War Against the Poor: Low-Intensity Conflict and Christian Faith by Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer
Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer holds a Master of Divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary in New York and has lived in Central America off and on since 1982. He is author of Hunger for Justice and The Politics of Compassion, both available from Orbis Books. Published in 1990 by Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York 10545. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Chapter 1: Redefining the Enemy
Unfulfilled expectations and economic mismanagement have turned much of the developing world into a "hothouse of conflict," capable of spilling over and engulfing the industrial West.... [T]he security of the United States requires a restructuring of our warmaking capabilities, placing new emphasis on the ability to fight a succession of limited wars, and to project power into the Third World.
Low-intensity conflict is an evolving strategy of counterrevolutionary warfare. It is the nuts-and-bolts means by which the United States is fighting a series of "limited wars" and projecting "power into the Third World." A counterrevolutionary superpower in a world of massive structural inequalities, the United States is actively engaged in a global war against the poor. "As the leading ‘have’ power," General Maxwell Taylor predicted in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, "we may expect to have to fight to protect our national valuables against envious ‘have nots.’"2 The defense of U.S. "national interests" or our "national valuables" necessarily conflicts with the needs of the poor whose hope for a dignified future, including freedom from misery, can be realized only in a world of greater social justice.
Low-intensity conflict is the latest chapter in a longer history of U.S. counterinsurgency warfare. It is not a rigid plan but an evolving project of interventionism that seeks to respond effectively to present and future challenges to U.S. power and control, particularly in the third world. 3
Low-intensity conflict draws heavily from the successes and failures of previous U.S. counterinsurgency efforts. Covert operations that ousted the democratically elected reformist government of Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán in Guatemala in 1954 and the socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973 have been thoroughly studied. More important, the failures of the U.S. war in Vietnam have been relived thousands of times in search of clues to more appropriate and successful forms of intervention.
Low-intensity conflict is in many ways a creative response to the limited usefulness of traditional U.S. military power and capabilities in third-world situations and to the apparent war weariness of the U.S. people. Its overall strategy is crafted to overcome the "Vietnam Syndrome," which from the point of view of U. S. economic and military elites is the lamentable reluctance of its citizens in the post-Vietnam era to support the defense of "vital" interests overseas through the projection of U.S. power, including deployment of U.S. troops.
Present-day low-intensity-conflict theory and practice draws heavily from previous "nation-building" efforts such as the Kennedy administration’s Alliance for Progress. The alliance was developed in the 1960s in response to the ouster of a U.S-backed dictatorship in Cuba and the coming to power of Fidel Castro. In an effort to manage or prevent social change within poor countries, low-intensity conflict and the alliance that preceded it integrate increased economic assistance, cosmetic internal reforms, and the training and management of repressive police and military forces within exploited countries.4
What separates low-intensity conflict from previous counterinsurgency efforts are its comprehensive nature and its broad-based support within military and non-military governmental circles. The development and implementation of low-intensity-conflict capabilities involves an unprecedented degree of coordination among the White House, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (and each of the military branches), the National Security Council, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the State Department, the Agency for International Development, conservative private aid groups, and a shady semiprivate network of drug-runners, arms merchants, and assassins.
The elevation of low-intensity conflict to a higher status within defense planning reflects a reassessment of threats to U.S. security and a redefinition of "our enemies." It is now generally accepted by U.S. policy makers that the third world is the strategic center of international conflict and that low-intensity warfare is the most appropriate means by which the United States can defend its perceived interests.
The reassessment of security threats to the United States has led to a shift of financial and human resources to the development or expansion of Special Operations Forces (SOF) capable of intervening anywhere in the third world. Funding for SOF increased from $441 million in fiscal year (FY) 1981 to $1.7 billion in FY 1987 with an additional $8 billion projected for the years 1989-92.5
Casper Weinberger, secretary of defense throughout much of the Reagan presidency, told Congress in his 1985 annual report that expansion of Special Operations Forces are "one of this Administration’s highest priorities."6 "The particular skills and supporting capabilities which the military offers to the prosecution of low-intensity conflict," Weinberger stated elsewhere, "are chiefly to be found in our Special Operations Forces."7
The Defense of Empire
The acceptability of empire is the guiding principle that shapes U.S. foreign policy. The United States is battling to safeguard its power and privilege against millions of exploited people whose hope depends on a fundamental restructuring of the domestic and international orders that hold them in bondage. Whatever moral ambivalence might accompany this conflict between empire and the well-being of the poor is smothered under a landslide of rhetoric about "fighting communism" and promoting "freedom and democracy," or it is quickly passed over as a superpower’s unavoidable dilemma.
