(This is the much-abridged version of a conference at the XII Seminar of Political Solidarity at the University of Zaragoza, Spain, March 27, 2012.)
The early 21st century is addicted to war porn, a prime spectator sport consumed by global couch and digital potatoes. War porn took the limelight on the evening of September 11, 2001, when the George W Bush administration launched the "war on terror" - which was interpreted by many of its practitioners as a subtle legitimization of United States state terror against, predominantly, Muslims.
This was also a war OF terror - as in a manifestation of state terror pitting urban high-tech might against basically rural, low-tech cunning. The US did not exercise this monopoly; Beijing practiced it in Xinjiang, its far west, and Russia practiced it in Chechnya.
Like porn, war porn cannot exist without being based on a lie - a crude representation. But unlike porn, war porn is the real thing; unlike crude, cheap snuff movies, people in war porn actually die - in droves.
The lie to finish all lies at the center of this representation was definitely established with the leak of the 2005 Downing Street memo, in which the head of the British MI6 confirmed that the Bush administration wanted to take out Iraq's Saddam Hussein by linking Islamic terrorism with (non-existent) weapons of mass destruction (WMD). So, as the memo put it, "The intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."
In the end, George "you're either with us or against us" Bush did star in his own, larger-than-life snuff movie - that happened to double as the invasion and destruction of the eastern flank of the Arab nation.
The new Guernica
Iraq may indeed be seen as the Star Wars of war porn - an apotheosis of sequels. Take the (second) Fallujah offensive in late 2004. At the time I described it as the new Guernica. I also took the liberty of paraphrasing Jean-Paul Sartre, writing about the Algerian War; after Fallujah no two Americans shall meet without a corpse lying between them. To quote Coppola's Apocalypse Now, there were bodies, bodies everywhere.
The Francisco Franco in Fallujah was Iyad Allawi, the US-installed interim premier. It was Allawi who "asked" the Pentagon to bomb Fallujah. In Guernica - as in Fallujah - there was no distinction between civilians and guerrillas: it was the rule of "Viva la muerte!"
United States Marine Corps commanders said on the record that Fallujah was the house of Satan. Franco denied the massacre in Guernica and blamed the local population - just as Allawi and the Pentagon denied any civilian deaths and insisted "insurgents" were guilty.
Fallujah was reduced to rubble, at least 200,000 residents became refugees, and thousands of civilians were killed, in order to "save it" (echoes of Vietnam). No one in Western corporate media had the guts to say that in fact Fallujah was the American Halabja.
Fifteen years before Fallujah, in Halabja, Washington was a very enthusiastic supplier of chemical weapons to Saddam, who used them to gas thousands of Kurds. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) at the time said it was not Saddam; it was Khomeinist Iran. Yet Saddam did it, and did it deliberately, just like the US in Fallujah.
Fallujah doctors identified swollen and yellowish corpses without any injuries, as well as "melted bodies" - victims of napalm, the cocktail of polystyrene and jet fuel. Residents who managed to escape told of bombing by "poisonous gases" and "weird bombs that smoke like a mushroom cloud ... and then small pieces fall from the air with long tails of smoke behind them. The pieces of these strange bombs explode into large fires that burn the skin even when you throw water over them."
That's exactly what happens to people bombed with napalm or white phosphorus. The United Nations banned the bombing of civilians with napalm in 1980. The US is the only country in the world still using napalm.
Fallujah also provided a mini-snuff movie hit; the summary execution of a wounded, defenseless Iraqi man inside a mosque by a US Marine. The execution, caught on tape, and watched by millions on YouTube, graphically spelled out the "special" rules of engagement. US Marine commanders at the time were telling their soldiers to "shoot everything that moves and everything that doesn't move"; to fire "two bullets in every body"; in case of seeing any military-aged men in the streets of Fallujah, to "drop 'em"; and to spray every home with machine-gun and tank fire before entering them.
