Blowback, Wellstone, Hitchens and What's "the Left"?

by Alexander Cockburn

Dissident Voice

November 3, 2002



From Howard Unruh to John Muhammad


A nation always on the war path means a nation always under arms, a nation to which war is always coming home. A minority of these homecomers arrive in the form of psychically maimed people, violence-prone drunks, domestic abusers, drug addicts, basket cases. This summer, before Muhammad and Malvo embarked on their lethal jaunts, the whole issue of blowback, of wars Coming Home had turned red hot with the murders and suicides in North Carolina's Fort Bragg, a vast military base and home to the elite Special Forces.


On June 11 Sgt. Rigoberto Nieves, 32, of the 3rd Special Forces Group, shot his 28-year-old wife, Teresa, and then himself, in their bedroom, as Teresa's sister and other relatives sat downstairs. He had returned from Afghanistan two days earlier, having requested leave to resolve "personal issues."


On June 29 Jennifer Wright was strangled by her husband, William. The 36-year-old Green Beret confessed to the killing three weeks later.


On July 9 Sgt. Cedric Griffin, 28, of the 37th Engineer Battalion at Fort Bragg, was arrested after stabbing his wife, Marilyn, more than fifty times before setting her body on fire. The couple had been married for eight years but had recently separated.

Sgt. Brandon Floyd was a member of the Delta Force, a champion triathlete. He'd just come back from Afghanistan. On July 19, amid a domestic quarrel, Floyd shot his wife, Andrea, in the head. Then he put the barrel inside his mouth and blew the top of his head off.


On July 23 in Fayetteville, the support town for Fort Bragg, Joan Shannon killed her husband, Maj. David Shannon, part of the Special Operations Command. The 40-year-old was shot in the head and chest while sleeping in his bed.


A common theme of the few good news stories on this issue cites wives complaining of the great difficulty in getting any help in dealing with a violent, maybe homicidal, husband. Analisa Nazareno had a harrowing account this month in the San Antonio Express-News about Rhonda Pion, terrified of her husband, legally blind and therefore unable to drive away from Fort Sam Houston, an army base there. Rules required that Pion seek permission from her husband's commanding officer to get a protective order from the military judge advocate general's office. As one victim's advocate said, "It's like having to go to your father-in-law and asking him for permission to protect yourself from his son." Ultimately Pion fled to a relative in Louisiana.


Maj. Gen. Robert Clark is having trouble getting his third star because he's accused of not doing enough to deal with domestic and antigay violence when he was commanding officer at Fort Campbell, in Kentucky. In 1999 Pvt. Barry Winchell was beaten to death there. In addition to Winchell's murder, there were four homicides related to domestic violence while Clark was in charge. Kathy Spence, the mother of one victim, LaRonda Spence, said her daughter complained at least thirty times to her husband's superiors about his abuse, but they did nothing. "How can you promote someone who is supposed to protect the country when they can't even protect our daughters?" Spence asked Ron Martz, a reporter from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.


Congress established a Defense Department task force in 1999 after findings showed that the rate of domestic violence in the military had risen by more than a third, to 25.6 per 1,000 soldiers in 1996 from 18.6 per 1,000 in 1990. At the time, domestic violence rates were dropping among the general population. In that six-year period there were 61,000 cases of military spouses suffering domestic violence, five times higher than the number in the civilian population. In the year 2000, 12,068 cases of spousal abuse were reported to the military's Family Advocacy Program. There were eight deaths that year-all women, and all involving domestic violence.


The military is desperate to bury the stats, but it's clear that most abusers get away with it. Special Forces soldiers, at hairtrigger readiness to kill, can be away for up to ten months a year. A Green Beret with five to seven years' experience earns $25,000. Each partner in this financially stressed duo worries, often with reason, that the other is fooling around.


The two best recent stories on the Fort Bragg killings have, maybe unsurprisingly, appeared outside this country, which most recently hosted a bland piece of Army PR in USA Today, by Dave Moniz. Tim Reid, always a good reporter, had a fine piece in the London Times, as did Doug Saunders in the Toronto Globe and Mail.


Saunders quotes David Grossman, a former US military psychologist who helped develop programs to make new recruits more effective killers, to increase what's called the "trigger-pull ratio." These programs are now part of basic training. Grossman says that the trick is to break down the natural human aversion to killing. He calls this "disengagement." Once this aversion has been removed, it never comes back, and can make it easier for former soldiers to become murderers. "The ability to watch a human being's head explode and to do it again and again-that takes a kind of desensitization to human suffering that has to be learned," Grossman said.


So don't blame Charlton Heston. The US military is the chief sponsor of violence in this country. One day in 1949 Howard Unruh, a 28-year-old World War II veteran, shot thirteen of his New Jersey neighbors. His famous line was, "I'd have killed a thousand if I'd had enough bullets." His military firearms training made his "walk of death" the first modern serial-killer case.


