The Guardian’s Death Squad Documentary May Shock and Disturb, But the Truth is Far Worse
In what to many must seem a shocking exposé, the Guardian and BBC, after a 15 month investigation have produced a dramatic full-length documentary about US involvement in the formation and running of death squads in Iraq. One journalist describes the result as a “staggering… blockbuster”. But, by creating a false context, by omission, by deceptive emphasis and by specious analysis the Guardian and BBC have create a false and toothless critique. Indeed, though the authors would probably deny it vehemently, the impression given in this documentary is not inconsistent with the villain of the piece, James Steele, being a rogue Kurtz-like figure, with Col. James Coffman cast in the role of faithful sidekick. Other links to the established death squad practices, such as John Negroponte’s appointment as Ambassador to Iraq and Steven Casteel’s role in forming the Police Commando units which functioned as death squads (not to mention ordering the Oregon National Guard to return rescued prisoners to their torturers). Even at the most basic level, the fundamental context was obscured, including one fact that the widespread use of death squads confirmed – the US-led “counterinsurgency” was not war, it was genocide.
Perhaps the most striking thing of all is that, after 15 months of investigation and nearly ten years after US officials set in motion the “Salvador option” in Iraq, this documentary reveals much less of substance than was being reported in 2005. In fact, it is a triumph of style over substance which packs an emotive punch, but disarms watchers by its lack of informational revelation. In January of 2005 it became public knowledge that the US was pursuing a death squad programme. In May 2005 the New York Times published the story showing Steele’s involvement in torture. In the intervening years people like Dahr Jamail continued to report on the US orchestration of death squad activity. And Max Fuller spent years and numerous articles (not to mention a website and the book Crying Wolf: Selling Counterinsurgency as Sectarian Civil War) documenting the death squad programme as well as revealing a deliberate ploy to misrepresent US-run death squads as sectarian murder.
Here is what I found wrong with James Steele: America’s mystery man in Iraq:
1) Mortality Data
One of the key distortions here is something very basic, the use of “more than 120,000” as a mortality figure. Some may argue that given the controversy over the mortality, it is only sensible to be conservative. But these figures are more than simply abstract numbers. When some people, most notoriously David Irving, put the case that only one million European Jews died during World War II, the media didn’t suddenly adopt the more conservative figure. In fact, Irving was thrown in prison. Irving’s casualty figure was crucial to his genocide denial, and the same is true of the lower figure used in “James Steele: America’s mystery man in Iraq”. A mortality of 120,000 immediately colours the way in which we perceive US actions in Iraq.
While many simply accept such figures on the basis of faith, the origins of the lowee estimates lie entirely in the work of scoundrels and fools. The figures produced by the two Lancet (“L1” and “L2”)surveys indicate a far higher level of mortality and have been reinforced by sources such as the ORB poll. The nail in the coffin of these lower estimates (based on adding the Iraq Body Count figure to those in the Iraq War Logs) came when Les Roberts and students at Columbia subjected the two data sets to analysis, by pains-taking cross-referencing, showed that the two sets of data should be extrapolated to indicate a figure of a similar order, though slightly lower, than the ORB survey suggested. IBC claim that they have a different analysis of the correspondence between IWL and IBC wherein the vast majority of the IWL fatalities are in the IBC count (81%). They also claim, completely speciously, that they can distinguish combatant and non-combatant casualties. However, IWL is thought to cover only about 50% of US military reports (omitting special forces actions, for example, not to mention the incident shown in the footage released as Collateral Murder). Also remember that, as with the “mere gook rule” in Vietnam,1 US forces regularly report civilian deaths at their own hands, such as those in Collateral Murder, as being combatant deaths as a matter of policy.2 You can either conclude that IBC made an honest mistake, trust them on their analysis, and simply add another 15,000 deaths whilst also conveniently ignoring the undisputed fact that the US systematically mischaracterised non-combatant deaths as combatant deaths, or you might think that maybe IBC are not to be trusted. After all, they swore blind in defence of their figure before IWL came out, and barely skipped a beat when the figure jumped over 10% overnight.
