Continental Drifters and the Nationless Nation
We live on a planet in motion, a world of collision and drift. This was once an Earth of super-continents — Gondwana, Rodinia, Pangea. The eastern seaboard of the United States sidled up against West Africa, while Antarctica cozied up to the opposite side of the African continent. But nothing in this world lasts and the tectonic plates covering the planet are always in motion. Suddenly — over the course of hundreds of millions of years — supercontinents cease to be super, breaking into smaller land masses that drift off to the far corners of the world.
More recently, those itinerant continents were carved up by human beings into countries. A couple — China and India — are now home to more than a billion people each. But even modest-sized nations can be massive in their own right. Spain and Canada, neighbors in Pangea hundreds of millions of years ago, now have populations of almost 47 million and nearly 38 million, respectively, making them the 30th and 39th most populous countries on this planet. But together, they’re no larger than a nation-less nation, a state of the stateless that exists only as a state of mind. I’m talking about the victims of conflict now adrift on the margins of our world.
The number of people forcibly displaced by war, persecution, general violence, or human-rights violations last year swelled to a staggering 84 million, according to UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency. If they formed their own country, it would be the 17th largest in the world, slightly bigger than Iran or Germany. Add in those driven across borders by economic desperation and the number balloons past one billion, placing it among the three largest nations on Earth.
John Hersey, Hiroshima, and the End of World
It was the end of the world, but if you didn’t live in Hiroshima or Nagasaki, you didn’t know it. Not in 1945 anyway. One man, John Hersey, brought that reality to Americans in an unforgettable fashion in a classic 1946 report in the New Yorker magazine on what happened under that first wartime mushroom cloud. When I read it in book form as a young man — and I did so for a personal reason — it stunned me. Hersey was the master of my college at Yale when I was an undergraduate and he was remarkably kind to me. That report of his from Hiroshima would haunt me for the rest of my life.
In 1982, I actually visited that city. I was then an editor at the publishing house Pantheon Books. I had grown up in a 1950s world in which schoolchildren “ducked and covered” (diving under our desks) in drills to learn how to protect ourselves — I know it sounds ridiculous today — should Russian nuclear weapons hit New York, the city I lived in. Yellow signs indicating air-raid shelters were then commonplace on the streets. In those years, people not in cities were building their own personal fallout shelters, stocked with food, and some even threatened to shoot anyone who tried to join them there as the missiles descended. (A friend of mine remembers just such a threat, delivered by one of his schoolmates about his father’s shelter.)
We were, in other words, in a Cold War world that always seemed to be teetering at the edge of the apocalyptic. And yet here was the strange thing: with the obvious exception of Hersey’s book, there were still, in those years, remarkably few ways to see under those mushroom clouds that had destroyed the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
U.S. “Plans” for the Afghan War Might Prove a Crime Against Humanity
On February 4, 2002, a Predator drone circled over Afghanistan’s Paktia province, near the city of Khost. Below was al-Qaeda’s founder Osama bin Laden — or at least someone in the CIA thought so — and he was marked for death. As Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld put it later, both awkwardly and passively: “A decision was made to fire the Hellfire missile. It was fired.” That air-to-ground, laser-guided missile — designed to obliterate tanks, bunkers, helicopters, and people — did exactly what it was meant to do.
As it happened, though (and not for the first time in its history either), the CIA got it wrong. It wasn’t Osama bin Laden on the receiving end of that strike, or a member of al-Qaeda, or even of the Taliban. The dead, local witnesses reported, were civilians out collecting scrap metal, ordinary people going about their daily work just as thousands of Americans had been doing at the World Trade Center only months earlier when terror struck from the skies.
In the years since, those Afghan scrap collectors have been joined by more than 157,000 war dead in that embattled land. That’s a heavy toll, but represents just a fraction of the body count from America’s post-9/11 wars. According to a study by the Costs of War Project of Brown University’s Watson Institute, as many as 801,000 people, combatants and noncombatants alike, have been killed in those conflicts. That’s a staggering number, the equivalent of the Rwandan genocide of 1994. But if President Donald Trump is to be believed, the United States has “plans” that could bury that grim count in staggering numbers of dead. The “method of war” he suggested employing could produce more than 20 times that number in a single country — an estimated 20 million or more Afghans, almost all of them civilians.
Castle Black, the Syrian Withdrawal, and the Battle of the Bases
They called it Castle Black, an obvious homage to the famed frozen citadel from the HBO series Game of Thrones. In the fantasy world of GoT, it’s the stronghold of the Night’s Watch, the French Foreign Legion-esque guardians of the northern border of the Seven Kingdoms.
This Castle Black, however, was all too real and occupied by U.S. Special Operations forces, America’s most elite troops. In its location, at least, it was nearly as remote as its namesake, even if in far warmer climes — not on the northern fringe of Westeros but at the far edge of eastern Syria.
