Towards a Real End to War in the 21st Century

Image created by Heidi Andrea Rhodes
Image credit: <a href="http://" target=new>Max Farquar</a>
U.S. joint forces engineers consult in Djibouti
Operation Proper Exit: at Bagram AFB
By Sarah Lazare
May, 2014

Despite the Memorial Day “celebrations,” claims that the Afghanistan War is coming to an end, and talk of “humanitarian” military deployments to Nigeria, the naked violence of the U.S. role in the world showed through the verbal fog this month. President Obama tried to argue that an indefinite military presence is "how war ends in the 21st century." We argue instead that building movements for rehumanization and solidarity, against U.S. military power in its overt and covert forms, is how we can bring a real end to war in the 21st century.

When the biggest military empire in history co-opts “humanitarianism”

Nearly 300 children were kidnapped from an all-girls’ boarding school in Chibok, Nigeria by the armed group Boko Haram, and 219 of them are still missing, their conditions unknown.  The United States has used the global humanitarian cry to bring these young women home as a pretext to expand its military foothold in Africa.  Humanitarianism becomes a cover for imperial moves that in the end will only bring further harm and devaluation of Black African lives.

Late in May, President Obama announced that 80 military personnel will be deployed to Chad to fly surveillance aircraft and drones to aid in the search. This is in addition to an earlier dispatch of “experts” to Nigeria to advise the government, in collaboration with a team of U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials.

The push for a military “solution” occurs against  a background of U.S. and western military encroachment and resource extraction in Nigeria and across Africa. The New York Times this month revealed a secret and well-funded Pentagon program that sends U.S. special ops forces to four African countries, including Nigeria’s neighbor, Niger, to help them develop elite “counter-terrorism” units. According to the article, “combating fighters like those in Boko Haram” is a critical goal of these hand-picked units. The U.S. and other western countries work with a Nigerian Army that, like the U.S., is guilty of numerous atrocities, including the slaughter of Muslims. This is in addition to the environmental and economic devastation wrought by U.S. and western neo-colonialism in Nigeria, including Shell Oil’s resource extraction and horrific legacy of atrocities against the Ogani people.

Zoom out to the continent of Africa, and you see the steady expansion of U.S. AFRICOM, which now has a relationship with nearly every African nation and includes the spread of drone and other bases and installations, troop deployments, surveillance, and training of proxy fighters. Meanwhile, the legacy of US air strikes, arms shipments, and long-term backing of players like ex-general Kalifa Hifter in Libya continues to unfold, and covert drone war in Somalia continues.

As Aishah Shahidah Simmons said, it is vital for the world to stand together in declaring that Black girls’ lives matter, yet this call must not be used “as a scapegoat for a US/western invasion” or Islamophobia. This kidnapping underscores the need to commit to a global humanitarianism rooted in an anti-imperialist and feminist politics that affirm life and justice, not false military solutions.

In the name of addressing another “grave humanitarian crisis,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry vowed this month to “redouble” U.S. backing of armed groups opposing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as part of a joint effort of the “Friends of Syria” nations, which include: the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Jordan and Egypt.

While Saudi Arabia is leading arms shipments to Syrian rebels, Kerry mentioned only “nonlethal” U.S. aid. Yet evidence strongly indicates that the U.S. has already opened the door to shipments of anti-aircraft missiles and is directly involved in training Syrian fighters.

The London announcement followed the resignation of U.N. Syria Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who left his post sad and frustrated at the continued militarization of the conflict and escalation of violence.

As Phyllis Bennis points out, global and regional forces are “actively engage[d] in arming and funding all sides” in a war that has already killed over 160,000 people and displaced 40 percent of Syria’s population, , or around 9 million people, including numerous refugees of U.S.-backed occupations in Iraq and Palestine. Of these, around 2.5 million have fled to Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, while the remainder are internally displaced. The U.S. is playing a direct role in further militarizing a conflict that is growing increasingly sectarian, spreading across the region, and contributing to ongoing violence in war-torn Iraq.

Any step towards demilitarization, de-escalation, and diplomacy in Syria is a good one. Militarized “humanitarianism” will only deepen Syria’s ongoing tragedy, for which ordinary people are paying the price.

