Posts Tagged ‘war on terror’

Learning to see like Maya: brutalizing the audience

December 17, 2012

Criticism has been voiced of the new film Zero Dark Thirty for its apparently lengthy and vivid depiction of torture.

A character is strung up by a rope, waterboarded, dragged around by a dog collar and stuffed into a cramped box in an attempt to extract information concerning a terrorist network. The viewer witnesses ‘animal-like howls of anguish’ and ‘unintentional defecation.’

Such scenes are part of a familiar revenge narrative in which the good guy’s (and audience’s) righteous motivation is established in the early scenes and the baddie is eliminated, exhilaratingly and bloodily, at the end.

A fan of the movie describes it approvingly:

[CIA counter-terrorism officer] Maya (Jessica Chastain), looks on — it seems to be her first “enhanced” interrogation. We see [tortured detainee] Amar’s treatment through her eyes, and though she appears troubled at first by what she’s witnessing she’s also fighting off any feelings of revulsion. “I’m fine,” she says, in response to doubts from the more seasoned interrogator who is running the show. During a subsequent torture scene, Maya is left alone with Amar. He begs her for mercy; she tells him, “You can help yourself by being truthful.” Now we know for sure that she has steeled herself to be cold and hard—that she’s consumed with tracking down Osama Bin Laden and is willing to do whatever it takes to find the man responsible for the 9/11 attacks (which have been evoked hauntingly during the movie’s opening moments).

When Amar is led around by a dog collar and then finally, horribly stuffed into a tiny wooden box, we recoil at this treatment and feel Amar’s pain—but we also feel Maya’s sense of urgency. At the end of the interrogation scenes, I felt shaken but not morally repulsed, because the movie had successfully led me to adopt, if only temporarily, Maya’s point of view: This treatment is a legitimate way of securing information vital to U.S. interests.

Critics have deplored this as ‘endorsement’ of torture.

In response, some Democrat bloggers, posing as sophisticated aesthetes, have accused such critics of Zhdanovite philistinism, of ‘aesthetic Stalinism’ and of behaviour befitting ‘Bill Donoghue and the Catholic League’. (Nobody yet has applied the ‘moral panic’ label, whose use I described here.)

These bloggers identify themselves as liberals who would never support torture but who know how to appreciate a good film when they see one.

Meanwhile, according to film critics, the ‘morality brigade’ has failed to appreciate how the film’s hero is portrayed as ‘morally compromised’. The torture scenes are ‘squalid, vivid and brutally protracted’, and they generate a ‘horrible sense of complicity’ among the audience ‘when we realize we want the guy they’re interrogating to spill the beans and get it over with’:

There can’t be much question that the filmmakers mean this to be distressing and tarnishing, not something to cheer for.

Another film critic, seeking to rebut the pro-torture accusation, solemnly declares: ‘fleeting shots of Maya clenching her jaw, crossing her arms, and looking away, should leave no doubt as to where the filmmakers stand on the issue.’

Whether a film openly ‘endorses’ torture, or whether it styles itself as a Funny Games-type ‘critical examination’ of cinematic and real-world violence, is not irrelevant.

(Of course, in making Zero Dark Thirty, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, a former ‘embedded’ reporter who wrote The Hurt Locker, were granted ‘top-level access’ to White House, Defense Department, and CIA sources, as well as assistance from a commander of the Navy SEAL team that executed Osama bin Laden. Pentagon officials described their wish to ‘shape the story’ of the film, and expressed their satisfaction that Bigelow and Boal were using ‘White House-approved talking points’.)

To focus on this question is, however, to miss the deeper point.

What does it mean when world-weary film critics accuse Glenn Greenwald of interpretive incompetence, of failing to evaluate the torture scenes using aesthetic criteria rather than judging them on political or good-taste grounds?

When watched by a ‘naive’ or novice viewer, ‘graphically intense’ on-screen violence elicits a stress response. Activation of the HPA axis leads to increased heart rate, galvanic skin response, dilated pupils, uncontrolled breathing, and sometimes trembling, clenching, nausea and other physiological symptoms of arousal.

Attending to such unfamiliar and unpleasant symptoms (and to associated emotions) makes demands upon the viewer’s scarce cognitive resources and thereby distracts him from the film. (Put differently but equivalently, focusing on the non-violent aspects of the film requires effort rather than happening automatically.)

With the experienced viewer, who has become accustomed to doses of cinematic violence, this stress response is inhibited. Rather than triggering anxiety or overwhelming distress, such visual and auditory cues (gaping wounds, blood, screams) generate a manageable kind of excitement, heightened attention or amusement.

Familiarity thus allows what is known as perceptual fluency – in which ‘easy’ processing, born of repeated exposure, enables a favourable affective response to a presented stimulus.

The positive evaluative judgements of film critics are underpinned by their familiarity with the visual material and the consequent ease with which they process it. Repeated exposure facilitates liking of a stimulus, generating a positive appraisal of what initially may have been neutral or even aversive. (Thus the manipulation of consumers by advertisers pursuing brand recognition: familiarity enhances product preference.)

Indeed, viewers of mainstream films, TV and video games undergo a kind of stress inoculation. Having been exposed repeatedly to doses of horrific brutality, and having become habituated to them, the cinematic adept or initiate is imparted with a newly found tolerance during subsequent encounters. He or she gradually acquires resilience – an attenuated stress response – because it’s all been seen before.

This adaptation to aversive stressors also describes the kind of ‘hardening’ undergone by the character Maya. What initially are novel and unpleasant stimuli (the sights, sounds and smells of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’) rapidly become familiar, and she can ‘steel herself  to be cold and hard’ (although developing this sort of emotional resilience in its recruits is something imparted by training and by self-selection of Washington’s military death squads and CIA torturers).

To be capable of appreciating films that expose viewers to realistic violence, audiences and critics must (like Maya) have ‘steeled’ themselves.

Only once this state has been reached, i.e. after they have been brutalized by repeated exposure, can viewers appreciate what they are seeing on other levels or derive pleasure from it. Thereafter violence can be enjoyed in several ways.

What is required from the audience of a Quentin Tarantino film is self-conscious savviness: getting the allusion, generic reference or cinematic in-joke. (This is what allows such films to function as a signal of the audience’s quality – acquiring competence, being able to appreciate them, requires a costly investment of time, effort or money that cannot easily be faked. Self-congratulation is one of the rewards of such films.)

Violent ‘anti-violence’ films such as Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, and ‘deconstructed’ shooter games such as Spec Ops: The Line, which hope to ‘implicate’ the viewer or player, also demand a ‘competent’ audience, i.e. one that can appreciate it on the ‘right level’, get the message or appreciate the style without being distracted by their repugnance or feeling too sick to watch. (Haneke has said that his ‘ideal scene’ would impel members of an audience to look away because they are ‘panicking’.)

And, viewed with enough aesthetic distance, Zero Dark Thirty‘s ‘squalid, vivid and brutally protracted’ torture scenes, its ‘morally compromised’ protagonist, the blood, bestial howls and involuntary defecation, and the ‘horrible sense of complicity’ generated among its audience, can be understood, like The Hurt Locker, as some sort of nuanced critical statement on ‘the moral, psychological and even spiritual price’ of war, the ‘sacrifices and costs of keeping America safe.’

In other words, the aesthetic and commercial ambitions of these films depend upon, just as the films themselves help create, an enormous oversupply of media violence. The latter produces ‘literate’ viewers of the required sort.

This desensitization of audiences has broader social correlates and consequences. By brutalizing consumers of media and entertainment products, it is helping to encourage a shift in social norms, internalized preferences and individual tastes.

Increasingly, perpetrating lethal violence or enjoying it for entertainment purposes does not lead to ostracism or sanction, but is positively rewarded (c.f. Bigelow and Boal’s reverence for the armed forces, the CIA and the ‘American triumph, both heroic and nonpartisan’, of killing Bin Laden).

Over time, this mix of incentives and cultural influences is causing a shift in the population distribution of attitudes to violence and the psychological traits needed to undertake it.

For the average person, this general shift is scarcely observable: it merely makes the median viewer more resilient (i.e. less prone to negative emotional states) when horrific violence appears on the movie screen.

But a rightward shift in the tolerance for violence will also increase the number of people at the sparsely inhabited tail (i.e. the extreme upper range) of the population distribution: those psychological outliers with the capacity to kill people and undertake torture while remaining composed, emotionally stable and task-oriented.

This outcome is functional for the US ruling elite, which for the past two decades has advanced its strategic objectives through belligerence and lethal violence. The state leadership’s policy of military aggression is facilitated by population-wide habituation to violence.

The likes of Bigelow and Boal are thus participating in a war drive. So too are the countless film critics, writers, bloggers, academics and paid ideologues whose own set of professional incentives leads them to apologize for her work and other products like it.

Tarantino, of course, has always disclaimed any extra-aesthetic relevance for the torture and sadism shown in his films. They are just movies. Few have bothered to challenge this line over the past two decades, even as sinister musings on torture by Alan Dershowitz became publicly acceptable fodder for ‘liberal’ editorial columns, and the creative efforts of John Yoo were taken on as policy by the US Justice Department.

Now, with his Django Unchained due to be released one week after Zero Dark Thirty, will its torture scenes be judged worth of comment? Will critics note the resemblance of Tarantino’s various sadists to Bigelow’s interrogators (and to the real-life versions working in Bagram, Cairo, the West Bank, the basements of Mogadishu, etc.)?

If so, will this be thought to mean anything, or will any such suggestion be dismissed as embarrassingly unsophisticated?


A love letter to Leviathan

February 13, 2012

Steven Pinker’s new book on violence is unblushingly a work of Whig history.

Its purpose, as he describes it, is ‘a rehabilitation of a concept of modernity and progress, and… a sense of gratitude for the institutions of civilization and enlightenment that have made it possible.’

For, so he claims, the long Hobbesian nightmare of seizing and fighting, dominant for tens of thousands of years of human history, has gradually been displaced by ‘changes in our cultural and material milieu that have given our peaceable motives the upper hand.’

‘Readers of this book’ are assured they ‘no longer have to worry about… the prospect of a nuclear world war that would put an end to civilization or to human life itself’:

You would think that the disappearance of the gravest threat in the history of humanity would bring a sigh of relief among commentators on world affairs… Surely the experts have been acknolwedging the improvements in the world’s fortunes from a few decades ago.

But no — the pundits are glummer than ever! … Why the gloom? Partly it’s the result of market forces in the punditry business, which favor the Cassandras over the Pollyannas. Partly it arises from human temperament…

But, believe it or not, ‘from a global, historical and quantitative perspective, the dream of the 1960s  has come true: the world has (almost) put an end to war.’

Plainly enough, Pinker wants to downplay what others have (approvingly) described as the ‘industrial-scale killing machine’ assembled and deployed by Washington in its recent wave of external aggression.

Presumably, it’s with this evaluative purpose in mind that he opts to measure and compare each society’s degree of violence by its rate of violent deaths per head of population, granting no weight to the absolute volume of violent deaths, nor any to the rate of violent deaths per unit of time.

Defence of this metric, on which basis the book’s entire argument rests, is perfunctory and uncompelling. Once delivered, in a single paragraph and as if in passing, the ruling is treated as dispositive and the matter as entirely closed.

Chunks of the book’s 800 pages are consequently made up of embarrassingly uncritical and complacent sales talk:

By the 1990s the only politically acceptable American wars were surgical routs achieved with remote-control technology. They could no longer be wars of attrition that ground up soldiers by the tens of thousands, nor aerial holocausts visited on foreign civilians as in Dresden, Hiroshima, and North Vietnam.

The change is palpable within the American military itself. Military leaders at all levels have become aware that gratuitous killing is a public-relations disaster at home and counterproductive abroad, alienating allies and emboldening enemies. The Marine Corps has instituted a martial-arts program in which leathernecks are indoctrinated in a new code of honor, the Ethical Marine Warrior…

The code of the Ethical Warrior, even as an aspiration, shows that the American armed forces have come a long way from a time when its soldiers referred to Vietnamese peasants as gooksslopes, and slants and when the military was slow to investigate atrocities against civilians…

[The] American-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in the first decade of the 21st century… are nothing like the wars of the past. In both conflicts the interstate war phase was quick and (by historical standards) low in battle deaths. Most of the deaths in Iraq were caused by intercommunal violence in the anarchy that followed… In Afghanistan, the US Air Force followed a set of humanitarian protocols during the height of the anti-Taliban bombing campaign in 2008 that Human Rights Watch praised for its “very good record of minimizing harm to civilians.”

Is there anything more to the argument, besides such rank boosterism?

To get more idea both of the book’s content and its ideological flavour, consider the historical episodes included in Pinker’s tale of gradual emancipation, by which the passions became slaves of Reason, and ‘civilization’ supplanted the ‘primitive’.

These instalments are called the ‘Pacifying Process’, ‘Civilizing Process’, ‘Gentle Commerce’, the ‘Expanding Circle’, the ‘Humanitarian Revolution’, the ‘Long Peace’, the ‘Rights Revolution’ and the ‘New Peace’.

The terms are borrowed from the likes of Norbert Elias, Peter Singer, Albert Hirschman and Kant. They correspond to the emergence of political hierarchy (chiefdoms, Big Men and proto-states), growth of the modern liberal constitutional state (the rule of law), ‘development of the institutions of money and finance’, spread of transport and communication links, mass literacy and secularism.

