvious response at all, not even a comment from the president. And the same would be true of the two dead and two wounded U.S. soldiers whose vehicle recently ran over a roadside bomb in southern Afghanistan (deaths immediately claimed by the Taliban). Again, neither a comment nor a response from you-know-who.
In other words, as TomDispatch regular and retired U.S. Army Major Danny Sjursen points out today, who can be surprised that, in the age of Trump, this country’s forever wars are also a chaos machine? If you’re looking at the non-American dead, of course, that’s been so since the beginning. After all, the U.S. military has taken out one wedding after another across the Greater Middle East since it invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and it’s counted for nothing, mattered not at all. And the slaughter of civilians never ends. Only recently, for instance, in an attack in Afghanistan that killed a Taliban commander and some of the militants under his command, U.S. air strikes also reportedly killed at least 60 civilians, including women and children. And in the Trump era, although we know that civilian casualties have been rising in Washington's ever-spreading war zones, a penumbra of secrecy has fallen over such deaths. American air strikes against al-Shabaab in Somalia, for instance, rose dramatically in 2019, but we have almost no idea how many civilians died in the process. (Rest assured that they did, though.)
Now, take a moment, with Sjursen, to consider just what it’s meant for a “true stable genius” to inherit such an unstable killing machine. Tom
The American Chaos Machine
U.S. Foreign Policy Goes Off the Rails
By Danny Sjursen
In March 1906, on the heels of the U.S. Army’s massacre of some 1,000 men, women, and children in the crater of a volcano in the American-occupied Philippines, humorist Mark Twain took his criticism public. A long-time anti-imperialist, he flippantly suggested that Old Glory should be redesigned “with the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and cross-bones.”
I got to thinking about that recently, five years after I became an antiwar dissenter (while still a major in the U.S. Army), and in the wake of another near-war, this time with Iran. I was struck yet again by the way every single U.S. military intervention in the Greater Middle East since 9/11 has backfired in wildly counterproductive ways, destabilizing a vast expanse of the planet stretching from West Africa to South Asia.
Chaos, it seems, is now Washington’s stock-in-trade. Perhaps, then, it’s time to resurrect Twain’s comment -- only today maybe those stars on our flag should be replaced with the universal symbol for chaos.
In late December 2018, when James “Mad Dog” Mattis resigned as secretary of defense after President Trump announced that he was going to pull U.S. troops out of Syria, it was a hell of a story. The former general was pundited to heaven and back as the last “adult in the room,” praised in Congress, and treated with enormous respect for his criticism of the president. But here’s a story that would be reported only in passing and remain remarkably uncommented upon by the punditocracy or anyone in Congress: seven months after that resignation, Mattis took up a position on the board of General Dynamics, one of the nation’s largest defense contractors, with all the perks involved. (Admittedly, he had been on that same board from the moment he retired from the military in 2013 until the president gave him the proverbial Trumpian bear hug and appointed him secretary of defense in 2017.)
There were no columns about it. No pundits raised a storm. Nobody of any significance said much of anything. Oh, let me amend that for accuracy’s sake. There was indeed a public enthusiast quoted in the media: General Dynamics Chairwoman and CEO Phebe Novakovic, the head of a company that, just after Mattis’s resignation, landed a $714 million delivery order to upgrade 174 Army M1A1 Abrams Main Battle Tanks. She issued a statement saying: “Jim is a thoughtful, deliberate and principled leader with a proven track record of selfless service to our nation. We are honored to have him on our board.”
According to the Washington Post, General Dynamics is “the fourth-largest corporate recipient of U.S. government contract dollars” and Mattis himself one of at least 50 “high-level government officials” hired by defense contractors since the Trump era began. In fact, on the very board that Mattis rejoined sit six other former military officers and officials, including a former Navy admiral, a former Air Force general, a former deputy secretary of defense, and Novakovic herself who once worked for the CIA and the Pentagon. And while we’re on the subject, don’t forget about all those figures from the world of the weapons makers who have headed the other way like Mark Esper, the current secretary of defense, who was previously a lobbyist for Raytheon.
