The White Noise of War

In the high-vaulted main hall of Union Station in Washington, DC, the sound of a drone attack interrupts the morning rush hour. A dozen people suddenly freeze in place. Some point up into the air. Others crouch with hands over their heads in a vain attempt at self-protection. The commuters on their way to and from the trains pause to look at the stationary figures. After a minute or so, the leaf-blower sound of the drone attack cuts off, and the figures crumple to the ground, crying out in pain. As the cries of the victims fade, two attendants cover the bodies with blood-stained sheets.

A banner unfolds. A chant begins. The commuters in Union Station receive their termination notices. "You are a child living in Miranshah, Pakistan," reads one of these flyers. "Your house is adjacent to a militant compound. A 'kill chain' comprised of U.S. officials mandates that a pilotless drone aircraft should fire on the building where you live. On August 23rd, 2010, a CIA drone-operated Hellfire missile kills you, two other children, and four women."

This mock drone attack (you can see the video here)--along with others in San Francisco, Boston, and Madison--takes place on the anniversary of the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. Many commuters walk by the scene and pay scant attention to the five-minute performance. This is, after all, Washington, DC: Protests, civil disobedience, and political street theater are a feature of the landscape.

But there's another, more disturbing reason for the indifference. On October 7, we entered our tenth year of the Afghanistan War. The air war, the Pentagon pronouncements, the daily invocations of patriotism: These have all combined to create a white noise that drowns out the voices of opposition at home and abroad. This white noise of war is a drone sound that makes others duck and cover but renders Americans dangerously complacent.

So far, the Obama administration's policies have been part of the problem, not the solution. The president authorized a surge in troops on the ground and asked Congress to increase the money we're paying for that war. At the same time, the administration has dramatically increased the frequency of drone attacks on al-Qaeda and Taliban targets in Pakistan -- from two to three a week to five attacks every week in September.

These drone attacks aren't the pinpoint strikes the Pentagon would like us to believe. We are killing as many as 50 civilians for every extremist leader targeted. Anti-American sentiment has surged in Pakistan and throughout the Muslim world. According to a recent New America Foundation and Terror Free Tomorrow poll, nearly nine out of 10 people in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) oppose the U.S. military pursuing al-Qaeda and the Taliban in their region and "nearly 70 percent of FATA residents instead want the Pakistani military alone to fight Taliban and al-Qaeda militants in the tribal areas."

The hearts and minds have spoken. But they can't be heard above the white noise of war.

This poll was conducted before a U.S. gunship mistakenly killed three Pakistani soldiers in an attack on a military outpost in Pakistan. The United States apologized. But Pakistanis remain outraged.

"Why should NATO only acknowledge its mistake in the killing Frontier Corps personnel?" asks the English-language Pakistani newspaper, The Nation. "Does the state of Pakistan not value the lives of its civilians? Surely the Pakistan government should have responded to this half-baked apology with a demand for a proper apology for all the NATO intrusions into FATA which have killed Pakistani citizens?" Pakistan temporarily closed its borders to NATO transport for the Afghanistan War. Too bad Islamabad reopened the border, writes Foreign Policy In Focus blogger Russ Wellen -- it was a perfect opportunity for Washington to begin "in earnest to back away from the crime scene that has become Afghanistan."

What outrages Pakistan barely registers here in the United States. According to a Gallup poll from last month, the issue of war -- including the fear of war -- ranked as the most important issue facing the United States for only three percent of respondents. "National security" and "war in Iraq" scored even lower. And this data is remarkably consistent going back to March. A politically savvy president would shift the money from areas of relative indifference (war) to areas of relative obsession (jobs and the economy).

Today, of course, everyone is focused on the mid-term elections and the prospects of a big Republican win . "Whereas Obama seemed to do all the right things in his quest for the presidency, he seemed to make all the wrong moves as chief executive," writes FPIF columnist Walden Bello in Lessons of the Obama Debacle. "His prioritizing of health care reform, a massively complex task, has been identified as a key blunder. This decision certainly contributed to the debacle. But other important factors related mainly to his handling of the economic crisis, a primary concern of the electorate, were perhaps more critical."

That economic crisis will continue to dominate the second half of Obama's term. It won't be easy to push through job-creation policies in the face of Republican obstructionism (and Democratic wishy-washiness). Hamstrung on domestic policy, he could still act boldly in the global realm, creating a foreign policy legacy that could stand beside health care reform. Ending the Afghanistan War, alongside the troop withdrawals from Iraq, could be that legacy. Such courageous acts could create a buzz for Barack Obama, perhaps even enduring applause, that would qualify, finally, as a fitting substitute for the white noise of war.

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