Such changes, says Pinker, have periodically upset and re-made the ‘rules of the game’ which defined, in a given society, courses of action available to ordinary people (their strategy sets) and specified the outcomes and consequences (payoffs) of those actions. In response to these ‘exogenous triggers’, introduced from outside into the game structure, individuals gradually developed the ‘better angels of their nature’: behavioural norms, ethical prescriptions and psychological preferences allowing them to interact in mutually beneficial ways.

In charting this progress along the path to modernity, Pinker appends himself to a lineage of ‘Enlightenment humanists’ — Hobbes, Locke, Hume and the classical liberals — who ‘placed the autonomy and flourishing of individuals as the ultimate goal of political systems.’

The self-ascription is obviously false: the author’s other political commitments, as we’ve seen, push him in grotesquely illiberal directions. It’s worthwhile seeing why this is so.

Pinker first describes how the emergence of Leviathan suppressed the universal propensity of ungoverned hunter-gatherer and horticultural people to kill and wound each other, in opportunistic struggles over hunting grounds, foraging rights and women.

Of course, he says, if humans lacked ‘innate proclivities toward coalitional violence’, they ‘would not need a Leviathan, or any other institution, to keep them away from it.’ But he agrees with Hobbes that in ‘the nature of man we find three principal causes of quarrel: gain (predatory raids), safety (preemptive raids), and reputation (retaliatory raids).’

Here he relies on research suggesting that the populations of pre-state and non-state societies (at least those in the ethnographic and archaeological record) exhibit very high fractions of death from warfare. This discussion, like much else in this new work, will be familiar from Pinker’s earlier book The Blank Slate.

Pinker then invokes — as he goes on to do throughout the book — John Maynard Smith’s ‘hawk-dove’ game, which formalizes the Hobbesian condition of animal contests over territory. This model is used to show that respect for ownership (what Maynard Smith called the ‘Bourgeois’ strategy) can settle conflicts without escalated fighting or a war of attrition. Good fences make good neighbours. Property rights beget personal rights.

This will be recognized as a version of the mainstream axiom which holds that there exists, in liberal capitalist societies, a harmonious ‘unity of rights’.  Milton Friedman’s identification of democracy with capitalism is perhaps the strongest version of the claim (empirical, normative or logical) that personal entitlements (e.g. to bodily integrity and freedom from molestation) imply, overlap with, confer, derive from or otherwise support ownership rights over property.

So it seems reasonable to suggest, as Timothy Snyder did in his book review for Foreign Affairs, that this argumentative thrust is ‘rooted in Pinker’s commitment to free-market libertarianism.’

But of what stripe? There is no entry in the index for ‘property’, and it’s scarcely mentioned throughout the main text (he prefers to speak of ‘commerce’, ‘gains from trade’ and ‘positive-sum interactions’).

Indeed, in Pinker’s presentation the historical emergence of possession-based property rights (with the domestication of plants and animals, along with innovations in storage that allowed people to claim crops and livestock as their own, etc.) is dissolved into an event that occurred 5000 years later: the birth of the state.

What accounts for this strange lack of emphasis and distinct analytic role afforded by Pinker to something which, apparently, holds a privileged place in his thinking? In part, it may be explained by a desire for explanatory simplicity, or attributed to a wish, on the author’s part, to avoid showing his ideological hand, the better to persuade unaligned readers.

But I think it also provides an accurate sense of where the book’s sympathies dwell. The hero of the day is not market but government.

On its surface, this is a familar version of the nightwatchman state, found in any libertarian catechism.

In that ideological tradition (see e.g. Robert Nozick’s ‘minimal state’), the police, courts and similar repressive organs have a crucial but limited role. They delineate property rights and enforce contracts, and thereby prevent contests between parties over rival claims to valued resources (land, food, water, cattle, etc.) degenerating into lawless, wasteful and opportunistic seizure.

There is, of course, a branch of libertarianism (associated with the likes of David D. Friedman and Bryan Caplan) which argues that such tasks (formation and enforcement of property rights) should be the responsibility of private actors, coordinating by tacit agreements, with none of them possessing the public authority’s monopoly on legitimate violence (as in the U.S. South West during the nineteenth century. Alternatively, the work of Elinor Ostrom shows that, through customary allocation rules and similar modes of coordination, populations can successfully manage use of open-access or unowned resources without the involvement of states and without formal property rights.)

But Pinker distances himself from such views: if people cannot enforce their resource claims by calling in the police, he insists, then they will do so by adopting a violent ‘culture on honour’, as on the Appalachian frontier, in Pashtunistan, or in the turf battles over US inner-city crack cocaine networks during the 1980s.

Indeed, Pinker emphasizes his broadminded tolerance for state violence and his hostility towards ‘anarchy’. The applause is not reserved for the abstract principle of the rule of law, but granted, as well, for its supposed institutional embodiment in the present-day USA and Europe.

The book is peppered with anodyne expressions of indifference and, indeed, fondness for ‘actually-existing’ centralized coercion, including when directed inwards at its own citizens: ‘Leviathan’, he notes repeatedly, ‘may be the most consistent violence-reducer’ there is.

Murder rates in the US fell from the 1990s because, he says, ‘the Leviathan got bigger, smarter, and more effective… But in present-day America a “death sentence” is a bit of a fiction, because mandatory legal reviews delay most executions indefinitely, and only a few tenths of a percentage point of the nation’s murderers are ever put to death.’

He defends the views on torture expressed by his Harvard colleague Alan Dershowitz (with whom Pinker teaches a course on Morality and Taboo).

To place this line of thought in ideological context, the libertarians at the Cato Institute can be relied upon to describe Bill Clinton’s Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which began the rollback of habeas corpus rights, as ‘draconian’ and its precursor ‘one of the most repressive measures ever enacted by the U.S. Congress’.

Pinker, on the other hand, does not consider such epochal changes worth mentioning. He appears to cherish the nightwatchman state less than he does the status quo.

Thus the most fitting ideological label for Pinker would seem to be that used by Bernard Harcourt to describe Richard Posner: pragmatic authoritarian libertarian.

Indeed, mounting a consistent and effective defence of property rights nowadays compels the honest ideologue to adopt such a position. For if ‘gentle commerce’ transforms ‘zero-sum warfare into positive-sum mutual profit’, this same growth of productivity and cooperative non-rivalry (i.e. the necessity for team production by co-workers in factories and offices) also raises the costs of excluding non-owners from access to resources and enforcing private claims to wealth.

In today’s Garrison USA, it takes more than one-quarter of the labour force (up from 6% in 1890 and 7% in 1929) to maintain order and to enforce the existing allocation of ownership claims over economic resources. A colossal number of citizen-soldiers now work as supervisors with the authority to discipline, sanction and fire, or as prison guards, private security personnel, employees of the military, lawyers, etc. This is what mainstream economics calls the ‘technology of conflict’, in which resources are devoted to enforcing, adjudicating, seizing or redistributing private claims to social wealth.

At the heart of US society beats a massive disciplinary apparatus, public and private.

This is the repressive foundation for what Jonathan Turley recently described as an authoritarian ‘mosaic of powers’ gained by the government in recent decades. In this setting, ‘all rights become little more than a discretionary grant subject to executive will’. To fulfil its role as the ultimate global backstop for property rights, the US state must sacrifice, rather than preserve, personal liberty.

And it is this Leviathan — rather rather than that of Hobbes, Locke, the classical liberals or even Nozick — to which Pinker’s book is dedicated as one long hosanna, much as president Obama hails the US armed forces as ‘the greatest force for freedom and human dignity the world has ever known.’

As my reference to judge Posner was intended to suggest, the theories Pinker assembles to defend his authoritarian sympathies are derived, directly or indirectly, from influential thinkers associated with the University of Chicago Law School (Posner, Ronald Coase, Cass Sunstein, etc.), and specifically with the Law and economics movement.

Yet, curiously, there is no direct trace in the book (either in the main text or bibliography) of Pinker’s having consulted a closely related branch of the social sciences — the one most attentive, as he is, to ‘getting the institutions right’. By this I mean the New Institutional economics, started by Coase at Chicago, and with notable contributions on the topic of property rights by Alchian and Demsetz.

It is especially odd, given Pinker’s historical focus, that he does not cite a host of economic historians (Robert Fogel, Kenneth Sokoloff, Stanley Engerman, Daron Acemoglu, James Robinson, etc.) whose research, on the legal and political institutions most propitious for economic growth, is close to his topic of interest.

I suspect this is because the work of those (thoroughly Whiggish and orthodox) scholars leads too obviously to a conclusion Pinker wants to avoid at all costs: that the institution he lauds (the liberal-capitalist state that first emerged in Western Europe) eclipsed its competitors largely because of the former’s superior war-making capacity.

This is the unpleasant lesson of the last 500 years: that one type of political entity (and social structure) survives at the expense of other forms of governance, and successfully proliferates, because it can mobilize and dispose of more economic resources for military and coercive use, including populations willing and able to fight for the sovereign, than its opponents can.

Douglass North and Barry Weingast famously argued that the reforms initiated by the so-called Glorious Revolution (enabling the monarch to ‘credibly commit’ to respecting property rights) better allowed the English Crown to tax and borrow from merchants and property holders the large sums it needed to defeat its foreign opponents in military conflict.

As a result of its greater war-making prowess, institutional replicas of capitalism and the British state (and similar west European varieties) were diffused (often at gunpoint) successfully throughout the world, displacing competitors by exterminating or absorbing their populations, attracting emulators, or by exporting their own members.

The institutional arrangements which Pinker lauds as bringers of peace thrive because they support the greatest war machine in history.

Reviewers such as Herbert Gintis have praised the broad scholarly scope of Pinker’s book. In truth its pages are filled with the sort of shallow and indulgent excursions that might suggest, in other circumstances, a mocking parody of Thomas Friedman, and of which the following vapidities are representative:

Social dominance is a guy thing… Dominance is an adaptation to anarchy, and it serves no purpose in a society that has undergone a civilizing process or in an international system regulated by agreements and norms… The mid- and late 20th century saw a deconstruction of the concept of dominance… Partly it has come from women’s inroads into professional life. Women have the psychological distance to see contests of dominance as boys making noise, so as they have become more influential, dominance has lost some of its aura.


The appearance of Marxist ideology in particular was a historical tsunami that is breathtaking in its total human impact. It led to the dekamegamurders by Marxist regimes in the Soviet Union and China, and more circuitously, it contributed to the one committed by the Nazi regime in Germany. Hitler read Marx in 1913, and although he detested Marxist socialism, his National Socialism substituted races for classes in its ideology of a dialectical struggle toward utopia, which is why some historians consider the two ideologies “fraternal twins.”

There are many more things that could be said about Pinker’s book, most of them bad (Peter Singer loved it). That isn’t my concern here, and of course this wasn’t meant as a general review.

I hoped merely to prepare the post to follow this one, by highlighting Pinker’s shameful defence (is anyone willing to suggest this wasn’t a chief goal?) of the US war machine, and his encouragement of Panglossian attitudes towards ‘modernity’.

For Pinker recently has made a habit of repackaging conventional pieties (‘The positive-sum cooperation of commerce flourishes best inside a big tent presided over by a Leviathan’), congenial to the powerful and favourable to their policy objectives, into bracing or scandalous truths, kept inaccessible, embattled or ignored by prevailing opinion. (A publicity interview for the book described Pinker as an enemy of the ‘chattering classes’; Niall Ferguson is tediously promoted, in similar style, as ‘saying the sort of thing that drives liberal England mad’. Pinker’s book catches the mood of the times as expertly as did Ferguson, the Harvard historian whose Empire [2003] and Colossus [2004] sought to rehabilitate the colonial record of the British Empire, criticize the subsequent decades of self-rule, and suggest that the United States would serve everyone’s welfare by formally annexing overseas territory.)

But the promotion of violence and bellicosity, in the guise of taboo-busting, sometimes takes a form more agreeable to ‘progressive’ tastes. Expressions of facile Whiggishness, may — with a defter hand than Pinker has managed in his book — be elevated to the status of keen insight and daring iconoclasm.

They may, as I’ll suggest in the following post, attract the support of people who identify as ‘progressive’ (Pinker’s ‘chattering classes’, spanning from the centre-left to self-described ‘radicals’).

The right stuff

December 30, 2011

In a Washington Post feature article (‘Under Obama, an emerging global apparatus for drone killing’), Greg Miller writes that ‘no president has ever relied so extensively on the secret killing of individuals to advance the nation’s security goals.’

I’ve discussed this fact before and considered what the drastic expansion of executive power reveals about the policy objectives of the US elite and its allies. There’s more to think about, though.

Use of remotely-piloted aircraft (as well as cruise missiles and manned gunships) for weapons delivery requires the presence, midway along the ‘kill chain‘ between sensor and shooter, of human operators and analysts.

These people must watch, with sustained attention, live video feeds or surveillance imagery of death and destruction as human targets are found, tracked and exterminated with high-explosive anti-armour (blast and fragment) munitions.

In other words, Washington’s global death program entails the existence of an extraordinary sort of workforce.

Members must be able to withstand both prolonged and acute exposure to horribly unpleasant stimuli while maintaining vigilance and task-specific focus and without experiencing the kind of negative emotional states or overwhelming affective responses that lead to performance degradation (e.g. failure to determine whether a target has been successfully ‘neutralized’ or merely incapacitated, inability to discriminate between the remains of targets and those of bystanders or non-humans, unwillingness to detect subsequent targets, etc.).

