Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence - Christian Parenti (2011)
Part I. LAST CALL FOR ILLUSIONS
Chapter 3. War for a Small Planet: Adaptation As Counterinsurgency
The United States possesses overwhelming conventional military superiority. This capability has pushed its enemies to fight US forces unconventionally, mixing modern technology with ancient techniques of insurgency and terrorism… . Defeating such enemies presents a huge challenge to the Army and Marine Corps.
—FM 3-24, US Military Counterinsurgency Field Manual, December 2006
IT WAS A SPLENDID little war in a pathetic little country—a classic case of old meets new, banana republic meets failed state. No one was sure why, but the two main ethnic groups were at war; refugees needed humanitarian assistance, and panicked crowds had to be controlled. The NGOs and a gaggle of pestering journalists were not helping. To restore order, the US Marine Corps had landed.
“Get back!” shouted a young marine trying to contain civilians who surged toward some sort of a feeding or detention station.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“These civilians need humanitarian assistance, and we have to screen them, check out that none of them are armed,” the marine said. A helicopter swept low overhead. From a high-rise building nearby came the muffled pop of gunfire.
When the young marines emerged from securing the high rise, they were clad in strange new fatigues, made up of a sooty, bluish-gray “T-pattern” of overlapping squares, rectangles, and lines—like some sort of pixilated abstract cityscape. The gray hues invoked Nazi tunics; the patterns, a confusing and dangerous street grid in a polluted Third World megacity. The broken-down little country where this was happening might have been called the Breakaway Province of Lower Nowhere or the Democratic Republic of Chaos, but it was actually Oakland, California. The year was 1999, and I was watching the future as imagined by the United States Marine Corps: a war game called Urban Warrior taking place on the grounds of a decommissioned naval hospital.
The Marines were expected to move seamlessly from managing refugees, to keeping the peace between warring factions, to attacking renegade militias. In 1999 they called that combination of tasks the “three-block war.” At other times they termed it “military operations other than war.” Now it is known by the old name, “counterinsurgency” (COIN), which one US Army Special Forces colonel once described as “total war at the grassroots level.”1 Call it what you please—small wars, limited war, low-intensity conflict—this type of fighting is moving to the center of the US military agenda just as that agenda begins to address climate change.
The catastrophic convergence of poverty, violence, and climate change is helping fuel the renewed focus on irregular warfare. Implicit in the climate-related writing of the security intellectuals is a central role for counterinsurgency. Throughout their reports are lines such as “Weakened and failing governments, with an already thin margin for survival, foster the conditions for internal conflict, extremism, and movement toward increased authoritarianism and radical ideologies. The U.S. may be drawn more frequently into these situations to help to provide relief, rescue, and logistics, or to stabilize conditions before conflicts arise.”2 The military’s new Tactics in Counterinsurgency Field Manual (FM 3-24.2) describes “the realities of today’s operational environment” as “modified by a population explosion, urbanization, globalization, technology, the spread of religious fundamentalism, resource demand, climate change and natural disasters and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.”3
Asymmetry from Above
At the heart of the matter is a strange fact: the US military arsenal is overdeveloped. The United States can annihilate any conventional foe and destroy the planet several times over; it spends more on arms than the fourteen next-largest militaries. But the apocalyptic power of the US atomic arsenal is politically effective only if it is not actually used. It only functions as a threat.
To be effective in a world of failed states, rebellions, coups, civil wars, tribal clashes, pogroms, banditry, narcoviolence, piracy, terrorism, and desperate surges of refugees, US military violence must be applied with restraint—tremendous restraint, given its potential—and with precision. The empire cannot hunt fleas with a sledgehammer. America’s application of real violence requires smaller weapons, greater agility, and subtler tactics capable of achieving nonconventional political victories, such as the pacification of restive populations, the defeat of irregular forces, the containment and exclusion of refugee flows, and the suppression of hungry urban mobs. Thus, COIN is in fashion.
