Author Archives: David Gespass

"Ferguson Day 6, Picture 44" by Loavesofbread - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Locals have no love for occupying armies, whether in Baghdad or Ferguson


After the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, by a white cop, in the middle of a street in broad daylight — and the unexpected global outrage it provoked – the subsequent disproportional response by local law enforcement has made militarization of the police a hot topic that even the most tepid news organizations are recognizing.

Following decades of hyped “wars” on drugs and terror, the federal government got the ingenious idea of equipping local police departments with surplus weapons from the armed forces — presumably because they weren’t using them fast enough around the world and they were offered even more and better weapons by “defense” contractors. Surely, they reasoned, local constabularies could assist in protecting the citizenry from the twin scourges of drugs and terror with which we are at “war.” While this transfer of military equipment has been going on for many years now, the over-the-top police response to protests in Ferguson has shone a light on it and prompted questions about the wisdom of providing police departments with tanks, drones and other implements of (mass) destruction used for fighting actual wars.

Of course, there are a few examples of this mentality that pre-dates “the war on terror.” Even as far back as 1985, the Philadelphia police bombed the home of a local organization, MOVE, which may have presaged some of the problems that could arise with excessive weaponry. MOVE was not especially popular among the populace, but all united in outrage at the bombing.

But it’s only now that most news analysts and policymakers are noticing the rather predictable repercussions of arming local cops like a commando squad in a war zone: Departments with some very powerful new toys will find excuses to use them, because after all, once you are given a hammer, everything is a nail. But one reality about police use of heavy military equipment has gone largely undiscussed. It’s been cloaked by propagandistic news reports and almost universal glib praise for the skill and professionalism of America’s armed forces, but it’s something the MLTF and other groups have always known.

Out of Afghanistan

 A personal op-ed.

I am sitting in my office this Memorial Day pretending to do work, but thinking about the hollowness of the holiday. Of course, there are the obligatory paeans from government officials and talking heads to our “men and women in uniform.” After all, we are told, they are “defending our freedom” at great sacrifice. We owe them a debt, we are told, that a grateful nation can never fully repay.

Now, I do not totally disagree. They are sacrificing and we do owe them a debt. One way to pay it would be for the Department of Veterans Affairs to do what it is supposed to do, but we are learning that vets have died in Phoenix while waiting for medical appointments and that the long wait times were covered up by the facility. Uncounted others are waiting for years for decisions on their claims for service-related disability benefits. Senator Bernie Sanders argues that, “If it’s too expensive to care for our veterans, don’t send them to war.” Yet the Senate, with its dysfunction in full flower, could not pass legislation to expand health care and education programs for veterans because the $21 billion price tag was too high.

One wonders, where could we save some money so that our obligation to our veterans can be better met than it is now? Perhaps the cost of the war in Afghanistan could be moderated just a bit. One estimate is that the cost for the 2012-13 fiscal year (the most recent I could find) was $198.2 billion (see Anthony Cordesman, “Cost in Military Operating Expenditures and Aid, and Prospects for ‘Transition“). So, if we could cut the cost of the Afghanistan war by 10.6%, we would have the money to spend on the vets. One thinks that such a commitment would be of more value to them than the vapid yet inevitable “Thank you for your service,” that comes from all those who have not served but who just followed George W. Bush’s advice after 9/11 and continued to shop, unaffected by the war.

Not entirely parenthetically, the day after Memorial Day, so in time for this piece to be edited a bit, President Obama declared that (almost) all American troops will be out of Afghanistan by the end of 2016. So, in just two-and-a-half years, the costs of the occupation of Afghanistan will be reduced to almost zero, certainly freeing up those funds for the care of the veterans that our members of Congress feel so indebted to. It remains to be seen whether, under the rubric of better late than never, Congress does, in fact, use some of that money for suffering veterans rather than giving more tax breaks to the super-rich.

But there is something more to be said than that we should look for some savings in our warmaking in order to care for those who were sent to fight and who, with disturbing regularity, return with physical and emotional ailments that came directly from their experiences. Which gets me to the thing about the Memorial Day paeans with which I disagree. Was the U.S. military really defending our freedom in Afghanistan and, if so, is it still? Leaving aside the question of just how much freedom we have these days and how fast it is evaporating, it is long past the time for the US to get out of Afghanistan if, indeed, it ever should have gone there in the first place..

One could argue that the initial invasion, targeting Osama bin Laden and Al Qaida was a reasonable attempt to bring those responsible for 9/11 to justice. While the invasion itself was of questionable legality, it was at least defensible on legal and moral grounds. Regardless of the merit, or lack thereof, of that contention, the goal of finding the perpetrators of 9/11 was  almost immediately abandoned, with the pivot to “regime change” in Iraq. What the Afghanistan war degenerated into, with disturbing celerity, was the overthrow of the Taliban (which would not have come to power without US assistance) and a hostile occupation, carried out through terror and intimidation. Thousands were rounded up on the flimsiest of evidence and sent to Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib and black sites, where they were tortured by the CIA and its clients. There remain inmates in Guantánamo who have been cleared of all allegations but still cannot leave, more than a decade on. Over those years, the US has propped up a corrupt government, often with bags of cash in unmarked bills, while the Department of Veterans Affairs has failed to meet the needs of those it is supposed to serve. And, by the way, bin Laden was found, in Pakistan, and assassinated by US Navy Seals more than two years ago, pretty much fulfilling the declared purpose of the invasion.