The rules of engagement in Iraq were codified in a 182-page field manual distributed to each and every soldier and issued in October 2004 by the Pentagon. This counter-insurgency manual stressed five rules; "protect the population; establish local political institutions; reinforce local governments; eliminate insurgent capabilities; and exploit information from local sources."
Now back to reality. Fallujah's population was not protected: it was bombed out of the city and turned into a mass of thousands of refugees. Political institutions were already in place: the Fallujah Shura was running the city. No local government can possibly run a pile of rubble to be recovered by seething citizens, not to mention be "reinforced". "Insurgent capabilities" were not eliminated; the resistance dispersed around the 22 other cities out of control by the US occupation, and spread up north all the way to Mosul; and the Americans remained without intelligence "from local sources" because they antagonized every possible heart and mind.
Meanwhile, in the US, most of the population was already immune to war porn. When the Abu Ghraib scandal broke out in the spring of 2004, I was driving through Texas, exploring Bushland. Virtually everybody I spoke to either attributed the humiliation of Iraqi prisoners to "a few bad apples", or defended it on patriotic grounds ("we must teach a lesson to "terrorists").
I love a man in uniform
In thesis, there is an approved mechanism in the 21st century to defend civilians from war porn. It's the R2P - "responsibility to protect" doctrine. This was an idea floated already in 2001 - a few weeks after the war on terror was unleashed, in fact - by the Canadian government and a few foundations. The idea was that the concert of nations had a "moral duty" to deploy a humanitarian intervention in cases such as Halabja, not to mention the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the mid-1970s or the genocide in Rwanda in the mid-1990s.
In 2004, a panel at the UN codified the idea - crucially with the Security Council being able to authorize a "military intervention" only "as a last resort". Then, in 2005, the UN General Assembly endorsed a resolution supporting R2P, and in 2006 the UN Security Council passed resolution 1674 about "the protection of civilians in armed conflict"; they should be protected against "genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity".
Now fast-forward to the end of 2008, early 2009, when Israel - using American fighter jets to raise hell - unleashed a large-scale attack on the civilian population of the Gaza strip.
Look at the official US reaction; "Israel has obviously decided to protect herself and her people," said then-president Bush. The US Congress voted by a staggering 390-to-5 to recognize "Israel's right to defend itself against attacks from Gaza". The incoming Barack Obama administration was thunderously silent. Only future Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, "We support Israel's right to self-defense."
At least 1,300 civilians - including scores of women and children - were killed by state terror in Gaza. Nobody invoked R2P. Nobody pointed to Israel's graphic failure in its "responsibility to protect" Palestinians. Nobody called for a "humanitarian intervention" targeting Israel.
The mere notion that a superpower - and other lesser powers - make their foreign policy decisions based on humanitarian grounds, such as protecting people under siege, is an absolute joke. So already at the time we learned how R2P was to be instrumentalized. It did not apply to the US in Iraq or Afghanistan. It did not apply to Israel in Palestine. It would eventually apply only to frame "rogue" rulers that are not "our bastards" - as in Muammar Gaddafi in Libya in 2011. "Humanitarian" intervention, yes; but only to get rid of "the bad guys."
And the beauty of R2P was that it could be turned upside down anytime. Bush pleaded for the "liberation" of suffering Afghans - and especially burqa-clad Afghan women - from the "evil" Taliban, in fact configuring Afghanistan as a humanitarian intervention.
And when the bogus links between al-Qaeda and the non-existent WMDs were debunked, Washington began to justify the invasion, occupation and destruction of Iraq via ... R2P; "responsibility to protect" Iraqis from Saddam, and then to protect Iraqis from themselves.
The killer awoke before dawn
The most recent installment in serial episodes of war porn is the Kandahar massacre, when, according to the official Pentagon version (or cover up) an American army sergeant, a sniper and Iraqi war veteran - a highly trained assassin - shot 17 Afghan civilians, including nine women and four children, in two villages two miles apart, and burned some of their bodies.
