Greenland melt could expose hazardous Cold War waste

Climate Central reports: When the U.S. military abandoned Camp Century, a complex of tunnels dug into the ice of northwest Greenland, in the mid-1960s, they left behind thousands of tons of waste, including hazardous radioactive and chemical materials. They expected the detritus would be safely entombed in the ice sheet for tens of thousands of years, buried ever deeper under accumulating layers of snow and ice.

But a new study suggests that because of warming temperatures that are driving substantial melting of the ice, that material could be exposed much, much sooner – possibly even by the end of this century – posing a threat to vulnerable local ecosystems.

These remnants of the Cold War are also an example of an unanticipated political issue that could arise because of the effects of climate change, particularly as countries seek to establish a presence in the Arctic as warming makes it increasingly accessible.

“We think it’s a nice case study for this kind of political tension stemming from climate change,” study author William Colgan, a glaciologist at York University in Toronto, said. [Continue reading…]

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The graves of the Marines I lost

J. Kael Weston writes: Created after the Civil War, Memorial Day is an odd holiday, at once a solemn commemoration of those killed in war and a day of beach outings and backyard barbecues celebrating the start of summer. Rarely does it serve as a time to reflect on the policies that led to all those deaths.

While in Iraq and Afghanistan, I witnessed military officers and enlisted soldiers, at all ranks, being held accountable for their decisions. I have yet to see that happen with Washington policy makers who, far removed from the battlefields, benefit from our collective amnesia about past military and foreign policy failures.

The commander in chief and the senior military brass should leave the manicured grounds of Arlington and visit some of those places where most of America’s war dead are buried: farm towns, immigrant neighborhoods and working-class suburbs. At a time when fewer and fewer of us have any real ties to the military, how better to remind the nation that our troops are not just faceless volunteers, but people who live next door? [Continue reading…]

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The citizen soldier

Phil Klay writes: I can’t say that I joined the military because of 9/11. Not exactly. By the time I got around to it the main U.S. military effort had shifted to Iraq, a war I’d supported though one which I never associated with al-Qaida or Osama bin Laden. But without 9/11, we might not have been at war there, and if we hadn’t been at war, I wouldn’t have joined.

It was a strange time to make the decision, or at least, it seemed strange to many of my classmates and professors. I raised my hand and swore my oath of office on May 11, 2005. It was a year and a half after Saddam Hussein’s capture. The weapons of mass destruction had not been found. The insurgency was growing. It wasn’t just the wisdom of the invasion that was in doubt, but also the competence of the policymakers. Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had been proven wrong about almost every major post-invasion decision, from troop levels to post-war reconstruction funds. Anybody paying close attention could tell that Iraq was spiraling into chaos, and the once jubilant public mood about our involvement in the war, with over 70 percent of Americans in 2003 nodding along in approval, was souring. But the potential for failure, and the horrific cost in terms of human lives that failure would entail, only underscored for me why I should do my part. This was my grand cause, my test of citizenship.

The highly professional all-volunteer force I joined, though, wouldn’t have fit with the Founding Fathers’ conception of citizen-soldiers. They distrusted standing armies: Alexander Hamilton thought Congress should vote every two years “upon the propriety of keeping a military force on foot”; James Madison claimed “armies kept up under the pretext of defending, have enslaved the people”; and Thomas Jefferson suggested the Greeks and Romans were wise “to put into the hands of their rulers no such engine of oppression as a standing army.”

They wanted to rely on “the people,” not on professionals. According to the historian Thomas Flexner, at the outset of the Revolutionary War George Washington had grounded his military thinking on the notion that “his virtuous citizen-soldiers would prove in combat superior, or at least equal, to the hireling invaders.” This was an understandably attractive belief for a group of rebellious colonists with little military experience. The historian David McCullough tells us that the average American Continental soldier viewed the British troops as “hardened, battle-scarred veterans, the sweepings of the London and Liverpool slums, debtors, drunks, common criminals and the like, who had been bullied and beaten into mindless obedience.” [Continue reading…]

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Syria shows that Russia built an effective military. Now how will Putin use it?

