Our Weekly Discontents, 3/1/2021

Forever War weary

American bombs fell on Syria again last week. The seven bombs were mostly likely GBU-38s, a roughly 500 pound bomb with about several pounds of guidance equipment attached. In areas where there’s an available GPS signal, the Air Force claims one of these bombs will hit within 5 meters of where it was targeted; without GPS, the accuracy is reduced to 30 meters.

The two planes carrying the bombs were F-15Es, a model of fighter that’s been in service since before the first Iraq War. These jets were most likely flown out of Muwaffaq Salti Air Base. Located in Jordan, Muwaffaq Salti has hosted American military flights since at least 2013, and United States spent $140 million upgrading its facilities in 2019

When the bombs fell, they destroyed nine buildings, and partially damaged at least two more. It will take some time to know exactly how many humans died with the attack; initial estimates range from a low of 1 to a high of 22, though it may be higher still. The militias targeted are comprised of Iraqis, are backed by Iran, and operate on both sides of the Iraq/Syria border. 

Here’s what the aftermath of the bombing looks like:

In the 19th year and fourth presidency of the Forever War, this sort of violence is routine. I expected to see the Biden administration point to the 2001 or 2002 authorizations for war on, respectively, al Qaeda or Iraq to justify the attack. Instead, the White House cited Article II of the US Constitution, claiming that this was justified self-defense, since one of the militias bomb had earlier killed a civilian contractor and injured American troops in a rocket attack.

The present stage of the war doesn’t exist without the 2003 US invasion. Pointing to a defense of troops in-country is insufficient, even if it is a tidy answer for the technocrats of war.

Take even a moment to understand the long war, and one finds untidiness everywhere. Most immediately, in this being politics that ends in corpses, but also, in where the strike took place. Hitting an Iraqi militia in Syria is a loophole around the Government of Iraq’s explicit demand that the US halt air strikes on Iraq. (The US forces are there largely on a “training and support” mission, isntead of a fighting one, though as the rocket attacks show this can bleed over into shooting). After the United States broke this prohibition to assassinate Iranian general Qassem Soleimani with an air strike within Iraq in early 2020, Iraq’s parliament demanded US forces leave, though ultimately they did not.

Minutes before dropping the bombs on Syria last week, the Air Force called Russia to “de-conflict” the airspace, a sterile term for making sure the nuke-armed countries don’t turn their respective proxy wars into a shooting war over anything so trivial as the lives of a given proxy.

While the White House and the Pentagon can make tactical justifications for the attack, and they have, from the President to the Secretary of Defense, the strikes changed nothing in the political calculus for anyone except, maybe, slightly, that of a militia already willing to fire rockets at US forces.

The bombing happened because it fit the operating logic of the Forever War: it is politically easier to do some violence, in the name of an impossible-to-achieve end, than it is to do no violence. To not do violence would be to face domestic political consequences for acknowledging that the war as sold is endless, that no victory will ever match a decades-old promise of vengeance once pledged amidst Manhattan rubble.

By grim coincidence, the endlessness of this war was the topic of the Wars of Future Past newsletter I sent last week.

“A claim to fight and win an endless war becomes totalizing, in a way [that] imposes a political cost on subsequent administrations if they try to define limited objectives and declare the war done once those are achieved,” I said.

In the piece I lean heavily on an attempt to define endless wars by New America’s David Sterman, and I’m repeating it here, because I think it’s important.

“Wars become endless when a belligerent adopts objectives it doesn’t have the capability to achieve, but isn’t at risk of facing defeat,” Sterman writes.

We’re in presidency 4 and year 20 of the Forever War because the United States has been built, since 1947 and especially since 2001, to set wars in motion, and to never have to end them. Outside of a handful of contractors selling counter-insurgency specific weapons, or virulent xenophobes looking for crusading violence, the war benefits no one, in the US and also abroad.

Yet the war continues because it is easy to have it continue, somehow easier than raising the minimum wage with unified control of government. The Forever War is a bipartisan project, full of small deliverables, a Rube Goldberg machine that converts bombs into mangled flesh and partisan loyalty.

