Dec 10, 2013
Outsourcing War Protest in an Imperial World
Posted on Mar 26, 2007
By Tom Engelhardt, Tomdispatch.com
Excuse me if, at 62, and well into my second era of protest against yet another distant, disastrous, and disabling American war, I express a little confusion. Was it actually like this in Rome while the legions were off fighting on the German frontiers? Was this the way it felt in London while the imperial forces conducted their frontier wars in Afghanistan, or Paris when the Foreign Legion was holding down North Africa? Was this how it felt in Washington when Douglas MacArthur’s father was suppressing the Filipinos and General Jacob Smith was turning the island of Samar into a “howling wilderness”? Is this the way it usually feels in the heartlands of great empires until the barbarians actually do come knocking at the gates?
I went marching against the President’s Iraqi war of choice in my hometown last Sunday. I found myself in an older crowd, many visibly from the Vietnam era. It was relatively quiet, small-scale, and lacking in energy; all in all—for me at least—a modestly dispiriting experience, given the crisis at hand and the disillusioned state of public opinion here in the U.S.
I came home wondering whether some Bush-era version of the old Roman formula had indeed been working. Had bread and circuses become croissants and iPods, or Bud and American Idol, or Sony PlayStation 3 and 24? I couldn’t help puzzling over the gap between public opinion on the President’s war and public action, or between the conclusions opinion polls tell us so many Americans have reached and those generally reached in Washington as well as in the mainstream media.
I know I’m not alone in wondering about such things, so here’s my provisional exploration of some of what’s puzzled me most. I don’t claim to have the answers, only perhaps some of the questions. Think of this, then, as a guided tour of a few of the trees on our landscape—with the hope that you’ll be able to spot the forest.
For four years now, journalists have reported on Iraq; editorial pages have editorialized; and pundits—that special breed of Ciceros—have opined; while the retired generals who fought our last frontier wars have trooped onto Fox, MSNBC, and CNN to analyze this one; and experts and political figures of every expectable sort have appeared again and again on the Charlie Rose Show, Meet the Press, and their ilk, without our general fund of wisdom seeming to improve appreciably.
The same people who once thought Bush’s war was a great idea, or a good idea, or at least an okay idea, or something we should all support no matter what, are still at it. Now, some of them claim the war was a lousy idea but, following Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn rule, are convinced that, since we “broke” Iraq, it’s “ours” anyway. Some, like the Washington Post editorial page’s editors, still think the invasion was a good idea, just somehow poorly—the word you always see is “incompetently”—carried out, making the mess the Iraqis are in still ours.
Of course, many of those who once praised the war have revised their opinions and judgments somewhat (and were usually exorbitantly praised for doing so). Still, just about all of them, not to speak of just about everyone in Washington who hasn’t gone numb or mum, seems to agree on one thing. As the Washington Post put it in its fourth-anniversary-of-the-war lead editorial, “It’s tempting to say that if it was wrong to go in, it must be wrong to stay in. But how Iraq evolves will fundamentally shape the region and deeply affect U.S. security. Walking away is likely to make a bad situation worse.”
Under the many conflicts between George W. Bush and most of his opponents in the Democratic and Republican parties lies an area of agreement seldom challenged in the mainstream political or media world (or, when challenged, given remarkably little attention). On the deepest points, major politicians and the most influential parts of the media are actually in remarkable accord. In fact, you could say that, in the world of our media gatekeepers, there’s just another version of the sort of accord that existed before the invasion of Iraq.
That country, it is said, is crucial to “American interests”—“vital national security interests in Iraq” was the way, for instance, Hillary Clinton put the matter recently. There is also agreement (as there was about such things in the Vietnam era) that if we were to leave Iraq totally or “precipitously,” American credibility would take a terrible hit, that the terrorists would be “celebrating.” It is similarly agreed that, while all sorts of partial withdrawals from Iraq might sooner or later be possible, actually withdrawing from the country is hard to imagine, even if staying seems hardly less so. This is why, as in the recently passed House legislation, withdrawal of all American forces has been replaced by the withdrawal of all, or most, American “combat troops” (or “combat brigades”), a technical term that actually accounts for less than half of American forces in Iraq.