We rarely apply the word "empire" to ourselves. "Empire" is a derogatory term used to describe our adversary and not a problem or a concept that might lead us to national self-reflection and repentance. The geopolitical reality is carefully framed in terms of a benevolent superpower (the United States) up against an evil empire (the Soviet Union). Our right to be an empire has been so thoroughly internalized that it has become a deep part of our national psyche without entering our vocabulary. The problems this raises for people of faith will be discussed later (chap. 5, below). What concerns me here is that low-intensity conflict is designed not only to defend the U.S. empire against rising challenges from the poor but also to conceal from U.S. citizens the unpleasant consequences of empire.
U.S. policymakers often speak honestly to themselves while consciously deceiving the U.S. people, whose sensibilities and basic decency they fear. "U. S. rhetoric is often noble and inspiring," writes Noam Chomsky, "while operative policy in the real world follows its own quite different course, readily discernible in the actual history." Chomsky notes that behind the "rhetorical flourishes of political leaders" is a real story of exploitation and terror that is "often outlined frankly in internal documents," but which must be concealed "from the domestic population . . . who would be unlikely to tolerate the truth with equanimity."8
Contrary to the popular view that U.S. citizens are the most and perhaps only objective people in the world, we may be the most effectively socialized. We have grown up on a steady diet of stories depicting the horrors of communism (some of them true) and our defense of freedom (most of them not tine). I witnessed many hundreds of U.S. citizens arrive in Central America with a basic confidence in their government’s policy. The vast majority left agonizing over the contradictions between the stated goals and means of official policy versus their experienced reality of U.S-backed exploitation and repression throughout the region.
No amount of rhetoric can hide from a careful observer that in Central America, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere there is a fundamental and irreconcilable conflict between empire and social justice. Countries that live on the edges of either the Soviet or the U.S. empire experience similar, exploitative relationships.
The U.S. empire is motivated by its commitment to what Noam Chomsky calls a "Fifth Freedom" which is "the freedom to rob and exploit." "A careful look at history and the internal record of planning," Chomsky writes, "reveals a guiding geopolitical conception: preservation of the Fifth Freedom, by whatever means are feasible."9
Low-intensity conflict is descriptive of both the kinds of foreign-policy challenges the United States is likely to face and the U.S. response to those challenges. It is the foreign-policy strategy assigned the task of defending the empire by projecting power and influence throughout the third world where conflicts are real but where nuclear or conventional military responses are considered inappropriate. "The high priority we have assigned to SOF revitalization," Defense Secretary Weinberger stated in 1984, "reflects our recognition that low-level conflict -- for which SOF are uniquely suited -- will pose the threat we are most likely to encounter throughout the end of this century."10
Special Operations Forces are part of a multi-billion-dollar program to create, train, and equip new counter or pro-insurgency forces capable of operating in every region of the third world. SOF carried out the attempted rescue of U.S. hostages in Iran in 1980, spearheaded the invasion of Grenada in 1983, and in violation of international law orchestrated the 1983 attack on the Nicaraguan port of Corinto. Stephen Goose offers the following summary of Special Operations Forces:
SOF are the U.S. military’s elite, highly trained commando units. They are sometimes called America’s "secret soldiers," and include hush-hush units such as the Delta Force that the Pentagon will not even acknowledge exist. . . . SOF include the U.S. Army Special Forces (the "Green Berets"), the Rangers, the 160th Army Aviation Battalion, psychological operations and civil affairs units, the Navy’s sea-air-land (SEAL) commando forces, the Air Force Special Operations Wing and special-operations-capable Marine amphibious units (MAUs).
