"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
If in the year 2000 the U.S. president had told the American people that the government would soon begin using robot planes to track people, including U.S. citizens, all over the world, and would reserve to itself the right to kill them without trial, it is safe to say there would have been an enormous uproar. But that is exactly what is happening today, and nobody cares. The majority of Americans, including those who were opposed to the war in Iraq, have no problems with their government killing at will, so long as the killing is done in the name of “national security.”
How did this happen? In retrospect, the war in Afghanistan was the prime culprit. That endless, Sisyphean war was the thin end of the wedge. In that murky, shifting struggle, it was normal for the U.S. to arrogate to itself the right to kill the Taliban wherever they were in Afghanistan or Pakistan. Once that precedent was established, it was an small step to killing bad guys in Iraq, Somalia, Yemen and Libya. And so, by imperceptible steps we arrived at the place we are now, where 77 percent of liberals support President Obama’s vastly expanded killer drone campaign, where an American citizen can be remotely vaporized at the touch of a button and no one cares. The war on Afghanistan set the precedent that shaped the entire “war on terror” paradigm. The chimera of “safety from terrorism” led us by easy stages to begin waging dirty war across the globe — changing the definition of war, eroding moral and legal standards and greatly increasing the likelihood of ugly future consequences.
What makes this subject so tricky is that morally, legally and by any standard, the war on Afghanistan was completely justified. Recall the situation before we launched the invasion. 9/11 had just happened. The Taliban were in control of Afghanistan. They had aided and abetted Osama bin Laden, and refused to hand him over. This was an intolerable situation. As accomplices to mass murder, they could not be allowed to get away with their monstrous crimes. Moreover, if bin Laden remained at large he could plan another attack. Removing the Taliban was a matter of self-defense. We had to do everything possible to reduce the chances of another 9/11.
For all these reasons, I, like the vast majority of Americans, supported the war on Afghanistan. There did not seem to be any alternative. Were we really going to just sit there and let the Taliban remain in power? And once we toppled them, were we going to leave and let them return? What would have been the point of getting rid of them in the first place?
But if the war on Afghanistan was justified, that does not – in retrospect – mean it was wise.
It almost feels treasonous to raise doubts about the war. We have all been subjected to the red-white-and-blue “no price is too great to pay for national security” mantra for so long that we have forgotten that if trying to prevent a terrorist attack by launching a war results in more Americans being killed than would have been killed in the attack, the price obviously is too great. All we would have done in that case is trade more military lives for fewer civilian ones.
Of course, there is no way to ever know for certain whether the war in Afghanistan has cost more lives than it saved. (For what it’s worth, 1,896 U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan; almost 3,000 people died in the 9/11 attacks.) We don’t know if the war has saved any American lives. What we do know is that by every other measure, it has not been worth the cost.
Perform the following thought experiment. Imagine that 9/11 has not taken place. The corrupt and incompetent government of Afghanistan, a profoundly impoverished and backward nation with no tradition of democracy or civic institutions, riven by tribal loyalties and bearing the unpromising nickname “graveyard of empires,” has been locked for years in a bitter, bloody struggle with a radical Islamist group, the Taliban. The Taliban has strong support in southern Afghanistan and also has a safe haven in the tribal regions of neighboring Pakistan, another poverty-stricken, backward country whose government is almost equally corrupt and incompetent and whose intelligence service has deep ties to the Taliban. Other shadowy Islamist militants around the world are operating out of hidey-holes in various failed states and war-torn countries, trying to overthrow their governments and talking about attacking the U.S., but their capabilities are extremely limited.
Should the United States declare war on the Taliban and other militant Islamist groups around the world, send more than 100,000 troops to Afghanistan, spend more than $450 billion on the war ($113 billion this fiscal year alone), and launch hundreds of drone missile strikes against suspected militants in five different countries?
Anyone who said “yes” to that question would be a lunatic. Why on earth would the U.S. step into such an obvious quagmire? We would have everything to lose and almost nothing to gain.
