One of the many weird things about being an American citizen these days is that there are a lot of murders committed in our name that our government deliberately keeps secret. Friends of mine, back from Iraq or Afghanistan, used to answer people who asked the inappropriate question that veterans always got: “Did you kill anyone?” with the scathing response, “If I did it, you paid me to do it —” a rough reminder of the bond between the military and the citizens they represent. But at the time, the actions of our soldiers were much more visible. What does it mean to be a citizen of a state that kills for you but doesn’t tell you about it? Are you still responsible?
When I was a public affairs officer in the Marine Corps from 2005 to 2009, during the time of massive anti-war protests, a group of activists ran a full-page ad in the New York Times attacking the credibility of an American general. lively debates on everything from the morality of war to the wisdom of its strategy. The main efforts of the US military during this period were carried out in broad daylight, and my job was to court journalists to join our units to see what they were doing.
This relative openness meant that the war spawned disorderly debate, political grandstanding, lies, hypocrisy, and misinformed analyzes of cable news and other byproducts of democracy. It also meant that the George W. Bush administration had to explain and defend its policies, which meant I knew why we were supposed to fight, what success should look like, and why we were there. This meant that political pressure was exerted on American policy-making to keep it tied to the will of the American people.
But the nature of war has changed, for political and military reasons. One way to describe the change is to look at the pace of US special operations. In the spring of 2004, the Joint Special Operations Command was conducting about six operations a month in Iraq. In the summer of 2006, they were doing 300. That didn’t happen by sending Navy SEALs to the gym to work on their execution time, but by overhauling the whole process of finding targets, fixing, finishing, operating and analyzing the intelligence gathered, then disseminating that intelligence to agencies and commands capable of acting as quickly as possible. It was this capability that former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates claimed in 2011, which fused “intelligence and operations in a way that I think is unique in anyone’s history.”
When Americans think of the killings we are committing abroad, we often think of mechanism. A drone delivering a bomb seems a bit creepy to us. A member of the Navy SEALs breaking into a villain’s compound seems heroic to us. But the SEALs and the drone are just tools – the flat head and Phillips screwdriver at the end of the targeting system. And the first parts of this system can be offered to other countries, like Ukraine, which kill themselves. (In a May 5 press briefing, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby only slightly distanced the United States from the killing of Russian generals: “We do not provide intelligence on the whereabouts of military leaders. superiors on the battlefield nor do we participate in targeting Ukrainian military decisions,” he said, but he freely admitted that we were providing Ukraine with relevant intelligence.)