Nick Turse

How the War on Terror catastrophically backfired

It began more than two decades ago. On September 20, 2001, President George W. Bush declared a “war on terror” and told a joint session of Congress (and the American people) that “the course of this conflict is not known, yet its outcome is certain.” If he meant a 20-year slide to defeat in Afghanistan, a proliferation of militant groups across the Greater Middle East and Africa, and a never-ending, world-spanning war that, at a minimum, has killed about 300 times the number of people murdered in America on 9/11, then give him credit. He was absolutely right.

Days earlier, Congress had authorized Bush “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determine[d] planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001 or harbored such organizations or persons.” By then, it was already evident, as Bush said in his address, that al-Qaeda was responsible for the attacks. But it was equally clear that he had no intention of conducting a limited campaign. “Our war on terror begins with al-Qaeda, but it does not end there,” he announced. “It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.”

Congress had already assented to whatever the president saw fit to do. It had voted 420 to 1 in the House and 98 to 0 in the Senate to grant an Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) that would give him (and presidents to come) essentially a free hand to make war around the world.

“I believe that it’s broad enough for the president to have the authority to do all that he needs to do to deal with this terrorist attack and threat,” Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS) said at the time. “I also think that it is tight enough that the constitutional requirements and limitations are protected.” That AUMF would, however, quickly become a blank check for boundless war.

In the two decades since, that 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force has been formally invoked to justify counterterrorism (CT) operations — including ground combat, airstrikes, detention, and the support of partner militaries — in 22 countries, according to a new report by Stephanie Savell of Brown University’s Costs of War Project. During that same time, the number of terrorist groups threatening Americans and American interests has, according to the U.S. State Department, more than doubled.

Under that AUMF, U.S. troops have conducted missions across four continents. The countries in question include some of little surprise like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, and a few unexpected nations like Georgia and Kosovo. “In many cases the executive branch inadequately described the full scope of U.S. actions,” writes Savell, noting the regular invocation of vague language, pretzeled logic, and weak explanations. “In other cases, the executive branch reported on ‘support for CT operations,’ but did not acknowledge that troops were or could be involved in hostilities with militants.”

For nearly a year, the Biden administration has conducted a comprehensive evaluation of this country’s counterterrorism policies, while continuing to carry out airstrikes in at least four countries. The 2001 AUMF has, however, already been invoked by Biden to cover an unknown number of military missions in 12 countries: Afghanistan, Cuba, Djibouti, Iraq, Jordan, Kenya, Lebanon, Niger, the Philippines, Somalia, and Yemen.

“A lot is being said about the Biden administration’s rethinking of U.S. counterterrorism strategy, and while it’s true that Biden has conducted substantially less drone strikes so far than his predecessors, which is a positive step,” Savell told TomDispatch, “his invocation of the 2001 AUMF in at least 12 countries indicates that the U.S. will continue its counterterrorism activities in many places. Basically, the U.S. post-9/11 wars continue, even though U.S. troops have formally left Afghanistan.”

AUMFing in Africa

“[W]e are entering into a long twilight struggle against terrorism,” said Representative David Obey (WI), the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, on the day that the 2001 AUMF’s fraternal twin, a $40 billion emergency spending bill, was passed. “This bill is a down payment on the efforts of this country to undertake to find and punish those who committed this terrible act and those who supported them.”

If you want to buy a house, a 20% down payment has been the traditional ideal. To buy an endless war on terror in 2001, however, less than 1% was all you needed. Since that initial installment, war costs have increased to about $5.8 trillion.

“This is going to be a very nasty enterprise,” Obey continued. “This is going to be a long fight.” On both counts he was dead on. Twenty-plus years later, according to the Costs of War Project, close to one million people have been killed in direct violence during this country’s ongoing war on terror.

Over those two decades, that AUMF has also been invoked to justify detention operations at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba; efforts at a counterterrorism hub in the African nation of Djibouti to support attacks in Somalia and Yemen; and ground missions or air strikes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. The authorization has also been called on to justify “support” for partner armed forces in 13 countries. The line between “support” and combat can, however, be so thin as to be functionally nonexistent.

In October 2017, after the Islamic State ambushed U.S. troops in Niger — one of the 13 AUMF “support” nations — killing four American soldiers and wounding two others, U.S. Africa Command claimed that those troops were merely providing “advice and assistance” to local counterparts. Later, it was revealed that they had been working with a Nigerien force under the umbrella of Operation Juniper Shield, a wide-ranging counterterrorism effort in northwest Africa. Until bad weather prevented it, in fact, they were slated to support another group of American commandos trying to kill or capture Islamic State leader Doundoun Cheffou as part of an effort known as Obsidian Nomad II.

Obsidian Nomad is, in fact, a 127e program — named for the budgetary authority (section 127e of title 10 of the U.S. Code) that allows Special Operations forces to use select local troops as surrogates in counterterrorism missions. Run either by Joint Special Operations Command, the secretive organization that controls the Navy’s SEAL Team 6, the Army’s Delta Force, and other elite special mission units, or by more generic “theater special operations forces,” its special operators have accompanied local commandos into the field across the African continent in operations indistinguishable from combat.

The U.S. military, for instance, ran a similar 127e counterterrorism effort, codenamed Obsidian Mosaic, in neighboring Mali. As Savell notes, no administration has ever actually cited the 2001 AUMF when it comes to Mali, but both Trump and Biden referred to providing “CT support to African and European partners” in that region. Meanwhile, Savell also notes, investigative journalists “revealed incidents in which U.S. forces engaged not just in support activities in Mali, but in active hostilities in 2015, 2017, and 2018, as well as imminent hostilities via the 127e program in 2019.” And Mali was only one of 13 African nations where U.S. troops saw combat between 2013 and 2017, according to retired Army Brigadier General Don Bolduc, who served at Africa Command and then headed Special Operations Command Africa during those years.

In 2017, the Intercept exposed the torture of prisoners at a Cameroonian military base that was used by U.S. personnel and private contractors for training missions and drone surveillance. That same year, Cameroon was cited for the first time under the 2001 AUMF as part of an effort to “support CT operations.” It was, according to Bolduc, yet another nation where U.S. troops saw combat.

American forces also fought in Kenya at around the same time, said Bolduc, even taking casualties. That country has, in fact, been cited under the AUMF during the Bush, Trump, and Biden administrations. While Biden and Trump acknowledged U.S. troop “deployments” in Kenya in the years from 2017 to 2021 to “support CT operations,” Savell notes that neither made “reference to imminent hostilities through an active 127e program beginning at least in 2017, nor to a combat incident in January 2020, when al Shabaab militants attacked a U.S. military base in Manda Bay, Kenya, and killed three Americans, one Army soldier and two Pentagon contractors.”

In addition to cataloging the ways in which that 2001 AUMF has been used, Savell’s report sheds light on glaring inconsistencies in the justifications for doing so, as well as in which nations the AUMF has been invoked and why. Few war-on-terror watchers would, for example, be shocked to see Libya on the list of countries where the authorization was used to justify air strikes or ground operations. They might, however, be surprised by the dates cited, as it was only invoked to cover military operations in 2013, and then from 2015 to 2019.

In 2011, however, during Operation Odyssey Dawn and the NATO mission that succeeded it, Operation Unified Protector (OUP), the U.S. military and eight other air forces flew sorties against the military of then-Libyan autocrat Muammar Gaddafi, leading to his death and the end of his regime. Altogether, NATO reportedly conducted around 9,700 strike sorties and dropped more than 7,700 precision-guided munitions.

Between March and October of 2011, in fact, U.S. drones flying from Italy regularly stalked the skies above Libya. “Our Predators shot 243 Hellfire missiles in the six months of OUP, over 20 percent of the total of all Hellfires expended in the 14 years of the system’s deployment,” retired Lieutenant Colonel Gary Peppers, the commander of the 324th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron during Operation Unified Protector, told the Intercept in 2018. Despite those hundreds of drone strikes, not to mention attacks by manned aircraft, the Obama administration argued, as Savell notes, that the attacks did not constitute “hostilities” and so did not require AUMF citation.

The War for Terror?

In the wake of 9/11, 90% of Americans were braying for war. Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) was one of them. “[W]e must prosecute the war that has been thrust upon us with resolve, with fortitude, with unity, until the evil terrorist groups that are waging war against our country are eradicated from the face of the Earth,” he said. More than 20 years later, al-Qaeda still exists, its affiliates have multiplied, and harsher and deadlier ideological successors have emerged on multiple continents.

As both political parties rushed the United States into a “forever war” that globalized the death and suffering al-Qaeda meted out on 9/11, only Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA) stood up to urge restraint. “Our country is in a state of mourning,” she explained. “Some of us must say, ‘Let’s step back for a moment, let’s just pause, just for a minute, and think through the implications of our actions today, so that this does not spiral out of control.’”

While the United States was defeated in Afghanistan last year, the war on terror continues to spiral elsewhere around world. Last month, in fact, President Biden informed Congress that the U.S. military “continues to work with partners around the globe, with a particular focus” on Africa and the Middle East, and “has deployed forces to conduct counterterrorism operations and to advise, assist, and accompany security forces of select foreign partners on counterterrorism operations.”

