Sunday, February 04, 2007

ending the war: shit or get off the pot

There's the philosophy subscribed to by certain hippy dreamers that if we don't address a war and instead think positive things that it will make it alright. By focussing on a Bad Thing we entangle ourselves with it and become it. As the saying goes, battle ye not with monsters lest ye become a monster.

This leaves the monsters free to get on with inflicting all the carnage they want while we, safely thousands of miles away living on the spoils of that war, stick out fingers in our ears and go lalala.

But the methods of those new-age ostriches aren't the only way to block out the war. The rest of us are helped by mass media who keep the story in the news, only just tinkling somewhere in the background so it never grabs our attention.

Occasionally there's a big splash and people are outraged. Why were people are shocked by Abu Ghraib or the massacre in Haditha. What do they think war is?

We somehow think that our side shouldn't do that or even don't do that. Even today people don't want to really give Allied atrocities of the Second World War the attention they deserve. The best admission you can find is, 'they were worth it though, stop whining'. And indeed, we do largely stop whining, as it wasn't our families being incinerated in Dresden or our own gran getting raped in Vienna.

War necessarily means dehumanising anyone we see as the enemy. As one American soldier from the Iraqi occupation put it, 'If you start looking at them as humans, and stuff like that, then how are you gonna kill them?'

George Monbiot observes the links between the British occupation of Ireland and the American - sorry, 'allied' - occupation of Iraq.

Why should we be surprised by these events? This is what happens when one country occupies another. When troops are far from home, exercising power over people they don’t understand, knowing that the population harbours those who would kill them if they could, their anger and fear and frustration turns into a hatred of all “micks” or “gooks” or “hajjis”.

Once we dehumanise them, atrocities are inevitable. Atrocities are an intrinsic component of war. Wanting war without them is like wanting a sandwich but opposing the farming of wheat.

George Orwell asserted

So far as it goes, the distinction between an atrocity and an act of war is valid. An atrocity means an act of terrorism which has no genuine military purpose. One must accept such distinctions if one accepts war at all, which in practice everyone does.

But the violent subjugation of a population and deepening your troops' dehumanised vision of their enemy does have a genuine military purpose. It makes your troops more capable of getting on with the business of killing. Moreover, as atrocities are invariably a feature of war, they aren't something separate, they do constitute an act of war.

Orwell goes on

a world in which it is wrong to murder an individual civilian and right to drop a thousand tons of high explosive on a residential area does sometimes make me wonder whether this earth of ours is not a loony bin made use of by some other planet.

By the same token, a world that is horrified by a squad of American soldiers shooting an Iraqi family yet stays unruffled by other American soldiers dropping bombs in the sure knowledge that there are families below is equally deranged.

There is a straightforward reason why we invaded Iraq. Noam Chomsky explained it thus

We're supposed to believe that the US would've invaded Iraq if it was an island in the Indian Ocean and its main exports were pickles and lettuce. This is what we're supposed to believe.

Now the truth of the matter, obvious to anyone not committed to the party line, is that Iraq has huge oil resources, maybe the second in the world, mostly untapped, that it's right in the middle of the main energy-producing region of the world and that taking control of Iraq will strengthen enormously the US's control over the major energy resources of the world.

It will, in fact, give the US critical leverage over its competitors, Europe and Asia, that's Zbigniew Brzezsinski's [President Carter's national Security Adviser] accurate observation.

That's the reason. The method is war, which necessarily means atrocities.

If the war gets temporarily unpopular in the wake of some scandal, they'll talk about leaving, but they'll never actually do it. Why else would a bill passed by the House of Representatives and the Senate have the clause removed that denies funding for permanent US military bases in Iraq?

We feel that there may be a withdrawal because our leaders don't have our support for the war. Over 99% of Iraqis feel the occupying troops did not bring greater security, over 80% of them want the troops to leave, it had the biggest demonstations ever in the UK, the majority of Americans think the war was a mistake and the majority of American troops want to come home pronto. That's surely enough, right?

Thing is, they don't need our support. They just need our acceptance. The best way of getting that is to subject us to a constant low-level feed of information. All we need is familiarisation - a feeling that this is how it always is and ever shall be - that it won't actually affect us personally and there's not much we can really do, and we're sold. We accept and stop even really noticing it.

