A Callous Nation: Reflections on the Obama-McChrystal-Rolling Stone Saga

We Americans must seem to much of the world a callous and superficial people.  Look at the recent media-politics soap opera that briefly distracted us from (among other things) the ongoing state-capitalist eco-tastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico (which surged dramatically yesterday morning [I am writing in the afternoon of Thursday, June 24th] as British Petroleum was forced to remove a containment cap [1])  The nation was all a twitter with opinions on whether or not Barack Obama should demand/accept the resignation of top “Af-Pak” military commander General Stanley A. McChrystal because of some disdainful remarks McChrystal and some of his staff made about the president and other top administration officials highlighted in an article in Rolling Stone magazine.  In the article, McChrystal and his aides were heard speaking disparagingly about many in Obama’s national security team.  The general was quoted saying that Obama had seemed “uncomfortable and intimidated” during his first meeting with the general and that Obama had at times appeared “disengaged” from the war in South Asia.  A McChrystal aide was quoted dismissing Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. as “Bite Me.”

“A Sad End to a Fine Career”

On the set and in the audience of ABC’s daily women’s talk show “The View” last Tuesday, there was clear majority sentiment on behalf of McChrystal’s discharge. Why? Because McChrystal had “disrespected” the president – a transgression that many feel was race. Not because McChrystal has long stood in the vanguard of military sentiment on behalf of the bloody U.S. imperial crucifixion of the Middle East and South Asia. Not because Obama’s “Af-Pak” chieftain is the former chief of the military’s special Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq who was involved in a prisoner abuse scandal in Baghdad’s Camp Nana and played a key role in covering up the “friendly fire” death of professional football star and Army Ranger Pat Tillman.  Not because “for nearly five years starting in 2003, McChrystal was in charge of death squad ops” (Alexander Cockburn)[2]. And not because, as Tom Engelhardt noted two Mays ago, “Stanley McChrystal is the general from the dark side (and proud of it). …McChrystal’s appointment as the man to run the Afghan War seems to signal that the Obama administration is going for broke. It’s heading straight into what, in the Vietnam era, was known as ‘the big muddy.’” As Engelhardt elaborated:

“General McChrystal comes from a world where killing by any means is the norm and a blanket of secrecy provides the necessary protection. For five years he commanded the Pentagon’s super-secret Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which, among other things, ran what Seymour Hersh has described as an “executive assassination wing” out of Vice President Cheney’s office. “

“…In the Bush years, McChrystal was reputedly extremely close to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The super-secret force he commanded was, in fact, part of Rumsfeld’s effort to seize control of, and Pentagonize, the covert, on-the-ground activities that were once the purview of the CIA.”

“Behind McChrystal lies a string of targeted executions that may run into the hundreds, as well as accusations of torture and abuse by troops under his command.”[3]

There’s some interesting context for assessing the callousness of the New York Times’ ‘ noxious uber-neoliberal columnist Thomas Friedman’s judgment yeserday: “Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s trashing of his civilian colleagues was unprofessional and may cost him his job. If so, it will be a sad end to a fine career.”

Wow. A fine and blood-soaked career indeed! As the San Francisco-based Marxist and free-thinker Giovanni Navarette noted on Facebook yesterday: “McChrystal is a murderer, a first rate psycho war criminal–but that was not his crime in the eyes of Obama. In fact that was why he was put in charge. His crime is simply not being a silent robot killing machine. Like all other presidents, the rule is: ‘No talking back allowed’–esp. not in public. If you dare to challenge the leader of the .empire even in a very mild half serious rolling stone article, it’s not tolerable. Mai Lai type massacres and war crimes? No problem! Talk back? It’s a big deal! How backwards and twisted are these values and priorities?”


Also Beside the Point: Criminal War, False Pretexts, and Spiritual Death

No, it’s been about pride, manliness, and perhaps race, inside the political class. The really big issue – as framed by the nation’s dominant war and entertainment media – is that the white warrior McChrystal and his staff appear to have dissed the nation’s first black president, thereby undermining his ability manfully execute his supposed good and proper war (the supposedly virtuous counter-campaign to George W. Bush’s bad war on Iraq) in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We are supposed to focus on the testosterone-driven pissing match between and among members of the ruling class and along the way to continue to forget about the very ugly facts that the United States ‘ increasingly solitary and widely unpopular, mass-murderous attack on Afghanistan has never met any of the standard international moral and legal criteria for justifiable self-defense and that that attack occurred without reasonable consultation with the United Nations Security Council. As the prominent U.S. legal scholar Marjorie Cohn noted in July of 2008, “The invasion of Afghanistan [is] as illegal as the invasion of Iraq”[4].

