Sunday, September 29, 2013

Taste This!

"Salt Sugar Fat – How the Food Giants Hooked Us,” by Michael Moss, 2013

Part of upbringing, low-income or ignorance is eating what ‘tastes good,’ fills us up or is cheap - and only that.  Health is a distant fourth, though people are beginning to understand that food can be medicine, and ‘medicine’ can taste good too.  Moss highlights the 3 top ingredients in processed food – sugar, fat and salt - showing how the large capitalist food corporations added these ingredients into their products until they become virtually addictive.  It is called ‘the bliss point’ for sugar and salt.  In the process, they changed people’s tastes in favor of more fat, sugar and salt than ever before.  These foods are now spreading overseas, bringing American-style health problems to the rest of the world.

Moss, a Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter, skewers well-known brands, and shows how concern for ‘health’ will lead a firm to remove one bad ingredient only to increase another.  Even 50% ‘less’ salt, fat or sugar still means too much in many products.  Spices and herbs are more expensive flavorings, though healthier, and their expense is why companies don’t use them.  Instead they use the cheapest and most addictive ingredients possible – these 3.  I.E. health is not what Phillip Morris, General Mills, Kraft, Coke, Kellogg, Nestle, Pepsi or Post do.  Theirs is the methodology of pure capitalist food, where profit is the ultimate arbiter.  Whole aisles at the grocery store contain little more than different variations of sugar, salt or fat delivery.  Just take a look.

If this reminds you of the tobacco companies, that is no accident.   General Foods and Kraft were even owned by Phillip Morris in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Moss first goes into the development of cereal, which started out as a health food in Battle Creek, Michigan and morphed into a sugar-delivery system when Kellogg’s brother hijacked the recipe.  Moss interviews a former head of Coke, Jeffrey Dunn, and their drive to get everyone, especially ‘heavy users,’ to drink more Coke, which contains large amounts of sugar and empty calories.  Dunn eventually realized he was selling poison to poor people and quit the firm.   Moss interviews many food scientists who work or worked in the development of ‘processed foods,’ where New Jersey laboratories, and now especially advertising, drive consumption of fats, which when combined with sugar are irresistible to many.   One point he made was that most subjects in tests will stop eating when something is ‘too’ sugary or salty, but not with fat – the ‘bliss’ point is always more.  Ubiquitous cheeses and red meats are the main delivery vehicles for fat according to Moss.

Advertising is key to factory food, as anyone who watches a bit of TV can tell.  Psychological and emotional campaigns that target various needs are used to promote factory food when the engineered taste is not enough.  Teens, tweens and children are the targets for much food advertising in order to develop ‘brand loyalty’ or brand addiction at an impressionable age.  Moss describes the weak push by the U.S. government to stop advertising certain unhealthy food items to children on TV.  This campaign was defeated in the late 1970s, when the first claims of ‘the nanny state’ were made by the cereal companies.  Nothing has happened since.  Instead the Agriculture Department works with businesses to promote corn sweeteners, milk cow products, corn-fed beef, etc. while a tiny group in the department works on a ‘food pyramid’ that negates these products.  The Agriculture Department, like nearly every other regulatory agency, has been captured by the capitalists they pretend to watch over. 

One of the continuing issues in the book is how the corporations responded to the lack of time in the home, and the entry of women into the workforce.  They came out with many instant and pre-cooked products that took little time to make, involving a simulacrum of cooking like Hamburger Helper, Toaster pastries or Kraft’s juggernaut Macaroni & Cheese.  ‘Fast food’ entered the home through this door.  Lack of time is the main issue for parents who both work, so these foods were designed to ‘liberate’ them.  When many working-class people each work two jobs, and children are handed off between parent, babysitter, relatives, day care or school, time is always tight.  But the real problem is the structure of child care and labor in the U.S., and it can’t really be solved by these products, a TV dinner or its new form, the microwave meal. 

Even the development of ‘convenience’ stores has been largely driven by soft drink and snack companies.  Super-sized drinks went from the fast food outlets into the neighborhoods through these stores.  These are the same stores widely available in poor and working-class neighborhoods, holding the worst ‘tasty’ foods imaginable at cheap prices. 

Moss describes the contents of many common food products, which will make you want to study labels even more.  Some cereals have been shown to be 70% sugar.  Sugar Frosted Flakes is 50% sugar.  Coke has 9 tablespoons of sugar per 12 oz can.  Cheez Whiz has no cheese.  Some cheeses and cheese products are 30% fat.  Most Americans get most of their saturated fat from cheese, and the percentages have been going up for years.  Ground hamburger is 30% saturated fat.  Or “Hot Pockets” – 6 teaspoons of sugar, enough salt for a day, and 10 grams of fat, with preservatives for 420 days of shelf life. The kiddie MRE “Lunchables’ are a perfect delivery system for all three ingredients – while making the child feel in control of ‘making’ their own lunch. 