While campaigning in July 2019, Biden promised to “end the forever wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East.” The vast powers of the executive over foreign policy and military affairs make that end his to declare. All he’s lacking is courage. 

Wild turkeys cohabitate with Soldiers with the 28th Expeditionary Combat Aviation Brigade at a remote outpost in the 28th ECAB's area of operations in the Middle East. (U.S. Army photo by Capt. Jason Nelson)
Wild turkeys cohabitate with Soldiers with the 28th Expeditionary Combat Aviation Brigade at a remote outpost in Syria. (Jason Nelson / US Army)

Welcome to Hell World

Luke O’Neil

This weekend I spoke with a guy who works in medical billing. Basically he’s the guy who takes the bill from your doctor for your medical care, presents it to the insurance company to try to get money out of them to cover it, then comes back to you with whatever stupid amount you now owe. Along the way all manner of mystical bullshit transpires that he almost doesn’t even understand himself. It’s essentially alchemy. Turning medicine into money.  Ultimately, he said, “my job shouldn’t exist.” 

“The way that for-profit insurance makes money is this: You pay your premium, and then they hold that in an account that gains interest. Maybe they invest it. The point is they are making money off of holding it. You go to see your doctor, they write down why you were there, the length of the appointment, then I code it and submit it out. The insurance company gets it and they say, oh we didn’t actually get it. They say the claim was lost in the mail. Then I have to go, no, no, it was sent on this day. Then they go, oh, ok we did get it, but actually, you needed a pre-authorization for this. Ok, let’s go back and do that. All of these things are to really delay and hold onto that money so it gains interest. That’s why you get pre-authorizations, and ticky-tack denials, these things that really make it more difficult for you the consumer, while the insurance company makes more money.”

Read it here.

Elsewhere I tried to comprehend the 500,000 deaths from the pandemic.

This coming Sunday is the anniversary of the first American death from the pandemic. The first of 500,000. How do you feel about that number? It just kind of sits there in its grandiose heft for me. Like if you saw a dinosaur come to life emerging over a hill into a clearing its immense stupid body unfurling in front of you you wouldn’t go oh look at its little nose you’d behold it all in its uncanny size at once and be struck dumb. I can’t personally make much sense out of it. 500,000 dead now in under a year. What is that? It makes my brain feel slow and dry like when you’re struggling with an especially dense philosophical text or something or like when your fight or flight reflexes kick in and you instinctively know that you’re somewhere you shouldn’t be. It’s when you go down in the basement. It’s an ejector button for comprehension. You cannot hold the deaths of 500,000 individuals from a pandemic in one country in your brain all at once it overloads the system. It’s Lovecraftian and just as if not more racist.

Read it here.

The Insurgents

Jordan Uhl & Rob Rousseau

A little over a year ago, Jordan and George Schmitz of hardcore band Stick to Your Guns were in Nevada, celebrating Bernie Sanders’s historic win and daring to dream of a future in which something kind of good happened in America. A lot has happened since then, and as we all know, the possible good thing never materialized. So this week we talked to George and bandmate Jesse about the early days of the Biden administration and the troubling signs that they’re not exactly living up to the hype as the most progressive administration in American history, bombing Syria in “self-defense”, their new music, and how engaging in local politics and mutual aid can help ward off potential doomerism.

Sick Note

Libby Watson

Returning to a theme that I can never quite leave, work sucks! Chase is a 25 year-old man from Virginia who has spinal scoliosis, or a curved spine, which has caused him immense pain when he’s worked jobs at places like Jersey Mike’s. We also talked about the anxiety of signing up for health insurance; he hasn’t seen a doctor much in the past few years, and couldn’t afford the co-pays at a chiropractor. I also reported on the case of a Connecticut senior whose coronavirus vaccine appointment at a Walmart pharmacy was canceled the night before it was scheduled, supposedly because of a billing issue with her Medicare. Pharmacies are forbidden from charging patients for the vaccine, but are they forbidden from canceling appointments and giving them away to someone whose insurance will pay? Seems like no.