In his letter, Biden acknowledged that troops continue detention operations at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and support counterterrorism operations by the armed forces of the Philippines. He also assured Congress and the American people that the United States “remains postured to address threats” in Afghanistan; continues its ground missions and air strikes in Iraq and Syria; has forces “deployed to Yemen to conduct operations against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and ISIS”; others in Turkey “to support Counter-ISIS operations”; around 90 troops deployed to Lebanon “to enhance the government’s counterterrorism capabilities”; and has sent more than 2,100 troops to “the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to protect United States forces and interests in the region against hostile action by Iran and Iran-backed groups,” as well as approximately 3,150 personnel to Jordan “to support Counter-ISIS operations, to enhance Jordan’s security, and to promote regional stability.”

In Africa, Biden noted, U.S. forces “based outside Somalia continue to counter the terrorist threat posed by ISIS and al-Shabaab, an associated force of al Qaeda” through air strikes and assistance to Somali partners and are deployed to Kenya to support counterterrorism operations. They also remain deployed in Djibouti “for purposes of staging for counterterrorism and counter-piracy operations,” while in the Lake Chad Basin and the Sahel, U.S. troops “conduct airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance operations” and advise, assist, and accompany local forces on counterterrorism missions.

Just days after Biden sent that letter to Congress, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the release of an annual counterterrorism report that also served as a useful assessment of more than 20 years of AUMF-fueled counterterror operations. Blinken pointed to the “spread of ISIS branches and networks and al-Qaeda affiliates, particularly in Africa,” while noting that “the number of terrorist attacks and the overall number of fatalities resulting from those attacks increased by more than 10 percent in 2020 compared with 2019.” The report, itself, was even bleaker. It noted that “ISIS-affiliated groups increased the volume and lethality of their attacks across West Africa, the Sahel, the Lake Chad Basin, and northern Mozambique,” while al-Qaeda “further bolstered its presence” in the Middle East and Africa. The “terrorism threat,” it added, “has become more geographically dispersed in regions around the world” while “terrorist groups remained a persistent and pervasive threat worldwide.” Worse than any qualitative assessment, however, was the quantitative report card that it offered.

The State Department had counted 32 foreign terrorist organizations scattered around the world when the 2001 AUMF was passed.. Twenty years of war, around six trillion dollars, and nearly one million corpses later, the number of terrorist groups, according to that congressionally mandated report, stands at 69.

With the passage of that AUMF, George W. Bush declared that America’s war would “not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.” Yet after 20 years, four presidents, and invocations of the AUMF in 22 countries, the number of terrorist groups that “threaten the security of U.S. nationals or the national security” has more than doubled.

“The 2001 AUMF is like a blank check that U.S. presidents have used to conduct military violence in an ever-expanding number of operations in any number of places, without adequate oversight from Congress. But it’s also just the tip of the iceberg,” Savell told TomDispatch. “To truly end U.S. war violence in the name of counterterrorism, repealing the 2001 AUMF is the first step, but much more needs to be done to push for government accountability on more secretive authorities and military programs.”

When Congress gave Bush that blank check — now worth $5.8 trillion and counting — he said that the outcome of the war on terror was already “certain.” Twenty years later, it’s a certainty that the president and Congress, Representative Barbara Lee aside, had it all wrong.

As 2022 begins, the Biden administration has an opportunity to end a decades-long mistake by backing efforts to replace, sunset, or repeal that 2001 AUMF — or Congress could step up and do so on its own. Until then, however, that same blank check remains in effect, while the tab for the war on terror, as well as its AUMF-fueled toll in human lives, continues to rise.

Copyright 2021 Nick Turse

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch and a fellow at the Type Media Center. He is the author most recently of Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead: War and Survival in South Sudan and of the bestselling Kill Anything That Moves.

The media repeats its decades-old mistake of ignoring those who were right about the Afghanistan War

I waited almost three months for some acknowledgement, but it never came. Not a bottle of champagne. Not a congratulatory note. Not an email of acknowledgement. Not one media request.

Authors wait their whole lives for I-told-you-so moments like these. But mine passed without accolades, awards, or adulation.

Being way ahead of the pack is supposed to bring honors and rewards, isn't it? Imagine the response if, for example, a writer had predicted the 9/11 attacks.

In fact, one more or less did. "I conceived of Blowback — written in 1999, published in 2000 — as a warning to the American public. It was: you should expect retaliation from the people on the receiving end of now innumerable clandestine activities," TomDispatch regular Chalmers Johnson recalled of his blockbuster book in a 2004 interview. "The warning was not heeded… But then after 9/11, when, all of a sudden, inattentive Americans were mobilized to seek, at least on an emergency basis, some understanding of what they were into, it became a bestseller."

Johnson had been ahead of the game by a year and was celebrated for it. In 2010, I published The Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan, a collection of essays and articles highlighting the futility of that conflict and the need to end America's involvement there. This summer, the arguments that other contributors (including Johnson) and I made finally carried the day. "Last night in Kabul, the United States ended 20 years of war in Afghanistan," President Joe Biden announced on August 31st. "I give you my word: With all of my heart, I believe this is the right decision, a wise decision, and the best decision for America."

It may have been the best idea, but it wasn't an original one. And yet, Biden never mentioned my book. Or offered me cursory acknowledgement. Or admitted that he was at least a decade behind the curve.

Of course, I understood the reasons. If I were him, I'd want to keep my failings quiet, too. So, I waited for the cable news networks to take note. I kept checking my phone as the war in Afghanistan careened to its close. I could almost imagine the way the interview would go.

"How does it feel to have been so prescient and have had the arguments in your book finally win out?" Fox News's Chris Wallace would ask.

"Well, Chris, it's about time somebody asked that…" I would say before launching into an answer that would, of course, double as an advertisement for my book and, after all these years, land it atop the bestseller list.

But that call from Fox News never came. And when I checked the bestseller list, what I found there was some ridiculous book on "the final eight months of the pursuit of Osama bin Laden" — co-written by Chris Wallace, no less! — instead of mine.

Maybe MSNBC would get in touch. So again, I checked my phone messages, my email, my texts. Nothing. Instead, they went with retired Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, a former national security advisor to President Trump and one of the Americans who lost the war in Afghanistan. In fact, McMaster popped up on MSNBC, CNN, and Fox News seven times between August 16th and August 26th, just edging out disgraced former general, CIA director, and Afghan War chief David Petraeus, who appeared six times on those networks, according to Media Matters for America.

I was heartened to see that some news outlets did, at least, seek out TomDispatch regular and president of the Washington D.C.-based Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, Andrew Bacevich. One of them even referenced prescient comments he made in Foreign Affairs five years ago. But did any of them mention that his work appeared in The Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan five years before that? Nope!

Let down by the mainstream media, I still held out a shred of hope. Surely my publisher, Verso, would get in touch. "We did it!" the managing director would write. "You offered the argument for withdrawal. A multitrillion-dollar organization made the case against it for 10 years, but as in Afghanistan itself, they lost!" If he tried to send that message, it must have been by Western Union telegram, because it still hasn't arrived.

Gotta Be Wrong to Be Right

It's never been a good idea to be right about America's wars. At least, not from the start. A committed Cold Warrior and CIA analyst, Chalmers Johnson achieved great notoriety only after renouncing his hawkish ways. It was the same for Bacevich, a Vietnam War veteran and also a dedicated Cold Warrior once upon a time. And before Spencer Ackerman was celebrated — in two New York Times book reviews, no less! — for his incisive and insightful Reign of Terror, he supported the Iraq War and was an unabashed cheerleader for David Petraeus.

I'm still waiting for the Times to review The Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan even once. Admittedly, anthologies are a tough sell, but mine advanced the argument 10 years before Biden finally made his case to the American people. Being that far ahead of the president should demand notice, but not, it seems, in the United States.

And there's a reason for that. Americans love a conversion story, a tale of redemption. You need to be wrong before you can get it right. At some point, you need to drink the Kool-Aid — even if it leaves you standing in a Jonestown-esque sea of corpses — or they'll never take you seriously. This country hates to be reminded that not everyone was duped by the domino theory or beguiled by a two-bit camouflage-clad huckster.

To be fair, almost every American was wrong about the war in Afghanistan. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll found that 90% of us approved of the United States attacking that country, just 5% disapproved and only a fraction of them actively tried to stop the impending war. During a September 2001 antiwar march in New York City, for example, I can remember a middle-aged man nearly frothing at the mouth only inches from my face. He was so enraged by those who believed it would be a mistake to bomb Afghanistan, the war would fail, and Afghans would suffer, that his face had turned a color somewhere between scarlet and plum. I can still see the spittle flying from his lips as he bellowed "SCUM!"

I hope that incensed man is now hosting Afghan refugees in his home. I wouldn't, however, put money on it. I would wager, instead, that he's never apologized for his bellicosity and belligerence, for being wrong on the war, or for all the pain and death that conflict caused. And if so, he isn't alone.

