by Eric Swanson
The term “blowback,” the consequences of a covert or military operation that has repercussions for the aggressor or the result of supplying weapons to a conflict only to see those same weapons turned on the supplier, has been used for decades by national security elites. It has been used long enough that the previous definition of “unknown and unintended consequences” has become obsolete. The consequences are well known and openly discussed in national security circles.
In analyzing the tragedy in Boston, the concept of blowback is made clear in a Washington Post article by Scott Wilson, Greg Miller and Sari Horowitz (April 23 “Boston bombing suspects cite US Wars as motivation, officials say.”) The surviving suspect told interrogators the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan motivated his actions. The US engages in war internationally, and local tragedy results.
When one looks at how the US national security apparatus has discussed previous instances of blowback and how it appears they will analyze this horrific event in Boston, they treat blowback as a law of nature, an inevitable consequence of immutable causes; as inexorable as an earthquake, as inescapable as an avalanche. Blowback is something that can be interdicted with good intelligence and vigilant law enforcement. It can be diverted with deft diplomacy. It can be muted some with the appearance of solid multinational alliances. But, in the collective understanding of the US foreign and military officials, blowback can never be prevented, and in fact may just factored in as an externalized cost of US war-making. So, in this case, it’s the innocent civilians in the Boston area who paid the cost.
We have seen blowback in the 2004 killing of US contractors in Fallujah, Iraq, the shooting deaths of 13 people and the wounding of 30 more at Fort Hood, Texas in 2009, and the proliferation of drone technology with drones now seen in the hands of non-state actors in just the last few days. At this point there is nothing unpredictable about it. Violence committed and weapons technology sold will pay in kind.
Blowback isn’t a law of nature. It is the predictable result of specific policy decisions. It is mutable. Drones flying overhead and raining death on a civilian population creates, understandably, anti-US sentiment. Wholesale aggressive destruction of entire villages, cities, and regions creates fear, anger, and yes, terror. And that creates individuals and populations ready to send that terror back.
These are equations that can be changed. Moving away from a militarized foreign policy moves us away from blowback. Moving away from selling arms to parties in conflict zones moves us away from blowback. Moving away from accepting our current policies as good business and expecting blowback as the cost of doing that business moves us away from that day when tragedy becomes the norm.
In just the last two days we are seeing the next possible incarnation of blowback as the US ramps up hawk-ish talk about the conflict in Syria. Whether the US floods weapons into the country or directly intervenes with military force there will be consequences. Under those conditions there will be blowback. But, as it is predictable, it is also preventable with a sane foreign policy that isn’t based on militarism and short-term profit but on restraint, humility, diplomacy and international cooperation.
Eric Swanson has served as Peace Action’s Database Manager since 1998. He served in the US Army from 1987-1990. Peace Action is the country’s largest peace and disarmament organization with over 200,000 members, donors and online supporters. http://www.peace-action.org/