Norman Solomon - 'War Made Invisible: How America Hides the Human Toll of its Military Machine'

Norman Solomon - 'War Made Invisible: How America Hides the Human Toll of its Military Machine'


The cover for 'War Made Invisible'.

Norman Solomon is a humanist who’s got an issue with how the American war machinery sees some people as human and others as non-people. That’s nearly the foundation for this book: Solomon uses quotes and shows how the U.S. government discards their victims and their rights. This reminds me of how the term ‘worthy victims’ was coined by Edward Herman; Noam Chomsky says this about the term:

He made a distinction between worthy victims, whose fate matters—victims of enemy states, and unworthy victims, whose fate doesn’t matter, our victims.1

Solomon’s book clearly shows who are worthy and unworthy in the eyes of the American military-industrial complex. Hand in hand with the military, major media outlets (both print and TV/streaming) conveniently don’t report anything about the unworthy; this is the other part of the fundament that makes this book: how American media bury American-made slaughter and genocide of other peoples and nations.

The introductory quotes in this book say much about its contents:

The propagandist’s purpose is to make one set of people forget that certain other sets of people are human. —ALDOUS HUXLEY, 1936

The greatest triumphs of propaganda have been accomplished, not by doing something, but by refraining from doing. Great is truth, but still greater, from a practical point of view, is silence about truth. —ALDOUS HUXLEY, 1946

Do not think yourself better because you burn up friends and enemies with long-range missiles without ever seeing what you have done. —THOMAS MERTON, CONCLUDING A POEM IN THE VOICE OF A NAZI COMMANDANT

Solomon compares how leading North American-owned TV stations, newspapers, and other media outlets whitewash U. S. crimes while, most often, not even mentioning their victims. For example, consider how secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld was described in major media:

As the United States exploded bombs in Afghanistan during the autumn of 2001, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s daily briefings catapulted him into a stratosphere of national adulation. The Washington Post’s media reporter wrote that “everyone is genuflecting before the Pentagon powerhouse,” who was “America’s new rock star.” During an interview that winter, the host of NBC’s Meet the Press told Rumsfeld: “Sixty-nine years old, and you’re America’s stud.”

Remember, Rumsfeld was responsible for many deaths in the Iraq invasion. Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld wanted to go to war with Iraq even though the administration had no good reason for doing so, because, he said, Iraq, unlike Afghanistan, had “a lot of good targets.”2

“The targeting capabilities, and the care that goes into targeting, to see that the precise targets are struck, and that other targets are not struck, is as impressive as anything anyone could see,” Rumsfeld asserted. “The care that goes into it, the humanity that goes into it, to see that military targets are destroyed to be sure, but that it’s done in a way and in a manner and in a direction and with a weapon that is appropriate to that very particularized target. The weapons that are being used today have a degree of precision that no one ever dreamt of.”

Rumsfeld actually did say that. He claimed that U. S. military took such care to murder mainly civilians, that the (illegal) murders could be labeled with ‘humanity’. However, reality differed from Rumsfeld’s lie:

an officer willing to be identified only as “an Air Force colonel with firsthand experience of the drone program” told the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine: “If you want to know what the world looks like from a drone feed, walk around for a day with one eye closed and the other looking through a soda straw. It gives you a pretty narrow view of the world.”

Most of Solomon’s words repeat the same thing, for good reason: thinly cloaked by language that would make Viktor Klemperer blush, U. S. foreign politics have since long tried to come in ‘peace’ due to needs to ‘defend’ themselves. In fact, North American politics have since long been geared toward what Paul Nitze stated in NSC 68: North American world domination and total infultration and subjugation of The Enemy.

BY THE CLOSE OF the century’s first decade, for most U.S. media consumers, the overseas wars were becoming rather humdrum news, interspersed with occasional dramatic events. In late March 2010, less than four months after accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, President Barack Obama visited a U.S. air base in Afghanistan and addressed troops while wearing a bomber jacket adorned with an American eagle and t he words “Air Force One.” At what the New York Times the next morning called “a boisterous pep rally,” Obama told the troops as their applause merged with his words: “There’s going to be setbacks. We face a determined enemy. But we also know this: The United States of America does not quit once it starts on something. You don’t quit, the American armed services does not quit, we keep at it, we persevere, and together with our partners we will prevail. I am absolutely confident of that.”

