WAR MEMES

Every time the U.S. engages in one of its periodic made-for-TV post-Vietnam wars military adventures I feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. We see the same images, hear the same arguments, and watch the same cheap partisan bickering (or, if the president in question is a Republican, we see the same hyperbolic jingoism and accusations of treason). The best part is that every time we start a new, uh, mission we get to start fresh and run through all of the same memes from scratch. In our brief involvement in Libya we have already covered my favorites:

1. "We must arm the rebels." You may remember this meme from conflicts such as…well, basically every country in Southeast Asia and Latin America. And the Middle East. Lindsey Graham is among the many GOPers giving this one the hard sell lately, and why not? The logic is flawless! Anybody who says they want to remove Ghadaffi from power must, by definition, be a U.S. ally because we want him out of power too. When two groups of people have the same goals that makes them allies. So we should help our allies out even though A) they have no leadership or organization of any kind and 2) we haven't the slightest idea what they'll do or how friendly to the U.S. they'll be once in power. This worked extremely well in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Bonus: if you arm the rebels, there won't be any need for U.S. ground forces!

2. The "human shields" argument. I think the U.S. has to pay royalties to Israel for this one, as it may not have invented the technique but certainly has perfected it. The U.S. engages in an overwhelming show of air power using ultra high tech weapons; eventually someone with a camera finds a burnt out building with a bunch of civilian corpses lying around; the aggressor then accuses the Bad Guy of intentionally putting his people in a position to be killed in order to score a propaganda victory. This was extremely popular in Gulf War I and we are seeing it again in Libya. Brilliant! Rather than admitting that perhaps America's gee-whiz super high tech precision Smart Munitions might not be as laser guided and pinpoint accurate as the Pentagon (and endless cable shows full of nose camera footage of bombs flying into open windows) may have led you to believe, we decide that the more likely alternative is…uh…that the Bad Guy must have stuffed likely targets with civilians to ensure a high body count! So the possibilities are A) a civilian target was unintentionally bombed or B) Bad Guy wants video of smoking corpses and thus pre-positions a few hundred poor saps in targets of legitimate military value. Let me check Occam's Razor and get back to you.

The reason I find the "human shields" excuse so morally repugnant is that it transfers blame for unintended casualties to the victims. Israel does this constantly: "We execute precision strikes but the Arabs use people as human shields. Blame Hamas, not us." Rather than having the balls to stand up and say, "We believe that we are in a just war and regrettably accept that civilian casualties are unavoidable in modern urban warfare" the aggressors hide behind laughable excuses and redirect responsibility for their own actions.

Good times. Too bad we can only enjoy these memes every few years. If only we were involved in wars more regularly.

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29 Responses to “WAR MEMES”

  1. FMguru Says:

    Good ones. I'm fond of the "you cannot believe the human rights horrors the bad guys were up to" (babies out of incubators, rape rooms, etc.) and "No, this isn't Vietnam. We've learned from our mistakes, we won't repeat them, we have an exit plan."

    It's a depressing measure of how unthinking our acceptance of imperial pre-emptive warfare has become that they didn't even feel the need to trot out Colin Powell with his vial of anthrax and his biowar drone planes or the equivalent. At least tell us that Ghaddafi was just days away from acquiring enough Red Mercury to destroy Israel a hundred times over, or something, just to make things a little more entertaining.

    It's also kind of interesting that this time around we were spared the usual shit-talking of the UN, the French, and liberals in general. I guess that's the difference between having a Democratic president as opposed to a Republican one.

    Still waiting for someone to call the Libyan rebels "the moral equivalents of our Founding Fathers" like Reagan did the Contras. I think it's John McCain's turn to do it, either on this Sunday's MTP or next.

  2. HoosierPoli Says:

    And yet the most prominent criticism of Obama is that he hasn't gone all-in on a war we know next to nothing about.

    To be frank, prudence feels like the strongest leadership of all.

  3. comrade x Says:

    Reagan had it wrong, of course. It was hemp George Washington sold, not cocaine.

  4. Stephen Says:

    "Let me check Occam's Razor and get back to you."

    I absolutely love this sentence, and will be using it with abandon from now on.

