Three New Reads – December

Philip Roddis

What would you do if stuck in a lift with John Pilger? Former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, in a new book reviewed here by Media Lens, quotes with approval a fellow journalist saying he’d stick pins in his eyes to avoid such a predicament.

Did the drone murders Obama signed off every Tuesday leave you incandescent? Are the spy-cam fitted drone fliers descending on our parks and beauty spots giving you the pip? You ain’t heard the half of it till you read Scott Ritter on how a quantum leap in military drone use gave Turkey’s proxy, Azerbaijan, a decisive edge over Russia-backed Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh.

What does the word, condor, conjure up? A huge raptor? A pipe tobacco? Branco Marcetic gives the low-down on US complicity, under that code name, with Latin America’s death squads and juntas in the second half of the twentieth century – and on why it still matters.


Stuck in a lift with John Pilger (3725 words)

David Cromwell and David Edwards, who make up Media Lens[1], know former Guardian editor Rusbridger of old. Indeed, prior to his blocking them, the pair had almost collegiate relations[2] with him.

Drawing on their own pre-freeze exchanges, on Chomsky and Herman’s Propaganda Model, on the fact the book they are reviewing makes many references to Media Lens, and on what Rusbridger does – and does not[3] – say in News And How To Use It, their calmly forensic approach nails all that is wrong with ‘our’ media; even and perhaps especially liberal media.

Here’s a (slightly abridged) taster:

The first resort of corporate journalists attacking a dissident is to focus on ‘narcissism’ [4]:

… John Pilger. With his tan, Byronic haircut, trudging priestly delivery and evident self-love, your main instinct is to flip right over to BBC1…’

Pilger … reports on the crimes of state-corporate power – including ‘liberal’ power, including corporate media power. Pilger tells the unfiltered, uncompromised truth about the foundations of power. His focus is on speaking up for the victims of power, not on serving power.

Serious analysis of Pilger’s work, then, has to include honest appraisal of his deepest criticisms of power – these are what make Pilger unusual and important. But this Rusbridger cannot do … Instead, he focuses on Pilger’s supposed character flaws.

‘even some of his greatest fans have found him an increasingly difficult, prickly figure shooting first and not always asking questions later’.

‘He is undoubtedly a prickly character … a hero until you know him.’

‘someone I’d rather stick needles in my eyes than be stuck in a lift with’.

These ad hominem attacks on Pilger are, in fact, a rejection of honest debate.

Reviewing Pilger’s 2000 documentary, ‘Paying the Price: Killing the Children of Iraq’, on the UN’s assertion that US-UK sanctions had been responsible for the deaths of 500,000 children under five in Iraq, Joe Joseph wrote in The Times:

‘In his latest, harrowing documentary… the fearless Australian journalist reminds us that – however daunting the odds stacked against him – he is not going to shy away from his lifelong commitment to make TV programmes with extremely long titles…’

‘His angry, I-want-some-answers-please documentary style, like his haircut, is a hangover from the 1970s; and like much of the Seventies, he is enjoying a small retro revival. Pilger is the Prada of TV journalism.’

This was a review of a documentary exploring highly credible claims that Britain and the US were responsible for the deaths of half a million small children.[5]

Imagine someone with serious, verifiable evidence interrupting a town hall meeting to warn that government troops were at that moment burning hundreds of children alive in the local school. Now, we might urgently seek to challenge and check the claims, but what would we make of one who responded by mocking the haircut of the person raising the alarm? Would we not find this a morally depraved response?

Quite. And a point well made by the two Davids. As is this one:

In 2006, Pilger wrote:

‘In reclaiming the honour of our craft, not to mention the truth, we journalists at least need to understand the historic task to which we are assigned – that is, to report the rest of humanity in terms of its usefulness, or otherwise, to “us”, and to soften up the public for rapacious attacks on countries that are no threat to us.’

This is not something Rusbridger could ever honestly discuss. Why? Because it’s exactly the role he performed as editor of the Guardian.


Like Horse Mounted Cavalry Against Tanks (1578 words)

No informed person doubts that Turkey, though its future orientation and concomitant alliances remain shrouded in uncertainty, is a formidable military force. But should we think of her as enjoying a decisive military edge over premier league imperialisms within the EU? Former UN Weapons Inspector Scott Ritter is in no doubt on the matter.

