The U.S. has been at constant war for the past two decades. Yet the public rarely sees the results of U.S. violence, or the bodies of Americans coming home. Norman Solomon, a journalist and antiwar activist, says that this is by design. This week on Deconstructed, Solomon joins Intercept writer and guest host Jon Schwarz. Solomon breaks down how American politicians, alongside mainstream media, spin lies and hide the true cost of American wars. Solomon is the author of “War Made Invisible: How America Hides the Human Toll of Its Military Machine.”
Jon Schwarz: I’m Jon Schwarz, a writer at The Intercept, filling in for Ryan Grim on this week’s episode of Deconstructed.
The FBI began surveilling Norman Solomon, who is our guest this week, when he was 14 years old. He was growing up outside Washington, D.C. in Maryland and joined the picketing of a segregated apartment complex, which was apparently suspicious enough to bring him to the federal government’s attention. He only found out about this, though, long afterwards, thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request.
Whether the FBI is still worried about Solomon is unknown, although, if I were them, I certainly would be. He spent the last five-and-a-half decades since he was 14 as a journalist and an antiwar activist. He’s also the founder and president of the Institute for Public Accuracy, which is devoted to getting alternative sources into the corporate media. After the U.S. invasion of Iraq, he wrote the book “War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us To Death,” which show the patterns in how U.S. governments have lied us into war after war after war.
Most recently, he’s written “War Made Invisible: How America Hides the Human Toll of Its Military Machine,” which is about exactly that.
Norman Solomon, welcome to Deconstructed.
Norman Solomon: Thanks a lot.
JS: I wanted to start by mentioning an anthropological concept called “social silence” that I have always thought explains a lot. And the basic idea of social silence is that, you might assume that the most important subjects in any society are the ones that are going to be discussed and debated the most. But, in fact, it really is exactly the opposite. In most societies, there’s near silence about the most important things.
And, if you think about it, that does make sense because if you live somewhere that’s ruled by an absolute monarch, that is the most important thing about your society. But there are not going to be a lot of op-eds debating, like, is the king really descended from God?
In any case, I think it’s clear that this phenomenon of social silence applies to the United States and the wars that we wage, and war is so central to how America works, you would assume that we would be discussing it constantly and, instead, you have to be kind of a big weirdo just to dig around and find the basic facts about what’s going on.
And so, I see your book “War Made Invisible: How America Hides the Human Toll of Its Military Machine” as a kind of detailed deconstruction of how exactly the social silence on war works.
NS: That seems right on target. As much as we might not want to think so, us humans tend to be very conformist, and silence is also a sort of exercise in conformity. As it happens, I start out the book with a quote from Aldous Huxley, ominously, in 1946, right after World War II, and he said, “The greatest triumphs of propaganda have been accomplished not by doing something, but by refraining from doing. Great is truth, but still greater, from a practical point of view, is silence about truth.”
So, the silence is critical and, in a sense, so to speak, silence can’t be heard, it is just adhered to. And shattering it takes — in the case of war, and a war that is considered widely to be not only acceptable, but very positive — that takes some gumption, it takes some willingness to — whether as a whistleblower or just an everyday person — buck the tide, swim up against the current, whatever metaphor one might use.
And then you add to that just the conceit that our nation, in the case of the United States, is the greatest nation in the world, that we can really do no substantive wrong, although there might be some errors involved, and that’s encapsulated in all sorts of rhetoric we’re familiar with. It’s bipartisan American exceptionalism that the United States is, quote, “the indispensable nation,” which was a term coined in the latter time of the Clinton administration, cooked up by some geniuses over there.
And I think of something that I read in a short story, as it happened. William Dean Howells wrote one called Editha; he was a close friend of Mark Twain, he was an anti-imperialist and, in the wake of the slaughter of people in the Philippines at the turn of the century, by the early 20th century, it was clear what the United States government was up to, internationally.
And this is what a character says in the short story: “What a thing it is to live in a country that can’t be wrong but, if it is, is right anyway, to keep from crying.”