From Unruh to Muhammad. Millions have been molded in this manner. Blowback is the consequence. It will be with us as long as the Empire needs war as its guarantor. America is living in the blowback years. What goes around comes around, with unforeseen consequences, or consequences foreseen but discounted. Unleash the mujahedeen on the Soviets in Afghanistan, and you get Osama bin Laden.


Blowback usually comes as a shock, because the art of politics is to separate actions from consequences.


Writing About Wellstone


Earlier this year CounterPunch published Jeff Taylor's excellent article on Paul Wellstone's political performance. After Wellstone's death, Taylor suggested to CounterPunch's editors that perhaps the article, which was critical of Wellstone, should be taken off the CounterPunch site on the grounds that it might seem tasteless amid the mourning for the senator and his family.


Jeffrey St. Clair and I felt that there was no need to take the article down, and that visitors to our site are capable of understanding that a thoughtful assessment written months ago did not imply ghoulish intent to dance on Wellstone's grave. We told Jeff as much. Here's his final considered response.


"After thinking about it for a few days (and watching the politically-motivated hagiography wheels turn), I think the essay should remain. I still believe everything I wrote. It's full of truths, even if they're inconvenient or painful. add an author's note , as follows: This essay was written in June 2002, four months before Senator Wellstone and seven others died in a tragic plane crash. My differences with Wellstone were political, not personal. I used to be a great admirer of Wellstone the politician. He gained my long-distance support in 1990 when he led opposition to the Gulf War and I voted for him in 1996 when I moved to Minnesota. A year after that, I was an early Wellstone-for-President booster.


"Over time, I became disillusioned and my article reflects that fact. It's easier to romanticize a politician when you don't know so much about him or her. Since his death, I've been getting hate mail from Wellstone worshippers and gleeful mail from Wellstone haters. The latter tendency is sick and evil. The former is deluded and irrational. Should powerful politicians be exempt from criticism because they might someday die a premature death? I think it's also wrong that some are willing to exploit personal tragedies to score political points. Despite the sad way his life ended, the strengths and weaknesses of Wellstone's career stand on their own, are instructive, and are subject to discussion.


"P.S.--Wellstone's replacement in the Senate race, Walter Mondale, has all of Wellstone's vices and none of Wellstone's virtues. Thanks for posting my essay in the first place and for considering this request. CounterPunch remains a true public service. Thanks, Jeff Taylor."


Whose Left Is It Anyway?


One of the few decent publications coming from inside the Beltway in Washington DC is Sam Smith's on-line Progressive Review. In the wake of Christopher Hitchens' departure from the Nation and foolish denunciations of the left, Sam had some interesting reflections on what exactly "the left" consists of, contrasting the "elite" or old Marxist left with the colloquial, informal, spontaneous left:


"I have always been far closer to the idiomatic, colloquial left than to the more elite varieties I have never gotten on that well with the Hitchens' former pals in the elite left because I never could find the time to straighten out my paradigm. It turns out it wasn't all that important anyway, because the people who made the difference were not the famous talkers but the little known doers, ordinary people, who in Conrad's phrase, for one brief moment did something out of the ordinary.


"They were people who had not studied Marx and Hegel and couldn't tell a Trotskyite from a troll. But they knew, in Pogo's words, when to 'stand on the piano and demand outrage action.' These are the people of whom Carl Sandburg wrote: 'I am the people--the mob--the crowd--the mass. Do you know that all the great work of this world is done through me? I am the workingman, the inventor, the maker of the world's food and clothes. I am the audience that witnesses history. The Napoleons come from me and the Lincolns. They die. and then I send forth more Napoleons and Lincolns. . . Sometimes I growl, shake myself and spatter a few red drops for history to remember. Then--I forget. When I, the people, learn to remember, when I, the People use the lessons of yesterday and no longer forget who robbed me last year, who played me for a fool--then there will be no speaker in all the world say the name: "The People", with any fleck of a sneer in his voice or any far off smile of derision. The mob--The crowd--The mass--will arrive then.'


"Consistently, the east coast shuttle left from which Hitchens has departed has been indifferent about, ignorant of, or even in opposition to the issues of the idiomatic, colloquial left. The people who are changing the way other people think about things are found scattered around the nation. And when some of them came together in the most effective progressive political organization of modern times--the Green Party--they were not only not welcomed into the club, they were frequently excoriated. And as for the critics of an Iraqi invasion, they are typically just ordinary citizens who have learned without the help of Ramsey Clark to be scared to death of what their leaders are about to do to them.


"Hitchens and his ilk will continue to have their little debates, all carefully framed in a manner that excludes most of the people they claim to care about and most of the people who actually produce change. It worked at university and it works now. But it has little to do with either America or the left as it really is."


After reading this, I wrote to Smith, taking friendly issue with his analysis, in the following terms.


Sam, For what it's worth (and remembering that the two editors of Counterpunch, self and Jeffrey St Clair, live in California and Oregon), I liked some of what you said about the left and non-left, but I think your contrasting of the doctrinaire sterility of failed old "left" with creative, non doctrinaire spirited "real left" left a lot of the story untold.