Alleged ‘healthier products’ like rising-crust DiGiornio pizza have 50% of daily fat in one ‘serving.’  So-called healthy ‘fruit and yogurt breakfast bars’ have more sugar and less fiber than an Oreo.  Look on a bottle of “Newman’s Own” spaghetti sauces – sugar is the #2 ingredient.  Or the ‘women’s’ yogurt, Yoplait – it has twice as much sugar as ice cream.  One of Moss’ telling stories is how processed fruit sugar was added to various products in order to claim they were ‘natural’ or ‘contained fruit.’  This was purely a sales gimmick, as everything from real fruit was removed except a distilled sugar syrup.  The toll of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer and hypertension is increased by ingesting ANY processed foods, even the ones that claim ‘health’ benefits. 

As Michael Pollan suggesting in his sequel to the “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” eating anything with more than 5 listed ingredients is asking for health trouble.  You can actually get to a point where foods that are too sugary, fatty or salty become repulsive, if you back off your intake.

Moss describes salt as ubiquitous in processed food – indeed a handful of snack chips like Doritos deliver half the salt for a person in a day. A product like Cheetos is carefully engineered to melt in your mouth, and to delivery a fat burst of flavor, yet to also make you feel it is ‘less’ by melting. The ‘light and airy’ potato chip is the perfect delivery vehicle for all 3 ingredients – added salt, fat from frying and sugar from potato starch, and through tests, has been shown to be a leading source of weight gain.

Every time the industry is threatened about the health contents of their ‘food’ they launch a massive, well-paid avalanche of lobbyists, or make nice noises about changing their recipes.  Ultimately, the recipes return to higher quantities of bad ingredients in order to compete.  Self-policing, the neo-liberal answer to unhealthy food, has failed here too.  Yet in line with this, the Obama administration is now going to reduce the number of meat inspectors and increase the speed of the ‘disassembly’ lines, which will create more injuries and fecal food poisoning. 

The class angle to food is obvious.  Most of the executives from these companies avoid eating the food their company’s sell. Right-wingers claim that healthy food is for the upper-classes – hence being in a lower class means that you should eat and LIKE bad food.  Poverty and working-class income levels lead people to buy foods that are cheaper and give an immediate ‘high’ from the sugar, fat or salt.  To berate people for eating non-nutritious factory products doesn’t solve anything except make the moralist feel superior.   Information is helpful, as many people don't even know they are eating slow poisons, but this is not the real answer.

Moss concludes that kicking fat, salt and sugar are as difficult as cigarettes or other addictions.  And since corporations and government look like they will never act, it is ‘up to us.’  As the Black Panther Party figured out in the ‘60s and ‘70s, serving brown rice and vegetables to poor people was their way of combating the silent racist death of convenience store food.  Health is one of the key indicators of class position, and, like bad working conditions, lack of medical care, violence and environmental poisons – bad and cheap food is another health marker, and should be opposed in the same way as the others.  Karl Marx even talked about this in the 1800s, when he referring to what the English working classes were being forced to eat.  

This is done not by blaming the victims for ‘moral failings,’ but by ultimately socializing the food companies, putting them under workers control.  Only this will ultimately stop the salt/sugar/fat factory that kills people every day.

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
September 29, 2013

Monday, September 23, 2013

Ponderous Titles Abound

"The Cultural Apparatus of Monopoly Capital,” – Monthly Review, Vol. 65, No.3, July-August 2013.  Double-Issue

Culture is somewhat of a strange beast in the U.S. left.  Many on the left only read non-fiction.  Music, fiction, theater, art, dance, even film – all strange worlds to the hard-core.  Yet culture is part of the ideological spectacle we live in.  This is balefully recognized by some.  Monthly Review’s (“MR”) latest ‘double-issue’ attempts to do so, but only comes off missing the mark and seeming dated.  MR is an academic Marxist journal that is by turns illuminating, explanatory, connective, repetitive, blind and deadly dull.  Their attempt here to ‘talk about culture’ is almost comical.  Unless culture has been redefined. The title might have been, "The Dominant Communications, Technical and Cultural Apparatus of Global Monopoly Finance Capitalism from the 1950s and 1960s" just to make sure that every point was made in the title.