We can also use our own brains on this topic. In 2006, the Baghdad morgue received 16,000 bodies of whom 80-85% were victims of violence. In 2005 Robert Fisk wrote: “…in July 2003 – three months after the invasion – 700 corpses were brought to the mortuary in Baghdad. In July of 2004, this rose to around 800. The mortuary records the violent death toll for June of this year as 879 – 764 of them male, 115 female. Of the men, 480 had been killed by firearms, along with 25 of the women. By comparison, equivalent figures for July 1997, 1998 and 1999 were all below 200.” We are really talking about an average of (if you will excuse some arguable rounding up) 1000 per month violent deaths until at least the end of 2007 (with the “surge” being the most violent time of the entire occupation). That gives a figure of 59,000 violent deaths. Let’s be conservative and say that right through to the withdrawal of US troops 50,000 people killed by violence ended up in the Baghdad morgue. What percentage of Iraq’s fatalities does it seem likely to you will have passed through the morgue of Baghdad? Just over 20% of Iraq’s population live in Baghdad, and many who died in Baghdad would not have been taken to the morgue. I think that estimating the Baghdad morgue data as representing any more than 10-15% of Iraqi mortality would be an offence against basic rationality and numeracy, so that too indicates that the figure of 120,000 is a massive underestimate, possibly of entirely the wrong order of magnitude. Another simple and universal yardstick is the number of orphans. The Iraqi Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs estimates that there are 4.5 million orphans (presumably those who have lost at least on parent) of whom 70% have lost parents since 2003. Is it possible that the 120,000 (which includes children) could have an average of 26.25 offspring? What about the number of widows in Iraq. One estimate is that 2.5 million Iraqi women have been widowed by the war. That seems inexplicably high, and in fact estimates range from 1 million to 3 million total Iraqi widows, but it is another indication that 120,000 is simply untenable and far below an actual conservative figure.
2) US War Aims
One of the central lies of the Iraq occupation, one of the greatest frauds ever perpetrated perhaps, is not just that the US sought some sort of peaceful independent democratic Iraq, but that it sought to impose any sort of stable unified regime at all. No doubt many US personnel were genuinely engaged in attempting to create stability, but from the beginning decisions made at cabinet level and later those emanating from the CPA, very effectively and systematically continued the work that began in 1990, and continued through years of bombing and sanctions and military action. That work was to inflict maximum damage on the fabric of Iraq’s society through attacks on social, political, intellectual, religious and economic health, and through the direct killing and immiseration of the Iraqi people. That process is called genocide.
The only evidence that the US ever sought stability is their own say so, and this is hardly surprising if you consider how unlikely it would be for them to admit instead to a desire to destabilise, weaken and fracture Iraq even further than they already had. The reader may recall that famously Gen. Eric Shinseki was over-ruled on the required number of troops for an effective occupation, and only one third of that number was committed. Some readers may be aware that State Department planning for a successful post-invasion occupation (the “Future of Iraq” project) was systematically sabotaged and subverted. Then the original occupying authority, ORHA (Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance) was fatally undermined by understaffing, lack of resources, and lack of standing within a chain of command. It was a joke, the only real resources and agency in the country were US military, which ORHA could not exert authority over, or the extant Iraqi institutions, which the US repudiated. After 61 days ORHA was replaced with the next seemingly Joseph Heller inspired spoof of governance – Bremer’s “Coalition Provisional Authority” (CPA).
With the CPA nominally in charge, actual power devolved to a confusing patchwork of military authorities whose only focus was security. Those who have read Imperial Life in the Emerald City know that there was systematic waste, fraud and mismanagement which ensured that reconstruction money belonging to the peoples of Iraq and the US was never successfully used for reconstruction. Everything was undermined. Even James Steele: America’s mystery man in Iraq showed that a mere 6 senior civilian police were supposed to train 30,000 police in 18 months. This sort of thing happened in every imaginable area of governance. So strong is the pattern that explanations of coincidence or incompetence cannot be borne, nor can explanations of systemic failure due to virulent partisan ideology (such as Rajiv Chandrasekaran puts forward).
In the meantime, abetted by the CPA, the US military was actually generating the very insurgency that this documentary would have us believe that the US sought desperately to avoid. As David Keen, author of Endless War, discusses here a function of the “war on terror” is to generate the very enemies which the US can use to justify its “war”. I myself have written about a prior instance of this pattern of US behaviour, the Second Indochina War, wherein the US acted to create recruit, arm and finance its insurgent opposition in order to effectuate genocide against the peoples of Indochina.
In Iraq too, the US actually became the midwives and nurturers of the very insurgency they claimed to be combating. The most obvious example is that by attacking or mistreating civilians, the US acted to recruit survivors and the bereaved as their enemies. In addition, though, accounts from early on in the occupation, in amongst the chaos, US forces left massive amounts of ordnance unguarded in the middle of the desert.3 A wild goose chase for WMD that the administration knew did not exist kept US personnel from securing actual conventional ordnance.4 And in one instance the US Marines more or less simply handed 800 assault rifles, 27 pick-up trucks and 50 radios over to a newly formed Fallujan brigade which promptly and predictably continued in its established role of armed resistance to Coalition occupation in spite of this generosity.5
The US regime also subverted its own personnel’s attempts to secure Iraq’s borders from the arrival of money, arms and fighters. Luis Montalvan gives an extraordinary testimony of obfuscation over the installation of a system for tracking migration, concluding: “From 2007—from 2003 to 2007, no computer systems for tracking immigration or emigration installed—were installed along the Syrian-Iraqi border. This surely contributed to the instability of Iraq. Foreign fighters and criminals were free to move transnationally with little fear of apprehension. It is probable that significant numbers of Americans and Iraqis were wounded and killed as a result of this.”