Foreign Exchanges

Derek Davison

Between airstrikes in Syria (see above) and the release of the big (if anticlimactic) intelligence community report identifying Mohammed bin Salman as the man responsible for the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, it’s been a busy week at Foreign Exchanges. But from the newsletter’s perspective the most important thing that happened is that I welcomed a new contributing writer to the fold: political scientist Alex Thurston from the University of Cincinnati. Alex’s research focuses on the intersection of Islam and politics, especially in the Sahel region of West Africa. He’s been a frequent guest on the FX podcast to discuss events in that part of the world, but as a contributor he’ll be focusing on broader topics. In his first piece, he took a big picture look back at the origins of the War on Terror:

Most of the choices American policymakers have made in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks have been disastrous. To be sure, a small segment of the American elite has benefited politically and financially from those choices, even when they’ve failed to work as advertised. But on the whole, this disastrous response has weakened the United States as a nation and as a society. It has affected people in other countries even more dramatically. Thousands of innocent people have died, or had their lives ruined, because of a quixotic “counter-terrorism” effort—an effort that has ultimately boosted the spread of the very movements and ideologies it is ostensibly meant to combat, as even ardent defenders of the War on Terror admit.

Yet other courses of action were possible in response to 9/11. Here I lay out four scenarios for how things might have gone differently, each of them progressively more distant from how the actual response played out.

Alex also joined me for this week’s podcast, where we talked about his piece and, you guessed it, events in the Sahel, including the contentious aftermath of Niger’s recent presidential election.


Felipe De La Hoz & Gaby Del Valle

If there is one enduring immigration policy and enforcement issue that sets off fiery passions among people who tend to know very little about its mechanics, it’s, well, everything, but particularly the motif of “kids in cages.” This is understandable in the sense that there are few things as intrinsically abhorrent as the mistreatment of children, and any level of nuance can carry the whiff of rationalization or excuse. The recent announcement that the new administration is reopening child “influx shelters” set off a new wave of screeching that it didn’t go far enough from Biden’s right; chickenshit defenses from his moderate allies; and accusations of total capitulation from his left.

Much of this discourse took place in the absence of any information about what exactly these facilities actually are and what alternatives exist. At BORDER/LINES, our motto is “immigration news, in context,” and our unofficial motto is some variation of “no, NO not that’s not how it works at all god DAMMIT.” We believe that you can’d address an issue unless you’re able to name it and describe it, and so in that spirit, we took on the thankless task of diving deep into the different types of child immigration custody, how they differ, what Biden is moving to actually do, and what questions remain about it.

Perspectives: Past, Present, and Future

Patrick Wyman

Nothing new on Perspectives this past week, but the prehistory series continues this coming Thursday with a new entry on the emergence of the pharaohs in Egypt. Check out prior installments on the city of Uruk and the dawn of civilization in Mesopotamia or the lead-up to the unification of Egypt in the Nile Valley.

Discourse Blog

Hi again, Crosbie from Discourse Blog here. Joe Biden has finally acknowledged that there is an incredibly consequential union battle playing out in Bessemer, Alabama, although he did neglect to mention the actual union or the company trying to bust it (Amazon.) Still, I’m claiming this one as a win because of my blog last week

Also on the blog: Jack Mirkinson watched Ted Cruz scream at CPAC (why he did this I do not know) and broke down the hideous prioritization of bombs over a $15 minimum wage. Katherine dove right into the Mr. Potatohead controversy, as a perfect setup for the absolutely chaotic live event we did with comedians Jeremy Levick and Rajat Suresh. 

Meanwhile, Rafi shortchanged his kids, Paul tackled child detention, Caitlin spoke to Dr. Ashley D. Farmer on Black women’s impact across history, and I, with great regret, blogged about Neera Tanden. Leading off this week we’ve got an interview with Luke O’Neil on the blog, where we do some riffs about writing and also death. It’s a good time!