I read these headlines and their associated articles and felt inclined to respond. Look, it is not my intention to rehash the same old arguments. This project is not an echo chamber. The hypocrisy of requiring the “Islam” modifier in reference to specific acts of violence while ignoring this syntactical requirement for, say, The Lord`s Resistance Army as “Christian terrorist” organization is clear, and has already been elaborated.
What is interesting to me, sociologically, is the insistence among organizations and institutions involved in knowledge construction at the social level, policy institutions, their associated party apparatus and the responsive media, for this syntactical convention. Culturally, we profess values of individual merit and the inherent unfairness of ascribing the actions of a few unto a population as a whole, yet central institutions in our society insist, just insist, that any crime committed by a Moslem be attributed to Islam as a whole. This should not surprise us. It is a standard feature of groupthink to demand standards of the out-group that is not expected of the in-group. The individualist standard is the very value system embraced by conservatives when confronted by the actions of groups like the KKK, which validate their hatred using Christian doctrine. The standard rejoinder is that such groups do not represent “true Christianity.” Of course, this is more or less true even in the face of the immense complexity of what constitutes “true” Christianity. Collective responsibility, however, is required applies of Moslems who are expected to apologize for the crimes committed by extremist groups acting under an Islamic pretext. This is not a moral issue, it’s a group dynamic that says more about the in-group demanding the collective standard than it does the out-group.
The fact is that we all know, based on our own, professed American values, that ascribing extremism to 1.5 Billion Moslems based on the actions of a miniscule fraction of this population is wrong. That such an ascription is unreasonable is a mainstream truth, not a radical exercise in ethics.
To confirm this, we can do a simple experiment. The co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, Malala Yousafzai is a Muslim. Find one reference to her actions being referred to as Islamic Peace making. In fact, an Islamic Peace Movement does exist. Where is any mention of this in the mainstream media? One would be hard pressed to find the word “Islamic” applied as a modifier to any terms other than “terrorist” or “extremist,” whereas similar adjective use of “Christian” or “American” is vehemently resisted.
…Is vehemently resisted because it is wrong. Such terminology is inherently derogatory, exclusionary and antithetical to the formation of any productive relationship based upon mutual respect. For this reason, the President is correct in refusing to apply this ignorant, all-encompassing term in his speeches or in his policies, and Vox, usually well thought out and informative (if not a little Vanilla), is wrong. Insisting that this particular group of extremists, ISIL, is tagged as “Islamic” will, in no way, serve any useful purpose. It will not force Moslems to confront the extremists in their own midst any more than Christians are inclined to confront the KKK for its use of Christian doctrine. Everyone, regardless of faith or politics, knows that ISIL is a violent extremist group. Adding “Islamic” does nothing to alter that designation.
Demanding that “Islamic” be the default adjective for “terrorist” will only encourage the very defensiveness that we see from any reference group when compared to its worst elements. At worst, and most likely, this syntactical convention will serve as just one more point of alienation for one of the world’s largest reference groups at a time when there is already too much dissonance. It makes no sense to alienate the very people with whom we must work if any reasonable solution to this problem is to found. I, as an Italian American, am not more inclined to condemn the actions of the Mafia if its actions are ascribed to me.
Secondly, the most dangerous consequence of using metaphors in any form of writing is that doing so tends to constrain our understanding of what might be complex issues. The actions of ISIL cannot be attributed to a simple interpretation of the Qu ‘ran. There are complex political and cultural issues involved. Interpersonal forces are in play to convince people to join and participate in acts of extreme violence. A couple of verses from an ancient book are not enough, in and of themselves, to accomplish what these extremist groups have accomplished. Extremism of any kind, political, religions, philosophical, or any combination thereof, cannot be divorced from the social context.
People with extreme and violent views can be found in any society, but under what conditions do such groups vie for power in any realistic or threatening way? Under normal, functional social conditions, there are society controls in place that keep such groups from expanding beyond the narrow, subcultural, systems that they occupy. No. extremist groups thrive in in social dysfunction and instability. The paradigms used to justify these movements are nothing more than pretext, discursive formations by which people can justify the otherwise irrational. ISIL and Boco Haram are no exceptions to this rule.
Yet the “Islamic” metaphor lends itself to simplistic interpretation of motive, organization, resolve and cause. In the United States, with contemporary political discourse, this adjective lends itself to an unrealistic, irrational, ‘Clash of Civilizations’ paradigm that does not offer a real solution. Indeed, this Clash of Civilizations paradigm may actually be a causal factor in creating this crisis.
ISIL is the birthchild of policies based on the premise of a Clash of Civilizations and the consequent swath of destruction left in its wake. Any further rhetoric that reinforces this Medieval Paradigm only fuels ISIL`s cause. So long as this, and any future such group, can plausibly make the claim that it is the only defense against a postmodern Crusade it will be empowered. So long as Moslems look out upon ruined villages, bomb craters and the graves of their loved ones, they can be tempted by extremist rhetoric. After all, the evidence is all around them that they are living in an extremist world.
The Clash of Civilizations rhetoric, however, also serves the purposes of certain western groups. So long as this is true, any attempt to understand this crisis will be retarded by a simplistic yet dramatic wrong explanation.