    I think you might be off the mark on the human shield argument, though. I dont know that necessarily that they dont have the balls to stand up and admit their precision strikes aren't all they claim to be. I think that, as long as "our boys" are the ones showing up as burnt-up corpses, the greater American public doesn't really demand any explanation at all.

  5. Andy Brown Says:

    Not having a TV, most of this militainment shit happens off in the distance somewhere. Sometimes, I feel a little guilty – as though I'm not participating as a good citizen-consumer, and not keeping my outrage fulling informed. But this "war coverage" feels like the threadbare sitcoms, where you knew every joke before they told it. Recycled, re-used hackwork. I suppose I'll look back on it with nostalgia a few years from now when they finally start openly broadcasting the kind of patriotic snuff film they clearly really want to produce.

  6. acer Says:

    Since watching that one Patriot missle hit over and over back in '91, I've always been a fan of the instant replays. It's pleasantly hypnotic after awhile.

    At least something's coming through to replace the March Madness-shaped hole in our hearts.

  7. displaced Capitalist Says:

    Meanwhile our children are taught at a very young age about how war is fun and you should do it too.

    C'mon kids! Let's go kill some "human shields!!"

  8. John Says:

    At this point, is it even worth the minimal effort to point out that budget-hawk Republicans are the primary cheerleaders for participation in an extremely costly war that brings absolutely no benefit to our nation whatsoever, against an enemy that has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with us?

  9. Hazy Davy Says:

    I was thinking the same thing—it's like a DVR of the same arguments, all over again. [This one—Libya—is weird, because many people align themselves with a party, and the similarities between Libya and Iraq II are too similar. They find themselves making the same arguments they opposed .)

    Also, it's worth considering that maybe the reason Israel is so capable at using the "human shield" lie, is because it is often not a lie. That is, I remember TV reports from my youth, where there'd be armed Palestinian "freedom fighters" shoving their children out in front of them. "Oooh, look at the tank vs. the rock-throwing boy," the pictures would scream in the papers. But the rock throwing boy was there at the behest of an RPG-toting parent…

  10. ladiesbane Says:

    Not that I'm disagreeing with the "human shields" point, but "America's gee-whiz super high tech precision Smart Munitions" are still being guided by human hands, toward targets chosen by intelligence of varying quality. We are also fighting guerrillas, who are generally indistinguishable from civilians.

    If you were running a computer-dependent military campaign against an enemy with no easy visual indicators (uniforms, bases, insignia, flags, or anything that is classified by Jane's), how would you know where to point your weapon? Your fight would begin and end with reliable intelligence, and be confounded by operator error.

  11. johnsmith1882 Says:

    ha, yeah, if only. It had been like eight whole years since the last war buildup, I forget, where was that again? Oh, yeah, that little six week skirmish that paid for itself, against the Iroquois or something. Personally, I think that Obama's doing the Libya thing to show the "middle 40%" what a tough guy he is, not afraid to kick some brown people in the teeth. Persuade the "undecideds" (read: dumbasses, how can people seriously have no opinion either way?) And oil, always oil. Good thing we're weaning ourselves off the petroleum dependence here in the US.

    All sarcasm aside, I'm seriously tired of having no representation, as a liberal, in this country. Democrats are center-right, the GOP is wayy fuckin' out there, this country is a joke. The joke used to be funny and fun, in the 90's, Clinton-style, banging chubby interns, smoking weed with the Stones and generally having a good time, but today, my pessimism grows on a daily basis. "Vote for the Democrats, they aren't as bad as the GOP" is a piss-poor choice to have, more like "the GOP will cut your throat, but the Dems will only fuck you in the ass, so bend over and take it."

  12. Middle Seaman Says:

    Agree with the "we want war now" meme. You miss a major point in the how wars are run and as most Americans, the Middle East is something way beyond your understanding.

    Wars need intelligence. The CIA is a mediocre intelligence service and picking out targets within otherwise civilian population is, even on the best days, tough. Furthermore, civilians die in wars, always did and always will. It's not exactly a confirmation of the relatively empty middle class liberal values common in this country, but a case by case evaluation is a more moral and more human approach. Pilots'r'us, Bomb'r'us non of us is any better.