Like with Abu Ghraib, there was the usual torrent of denials from the Pentagon - as in "this is not us" or "we don't do things these way"; not to mention a tsunami of stories in US corporate media humanizing the hero-turned-mass killer, as in "he's such a good guy, a family man". In contrast, not a single word about The Other - the Afghan victims. They are faceless; and nobody knows their names.
A - serious - Afghan enquiry established that some 20 soldiers may have been part of the massacre - as in My Lai in Vietnam; and that included the rape of two of the women. It does make sense. War porn is a lethal, group subculture - complete with targeted assassinations, revenge killings, desecration of bodies, harvesting of trophies (severed fingers or ears), burning of Korans and pissing on dead bodies. It's essentially a collective sport.
US "kill teams" have deliberately executed random, innocent Afghan civilians, mostly teenagers, for sport, planted weapons on their bodies, and then posed with their corpses as trophies. Not by accident they had been operating out of a base in the same area of the Kandahar massacre.
And we should not forget former top US commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, who in April 10, 2010, admitted, bluntly, "We've shot an amazing number of people" who were not a threat to the US or Western civilization.
The Pentagon spins and sells in Afghanistan what it sold in Iraq (and even way back in Vietnam for that matter); the idea that this is a "population-centric counter-insurgency" - or COIN, to "win hearts and minds", and part of a great nation building project.
This is a monumental lie. The Obama surge in Afghanistan - based on COIN - was a total failure. What replaced it was hardcore, covert, dark war, led by "kill teams" of Special Forces. That implies an inflation of air strikes and night raids. No to mention drone strikes, both in Afghanistan and in Pakistan's tribal areas, whose favorite targets seem to be Pashtun wedding parties.
Incidentally, the CIA claims that since May 2010, ultra-smart drones have killed more than 600 "carefully selected" human targets - and, miraculously, not a single civilian.
Expect to see this war porn extravaganza celebrated in an orgy of upcoming, joint Pentagon-Hollywood blockbusters. In real life, this is spun by people such as John Nagl, who was on General David Petraeus' staff in Iraq and now runs the pro-Pentagon think-tank Center for New American Security.
The new stellar macho, macho men may be the commandos under the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). But this a Pentagon production, which has created, according to Nagl, an "industrial strength counter-terrorism killing machine".
Reality, though, is much more prosaic. COIN techniques, applied by McChrystal, relied on only three components; 24-hour surveillance by drones; monitoring of mobile phones; and pinpointing the physical location of the phones from their signals.
This implies that anyone in an area under a drone watch using a cell phone was branded as a "terrorist", or at least "terrorist sympathizer". And then the focus of the night raids in Afghanistan shifted from "high value targets" - high-level and mid-level al-Qaeda and Taliban - to anyone who was branded as helping the Taliban.
In May 2009, before McChrystal arrived, US Special Forces were carrying 20 raids a month. By November, they were 90 a month. By the spring of 2010, they were 250 a month. When McChrystal was fired - because of a story in Rolling Stone (he was competing with Lady Gaga for the cover; Lady Gaga won) - and Obama replaced him with Petraeus in the summer of 2010, there were 600 a month. By April 2011, they were more than 1,000 a month.
So this is how it works. Don't even think of using a cell phone in Kandahar and other Afghan provinces. Otherwise, the "eyes in the sky" are going to get you. At the very least you will be sent to jail, along with thousands of other civilians branded as "terrorist sympathizers"; and intelligence analysts will use your data to compile their "kill/capture list" and catch even more civilians in their net.
As for the civilian "collateral damage" of the night raids, they were always presented by the Pentagon as "terrorists". Example; in a raid in Gardez on February 12, 2010, two men were killed; a local government prosecutor and an Afghan intelligence official, as well as three women (two of them pregnant). The killers told the US-North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) command in Kabul that the two men were "terrorists" and the women had been found tied up and gagged. Then the actual target of the raid turned himself in for questioning a few days later, and was released without any charges.
That's just the beginning. Targeted assassination - as practiced in Afghanistan - will be the Pentagon's tactic of choice in all future US wars.