Unfortunately, the current romance with COIN is part of the problem, not the solution. Its methods are, by definition, socially corrosive and destructive. As a doctrine, counterinsurgency is the theory of internal warfare; it is the strategy of suppressing rebellions and revolution. Its object is civilian society as a whole and the social fabric of everyday life. Whereas traditional aerial bombing (which is notoriously ineffective) targets bridges, factories, and command centers, COIN targets—pace Foucault—the “capillary” level of social relations. It ruptures and tears (but rarely remakes) the intimate social relations among people, their ability to cooperate, and the lived texture of solidarity—in other words, the bonds that comprise society’s sinews.4
Conventional warfare seeks to control territory and destroy the opposing military, but counterinsurgency seeks to control society. It is thus “population centric.” In an insurgency, the military force—the state or the occupying power—already has (at least nominal) control of the battle space, but it lacks control of the population. Guerrillas, irregular forces, and even small, unpopular terrorist groups all rely on the populace, or parts of it, for recruits, food, shelter, medical care, intelligence, and, if nothing else, simple cover. Mao Tse-tung summed it up: “The guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea.” Thus‚ the anti-insurgent’s task is to isolate and destroy the guerrillas by gaining control of the population through violence as well as psychological and ideological means.
Under these conditions, strategy and tactics now pivot on individual psychology, religion, age structures, rituals, traditions, family bonds, economic activities, and sense of place—in short, all the formal and informal institutions of everyday life. Society is the target, and as such it is damaged. Counterinsurgency is especially destructive because it attacks the social fabric. Like the revolutions it seeks to suppress, counterinsurgency intentionally attacks and attempts to remake the social relations of a place. In the process, it helps set off self-fueling processes of social disintegration.
In Vietnam it was called “winning hearts and minds,” or in the cheeky military argot of the time, “WHAMing the peasantry.” Today, as in the past, such militarized “social work” can involve real economic development and progressive political reforms designed to ameliorate the legitimate grievances of the people—that is, to win their actual support and make the revolutionary promises of the insurgents less appealing. Or it can mean genocidal, society-destroying total war at the grass roots, as in “draining the sea to catch the fish.” In Guatemala during the 1980s, that approach allowed government forces to put to the torch more than four hundred Indian villages. They were simply wiped out, their inhabitants killed, raped, detained, scattered.
Whether hard or soft, counterinsurgency always attempts to remake social relations. In the process, it often rends without rebuilding, causing a breakdown of social norms and values; it tatters the bonds of solidarity and voluntary social regulation. Typically, anomie, normlessness, trauma, and lawlessness are its legacy.5
Contrast the effects of counterinsurgency with those of aerial bombardment during conventional war. Though more murderous and economically destructive, aerial bombardment tends not to damage society and social relations. If anything, it has been found to increase solidarity among its victims. Britain during World War II is the quintessential example: Nazi bombardment was met with evacuation, rationing, conscription, and an unprecedented leveling of class differences. Britain united under the bombs and fought even harder. As Minister of Labor Ernest Bevin would explain, when “a nation is involved in a great crisis … [it] is bound to become collectivist.”6 Similar effects arose in wartime Germany and Japan, as well as in North Vietnam under US carpet bombing; one would expect a similar culture of united opposition in the tribal areas of Pakistan now subject to drone attacks.7
Thus, counterinsurgency has been central in setting up the catastrophic convergence of poverty, violence, and climate change. Irregular, proxy conflicts—insurgency and counterinsurgency in the Third World—defined the American and Soviet methods during the Cold War. Those methods primed many areas of the world for serious instability. The United Nations documented around 150 armed conflicts in the Third World between 1945 and 1990. In these so-called small wars of the Third World, 20 million people died, 60 million were injured, and 15 million had been deracinated as refugees by 1991. Derek Summerfield, a psychiatrist and academic who specializes in the mental-health effects of modern war, described the situation as follows:
Five percent of all casualties in the First World War were civilians; the figure for the Second World War was 50 percent, and that for the Vietnam War was over 80 percent. In current armed conflicts over 90 percent of all casualties are civilians, usually from poor rural families. This is the result of deliberate and systematic violence deployed to terrorize whole populations… . Population, not territory, is the target, and through terror the aim is to penetrate into homes, families, and the entire fabric of grassroots social relations, producing demoralization and paralysis. To this end terror is sown not just randomly, but also through targeted assaults on health workers, teachers and co-operative leaders, those whose work symbolizes shared values and aspirations. Torture, mutilation, and summary execution in front of family members have become routine.8
In others words, COIN, or small-wars theory, means social mutilation. If militarized adaptation means more low-intensity conflict, and if Pentagon soothsayers see irregular warfare, rather than conventional conflicts, as central to the world remade by climate change, then we must review the history of these methods in theory and practice.