    The Israelis and the Palestinians are engaged with, probably, the only, sometimes bloody, justifiable conflict in the world. As the post implicitly claims, most conflicts are political motivated. Both sides make a lot of mistakes and both sides want to share a tiny piece of land that is hardly sufficient for one side.

    Taking the high ground in that conflict is immoral, deadly, brutal and destructive. Just try to help heal the problem; it is very difficult. Now when the ignorant had learned to admire the Arabs, i.e. Egypt, and once, if ever, you learn to know something about a real democracy, that we lack, in Israel, you may start to see the bloodshed there differently.

    Break fast with Muslims on Ramadan, watch Jews fast on Yom Kipur. You will learn a lot.

  13. glf Says:

    There's the c. option: GIGO. If no one cares that the intelligence gathered to program the guidance system is accurate, then bombing civilian targets become standard operating procedure. We've "unintentionally" bombed so many civilian targets in Iraq and Afghanistan, that you would think the Pentagon would review the process, but I really don't think they care as long as it isn't Americans they're bombing; and then they'll just say the enemy was using human shields. Or call it "friendly fire."

  14. Monkey Business Says:

    At this point, I'm pretty sure the media could create a war for us. We have SO much stock footage of us blowing up sand and stuff on sand. How hard would it be for all, or even a few, news networks to get together, say the US is waging a secret war in Dumbfuckistan, and convince the majority of the American populace that it's a real place, and we're blowing them up?

    @johnsmith1882: You've summed up my feelings rather nicely. I'm sick to death of spineless Democrats that shrink from a fight every time the GOP throws a temper tantrum. It's not even the fights we lose that bother me, it's the ones we don't even suit up for. For chrissakes, we had supermajorities in both houses of Congress and owned the White House, and did DICK. The GOP had simple majorities and somehow managed to get stuff done.

    What we need is a liberal Tea Party. A party of passionate progressives pushing principled policies. The Tea Party thinks the Democrats are socialist? Oh man, this party would light their fucking hair on fire. It's gonna be wholescale wealth redistribution, to balance out the last 30 years. It's gonna be European style health care. It's gonna be dragging 40% of this country kicking and screaming into the next century.

  15. johnsmith1882 Says:

    @ Monkey Business
    Yeah, I'm down. They think Obama is a socialist? We're gonna break up AT&T and create publicly held phone/cable utilities. They don't like the healthcare plan? Neither do we, single-payer national health insurance. Federally-funded high-speed rail. Wind farms. Solar farms. No more subsidies for big oil, agribusiness. GE, Boeing, and the rest? Pay your fuckin' taxes, in fact, we're making you pay back taxes. Guantanamo? Closed. Iraq? Peace out. Wall Street? Shiv someone on your first day, and don't drop the soap. That's the first week's business, on to week two. Yeah, I'm down.

  16. oxus Says:

    The comparison between arming the rebels in Libya should be analyzed on its own strengths and weakness. The comparison between arming Libyan rebels and Afghanistan is cheap, easily made and yet very problematic.

    First of all, the US goal in Afghanistan was not to assist the mujahidden in replacing the Karmal regime with something else but with prolonging the Soviet engagement. We didn't give a shit about what the regime in Afghanistan would look like as long as lots of commies died. We had no long-term interests in the country. Still your analysis is lacking here too- once the mujahidden we armed took power they actually were fairly friendly to the US. If the US had shown any desire to actually have relations with the Rabbani/Massoud government from 1992-1996 they would have been easily forged. The emergence and spread of the Taliban in the mid 90s has a multitude of causes- and can be explained as much by the post-1989 US neglect of Afghanistan as by pre-1989 funding of the mujahidden.

    Secondly, the Libyan case has no equivalent of Pakistan's ISI. It was the ISI that narrowed the field of acceptable rebels to 7 religious parties, further disrupting traditional networks of political power in rural Afghanistan. Much of the past 30 years in Afghanistan can be understood by the disruption caused by this narrowing.

  17. displaced Capitalist Says:

    Middle Seaman: How can can both sides be engaged in a "justifiable" conflict? It seems to me that usually the justified label usually only applies to one side. Squabbling over land doesn't strike me as justifiable for either side.