Today, the real Castle Black and most of the archipelago of U.S. outposts only recently arrayed across the Syrian frontier are emptying out, sit abandoned, or are occupied by Russian and Syrian troops. At least one — located at the Lafarge Cement Factory — lies in partial ruins after two U.S. Air Force F-15 jets conducted an airstrike on it. The purpose, according to Colonel Myles Caggins, a spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR), the U.S.-led military coalition fighting ISIS, was to “destroy an ammunition cache, and reduce the facility’s military usefulness.”
“Only yesterday they were here and now we are here,” a Russian journalist announced after taking selfies at the abandoned base at Manbij where U.S. forces had served since 2015 alongside allied Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of mainly Kurdish and Arab fighters. “It appears as though the U.S. servicemen fled in their armored vehicles,” said another reporter with RT’s Arabic service, as she walked in front of American tents and equipment at the hastily abandoned outpost. Photographs show that when U.S. troops bugged out, they also left behind other standard stuff from American bases abroad: “crude dick drawings,” a football, fridges stocked with Coca-Cola, an open package of animal crackers, a can of Pringles, and a paperback copy of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.
Combat Viewed from the Rooftops and Beyond
TRIPOLI, Libya — Sometimes war sounds like the harsh crack of gunfire and sometimes like the whisper of the wind. This early morning — in al-Yarmouk on the southern edge of Libya’s capital, Tripoli — it was a mix of both.
All around, shops were shuttered and homes emptied, except for those in the hands of the militiamen who make up the army of the Government of National Accord (GNA), the U.N.-backed, internationally recognized government of Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj. The war had slept in this morning and all was quiet until the rattle of a machine gun suddenly broke the calm.
A day earlier, I had spent hours on the roof of my hotel, listening to the basso profundo echo of artillery as dark torrents of smoke rose from explosions in this and several other outlying neighborhoods. The GNA was doing battle with the self-styled Libyan National Army of warlord Khalifa Haftar, a U.S. citizen, former CIA asset, and longtime resident of Virginia, who was lauded by President Donald Trump in an April phone call. Watching the war from this perch brought me back to another time in my life when I wrote about war from a far greater distance — of both time and space — a war I covered decades after the fact, the one that Americans still call “Vietnam” but the Vietnamese know as “the American War.”
Except in the Pentagon’s Report
The U.S. military is finally withdrawing (or not) from its base at al-Tanf. You know, the place that the Syrian government long claimed was a training ground for Islamic State (ISIS) fighters; the land corridor just inside Syria, near both the Iraqi and Jordanian borders, that Russia has called a terrorist hotbed (while floating the idea of jointly administering it with the United States); the location of a camp where hundreds of U.S. Marines joined Special Operations forces last year; an outpost that U.S. officials claimed was the key not only to defeating ISIS, but also, according to General Joseph Votel, the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, to countering “the malign activities that Iran and their various proxies and surrogates would like to pursue.” You know, that al-Tanf.
A Simple Equation Proves That the U.S. Armed Forces Have Triumphed in the War on Terror
4,000,000,029,057. Remember that number. It’s going to come up again later. But let’s begin with another number entirely: 145,000 — as in, 145,000 uniformed soldiers striding down Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue. That’s the number of troops who marched down that very street in May 1865 after the United States defeated the Confederate States of America. Similar legions of rifle-toting troops did the same after World War I ended with the defeat of Germany and its allies in 1918. And Sherman tanks rolling through the urban canyons of midtown Manhattan? That followed the triumph over the Axis in 1945. That’s what winning used to look like in America — star-spangled, soldier-clogged streets and victory parades. Enthralled by a martial Bastille Day celebration while visiting French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris in July 2017, President Trump called for just such a parade in Washington. After its estimated cost reportedly ballooned from $10 million […]
From Afghanistan to Somalia, Special Ops Achieves Less with More
At around 11 o’clock that night, four Lockheed MC-130 Combat Talons, turboprop Special Operations aircraft, were flying through a moonless sky from Pakistani into Afghan airspace. On board were 199 Army Rangers with orders to seize an airstrip. One hundred miles to the northeast, Chinook and Black Hawk helicopters cruised through the darkness toward Kandahar, carrying Army Delta Force operators and yet more Rangers, heading for a second site. It was October 19, 2001. The war in Afghanistan had just begun and U.S. Special Operations forces (SOF) were the tip of the American spear. Those Rangers parachuted into and then swarmed the airfield, engaging the enemy — a single armed fighter, as it turned out — and killing him. At that second site, the residence of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, the special operators apparently encountered no resistance at all, even though several Americans were wounded due to friendly fire […]
Elite Commandos Deployed to 149 Countries in 2017
“We don’t know exactly where we’re at in the world, militarily, and what we’re doing,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, in October. That was in the wake of the combat deaths of four members of the Special Operations forces in the West African nation of Niger. Graham and other senators expressed shock about the deployment, but the global sweep of America’s most elite forces is, at best, an open secret. Earlier this year before that same Senate committee — though Graham was not in attendance — General Raymond Thomas, the chief of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), offered some clues about the planetwide reach of America’s most elite troops. “We operate and fight in every corner of the world,” he boasted. “Rather than a mere ‘break-glass-in-case-of-war’ force, we are now proactively engaged across the ‘battle space’ of the Geographic Combatant Commands… providing key […]
U.S. Commandos Are a “Persistent Presence” on Russia’s Doorstep
“They are very concerned about their adversary next door,” said General Raymond Thomas, the head of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), at a national security conference in Aspen, Colorado, in July. “They make no bones about it.” The “they” in question were various Eastern European and Baltic nations. “Their adversary”? Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Thomas, the commander of America’s most elite troops — Navy SEALs and Army Green Berets among them — went on to raise fears about an upcoming Russian military training event, a wargame, known as “Zapad” or “West,” involving 10 Russian Navy ships, 70 jets and helicopters, and 250 tanks. “The point of concern for most of these eastern Europeans right now is they’re about to do an exercise in Belarus… that’s going to entail up to 100,000 Russian troops moving into that country.” And he added, “The great concern is they’re not going to leave, and… that’s […]
Who Makes the Story Possible?
