Outside the Spectacle
If you prick us do we not bleed?
If you tickle us do we not laugh?
If you poison us do we not die?
And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?
Merchant of Venice, III:1
Waging war is a peculiar American pastime: its appeal does not diminish as corpses multiply. Quite the contrary – each new round of this gruesome spectacle is greeted with the greatest fervor by the elites, the loudest applause from the intellectuals, and the proudest swagger of the patriots. No effort is spared in hammering into the public consciousness two absolute Truths about the contenders in this sordid spectacle: America is absolutely good, and the Enemy absolutely evil. America, preaches an appropriate (and appropriately paid) representative of Capital, is the savior of the world, the benevolent exporter of democracy, the deliverer of freedom; The Enemy, whatever small, poor, far-away and relatively defenseless nation it may be, is savage, senseless, a direct and immediate threat to American interests which must be destroyed.
The rhetoric demanding the need for war–real, manly, action–puffs up the audience with false pride, whetting its appetite for blood, mayhem and destruction. Not against our side, of course: not against Uncle Sam, its thousands of armed, armored, killing machines and the larger machines those thousands will wield to kill and destroy. Seating for those who are (supposedly) cheering on the Enemy is arranged only at torture camps and graveyards elsewhere. The partisan home crowd directs its fury, fear, and hatred at the beaten and broken creature cowering below–today, Iraq. Dragged into the arena from a dungeon decorated with the skeletons of Indians, Filipinos and Vietnamese, our latest hapless victim wondered what stories the soothsayers would narrate to drown out its shrieks and cries.
Today we Americans know who the soothsayers are and what stories were told. We know because many of us were heeding them as thousands of Iraqis were snuffed out of existence by cruise missiles and cluster bombs with less notice than a quick turn of the page.
And what fantastic fairy tales they were. A country bombed and pulverized by our last assault upon it, strangled by our suffocating sanctions, possessing rusting weapons two, three, generations old, holding one-tenth our population and having one-thirty-seventh of our per-capita GDP, was said to represent a serious and imminent danger to our well-being. Is America so weak? Not one intelligence agency in the West found a shred of evidence to prove links to al-Qaeda or September 11th, bin Laden had called for Hussein’s head and, finally, the President admitted there was no link between Hussein’s regime and September 11th–but nonetheless Iraq was declared to have supported al-Qaeda and played some shadowy role in that attack. UN inspectors under Ritter said Iraq no longer had weapons of mass destruction, more UN inspectors under Blix found none, and US agents under Kay have come up empty-handed–yet Iraq, we are told, still must have possessed dangerous weapons.
By and large the public swallowed these fantastic and unbelievable concoctions. The lies served their purpose, for the deed was done. Our side had won, and America’s neoconservative war-makers had carried out America’s task as outlined by their leading intellectual, Michael Ledeen: "Every 10 years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business."
But a problem emerged: Iraq got back on its feet. Granted, the odious regime was overthrown, but the vast numbers of Iraqis, not benefiting from our propaganda apparatus, knew they were neither Hussein clones nor American pawns. Though our free media tried to cuff them in Manichean chains, the Iraqi masses were what our media mouthpieces never allowed them to be: human beings. Stirred into anger and resentment against the American occupation and all the chaos and injustice that marked its presence, they began to fight back.
As Iraqi resistance intensifies, it has become better organized, more deadly, more daring, and more numerous. US troops fall prey more and more to hit-and-run attacks on convoys, coordinated machine-gun and rocket-propelled-grenade fire, improvised roadside explosives, and suicide attacks. Important and prominent symbols of the occupation, including police stations, other foreign troops, hotels catering to occupation authorities, even UN buildings, have quickly become targets. Missiles have brought down a series of helicopters and struck planes, illustrating an advanced development of resistance capabilities. Rockets, wheeled around on donkey carts, now strike at the most ‘secure’ symbols and residencies of American imperialism in Iraq.
In this qualitatively new situation, a routine exercise of American chauvinism–state terrorism followed by the usual unfulfilled promises about patching up the victim nation – has turned into a total nightmare. The well-orchestrated and planned-out event, replete with ‘Shock and Awe’ fireworks, pronouncements about freeing Iraqis, and staged destruction of Saddam statues, has fallen apart.
This decisive development demands an understanding of an occupied people’s right to resist the occupier of their country, for the insurgency has been the main trigger for a renewed anti-war movement. While the anti-war protests and actions carried out prior to the invasion were inspiring, the movement lacked the political and theoretical coherency to survive the likely possibility that war would be carried out. Once the bombs started falling on Baghdad the movement dissipated. It must also be admitted that prior to the invasion, the majority of Americans supported war. In no other country did a majority of the populace support the war–except Israel.
There is nothing surprising in this. Former Special Forces officer and member of Bring Them Home Now Stan Goff explained clearly in an interview with Derek Seidman at Left Hook (http://www.lefthook.org):
"The vast majority of people are not motivated by abstractions. They are motivated by what they can feel on their skin. The entry point for this movement into the consciousness of new people is not through morality… The freshest stratum in any movement are those who are there through trauma and fear. Soldiers getting killed is a very serious thing, because these are our families."