For his latest PR move in a confidence game, it was fitting that Obama spoke at an air base. The long-term trajectory of U.S. war making would involve more reliance on the latest technology in the air and less boots on the ground. The fewer the American soldiers in harm’s way, the more abstract the warfare became for the U.S. mass media and its customers—while the appropriators kept voting to fund the wars that fewer and fewer constituents seemed to know about or care much about. The USA’s bombing efforts, routinely unreported, extended way beyond Iraq and Afghanistan to also include Pakistan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Syria, and else-where—in fact, twenty-two countries on four continents. But as far as the American public was concerned, the killing with tax dollars was occurring almost completely out of sight and mind. “What I’m finding is that the human costs of war have shifted,” investigative journalist Azmat Khan, a New York Times Magazine contributing writer, told a university symposium in the spring of 2021. U.S. soldiers, service members, are dying at some of the lowest rates that they have traditionally in history. And the human costs of war are primarily being shifted to both foreign civilians and partner forces. And so this shift to airpower has really taken away some of the political costs that in the past, for example, during the era of Vietnam, have served to curtail war or to mount pressure to end it. So we’re really looking at an era of warfare in which the political costs are diminished significantly and those result in far less attention and focus than there would be on wars as in years past.

Even though Obama initiated more wars on the most recent spate of republican U. S. presidents, Trump and Biden took and are taking drone warfare further than ever before.

The USA’s bombing efforts, routinely unreported, extended way beyond Iraq and Afghanistan to also include Pakistan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Syria, and else-where—in fact, twenty-two countries on four continents.

Funds required to fuel the perpetual U. S. war machine are staggering. What is even more staggering is that the general public are not aware of the costs of those monies.

During the first two decades of this century, five megafirms—Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, Raytheon, and Northrop Grumman—divided $2.1 trillion in U.S. military contracts. For fiscal year 2020 alone, the Pentagon provided them with prime contracts totaling upwards of $166 billion. In just that one year, as compensation, the CEOs of those five companies received a total of $105.4 million. The individual and corporate incentives to maintain and gun the war machine are boundless.

Beginning in the early spring of 2011, the United States led NATO’s bombing of Libya, which lasted seven months. The War Powers Act, a U.S. law on the books for several decades at that point, required congressional approval after ninety days. But the Obama administration insisted that the requirement did not apply because the United States wasn’t really at war. The White House asserted that what the U.S. government was doing in Libya did not qualify as engaging in military “hostilities” because no Americans were dying in the process. The first three months of the bombing effort had cost U.S. taxpayers $1 billion, a figure that—along with resulting deaths and injuries—continued to rise during the summer and early fall.

Biden (and prior U. S. presidents) claim that drone warfare increases the precision of murder, but whistleblower information proves the opposite is true:

Whatever its purported efficacy, the moral failure of the Pentagon’s drone program has been well established—not only by a profusion of firsthand, eyewitness accounts but also by classified documents. Much information became public knowledge thanks to whistleblower Daniel Hale, who served in the U.S. Air Force from 2009 to 2013, briefly worked for a military contractor afterward, and went on to blow the cover off the government’s drone warfare with its own documents—refuting deceptions and dispelling illusions about the drone system. The classified documents from Hale enabled The Intercept to publish a series of illuminating articles in October 2015. “The White House and Pentagon boast that the targeted killing program is precise and that civilian deaths are minimal,” one of the pieces reported. “However, documents detailing a special operations campaign in northeastern Afghanistan, Operation Haymaker, show that between January 2012 and February 2013, U.S. special operations airstrikes killed more than 200 people. Of those, only thirty-five were the intended targets. During one five-month period of the operation, according to the documents, nearly 90 percent of the people killed in airstrikes were not the intended targets. In Yemen and Somalia, where the U.S. has far more limited intelligence capabilities to confirm the people killed are the intended targets, the equivalent ratios may well be much worse.”

Drone warfare is often, surrepticiously, sold with a coat of ‘can’t see, can’t be pained’ argument: if the drone operator is far from their victims, can they still be pained?

Near the end of 2013, Heather Linebaugh authored an article for The Guardian that recounted her experiences as a drone operator and analyst for the U.S. military. Linebaugh wrote that she and her colleagues “always wonder if we killed the right people, if we endangered the wrong people, if we destroyed an innocent civilian’s life all because of a bad image or angle.” For politicians defending the drone program, at the time formally known as the “Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Predator and Reaper program,” she put forward a few anguished questions, such as “How many women and children have you seen incinerated by a Hellfire missile?” And “How many men have you seen crawl across a field, trying to make it to the nearest compound for help while bleeding out from severed legs?”