ISIL is the ultimate justification for our continued imperialist pursuits in the Middle East: brutal the point of psychopathy even and especially toward those recognized as ‘their own people’, extremist, and clearly easily identifiable as “the other.” It is impossible for even the most open minded peace advocates and anti-imperialists to try to advocate tolerance and understanding. Expending significant military energy to ISIL’s destruction is an easy sell so long as such policies are effected under a pretext of policing and international law. That’s not to say that it is an honest sell, but it is an easy one for the American people, fatigued from over a decade and a half of warfare in that region, to accept. Just another sacrifice on the part of us Americans, stoically accepting our burden as the world’s indispensable nation. What’s not to love?
Best of all, a Clash of Civilizations paradigm sells advertising space where complex sociological analysis inspires nap time and turning the channel to Big Bang Theory re-runs.
Linking ISIL to Islam as a whole, however, serves a broader purpose. After all, if Moslems are unable and unwilling to control their own extremists, then the United States simply must maintain its presence in the region in perpetuity. For the sake of the world; for the preservation of civilization, U.S. hegemony over the Middle East is the only solution. Of course, we didn’t ask for this responsibility. We don’t want to do it. For the good of all, however, the burden must be borne, and it must be borne by us.
What? There’s oil, too? You don’t say!
From this perspective, ISIL arrived onto the world stage just in time to save a failed imperial policy and to breathe new life into a foreign adventure that most Americans are ready to shed.
Look, the “Islamic” modifier and its Clash of Civilizations context, serves a host of purposes, all of them racist. Refusing to accept this context does not mean that we are denying the role of Islam as a motivator for this and similar groups as the Vox article infers. Certainly, groups like ISIL, Boco Haram, al Qaeda, are influenced by Islam. But so is Malala Yousafzai; so is Rep. Keith Ellison, for that matter. There are 1.8 billion Moslems in the world, and roughly 1.8 billion slightly different ways that Islam influences each. Islam, like all religions, is not a monolithic entity entire unto itself. The religion itself is complex, multifaceted, fragmented by sectarian, cultural and geopolitical differences.
We may not be able to disconnect Islam from the atrocities of these groups, but we also have to understand the larger political context. By destroying the social fabric in the Middle East, the United States and its allies did their share in fertilizing the field for this particularly poisonous crop. The hundreds of millions of Moslems living in peace throughout the world are not inclined to sympathize with terrorists. The political context of war, destruction and desperation is a more valid explanation for what we are seeing in Iraq than is the default “Islamic” adjective. Any solution to this crisis will have more to do with functionalist sociology than it will the Clash of Civilizations. Military power will only fuel the crisis. A functional society cannot be bombed into existence. True nation building means providing the resources as well as the autonomy necessary for a society to work through its own conflicts and settle upon its own values and institutional constructs.
Accepting this, however, plays against our understanding and embrace of our so-called civilizing mission in the region. Rather than a nuanced understanding of complex factors and acceptance of the role we played in creating such monsters, it is easier and more self-aggrandizing to write off extremism as a product of some innate quality of the other. In turn, we can also pat ourselves on the back for our own moral superiority while we engage in our own crimes against humanity. The United States government has never faced a crisis for which militarism was not the favored solution. Hence our current situation.
President Obama and any conscientious press outlet is right in not pandering to this base sophistry. Alienating a diverse community of almost two billion people is not only immoral, puerile and racist. It’s bad policy. If extremism can be defeated in any real sense it will not be through force of arms. The only path to defeating ignorance, even violent ignorance, is by marshaling the cooperation of the communities from which these groups recruit their support. After all, those who rush off to join extremist groups often do so because they are attracted by the promise of empowerment, pride and respect that their societies cannot or will not provide for them. We must be part of empowering communities in securing the futures of their citizens without being so much of a part of this process that our very existence discredits such efforts.
I don’t know if Obama’s refusal to use stigmatizing rhetoric will translates into better policy. I’m not holding my breath. The President, like his predecessors, has demonstrated that hegemony remains the United States’ foundational foreign policy. In this small matter of syntax, however, he is right.
US Military Assistance Will Not Work
Just a quick word on Iraq.
The situation in Iraq may be ugly, but it’s a fairly easy mess to understand sociologically.
Since the fall of the Ottoman Empire shortly after World War I, the cards have always been stacked against Iraqi stability. Iraq could be understood as a national boundary drawn around very disparate cultural elements, most notably Shi’ite, Sunni and Kurd, but also smaller elements. The power imbalance between this big three, however, is the most pressing. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Iraq was a monarchy under the imperialist thumb of Britain and American oil companies. When the monarchy was overthrown by Abdel-Karim Qasim (Kassem), a Nasser inspired Iraqi nationalist, the United States and Britain became nervous of his soviet style leanings. The CIA supported the Ba’athists, an Arab version of the fascists of Europe. True, they may have been brutal authoritarians, but they were anti-communist brutal authoritarians, and in the Cold War west, that’s all that mattered. From the Ba’athist Party rose one Saddam Hussein.
Hussein, a Baathist CIA “asset” took power in 1979, the same year as the Iranian Revolution. The next year, fearing Iranian influence among the Shi’ite majority in Iraq, Hussein invaded Iran and suppressed Iraqi Shi’ites. When it appeared he would lose the war, the United States, under the still classified NSDD 114 (National Security Decision Directive) vouched any “necessary and legal” support for Iraq’s war effort. The Reagan Administration emphasized the “necessary” more than the “legal.” The US provided intelligence, money and weapons, including weapons grade anthrax, to Hussein. With US help, Saddam held the disparate groups in Iraq together with an iron fist.
