Nothing visible on board the USS Ross and USS Porter, rocking gently on the Mediterranean waves, could convey what was unfolding across continents last Thursday night. The pillars of light expanding from the destroyers, arching hundreds of miles towards a Syrian airfield, sang through the air with a majesty, the thousand pound payload of explosives each carried completely invisible. The night was calm in New York as well, where in Rockefeller Plaza it was the job of the endearingly inaccurate Brian Williams to narrate the cruise missiles’ flight to the millions of Americans watching footage from the warships on MSNBC. For Williams, or more likely for his writers, the moment carried enough serenity to draw upon the poetic tradition of popular music.
“We see these beautiful pictures at night from the decks of these two US Navy vessels in the eastern Mediterranean,” he told the world without irony. “I am tempted to quote the great Leonard Cohen: ‘I’m guided by the beauty of our weapons.’”
Presumably, the legendary Canadian novelist turned songwriter who died the day before Donald Trump’s almost-election is chuckling down from his room in the Tower of Song. Williams was referencing the 1987 song “First We Take Manhattan,” which Cohen called a celebration of “Psychic Terrorism,” written from the perspective of an imprisoned urban guerilla from the West German communist militia, the Red Army Faction. The popular news anchor, whose network netted over $500 million in ad revenue last year, would be less likely to read the lyric “I don’t like your fashion business, mister. / I don’t like these drugs that keep you thin. / I don’t like what happened to my sister.” The narrator calls the weapons that guide him “the monkey and the plywood violin,” he seeks no guided missile strikes but stands on the corner with a metaphorical hurdy gurdy, grinding out the irrepressible strains of revolution on the traditional instruments of a beggar. This is how he imagines he will “take Manhattan,” subduing the ideological instruments of capitalism, presumably including Williams and NBC, before he can “take Berlin.”
But like the stopped clock, even Brian Williams has his moments of inadvertent but profound accuracy.
Guided by the beauty of our weapons. It should be our new national motto.
Williams wasn’t the only one guided by the beauty of our weapons that night. From liberal bastions such as the New York Times and CNN to the conservative Wall Street Journal and Fox News, the media rushed to praise the bombing with practically monolithic enthusiasm. Democratic Party leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, as well as Hillary Clinton herself, applauded the attack they had demanded, and even Republicans who had painted themselves as moderating influences on the current President were enthusiastically supportive. Literally overnight, pundits and politicians who have spent over a year warning of the dangers of the clearly unhinged neo-fascist Donald Trump wielding executive power became dutiful cheerleaders of the administration. Only on the very far left and right of the political mainstream did anyone think to point out that military force without a congressional declaration of war is a violation of constitutional law, and even these moderate dissenters don’t question whether Trump was right to use violence to punish Bashar Al-Assad’s government in light of this week’s chemical attack on Syrian civilians.
It was as if long-suffering parents could finally take pride in their errant child. At last, the great upset is over. The man who once had the gall to point out President Obama was invading Libya to distract from domestic failures has come to accept that this is what presidents do. The loose cannon who seemed treasonously unwilling to escalate conflict with Russia has launched the most direct attack on Russian forces since the Cuban Missile Crisis. The rules of geopolitical hegemony have outweighed the anti-imperialist pleas of populism, and the forces of state and industry will have the war they wanted after all. Just listen to his speech from the peaceful White House Rose Garden condemning Assad – fewer syllables than Obama, fewer mispronunciations than Bush, less likeable than Clinton, but you can practically hear the nation’s sigh of relief as the fifth consecutive president promises a military response to a Muslim dictator’s alleged chemical weapons violation in the oil-rich Levant.
It was a festive night in Washington, and at the state dinner in Florida where Trump authorized the strike over what he announced with all appropriate gravitas was “the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you have ever seen.”
Guided by the beauty of our weapons.
It isn’t yet clear what the 59 Tomahawk missiles accomplished. We know that they killed people, which, however angelic their rise from warships appeared, had always been their sole purpose. Human rights organizations have confirmed 16 casualties, most of them civilians, four of them children. But the apparent target, the Shayrat airfield, which the Trump administration claims was the base for the chemical attack, is still operational. According to the Syrian government and their Russian allies, the vast majority of the missiles missed the airfield and instead hit nearby neighborhoods; whether or not this is true, all parties confirm that Syrian planes are still using the base to attack nearby towns held by rebels, something that would be impossible had 60,000 pounds of high explosives found their mark.
The American attack was careless. It was obviously pulled together crudely, with just enough time to assemble the requisite cameras and speechwriters. It doesn’t matter to the administration that the attack clumsily slaughtered innocent civilians, or that it completely failed to reduce Assad’s ability to conduct brutal airstrikes on his people. If it had worked, after all, there would be no need for the next strike, for the next arms purchase, for the next war. Rather, this attack, in its televised glory here and around the globe, was designed to shock and awe. The glowing plumes of smoke were a global threat, a deliberate reminder to the world just how close the United States is, at any second, to unexamined and immense violence.