To North American news media, victims of war are only North Americans:

From CBS Evening News anchor Norah O’Donnell came an assessment solemnly prefaced with this opening: “We wanted to take a moment to reflect on what we’re seeing in Afghanistan as we end America’s longest war.” She went on, “When America leaves, for many, so does the hope—the hope of freedom, the hope for human rights. And in its place comes the sheer terror of what’s next.” And, from the network’s Manhattan studios, O’Donnell said: “Wars are costly to start and costly to end. It’s costly to stay and costly to leave. The cost in lives—the nearly 2,500 American troops lost, the families they left behind. And the more than 20,000 wounded warriors, some wondering: were our sacrifices worth it?” While summing up “America’s longest war,” the CBS anchor did not say a single word to indicate that “the cost in lives” included any Afghan people.

Speaking of journalism:

MORE THAN A FEW JOURNALISTS have struggled with how getting and telling the story can become thrilling and numbing at the same time. Even top-flight reporters are susceptible. One of the most noteworthy U.S. journalists of the twentieth century, I.F. Stone, acknowledged the hazard that “you forget what you are writing about.… [Y]ou are like a journalistic Nero fiddling while Rome burns and having a hell of a good time or like a small boy covering a hell of a big fire. It’s just wonderful and exciting. You are a cub reporter and God has given you big fire to cover. And you forget, you forget it is really burning.”

As a clear example, Solomon tells a story of how New Yorker magazine behaved, or, rather, its main editor, David Remnick, who first adored the Iraq invasion and a decade later attempted to whitewash everything:

AS THE IRAQ WAR went on, disillusionment filtered into much of U.S. media, while outlets dodged their pivotal roles. The ten-year anniversary of the invasion was an occasion for the New Yorker to publish a retrospective article focusing on its own coverage of the war. Headlined “The Iraq War in The New Yorker,” the piece had a tone of disappointed hopes, not surprising since the New Yorker had strongly supported the invasion during many months leading up to it. Now, in mid-March of 2013, the piece by the magazine’s “ideas editor” asserted that “Americans, on the whole, regarded the war from a distance that wasn’t merely physical but mental, emotional, even moral.” (Near the article’s beginning was a quoted snippet of prose from George Packer, one of the magazine’s many writers who’d been enthusiastic about the virtues of invading Iraq and making war there; he wrote in 2005 that, for Americans, “Iraq was a strangely distant war. It was always hard to picture the place; the war didn’t enter the popular imagination in songs that everyone soon knew by heart, in the manner of previous wars.”) “Before the war started,” the magazine’s ten-year overview went on, “it had seemed fairly comprehensible: the goal was to topple Saddam, find his weapons, and leave a more democratic government behind. But in the days, months, and years after the fall of Baghdad, the Iraq War became extraordinarily complicated and obscure.”

If you were reading the piece for a wisp of self-criticism or even introspection from a publication that had championed the invasion, you would have been disappointed. On the contrary, the main mission of the 2,200-word piece seemed to involve touting the magazine’s consistent high quality and providing many examples of the excellent articles that had been published “as The New Yorker tried to make sense of the war.” Along the way, the retrospective devoted one sentence to a seminal piece that had appeared before the invasion: “Many people wrestled with the question of whether or not to go to war—including The New Yorker’s editor, David Remnick, in a February 3, 2003, Comment called ‘Making a Case.’” It’s not hard to see why the magazine’s retrospection without introspection would quickly glide past the “Making a Case” article without lingering at all. Remnick was still the New Yorker editor (as he would continue to be throughout the 2010s and beyond). His piece had reached readers on January 26—as it turned out, fifty-two days before the invasion of Iraq began. In the concluding section of his de facto editorial for the magazine, he wrote that the UN inspection team then doing its work in Iraq was not likely to be able to provide “irrefutable evidence that an enemy is amassing weapons of mass destruction.” After all, Remnick added, “the Iraqis are highly experienced in the craft of ‘cheat and retreat.’” His article concluded: “History will not easily excuse us if, by deciding not to decide, we defer a reckoning with an aggressive totalitarian leader who intends not only to develop weapons of mass destruction but also to use them. Saddam’s abdication, or a military coup, would be a godsend; his sudden conversion to the wisdom of disarmament almost as good. It is a fine thing to dream. But, assuming such dreams are not realized, a return to a hollow pursuit of containment will be the most dangerous option of all.” The New Yorker editor’s clarion call for the United States to invade Iraq was a strong note in an orchestrated push for war. Remnick played his part not only with his writing but also, more importantly, with the power he exercised to showcase articles vehemently favoring an invasion—including pieces promoting false claims of ties between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda—in his influential magazine.