One method people use ordinarily to cope with distress is avoidance: diverting attention from the source of aversion as a way to alleviate anxiety. This is impossible for the drone operator, whose job description requires him never to look away.

Wayne Chappelle and Kent McDonald at the US Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine in Ohio have undertaken studies, using surveys, tests and peer reports, into the personality traits and behavioural dispositions, as well as the cognitive and psychomotor skills, needed by successful operators of unmanned weapons-deploying aircraft and their sensors.

Among other things, this has involved rating participants along the Big Five personality dimensions (openness, agreeableness, extraversion, conscientiousness and neuroticism) and comparing results to those from the civilian population and the aircrew of manned gunships. (Other recent papers can be found here, here and here).

UAV crew members unsurprisingly must possess all the usual traits: self-confidence, assertiveness, excitement-seeking, internal locus of control, a high degree of intrinsic motivation, etc.

But given their specific combat role, the final attribute in the Big Five domains – emotional stability or composure in the face of induced transient stress – becomes especially important if personnel are to perform successfully and avoid burnout or impaired performance. (Predator/Reaper and AC-130 gunship operators both score lowest, relative to the general population, on neuroticism.)

According to McDonald and Chappelle, those who adapted to the ‘operational environment’ displayed ’emotional stamina’, lack of vulnerability to negative mood states, were ‘tough-minded’ and not prone to distress. They found that ‘higher than average levels of  resilience to stress (or other negative emotional states), need for excitement-seeking, and compartmentalization of emotions are required to adapt to the operational demands’:

According to SOs [sensor operators], the deployment of weapons also requires well-developed skills for compartmentalizing their emotions.

The rigors of training and operational demands of the RPA [remotely-piloted aircraft] platform (e.g., targeting and destruction of enemy assets, taking the lives of enemy combatants, as well as surveillance of battle damage) can be emotionally taxing.

SMEs [subject-matter experts, i.e. superiors] reported the ability to compartmentalize the emotional rigors of one’s job in order to conserve emotional reserves when returning home from work or interacting with others outside the military installation can be an important trait for long term stability.

It is well-known that resilience to stress and emotional difficulties (often known has psychological hardiness) is considered a core attribute of those within high risk military occupations.

Furthermore, some airmen may emotionally struggle with their role in the killing of enemy combatants.

Interviews with SMEs reported a small number of incidences (i.e., four to five) of SOs voicing their discomfort with their duties and/or requesting to leave the career field after their role in the deployment of weapons. They reported such SOs performed their surveillance and reconnaissance duties well, but emotionally struggled with their role in taking the lives of others, regardless of the threat enemy combatants posed to U.S. and allied forces.

SMEs reported such SOs experienced significant internal conflict with their role, and that such a conflict did not become apparent until the SO was faced with a real-life situation or fully educated about the nature of their combat-related duties.

It is important to ensure that airmen selected for RPA SO duties are fully aware of, and understand, their role in the targeting and destruction of enemy combatants and assets prior to entry into training. It is likely that some SO candidates will decline the opportunity to pursue such duties once they fully understand their role in precision strike operations.

In other words, remote operators of weapons-deploying aircraft must be unusual people, many of them several standard deviations from the population mean on various personality dimensions.

The most important of these dimensions is neuroticism and its components: susceptibility to sadness, regret and depressed mood. If they feel at all queasy, guilt-ridden or troubled when observing burnt and mangled corpses, they must manage to suppress such feelings and get on with the job without any noticeable decrement in performance or distraction from task engagement.

In seeking to retain incumbents and find suitable recruits to work as happy killers, Washington’s expanding assassination program thus must fish in shallow waters for rare species (certainly including sociopaths) displaying the desired personality traits.

One way of achieving sufficient numbers at the extremes (i.e. tails) of a distribution is to shift the population mean for the trait in question. If the average person becomes less prone to a negative affective response upon witnessing scenes of extreme violence and destruction, then the ‘less neurotic’ types will be more stoic still, and their numbers more plentiful than otherwise.

Similarly, such a population-wide shift would raise the stress threshold beyond which task demands (such as remote killing) were experienced by operators as unfamiliar, unbearable and exceeding the operator’s capacity to cope.

Finally, an increase in the median voter’s ability to withstand the sights and sounds of extreme violence, without lapsing into appalled paralysis or low moods, would presumably increase public tolerance for large-scale killing, by those at the extremes, in pursuit of elite objectives.

How might this be achieved?

Applicants with the desirable traits and states obviously self-select for the job. But the above quotation shows that candidate recruitment isn’t perfectly reliable.

In such cases, and generally, affective response and emotional disposition can also be modified and reinforced by training. People from the University of Central Florida psychology department (Mustapha Mouloua, Peter HancockEduardo SalasDeborah Billings, James Szalma, etc.) have explored how stress-exposure or stress-resiliency training can “harden” personnel who must use UAVs in combat, so that their ability to acquire and engage targets is not overwhelmed by emotional and physiological response.

The basic technique works via graduated-intensity exposure to battlefield stressors and realistic perceptual cues, including through high-fidelity simulation and games. The trainee is habituated to environmental cues that initially were aversive and debilitating, thus becoming ‘inoculated’ against combat stress.

Similarly, by exposing the general population to an unceasing barrage of (imagery of) extreme violence (e.g. by allowing it to saturate popular entertainment), one may presumably shift in a convenient direction the population distribution of relevant dispositions and attitudes, bestowing an everyday familiarity (sanitized, to be sure) and tolerability on what is pursued in secret.

This, too, I’ve discussed in greater detail in another post.

Becoming stress hardened through training and through entertainment

August 24, 2011

Christopher J. Ferguson is a young associate professor of psychology at Texas A&M. For the most part, his published work has been devoted to defence of violent video games and other visual media.

He contests the research findings of disciplinary colleagues that such games desensitize users to violence, attach rewards to aggression and increase their players’ propensity for violent behaviour.

The disparity in the balance of scholarly opinion has demanded from him great feats of argumentative and publishing energy.

Eleven of his papers were cited, and his signature attached to the list of amici curiae (who also included figures like Todd Gitlin and Steven Pinker), in the pro-games-association brief submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court before its recent decision on a Californian law restricting sales to minors (Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Merchants Association).

I have no great taste for comment on Ferguson’s work; to each his chosen niche.

But the following astonishing remark, which he delivered earlier this year, was a little too much to ignore:

Another common urban legend is that the US military uses video games to desensitize soldiers so that they will kill more reliably…

Never mind that the US Army has denied these claims (video games are used for vehicle and team training and decision making and even recruitment, but not desensitization) or that police organizations use similar simulations to reduce impulsive “bad” shootings.

Nor does it seem to matter that today’s youth, consuming far greater amounts of violent games than any past generation possibly could, are the least violent youth in 40 years.

The sound byte is repeated often, presumably because of its emotional appeal.

Elsewhere he has scorned what he calls ‘the false notion that the military uses video games to desensitize soldiers to killing (they do use simulators for visual scanning and reaction time and vehicle training, but they seem more effective in reducing accidental shootings than anything else).’

Ferguson teaches a subject called Psychology of War at a military college, so his remarks (games as the path to purity of arms!) cannot plausibly be explained by ignorance.

More importantly, Ferguson undertook his doctoral research at the University of Central Florida, a member of the Team Orlando collaborative alliance of defence contractors, branches of the armed forces, DoD agencies, and scholars in the fields of simulation, training and human performace.

The motto of Team Orlando is improving human performance through simulation. The psychology department at UCF, with its Institute for Simulation and Training, is heavily involved in this project. A departmental laboratory is sponsored by the Office for Naval Research (ONR).

Ferguson surely is familiar with the work of faculty members such as Eduardo Salas, Peter Hancock, Clint A. Bowers and Janis Cannon-Bowers, and perhaps that of their regular co-author James Driskell, researcher from the Florida Maxima Corporation.

These scholars and their grad students  Ferguson must know this, too  have devoted themselves to exploring how the operational training of combat soldiers can best ‘moderate the performance effects of stressors’.

In other words, they investigate how training can reduce the decrement in proficiency (of e.g. shoot/no-shoot decisions and marksmanship) caused by the acute stress of the ‘battlefield environment’.

And this goal, their advice runs, is best achieved through ‘arousal habituation’, i.e. desensitization to the violence that troops are expected to undertake.

Training delivered via simulation, games and virtual environments is a big part of this.

Clarke Lethin from the ONR, technical manager of the Future Immersive Training Environment, has described the purpose of his simulator. It involves delivery of  ‘sensory overload’, to inoculate the instructee against combat stress, then to ‘determine if Marines have a diminished stress reaction… during follow-up exposures.’

The newfound ‘resilience’ acquired during pre-deployment training helps to increase the lethality of personnel in operational situations, preventing them from freezing in combat.

The UCF psychologists have described how stress reactions (trembling, feelings of anxiety, increased heart rate, sweating, laboured breathing, decreased fine motor skills and other physiological symptoms of extreme arousal), especially novel and unfamiliar ones, present ‘off-task stimuli’. These distract the soldier or marine from task-relevant details, and increase demands on his or her attentional resources.

Assuming that attentional resources are finite and must be allocated between competing uses, they explain, a higher ‘cognitive load’ can impair task performance. The symptoms of acute stress (auditory blocking, tunnel vision, rigidity, nausea, etc.) can entirely prevent execution of the task.

They describe, finally, how stress can cause loss of both motivation and ‘team perspective.’ A U.S. Army field manual (22-51, 1994) and an ADF research paper each detail a range of symptoms by which combat stress renders soldiers ‘ineffective as members of combat units’, from failure to engage the enemy (‘combat refusal’) to shirking, panic running and malingering.

Numerous contemporary studies (as well as the work of Zahava Solomon with IDF veterans of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and earlier wars) have shown that the best predictor of suffering ‘combat stress reactions’, PTSD or other mental-health problems is a soldier’s having witnessed persons being wounded or killed, along with having engaged in direct combat during which they discharged their weapon; killing an enemy combatant or civilian; seeing, smelling or handling dead or decomposing bodies; and seeing fellow soldiers or friends dead or maimed.

(As is well known, Himmler discovered that the killing efficiency of his Einsatzgruppen was limited by the debilitating stress reactions suffered by those troops who performed mass executions by shooting. This fact apparently motivated the switch to using gas vans and later gas chambers to undertake the Vernichtungskrieg).

Yet current US military combat operations are highly dependent on kill/capture missions, remotely-directed assassinations and ‘irregular warfare’ (so-called stability operations, counterterrorism and counterinsurgency).

These programs have recently been described approvingly by John Nagl, a West Point alumnus with close ties to the Obama administration and a hand in writing the Army and Marine Corps counterinsurgency field manual, as an ‘almost industrial-scale counterterrorism killing machine.’

See also the recent warning in The Australian newspaper of ‘the enormous personal price’ paid by special forces soldiers and their families as they faced repeated deployment and ‘a much more aggressive and assertive role.’ According to one former special forces officer: ‘Some 600 guys have done most of the killing in the past 10 years. That’s a terrible burden to place on a small number of soldiers and they keep getting rotated back.’

If this killing machine is to operate effectively, it must overcome the emotional and physiological barriers erected by the human nervous system and the wider culture against the killing of conspecifics.

Therefore the pre-eminent training objective, pace Ferguson, is to ensure that troops ‘will kill more reliably’, that lethal behaviour can be elicited and executed properly even when, for most people, this would produce overwhelming and debilitating stress reactions.

The relationship between arousal and combat performance is commonly modelled as an inverted U-shaped function. Peak performance is reached and maintained when the soldier is neither too inhibited (hypostress) nor too excited (hyperstress), and falls away either side of this middle ground.

‘Positive stress’ helps to ‘motivate’ the warfighter, and this may be elicited by stoking a sense of gamesmanship or eliteness. But UCF’s Peter Hancock warns that stress increments above a ‘tolerance threshold’ lead to catastrophic performance breakdown (he cites as an example Marshall’s WW2 report of many soldiers’ failure to fire weapons in combat).

Training should therefore aim to raise the maximal stress load that an individual can bear before he is overwhelmed. This is known as stress hardening or resilience training; both terms are semantically indistinct from desensitization.

The UCF psychology team, and many other researchers into military psychology, have stated that the degree of hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis activation, during exposure to stressful environments and activities, depends on the soldier’s prior experience of relevant procedures and familiarity with the perceptions involved.

Habitual and graduated exposure to novel and aversive stimuli during repeated skills-acquisition drills, before deployment to combat theatres, allows ‘inoculation’ against stress. (There is evidence that special-forces personnel can tolerate higher levels of acute and chronic stress than can general infantry troops.)

They have therefore recommended ‘overlearning’, allowing acquisition and retention of sensorimotor skills (e.g. shooting), and their maintenance in high-stress environments, so they can be executed ‘automatically’ without the warfighter’s needing to explicitly devote attentional resources.

Rehearsal, they have explained, in training settings that closely approximate the operational situation, builds a repertoire of ‘routinised’, familiar actions that are rapidly accessible, with the desired response triggered when driven by the relevant environmental cues or patterns.

For this purpose, they have explained that games and battlefield simulations can replace time spent on live firing and gunnery ranges. Bowers, in an address at this year’s GameTech conference in Florida, explained how games allowed increase in the ‘fidelity of traumatic cues’ that are ‘likely to be encountered in the operational setting.’