The issue starts with a long discussion by R McChesney and JB Foster covering what they consider MR’s historical cultural analyses.   And historical it is.  They apologize and at the same time defend themselves from accusations that they ignore culture.  They publish for the first time a chapter on culture left out of “Monopoly Capital” by Baran & Sweezy, originally published in 1966, which contains some interesting insights on the ‘products’ of the ‘apparatus,’ but from 1966.  Then comes an article on Brecht.  Remember, Brecht wrote in the 20s.  Three articles on communications follow which are really looks at consolidated control of the media, written in the 1950s and 1960s.   This is part and parcel of a standard view of the media oligarchy. And an article on advertising from the 60s – which, again, is part of capital’s monopoly practices. 

The sub-title should have been “Into the Archives.” 

One thing about Marxists, we sure love the past.  Some people I know even live in it more than the present, or the future.  Not to say that this is a bad thing, but sometime the weight starts to tip the boat.  This boat has tipped and is taking water.

I guess when you are talking about ‘cultural apparatus’ you aren’t going to get a lecture by Zizek.  You might even be tempted to wonder – well, ‘what’ are they trying to put across with their vast ‘cultural apparatus’ other than selling more cars?  You might expect a discussion of present various artistic movements, in popular music, in art, in film, in television, in books, in theater – or the lack of them.  (See review of “9.5 Theses on Art”, below) After all, the seductive thing about television is not usually the ads. (see review of “Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television,” below)  You might wonder why slightly more recent attempts at Brechtian  theater – like El Teatro Campesino and the San Francisco Mime Troupe – aren’t mentioned.  Those are in the 60s and 70s, after all. (See review of “Oil/Jungle,” below.) You might expect references to the cultural work of Trotsky and Gramsci, who pre-date all of their preferred sources, who are mostly post-war Euro-Marxists.

In other words, what are the ‘clothes’ dressing this apparatus?  What color is the machine? The flesh of this "Apparatus" is missing, as the 'communications systems' seem to be the main focus. I don’t expect people to be good at everything, and culture is tricky.  In fact, no one is good at everything. Which might be why it is missing in this MR.

Oddly enough, stuck amongst the McChesney/Foster article is a 1957quote from Sweezy about technology which I find more interesting than the rest of it.  I will quote in full:  “…Sweezy put the invention of the computer and the emerging communications revolution at the center of a technological revolution that would be every bit as profound as that wrought by the steam engine.  To those who found this hypothetical, if not preposterous, Sweezy responded, “Come back in 30 years.” 

30 years later is 1987, about 10 years after the invention of the personal computer, so he was accurate.  I know I got my first dual floppy-drive portable with a tiny 5 inch monitor in 1980.  It was the Osborne, and heavy as a suitcase. The first Apple was introduced in 1977, the first desktop IBM was introduced in 1981.  Now it is interesting that McChesney/Foster bring this up, because MR has not really investigated this issue at all.  Being in the midst of a tech revolution like this would counter-act any ‘tendencies’ to stagnation, and actually put them in abeyance for awhile.  It is no secret that many of the dominant players in industrial capital are now technology firms.  While financial capital has stolen the lion’s share of profits, industrial capital has not withered and died in the process.  Perhaps an analysis of the growth of ‘overall’ profits in different sectors might be in order. IE what is the total pool - has it grown - not just 'who' is making the most now.  After all, tech firm profits are some of the best in capitalism.  (See review of “The Endless Crisis,” below.)

So time to layoff the old stuff and invent the new!

And I bought it at May Day Books!
(Mayday carries MR and a line of other progressive magazines you can’t get anywhere else, especially in one place.  Copies of this issue of MR are for sale for $6.)

Red Frog
September 23, 2013

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Back, Back in the USSR!

How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin – the Untold Story of a Noisy Revolution,” by Leslie Woodhead, 2013

The thesis of this book is that the “Bitles” overthrew Communism in the USSR. As explained by Soviet fan after fan, hearing their music in the 1960s undermined bureaucratic propaganda about the bad “West” and promised something every young person wanted – ‘freedom’ and maybe even - joy.  Of course, the Beatles delivered this to westerners too. This book tells the story of Soviet rockers, promoters, techies, journalists and fans whose lives permanently changed because they heard the Beatles – creating a Soviet Beatles generation that suffered severe repression to listen to the music.  It created a ‘mythical world’ in the West that young people wanted to be part of.  Clothing changed, hair lengthened, musical tastes veered away from the dull, stodgy folk,chorus and pop of Soviet culture.  Many describe themselves as becoming ‘strangers’ in their own country due to their love of this underground sensation. 