Already this “hard power” doctrine seems to be working. President Xi Jinping of China was dining with Trump in the latter’s sprawling Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida as the missiles took flight. Suddenly, Trump’s claim that he would unilaterally go to war with North Korea, and China if necessary, became more than posturing. Xi reportedly changed his country’s policy overnight, for the first time in sixty years endorsing a US Navy strike group approaching the Korean Peninsula. Was the bombing of Syria a strong enough display of muscle and depravity to force a move that business interests in Japan and South Korea have wanted for decades? Already, mass media is celebrating the fact that we are one step closer to invading North Korea, ignoring any discussion of whether such an invasion would be practical, ethical, or legal.
Americans love to feel that our country is the ultimate executor of international decisions, to know that we alone determine what is and is not allowed. But we are separated at every possible level from the realities of that control. Using the threat of force and the slaughter of innocents to achieve our goals is terrorism. How would the public react if the footage on cable television was not of the missiles’ epic liftoff, but their cataclysmic landing? What if we knew the names of the unsuspecting children we call collateral damage, if we saw their lives consumed by flame? If we had to kill them with our hands, rather than computer-guided missiles, would we be so ready for the next invasion?
Guided by the beauty of our weapons.
Despite what American media would have you believe, there is no international consensus that Assad is responsible for the use of the nerve agent sarin that painfully killed 72 people in Syria’s Idlib province on April 4. As nearby as Canada, moderate Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pointed out “There are continuing questions…about who is responsible for these horrible attacks.” As recently as January, the Obama administration claimed Assad’s entire chemical weapons stockpile had been destroyed. The Syrian government, of course an unreliable narrator but certainly a significant one, claims their bombers accidentally hit nerve gas belonging to the US-backed rebels. There is no question that the Assad regime is guilty of hundreds of thousands of murders, but nobody (except the Turkish and Qatari governments, both actively invading his country) has investigated culpability in this war crime. The Syrian government may well be guilty, but it doesn’t take a far-reaching knowledge of history to understand the horrors that unfold when America lies about chemical weapons.
The United States has not always had such firm beliefs about sarin, a poisonous gas internationally outlawed by the 1925 Geneva Convention. Throughout the 1980s, the Reagan administration helped Saddam Hussein develop the toxin in Iraq, hoping that the fascist would use it to slaughter Iranian civilians during the Iran-Iraq War. Hussein granted this wish and more; along with tens of thousands of Iranians strangled to death in chemical attacks, he unleashed the gas on the Kurdish minority in his own country. By the time the dictator nationalized his country’s vast oil reserves, he had already used or destroyed his weapons, leading Presidents Bush, Clinton, and Bush Junior to fabricate evidence of weapons of mass destruction to excuse their ongoing twenty year war for Iraqi oil.
The Assad regime used sarin to kill as many as 1,000 people in 2013, and like Trump, President Obama moved to invade Syria as a punitive gesture. It was only after widespread protest from both left and right, both sides fearing another Iraq-style quagmire, that the administration backed down. At that time, both Donald Trump and now-Secretary of Defense “Mad Dog” Mattis opposed the intervention, the former tweeting “We should stay the hell out of Syria.” When Obama struck a deal with Russia he claimed eliminated Syria’s chemical capacities, Republicans called him weak and Democrats called him pragmatic, and what had been an urgent crisis washed away in the current of mass media.
But behind the facade, our country was at war with Syria before any chemical attack. Since 2012, the CIA has spent nearly a billion dollars every year smuggling funds and weapons to various groups fighting against the Assad government. The most powerful of these groups are radical religious factions of Al Qaeda, fighting to replace the current secular dictatorship with a Taliban-style theocracy. The US is also funding the armies of Turkey and Saudi Arabia and encouraging the two countries’ major invasion of Syria, alongside smaller regional powers such as Qatar. This coalition was clearly not inspired by a shared belief in human rights; Turkish President Recep Erdogan is currently attempting a genocide on the Kurdish people in his own country and in Syria, and the Saudi monarchy is internationally notorious for its public beheadings and unparalleled support for religious militants, including ISIS.
One of the abiding myths of the Syrian Civil War is that it is a civil war, a war in which the oppressed population organically rose up against their government. In reality, the Syrian government is fighting a long-standing attack from the United States. Of course Assad is a callous dictator whose crimes are inexcusable, but the CIA’s fundamental role in instigating opposition to his regime as far back as 2006 (first reported by that radical fringe pamphlet, the Washington Post) means the rebel groups have never represented an indigenous democratic movement. Our government went so far as to unilaterally block peace settlements that could have saved tens of thousands of lives, against the wishes of all but the most religiously fanatic rebel factions. President Obama began bombing Syria in 2014, killing thousands of civilians, and in 2016 directly struck pro-government soldiers. Last week’s chemical weapons attack changed nothing, it only gave Trump the opportunity to bring the Syrian war into the public arena.