Now, consider with TomDispatch regular Mandy Smithberger, the director of the Center for Defense Information at the Project On Government Oversight, just how everyday such events truly are in the world of the military-industrial complex. And remember that, in a century when a staggeringly funded military couldn’t win a war anywhere (and yet never stopped trying), failure continues to prove to be the military-industrial complex's ultimate success. Tom
Never the Pentagon
How The Military-Industrial Complex Gets Away With Murder in Contract After Contract
By Mandy Smithberger
Call it a colossal victory for a Pentagon that hasn't won a war in this century, but not for the rest of us. Congress only recently passed and the president approved one of the largest Pentagon budgets ever. It will surpass spending at the peaks of both the Korean and Vietnam wars. As last year ended, as if to highlight the strangeness of all this, the Washington Post broke a story about a “confidential trove of government documents” -- interviews with key figures involved in the Afghan War by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction -- revealing the degree to which senior Pentagon leaders and military commanders understood that the war was failing. Yet, year after year, they provided “rosy pronouncements they knew to be false,” while “hiding unmistakable evidence that the war had become unwinnable.”
In these years, Washington has, in a sense, tortured history.
Early in this century, the Guantánamo Bay detention facility would become the crown jewel of a mini-gulag of torture and mistreatment that the CIA and the U.S. military -- remember those infamous photos from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq? -- set up as part of George W. Bush’s Global War on Terror. As I wrote back then, that prison in Cuba had become a key part of “our own global Bermuda Triangle of Injustice.”
Keep in mind that our previous president, Barack Obama, actually wanted to close Guantánamo and signed an executive order to do so “within a year” on his first day in office. Little good that did.
Long before Donald Trump began to claim immunity from anything and everything, this country’s increasingly imperial presidency had become deeply linked to that war on terror, a secret war in which anything went and nothing was considered impermissible. As Jess Bravin of the Wall Street Journal reported back in 2004, “Bush administration lawyers contended... that the president wasn't bound by laws prohibiting torture and that government agents who might torture prisoners at his direction couldn't be prosecuted by the Justice Department.”
In fact, those lawyers had no shame. In a classic passage from a 2002 Justice Department memo meant to make torture part of that war’s legal arsenal of weaponry, those lawyers claimed that, even to qualify as torture, the treatment of prisoners had to be "equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death." They added that, "for purely mental pain or suffering to amount to torture, it must result in significant psychological harm of significant duration, e.g., lasting for months or even years."
To this day, none of those CIA torturers has spent a day in jail for their acts. And despite that Obama executive order, the Guantánamo nightmare not only didn’t end, but -- as TomDispatch regular Karen Greenberg and Joshua Dratel suggest today -- became an ever more significant part of American life. It would, as they make clear, leave that island (and the CIA “black sites” set up around the world) and head for the mainland. There, Guantánamo-style cruelty has become the order of the day, especially on our southern border, the crown jewel of Donald Trump’s own Bermuda Triangle of Injustice. Tom
In January 2002, the Guantánamo Bay Detention Facility in Cuba opened its gates for the first 20 detainees of the war on terror. Within 100 days, 300 of them would arrive, often hooded and in those infamous orange jumpsuits, and that would just be the beginning. At its height, the population would rise to nearly 800 prisoners from 59 countries. Eighteen years later, it still holds 40 prisoners, most of whom will undoubtedly remain there without charges or trial for the rest of their lives. (That’s likely true even of the five who have been cleared for release for more than a decade.) In 2013, journalist Carol Rosenberg astutely labeled them “forever prisoners.” And those detainees are hardly the only enduring legacy of Guantánamo Bay. Thanks to that prison camp, we as a country have come to understand aspects of both the law and policy in new ways that might prove to be “forever changes.”
Lately, we Americans have had little choice but to think about this country’s imperiled Eastern border. No, I don't mean the Atlantic coast. What I had in mind were those borderlands in the Middle East where another 4,500 American military personnel have recently been sent and perhaps 50,000 were already stationed -- significantly more than when the Trump presidency began. I’m thinking of garrisons with American troops like al-Assad Airbase in Iraq, missiled (very carefully) by the Iranians only the other week. What surprises me is that the president who has long bad-mouthed those “endless wars” of ours, while dispatching ever more military personnel into their vicinity, hasn’t thought about the obvious: building a Great Wall along the Iraq-Iran border.
