Three Ways (Out of 100) That America's Screwing Up the World

The following three subchapters are excerpted from John Tirman's 100 Ways America Is Screwing Up the World (Harper Perennial, 2006). Read another excerpt here.

Three ways America is screwing up the world:

1. "We Don't Do Body Counts"

When U.S. General Tommy Franks uttered those words in 2003, he was conveying the new sentiments of the American military and its civilian leadership, that counting the dead of "the enemy" was not necessary or useful. Franks, who may be remembered as the only general in the annals of American history to lose two wars, was simply repeating what his political handlers told him to say, as all active duty generals do. In this case, it was an attempt to deflect the moral consequences of a "war of choice," a lesson Frank's generation learned from Vietnam. But the "no body counts" policy reverberates around the Arab and Muslim world, to America's detriment.

The policy is an insult and a mistake for two reasons. First, it lends the impression -- or is it a fact? -- that the United States does not care about civilian casualties. In the autumn of 2005, in a fairly typical sequence, the military announced that a sweep of Anbar province in Iraq had resulted in the death of 120 "terrorists." No civilian casualties were reported by the U.S. government, or by the American press. Al Jazeera, the Arabic news organization, had firsthand accounts of dozens of casualties. And it is inconceivable that major military operations of that kind would not result in casualties of the innocent. This is an embittering legacy of the war: not merely the fact of large numbers of war dead, but the neglect of even acknowledging that this could be occurring or is important enough to investigate.

Second, it is bad for the war effort itself. The American people have a right to know what is going on in their name. Learning about things like Abu Ghraib and casualties from foreign news sources or NGOs makes the revelations all the more troubling, as they think they are being lied to by their government. (Which they are, of course.) And military planners themselves should understand what the effect of operations is on civilian populations. Family ties are strong in Iraq, with close extended kinship networks; killing of family members, especially innocent family members, is likely to produce more resistance -- and more terrorists. It is one of the seemingly inexplicable things in Iraq -- how could the insurgency grow when America is so clearly a liberator, where even Sunni Arabs will ultimately be better off if only they would lay down their weapons? The answer is not only that they are former Saddamites or jihadists. The far more probable answer is that the insurgents are driven in part by acts of defense, in effect, or vengeful honor.

A military officer told me around that same time that "rules of engagement" for U.S. troops were so broad that civilians even faintly suspected of being insurgents were routinely "blown away." Men talking on cell phones, for example, while a U.S. military convoy was passing were fair game for shooting. Many anecdotes of this kind circulate, but have stimulated little curiosity on the part of journalists.

Most take at face value the estimates of Iraq Body Count, a noble effort to count, via press reports, the total number of Iraqi civilians killed in the war. Their estimate by the end of 2005 was about thirty thousand, but their method was incomplete, as they readily acknowledge, since they count only those who are reported dead in two or more reputable news sources. That's like doing the census of the United States by counting everyone mentioned in the news media.

A more complete estimate was provided by a team of epidemiologists, led by American and Iraqi health professionals, and published in the British medical journal, The Lancet. Using a well-tested method of random cluster surveys, interviewing more than 7,000 people, their midrange estimate was 98,000 dead in the first eighteen months of the war, with 80 percent of those likely to have been killed by U.S. and U.K. forces.

That report was widely dismissed in the United States as politically motivated or flawed, though the secretary of state and many others used the same method to estimate casualties in other wars, such as the Congo. (The method, by the way, while widely misunderstood, is perfectly sound.) The violence, by most accounts, increased in the next eighteen months, and one can safely assume that the actual dead in Iraq now exceed 100,000 by perhaps tens of thousands more.

The real reason why The Lancet study is ignored, and the whole topic of civilian deaths downplayed, is because that scale of mayhem is just too sickening to accept in a news media that largely supported the invasion, and by politicians who would pay a price for even indirectly criticizing the conduct of U.S. troops who, after all, do the killing.

The moral consequences of war are always inconvenient. They are especially troubling when a war has a veneer of righteousness. This attitude afflicts the media elite as much as the political leadership. "We don't do body counts" could have been uttered by the editor of the Washington Post as easily as the general in charge. That they are both morally bankrupt on this issue is obvious for all the world to see.

2. Getting High

Much of my professional time is spent studying armed conflicts around the world.

One can't help noticing that wars today are often mixed up with crime, and that crime is often about drugs -- heroin and cocaine, in particular. The production of opiates is connected to the wars and instability in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Burma. Cocaine is produced in the Andean countries of South America, particularly Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia, and all three have suffered from ongoing civil wars --Colombia's is almost forty years old -- and social unrest. Then there are the transit countries, like most of Central America. You add it up and a lot of countries are involved. Of course, one country is most involved, not as an exporter, but the consumer: the United States.

Getting high is an American tradition. Alcohol and tobacco consumption is as old as the Republic. The use of legal pharmaceuticals for depression, anxiety, sleeplessness, and the like increased markedly after the Second World War. The legal drug market set the stage for illegal drug consumption. Even now, after all the public service campaigns about these issues, the consumption of alcohol by American teens and pre-teens is astounding in scale: 20 percent of the alcohol imbibed nationwide goes down the gullets of kids between twelve and twenty years old, and in that age group, half of them drink. They account for $22 billion in booze.