So what have we gained and what have we lost as a result of the Afghanistan adventure? We have lost hundreds of billions of dollars. We have lost any claim to moral leadership in the world, though we have gained a lot of enmity from the world’s people. We have lost any number of our military personnel, either because they were killed or because they can no longer function. Innumerable vets are unemployed and homeless. Under the specter of 9/11, we have abandoned any pretense of our being subject to the rule of law in favor of an understandable thirst for revenge. But genuine leaders, who care more about morality than demagogy, recognize that revenge is not the same as justice. The former inevitably leads to a spiral of retaliation and fear. The latter offers at least the hope of resolution. All in all, the balance sheet on gains and losses is not favorable. In fact, the only gain I can think of is not favorable.

Some, however, have gained a great deal. War contractors have enriched themselves at the expense not only of the American people generally, but of the veterans they claim to care so much about specifically. The likes of Halliburton, KBR and DynCorp have made out like, well, bandits. One would do well to remember the outpouring of support and sympathy from around the world in the days following 9/11. The French newspaper, Le Monde, proclaimed, “We are all Americans.” In Croatia – not a real friend of the US following the Balkan wars – schoolchildren took a break from class to bow their heads. In Tehran, people filling a stadium for a soccer match observed a moment of silence. Other examples abound. Today, however, a Gallup poll found that nearly a quarter of the world’s people consider the United States the greatest threat to world peace, with Pakistan a distant second at eight per cent. Almost certainly, the unquestionably illegal and immoral invasion of Iraq was the more precipitous genesis of that enmity, but the longer the occupation of Afghanistan drags on, the more it transmutes from a source of sympathy to its opposite. Chris Hedges reminds us: “ If we really saw war, what war does to young minds and bodies, it would be harder to embrace the myth of war. If we had to stand over the mangled corpses of the eight schoolchildren killed in Afghanistan a week ago and listen to the wails of their parents we would not be able to repeat clichés about liberating the women of Afghanistan or bringing freedom to the Afghan people.” But what is happening in Afghanistan is no longer a war, it is an occupation with no justification. It became an occupation within months of the invasion as the Taliban fell out of favor with the US and then simply fell.

Let me conclude with a modest proposal. In honor of our vets this Memorial Day, let us get out of Afghanistan post haste – not two years hence – and use the savings to care for those who have returned damaged, in body and spirit, from those adventures in the Middle East which were, as is almost always the case, rich men’s wars and poor people’s fights.

Manning’s 35 year sentence reveals decline of US justice and journalism

[Update]: In a public statement issued on 8/22/13, Pvt. Manning disclosed that her name is now Chelsea Manning, and that she is a female. Going forward, we will honor her request to use her new name and appropriate pronouns, in support of her transition.

Today, Bradley Manning was sentenced to 35 years for the “crime” of revealing the seamy underside of US diplomacy and war-making. The sentence is substantially less than 60  years the prosecution asked for, but greater than what the defense requested. It was predicated on alleged damage done to the US, though it remains unclear what actual damage, aside from embarrassment, occurred. Indeed, the idea that transparency is damaging is one that should shock the conscience of any patriot, if one defines patriotism as something other than blind obeisance to whatever one’s government says.

Manning’s defense attorney, David Coombs, told the court that “(h)is biggest crime was he cared about the loss of life he was seeing and was struggling with it.” That, in fact, is what drove the government in its excessive and relentless attacks, inside and outside the courtroom, on Bradley Manning. That is what Barack Obama’s promise of the “most transparent” administration in history has devolved into.

Everyone in the country; nay, everyone the world over, should be outraged at his prosecution and sentence. But for Manning, Reuters still would not know what happened to its correspondents, Saeed Chmagh and Namir Noor-Eldeen, the day they were gunned down by an American air strike. And the world would not know the callousness of the Americans doing the killing, who had no regrets about also shooting a man and a young boy who came to assist the wounded and dead.

So, what is the legacy of Bradley Manning, his prosecution and sentencing? It dates back some 40 years and tells us more about the shift of power to an ever-more-secretive, imperial and imperious government from a population that has become less resistant and more pliable.

Verdict in Manning Case Slow Death for Democracy

Op-Ed for MLTF

[Update]: In a public statement issued on 8/22/13, Pvt. Manning disclosed that her name is now Chelsea Manning, and that she is a female. Going forward, we will honor her request to use her new name and appropriate pronouns, in support of her transition.