Small Wars Past
Reviewing the history of America’s small wars, three distinct phases emerge. From the late eighteenth to the early twentieth century, asymmetrical wars formed part of the European imperial conquest of the Global South and the colonial policing that followed. In this phase, traditional societies fought for the continuation of their traditional lifeways. For them, asymmetrical warfare was essentially defensive action against invaders. The Zulu warriors in what is now South Africa, the Plains Indians of the American West, and the Pashtun tribal columns that attacked the British in the nineteenth century all waged their guerilla wars to defend old social orders, not to promote new ones.
Then, from the 1920s through the 1990s, small wars became increasingly (but not always) characterized by ideologically motivated insurgencies. Yes, poor peasants fought because they had grievances—too much exploitation—but the ideological and political aspects of the wars were crucial in articulating those grievances. The colonial and former colonial powers essentially fought defensive counterinsurgencies against these communist or nationalist liberation struggles that had modernizing aspirations and leaders driven by new ideas, people like Augusto Sandino, Mao Tse-tung, Fidel Castro, and Ho Chi Minh. All of these movements had welldeveloped, if sometimes flawed, theories about society.
With the end of the Cold War, asymmetrical conflict and counterinsurgency has become less ideological and certainly less intellectual. Now insurgent movements are increasingly motivated by simple loot, survival, or irredentist and conservative, backward-looking ideas that almost always, upon examination, reflect simplistic moral philosophies rather than social theories.9 Or they have no ideas at all. The Taliban are an example, as are the various guerrilla armies of West and Central Africa, like the truly insane and now-defunct Revolutionary United Front that maimed, raped, and looted across Sierra Leone for eleven years starting in 1991; or the Lord’s Resistance Army, a still-active, genocidal cult-militia of child soldiers that rampages through parts of Uganda; or the postideological gangster remnants of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
One military intellectual, writing in the Army War College’s journal Parameters‚ recognized this third, post-ideological phase as part of a historical transformation away from growing stability toward increasing chaos: “Since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, this process has been one of increasing law and order that led to prosperity for many Western nation-states, their public institutions, and their peoples. The cycle now may be shifting away from stability toward chaos, suggesting that the nation-state may be entering a period in which its usefulness as a concept for organizing societies will be severely challenged… . We may expect increasing chaos during the shift from what has been called the ‘modern’ era to its successor.”10
The “successor” age—if climate-change mitigation and progressive adaptation are not embraced—will be that described by James Woolsey: civilization in decline, opened-ended counterinsurgency, a rising tide of violence.
Native Americans were early on subjected to a project of simple brutality at the hands of settlers, but later the US government fashioned a project of assimilation and pacification that was pseudoscientific and pseudohumanitarian in its discourse. The “civilization” program imposed upon the Cherokee served as an early example of this. “They must either change their mode of life, or they must die!” railed one anti-Cherokee US senator. 11 The Cherokee chose the former.