In 1991, having been told by US Ambassador April Glaspie that the US had “no opinion on your Arab – Arab conflicts,” Hussein over-reached and invaded Kuwait. Clearly, Glaspie was mistaken. The United States responded with its full military potential, quickly and brutally driving the Iraqi army out of Kuwait. Yet American officials remained unwilling to unseat their wayward dictator. When Kurds and Shi’ites responded to the 1991 Persian Gulf War by rising up against a humiliated and defeated Saddam, the first Bush Administration did nothing while Hussein slaughtered his opposition.
Similarly, ten years of inhuman sanctions imposed by the West after the war only served to reinforce Hussein’s position and spread misery throughout the country. Saddam Hussein consolidated resources for himself and his allies while perpetuating his power by shaking his fist, albeit in futility, at the United States.
Consequently, the violent Hussein dictatorship was the only source of stability in Iraq for over a generation by the time the United States invaded the country on false pretenses in 2003. When Hussein was overthrown and ultimately hanged, this left a huge power vacuum in a nation with three armed and organized power factions. The ensuing civil war was easy to predict. The only people to express surprise were the very architects of the war. Whether these officials were delusional or cynical is subject to debate. Perhaps a combination of both.
Regardless, the United States tried to fill this vacuum by installing a friendly “republican” government. Most Iraqi’s, however, disapproved of this new government, seeing it as nothing more than a puppet for the US government. They believed this because the Maliki government was, in fact, a US puppet. The status of the Maliki government cannot be improved by the US sending “military advisors” to Iraq. This can only reinforce the certainty that the US continues to pull the strings in Baghdad. Of course, the Iraqi people will not be wrong in this assumption; the advisors are there to secure the strings on this oil rich marionette—with or without Maliki.
So an assessment of Iraq’s problems is pretty clear. First, the biggest factor responsible for instability in Iraq is the recent history of US involvement. Iraq is our fault. Period. That’s something for which all Americans must accept a deep sense of shame. Secondly, had it not been for western interference in their historical development, the Iraqi people would have resolved this conflict almost a hundred years ago. Perhaps they would have created a coalition or federation government that offered proportionate representation. Perhaps they would have formed a secular, constitutional monarchy. Perhaps they would have decided that splitting the nation into three independent, cultural entities was the best course of action. Perhaps there would have been instability and violence the likes of which we are seeing now. Regardless, had Iraq been left to its own designs, its national identity would be secured by now.
The real problem is that for a hundred years, if not longer, the people living in Iraq have had little say in how they are governed or in the very structure of their nation. The existing power elements in the Fertile Crescent have never been allowed to hammer out their differences and decide upon the direction that best suited them. Iraq has always been a pawn for larger powers, from the Ottomans to the Americans, without reprieve.
Now they are taking on the challenge of building a national identity, or identities as the case may be. This they must be allowed to do without further interference. The international community should be prepared to help Iraq find a peaceful settlement to these volatile conflicts, but US interference in support of a favored government and the use of “military advisors” to help crush an undesirable uprising is not the answer. Only an environment that cultivates diplomacy and negotiation can bring stability to Iraq. Ultimately, only the Iraqi people can build a functional society.
Soldiers are imbued with war’s transcendent purpose, and despair when it is all for naught
In the 1960’s young American men were, once again, called to duty to protect their country from tyranny. In this case, the imminent threat was an innocuous rural nation called Vietnam. Many Americans had never heard of this place, but they were informed that Vietnam was under threat from evil communism. If the rice paddies of the Mekong were to fall to the Reds, it would not be long before Indochina and the rest of Southeast Asia were receiving orders from Moscow and Beijing. Then Japan would fall. Soon, America would be alone, surrounded by the Red menace, until the hammer and sickle flew over the White House and democracy was lost forever. The danger was clear, and the only course of action was for brave men to fight and kill and possibly die for democracy. Over 2.7 million men answered the call to protect their country. According to the National Vietnam Veterans Foundation, three quarters of these were volunteers (as opposed to World War II in which two thirds of those serving were drafted).
In April of 1975, Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam fell to the People’s Army. Vietnam was unified under a communist regime despite almost 60,000 American deaths. More ordinance was dropped on Vietnam than in both theaters of World War II, yet communism prevailed. I’m sure that the thousands of veterans who put their lives on the line to save Vietnam from communism, who lost cherished friends in battle, whose lives had been scarred by the horrors of war, felt the pang of defeat to the bottom of their souls.
Vietnam has been a communist nation for almost thirty years now. Yet Japan remains free, the Stars and Stripes still fly over the White House and life has gone on as it would have regardless of American involvement in one of its most destructive wars. Indeed, the only dictatorships to rise in the region were hardly communist dominoes. They were largely brutal American puppet states, divorced from concepts of human rights and freedom, but committed to anti-communism.
Time has a way of lifting the fog of rhetoric and propaganda, revealing the truth. In this case, the truth is obvious. The American war in Vietnam and Indo-China was a colossal and bloody waste of time, money, and most crucially, precious lives. No one feels the sting of that revelation like the Vietnam veteran. Something precious, something beyond measure was stolen from him. Something precious, something beyond measure was stolen from his entire generation. Righteous anger is the only reasonable response. The reality revealed by the Fall of Saigon is that war is always a lie; in the words of General Smedley Butler in reference to much earlier wars, “war is a racket.”
Few wars are as blatantly racketish as the Iraq War. That Americans were lied to by an Administration determined to go into Iraq for its own reasons, oil, revenge, to finish “the job” of the first Gulf War, is beyond contention. Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction. Iraq did not have connections to al-Qaeda. Iraq was not a threat, and not involved in 9/11. Iraqis would not view American soldiers as liberators and throw roses at their feet. Instead, despite the fall of Saddam Hussein, American soldiers found themselves serving double and triple tours in unrelentingly hostile territory as competing factions vied to fill the power vacuum left by a fallen dictator. America, on the other hand, is no more free, and perhaps even less safe, as a result.