Today, although he was acquitted of aiding the enemy, Bradley Manning was found guilty of five counts of violating the Espionage Act. It has long been said that military justice is to justice what military music is to music, but Manning’s prosecution has failed to clear that low bar. Since his arrest in 2010 and the long road to his court martial, the government has perverted the values it claims to represent, and made a mockery of its military justice system. The case has been a travesty since it began. Manning was tortured, held for years before trial, and overcharged. While the process of “justice” for Bradley Manning will proceed through the sentencing phase and appeals process—along with continued advocacy for a full pardon and release—it’s a good time to reflect on the most egregious of the government’s sins thus far.

On July 21, the New York Times reported that accused sexual predators in military service are claiming unlawful command influence because President Obama declared that anyone who committed a sexual assault should be punished and “dishonorably discharged” from military service. He did not name names. He accused no individual of a being guilty of any crime yet, the Times says, his statement will complicate prosecutions and render convictions more difficult.

When it came to Bradley Manning, however, Obama declared him guilty before he was even charged, at a time he was in “detention,” solitary confinement with no clothes, little contact with other human beings, no intellectual stimuli and presumably presumed innocent.

So the first question to be asked in the wake of Manning’s conviction is why he should not be accorded the same rights as rapists. Why did the Times not question potential command influence when the commander in chief declared Bradley Manning—not some nameless future defendant—guilty? Was it possible for any subordinate to ignore that presidential proclamation when rendering a verdict? Some credit must be accorded the judge who acquitted him of at least some charges, but that only demonstrates just how extreme the charges were.

That is not all that is questionable about the case. Recently, Eric Holder had to promise Russia that if Edward Snowden is returned to the United States, he will not face execution or torture. Snowden’s fear is well-founded, not just because of Abu Ghraib, but because of Bradley Manning, who suffered months of torture, defended by Obama. There was a time in the not too distant past when the treatment Manning suffered through would have led to dismissal of the charges against him and condemnation of the prosecution by the courts and media. Now, it appears, the United States no longer has any shame and is more than willing to sacrifice what it proclaims to be our fundamental principles at the altar of security.

Obama came to office promising the most transparent administration ever. He claims that we need an open and frank discussion of what the government should be able to do to protect ourselves from threats, but did so only after its secret operations were exposed. And he aggressively prosecutes those whose actions give rise to the questions he claims should be answered through a national debate.

Hypocrisy and criminality are rife in the United States government and, in its eyes, the worst criminals are those who expose such evils. Among the many documents Manning released, for example, was the notorious “collateral murder” video, showing U.S. pilots killing a Reuters journalist, his driver and several others. Some have argued that, although unfortunate, the killing was justified in the heat of battle but the U.S. denied any knowledge of how the reporter, Namir Noor-Eldeen, died until the video was released. Reuters had simply asked how such events could be avoided in the future and was stonewalled. It is only thanks to Manning that the world knows exactly what happened.

There are two ways in which any government can seek to control security leaks. The first is by honesty and transparency, by allowing the public to know enough to make democratic decisions about how far is too far. That is the path that the United States, and this president, claims to follow. The second is by threatening draconian consequences to anyone who exposes questionable policies and practices to the light of day. That is the path the United States, and this administration, has chosen with the prosecution of Bradley Manning and others. No amount of sophistry can hide that truth, try as the administration might. The result, for Bradley Manning, is many years in prison. The result for democracy is a slow death.

Military (In)Justice: Real problems, phony answers (Op-Ed)

This article is an official statement of the Military Law Task Force and represents its views. The author is a founder of the Task Force, and currently serves on its steering committee.

In the aftermath of the reports that Air Force Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, exercising his prerogative as convening authority (CA), overturned the aggravated sexual assault (i.e. rape) conviction of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is calling for a change in the Uniform Code of Military Justice to remove that power. Hagel’s initiative (if one could call it that) fails to do anything substantive to address the real potential for abuse in the powers that inhere in the CA, while depriving court martial defendants of a protection that has existed virtually since the founding of the Continental Army.

As the accused’s commanding officer, the CA holds a unique place in American criminal jurisprudence and can choose to have an undue, if not determinative, influence over the outcome of a court martial. Among other powers, the CA selects the officer to conduct the Article 32 preliminary investigation, the members of the court, approves charges and specifications and designates the judge. It is hoped that these powers will be exercised neutrally, but they open the door for command influence, direct or subtle, which far more often inures to the disadvantage of an accused than the rare times that a conviction is set aside. An overhaul of the entire system, including the power of the CA to reduce sentences and reverse findings, is long overdue. Indeed, the old saying that military justice is to justice what military music is to music is attributable, in large part, to the decisive influence the CA is able to exercise. Parenthetically, the other reason the military “justice” system is so skewed, despite the substantial and extensive due process rights that an accused has, is that everything carries potential criminal liability. Nowhere else can someone be prosecuted, for example, for being late to work.