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Arts + CultureLitIn endless US wars, some people matter, and some people don't

In endless US wars, some people matter, and some people don’t

Author Norman Solomon talks about the human toll of the military machine—and why we so rarely hear about it.

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The attack on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2011, changed a lot of things in the United States. One of the most significant, author Norman Solomon argues, is that a succession of presidents, Democrat and Republican, have entered into a state of perpetual, endless war that is costing the nation trillions of dollars—and leaving hundreds of thousands of people dead and wounded.

And most of this, he argues, is invisible to the US public.

In War Made Invisible: How America Hides the Human Toll of its Military Machine (New Press), Solomon examines how the US news media report on, and fail to report on, the price of these military activities all over the world. He argues that the US media has divided the world into two categories—people whose lives matter, and people whose lives don’t.

We spoke to Solomon about his findings.

48HILLS One of the things that occurs to me when I read this book is, you’re talking about war made invisible. How many places right now today is the United States basically at war?

NORMAN SOLOMON Well, according to the Brown University’s Cost of Work project, at least 80 if we define it as engaged in some sort of military or counter insurgency activity, often in joint exercises with the militaries of governments in Africa and elsewhere. A more narrow definition is at least several. The United States has acknowledged about 1,000 troops in Syria and missile strikes in that country and in Somalia, troops in Africa. Despite President Biden’s claims at the United Nations almost two years ago that the United States was no longer at war, that was a lie then. And it’s a lie now.

48HILLS We don’t hear a lot about this. And I think one of the themes of your book is that the major news media in the United States hardly ever talk about how many places the United States is at war and, and they rarely talk about civilian casualties or the civilian impacts of all of these ongoing endless wars. Talk a little bit about your analysis of the news media coverage of Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, the places where we’ve been at war recently.

NORMAN SOLOMON Hidden in plain sight is de facto a separation of the world’s people and war’s victims into two categories, tacitly from US news media, echoing the assumptions of official Washington. There are people who matter and people who don’t, and the people who matter have grief that matters. And the people who don’t matter, have grief that isn’t even worth thinking about or reporting. So of course, US soldiers and their loved ones, they are, humanly profound and appropriate for enormous empathetic news coverage and political rhetoric. If there are civilians or military personnel who are aligned with the US government official policy, and being harmed by official US enemies as in Ukraine, then they matter also, they’re sort of de facto American so to speak. Then there’s the other category, the “other” you might say, and their grief is off the media map. If they’re at the other end of US firepower, then they’re suffering is imposed “accidentally.” And it’s unfortunate, but that’s the way war is. One of the themes of the War Made Invisible book is that the humanity of people in the United States is degraded and undermined and corrupted by the tacit but very real division of the people on this planet into two different categories. Us and them.

48HILLS You talk about how this also plays out in popular culture and you talk about that during Vietnam, the John Wayne movie The Green Berets, which you said is so bad it could have been Soviet propaganda. But how do you see that in a more modern way? Where do you see the way that this attitude that you’re talking about that?

NORMAN SOLOMON If you travel around the Bay Area or anywhere else in the United States, you’re apt to see Ukrainian flags. The chances that you will see a Yemeni flag are virtually zero.

48HILLS I don’t even know what it looks like.

NORMAN SOLOMON Yeah. And it’s not only in spite of the fact that the United States is directly implicated in supporting the eight-year war on Yemen, led by US ally Saudi Arabia. But arguably it’s because the United States is culpable for the slaughter in that war which now has, close to 400,000 deaths in the last eight years. The US fingerprints on the suffering make it even less likely that there’ll be acknowledgement, in the US media or politics that the US has so many has any responsibility and that the suffering people really matter. The largest cholera epidemic in history, was by most accounts caused by the US-supported Saudi-led war on Yemen.

Then you have the long-term realities that even after the US has led the way to tremendous death, injuries, ecological damage, social disruption, destruction of life, sustaining infrastructure in a country that is far away such as Afghanistan or Iraq most notably, afterwards, there’s no official or mass media, assumption that there’s any apology needed, any restitution needed whatsoever.

This is not new but it continues to be morally outrageous. I quote in the book, Jimmy Carter, soon after he became president, being asked at a news conference, if the United States should provide any assistance, any humanitarian aid, to Vietnam. And President Carter said, the destruction was mutual. We have no obligation to help Vietnam. We can fast forward for the next several decades. That’s the attitude I chronicle in the book how after the US pulled its last troops out of Afghanistan, it basically stole $7 billion from that country that had belonged to the Afghan government and was housed by the US monetary system. And President Biden opted to give half to it to some sort of vague fund about victims of 9/11. That’s despite the fact that there wasn’t one Afghan among the 19 hijackers on 9/11 and a lot of that money is still in limbo, even the other half of it at last report. Likewise, Iraq—these wars don’t end, they end for the US news media when the reporters go somewhere else where the TV crews don’t bother to go back to the country that the US has decimated. The US goes on to other things in its media and politics.

When there was a question of a Democratic senator who I quote in the book, after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, about the failure of the US government to return the billions of dollars to Afghanistan—which,  as a country, had so many people, at, or at starvation or starving—the response was from, and I quote this in the book, the response from the senator was, “we’re still talking about Afghanistan?” It’s like it’s history. We don’t care about it anymore because it’s all about us.