Special Operations Forces are America’s experts in guerrilla and anti-guerrilla warfare, in sabotage, and in counter-terrorism operations. SOF. . . do "dirty jobs" -- they are the forces that are usually ordered to carry out clandestine operations in foreign countries in peacetime. SOF learn to fight in any terrain, in any location in the world.11
Low-intensity conflict is as much a war of images, ideas, and deception as it is a war of bullets and bombs. Special Operations Forces include experts in psychological operations and civil affairs. The ability to create images that obscure reality is a powerful weapon to be directed against our own and other peoples.
Many U.S. policymakers recognize that real objectives must be concealed under an avalanche of positive rhetoric. They are concerned about the "Vietnam Syndrome" because they believe that the prosperity of the United States depends on successful interventions in defense of empire. Ordinary citizens, on the other hand, might find defense of empire at the expense of the poor to be in conflict with many of our stated values. Citizens must therefore be deceived into a defense of privilege through appeals to "freedom," "democracy," and the "threat of communism.
Low-intensity conflict is the present-day means through which the United States seeks to achieve generally unstated foreign-policy goals in the third world. Whereas the means for achieving certain objectives have evolved overtime, the basic U.S. policy goals are essentially the same today as those stated in 1948 by George Kennan, who at the time headed the State Department’s planning staff:
. . . We have about 50% of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3% of its populations. . . . In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so we have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction. . . . We should cease to talk about vague and . . . unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are hampered by idealistic slogans, the better [italics added].12
Low-intensity conflict is the preferred strategy to achieve these goals into the next century. The true art of low-intensity warfare is its integration of "straight power concepts" with "ideological slogans" to cover up our defense of the Fifth Freedom, the right to rob and exploit. Kennan was both right and wrong. The challenge of empire is to maintain a "position of disparity" between ourselves and the poor "without positive detriment to our national security," but this can be achieved only by convincing the U.S. people of our noble intentions. "Idealistic slogans" far from being a hindrance are central to the defense of empire.
U.S. government officials who labeled Nicaragua a "totalitarian dungeon" and the contras "freedom fighters" knew that these were rhetorical abuses that trampled upon the truth. Rhetoric is not designed to serve the truth. It is calculated to serve political objectives. The contras were created by the U.S. government to inflict terror on civilians in service to U.S. political objectives. (I will discuss more fully the important role terrorism plays within low-intensity conflict in chap. 3, and U.S. efforts to create positive images for undemocratic forces it backs in chap. 4, below.) In order to understand why tiny countries like Nicaragua and El Salvador are seen as threats to the United States and how the United States confronts these threats, it is necessary to look more closely at the basic worldview that shapes low-intensity conflict.
Low-intensity conflict can be understood only in the context of the philosophical foundations on which it is built. In the early 1980s peace movements in the United States and Western Europe were rapidly expanding. The U.S. political right countered this growing movement with a slogan and policy known as "peace through strength." The way to peace, according to the advocates of this position (which, not surprisingly, included the military and military contractors), is through massive military expenditures and greatly expanded nuclear and non-nuclear war-making capabilities.
The illusionary promise of "peace through strength" is that "peace" can be achieved while maintaining existing inequalities and without greater global justice or cooperation. The United States can guarantee the security of its "national valuables" by developing a sophisticated interventionist war-making capacity to protect itself from the poor throughout the third world and by constructing a technologically sophisticated nuclear shield around its own borders (known as Star Wars).
Low-intensity conflict is one component in a strategy to achieve "peace through strength." It is designed to protect U.S. interests throughout the third world. Its philosophy, which would make George Orwell proud, can be summarized as "peace through perpetual warfare." The way to peace is through constant interventionism.
The Council for Inter-American Security, in a paper commonly referred to as the Santa Fe Report, described and set the ideological and foreign-policy agenda for the Reagan administration. The report, which was written in 1980, states clearly the philosophical foundations for low-intensity conflict. "Foreign policy is the instrument by which peoples seek to assure their survival in a hostile world. War, not peace, is the norm of international affairs."13 Peace, according to low-intensity-conflict planners, is a dangerous illusion. The United States is a country constantly at war and always under attack.