The epitome of the American soldier’s service and sacrifice in Iraq were the Battles for Fallujah in 2004. Despite initial setbacks, US forces faught bravely through the city streets in brutal, urban combat. Marines were tasked with nullifying the threat of insurgents, often engaging the enemy door to door. At the cost of almost a hundred American lives and as many as 1500 insurgents, the city was secured. Most of the city itself was damaged, with about twenty percent of its structures destroyed.
This last month, however, Fallujah fell to al Qaeda backed insurgents, many of whom were those the Marines drove out ten years earlier. The fall of Fallujah came as a shock and an emotional slap in the face to soldiers who had risked their lives, and seen the lives of their friends and comrads sacrificed. According to Adam Banotai, quoted in the Washington Post, “None of us thought it was going to fall back to a jihadist insurgency… It made me sick to my stomach to have that thrown in our face, everything we fought for so blatantly taken away.” It sure seemed that everything they had faught for was a waste.
It was also a lie. As with the Fall of Saigon, the Fall of Fallujah is certainly of no more than emotional and symbolic consequence to the United States. Americans will be no less free, nor any less safe than they were before the Fall of Fallujah. Iraq has, for the most part, become a second tier news story. Soldiers must now face the bleak revelation that their mission, and the rational behind their actions does not jive with historical reality. We must all realize that these fine soldiers, often referred to as “treasure” by shifty elected officials, were victims of a racket. In this, they are not alone.
This statement should not be seen as a criticism of our soldiers. Rather, it is an attempt to illuminate the nature of state sanctioned violence and the inherent contradictions of a system that is at once a practical tool for advancing power interests, and at the same time a system made functional by rational and emotional agents…human beings with human drives, strengths and frailties. It’s in these moments, the Fall of Saigon, or Fallujah, when the contradictory nature of our so called national “defense” comes to light. Here we have an inherently violent institution, the functions of which are satisfied by human beings who are not, in and of themselves, violent. How can such a system function, and what are the human costs in perpetuating this system?
The truth is that militarism can only be perpetuated by lies.
The sociologist, Lewis Coser posited that there were two factors necessary to perpetuate group violence, of which war is the ultimate testament: emotional involvement and the formation of transcendant goals. As offered above, the reasons offered for going to war with Iraq were clearly not true, but they were emotional, that initial emotion being fear. The Bush Administration cynically played against Americans’ understandable sense vulnerability after 9/11 to push a long-standing agenda. It is clear that the Bush Administration was intent on a war with Iraq long before there was even a Bush Administration. This was clear from the revelations that the Bush Administration drew heavily from the adherents of the Project for a New American Century, whose primary goal was the unseating of Saddam Hussein. After 9/11, administration officials pushed the notion that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and scared us with a nightmare fable of a mushroom cloud rising over an American city.
Meanwhile, the hair-trigger of the American military is greased with a sense of transcendance. It’s our soldiers who are credited for our freedoms, our rights. Every celebration of and reference to Americanism, including most notably Independence Day, has become an homage to militarism. It is, therefore, understood that our fighting men and women are dedicated to the task of democracy, of freedom, of human rights. The Battle of Fallujah was not just another tactic in a larger political game; it was the key to extending freedom to the Iraqi people. One marine said, “I hoped that the people of Fallujah could finally live in peace.” It was not about oil, or revenge or any such mundane political gambit. Equally, Vietnam was about saving a nation from the ravages of communism, not about the expansion of geopolitical power. More often than not, however, the veil of transcendence is nothing more than the smoke and mirrors supporting an elaborate lie. Upon the Fall of Fallujah, the same marine above opined, “It’s a low blow. We fought long and hard to take that city. It’s as if they didn’t care about the freedom we wanted to give them.”
Hence we end up tongue tied in our attempts to understand the scope of human loss experienced by soldiers who are also loved ones, friends, fellow workers. We are struck by the disillusionment expressed by Kael Weston’s observation of the Fall of Fallujah, “This has been a gut punch to the morale of the Marine Corps and painful for a lot of families who are saying, ‘I thought my son died for a reason.’ ” How do we, when faced with these families, say it was a lie? It is easier to offer consolation by reciting the transcendant virtues we have been taught to uphold, yet can’t possibly accept as true. It becomes necessary to delude ourselves.
Yet the truth is more complex, more contradictory. Yes, your son’s did die for a reason. They were imbued with perfectly noble goals for which the agrieved should be proud. The loss, however, is on the heads of politicians who use these transcendant goals for cynical purpose. They are the ones who should be held to account, to explain the deaths and debilitations resulting from their policies.
This is what makes war the most vile of all rackets. In order to perpetrate the con on millions of people, our politicians play on our most noble virtues, our quest for freedom and our desire to protect our loved ones from danger. These virtues are true and honest representations of human nature. It’s the nature of politics and state power that proves to be dishonest and disreputable.
Or…The Vietnam Iraq Syndrome
I have to admit, I’m feeling pretty satisfied watching President Obama twisting himself into myriad contortions to justify US military intervention in Syria. I’m satisfied because I see this as one further step in a paradigm shift in which Americans reject the legitimacy of war and militarism altogether. The long march to a paradigm of peace has been a long time coming, and will not be realized any time soon, but time and again war has been exposed as a lie. It is only a matter of time before war becomes synonymous with lies in the minds of the people and is universally rejected.