Naked Militarism Exposed

The longest official war in U.S. history has been extended for at least another two years. In late May, Obama unveiled his plan for Afghanistan: the 32,000 U.S. troops currently deployed there will be cut to 10,000 at the end of 2014, and then to 5,000 by the end of 2015. By the end of 2016, there will be a further reduction. "This is how war ends in the 21st century," he said.

But is it really ending? The two top contenders in Afghanistan's race for the presidency, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, have both vowed if elected to sign a Bilateral Status Agreement, which has been heavily criticized in Afghanistan for extending immunity from prosecution to U.S. troops, allowing for continued night raids and special ops kill missions, and opening the door to open-ended U.S. occupation. Furthermore, Obama’s plan will likely leave tens of thousands of people, comprising what Philip Carter calls an “invisible army of American diplomats, intelligence personnel, civilian government officials, and contractors.” And the extension of the war by at least another two years will likely force the approximately 50 people detained by the U.S. in Bagram prison, which is notorious for torture and mistreatment, to languish longer behind bars.

A real end to the war means no U.S. troops, contractors, or weapons in Afghanistan. Ending the war with justice means reparations for the people of Afghanistan, full care for returning veterans, and a long-term commitment to learn from the incalculable tragedy of the past nearly 13 years. The call for zero U.S. troops in Afghanistan is already being sounded by several U.S. anti-war groups and will hopefully grow louder from here.

We can only hope that Iraq is not an omen for how “war ends in the 21st century.” The United States has been backing the Iraqi government’s military campaign against armed opposition groups (and as it turns out, civilians) by sending surveillance drones, ammunition, Hellfire missiles, and more. A new report by Human Rights Watch reveals that, since the beginning of May, the Iraqi government has barrel bombed and attacked residential areas in and near Fallujah and, since January, has repeatedly attacked the city’s main hospital. Meanwhile, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS), also guilty of atrocities against civilians, has been fueled by rising sectarianism resulting from the U.S. invasion and the deepening militarization of the Syrian crisis.

The House of Representatives renewed the President’s “blank check” for war this month by rejecting a proposal to put an expiration date on the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force.

Passed in the aftermath of the September 11th, 2001 attacks, this measure gave the president ill-defined powers to "use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001.” Thirteen years later, the AUMF has been expansively invoked by the Bush and Obama administrations to justify open-ended war in Afghanistan, covert drone wars, indefinite detentions at Guantanamo Bay and Bagram prisons, secret surveillance, and more.

Thanks to grassroots pressure, the AUMF is falling under increasing scrutiny in Congress. Some of that scrutiny is coming from right-wing senators, who think the AUMF’s wording should be more far-reaching to reflect how it is actually being implemented. The fact that this measure, nearly half a generation later, continues to give the U.S. president broad war powers exposes U.S. unilateralism and hubris.

But this attitude is not unique to the United States. The routine violence of one key U.S. ally was exposed this month when a video was released showing Israeli soldiers’ execution-style killing of two Palestinian children in the West Bank city of Beituniya. Different pieces of footage (warning: graphic and disturbing images) provided by Defence for Children International—Palestine, B’Tselem, and CNN all show 17-year-old Nadim Siam Nuwara and 16-year-old Muhammad Mahmoud Odeh Abu al-Thahir gunned down during a May 15th Nakba Day protest while they posed no threat to human life.

This irrefutable evidence of war crimes captured global headlines and elicited condemnation from United Nations officials. While U.S. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki called for an investigation into the deaths, she also expressed “deep respect for the Israeli army’s moral code.” The Israeli occupation forces, brazenly, denied that what looked like an execution-style killing was one—a PR move that one would only hope will discredit them further.

Tragically, these young lives lost are just a drop in the bucket. According to DCI-Palestine, more than 1,400 Palestinian children have died at the hands of the Israeli military and settlers in Occupied Palestine since 2000. Israel’s practices of killing Palestinian civilians with impunity, thanks in part to U.S. backing and aid, is well-documented, including in a recent report by Amnesty International.