Traditional images of war and peace have failed to inspire citizen support for third-world interventionism. Low-intensity-conflict advocates insist, therefore, that the defense of U.S. security interests depends on a redefinition of what it means to be at war or at peace. A 1986 final report prepared by the "Joint Low-Intensity-Conflict Project [of the] United States Army Training and Doctrine Command" indicated that the country’s major foreign-policy challenge was "how to defend threatened United States interests in conflict environments short of conventional war." In order to guarantee our security we needed to overcome "our perceptions that the nation and the world are either at war or at peace, with the latter being the normal state."14
Secretary of State George Shultz, in a speech to the Pentagon conference on low-intensity conflict in 1986, warned that war and peace are not distinct realities and to view them as such could threaten the security interests of the United States:
We have seen and we will continue to see a wide range of ambiguous threats in the shadow area between major war and millennial peace. Americans must understand . . . that a number of small challenges, year after year, can add up to a more serious challenge to our interests. The time to act, to help our friends by adding our strength to the equation, is not when the threat is at our doorstep, when the stakes are highest and the needed resources enormous. We must be prepared to commit our political, economic, and, if necessary, military power when the threat is still manageable and when its prudent use can prevent the threat from growing.15
Another philosophical assumption of low-intensity conflict is that any social-change efforts not specifically controlled by the United States are the work of communists who are tools of Moscow or Cuba. "The young Caribbean republics situated in our strategic backyard face not only the natural growing pains of young nationhood," the Santa Fe Report states, "but the dedicated, irrepressible activity of a Soviet-backed Cuba to win ultimately total hegemony over this region. And this region . . . is the ‘soft underbelly of the United States.’"
Low-intensity-conflict proponents blame "communist subversion" for social turmoil in many different countries. No matter where the conflict is centered, it is always the United States that is under attack. This helps explain the interventionist thrust in Shultz’s speech quoted above and the paranoia-riddled rhetoric of the Santa Fe Report.
Low-intensity conflict is the product of a worldview that sees any threat to perceived U.S. interests, no matter how small, as part of a global struggle with serious implications for the U.S. empire. A bipartisan report on Central America commissioned by the Reagan administration states this view clearly: "Beyond the issue of U.S. security interests in the Central American-Caribbean region, our credibility worldwide is engaged. The triumph of hostile forces . . . would be read as a sign of U.S. impotence."17
Low-intensity-conflict planners place all exploited third-world countries in one of two camps: either they are puppets of the Soviet Union or they are controlled assets of the United States. Nonalignment is a contradiction in terms. Third-world countries must either submit themselves to broad U.S. interference in their internal affairs, including granting the United States access to vital resources, military bases, and markets, or be targeted as enemies and threats to the national security of the United States. If they make the dignified choice of defending their rights to national sovereignty and pursuing economic policies that favor the interests of the poor, they will be subjected to low-intensity warfare. U.S. efforts to punish, destabilize, or overthrow disobedient governments by fomenting armed opposition against them is known as proinsurgency, an important component of low-intensity conflict.
The philosophy that shapes low-intensity conflict also excludes the possibility of indigenous, nationalistic revolutions in response to legitimate historical grievances. Any movement that arises against an oppressive U.S. client-state is seen as a communist-inspired and -directed attack against "vital U.S. interests." Third-world social-change movements seeking to build mixed economy or socialist alternatives to oppressive capitalist structures are seen as cogs in an international communist conspiracy. They are to be defeated through U.S.-backed counterinsurgency.