In an analysis written for the European Council on Foreign Relations, Gustav Gressel, a senior policy fellow, argues that the extensive (and successful) use of military drones by Azerbaijan in its recent conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh holds “distinct lessons for how well Europe can defend itself.”

Gressel warns that Europe would be doing itself a disservice if it simply dismissed the Nagorno-Karabakh fighting as “a minor war between poor countries.” In this, Gressel is correct – the military defeat inflicted on Armenia by Azerbaijan was not a fluke, but rather a manifestation of the perfection of the art of drone warfare by Baku’s major ally in the fighting, Turkey. Gressel’s conclusion – that “most of the [European Union’s] armies… would do as miserably as the Armenian Army” when faced by such a threat – is spot on.

What happened to the Armenian Army in its short but brutal 44-day war with Azerbaijan goes beyond simply losing a war. It was more about the way Armenia lost and, more specifically, how it lost. What happened over the skies of Nagorno-Karabakh – where Azerbaijan employed a host of Turkish- and Israeli-made drones not only to surveil and target Armenian positions, but shape and dominate the battlefield throughout – can be likened to a revolution in military affairs. One akin to the arrival of tanks, mechanised armoured vehicles, and aircraft in the early 20th century, that eventually led to the demise of horse-mounted cavalry.

The Nagorno-Karabakh war saw largely Sunni Turkey backing largely Shia Azerbaijan against an Armenia under the protection of Russia, with which Ankara’s relations are a mixed and unclear picture. Leaving aside the complexities (explored here) of that war, Ritter has this to say of its most telling military aspect …

Turkey was facing some of the best anti-aircraft missile defenses produced by Russia. The reality is that most nations confronted by a Turkish “drone swarm,” would not fare well.

… before concluding that:

… multiple deployment of drones is only going to expand. The US Army is working on “Armed, Fully-Autonomous Drone Swarms”. AFADS will – autonomously, without human intervention – locate, identify and attack targets using a “Cluster Unmanned Airborne System Smart Munition,” which dispense a swarm of small drones that fan out over the battlefield to locate and destroy targets.

China has likewise tested a system that deploys up to 200 “suicide drones” designed to saturate a battlespace and destroy targets by flying into them. And this September, the Russian military integrated “drone-swarm” capabilities for the first time in a large-scale military exercise.

Modern warfare has been forever altered, and nations not equipped for a battlefield where drone technology is fully incorporated can expect outcomes similar to that of Armenia: severe losses of men and equipment, defeat, humiliation and likely loss of territory. This is the reality which, as Gressel notes, should make any nation not fully vested in drone technology “think – and worry.”

Which last observation sets the tone, if you’re not already depressed beyond measure, for my final read …


The CIA’s Secret Global War Against the Left (6114 words)

Back when the man was still alive, loved and feared, I read of a comment by Mao Zedong that went like this:

America’s student protesters amaze me. They aren’t one bit afraid of their government’s tanks and bombs, yet are terrified by the sarcasms of a few reactionary professors.

Things haven’t much changed. Those likeliest to cry Revolution Now! seem those least likely to have spent time thinking it through. That’s hot-headed youth for you. Less forgivable in my view are those Left groups whose theoretical understandings of capitalism I take seriously, but which devote no space to the not insignificant problem of how a revolution can be made in a context of bourgeois states armed to the teeth and skilled in counter insurgency – and possessors of surveillance technologies beyond the wildest dreams of 20th century totalitarianisms – which makes the Russian Revolution look like a palace coup.

As one who so often sets out the problems – and insists that capitalism and decency never did co-exist in the world as a whole, and are growing less and less able to do so even in the West – I am painfully aware that I bring no solutions. As I put it in a recent BTL exchange:

I have faith in neither reformist nor revolutionary roads to what has to happen if barbarism is to be averted. Does that mean I should shut up? I think not. I never saw the logic in insisting that, if we have no solution, we have no business speaking of the problem. I can barely see a yard ahead, but continue to speak to all who’ll listen about the evils I see in that single yard.