9/11 was a huge setback for the peace movement. The slow re-establishment of American militarism that began under President Reagan in the 80’s blossomed in the fertile field of fear and paranoia resulting from that sudden and brutal attack. We Americans allowed ourselves to be conned into war with Afghanistan without so much as a peep. Americans, with few exceptions, embraced attacking Afghanistan because…well…because we were attacked and, therefore, we had to attack someone. Other options, other strategies, other ways of thinking about how a nation can deal with terrorism rather than by declaring war were not offered or, if suggested, were ignored.
Voices for peace, for treating terrorism as the crime that it is…regardless of who is perpetrating it… were mostly silenced. Those who would not remain quiet were marginalized and even vilified. The US was attacked. It was time to strike. War was the only viable response. We invaded Afghanistan despite the fact that not a single 9/11 terrorist was Afghan. Still, someone had to be attacked and destroying a country always makes one feel better, empowered.
With blood still dripping from our teeth, the Bush Administration turned our attention toward a new threat. They whipped up our war lust further with dystopian fantasies of hairy Arabs storming the US with Iraqi made chemical and biological weapons. Each speech was heavily punctuated with references to the iconic mushroom cloud as if it was always hanging over us. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Americans once again allowed ourselves to embrace the fallacy of war.
Now, Americans are waking from this bloody bacchanal, our economy wrecked, our dignity destroyed, our reputation among nations tattered. Our new perspective on war is no longer clouded by fear and blood-lust, so we can clearly see the lies, the subterfuge. We are angry, and not a little ashamed of the last twelve years. We are skeptical of our elected leaders and cynical of their intentions when they start talking of bombs and missiles and drones. The citizenry is no longer swayed so easily by the drums of war.
It’s not the first time. After World War I, the American public realized that war is not only senseless destruction, but that powerful forces influence the decision to go to war based on self-interest rather than national interest. In 1934, Republican Senator Gerald P. Nye conducted intensive investigations of US entry into the Great War. Rather than a “war to end all wars,” Nye saw an exchange of blood for profits. He said, “When the Senate investigation is over, we shall see that war and preparation for war is not a matter of national honor and national defense, but a matter of profit for the few.” The commission held the public attention and fanned popular ire and anti-war sentiment. When Nye became too critical of the late President Wilson, however, his inquiry was shut down by the Senate before it could be completed.
Shortly after the Nye Commission began sifting through the ubiquitous lies of war, one General Smedley Butler, a decorated war hero, published a version of his popular, nation-wide lecture series, War is a Racket. Butler noted that World War I saw the birth of over 20,000 new millionaires and billionaires in the United States. In his lecture he asked, “How many of these war millionaires shouldered a rifle? How many of them dug a trench? How many of them knew what it meant to go hungry in a rat-infested dug-out? How many of them spent sleepless, frightened nights, ducking shells and shrapnel and machine gun bullets? How many of them parried a bayonet thrust of an enemy? How many of them were wounded or killed in battle?” Ultimately, Butler had to ask how much average Americans had to pay to create these new millionaires and billionaires. “This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all its attendant miseries. Back-breaking taxation for generations and generations.” Despite a thirty-four year military career, including two Medals of Honor, the most decorated marine up to that time concluded his lecture with, “TO HELL WITH WAR!”
Most Americans agreed with Butler’s conclusion. American politicians responded by passing multiple Neutrality Acts throughout the thirties. It took a direct attack against the United States at Pearl Harbor to reverse almost twenty-five years of anti-war sentiment characterized by Nye and Butler.
After the tumult, instability, meaningless deaths and wasted youth resulting from the Vietnam War, Americans were once again disenchanted with war. The power elite stoked fears of communism, the Domino Theory to justify destroying Vietnam to save it. After all, if a bunch of peasants along the Mekong became communist, it was only a matter of time before the Commies were sailing down the Mississippi. It took news of an attack against American forces in the Gulf of Tonkin, a mostly fictitious account it turns out, before President Johnson could justify his escalation of American Militarism.
Meanwhile, Americans watched almost 60,000 flag draped coffins find their way into American cemeteries, while government lies were revealed in the Pentagon Papers and other leaks. The atrocities committed at Mai Lai were played out on television. Heart-wrenching photo-journalism darkened our magazines and newspapers. The brutal imbecility of war was never more obvious to the American public.
American antipathy for war in the 1970’s and 80’s was referred to as the Vietnam Syndrome. This was of great concern to the politicians of this time, chomping at the bit for a war of their own. President Reagan’s unprecedented peacetime military build-up culminated in nothing more than a pathetic military operation against the not-so threatening nation of Grenada, population less than 100,000.
In 1991, President H. W. Bush announced that “the Vietnam Syndrome is over” after the successful blitzkrieg of Iraq during Operation Desert Storm. He may have been a little pre-mature. Certainly, the Vietnam Syndrome was foremost in Colin Powell’s mind, and in the minds of his staff, as they prepared a decisive victory with a clear endgame. The heroic journalism that brought the Vietnam War home to Americans would no longer be tolerated as journalists were often excluded, or embedded through the military Public Relations offices. To head off protests, Americans were encouraged to “support the troops, even if you don’t support the war.” Protestors, of whom I was one, were soundly condemned as unpatriotic, measured against an archetype of Vietnam era activists who shamefully spit on returning soldiers. The nascent twenty-four hour news cycle ran mostly laudatory stories about American victories or documentaries on the awesome technology being used on the ground in Iraq.
