10:23 a.m. August 27, 2013

Kerry’s Chem Speech: Old-School Empire

Last week someone launched missiles with chemical warheads at El Ghouta, a Sunni suburb of Damascus. It’s still not clear how many people died, or what chemical agent killed them, but the obvious suspect is Assad’s Syrian Arab Army (SAA), because El Ghouta is a Sunni district, a frontline area in the fight between the Alawite SAA and “The Syrian Opposition.” Which means, basically, the Sunni.

And then something surprising happened. People objected.

The attack itself was fairly standard for any war, in any country, any era. Sectarian wars are nasty things, and most wars are sectarian. The goal is to wipe out the other tribe. If that seems a little extreme, ask yourself who owned the land your house sits on 300 years ago. If you’re an American, it probably wasn’t your people. The previous owners “died out,” as we like to say, but they had a little help, a little not-so-palliative care, doing it.

Standard human behavior. Not an occasion of guilt, just the way we operate. Earth is a rough neighborhood. In most wars, the goal is to wipe out as much of the enemy group as possible. And since it’s much more efficient to attack civilians than large armed formations, the norm has been to attack the enemy’s women and kids.

I’m not talking about the Assyrians here. This was the goal of the USAF and RAF in World War II, which is officially a good war fought by the greatest generation that ever lived. It was the goal of most other 20th century wars, from the Boer War, in which the Empire decided that since it couldn’t beat the Boers in combat, it would pen up their women and kids til they died, to our effort to make whole provinces of Vietnam uninhabitable killing zones.

No one objected to any of those wars. And yes, that includes Vietnam. There’s this myth that we suddenly felt sorry for the Vietnamese, but the truth is that stateside angst was 99% handwringing about “our brave youth” being put at risk, and 1% queasiness about that photo of the burned Vietnamese girl. If anything, I’m being generous giving that a 1% share.

So it’s tempting to say that the world outrage at this chemical attack in Syria is something new, the emergence of something like a world conscience. I thought so at first, because all Assad’s allies were trying to say he didn’t do it. That does seem new. After all, did you ever hear anybody say about the firebombing of Tokyo that the USAF didn’t do it and was framed? Did you ever hear anybody deny that the RAF purposely turned Dresden into a giant oven?

No. We were proud of those massacres, as most tribes have been proud of their most successful massacres. We inflated enemy casualties, if anything, and minimized our own. That’s absolutely standard practice in any war, any era.

So at first it seemed historic and even kind of hopeful to me, the way Assad’s allies accepted that it was a bad move for the Alawites to massacre enemy civilians, the Dawning of the Age of Aquarius or something. Then I slapped myself a few times and stopped being such a sap.

What this burst of outrage really shows is a much older, sleazier scenario: A small power, out of favor with the big players, crossing a “red line” that’s drawn by the technology you use to massacre the other tribe, not the fact that you’re massacring civilians.

There are three factors that determine how much artificial world outrage a massacre sets off. First, the obvious one: Who committed it? Second: What technology did they use to commit it? Third: Who were the victims?

When a truly dominant world power commits massacres, they don’t even register. No one noticed the massacres we committed in Tokyo and Dresden because the US/Soviet/UK alliance was clearly going to win the war and rule the world. After the war, of course, journalists for this consortium discovered the death-camps, which allowed them to backdate their justifications for the massacres. But even if the camps had never existed, we would still celebrate those mass killings because they reflected perfectly the new map of the world, the total domination of that cartel.

The same goes for the Boer War massacres, where 25% of the civilian Boer population died. The Boers were a small, insignificant group of rebels holding up the dominant world power. It was an anomaly, an annoying one for the world press. The massacres allowed that anomaly to be corrected, and everyone was glad, because the world made more sense that way. There’s nothing as disturbing for most people as an anomalous result showing that the hegemomic power ain’t as hegemonic as you were comfortable thinking.

And Vietnam, that supposed proof that we have consciences, a sense of right and wrong? It took years of military debacle to activate those consciences, and above all the threat of ending the student exemption. That drawn-out proof that the US couldn’t even handle an insurgency in Vietnam, a place way off all the shipping lanes, demonstrated to everyone outside Oklahoma that the US wasn’t truly hegemonic, and it’s that hegemony, that true power, that earns respect. A hegemonic power that loses hegemony suddenly becomes immoral—especially when it might be forced to end the student exemption and send your own precious Class of 1972 into the paddies.

You can see where this leaves Assad and his pitiful SAA. Where do they get off committing massacres at all? They were always a contemptible military force, good only at assassinations, and even then most were done by Hezbollah or Iran. Going by their actual power, they should have encountered outrage the first time they tried to massacre enemy civilians, not now, after more than two and a half years of doing it. So what accounts for their immunity until now?

Just go back to the two other factors I mentioned up above: The technology used to kill civilians, and the ethnic identity of the civilians being massacred. Add those two variants and it’s very easy to understand why Assad got away with something like 80.000 Sunni civilians killed without much beyond vague grumbles from the world press.

First—and this is a factor that doesn’t get enough press—the technology used to kill the civilians. There are only two US actions in WW II that get called atrocities: Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Those weren’t the #1 and #2 ranked air attacks on Japan. It’s not clear even now whether the Hiroshima nuclear attack killed more people than the March 9 1945 firebomb attack on Tokyo. What is very clear is that the Tokyo attack doesn’t get anything like the same attention or condemnation. The whole mood of the Tokyo incendiary attack was jolly, because the technology was familiar and comfortable. Gen. Curtis LeMay told the aircrews, “You’re going to set off the biggest firecracker the Japanese have ever seen.” And he was right. Estimates of women and children killed (because no men of military age were left in the cities of Japan, as the US knew) range up to 125,000.