The Washington Post reports: As Russia turned the Syrian conflict into an exhibition ground for its newly robust military over the past six months, its neighbors were watching with rapt interest.

This, after all, was a sterling opportunity to assess Russia’s new battlefield capabilities, in the form of ship-based cruise missiles, improved logistics and elite units. And on display, too, were Russia’s weaknesses.

“It is like a game of football,” said Janis Berzins, the managing director at the Center for Security and Strategic Research of the National Defense Academy of Latvia, a NATO member nation that borders Russia. “If you’re playing against Germany, then you go watch Germany play, right? It’s the natural thing to do.”

No one expects Russia and NATO to engage in a conventional war anytime soon. But with limited, consequential interventions in two conflicts, Ukraine and Syria, in the past two years, President Vladimir Putin had shown the Russian military’s growing proficiency as well as his appetite to use force to achieve his greater geopolitical goals. [Continue reading…]

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Gregory Foster: A case for demilitarizing the military

General Lloyd Austin, the outgoing head of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), recently testified before Congress, suggesting that Washington needed to up its troop levels in Iraq and Syria.  Meanwhile, in his own congressional testimony, still-to-be-confirmed incoming CENTCOM chief General Joseph Votel, formerly head of U.S. Special Operations Command, seconded that recommendation and said he would reevaluate the American stance across the Greater Middle East with an eye, as the Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman put it, to launching “a more aggressive fight against the Islamic State.”  In this light, both generals called for reviving a dismally failed $500 million program to train “moderate” Syrian rebels to support the U.S. fight against the Islamic State (IS).  They both swear, of course, that they’ll do it differently this time, and what could possibly go wrong? 

Meanwhile, General David Rodriguez, head of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), pressed by Senator John McCain in congressional testimony, called on the U.S. to “do more” to deal with IS supporters in Libya.  And lo and behold, the New York Times reported that Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter had only recently presented an AFRICOM and Joint Special Operations Command plan to the president’s “top national security advisers.”  They were evidently “surprised” to discover that it involved potentially wide-ranging air strikes against 30 to 40 IS targets across that country.  Meanwhile, in Afghanistan — U.S. Special Operations units and regular troops having recently been rushed once again into embattled Helmand Province in the heartland of that country’s opium poppy trade General Austen and others are calling for a reconsideration of future American drawdowns and possibly the dispatch of more troops to that country.

Do you sense a trend here?  In the war against the Islamic State, the Obama administration and the Pentagon have been engaged in the drip, drip, drip of what, in classic Vietnam terms, might be called “mission creep.”  They have been upping American troop levels a few hundred at a time in Iraq and Syria, along with air power, and loosing Special Operations forces in combat-like operations in both countries.  Now, it looks like top military commanders are calling for mission speed-up across the region.  (In Libya, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan, it already seems to have begun.)

And keep in mind, watching campaign 2016, that however militaristic the solutions of the Pentagon and our generals, they are regularly put in the shade by civilians, especially the Republican candidates for president, who can barely restrain their eagerness to let mission leap loose.   As Donald Trump put it in the last Republican debate, calling for up to 30,000 U.S. boots on the ground in Syria and Iraq, “I would listen to the generals.”  That might now be the refrain all American politicians are obliged to sing.  Similarly, John Kasich called for a new “shock and awe” campaign in the Middle East to “wipe them out.”  And that’s the way it’s been in debate season — including proposals to put boots on the ground big time from Libya and possibly even the Sinai peninsula to Afghanistan, bomb the region back to the stone age, and torture terror suspects in a fashion that would have embarrassed Stone Age peoples. 

