One of the many strange things about being a citizen of the United States today is that many murders are committed in our name that our government is purposely keeping secret. Friends of mine, back from Iraq or Afghanistan, always responded to people asking the inappropriate question veterans always get, “Did you kill someone?” with the sharp reply, “If I did, you paid me for it” — a rough reminder of the bond between the military and the civilians they represent. But then our military’s actions were much more visible. What does it mean to be a citizen of a state that kills for you but doesn’t tell you anything about it? Are you still responsible?
While I was a public affairs officer with the Marine Corps from 2005 to 2009, during the era of massive anti-war protests, an activist group that ran a full-page ad in DailyExpertNews attacking the credibility of an American general led to spirited debates on everything from the morality of the war to the wisdom of its strategy. The major US military efforts during this period were conducted in public, and my job involved courting journalists to join our units to see what they were doing.
This relative openness meant that the war spawned messy debate, political grandeur, lies and hypocrisy, and misinformed analysis of cable news and other by-products of democracy. It also meant that the George W. Bush administration had to explain and defend its policies, which meant I knew what we had to fight for, what success should look like and why we were there. It meant putting political pressure on American policy making to adhere to the will of the American people.
But the nature of war changed for political and military reasons. One way to describe the change is by looking at the pace of US Special Operations. In the spring of 2004, the Joint Special Operations Command conducted about six operations per month in Iraq. In the summer of 2006, there were 300. This was not through sending the Navy SEALs to the gym to work on their runtime, but through the whole process of finding targets, putting them in place, finishing them, exploiting them. and analyzing the intelligence gathered and then disseminating it to the agencies and commands most likely to respond to it. It was this ability that former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates claimed in 2011 “fuses intelligence and operations in a way that I think is unique in everyone’s history.”
When Americans think of the murders we commit abroad, we often think of the mechanism. A drone delivering a bomb seems a little creepy to us. A member of the Navy SEALs storming into a villain’s compound strikes us as heroic. But the SEALs and the drone are just tools – the flat head or Phillips screwdriver at the end of the aiming system. And the first parts of that system can be offered to other countries, such as Ukraine, who are committing murders themselves. (In a press conference on May 5, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby only slightly distanced the United States from the assassination of Russian generals: “We do not provide intelligence on the location of senior military leaders on the battlefield and do not take participate in the decisions targeted by the Ukrainian military,” he said, but freely admitted that we are providing Ukraine with relevant information.)