Friday 6 May 2011

US targeted killings: Osama - Yamamoto comparison

Given the recent media fire-storm over the killing of Osama bin Laden, I thought it would be interesting to compare and contrast the operation to the killing of Admiral Yamamoto, a historic American ‘enemy number one’, during WWII. Both operations involved the targeted killing of a figurehead/leader responsible for an 'unprovoked' attack on the United States. Both killings were for home front propaganda,  and both showcase the exceptional intelligence gathering capabilities of the United States.

Edit: It turns out US Attorney General, Eric Holder has used the same comparison as a legal justification of Osama's assassination (see here). To misquote Voltaire, "God is always on the side of the big battalions."


Isoroku Yamamoto was commander-in-chief of the Japanese Navy and was responsible for planning and executing the Japanese attack on Pearl Habour, which brought America into the WWII. Osama bin Laden was the  founder of al-Qaeda and held overall responsibility for the September 11 attacks, which unleashed America's War on Terror.

Both targeted killings were largely for propaganda / moral boosting purposes, not for any tactical reason. Osama had been so far removed from Al Qaeda command and control he no longer had any tactical significance to the organisation, while in Admiral Yamamoto’s case, the Japanese had already lost the crucial Battle of Midway in which the allies had destroyed a majority of Japan’s carrier fleet, eliminating a large chunk of their capability in the pacific, which lead to Japan’s eventual capitulation. 

Both attacks were executed using an exceptional military intelligence gathering apparatus, which made the tactical execution of both missions as difficult as shooting fish in a barrel:

With Yamamoto, allied code breakers had deciphered a Japanese radio message of the scheduled tour Yamamoto was planning to make to the Solomon Islands and New Guinea, which included his scheduled destinations and flight times. President Roosevelt ordered the Navy to "get Yamamoto.”  and it was only a matter of sending a bunch of fighters to intercept his aircraft and shoot him down.

With Osama, the interrogation of a terrorist got the name of one of Osama’s courier’s. Next a Pakistani spy saw him in Abottabad, spy satellites used facial recognition technology to identify Osama exercising in the back yard [Edit: That might be a load of BS, latest take was it was Osama's oldest wife who snitched, pissed off he only banged his youngest wife]. President Obama ordered the Navy to “get Osama.” once again, the rest was timing. Navy SEALs had been practising the operation over a month before the raid took place, using a custom built replica of his compound! The date chosen had more to do with Obama’s re-election campaign then anything else.


The main difference between the two operations relates again to the desired propaganda / public relations outcomes of the killings. 

The killing of Yamamoto was quite impersonal, fighters shoot down his plane, it crashes, and he dies. The Japanese navy reports he is dead and this cannot easily be hidden as he is not in hiding like Osama was.

Obama wanted proof that Osama he was dead, using a B2 bomber to flatten his house would have achieved the same tactical purpose of killing Osama, but this was a PR campaign and it would not have achieved the right results as it may have been impossible to identify his body,  in which case his death could be denied by Al Qaeda. So instead a hit squad was sent to kill him and bring the body back as evidence.

The problem with the hit squad approach is it can make America seem like the bad guy, when you send 25 SEAL’s in to kill an unarmed man in cold blood in front of his daughter and wife, it doesn’t look right, even if it is Osama.

So that’s when your press spin doctor’s make up a ‘fire fight’ (which didn’t happen), Osama being armed (not true) and using his wife as a human shield (also not true) in order to vilify the man and make a point blank cold blooded execution palatable to the public.

Washington spin doctors probably would have got away with it, if it hadn’t been for the fact one of the SEAL’s helicopters had a technical malfunction and could not take off. The plan had been to use that helicopter to transport the woman and children left behind away so that they could not tell the true story of what happened to the Pakistani intelligence service. The reason the story changed from what was originally told by the US administration to what actually happened has nothing to do with 'fog of war' but is because Osama’s daughter was an eye witness in his execution.

What this means for the future
The irony is if a B2 bomber had flattened the compound, Osama would be dead along with all the women and children (as unfortunate collateral damage) and yet it would sit more cleanly on our collective conscience then if we go in a shoot someone at point blank range. The bombing de-personalises the killing but achieves the same purpose, in the same way Yamamoto's killing was depersonalised by being in a plane that was shot down.

The implications of this are scary, hunter-killer robotic drones such as the MQ-9 Reaper are being used with great tactical success in the Pakistan / Afghanistan region to target militant leaders, and no one bats an eyelid about it. But if you were to think about it in reference to say - The Terminator - as does:

Once we can make humanoid robotic soldiers like the terminator to do our dirty-work we will. If a robot had gone into the compound and mown down Osama and his family you again depersonalise what is happening. Killing of the family could be an ‘unfortunate programming error’. Not only that, you no longer need highly trained troops that while brainwashed into efficient killing machines, still need to believe what they are doing is right. If the governing elite control both the media and the robotic killing machines they can pretty much do anything they want. All the human rights we think we have won can be lost to the doublespeak of the state (espousing human rights and freedoms while taking them away). Human life once again could be on track to being worthless.

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