Empire Down I
This is the first part of an article I wrote back in August 2003 while traveling through Iraq talking to soldiers, civilians, clerics, what have you. Back then I remember being questioned about the last paragraph or two, how predictions tend to backfire and so on. We discussed it before going to print and I thought I’d go with it. I wouldn’t have minded being wrong. I don’t know if I can say I was right. But it seemed that so much was overlooked, so much taken for granted.
I’ve also just finished reading Anthony Swofford’s book Jarhead. He chose a passage from Pound’s canto LXXII as an epigraph:
But if you want to go on fightingand all I can think is that “It all coheres.” Not in anyway one would expect, but …
go take some young chap, flaccid & a half-wit
to give him a bit of courage and some brains
I wrote this over two years ago and it’s nothing new. This war is nothing new. It’s there in Herodot, in Thucydides, rippling though the Iliad, Odyssey, the Aeneid. Nichts neues im Westen oder Osten. Nothing new.
The Rape of Scheherazade
And they, like straggling slaves for the pillage fighting,In times like these I think it is worth remembering a few things that tend to become forgotten in the wake of daily CNN-tertainment. It is good to remember that, although he popularised it, Malcolm X did not coin the operational phrase “by any means necessary;” that his early vision of empowerment entailed turning the tools of the oppressor against him, adopting his vernacular; that he saw and learned from his oppressor. He found justification for acts of violence in the idea that those who are willing to go beyond any limits, to relinquish any concept of justice, fairness or decency in order to achieve their goals deserve to have the same visited upon them. It is also good to remember that any cop is in need of a criminal, any agent in need of a terrorist, any totalitarian government in need of enemies to justify its existence, is in fact prepared to capitalise on retaliation meted out to it. Civilian casualties are “collateral damage,” any victims of retaliation among its own population “emotional capital” to be invested. There exists a symbiotic relationship between the two. Somehow their wants, visions and short term goals coincide. These we need to remember.
Obdurate vassals, fell exploits effecting,
In bloody death and ravishment delighting,
Nor children’s tears, nor mother’s groans respecting,
Swell in their pride … >
– William Shakespeare
Once in a conversation with a friend of mine in San Francisco, I touched upon this same subject. The year was 1994. We spoke about American foreign policy throughout the last century or so and I enumerated several instances of “benign intervention,” the main factors behind them, their consequences, and the objectives of several administrations. He snorted and pronounced a phrase as common as the Lord’s Prayer, as denigrating as any colloquial put down about one’s sanity, and of much the same function as flashing the horned sign to ward off evil. He said, “Oh, you’re one of those conspiracy theorists.” I shook my head and replied, “No. It’s a lot more tiresome and banal.” “What do you mean?” “I mean there’s no grand conspiracy, it’s just the way things are done. To put it in good American idiom you could say it is business as usual. Money talks—you know the rest.”
In his book, Steppenwolf, Hermann Hesse has given us an accurate and damning, if I may say so, portrait of the perennial bourgeois. He writes that the bourgeois “strives neither for the saintly nor its opposite. The absolute is his abhorrence. He may be ready to serve God, but not by giving up the fleshpots. He is ready to be virtuous, but likes to be easy and comfortable in this world as well … the bourgeois is consequently by nature a creature of weak impulses, anxious, fearful of giving himself away and easy to rule. Therefore he has substituted majority for power, law for force, and the polling booth for responsibility.
It is clear that this weak and anxious being, in whatever numbers he exists, cannot maintain himself … Yet we see that, though in times when commanding natures are uppermost, the bourgeois goes at once to the wall, he never goes under; indeed at times he appears to rule the world.”
Why? Because he feels it to be his birthright, the soft and comfortable median is to him virtue, is the true measure of civilisation, and any atrocity, any sacrifice of others to maintain it entirely natural. This median is ideology, religion, realpolitik and manifest destiny all rolled into one; it is in essence god’s will. Mind you the god of the bourgeois is not the Supreme Being, but rather a “human” and “humane” god created in the image of the bourgeois, a god he is able to make deals with and finesse. A god like unto his chosen people. For the world’s chosen people are the bourgeois, n’est ce pas?
Terror in the eyes of the bourgeois constitutes a threat to his lifestyle, wealth, supremacy and rule; collectively these are given any name that signifies ultimate good e.g. “democracy,” “freedom,” “civilisation,” or any other equivalent term, and whatever means taken to secure these and eradicate any threat to them are justifiable. Any price, as Madeleine Albright would say, is worth it: hence, the rhetoric of the current American administration and the measures taken. Hence, President Bush’s pep-talks to the public in the aftermath of 9/11, which can be summed up in a sentence: “Don’t worry, shop.”