After all, President Trump only recently brought up the subject of “options in the Middle East” in an address to the American people on the Iranian situation. Yet the man who rode a Trump Tower escalator into the last presidential race, touting the “great, great wall” he, and he alone, would build on our southern border to stop Mexican “rapists” from entering this country (the wall that Mexico would, of course, pay for) has yet to propose the same for the Middle East. And if Iran is indeed “standing down,” as he claimed in that address of his, what an opportunity! (By the way, in relation to Iran, the U.S. has done little but stand up since the CIA helped overthrow a secular democracy there in the summer of 1953.) The president might even be able to build a new Trump Tower somewhere along that future wall, a cousin to the Trump International Golf Club in nearby Dubai.
However, as environmentalist and TomDispatch regular William deBuys, author of The Last Unicorn: A Search for One of Earth’s Rarest Creatures, reminds us, while our attention remains focused on the unsettling Iranian-American face-off in the Middle East, the original “great, great wall” is indeed slowly being built along the U.S.-Mexican border to the tune of billions and billions of dollars. And what a Trumpian disaster it’s likely to prove to be! Tom
Making America Great Again in a New Wild West
The Humanitarian and Environmental Disaster of Trump’s Border Wall
By William deBuys
A new Wild West has taken root not far from Tombstone, Arizona, known to many for its faux-historical reenactments of the old West. We’re talking about a long, skinny territory -- a geographic gerrymander -- that stretches east across New Mexico and down the Texan Rio Grande to the Gulf of Mexico. It also runs west across hundreds of miles of desert to California and the Pacific Ocean. Like the old Wild West, this one is lawless, save for the law of the gun. But that old West was lawless for want of government. This one is lawless because of it.
The Department of Homeland Security, under authority conferred by Congress, has declared more than 50 federal laws inoperable along sections of the U.S. boundary with Mexico, the better to build the border wall that Donald Trump has promised his “base.” Innumerable state laws and local ordinances have also been swept aside. Predictably, the Endangered Species Act is among the fallen. So are the National Historic Preservation Act, the Wilderness Act, laws restricting air and water pollution, and measures protecting wildlife, landscapes, Native American sacred sites, and even caves and fossils.
The new Wild West of the border wall is an authoritarian dreamscape where the boss man faces no limits and no obligations. It’s as though Marshall Wyatt Earp, reborn as an orange-haired easterner with no knowledge of the actual West, were back in charge, deciding who’s in and who’s out, what goes and what stays.
Prominent on the list of suspended laws is the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, which, until recently, was the nation’s look-before-you-leap conscience. The environmental analyses and impact statements NEPA requires might not force the government to evaluate whether a palisade of 30-foot-high metal posts -- bollards in border wall terminology -- were really a better way to control drug smuggling than upgrading inspection facilities at ports of entry, where, by all accounts, the vast majority of illegal substances enter the country. They would, however, require those wall builders to figure out in advance a slew of other gnarly questions like: How will wildlife be affected by a barrier that nothing larger than a kangaroo rat can get through? And how much will pumping scarce local water to make concrete draw down shallow desert aquifers?
The questions get big, fast. One that might look easy but isn’t concerns the flashfloods that stream down desert washes. The uprights of the border wall are to be spaced only four inches apart, which means they’ll catch flood debris the way a colander catches spaghetti.
Let’s get specific. The San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge abuts the border in the far southeastern corner of Arizona. Black Draw, a gulch running through the middle of the refuge, is normally as dry as a hot sidewalk. When thunderstorms burst over the vast San Bernardino Valley, however, the floodwaters can surge more than 20 feet high. Imagine a wall of chocolate water sweeping up tree trunks, uprooted bushes, the occasional dead cow, and fence posts snarled in wire. Imagine what happens when that torrent meets a barrier built like a strainer. The junk catches and creates a dam. Water backs up, and pressure builds. If the wall were built like the Hoover Dam, it might hold, but it won’t be and it won’t.