"In the post-9/11 environment -- particularly the post-March 2003 environment in Iraq -- the breadth of al Qaeda and associated movements exploded."
This was a predictable occurrence, given the reasons 9/11 was carried out in the first place. Osama bin Laden and others had long been angry at the U.S. for meddling in the Middle East, building bases on holy ground, and backing regimes which repressed Arabs and Muslims. The American response of attacking Afghanistan and Iraq, killing untold numbers of Arabs and Muslims, could only have had the effect of fostering even more anti-American sentiment, and subsequently support for those who resist U.S. hegemony. Worse yet was the rebuilding of bases in Saudi Arabia, and the continuing support for Israeli apartheid and indiscriminate bombing of Gaza[PDF].
Even if the average American doesn't think much of these actions, the sentiment in the Middle East is much different. Our media may hide most of the grisly images of war, but the 'fledgling' journalists in amongst the Arab world are not always as afraid to document reality when it is unsatisfying to the eye, or inconvenient to those in power. Mind you, these are things you cannot easily conceal from the families of the victims, either. Every death affects dozens of other lives, especially in societies which contain large close-knit family groups. Americans supposedly understood this effect when over fifty-thousand soldiers were killed in Vietnam, with hundreds of thousands more injured and suffering from permanent psychological damage - nearly every family affected in some way. But even those numbers pale in comparison to what happened to the Vietnamese then, and what has happened in Iraq and Afghanistan more recently.
McChrystal and other U.S. military and political leaders read this 'culture clash' a bit differently, though:
"The thing that hurt us more than anything else in the war in Iraq was Abu Ghraib. When the pictures came out in the spring of 2004, many Americans felt our government was being honest -- that we had a problem with a platoon operating in the prison mistreating prisoners. The Iraqi people viewed it very differently. Many of them felt it was proof positive that the Americans were doing exactly what Saddam Hussein had done -- that it was proof [that] everything they thought bad about the Americans was true."
So what we thought of as an exception, they thought of as the rule?
"That's right. They thought that was the broader reality. And there were hundreds of foreign fighters that came in [to Iraq] because they were responding to Abu Ghraib."
Ah, those silly Iraqis. Don't they know the abuses at Abu Ghraib were committed by just a few bad apples, and aren't at all representative of the great enlightenment America was bringing to their backward, civilization? Similar things couldn't have happened on McChrystal's own watch, could they?
That aside, McChrystal's real message here is about the changing face of warfare, about differing tactics and winning hearts and minds:
"In Iraq, when we first started, the question was, "Where is the enemy?" That was the intelligence question. As we got smarter, we started to ask, "Who is the enemy?" And we thought we were pretty clever. And then we realized that wasn't the right question, and we asked, "What's the enemy doing or trying to do?" And it wasn't until we got further along that we said, "Why are they the enemy?""
While this quote may sound really unconventional and exciting to a military-worshipping Foreign Affairs journalist, it's actually one of the best examples of the failure of the authoritarianism mindset you could find. "Why are they the enemy?" should, of course, be a question you ask long before you decide to go to war. Instead, it was replaced by others for years, thanks to the single-minded kill-first-ask-questions-later focus of the military. This should surprise no one. The predictable result of an organization which destroys people in order to rebuild them into willing murderers and practical automatons is that you will never have any meaningful dissent. When the decision to go to war is made, every soldier falls in line - or else.
Asking a question like "Why is this person my enemy? " is simply not conducive to one's ability to kill that person. The mind is forced to either rationalize the killing, or reject it. The objective of the military is to avoid the question altogether whenever possible, and help rationalize it when it can't be helped. The end result is one where these kids - and most recruits are conveniently still in their formative years - see the world through a dangerously skewed lens. They bond with each other by sharing a common struggle, and strike out in anger against their supposed enemies, who inevitably kill their comrades. And they have every reason to want to believe that their cause is just, given all of the atrocities they have committed, all they've sacrificed on the battlefield.