Something like modern counterinsurgency characterized wars against the Plains Indians during the 1860s and 1870s. The American army beat the Sioux in part by imitating them: small, light, mobile cavalry units replaced large infantry formations, cutting the army’s dependence on long, vulnerable supply trains. The mounted detachments worked closely with Indian scouts and mercenaries, typically from the Crow and Arikaras nations. At times, these small, mobile army units were bested or, in the case of General George A. Custer, annihilated.
The imitation of Indian methods was of course bolstered by the American military’s superior firepower, transportation, and communications—that is, by America’s industrial might. A crucial terrain of the warfare was economic. Native American hunting was restricted as the buffalo were exterminated, in part for their fur, in part to deny sustenance to the renegade bands that refused reservation life. Final victory over the Sioux came when Nelson Miles, out to avenge Custer, used the arrival of winter, which limited the Indians’ mobility and access to food, to force the Sioux onto reservations. Once confined there, the Indians were subjected to all the methods of modern statecraft: identification, regimentation, surveillance, religious indoctrination, wage labor, money, ledgers, fines, military courts, and jails. The reservations were “total institutions” as defined by sociologist Erving Goffman. And as such, they destroyed, or remade, Indian culture and subjectivity.
In New Mexico, as General George Crook pioneered the use of small counterguerrilla patrols to harass Geronimo’s Apache warriors, he also set up a system of mountaintop mirrors that communicated in a type of semaphore; this expanded his informational control over a wide area of intensely rugged terrain.12 Railroads, telegraphs, barbed wire, propaganda, ideological indoctrination, photography, legal legerdemain, fast-action repeating rifles, and Hotchkiss light field artillery all gave those brutal campaigns of subjugation a modern profile. Call it the prehistory of the Predator drone.
Thus, in the Indian wars, as in modern antiguerrilla campaigns, the military targeted civilians: attacking villages, burning crops, taking women and children hostage, and concentrating the refugee populations at military forts so as to better watch over them. Divide-and-conquer tribalism was also fomented to facilitate in-fighting and the creation of local Indian auxiliaries. Recall, Sitting Bull was killed by his own former warriors turned reservation police.13
A Doctrine Emerges
The plains wars produced no written doctrine or theory of pacification, but British officers, facing similar tasks at the end of the nineteenth century in the African, Indian, and Southeast Asian domains of the Crown, did write about their methods. As John A. Nagl lays out in his classic Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam, the British officers, far away from their government, were often unable to receive instruction. Thus, they had to apply themselves to the study and development of new tactics.
The first classic in this genre was The Defensive Duffers Drift by Major General Sir Ernest Swinton. A strange little volume, Duffers Drift describes Swinton’s experience as a young captain leading a British company in the Boer War. The book is arranged as a five-part dreamscape of interconnected and repeating nightmares. In each, the Boers trick and attack Swinton in new and more devious ways. Each nightmare is followed by a list of lessons, which grow more ruthless with each repetition of the cycle.14 Realizing that he is fighting not only guerrillas but a whole people, Swinton concludes, “There are no flanks, no rear,or, to put it otherwise, it is front all round.”15 From this he concludes, never trust the locals; detain them, burn their farms, and starve them out, the women and children included. Attack their social fabric, for that is what the guerillas depend on.
Later works include Charles Caldwell’s Small Wars: Their Principles and Practice and Charles Gwyn’s Imperial Policing. Both helped establish core features of counterinsurgency doctrine—minimal use of force, civilian and military coordination, development of proxy forces—but they lack the trippy, laudanum-laced quality of Duffers Drift.
For American forces, small-war tactics matured considerably with the rise of the so-called banana wars. Between the late 1890s and the late 1930s, US military forces intervened in Chile, Haiti, Hawaii, Nicaragua, China, Panama, the Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, and many other places. All of these conflicts were more or less irregular and asymmetrical and entailed controlling the civilian population rather than annihilating a conventional force.