The two categories are now so conveniently blurred that it would be pardonable if few Americans grasped the difference any more than did Charles Gibson, anchor of ABC’s World News Tonight. On last Friday’s news, he claimed the House had voted to get “all U.S. forces” out when his own White House correspondent used the correct phrase, “combat forces.”
Americans lived through endless similar non-withdrawal (or partial withdrawal) “withdrawal” plans back in the Vietnam years. Now, it seems, we must do so again. At that time, a crucial argument against full-scale withdrawal was the “bloodbath” sure to follow. It was common knowledge in Washington then that any American withdrawal would result in an unimaginable version of the bloodbath already long underway in that country. That it didn’t, of course, hasn’t stopped the Vietnam playbook from being pulled out again. Now, we have the “Iraqi bloodbath” to contend with.
It’s not just that those “vital national security interests” would be endangered by a withdrawal from Iraq. On one predominant “fact,” just about everyone who matters in Washington agrees. We cannot leave Iraq because only we protect the Iraqis from themselves; only we have any hope of “stabilizing” the country. Even the Pentagon has finally acknowledged that a brutal civil war is underway in areas of Iraq; nonetheless, if we were to up and depart, it is agreed, a near genocidal-level bloodletting would certainly be in the cards. We are, in other words, the only force standing between the Iraqis and the “gates of hell.” Yes, we may have loosed all this on them in the first place; yes, our tactics in the field may only clear the way for greater bloodshed; yet our “presence” remains their sole remaining hope. This is considered a reality of our world, a clear, if understandable, limit on American policy-making, whether Republican or Democratic.
That this common Washingtonian wisdom is but a prediction about a future yet to be made is seldom noted; that it is being offered by people who often, however unconsciously, have a stake in its coming true is not commented upon either; that, for many of them, such a bloodbath might justify much that has gone wrong, conveniently highlighting the “depravity” of the Iraqis we tried to help, isn’t a subject for discussion; that most of these seers have had uncommonly poor records when it comes to predicting any developments in Iraq over the last four-plus years is seldom brought up either.
There is also, of course, something grimly self-fulfilling about this particular prophesy. If a single conclusion can be drawn about the U.S. presence in Iraq, it’s this: The longer we have been there, the worse it’s gotten. We’ve now reached the point where, with Americans “protecting” Iraqis from themselves, nearly one in five of them have nonetheless either fled their country, been forced into internal exile, or died in the mayhem. If you were projecting into the future, it would be far more logical to assume that, with us present, this situation would only worsen. (Of course, by now, both predictions might prove accurate.)
Even the President’s surge plan, a version of the old Vietnam-era “oil spot strategy,” is but an attempt to extend the control of the American military and the dependent, largely Shiite Iraqi government from the citadel-microstate of the fortified Green Zone inside the Iraqi capital to most of Baghdad. It is aimed at turning our “Iraq,” at best, into a full-scale city-state, while driving much of the internecine killing to the outskirts of the capital or surrounding provinces. How such a plan could possibly “stabilize” the situation there in any long-term way remains beyond serious explanation.
But perhaps this sort of deep agreement on the “realities” of our world should not surprise us. After all, we’re talking about a literal “conspiracy” here—in the original Latin sense of the word: to con-spire once essentially meant to breathe the same air. Indeed, our politicians and top media figures do breathe the same air and, in a way that wasn’t true decades ago, cohabit in the same rarified class atmosphere.
Not surprisingly, then, they often agree on the basics, holding in common, above all else, an essentially imperial mindset. In this way, they are genuine representatives of what was—before a ragtag minority insurgency fought the U.S. military to a stand-still—hailed as the planet’s “last superpower,” its only “hyperpower,” its “global sheriff,” the ultimate inheritor of Western civilization, not to speak of the mantles of the Roman and British empires, and so on. This imperial mindset can, at its most kindly, be expressed in this way: In any situation where American “interests” are at stake, the United States can only be imagined as part of the solution, not part of the problem. In the present Iraqi situation, such thinking also represents an imaginative failure, your essential deck-of-the-Titanic strain of thinking.