And then there was the infamous CPA Executive Order Number 2. At a stroke it made 500,000 often armed Iraqi military personnel unemployed. Where there had been none, there was now an insurgency. It should also be noted that the first executive order droves tens of thousands of government employees out of work and inevitably the two together were a massive jump start to insurgency where no serious organised armed resistance had existed to that point.
Also, as will be discussed below, the documentary distinctly gives the impression that US backed death squad activities inadvertently helped fuel sectarian civil war. This relies on the fallacy that death squads are a “dirty war” technique of genuine counterinsurgency (which I will counter below) and ignores the evidence that the US deliberately acted to sow ethnic and sectarian division in Iraq.
3) The “Dirty War” Fallacy
The phrase “dirty war” is used in this documentary to connote that the death squads are a form of counterinsurgency, if perhaps a morally questionable one. But the phrase “dirty war” was first applied to the killings and disappearances in Argentina, not by the Junta’s critics, but by the Junta itself. It is an excuse and a rationalisation of political terror. The Argentine politicide was part of a plan of drastic, if not revolutionary, societal transformation, referred to as el Proceso. The Junta who seized power in 1976 sought a “sanitized, purified culture”.6 Under cover of fighting “terrorism” and insurgency, the Junta implemented a totalitarian anticommunist “free-market” regime by destroying any possible ideological opposition or potentially rival power structures. Feierstein writes: “All those targeted had in common not their political identity, but rather the fact that they participated in the social movements of that time.”7 Those targeted were unionists, leaders of agrarian leagues, and community workers working with the urban poor. This was done over a period of years under the guise of fighting the “dirty war” against “terrorist” guerrillas, despite the fact that Argentina’s Montonero guerrillas were a spent force within 6 months of the coup.8 Some social structures (principally the Church) were cleansed rather than disintegrated, becoming instruments of furthering authoritarian obedience.9 To further ensure unquestioning obedience, books were burned and banned, then a blanket law criminalised writing, publishing, printing, distributing or selling anything found to be “subversive” after the fact. This created a sense of uncertainty and fear. As Galeano puts it: “In this program for a society of deaf mutes, each citizen has to become his own Torquemada.”10
What stands out most in el Proceso is the disappearances. Argentina has the sad distinction of being the first place to nominalise “disappear” into “the disappeared”, just as Guatemala had earlier made its unhappy linguistic contribution with the transitive verb “to disappear [someone]”.11 To disappear someone, rather than to simply gun them down in the streets, is to bring about awful uncertainties about their fate – for the loved ones of the disappeared uncertainty prevents the grieving process and even hope becomes a torment, for everyone the imaginings of protracted torture, usually all too real, become a source of great terror. According to Antonius Robben: “Argentine society became terror-stricken. The terror was intended to debilitate people politically and emotionally without them ever fathoming the magnitude of the force that hit them.”12
I would argue that what distinguishes Argentina from “dirty wars” in Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, or Afghanistan and Iraq is that the Argentine Junta, perhaps unwisely in the circumstances, defeated the actual guerillas rather than ensuring their continuance to provide better cover for their ongoing autogenocide. But the pretence of war is often rather thin, surviving only because it is never challenged. Moreover, certain tactics and certain weapons systems are not even suited for military conflict at all. Look, for example, at the armed unmanned aerial vehicles which are currently used by the US government for a “targeted killing” programme. A Predator drone may carry a very lethal payload and the Reaper (formerly “Predator-B”) may carry 4 Hellfire missiles and 2 500-lb bombs. They are not suited for “fighting” opponents with an opportunity to fight back. In fact, while Obama is set on expanding drone usage even further, the US military is set to cut back on drone production because drones are not suited to “contested airspace” and require “permissive” conditions. Reading between those lines you can see that “combat” drones are in fact nothing of the sort because they do not engage in actual combat. The “hunter-killer” appellation is more honest. Reapers and Predators are for use against those who cannot fight back – like aerial death squads.
Death squads, by nature, are not a military tactic whatever their “counterinsurgency” or “counterterror” pretensions. Indeed, to the best of my knowledge, it is a universal trait for death squad programmes to seek to conflate combatant targets with non-combatant. This is not restricted to death squad activity itself, but it part of the belligerent political discourse of the putative counterinsurgent regime. During the Cold War, the enemies were the “communists” and deliberate efforts were made to create the impression that the ideological identification was equivalent to combatant status, at least in as much as legitimising killing. The same applies to the uses of the terms “Islamist” and “militant”. Part of this process is to divide the world up into two camps – as Bush Jr said “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists”.