JS: Yes. I came across that in your book, I had never seen it before, and I laughed out loud. I’ll have to track down that story and read it.
NS: I mean, this is what we’re dealing with. It’s like what the satirist Tom Lehrer said about when Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize. He said, “Satire has become impossible.” And when we look at the tremendous amount of doublethink, in Orwellian terms, and just the pretenses that are fatuous and ridiculous that pass for wisdom. I mean, inside the corridors of power, the so-called punditocracy, what does pass for, not only wisdom, but the ultimate sagacity of foreign policy. That’s what’s going on right now every day. TV, radio, newspapers, the deluge of folks.
And so, part of that is that, in the case of the United States’ foreign policy and warfare, if you’re pro-war, you’re objective. If you’re antiwar, you’re biased.
JS: Yes. And I wanted to go over, as you say, the sins of omission. And then, also, the fewer and really more minor crimes of commission by the media and people who are lying to us. In general, as you say, the lies that are being told to us are incredibly simpleminded, and that’s one of the things that makes me the angriest. I don’t even mind that much being lied to, but they put so little effort into it.
But, anyway, in terms of the crimes of commission, in terms of propaganda in the United States, one very basic one that is so ingrained in us that even I use this terminology when writing about things, is that… We talk about defense corporations instead of weapons manufacturers. We have a Department of Defense, and many people listening to this may not realize that the Department of Defense used to be called, up until 1947, the Department of War, and then it was changed. And it’s always seemed funny to me that this was changed right about the time that George Orwell was writing “1984.” And, of course, in “1984,” one of the main departments of the government is the Ministry of Peace. And so, I imagine the people at the Department of War, as it then was, getting an early version of “1984” and being like: Wow, what a great idea, let’s call this the Department of Defense.
NS: Well, this is an instance where, for one thing, In the current time, we’re supposedly living in peacetime. As a matter of fact, in the book I quote that recently the Reuters News Service reported that the latest Biden budget was a record-high, quote,
Well, the United States is launching missiles into Syria, into Somalia, has special operations going on in a number of countries. It is training and involved in warfare with many militaries in Africa. And, really, 80 countries around the world, according to the Cost of War Project at Brown University, are places where the United States is currently engaged in a so-called War on Terror, and yet those countries are off the media map in terms of those activities and, officially, we’re in peacetime. “War is peace” is really not just an antiquated slogan of dystopia from “1984,” the novel. It’s really with us right now.
President Biden gave a speech two years ago to the United Nations, right after U.S. troops were withdrawn from Afghanistan, and he proclaimed that the United States had “turned the page,” his term, and the U.S. was no longer at war. Meanwhile, there were combat troops in Syria, there were, and unfolded to be, a lot of missile strikes, drone strikes. In more than one country the U.S. was categorically at war, but saying that it wasn’t passed the muster for news media, which was already being nudged in that direction.
That’s really a theme of the book because it’s part of the invisibility of war. There’s an example when the United States was leading the way to bomb Libya a little bit more than a decade ago, leading the NATO bombardment that went on month after month. As I remember, seven months of bombing Libya, and the official stance of the U.S. government through the Obama administration was that the United States was not at war. And this became an issue after 90 days when, according to the War Powers Act, the U.S. has to agree, via its Congress, to continue a war, but the Obama administration sent a hotshot, a former law professor from Yale to a congressional hearing, and he insisted the United States was not at war. And yet, at that point, one billion dollars had already been spent with the U.S. leading the way to bomb Libya.
What was the explanation for the claim that the United States was not at war in Libya? The reason given was that no Americans had died. And so, that’s part of the definition, the working operative way to describe whether the U.S. is involved in warfare or not are Americans dying, which is It’s literally a device used to evade congressional responsibility, but it’s also a metaphor because it’s about us. That is the media frame, that is the political frame.
The United States encompasses about four percent of the world’s population, but we are the center of the conceptual universe.