The order of the day was measured violence, small-unit tactics, mobility, cultural and psychological warfare, and the modern methods of administration, regulation, and surveillance. Detainees, often civilians, were concentrated in camps; checkpoints and official identification documents controlled civilian movement. At times these campaigns involved destroying the enemy’s means of sustenance; burning whole villages was routine practice. Hungry civilians then became dependent on the food handouts, or “modern” economic-development programs, of the occupiers, and the areas of the guerrilla operations were effectively depopulated.16
Central to victory was the creation and training of local auxiliary forces. When the Marines pulled out, they wanted to count on the local constabulary, guardia civil, or gendarmerie to repress any reformist politicians, trade unionists, nationalists, or socialists who might seek to upset the existing order by taxing foreign business and redistributing wealth.17
This use of ethnic minorities to divide and conquer has been dubbed “ethnoliberation opportunism” by anthropologist Philippe Bourgeois. It occurs again and again in small wars—examples include the CIA’s use of mountain tribes in Laos during the Vietnam War; the arming of mujahideen mercenaries against the Soviets during the Afghan jihad of the 1980s; and now the development of Shia death squads and the Sunni based Safwa militia in Iraq.18 Cultivating these proxies almost always means cultivating criminals and fanatics. Their names from the Cold War include Brooklyn Rivera in Nicaragua, Joseph Savimbi in Angola, and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in Afghanistan. These useful sociopaths are never easy to control and when they have served their purpose as proxies, they are let go to wander violently across the landscapes of their own societies.
From the US Marine Corps’ banana wars in the Caribbean and Latin America came a book, the Small Wars Manual, published in 1940. By that point, the Marines had some experience to draw on. As the manual’s first edition noted, “The Marine Corps has landed troops 180 times in 37 countries from 1800 to 1934. Every year during the past 36 years since the Spanish-American War, the Marine Corps has been engaged in active operations in the field.”19 Small wars were constant and ongoing.
The Marines’ small-war methods tended to combine carrot and stick, terror and reconciliation. Violence was applied to dislodge the authority of the rebels or the offending government. The Marines burned crops and homes, took prisoners, and terrorized the common people. Smedley Butler said that his troops burned down most of northern Haiti. Official reports used subtler language to describe the same: “Troops in the field have declared and carried on what is commonly known as ‘open season,’ where care is not taken to determine whether or not the natives encountered are bandits or ‘good citizens’ and warehouses have been ruthlessly burned merely because they were unoccupied and native property otherwise destroyed.” 20 Once populations had submitted, however, they were permitted to return to their normal lives and economic activities.21
The Nation described it more bluntly: “U.S. Marines landed in Haiti, seized the gold in the National Bank, took over the customs-houses, closed the legislative assembly, and refused payment of salaries to Haitian officials who refused to do the white man’s will.”22 Butler, a veteran of many small wars, put it even more directly: “I spent most of my time being a high-class muscle man for big business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short I was a racketeer for capitalism.” Butler said he had “helped in the raping of a half dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street.”23
Cold War Proxies
In 1952 the US military created the Special Forces. With this development, counterinsurgency became further institutionalized and more clearly associated with a political doctrine of defending capitalism. A few years later, Ernesto Che Guevara published Guerrilla Warfare‚ which is similar to the Small Wars Manual in that it is full of practical, even commonsense advice: “Movement by night is another important characteristic of the guerrilla band, enabling it to advance its position for an attack and, where the danger of betrayal exists, to mobilize in new territory.”24 But Guerrilla Warfare also emphasizes the role of ideas and politics. For Guevara ideology is both means and end. According to him, only a self-consciously political insurgency can win: “The guerrilla fighter needs full help from the people of the area. This is an indispensable condition. This is clearly shown by considering the case of bandit gangs that operate in the region. They have all the characteristics of a guerrilla army, hegemony, respect for the leader, valor, knowledge of the ground and often very good understanding of the tactics to be employed. The only thing missing is the support of the people; and inevitably these gangs are captured and exterminated by public forces.”25 For Guevara, the military superiority of the guerrilla band is born of its relationship to political ideals: “We must come to the inevitable conclusion that the guerrilla fighter is a social reformer, that he takes up arms responding to the angry protests of the people against their oppression and that he fights in order to change the social system that keeps all his unarmed brothers in ignominy and misery.”26
Thus enters the struggle for hearts and minds. Indeed, it was President John F. Kennedy who first had Che’s book translated into English. Kennedy was intimately interested in counterinsurgency: at his behest the Special Forces first donned their eponymous green berets. It was a strange and unwitting tribute to Che, whose iconic image has him wearing a beret.