For Crude, Loot, Empire
In the months leading up to the war members of the American Council for Cultural Policy (ACCP) met several times with Pentagon officials to give voice to their concern for Iraqi cultural artefacts. According to a report in Scotland’s The Sunday Herald (6 April 2003), “a coalition of antiquities collectors and arts lawyers, calling itself the American Council for Cultural Policy (ACCP), met with U.S. Defense and State Department officials prior to the start of military action to offer its assistance in preserving the country’s invaluable archaeological collections.” This group was founded by Ashton Hawkins, an art lawyer and a man who regards the cultural policies of several countries including Iraq and Egypt as “retentionist.” That is to say, Mr Ashton is opposed to laws that regard a country’s archaeological artefacts as being the property of the state. The group also lobbies against the US Cultural Property implementation act; a law which is designed to stop the flow of stolen artefacts from entering into the US Market.
A member of the ACCP and the one who set out the organisations principles, Professor of Law at Stanford University, John Merryman argued, in a paper published in International Law and Politics, vol. 31: 1, that a stolen artefact should not be barred from being sold on the US market; the reason being that, according to him, “The existence of a market preserves cultural objects that might otherwise be destroyed or neglected by providing them with a market value. In an open, legitimate trade cultural objects can move to the people and institutions that value them most and are therefore most likely to care for them,” something which, presumably, the backward and ignorant people of the source countries in the third world are incapable of. It also becomes clear what exactly the ACCP’s idea of preservation of Iraq’s “invaluable archaeological collections” entails. In the New York Times, 16 April 2003, we read that “Archaeological officials in Baghdad took reporters through the museum and pointed to what they said was clear evidence of professionalism on the part of some looters; the use of glass cutters, the bypassing of reproductions in favor of valuable originals, and the carting off of major pieces weighing hundreds of pounds.”
Swedish paper Dagens Nyheter published an interview with Swedish Researcher, Khaled Bayoumi, who had gone to Baghdad to serve as a human shield. He said: “I happened to be right there just as the American troops encouraged people to begin the plundering,” of a local government building on Haifa Avenue, after US tanks had “blasted apart the doors to the building.” Then, “Arab interpreters in the tanks told the people to go and take what they wanted in the building. The word spread quickly and the building was ransacked. I was standing only 300 yards from there when the guards were murdered. Afterwards the tank crushed the entrance to the Justice Department, which was in a neighbouring building, and the plundering continued there. I stood in a large crowd and watched this together with them. They did not partake in the plundering but dared not to interfere. Many had tears of shame in their eyes. The next morning the plundering spread to the Modern Museum, which lies a quarter mile farther north. There were also two crowds there, one that plundered and one that watched with disgust.”
On April 14, Robert Fisk filed a report in the Independent. In it he wrote that, “After days of arson and pillage, here’s a short but revealing scorecard. US troops have sat back and allowed mobs to wreck and then burn the Ministry of Planning, the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Irrigation, the Ministry of Trade, the Ministry of Industry, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Information. They did nothing to prevent looters from destroying priceless treasures of Iraq’s history in the Baghdad Archaeological Museum and in the museum in the northern city of Mosul, or from looting three hospitals. The Americans have, though, put hundreds of troops inside two Iraqi ministries that remain untouched—and untouchable—because tanks and armoured personnel carriers and Humvees have been placed inside and outside both institutions. And which ministries proved to be so important for the Americans? Why, the Ministry of Interior, of course—with its vast wealth of intelligence information on Iraq—and the Ministry of Oil. The archives and files of Iraq’s most valuable asset—its oilfields and, even more important, its massive reserves—are safe and sound, sealed off from the mobs and looters, and safe to be shared, as Washington almost certainly intends, with American oil companies.”
All this and all that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has to say is: “It’s untidy. And freedom’s untidy. And free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes.”
What free people? The ones just liberated, or the Liberators?
There Are Two Kinds of People
Lesley Stahl: “We have heard that a half million children have died, I mean, that’s more children than died at Hiroshima, and you know, is the price worth it?”Let’s face it, to some people there are human beings and then there are human beings. They aren’t all the same, the more human being the ones who are more like unto us; the abstract anthropological “other” is the enemy, the beast, no matter the physical appearance. This is a calculated view; it is not based upon misconceptions as much as on conscious misrepresentation. The beast cannot become familiar. We do not want to know. This refusal to acknowledge the humanity of others is a prerequisite of tyranny and conquest. It is one of those facts that, like the dictum “divide and conquer,” is ignored despite its being well known. It is also proof of an innate ability to deny what self-interest deems detrimental to, not survival, but earthly salvation and ease. And when I say ability, it is in order to free this concept from any sense of predetermination; it is a choice that can be made and unmade. For the righteous crusader, the beast once made must remain a beast. It can be housebroken, yes, but human, never.