The Pentagon’s main provider of video target walls for simulating dismounted-infantry operations and special-operations close combat (e.g. target acquisition and house clearing), explains the innovative worth of its ‘realistic virtual targets’. The latter open up ‘a whole new realm of training by replacing antiquated static targetry, as traditionally found in a CQB [close-quarters battle] training environment, with large, immersive target walls displaying projected images of life-size, full-motion moving targets’ which ‘mimic the life-like movements and reactions to that of real humans.’ Its publicity brochure notes that ‘skeleton and organs can be viewed to show severity of wound.’

Such a system is used to project targets and the avatars of participants in mixed-reality close-combat exercises at USMC Camp Pendleton. The Director of the Battle Simulations Centre there, Tom Buscemi, has explained that the Infantry Immersion Trainer is ‘designed to inoculate deploying Marines with the sights, sounds, and smells of a gun battle… We’ve had people go into shock. We’ve had people completely stunned.’

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, marvelled that the trainer used simulation to help ‘all of our conventional forces…to have more special forces attributes.’

The latter has been a key objective since a December 2008 Pentagon directive recognised irregular operations to be ‘as strategically important as traditional warfare.’ The training of general-purpose infantry was henceforth to assume a new focus on the ‘grim skills’ of ‘close combat, where intimate killing is the norm’, according to CENTCOM Commander James Mattis.

How this instruction was to proceed was the topic of an Irregular Warfare Training Symposium, hosted by the University of Central Florida during September 2009, its tagline being The Future of Small Unit Excellence in Immersive Cognitive Training. Participants agreed on the need to develop ‘supporting technology: an immersive, high-stress, near-real decision-making capability that is scalable, infinitely repeatable and unique.’

In games, simulations and virtual environments, UCF and other military-training researchers have found, aversive and novel stressors (unpleasant noises such as screaming or engine sounds, the visual and olfactory stimuli of death and destruction, heat, haptic feedback of fired weaponry, etc.) can be replicated with high fidelity, at low cost and allowing high-frequency repetition.

Trainees can be attached to real-time sensors, and undergo post-drill tests, to measure their eye-blink duration, respiration rate, palmar sweating, salivary alpha-amylase (a proxy for noradrenaline), cortisol and blood-glucose levels (to measure activation of endocrine response), body temperature, heart rate and skin conductance.

Monitoring these indicators of autonomic nervous-system activity allows instructors to check their key concern: the ‘ability to induce and modulate high stress.’

A 2002 report into ‘cognitive readiness’ undertaken for the DoD noted:

[One] would predict that performance under emotionally arousing combat conditions would be improved by training under identical, or at least similar, arousing conditions…

In the past, technology and ethical constraints have acted to limit the degree to which training evokes the strong emotions associated with combat. Some have claimed that immersive simulation technology (i.e., simulations that involve multiple sensory modes — sounds and smells as well as visual stimuli) has the ability to evoke strong emotions…

It remains to be seen, however, whether the emotions evoked in immersive simulation are similar in quality and intensity to those experienced in combat.

This 2005 report, prepared for DARPA following a three-year study, compared the subsequent performance in live combat exercises of subjects who had previously trained, using laptops or head-mounted displays, in ‘virtual shoot houses’ and simulated Iraqi villages, with that of a control group who had not used the virtual-world trainers before entering the real shoot house or village.

Along with other improved performance metrics, the first group was found to have exhibited superior stress management, ‘combat breathing’ and arousal-control techniques. The control group, on the other hand, exhibited some behaviour characteristic of confusion and panic, e.g. taking cover behind propane tanks when under fire.

The report concluded regarding the three-wall CAVE projection: ‘The life-size dimensions and projection must be impacting the synthesis of information. Furthermore, participants of the [immersive virtual trainer] group commented that once in the real shoothouse, they felt as though they had “already been there.”’

The authors concluded that training delivery by these means would allow associative learning (i.e. use of cues to elicit the desired behaviour) and help instructors ‘automate a response through repetition.’

The authors of that report  Mark and Brenda Wiederhold, whose Virtual Reality Medical Centre is a recipient of ONR project funding  expanded elsewhere on the worth of simulated environment in desensitizing and ‘stress hardening’ trainees:

Deployed personnel must often perform in extremely stressful environments, and optimum performance under such conditions requires effective management of physiological, psychological and emotional responses to stimuli. An acute stress reaction (ASR) or combat and operational stress reaction (COSR) can occur during exposure to exceptionally stressful events like those encountered in combat, resulting in extreme sympathetic nervous system arousal and impaired performance…

During VR-enhanced preventative SIT [stress-inoculation training], military personnel “experience” highly stressful situations in a virtual environment while being physiologically monitored. Repeated exposure enables personnel to gradually become desensitized to stimuli that may initially elicit such strong physiological arousal that performance is impeded (i.e., “freezing in the line of fire”) …

Naval research has also concluded that stress-exposure training in ‘virtual environments’ decreases the trainee’s physiological response to stress and thus mitigates the adverse performance effects of stress on aviators.

UCF faculty member Peter Hancock, on the other hand, argued in a paper for the journal Military Psychology that high-fidelity simulations were not necessary for effective combat training.

When the elements of a game are present, part of the physical fidelity or reproduced realness of a simulated environment may be sacrificed while immersion itself still remains at an optimal level for training effectiveness. Thus, personal computer (PC)-based gaming tools can be highly effective training tools.

Experiments were conducted ‘supplementing an OTS [off-the-shelf, i.e. commercial entertainment] infantry game training session with an intense and vivid video depiction of a front-line infantry battle’ (15 minutes of realistic and ‘graphically intense war scenes from the beach invasion portion of the movie Saving Private Ryan‘).

Instructors were able to induce in their subjects ‘increased arousal via movie-like special effects’. Compared to a control group who watched a ‘non-stimulating’ black-and-white clip of actual documentary footage from the Normandy landing, individuals whose ‘were exposed to realistic warlike stress images and reacted with positive arousal… effectively retained training and had higher performance scores overall.’

Writing in 2004, he concluded: ‘With recent world events, it is evident that PC-based game training combined with effective supplementary stress might be used to assist rapid-deployment troops who will face immediate immersion in real-world conditions.’

And what of the visual-attention proficiency that Ferguson mentions?

Such skills (which underlie e.g. shooting accuracy, friend-or-foe discrimination) are known to degrade with stress. The US Army Research Laboratory suggests the capacity of video games to improve visual focus, enhancing the ability of troops to filter out distracting information and attend selectively to task-relevant stimuli (i.e. enemy targets) in combat environments, is explained by stress habituation.

Experiments reveal participants trained to play first-person shooter video games featuring ‘intense battlefield violence’ perform better at subsequent attentional-focus and object-tracking exercises than those trained to play similar games with the combat violence removed.

The same physiological measures of arousal and autonomic nervous system activation (skin conductivity, heart rate, etc.) show that violent video games played for entertainment purposes have a similar effect. Their users become habituated and gradually develop tolerance for stimuli (e.g. footage of real-life stabbings) and activities that initially provoke a stress response.

This fact suggests that violent visual-entertainment products (some computer and console-based games, as well as films and TV programmes) may inadvertently function like stress-exposure training for their audience and users.

For combat and marksmanship training, the goal of imparting ‘resilience’ is to increase the survival and lethality of troops. This is of course not the point of entertainment products, where the only concern besides the commercial one is the usual pride of producers in their work.

But these products seem nonetheless to involve a similar brutalization or ‘hardening’. They arouse their audiences and users and then gradually lower the latter’s affective and physiological responses to extreme violence. Violence thereafter can be appreciated on higher cognitive planes: as satiric, intriguing, comic, food for thought, artfully presented, exhilirating, etc.

This will be an unpalatable conclusion for anyone fond of such products or with a professional interest in their continued good standing, production, sale and use. But it simply isn’t honest to deny the antecedent proposition (i.e. that combat training uses games/simulation to desensitize instructees) in order safely to reject the consequent.

Strange days

July 2, 2011

(Just to forestall boredom, frustration or angry clicks of the ‘back’ button: Much of what follows will be familiar to regular readers of this blog. I’ve gone over similar ground once more only to set up the next post, which will look at a recent and far more interesting paper by Posner and Vermeule.)

In 2003, Eric Posner (University of Chicago) and Adrian Vermeule (now at Harvard) published a paper in the Stanford Law Review called ‘Accommodating Emergencies’.

It examined what the authors described as the proper ‘degree of deference’ payable to the executive branch during unusual circumstances, such as civil war or severe economic downturn.

As the title suggested, Posner and Vermeule cast an affirmative eye on relaxation or suspension of the Constitution during an emergency, or arrogation of executive power such as had recently occurred on the pretext of fighting global terrorism.

They placed themselves in a tradition they identified with Alan Dershowitz, Richard Posner and William Rehnquist, for whom extending the ‘boundaries of the politically possible’ was sometimes to be welcomed:

During an emergency, it is important that power be concentrated. Power should move up from the states to the federal government, and, within the federal government, from the legislature and the judiciary to the executive.

Constitutional rights should be relaxed, so the executive can move forcefully against the threat.

If dissent weakens resolve, then dissent should be curtailed. If domestic security is at risk, then intrusive searches should be tolerated.

There is no reason to think that the constitutional rights and powers appropriate for an emergency are the same as those that prevail during times of normalcy.

They went on to reject the claim, being advanced by some at the time, that ‘emergencies work like a ratchet’, as follows:

With every emergency, constitutional protections are reduced, and after the emergency is over, enhancement of constitutional powers is either maintained or not fully eliminated, so that the executive ends up with more power after the emergency than it had before the emergency. With each successive emergency, the executive’s power is ratcheted up.

Against this notion, Posner and Vermeule argued that there was no secular trend towards entrenched executive power; rather there was a cyclical movement of privileges gained and reversed. Or (arguing in the alternative), if there were such an accretion, it could be explained by ‘long-term technological and demographic changes, not recurrent emergencies’.

In a subsequent working paper called ‘Tyrannophobia’, the same two authors upbraided the US public’s ‘excessive fear of tyranny’. This ‘irrational… unnecessary and costly’ trait could best be explained by ‘cognitive biases and other psychological phenomena’: in short, ‘the broader paranoid style’.

Eight years on, Posner and Vermeule’s affirmative stance remains. They have just published a book welcoming the ‘effective end of the Madisonian republic of separated powers’ in favour of a ‘presidential democracy… in which Congress and the courts have been reduced to marginal actors, who carp from the sidelines but for the most part end up deferring to executive power.’

Judged solely on their descriptive accuracy, the authors can’t be faulted.

As they recognize, ‘few liberal commentators argue anymore that the President is abusing executive power.’ Indeed, today it is to unlikely sources like John Yoo that one must turn for criticism of Obama’s brazen disregard for legal constraints in Libya (which the President dismissed on Wednesday as ‘all kinds of noise about process and congressional consultation and so forth’). Scarcer still is opposition to expansion of the statutorily-sanctioned wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

Indeed, District Courts have ruled, in support of Justice Department submissions, that the President and his military and national-security advisors (foremost among them the Defence Secretary and CIA chief) are the sole qualified interpreters of the geographical scope and temporal extent of the armed hostilities authorized by Congress in September 2001. It is, they have agreed, ‘inappropriate for a court… to adjudicate ex ante the permissible scope of particular tactical decisions that the Executive may take’ against al-Qaeda ‘affiliate organizations’ and their alleged members.

Should the President wish to assassinate a person, no public explanation need be adduced, let alone due process be afforded:

There are many aspects of military and national security operations in which the government does not publicly disclose the criteria that guide its actions, but that hardly means that in all such operations the government acts “arbitrarily.”

The President has a constitutional duty to take care that the law is faithfully executed, and he and the other defendants here take that obligation very seriously, endeavoring at all points to comply with all applicable domestic and international laws. The laws themselves are not secret.

And apart from those laws, the alleged operations here [‘lethal action’ against a US citizen in Yemen] would be guided by fact-intensive military and intelligence determinations involving command and policy judgments in the context of highly context-specific diplomatic and logistical considerations.

Any effort to reduce those judgments to a set of “criteria” to be publicly announced in response to a judicial injunction and subsequently enforced would, for the reasons previously discussed, exceed the bounds of judicial authority.

To gradual retrenchment of Fifth, Sixth and Eighth Amendment rights (a rollback still more advanced in jurisdictions, such as Australia and its states, where these are not explicitly granted or specified), must be added the ongoing evisceration of Fourth Amendment protections.

Viewed broadly, it must be agreed that there now are fewer institutional or procedural constraints on executive power (whether judicial review of administrative action, or reliance on legislative consent or oversight).

Posner and Vermeule write of the ‘ever-diminishing institutional capacities’ of the legislative and judicial branches relative to those of the executive, which has accrued ‘sweeping statutory and constitutional powers’. But, they aver, this has only ‘strengthened informal political checks on presidential action. The result is a president who enjoys sweeping de jure authority, but who is constrained de facto by the reaction of a highly educated and politically involved elite, and by mass opinion.’