How many mea cuplas did you hear this August as a defeated American military limped out of Kabul, killing 10 civilians in its final drone strike of the war? That ending was as fitting as it was heartbreaking. Overwhelming evidence of the slaughter of seven children and three adults forced the U.S. military to make a singular and unprecedented apology for those killings. But what about the rest of America? When are the 90% — perhaps even you, dear reader — going to take responsibility for the failed war they backed? When are they going to apologize to Afghans for 20 years of death, failure, and loss?

So Wrong for So Long

If you haven't caught on by now, the aggrieved tone of this piece is a rhetorical device… sort of. I never expected that call from Chris Wallace or a text from MSNBC or President Biden to name-check me. I never thought that the New York Times Book Review would see the error of its ways and I'd be plenty pleased if they gave Ackerman's Reign of Terror a third, fourth, or fifth positive review.

I wasn't kidding, however, about H.R. McMaster or David Petraeus. The truth is: no news producer should ever book either of them unless it's for a segment on how to lose a war, how to profit from one, or how to live with copious amounts of blood on one's hands. But that's hardly a burden they bear alone. I, too, share in the responsibility for the lives taken so needlessly in Afghanistan. I may not have been among the 90% of Americans braying for war in 2001, but I paid my taxes for the next 20 years, so I'm culpable for every Afghan civilian shot at a checkpoint or killed by a drone. And I also bear some responsibility for the deluge of suffering that followed as this country's Global War on Terror spread across the Greater Middle East and Africa — for civilians executed by U.S.-backed troops in Burkina Faso and Cameroon, killed by air strikes in Libya and Iraq, or wiped out by drones in Somalia and Yemen.

This is all to say that I deserve neither champagne, congratulations, nor special acknowledgement but instead, like the rest of America, shame, blame, and guilt. And I'd be more than happy to see the last copies of The Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan pulped and the book completely forgotten. But, in return, I do have a small ask: remember TomDispatch regular Jonathan Schell? Twenty years ago, he led his "Letter from Ground Zero: November 1, 2001" at the Nation with this sentence: "The war in Afghanistan is not going well." How right he was.

Schell proved exceptionally prescient as he saw, even in the opening moments of the Afghan War, that U.S. "military policy is at odds with its political policy. And in a war on terrorism — as distinct from a war on a state — it is politics, not military force, that will probably decide the outcome." Schell intimately understood this because he had witnessed American hubris and ineptitude decades earlier in Vietnam. He had watched the United States so completely botch the political war there that tens of billions of dollars and decades of effort on the "military half" of the conflict bought the Potemkin state of South Vietnam only two years of existence after U.S. combat troops withdrew from that country.

In that now-ancient "Letter from Ground Zero," Schell drew attention to a contemporaneous article by Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer who saw "destroying Al Qaeda and the Taliban" as the chief U.S. goal in Afghanistan. "What comes after will be an interesting problem. But it comes after," wrote that conservative pundit, neglecting to understand the nature of the war. It turned out that the United States all but defeated the Taliban in short order but bungled potential victory into a 20-year insurgency. This country was, then, so completely outplayed on the political front that two decades of effort and trillions of U.S. tax dollars proved incapable of sustaining the Afghan government and its U.S.-built army even until the American departure was complete. In the end, it turned out to be less "an interesting problem" than the disastrous crux of 20 years of conflict.

Schell saw it all too clearly in November 2001. "The United States can unquestionably defeat the Taliban in a ground war and occupy Afghanistan," he wrote. "But politics will not disappear because it has been ignored. The state that is already missing in Afghanistan will still be missing."

Schell Game

Schell wasn't only right about Afghanistan. Earlier, he had been far ahead of the curve when it came to the U.S. war in Vietnam and the peril of nuclear weapons, as he would later be on the increasing strength of people power around the world, and the dangers of climate change. Krauthammer, on the other hand, was an enthusiastic booster of Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and the U.S. invasion of Iraq. His prediction: that the conflict would be a "Three Week War." He deemed David Petraeus "brilliant," defended the use of torture, touting its efficacy, and promoted climate skepticism.

He was regularly cited for regularly being wrong, as in this September 27, 2009 prediction on Fox News Sunday:

Chris Wallace: "Best guess — will the president end up giving [U.S. Afghan War commander General Stanley] McChrystal the troops he wants, or will he change the war strategy?"

Charles Krauthammer: "I think he doesn't and McChrystal resigns."

Weeks later, as you may recall, Obama announced the deployment of 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan and McChrystal stated that President Obama had "provided me with a clear military mission and the resources to accomplish our task." Nobody bothered to look back or keep score on any of it, so Schell continued writing for a niche left-leaning audience in the pages of the Nation, while Krauthammer remained a cable-news regular, his syndicated column available in newspapers across the country.

Neither Schell nor Krauthammer lived to see America's ignominious defeat in Afghanistan. But last month, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made an uncharacteristic admission that completely settled the question of who got it right in November 2001. "We need to consider some uncomfortable truths: that we did not fully comprehend the depth of corruption and poor leadership in [the Afghan army's] senior ranks… that we did not anticipate the snowball effect caused by the deals that the Taliban commanders struck with local leaders." As the retired general told the Senate Armed Services Committee, "We failed to fully grasp that there was only so much for which — and for whom — many of the Afghan forces would fight." He only understood this after 20 years of war, trillions of dollars squandered, and at least 176,000 lives spent in vain to achieve outright defeat. Jonathan Schell put it in writing before the war was a month old.

When Charles Krauthammer died in 2018, the New York Times devoted almost 1,800 words to his memory. Four years earlier, at the time of Jonathan Schell's death, the Times spent less than 1,250 words summing up his life.

As I said, it doesn't pay to be right about America's wars, especially from the start. Nobody cares. Nobody remembers. Nobody keeps the receipts, just as nobody who matters is going to hold Lloyd Austin to account for all he "failed to fully grasp" about the Afghan War or any of his other forever war failures.

It's a given that, when he shuffles off this mortal coil, Austin's obituary will trump Krauthammer's or Schell's (maybe even the two combined). The same for David Petraeus. And, of course, for President Biden. That's the way it goes in America. Jonathan Schell is never going to get his due, but somebody (other than me) at least owes him an acknowledgement for making the case for withdrawal from Afghanistan 20 years early.

Copyright 2021 Nick Turse

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch and a fellow at the Type Media Center. He is the author most recently of Next Time They'll Come to Count the Dead: War and Survival in South Sudan and of the bestselling Kill Anything That Moves.


A forever wall for our forever wars

As a parting shot, on its way out of Afghanistan, the United States military launched a drone attack that the Pentagon called a "righteous strike." The final missile fired during 20 years of occupation, that August 29th airstrike averted an Islamic State car-bomb attack on the last American troops at Kabul's airport. At least, that's what the Pentagon told the world.

Within two weeks, a New York Times investigation would dismantle that official narrative. Seven days later, even the Pentagon admitted it. Instead of killing an ISIS suicide bomber, the United States had slaughtered 10 civilians: Zemari Ahmadi, a longtime worker for a U.S. aid group; three of his children, Zamir, 20, Faisal, 16, and Farzad, 10; Ahmadi's cousin Naser, 30; three children of Ahmadi's brother Romal, Arwin, 7, Benyamin, 6, and Hayat, 2; and two 3-year-old girls, Malika and Somaya.

The names of the dead from the Kabul strike are as important as they are rare. So many civilians have been obliterated, incinerated, or — as in the August 29th attack — "shredded" in America's forever wars. Who in the United States remembers them? Who here ever knew of them in the first place? Twenty years after 9/11, with the Afghan War declared over, combat in Iraq set to conclude, and President Joe Biden announcing the end of "an era of major military operations to remake other countries," who will give their deaths another thought?

Americans have been killing civilians since before there was a United States. At home and abroad, civilians — Pequots, African Americans, Cheyenne and Arapaho, Filipinos, Haitians, Japanese, Germans, Koreans, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, Afghans, Iraqis, Syrians, Yemenis, and Somalis, among others — have been shot, burned, and bombed to death. The slaughter at Sand Creek, the Bud Dajo massacre, the firebombing of Dresden, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, the My Lai massacre — the United States has done what it can to sweep it all under the rug through denial, cover-ups, and the most effective means of all: forgetting.

There's little hope of Americans ever truly coming to terms with the Pequot or Haitian or Vietnamese blood on their hands. But before the forever wars slip from the news and the dead slide into the memory hole that holds several centuries worth of corpses, it's worth spending a few minutes thinking about Zemari Ahmadi, Benyamin, Hayat, Malika, Somaya, and all the civilians who were going about their lives until the U.S. military ended them.

Names Remembered and Names Forgotten

Over the last 20 years, the United States has conducted more than 93,300 air strikes — in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen — that killed between 22,679 and 48,308 civilians, according to figures recently released by Airwars, a U.K.-based airstrike monitoring group. The total number of civilians who have died from direct violence in America's wars since 9/11 tops out at 364,000 to 387,000, according to Brown University's Costs of War Project.

Who were those nearly 400,000 people?