So the stage is set for illicit drug consumption. Americans consume more cocaine than any other country, 300 million metric tons annually. In the 1990s, about $70 billion was spent in America on coke by 3 to 4 million "hard-core" users and some 6 million occasional users. Up to a million Americans were hooked on heroin, and that cost about $20 billion a year. Trends suggest that use of cocaine may actually be declining, but statistics in general are a little dodgy when it comes to these practices. It's still a very big business.

The industry that supplies the habits of Americans gives new meaning to the word globalization. West African couriers go to Bangkok to purchase Burmese-made heroin and run it through no-hassle airports in Africa and take their chances at border crossings in Mexico and Canada. Cocaine shippers, we know, have their own air fleet. The transit points for all this stuff reads like a who's who of failed states (or venues of the Reagan Doctrine): Angola, Cambodia, Guatemala, Nigeria, Honduras, Mozambique.

The drug money -- a little goes a long way in some of these countries -- feeds the corrupt and brutal, rogue cops and dirty politicians, ready to take the graft in one hand and U.S. "war on drugs" money in the other. They are often involved with the other contraband that fuels war and crime: gunrunning, diamonds, or even higher-end goods like nuclear technology. They sometimes have connections to the likes of al Qaeda. It all seems to go hand in hand. And drugs are at the center of it.

The war on drugs is generally considered to be a failed policy, and an expensive one, though it has its defenders. Our federal and state governments spend something like $50 billion annually, both at home and abroad, in the drug war. A million are arrested, many of them incarcerated, bringing on more billions in costs. In places like Colombia, the war on drugs is mixed up with the civil war itself. Local police and military elites use the drug war for other purposes -- not only old-fashioned graft, but as a way to settle scores and dispatch enemies. Eradication of crops only works if the local people want it and there are alternatives, which are rarely in the mix. Very few independent analysts regard the war on drugs as a success, mainly because it is being fought in the wrong places -- the problem is not abroad, but in ourselves.

Free trade helps the drug trade. The war on terrorism may hinder it in some places, but help it in others. In Afghanistan, the overthrow of the Taliban opened the door to new cultivators and exporters of heroin.

It's a very confusing picture. The one remedy that has not been tried, of course, is legalization. There is a ferocious debate about the harmful effects of drugs, and what legalization (controlled, taxed, etc.) might bring. But one thing is certain: the hunger for illegal drugs in the United States reverberates around the world. It is violent, corrupting, and enormously costly to millions of people on every continent.

3. Torture

I will keep this one short, because it is so obvious and hardly any rational and moral individual would disagree with me. In fact, there is so much unanimity on this matter among knowledgeable people worldwide that I thought perhaps this should not be one of the 100 Ways. But then I saw Condi Rice in Europe defending the "renditions" of "suspects," spirited off to secret prisons where no doubt they would come in for some serious hands-on interrogations, claiming these contemptible practices saved European lives -- almost certainly a complete falsehood -- and I thought, well, yes, torture deserves a few words.

America has overall been quite free of torture as an official state policy or practice, so it is perhaps a little premature to claim that the recent reliance on torture prisons for the massive detentions of fighters from Afghanistan and Iraq and others has "screwed up the world." Too soon, but not too far fetched. The revelations about the U.S. torture techniques and the persistence of Bush administration in defending and using them are a colossal national shame that has muddied whatever conceivable moral clarity guided the new crusades in the Middle East.

Apart from it being morally repugnant, a slap at the ideals the country tends to uphold, and a violation of international law -- often flimsy reasons in the minds of torturers -- the practice of maximizing pain doesn't work. People who actually know something valuable (unlike the thousands of low-level prisoners at Guantánamo and other prisons) are the least likely to talk. And some will talk and say anything to stop the beatings, burnings, poisonings and other methods in the torturer's quiver. Hence, the many false alarms and "orange alerts" since 9/11 (which, conveniently, also have political value). "No one has yet offered any validated evidence that torture produces reliable intelligence," notes General David Irvine, a specialist on interrogations. "While torture apologists frequently make the claim that torture saves lives, that assertion is directly contradicted by many Army, FBI, and CIA professionals who have actually interrogated al Qaeda captives."

In its Eight Lessons of Torture, the Center for the Victims of Torture, an experienced, Minneapolis-based NGO, notes in lesson number one (that torture does not yield reliable information) that "nearly every client at the Center for Victims of Torture, when subjected to torture, confessed to a crime they did not commit, gave up extraneous information, or supplied names of innocent friends or colleagues to their torturers." And as many people have argued, including former interrogators, torture has a corrupting influence on the torturers.

The big "what-if" in the debate is "what if a captured terrorist knew of a plan to detonate a nuclear weapon in Manhattan, should we use all means to stop that?" Such what-ifs depend on many implausible scenarios converging. The simple fact is that suicide bombing has shown that the most politically violent people will die for their cause; this is not exactly news. So if in the unlikely case (getting a nuclear device is an extremely low-probability event) someone did know of such a thing about to happen, and we're pulling out their fingernails, we can rest assured they won't talk, because they would have committed to dying anyway. People who argue otherwise are not only morally corrupt but naïve. We could, however, pose a more likely what-if: What if a would-be terrorist becomes a deadly fighter because America is torturing his compatriots? That"what-if is already under way. Some people -- American torturers -- have blood on their hands as a result.

Case closed. The torture, the illegal detentions, the unnecessary killings, the grisly prisons -- not a single benefit has been shown from this tawdriness and moral depravity. It is likely to outlive its alleged purposes and brand the perpetrators forever.

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