Category: Art of War

Artists Call: Teach at Gitmo!

"Bagram" - Mark Vallen. Oil on masonite. 2009. © 17.5 x 24 inches.

"Bagram" - Mark Vallen. Oil on masonite. 2009. © 17.5 x 24 inches.

The Joint Task Force U.S. military authorities at Guantánamo Bay have announced employment opportunities at the famed Guantánamo Bay detention and interrogation camp located inside the luxurious Guantánamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba. The facility, commonly known as Gitmo (but called the “gulag of our times” by Amnesty International), is interested in contractors that can provide seminars in Art, Literacy, Science, Horticulture, Nutrition, and “life skills” to those 166 internees currently being held indefinitely in the camp. Most of the prisoners have not been charged with a crime or have been cleared of any wrongdoing.

Since my web log is dedicated to art and social change, I will focus on the art teaching position now being offered at Guantánamo. The Detainee Library and Seminar Services Contract offers the following job description for the camp art teacher:

“The contractor shall develop, implement and teach an Art seminar. At a minimum, the Art seminar shall include water color painting, charcoal sketching, Arabic calligraphy, acrylic painting and pastel painting. Additional topics may be added with the [Contracting Officer Representative] COR written approval.”

While everyone, even President Obama himself, seems to have forgotten that Senator Obama campaigned for president in 2008 with his Platform In Support Of The Arts, I have not failed to recall that not a single promise in that document has been kept. If artists are given teaching jobs at the Guantánamo Bay detention camp, that might come closest to fulfilling the Promote Cultural Diplomacy plank, which reads as follows:

“American artists, performers and thinkers – representing our values and ideals – can inspire people both at home and all over the world. Through efforts like that of the United States Information Agency, America’s cultural leaders were deployed around the world during the Cold War as artistic ambassadors and helped win the war of ideas by demonstrating to the world the promise of America.

Artists can be utilized again to help us win the war of ideas against Islamic extremism. Unfortunately, our resources for cultural diplomacy are at their lowest level in a decade. Barack Obama will work to reverse this trend and improve and expand public-private partnerships to expand cultural and arts exchanges throughout the world.”

While appreciating that many qualified female art instructors will be interested in the job, the Joint Task Force at Guantánamo regrets to announce that “Due to cultural and religious considerations, seminars shall be given by a male instructor.”

As of this writing, 103 of the 166 detainees are on a protest hunger strike, and four have been hospitalized. 41 detainees are currently being force fed. Twice a day the 41 are strapped to a chair, a tube is run through the nose and into the stomach so that liquid nutritional supplements may be administered. Those applying for the artist position need not be concerned by this minor inconvenience, the Obama administration has stated that the forced feedings are humane and do not constitute torture. There will no doubt be sufficient time after the forced feedings to conduct art classes.

Only serious, qualified applicants need apply for the artist position. As the Obama administration is now conducting surveillance on hundreds of millions of Americans on a daily basis by forcing telecommunications giant Verizon - through a secret court order - to turn over client records to the National Security Agency, weeding out frivolous applicants has become a breeze. Artists interested in the position can also rest at ease knowing that, without even applying for the job, background checks are expedited through the Obama administration’s PRISM program! The Top Secret operation directly taps into the servers of Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, YouTube, Skype, AOL, and Apple, enabling spying upon nearly the entire U.S. population and completely eliminating the need to fill out lengthy federal job applicant forms - the government already knows everything about you!

Of course, these are hard economic times, and applying for a new job is serious business. Artists are weary of part-time, low-paying, short-term employment, and many art teachers have lost their jobs because of arts education being severely cut or eliminated from public schools in the U.S. But while the attractive pay scale for the Guantánamo art teacher position cannot be revealed for national security reasons, the Joint Task Force authorities at Guantánamo Bay can promise applicants a secure, long-term position.