Before long the Special Forces were operating in Laos and Vietnam. The war in Indochina was marked by colossal violence—carpet bombing by B-52s; napalm; large, conventional-style engagements between the North Vietnamese army and American forces. But it also involved intense counterinsurgency, at the heart of which was the Strategic Hamlet Program, which entailed the destruction, then reconstitution, of pro-Vietcong civilian communities.
No country saw a more devastating counterinsurgency than Guatemala. Beginning in 1981, the military government of General Rios Mont combined a genocidal, scorched-earth campaign against civilians with a classic “secure-and-hold” development strategy called frijoles y fusiles, or “beans and bullets.” After destroying Indian villages and massacring many of their inhabitants, the military concentrated the surviving civilians in “model villages.” They forced male survivors to participate in civil patrols, lightly armed vigilante forces that served as the eyes and ears of the military—and often as their human shields. An estimated one hundred thousand civilians were murdered during the Guatemalan Civil War, the vast majority by government forces.
I had an opportunity to see this war firsthand, in 1988, when I hiked across the Ixill Triangle in the highlands war zone. The trails were littered with government and guerrilla propaganda—small handbills exhorting the people to join one side or the other. The area was still at war, but the guerrillas were in retreat. Everywhere we saw the methods of counterinsurgency: trails cleared of trees on all sides, air patrols, civilian militia checkpoints, burnt villages, and new ones under strict government control. In one model village, a company of Guatemalan soldiers was dug in around a helicopter landing pad on the highest point of the ridge. Later, in 1991, I traveled with, and reported on, the Resistencia Nacional, part of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, or FMLN. The hills of Cabañas, El Salvador, bore similar physical and social scars.
Today, the Guatemalan highlands and the small towns of El Salvador remain violent, but instead of guerrilla operations and counterinsurgency, the plague is crime. The global average homicide rate is less than eight per one hundred thousand, but the UN Office on Drugs and Crime reports that in Central America the murder rate between 2003 and 2008 averaged sixty-one per one hundred thousand in Honduras; fifty-two per one hundred thousand in El Salvador; and forty-nine per one hundred thousand in Guatemala.27 One Latin American scholar writing in 2006 found that “crime rates have risen globally by an average of 50 per cent over the past 25 years, and the phenomenon is widely considered to contribute significantly to human suffering all over the world. This is particularly the case in Latin America, where violence has reached unprecedented levels due to rising crime and delinquency.”28
All three of those countries were sites of intense counterinsurgency from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, and the legacy of that is anomie: a weakened society, a social fabric frayed, resulting in a gun culture with large populations of unemployed men habituated to violence, discipline, secrecy, pack loyalty, brutality; trained in the arts of smuggling, extortion, robbery, and assassination. In other words, an invisible army of criminals occupies society. The political class is steeped in violence, and much of it sees society as a battlefield; enemies must be destroyed, social problems eliminated by force. Walls and armed guards dominate the landscape. The police are hooked on habits of torture, disappearance, and drug running.29
Meanwhile, relative deprivation defines the psychological terrain: these societies are more unequal than ever, and the revolutionaries and progressive social movements, in raising class-consciousness, have enlightened the masses about the inherent unfairness of the situation.30 The spectacle of modern media, in advertizing riches and fame, makes the common people aware of what they lack. All of this feeds criminogenic relative depravation.