We were already roaring down the road when the young man called to me over his shoulder. There was a woman seated between us on the motorbike and with the distance, his accent, the rushing air, and the engine noise, it took a moment for me to decipher what he had just said: We might have enough gas to get to Bamurye and back. I had spent the previous hour attempting to convince someone to take me on this ride while simultaneously weighing the ethics of the expedition, putting together a makeshift security plan, and negotiating a price. Other motorbike drivers warned that it would be a one-way trip. “If you go, you don’t come back,” more than one of them told me. I insisted we turn around immediately. Once, I believed journalists roamed the world reporting stories on their own. Presumably, somebody edited the articles, but a lone byline […]
A Rare Pentagon “Success” Story
Winning! It’s the White House watchword when it comes to the U.S. armed forces. “We will give our military the tools you need to prevent war and, if required, to fight war and only do one thing — you know what that is? Win! Win!” President Donald Trump exclaimed earlier this year while standing aboard the new aircraft carrier U.S.S. Gerald R. Ford. Since World War II, however, neither preventing nor winning wars have been among America’s strong suits. The nation has instead been embroiled in serial conflicts and interventions in which victories have been remarkably scarce, a trend that has only accelerated in the post-9/11 era. From Afghanistan to Iraq, Somalia to the Philippines, Libya to Yemen, military investments — in lives and tax dollars — have been costly and enduring victories essentially nonexistent. But Amadou Sanogo is something of a rare all-American military success story, even if he […]
Globe-Trotting U.S. Special Ops Forces Already Deployed to 137 Nations in 2017
The tabs on their shoulders read “Special Forces,” “Ranger,” “Airborne.” And soon their guidon — the “colors” of Company B, 3rd Battalion of the U.S. Army’s 7th Special Forces Group — would be adorned with the “Bandera de Guerra,” a Colombian combat decoration. “Today we commemorate sixteen years of a permanent fight against drugs in a ceremony where all Colombians can recognize the special counternarcotic brigade’s hard work against drug trafficking,” said Army Colonel Walther Jimenez, the commander of the Colombian military’s Special Anti-Drug Brigade, last December. America’s most elite troops, the Special Operations forces (SOF), have worked with that Colombian unit since its creation in December 2000. Since 2014, four teams of Special Forces soldiers have intensely monitored the brigade. Now, they were being honored for it. Part of a $10 billion counter-narcotics and counterterrorism program, conceived in the 1990s, special ops efforts in Colombia are a much ballyhooed American […]
Secret U.S. Military Documents Reveal a Constellation of American Military Bases Across That Continent
General Thomas Waldhauser sounded a little uneasy. “I would just say, they are on the ground. They are trying to influence the action,” commented the chief of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) at a Pentagon press briefing in March, when asked about Russian military personnel operating in North Africa. “We watch what they do with great concern.” And Russians aren’t the only foreigners on Waldhauser’s mind. He’s also wary of a Chinese “military base” being built not far from Camp Lemonnier, a large U.S. facility in the tiny, sun-blasted nation of Djibouti. “They’ve never had an overseas base, and we’ve never had a base of… a peer competitor as close as this one happens to be,” he said. “There are some very significant… operational security concerns.” At that press conference, Waldhauser mentioned still another base, an American one exposed by the Washington Post last October in an article titled, “U.S. has […]
U.S. Special Operations Forces Deploy to 138 Nations, 70% of the World’s Countries
They could be found on the outskirts of Sirte, Libya, supporting local militia fighters, and in Mukalla, Yemen, backing troops from the United Arab Emirates. At Saakow, a remote outpost in southern Somalia, they assisted local commandos in killing several members of the terror group al-Shabab. Around the cities of Jarabulus and Al-Rai in northern Syria, they partnered with both Turkish soldiers and Syrian militias, while also embedding with Kurdish YPG fighters and the Syrian Democratic Forces. Across the border in Iraq, still others joined the fight to liberate the city of Mosul. And in Afghanistan, they assisted indigenous forces in various missions, just as they have every year since 2001. For America, 2016 may have been the year of the commando. In one conflict zone after another across the northern tier of Africa and the Greater Middle East, U.S. Special Operations forces (SOF) waged their particular brand of low-profile warfare. […]