And that’s really, despite all of the humanitarian gloss and rhetoric, there’s a jingo narcissism that is so deep and so arrogant that it really belies the pretensions of humanitarian priorities of any sort coming from the United States. And here we are in, possibly the most liberal left large metropolitan area in the United States and there’s an obliviousness to the victimization of so many people around the world among our, our elected representatives in Washington.

There’s a smugness about the Democrats in the House, from the Bay area in California. And, you know, compared to the Republicans, we have a more rigorous intellect. So that’s a very high jump over low standards. The Democrats can preen themselves all they want. And by the way, I’m a registered Democrat, I’ve been on the California Democratic Party Central Committee for ten years until last year. We can preen ourselves all we want about how much better we are than the Trump Republicans.

 But if that’s what we have to be proud of, we’re in very, very bad shape. In reality, Congress is enabling vast US militarism around the world including record military budgets, and our house members are going along, through their silence, and usually through their active acquiescence.

48HILLS One of the directions you were going in here is the endless wars. One of the things you say in the book is that the war on terror almost by definition can never end. Terror is not a country, as you say, terror is a political tactic. And as long as we say, we have a war on terror, that’s, we’re at war perpetually forever, right?

NORMAN SOLOMON When put it this way for people who were alive during the Vietnam war, a logical question was, when do you think it will end? That kind of question is not asked or even thought anymore about the so-called war on terror. From the start, it was an open-ended quest in search of enemies. When President George W. Bush announced within days of 9/11, that, it was going to be a quest to eliminate terrorists on the planet to vanquish the evil doers, well, that’s a big task. It’s clearly impossible and you’re not going to get rid of all terrorist groups on the planet. As a matter of fact, there are more now than in 2001, according to the State Department.

So really this so-called war on terror was never supposed to end. It was  and is a huge boondoggle for the military, industrial, surveillance complex.  It was just a humongous cash cow and the ability to make a killing month after month, year after year and now decade after decade was clearly recognized and has always been capitalized upon; why would this possibly end?

The military budgets have gone through the roof. Rep. Nancy Pelosi has been an enabler of that process, when President Trump got through Congress, a two year 11 percent increase in an already vastly bloated military budget, Sen. Chuck Schumer and Pelosi sent out emails to members of the Senate and the House, celebrating that they had successfully supported this budget increase, and this is the kind of bipartisan approach that is such a crime against humanity.

Martin Luther King Jr., in his Riverside Church, speech on April 4th, 1967, referred to, huge military spending as quote, “a demonic suction tube,” and that suction tube is with us.

If, anybody has any reason to doubt, just walk around San Francisco, Richmond, Oakland in areas where affluent people don’t live. And we see there’s a tremendous absence of adequate health care, education, housing, child care, elderly care. This is the essence of what Dr. King called the madness of militarism and certainly the established news media of this country, including in the proudly liberal Bay area, are part of the problem.

48HILLS One of the things that you also talk about that stems from this and that’s very relevant to what you just brought up is the militarization of local police departments. This has been going on for some years now, but really is related to the military industrial complex.

NORMAN SOLOMON The Pentagon has something called a 10-33 program where excess military equipment is offered free to police departments around the country. And those police departments that accept the weaponry and equipment have to use it, during a proscribed period of time, or they have to give it back. And after the murder of George Floyd, when we had this unprecedented upsurge of street demonstrations around the country, many of the Black Lives Matter protests were up against military equipment being used by police forces. And something that I devote a chapter of the book to, that is really hidden in plain sight, is that, during the “war on terror,” virtually every person killed by US firepower has been a person of color.

I wrote a piece about this, sent it to big media outlets. The New York Times Washington Post rejected it. Okay, they get a lot of submissions. But what is so stunning to me is that this is virtually completely out of the public discourse. It’s an almost unmentionable. It’s right in front of us and yet somehow, whether it hasn’t been thought of or it’s just seen as indiscreet or, beyond the bounds of reasonable discussion. It’s not in the political discourse, it’s not in the media discourse. And as I say in the book, of course, the United States doesn’t bomb countries, because people of color live there. But the fact that people of color live there makes it easier politically and psychologically in the United States, for warfare to occur in and continue in those countries.

We have heard a lot, especially since the George Floyd murder, and we should hear more and more about systemic racism. Yet somehow by default, we’re supposed to believe that systemic racism only affects domestic policies. I mean, it’s preposterous but it’s a necessary pretension so that the realities of US foreign policy don’t get questioned,

48HILLS As long as I’ve known you, you’ve talked about the failures of US news media, which of course, are changing all the time. What do you read now? Where do you find the kind of information that you’re talking about here, who’s, who’s doing a better job, if not a perfect job of telling the truth?

NORMAN SOLOMON There are a lot of outlets with constrained resources that are doing really valuable work. And I think a lot of people would have, their own favorite places they go on the web that, that haven’t gone to or I’m not aware. And of course, people should go to and support 48hills.

In terms of national and international coverage I often go to Common Dreams, I think is a tremendous resource, Truthout as well. The Intercept has provided a lot of really valuable coverage. In terms of critiques of media, there’s Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, and I I’ve been associated with FAIR since it started in the mid 1980s. Democracy Now provides real services.

The counter point between mainstream media and corporate media on the one hand and independent progressive without fear or favor media on the other. That’s very important. I’d encourage people read an outlet like the New York Times or the Washington Post or the San Francisco Chronicle and also, listen to watch Democracy Now.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.

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