These ‘non-legal constraints’, as they describe them, are ‘amorphous and vague’, and Posner and Vermeule hardly bother to substantiate or specify them at all:

The modern economy, whose complexity creates the demand for [unchecked] administrative governance, also creates wealth, leisure, education and broad political information, all of which strengthen democracy and make a collapse into authoritarian rule nearly impossible… Every action is scrutinized, leaks from executive officials come in a torrent, journalists are professionally hostile, and potential abuses are quickly brought to light. The modern presidency is a fishbowl, in large part because the costs of acquiring political information have fallen steadily in the modern economy, and because a wealthy, educated and leisured population has the time to monitor presidential action… The administrative state has thus helped to create a wealthy, educated population and a super-educated elite whose members have the leisure and affluence to care about matters such as civil liberties, who are politically engaged to a fault, and who help to check executive abuses.

Quite how this nosy busybody public, shorn of institutional levers by which to act upon what it ‘care[s] about’, monitors and ‘[brings] to light’, is supposed to apply its iron shackles, is anyone’s guess. The opinion poll, perhaps? Periodic elections? Indeed, Posner and Vermeule describe a President ‘substantially constrained by the ambient force of mass public opinion and the implicit threat of political backlash…he is enslaved to the opinion polls.’

The figurative language betrays its remoteness from reality; the description cannot but provoke mirth. A populace, in the short-run constantly misinformed in the most blatant of ways, in the longer term kept ignorant and poorly educated, and allowed every few years to participate in voting rituals during which mass support is brigaded behind elite policy aims  and to the extent it is not is rendered basically meaningless and ineffectual  never forms anything but a weak and pliable external constraint on the activity of administrators, upper-level bureaucrats and ministers.

The Posner-Vermeule ‘electoral democracy’ argument is a flimsy piece of apologetics, and hard to square with the growing and explicit contempt for popular opinion and voting rights held by Federalist Society confrères such as Justice Scalia, leading to his approval for disenfranchisement and blatant vote rigging. (Thus, in December 2000, John Yoo wrote in the Wall Street Journal that ‘the people have no right to vote for president or even the Electoral College; that power is only delegated to them by the grace of the legislature. In appointing the electors itself, the legislature would be directly taking up its constitutional functions again.’)

But it does oddly resemble a current favourite theme of the left-liberal intelligentsia (journalists, academics, artists). Many of the latter are eager to criticize governmental misdeeds or arbitrary excercise of power (non-judicial detention of refugees, denial of basic rights like abortion etc.).

But the atrophied and weak non-executive organs of state cannot plausibly be blamed for this, and the critics are not willing to call the entire system into question by asking why, at this point in history, the executive branch is being given unchecked authority, and why it might try to divide the population along racial or gender lines. So everything is explained by the fearful obeisance of a political elite which, for electoral reasons, submits (‘panders’) to the wishes of a backwards, uncouth, racist populace.

Both positions, it’s clear, share contempt for broad masses of the population, and solidarity with higher echelons of the state elite.

As Posner and Vermeule make plain in their ‘Accommodating Emergencies’ paper, some of the recent changes to the distribution of power between government branches, and the withdrawal of long-standing checks and rights, are intended to facilitate Washington’s pursuit of its strategic objectives (i.e. the waging of aggressive war).

Others, more clearly, such as detention without trial, are designed to allow persecution of dissenters. This points to the more fundamental purpose, shared across most economically advanced countries: to re-shape the state to suit new circumstances, in which political stability rests on unprecedently narrow social foundations.

That unchecked rule by the executive means government on behalf of a tiny group of rentiers can be seen by the anti-democratic ‘changes of governance’ envisaged for the EU, suggested by European Central Bank chief Jean-Claude Trichet upon receiving the Karlspreis in Charlemagne’s palace at Aachen:

It is of paramount importance that [fiscal] adjustment occurs; that countries – governments and opposition – unite behind the effort; and that contributing countries survey with great care the implementation of the programme.

But if a country is still not delivering, I think all would agree that the second stage has to be different.

Would it go too far if we envisaged, at this second stage, giving euro area authorities a much deeper and authoritative say in the formation of the country’s economic policies if these go harmfully astray? A direct influence, well over and above the reinforced surveillance that is presently envisaged?

The rationale for this approach would be to find a balance between the independence of countries and the interdependence of their actions, especially in exceptional circumstances.

We can see before our eyes that membership of the EU, and even more so of EMU, introduces a new understanding in the way sovereignty is exerted. Interdependence means that countries de facto do not have complete internal authority. They can experience crises caused entirely by the unsound economic policies of others.

With a new concept of a second stage, we would change drastically the present governance based upon the dialectics of surveillance, recommendations and sanctions.

In the present concept, all the decisions remain in the hands of the country concerned, even if the recommendations are not applied, and even if this attitude triggers major difficulties for other member countries.

In the new concept, it would be not only possible, but in some cases compulsory, in a second stage for the European authorities –  namely the Council on the basis of a proposal by the Commission, in liaison with the ECB – to take themselves decisions applicable in the economy concerned.

One way this could be imagined is for European authorities to have the right to veto some national economic policy decisions. The remit could include in particular major fiscal spending items and elements essential for the country’s competitiveness.

A poser

May 17, 2011

Having been asked to comment on the Bin Laden assassination, Benjamin Ferencz (a prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials) ends his interview with CBC radio by describing the US state elite’s turn towards strategic criminality (see last two decades, passim).

This, he makes clear, consists not merely (or mostly) of using roaming extra-territorial hit squads, a bit of the old non-judicial detention, attempted assassination of political leaders (e.g. Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein), and a sensitive new (post-speech-in-Cairo?) commitment to the traditional Islamic burial rite of Ståplats i Nybroviken.

Ho hum.

The assessment rests, rather, on culpability for crimes against peace, i.e. belligerence to advance policy objectives, viz. yer actual hanging offence c. 1945:

I’m afraid most of the lessons of Nuremberg have passed. Unfortunately, the world has accepted them but the United States seems reluctant to do so.

The principal lesson we learned from Nuremberg is that a war of aggression  that means, a war in violation of international law, in violation of the UN charter, and not in self-defense  is the supreme international crime, because all the other crimes happen in war. And every leader who is responsible for planning and perpetrating that crime should be held to account in a court of law, and the law applies equally to everyone.

These lessons were hailed throughout the world  I hailed them, I was involved in them  and it saddens me no end when Americans are asked: why don’t you support the Nuremberg principles on aggression? 

And the response is: Nuremberg? That was then; this is now. Forget it.

As previously discussed on this blog, various court philosophers have been complicit in the diminishing of aggressive war’s status as ‘the supreme international crime’ (the phrase dates from the Nuremberg judgements themselves), e.g. by re-casting it as an auxiliary offence (i.e. one with no distinct independent existence) conditional on the prior or concurrent commission of war crimes or crimes against humanity, or by shrugging it off as hopelessly indefinable.

Among these are numbered not just straightforward regime stooges like Bernard-Henri Lévy, but more ‘serious’ scholarly figures like Jürgen Habermas and Larry May.

To this list of the culpable may be added a mainstream media that has, with no great subtlety, deliberately cultivated a war-loving Sammlungspolitik amongst the broader US population, with ‘reporters’ from Entertainment Tonight unaccountably visiting training facilities at Fort Irwin for fawning photo ops, and professional sportsmen such as LeBron James and Lance Armstrong conscripted into the post-OBL-death celebrations.

How is one to understand this situation, in which rules set up over centuries to govern lawful international conduct have been trumped by some perceived imperative or strategic emergency (which ’emergency’, on any fact-sensitive assessment, plainly does not resemble the official line about terrorist threats or humanitarian crises)?

Liberal analysts like Glenn Greenwald, whose column in Salon has valiantly tracked the bipartisan criminalization of the US political class (it’s where I found the Ferencz interview), offer no adequate way of interpreting it, outside of vague mutterings about the Mil-Ind Complex, the National-Security-&-Surveillance State, etc.

I know I do harp on about this, and frankly it’s all a little downbeat and something one attends to only grudgingly.

But it’s a reasonably pertinent question: just what do non-radical folks think the boys in Washington, and their allies, are up to with this routine (i.e. overthrowing governments in various energy-rich regions and disposing of their leaders in more-or-less mobsterish fashion, establishing and retaining military garrisons close to key infrastructure, ensuring that successor regimes have various desirable characteristics, wiping out and mutilating people in huge numbers, not to mention the whole arbitrary-detention-and-torture business)?

It’s happening, right?

So what are they so-to-speak getting at?

An unsentimental education

April 1, 2011

In his book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War, former West Point psychology professor Dave Grossman claims that ‘the vast majority of combatants throughout history, at the moment of truth when they could and should kill the enemy, have found themselves unable to kill.’

The available evidence seems a little too patchy to establish this proposition.

Nevertheless it is true — nobody has bothered seriously to argue otherwise — that musket fire during the nineteenth century, and lines of riflemen during the Second World War, did not produce anywhere near the technically feasible number of lethal hits per minute.

This, Grossman contends, was because individual infantrymen often could not bring themselves to kill a fellow human, preferring to fire harmlessly into the air, over the heads of their enemies, or refusing to expend ammunition altogether:

The simple fact is that when faced with a living, breathing opponent instead of a target, a significant majority of the soldiers revert to a posturing mode in which they fire over their enemy’s heads…

[Generations] of soldiers appear to have either intentionally or instinctively outwitted the powers that be by simply exercising the soldier’s right to miss…

Secretly, quietly, at the moment of decision… these soldiers found themselves to be unable to kill their fellow man.

Some, unable to fire at all, pretended to shoot; others busied themselves with non-lethal tasks like loading weapons or gathering ammunition. An instinctive aversion to inflicting death on others limited casualty rates even on densely-packed battlefields like Gettysburg.

It evidenced, he says, a psychological force ‘stronger than drill, stronger than peer pressure, even stronger than the self-preservation instinct.’

To overcome soldiers’ ‘inner resistance to firing their weapon in combat’, armed forces had long ago introduced battlefield supervision and direction by squad leaders and platoon sergeants. To the coercive presence of superiors was added mutual surveillance by peers, group-loaded and crew-fired artillery, etc. Above all, after the Second World War, firing rates were raised by more effective combat training.

Grossman describes the brutalization and desensitization to violence of recruits during US Army and Marine Corps basic training (boot camp), and the mix of classic and operant conditioning involved in more realistic weapons-and-marksmanship drills (e.g. shooting from foxholes or behind cover, changing visual stimuli from bullseyes to pop-up human sillhouettes, 3-D moulded plastic, photo targets that fell down when hit, firing paint projectiles at live targets, filling balloons with red paint to mimic blood, and so on).

The new training regimens involved more realistic simulation of combat alongside repeated, stimulus-response conditioning to allow reliable elicitation of the desired behaviour (i.e. firing on the enemy). Tasks were trained ‘to automaticity (i.e. so that they could be performed with little or no active cognitive control).’

These techniques ensured that soldiers would execute lethal actions even under the immense physical stress of battle, when information processing slowed and motor skills degenerated.

Grossman claims that, by the time of the US war in Vietnam, firing rates had increased to around 95%. Among these soldiers and marines, resistance to killing had been broken.

sprezzatura of lethality had been achieved.

Likely combat scenarios have changed with the geopolitical weather.

For Washington’s twenty-first century Drang nach Osten (a.k.a the War on Terror) the task to be simulated now includes occupying the densely populated megacities of energy-rich regions like Southwest Asia, the Niger Delta, Central Asia and Northeast Africa. This, as Dick Cheney said in 1999, is ‘where the prize ultimately lies.’

Simulating today’s battlespace for combat training thus may require construction of a replica mini-city.

The conditions of urban warfare, counterinsurgency and occupation in Afghanistan and Iraq are simulated at the US Army’s Joint Readiness and Training Center at Fort Polk in Louisiana. For the sake of realism, soldiers playing the enemy wear beards and costumes. Other role players are recruited from among the local civilian population, including immigrants from Afghanistan and Iraq.

The smell of dead bodies is reproduced by burying days-old meat and bones. Scenario villages and ‘in-theatre facades’ are constructed from shipping containers, interior and exterior sets are dressed, and trauma moulage (wound makeup) is applied with ‘film-production realism.’

At “Chicago”, the IDF’s model Palestinian city in the Negev, the smell of rotting corpses is also recreated. Props staff from the Israeli National Theatre dress soldiers as Palestinians; cardboard cutouts of these figures pop up as targets during live-fire exercises.

The US training facility at Zussman Village, near Fort Knox in Kentucky, is described by the private company that designed, engineered and installed the pyrotechnics:

One of the most realistic urban combat training facilities in the U.S. is located right here in Kentucky. Zussman Village in Ft. Knox, Ky. encompasses 30 acres and is home to some of the most devious and realistic urban warfare scenarios that the Army’s top personnel can concoct. Deafening explosions that rattle your body, gun toting guerillas, the odor of raw sewage, the chaos and confusion of civilians on the street, burning buildings and large, fiery explosions all await those soldiers who train at Zussman Village.

The genesis of Zussman Village can be traced back to 1988 when Major General Tom Tait identified the need the train the armored force in an urban setting. A group of Vietnam veterans were charged with the task of creating design guidelines for how the site would look and operate.

“There were a lot of meetings and a lot of scribbling on bar napkins involved,” chuckled Andy Andrews, Zussman Village Range Manager. “We reviewed all the urban combat scenarios that our units have faced in the past. Everything from World War II to Somalia. We also learned a lot from British forces and their dealings in Northern Ireland, Lebanon and Syria. It was extremely important that our MOUT site (military operations in urban terrain) be as realistic as possible. We wanted it to be dirty and nasty — the way war really is.”