Putting a ten second report of Iraqi carnage - one of those quick bits with footage and voiceover used to break up the longer stories on the TV news - doesn't inform, it dulls. It's only occasionally they make me reconsider what I've just heard and go 'hang on, that was a 7/7 in Baghdad today and it doesn't warrant anything more than that?'

It's been like this a long time. Jim Bliss pointed it out nearly two years ago.

A couple of nights ago I was watching the news on television. My flatmate came into the room... "anything happening in the world today?" he wondered. Without even thinking I responded "nothing important". In saying that, I was dismissively referring to the news of Labour backbenchers calling for Blair to resign, and to the tory shadow-cabinet reshuffle.

The thing is... the second item in the headlines was actually the news that another 60 random Iraqis had been blown to pieces in a Baghdad market. I hadn't meant to overlook it. In fact, as soon as I said "nothing important" I remembered the story and felt vaguely sick that I'd so quickly forgotten it.

...For anyone keeping a close eye on the geopolitical ramifications of resource depletion, the Iraq war was clearly about oil.

...Now. The trouble is, if you take that interpretation to it's logical conclusion, you end up saying some pretty nasty things about the people running the war. Things like how daily insurgency attacks killing scores of civilians is the perfect post-war environment for the US and Britain. It provides apparent justification for the continuing presence of huge numbers of western troops. It keeps the Iraqi government weak and unstable, and hence reliant upon those troops to maintain their position. And so long as a compliant media continue to report these bombings as second on the news, with an identical report to yesterday's bomb, and the one before that, and the ones last week and last month... and without any sense of genuine outrage that this shit is happening on our watch (self-appointed though that watch may be)... then it'll just fade into the background even for those of us who can be arsed to write pointless little rants about it.

The US administration bigged up al-Zaqarwi as the Big Bad behind the insurgency. He was the al-Qaida leader, the one who was the link between them and Saddam Hussain, the proof that the insurgency was a foreign incursion cos all the Iraqis love us.

The death of Zarqawi was a milestone in the war alright, but not for the stated reasons. It showed our governments no longer needed a bogieman. They were now confident that, whether we approve of it or not, we are resigned to ongoing Iraqi occupation.

One Baghdad resident said on the announcement of al-Zarqawi's death

How do I feel? To hell with Zarqawi (or Zayrkawi as Bush calls him). He was an American creation - he came along with them - they don't need him anymore, apparently. His influence was greatly exaggerated but he was the justification for every single family they killed through military strikes and troops. It was WMD at first, then it was Saddam, then it was Zarqawi. Who will it be now? Who will be the new excuse for killing and detaining Iraqis? Or is it that an excuse is no longer needed - they have freedom to do what they want. The slaughter in Haditha months ago proved that. "They don't need him anymore," our elderly neighbor waved the news away like he was shooing flies, "They have fifty Zarqawis in government."

So now that Zarqawi is dead, and because according to Bush and our Iraqi puppets he was behind so much of Iraq's misery - things should get better, right? The car bombs should lessen, the ethnic cleansing will come to a halt, military strikes and sieges will die down… That's what we were promised, wasn't it? That sounds good to me. Now - who do they have to kill to stop the Ministry of Interior death squads, and trigger-happy foreign troops?

Yet, of course, there's still 7/7 level carnage and worse going off in Baghdad day after day, and we don't even register the voice that tells us.

Why we are there and what it will entail have always been clear since we invaded. To be around the day by day details fed to us by the corporate and embedded media is to deliberately move into the trees in order to be unable to see the woods.

There are two suggested ways out of this desensitising, which can be roughly be categorised as 'shit or get off the pot'.

The 'get off the pot' option stems from an idea expressed in last May's issue of the superb Arthur magazine. Douglas Rushkoff talked about how his students are

...overwhelmed by the seeming futility of taking a stand. Just the other day, they were debating whether going to a protest or rally even matters - especially when it can be reframed by the mainstream media as almost anything... Besides, most young protestors' rally activities are betrayed by their real-life purchases and behaviors.

Is futile or unconsciously hypocritical protest really better than no protest at all?

...Mustn't we take a stand? A direct, informed, progressive and potentially courageous stand?

Perhaps. But... not without a cost to our ability to see, think and feel clearly.

For example, to 'learn' about the war in the Persian Gulf, we must wade through disinformation upon disinformation. Which news agency to trust, if any? How smart are the reporters at those 'good' papers like The Guardian, really? Smart enough to remember and remind us that America's real goal is permanent bases in Iraq, or that 9-11 was used as an excuse to establish those bases? And what is communicated to us by daily headlines of single-digit casualities in that war, with often no mention at all of the thousands who died that day in Africa?