Another thing we are supposed to continue avoiding is that one of Obama’s core justifications for escalating in Af-Pak – the notion that Afghanistan and the border states of Pakistan are a “safe haven” for past and potential future terror attacks on the “homeland” by Al Qaeda and its associates – has always rested on the fundamentally flawed premise that al Qaeda or its many and various imitators can’t just as effectively plot and conduct future terror attacks from any of a large number of other locations, including Western Europe and the U.S. itself[5].

We are also supposed to ignore the fact that the Obama administration’s decision to spend untold billions more dollars on a futile, massively expensive colonial operation comes at a great domestic price as misery and destitution have expanded at home.  The “homeland” social uplift and opportunity cost of his imperial policy – the twisted misplacement of resources that Martin Luther King, Jr., described in the late 1960s as symptomatic of America’s “spiritual death” – has been enormous.  By the White House’s own calculation last fall, the Afghan escalation introduced by Obama last December cost $1 million a year per every single new soldier deployed – a giant investment that could and should have been diverted to meet massive and growing, unmet social needs across the U.S.

Courage: Real and Fake

Echoing Dr. King’s late-1960s sermons and speeches against the U.S. military state’s “perverted priorities,” New York Times columnist Bob Herbert marked the day of Obama’s chilling West Point Af-Pak War Escalation Address last December with an eloquent lament:

“the president has arrived at a decision that never was much in doubt, and that will prove to be a tragic mistake. It was also, for the president, the easier option.”

“It would have been much more difficult for Mr. Obama to look this troubled nation in the eye and explain why it is in our best interest to begin winding down the permanent state of warfare left to us by the Bush and Cheney regime. It would have taken real courage for the commander in chief to stop feeding our young troops into the relentless meat grinder of Afghanistan, to face up to the terrible toll the war is taking – on the troops themselves and in very insidious ways on the nation as a whole.”

“More soldiers committed suicide this year than in any year for which we have complete records. But the military is now able to meet its recruitment goals because the young men and women who are signing up can’t find jobs in civilian life. The United States is broken – school systems are deteriorating, the economy is in shambles, homelessness and poverty rates are expanding – yet we’re nation-building in Afghanistan, sending economically distressed young people over there by the tens of thousands at an annual cost of a million dollars each.”

As American media consumers have been encouraged to weigh in on whether Obama should or would have the courage to put the ballsy warrior McChrystal in his place, we have been subtly induced to forget his lack of courage or vision to choose to fight for (A) the peace dividend and the social justice long and still favored by most Americans over and against (B) the permanent warfare, spiritual death, and savage inequalities imposed on America and the world by the United States’ unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire.

Callous Hypocrisy: A Forgotten Episode

Meanwhile, one can only wonder how the people of Bola Boluk might react to the recent ego-media clash between Team McChrystal and Team Obama. In the first week of May 2009, U.S. air-strikes killed more than 140 civilians in Bola Boluk, a village western Afghanistan’s Farah Province. Ninety-three of the dead villagers torn apart by U.S. explosives were children. Just 22 were males 18 years or older. As the New York Times reported:

“In a phone call played on a loudspeaker on Wednesday to outraged members of the Afghan Parliament, the governor of Farah Province, Rohul Amin, said that as many as 130 civilians had been killed, according to a legislator, Mohammad Naim Farahi. Afghan lawmakers immediately called for an agreement regulating foreign military operations in the country.”

“‘The governor said that the villagers have brought two tractor trailers full of pieces of human bodies to his office to prove the casualties that had occurred,’ Mr. Farahi said.”

“’Everyone at the governor’s office was crying, watching that shocking scene.’”

Mr. Farahi said he had talked to someone he knew personally who had counted 113 bodies being buried, including those of many women and children. Later, more bodies were pulled from the rubble and some victims who had been taken to the hospital died, he said.”[6]

The initial response of the Obama Pentagon to this horrific incident – one among many such mass U.S. aerial killings in Afghanistan since October 2001 – was to absurdly blame the civilian deaths on “Taliban grenades.” Obama’s Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed deep “regret” about the loss of innocent life, but the administration refused to issue an apology or acknowledge U.S. responsibility for the blasting apart of civilian bodies in Farah Province[7].  By telling contrast, Obama had just offered a full apology and fired a White House official because that official had scared New Yorkers with an ill-advised Air Force One photo-shoot flyover of Manhattan that reminded people of 9/11[8].  The disparity was extraordinary: frightening New Yorkers led to a full presidential apology and the discharge of a White House staffer. Killing more than 100 Afghan civilians did not require any apology.  Nobody had to be fired.  And the Pentagon was permitted to advance preposterous claims about how the civilians died – stories that were taken seriously by “mainstream” (corporate-imperial war and entertainment) media [9]. No wonder, again, that many the world over see the United States as a callous and superficial nation – a dangerously indifferent Superpower.

