Various matters

New coverage shows drone's widespread damage -- even among operators. Plus: Other must-reads from the Web

Published December 22, 2011 11:44AM (EST)

          (U.S. Air Force/Salon)
(U.S. Air Force/Salon)

(updated below - Update II - Update III [Fri.] - Update IV [Fri.])

There are several relatively brief items worth noting today:

(1) There are two new must-read articles on one of the worst legacies of the Obama presidency thus far: the failure to prosecute Wall Street executives for the criminal behavior that precipitated the 2008 financial crisis. The first is from Jeff Connaughton, the former chief of staff to former Democratic Sen. Ted Kaufman, who chaired Senate oversight hearings on financial fraud prosecutions; Connaughton documents what he calls the "misleading" statements and multiple actions of President Obama designed to shield those executives from accountability. The second is from Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi who, commenting on Connaughton's piece, writes that "what makes Obama’s statements so dangerous is that they suggest an ongoing strategy of covering up the Wall Street crimewave."

(2) A New York Times article yesterday examined the sometimes severe psychological stress experienced by the long-distance, remote-controlled operators of America's drones. In one sense, that story angle is perverse: whatever stress these drone pilots experience is a tiny fraction of that continuously suffered by those who live with the falling bombs and missiles launched by these drones near their homes and children. But the articles makes one interesting point: while long working hours are the principal cause of the stress (necessitated by America's massive increase in drone usage under President Obama), one source of stress for at least a small portion of these pilots is having to confront the images of the "collateral damage" they cause -- meaning the innocent human life they extinguish with their joysticks and video game buttons:

In one surprising finding that challenged some of the survey’s initial suppositions, the authors found limited stress related to a unique aspect of the operators’ jobs: watching hours of close-up video of people killed in drone strikes. After a strike, operators assess the damage, and unlike fighter pilots who fly thousands of feet above their targets, drone operators can see in vivid detail what they have destroyed. . . .

Both Dr. Chappelle and Colonel McDonald said that 4 percent or less of operators were at high risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder, the severe anxiety disorder that can include flashbacks, nightmares, anger, hypervigilance or avoidance of people, places or situations. In those cases, the authors suggested, the operators had seen close-up video of what the military calls collateral damage, casualties of women, children or other civilians. “Collateral damage is unnerving or unsettling to these guys,” Colonel McDonald said.

The doctors conducting the study were actually surprised that the psychological injuries from seeing this was as limited as it is. Still, at least some of these drone pilots have enough of a conscience to be seriously disturbed by the horrific results of these strikes. If only the general citizenry -- who are typically kept blissfully unaware of the human devastation their government is causing -- were as affected.

Along those lines,, to its credit, today has a stomach-turning story of a 4-year-girl Pakistani girl who was severely burned by an American drone strike back in 2009, when she was a year old, complete with horrifying videos of her injuries:

She has eyelashes but no eyebrows. She has all her fingers but is missing four nails. Her skin is so taut now that she can no longer frown.

But she can still smile.

Her face tells a story of suffering. . . .Shakira, believed burned in a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan, will undergo reconstructive surgery in January. . .

In 2009, [Hashmat] Effendi was on a medical mission with Texas-based House of Charity in Pakistan's Swat Valley. The region's natural beauty was once compared to Switzerland's, but by then it was a Taliban-infested area rife with violence.

One of the doctors found three little girls left in a trash bin. They'd suffered horrific injuries.

"Who are they?" the doctor asked.

Nobody knew.

Where were their parents? Where were they from?

Shakira, 4, is believed to have been burned in a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan in 2009.

All anyone could say is that there had been a U.S. drone attack.

The doctor, who was traveling with House of Charity, took them back with him. They were in grave condition. Two of the girls died, but the littlest one had a chance of making it if she were treated right away.

She was only a year old, Effendi guessed, but small for her age. She was skinny. Dirty. Very bloody. She had fresh burns all over her face, her scalp and on her arms.

This repeats itself over and over. And yet, it could hardly be less controversial in the country responsible for these attacks, largely because there is no partisan gain to be had from caring about it (merely to mention the irony that the GOP candidate currently leading most Iowa polls is the only major candidate from either party who opposes all of this is to trigger all sorts of recriminations; apparently, the ongoing slaughter of innocent men, women and children is far too insignificant an issue even to make the agenda of discussion). In fact, literally every time I even raise the horrors of the Obama drone program and the secrecy and lawlessness under which it's conducted, I'm bombarded with arguments that drones are not an important issue or, from the most pathological Obama apologists, even fun drone humor designed to mock concerns about these attacks (such frivolity follows in the footsteps of their leader himself and his top aides). Contrary to the outright lie told by John Brennan, the President's top counter-terrorism adviser, the fact is that the U.S. is continuously blowing up, burning, and killing innocent people, including numerous children, in the Muslim world. The program under which that is done is shrouded in almost complete secrecy. And it not only continues, but does so with little controversy.