Of course, that thought experiment included a huge counterfactual: In it, 9/11 never happened. But that omission only highlights the significance of the fact that today, most Americans no longer believe that the war in Afghanistan is worth fighting, even though everyone knows that our departure will dramatically increase the possibility of the Taliban taking power again. The connection between the Taliban and 9/11 no longer seems worth fighting a full-scale war over: Americans just want us to get out. The administration agrees: Defense Secretary Leon Panetta just announced that some U.S. combat troops will come home in 2013, a year earlier than originally planned.
Of course, the war on Afghanistan can’t be undone. I only raise the subject of whether it was worth fighting because that question is directly relevant to something we do still have control over: the endless global dirty war against alleged terrorists that George Bush started and Barack Obama has not just continued, but greatly expanded. If we’re willing to abandon Afghanistan to its fate, why do we insist on continuing the war on terror elsewhere? With the end of the official war finally coming into sight, it is essential that we begin a national discussion about whether we really want to continue the unofficial one forever.
It’s understandable why the dirty war has few critics. Drone attacks and special forces operations are cheap, out of sight, and involve low casualties (none, at least immediately, when drones are used). Politically, the dirty war inoculates Obama against GOP charges that he is “soft on terrorism:” not only is he continuing to prosecute a renamed version of Bush’s “war on terror,” he has significantly escalated it. And now that the dirty war has been launched, it is politically almost impossible to stop it: what president, Democratic or Republican (Ron Paul is the exception, but he is not going to win the election) would dare to stop blowing up alleged militants, knowing that if there was subsequently a successful terrorist attack, he or she would be held responsible?
Moreover, the dirty war has been tactically effective. It has killed significant numbers of top Taliban and Al-Qaida leaders, including bin Laden himself, and forced other radical jihadists underground, disrupting their command and control and generally making their lives difficult.
Finally, dirty war has a proven historical track record. Agents of the American OSS and the British SOE, fighting behind enemy lines, carried out major acts of sabotage and subversion, tied up Axis troops and provided invaluable support to resistance groups. (I should know: I wrote a book about the SOE.) Dirty war tactics helped win World War II.
So why stop using such an effective instrument?
The answer is simple: Because it is not effective. Far from making us safer, the permanent dirty war is endangering our national security. It may be tactically effective, but it is strategically disastrous. Unfortunately, there’s no way to prove this. But there are some compelling arguments for why it is true. And it would be a start if progressives and Democrats would at least start to question the wisdom of the U.S. playing God all over the world.
The first point to be made is that this isn’t World War II. We’re not fighting Hitler or Tojo, national leaders commanding huge armies and controlling vast amounts of territory and resources, but a bunch of ragged fanatics in caves. By treating these puny adversaries as if they were more formidable than they are, we’re squandering resources that would be better used trying to improve the lives of the people living in their countries. By employing the same tactics the terrorists use, we are descending to their level. In a fight against terrorism, which ultimately is a fight for hearts and minds, this is a losing proposition.
Second, dirty war is still war. By pursuing an endless war, we are opening a Pandora’s Box – for war, no matter how low-level, is always a Pandora’s Box. War is the ultimate generator of chaos. And chaos produces unexpected consequences –what spooks call “blowback.”
There are a number of reasons to fear blowback. The places we are fighting are murky and unpredictable. Their governments could fall as a result of anger over our dirty wars – a real possibility in Pakistan — and chaos within their borders can spill over into neighboring countries, destabilizing them as well. Nor are the players clear-cut. As the Iraq “surge” proved, which succeeded because we paid off Sunnis we considered “terrorists” yesterday to fight al-Qaida today, the line between good guys and bad guys is blurry. Some of the people we are blowing up are Salafi jihadis who want to destroy the Great Satan, but others are insurgents resentful of foreign troops, and still others are farmers in the wrong place at the wrong time. Every one of these people has survivors who may or may not vow to take revenge on us. And one thing we know is that the people involved have long memories. One of the reasons Iraqis were suspicious of their American occupiers’ idealistic pronouncements, as the late Anthony Shadid pointed out in his superb book about the Iraq war, is that the Iraqis remembered that when the British occupied Iraq in 1917, they uttered the same pretty phrases – and then remained in control of Iraq and its oil for decades.