Woodhead travels to Leningrad and Moscow over a period of 20 years, interviewing prominent rockers, attending Beatles commemorations and nightclubs, filming a McCartney concert in Kiev, a secret band get-together in Minsk in Belarus, an art show involving his original Beatles pictures in Vladivostok. Woodhead is a documentary filmmaker and a former young British spy.  He made the first film of the Beatles performing two songs at the Cavern Club in Liverpool way back in 1962.  He then hosted the Beatles a number of times on a local Liverpool TV station. Later film journeys took him to the USSR, and he realized that these two things – the USSR and the Beatles - were intimately connected.

Woodhead starts his book with the massive 2003 concert by Paul McCartney in Red Square – which was a pivotal moment for this generation – as it was the first time that a Beatle had played there.  When McCartney eventually played ‘Back in the USSR’ many in the audience cried.  It was an emotional high point for those who had been fans for years.

Of course, Vladimir Putin was sitting in the front row for the concert.  Even the Russian Defense minister was now a Beatles fan. Yes.

Woodhead retails the fascinating history of the official attitudes towards music – specifically jazz (‘dzhaz’) and rock – after the Bolshevik revolution.  I don’t think the story of the waves of repression and ‘openness” regarding ‘western’ styles of music in the USSR has ever been told.  Like many pro-capitalist observers, he equates Lenin with Stalin, and disappears Trotsky, but this is a minor issue.  The real story is how the bureaucratic view of culture undermined the workers’ states.  Decreeing what kind of culture is ‘allowed’ – a ‘proletarian culture’ or ‘Russian” culture defined from the top - is a formula for stagnation.  Yet this is just what the bureaucrats running the USSR did over and over again.  But after Khrushchev’s 1957 World Youth Festival, rock started sneaking into the USSR behind Chubby Checker’s “Twist” - and it never stopped.

Besides many of Leon Trotsky’s writings on culture (“Problems of Everyday Life,” “Art and Revolution,” “Literature and Revolution,” etc.), Trotsky, Diego Rivera and Andre Breton issued a “Manifesto towards a Free Revolutionary Art” in 1938 that declared that art in a workers state need not be based on a ‘police patrol spirit.’ This Manifesto was aimed at Stalin and his policies towards culture.

But in the USSR for the most part it was just that way. 

Woodhead notes that many of the original Soviet Beatles fans were youth from the upper Soviet strata who had more contact with “The West.”  Artemy Troitsky, a famous Russian musician, dissident and promoter, is his guide through the past.  Troitsky introduces Woodhead to various older Russian rockers and bands – Boris Grebenshikov and Aquarium;  Alexander Gradsky; Andre Makarevich and The Time Machine; Stas Namin and Flowers; Sasha Lipnitsky and Zvuki Mu; Igor Salnikov and The Oz; Yuri Pelyushonok and the Blue Corals. In the late 60s there were more than 200 rock bands playing in Moscow. All were initially inspired by the Beatles.  And nearly all of these groups are almost totally unknown in the U.S. – just as much good Russian writing has not been translated into English.

Namin now runs a complex of cultural entities – all because of the Beatles.  One fan, Kolya Vasin, has created a shrine to the ‘Bittles’ in his apartment and entrance, and wants to build a temple to John Lennon. Woodhead meets Andrei Topillo, a sound engineer who illegally copied millions of Beatles albums in the Soviet Union, spreading the gospel.  And Vladimir Pozner, Gorbachev’s spokesman for perestroika, who tells him that the bureaucrats smelled something about the music and hated it, but couldn’t quite put their finger on why.  So the bureaucracy supported a guy from the U.S., Dean Reed, as their substitute light-rocker for many years.  But even now, in a reflection of the old days, rock music is problematic in Belarus under its present dictator. 

In the pursuit of the Beatles, Russians learned English from the lyrics; created amps out of stolen telephone receivers or neighborhood loudspeakers; made hand-made guitars out of wood tables; wrote songs; bought rock records on the black market, or X-rays that had the songs secretly imprinted on them.  What made rock unstoppable was when tape reel-to-reel recorders arrived in the USSR - then people copied tapes for each other.  Komosol youth groups routinely roughed up or arrested people with ‘anti-Soviet’ music in their possession, or for playing it. They broke the records they seized or stole them for themselves.  Anyone making money illegally on the music was jailed.  At several points, guitars and saxophones were outlawed.  The KGB even tried to break up a birthday party because there were Beatles songs playing.  You could lose your job, be spit on, beaten by police, jailed and denounced in public.  Musicians had to register as ‘folk’ groups, get permission from some entity, and were mandated to have certain folk instruments in the band in order to be allowed to legally play.  So most played for free in hidden venues, similar to what we know of ‘raves’ in the U.S. 