  18. ladiesbane Says:

    @oxus: First, the Soviets wanted a warm water port very badly, and I think stopping them from obtaining that was important to us at the time.

    Second, the Middle East was sufficiently chaotic that we didn't want the Soviets making things more unstable. Dividing alliances and jimmying the cracks was ever their way.

    Third, the Soviets were hegemonistic long before they were Communist, and supporting locals against their encroachment was desirable.

    Fourth, all of those things mattered more than lots of Commies dying, but that may have been as much a bonus to some as the new regime was a matter for indifference. At best, we had a very simplistic assumption that anyone we helped would be responsive to us, and at least superficially democratic and upright. At worst, we were unpardonably naive and/or indifferent to oppressive dictatorships, civil rights abuses, government by religious fanatics, squeezing the populace for personal profit, and many other things we ignored in South America, Iran, Southeast Asia, and Africa.

    Sorry to do the bullet-point tango; my day is still pre-caffeinated and it helps me stay on track. I completely agree with your main points about Libya and Pakistan. But I would look back as far as the early 1960s (if not earlier in the Cold War era) to consider the US approach to Afghanistan.

  19. Da Moose Says:

    I have a solution to 1 & 2. Load the rebels into C-130 cargo planes, preferably still alive, and drop them at high altitude sans parachutes onto enemy positions. When the rebel bodies destroy enemy positions with the force of simple blunt force trauma at gravitational speed combined with the psychological impact such an assault will have on opposing forces, all conflict will be short and sweet. USA! USA! USA!

  20. oxus Says:

    @ Ladiesbane- Thanks for the response but I do have to disagree a bit with what you wrote.

    From my understanding, the Soviet invasion was first and foremost about shoring up the PDPA regime that was hell-bent on revolutionizing Afghan society at whatever cost to the state. There is no convincing evidence that the Soviet leadership had any prior knowledge about the 1978 coup. The story about the Soviet's desire for a warm water port was very popular in DC at the time, but had nothing to do with Soviet actions. After all, Afghanistan is landlocked and credible plans for a subsequent invasion of Pakistan or Iran have not been produced. Decision makers within the CIA were very aware of this at the time- although congress people were not.

    The three most important factors behind the Soviet invasion were:
    1) to stabilize the Afghan state which was in crisis. First of all, ideologically, no state that underwent a socialist revolution could revert back. By late 1979 it seemed that the PDPA regime was not long for the world- small scale rebellions had erupted across Afghanistan and the bureaucracy/security apparatus had been decimated by defections and purges.
    More importantly, there was some fear that the series of mini-crisis could spread to Soviet Central Asia – a region long thought to the Soviet Union's Achilles heel. Plus Amin and Taraki had been lobbying Moscow for armed support.

    2) Lack of knowledge about Afghanistan. The geriatric politburo expected that the pacification of Afghanistan would be as easy and quick as the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. And there was no room for input from those who challenged the decision (either because of the lack of oversight or because, in the case of Alexei Kosygin- then Chairman of Ministers and vocal opponent of invasion- they were ill and had to miss the discussion).

    3) Brezhnev felt that Amin betrayed him when he assassinated Taraki. Seriously, he was pissed.

    US policy in Afghanistan prior to 1980 was quite uneven. Yes, we did sponsor a few development/USAID projects but our regional investment was primarily in Pakistan. Even under Zahir Shah and Daoud, Afghanistan was a rentier state in the Soviet orbit. Our interest in Afghanistan became consistent in the 1980s because our goal snapped into focus- prolong the Soviet intervention and make it as costly to the Soviets as possible. No serious debates were ever conducted about what the post-Soviet intervention would look like.

  21. Monkey Business Says:

    @johnsmith1882: Fuck yeah, now we're talking. For week 2, we're gonna codify abortion as an inalienable right, not to be infringed upon by any state. We're gonna offer illegal immigrants a path to citizenship. We're gonna put a real progressive taxation plan in place where when you hit $5 million or more in income, your taxes hit 50%+. We're gonna exempt social security taxes for incomes under $30,000 a year, and remove the cap on how high those taxes can be taxed on. After that, we're gonna legalize fuckin' pot, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms is gonna become the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Marijuana, and Firearms. We're gonna put a trillion dollars a year into infrastructure and rebuild bridges, roads, sewer systems, and the electrical grid. Schools will be palaces, and the best teachers will be paid like rock stars.