Pass the condom, darling
Libya was a major war porn atrocity exhibition - complete with a nifty Roman touch of the defeated "barbarian" chief sodomized in the streets and then executed, straight on YouTube.
This, by the way, is exactly what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in a lightning visit to Tripoli, had announced less than 48 hours before the fact. Gaddafi should be "captured or killed". When she watched it in the screen of her BlackBerry she could only react with the semantic earthquake "Wow!"
From the minute a UN resolution imposed a no-fly zone over Libya under the cover of R2P, it became a green card to regime change. Plan A was always to capture and kill Gaddafi - as in an Afghan-style targeted assassination. That was the Obama administration official policy. There was no plan B.
Obama said the death of Gaddafi meant, "the strength of American leadership across the world". That was as "We got him" (echoes of Saddam captured by the Bush administration) as one could possibly expect.
With an extra bonus. Even though Washington paid no less than 80% of the operating costs of those dimwits at NATO (roughly $2 billion), it was still pocket money. Anyway, it was still awkward to say, "We did it", because the White House always said this was not a war; it was a "kinetic" something. And they were not in charge.
Only the hopelessly naïve may have swallowed the propaganda of NATO's "humanitarian" 40,000-plus bombing which devastated Libya's infrastructure back to the Stone Age as a Shock and Awe in slow motion. This never had anything to do with R2P.
This was R2P as safe sex - and the "international community" was the condom. The "international community", as everyone knows, is composed of Washington, a few washed-up NATO members, and the democratic Persian Gulf powerhouses of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), plus the House of Saud in the shade. The EU, which up to extra time was caressing the helm of Gaddafi's gowns, took no time to fall over themselves in editorials about the 42-year reign of a "buffoon".
As for the concept of international law, it was left lying in a drain as filthy as the one Gaddafi was holed up in. Saddam at least got a fake trial in a kangaroo court before meeting the executioner (he ended up on YouTube as well). Osama bin Laden was simply snuffed out, assassination-style, after a territorial invasion of Pakistan (no YouTube - so many don't believe it). Gaddafi went one up, snuffed out with a mix of air war and assassination. They are The Three Graceful Scalps of War Porn.
Syria is yet another declination of war porn narrative. If you can't R2P it, fake it.
And to think that all this was codified such a long time ago. Already in 1997, the US Army War College Quarterly was defining what they called "the future of warfare". They framed it as "the conflict between information masters and information victims".
They were sure "we are already masters of information warfare ... Hollywood is 'preparing the battlefield' ... Information destroys traditional jobs and traditional cultures; it seduces, betrays, yet remains invulnerable … Our sophistication in handling it will enable us to outlast and outperform all hierarchical cultures ... Societies that fear or otherwise cannot manage the flow of information simply will not be competitive. They might master the technological wherewithal to watch the videos, but we will be writing the scripts, producing them, and collecting the royalties. Our creativity is devastating."
Post-everything information warfare has nothing to do with geopolitics. Just like the proverbial Hollywood product, it is to be "spawned" out of raw emotions; "hatred, jealousy, and greed - emotions, rather than strategy".
In Syria this is exactly how Western corporate media has scripted the whole movie; the War College "information warfare" tactics in practice. The Syrian government never had much of a chance against those "writing the scripts, producing them, and collecting the royalties".
For example, the armed opposition, the so-called Free Syrian Army (a nasty cocktail of defectors, opportunists, jihadis and foreign mercenaries) brought Western journalists to Homs and then insisted to extract them, in extremely dangerous condition, and with people being killed, via Lebanon, rather than through the Red Crescent. They were nothing else than writing the script for a foreign-imposed "humanitarian corridor" to be opened to Homs. This was pure theater - or war porn packaged as a Hollywood drama.
The problem is Western public opinion is now hostage to this brand of information warfare. Forget about even the possibility of peaceful negotiations among adult parties. What's left is a binary good guys versus bad guys plot, where the Big Bad Guy must be destroyed at all costs (and on top of it his wife is a snob bitch who loves shopping!)