There's Malana. In 2019, at age 25, she had just given birth to a son, when her health began to deteriorate. Her relatives were driving her to a clinic in Afghanistan's Khost Province when their vehicle was attacked by a U.S. drone, killing Malana and four others.

And Gul Mudin. He was wounded by a grenade and shot with a rifle, one of at least three civilians murdered by a U.S. Army "kill team" in Kandahar Province in 2010.

Then there was Gulalai, one of seven people, including three women — two of them pregnant — who were shot and killed in a February 12, 2010, raid by Special Operations forces in Afghanistan's Paktia Province.

And the four members of the Razzo family — Mayada, Tuqa, Mohannad, and Najib — killed in a September 20, 2015, airstrike in Mosul, Iraq.

And there were the eight men, three women, and four children — Abdul Rashid as well as Abdul Rahman, Asadullah, Hayatullah, Mohamadullah, Osman, Tahira, Nadia, Khatima, Jundullah, Soheil, Amir, and two men, ages 25 and 36 respectively, named Abdul Waheed — who were killed in a September 7, 2013, drone strike on Rashid's red Toyota pickup in Afghanistan.

Then there were 22-year-old Lul Dahir Mohamed and her four-year-old daughter, Mariam Shilo Muse, who were killed in an April 1, 2018, airstrike in Somalia.

And between 2013 and 2020, in seven separate U.S. attacks in Yemen — six drone strikes and one raid — 36 members of the al Ameri and al Taisy families were slaughtered.

Those names we know. Or knew, if only barely and fleetingly. Then there are the countless anonymous victims like the three civilians in a blue Kia van killed by Marines in Iraq in 2003. "Two bodies were slumped over in the front seats; they were men in street clothes and had no weapons that I could see. In the back seat, a woman in a black chador had fallen to the floor; she was dead, too," wrote Peter Maass in the New York Times Magazine in 2003. Years later, at the Intercept, he painted an even more vivid picture of the "blue van, with its tires shot out and its windows shattered by bullets, its interior stained with blood and smelling of death, with flies feasting on already-rotting flesh."

Those three civilians in Iraq were all too typical of the many anonymous dead of this country's forever wars — the man shot for carrying a flashlight in an "offensive" manner; the children killed by an "errant" rocket; the man slain by "warning shots"; the three women and one man "machine-gunned" to death; and the men, women and children reduced to "charred meat" in an American bombing.

Who were the 11 Afghans — four of them children — who died in a 2004 helicopter attack, or the "dozen or more" civilians killed in 2010 during a nighttime raid by U.S. troops in that same country? And what about those 30 pine-nut farm workers slaughtered a year later by a drone strike there? And what were the names of Mohanned Tadfi's mother, brother, sister-in-law, and seven nieces and nephews killed in the U.S. bombing that flattened the city of Raqqa, Syria, in 2017?

Often, the U.S. military had no idea whom they were killing. This country frequently carried out "signature strikes" that executed unknown people due to suspicious behavior. So often, Americans killed such individuals for little or no reason — like holding a weapon in places where, as in this country, firearms were ubiquitous — and then counted them as enemy dead. An investigation by Connecting Vets found that during a 2019 air campaign in Afghanistan's Helmand province, for example, the threshold for an attack "could be met by as little as a person using or even touching a radio" or if an Afghan carrying "commercially bought two-way radios stepped into a home, the entire building would sometimes be leveled by a drone strike."

Targeted assassinations were equally imprecise. Secret documents obtained by the Intercept revealed that, during a five-month stretch of Operation Haymaker — a drone campaign in 2011 and 2013 aimed at al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders along the Afghan-Pakistan border — 200 people were killed in airstrikes conducted to assassinate 35 high-value targets. In other words, nearly nine out of 10 people slain in those "targeted" killings were not the intended targets. So, who were they?

Even if targeting was ordinarily more accurate than during Operation Haymaker, U.S. policy has consistently adhered to the dictum that "military-age males" killed in airstrikes should automatically be classified as combatants unless proven innocent. In addition to killing people for spurious reasons, the U.S. also opted for allies who would prove at least as bad as, if not worse than, those they were fighting. For two decades, such American-taxpayer-funded warlords and militiamen murdered, raped, or shook-down the very people this country was supposedly protecting. And, of course, no one knows the names of all those killed by such allies who were being advised, trained, armed, and funded by the United States.

Who, for instance, were the two men tied to the rear fender of a Toyota pickup truck in southeastern Afghanistan in 2012 by members of an Afghan militia backed by U.S. Special Operations forces? They were, wrote reporter Anand Gopal, dragged "along six miles of rock-studded road" until they were dead. Then their "bodies were left decomposing for days, a warning to anyone who thought of disobeying Azizullah," the U.S.-allied local commander.

Or what about the 12 boys gunned down by CIA-backed militiamen at a madrassa in the Afghan village of Omar Khail? Or the six boys similarly slain at a school in nearby Dadow Khail? Or any of the dead from 10 raids in 2018 and 2019 by that same militia, which summarily executed at least 51 civilians, including boys as young as eight years old, few of whom, wrote reporter Andrew Quilty, appeared "to have had any formal relationship with the Taliban"?

How many reporters' notebooks are filled with the unpublished names of just such victims? Or counts of those killed? Or the stories of their deaths? And how many of those who were murdered never received even a mention in an article anywhere?

Last year, I wrote 4,500 words for the New York Times Magazine about the deteriorating situation in Burkina Faso. As I noted then, that nation was one of the largest recipients of American security aid in West Africa, even though the State Department admitted that U.S.-backed forces were implicated in a litany of human-rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings.

What never made it into the piece was any mention of three men who were executed in two separate attacks. On May 22, 2019, uniformed Burkinabe troops arrived in the village of Konga and took two brothers, aged 38 and 25, away in the middle of the night. The next day, a relative found them on the side of the road, bound and executed. Most of the family fled the area. "The Army came back a week later," a relative told me. "My uncle was the only one in our family who stayed. He was shot in broad daylight." Such deaths are ubiquitous but aren't even factored into the 360,000-plus civilian deaths counted by the Costs of War project, which offers no estimate for those killed in America's "smaller war zones."

Build the Wall!

We live in a world filled with monuments celebrating lives and deaths, trailblazers and memorable events, heroes and villains. They run the gamut from civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., and Women's Rights Pioneers to the chieftains of the American Confederacy and Belgium's King Leopold.

In the United States, there's no shortage of memorials and monuments commemorating America's wars and fallen soldiers. One of the most poignant lists the names of the American military dead of the Vietnam War. Initially derided by hawkish veterans and conservatives as a "black gash of shame" and a "nihilistic slab," it's now one of the most celebrated monuments in Washington, D.C. More than 58,000 men and women are represented on the visually arresting black granite walls of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Vietnam itself has no shortage of monuments of its own. Many are Soviet-style memorials to those who died defeating the United States and reuniting their country. Others are seldom-seen, tiny memorials to massacres perpetrated by the Americans and their allies. No one knows how many similar cenotaphs exist in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and other forever-war countries, but in 2017, journalist Emran Feroz found just such a memorial in Afghanistan's Wardak Province — a remembrance of five civilians slain in drone strikes during 2013 and 2014.

There have been other attempts to memorialize the civilian dead of the forever wars from art installations to innovative visual protests to virtual commemorations. In 2018, after then-President Trump signed a bill approving the construction of a Global War on Terrorism Memorial, Peter Maass proposed, even if only half-seriously, that the bullet-riddled blue Kia van he saw in Iraq should be placed on a pedestal on the National Mall. "If we start building monuments that focus our attention on the pitiless killing of civilians in our wars," he wrote, "maybe we would have fewer wars to fight and less reason to build these monuments."

A blue Kia on the National Mall would be a good starting point. But if we're ever to grasp the meaning of the post-9/11 wars and all the conflicts that set the stage for them, however, we may need a wall as well — one that starts at the Kia and heads west. It would, of course, be immense. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial spans a total of 400 feet. The celebrated Vietnam War photographer Philip Jones Griffiths observed that a wall for the Vietnamese dead, counting combatants, of the American War would be nine miles long.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is arrayed in a unique chronological format, but the Civilian Deaths Memorial could begin with anyone. The last civilians killed by the United States as part of its 2001 to 2021 Afghan War – Zemari Ahmadi, Zamir, Faisal, Farzad, Naser, Arwin, Benyamin, Hayat, Malika, and Somaya – could lead it off. Then maybe Abdul Rashid and the 14 passengers from his red pick-up truck. Then Malana, Gul Mudin, Gul Rahim, Gulalai, Mayada, Tuqa, Mohannad, Najib, Lul Dahir Mohamed, and Mariam Shilo Muse. Then maybe Ngo Thi Sau, Cao Muoi, Cao Thi Thong, Tran Cong Chau Em, Nguyen Thi Nhi, Cao Thi Tu, Le Thi Chuyen, Dang Thi Doi, Ngo Thi Chiec, Tran Thi Song, Nguyen Thi Mot, Nguyen Thi Hai, Nguyen Thi Ba, Nguyen Thi Bon, Ho Thi Tho, Vo Thi Hoan, Pham Thi Sau, Dinh Van Xuan, Dinh Van Ba, Tran Cong Viet, Nguyen Thi Nham, Ngo Quang Duong, Duong Thi Hien, Pham Thi Kha, Huynh Van Binh, Huynh Thi Bay, Huynh Thi Ty, Le Van Van, Le Thi Trinh, Le Thi Duong, and Le Vo Danh and her unborn child, all slaughtered in the tiny South Vietnamese village of Phi Phu by U.S. troops (without any of the attention accorded to the My Lai massacre). They could be followed by the names of, or placeholders for, the remaining two million Vietnamese civilian dead and by countless Cambodians, Laotians, Afghans, Iraqis, Somalis, and Yemenis.

