Seeking and Speaking the Truth
William Blum, Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 2000).
Inside the old main lobby of CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, there are large letters etched in marble, taken straight from the Christian bible, announcing that “…the truth shall set you free.” It is, of course, a classic case of Orwellian doublespeak, chillingly reminiscent of the slogan on the arched gate of Auschwitz, the infamous Nazi death camp, which read “Arbeit Macht Frei,” work makes you free. Neither truth nor work will ever make us free, especially the way the Nazis and the CIA practice it. Only freedom will make us free. And despite the myths and insidious disinformation spread by politicians, plutocrats, businesspeople, clergy, newscasters, editors, historians, teachers, and others, the US government has not been a font of freedom in the world, but all too often its cork (see Michael Parenti’s History as Mystery and my review in Z Magazine, March 2001).
As a former State Department official and the author of Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II (1995), William Blum writes in the proud critical tradition of Noam Chomsky, Michael Parenti, John Stockwell, and Howard Zinn. Blum’s Rogue State lays out a devastating critique of US foreign policy simply by documenting the truth and letting it (mostly) speak for itself. With its three sections, containing twenty-seven bite-sized chapters, Rogue State covers the seamy side of US foreign policy, often letting policymakers hang themselves with the ropes of their own words while allowing US deeds to do likewise. There are, tragically, way too many examples.
The first section of the book is called “Ours and Theirs: Washington’s Love/Hate Relationship with Terrorists and Human-Rights Violators.” The chapters on “The Afghan Terrorist Alumni” (ch. 2), “Assassinations” (ch. 3), “Excerpts from US Army and CIA Training Manuals” (ch. 4), “Torture” (ch. 5), and “War Criminals” (ch. 8), among others, easily help answer the nagging question, “Why Do Terrorists Keep Picking on the United States?” (ch. 1). George W. Bush, in his September 20, 2001 speech to a Joint Session of Congress, also asked “why do they hate us?,” answering that “They hate our freedoms—our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other,” while former President Clinton stated in 1998 that “Americans are targets of terrorism, in part, because we act to advance peace and democracy and because we stand united against terrorism (p. 29). Thomas Friedman, an editorialist for the New York Times with a different take, wrote that terrorists “have no specific ideological program or demands. Rather, they are driven by a generalized hatred of the US” (ibid.). Similarly, but even worse, Larry King asked Dan Rather “Why do they hate us?” Rather’s response: “Because they’re losers, and losers hate winners”! Incidentally, all these people vigorously support so-called free trade and (capitalist) globalization, which Bush, Clinton, US Trade Representative Zoellick, and others point to as one of the solutions to terrorism. “What our leaders and pundits never let slip,” however, according to Blum, “is that the terrorists — whatever else they might be — might also be rational human beings… Most terrorists,” he continues, “are people deeply concerned by what they see as social, political, or religious injustice and hypocrisy, and the immediate grounds for their terrorism is often retaliation for an action of the United States.” It doesn’t necessarily make the terrorism any more justified, which it is not, but information and context can make it more understandable, and hopefully more avoidable. Additionally, Blum illustrates in graphic detail that terrorism isn’t just done to the US, but more commonly is also encouraged and done by the US.
The second section of the book is called “United States Use of Weapons of Mass Destruction.” This section covers the otherwise forbidden subjects of “Bombings” (ch. 11, in which Blum cites political scientist C. Douglas Loomis describing “air bombardment” as “state terrorism” and “the terrorism of the rich”), “Depleted Uranium” (ch. 12), “Cluster Bombs” (ch. 13), and “Chemical and Biological Weapons” (chs. 14-16). Blum notes at one point, for example, that the US exported a variety of bio-weapon agents such as anthrax and botulism to Iraq, as well as to Egypt and apartheid-era South Africa, as late as the end of 1989 (pp. 120-22). In another instance, he details the US continuing use and export of depleted uranium, with its radioactive qualities, describing it as “chemically toxic” (p. 96). In a later section, Blum states that cluster bombs are designed, according to the manufacturer of these yellow toy-like devices with their own little parachutes, to hit “soft targets,” i.e. people (p. 100). Each cluster bomb separates into between 3 and 2,025 bomblets (depending on the type of cluster bomb), which spin and spread out on the way down, with each bomblet in turn excreting up to 2,000 high-velocity very lethal shrapnel fragments upon explosion. The US dropped thousands of cluster bombs in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, in Iraq and Kuwait during the Gulf War, in Serbia and Kosovo, and unknown amounts in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Cluster bombs have an approximately 10% failure rate, effectively turning them into landmines that are especially attractive to kids, and often miss their intended targets according to official US assessments. “Cluster bombs are capable of turning huge areas into killing fields,” says Richard Norton-Taylor. A recent report declares that “the continued use of cluster bombs has cost thousands of civilian lives, denied land to the poor and disenfranchised and is now costing the international community millions to eradicate the unexploded submunitions.” Reporting to the UN that some 30,000 unexploded bomblets remain in Kosovo, where official US policy is to not clear them from the country, the Red Cross called last year for a ban on cluster bombs.