Only the terminally naïve may believe that jihadis - including Libya's NATO rebels - financed by the Gulf Counter-revolution Club, also know as Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are a bunch of democratic reformists burning with good intentions. Even Human Rights Watch was finally forced to acknowledge that these armed "activists" were responsible for "kidnapping, detention, and torture", after receiving reports of "executions by armed opposition groups of security force members and civilians".
What this (soft and hard) war porn narrative veils, in the end, is the real Syrian tragedy; the impossibility for the much-lauded "Syrian people" to get rid of all these crooks - the Assad system, the Muslim Brotherhood-controlled Syrian National Council, and the mercenary-infested Free Syrian Army.
Listen to the sound of chaos
This - very partial - catalogue of sorrows inevitably brings us to the current supreme war porn blockbuster - the Iran psychodrama.
2012 is the new 2002; Iran is the new Iraq; and whatever the highway, to evoke the neo-con motto, real men go to Tehran via Damascus, or real men go to Tehran non-stop.
Perhaps only underwater in the Arctic we would be able to escape the cacophonous cortege of American right-wingers - and their respective European poodles - salivating for blood and deploying the usual festival of fallacies like "Iran wants to wipe Israel off the map", "diplomacy has run its course", "the sanctions are too late", or "Iran is within a year, six months, a week, a day, or a minute of assembling a bomb". Of course these dogs of war would never bother to follow what the International Atomic Energy Agency is actually doing, not to mention the National Intelligence Estimates released by the 17 US intelligence agencies.
Because they, to a great extent, are "writing the scripts, producing them, and collecting the royalties" in terms of corporate media, they can get away with an astonishingly toxic fusion of arrogance and ignorance - about the Middle East, about Persian culture, about Asian integration, about the nuclear issue, about the oil industry, about the global economy, about "the Rest" as compared to "the West".
Just like with Iraq in 2002, Iran is always dehumanized. The relentless, totally hysterical, fear-inducing "narrative" of "should we bomb now or should we bomb later" is always about oh so very smart bunker buster bombs and precision missiles that will accomplish an ultra clean large-scale devastation job without producing a single "collateral damage". Just like safe sex.
And even when the voice of the establishment itself - the New York Times - admits that neither US nor Israeli intelligence believe Iran has decided to build a bomb (a 5-year-old could reach the same conclusion), the hysteria remains inter-galactic.
Meanwhile, while it gets ready - "all options are on the table", Obama himself keeps repeating - for yet another war in what it used to call "arc of instability", the Pentagon also found time to repackage war porn. It took only a 60-second video now on YouTube, titled Toward the Sound of Chaos, released only a few days after the Kandahar massacre. Just look at its key target audience: the very large market of poor, unemployed and politically very naïve young Americans.
Let's listen to the mini-movie voice over: "Where chaos looms, the Few emerge. Marines move toward the sounds of tyranny, injustice and despair - with the courage and resolve to silence them. By ending conflict, instilling order and helping those who can't help themselves, Marines face down the threats of our time."
Maybe, in this Orwellian universe, we should ask the dead Afghans urinated upon by US Marines, or the thousands of dead in Fallujah, to write a movie review. Well, dead men don't write. Maybe we could think about the day NATO enforces a no-fly one over Saudi Arabia to protect the Shi'ites in the eastern province, while Pentagon drones launch a carpet of Hellfire missiles over those thousands of arrogant, medieval, corrupt House of Saud princes. No, it's not going to happen.
Over a decade after the beginning of the war on terror, this is what the world is coming to; a lazy, virtually worldwide audience, jaded, dazed and distracted from distraction by distraction, helplessly hooked on the shabby atrocity exhibition of war porn.
Pepe Escobar is the author of Globalistan: How the Globalized World is Dissolving into Liquid War (Nimble Books, 2007) and Red Zone Blues: a snapshot of Baghdad during the surge. His most recent book, just out, is Obama does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009).
He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org