In my years of going around the country doing anti-intervention talks, fund-raisers, book tours etc, etc, the first thing to notice is that there's a truly vast left that is invisible to almost all east coast commentators. Church people, labor people, public defenders, Lawyers Guild, faculty people, farm people, radical greens, World Federalist types, red diapered middle-agers, in almost every town. (And in every town the left will tell you with gloomy pride how conservative their town is. )


And in meeting after meeting you can look at the audience and see older folk who were labor commies in the 50s and who have certainly had their share of doctrinal struggle and who have read Marx etc, and sixties vintage people who might have fought their way through the RCP and out the other side, and then younger people still who might have come aboard in WTO wars and who read Counterpunch. It's a rich geology that varies from place to place. For example in one town in Wisconsin the two most bustling left activists and organizers were both kind of ex Revolutionary Communist Party. In the Deep South I've met radical lawyers who are still the organizing backbone of their communities who came down as Maoists in the 70s. In for the long haul and lively and not deserving of your misprision. A lot of good organizers are still in left groups you might instinctively deride as fossilized Trots or Maoists or whatever.


Of course you're right in one thing: many of these, especially the younger lot, couldn't give a toss about Hitchens. I was reminded of this when I gave a speech in SF a few months ago and derided Hitchens' positions and a lively young woman in a left group asked me impatiently what was all the talk about this "Clifford Hutchins". As for Hitchens, he parted ways with anything decently radical long, long ago, as I occasionally point out. My hope of course, which Jeffrey and I try to push along in Counterpunch, is that the left should understand that common cause can be made with many in the populist right who take the Bill of Rights seriously. Ashcroft is doing his best to help.


And Talking of Hitchens


This just in from Bill Blum, author of the invaluable "Rogue State: A Guide to the World's Only Superpower":


"I hadn't planned on publicizing the following exchange of emails I had with Christopher Hitchens, but inasmuch as he reneged on his promise and continues to write the same dribble, I am submitting it to the world's judgment. ≠


October 20, 2002 "Dear Mr. Hitchens, I've followed your support for the American Empire's newest bombing hysteria, but I have failed to hear from you any kind of response to the most important question: Do you support, once again, the dropping of large quantities of highly lethal explosives upon the heads of countless innocent men, women and children, destroying their homes, their schools, their hospitals, their lives, their futures? If you can't deal with this question, but instead continue to content yourself with snapping at the heels of the left with irrelevant, esoteric, and (hopefully) droll side issues, then I would say that you are guilty of serious character failure and are engaging in nothing less than intellectual masturbation. Sincerely, Bill Blum."


October 21, 2002 "If you consider that a properly phrased question, or would publish it as such under your own name, then I am willing to reply to it. But I will, for now and for your sake, consider it confidential. Do you feel like having another try? CH."


October 21, 2002 "If you can get it published and reply to it, that would suit me fine. Bill Blum."


"That", Blum writes, "was the last I heard from Hitchens. My analysis is this: He was unable to respond in substance to the question I challenged him with and so he thought that he'd try intimidation instead, on the premise, apparently, that I would be embarrassed to see my email publicized. Why would he have thought I'd be embarrassed? Because I used the word "masturbation"? If not that, I can't imagine."


And Talking of Blum and Hitchens


This also just in from Adam Engel, a New York-based CounterPuncher, who had asked us whether we thought Wellstone had been assassinated. We told him No, we didn't think so, and he answered thus:


"I didn't think so, but A) I just finished reading Bill Blum's "Killing Hope," which, along with your and JSC's "White Out" would make even the late great William Burroughs quake in his boots (and is chock full of plane-crash assassinations), and B) though I'm a "stop-light" Green (If I can't vote Red, I'll vote Green, but NEVER Yellow), I did argue fervently to fellow de facto Greens that Wellstone was no Al Gore.


"By the way, I followed your brief exchange with Sam Smith regarding Hitchens. Why are so many writers/scholars/editors that I respect and admire, including, among others, Chomsky, Herman, Solomon, Pilger, Albert, Ehrenreich, Fisk, Sam Smith, Cockburn, St Clair, and so many others wasting valuable time, talking and writing about Christopher Hitchens? Even when he was a 'good-guy' I never saw him as anything but Hunter Thompson in a White Hat--an arrogant, foppish, chain-smoking, self-promoting boozer. At least Thompson never pretended to be anything other than a self-serving asshole. The world's on fire, yet so much print/screen space has been wasted merely because this wanna-be Norman Mailer opted for a bigger paycheck and better health insurance or whatever the Corporate Media gave him. He's a piece of snot that doesn't even deserve the dignity of a decent Kleenex burial, but should be flicked furtively to the rug or wiped under the couch when no one's looking...yet, he's treated like news. Je ne comprend pas."


Alexander Cockburn is the author The Golden Age is In Us (Verso, 1995) and 5 Days That Shook the World: Seattle and Beyond (Verso, 2000) with Jeffrey St. Clair. Cockburn and St. Clair are the editors of CounterPunch, the nationís best political newsletter, where this article first appeared.