Although the anti-war movement demonstrated on January 27th that it could mobilize hundreds of thousands to demand an end to the war on Iraq, the question remains whether the anti-war forces can begin to dismantle the war machine. In one of their more challenging statements in their equally provocative book, Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War, Retort asserts: “Unless the anti-war movement comes to recognize the full dynamics of US militarism–to understand that peace, under current arrangements, is no more than war by other means–then massive mobilizations at the approach of full-dress military campaigns must inevitably be followed by demoralization and bewilderment” (94).
Certainly, it is true that the massive mobilizations in February of 2003 led to demoralization when the Bush Administration demonstrated its utter contempt for international opinion and law by its war on and occupation of Iraq. Nonetheless, the anti-war movement slowly regained urgency and popularity as the Bush Administration’s war machine proved incapable of establishing its imperial “peace” in Iraq. Reinvigorated demonstrations have now sought to leverage wide-spread public antagonism to the Iraq War into pressuring the Congress to enact specific legislation for cutting off funds and bringing home the troops by a speedy withdrawal.
Unfortunately, putting all of its eggs in the congressional basket may doom the anti-war forces to further demoralization and bewilderment, especially given the particular political orientation of the Democrat leadership. Senator Harry Reid, the leader of the slim Democrat majority in the U.S. Senate, expressed the pusillanimous approach of this leadership to Bush’s escalation: “Our hope, really our prayer, is that the president will finally listen: listen to the generals, listen to the Iraq Study Group, listen to the American people, and listen to a bipartisan Congress.”
If Senator Reid believes that this tone-deaf president will listen to any of the aforementioned critics of his war policies, he is living in as much a fantasy world as Bush is. The problem, of course, is that the congressional leadership continues to shun their constitutional responsibilities when it comes to using the power of the purse to cut off funds for the Iraq War or to begin impeachment proceedings against the Bush Administration for its numerous violations of the Constitution. If Bush is under the delusion that more military muscle will salvage a “victory” in Iraq, the congressional leadership is under the delusion that it can inhibit an imperial presidency committed to permanent war with non-binding resolutions or tactical slaps on the wrist.
Bush is already sending additional troops to Iraq and implementing another phase of counter-insurgency strategies that have previously failed to stem the insurgency. The level of sectarian violence is only of concern to the US war machine if it fuels resistance to the imposed military neo-liberalism that defines that war machine. Enriching Halliburton and KBR and the vast private contractors that complement the Pentagon’s presence in Iraq is part of what feeds the Bush Administration’s intransigence to establishment calls, such as the Iraq Study Group, to pull back the troops. As argued in Afflicted Powers, “despite often inchoate rationales and uncontrollable specific outcomes, each military intervention is intended to serve an overall pressing American power–and the potential for Western capital entrenchment in ’emerging markets’–even further into vital regions of the globe” (81).
Beyond this military neo-liberalism, the neo-conservative desire to remake the map of the Middle East is still alive and well in the White House. Moreover, the combination of an evangelical desire to purge the world of “evil” and to eliminate any challenges to US hegemony is reflected in the manic military campaigns emanating from the Bush Administration. The incapacity of imposing congressional restraints on the Bush Administration is compromised both structurally and ideologically. Congress lacks the will to confront Bush head-on about his essentially dictatorial war moves, including the recent attacks on Somalia and the ramping up of provocations against Iran. Although there have been rumblings of dissent from the Administration’s plans to attack Iran, it is not enough to contend, as Senator Biden and others have, that Bush must seek a declaration from Congress before attacking Iran. Essentially, Congress has forfeited the only power it has to stop the White House from extending the war to Iran–the power to impeach.
In fact, the accumulation of dictatorial powers of a revised imperial presidency and expansion of the military-industrial complex has further hamstrung even the timid protestations of Congress. Indeed, imagining that the electoral arena holds to key to reversing the war machine is one of the major illusions of the variety of political factions which constitute the anti-war movement. Being reduced to a lobbying mechanism for legislative relief from an imperial presidency and permanent war has marginalized what passes for an anti-war movement. Hence, irrespective of how large demonstrations may grow in Washington, DC, they occupy only symbolic space with a narrow political focus and imagination.
The incapacity to confront how deeply embedded the war machine is in the political culture of the United States further compounds the misguided efforts of the anti-war movement to pursue the legislative and electoral route. As the Pentagon’s tentacles have spread beyond the military-industrial complex to the manipulation of media images, militarism has injected its values even deeper in the veins of the society of the spectacle. An obvious vehicle for socializing young boys in particular into militarist values is the video game. As consultants to video games, retired military personnel transferred their obsession with “shock & awe” technology to advance the agenda of the virtual performance of permanent war. In November 2002 the Pentagon released for free the video game, “America’s Army.” As an explicit recruitment tool for the Pentagon, the video game had a separate webpage of links with local recruiters. Another video game, “Splinter Cell,” touted its mission to neutralize the terrorist threat with ads that read like a Cheney-Rumsfeld wet-dream: “I alone have the fifth freedom: the right to spy, steal, destroy, and assassinate to insure that American freedoms are protected.”
While efforts to combat military recruitment in the schools are an important arena for countering the influence of the war machine, the more insidious conditioning continues apace. Moreover, trying to create communities of resistance in an era of highly privatized space and hyper-consumerism is, if not impossible, assuredly very difficult. In effect, the very possibility of developing and sustaining an anti-war movement is open to question. Yet, without confronting both the cultural representations of the permanent war machine and its daily material production and cultural reproduction, any anti-war movement is a mere shadow of actual resistance.
When one compares the anti-war movement that emerged in the 1960’s with the pale imitation today, one not only recognizes the lack of real organizing and movement-building, but also the transformed historical conditions. The insurgencies that marked the 60’s attack on the war machine from anti-draft activities to military mutinies to factory uprisings to blockading supply trains were part of a collective revolt against the state’s colonization of the body and the mind. Alternative institutions flourished in college towns, on the outskirts of military bases, and within communities of color and young people in general. Where are those forces or sectors in the US willing to reject in the most radical way the military neo-liberalism that has become the hallmark of the latest incarnation of American imperial project?
Have our imaginations become so impoverished and our social conditions so debased that we have neither the mental nor material capacities even to disrupt the war-machine, let alone dismantle it? Given Retort’s argument that any oppositional movement in the U.S. is itself an “afflicted power” as a consequence of “weak citizenship” and the ubiquitous effects of advanced pacification and spectatorship, perhaps the only hope for dismantling the war machine is its own self-destruction through imperial over-reach.
On the other hand, to consign our role as radical agents of social change to waiting for the inevitable demise of U. S. military hegemony or cheerleading for some external salvation from Latin America or elsewhere is another form of pacification. As Roberta Flack reminds us in her song about “letting Pharaoh go,” whatever form the state takes we must refuse to be its conduits. The war machine isn’t only about the military-industrial-infotainment complex; it is also about complicit bodies and co-opted minds caught in the very deep structure of a state/militarist matrix. Understanding how pervasive that matrix is and what we need to do to overcome it may enable us to begin the long and difficult task of dismantling the war machine.
FRAN SHOR, a peace and justice activist, teaches at Wayne State University. He is the author of Bush-League Spectacles: Empire, Politics, and Culture in a Bushwhacked America.