Finally, there is the fact that our dirty war tactics are increasingly hard to distinguish from the terror attacks they are intended to forestall. (There is a bizarre and disturbing parallel between the destruction of the World Trade Center by planes that suddenly slammed into it, and the equally apocalyptic death from above that rains down upon the victims of drone strikes who are incinerated in their cars without ever even hearing the sound of the incoming missile. I am not equating the morality of the two attacks, only their shared spectacle, but many people in Middle East make no such distinction — and some will burn to replay the spectacle on American soil.) Obama’s extra-legal assassination of the radical cleric and American citizen Anwar Awlaki tacitly accepts the terrorist credo that might makes right and morality is simply a fig leaf covering naked power. This makes it impossible for America to take the high moral ground, and puts us on a slippery slope: if it’s OK to kill Awlaki today, why shouldn’t it be OK to kill some foreign scientist we deem dangerous to our national security tomorrow? By embracing the law of the jungle, we have opened the door to hell.
The question Donald Rumsfeld, of all people, asked about Iraq is still the central one: Is our dirty war creating more terrorists than it’s killing? And there is every reason to believe that it is.
It is tempting to see our new way of waging war as having no consequences. A functionary sitting in a mountain in Colorado pushes a button, blows up three people in a field in Pakistan, and then goes to the bathroom. Suppose the brothers of those three guys are mad at America – so what? They’re in Pakistan. What are they going to do? If they start to make trouble, we’ll blow them up too.
This complacent attitude towards the consequences of war has deep roots both in American history and contemporary culture. Because of geography and military strength, America never been subjected to the horrors of foreign invasion. (The War of 1812 doesn’t count.) Our virtual culture of video games and disembodied online interactions, in which “communities” can be composed of people who have never met and messy, all-too-human consequences can be avoided or erased with the touch of a mouse, turns war into an electronic game of whack-a-mole. And, of course, fewer and fewer Americans have ever served in the military or even seen a dead body.
All these factors make war weightless. For Americans, “fighting terrorists” on a permanent basis by blowing people up here and there across the globe is just something a responsible country does, the same way that a good dog owner remembers to give his pooch his flea medicine.
But war isn’t weightless. War means exploding bodies, and guts hanging out, and bloody scraps of flesh, and brains spattered on the ground. The people on the receiving ends of drone attacks are no more two-dimensional than the people in the World Trade Center. Their relatives and friends and acquaintances will not see them as pixels.
There are dark, primordial, psychological reasons why Americans support the dirty war. It is driven by the dream of perfect safety. Like all terrible traumas, 9/11 instilled in us an overpowering desire to protect ourselves. In an ambiguous and threatening world, the knowledge that we are fighting our enemies, that we are doing something, is reassuring. And it cannot be denied that remaining in a constant state of war may result in some short-term gains. Covert operations could kill someone up who might at some point launch a terrorist attack against us. And it could prop up governments that take our side against jihadis. But those successes are not only ephemeral, they set off chain reactions we cannot control. Endless war is much more likely to result in the slow, inexorable growth of hatred against us. Until we abandon the illusion that we can make ourselves completely safe, we will only succeed in making ourselves less so. As a great president said when facing an infinitely more dangerous adversary than we face today, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Like frogs placed in slowly boiling water, we have been lulled into seeing our current situation, in which we arrogate to ourselves the right to kill without formally being at war, as normal. But it is not normal. It represents a radical break with the way we have made war throughout our entire history. After 9/11, George W. Bush rashly launched a “war on terror,” Barack Obama, in his folly, continued to prosecute it, and the American people accepted it. This permanent, undeclared war may appear innocuous, but it is a ticking bomb.
No one knows when that bomb will go off. The risk is not quantifiable. But that is precisely the point. War, no matter how small and sanitized, is the most unquantifiable thing in the world. We have, in effect, decided to play God, reaching down from our high-tech heaven to kill whoever we want, whenever we want, wherever we want. We have gotten away with it so far. But if we know anything from human history, it is that bad things happen to people who try to become God.
Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.More Gary Kamiya.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)