The Civilian Wall could be built in a zig-zag fashion across the country with the land in its way — homes and businesses, parks and roadways — seized by eminent domain, making Americans care about civilian deaths in ways that news articles never could. When you lose your home to a slab of granite that reads "Pequot adult, Pequot adult, Pequot child…" 500 times, you may actually take notice. When you hear about renewed attacks in Iraq or drone strikes in Somalia or a Navy SEAL raid gone awry in Yemen and worry that the path of the wall might soon turn toward your town, you're likely to pay far more attention to America's conflicts abroad.

Obviously, a westward-traveling wall memorializing civilian carnage is a non-starter in this country, but the next time you hear some fleeting murmur about a family wiped out by a drone strike or read a passing news story about killings by a U.S.-backed militia, think about that imaginary wall and how, in a just world, it might be headed in your direction. In the meantime, perhaps the best we can hope for is Maass's proposal for that blue Kia on the Mall. Perhaps it could be accompanied by the inscription found on a granite slab at the Heidefriedhof, a cemetery in Dresden, Germany, the site of a mass grave for civilians killed in a 1945 U.S. and British fire-bombing. It begins: "How many died? Who knows the number?"

Copyright 2021 Nick Turse

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch and a fellow at the Type Media Center. He is the author most recently of Next Time They'll Come to Count the Dead: War and Survival in South Sudan and of the bestselling Kill Anything That Moves.

How I accidentally amassed a trove of horrors

Recently, I wanted to show my wife a picture, so I opened the photos app on my phone and promptly panicked when I saw what was there.

It's not what you think.

A lot of people are worried about what's lurking on their smartphones. Compromising photos. Illicit text messages. Embarrassing contacts. Porn.

What I noticed was a video in the photo stream between a picture of a document I sent to an editor and a shot of my dog — a clip of a man in Burkina Faso having his lower arm chopped off.

The still image of that act is bad enough. The video is far worse. The victim lies on the ground, pleading, screaming as another man, swinging a machete, forces him to place his right arm on a wooden bench. The attacker is trying to make the amputation easier, allowing him to make a cleaner cut. But "easier" is a relative term. The assailant hacks away, again and again and again, taking time to taunt his victim. You watch it happen. Slowly. You see the anguish on the face of the man whose arm is bleeding but mostly intact, then hanging at an odd angle, then barely attached. The video runs one minute and 18 seconds. It seems longer. Far longer. You hear the tortured screams. You watch the final swing, then see the victim kicking his legs back and forth, writhing in agony on the ground.

I shudder to think how many similar videos and images lurk on my phone — saved in the photos, in the files, sitting in text chains from sources, colleagues, fixers, contacts. There's the man lying in a street in the Democratic Republic of Congo as an assailant with a machete attempts to cut off his leg below the knee. I still remember the exact sound of his cries even years after first viewing it. There's the video of the captured Kurdish fighters. I recall how the second woman to be killed — just before she's shot in the head — watches the execution of her comrade. She doesn't plead or cry or even flinch. Not once.

There's the bound man shot at point blank range and kicked, still alive, into a ditch. There are the women and children forced to march to their execution. "You are going to die," says the Cameroonian soldier, who refers to one of the women as "BH," a reference to the terrorist group, Boko Haram. He steers her off the road and a young girl follows. Another soldier does the same to a second woman who has a toddler strapped to her back. The soldiers force the women to kneel. One of those men directs the girl to stand next to her mother. He then pulls the girl's shirt over her head, blindfolding her. Gunshots follow.

Binging on War Porn

My career in journalism tracks the global proliferation of "war porn," a subject that TomDispatch first covered in 2006.

In the twentieth century, this particular genre consisted mostly of still photos that only rarely surfaced. The Japanese "rape" of Nanking. Murders by Nazis. Decapitations during Britain's "Malayan Emergency." Most of those images were trophy photos, taken by or with the consent of the perpetrators and they generally received only modest circulation. In rare cases, as in an execution in South Vietnam, they were documented by the press, made front-page news, and were sometimes even captured on film.

Such photos and footage have become ubiquitous over the last two decades. As mobile phone technology has improved, cell-phone prices have dropped, and social media and messaging platforms have proliferated, people in conflict zones from Syria to Myanmar — often the perpetrators of atrocities, sometimes the victims — have been increasingly able to share video and photographic documentation of human-rights violations. During the 2010s, the Islamic State flooded the online ecosystem with gruesome execution photos and videos. Israel's most recent attacks on civilians in Gaza have also provided a seemingly endless stream of traumatic images and video.

While news consumers may increasingly be subjected to horrific images, exposure to limited amounts is, in most cases, unlikely to cause lasting distress. Binging on such footage is a different story. A 2014 analysis of exposure to media coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, found that "repeated bombing-related media exposure was associated with higher acute stress than was direct exposure"; that is, those who consumed six or more hours a day of news coverage experienced greater stress than those who were at or near the actual bombing scene.

It's clear that immersion in atrocity content is bad for your mental health. But what if your job is to binge-watch trauma? The work of certain journalists, social media content moderators, human rights researchers, and other analysts now has them awash in graphic "user-generated content" (UGC) or eyewitness video that can leave a lasting mark on one's mind. The American Psychiatric Association's 2013 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, its official manual, states that post-traumatic stress can be brought about by exposure to the graphic details of another individual's experience, including work-related exposure to disturbing television footage, movies, pictures, or other electronic media.

I've written articles based on video footage of executions and massacres. Sometimes atrocity photos figure in my reporting, so it's not surprising that sources often send me war porn. Still, I'm not immersed in such brutal scenes as regularly as some of my colleagues. In 2015, the Eyewitness Media Hub conducted a survey of people who often work with graphic UGC. Even then, more than half of the 209 respondents reported that they viewed distressing media several times weekly. Twelve percent of the responding journalists and almost a quarter of the human rights and humanitarian workers said they viewed such traumatic content daily.

"You witness it a lot more with UGC," said an anonymous senior editor at a news agency. "You're exposed to more intense visual material than battle-hardened war cameramen sitting in Sarajevo in the middle of the 1990s because it's coming at you from everywhere — even more so than, say, in Jerusalem. I was there at the height of the Intifada and there were body parts flying in and out of the office like nobody's business, but there's now a lot more of it."

Forty percent of Eyewitness Media Hub survey respondents said that viewing such traumatic content had a negative impact on their personal lives, leaving them with feelings of isolation, flashbacks, nightmares, and other stress-related symptoms. One quarter reported high or even very high "professional adverse effects."

In 2018, an anonymous staffer from Videre, an international charity that provides activists around the world with equipment, training, and support to gather video evidence of human-rights violations, offered a candid chronicle of the effects of two days of "cutting and splicing, frame by frame" video footage of a massacre of men, women, and children. "I went into auto-pilot: charred bodies, severed limbs," that staffer wrote.

"They ceased to be human. I needed not to think of their lost hopes and dreams. And for two days I edited. Headphones stuck deep in my ears. The sound of desperate cries crashing around my head… And then, I started sleeping badly — waking in the night, bad dreams. I was distracted at work. It all felt so futile. A couple of weeks later, I was out walking with my partner and I started to cry."

The next year, Casey Newton, writing for The Verge, offered a glimpse into the professional lives of Facebook's 15,000 sub-contractor-employed content moderators. After three and a half weeks of training — immersed in hate speech, violence, and graphic pornography — "Chloe" was asked to "moderate" a post in front of her fellow trainees. It was a video of a murder, a man stabbed again and again as he begged for his life. Chloe, her voice quivering, correctly informed the class that the post needed to be removed since section 13 of Facebook's community standards prohibits videos depicting murder.

As the next potential moderator took her place, Chloe left the room to sob. After that, the panic attacks began. They continued even after Chloe left the job and hers is not an isolated case. Last year, Facebook agreed to pay $52 million to 11,250 current and former moderators to compensate them for mental-health conditions resulting from the job. There is evidence to suggest that the situation may have worsened since then as Facebook has come under increased pressure to take action against online child abuse, forcing moderators to watch greater amounts of disturbing content.

"Even when the events depicted are far away, journalists and forensic analysts, deeply immersed in a flood of explicit, violent, and disturbing photos and video, may feel that it is seeping into their own personal headspace," reads a fact sheet on working with traumatic imagery provided by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma (where I was once a fellow) at Columbia University's Journalism School. "Intrusive recollections — re-seeing traumatic images one has been working with — are not unusual," wrote Gavin Rees, the Dart Center's senior advisor for training and innovation in a 2017 guide for journalists. "Our brains are designed to form vivid pictures of disturbing things, so you may experience images popping back into consciousness at unexpected moments."