Since Vietnam, it became standard practice among American military leadership to make sure that war was as invisible as possible. If it was not possible to keep the war behind the curtain, then it was incumbent upon the leadership to ensure that the operation was limited in scope and over before a significant protest movement could be mobilized. Thus President Clinton tap-danced around operations in Bosnia, a relatively well reported campaign, while he was also overseeing almost daily bombings of Iraq throughout his administration, virtually unreported.
American blood-lust was not whipped up again until after 9/11. This tragic event became the starting line for two of America’s longest and costliest conflicts. Looking back on the thousands of lives lost and the trillions of dollars spent, it is impossible to suggest that Americans have much to show for our efforts. We are not safer from terrorism. Our rights have not been protected, but rather trampled. Rose petals were not thrown at the feet of our soldiers as they liberated Afghanistan and Iraq from tyranny. Democracy did not blossom from the soil of nations bombed into oblivion. Al Qaeda was not destroyed, but rather used US violence as a public relations tool to recruit even more followers…
…and 9/11 still happened…
…and nothing can change that.
So now we are back where we started after the Paris Peace Conference 1919. Fatigued and disillusioned by the false promises that war will make things better, will restore honor, will enhance our credibility as a nation. We no longer blindly accept the legitimacy of war. And we shouldn’t accept war, for war is and always has been a lie. That we recognize this is a step toward a true civilization of man. That we never forget it…that is the key to the kingdom.
It’s certainly not the end of war. I’m optimistic, not delusional. Obama will almost certainly order a missile strike on Syria…just because, well, red lines and all that. However, Obama now has to content with the Iraq Syndrom. The fact that since Vietnam, indeed, since World War I and to an ever increasing degree since, our political leadership has been forced to conduct war largely in secret and has only been able to justify war in the face of direct attack is an indicator that we as a people are on the cusp of rejecting war in toto. We are also living in a world that is evolving in such a way that secrets, even secret wars, are increasingly difficult to keep. The peace movement can build on these two foundational elements to create a permanent critique of war, a perpetual rejection of militarism.
President Obama’s moral claims to a red line that was crossed when chemical weapons were used ring hollow to our ears. We demand proof before we act. We demand that if we act, our actions will save lives—an outcome that is in doubt. We demand that we act upon the correct antagonist. Many of us also see the inherent moral contradiction in a policy of using weapons of mass destruction, missiles and bombs, as a means of responding to the use of weapons of mass destruction, namely chemical weapons. What is the difference between sarin gas and cruise missiles, or cluster bombs? Many of us reject the notion that one way of killing is somehow more ethical than another.
That we, as a people, are making these demands upon our elected officials is another good sign. We allowed ourselves to be deceived into war twice as the new millennium dawned. The people are simply not willing to take anyone’s word for it any more (though to be honest, I have a feeling that if our President were a Republican, there would be significantly less controversy today). War is almost always premised on lies. This history cannot be denied and must not be forgotten. It is incumbent upon the peace movement to continue to educate the public about the great lie even in times of peace.
Since we have this foundation on which to build, the next steps are three-fold. First, we must protest the wars going on behind the curtain. The flying killer robots now employed in Pakistan, Yemen, and other unspecified US combat zones have no consciousness. They will never register as conscientious objectors. We must reject and condemn even remote control wars that are conducted in our name. Second, we must demand that our leadership formulate plans in response to direct attacks that do not involve war. The United States and our allies will almost certainly be attacked again in the future. If some entity has the grievance, the will and the means, they will attack. Our political leaders, our military, our flying killer robots cannot truly keep us safe. When attacked, we must respond, but we should respond in a sensible, tactical way that targets the guilty while protecting the innocent and preserving human rights. Don’t tell us this cannot be done. Thirdly, we as a people should demand policies that respect human boundaries and human rights; policies that promote a global community and reject international competition and build a sustainable global economy. Terrorists feed on hatred and anger, the very hatred and anger being perpetuated by unilateral war and flying killer robots raining destruction down on teenagers and wedding parties. Terrorism withers and dies in an environment of mutual respect and good will. American policies must promote that good will.
The seeds of world peace have been planted. Rejection of war is at hand. The lie is exposed. We reject the lie in Syria as we reject it throughout the world.
To quote General Butler.
To Hell with War!
Toward the End of War
On February 15-16, 2003, an almost miraculous event took place. Millions of people in over 60 cities across the globe took to the streets and, in a unified voice, protested a war that had not yet begun. While the Bush administration was beating the drums of pre-emptive war, as many as ten million people worked toward pre-emptive peace. Nothing like this had ever happened before, a global protest to keep an unjust war from happening. It is my belief that, at that moment, we saw the beginning of a paradigm shift that may, albeit in the distant future, create an environment in which politicians and power brokers dare not even consider justifying war to secure their ends. In that distant future, a future where parents never have to suffer the pain of sacrificing their children to bombs and bullets and poison, I believe that historians will locate the realistic conceptualization of a world without war on February 15, 2003.
I was proud to be a small part of that giant movement. Like many others, I did not just take to the streets and wave signs. We networked, sharing information and intelligence with each other. Then we endeavored to share this information with others. The goal was to educate as many people as we could to the lies being spread and the fear perpetuated as a justification of the war. Of course, the mainstream press was no help in this endeavor. News sources from the New York Times to the big four networks were marching to the steady beat of official propaganda. Dan Rather, one of the biggest names in news at that time affirmed just after 9/11 that “George Bush is the President, he makes the decisions and you know, as just one American wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where,” forever tarnishing his reputation as a journalist.¹ After all, wars sell advertising space.