Why has our government been so committed to violence in Syria? Bashar Al-Assad is the only Arab leader who rejected the American economic empire to deal with Russia and China. The ideology of our rulers hinges, at every level, on a pathological need for complete control. Complete hegemony over the Middle East is worth any number of lives, because in the United States, lives we can not see aren’t lives at all. Before our weapons were projected on every TV network for Brian Williams to exalt, how many Americans knew we were attacking Syria? Today, how many know that the campaign to topple Assad is only one of five completely separate (and at times conflicting) wars our country is engaged in? How many could name the seven countries we are currently bombing?
Politicians we believe we elected spend tax dollars we generated to destroy lives we will never be forced to acknowledge. The epic mechanisms of power slide into place in silence except when they want us to hear them. We applaud or we ignore when we are told.
The beauty of our weapons.
Depleted uranium, a waste product from nuclear weapons, is constantly decaying, releasing spectacular amounts of energy as it does so. Anybody within its vicinity can expect cancers, birth defects, and a host of other wide-ranging symptoms associated with “Gulf War Syndrome,” an illness first identified in American combat veterans who worked with DU during the first invasion of Iraq. For decades, our government has used the toxic metal to create artillery munitions that maximize their devastation. As these shells strike their target, they dissolve into a radioactive aerosol powder that poisons the air and water around impact sites for years. In 2008, as children in Iraq and Afghanistan showed historically remarkable rates of birth defects and deformations years after the Bush invasions, the United Nations moved to ban radioactive weapons (based on the international laws banning sarin and other chemical agents). Though the General Assembly voted 141 to 4 in favor of the motion, the United States was able to use its ultimate Security Council veto power to override the decision.
The central absurdity of the President and the media’s argument that Assad must be punished for using chemical weapons to kill civilians in Syria is the fact that our military is using equally inhumane weapons to kill more civilians in the same country. On February 14, the Pentagon publicly acknowledged that the United States had used thousands of rounds of depleted uranium munitions in two attacks in Syria last November. These airstrikes, targeting oil fields apparently loyal to ISIS, destroyed 300 tanker trucks being operated by civilians, according to the Washington Post’s report. Though the Obama administration blocked human rights organizations from assessing the damage, there can be no question that the uranium attack claimed several times more innocent lives than the sarin strike a few months later.
The United States can design weapons specifically to spread brutality over generations, weapons poisonous even to the soldiers wielding them. We can ignore international consensus on their legality, and use them on non-combatants with to unleash deliberate and unnecessary pain and degradation. Are we still qualified to police Assad? Donald Trump thinks so, his personal stock portfolio growing as arms profits are seeing a post-attack boom. So do the Democratic and Republican Party leadership, aching under the weight of the $80 million weapons lobby. How can we consent to their rule and the absurd contradictions of their violence?
Millions of people worldwide watched the footage of children in Idlib gasping for breath as sarin destroyed their lungs. No American networks broadcast Al Jazeera’s images of infants stillborn with vestigial limbs years after their mothers inhaled radioactive dust in Iraq. As far as we know, there weren’t any cameras rolling as American planes shredded oil workers with radioactive shells in November, but if there were, we can safely assume we will never see the film. For this small and unnerving comfort we can thank Brian Williams and every other talking head and smiling executive who swears propaganda is something that happens there, not here.
We live in a paradoxical fantasy deftly composed by invisible emperors of wealth. Every class is trained by their own channels of media, and every channel, especially during war, plays harmoniously off the others. In moments of crisis our reality is the most obscured, but it is also the most consequential.
Leonard Cohen had an entire catalogue of distillations for Brian Williams to choose from. From 1992’s The Future, “I’ve seen the future, baby: It is murder.” Or perhaps, from the same song, “When they said repent I wonder what they meant.” To accept the narratives offered by any vector of power, from NBC to Breitbart, is to be complicit in the horror that power unleashes. As a civilization we do not have the capacity to fathom how completely blood has soaked our hands. But that does not relieve us of our responsibility to other lives.
Fifty years ago this month, Martin Luther King, Jr., turned his back on his former ally, President Lyndon B. Johnson, and took the pulpit at Harlem’s Riverside Cathedral to tell America, “I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without first having spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government…Now it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war.” 168 newspapers denounced him the next day, and President Johnson cried out, “What is that goddamned nigger preacher doing to me?” A year later, Dr. King was dead, but public opinion had finally turned against the war in Vietnam.
Depleted uranium attacks on ISIS. 7 million people being deliberately starved in Yemen. The “mother of all bombs” in Afghanistan. Arming death squads from India to Honduras, embracing the brink of nuclear war, our own citizens being gunned down in the street for being black and poor; if he were alive today, Dr. King would tell us that the greatest purveyor of violence has not changed.
If we aspire to be worthy of his legacy and the legacies of all those who have martyred themselves for peace, we must accept that our responsibility does not end with our line of sight or our mode of media. If we do not wish to live with the guilt of murderers, then we must commit ourselves unconditionally to illuminating and obstructing the violence of our state and its agent, the media. Every life claimed by bombs we paid for is a life, as sacred as any other, that we failed. We are forced to choose between the cowardice of willful ignorance and a never-ending road of trials that begins with bearing witness.