Mark Danner: Scoring Assymetrical Warfare

If, as guesstimated, Osama Bin Laden spent half a million dollars to recruit, feed and train the perpetrators of 911, and if the US has spent or committed something like $2-trillion on our 8-year response, the asymmetry of costs in this global war on terror is something like 4-million to 1. And that’s just the money. I’m asking the journalist Mark Danner here to take a shot at a moral and political balance sheet.

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Mark Danner. (29 minutes, 13 mb mp3)

Mark Danner has covered one of the dirtiest stories on earth – torture – with an insistent lack of squeamishness about the injuries to human bodies and to American identity. He wrote the landmark New York Times op-ed, “We Are All Torturers Now,” on the confirmation of Alberto Gonzales as Attorney General in 2005. The best of Mark Danner’s work on politics, violence and war is now gathered in a book titled Stripping Bare the Body. He spoke with me in Boston about the extra-Constitutional “state of exception,” as he calls it, that isn’t over yet – and what these years of suspended rules, prolonged detentions, and foreign renditions of terror suspects, and torture, have done to our country.

CL: Mark Danner, I’m reading David Rohde’s epic accounts of his imprisonment by the Taliban in the New York Times everyday for the past week. I keep wondering: when will we learn that our presence, our mere presence, not to say blowing up weddings, is a main generator of the insurgency?

MD: David Rohde, in his account of his captivity explicitly says that there are people who come and express their anger about the people who’ve been imprisoned in Guantanamo indefinitely, and Bagram and Abu Ghraib. This is a major theme in his writing, and a major theme in the grievances he hears from the Taliban. This does not mean that American policy should be guided solely by what our enemies don’t like. It does mean that there are very significant costs, political costs, to some of these policies that have to be weighed against how useful they are and whether they really protect the country. We seem to have a great deal of trouble weighing those costs, because, indeed, they’re not quantifiable as dollars or anything else.

CL: Your book keeps raising the question of what is power in a world where an IED may represent a few hundred dollars worth of effort that can blow up a multimillion dollar tank. And it happens all the time.

MD: I remember distinctly finding an IED when I was with some troops in Dora in southern Baghdad. This thing, when we finally were able to get it out of the plastic bag — it was disguised as a bit of garbage — was as simple as you can imagine. It was a little mortar shell— millions of which, literally, are around Iraq, Sadaam bought millions of these things — that had been duct-taped to the base of a phone, the kind of mobile phone you have in your house and you can press button on it that will beep the handset if you lose it. An insurgent would stand up in a building, take the handset and beep it. That would blow this thing up. Simple as can be. Easy as can be to make it. Probably cost a couple hundred bucks, depending how you value the mortar shell. And these things are incredibly effective. You cannot stop all of the IEDs from being made. You cannot stop that. You have to at some point stop the people from wanting to make them. You won’t succeed in stopping all of them, but you might succeed in stopping most of them. It is one thing that I think Americans have learned in the last eight years, that the road toward killing every Jihadist is not the road that the United States has to take. It has to be more political, and that’s not simply a matter of money, it’s a matter of effectiveness. We read everyday about these drone attacks. Another theme in the pieces by David Rohde in the New York Times was the extreme anger caused by the civilian deaths that are a side effect, a direct effect of using these missiles to attack targets on the ground in parts of Pakistan. And we think this is surgical warfare, but in fact it is people standing on the ground, suddenly being blown up. And blaming this directly on the United States. So these things do have a political cost.

Mark Danner in conversation with Chris Lydon, October 22, 2009.

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  • Potter

    I think a necessary “state of exception” ( essentially from the threat thought posed by 9/11 ) would be the way GWBush would defend himself were he and his team ever held accountable. Maybe he’d still get away with it. That we don’t hold those accountable, I think is what makes us all torturers.

    I use the word “evil”. I am convinced that response to 9/11 was about retaining power regardless of law and morality. At that, at very great expense. I mean human life. The monetary figures are important to give us a sense of our powerlessness. We should keep talking about the costs and effectiveness/ineffectiveness of war until it sinks in better.

    The 9/11 attack revealed our collective vulnerability ( stripping the body?) on the emotional level after the deaths and material damage. If we are brave enough to look at it, our own evil has been revealed (Arendt). This was one of Bin Laden’s points. how we were allowed ourselves to be victims of demagoguery and fear mongering, easily taken in. Many also believed and I can’t imagine do not still believe in American supremacy and marching off to war to protect that.

    If Obama should somehow decide to simply pull out there will be those who will say that we were never allowed to “finish the job” ( as they did and do still about Viet Nam). There are still those in Congress. You will hear from them cries to save the honor of all the already dead by more killing. And you will hear I am sure ” yet again not finishing the job” /”abandoning what we started” and about our weakness. And then continued fear-mongering to gain politically.

    I don’t think the harm that has been done has sunk in yet, and that “we are all torturers now” has hardly been heard or taken to heart.

    I heard Mark Danner also on Bill Moyers recently. Riveted to the interview and recommending it, I thought to write you to get ahold of him for this series but had not done so yet. Thank you for being so alert.

  • Frobisher

    Nov. 11

    I download the podcast and I’m a few weeks behind. This comment is for Mr. Danner.

    Early in the interview, you quoted Condeleeza Rice as saying that the purpose of our military action was to convince potential jihadists not to wage jihad. You said that the Bush administration failed in thier intended purpose and created the opposite effect.

    I find this construct very naive. I submit that the Bush administration knew exactly what they were doing and succeeded in several of their primary goals. They created a gold mine for their contractors and political allies: their base. They created fear and uncertainty in the American population. They succeeded brilliantly in cowing the Congressional Democrats. They intimidated the media into slanted coverage (while continuing to insinuate that the media continued to be liberal). They passed the Patriot Act. They unbalanced the budget in the same way that Ronald Reagan and David Stockman did in the 1980s, thereby decreasing the proportion of Americans who benefited from domestic social and educational spending. They desensitized Americans to the suffering and pain of non-American persons.

    I, for one, don’t believe that they had any intention of building democracy. Ever.

    The entire exercise was not about Afghanistan and Iraq. It was about us, and shifting the American people in order to secure and hold political and economic power through a narrative of national victimhood, pride and power. Is it not tyrue that the American people identify with US military power more than ever?

    I await a mainstream journalist who has the courage to stop apologizing for the supposed misconceptions of the Bush administration, and present an explanation in terms of the American context.