The military keeps getting away with murder
And a sneak peek and update on the launch event for Gangsters of Capitalism
On Aug. 29, during the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, a Central Command strike team remotely piloted its Reaper drone through a densely populated neighborhood of Kabul. At 4:53 p.m. Kabul time, a car the drone was pursuing entered the courtyard of a house. The operators entered a command, and the drone launched a Hellfire missile. When the smoke cleared, 10 people were dead. Seven were children. The youngest was two years old.
Over the next few months the U.S. military’s explations for the massacre evaporated under the scrutiny of reporting, much of it by the New York Times. The slain driver, Zemari Ahmadi, was not a member of ISIS, but a worker for a California-based non-profit. Drone cameras picked up the presence of at least one child in the area minutes before the strike. And so on. If it hadn’t been obvious in the minutes after the strike, it was abundantly clear by this month that a horrendous crime had occured.
Yet on this, the Pentagon made its unsurprising announcement: no one would be punished for their role in the slaughter. No one will even be demoted. As Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told MSNBC’s Morning Joe: “There’s not going to be individual discipline as a result of this, really.” Instead, he pledged, “we are going to learn from this, and enact and improve our procedures and our processes to try and make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
That is, in a word, bullshit. We know it will happen again because it happens over and over. In November, even as it was sweeping the massacre of the Ahmadi family under the rug, the Times revealed that the Defense Department was also covering up the aerial massacre of civilians in Syria—again, including children—by U.S. bombing outside the town of Baghuz. The killing of foreign civilians by U.S. forces is so commonplace that it scarcely registers in American political debate.
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And the killing of civilians by U.S. forces is not new. These stories echo the history I recount in Gangsters of Capitalism. For instance, in one chapter, I recount one of the massacres perpetrated during the U.S. conquest of the Philippines in 1901. Here’s a preview:
(“Capable of bearing arms,” the general clarified, meant boys at least ten years of age.)
The situations rhyme in many disturbing ways. The 2021 strike against the Ahmadis was carried out in an atmosphere of revenge over the killing of 13 U.S. troops (and some 170 Afghan civilians) outside Kabul’s international airport. The 1901 “kill and burn” order was given in crazed response to the massacre of 48 occupying U.S. soldiers by insurgents in the Samareño town of Balangiga. And in 1901, as in 2021, no individual Americans were ultimately punished in any meaningful fashion.
There is a lot more to say about the culture of impunity and brutality within the U.S. military. But my main point in this brief newsletter is what our blithe acceptance of not only such massacres but the Pentagon’s self-exoneartions means for us as a society. As 2022 and the first anniversary of the January 6 autogolpe approaches, Americans find themselves scrambling for explanations as to how authoritarianism can be on the rise in the “land of the free.”
I would suggest it has everything to do with the indifference with which we ultimately greet both the news of our massacres overseas, and the fact that no one—not a soul—will be held responsible. Once again, I have to quote Aimé Césaire, and his writing on the effects of such acceptance on the imperial metropole of France:
First we must study how colonization works to decivilize the colonizer, to brutalize him in the true sense of the word, to degrade him, to awaken him to buried instincts, to covetousness, violence, race hatred, and moral relativism; and we must show that each time a head is cut off or an eye put out in Vietnam and in France they accept the fact, each time a little girl is raped and in France they accept the fact, each time a Madagascan is tortured and in France they accept the fact, civilization acquires another dead weight, a universal regression takes place, a gangrene sets in, a center of infection begins to spread; and that at the end of all these treaties that have been violated, all these lies that have been propagated, all these punitive expeditions that have been tolerated, all these prisoners who have been tied up and interrogated, all these patriots who have been tortured, at the end of all the racial pride that has been encouraged, all the boastfulness that has been displayed, a poison has been instilled into the veins of Europe and, slowly but surely, the continent proceeds toward savagery. (boldface mine)
Césaire’s conclusion was that not just imperial brutality but the widespread acceptance of it led to the rise of fascism in Europe. We have been brutalized by over a century of pointless killing in our name. We need to have a serious national reckoning with what exactly these murderous “procedures” are supposed to accomplish. And if the Pentagon doesn’t want to hold itself responsible for when those procedures result in murder, we have to find another way to instill in our leaders a much-needed sense of accountability and shame.
As I announced recently, my Jan. 18 launch day event is going to be an online conversation between me and podcaster Mike Duncan, hosted virtually by the Washington, D.C., independent bookstore Politics & Prose.
Those plans hit a snag this week when the bookstore first refused to recognize their employees’ newly formed union. Then news broke that the store was bringing in the Trump-aligned union busters at Jones Day to represent them. Not exactly the kind of place where I wanted to launch a book called Gangsters of Capitalism!
But I also did not want to make a hasty decision which would imperil the union’s negotiating position. So I reached out to the union to ask what they wanted me to do.
Here’s how the union replied:
We would actually benefit greatly from you staying with us through this tricky time, and rather than canceling the event, using it as an opportunity to promote the unionization effort! At the end of the day, we the workers of Politics & Prose want Politics & Prose to thrive and continue collaborating with authors such as yourself to spread the beauty of books in our community. We just want to do it under our conditions. Our official recommendation would be to support our workers by moving forward with the event, and support our unionization by using the event as a moment of solidarity with us. I appreciate you reaching out and asking us for guidance; we will win this if we all work together!
So there you have it. The event is still on, in solidarity with the union. We will use the platform to speak out for workers’ rights, just as Smedley Butler would have wanted.
Once again it’s:
Tuesday, Jan. 18 at 6 p.m. ET
RSVP here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/pp-live-jonathan-katz-gangsters-of-capitalism-with-mike-duncan-tickets-220103685047
I’m also excited to announce a second Gangsters launch event: another virtual conversation hosted by the New America foundation. That will be with Clint Smith, the Atlantic writer and author of the bestselling How the Word Is Passed, on Jan. 27 at noon ET.
That conversation will surely focus on the many interections between Clint’s book and mine, in terms of our journeys in search of historical memory and the silencing of the past. Can’t wait for that one either. More info here.
Excited to share the book with everyone. Please be sure to pre-order if you haven’t already. Hasta pronto.