Another important philosophical component of low-intensity conflict is the belief that the United States is already losing World War III. "Survival demands a new U.S. foreign policy," the Santa Fe Report states. "America must seize the initiative or perish. For World War III is almost over."18
The use of World War III as an image to rally the U.S. people to the defense of empire is a good example of low-intensity conflict’s philosophical view of the world and its ability to manipulate psychological images. World War III is a horrible prospect to most U.S. citizens who have some understanding of the destruction of previous global wars or who know something about the awesome power of nuclear weapons. Greater fear is elicited by telling us that this war against our formidable adversary, the Soviet Union, is already being lost. Our failure regularly to intervene and project power throughout the world "places the very existence of the Republic in peril." A more extensive quotation from the Santa Fe Report provides clues to understanding low-intensity conflict:
Foreign policy is the instrument by which peoples seek to assure their survival in a hostile world. War, not peace, is the norm in international affairs. For the United States of America, isolationism is impossible. Containment of the Soviet Union is not enough. Detente is dead. Survival demands a new U.S. foreign policy. America must seize the initiative or perish. For World War III is almost over. The Soviet Union, operating under the cover of increasing nuclear superiority, is strangling the Western industrialized nations.... Latin America and Southern Asia are the scenes of strife of the third phase of World War III. The first two phases -- containment and détente -- have been succeeded by the Soviet strategy of double envelopment -- interdiction of the West’s oil and ore and the geographical encirclement of the PRC [People’s Republic of China]. America’s basic freedoms and economic self interest require that the United States be and act as a first rate power.19
Low-intensity conflict redefines World War III while playing on traditional fears. Most U.S. citizens expect that if World War III is fought the Soviet Union will be our adversary. Low-intensity-conflict planners insist that this war is already underway and is global in scope. However, the strategic location of this war is now the third world, the enemy is the poor, and low-intensity conflict is the key to victory.
Low-intensity-conflict planners shift the strategic battleground to the third world because a nuclear or conventional war with the Soviets in Europe is regarded as too costly and therefore unlikely. It is possible in the coming years that the United States will pursue nuclear-arms reductions with the Soviet Union in order to free up resources for more sophisticated interventionism against the poor. Lieutenant General Samuel Wilson, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, states the logic of greater involvement in the third world in these terms:
There is little likelihood of a strategic nuclear confrontation with the Soviets. It is almost as unlikely that the Soviet Warsaw Pact forces will come tearing through the Fulda Gap in a conventional thrust. We live today with conflict of a different sort . . . and we had better get on with the ballgame.20
World War III is being fought at the edges of the empires, in the strategic third world where the "West’s oil and ore" are to be found. What low-intensity-conflict planners refer to as World War III is in fact a U.S. war against the poor in the third world. Tiny Nicaragua and El Salvador suddenly take on an importance out of all proportion to their size or resources because, from the point of view of low-intensity conflict, they are central battlegrounds in this war.
World War III is not the only key concept to be used but redefined by low-intensity-conflict planners. The concept of total war has also been injected with new meaning. Traditionally total war has implied an all-out nuclear exchange between the superpowers. However, low-intensity conflict has been defined by Colonel John Waghelstein, commander of the army’s Seventh Special Forces, as "total war at the grassroots level." Low-intensity conflict, according to Waghelstein, is more than a simple description of the levels of military violence; it is the integration of military aspects of warfare with "political, economic, and psychological warfare, with the military being a distant fourth in many cases."21
Low-intensity conflict is total war because it seeks to control all aspects of life. The United States is seeking to manage, control, or subvert social-change governments or movements throughout the third world through a unified warfare strategy that has economic, psychological, diplomatic, and military components. Low-intensity conflict is a totalitarian-like strategy. It seeks to control the hearts and minds, economic and political life of people while employing flexible military tactics.
The Real Enemy
Any visitor to Central America will be shocked by the living conditions of the majority of people. Inadequate housing, malnutrition, limited access to health care or education, the lack of clean drinking water, unemployment or underemployment, high infant mortality and few channels for political participation accurately describe the situation of the majorities in many third-world countries. Political and economic power is in the hands of an unholy alliance of foreign-based multinational companies, internal economic elites, the military, and often the U.S. embassy.