Despite President Obama having made promises to close the prison camp at Guantánamo since early 2009, the United States Southern Command headed by Obama appointee Lt. Gen. John F. Kelly, has requested of Congress $49 million to build a new prison building at Guantánamo for special detainees, bringing the overall cost of renovating the prison camp to $195.7 million (the federal government’s appropriation to the National Endowment for the Arts in 2012 was $146 million). According to the New York Times, in making the case for the refurbishment of the camp, General Kelly told a Congressional hearing that the “renovations were necessary if the prison was to remain open for the indefinite future.” So, for art teachers looking for job security, Gitmo is it!

If you wish to apply for the artist position at Guantánamo Bay, please visit the Federal Business Opportunities website, and click on the May 28, 2013 “See Solicitation” link located in the right column. Good luck!

Meanwhile… in Guatemala

"Meanwhile... in Guatemala" - Mark Vallen. 1988. © Pencil on paper 10" x 14". The U.S.-backed Guatemalan military tortured and murdered tens of thousands of civilians during that Central American nation's 36-year long civil war. When the fighting ended in 1996, over 200,000 civilians - 83% of them Maya Indian farmers - had been slain.

"Meanwhile... in Guatemala" - Mark Vallen. 1988. © Pencil on paper 10" x 14". The U.S.-backed Guatemalan military tortured and murdered tens of thousands of civilians during that Central American nation's 36-year long civil war. When the fighting ended in 1996, over 200,000 civilians - 83% of them Maya Indian farmers - had been slain.

On May 10, 2013, former Guatemalan tyrant Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity by a Guatemalan court. Specifically, he was found guilty of the murder of 1,771 indigenous Maya civilians. The 86-year-old Montt was sentenced to 80 years in prison, 50 years for genocide and 30 years for crimes against humanity. When I received word of Montt’s conviction I cried aloud, “Oh my God!”, hardly believing that justice had at last prevailed… at least, in part.

In the 1980’s I met a number of Guatemalan refugees that had fled the terror in their country for the relative safety of Los Angeles, and I was profoundly disturbed by the harrowing tales they told me of their homeland - stories regarding the torture, mutilation, and murder of friends, family, and associates back home. As a result, I spent a good portion of the 80s creating posters, flyers, and drawings that were opposed to the bloodbath then occurring in Guatemala and the rest of Central America; my artworks were circulated all across L.A. and beyond. The drawing pictured above, “Meanwhile… in Guatemala“, was one such artwork (view a larger version).

"ENOUGH!" - Mark Vallen. 1988. ©

"ENOUGH!" - Mark Vallen. 1988. © Offset flyer. 11"x14" inches. One of many street flyers designed and published by the artist that announced antiwar protests in Los Angeles during the 1980s.

While hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens joined me in protesting the wars in Central America, it was not a popular thing to do. The Cold War hysteria of Ronald Reagan’s America designated such activists “un-American” and “un-patriotic”. In short, making art in solidarity with the Guatemalans was not a path to career success. Now that Ríos Montt has been found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity, I feel vindicated and joyful.

Montt was not the first nor last military despot to brutalize the people of Guatemala; he was from a long line of murderous thugs and assassins that throttled civil society and butchered Ixil Maya communities with impunity.

One could say it all began in 1954 when the U.S. government and the C.I.A. engineered a coup d’etat that overthrew Guatemala’s democratically elected government of President Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán (1950-54), but that is another story.

In announcing the Guatemalan court’s decision, Judge Yasmin Barrios stated that “The defendant is responsible for masterminding the crime of genocide”, and that “We are convinced that the acts the Ixil suffered constitute the crime of genocide… Rios Montt knew everything that was going on, and he didn’t stop it, even though he had the power to do so.” Barrios added, “We the judges are totally convinced that the goal was the physical destruction of the Ixil area.”

In March of 1982 Montt staged a coup d’etat that toppled the brutal dictatorship of President Lucas García, and Montt ruled until the next totalitarian goon - General Óscar Humberto Mejía Victores - overthrew him in a 1983 military coup. It was simply a falling out among thieves. Being a faithful servant to Guatemala’s oligarchs and Uncle Sam (he was a graduate of the U.S. Army School of the Americas), Montt came to no harm after being overthrown, in fact he was “elected” to the nation’s congress in 2007.