So call all this the fog of imperial war and, if you want to see it in action, just turn on your TV and check out David Brooks, or Tom Friedman, or Richard Perle, or George Packer, or various of the New York Times or Washington Post reporters who regularly double as pundits, or retired General Jack Keane, or Senator Joe Biden, or countless others nattering on about our prospects in Iraq. Sometimes it seems as if all the major figures on our television landscape were simply in some hypnotic state, claustrophobically recycling the same stale air.
Oddly enough, as far as I can see, the only disqualification for being a pundit or expert in our TV world, when it comes to the President’s Afghan and Iraq wars (or his prospective Iranian one), is having been right in the first place, having imagined from the start something of what actually did occur—as, for instance, was the case with Nation columnist Jonathan Schell and Boston Globe columnist James Carroll, or, for that matter, any of the millions of protestors who took to the streets in early 2003.
The Protesting Public: Erased from the Story
Among the missing-in-action of these last years are all those Americans who went out into the streets before the invasion of Iraq began, part of the largest global antiwar demonstrations ever mounted. Even a fine piece like Frank Rich’s “The Ides of March 2003,” his recent return to the countdown to war, leaves out that mass of people—a distinct minority in the U.S., but already part of a global majority.
They carried a plethora of handmade signs, including “No blood for oil,” “Contain Saddam—and Bush,” “Uproot Shrub,” “Oil for Brains, We Don’t Buy It, Liberate Florida,” “The Bush administration is a material breach,” “Pre-emptive war is terrorism,” “W is not healthy for Iraqis and other living things,” “Use our Might to Persuade, not Invade,” “Give Peace a Chance, Give Inspections a Chance,” “How did USA’s oil get under Iraq’s sand,” “Peace is Patriotic,” and thousands more. In their essential grasp of the situation, they were on target and they marched directly into the postwar period in vast numbers before seemingly disappearing from the scene and then being wiped from history.
It wasn’t, as people now often claim, that almost everyone was gulled and manipulated into supporting this war by the Bush administration, that no one could have had any sense of what a disaster was in the making. Millions of Americans had a strong sense of what might be coming down the pike and many of them actively tried to stop it from happening. I certainly did and I found myself repeatedly in crowds of staggering size.
Women traced out pleas for peace naked on beaches, while in the Antarctic well bundled bodies formed similar peace signs in the snow. And almost everywhere on the planet hundreds of thousands, millions, marched. After the invasion was launched and we had broken Iraq like a Pottery Barn vase, Americans in startling numbers went to the effort of officially apologizing in photos at the Sorry Everyone website.
The demonstrations of that moment were impressive enough that my hometown paper, the New York Times, which loves to cover large demonstrations as if they were of no significance, had a fine front-page piece by Patrick Tyler claiming that we might be seeing the planet’s other superpower out on the streets.
Here is a description I offered of an enormous demonstration in New York City four days after the shock-and-awe invasion was launched:
“Twenty to thirty minutes after the group I was with ended our march at Washington Square and dispersed, I called my son—thanks to the glories of the cell phone—and he told me he was stuck at the end of the march over 30 blocks north of us. And we hadn’t even been near the front of the march. That’s a lot of people and there were sizeable crowds of onlookers, cheering from the street side as well as people waving or offering V signs from windows all along the way. It was a remarkably upbeat experience. We were all, perhaps, stunned by the evidence of our existence. Many, many young people. Wonderful signs. Drums and music. Roaring waves of cheers at the end. I think we felt something like shock and awe—of the genuine kind—that we had not gone away, that we were not likely to go away.”
And then, in a sense, we were gone. And yet, in another sense, we never left the scene.
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