Living conditions for the poor have worsened throughout the third world in recent years. More than 700 million people worldwide do not get enough food for an active and healthy life.22 Each year 40 million people die from hunger and hunger-related diseases. This is equivalent to more than 300 jumbo jet crashes daily for a year in which there are no survivors and in which half of the victims are children.23 Three-fifths of the population of underdeveloped countries and nearly half of the world population do not have access to safe and adequate drinking water. Each day more than 25,000 persons die for lack of clean drinking water. The World Health Organization estimates that 80 percent of all sickness and disease can be attributed to inadequate water and sanitation and that safe drinking water and sanitation could reduce infant mortality by 50 percent.24
Statistics may be useful in illustrating the magnitude of problems facing third-world peoples, but they say little or nothing about the human tragedies that lie behind such numbers, their structural causes, or the contributing role of U.S. policies. Low-intensity-conflict planners are counting on their ability to sell their worldview to the U.S. people, who have very little concrete experience of poverty and injustice in the third world. To U.S. citizens who have few personal ties to the people of Central America or limited experience in the third world, "freedom," "democracy," and "menacing communism" are likely to be powerful images that elicit uncritical nationalistic impulses.
It is impossible to imagine 40 million people dying in plane crashes each year without individuals, companies, and governments seriously questioning the basic soundness of airplane construction, maintenance, and the systems of traffic control. When it comes to the international economy, however, individuals, groups, or governments that challenge the premises of the present capitalist international order are labeled communists. Third-world countries or social-change movements that seek to change domestic or international priorities in order to enhance the power and position of the poor are subjected to low-intensity warfare.
I have written elsewhere in more detail about the political and economic causes of hunger and poverty.25 Here I intend to give a brief summary of key issues in order to provide a context for an analysis of low-intensity conflict as a war against the poor.
The poor throughout the third world are generally victims of dual injustices. Neither the international economy nor their internal economies are structured to meet their needs. Land and other productive resources remain concentrated in the hands of relatively small minorities. Credit is controlled by and targeted to the rich, and foreign-exchange earnings are squandered in luxury consumption. Land-use is geared to the production of coffee, bananas, beef, fruits, vegetables, and other export crops for foreign markets. The upper and middle classes ensure adequate nutrition by relying on imported foods, but the emphasis on export agriculture, together with a lack of access to productive land, makes hunger a daily companion to the poor. Many of the rural poor are seasonal workers on plantations owned by others. Unable to subsist without land or with meager wages, they are pushed into the cities where jobs are scarce and misery is all too common.
The economic situation described above is in large part a product of elite control of third-world economies and the fact that the rich throughout the third world have built important political, military, and economic alliances with their counterparts in developed countries. They are more concerned about their role within the international economy than about the well-being of the majority of their citizens.
The integration of poor-country economies into the international market victimizes the poor who by definition lack the purchasing power necessary to direct production and distribution of goods to meet their needs. The global farms, factories, and supermarkets that make up the world economy generate transnational alliances among the relatively powerful while further marginalizing the poor. Third-world-country elites, for example, need not implement structural reforms that would redistribute wealth and expand domestic markets because they buy and sell in an international market.
The groups that manage global production are motivated by profits to be made in servicing and expanding the consumer desires of the relatively affluent. The agenda of the poor is ignored and, if the demands of the poor become an obstacle to the Fifth Freedom, they are repressed through low-intensity conflict.
The economies of most third-world countries are highly dependent on outside industrial powers, which supply them with capital, technology, and markets. Present-day dependency is historically rooted in the period of colonial domination. Colonial economies served outside interests while giving rise to internal sectors that had a stake in economic arrangements that benefited them while impoverishing the majority. With the coming of political independence, colonial trade gave way to the "free international market" without altering the unequal power relationships that are the root of poverty and dependency.
