In American history and mythology, the name Robert Ford is covered in infamy. Because, like a coward, he waited until the bandit Jesse James had diverted his attention elsewhere, and then shot him in the back. Even those who had urged and appreciated James’ death found Ford’s act unpalatable. Americans then did not have much use for cowardly back-shooters. Shooting unawares an unarmed man in the back, no matter who he might be, did not comport with the image of who we thought ourselves to be.
Times change, and so, I guess, have we. On August 4, some Bobby Ford sitting in an air-conditioned aerie on some military base somewhere in the United States pushed a button, and, thousands of miles away in Pakistan, another black-bearded bandit, Baitullah Mehsud, was blown in half, as he lay abed receiving a drip infusion for a kidney ailment. Nobody in the States seems to be in much of a ferment over this: how easily we have become accustomed to these aerial predators, though they seem most adept at transforming weddings into abattoirs. Killing a person as he receives medical treatment, that was also once considered, here in the Western world, “not cricket,” but I guess that’s over too. Besides Mehsud, the drone strike also snuffed out the lives of one of Mehsud’s wives, his father-in-law, his mother-in-law, and eight other people. But those sorts of folks we just write off, these days, with the Orwellian term “collateral damage.” Give the original Bobby Ford some credit: at least James knew Ford was in his house, and Ford didn’t compound his crime by reducing the rest of the people in the place to bits of bones and bloody jelly.
When the English introduced the longbow, French knights despised it. They believed that if you were going to kill a man, you should do it while looking into his eyes. The British were perfectly happy to take advantage of this French notion, which they considered quaint, because it allowed them to gobble up huge sections of the European continent, until the French too employed men who could kill from a distance.
Not surprisingly, it was also the British, in the years preceding WWII, who blocked international measures that would have barred the use of aircraft in warfare. As the wife of British “statesman” David Lloyd George noted in her diary on March 9, 1934:
At Geneva other countries would have agreed not to use aeroplanes for bombing purposes, but we insisted on reserving the right, as D. puts it, to bomb niggers! Whereupon the whole thing fell through[.]
And so six years later the British themselves, in the fabled “Blitz,” became victims of mass aerial bombardment, killed by people they never saw. As did we Americans, heirs of the British, who ruthlessly employed aircraft on civilians during WWII, culminating in the needless incinerations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and who attempted in Vietnam to “bomb it back to the Stone Age,” watched on September 11, 2001, as other peoples too many of us demean as of the Stone Age, used our own aircraft to snuff out the lives of some 3000 people. They, at least, were honorable enough to die with those they killed.
Not so the Bobby Fords who today “fight” America’s aerial wars.
From their cockpit at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, the pilot and co-pilot are flying a pilotless Predator on a bombing mission over Afghanistan, 8,000 miles away. A forward air controller in another unmanned drone spots the target and the Predator bomber takes off under local control from Kandahar in Afghanistan. Minutes later, control of the bomber is handed over to satellite control in the cockpit at Creech.
Two hours later, the crew sees on the cockpit screen two suburban vehicles stop in front of the targeted mud-baked house. Half a dozen bearded men hurry into the dwelling that intelligence had spotted as a Taliban command post. Seconds later, the bombardier in Nevada squeezed the trigger and a 500-pound bomb flattened the Taliban dwelling with a direct hit.
Watching the action on identical screens are CIA operators at Langley, Va., who can call in last-minute course corrections.
Their eight-hour mission over, pilot and co-pilot climb into their vehicles and drive home. Thirty minutes later, they are playing with their children.
This is how we have disgraced ourselves. This is how we will lose. As novelist John le Carre in The Honourable Schoolboy described, through the eyes of occasional spy Jerry Westerby, how we lost in Vietnam:
The windows over- looking the airfield were smoked and double glazed. On the runway aircraft landed and took off without making a sound. This is how they tried to win, Jerry thought: from inside sound-proof rooms, through smoked glass, using machines at arm’s length. This is how they lost.
What goes around comes around. The original Bobby Ford learned that.
Convicted and sentenced to hang for his back-shooting baseness, Ford was quickly pardoned by the governor who’d contracted with him to do the deed. Ford did not, however, receive from that officeholder the blood money he had been promised. Ford and his brother then tried to make a living re-enacting his cowardice in a traveling show: their little playlet was not, to put it mildly, well received.