JS: Yeah, as you write in your book, “War is not war if Americans kill without being killed.” It’s incredible that that was the argument made by the Obama administration and their fancy Yale professor representative. And that’s part of why I say I really feel disrespected by them, by the quality of their lies. Like, surely they could work a little bit harder.
NS: Yeah, it’s a bit insulting, but I guess they are successful. And by “they,” I mean, broadly speaking, the so-called national security establishment and the mass media, because the standards keep dropping. I call it the high-jump-over-low standards of what is widely considered and propagated, touted as being credible.
At the start of this book, “War Made Invisible,” I have an additional quote from Aldous Huxley, who in 1936 said, and I’m quoting, “The propaganda’s purpose is to make one set of people forget that certain other sets of people are human.” And that goes to the entire two-decades-plus since the beginning of the so-called War on Terror where, from the outset, the frame was that the United States had been so aggrieved by the tragic events of 9/11 that whatever happened after that would be the responsibility of others, but never of the United States.
And so, the U.S. — and this was and has been widely accepted by mass media — the United States got preemptive absolution for anything that would come next. And the Secretary of uppercase-D Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, said eight weeks after the attack on Afghanistan began, I’m quoting here: “We did not start this war, so understand responsibility for every single casualty in this war, whether they’re innocent Afghans or innocent Americans, rests at the feet of Al Qaeda and the Taliban.”
So, that was, almost in a religious sense, certainly a sort of jingo narcissistic way, saying from the outset, whatever happens from here on in, no matter what kind of war crimes, in effect, the United States is going to commit, it’s not our fault at all. We’ve washed [our] hands of any accountability whatsoever.
JS: And this goes to the heart of why I will never get over U.S. foreign policy, and especially what was happening around that. I was living about a mile-and-a-half north of the World Trade Center in September 2001. And the night that it happened, the night of September 11th, I had a nightmare where I was in Baghdad, and I was running and running and running, and the United States was about to start bombing, and I could not get out.
And to have seen… This was suffering on a scale that I had certainly never witnessed, and hope to never witness again in New York City then. People that I knew, every single person had some kind of connection to the terrorist attacks and the World Trade Center being destroyed. And the fact that they would so blatantly, so carelessly, so callously use this just absolutely catastrophic event in the lives of so many people for what they had planned anyway, for what they wanted to do anyway. It is something that shocked me to my core, and I will be cognizant of until the day that I die.
And now, of course, the funny thing about making that case, that every casualty is the fault of the people who attacked the United States, is that that standard was not applied in the Iraq War when we invaded.
NS: Well, double standards are just so routine in U.S. foreign policy. It’s baked into the cake, so to speak, that’s served up every day by the mass media, by U.S. politicians, and it came into sharp relief, I think, for a lot of people in the last year and a half after this horrible Russian invasion and occupation of Ukraine where, for the first time in memory, U.S. mass media were really methodically showing the suffering that occurs for civilians after one country invades another.
And so, we had, and I quote this in the book, headlines such as… The first day of March, 2022, if you went to the New York Times homepage, you saw a headline across the top of the screens in huge capital letters, and it said, “Rocket barrage kills civilians.” Then, 40 days into the Russian war on Ukraine, there was a huge all-capital-letters headline across the top of the print edition of The New York Times that said, “Horror grows over slaughter in Ukraine.” Can you imagine any such headline during the U.S. war on Iraq? It is inconceivable in The New York Times. “Horror grows over slaughter in Iraq,” when the story details how the slaughter is being caused by the U.S. invaders.
And this goes really to your earlier reference to what happened on 9/11, that in the wake of that horrible event, what evolved very quickly was: A, that there was going to have to be a lot of killing in retaliation. It was really secondary that none of the hijackers of 9/11 were Afghans. That, really, the Taliban had nothing to do with the attack, and likewise, of course, Saddam Hussein in Iraq had nothing to do with the attack. But that there would have to be vengeance, even if the vengeance was displaced, almost to purge or express the rage and anguish involved.