A Hammer to the Skull

Days before I saw that traumatic arm-amputation clip on my phone, I was rummaging around for an old file in the digital folders of a cloud-storage service. I noticed a folder of mine labeled "Graphic photos DRC." I had uploaded those images — dozens of people butchered as if they were meat — while I was in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2018. Back then, I needed to get the images off my phone but carefully labeled the folder as a warning to my editor back in the U.S., who was monitoring the material, about what lurked in that innocuous-looking digital version of a manila folder.

Not long after finding that cache of Congo carnage, I needed to contact a source via a messaging platform. I didn't realize that it was several years since we had communicated via that app and that our last "conversation," still sitting there, included a photo of the corpse of a colleague who had been shot through the head.

I have many other atrocity photos on thumb drives, portable hard drives, and external hard drives that sit on my desk. I know some of those photos by heart. A few from the research I did for my book Kill Anything That Moves on American war crimes in Vietnam have resided somewhere deep in the recesses of my skull for close to 20 years. Several of them that I found in the U.S. National Archives were glossy photos of the victims of an American ambush. The dead were officially reported as enemy troops, but the investigation and those photos made it clear that they were just average Vietnamese civilians — men, women, and children.

One image burned into my brain is of a young Vietnamese boy lying lifeless on a forest floor. His glassy eyes, still open, evoke an enigmatic sense of serenity. It could be an art photo if you didn't know that parts of his body had been obliterated by bullets and landmine fragments.

Newer photos stick with me, too, like one of a heap of mostly headless bodies that no one could mistake for art, for example. I could go on, but you get the picture — or rather, I got the pictures.

I once interviewed a Vietnam veteran who had kept grisly war trophies — a small collection of atrocity images — corpses of those his unit had killed, some visibly mistreated.

In Vietnam, a surprising number of American troops amassed such photos and made grim scrapbooks out of them. Some also collected actual body parts — scalps, penises, teeth, fingers and, most commonly of all, ears. For others, like this man, the preferred anatomical souvenirs were skulls.

That veteran had held onto those war "trophies" for most of his life but, ever more aware of his advancing age, he confessed to me that one day — soon, but not yet — he needed to burn the photos and take a hammer to the skull. He didn't want his daughter to find them when, after his death, she came to clean out his home.

For years, I wondered what it must have been like for that man to live with the skull of a Vietnamese man or woman, to wake up every morning with that specter of atrocity in his home. Only years later did I begin to grasp that I might have some idea of what that was indeed like.

I've never actively collected war trophies, of course. I've left every skull, every corpse that I've encountered as I found it. But I've nonetheless amassed a horrific collection of war porn, far larger than anything that Vietnam veteran had.

While I don't have a human skull in my closet, my atrocity collection is arguably far more gruesome. That veteran's collection is still and silent, but the screams of the victims, people being butchered alive on video, are part of my collection. His trophy skull sat on a shelf hidden from view, while my compendium of horrors is scattered about my computer, cloud storage, my phone, my message chains — the totality of my digital life.

That man's collection was finite and contained, the product of one war and one year of military service many decades ago. Mine lives with me and grows by the week. While I was writing this article, another video clip arrived. It's horrific. At first, I couldn't tell if the woman was dead or alive. The answer only became clear when… On second thought, you're better off not knowing.

Copyright 2021 Nick Turse

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch and a fellow at the Type Media Center. He is the author most recently of Next Time They'll Come to Count the Dead: War and Survival in South Sudan and of the bestselling Kill Anything That Moves.

Why Trump will leave Biden with a unique opportunity to close the door on 20 years of war

"This is a different kind of war, which we will wage aggressively and methodically to disrupt and destroy terrorist activity," President George W. Bush announced a little more than two weeks after the 9/11 attacks. "Some victories will be won outside of public view, in tragedies avoided and threats eliminated. Other victories will be clear to all."

This year will mark the 20th anniversary of the war on terror, including America's undeclared conflict in Afghanistan. After that war's original moniker, Operation Infinite Justice, was nixed for offending Muslim sensibilities, the Pentagon rebranded it Operation Enduring Freedom. Despite neither a clear victory, nor the slightest evidence that enduring freedom had ever been imposed on that country, "U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan ended," according to the Defense Department, in 2014. In reality, that combat simply continued under a new name, Operation Freedom's Sentinel, and grinds on to this very day.

Like the 2003 invasion of Iraq, known as Operation Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom and Freedom's Sentinel failed to live up to their names. Nor did any of the monikers slapped on America's post-9/11 wars ever catch the public imagination; the battlefields spread from Afghanistan and Iraq to Yemen, Somalia, the Philippines, Libya, Syria, Niger, Burkina Faso, and beyond — at a price tag north of $6.4 trillion and a human toll that includes at least 335,000 civilians killed and at least 37 million displaced from their homes. Meanwhile, those long-promise clear victories never materialized even as the number of terrorist groups around the world proliferated.

Last month, America's top general offered an assessment of the Afghan War that was as apt as it was bleak. "We believe that after two decades of consistent effort, we've achieved a modicum of success," said Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley. "I would also argue over the last five to seven years at a minimum, we have been in a condition of strategic stalemate." Milley's soundbites provided appellations far more apt than those the Pentagon dreamt up over the years. Had the Defense Department opened the post-9/11 wars with names like Operation Modicum of Success or Operation Strategic Stalemate, Americans would at least have had a realistic idea of what to expect in the ensuing decades as three presidents waged undeclared wars without achieving victories anywhere across the Greater Middle East or Africa.

What the future will bring in terms of this country's many armed conflicts is murkier than ever as the Trump administration pursues an array of 11th-hour efforts interpreted as last-minute attempts to make good on pledges to end this country's "endless wars" or simply as sour-grapes shots at upending, undermining, and sabotaging the "deep state" (the CIA in particular), while handcuffing or kneecapping the incoming Biden administration's future foreign policy. As it happens, however, President Trump's flailing final gambits, while by no means ending America's wars, provide the Biden administration with a unique opportunity to put those conflicts in the history books, should the president-elect choose to take advantage of the inadvertent gift his predecessor provided.

The Third President Not to End the War on Terror

For four years, the Trump administration has waged a multifront war, not only in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Syria, and elsewhere around the globe, but with the Pentagon as well. Donald Trump entered the White House vowing to stop America's ceaseless foreign interventions and repeatedly teased ending those "endless wars." He didn't. Instead, he and his administration continued to wage America's many conflicts, surged troops into Afghanistan and Syria, and threatened nuclear strikes against enemies and allies alike.

When the president finally began making halting gestures toward curtailing the country's endless conflicts and attempted to draw down troops in various war zones, the Pentagon and State Department slow walked, slow rolled, and stymied their commander-in-chief, deceiving him, for example, when it came to something as basic as the actual number of U.S. troops in Syria. Even after striking a 2020 deal with the Taliban to settle the Afghan War and ordering significant troop withdrawals from that country and others as he became a lame-duck president, he failed to halt a single armed intervention that he had inherited.

Far from ending endless wars, President Trump escalated the most endless of them: the conflicts in Afghanistan and Somalia where America has been intermittently involved since the 1970s and 1990s, respectively. Air strikes in Somalia have, for instance, skyrocketed under the Trump administration. From 2007 to 2017, the U.S. military conducted 42 declared air attacks in that country. Under President Trump, 37 strikes were conducted in 2017, 48 in 2018, and 63 in 2019. Last year, U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) acknowledged 53 air strikes in Somalia, more than during the 16 years of the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

The reasons for that increase remain shrouded in secrecy. In March 2017, however, President Trump reportedly designated parts of Somalia as "areas of active hostilities," while removing Obama-era rules requiring that there be near certainty that airstrikes will not injure or kill noncombatants. Although the White House refuses to explicitly confirm or deny that this ever happened, retired Brigadier General Donald Bolduc, who headed Special Operations Command Africa at the time, told the Intercept that the "burden of proof as to who could be targeted and for what reason changed dramatically." That change, he noted, led AFRICOM to conduct strikes that previously would not have been carried out.

The uptick in airstrikes has been disastrous for civilians. While Africa Command recently acknowledged five deaths of noncombatants in Somalia from all such airstrikes, an investigation by Amnesty International found that, in just nine of them, 21 civilians were killed and 11 others injured. According to the U.K.-based monitoring group Airwars, evidence suggests that as many as 13 Somali civilians have been killed by U.S. strikes in 2020 alone, and Trump's recent decision to withdraw U.S. forces from there will not end those air attacks, much less America's war, according to the Pentagon. "While a change in force posture, this action is not a change in U.S. policy," reads a Defense Department statement that followed Trump's withdrawal order. "The U.S. will retain the capability to conduct targeted counterterrorism operations in Somalia and collect early warnings and indicators regarding threats to the homeland."