In short, does 'staying informed' itself subject us to more propaganda and distorted values than it’s worth? Does it suck us into 'their' story so deeply that we are incapacitated rather than prepared to act? Is 'having an opinion' about a distant war or policy of any value, or is it an intellectual cocktail party substitute for caring about something in a realm where we can actually make a difference?

...There's something to be said for creating works of art or media that instead give people the tools and energy to disengage from the story being told to us on TV, and to feel optimistic about our own potential to rewrite reality on terms more consonant with our hopes.

This, though, places a high level of faith in our ability to stay detached from the 'information' sources yet not turn into the aforementioned 'will it away with nice thoughts' brigade.

The other, 'shit', approach starts with asking us to spot the crucial difference between opposition to Iraq compared with Vietnam. It's not about the proportion of the public opposed - that's greater for Iraq. It's about the urgency and priority it's accorded.

This time, the war's had Dick Cheney - one of several members of the Bush Administration who would find argument being had over which set of war crimes they should be tried for first - in a key command role.

As a member of Nixon's team, he remembers the Vietnam war and why it failed. Opposition to the war was stoked by the draft. Ordinary Americans couldn't become desensitised when it was their own children coming home in body bags. Teenagers had such a fire under them to protest cos it was their friends getting drafted and killed, and they might be next themselves.

This time it's a volunteer army from the American underclass alongside a staggering one quarter of American troops who aren't even American. They're foreigners who'll be given citizenship if they come back from Iraq alive.

So, Congressman Charlie Rangel is lobbying for a return of the draft. Johann Hari explained in The Independent

a draft would change the attitude towards war back home: we would need a lot more persuasion to allow a war to be launched, and we would follow its course much more carefully. Most of us place so little importance on the war because we don't know anybody who is fighting it. Speak to military mothers, and they know the map of Basra better than the Tube map; but how many of us can even picture it? It's hard to sympathise with abstract people, no matter how nice you are. The people fighting the war are overwhelmingly black, brown or poor. Most of us are not.

...Conscription would, paradoxically, reduce war... If a war is worth fighting, it is worth fighting with everybody's children. And if it's not worth fighting - like the barely supervised collapse in Iraq - then nobody's child should die in its futile name.


Anonymous said...

The BBC has an item under the headline; US urged to accelerate Iraq plan which opens with the lines...

Iraq's Sunni vice-president has urged Washington to speed up the deployment of extra US troops to stop the "round the clock" killing in his country.

How long do you think they can spin the idea that sending lots more troops and building more bases is all part of an "exit strategy"?

Anonymous said...

Johann Hari is a corporatist idiot. A career journalist who couldn't speak truth to power if his life depended on it.

merrick said...

Antipholous, I'll ignore the use of 'idiot', and whatever implications you may be trying to make by calling him a career journalist. Can you cite examples of Hari's corporatism?

He consistently has a poke at warmongers - his was the only column I saw that picked up on the obsenity sending of UK troops to eradicate Afghan opium poppies.

He emphatically praised the Camp for Climate Action. The CCA is about tackling the corporate idea of perpetual economic growth and its suicidal climate change effects, doing so using direct action against corpoate targets, action that's often illegal.

sounds like attacks on corporatism and power if you ask me.

Anonymous said...


Let´s hop into a submarine
And sink deep, deep into the brine
Where all is dark, without the sound
Distracting of noise all around.

Won´t that be fun? Without the bother
Of tolerating one another,
Enjoying ourselves in the green
Of ocean in our submarine.

Wait! Isn´t that already kinda
Our present place? One mental blinder
Or "mind-forged manacle" connective
Binds us within a lie collective:

Each like an ostrich, with his head
Jammed in the sand, is not quite dead,
But air is getting thinner; then
There will be no more oxygen.

The sea of our illusion was
A pleasant place, though scouring scuzz,
While afterlife may us convene
That drown within our submarine.

Decisions fast made and footloose
Were like to stick neck through the noose:
By entering Iraq so we
Probed deeply immorality,

Nor who can say, when this thing ends
Who will survive, or die with bends--
It seemed like such a prospect keen,
But buoyantless our submarine.

Rise, rise, the panicked voices shout,
God save us, heaven help us out!
Lord, we repent! Give us a sign!
But only murkiness of brine...