Despite all this information, or perhaps because of it, it was disappointing to see no sections on other US uses of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear bombs, fuel-air explosives, carpet bombing, and other massively destructive devices. For example, BLU-82s, nicknamed “Daisy Cutters” and “Big Blues,” are the “world’s largest non-nuclear weapon.” These relatively inexpensive 15,000-pound bombs, in some ways, mimic nuclear explosions but without involving nuclear fission or radioactivity. So similar are they in some of their effects, however, that when the US employed the first of eleven of these bombs in Kuwait and Iraq during the Gulf War, British soldiers reported to their commanders on 7 February 1991 that the US had “nuked” them. Journalist Laura Flanders witnessed “U.S. Gulf [War] veterans cry as they recalled watching, from miles away, the deadly impact” of these bombs, which are “as large as a Volkswagen beetle, but heavier,” according to the Associated Press. Although it may be taboo to say, these bombs are essentially chemical weapons of mass destruction, as they contain a slurry of ammonium nitrate, aluminum powder, and polystyrene that gets aerosolized after exploding. BLU-82s were also used by the US in Vietnam, sometimes to create helicopter landing pads in the jungle, and were used by the US in Afghanistan. These “bombs were dropped as much for their psychological effect as for their antipersonnel effects,” according to the Federation of American Scientists, clearly a form of terrorism. Further, one could easily characterize parts of the US space program, and of course the militarization of space, as weapons of mass destruction, particularly the space shuttles that destroy the Earth’s ozone layer and sometimes carry payloads of plutonium that could potentially kill millions of people around the globe. Likewise with the aggressive marketing and exporting of cigarettes and other tobacco products. Many would also agree that the sanctions against Iraq and Cuba are weapons of mass destruction via the forcible withholding of food and other necessities. Similarly, though less militarized, US enforcement of structural adjustment programs and other austerity measures to support global capitalism which, among other things, increasingly privatize, commodify, and marketize the basics of life are also, in terms of their effect, weapons of mass destruction. Likewise with the bombing of facilities that are necessary for survival (pharmaceuticals plants, food storage warehouses, and electrical and water systems), which violates international law. Perhaps these and other omissions will be included in a future revised edition of this otherwise wonderful resource.
The third and final section of the book is called “A Rogue State Versus the World.” This section contains “A Concise History of Global US Interventions” (ch. 17), “Perverting Elections” (ch. 18), “the United Nations” (ch. 20), “Eavesdropping” (ch. 21), “Kidnapping and Looting” (ch. 22), “The CIA and Drugs” (ch. 24), and others, giving yet more evidence to the case against the US and further answers to the title question of chapter one. Blum makes clear that “whatever the diplomats and policymakers at the time thought they were doing, the Cold War skeptics have been vindicated — it was not about containing an evil, expansionist communism after all; it was about American imperialism, with “communist” merely the name given to those who stood in its way… The current manifestation of this continuum, by whatever name, can be viewed as yet another chapter in the never-ending saga of the war of the rich upon the poor” (pp. 23, 24).
With the latest US war du jour raging in Afghanistan, and to a lesser extent in Iraq, Rogue State is particularly important to read and pay attention to right now. Blum shows us that US policy is often not benign (“doing the right thing is not a principle of American foreign policy,” but is occasionally incidental, he argues), and new tragedies are not reinventions of the wheel. Indeed, history is littered with atrocities where the US was either complicit, a combatant, a conspirator, a confederate, a contributor, or condoned the activities, which only sometimes coincide with the high moral ground. “The engine of American foreign policy,” Blum argues, “has been fueled not by a devotion to any kind of morality, nor even simple decency, but rather by the necessity to serve other masters, which can be broken down” into what Blum maintains are “four imperatives”: (1) globalization, especially for the benefit of US-based TNCs; (2) corporate welfare for military contractors who give lavish campaign contributions; (3) preventing the possibility of a positive example of non-capitalist development; and (4) extending US hegemony over as much of the world as possible while shaping it in America’s image (pp. 13-14). Further, I would be remiss not to mention Blum’s prescient musing: “Something fundamentally peculiar has happened when the US government fires cruise missiles at an individual, Osama bin Laden” (p. 95). It is all too clear that the US is being a role model, according to Blum, but it is unfortunately doing so by the law of power (i.e., coercion) rather than the power of law (i.e., democracy).
Although Blum offers some analysis, he could well have included more, in order to smooth out and contextualize the data, which are at times almost raw. Still, Rogue State is not only an excellent—albeit maddening—read; it is also a very useful reference for when new issues and circumstances arise. This book would be appropriate for a variety of courses and readers interested in American government, US foreign policy, political sociology, modern US and world history, political economy, and related subjects. Indeed, the book is worthwhile for all who care about what the government is doing in their name but not in their interest.
If the famed novelist and democratic socialist George Orwell was right in thinking that at a time “of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act,” then it is abundantly clear that William Blum is a true and much-needed revolutionary. Liberate your history and liberate your mind by reading this book. It won’t make you free, but it will educate you and fire you up, serving as a powerful antidote to what Orwell described as “smelly orthodoxy.” Only by taking what we know and putting it into action — praxis — can we bring changes in US policy. Therein lies our individual and collective freedom.
Review by Dan Brook
University of California at Berkeley