And what quickly evolved in the situation is what in the book I call “the two tiers of grief; ours and theirs.” And it’s been emblematic. I can’t say it’s unique to this century; it was true, really, in terms of the Vietnam War and other U.S. interventions. There’s one tier of grief, and it is profound, it’s human. It causes and should cause enormous empathy in media, in politics, in our own hearts. And I believe that’s valid.
I think that if you set aside the extreme political, geopolitical spin and bias of U.S. media coverage of the war in Ukraine, the actual journalistic treatment of the suffering of civilians has been really good. We just have not gotten that as the U.S., in effect, slaughtered people over two decades in Afghanistan, killed massive numbers of people, directly and indirectly, in Iraq. That’s on the other tier of grief. And so, we have this sort of bifurcation of humanity that has become so routine. It’s hidden in plain sight and we don’t give it a second thought.
And that’s one of the main reasons I wrote “War Made Invisible,” because we not only have to give it a second thought, we have to bring it right out into the open and confront it. Because when we have — as we do now, tacitly but, really, explicitly — two tiers of grief about the people on this planet. Then, whatever term you want to use — morally, ethically, journalistically, professionally, spiritually — something very deeply corrosive has taken hold, and it’s done something pervasive and insidious about our own humanity, the national U.S. character, if you will.
And the result is that the U.S. and its designated allies, the civilians who are killed by designated enemies, such as those in the Kremlin, their humanity is affirmed, as it should be. And then, those at the end of U.S. firepower, they are demoted to being essentially non-persons. A lot of it is simply silence. They are not reported upon. They are the equivalent of the tree that didn’t fall in the forest because we weren’t there to witness it.
And that certainly applies to the one step removed but very direct involvement, for instance, of the U.S. government in the slaughter in Yemen, which has been going on now for about eight years. And when President Biden, a year ago, fist-bumped the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, a country that — with U.S. material help and arms sales and so forth — has been killing people en masse, in leading the war on Yemen. According to the U.N., in the last eight years, close to 400,000 people dead there as a result of the war. That fist bump gets very little coverage as any kind of critical event. Why is that?
Well, FAIR, the Media Watch Group, did a study and found that MSNBC devoted 5,000 percent as much airtime to how bad Russia was under the Trump administration than reporting on this suffering and slaughter in Yemen, which the U.S. government was pretty directly involved in supporting.
So, what does that do? It goes back to our discussion of silence. It’s the very silence of these media outlets. One would say, well, how come they aren’t reporting on this mass killing, even though the United States government is an accessory to the crimes? And then you can step back and say, maybe it’s not just, even though; maybe it’s because the United States is an accessory to the crimes that we get the silence.
JS: And the striking thing about Ukraine is that this demonstrates that big U.S. media outlets absolutely can do in-depth coverage of people who are suffering in the most profound ways possible because of war, because of one country invading another. It’s just that they just choose not to do it when the country doing the invading is the United States or our allies.
NS: Absolutely. It can be done, it is being done, it’s within the journalists’ capabilities and it should be part of the journalistic mission. And this imbalance, it goes back to the quote that I cited a few minutes ago from Aldous Huxley, where the propagandist’s goal is to make us forget that some people are human.
We have, through silence, been induced to forget that the people in Yemen who have been dying as a result, in large measure, because of U.S. foreign policy, de facto, what is conveyed, mostly through silence, is that they don’t matter, they aren’t really human. In my neighborhood, and probably in the neighborhood of anybody listening to this conversation, you can drive around and you will see Ukrainian flags. You can drive for hundreds of miles and probably not see a single Yemeni flag.
And I think that the empathy and the support for the people of Ukraine who are suffering, that’s really good. But how come we have so divided our humane consciousness that we’re, so to speak, led by the nose by the corporate media establishment and the so-called leadership on Capitol Hill and in the White House to basically desensitize ourselves?