Put another way, almost 15 years after America’s global war on terror was launched, we face a deeply embedded (and remarkably unsuccessful) American version of militarism and, as Gregory Foster writes today, a massive crisis in civil-military relations that is seldom recognized, no less discussed or debated.  TomDispatch hopes to rectify that with a monumental post from a man who knows something about the realities of both the U.S. military and changing civilian relations to it.  Gregory Foster, who teaches at National Defense University and is a decorated Vietnam veteran, suggests that it’s time we finally ask: Whatever happened to old-fashioned civilian control over the U.S. military?  Implicitly, he also asks a second question: These days, who controls the civilians? Tom Engelhardt

Pentagon excess has fueled a civil-military crisis
How civilian control of the military has become a fantasy
By Gregory D. Foster

Item: Two U.S. Navy patrol boats, with 10 sailors aboard, “stray” into Iranian territorial waters, and are apprehended and held by Iranian revolutionary guards, precipitating a 24-hour international incident involving negotiations at the highest levels of government to secure their release. The Pentagon offers conflicting reports on why this happened: navigational error, mechanical breakdown, fuel depletion — but not intelligence-gathering, intentional provocation, or hormonally induced hot-dogging.

Item: The Pentagon, according to a Reuters exposé, has been consciously and systematically engaged in thwarting White House efforts to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and release cleared detainees. Pentagon officials have repeatedly refused to provide basic documentation to foreign governments willing to take those detainees and have made it increasingly difficult for foreign delegations to visit Guantanamo to assess them. Ninety-one of the 779 detainees held there over the years remain, 34 of whom have been cleared for release.

Item: The Pentagon elects not to reduce General David Petraeus in rank, thereby ensuring that he receives full, four-star retirement pay, after previously being sentenced on misdemeanor charges to two years’ probation and a $100,000 fine for illegally passing highly classified material (a criminal offense) to his mistress (adultery, ordinarily punishable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice) and lying to FBI officials (a criminal offense). Meanwhile, Private Chelsea (née Bradley) Manning continues to serve a 35-year prison sentence, having been reduced to the Army’s lowest rank and given a dishonorable discharge for providing classified documents to WikiLeaks that included incriminating on-board videos of a 2007 Apache helicopter attack in Baghdad that killed up to 18 civilians, including two Reuters journalists, and wounded two children, and of a 2009 massacre in Afghanistan in which a B-1 bomber killed as many as 147 civilians, reportedly including some 93 children.

What do these episodes have in common? In their own way, they’re all symptomatic of an enduring crisis in civil-military relations that afflicts the United States.

[Read more…]

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Report spells out dangers of killer robots

The New York Times reports: A new report written by a former Pentagon official who helped establish United States policy on autonomous weapons argues that such weapons could be uncontrollable in real-world environments where they are subject to design failure as well as hacking, spoofing and manipulation by adversaries.

In recent years, low-cost sensors and new artificial intelligence technologies have made it increasingly practical to design weapons systems that make killing decisions without human intervention. The specter of so-called killer robots has touched off an international protest movement and a debate within the United Nations about limiting the development and deployment of such systems.

The new report was written by Paul Scharre, who directs a program on the future of warfare at the Center for a New American Security, a policy research group in Washington, D.C. From 2008 to 2013, Mr. Scharre worked in the office of the Secretary of Defense, where he helped establish United States policy on unmanned and autonomous weapons. He was one of the authors of a 2012 Defense Department directive that set military policy on the use of such systems. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. needs to stop tiptoeing around the ‘killer robots’ threat

Mary Wareham writes: When it comes to banning “killer robots,” the United States is going to take some convincing. That was one major take-away from April’s multilateral meeting on the matter where a US delegation joined 90 other nations at the United Nations in Geneva to discuss what to do about the development of “lethal autonomous weapons systems.”

In November 2012, the US became the first nation to articulate a detailed policy on killer robots, citing a long list of concerns and obstacles that would have to be overcome before developing and acquiring them. It has been careful, however, to stress that Department of Defense Directive 3000.09 “neither encourages nor prohibits the development” of future autonomous weapons systems.

Indeed, it appears that of all nations, the US is the farthest along in moving toward fully autonomous weapons. Last November, The New York Times reviewed several examples of missile systems with various degrees and forms of human control under development or in use by the US, Israel, Norway, and the UK.