Fittingly, Ford then became a policeman. Until he slunk out of town one night after declining a duel with a man he claimed had cheated to beat him in a shooting contest.
Ten years after Ford killed James by shooting him in the back, Ford himself was shot in the back and killed. Ford’s slayer, Edward O’Kelley, was locked up, but his sentence was eventually commuted, because he was adjudged nuts. O’Kelley shortly thereafter was killed in a shootout with a policeman.
Aeschylus saw it, 2500 years ago: “blood begets blood.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton earlier this year placed a $5 million bounty on Baitullah Mehsud’s head. It is unknown whether this money will actually be paid, or if the various Bobby Fords who contrived to back-shoot Mehsud while he received a kidney drip will, like the original Bobby Ford, have to do without. Or perhaps the various Fords will be reduced to bickering over the spoils, since, as the New York Times reported, “the intelligence about Mr. Mehsud’s whereabouts had come partly from informants inside the Mehsud network who had been bought off by Pakistani spies.”
National Security Advisor Jim Jones told Meet the Press today that Mehsud was “probably” dead. “The evidence is pretty conclusive,” he intoned. “We put it in the 90 percent category.” Jones pronounced Mehsud’s death “a big deal,” claiming “Mehsud was public enemy number one in Pakistan.”
Except that the New York Times reports that the man was no longer such a big wheel after all.
Pakistanis who knew Mr. Mehsud said he had become less of an active operator since a serious kidney illness had become more acute.
While Mr. Mehsud was clearly responsible for a wide range of attacks inside Pakistan, some Pakistani security officials believed that his network became so entwined with Al Qaeda and Punjabi groups that it was difficult to tell who was responsible for what.
Mr. Mehsud’s group said it had carried out two recent attacks in Punjab—one aimed at the intelligence headquarters in Lahore and another against the Sri Lankan cricket team—but a lead investigator said evidence had pointed instead to Al Qaeda.
“They used him as a brand to project their power across Pakistan,” the investigator said. “He didn’t have the power, the skills or the money. It was Al Qaeda that did. They used him as a prop.”
In any event, as this fellow points out, Mehsud’s death is not likely to alter much the conflict. Nobody out West had heard of Mehsud four years ago, and nobody out West will remember him much four years from now. Meanwhile, as the Times notes, “Taliban fighters said a meeting was under way to choose a successor from among Mr. Mehsud’s top deputies.” Reducing Mehsud to a red smear will likely have no more effect than did those serial rub-outs of “the number two man in Al Qaeda” periodically announced by the George II administration. “Only killing one leader,” Pakistan Information Minister Kamran Zaman Qaira observed dourly, “doesn’t mean the other miscreants will go away.”
The Times tells us how Mehsud met his end:
The missile strike on Wednesday, from a CIA drone, took place as Mr. Mehsud, a diabetic, was on a drip infusion for his kidney ailment, according to two Taliban fighters reached by telephone on Friday.
He was being tended to by one of his wives, the fighters said, and according to Pakistani security officials who had viewed American video of the attack, apparently from the drone, they were together on the roof.
They were both at the house of his father-in-law, Mulvi Ikramuddin, in the village of Zanghara, in South Waziristan. Mr. Ikramuddin’s brother, a medical practitioner, was treating him, the Taliban fighters said.
“He was clearly visible with his wife,” said a senior security official, who had seen the video. “His torso remained, while half of the body was blown up.”
Other Taliban officials are claiming that Mehsud was not killed at all: “He has not received even a scratch on his body,” tribal elder Malik Hassanuddin said. Maybe so, maybe so: some folks say Jesse James wasn’t killed by Bobby Ford, either; that he slipped away, and died fat and happy, years later.
As American and Pakistani officials gather to grope for someone with enough gumption to actually go out to where Mehsud’s corpse fragments now lie, there to forage for DNA samples, local balladeers are no doubt already setting to music the tale of how saintly Baitullah Mehsud was foully slain by cowardly back-shooters, pulling the trigger from eight thousand miles away.
Take it away, Bruce.