But let us give credit where it's due. Even after making mistake after mistake, renewed attempts to understand your 'enemy' (rather than damn them on first sight) tend to lead toward progress:
"We did an awful lot of capturing and killing in Iraq for several years before it started to have a real effect, and that came only when we were partnered with an effective counterinsurgency approach. Just the strike part of it can never do more than keep an enemy at bay. And although to the United States, a drone strike seems to have very little risk and very little pain, at the receiving end, it feels like war.
Again, what a surprise it is that capturing and killing (with torture somewhere in the middle) ended up not being all that effective against people who were only your enemies because you started out capturing and killing them. Perhaps if more people thought about these things before riding blind patriotism into war...
"Americans have got to understand that. If we were to use our technological capabilities carelessly -- I don't think we do, but there's always the danger that you will -- then we should not be upset when someone responds with their equivalent, which is a suicide bomb in Central Park, because that's what they can respond with."
This is what I mean by cognitive dissonance. It reminds me of a regular occurrence during conversations with others Americans about all of the awful things this country has done in its history - its pattern of imperialism, the lack of respect for humanity in general, and overall selfishness and never-ending accumulation of wealth - when, despite agreeing with it all, they still argue that our leaders act in good faith. That presidents and senators care about others just as we do, and generally don't abuse their positions for their own personal gain.
It's the same type of sad, irrational genuflection McChrystal relies on to justify the worst American war crimes. Each one is an accident, a bad apple, not representative of the whole. One begins to wonder exactly what level of continual atrocity it would take before that was actually considered the norm. It almost seems as if McChrystal himself is just a young soldier, trying to reconcile the horrors he sees in front of him with his undying patriotism and belief in the goodness of those who sent him into combat, and not the ex-JSOC commanding general with untold power and a top security clearance, largely directing policy himself.
Either way, he comes very close to endorsing the idea that suicide bombings and other desperate measures happen as responses to American imperialism, not as independent acts of aggression. Now, I'm not sure if blowing up dozens of people at weddings and funerals, killing first responders, and targeting people based on suspicious activity alone can be classified as "careless", but surely each is a crime against humanity. And surely you should expect that if you continue these acts, you're going to see significant push back. This is nothing new. If you kill someone's family, what do they have left but to try and stop you from doing it to someone else, or to seek revenge?
That doesn't justify acts of terrorism, of course, but at the same time can you really expect their incidence to decrease rather than increase as a result of carrying out the same policies which incited them in the first place? It's called a cycle of revenge for a reason.
And it's never going to end unless America is willing to stare itself in the mirror and admit it has a sickness of the worst kind. This country loves war, and worships its military. It believes American warmongering to be a wholly positive force in the world, despite the fact it has destroyed the lives of millions of innocents, and destabilized and underdeveloped every country in its path.
How else to reconcile this...
"If you look at the role I had in Iraq ["the Iraq Stan McChrystal of raids and drones and targeted strikes"], it is sexy, it is satisfying, it is manly, it scratches an itch in the American culture that people like."
"The whole point of war is to take care of people, not just to kill them. You have to have a positive reason that protects people, or it's wrong. So while I did what I had to in Iraq, and did a lot of that in Afghanistan, too (because we had a significant effort along those lines there), the broader purpose is what's important, and that's what I think people need to be reminded of. The purpose is the Afghan kid. The purpose is the Afghan female. The purpose is the 50-year-old farmer who just wants to farm."
McChrystal and the average American both have in their mind two beliefs which are completely incompatible, at least outside of juvenile superhero fantasies with obvious "good guys" and "bad guys".
It's that mindset the antiwar movement has to fight against more than anything. What has become clear after the failure to stop such an obvious aggressive war in Iraq, as well as the failure to even make significant noise about Libya and the run up to Syria and Iran, is that the issue is not simply that our protests are ineffective. It's that so many of our neighbors believe that violence solves everything.