All the same, Montt’s 14 month military rule became infamous for the most vile abuses, including widespread torture and rape conducted by state forces. Montt launched a scorched earth military campaign meant to destroy the rural support base of the country’s left-wing guerilla movement. Making no distinction between the Maya civilian population and combatants, Montt’s campaign obliterated over 600 Maya villages and took the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent peasant farmers.

Montt’s counter-insurgency policies did have its supporters. On December 4, 1982, President Reagan met with Gen. Montt at San Pedro Sula, Honduras. Reagan gave his assessment of the fascist dictator to the gathered international press:

“I know that President Ríos Montt is a man of great personal integrity and commitment. His country is confronting a brutal challenge from guerrillas armed and supported by others outside Guatemala. I have assured the President that the United States is committed to support his efforts to restore democracy and to address the root causes of this violent insurgency. I know he wants to improve the quality of life for all Guatemalans and to promote social justice. My administration will do all it can to support his progressive efforts.”

Only two days after Reagan made his statement, U.S. armed and trained Guatemalan special forces, the Kaibiles, raided the Mayan hamlet of Dos Esses, where they massacred nearly 300 villagers… mostly women and children. It was not an isolated incident; the slaughter of innocents had become government policy for Guatemala’s generals, and yet the U.S. government continued to pour millions of dollars worth of lethal military aid into their hands.

While the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, and other corporate newspapers have all mentioned the Ríos Montt conviction, few if any made mention of Montt’s crimes being facilitated by the extensive military, economic, and political backing of the U.S. government. In his 2003 book, Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II, William Blum noted that the Reagan administration supplied Montt with “$3.1 million of jeeps and trucks, $4 million of helicopter spare parts, $6.3 million of other military supplies.”

What doubt is there that U.S. military aid was used by Montt and his death squads to slaughter Maya peasants by the tens of thousands? Blum also noted in his book how covert U.S. military aid was provided to the Montt dictatorship; “the United States was using Cuban exiles to train security forces in Guatemala”. In a October 21, 1982 Washington Post article, journalist Jack Anderson reported that “Green Berets had been instructing Guatemalan Army officers for over two years in the finer points of warfare”.

The question remains, if the former Guatemalan tyrant Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt is guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity, what can be said of those in Washington D.C. who willfully supplied the dictator with the means to carry out his butchery?

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UPDATE: Guatemala’s highest court overturned the guilty conviction against Rios Montt on May 20, 2013, only ten days after the former military dictator was sentenced to 80 years in prison for genocide and crimes against humanity. Guatemala’s “Constitutional Court” cited procedural errors for canceling the verdict. Montt is to be “retried”. It is uncertain when that might occur. Have the good people of Guatemala not suffered enough torment? Where is justice?

Guantánamo Gulag 10th Anniversary

January 11, 2011 marks the 10th anniversary of the U.S. detention camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The prison was authorized by former president George W. Bush as part of his “war on terror”. In 2005 Amnesty International called Guantánamo the “Gulag of our time“.

Bagram - Vallen. Oil on masonite. 2009. 17.5 x 24 inches.

"Bagram" - Mark Vallen. Oil on masonite. 2009. 17.5 x 24 inches.

While running for the presidency, Senator Obama said during a CNN televised debate broadcast on 6-03-07; “Our legitimacy is reduced when we’ve got a Guantánamo that is open, when we suspend Habeas Corpus, those kind of things erode our moral claims that we are acting on behalf of broader universal principals, and that’s one of the reasons those kinds of issues are so important.”

In an interview conducted by 60 Minutes and broadcast on 11-16-08, President Obama proclaimed; “I have said repeatedly that I intend to close Guantánamo and I will follow through on that, I’ve said repeatedly that America doesn’t torture and I’m going to make sure that we don’t torture. Those are part and parcel of an effort to regain America’s moral stature in the world.”