Famously, the American defeat in Vietnam turned the US military away from the study of counterinsurgency, though the methods of irregular warfare remained part of the instruction for US proxy forces in El Salvador, the Philippines, Columbia and elsewhere. Counterinsurgency doctrine made a return after US Army Rangers got into trouble in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993, during a botched raid on the compound of Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid. After a Blackhawk helicopter was shot down in the city, a seat-of-the pants rescue mission eventually shot its way into, then back out of, the city but not without considerable loss of life—particularly for the Somali militiamen, eight to thirteen hundred of whom were killed—and a spectacular humiliation for the US Army.31
After that, the Pentagon began to think more seriously about how to fight irregulars in cities and failed states. Soon the RAND Corporation put out a study called “the urbanization of insurgency,” and a December 1997 National Defense Panel review “castigated the Army as unprepared for protracted combat in the near impassable, maze-like streets of povertystricken Third World cities. As a result, the four armed services, coordinated by the Joint Staff Urban Working Group, launched crash programs to master street-fighting under realistic third-world conditions.”32
In Iraq, I saw the new doctrine playing out in the streets of Baghdad, Fallujah, Summara, and Baquba. During one firefight, as I hid behind a parked car, my mind drifted back to the war game in Oakland. The shootout in Baghdad encapsulated the whole war—confusing and labor intensive, overly and dysfunctionally technological, and awkwardly urban. The US troops had more firepower than they could use, and they didn’t even know exactly where or who the enemy was. Civilians hid in every corner as bullets hissed past.
Greg Grandin’s Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism makes clear the links between counterinsurgency in Iraq and its antecedents in Central America. Grandin quotes an American counterinsurgency expert who describes the ferocity of US-funded and -trained forces in Central America as “going primitive.” As Grandin explains, “With the United States failing to defeat the [Iraq] rebels on its own, the Pentagon came to debate the ‘Salvadorian option,’ that is the use of local paramilitary forces otherwise known as death squads, to do the kind of dirty work that it was either unwilling or unable to do. It turned to men like James Steele, who in the 1980s led the Special Forces mission in El Salvador and worked with Oliver North to run weapons and supplies to the Nicaraguan Contras.”33
The Shia death squads of the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki are the result. Peter Maas of the New York Times Magazine tagged along with Steele and described the situation:
Looking through the doors, I saw about 100 detainees squatting on the floor, hands bound behind their backs; most were blindfolded. To my right, outside the doors, a leather-jacketed security official was slapping and kicking a detainee who was sitting on the ground… . A few minutes after the interview started, a man began screaming in the main hall, drowning out the Saudi’s voice. “Allah!” he shouted. “Allah! Allah!” It was not an ecstatic cry; it was chilling, like the screams of a madman, or of someone being driven mad. “Allah!” he yelled again and again. The shouts were too loud to ignore. Steele left the room to find out what was happening. By the time he returned, the shouts had ceased. But soon, through the window behind me, I could hear the sounds of someone vomiting, coming from an area where other detainees were being held, at the side of the building.34
Maas concluded his article with a lapidary summation: “In El Salvador, Honduras, Peru, Turkey, Algeria and other crucibles of insurgency and counterinsurgency, the battles went on and on. They were, without exception, dirty wars.”
That is the essence of militarized adaptation to climate chaos: dirty war forever. In the following chapters, the social wreckage of counterinsurgency past will be evident in the form of crime, smuggling, civilian militias, death squads, regions glutted with light arms, and routine use of detention and torture. Because counterinsurgency is war that, by design, attacks the social fabric, it has sowed chaos and set the stage for the catastrophic convergence. Leaving corruption, ignorance, crime, and anomie in their wake, small, dirty wars have created societies totally incapable of dealing with climate change. And now, armed adaptation is set to double down on a bad bet by applying more counterinsurgency to the global matrix of crisis.