One of the realities of war and urban combat, as witnessed currently in Iraq, is unexpected explosions and lingering fires. Andy Andrews envisioned exploding gas stations, burning buildings and burning cars. The goal is to produce a realistic, highly stressful situation that teaches troops how to navigate a hostile, urban landscape. Zussman Village is currently the only MOUT site to incorporate pyrotechnics into training scenarios.

“One of the reasons why the fire effects are so crucial is that most of our military operations are conducted at night,” said Andrews. “When an explosion occurs and a soldier is wearing night vision goggles, his vision goes blank. Soldiers need to learn how to react to this type of situation and also to resist the urge to have his concentration lapse. It’s just human nature to take that second to stare at a fire or explosion, but in combat, soldiers need to react quickly to their changing surroundings.”


“Hollywood has nothing on us,” said Daniel Hawkins, Zussman Village Systems Engineer. “Whatever scenario you can imagine, we can create here. We’ve paid attention to the smallest detail — everything from our sewer ‘smell-o-vision’ to fully furnished hotel rooms. We also have several rigged ‘surprises’ like blowing up the bridge, knocking down a utility pole or springing a dummy from behind furniture in a building. While this is a very interesting and exciting to work, we all understand the greater purpose. This is not just a paycheck, we all believe in what we do here. We want to scare the soldier here, so he’ll be more careful over there in combat.”

Zussman Village cost $15 million to complete and this includes 20 concrete-block buildings with varying levels of simulated damage, a junkyard, soccer field, an open air market, church/mosque, cemetery, gas station, electrical substation, train tracks and bridge. The site continues to expand and offer new challenges.

Field training, especially with artillery, is expensive. Aside from these physical re-creations of cities, combat training thus increasingly involves electronic simulation of urban environments.

The US Army’s Warfighter Training Alliance, led by military contractor Raytheon, now integrates three kinds of training: Live, Virtual (‘immersive’ simulations, operated by Computer Sciences Corporation) and Constructive (game-driven simulations, administered by General Dynamics).

The purpose of the latter two is not, as commonly is made out, to school a new generation of ‘wired warriors’ in the ways of ‘network-centric warfare’ or ‘remote-control battles.’ The truth is less glamorous and more mundane.

The trainees are frontline infantry; games and simulations are merely an efficient means for each to receive the same perceptual signals, perform the same neural and motor activity, and undergo the same reinforcement learning as in live exercises.

Just as with live training, repeated exposure to the sensory inputs involved in killing (photorealistic vision of gruesome deaths, directed audio including ‘human distress noise’, scent machines, haptic feedback, wind, heat, and motor control over the action) increases the user’s tolerance for and mastery of the act itself.

The Joint Fires and Effects Training System, at Fort Sill in Oklahoma, is made up of three virtual environments: urban terrain, open terrain and air support. One task of its creators was to ‘create believable and evocative insurgent behaviours for observation and interaction’, with a ‘high level of fidelity in munitions effects.’

Army News describes it thus:

A 15-foot-high, 30-foot-wide projection screen plays out the battle, as the soldiers react to the changing scenarios and “virtual humans” use artificial intelligence to counteract. From their perspective, the crew is fighting for their lives — only here they will get the opportunity to live and learn from their mistakes.

“They’ve got to be immersed,” said Maj. Gen. Michael D. Maples, Fort Sill commanding general and chief of the field artillery. “In this kind of environment where you use a combination of virtual reality and artificial intelligence, you can give… all of those sounds, those sights, those feelings of being in combat, so they sense the same things.”


He said that training universal observers and battle staff in fires and effects capabilities and doctrine is vital to reducing the amount of time between identifying a target and delivering fires.”I would say we’ve really got to look at ‘sensor to effects’ solutions,” Maples said. “You’ve got to minimize the amount of time from the when you see the target… until you produce the effects on the target. So we’ve got to have that whole linkage put together, and it’s a pretty complex business. This is not easy. It has to be trained.”

The urban training scenario (which focuses on ‘force protection’, close-quarter combat and decision-making for a small unit) sees the trainee positioned near a highway intersection, playground, garage, wedding party, outdoor market, ‘IED vehicle’ and ‘insurgent staging area’:

[A] computer-generated city is projected on the wall in front of the trainee, while other soldiers’ images (virtual humans) are projected on the wall to the left of the trainee. The trainee interacts with the virtual soldiers as a team during the exercise. The trainee acts as a universal observer, working through target-related issues and calling for fire.

Users may also perform house-to-house searches in small units, clearing housing and buildings.

This product, created by the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT), has received some attention for using what it described as ‘the creative talents of Hollywood and the game industry’ plus ‘movie-industry effects’ to mix simulation with ‘story-driven content’. The ICT was established in 1999 as a defence-affiliated research lab following a report published in 1997 as ‘Modeling and Simulation: Linking Entertainment and Defense’.

This blog’s next post will look at some of those links.

Not a suicide pact

January 28, 2011

We’ve seen how establishment thought treats its past. What then of its present?

If no broad significance is attributed to the Earl of Strafford‘s execution, how is the emergence of a figure like John Yoo understood?

Yoo is a Berkeley law professor and former Justice Department official. He recently has published a book describing (yet again) the supposedly boundless constitutional ambit of the US federal government’s executive branch in matters of national security and foreign affairs.

Within it, as in his earlier work, the military-security-police-intelligence authorities are redefined as plenipotentiary. The President and his agents are claimed to have near-absolute prerogatives of arrest, detention, interrogation, punishment, interpretation of treaties and making of war.

Yoo’s arguments are of course crude and unpersuasive.

The historical record is treated cavalierly: predictable and misleading mention is made of Lincoln’s temporary suspension of habeas corpus, his wartime military tribunals, the blockade of Confederate ports and drafting of a militia without congressional authorization.

In defending such actions, Lincoln expressed doubt that ‘a man could contract so strong an appetite for emetics during temporary illness, as to persist in feeding upon them through the remainder of his healthful life’.

But Yoo indeed argues for a permanent revision to the separation of powers.

The old ‘constitutional model that required the approval of multiple institutions before the United States could use force may have made some sense’:

The world after September 11, 2001, however, is very different. It is no longer clear that the United States must seek to reduce the amount of warfare, and it certainly is no longer clear that the constitutional system ought to be fixed so as to make it difficult to use force…

[The] need to use force may actually be dramatically higher than before…

This book proposes… a flexible decision-making system that can respond to such sweeping changes in the international system and in America’s national security posture.

Yoo’s purpose, obviously enough, isn’t to offer neutral description, or even donnish policy prescription.

It is to provide legitimacy and polemical support to an actually-occurring phenomenon. (In this he is like the Abolitionist William Whiting, who wrote during the 1860s in support of Lincoln’s exercise of war powers.)

Of scant intellectual interest, Yoo must be taken as a political straw in the wind.

The public prominence and degree of professional success earned by a person with such views, at this precise historical moment, do not arise merely from personal ambition, intellectual inclination and good fortune.

Yoo is increasingly correct in claiming to offer ‘a constitutional theory of the foreign affairs power that differs, at times sharply, from the conventional academic wisdom but that describes more accurately the actual practice of the three branches of government.’

When Lincoln defied the judicial arm, he fought the most reactionary branch of the US federal state. The Supreme Court had earlier supported the westward spread of slavery, and thus precipitated the secession crisis. Enlargement of presidential power thus supported the ‘good cause’ of emancipation.

Nowadays, however, the expansion of executive power, free of congressional checks or judicial scrutiny (let alone democratic control), is itself a project driven by the most conservative echelons of the US elite.

This does not preclude the participation of legal elements, such as Yoo, Posner père et fils, the US Supreme Court justice who frankly advocates torture, or his comrades in the Federalist Society.

The project itself may assume a legalistic guise, as in the pursuit of ‘police actions’ against ‘outlaw states’ by the Clinton and G.H.W. Bush administrations, or Obama’s stated support for extra-territorial aggression in defence of ‘international law’.

Indeed, such cosmopolitan internationalism has won practical support from jurists and legal professionals including Carla Del Ponte and Alan Dershowitz. It has gained the theoretical fealty of philosophers of law from Jürgen Habermas to Larry May.

But juridical ingenuity here works in the service of a planetary Leviathan: raw executive power, a mortal god unchecked by legal stricture or scruple, elevated from the domestic to the international sphere.

While restructuring of the state may assume its most consequential form in the imperial capital, the process is not restricted to Washington.

In Australia, the march towards indefinite, non-judicial detention commenced via the Migration Amendment Act and Migration Reform Act of 1992. The Labor government’s Immigration Minister, Gerry Hand, presented the first bill to Parliament.

His reading made clear that the law’s chief aim was to arrogate, for the executive arm, power of repression and incarceration that Chapter III of the Commonwealth Constitution had entrusted to the judiciary:

References to powers of arrest will be removed from sections 92 and 93 and from a number of related sections to ensure that no confusion arises between the powers under the Act to take persons into what might be termed `migration custody’ and the power to arrest persons for criminal offences.

Officers who exercise powers under the Migration Act to take persons into custody do so for specific purposes under the Migration Act related to migration processing and/or removal from Australia. Those powers are, therefore, not subject to the restrictions set out in the Crimes Act 1914 which apply to the power to arrest persons for criminal offences.

However, to make this distinction absolutely clear the term `arrest’ has been removed from a number of sections of the Act and replaced with the term `detain in custody’…

The Government is conscious of the extraordinary nature of the measures which will be implemented by the amendment aimed at boat people. I believe it is crucial that all persons who come to Australia without prior authorisation not be released into the community. Their release would undermine the Government’s strategy for determining their refugee status or entry claims…

The Government has no wish to keep people in custody indefinitely and I could not expect the Parliament to support such a suggestion. Honourable members will note that the amendment calls for custody for a limited period. The period provided for in the amendment is 273 days—this translates into nine months. This period is, however, restricted to that time where consideration of a person’s claims is directly within the control of my Department.

Where factors are outside the control of my Department, the period is suspended. For example, where it is up to the applicant to provide information relevant to a claim, the time taken to provide that information would not be included in the period…

The most important aspect of this legislation is that it provides that a court cannot interfere with the period of custody. I repeat: the most important aspect of this legislation is that it provides that a court cannot interfere with the period of custody. No law other than the Constitution will have any impact on it.

To legitimate the minister’s usurpation, the power of imprisonment was thus defined as an ‘administrative function’. Its purpose was not punitive, and was intended merely to facilitate deportation and the processing of refugee claims.

Of course, the 273-day limit on detention was swiftly removed, never to return. Appeals to judicial review on grounds of natural justice or procedural fairness, unreasonable exercise of power etc. were expressly prohibited. Applications for writs of mandamus, certiorari, etc. were forbidden for many categories of decision, and subject to strict time limits for others.

A regime of indefinite detention, free of fundamental common-law rights, was thus codified. It received the imprimatur of the High Court of Australia in its judgement on Al-Kateb v Godwin.

To this foundation of unchecked executive authority was then added a set of police-state ‘anti-terror’ laws.

These involved drastic expansion in the scope of the Commonwealth’s defence power (the constitutional entitlement to make laws with respect to ‘the naval and military defence of the Commonwealth’) and protective power.

The exercise of such powers was now held to cover internal, civilian matters. The executive (the PM or relevant minister) and its various agencies (federal police, intelligence organizations, military forces etc) thereby gained unprecedented peacetime ability to impose preventive detention, proscribe organizations and enforce repressive ‘control orders’ in anticipation of any occurrence of domestic disturbances.

The power for domestic mobilization of troops in civilian settings, in defence of ‘Commonwealth interests’, was granted by the passage of various unremarked-upon statutes in 2000 (before the Sydney Olympics) and 2006.

It was normalized by the deployment of naval vessels and SAS troops to enforce ‘border security’, the 2007 ’emergency intervention’ in the Northern Territory, and military participation in emergency recovery efforts following various natural disasters.

The legal and operational distinctions between military and police were blurred by the AFP’s role in gathering intelligence provided to special-operations assassination squads in Afghanistan, and the ADF’s policing activity during colonial missions in the Solomon Islands and East Timor.

All this was followed by the bestowal on a special-purpose industrial-relations authority of astonishing powers to compel evidence.

Classical liberals  Guizot, Mill, Constant, Dicey  would scarcely have recognized their own theories of government in such a system.

In the United States, withdrawal of habeas corpus began with the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. Constitutional rollback accelerated greatly over the subsequent decade.

It has since proceeded under the current Democratic President just as it did under the previous ‘neocon’ incumbent.

Take this recent Justice Department’s submission, filed to a District Court in September 2010 in response to an attempted injunction by the family of Anwar al-Aulaqi, a US citizen listed for assassination by the Obama Administration:

[The] mere presence of a constitutional due process claim does not automatically render a case justiciable…

Plaintiff’s Complaint challenges the authority of the President of the United States, as “Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. armed forces” and “Chair of the National Security Council”— as well as the authority of the Secretary of Defense “over the U.S. armed forces worldwide,” and the authority of the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency “over CIA operations worldwide”— to utilize lethal force against plaintiff’s son, Anwar al-Aulaqi, whom plaintiff avers is hiding in a foreign country (Yemen)…

The extraordinary declaratory and injunctive relief plaintiff seeks here would constitute ex ante commands by the Judicial Branch to the President and officials responsible for military and intelligence operations against a foreign organization as to which political branches have authorized the use of all necessary and appropriate force. Enforcement of such orders would necessarily require the Court to supervise inherently predictive judgments by the President and his national security advisors as to when and how to use force overseas against that organization. Courts are not equipped to superintend such questions…

[Plaintiff] rests his challenge to the alleged use of lethal force against his son on the theory that he is physically located in a place where such force could not be used as part of an armed conflict. But even assuming, as plaintiff does, that his claims would depend upon whether the actions in question would take place in an armed conflict, the very determination of whether and in what circumstances the United States’ armed conflict with al-Qaeda might extend beyond the borders of Iraq and Afghanistan is itself a non-justiciable political question…

Indeed, resolution of most of the questions plaintiff puts at issue here would require the Court to assess a wide range of highly sensitive military, intelligence, and diplomatic information in order to determine what actions the President and U.S. forces may take against an operational leader of AQAP and to assess after the fact whether Executive actions have satisfied the Court’s injunctive standard.