And it’s, it’s worse than, hey, some crimes against humanity matter and some don’t. It’s that crimes against humanity that the United States government is implementing in our names, with our tax dollars, they are especially off the table to even acknowledge or discuss.
And I’ve got to say, this, of course, is not only Fox News, it’s not only outlets that we would identify as centrist. This is also symptomatic of what we get from an outlet like MSNBC, like NPR, All Things Considered, and Morning Edition. If the media are supposed to provide a window on the world, what those outlets do in foreign policy is to tint that window red, white, and blue. And, to put it mildly, that is distortive, and it also aids and abets the doublethink that says, as Antony Blinken, Secretary of State, continues to say, oh, it’s absolutely unacceptable when Russia is committing these crimes after invading Ukraine, because one country just must not be allowed to invade another country, because we’ve got to have a rules-based order globally.
And yet, here’s a guy, Antony Blinken, who was Chief of Staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when, in the middle of 2002, Joe Biden, as a senator, wielded the gavel and railroaded through a phony hearing that helped to greenlight through who was allowed to testify the invasion of Iraq. So, it’s sort of mind boggling the extent to which the hypocrisy is so routine and so rarely remarked upon by our supposedly free press.
And I hasten to add that the hypocrisy in Washington in no way justifies the slaughter that is being implemented by the Russian forces in Ukraine. At the same time, the slaughter that those Russian forces are implementing in no way justifies, not only the hypocrisy of the United States government, but the continuing involvement in the killing through the rarely reported on so-called War on Terror, which continues in many countries to this moment. And, also, as I referred to, the U.S. continuing to aid and abet the killing in Yemen.
It’s like, ultimately, the question is: what kind of people are we, what kind of human beings? What does the United States represent? And when you strip away all the rhetoric and the self-congratulations, and so forth, and you look at U.S. foreign policy, there’s a lot to be ashamed about, there’s a lot to be enraged about. And we could examine, for instance, the objective fact that, in the 21st century, the country that has by far killed more people on the planet than any other entity is the United States of America.
JS: One of the things that I was surprised to learn about in your book was that, during April of 2022, there were 14 stories on The New York Times front page about civilians being killed in Iraq, and the New York Times ran one story during a comparable period at the beginning of the Iraq War about civilians being killed by American troops. It’s just very straightforward and blatant and, as I say, I wish they would put more effort into their propaganda
NS: It’s flagrant, and yet it blends into the woodwork so routinely that it’s rarely remarked upon. And it’s certainly hard to get media outlets that are committing this imbalance, which they consider to be professional, to even acknowledge it, let alone inform their readers, listeners, viewers, of the imbalance of their own coverage.
As a book author, of course, I and others who are writing about these imbalances, then when we want to publicize our own book, we’re up against it. I mean, I have talked about “War Made Invisible” with quite a few progressive media outlets in the recent weeks, and it is, so far, not possible at all to get any sort of microphone open to me at NPR in any way, for instance, or any of the networks who are critiqued in the work. So, there’s sort of an inoculation that the mainstream media tend to give to themselves, so that the illusions can be preserved for the listeners.
You could listen to years of All Things Considered and Morning Edition, for instance, on NPR, and not get any real coverage, or opening to the idea that there’s something fundamentally wrong about U.S. foreign policy. There are a lot of debates about how, and when, and in what way the United States might choose to work its way on the world militarily, but the prerogative of the United States to intervene when it feels its so-called national security is at stake, that assumption is the United States has that right.
JS: That’s right. And not only that the United States has that right, but that if anyone tries to fight back, it’s just fundamentally illegitimate.
NS: Yeah. Who has a legitimate right to national security concerns?
This is very much in the forefront and yet not really debated in U.S. mass media in terms of Russia. After all, it’s a given, not only that the United States gets to enforce its Monroe Doctrine — which is, we would say, more than a few years old — but also, for instance, wow, China is really getting aggressive. They have all of these military ships in the South China Sea, without raising the question, why does the South China Sea have the middle name that it has? This is considered, oh, it would be too dissenting, an opinion to raise that kind of a question.