“Divided Against Each Other” – But Not on Fundamentals

I am aware, of course, that there are real substantive differences within the political class and foreign policy establishment – differences that can take ridiculous forms like the current McChrystal-Rolling-Stone imbroglio. As the often personality-obsessed New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd notes correctly yesterday, “It’s just another sign of the complete incoherence of Afghan policy. The people in charge are divided against each other. And the policy is divided against itself. We’re fighting a war against an enemy that we’re desperately trying to co-opt and win over in a country where Al Qaeda, which was supposed to be the enemy, is no longer based.”

“Even our corrupt puppet doesn’t think we can prevail. As Dexter Filkins recently reported in The Times, Hamid Karzai told two former Afghan officials that he had lost faith in the Americans and was trying to strike his own deal with the Taliban and Pakistan.”[10]

But of course, none of the strategic, tactical, personal and/or cultural– differences that exist between and among top civilian and military officials on “Af-Pak” have anything to do with the United States’ imperial class transcending callousness enough to acknowledge the lethal criminality and unjust nature of its un-winnable war in and on Afghanistan and Pakistan.  The top imperial players’ divisions and the media package of their conflict do not touch upon such inviolable doctrinal fundamentals as the goodness of Uncle Sam and its noble wars – a goodness that is invisible to most of the world beyond the callous media-politics bubble that passes for democratic discourse in the U.S.

Paul Street’s next book is The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, August 2010/http://www.paradigmpublishers.com/books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=243410). Street can be reached at paulstreet99@yahoo.com


1 “Oil Gushing At Spill Site After Vent Damaged,” MSNBC (June 23, 2010, 11:24 AM CST)http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/37841204/ns/disaster_in_the_gulf/?ns=disaster_in_the_gulf

2 Alexander Cockburn, “How Long Does it Take?” CounterPunch (May 23 2009), read online athttp://www.counterpunch.org/cockburn05222009.html

3 Tom Engelhardt, “The Pressure of an Expanding War,” TomDispatch.com (May 21, 2009), read athttp://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175074/the_pressure_of_an_expanding_war

4 Marjorie Cohn, “End the Occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan,” ZNet (July 30, 2008), read at http://www.zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/18303. See also Noam Chomsky, Hegemony Over Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance (New York: Metropolitan, 2003), pp. 199-206.  See also Rajul Mahajan, The New Crusade: America’s War on Terror (New York: Monthly Review, 2002), p. 21.

5 Stephen Walt, “The Safe Haven Myth,” Foreign Policy (August 18, 2009), read at http://walt.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2009/08/18/the_safe_haven_myth; Stephen Walt, interview by Amy Goodman, “Democracy Now,” August 25, 2009, read at http://www.democracynow.org/2009/8/25/the_safe_haven_myth_harvard_prof;  Paul R. Pillar, “ Whose Afraid of a Terrorist Safe Haven,” Washington Post, September 16, 2009, read at www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/09/15/AR2009091502977_pf.html

6 Carlotta Gall and Taimoor Shah, “Civilian Deaths Imperil Support for Afghan War,” New York Times, May 6, 2009.

7 Gall and Shah, “Civilian Deaths;”

8  Christina Boyle, “President Obama Calls Air Force One Flyover ‘Mistake’ After Low-Flying Plane Terrifies New York,” New York Daily News, April 28, 2009; Michel Muskai, “Presidential Plane’s Photo-Op Over New York Coast as Much as $357,000,” Los Angeles Times, May 9, 2009; Peter Nicholas, “Louis Caldera Resigns Over Air Force One Flyover Fiasco,” Los Angeles Time, May 9, 2009.

9 Paul Street, “Niebuhr Lives, Civilians Die in the Age of Obama,” ZNet (June 15, 2009), read athttp://www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/21701.

10 Maureen Dowd, “Seven Days in June,” New York Times, June 22, 2010, read athttp://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/23/opinion/23dowd.html?ref=maureendowd

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By | 2013-07-12T15:27:19+00:00 June 26th, 2010|Articles|