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The taunt of Lamech’s revenge

Authorization for Use of Military Force: 60 words that bring the US to the edge of a permanent state of war

by Ken Sehested

        Fifteen years ago today, 14 September 2001, the US Congress approved a 60-word joint resolution—with only one dissenting vote, by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA)—named The Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF). It grants the president sweeping latitude for authorizing military action. The implications it carries have become so commonplace they no longer raise public attention. Not unlike the lyrics to some popular children’s songs, the AUMF’s assumptions are repeated so often we are numbed to their significance.

        This is unfortunate, for the AUMF, approved amid the trauma and rage of the 11 September 2001 terror attacks, has brought us to the edge of a permanent state of war.

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"This is the future for the world we're in at the moment. We'll get better as we do it more often."
—Larry Di Rita, special assistant to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, responding in an
18 July 2003 news conference to reports of low morale of US troops stationed in Iraq, for whom
combat had not ceased despite President Bush’s “mission accomplished” speech two months prior

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        Many parents shudder when paying attention to the lyrics of some traditional childhood lullaby and rhyming songs. You got an old man who died after bumping his head. Three blind mice having their tails cut off. An old lady who may die because she swallowed a fly. Bridges falling. A lamb’s eye being picked out. Ashes! Ashes! they all fall down.

        Or my favorite, “Rock-a-bye Baby,” a broken bough, with cradle and child tumbling from the tree.

        There are many folklorist theories, but little hard evidence, about the origins of such songs or explanations as to why they endured. The genesis of some may have been disguised political satire, particularly “Rock-a-bye Baby,” sometimes associated with the overthrow of England’s King James II. (The first known publication of this song came with this footnote: "This may serve as a Warning to the Proud and Ambitious, who climb so high that they may generally fall at last.") But the fact remains that mystery abounds and collateral damage endures.

        The cause for shuddering in the adult world mirrors and compounds, in exponential fashion, the foreboding lines amid children’s verse.

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“I believe the perception caused by civilian casualties is one of the most dangerous enemies we face.”
—U. S. General Stanley A. McCrystal in his inaugural speech as
NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Commander in June 2009

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        My vote for the most heinous euphemism of the 20th century is the phrase “collateral damage.” First used by Thomas C. Schelling, an economist and national security expert, collateral damage, in short, is the oops response to unintended damage in battle. So sorry. (See my “Sorry, sorry, sorry” poem.)

        Former UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq, Hans-Christof von Sponeck—one of a slew of ranking UN officials who resigned in protest to the US sanctions against Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War—made this assessment of collateral damage.

        “The 21st century has seen a loss of innocent life at an unprecedented scale, especially in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan,” he wrote in 2011. “Nobody should even dare to ask the question whether it was worth it!” [1]

        Like beauty, however, the calculation of worth is in the eyes of the beholder. A US Department of Defense document puts it this way. “Such damage is not unlawful so long as it is not excessive in light of the overall military advantage anticipated from the attack."  Notice the blurry boundaries created by the words “excessive” and “anticipated.”

        Who can forget when US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was interviewed in May 1996 on the "CBS 60 Minutes" news program. Reporter Leslie Stahl asked:

        "We have heard that a half million children have died [as a result of sanctions against Iraq, documented by UNICEF]. I mean, that is more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?"

        To which Albright replied: "I think this is a very hard choice, but the price, we think the price is worth it." A bough broken.

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“Having a war on terror is like having a war on dandruff.”
—Gore Vidal

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        One has to wonder whose violence is driving whom? We forget that Osama bin Laden was once on the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) payroll, as a member of the Afghan mujahideen resistance fighting the occupying Soviet military—as, in all likelihood, was Saddam Hussein, whose Ba’ath party came into power in 1963 when the CIA engaged in an earlier regime change in Iraq. The US then supported Hussein’s war with Iran starting in 1980, including providing some of the ingredients for Iraq’s chemical weapons.

        We forget that bin Laden formed al-Qaeda in his outrage over Saudi Arabia’s allowing the US to use Saudi bases as a staging area for the 1991 Gulf War. Though he was an archenemy of Hussein, bin Laden considered US troops on his home country’s soil an abomination and vowed to take revenge. A bough broken.

        We forget that on 11 September 2001 al-Qaeda was a force of a few thousand in Afghanistan with scattered supporters elsewhere. Now the spin-off groups and emulators are thriving throughout the Middle East and northern Africa. [2] And we’ve not yet come to terms with the substantial evidence that ISIS, our current Public Enemy No. 1, was spawned from Iraq’s killing fields.

        It would appear, as the bumper sticker says, we are creating terrorists faster than we can kill them.

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“[T]here is enough evidence that a substantial part of terrorism is engendered by
military, intelligence, and economic intervention of the very same countries that consequently
make use of the pretext of terror to politically legitimize their military and geo-strategic expeditions.”
—Jens Wagner [3]

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        Among the most notorious incidents of creating a terror pretext to justify intervention was “Operation Northwoods,” originating in a 1962 collaboration between the US Department of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to covertly instigate violence in Cuba—bombing and hijacking were specifically mentioned in the document—sufficient to warrant military response. Here’s a quote from that recommendation, titled "Justification for U.S. Military Intervention in Cuba”:

        “The desired resultant (sic) from the execution of this plan would be to place the United States in the apparent position of suffering defensible grievances from a rash and irresponsible government of Cuba and to develop an international image of a Cuban threat to peace in the Western Hemisphere.”

        Luckily President John F. Kennedy quashed the top-secret plan that only came to light in 1997 when Kennedy’s records were released.