During its first year in office, the Trump administration relaxed the rules of engagement and escalated the air war in an effort to gain leverage at the bargaining table. "From 2017 through 2019, civilian deaths due to U.S. and allied forces' air strikes in Afghanistan dramatically increased," wrote Crawford. "In 2019, airstrikes killed 700 civilians — more civilians than in any other year since the beginning of the war in 2001 and 2002." After the U.S. and the Taliban reached a tentative peace agreement last February, U.S. air strikes declined, but never completely ceased. As recently as last month, the U.S. reportedly conducted one in Afghanistan that resulted in civilian casualties.The war in Afghanistan has followed a similar trajectory under President Trump. Far from deescalating the conflict as it negotiated a peace deal with the Taliban and pursued troop drawdowns, the administration ramped up the war on multiple fronts, initially deploying more troops and increasing its use of U.S. air power. As in Somalia, civilians suffered mightily, according to a recent report by Neta Crawford of Brown University's Costs of War project.

As those civilian deaths from air power were spiking, an elite CIA-trained Afghan paramilitary unit known as 01, in partnership with U.S. Special Operations forces, was involved in what Andrew Quilty, writing at the Intercept, termed "a campaign of terror against civilians," including a "string of massacres, executions, mutilation, forced disappearances, attacks on medical facilities, and air strikes targeting structures known to house civilians." In all, the unit killed at least 51 civilians in Afghanistan's Wardak province between December 2018 and December 2019. As Akhtar Mohammad Tahiri, the head of Wardak's provincial council, told Quilty, the Americans "step on all the rules of war, human rights, all the things they said they'd bring to Afghanistan." They are, he said, "conducting themselves as terrorists. They show terror and violence and think they'll bring control this way."

President Biden's Choice

"We are not a people of perpetual war — it is the antithesis of everything for which we stand and for which our ancestors fought," Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller wrote as part of a two-page memo to Defense Department employees last November, adding, "All wars must end." His predecessor, Mark Esper, was reportedly fired, at least in part, for resisting President Trump's efforts to remove troops from Afghanistan. Yet neither Miller nor Trump turned out to be committed to actually ending America's wars.

After losing his bid for reelection in November, the president did issue a series of orders drawing down some troops from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Virtually all military personnel are to be withdrawn from Somalia. There, however, according to the Pentagon, some or all of those forces will simply be "repositioned from Somalia into neighboring countries in order to allow cross-border operations," not to speak of continuing "targeted counterterrorism operations" in that country. This suggests that the long-running U.S. air war will continue uninterrupted.

The same goes for the other war zones where American troops are slated to remain and no cessation of air strikes has been announced. "You're still going to have the ability to do the missions that we've been doing," a senior Pentagon official said last month regarding Afghanistan. Miller echoed this during a recent trip to that country when he said: "I especially want to see and hear the plan for our continued air support role." Ironically enough, Miller's all-wars-must-end November memo actually championed a forever-war mindset by insisting on the necessity of "finishing the war that al-Qaida brought to our shores in 2001."

In classic the-U.S.-has-finally-turned-the-corner fashion, Miller asserted that America is "on the verge of defeating al-Qaida and its associates" and "must avoid our past strategic error of failing to see the fight through to the finish." To anyone who might have thought he was signaling that the war on terror was coming to a close, Miller offered a message that couldn't have been more succinct: "This war isn't over."

At the same time, Miller and several other post-election Trump political appointees, including his chief of staff Kash Patel and Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence Ezra Cohen-Watnick, have sought to make significant last-minute policy changes at the Pentagon, rankling members of the national security establishment. Last month, for example, Trump administration officials delivered to the Joint Chiefs of Staff a proposal to decouple the leadership of the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command. Miller also sent a letter to CIA Director Gina Haspel informing her that a longstanding arrangement in which the Pentagon offered support to the Agency is in jeopardy.

News reports indicated that the Department of Defense is reviewing its support for the CIA. The reason, former and current administration and military officials told Defense One, was to determine whether Special Operations forces should be diverted from the Agency's counterterrorism operations to missions "related to competition with Russia and China." The New York Times suggested, however, that the true purpose could be to "make it difficult" for the CIA to conduct operations in Afghanistan.

The troop drawdowns and eleventh-hour policy changes have been cast by pundits and national security establishment boosters as the spiteful final acts of a lame-duck president. Whatever they may be, they also represent a genuine opportunity for a president-elect who has voiced support for a shift in national security policy. "Biden will end the forever wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East, which have cost us untold blood and treasure" reads the plan for "Leading the Democratic World" at JoeBiden.com. There, too, in the fine print, however, lurk a set of Miller-esque fight-to-the-finish loopholes, as the italicized words in this sentence suggest: "Biden will bring the vast majority of our troops home from Afghanistan and narrowly focus our mission on al-Qaeda and ISIS."

Under an agreement the Trump administration struck with Taliban negotiators last year, the United States promised to remove all remaining troops from Afghanistan by May 1, 2021, if that group upholds its commitments. Were the Biden team to take advantage of both the Trump administration's withdrawal pact and its last-ditch effort to handcuff the CIA, a significant part of the American war there would simply expire later this spring. While this would undoubtedly elicit anguished howls from supporters of that failed war, President Biden could defer to Congress's constitutionally assigned war powers, leaving it to the legislative branch to either declare war in that country after all these years or simply allow the conflict to end.

He could also use the bully pulpit of the presidency to call for sunsetting the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, or AUMF, a 60-word resolution passed by Congress three days after the September 11th attacks, which has been used to justify 20 years of war against groups like the Islamic State that didn't even exist on 9/11. He could do the same with the 2002 Iraq Authorization for Use of Military Force, which authorized the war against Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, but was nonetheless cited last year in the Trump administration's justification for the drone assassination of Iranian Major General Qasem Suleimani.

Almost two decades after President George W. Bush launched "a different kind of war"; more than a decade after President Barack Obama entered the White House promising to avoid "stupid wars" (while promising to win the "right war" in Afghanistan); six months after President Trump committed to "ending the era of endless wars," President-elect Biden enters the White House with an opportunity to begin to make good on his own pledge to "end the forever wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East."

As President Bush put it in 2001: "Some victories will be won outside of public view, in tragedies avoided and threats eliminated." America's twenty-first-century wars have, instead, been tragedies for millions and have led to a proliferation of threats that damaged the United States in fundamental ways. President-elect Biden has recognized this, noting that "staying entrenched in unwinnable conflicts only drains our capacity to lead on other issues that require our attention, and it prevents us from rebuilding the other instruments of American power."

Failed forever wars are, however, also a Joe Biden legacy. As a senator, he voted for that 2001 AUMF, the 2002 AUMF, and then seconded a president who expanded America's overseas interventions — and nothing in his personal history suggests that he will take the bold actions necessary to follow through on putting an end to America's overseas conflicts. "It's long past time we end the forever wars," he announced in 2019. As it happens, on entering the Oval Office he will be faced with a monumental choice: to be either the first U.S. president of this century not to double down on doomed overseas conflicts or the fourth to find failure in wars that can never be won.

Copyright 2020 Nick Turse

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands (the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch and a fellow at the Type Media Center. He is the author most recently of Next Time They'll Come to Count the Dead: War and Survival in South Sudan and of the bestselling Kill Anything That Moves.

The coming mass displacement will force us all to face a dark path of spiraling conflict

I saw them for only a few seconds. One glimpse and they were gone. The young woman wore a brown headwrap, a yellow short-sleeved shirt, and a long pink, red, and blue floral-patterned skirt. She held the reins of the donkey pulling her rust-pink cart. Across her lap lay an infant. Perched beside her at the edge of the metal wagon was a young girl who couldn't have been more than eight. Some firewood, rugs, woven mats, rolled-up clothing or sheets, a dark green plastic tub, and an oversized plastic jerry can were lashed to the bed of the cart. Three goats tied to the rear of it ambled along behind.

They found themselves, as I did, on a hot, dusty road slowly being choked by families who had hastily hitched up their donkeys and piled whatever they could -- kindling, sleeping mats, cooking pots -- into sun-bleached carts or bush taxis. And they were the lucky ones. Many had simply set out on foot. Young boys tended small herds of recalcitrant goats. Women toted dazed toddlers. In the rare shade of a roadside tree, a family had stopped and a middle-aged man hung his head, holding it in one hand.

Earlier this year, I traveled that ochre-dirt road in Burkina Faso, a tiny landlocked nation in the African Sahel once known for having the largest film festival on the continent. Now, it's the site of an unfolding humanitarian catastrophe. Those people were streaming down the main road from Barsalogho about 100 miles north of the capital, Ouagadougou, toward Kaya, a market town whose population has almost doubled this year, due to the displaced. Across the country's northern stretches, other Burkinabe (as citizens are known) were making similar journeys toward towns offering only the most uncertain kinds of refuge. They were victims of a war without a name, a battle between Islamist militants who murder and massacre without compunction and armed forces that kill more civilians than militants.