Kinetic Military Action Against Libya’s Archeological Sites?

Reports circulated on June 15, 2011 that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) would not rule out bombing ancient Roman ruins in Libya if it knew Muammar Gaddafi’s soldiers were hiding military equipment in them. For those who appreciate the importance of Libya’s Roman archeological sites, the most well preserved in all the Mediterranean, this is worrying news. The gravity of the situation is perhaps best summed up by an online TIME Magazine photo essay originally titled, “See Libya’s Roman Ruins Before Nato Bombs Them“, but apparently quickly changed by the magazine’s editors to the less provocative, “Libya’s Roman Ruins.”

The ancient Roman city of Leptis Magna, 81 miles from the Libyan capital of Tripoli, is identified as an important World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Irina Bokova, the Director-General of UNESCO, has called on the warring parties to “respect the Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict” and to “keep military operations away from cultural sites.” Ms. Bokova reminded NATO that of the ten countries involved in the NATO bombing of Libya, eight of them “are party to the Convention” - the United Kingdom is noticeably absent as a signatory nation.

Fighting between Libyan government soldiers and rebel forces has occurred near Leptis Magna, and the insurgents have accused Gaddafi of hiding military equipment, munitions, and troops among the ruins. Oddly, NATO has not verified rebel claims, a simple thing to do with aerial surveillance photography, instead NATO seems to have placed archeological sites in their crosshairs. An unnamed NATO official responded to the rebel allegations by saying “We will strike military vehicles, military forces, military equipment or military infrastructure that threaten Libyan civilians as necessary.”

Located on the Mediterranean coast, Leptis Magna was initially a Phoenician port city and trading center. It eventually grew to be part of the Roman Empire in 146 BC, but attained distinction when Septimius Severus became Emperor in 193 BC. Born in Leptis Magna, Severus developed his home city using all the power and resources available to him as Emperor of Rome, the result was the transformation of Leptis into one of the most important cities in all of Africa, it certainly turned out to be the most significant and beautiful of all Roman cities in Africa. You can get a glimpse of the magnificence of this ancient wonder by viewing this short video. No rational person would dare think of dropping bombs on Leptis Magna, for any possible reason, any more than they would consider dropping high explosives on Egypt’s Great Pyramid of Giza or India’s Taj Mahal - both of which are also UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Perhaps concerns that war will irrevocably damage or obliterate Libya’s ancient Roman ruins are overheated, after all, President Obama insists he is not conducting a “war” on Libya, just a “kinetic military action.” Accordingly, if Leptis Magna is reduced to nothing by NATO bombs, the history books may read that it was a consequence of an intermittent kinetic military action.

Article I of the U.S. Constitution states that Congress is solely responsible for declaring war, but Congress never authorized military action against Libya, and President Obama never asked Congress to do so. Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon plunged the United States into a catastrophic land war in Vietnam without congressional authorization; each president escalated the conflict, despite the war’s staggering unpopularity and the absence of a formal declaration of war. The U.S. Congress responded by passing the War Powers Act in 1973. Largely thought of as a means to prevent future Vietnam-like wars, the act requires a president to obtain congressional approval for armed intervention within 60 days of a conflict being initiated, and if such approval is not obtained a president then has an additional 30 days to cease fighting.

On June 15 President Obama sent a 38-page report to Congress arguing that U.S. involvement in Libya falls short of “full-blown hostilities.” Mr. Obama insists he can go on attacking Libya without Congressional approval since what the U.S. military is doing there does “not involve sustained fighting or active exchanges of fire with hostile forces, nor do they involve U.S. ground troops.” Mr. Obama contends that he is only “supporting” operations being carried out by NATO, and his actions are not in violation of the War Powers Act. These are simply weasel words from the president.