It is the emergence of resistance on the ground from Iraqis themselves which lifted the veil of lies from the war for many Americans. Were it not for the daily casualties and attacks inflicted upon U.S. troops in Iraq, it is doubtful that the recent uproar about the falsity of war claims and the merits of the occupation itself would be so loud and widespread at home now.
This blunt truth is stated not to sermonize about the American public’s relative indifference to the consequences of war unless ‘our side’ is affected, nor to pander to the idea that US soldiers’ deaths is the main reason for us to end the occupation. Rather, the point is to soberly recognize the starting point of criticism of the war in Iraq for most Americans so that we can extend and enrich anti-war awareness more effectively. It would be politically unwise, for instance, to lecture about the historical record of atrocities and duplicities carried out in imperialist ventures without conscious reference to the attacks on US troops, just as it would be dangerous to latch onto this least-common-denominator of consciousness, using the death of soldiers to replace other very real reasons for why we must withdraw from Iraq immediately. The point, in a word, is neither to separate nor to substitute, but to connect.
For the intensification of guerrilla warfare, with all its sensational drama and deadliness, is only the most obvious and eye-catching aspect of the war. The true depth and dimension of hostility to the U.S. occupation extends far beyond this or that rocket attack. It speaks to the hostility of the entire Arab world to America’s overall imperial project and its history of dominating and humiliating Arabs, either directly or through its local pit-bull, Israel. To appreciate and emphasize the full context of the war and its brutal impact on American lives not only in Iraq but here – and then not only to American lives but to all lives – is a crucial and necessary step for the anti-war movement.
The dangers of not doing so are patently obvious. Already many supposedly anti-war ‘radicals’ have jumped on the ‘Anybody But Bush’ bandwagon, throwing in their support for Democrats like Dean or Clark. To oppose the war yet support these candidates may seem contradictory, but a superficial opposition to war is entirely compatible with such decisions. For those who oppose the war as a matter of style may be impressed by anti-war rhetoric even if mouthed by one who has declared support for sending more troops (Dean), and those whose concerns are limited to troop casualties may feel more comfortable with a former general at the helm (Clark).
Some on the Left offer generous advice on how to make the occupation more effective tactically, while others wonder aloud if leaving Iraq would be an ‘abandonment’ of an ‘unfinished job’, as if by his deed of murder a murderer is historically fitted to follow up by playing carpenter.
This kind of approach is flawed to the core. We are still in the arena, still part of the spectacle, cheering on the brutalization of another country, only with different slogans, temporarily running to the concession stand until ‘our side’ is winning again, whispering advice to Uncle Sam on the way. What must be soundly condemned and opposed is the spectacle itself, the debasement and killing of the racial Other in which we ourselves are debased, and–yes – sometimes even killed.
Failure to adopt this principle leads into an abyss of endless lies and falsifications. Deep in this abyss already are top American officials of all branches, who, immersed in their state of self-delusion, rail against the presence of ‘foreign fighters’ in a country where they sent 150,000 American troops, praise the preciousness of democracy while propping up puppet councils, and decry resistance as ‘terrorism’ because their newest effort to terrorize the Arabs is meeting real opposition.
Standing outside the spectacle requires one to rub out from one’s eyes the flash of the arena’s stage lights and propagandistic pyrotechnics. Through ritualized demonization of Saddam and pious denunciations of his misdeeds, the media junta convinced many the purpose of the war was to remove a tyrant. That America once financed and installed the tyrant–indeed many tyrants – was declared irrelevant. But now that he has been captured and whisked away for ‘interrogation’ elsewhere, the boogeyman excuse for staying in Iraq has unraveled completely. Still, reckoned the faithful, America after all was America, and after invading and taking over Iraq, would generously disseminate its superior values and institutions, like free-market democracy, rule of law, freedom of expression, and McNuggets. White Man’s Burden was back on the agenda; Civilization would extend its white hand to reach out to the backward natives.
Reach out it did, dagger as always concealed in the cuff. The occupation has utterly failed in bringing about the most basic improvements to the lives of ordinary Iraqis. More Iraqis now than ever face increasing hardship and misery on all fronts: insecurity, unemployment, intermittent and broken basic services, and a farcical puppet government. The mainstream press carries out daily reports recording the myriad failures of black-booted Bremer’s bureaucracy to win ‘hearts and minds’ in Iraq, from the lack of electricity and jobs to curfews and random house raids.
But to even begin an honest appraisal of our disastrous foreign occupation, one must first stand outside of the spectacle, outside of that artificial arena which pits man against man, nation against nation, race against race. Freedom, dignity, and a desire not be dominated by a foreign power or controlled by an outside force: these are the driving impulses of the vast majority of Iraqi fighters and their sympathizers in the local population–indeed, the driving impulses of people everywhere.
Recognition of this basic truth is the foundation of all future anti-war progress. For any number of chauvinist justifications to strangle Iraq-and no small number have already been aired and accepted-can sounds sweet to an ear that is deaf to the inherent right of a people to fight for their own independence.