Before the lead up to war I wrote numerous letters and guest editorials to the local paper. Usually I wrote on environmental issues, but also addressed politics and human rights. I was even receiving letters from local people appreciating my liberal perspectivea rarity in South Floridaas if I had a nascent fan base growing. My essays were never rejected from the local paper and rarely ever edited for anything more than a misplaced comma or my penchant for passive voice. I was even asked to sit on a community panel to help plan the future of the paper.
When President Bush started beating the war drum, and I submitted essays contradicting the administration’s claims, however, a strange thing happened. Most of what I wrote appeared in the paper heavily redacted and cut (presumably to make it fit into the editorial scheme). Eventually, the paper stopped printing my essays altogether. The last piece I wrote was based on interviews I saw with weapons inspectors and experts who were familiar with Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) capacityor rather incapacity. These inspectors destroyed the Bush case for war, a case built upon the claim of WMD’s in the hands of a madman intent on America’s destruction. What these experts had to say, however, appeared nowhere in the mainstream media, including our local paper. My essay was never published.
Of course, that’s one of the ultimate lessons of war. War thrives on lies and ignorance and smothers any truth that might deny the creature its devious nourishment. The Iraq War is the ultimate example of such monstrous policy devouring a nation’s prosperity, posterity and reputation among nations. The entire war was built on lies from the start, and these lies weren’t well hidden as is the case with most other wars. No, the Bush lies were right out in the open for anyone who had a heart and a mind to see.
It should have come as no surprise that the United States would end up in another war with Iraq². One of President Bush’s first official acts as Commander in Chief was bombing Iraq, two years to the day before the afore mentioned global protest. After 9/11, Bush wanted nothing more than to pin the terrorist attacks on Saddam Hussein. He instructed Richard Clarke, Chairman of the Counter Terrorism Security Group and National Security Council Advisor, to find evidence linking the 9/11 attacks to Saddam Hussein. When Clarke wrote up his investigations, he concluded that there was no such link. The memo was returned with a note stating “Please update and resubmit.” When Clarke went public with Bush’s obsession with Suddam Hussein he was denounced as a liar
until it was clear that Bush was, in fact, the liar in this case.
The Bush Administration mantra on pre-emptive war was best summarized by Donald Rumsfeld’s brilliant observation that “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” Of course, he was right; but absence of evidence was still
absent evidence. Despite lacking evidence, the Bush Administration marched in lock step to the drums of war. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice joined the mushroom cloud chorus of fear-mongers. She reminded us repeatedly that we don’t want the “evidence” to be presented as a mushroom cloud over a major American city.
Everywhere the Bush cabal went, and in every speech given, the phantom specter of the mushroom cloud was invoked. After 9/11 this was the best kind of psychological warfare to aim at citizens already shaken by the sudden realization of their vulnerability. Bush Co. played it perfectly. They played up the Axis of Evil card and invoked imagery from The Day After. Fear is the most fertile field in which to sow your lies. People reacting to fear are not thinking, they are searching for safety, searching for protection, running like children into the waiting arms of tyrants. There was Bush and Cheney, daddy and grand-pa, waiting with open arms.
Bush claimed that Hussein was reinvesting in a nuclear weapons program. He offered aluminum tubing as evidence. The aluminum tubing turned out to be, well, just aluminum tubing not suited for nuclear technology. The administration claimed that Iraq had attempted to purchase “yellow cake” uranium to be used in his mythical nuclear weapons program. When US Ambassador Joseph Wilson blew the whistle on the false allegation the Bush Administration responded by denouncing Wilson and exposing his wife, a CIA Operations Officer named Valery Plame, perhaps endangering the lives of countless other agents working with her. But since her husband tried to shed light on the shadow loving lies of the Bush Administration, she was “fair game.”
Lies stain everything, and everyone they touch. When President Bush announced that Colin Powell would be his Secretary of State, even stalwart liberals like me hoped that the general, famous for his character and clear mindedness,³ might provide a moderating voice of reason in what was otherwise a right wing cult. The unimpeachable character of Secretary Powell was irreparably impeached after his presentation of lies delivered to the entire world via a UN council. When UN Chief Inspector Has Blix annihilated Powell’s credibility about a week later the Bush Administration and the media dismissed his assertions. Just because Blix had actually visited the places in Powell’s satellite photos, finding nothing, could not, as far as the media was concerned, take away from Powell’s “slam dunk” case against Iraq.
The lies continued with assertions that Saddam Hussein was in cahoots with Osama bin Laden. Like the mushroom cloud mantra, no speech that included the name Saddam Hussein and Iraq excluded bin Laden and al Qaeda. The American public was told that Saddam had provided protection and training to al Qaeda. That he and Saddam were secret buddies making backroom deals to get the great Satan America. Of course, we can’t leave out the ultimate psychotic rhetorical mash-up. Once Saddam Hussein got his hands on nuclear weapons, he wouldn’t hesitate to hand them over to his BFF bin Laden. More lies. Bin Laden hated Hussein’s secularism, calling him an infidel. All claims linking bin Laden to Hussein, to secret meetings between Iraqi ministers and al Qaeda operatives were all lies.