Amid such explicit displays of violence, President Obama delivered a late-May speech to West Point graduates, in which he made it clear that U.S. unilateralism in the “War on Terror” is alive and well,  while simultaneously claiming that greater military restraint will be practiced going forward. He said that today's "terrorist threat" is "diffuse" and will require more murky military campaigns and "partners to fight terrorists alongside us," for whom he proposed the U.S should contribute $5 billion towards "Counterterrorism Partnership Funds." He issued repeated warnings against U.S. military overreach, perhaps in response to growing public opposition to U.S. wars, as well as recognition of the real limitations of an empire in decline.

Obama's rhetorical shift presents opportunities for people around the world to articulate and push for a real end to war in the 21st century. But we must not be fooled: overt war in Afghanistan continues, and the military “restraint” Obama calls for—drone wars, proxy battles, base expansion, and alliances with repressive states—continues to do real harm.

Resisting the Changing Face of U.S. Militarism

This Memorial Day—while much of the United States celebrated a sanitized version of war, Iraq Veterans Against the War, Under the Hood Café and Outreach Center, and the Civilian-Soldier Alliance released the Fort Hood Testimonies. Based on 31 testimonials from active-duty soldiers, veterans, and family members, and informed by over 1,000 conversations during three years of organizing, the report shows a chilling snapshot of military life in Fort Hood, Texas—the largest Army base in the United States.

In a country that has been at war for nearly 13 years, service members who have been repeatedly deployed are abandoned and punished when they need help; the military systematically violates its own medical ethics protocols; stigma around traumatic brain injury, PTSD, sexual assault, and other invisible wounds stop many from seeking the care they need; sexual assault is rampant within the ranks, often perpetrated down the chain of command. Family members—who also bear the wounds of war—face severely inadequate health care. The abuses go on.

The report makes the important demand that the Department of Defense and U.S. Congress remediate toxic legacies in Iraq and Afghanistan and “pay reparations to all affected families in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the US.” This call is the product of years of organizing and solidarity-building between U.S.-based veterans and civilians and Iraqi civil society organizations—including the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq and the Federation of Workers Councils and Unions in Iraq—demanding the Right to Heal  from the environmental and political poison of U.S. occupation.

In Israeli prisons, hundreds of incarcerated Palestinians just passed their fifth week of a hunger strike against the widespread Israeli practice of indefinite “administrative detentions” without charges or trial. Amid reports of their deteriorating health, prisoner support organization Addameer reports, “the hunger strikers remain steadfast in their quest for freedom and dignity.”

And in Yemen, artists, activists, and performers have continued in a powerful trajectory of projects like Inside Out Yemen, in which they use art to remind each other and the world that they are not targets of U.S. drones, but humans who live life, dream, and yes, goof around. The Happy Yemen video, produced by, follows a global wave of similar productions and sends the message, “Despite the difficulties, our happiness will never cease!”

This month cannot go by without mentioning Elliot Rodger’s murderous rampage in Isla Vista, California, whose purpose he directly explained in videos and a 140-page manifesto filled with misognyny, sexual entitlement, and internalized white supremacy. This has prompted mass-scale soul-searching and questioning of the misogynist and racist violence underpinning U.S. society. Hundreds of thousands of people have responded to the #YesAllWomen hashtag by sharing their own experience and survival of misogynist and sexual violence, woven into face-to-face relationships and U.S. society.

To take on gendered and racialized violence in the world, it is necessary to look at the whole picture—from the interpersonal social fabric of society to the underpinnings of U.S. empire. A real end to war in the 21st Century will come from a vibrant feminist movement without borders that stands together in declaring Black African girls’ lives matter and should not be used as propaganda for U.S. military intervention. That affirms that Palestinian children should not be shot in the street and Iraqi civilians not barrel bombed from the sky. That pulls the veil off of the covert and insidious creep of U.S. military presence and calls a war what it is.

Amid U.S. militarism and the sickness it breeds, movements for rehumanization, solidarity, and resistance point the way to a better future.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Sarah Lazare lives in Portland, Maine where she is an assistant news producer for Common Dreams. Sarah is an independent journalist and organizer in U.S. anti-war and anti-militarist movements, as a member of War Times and The Civilian-Soldier Alliance, an organization that supports veteran and G.I. movements against U.S.-led wars. Sarah has organized around issues of Palestine solidarity, economic justice, and migrant rights, and she is co-editor of the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War.

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