The ongoing dependency of third-world countries generates conflict between unequal actors in the international arena. Poor-country elites remain largely subservient to their counterparts in developed countries. The conflicts generated by dependency can be seen today in relation to the deteriorating terms of trade. Dependency is a consequence of a lack of power to influence the international economy. After twenty-five years of clamoring for fairer terms of trade and a New International Economic Order (NIEO), the prices poor countries receive for their traditional agricultural and mineral exports continue to fall relative to the costs of essential imports. For example, the prices paid for third-world raw commodities hit their lowest levels in history in 1986, relative to the prices of manufactured goods and services.26
One consequence of unjust terms of trade is greater dependency in the form of indebtedness. The United States and other industrial countries have repeatedly refused to redistribute economic wealth and power by changing the rules of the international trading game. The substitution of limited aid and credit for fair international pricing has resulted in a skyrocketing debt burden among third-world countries. One indication of the weak trade position of third-world countries is that their debt burden has grown in a parallel manner with the expansion of world trade. The value of world trade expanded from U.S. $60 billion in 1950 to $2 trillion in 1980.27 In the mid-1960s third-world-country debt was approximately $40 billion. By 1988, according to a specialist at the World Bank, poor-country indebtedness reached $1.2 trillion. In 1987, after factoring in aid received, the so-called developing countries exported more than $27 billion to the developed world, mostly in the form of interest payments.28
Yearly principle and interest payments for third-world countries have more than quadrupled in the decade of the 1980s. The third world pays out annually in principle and interest payments nearly three times more money than it receives in aid from all developed-country governments and international aid agencies combined. "To accumulate funds to pay these debts -- or at least part of them," a special report from OXFAM America states, "many Third World governments are squeezing every available bit of wealth from already weak economies. The sources of wealth they are tapping are underground mineral, tropical forests, fertile land, and the labor of factory workers and farmers."29
Luis Ignacio da Silva, a Brazilian trade union leader, draws on the image of World War III in the context of the debt crisis:
I tell you that the Third World War has already started -- a silent war, not for that reason any less sinister. This war is tearing down Brazil, Latin America, and practically all of the Third World. Instead of soldiers there are children dying, instead of destruction of bridges there is the tearing down of factories, hospitals, and entire economies. . . . It is a war by the United States against the Latin American continent and the Third World. It is a war over the foreign debt, a war which has as its main weapon interest, a weapon more deadly than the atom bomb, more shattering than a laser beam.30
The greatest moral scandal of our time is death through international finance. Although we rightfully find the Holocaust in Nazi Germany to be an affront to all decency, we quietly tolerate the death of far greater numbers of people each year as a result of the international debt crisis, which is saddled on the backs of the poor. OXFAM America’s report, "Third World Debt: Payable in Hunger," states:
The burden of paying the Third World’s debts has fallen most heavily on those least able to carry it -- the poor. Workers in the cities and peasants in the countryside are being pressed to produce more and consume less to help their countries try to earn their way out of debt. . . . [T]he International Monetary Fund [along with governments, private banks, and other multinational lending agencies such as the World Bank] nearly always requires indebted countries to promise to implement "Adjustment Programs.". . .
One intent of Adjustment Programs within the indebted countries is to reduce consumption of all kinds of goods and services. The IMF calls this "demand management." It is meant to ensure that more of the debtor nation’s resources will be used to produce exports to be sold for dollars that can then be used to pay debts.
Among the conditions typically required.., are cuts in public spending -- which often mean fewer health and education services -- and elimination of government subsidies used to keep food prices low. . . .
Adjustment Programs usually result in increases in the cost of food, clothing kerosene, bus fares, fertilizers and other goods needed by farmers and the poor. They are the hardest on the most vulnerable people [italics added]31
Under the cover of rhetoric about "freedom," "democracy," and fighting the "communist menace," the United States is waging a war against the poor and in defense of privilege and empire. Low-intensity conflict is a term that refers to any challenge to U.S. privileges throughout the third world short of conventional or nuclear war. Low-intensity conflict is also the strategy of warfare through which the United States seeks to maintain a system in which death through international finance is the norm, and poor people -- not poverty -- is the enemy. The United States could place its formidable resources and strength at the service of overcoming the structural causes of poverty. However, to do so would involve a major rethinking of who we are as a people, a reassessment of national priorities, a willingness to express national repentance, and a commitment to share both resources and power.