But the law is clear that in these circumstances the Judiciary does not have the capacity or expertise to evaluate the array of sensitive and complex information upon which the President and his national security advisors and military personnel regularly rely in making their real-time decisions respecting the use of force abroad, or to second-guess the predictive judgments those officials must make concerning what actions may be in the Nation’s best interests.

In other words, princeps legibus solutus est.

Where it acknowledges any of this, mainstream (and ‘progressive’) US opinion explains it as the doing of a ‘cabal’ of ‘neocons’ based originally around Leo Strauss at Chicago, and now around the Federalist Society.

But this description is shallow and parochial.

It admits neither the depth nor the geographic spread of the phenomenon. It underplays the latter’s seriousness and allows no historical explanation, nor genuine political understanding.

Thereby rendered baffling, disappointing and inexplicable, the actions of the Obama adminstration  and governing Democrats generally  are seen as unfortunate mistakes, correctable via suasion, protest and argument.

Michael Moore could wonder Dude, Where’s My Country? then advocate voting for John Kerry, and write pathetically in his open letter to Barack Obama:

I simply can’t believe you’re about to do what they say you are going to do. Please say it isn’t so…

You of all people know that it doesn’t have to be this way. You still have a few hours to listen to your heart, and your own clear thinking. You know that nothing good can come from sending more troops halfway around the world to a place neither you nor they understand, to achieve an objective that neither you nor they understand, in a country that does not want us there. You can feel it in your bones.

We the people still love you… All of us that voted and prayed for you and cried the night of your victory have endured an Orwellian hell of eight years of crimes committed in our name: torture, rendition, suspension of the bill of rights, invading nations who had not attacked us, blowing up neighborhoods that Saddam “might” be in (but never was), slaughtering wedding parties in Afghanistan. . .

We thought you would stop the madness. Stop the killing…

Tonight we still have hope. . .

You DON’T have to do this. You can be a profile in courage. You can be your mother’s son.

We’re counting on you.

This insipid appeal to presidential scruple would be difficult to match for cynicism.

Much the same may be said, in Australia, for the analyses undertaken by progressive activists of mandatory detention and refugee baiting.

They describe such policies as the actions of a political class ‘pandering’ to popular racism. The topic of ‘anti-terror’ laws, less susceptible of such an explanation, is consequently ignored.

Some thought is given to the possibility that the targets of such moves may not be limited to ‘enemy combatants’, ‘unlawful non-citizens’, pedophiles or Aborigines.

But polite society generally agrees that the solution is a non-binding human-rights charter. Such a charter would provide a ‘framework’ of ‘principles’ to guide politicians, without interfering ‘unduly’ with their work or allowing laws to be struck down.

Handily ‘flexible’, a charter would ‘not stop the government taking strong and decisive action on issues of national security’:

There may well be situations in which rights need to be limited in the public interest. When this happens, the limitation must be fully explained and justified as being reasonable and proportionate to the achievement of a legitimate aim. In this way rights and duties can be balanced through a transparent process. In a public emergency parliament will be able take measures that override all but a few ‘absolute’ rights.

Little consideration is given to the possibility of a connection between the impairment of the judiciary and that of the state’s legislative arm, and, beyond that, the absence of popular influence on any substantive aspect of government behaviour.

The growing authority of the executive branch to act free of constraint (e.g. in imposing detention without legal redress) bears, clearly enough, some relation to the complete supremacy of Cabinet (and in that of the Prime Minister) over Parliament. Ad hoc coteries, assembled by the PM, frequently bypass even the full Cabinet on all manner of decisions.

The legislature, meanwhile, is denied by the party leadership any capacity at all to fulfil its supposed function, i.e. actually to make laws. Parliamentary ‘debates’, on any subject of importance, are entirely incidental to the action taken by government.

These features are today so complete as to appear literally unremarkable.

But they too represent a dramatic restructuring in the shape of the state and the distribution of power between its constituent parts.

The irresistible re-allocation of authority from States to Commonwealth receives more attention, as the diminished party remains powerful, generally resists weakening of its role, and can mobilize media resources.

But the recognized constitutional basis for this shift  the Commonwealth’s corporations power  is telling.

It reveals the existence (explicitly acknowledged by all parties in argument and all High Court justices in their rulings) of socio-economic causes behind the expansion of federal power into areas previously reserved for the states.

Might not such causes also have brought about the growth of unchecked executive power, war-making tendencies and repression? While such causes remain unaddressed, will not these violent tendencies continue to exist and accumulate, no matter how many saintly figures are elected to Parliament or appointed to the High Court?

About this, mainstream and left-liberal thought are generally silent.

How then to explain the turn towards prerogative rule and authoritarianism?

To have any idea we must look at matters of political economy, which in any society decide relations between rulers and ruled.

In short, understanding the contemporary decay of liberal parliamentarism requires moving beyond the intellectual framework of liberalism, i.e. that spawned by the very society under investigation.

Australian Greens come out as open supporters of militarism

December 6, 2010

I’ve written previously about Canberra’s place in the ever-escalating strategic conflict between Washington and Beijing, and the role of the Australian Greens in helping along this agenda.

A further insight was provided yesterday by the party’s leader, Bob Brown, in a radio interview with the ABC.

For a week, Brown’s party and all its parliamentary representatives had steadfastly maintained their silence about the content of US diplomatic cables made public by WikiLeaks. They had also refused to criticize or remark upon the persecution, legal stitch-ups and threatened assassination of Julian Assange, and showed no desire to condemn the various attempts to prevent public access to the documents.

This silence was not due to an all-consuming focus on local affairs.

Last Friday, Brown issued a statement about Moroccan violence in Western Sahara, offering the party’s ‘concern and support’ for the local population. On Thursday, the party issued a press release on Japanese whaling in Antarctic waters.

But Brown was forced to speak yesterday after WikiLeaks released a State Department cable from March 2009, describing a meeting between the US Secretary of State and Australia’s then-Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd.

In this document, Rudd was revealed to have discussed various means of forestalling a ‘Chinese Monroe Doctrine’, which would reduce US and Australian economic and military influence in East and South-east Asia. These options included ‘preparing to deploy force’, through expansion of Australia’s naval capability and ‘US re-engagement in the region’.

One might have thought these revelations would concern MPs of a party which lists, among its four core beliefs, ‘peace and non-violence’. According to the Greens’ sales pitch, ‘Australia’s foreign policy should be based on dialogue, diplomacy and cooperation, not aggression. Trying to prevent or counter violence with violence itself will not work.’

Here was evidence that an Australian government was considering recourse to war, involving two nuclear-armed states, to protect its sphere of commercial and strategic influence.

Even the conservative Julie Bishop, foreign-affairs spokesperson for the Coalition, professed herself alarmed:

I find it troubling that Mr Rudd as prime minister advised the United States that it should consider the use of force if other measures failed to counter China’s growing influence. That is not a view that he’s expressed publicly and Julia Gillard should detail whether this remains the view of the Labor government.

The opposition raised the point that both the US and China possessed nuclear weapons, and criticized the government’s ‘rush to condemn’ Assange without having found any breach of Australian law.

Bishop’s cynical lurch into this, the Greens’ favoured rhetorical territory, finally prompted Brown to speak up.

Thus, in his interview with ABC radio, the Greens leader called for Assange to have his citizenship ‘respected’ and for him to be ‘reassured that his citizenship is kept safe’. He then refused to categorize Assange as either a ‘hero’ or ‘quasi-terrorist’, and emphasized that ‘it’s important that we ensure that information like this [the leaked cables] doesn’t threaten those lives [of Australian troops in Afghanistan]’.

Those matters dealt with, Brown proceeded to attack Bishop’s remarks, defending Rudd’s belligerence against any criticism:

There’s a bit of a kerfuffle this morning about the prospect of our Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, as Prime Minister, having suggested, if all else fails, force may needed in regard to another country, that being China. Well, goodness me, I’d ask the question of Julie Bishop, should we abandon the defence forces? Are there no circumstances in which force may be used? By that, presumably, meaning defensive force. I would think that’s the logic of the defence forces.

And when it comes to some forthright talking about the Dalai Lama and the need for consideration of autonomy in Tibet, in my experience, the great majority of Australians would be right behind Kevin Rudd in putting forward that option as a real one.

Brown made no mention, let alone criticism, of the cable’s further key revelation, that the ALP government was planning to extend Australian military involvement from Afghanistan to Pakistan: ‘Rudd indicated Australia was willing and able to help, especially in special operations and counterinsurgency areas, as soon as Pakistan was willing to accept’ it.

As the Pakistani government has since agreed to ever-increasing US military actions inside its territory – now essentially merged with Afghanistan into a single theatre of operations (“AFPAK”) – it’s natural to wonder whether Australian troops, too, have become active in that country.

Even with that matter left aside, the Greens leader’s comments are astonishing.

In recent years, Australian troops have participated in the regime change and military occupation of East Timor, Afghanistan, Iraq and the Solomon Islands.

Yet Bob Brown suggests that, ‘presumably’, military deployment against China would involve ‘defensive force’. Clearly, the presumption isn’t derived from contemporary experience or recent observation.

Nor can it be inferred from the details of the Rudd-Clinton discussion itself. Washington’s claim to naval prerogatives in the Yellow and South China seas, and its opposition, with Australia, to any declaration by Beijing of a ‘regional Monroe Doctrine’, can hardly be described as defensive in nature. It was publicly revealed, at the time of Rudd’s visit to Washington, that Canberra’s own military-intelligence analysts perceived ‘China’s military buildup as largely a defensive response to the perceived threat of US naval power in the Pacific.’

What then is the argumentative basis for Brown’s presumption about ‘defensive force’? It is simply, he claims, an obvious deduction to make from ‘the logic of the defence forces.’

So there we have it.

The Australian Greens proclaim their opposition to an Australian foreign policy based on ‘aggression.’ On this basis they seek electoral support and are proclaimed as a ‘progressive alternative to the politics-as-usual of the two major parties.’

Yet the party’s leader judges the ADF to be by definition incapable of aggression, while detecting aggression only from the Australian elite’s rivals and enemies.

In some respects, Brown’s words should surprise nobody. Over the past decade, the Greens have made little secret of their willingness to support Australian military ambitions in the southwest Pacific.

Nor have they blushed at identifying this ‘regional’ focus as an attempt to prevent stealth Chinese infiltration of Australia’s sphere of influence, especially in East Timor and Fiji.

Yet this is nonetheless, by my reckoning, some kind of first.

Presented with the catastrophic prospect of Australian involvement in war between the US and China, never before has the ‘progressive alternative’ responded: ‘So? What do you think armies are for?’

The role of the Australian Greens in Asia-Pacific strife

November 11, 2010

Not naturally curious about the world beyond the core Anglosphere, the Australian political gaze does occasionally drift abroad, bringing some unfamiliar land into sharper focus.

Bumptious, it lacks the breadth of outlook and culture won from wide experience in colonial administration. Such antipodal thought therefore tends to borrow what ideas it has from the imperial heartlands of the North Atlantic.

True as a matter of course for Canberra’s security elite, this holds also for many critical voices on the margins of Australia’s political mainstream. Even the mildest, apparently well-meaning naïf is apt to reproduce generic premises of foreign policy heard originally from the roughest voices in Washington.

One recent local reverberation should be noted.

The US President, on a recent visit to India, played to local ambition and flattered Delhi’s self-regard, encouraging it to strengthen Washington’s cordon sanitaire around China.

According to Barack Obama, ‘we want India to not only “look East,” we want India to “engage East” — because it will increase the security and prosperity of all our nations.’


On the same day, the US secretaries of State and Defense, while visiting Australia, secured the local elite’s commitment to a closer military-strategic alignment against Beijing.

Washington’s two departmental heads repeated plans to ‘upgrade the presence of the United States’ in the west Pacific and East Asia.

Hillary Clinton:

[We] are determined to strengthen and deepen our already strong alliances with countries like Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, to build relationships bi-laterally and multi-laterally with other nations to work through these regional organisations. To solve problems, like maintaining the freedom of navigation and maritime security that is essential to trade and commerce throughout the region.

And on this same day, the Australian Greens, a party that lists ‘peace and non-violence’ among its four ‘core beliefs’, demanded ‘strong action’ (including a full trade embargo) from Australia’s government to promote regime change in Myanmar.

greens assk

Myanmar, just to remind, is the shortest path between China and the Bay of Bengal. It therefore presents an alternative energy supply route to the US-controlled maritime chokepoints through Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.

It’s the site for the new Kyauk Phu and Sittwe container ports, linked by pipeline and highway to Yunnan in southwest China. Offshore sit the Shwe gas fields; farther west are the energy resources of East Africa and West Asia.