(3) In response to the criticism I voiced a couple of weeks ago of NPR's largely one-sided news story on domestic drones (criticism apparently expressed as well by numerous NPR listeners), that outlet's Ombudsman defended the coverage but said "the complaints raise good—even intriguing—points for a second story that focuses exclusively on the privacy concerns surrounding potential police use of drones here at home." Yesterday, the generally excellent Tom Ashbrook devoted a full hour on his NPR On Point Show to the proliferation of drones, featuring an ACLU staff attorney specializing in privacy issues.  TPM's Jillian Rayfield also has a good article on the growth of domestic drones and the unique dangers they pose.

(4) In Salon, Jordan Michael Smith compiles substantial evidence to argue that "the media consensus on Israel is collapsing." Few developments are as imperative: The Australian reports today how the U.S., yet again, is alienating itself from the world consensus, and angering even close allies, by standing alone once again to shield Israel from even the mildest rebuke for the most egregious misconduct. To be sure, the smear campaigns are as concerted as ever toward those who question this bipartisan Israel orthodoxy -- Time's Joe Klein this week responded to some of those smears aimed at him for doing so: see his Point 7 and the update -- but, as Smith documents, they are increasingly ineffective.

(5) In The New Yorker, George Packer, who vocally supported the attack on Iraq but criticized it when it starting failing, writes about Christopher Hitchens, who never deviated from full-throated support. Most of what Packer writes is, as one would expect, little more than the now-trite reminiscing about Hitchens we've heard from his thousands of media friends which Neal Pollack parodied so brilliantly here, but Packer's concluding paragraph struck me as something worth highlighting:

Iraq led Hitchens to some of his worst indulgences—the propaganda trip to Iraq in Wolfowitz’s entourage, the pose of Byronic heroism. But perhaps the war and the enemies it made him helped give Hitchens the courage of his last years and months—the atheist in the foxhole. Hitchens was one of the very few people who could slash and burn you in print, then meet for drinks and talk in the true warmth of friendship, discussing a writer we both admired, garrulous to the very last. It was a sign of his essential decency that he didn’t make it personal.

Is it really "a sign of decency" to refuse to view any political ideas as not merely wrong in some abstract intellectual sense, but as a reflection of the person's character? Obviously, there are many political disagreements -- most -- which can and should be conducted in perfectly good faith without the need for personal animus. Conversely, though, aren't there some political views so repellent and sociopathic that "a sign of essential decency" is to make it personal, rather than refusing to do so? This line of thought strikes me as anything but essentially decent:

Sure, he was and remained a fervent, unrepentant public cheerleader for an aggressive, baseless attack on another country that killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people and displaced millions more, and sure, he was very eager to fuel an Endless War that resulted in the deaths of countless innocent men, women and children that he himself never fought in, but I'm not going to hold any of that against him. I'll argue with him as part of entertaining, invigorating political debate, but then will be happy to go out for drinks with him -- he's a really fun guy -- and will proudly call him my friend.

In what sense does "decency" compel -- or even permit -- that line of thought? Packer, as he usually does, is simply giving voice to the standard mindset of Washington's political and media class. As Charles Davis put it to me by email a couple of days ago when discussing David Corn's expressed admiration for Hitchens -- the irony that the Washington Bureau Chief of Mother Jones, of all places, waxed so effusive about one of the nation's leading war zealots:

That's Washington. Issues of war and peace -- life and death -- are just something you argue about from 9 to 5, and only when the cameras are on. Disagreeing on the wisdom of invading and occupying other nations is like disagreeing on whether the minimum wage should be $9.50 or $9.25: nothing serious enough to end a relationship over (see: Lake, Eli). And what's a few hundred thousand dead brown people between friends?

The bottomless willingness of political and media elites to forgive each other of their sins, insulate personal relationships from everything else, and subordinate all other considerations to loyalty to their shared membership in those circles is not "a sign of essential decency." It's one of the leading causes of Washington's rot.

(6) Physics Professor, noted atheist, and author Mano Singham has an interesting review of With Liberty and Justice for Some.


UPDATE: For a thoughtful, nuanced, very smart examination of the specific issue of Ron Paul and the newsletters, and more so, the general issue of Ron Paul's candidacy, read this from The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf. It's long, but well worth the time.


UPDATE II: George Packer -- who wrote in the very Hitchens piece of his which I quoted here: "He and I argued a lot about the [Iraq] war. We had both supported it" -- emails to object to my characterization of him as a "vocal supporter" of the war:

Dear Mr. Greenwald:

You write that I "vocally supported the attack on Iraq." This is false. I never took a public position before the war. Instead, I wrote about the various arguments about the coming war in a series of articles in The New York Times Magazine. Long after the war went wrong, and after I started making regular trips to Iraq for The New Yorker, I wrote that I had been an ambivalent supporter. In other words, I outed myself when it could only do me harm--exactly the opposite of the opportunism you attribute to me. A quick review of my work would have made this clear. By not bothering, you've made your column a kind of echo chamber--not the same one as that of the "political and media elite," but just as lazy.

