Tropic of Chaos: Old Wars Never Die, but Rise Again to Feed on the Flesh of the Living

Chapter 3: War for a Small Planet

These book reviews are a way for me to think through what we know of the changes we expect in our climate, and how to respond to them. In particular, I’m focused on actions we can take now to support our future efforts towards a society run on progressive, secular humanist values. I’m new to book reviews, so let me know if you have questions or suggestions. If you want to read along with me, the book is Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence, by Christian Parenti

General impression: This chapter concludes the introductory segment of the book, so it’s no surprise that it is solidly focused on the patterns of the last couple centuries that have laid the ground for the crises still to come. Its most chilling lesson for me, though, is how similar the goals and symptoms of counterinsurgency (COIN) are to the current state of both law enforcement and of tribalism in the United States.

All this really is, is an extension of the ancient tactic of “divide and conquer”. COIN takes it out of the battlefield, and employs it at every level of daily life, encouraging prejudices, feelings of aggrievement, worry about access to necessities, and so on. The question is what we do in response to that looming threat, and how, in the future, we can avoid the mistakes of the present and the past.

Soundtrack: ¡No Mas!, John McCutcheon

Click here for lyrics.

What can we do in response to this chapter? At risk of sounding like a broken record, study the history of the past couple hundred years, particularly from the point of view of the people at the receiving end of America’s “Greatness”. Many people have pointed out, over the last couple decades, how many Cold War-era figures are still shaping U.S. policy and politics. Oliver North’s recent reappearance in the public view stands as a grim monument to this trend, but it should also serve as a reminder that we’re not just saddled with the criminals of that era, but also the damage they did. Just as decades of U.S. meddling in Iran brought us the current crisis there, the refugees that the conservative movement is so eager to brutalize at our southern border are there, in part, because of U.S. meddling in South and Central America, and the instability we have cultivated there.

It is vital that we not only learn what happened, but also what justifications were made to support injustice and atrocities during that time. As was done during the Civil Rights Movement, people will claim that working for justice is a luxury that cannot be afforded during times of crisis. For those with unjust power and privilege, it will never be the right time for them give that up, and we will not be able to face any challenges as a united species for as long as we are defending injustice in the name of that unity.

Now on to the review!

A few months ago, I started keeping an eye on for various reasons, and have been spending some time talking to, and trading barbs with the Fox News commentariat. With the current political focus on immigration and refugees, I found myself reaching back to my high school activism, and explaining the role America has played in creating a scenario, in South and Central America, that might lead people to flee their homes to seek refuge elsewhere. WHINSEC, formerly known as The School of the Americas, has spent decades training people sent by the governments of various Latin American regimes. Their speciality seems to be training officers who then go back to their home countries to create death squads, torture people, run terrorist psych-ops programs, and in some cases become dictators of their own regimes. Probably the most famous graduate from this program of the American Military would be one Manuel Noriega, former shadow dictator of Panama.

In the previous chapter, Parenti talked about “semi-retired militias” that would pop up whenever resources became scarce and start killing people again. South of the U.S./Mexico border, many of those militias got training, resources, and tactics either directly from WHINSEC, or from people trained at that institution. Counterinsurgency (COIN, for an acronym) is, at its root, the military strategy of finding weaknesses in the social fabric of an occupied society, and distributing resources, power, and rhetoric so as to turn those slight differences and tensions into blood feuds that will keep the locals fighting each other, reducing the likelihood of any effective resistance to the occupying military.

It also happens to be a self-sustaining source of profit for the Security-Industrial Complex. Noriega is a good example of this, too. He was trained by the U.S. military, and with that training rose to power in a cloud of allegations of torture, worked with the U.S. as part of the war on drugs, reportedly playing both sides of the war – taking bribes from cartels, helping run guns, and helping destabilize Colombia by supporting rebel groups. And then, in time, he was deposed during a U.S. invasion of Panama that was supposedly in response to his involvement with the drug trade, and his brutality.

All in all, that one WHINSEC/SOA graduate generated a vast amount of profit for military suppliers of all sorts, contractors, “experts”, and so on, and for people who have followed the history of American interventions around the world, the pattern should feel pretty familiar. From what I can tell, a majority (maybe the entirety?) of American military activity around the world in my lifetime has been some kind of mopping up after our previous activity in those areas. That doesn’t bode well for global resilience to a warming event, or for the likelihood that we’ll see peace, as long as the most powerful, influential entities in the world continue to profit from war.

This pattern of people being turned against each other to keep them from uniting against an occupying force should also feel uncomfortably familiar to any who have been paying attention not just to America’s history of genocide, slavery and oppression, but to the continuation of those “original sins” of the United States in the form of the for-profit prison system and the law enforcement system that supplies it.

Most people can see the threat of tribalism in hard times, and even the danger of serious problems being neglected because of infighting. Really all this is is an extension of “divide and conquer”. COIN takes that strategy off of the battlefield, and employs it at every level of day to day life, encouraging prejudices, feelings of aggrievement, worry about access to necessities, and so on.

There seem to be two ways that people respond to this threat of tribalism. The most common (and most profitable) is to declare that those with less power must set aside their concerns, no matter how valid and just, to deal with the bigger problem. This has always been the demand of the powerful, just as the wealthy have always been first to demand that everyone sacrifice equal amounts for the common good. Any unity that maintains an imbalance of power and justice is an illusion. The path to unified action against a global threat leads through justice, equality, equity, and human rights.

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  1. says

    A powerful and challenging closing statement:
    “Any unity that maintains an imbalance of power and justice is an illusion. The path to unified action against a global threat leads through justice, equality, equity, and human rights.”

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