Despite its investment in “semi-autonomous” weapons, the US has been one of the strongest supporters of international talks on questions relating to the emerging technology of lethal autonomous weapons systems held by the Convention on Conventional Weapons. The US participated actively in the meetings in May 2014 and April 2015. But the US’s eagerness to engage in talks about such weapons should fool no one into believing it supports a ban. At the discussions last month it was one of only two nations (the other was Israel) saying that the door should remain open for future development and acquisition of these weapons. [Continue reading…]

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How private armies, and the technology they use, are changing warfare

In an interview with the Atlantic, Sean McFate says: The private military industry allows you to fight wars without having your own blood on the gambling table. And drones just do that as well. If you think about this as an arms-control issue, both [drones and private military companies] should be part of the same category, because they allow national governments to get involved in fighting without actually having citizens do it. And that creates moral hazard for policymakers, because it lowers the barriers of entry into conflict.

Look at what’s going on in Nigeria right now. If those mercenaries hired by Nigeria that killed Boko Haram are actually succeeding — and it looks like they are, according to reports — and there’s not a whole lot of backlash in the international community, I can imagine somebody saying, well let’s do this against al-Shabab [in Somalia]. And I could also imagine private military actors showing up and saying, you know, when you hired those mercenaries in Nigeria, they were really effective but they were really expensive. I can do the exact same thing they did at one-tenth the price by using this fleet of 200 drones that are armed. So I can see a situation of arms escalation, trying to get to price points that make sense for consumers, if you will. I hate to commodify conflict that way, but that’s kind of what this industry’s about.

[Private armies] also can maybe do things that the national army maybe can’t do. So they offer plausible deniability to policymakers. They can go and commit human-rights violations, frankly. This is a common attraction about hiring private military companies or mercenaries — that they can get away with things that you can’t get away with if you’re a national government. [Continue reading…]

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The enigma of survival

Sally Satel writes: The evil hour descended on David Morris in the summer of 2009. The former marine and war reporter was in a theater watching a movie with his then girlfriend and suddenly found himself pacing the lobby with no memory of having left his seat. Later, his girlfriend explained that Morris had fled after an explosion occurred onscreen.

He began having dreams of his buddies being ripped apart. When awake, he would imagine innocent items—an apple or a container of Chinese takeout—blowing up. Pathological vigilance took root: “Preparing for bed was like getting ready for a night patrol.” The dreams persisted. “Part of me,” he admits, “was ashamed of the dreams, of the realization that I was trapped inside a cliché: the veteran so obsessed with his own past that even his unconscious made love to it every night.”

Post-traumatic stress disorder is the subject of two new books, one by Morris and another by war reporter Mac McClelland. The symptoms are crippling: relentless nightmares, unbidden waking images, hyperarousal, sleeplessness, and phobias. As a diagnosis, it has existed colloquially for generations—“shell shock” is one name that survives in the modern idiom—and it has particular resonance because of this generation’s wars. (Most soldiers are spared it, though the public tends to think they are not. A 2012 poll found that most people believe that most post-9/11 veterans suffer from PTSD. The actual rate has been estimated at between two and 17 percent.)

Morris thinks the symptoms—a body and mind reacting in fear long after the threat to life and limb is gone—hardly encompass the experience of PTSD. Historically, we might have sought out not only shrinks but also “poetry, our families, or the clergy for solace post horror.” Profitably, Morris turns to everyone: the Greeks, the great poets of World War I, historians, anthropologists, and yes, psychiatrists and psychologists.

From such wide consultation comes a masterful synthesis. The Evil Hours interweaves memoir with a cultural history of war’s psychic aftermath. Morris chronicles the development of PTSD as an official diagnosis and its earlier incarnations in other wars. From Homer’s Odyssey to the venerated war poets, from the crusade for recognition by organized psychiatry to the modern science of fear and resilience, Morris gives a sweeping view of the condition, illuminated by meditation on sacrifice and danger and, in his words, “the enigma of survival.” [Continue reading…]

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The war photo no one would publish

Torie Rose DeGhett writes: The Iraqi soldier died attempting to pull himself up over the dashboard of his truck. The flames engulfed his vehicle and incinerated his body, turning him to dusty ash and blackened bone. In a photograph taken soon afterward, the soldier’s hand reaches out of the shattered windshield, which frames his face and chest. The colors and textures of his hand and shoulders look like those of the scorched and rusted metal around him. Fire has destroyed most of his features, leaving behind a skeletal face, fixed in a final rictus. He stares without eyes.