I could have added Gramsci’s comment that when that which must happen cannot happen we are in the age of monsters. So while I do so hate to be the bearer of bleak news, in the interests of telling it like it is I feel bound to say that this third read, on the atrocities of a CIA in cahoots with fascism under the codename Operation Condor, is as relevant now as when swathes of Central and South America were subject to the vilest oppression, with Condor at its bloodiest.

This – and do feel free to tell me on the basis of detailed evidence how and where I’m wrong – is what we’re up against and this is the true nature of capitalist rule. Note the final sentence of this extract.

With South America in the grip of military dictatorships and rocked by the same kinds of social and political movements that were demanding change all over the world in the 1960s and ’70s, a handful of the continent’s governments made a pact to work together to roll back the rising tide of “subversives” and “terrorists.”

What followed was a secret, global campaign of violent repression that spanned not just countries, but continents, and featured everything from abduction and torture to murder. To say it was known about by the US government, which backed these regimes, is an understatement: though even this simple fact was denied at the time, years of investigations and document releases since then mean that we now know the CIA and top-ranking US officials supported, laid the groundwork for, and were even directly involved in Condor’s crimes.

Zooming out, Condor was hardly some uniquely shocking case of anticommunist paranoia spiraling out of control. As its connections to anticommunist terror in Europe have become clearer, it looks more like a particularly successful example of the covert war the US national security state had set into motion all over the world against democracy and the Left, a war that saw it get into bed with fascists and that, in some cases, arguably constituted genocide. It was the system working exactly as intended, in other words, and a stark reminder of the lengths the global centers of power will go to keep things the way they are.

As it happens, author Branco Marcetic finishes the piece on a note of optimism I don’t share:

Examining the legacy of Operation Condor should prompt us to think about which institutions in American life have been most hostile to democracy and, when the time calls for it, eager to align with fascists. But it’s also a reminder that, in the face of popular struggle, even this violence has a shelf life, and impunity doesn’t last forever.

State and supra-state violence in Latin America had a finite “shelf life” not because The People fought back and ultimately prevailed but because, with a few exceptions, it worked. You don’t continue to hammer a nail already driven in, and terror and violence are expensive options for a ruling class – be it a domestic comprador class or the imperialists in Washington, London and elsewhere. The trappings of democracy make better business sense.

Pessimist and gloom merchant? Moi? If you say so. But this piece makes salutary and therefore essential reading for those who value the unvarnished truth on what decent folk like you and me are up against.



[1][See my review of the Media Lens book, Propaganda Blitz.

[2]‘… almost collegiate relations …‘ In a pattern Media Lens have experienced again and again, initial contact with journalists is met with friendly courtesy; a spirit which soon evaporates as ML’s unfailingly polite probes turn up the heat.

[3] Rusbridger’s silences, like the Guardian’s and like those of mainstream media at large, are often more telling than his utterances. As I keep saying on this site, while all media actively lie when the stakes are high enough, their biggest deceptions are of omission rather than commission.

[4] Not just Pilger but Assange, Chavez, Corbyn, Putin and Scargill are or were routinely called out as narcissistic. How convenient that so universally ridiculed a trait should exist in such abundance in those our rulers consider a threat! How revealing that ‘our’ media should give it, like John Pilger’s hair cut, centre stage! How dismaying that an intelligentsia priding itself on critical thinking should fall for this crap every time!

[5] The claim of half a million Iraqi under fives dying as a result of Bill Clinton’s sanctions was given infamous corroboration by his Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, when she said they were a price worth paying. Her words merit airing at every opportunity. While imperialism’s hot wars on the global south do impose on our rulers a threshold of justification – however low, and however intelligence-insulting the narratives aimed at crossing it – sanctions like those on Iran, Syria, Venezuela and elsewhere, though equally and indiscriminately murderous, evade scrutiny almost entirely.

Worse, aided by the silences (at best) of the Rusbridgers of this world, their lethal effects can be blamed on the target ‘regime’. Two years ago a liberal pal, a Brit in Columbia and not a stupid person, told me that Venezuelan refugees pouring across the border into her adoptive country were victims of “failed Chavism”.