So, the United States has a total prerogative, according to the reigning ideology, to assert that its national security concerns extend to taking the kind of military action that the folks in Washington deem to be appropriate. But Russia? Russia doesn’t have a right to any such national security concerns.
And so, if we could imagine the thought of what could have been under a different world circumstance … Let’s say that Russia was part of a military alliance that included Canada; it wouldn’t be called NATO, but whatever it would be called. And there began to be mobilization of Russian troops on the border, there were weapon systems put along the U.S.-Canadian border as well. The response from Washington, they would just go crazy, and you can imagine the response. It would just be extremely aggressive, and it would be totally cloaked in national security, and presented as more than legitimate as such.
And yet, when NATO, led by the United States, expanded the reach of NATO countries up to the Russian border, in the case of Estonia and Latvia, and also expanded into Poland and Romania, which is, in both cases, not all that far from the Russian border. And installed as the U.S. has so-called antiballistic missile systems in Romania and Poland. And even Radio Free Europe has acknowledged that those so-called defensive missile systems can be retrofitted very quickly to be offensive missile systems. Somehow that’s A-OK. That’s actually, we’re told, part of the defense architecture that NATO is quite properly putting in place.
So, again, it goes back to, hey, the window on the world from the White House is totally legitimate, the window on the world from the Kremlin is totally evil. And that’s where we are now, and what is the end game?
And, certainly, there are large numbers of progressive commentators and activists who have, pardon the expression, drunk the Kool Aid of the new Cold War. And they don’t have any nuance involved in this, they think history is nonsense. They call it whataboutism without realizing that charges of whataboutism are themselves whataboutism. And it’s a way of jettisoning history, saying that the worldview from Washington is the only one that really matters.
And what is the endpoint of all this escalation of deeming diplomacy a dirty word? It is heading towards nuclear conflagration. That’s just a reality. If you look at this momentum of confrontation in what is a proxy war, among other things, between the two nuclear superpowers, but it sort of reminds me of the classic CEO view, where it’s only the next few quarters that really matter. The Democrats in charge of the White House and the Senate. Oh, how’s it going to look for the next election? Even though it’s often a miscalculation, as when the pro-diplomacy letter from a few dozen Members of the House was summarily withdrawn over a panic that, gee, calling for diplomacy last fall would somehow be injurious politically. And yet, polls show most Americans want diplomacy.
I’m sort of moving into a bit of another realm, but I think it all relates, that the view of the United States being the view that really matters is really injurious to everybody’s national security. I mean, what goes around comes around is a cliche that actually applies, and whether it’s the climate emergency or Covid, or many other factors, the idea that the United States is first among nations or, as Biden said when he took office,
“The United States now can get back to be the head of the table,” well, it doesn’t work, especially given the hypocrisy of the U.S. People and nations rarely are persuaded by the message, “Do as we say, not as we do.”
JS: Yes. And, with regard to this, specifically, with Ukraine and the conflict between the United States and Russia in general, the potential coming conflict between China and the United States, I have always believed in the perspective of Thomas Merton. And you may know the famous letter that Merton wrote to a friend of his as the Vietnam War was gearing up in the 1960s. And Merton said, “The world is full of great criminals with enormous power, and they are in a death struggle with each other. It’s a huge gang battle of supremely well-armed and well-organized gangsters, using well-meaning lawyers and policemen and clergymen as their front, controlling papers, means of communication, and enrolling everybody in their armies. Let us avoid false optimism and approved gestures, and seek truth.”
That is a really unpleasant, unfortunate position to be in. Who wants to be on a planet that is full of great criminals with enormous power, and they’re all fighting each other and trying to get us to join up in their armies? But that’s the way it is. That’s where we are.