In contrast to these deceptive and tragic deskchair writers, Solomon is not a ‘Wikipedia author’, by which I mean he has travelled to places and spoken with people:

FROM THE AIR, looking out on a vast panorama of sandy-colored mountains and valleys near Kabul, I wondered, Where are the trees? They were gone—destroyed by war and deprivation—banished by countless bombs and the collapse of irrigation. The streets of Kabul were blowing with harsh dust, a harvest of war. Men brandishing M16s were all over the place. It was late summer in 2009. Days after landing, I met a girl named Guljumma. She was seven years old, living at a place called Helmand Refugee Camp District 5, on the outskirts of Kabul. Guljumma talked about what happened one morning the previous year: She was sleeping at home, in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand Valley. At about five a.m., bombs exploded. Some people in her family died. She lost an arm. With a soft, matter-of-fact voice, Guljumma described those events. Her father, Wakil Tawos Khan, sat next to her. He took out copies of official forms that he had sent to the Afghan government. Like the other parents who were gathered inside their crude tent in this squalid camp, Khan hadn’t gotten anywhere by going through channels. He was struggling to take care of his daughter. And he had additional duties as a representative for a hundred or so of the families in the camp, which was little more than ditches, mud structures, and ragged canvas. Guljumma’s father pointed to a plastic bag containing a few pounds of rice. It was his responsibility to divide the rice for the families. Basics like food arrived at the camp only sporadically, Khan said. Donations came from Afghan businessmen. The government of Afghanistan was doing very little. The United Nations didn’t help. Neither did the U.S. government. Khan emphasized his eagerness to work. We have the skills, I heard him say via a translator—give us some land and just dig a well, and we’ll do the rest. From the sound of his voice, hope was fraying. I thought, The last time Guljumma and her father had meaningful contact with the U.S. government was when it bombed them. I looked around the refugee camp and thought about how it was apparently out of the question for my government to spend the equivalent of the cost of a single bomb to assist the people desperately living there.

Nations are forgotten about, ones that are in dire straits, mainly due to treatment by the U.S. Afghanistan is turned off now that they’re no longer interesting:

At Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting, Julie Hollar wrote that “as the United States withdrew militarily from Afghanistan in August, U.S. TV news interest in the plight of the country’s citizens spiked, often focusing on ‘the horror awaiting women and girls’ to argue against withdrawal. Four months later, as those same citizens have been plunged into a humanitarian crisis due in no small part to U.S. sanctions, where is the outrage?” After twenty years of American military intervention, often justified in the name of assisting the Afghan people, the worsening disaster received little attention from U.S. media overall. The meager coverage that did happen typically lacked clear context—which could have put a spotlight on Washington to take urgent action. “The Taliban shoulder some blame, having banned women from most paid jobs outside of teaching and health care, costing the economy up to 5 percent of its GDP,” Hollar noted, but “a much bigger driver of the crisis has been the U.S.-led sanctions on the Taliban.” During the first months of 2022, the situation worsened in Afghanistan. Severe malnutrition was widespread. As spring began, Human Rights Watch cited an estimate that upwards of thirteen thousand newborn babies in the country—one in ten—had died since January. More than three million Afghan children urgently needed nutritional support. But major news outlets in the United States weren’t paying attention. Like the Pentagon, the American media establishment had moved on, and Afghan people could fade to black.

This book is very strongly written. Solomon let facts stand out for themselves. This review doesn’t do this book justice; it’s far better than my feeble words. If there’s something negative to say about this book, it’s that it could be structured better. Where people like Noam Chomsky are concise and to-the-point, Solomon goes around the bend and then returns to something; on the other hand, that may be exactly what we need and deserve: repetition of facts. One of Solomon’s great strengths is clarity, in soberly showing us the facts above all else. This is extremely necessary in a time where some governments and extreme capitalists try and drown us in information while trying to hide ourselves away from what we need: the truth.

  1. Chomsky, Noam, and Marv Waterstone. Consequences of Capitalism: Manufacturing Discontent and Resistance. Haymarket Books, 2021.

  2. Polychroniou, C. J. ‘Chomsky: A Stronger NATO Is the Last Thing We Need as Russia-Ukraine War Turns 1’. Truthout, 23 February 2023.