What was quite shocking for some Russians who eventually made their way to Liverpool was how sad and rundown Liverpool was, similar to Moscow.  They were also surprised when they found out the Beatles were funny, and many of their early lyrics were light-weight love stories.  The Russians had always figured them to be serious thinkers before they learned English. 

Many Marxists and communists in the U.S. who grew up in the 60s and 70s were big rock and roll fans; soul, jazz and folk fans; and eventually even heavy and hair metal, or punk.  Which is why this story is so strange to many leftists in the ‘west.’  We paid a price for being hippies and rockers and punks – but nothing like they did in the Soviet Union and some other bloc countries. As my friend in Hungary calls their country at the time, the 'happiest barrack,' in the 'eastern' bloc, Western rock and jazz bands regularly played in Budapest's parks and venues.  This was a result of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, no doubt.  We might also recall the Czechoslovakia's Vaclav Havel's fondness for Pink Floyd, the Velvet Underground and the Stones.  Each country went through its own contortions over hippie music.

So did the Beatles ‘overthrow’ communism?  Woodhead makes a good case that the cultural import of the Beatles did significantly undermine the bureaucrats with youth – who one day grew up.  Teenagers in the 60s were in their 40s and 50s when the USSR collapsed.

But it can be said that, while the music of that period was great, and rock and roll is still alive, capitalism doesn’t necessarily oppose it if there is money to be made.  Now some rock, rap and pop are big business –corporate products that undermine no one.  Music is liberating and always will be.  But under capitalism it is merely another commodity to be advertised and profited from.  It is part of the commodification of everything.  The ‘peace and love’ of the Beatles will never be embraced by capital except as a product to be bought and sold.  Real peace and love?  Real music untouched by commercialism? Forget it. 

(See review of the play, “Rock & Roll,” by Tom Stoppard, which is related to this topic, and the great band, “Plastic People of the Universe,” below.) 

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
September 17, 2013

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Florida - Not Everyone Waved the Confederate Flag

"Blockaders, Refugees and Contrabands – the Civil War in Florida,” by George Buker, 1993

This slim, detailed book of history nevertheless adds to the overwhelming evidence that the Confederacy lost the Civil War because its own people ultimately did not support the ‘really lost cause.’  It gives the lie to the southern reactionary nationalists who claim the war was an example of solidarity among all ‘white’ southerners.  This is a foundational lie uniting some white people and the white ruling elite in the South, which is why it is essential to expose.  It is the historic background for the present neo-Confederate and Copperhead "Tea Party."  Floridians, especially, will enjoy the tale of their conflicted state. Buker is a former Navy man, now a professor.  His book suffers from common academic scourges - bad writing and a confusing narrative.  However, it is based on original research, and the facts don't lie.

Blacks, of course, don’t count in the neo-Confederate retelling, except imaginary fables about how blacks loved the plantation system and bondage.  Blacks in slavery were apx. 38.68% of the total southern population.  There were also a number of free blacks, which brought total black numbers up to 40.17% of the total southern population. It is no exaggeration to suggest that, between the blacks and the whites who opposed secession, the majority in almost every state were against it and the bloody war it brought. 

Total Population
Free Population
Black Slave Population
Free Blacks
All Blacks



North Carolina




South Carolina




1860 Census Totals:


Slave & FB

Florida actually voted overwhelmingly against succession in their first convention vote on the subject in 1860 – 258 to 95.  This showed that Floridians were not deeply convinced at all. However, at the following convention in Tallahassee in 1861, under pressure by other states who had already seceded and by violent intimidation, a vote to secede was achieved.  As Buker explains it, even Union men chose to vote yes to put the onus on the secessionists.

As the war went on, the stupid initial optimism died out – as it does in so many wars.  The Confederate government passed laws that exempted slave owners from the draft or impressed old men, the Confederate ‘regulators’ came to take what they could from ordinary farmers and workers, more and more soldiers were injured, furloughed or just plain quit, and normal citizens starved.  The weak support for the war turned into its opposite quite quickly, especially after August 1863.  While the slave and plantation areas of central Florida still supported the war, along the coasts, especially the Gulf coast from Fort Myers to Pensacola, thousands of white Floridians escaped into the swamps, islands and Union protected settlements to avoid the Confederacy. Almost every significant river outlet had a group of pro-Union renegades camped there.  Only 30% were Confederate deserters.  A significant number joined the Union army – the US 2nd Florida Cavalry was made up of these Florida refugees - or the navy, which easily took them onboard.  Others took up arms as guerilla units, guides, informers, saboteurs and even spies.  Most of these families and men were regular workers and farmers with no economic stake in the slave system. 