NS: It is unpleasant, and I think, including among many people who identify on the left in the United States, it’s something that it’s very tempting and compelling to evade. And so, choosing up sides between the forces of war criminality really seems to maybe offer psychological shelter, and I think we’ve seen, in the last couple of years in particular, many folks find it compelling to assume that because Russia is doing horrific things in Ukraine, which it is, therefore, somehow, the United States is purportedly a beacon of freedom and justice, or that we have to choose up sides.
We should not choose up sides between forces of war criminality. And I actually hesitated to put this quote in my book as one of the epigraph quotations, but I decided to go ahead and do it, even though some people might find it offensive. This is from a Thomas Merton poem, he wrote it in the voice of a Nazi commandant, and this is what a verse of the poem says: “Do not think yourself better because you burn up friends and enemies with long range missiles without ever seeing what you have done.”
Well, I think to sort of springboard off of that, it is widespread … And this includes, I have to say, among many who consider themselves to be left of center in the United States. There is an assumption that the United States is better because we burn up friends and enemies with long range missiles without ever seeing what you have done. We don’t see it on MSNBC. We don’t hear about it on NPR. And yet, the result is that we are numbed to the reality we hide from ourselves, or we agree to have hidden from us, those who are being burned up and injured and traumatized.
One of the chapters in my book is titled “Humane,” and I critique a very well-received book that came out a couple of years ago by a Yale professor, Samuel Moyn. The title of the book was “Humane,” and a major thesis is that, in the 21st century, gradually, U.S. wars have become humane. And one of the things that he does is to claim — and I quote it in my book — that the most humane form of warfare, perhaps in memory, is the use of drones. And he has some phrasing about how precise it is, and how careful it is, and yet The Intercept led the way in exposing, a number of years ago, that, according to official U.S. documents, a large majority of drone strikes were killing people who were not the targets, which is to say: civilians.
Not only that, but we know from those who have been in areas such as Pakistan and Afghanistan where U.S. drones have functioned, that it is absolutely terrifying to have the sound of a drone overhead and know, over a period of hours or days, that at any moment, the missile could come and destroy your life. And yet, we have these commentators, in their own comfort of their august offices and behind their computer screens, saying that U.S. wars are becoming more and more humane.
I say in the book that Professor Moyn is grading wars on a curve. It’s not as massively horrific as the Vietnam War for instance so, therefore, we’re supposed to feel good about it. An irony which needs to be talked about and virtually never is in mass media is that the entire so-called War on Terror was launched in the name of defeating terrorism. And yet, the United States government, with drones and other military devices, has been terrorizing people in many countries.
JS: I should say, for people who are thinking about picking up this book, you are not simply reading about things in the newspaper. You have traveled all around the world and met the people who have been at the other end of our guns, and there are some particularly striking stories in your book about those encounters that you’ve had with America’s victims.
There’s one I was hoping you could talk about, about the nine-year-old girl in a refugee camp outside Kabul.
NS: Yes, this was in 2009, and here was a refugee camp on the outskirts of the Afghan capital. And this young girl, Guljuma, had been woken up one morning just before dawn in the Helmand province. And, by the way, 70 percent of the Afghan population is rural with very, very little to no media coverage. And the huge bombing campaigns there included one bomb that fell in her neighborhood, and she lost one arm. And she and her father traveled to Kabul and were living in a refugee camp, and I thought about how they were scrounging for food.
So, the U.S. government had the money to bomb her neighborhood, but didn’t have the money to even feed her family. And I think about her now — she’s probably about 20 years old — and what kind of life was given to her by U.S. taxpayers, what was done in our names?
These, though, in mass media and politics, are abstractions. You know, I write about in the book how those who vote for the appropriations on Capitol Hill, they virtually never see anybody who their war dollars are affecting, are wounding, are killing, are traumatizing, are leaving with PTSD. And yet, they, we are told, are accountable to the public of the United States.
It’s always a challenge, I think, for journalists or anybody else to report numbers which are important, and not really come to terms in any substantive, deep way about what actually happens, what the loved ones and those who directly suffer are actually going through.