Madeleine Albright: “The price—we think the price is worth it.”
A “clear and present” example of this would be Condoleeza Rice’s statement in the August 8, 2003 issue of the Washington Post. She said: “[The Middle East] is a region where hopelessness provides a fertile ground for ideologies that convince promising youths to aspire not to a university education, a career or family, but to blowing themselves up, taking as many innocent lives with them as possible.” Despair, injustice, oppression, self-sacrifice, however wrong the resultant acts may be, these human terms and motives cannot be associated with the “other.” He must be made mindless, driven by perversity and misguided ideology, to fit into a frame of reference, a scheme of interpretation that can justify his subjugation and extermination. His aspirations are not like ours, he is not “normal.” He is not sufficiently advanced, not mature enough for democracy; he must be ruled over in accordance with his “nature.” He must be domesticated, and, in order to do this, force is a necessity, as James Woolsey makes clear: “There is a special problem in the Middle East. Outside Israel and Turkey the governments of the Middle East consist of two types: vulnerable autocracies and pathological predators.”
The gook, the rag head, the scum, the filth, the ingrate—the Palestinian seven-year-old throwing stones—the terrorist, these are all synonyms for the non-human being, in imperial parlance, the non-American, eminently killable. His natural habitat is a festering swamp in need of draining, a breeding ground for millions of infant terrorists that must be rooted out. His life, hopes, dreams are of little value or worth. He is not innocent; his race is a race of barbarians, predators stalking the civil Roman burgher. When asked by Senator Mark Dayton: “What is it, compelling us now to make a precipitous decision and take precipitous actions?” Defence Secretary Rumsfeld answered: “What’s different? What’s different is 3,000 people were killed.”
What are 500,000 Iraqi children in comparison? Small change.
The connivance here between Neocons, Likudniks, American corporations and lobbyists, between Dispensationalists and Messianic Jews, this cahoots of conmen each hoping to outsmart the other in the endgame, all working together in a shameless display of unity to serve obscure and not so obscure ends, how can it not make you question the grip these people have on reality, so accustomed to dictating terms as they are? How can they act with such impunity? Is it because they lack shame? No. It is because they are not held accountable by anyone. It is because their peers who might and do occasionally oppose them, in the end hope to profit even from their failure. They are working towards the same end, although for different reasons.
In a rosy and joyful editorial published at the end of major combat Neocon William Kristol wrote that “the liberation of Iraq was the first great battle for the future of the Middle East. The next great battle—not, we hope, a military battle— will be for Iran. We are already in a death struggle with Iran over the future of Iraq…. The theocrats ruling Iran understand that the stakes are now double or nothing. They can stay in power by disrupting efforts to create a pluralist, non-theocratic, Shi’a-majority state next door—or they can fail, as success in Iraq sounds the death knell for the Iranian revolution.… Iran is the tipping point in the war on proliferation, the war on terror, and the effort to reshape the Middle East. If Iran goes pro-Western and anti-terror, positive changes in Syria and Saudi Arabia will follow much more easily. And the chances for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement will greatly improve.” This is their hope then, to reshape the Middle East to their liking.
“We are the New World” is the jingle, “grab it while you can” the sell, “either with us or against us” the war cry. The world on offer here is best described by Rimbaud in Democracy:
The flag goes with the foul landscape, and our jargon drowns out the drum.* * * * *
In the great centres we’ll nurture the most cynical prostitution. We'll massacre logical revolts.
In spicy and drenched lands!—at the service of the most monstrous exploitations, industrial or military.
Farewell here, no matter where. Conscripts of good will, ours will be a ferocious philosophy; ignorant as to science, rabid for comfort; and let the rest of the world croak. This is the real advance. Marching orders, let’s go!
Part two to follow.
[First published fall 2003, jc zanella © 2003/2006]
Re Malcolm X/El Hajj Malik al Shabazz, when was he most dangerous? When did he pose the greater threat to the powers that be? I read his biography when I was eighteen and what struck me at that time and still is that back when he was calling for armed resistance and racial segregation he was allowed to speak.
Then he broke with the Nation of Islam, went on Hajj and embraced traditonal Islam. Saw men of all colors from all nations worshipping the One God together. Came back, renounced his earlier views, admitted that the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King was right, and boom! He's dead.
Makes you think doesn't it? It should.