The Confederates burned the houses of many known western Florida pro-Union men, and imprisoned their wives and families in the Panhandle town of Marianna, which only hardened their opposition to the Confederacy.  One significant military leader was executed by Confederate firing squad as a deserter only a month before the end of the war. 

The reason the Union had so much success was because the Union navy blockaders running along the coasts of Florida understood quite quickly that many Floridians were their potential friends.  They made sure to always treat them kindly.  Then hundreds of blacks started to escape their plantations too, and the blockaders took them in.  Ex-slaves were called ‘contraband’ so as not to disturb the pro-Union racists.  The navy ships fed and clothed them, and put them to use, recruiting them to the colored infantry and the Union navy, or letting them settle in protected settlements along the coast.  The US Colored Troops (“USCT”), 2nd Infantry initially garrisoned Key West, but the Admiral realized he could use these troops to recruit more contraband.  And so he sent them up the coast, where they worked with the US 2nd Florida Cavalry in military operations as well.

The sailors, soldiers and guerillas worked together to destroy salt-making operations along the coast.  Salt was essential to curing hides and preserving food, and without it the Confederacy was in big trouble.  It took the Union navy a bit of time to understand why so much salt was being smuggled into Florida on the boats they captured, but when they understood, they wrecked salt-making kettles for miles along the Gulf coast. 

With the splitting of the Confederacy in two in July 1893 at Vicksburg, it lost access to the beef herds of Texas.  The Confederacy needed beef to feed its soldiers and Florida was a large secondary source of beef cattle grazing on its central grasslands.  So the Union started to organize raids by the 2nd Florida Cavalry and the 2nd USCT stopping the increased flow of cattle north.  They headed inland from Fort Meyers, Cedar Key north of Tampa, and other US Naval strong-points, battling the Confederate “Cow” cavalry who attempted to protect the herds. 

Throughout the whole war Key West, Fort Meyers, Pensacola, St. Augustine and Fernandina (north of Jacksonville) were all in the hands of the U.S.  These areas sheltered pro-Union civilians.  On the east coast of Florida, the Naval commanders were not interested in fomenting a civil war within the Civil War, as were the Naval commanders on the west coast.  So they did not attempt to mobilize the refugees and Union men – even though the whole eastern bank of the St. John’s River below Jacksonville was full of Union sympathizers.  Hence they missed a chance to do even more damage, and perhaps split Florida in two. 

Attitudes towards the Union army changed as men joined the army and had to obey the strict rules of newer commanders who didn’t know how to conduct warfare behind enemy lines.  Which is a lesson.  Guerilla forces are sometimes far more efficient than regular army forces in morale, intelligence and connection to the land.  Some U.S. army officers never understood this.  We should.  We now need progressive, union ‘guerillas’ behind southern lines again! 

(Other books on this subject – “Why the South Lost the Civil War,’ “County of Jones,” and “Guerillas, Unionists and Violence on the Confederate Home Front,” are all reviewed below.  This book also cites another book, “After Succession – Jefferson Davis and the Failure of Confederate Nationalism” as a source on the subject.  Another excellent book on this topic is “The People’s History of the Civil War,” available at Mayday Books.

And I borrowed it from a friend at work
Red Frog
September 11, 2013

Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Kill List

“Dirty Wars – The World is a Battlefield,” by Jeremy Scahill, 2013.

This book is written by one of the best investigative journalists working today, Jeremy Scahill.  Scahill proves that investigative journalism is the only kind worth doing.  He covered the rise of the mercenaries in Blackwater and the privatization of war in an earlier book.  This book fits into that one, covering Afghanistan and Iraq but widening the focus to Yemen and Somalia.  Blackwater, after all, was another off-the-books covert operation working hand in hand with the CIA and others.  He did much of the research in person, visiting all these countries. The focus in this book is on the rise of the secretive JSOC – “Joint Special Operations Command” – variously described as a ‘death star,’ ‘Murder Inc.,’ a ‘global death squad’ – in effect secretive U.S. military assassination and kidnapping teams.  It is the revival of the Phoenix program from the Vietnam war and the Contra, Salvadorean and Guatemalan death squads of Central America, but blown up to a global dimension, run directly by the American President as his own Praetorian Guard.  No need to hide behind surrogates anymore.