But Bush wasn’t stating anything new. Early in the Cold War, in Guatemala the motto was “’For liberation or against it.’ From this Manichean vision sprung the paranoid anti-communist taxonomy that added to the list of enemies not only communists, but ‘philocommunists,’ ‘crypto-communists,’ ‘castro-communists,’ ‘archi-communists,’ ‘pro-communists,’ and finally the ‘useful fools.’”13 In 1962, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff defined “insurgency” as any illegal form of opposition to regime rule, thus including passive resistance, joining banned unions or strikes, or anything else deemed illegal by a given regime. At this time they openly embraced terror tactics, such as those conducted by death squads, as “counterterror”.14 In South Vietnam, before there was any armed insurgency, the Diem regime conducted an horrific terror (seemingly forgotten to history) thought to have cost 75,000 lives.15 Mobile guillotines travelled the countryside to execute those denounced as communists and the campaign came to a head in 1959 with the notorious Decree 10/59 under which all forms of political opposition were made treason and any act of sabotage was punishable by death. Local officials could label anyone they wished “communist” and thus secure summary sentences of death or life imprisonment.16 Then, the US deliberately created the term Viet Cong, to conflate political dissent with combatant status, and then, when their own personnel began to reinterpret VC as referring solely to combatants, the US military then came up with another term – ‘Viet Cong infrastructure’. Prados defines them as “a shadowy network of Viet Cong village authorities, informers, tax collectors, propaganda teams, officials of community groups, and the like, who collectively came to be called the Viet Cong Infrastructure (VCI).” “Sympathizers” were also counted.17 It was the “VCI” that were the main supposed targets of the “Phoenix Programme” – the US run dedicated death squad programme. Those targeted were usually tortured and/or killed,18 so the programme was a war crime in any respect, but when it was expanded throughout South Viet Nam, it was run in such a way that the vast majority of victims were not in any manner involved with the NLF. Instead of using specific intelligence to target people with at least some known connection to the NLF, lists of names were coerced from detainees physically. Cash incentives were also offered for informers, while President Thieu used the programme to kill political rivals.19 “Neutralizations” resulting from the programme were about 20,000 each year. In 1969, out of a US figure of 19,534 “neutralizations” less than 150 were believed to be senior NLF cadres and only 1 (one) had been specifically targeted.20
In Argentina most victims were not guerillas but union leaders, young students, journalists, pacifists, nuns, priests and friends of such people. 21% of victims were students; 10.7% were professionals and 5.7% were teachers or professors. 10% were Jews who were tortured in specific anti-Semitic ways. CIA noted at the time the use of “torture, battlefield ‘justice,’ a fuzzing of the distinction between active guerilla and civilian supporter…arbitrary arrest… death ‘squads’….” Generals increasingly come to understand the threats as being Peronism and unionism. “One Argentine general is quoted as having said that ‘in order to save 20 million Argentines from socialism, it may be necessary to sacrifice 50,000 lives.’”21 General Jorge Rafael Videla defined his “enemy” in the following terms: “a terrorist is not only someone with a weapon or a bomb, but anyone who spreads ideas which are contrary to our western and Christian civilization.”22
As you can see there is a crossover between main force military “counterinsurgency” activities and death squad activities. In El Salvador, by 1992 there were 6800 guerilla’s and they were faced with over 60,000 regular military and over 50,000 ORDEN paramilitaries (many acting as death squads). The UN found the government side responsible for 95% of deaths, concluding that the violence was not guerilla war, but rather repression. This was also true of the 35 year “guerilla war” in Guatemala. UN estimates over 200,000 were killed. 93% of torture, disappearance and execution committed by government forces; 3% by guerillas and 4% described as “private”. The army was involved in 90.52% of massacres, alone in 55% of cases, in collaboration for the others. “In a majority of the massacres committed by the state, especially by the army, the counterinsurgency strategy led to multiple acts of savagery such as the killing of defenceless children, often by beating them against walls…; impaling the victims; amputating their limbs; burning them alive; extracting their viscera while still alive and in the presence of others… and opening the wombs of pregnant women.” A favoured way of torturing to death was to stab someone then throw them into a pit where they would be burnt to death. Specific deliberate raping torturing killing of women and children was a “counterinsurgency” tactic. “The murder of children was adopted by the army as terrorism – as a counterinsurgency tactic, part of a scorched earth operation.” It was a way of further attacking social cohesion – destroy the graves and the children and there are no ancestors or descendants. Rape was used as weapon to destroy social cohesion.23