I was glad to avail myself in the book of the Costs of War Project at Brown University, which is really the preeminent source for calibrating in the numbers what has been caused by the U.S.’ so-called War on Terror. And that project has documented, as they say, about 930,000, so, close to a million people, have died due to direct war violence caused by the U.S.’ so-called antiterror war. And, they point out, many times more have died indirectly in those wars, because of the ripple effects, malnutrition, damaged infrastructure. environmental degradation. Close to 400,000 of those dead directly killed have been civilians. And then you multiply those numbers by several times, and what we’ve got is a death toll that is just staggering, and the suffering even more widespread.
And then we think about every human soul that was extinguished on 9/11 can be enumerated with the number 3,000. What about the numbers that can be enumerated? Each soul: one, two, three, four million people.
And I was really pleased that The Intercept published an excerpt from “War Made Invisible” right after Daniel Ellsberg passed away, because I think it’s really a couple of the most important pages of the “War Made Invisible” book.
Dan Ellsberg spoke with me a couple of years ago, and one of the key points he made is that he often thought about the special section, the special coverage from The New York Times after 9/11, where the 3,000 individuals were all tracked down, those who had died, to the extent that the Times found a picture of them. And they learned about, and then shared with readers, a little bit about, as Dan put it, what made those folks human in our understanding, as he said.
They liked to skydive, they liked to play poker, they were musicians, whatever it might be, part of the facets of being a human being. And The New York Times took the trouble to find the pictures, to get their names, to convey some little aspects of the lives of these people.
And so, Dan Ellsberg was saying, after the so-called Shock and Awe bombing of Baghdad, he thought, well, it would be quite possible after the regime fell there for The New York Times to go in and research who had died as a result of the Shock and Awe bombing in the first couple of days of the U.S. attack on Iraq. And then he paused, and he said, of course, nothing like that has ever happened. Nothing like that will happen.
I think that’s both an example and a metaphor for how corrosive, how morally, ethically, spiritually corrupted our political and media environment is. As I say in the book, the United States political culture has given our leaders a political license to kill, and the blood is on the hands, so to speak, of Uncle Sam, and the results are suffered by others who are perceived as being “others.”
JS: And maybe we can end by telling people about some of the great quotes that you include in the book from James Baldwin, and you can react to them.
You quote him at one point as saying, “It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.” And he said, “It is, of course, in the very nature of a myth that those who are its victims and at the same time its perpetrators should, by virtue of these two facts, be rendered unable to examine the myth, or even to suspect, much less recognize, that it is a myth which controls and blasts their lives.”
And he also said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” And so, we don’t know if we can change this — this is me talking, not James Baldwin — we don’t know if we can, but we definitely know that we can’t, if we don’t look directly at
NS: Realism is really essential, and I think it should be distinguished from fatalism. We should never give up. There’s no telling what our efforts might or might not accomplish, but what’s for damn sure is, if we don’t push back, if we don’t organize, if we don’t insist that, as the saying goes, a better world is possible, then we are fated just to be in a downward spiral.
And so, that’s, I think, our future. Our future is not in our hands, but our future can be affected by what we do or don’t do. The mass media really encourage us to be passive, to be consumers, to buy things and maybe go out and vote once in a while. We have other options, and they’re much better, if we can create them.
JS: Yeah. And I will say, you will be very motivated to try to create those other options if you read Norman Solomon’s book. It is, again, War “Made Invisible, How America Hides the Human Toll of Its Military Machine.”
So, Norman, thank you very much for coming on Deconstructed.
NS: Thanks a lot, John.
JS: That was Norman Solomon, and that’s our show.
You can find more of his work and information about his book, “War Made Invisible,” at normansolomon.com.
Deconstructed is a production of The Intercept. Our producer is José Olivares. Laura Flynn is our supervising producer. The show was mixed by William Stanton. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Roger Hodge is The Intercept’s Editor-in-Chief. And I’m John Schwarz.
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