You don’t hear nearly as much about them as you do about those who died in Nagasaki, even though that figure is much lower (probably about 70,000 dead). The difference is simple: For the postwar Western audience, facing a nuclear-armed Soviet Union, nuclear weapons were a terrifying, unstoppable threat. Firebomb raids like the one we inflcted on Tokyo were an unlikely scenario, a symptom of an already defeated Japan. Nobody, circa 1955, was going to carry out a mass firebombing of New York City or London. But the possibility that those cities could be nuked, like we nuked Hiroshima, was very real. Therefore Hiroshima was a morally questionable move, and the firebombing of Tokyo a perfectly legitimate tactic.

That’s where the “chemical weapons” aspect of the El Ghouta attack comes in. The SAA has been killing Sunni civilians in huge numbers, to the absolute best of its ability, for more than two years. And that hasn’t really bothered anyone except other Sunni Muslims, other members of the same extended family.

The reason we were all fine with those deaths is that they were carried out with the kind of weapons we like and trust: Aircraft and missiles. One constant for war news across my whole life is that nobody minds what you do as long as you do it from a fighter jet. It’s amazing. This isn’t as random as it might seem. Those jets are very, very expensive—not just to buy but to maintain, because they’re as fragile as racehorses. So only the big boys, the powers we consider legit, can use them. That’s absolution in advance for anything they do, above all because “opinion leaders” who spin the news know those jets will never be used against them.

Assad’s jets, a pitiful gang of old MiGs and Sukhois, could never last a day against the USAF, so they’re not a threat to us, but at the same time they remind us of the weapons we consider legitimate. So it’s very easy to watch them destroy a neighborhood.

Same with his SCUD attacks. We learned in two Gulf wars that SCUDs are harmless against anybody but the most helpless victims. Therefore SCUDs will not threaten us. Therefore people have been watching this video and hundreds like it without getting very upset,

in spite of the fact that a SCUD loaded with HE hitting an apartment block, like this one did, probably killed far more people than this chemical attack.

Chemical weapons scare us more than SCUDs or 1950s Soviet aircraft, because they’re illegitimate weapons favored by illegitimate powers. It was the Germans who introduced them in WW I, for which the Anglo-American cartel never forgave them. Since they were banned by the big powers according to the Geneva rules, they’re like an illustration of that NRA tautology that “when guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns,” or in this case, “Now that us big legit people have outlawed chemical weapons, anybody who uses them must be a rotten outsider.”

The last factor in deciding whether we get outraged or not is: Who got massacred? This is an interesting case. Like I said, the world has watched with a cold, calm eye while Assad killed tens of thousands of Sunni Syrians. In some quarters, the view is that you just can’t kill too many militant Sunni.

There are a lot of reasons for this suspiciously Buddhist tranquility over the deaths of so many people. The most basic, the one we prefer to ignore, is that humans clump themselves into little groups and make a point of ignoring the deaths of those from other groups, if not celebrating them outright. Syrians are part of the Arab world, the Muslim world, which for the average Westerner puts them in the overlap of a Venn diagram marked “Dangerous, and it’s their own fault.” There are Jihadis in Syria, after all. Actually those supposedly scary jihadis are only a few thousand surplus young unemployables, the dregs of the Muslim world, but they make a lot of noise per capita, especially when waving some poor heretic’s capita around on a jihadi video. Still, it’s enough to short-circuit any empathy that might be building up in the western audience—and the truth is that humans don’t have as much empathy for outsiders as we like to pretend anyway.

Doesn’t that leave the anomaly standing, though? Why would the West get so upset, so suddenly, about this chemical attack on the same people who’ve been dying in big batches for more than two years? Well, you have to stand back and realize it’s the same bad old world it always was. You know all those fairy tales where the husband, the legitimate ruler of the house, tells his wife she can go anywhere in the palace except that one room? So she goes into the room and he finds out and her head ends up on the mantelpiece or attached to a silverfish. The point is to teach the boys and girls—especially the girls—listening around the fireside that the man is the boss, and he can make any ridiculous rule he wants.

That’s pretty much what happened here. You’ve got a minority-sect regime faced with a very real existential crisis, facing a much bigger sect and running out of troops. This minority sect is nothing but trouble, and friends with other troublemakers, Iran and Russia and Hezbollah, but the other sect, the Sunni, is a way more serious global threat. So you balance your irritation at the little sect against the guilty pleasure of seeing the other sect, the really threatening one, get “bloodied,” as Michael Rubin puts it. But you also draw a line around one room in the house of horrors, the “chemical” room, and tell your Alawite bitch she can’t go in there, or there’ll be Hell to pay. And you know she will, of course, just like the guy in the fairy tale knows that as soon as he’s out of the house his wife will start picking the lock on the forbidden room.

And at that point you storm back in like God’s vengeance in a John Kerry disguise (which admittedly is about the unlikeliest disguise God’s vengeance could ever take) and announce that the Alawites are expelled from Purgatory, down into plain old Hell. The point is so much simpler than anyone will face. It’s not about chemicals, or death tolls, or even Syria. It’s about reminding two factions in an enemy tribe that you’re still in charge, and you control their death rates even when they think it’s them killing each other.