On June 9, 2011 the Financial Times obtained and published a U.S. Defense Department memo having to do with U.S. contributions to NATO’s “Operation Unified Protector” military operations against Libya. The document stated U.S. military action in Libya is costing approximately $2 million per day. The Financial Times article also revealed the U.S. as the largest single contributor to NATO military operations in Libya, having conducted “70 per cent of the reconnaissance missions, over 75 per cent of the refuelling flights and 27 per cent of all air sorties.” Moreover, “the U.S. has about 75 aircraft, including drones, involved in the operations and since the end of March has conducted about 2,600 aircraft sorties and about 600 combat sorties.” In his final address before retiring this month, Defense Secretary Robert Gates noted the U.S. pays 75 percent of NATO defense spending. I would also add that U.S. Navy four-star admiral James G. Stavridis, is the Commander of NATO central command.

Mr. Obama’s kinetic military action in Libya certainly looks like a U.S. war to me.

In his report to Congress contending the U.S. is not at war with Libya, Mr. Obama conceded that the first two months of military operations against Libya have cost the Pentagon $716 million. By the end of September U.S. military operations will have cost the U.S. taxpayer at least $1.1 billion - at the “current scale of operations.” What the cost of military operations will continue to be after September is anyone’s guess, but I am reminded of former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell quoting the so-called pottery barn rule when advising former President George W. Bush in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq - “You break it, you own it.

In all fairness, President Obama does have his supporters when it comes to flaunting the U.S. Constitution and the War Powers Act. The former Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Bush administration, John Yoo, author of the infamous memos that determined waterboarding was not torture but a legal form of interrogation, expressed praise for President Obama’s Libya war strategy. In a Wall Street Journal opinion piece titled “Antiwar Senator, War-Powers President“, Mr. Yoo wrote:

“President Barack Obama has again flip-flopped on national security—and we can all be grateful. Having kept Guantanamo Bay open, resumed military commission trials for terrorists, and expanded the use of drones, the president has now ordered the U.S. military into action without Congress’s blessing. Imagine the uproar if President Bush had unilaterally launched air attacks against Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi. But since it’s Mr. Obama’s finger on the trigger, Democratic leaders in Congress have kept quiet—demonstrating that their opposition to presidential power during the Bush years was political, not principled.”

While it is uncertain whether or not President Obama is pleased to have Mr. Yoo’s backing, there is little doubt that he has disdain for the views of Dan Simpson, a former career U.S. diplomat. Simpson was the Ambassador to the Central African Republic (1990-92), Special Envoy to Somalia (1995-98), and Deputy Commandant of the United States Army War College (1993-1994). Now an associate editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, he characterized Mr. Obama’s war on Libya in the following manner; “We as a people are acting in Libya like some maddened pit bull that just has to attack something. It is shameful.” Simpson went on to say:

“Mr. Obama is moving ahead even though he is in clear violation of the terms of the U.S. War Powers Act. So what is behind his adherence to a policy of pounding Libya? It is oil, to a degree. Even though Libya produces only 2 percent of the world’s oil, the companies that Libya nationalized after Mr. Gadhafi took power in 1969 were owned in part by British and American companies with long memories and a lot of lobbying clout in Washington due to their political contributions to parties and congressmen. France, the United Kingdom and the United States would just love to get their concessions back.”

On March 18, 2011, the day before ordering U.S. military forces to attack Gaddafi’s Libya, President Obama told a select group of 18 U.S. Congress members that the U.S. military action would last for “days not weeks.” Three months later the war grinds on. The president still persists in arguing that there is no need for Congressional approval of his war on Libya; the 90 day limit provided by the War Powers Act that terminates a war not authorized by Congress passed on June 17th; NATO forces are apparently ready to bomb Libya’s ancient Roman ruins, and the so-called “peace movement” seems little more than a relic from the Bush years.

I began writing these words after stumbling upon the aforementioned TIME Magazine photo essay. In truly Orwellian fashion, the essay title had already been changed before I finished this article. No doubt “See Libya’s Roman Ruins Before Nato Bombs Them“, was too honest a proclamation.