1. Quoted in an article by Michael Klare, "Low Intensity Conflict: The War of the ‘haves’ against the ‘have-nots,’" Christianity and Crisis, February 1, 1988, pp.12-13.
2. Ibid., p. 12.
3. The term "third world" is problematic because it reflects the hierarchy of values and power of elite groups within the international economy and because it lumps together two-thirds of the world’s people from diverse countries into a simple category. However, I decided to use this term because it is commonly used in sources that I cite throughout this book and because it is generally understood to signify countries that are not part of the highly industrialized capitalist nations (first world) or industrialized countries of the socialist bloc (second world).
4. "Developing" and "underdeveloped" are common terms used to describe poor countries in the Third World. I refer to such countries as "exploited" because this term better describes their relationship within the international economy from colonial times to the present.
5. Michael T. Klare and Peter Kornbluh, eds., Low Intensity Warfare: Counterinsurgency, Proinsurgency, and Antiterrorism in the Eighties (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988), p. 81.
6. Casper Weinberger, Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress Fiscal Year 1985, (1984), p. 276. See also, Klare and Kornbluh, eds., Low Intensity Conflict, p. 82.
7. Low Intensity Conflict, Klare and Kornbluh, eds., p. 82.
8. Noam Chomsky, Turning the Tide: U.S. Intervention in Central America and the Struggle for Peace (Boston: South End Press, 1985), pp. 44-45.
9. Ibid., p. 47.
10. Weinberger, Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress, p. 276.
11. Klare and Kornbluh, eds., Low Intensity Conflict, p. 81.
12. Ibid., p. 48
13. The Committee of Santa Fe, "A New Inter-American Policy for the Eighties" (Washington, D.C.: Council for Inter-American Security, 1980), p. 1. Cited hereafter as the Santa Fe Report.
14. Joint Low-Intensity Conflict Project, United States Army Training and Doctrine Command, "Joint Low-Intensity Conflict Project Final Report, Executive Summary," Fort Monroe, Virginia, August 1, 1986, pp. 1, 3.
15. Department of Defense, Proceedings of the Low-Intensity Warfare Conference, January 14-15, 1986, p. 10. See also Klare and Kornbluh, eds., Low Intensity Warfare, pp. 54-55.
16. The Santa Fe Report, p. 1.
17. "Report on the National Bipartisan Commission on Central America," January 1984, p. 93. This report is commonly referred to as the Kissinger Commission Report, named after its chairperson, Henry Kissinger.
18. The Santa Fe Report, p. 1.
20. Frank A. Barnett, et al., eds., Special Operations in U.S. Strategy (Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press, 1984), p. 194. See also Sara Miles, "Getting On with the Ballgame," NACLA Report (April/May 1986), p. 19.
21. Colonel John Waghelstein, "Post Vietnam Counterinsurgency Doctrine," Military Review (January 1985), p. 42. NACLA Report (April/May 1986), p. 19.
22. Ruth Leger Sivard, World Military and Social Expenditures, 1986, (World Priorities Inc., Box 25140, Washington, D.C. 20007).
23. Dr. Norman Meyers, ed., GAIA: An Atlas of Planet Management (New York; Anchor Press/Doubleday & Company, 1984).
24. Jack Nelson Pallmeyer, The Politics of Compassion (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1987), p. 99.
25. For more detail, see, for example, Jack A. Nelson, Hunger for Justice: The Politics of Food and Faith (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1980), and Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, The Politics of Compassion.
26. Frances Moore Lappe and Joseph Collins, World Hunger: Twelve Myths (New York: Grove Press, 1986), p. 6.
27. OXFAM America, "Third World Debt: Payable in Hunger," Facts for Action, no. 16, p. 4.
28. This statistic is from a talk given by Dr. Chandra Hardy, "Global Debt/Social Turmoil," at a conference entitled "Forgive Us Our Debts" at Pacific Lutheran University, February 20, 1988.
29. Facts for Action, no. 16, p.3.
30. Susan George, A Fate Worse Than Debt, (New York: Grove Press, 1988). See also Facts for Action, p. 1.
31. Facts for Action, pp. 3-4.