    We're gonna build a secular progressive paradise, where all men and women work not solely for the betterment of themselves, but for themselves, their families, their communities, and the country at large.

  22. mothra Says:

    remember TV reports from my youth, where there'd be armed Palestinian "freedom fighters" shoving their children out in front of them. "Oooh, look at the tank vs. the rock-throwing boy,"

    You do realize, don't you, that you were fed biased reporting here in the USA? Pretty sure every news report on Israel goes through AIPAC first. But Israel HAS to use the human shield excuse because if they didn't, their own people might start questioning the things their government does in Palestine.

  23. Aslan Maskhadov Says:

    Qaddafi wasn't killing civilians with artillery and bombs- the rebels were using "human shields!" It was just collateral damage!! Oh wait…what? Qaddafi isn't allowed to claim that? Why not? Oh…sorry.

    Seriously though- aside from the fact that "precision guided weapons" have precision only when they are working properly, what DOESN'T have precision guidance would be the rapidly expanding hot gases and metal fragments which emerge when the weapon detonates.

  24. johnsmith1882 Says:

    @ Monkey Business
    Now we're talking. But we did skip a couple of steps. First, how does a far-left/socialist party get off the ground in the US? And I mean before we're all picking through the rubble for scraps of food and batteries, bartering rat meat for socks without holes in them.

  25. ladiesbane Says:

    @oxus: very good points; your reply makes me want to revisit the topic in depth. My early perspective was shaped by elderly Persian relatives who had strong opinions about Soviet encroachment. It's all history now….

  26. Da Moose Says:

    good food for thought:

    http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/04/04/is_america_addicted_to_war

  27. Hazy Davy Says:

    @Mothra: You are more qualified to speak about where you get your information, than you are about where I get my information. Regardless of source, I saw inarguable evidence of the use of children as human shields.

    And it's entirely possible for any or all of the following to be simultaneously true:
    - Israel has made false claims of human shields use by Palestinians
    - Israel has made true claims of…
    - Most claims of human shield use, around the world, are propaganda pieces, ex post propaganda to justify inappropriate action or bad intelligence, or to drum up support.

    So, Ed's contention was that a more conscientious argument would be "we are righteous in our justified military action; shit happens in war, and we make mistakes, and well, fuck." I wholly agree with this, even if there is a real use of human shields. But the inappropriate use of the "human shields" defense doesn't imply that the overall action was wrong, even if the specific result was deplorable.

  28. WhiskeyTango Says:

    I'm 65 years old. One of my earliest memories is of watching Korean War newsreels on a 10 inch TV screen. My teens and twenties were spent worrying about being sent to fight the Vietnamese. (I did eventually serve in the Air Force, protecting Texas from the VC. I got a medal!) Since then, it all blurs together. Kosovar, El Salvador, Panama, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iraq again, that little island in the Caribbean, I'm sure I've left a bunch out. We are not a "peace loving people".
    Concerning Israel-Palestine, if you're my age, you remember when liberals firmly supported Israel. I don't have a dog in that fight, and I don't really believe anybody's press releases, but I believe the Palestinian ones less. If you pay attention, you'll notice that every single time the Israelis do anything military, a Palestinian child is killed. "An 8-year-old child was killed by Israeli tank attacks today." There are, I think, only 3 possibilities:
    1. Israeli soldiers are looking for children to kill.
    2. Palestinian children are the unluckiest children in the world.
    3. Somebody's lying.

    About a year ago, BBC radio did a story on an Israeli attack. It went on for a minute or so about the damage done, and the number of children killed. The last sentence was that the attack was in retaliation for a series of rocket attacks on Israel.
    The BBC repeats these stories over and over through the night. I was working in the darkroom and listening for hours, and in all subsequent repeats of the story, the last sentence was left out altogether. Kinda changes the story. And there was never any discussion of Israeli casualties, no interviews with Israelis.
    The Palestinians don't have weapons, but they have a powerful propaganda machine, and that makes me trust them less.