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"I think all foreigners should stop interfering in the internal affairs of Iraq"
—US Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz in a 21 July 2003 news conference in Baghdad

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        Fifteen years ago today Rep. Barbara Lee rose, alone, to speak against the AUMF. This past week she said:

        "I voted against that resolution 15 years ago because it was so broad that I knew it was setting the stage and the foundation for perpetual war. And that is exactly what it has done," Lee notes. "It’s been used over 37 times everywhere in the world," including Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Somalia. (Listen to Rep. Lee’s original 2001 statement (2:19) on the floor of the House of Representatives and a recent Democracy Now interview with Lee.)

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“‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone,
‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’”
—Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

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        Among the things learned by those of us required to take a high school civics course was that only Congress has the power to declare war. The US hasn’t declared war on anyone since World War II. Vietnam, Korea, and 14 US military incursions in Muslim-majority countries since 1980, are not “wars” at all. That mechanism is now irrelevant as an instrument of international law. Its modern incarnation is a congressional Authorization for Use of Military Force. And the one approved in September 2001 has no expiration date.

        In a mere 60 words Congress granted a virtual carte blanche credit card (and most of our wars since 9/11 have been funded by borrowing) to the President, for “he (sic) determines” when and where to use “all necessary and appropriate force” against “nations, organizations or persons” who “planned, authorized, committed, aided” . . .  or “harbored” the 9/11 attackers in order to “prevent any future acts of terrorism.”

        The latter phrase in the AUMF—“prevent future acts”—echoes President Bush Jr.’s “National Security Strategy Paper” of September 2002 which, for the first time in US history, lays the legal groundwork for “preventative” war.

        The right to engage in preemptive war—to initiate hostilities when there is clear evidence that an enemy is on the verge of attack—is acknowledged in international law. Preventative war is not. Though the Obama Administration’s annual “National Security Strategy” doesn’t include “preventative” language, the precedent has effectively been set.

        Now, powered by the open-ended AUMF, the President simply has to declare that something bad might happen, sometime, somewhere, and the troops saddle up. Shout 9/11 and the drones are launched to anywhere in the world.

        This same preventative impulse emerges in the spate of domestic “stand your ground” state laws and the frequent exoneration of police shootings of unarmed black men. A perceived threat equals actual peril justifying acting with extreme prejudice.

        So many boughs broken.

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"We have a choice, either to change the way we live, which is unacceptable,
or to change the way that they live, and we chose the latter."
—former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld

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        A single photo (below) has haunted me, by day and by night, all this past week, with our nation’s 9/11 remembrances prior to the infamous date’s fifteen anniversary. [4] Look at it closely. You see an unidentified Syrian man holding his dead son. Take in the background. Notice the torn jeans. The blood stains. The boy’s shirt ripped away. The utter grief on the father’s face. The boy’s limp body. The immediate association my mind made was to name this photo “The Final Cradling.” Bough broken, baby fallen.

        Now bring up the most vivid image in your memory from 9/11. The Twin Towers on fire, and falling. The people who jumped to their deaths. The dust-choked, panicked survivors. The first responders digging through rubble, some in tears.

        Can you make a connection between these images?

        It’s almost certain that as many non-combatants died in the first few weeks after the 2003 “Shock and Awe” attack on Baghdad as died on 9/11. Wouldn’t that have satisfied an “eye for an eye” standard of justice?

        It hasn’t. Current estimates of fatalities just from our wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria now stand at 1.3 million.[5]

        Lamech’s threat, in the earliest pages of Genesis, is with us still. Lamech—great-great-great-great grandson of Adam and Eve—makes a vengeful vow that echoes to this day. With his two wives, Adah and Zillah, as his witness, he pledges “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold” (Genesis 4:23).

        9/11 has now been avenged 433 times, and the meter’s still running.

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“If we have to use force it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation.
We stand tall. We see farther into the future.”
—Secretary of State Madeline Albright, 19 February 1998

        Really? If true, I shudder over that future.

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        The use of US military might is far more common than most of us think. In the 20th century there are but a handful of years when our troops were not actively engaged outside our borders. (See Wikipedia’s “Timeline of United States Military Operations.”) Now, however, with a preventative war precedent and the current AUMF in place—along with numerous national leaders speaking of the “long war” we face in the war on terror, I grieve.

        Nevertheless—and Scripture is full of neverthelesses—there is a saying from the Hasidic tradition, “If you want to find a spark, sift through the ashes.”

        Sisters and brothers, we have some sifting to do.

        And at the same time we must ask and act on a series of questions: What would it require to catch some of those cradles? Arrange for sufficiently sturdy boughs? Support arborists to treat weakened boughs? Work diligently at preserving more forest land, along with the ecosystem needed for all life to thrive?

        Lamech’s taunt awaits our response. There’s no better time than now to get started.

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©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org

[1] “Preface” to Body Count: Casualty Figures After 10 Years of the ‘War on Terrorism’: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan,” Physicians for Social Responsibility, p. 6-7.

[2] Tom Engelhardt, A 9/11 Retrospective: Washington’s 15-Year Air War.”

[3] “Introduction” to Body Count: Casualty Figures After 10 Years of the ‘War on Terrorism’: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan,” Physicians for Social Responsibility,” p. 14.

[4] See additional photos at “What Is Aleppo? This is Aleppo.”

[5] Body Count: Casualty Figures After 10 Years of the ‘War on Terrorism’: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan,” Physicians for Social Responsibility, p. 15.