I expect a correction.

George Packer

The distinction he's apparently drawing -- between being an unacknowledged supporter of the war and an admitted one -- does not seem particularly significant, nor particularly flattering: if he thought his war support was significant enough to mention in 2005, why wasn't it significant in 2002 and 2003? Beyond that, I did not suggest that Packer's change of heart was opportunistic: I simply described, accurately, that it occurred (he "vocally supported the attack on Iraq but criticized it when it starting failing").  Moreover, my former Salon colleague, Gary Kamiya, calling Packer a "liberal hawk," wrote a long and largely flattering review in 2005 of Packer's Iraq War book detailing his pro-war stance and how it manifested; I'll leave it to readers to judge for themselves whether Packer's pre-war reporting was fairly deemed "pro-war." But, as Kamiya noted, even Packer's change of heart was quite limited:

Packer presumably knows all this, but he refuses to admit that the idea of invading Iraq was wrong — only the execution. “Since America’s fate is now tied to Iraq’s, it might be years or even decades before the wisdom of the war can finally be judged,” Packer writes. “The Iraq War was always winnable; it still is.” In other words, it is too soon to say if our national interest has been harmed by the war.

Under the Slate headline "Liberal Hawks Reconsider the War," here's what Packer was saying about Iraq in 2004. The point in dispute is extremely ancillary to anything I've raised here, but I'll acknowledge that Packer's pre-war reporting, though accompanied by admitted support for the attack, was presented in the language of journalistic neutrality, rendering "vocal support" an overstatement. As was true even for the most war-enabling journalists of the time, the war support was more "concealed" than explicit.


UPDATE III [Fri.]: Regarding the last point: in 2009, The New York Times assigned Packer to review a book by former New Yorker writer Mark Danner, and Danner wrote a response to that review suggesting that their vehement disagreements over the Iraq War prior to its commencement influenced the review; Danner's response included this passage:

I strongly believed — as I first argued to George, my old New Yorker colleague and friend, in a discussion he and I had at a meeting of a small reading group to which we both belonged in January 2003, shortly before the war — that the invasion would be a catastrophic mistake that would bring in its wake a great deal of sectarian violence and score-­settling. Packer, an ardent supporter of going to war in Iraq, argued that the United States should invade and occupy the country for humanitarian reasons. As the war ground on, he and I rejoined the debate intermittently in a number of forums.

Danner further attributes some of Packer's criticisms of his book to the fact "that I disagreed with him when he argued that our country should invade and occupy Iraq." At least according to Danner, Packer was hardly hiding his support for the war. Nor, according to Danner, was Packer's support "ambivalent," but rather "ardent." I was willing to post Packer's response and concede the point without doing much work to disprove his claims because the point was so ancillary to what I was writing here, but the picture Packer painted of himself in his demand for a correction (one he repeated in his reply to Danner) is, to put it mildly, quite disputable.


UPDATE IV [Fri.]: For a real sense of the mindset Packer was propagating back then, see this New York Times Op-Ed from late September, 2001, where he declares in the first sentence: "Sept. 11 made it safe for liberals to be patriots." Apparently, said Packer, liberals were unwilling to be patriotic ever since the Vietnam War: "the instinct for battlefield virtue went underground." He then added: "Our civilization is, of course, decadent, but it is also free enough for us to wake up to that fact. What I dread now" -- is not another attack -- but rather: "is a return to the normality we're all supposed to seek: instead of public memorials, private consumption; instead of lines to give blood, restaurant lines." As Corey Robin says: "One reason Packer might defend Hitchens is that their response to 9/11 was so similar. . . . In short, both Hitchens and Packer welcomed 9/11 as a deliverance from the decadence of the US." Those two were hardly alone in their 9/11-is-Good celebrations:

Less than a month after people jumped from the World Trade Center’s north tower to avoid burning to death, David Brooks asked, “Does anybody but me feel upbeat, and guilty about it?” “I feel upbeat because the country seems to be a better place than it was a month ago,” Brooks explained, “I feel guilty about it because I should be feeling pain and horror and anger about the recent events. But there’s so much to cheer one up.”

Here's how Packer concluded his Op-Ed:

I don't desire war -- but I know that patriotic feeling makes individuals exceed themselves as the bland comforts of peace cannot. ''The only thing needed,'' William James wrote in ''The Moral Equivalent of War,'' ''is to inflame the civic temper as past history has inflamed the military temper.'' I've lived through this state, and I like it.

Packer may think that he concealed his war fervor, but he did a nice job helping to spread it.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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