SATSA & The Professionalization of War on Campus

Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
e-mail icon
Student Association on Terrorism and Security Analysis (SATSA)

by Vani Kannan -

On February 27-28, 2015, the Syracuse University (SU) Student Association on Terrorism and Security Analysis (SATSA) held its yearly conference on campus,  entitled “The New Global Threat: Emerging Issues in National Security.” SATSA publishes The Journal of Terrorism and Security Analysis, and is oriented towards the policy and legal implications of military action. Students contribute to the journal to increase their marketability for jobs such as National Security Attorney. Broadly, this conference is geared towards training students so that they have the tools to advise military personnel and military contractors on what authority they have, and how to use the law to justify military operations.

A coalition of students and local activists affiliated with the Syracuse Peace Council attended the conference to intervene in the keynote address by Bill Smullen, the Director of National Security Studies at SU. For a group of activists committed to resisting militarism, this conference offered an opportunity to improve our understanding of how students at a major research university are being encouraged to pursue jobs that justify imperialism. The following rhetorical moves witnessed at the conference reveal the violence of the “profession” of war.

1. Linking the International Criminal Court to Military “Client” Well-being. In “Legal and Policy Challenges in a Theater of Operations,” Col. Richard Whitaker and RADM Jim McPherson discussed “challenges for military commanders” around laws of armed conflict and international humanitarian law. These speakers described themselves as legal advisors to “clients” (e.g., military contractors). Their role is to give “legal ‘reads’” of situations where operations (e.g., killing, torture) might be carried out; carry out covert operations and “detainee ops,” and prioritize their “client’s career, operational opportunity, and Congressional funding.”

While it is not surprising that a lawyer prioritizes the needs of their clients, this priority is disturbing when a military contractor’s “client interest” invariably means escalated violence. For example, referencing a talk from the conference (discussed shortly in this article) about the potential for a US-backed “regime change” in Iran, Whitaker noted that “operational lawyers would immediately say, “how can I weaponize or operationalize that?” Similarly, the speakers’ legal concern with the International Criminal Court (ICC) was grounded entirely in the interests of military personnel and contractors. When asked how much they think about the ICC in their work lives, McPherson said, “A lot! Particularly when figuring out where our bosses can travel. For example, Kissinger has arrest warrants out in a bunch of different countries.”

Further, United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM) was framed by Whitaker as “a global combatant commander with personnel in 82 countries doing ‘all sorts of neat things’ and making ‘innovative legal arguments for four-star commanders.’” “Innovative,” here, means that SOCOM is finding new and improved ways to justify force. SOCOM’s presence in 82 countries—undeniable evidence of militarized imperial expansion—is framed as a good thing, a site that students should look to as a site of innovation.

2. Pushing for military/police collaboration. At the Friday night keynote, Rear Admiral (RADM) James McPherson, 39th Judge Advocate General of the US Navy, invoked a history of “domestic terrorism” in the US (tracing it to the US post-Reconstruction, the 1920s, the 1960s, Timothy McVeigh, and 9/11) to argue for more collaboration between military and police: “The FBI has open terrorism investigations in all 50 states. We need a hybrid between law enforcement and military. How would we do this as policy makers?”

It is important to consider the context in which this call is being made. In response to the brutal crackdown on protests in Ferguson following the murder of Mike Brown, the Black Lives Matter movement has called for the demilitarization of the police. Additionally, there have been several recent exposes on FBI entrapment schemes, where undercover agents profile Muslim communities and produce many “domestic terrorism” cases. By arguing in favor of military/police collaboration, McPherson is supporting an infrastructure that profiles, detains, incarcerates, and murders people of color in the US and around the world.

3. Framing deregulation as moral. Whitaker and McPherson explained that when military operations are contracted out, the US government is not directly held accountable for human rights violations. For example, the speakers explained that legally, Blackwater’s Nisour Square killings in Iraq represent an “individual violation of the Geneva Convention” because Blackwater had been contracted to “augment” US operations.” Thus, the US government has no accountability for the actions of Blackwater.

What, then, is holding private military and security contractors accountable for human rights violations? Apparently, it is the market. In a talk on Somali piracy, a graduate of the SU College of Law argued that, although private security firms have been accused of “excessive force,” these firms should not be regulated: “Critics say there needs to be regulation. I argue that self-regulation by market incentives to keep clients has been successful. There is evidence that there is higher participation in regulatory agencies and compliance with international law when companies are concerned about keeping clients.”

In other words, he suggested, we should let the market decide whether these companies are the best option, rather than take a stand against “excessive force.” The speaker legitimized “excessive force” through a violent and dehumanizing portrayal of the people on the receiving end of the force: “Somali pirates are often treated with a ‘catch and release’ philosophy that’s usually reserved for trout.” (This elicited a loud laugh from the room.)

While capitalism is often tied to moral good in political rhetoric, it was deeply troubling to see the market-as-inherent-good argument applied to privatized war, particularly in an educational setting.

4. Equating military intervention with grassroots movements. Dr. Ivan Sascha Sheehan, PhD, of the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Baltimore, discussed the possibility of US intervention supporting “regime change” in Iran by invoking three grassroots movements. First, he argued that South Africa required “global assistance” to end apartheid. In another example, Sheehan suggested that “regime change” can happen “with covert/material help from the diaspora,” citing Che Guevara’s movement between various Latin American countries. Finally, he cited global use of Twitter/social media in the Arab Spring as “crucial” to the Egyptian Revolution

The US supporting and backing a coup/“regime change” in Iran is fundamentally different than a worldwide bottom up movement to topple apartheid, Che Guevara’s instrumental role in the Cuban Revolution, or global social media coverage/circulation of a grassroots revolutionary movement. Framing all these things as “external intervention” flattens the differences between imperial intervention and the tactics of people’s movements.

This is only a small slice of what was said at the conference. These speakers are high-ranking officials; they are people in power who interpret the law and make life-or-death decisions on the ground. They are offering this advice to students—who will go on to work the jobs that justify imperial military aggression in banal, everyday acts. Student and community activists must continue to stand against this blatant show of empire-building on campus.