I've witnessed variations of this wretched scene before -- exhausted, upended families evicted by machete-wielding militiamen or Kalashnikov-carrying government troops, or the mercenaries of a warlord; dust-caked traumatized people plodding down lonesome highways, fleeing artillery strikes, smoldering villages, or towns dotted with moldering corpses. Sometimes motorbikes pull the carts. Sometimes, young girls carry the jerry cans on their heads. Sometimes, people flee with nothing more than what they're wearing. Sometimes, they cross national borders and become refugees or, as in Burkina Faso, become internally displaced persons, or IDPs, in their own homeland. Whatever the particulars, such scenes are increasingly commonplace in our world and so, in the worst possible way, unremarkable. And though you would hardly know it in the United States, that's what also makes them, collectively, one of the signature stories of our time.

At least 100 million people have been forced to flee their homes due to violence, persecution, or other forms of public disorder over the last decade, according to UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency. That's about one in every 97 people on the planet, roughly one percent of humanity. If such war victims had been given their own state to homestead, it would be the 14th largest nation, population-wise, in the world.

By the end of June, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, an additional 4.8 million people had been uprooted by conflict, with the most devastating increases in Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Burkina Faso. Yet, as dismal as these numbers may be, they're set to be dwarfed by people displaced by another signature story of our time: climate change.

Already, shocking numbers have been put to flight by fires, derechos, and super storms, and so much worse is yet to come, according to experts. A recent forecast suggests that, by the year 2050, the number of people driven from their homes by ecological catastrophes could be 900% greater than the 100 million forced to flee conflicts over the last decade.

Worse Than World War II

Women, children, and men driven from their homes by conflict have been a defining feature of modern warfare. For almost a century now, combat correspondents have witnessed such scenes again and again. "Newly routed civilians, now homeless like the others with no idea of where they would next sleep or eat, with all their future lives an uncertainty, trudged back from the fighting zone," the legendary Eric Sevareid reported, while covering Italy for CBS News during World War II. "A dust-covered girl clung desperately to a heavy, squirming burlap sack. The pig inside was squealing faintly. Tears made streaks down the girl's face. No one moved to help her..."

The Second World War was a cataclysmic conflagration involving 70 nations and 70 million combatants. Fighting stretched across three continents in unparalleled destructive fury, including terror bombing, countless massacres, two atomic attacks, and the killing of 60 million people, most of them civilians, including six million Jews in a genocide known as the Holocaust. Another 60 million were displaced, more than the population of Italy (then the ninth-largest country in the world). An unprecedented global war causing unimaginable suffering, it nonetheless left far fewer people homeless than the 79.5 million displaced by conflicts and crises as 2019 ended.

How can violence-displaced people already exceed World War II's total by almost 20 million (without even counting the nearly five million more added in the first half of 2020)?

The answer: these days, you can't go home again.

In May 1945, the war in Europe came to an end. By the beginning of September, the war in the Pacific was over, too. A month later, most of Europe's displaced -- including more than two million refugees from the Soviet Union, 1.5 million French, 586,000 Italians, 274,000 Dutch, and hundreds of thousands of Belgians, Yugoslavs, Czechs, Poles, and others -- had already returned home. A little more than a million people, mostly Eastern Europeans, still found themselves stranded in camps overseen by occupying forces and the United Nations.

Today, according to UNHCR, ever fewer war refugees and IDPs are able to rebuild their lives. In the 1990s, an average of 1.5 million refugees were able to return home annually. For the last 10 years, that number has dropped to around 385,000. Today, about 77% of the world's refugees are trapped in long-term displacement situations thanks to forever wars like the conflict in Afghanistan that, in its multiple iterations, is now in its sixth decade.

War on (of and for) Terror

One of the most dramatic drivers of displacement over the last 20 years, according to researchers from Brown University's Costs of War project, has been that conflict in Afghanistan and the seven other "most violent wars the U.S. military has launched or participated in since 2001." In the wake of the killing of 2,974 people by al-Qaeda militants that September 11th and the decision of George W. Bush's administration to launch a Global War on Terror, conflicts the United States initiated, escalated, or participated in -- specifically, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, the Philippines, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen -- have displaced between 37 million and 59 million people.

While U.S. troops have also seen combat in Burkina Faso and Washington has pumped hundreds of millions of dollars of "security assistance" into that country, its displaced aren't even counted in the Costs of War tally. And yet there's a clear link between the U.S.-backed overthrow of Libya's autocrat, Muammar Qaddafi, in 2011 and Burkina Faso's desperate state today. "Ever since the West assassinated Qaddafi, and I'm conscious of using that particular word, Libya has been completely destabilized," Chérif Sy, Burkina Faso's defense minister, explained in a 2019 interview. "While at the same time it was the country with the most guns. It has become an arms cache for the region."

Those arms helped destabilize neighboring Mali and led to a 2012 coup by a U.S.-trained officer. Two years later, another U.S.-trained officer seized power in Burkina Faso during a popular uprising. This year, yet another U.S.-trained officer overthrew yet another government in Mali. All the while, terrorist attacks have been ravaging the region. "The Sahel has seen the most dramatic escalation of violence since mid-2017," according to a July report by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, a Defense Department research institution.

In 2005, Burkina Faso didn't even warrant mention in the "Africa Overview" section of the State Department's annual report on terrorism. Still, more than 15 separate American security assistance programs were brought to bear there -- about $100 million in the last two years alone. Meanwhile, militant Islamist violence in the country has skyrocketed from just three attacks in 2015 to 516 in the 12 months from mid-2019 to mid-2020, according to the Pentagon's Africa Center.

Compounding Crises to Come

The violence in Burkina Faso has led to a cascade of compounding crises. Around one million Burkinabe are now displaced, a 1,500% increase since last January, and the number only keeps rising. So do the attacks and the fatalities. And this is just the beginning, since Burkina Faso finds itself on the frontlines of yet another crisis, a global disaster that's expected to generate levels of displacement that will dwarf today's historic figures.

Burkina Faso has been battered by desertification and environmental degradation since at least the 1960s. In 1973, a drought led to the deaths of 100,000 people there and in five other nations of the Sahel. Severe drought and hunger struck again in the mid-1980s and aid agencies began privately warning that those living in the north of the country would need to move southward as farming became ever less feasible. By the early 2000s, despite persistent droughts, the cattle population of the country had doubled, leading to increasing ethnic conflict between Mossi farmers and Fulani cattle herders. The war now tearing the country apart largely divides along those same ethnic lines.

In 2010, Bassiaka Dao, the president of the confederation of farmers in Burkina Faso, told the United Nations news agency, IRIN, that the impacts of climate change had been noticeable for years and were getting worse. As the decade wore on, rising temperatures and new rainfall patterns -- droughts followed by flash floods -- increasingly drove farmers from their villages, while desertification swelled the populations of urban centers.

In a report published earlier this year, William Chemaly of the Global Protection Cluster, a network of nongovernmental organizations, international aid groups, and United Nations agencies, noted that in Burkina Faso "climate change is crippling livelihoods, exacerbating food insecurity, and intensifying armed conflict and violent extremism."

Sitting at the edge of the Sahara Desert, the country has long faced ecological adversity that's only worsening as the frontlines of climate change steadily spread across the planet. Forecasts now warn of increasing ecological disasters and resource wars supercharging the already surging phenomenon of global displacement. According to a recent report by the Institute for Economics and Peace, a think tank that produces annual global terrorism and peace indexes, two billion people already face uncertain access to sufficient food -- a number set to jump to 3.5 billion by 2050. Another one billion "live in countries that do not have the current resilience to deal with the ecological changes they are expected to face in the future." The report warns that the global climate crisis may displace as many as 1.2 billion people by 2050.

On the Road to Kaya

I don't know what happened to the mother and two children I spotted on the road to Kaya. If they ended up like the scores of people I spoke with in that market town, now bulging with displaced people, they're facing a difficult time. Rents are high, jobs scarce, government assistance all but nil. People there are living on the edge of catastrophe, dependent on relatives and the kindness of new neighbors with little to spare themselves. Some, driven by want, are even heading back into the conflict zone, risking death to gather firewood.

Kaya can't deal with the massive influx of people forced from their homes by Islamist militants. Burkina Faso can't deal with the one million people already displaced by conflict. And the world can't deal with the almost 80 million people already driven from their homes by violence. So how will we cope with 1.2 billion people -- nearly the population of China or India -- likely to be displaced by climate driven-conflicts, water wars, increasing ecological devastation, and other unnatural disasters in the next 30 years?

In the decades ahead, ever more of us will find ourselves on roads like the one to Kaya, running from the devastation of raging wildfires or uncontrolled floodwaters, successive hurricanes or supercharged cyclones, withering droughts, spiraling conflicts, or the next life-altering pandemic. As a reporter, I've already been on that road. Pray you're the one speeding by in the four-wheel-drive vehicle and not the one choking in the dust, driving the donkey cart.

Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch and a fellow at the Type Media Center. He is the author most recently of Next Time They'll Come to Count the Dead: War and Survival in South Sudan and of the bestselling Kill Anything That Moves. This article was reported in partnership with Brown University's Costs of War Project and Type Investigations.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World Wr II.

Copyright 2020 Nick Turse

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