When Bush finally ordered the invasion of Iraq he announced that the United States had done everything we could to avoid war. He claimed that Saddam had refused to give up his weapons of mass destruction. Of course, this could be explained by the fact that Hussein did not, in fact, have weapons of mass destruction to give up. It’s like expecting someone to prove he did not steal your wallet. He claimed that Hussein refused to cooperation with weapons inspectors. This was also a lie according to the actual inspectors. Donald Rumsfeld stated with stumbling boldness that the administration knew where the weapons of mass destruction were. They were around Tikrit, “east, west, south and north somewhat.” You don’t get any clearer than that
at least not from Rumsfeld. Fortunately, there was nothing to worry about anyway because the Iraqi people would welcome us with open arms. They would throw rose petals at the feet of our soldiers. They’d forget about the fact that we’d been bombing and starving them for twelve years before we even bothered to invade them. (Okay, I threw that last sentence in there, but the rest comes from the Bush Administration).
Finally, we’ve learned that lies don’t die easily, especially when they clearly demonstrate our own stupidity. Today the paradigms explaining the invasion of Iraq conspicuously avoid mention of weapons of mass destruction and dissembling about al Qaeda. Instead, the politicians and the media lap-dogs (or the other way around, it’s getting hard to tell anymore) reminisce about how the United States selflessly entered Iraq to liberate the Iraqi people from their bloody tyrant. We muse about how US soldiers hung around for over eight years to make sure that the Iraqi people were all snug and toasty in their fresh democratic sheets before we finally turned out the lights this month. We bemoan how unfortunate it was that our best intelligence at the time showed that Iraq had WMD. Had we only known that this evidence was spurious we would never have undertaken such a costly mission. These claims are lies. And these lies are working. Essays from my high school students demonstrate that they accept these fables without criticism.
The litany of lies that we can attribute to the Iraq war are just too many to mention in a simple blog post such as this. Today we all applaud the end of this miserable war and the removal of US troops from Iraq. Absent from our discussion is the continued presence of thousands of mercenaries paid by the State Department who will now pick up where American soldiers left off. Who are these people, and to whom do they answer? They will represent the United States, you and me, before the world yet are not accountable to you.
And now that we have Iraq out of the way, we can hear in the distance, the crescendo of
more war drums. This time they beat for Iran. As the pundits tighten the skins and the war hawks in Congress sharpen their arguments we the people must always remember that war is a lie. It’s conceived in lies, it grows and develops in lies and even after the war ends, the lies live on. Let’s build on the movement of February 15, 2003. Let’s not fall for another lie.
¹ Rather’s loyalty to the Bush Administration during this time of crisis was repaid when his reasonable inquiries into George Bush’s questionable military history was smashed when it was discovered he had unknowingly used forged documents to make his case. Though the story was still relevant, and the facts indisputable even without the forged documents, Rather was ridiculed and humiliated, his career as a major journalist brought to an end. That’s what “getting in line” will earn you.
²An official war, that is, not the twelve years of bombing and inhuman sanctions that was the US/British policy for twelve years before the actual war started. Let’s not be mistaken.
³Whether Powell actually deserved such a reputation is an issue outside of the topic for this essay.
If you wanted proof that the Iraqi/US government is not the least interested in “democracy,” the recent approval of continued American military presence by the Iraqi government is proof positive. This decision can only mean trouble for American troops as well as American contractors, and further delegitimizes an already shaky government in the eyes of its people.
Since the invasion polls have been conducted regarding Iraqi opinions of the US presence and the job the US military is doing in that war-torn region. Despite recent improvements in Iraqi attitudes toward American forces, the majority of Iraqis would much prefer American withdrawal. Depending on the poll, as much as 72% of Iraqis want American troops to withdraw. Around 40% of Iraqis support immediate withdrawal.
On the other hand, the American presence in Iraq has been viewed more positively in the last year. A majority of Iraqis would be satisfied if American troops remained until security issues in the country were resolved. However, over 60% of Iraqis believe that the US presence is making security issues worse, an interesting conundrum. Around 80% have little to no confidence in the US military.
It’s clear that the overwhelming majority of Iraqis would rather American soldiers went home. Perhaps they want the opportunity to resolve their own, admittedly pressing, social problems.
Of course, what the opinions of the majority are only significant in a self directing democracy. Iraq is nothing of the sort. Iraq is, at best, a plutocratic vassal state with the vestiges of democracy, but none of its substance. And so long as control of Iraq also means access to Iraqi oil, its’ unlikely that the Iraqi/US government is going to turn to democracy any time soon.
Now, Iraqis have learned that democracy is not in the cards for them. Instead, a US vassal government top-heavy with Shi’a influence has demonstrated that it will make decisions without regard to the will of a majority of its people. Polls show that the Shiites view the US occupation most positively. Well, yes! That makes sense. It’s the Shiites who had the most to gain from American machine-gun diplomacy. You don’t bite the hand that feeds you.
That leaves discontented Sunnis and Kurds gnashing their teeth. In the past year the Sunnis have held the reigns against their more militant factions. The Sunni Awakening, a paper thin policy of detente and bribery, has resulted in marked decrease of violence. But Sunnis view the American presence most negatively. How will they respond to this Status of Forces Agreement? Some experts are predicting an increase in violence–a prediction that looks valid after recent suicide bombings.
Hopefully the Sunnis and Kurds will continue to curb their more violent elements in hopes that President Obama will make good his promise to withdraw US soldiers by 2010.
It is crucial that US troops withdraw from a sovereign nation. Democracy is not born under gun-scopes. Democracy is the result of the people of a nation getting together to resolve their problems. The possibility of social instability does not justify militarism. If democracy is the real goal, then we must allow the people of Iraq the opportunity to resolve their own issues free of a menacing foreign presence.