Weaving in and out of the narrative is the personal and political story of American Anwar Awlaki, who was assassinated by an Obama drone in Yemen after being radicalized by the American wars in the Middle East.  His 16-year old American-born son met the same fate 20 days later. It goes into detail on familiar military ‘heroes’ like John Brennan, Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus, and relatively unknown ones like Admiral William McRaven, who served both Bush and Obama in both overt and covert ways, all up to their eyeballs in the dirty war.

There is no doubt from this book that there is almost perfect continuity between Bush and Obama in their application of ‘dirty war’ anti-terrorism methods.  In Scahill’s careful recounting, JSOC was created by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld after 9/11 – and it is now their continuing gift to the Obama administration.  The sub-head of the book – ‘the world is a battlefield’ – hints at how the ‘war’ pursued by the U.S. has now morphed into a borderless, timeless, unsupervised and lawless rampage across the planet.  Many witnesses testify that Obama has actually gone beyond some methods used by Bush.  However, for Democratic Party tribal partisans, as long as the label is ‘Democrat,’ the practice is good.  They really are a mirror reflection of the Republican tribalists.  

Another term this book fleshes out is ‘blowback’ – something we have run into before, but now applied to Somalia and Yemen.  Without the U.S. support for, first the criminal warlords of Somalia, then the invasion of Somalia by Ethiopia, then the inept Somalia government propped up by African ‘peacekeepers’ – there would be no strong “El Shabab” in Somalia, allied with Al Qaeda (“AQ”).  In Yemen, the U.S. has backed a wily dictator, President Ali Saleh, for many years, who lies and covers for the U.S. in order to gain funding and military aid.  After the Arab ‘spring” launched protests in Yemen against Saleh, weapons given to his government by the U.S. were used against protesters.  In exchange he has allowed U.S. cruise missiles, drones and ‘boots on the ground’ carte blanche, killing innocents and AQ at will.   This has lead to alliances between AQ and various large Yemeni tribes.  When the jihadis can dress their reactionary religion in nationalist cover, they can attract masses to their side, and this is what has happened in both Somalia and Yemen.   Not to mention Iraq and Afghanistan.

Scahill covers a JSOC war crime in Yemen, the bombing of the village of al Majalah by cruise missiles, which killed 41 people, only 5 of which were AQ, 14 women and 21 children.  Another group of pro-government Yemeni officials going to negotiate with AQ were blown up in their jeeps by JSOC, due to ‘bad’ intel.  He also covers another war crime in Afghanistan, a raid on a house having a party in the town of Gardez, also done by JSOC, which killed 5 people, including 3 women, some pregnant.  These people were supporters of the Afghan government.  The gruesome fact that emerged from this action was that the special ops shooters dug their bullets out of the women’s bodies with knives.  Either by being fed fake intelligence or bad intelligence, these ‘surgical’ strikes are anything but.  ‘Surgical strikes’ are another myth.  In Yemen, of 250 killed by JSOC strikes, only 40 are AQ, according to Yemeni sources.  A heroic Yemeni journalist, Abdullah Shaye, covered these stories, and was ordered arrested and incarcerated by the U.S.  The Yemeni government obliged.  Shaye is still in jail.   

You have to wonder, as many have, why a tiny group like Al Qaeda has become the be-all and end-all of foreign policy – unless there is an ulterior motive.  Which of course there is. 

Scahill shows how the government, the military and their stenographers in the media will outright lie, distort or fabricate stories that justify whatever they are doing - on a regular basis.  Any of us who protested the Vietnam war know this already, but for a younger generation being lied to constantly is a newish treat.  There are no verifiable facts – just the admonition to ‘trust us.’  John Brennan’s preposterous story about the raid on Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad was a great example, alleging bin Laden was armed and hid behind a woman as a shield.  Or the quickly-undermined government story that the attack in Bengazi was due to a protest over a film.  Witness the present absence of facts related to the proposed bombing of Syria.  As John Kerry has morphed from a winter soldier to a summer war-monger and Barack Obama has morphed from a constitutional lawyer and ‘community activist’ to someone who ignores the poor and rides roughshod over the Constitution – so too this is the story of former progressives who drink the cool-aid, and promote the Bushite military reactionaries like Petraeus and McChrystal.  Just as a good chunk of the Bush economic team was absorbed into the Obama administration.  Scahill recounts the story of one liberal ‘lawyer,’a former civil libertarian, who read a concoction of straight-out lies about Awlaki and decided Awlaki deserved to die.  No checking at all.  Drink up, everyone.