In 2007, Indian, US, Japanese, Singaporean and Australian forces staged a massive naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal.

Beijing  ‘concerned’ at what an Indian military think tank called a ‘mammoth war-game in the Bay of Bengal… close to the international sea-routes leading to the Malacca Straits’  ‘sought clarification’ from the participants.

Yunnan itself forms part, with Tibet, of the PRC’s politically vulnerable western frontier; Indian counterinsurgency forces sit permanently poised nearby in Manipur, Assam, Mizoram and Nagaland.

The highlands of the North-East Frontier, still disputed, provided the occasion for Sino-Indian war in the 1960s.

Today New Delhi and Beijing are hastily constructing road and rail infrastructure to these respective hinterlands.

Control over the hydroelectric resources of the Brahmaptra is a perennial source of contention, recently given ventilation, from the perspective of an Indian strategic think thank, in the Washington Post.

China’s southwest plateau contains the glacial headwaters that furnish the downstream river systems and food production of East and South Asia, ‘an effective bargaining tool and potential weapon’ that ‘gives Beijing enormous strategic latitude with its neighbours.’

tibet rivers

Chinese dam-building in Yunnan spills over the Burmese border: the 6000MW Irrawaddy-Myitsone project is one of seven that will transmit power to Yunnan, as part of Beijing’s regional development program.

The local powers  New Delhi typically backed by London and Washington  have each pursued their regional ambitions by arming and financing respective ethnic proxies, or the central state, in Myanmar’s relentless internal conflicts.

Given these facts, and the proximity of successive events, it would be selling the Greens short to describe their call for the Gillard government to ‘support the genuine democratic aspirations of the Burmese people’ as merely naive and quixotic.

As Clinton and Robert Gates described it, Australia and the US will be ‘working even more closely together’ over the next few decades as the US ‘re-engaged in a major way’ in the southwest Pacific and east Asia, to counter ‘evolving strategic threats’.

Stripped of euphemisms, the US is no longer satisfied with delegating responsibility for the regional ‘arc of instability’  to the Australian ‘deputy sheriff’.

That strategy, employed for several decades, has failed to slow the rapidly growing influence of Petrochina and the PRC in East Timor, PNG, Fiji etc.

Meanwhile unreliable executives in Canberra and Tokyo (Kevin Rudd and Yukio Hatoyama) were both accused of displeasing the State Department by pursuing strategic goals independently of the hegemon. Each leader was dispatched from office in June, and more deferential replacements installed in the local chancelleries.

Regional protectorates thus brought to heel, Washington can proceed with its agenda.

Its new project, given voice by thinkers from the foreign-policy establishment in the capital and Boston, is for a direct re-assertion of US authority, to maintain its position relative to ascending rivals such as China, in the face of competitive decline of the US industrial base, the diminishing regional weight of its ally in Tokyo, and the increasing scarcity of low-cost energy.

Australia will participate  just as it does in the ‘global war on terror’  to maximize opportunities for local firms, protect the security of the latter’s property and investments, maintain regional influence and secure raw-material supplies against Chinese expansion.

Using the above events as an example, the specific contribution of the Greens to this project may be easily stated.

In the first instance, they will publicly oppose the subordination of ‘Australia’s national interests’ (sic) to US aims. Thus the party’s sole response to the AUSMIN meeting was a press release from new MP Adam Bandt: ‘We don’t want US ships.’

The Greens have gained ‘progressive’ credentials, and the support of some Australian voters uneasy with the invasion and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, by criticizing use of ‘the armed services at the behest of President Bush rather than in the direct interests of our nation’.

The party regularly voices lofty opposition, to no practical avail, against placement of Australian troops under US command.

In response to the longstanding, seamless fusion of Canberra’s external stance with Washington’s, the Greens state that ‘[our] troops should be reserved for our own region of the world. We need a foreign policy based on Australia’s relationships with our region and south Asia, not on a White House strategy.’

What does this mean?

Australian military forces, according to Greens leader Bob Brown, should be concentrated in the south-west Pacific (e.g. East Timor and the Solomon Islands) where ‘instability is rife and our defence forces are already stretched.’

The Greens have had no qualms about identifying such a ‘regional’ focus as an attempt to prevent Chinese infiltration of Australia’s sphere of influence.

In a recent opinion piece, setting forth his party’s military and diplomatic priorities, Brown wrote that ‘we are neglecting neighbours in need like Timor-Leste, which is, this week, exploring new defence ties with China! The Greens’ strategy is to have our defence forces personnel at home to secure our own arc of stability.’

Brown has expressed concern ‘that Australia has so much more to do in terms of economic relationships with places such like Fiji and Timor Leste again who are turning to look at what China has to offer.’

Indeed, Brown tends towards unhinged Sinophobia, the latter supplementing his native anti-communism, as in his warning that ‘the communist bosses in Beijing will exert control over the management of Rio Tinto’s Australian mineral resources.’

More broadly, the moralizing idiom in which the Greens discuss Canberra’s security, diplomatic and external affairs itself serves several ends.

It borrows from Washington’s own preferred salvationist language for presenting its imperial statecraft, taking for granted a Western droit d’ingérence that overrides state sovereignty.

Brown’s 1986 speech on the ‘morality of protest’ found a new application from the late 1990s in international affairs.

Canberra was duty bound, as government of a wealthy nation, to intervene across borders for humanitarian purposes:

In Australia we are far too shy to act…

How dare we do so little? How can we be so cold-hearted, so frightened for ourselves, so extravagant in the face of such need?

[How] dare we sell our lives so short as to not grasp our privileged position as individual Australians and get much more involved in the planet’s affairs? How dare we not be protesters? All that is needed for the world to disintegrate is for good people to do nothing.

In the manner of a Bernard Kouchner, no less than Paul Wolfowitz, the Greens encourage a nationalistic faith in the local state as a benevolent force for global good: Canberra can, by undertaking ‘strong action’ with moral purpose, advance the ‘genuine democratic interests’ of downtrodden people in Burma and elsewhere.

Joschka Fischer and his German Greens show the likely outcome of this tendency.

The Greens’ electoral appeal, concentrated in a narrow demographic band, exploits well-meaning features of popular opinion. In the manner of Clinton-era diplomatic self-presentation, it translates power politics into a moral-humanitarian idiom.

Popular feeling, stoked via the bien-pensant opinion column, is thereby gathered behind elite policy goals, granting the latter a potent ideological supplement. The constituency for war and regime change, of otherwise limited size and narrow social origin, is broadened and mobilized.

Thus there is legitimate repugnance among the Australian population for authoritarian regimes such as the PRC, Fijian and Burmese leaderships, and widespread popular sympathy for various oppressed groups and ethnic minorities in these countries and others.

The Greens provide an outlet for such feelings, by suggesting that the ‘international community’ or the Australian state ‘do something about it’, using military and diplomatic instruments — with purity of purpose, of course.

Machtpolitik, with UN support, thus becomes ‘humanitarian intervention’.

The public’s concern is absorbed, then connected to the strategies and concerns of the upper layers of society. An elite project thereby assembles a broader ideological programme with which to attract mass support.

The message of the Greens  with their concern for human rights, ‘his holiness’ the Dalai Lama, Tibet and ‘Lady’ Aung San Suu Kyi is pitched at exactly the right frequency for this task.

This is not to say that the party’s electoral platform will become openly pro-war. A large subset of Greens members and voters are, it seems, sincerely interested in the welfare of people in Burma, Tibet, West Papua etc, and would also seem likely to oppose and resist direct Australian power-projection.

But so long as this electoral base lacks, as it does presently,  a principled opposition to armed interventions by imperialist states, it remains vulnerable to manipulation from above, on the basis of a ‘responsibility to protect.’

Here’s Adam Bandt, MHR, in the parliamentary debate on Canberra’s participation in the occupation of Afghanistan:

The Greens do not oppose the deployment in Afghanistan based on any absolute opposition to the use of military force or from any lack of commitment to our troops. We led the call for military intervention in Timor Leste and are proud of the role our men and women played in the struggle for freedom and independence in that country.

Here’s Senator Bob Brown, a few days later, contributing to the same debate:

Australia, a small to moderate nation in terms of international clout, should secure its own region while offering aid through the United Nations to solve greater global problems.  Except in very extraordinary cases, and Afghanistan in 2010 is not one of them, our troops should be available for Australia’s immediate regional security, stability and welfare. We do not underestimate the need for armed services to defend this nation and its neighbourhood.  The Greens urged military intervention to stop the bloodshed in Timor Leste before the Howard Government decided on that justifiable deployment.

The claim by both MPs that Australian military intervention in East Timor aimed to ‘stop the bloodhead’ and secure ‘freedom and independence’ strains credulity.

So, for 30 years Australian governments of all stripes ardently supported the Suharto regime’s annexation, before in 1999 John Howard’s Coalition government stepped in to defend East-Timorese self-determination?

This surely overstates the degree to which Australian government policy in 1999 responded to popular pressure rather than manipulating it. It underestimates the everyday strategic calculations involved: the latter so blindly obvious and universally desirable to elite policymakers that they could remain unspoken, kept safely withheld from public view or media comment.

Canberra’s goal was simply to preserve its local beachhead in an energy-rich outpost of the collapsed Portuguese empire, one with a substantial Chinese minority. (On Beijing’s designs, see this article by the son of José Ramos Horta, a graduate of both the People’s Liberation Army National Defence University and the Pentagon’s National Defense University.)

The Australian envoy Richard Woolcott famously stated in 1974 that ‘a treaty on the oil and gas-rich seabed could be more readily negotiated with Indonesia than with Portugal or independent Portuguese Timor.’ Departmental planners concurred: ‘bear in mind that the Indonesians would probably be prepared to accept the same compromise as they did in the negotiations already completed on the seabed boundaries between the two countries. Such a compromise would be more acceptable to us than the present Portuguese position.’

Minutes published in 2000 record the utter cynicism of the Australian government’s position: ‘The Prime Minister [Gough Whitlam] noted that, for the domestic audience in Australia, incorporation into Indonesia should appear to be a natural process arising from the wishes of its people.’ Whitlam remarked in September 1974: ‘I am in favour of incorporation but obeisance has to be made to self-determination. I want incorporation, but I do not want this done in a way which will create argument in Australia.’

The subsequent Coalition government later operated with the same motivation, Prime Minister Fraser justifying his attitude thus: ‘The government is being subjected to growing pressure from exploration companies with permits in the East Timor area to clarify the legal status of these permits… the fact remains that Indonesia is clearly the only government which is in a position both to conclude and to enforce an agreement with us.’

Of additional concern was maritime control over key regional straits.

In 1976, after Jakarta’s annexation of East Timor, the Ford and Carter Administrations fretted about deepwater naval routes through the Ombai-Wetar straits.

It was declared ‘essential’ for the passage of ballistic missile submarines between the Western Pacific (and Northeast Asia) and Indian Ocean that these straits be ‘controlled by states with which the United States maintains good relations and working modus vivendi, and which have and probably will continue to permit passage for submerged U.S. submarines’:

The two Indonesian straits, Lombok and Ombai-Wetar, might be closed to unannounced underwater passage of U.S. SSBNs in any case because according to Indonesia’s interpretation of the archipelago principle of enclosed waters, they are considered internal rather than international waters.

On the other hand, the United States seems to have a working arrangement with Indonesia for passage of SSBNs through its straits though the Indonesian government has argued that the archipelago principle does not infringe on innocent passage, it requires prior notification of transit by foreign warships and has raised questions about the innocence of supertanker passage because of the danger of pollution.

In spite of Indonesian jurisdictional claims, the United States maintains that the Indonesian straits are international. According to press accounts and Indonesian sources, however, the United States routinely provides prior notification of transit by surface ships and presumably (if only as a practical convenience) relies on some special bilateral navy-to-navy arrangement for submerged passage, consistent with the requirements of concealing the details of SSBN passage from foreign intelligence.

Although this modus vivendi is rather contingent, it satisfies America’s needs as long as an Indonesian government as friendly as that of Suharto is in power.

In August 1976 Australian newspapers reported that US State Department officials had impressed such concerns upon the Australian prime minister, by way of a ‘blunt warning’, on his visit to Washington.

Indonesia maritime chokepoints

The decisive element in Australian strategic thinking on East Timor had not changed by 1989, 1999 or 2006.

The overarching concern remains to protect the security of property rights of Woodside Petroleum and Santos, and with luck to broaden the reach of domestic firms against competitors like ConocoPhillips, Total, ExxonMobil and now Petrochina.

The only change has come in the language in which such calculations are couched: now it is ‘failed states’, the ‘responsibility to protect’, ‘support for democratic aspirations’, etc. And the chief agent of such rhetorical changes was the man who is pictured below, sharing a toast with Ali Alatas as they fly over the Timor Sea in 1989.

Neglectful of such realities, the Australian Greens will electorally absorb any popular anti-war sentiment in ways that allow the local state to continue its unpopular military expeditions without provoking any domestic crisis of confidence or sapping the legitimacy of the political system and its basic institutions.

The proper vehicle for anti-war opposition, the Greens will explain at rallies and on hustings, must remain federal parliament and the electoral system.

The upshot? In return for the ALP’s agreement to the Greens’ demand for a parliamentary debate on the war in Afghanistan, the party recently promised to support the war’s funding for the next three years.