On February 28, 1991, Kenneth Jarecke stood in front of the charred man, parked amid the carbonized bodies of his fellow soldiers, and photographed him. At one point, before he died this dramatic mid-retreat death, the soldier had had a name. He’d fought in Saddam Hussein’s army and had a rank and an assignment and a unit. He might have been devoted to the dictator who sent him to occupy Kuwait and fight the Americans. Or he might have been an unlucky young man with no prospects, recruited off the streets of Baghdad.

Jarecke took the picture just before a ceasefire officially ended Operation Desert Storm — the U.S.-led military action that drove Saddam Hussein and his troops out of Kuwait, which they had annexed and occupied the previous August. The image and its anonymous subject might have come to symbolize the Gulf War. Instead, it went unpublished in the United States, not because of military obstruction but because of editorial choices.

It’s hard to calculate the consequences of a photograph’s absence. But sanitized images of warfare, The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf argues, make it “easier … to accept bloodless language” such as 1991 references to “surgical strikes” or modern-day terminology like “kinetic warfare.” The Vietnam War, in contrast, was notable for its catalog of chilling and iconic war photography. Some images, like Ron Haeberle’s pictures of the My Lai massacre, were initially kept from the public, but other violent images — Nick Ut’s scene of child napalm victims and Eddie Adams’s photo of a Vietcong man’s execution — won Pulitzer Prizes and had a tremendous impact on the outcome of the war. [Continue reading…]

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Increased use of barrel bombs in Mideast, Africa

The Associated Press reports: Governments in the Mideast and Africa, in desperate efforts to gain battlefield ground, are using barrel bombs against their enemies, launching the cheap, quickly manufactured weapons as a crude counter to roadside blasts and suicide explosions that insurgents have deployed for years.

New evidence of their use in Iraq, after being dropped on civilians in Syria and Sudan, has raised concerns that governments in unstable nations will embrace them.

Described as “flying IEDs,” or improvised explosive devices, barrel bombs have the power to wipe out a row of buildings in a single blast. They can kill large numbers of people, including those not targeted.

“It’s fair to say that a lot of governments are losing control of the counterinsurgency,” said Michael Knights, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “They’re also watching what they see in Syria, and they feel like their air power is what is making the difference.” [Continue reading…]

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How a careerist culture leads to military scandals

f13-iconKelley Vlahos writes: Popular culture reveres the U.S. military as an institution of pride and strength, as keeper of the American moral center. But a recent series of scandals suggests that, instead, ethical corrosion may be eating away at its very core.

Sarah Palin was in top rhetorical form when she told an assembled crowd of thousands on the National Mall in 2010 that soldiers were “a force for good in this country, and that is nothing to apologize for … for these men and women, honor was never lost.” But behind the partisan politics in which Democrats and Republicans have used the military as props, padded its budgets, and publicly deferred to its leadership in myriad ways over 12 years of war, there lies a complicated breakdown in its culture, military experts tell TAC. Without reform, they believe institution is headed for more embarrassment and transgression.

“I’m not surprised at all—one [scandal] relates to the other,” charges Donald Vandergriff, a retired Army officer who often lectures on leadership and reform, including in the service academies. A West Point grad and former deputy director of Army ROTC at Georgetown University, he wrote The Path to Victory: America’s Army and the Revolution in Human Affairs, in 2002.

“The [military] system that’s evolved over the last 100 years does not test moral courage, it does not test strength of character, or the ability to tell the truth regardless of harm to one’s career,” Vandergriff added. “We don’t do things like that. We are looking at people who follow the process, fall in line, don’t cause waves, aren’t open to innovation, and these personality traits leave them open to scandal.” [Continue reading…]

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