Scahill has a section on Raymond Davis, former Green Beret, working under a CIA cover, who Scahill and others have identified as probably a U.S. JSOC asset.  He shot two Pakistani ISI agents in the back in Pakistan, then was released after the payment of ‘blood money.’  Revealingly, Sharia law allows money to be paid as penance instead of any punishment, a practice called ‘diyyat’.  As Scahill says, ‘this diyyat provision is much loved by the rich and powerful in Muslim societies where it is in force; it literally allows them to get away with murder.’  In this case, Davis was removed from a Pakistani jail after relatives were forced to agree to a diyyat payment. 

Petraeus and McChrystal fell, not because of their support of torture, massive collateral damage to civilians, illegal detentions or unconstitutionally killing of Americans – but because one was bad-mouthing his boss and got caught by Rolling Stone – and the other was found with his pants down.   This is the pathetic state of American politics.   

And perhaps the American people.

At the center of this story is JSOC, which under Obama has become the leading edge of our counter-terrorism and war policies.  When Obama says there are no ‘boots on the ground’ he’s lying, because special ops forces drop into many countries in the world, uninvited and unknown.  Scahill and later Wikileaks proved this in the instance of Pakistan, where the U.S. government denied having ‘boots on the ground.’  It was revealed that special forces and Blackwater were carrying out raids with the Pakistani military.  Scahill published his story in the ‘Nation’ after he was threatened by the U.S. military.  They told him he would be ‘on thin ice’ if he wrote the story.  Remember, the whole world is a battlefield.  Who are they kidding?

Some of JSOCs intelligence for ‘kill’ lists is based on weak or second-hand reports, not even verified by their own intelligence organization, just that of Afghan, Pakistani, Yemeni or Somali sources that might have their own axe to grind.  As one military person put it, to get on the list you only need ‘hearsay.’  And after you’ve killed the top people on the kill list, then they add more, so the list always grows.  That is the nature of the beast, which leads to mid-level, low-level and ‘associated’ persons suddenly becoming targets of liquidation.  Any military-age male, in fact.  After all, you can’t declare success and go home.  JSOC has their own ‘intelligence assets’ and also secret detention facilities that are off-limits to almost everyone, including the Red Cross and Congress.  One, the “Hole” in Mogadishu; one at Balad air-force base in Afghanistan and the most notorious, Camp NAMA, formerly in Iraq.  In these sites they practiced and still practice illegal torture.  JSOC is directly controlled through the Pentagon by the President, so it serves as his own private military arm.  Congress is kept in the dark about its operations, so it has no civilian oversight except one person, who doesn't seem to be doing a good job of it.    

The real conundrum for JSOC will be how they operate in Syria.  U.S. special forces are on the ground there, aiding the “Free Syrian Army,” yet many of the fighters against Assad are now al Qaeda Sunni jihadis, many backed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, interested in killing Shiites.  Does JSOC go in and kill them or … wait until Assad is overthrown?  They are actually thinking the bombing of Syria will be directed at them as well.  How about Libya, where the same thing happened – where our great allies in the fight against Gaddafi were jihadis.  JSOC won’t know who to kill, or when.  All that results is not ‘freedom’ but chaos and shattered states.  Another 1,500 civilians will die just in a U.S. bombing campaign.  It is like trying to kill cancer with a baseball bat. 

Drone strikes, suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, the ‘state secrets’ privilege, assassination at will, accusations of ‘terrorism,’ almost unlimited and secret detentions, lack of oversight, the fake category of ‘unlawful combatant,’ and the killing of U.S. citizens without due process have now been institutionalized by both corporate Parties and the U.S. state and ‘legal’ system.  These accompany the Snowden revelations that the U.S. NSA is engaged in total surveillance of the internet, with the close collaboration of major technology corporations.  Without sharp opposition to these policies, some of these methods will be and are being used within the U.S., not just against alleged foreign ‘terrorists,’ but against people in the U.S. 

At this point, the CIA and JSOC fiercely compete over who can kill the most.  CIA controls the drone program while JSOC has their own Seals, Rangers & Green Berets, along with Tomahawks, to do their killing.  The CIA has even weakened its own intelligence-gathering facilities in order to focus on military action.  After reading this book, you begin to realize, as reactionary and bloody-minded as AQ is, their greatest recruiting agents are the invasions, drones, bases, ‘boots’ and bombs of the U.S. colossus. 

(Other books reviewed on this topic, below:  “Islamophobia” and “The Terror Factory.")

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
September 7, 2013