War, Race and Elections

Two hot little controversies are brewing among progressive and anti-war Americans.

One is the question of how much energy we–if there is a “we”–put into the 2004 elections, and in what way.

The other is the question of whether the movement–if there is ONE movement–should continue to put forward the demand that we “Bring the troops home now,” the word NOW being the bone of contention. I think these are related.

The 2004 elections will determine two things: Which party will control the executive branch and whether the Democrats will be able to wrest control back in either the US Senate or the House of Representatives. For reasons that could take us far afield here, there are actually real and differing consequences that accompany these electoral outcomes. But with regard to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (odd how Colombia and the Philippines have fallen off our maps even as they both crawl with Green Berets), looking at the executive branch, it seems fairly certain at this point (at least to me) that Howard Dean will win the nomination for the Democrats.

Dean has not given the slightest indication that he intends to withdraw from Iraq. He has said he would reach out to bodies like the UN (and maybe, it is whispered by some, the Arab League), and internationalize the occupation.

Sounds great on paper to someone, I’m sure, but I have a news flash for the obtuse. What is going on in Iraq is not merely an occupation. It is a very active war. So long as there is a guerrilla war going on in Iraq, neither the UN nor the Arab League nor anyone else with a shred of common sense will have anything to do with it. The prevailing attitude toward the US, quite sensible from certain perspectives, is “You fucked it up, you fix it.”

The multi-form Iraqi resistance is making it clear to anyone with eyes and ears that they are united around at least one thing — they do not want to be occupied.

So this UN “internationalizing” thing is a pretty predictable demagogic device by Dean to get elected. Dean seems to be a pretty smart guy, so he probably doesn’t believe this simplified bullshit any more than some of us do. He is pandering–as politicians are wont to do–to two beliefs that have taken root in the American mass consciousness:

(1) That the Bush administration is slightly mad and has abandoned something sane called multilateralism, and

(2) that someone other than Iraqis has to oversee their future to prevent some amorphously defined but nightmarish post-Ba’athist reckoning.

The first notion about Bush lunacy and multilateralism fails to understand what the actual history and nature of so-called multilateralism is, which is a form of cooperative plunder by the Euro-American and Japanese North waged against the under-developed global South. Multilateralism was the form of cooperative imperialism agreed upon when the Marshall Plan was being carried out–a Cold War relic now–in which the US served as Big Daddy Umpire.

Multilateralism–dear people–gave us savage neoliberalism, with the (US dominated) International Monetary Fund as a global loan shark, and for billions of people multilateral imperialism is precisely what has underwritten the suffering that corresponds to their dollar-a-day existence.

The break with multilateralism is not some break with a noble past; it is a falling out amongst gangsters as the turf dries up. Bush’s cohort is not insane. They are responding quite logically to the exigency of a post-Cold War conjuncture with the forestalled crisis of profit back upon them, the dollar-a-day natives pissed off, and hydrocarbon energy preparing to exit the world stage.

“Progressives,” whatever the hell that means, need to quit listening to NPR and confusing it with critical analysis… “this program underwritten by Archer-Daniels-Midland, Supermarket to the Universe, and Lockheed-Martin, designing technology for the Aryan Future.”

The second assumption–that the people living within the former boundaries of the former state of Iraq must have outside oversight to put them on the proper path–is a dressed-up form of something that used to be called the “white man’s burden:” a notion that no-one is entitled to make their own history except white Euro-Americans, with the rationalization that “those people” are incapable of self-governance. This racist assumption is exhibited about Iraq with amnesia about the scale of death and destruction visited on “those people” by thirteen years of war and sanctions, and with a dissociative disorder about the present–with violence already part and parcel of every day there, violence provoked by the presence and actions of the occupiers.

Perhaps–as a counterweight to this perennial liberal racism–we should be more forceful about making the point that Iraqis are at least as smart as us, and a lot smarter about how to go forward in the wake of the Anglo-American aggression.

There may be some civil strife. That happens. But Iraq is subdivided into relatively homogeneous regions, and it will not be the cataclysm that thrives in the lurid Islamaphobic American imagination. Civil strife and even civil war is part of history. The United States unleashed the most spectacular bloodletting in history up to that time to resolve the struggle between a system of chattel slavery or one of “free” labor when the precocious Northern child rose up to conquer its Southern mother.

That same racialized American history leads us back to the question of electoral politics and the anti-war movement.

At the height of the homegrown resistance to the Vietnam War, we have to remember, Richard Nixon was re-elected. The antiwar candidate George McGovern was defeated in a landslide. Nixon was elected on the basis of his appeal to white supremacy, which remains strong among the majority of whites in the US, and Republicans have been working that angle successfully ever since: the same white supremacy that still today underwrites even so-called progressives’ disbelief in the capacity of Iraqis to determine their own future.

Elections didn’t stop the Vietnam War. The anti-Vietnam War movement stopped the war in spite of electoral results. That administration crumbled from the inside. Yesterday, John Ashcroft recused himself in the Wilson-Plame affair. But I digress…


You cannot have a credible discussion of US politics or of war, unless you are willing to put race right there in the center of it.

Republicans and Democrats are maintained in power by the same class. But they are not the same, because the popular bases upon which they can draw are different, and that is a real difference. There are some very good reasons why African Americans will not vote for Republicans, even when everyone knows how invertebrate and treacherous the Democrats can be. When a party bases itself so fundamentally on white supremacy the way the Republicans do, it matters. If the Republicans get elected again, it is a direct reflection of the enduring power of US white supremacy. So the elections matter.

But they probably won’t change the situation in Iraq.

That’s a major point.

Aside from the US military, stuck there in Iraq as the institution of the military rots internally from Rumsfeld’s neglect and stupidity, there are two players who will determine the outcomes in Iraq: the international anti-war movement and the Iraqi resistance. The latter has the dominant role, because of three things; they are there, they have weapons, and they have the battlefield initiative (all preposterous claims to the contrary aside). All they have to do to win… is endure.

The Bush administration, on the other hand, is retrenching daily, managing the spin as best they can, and talking about something happening before July to “restore Iraqi sovereignty,” though, of course… the troops will stay. This is their dilemma. They are now in a situation where it is “politically impossible” to leave, but it is militarily impossible to win. This is the central contradiction we have to consider if anti-war forces are to understand what the political situation is.

Political crises in the United States do not take the form, at least not yet, of a domestic security crisis (even if Tom Ridge is trying to create the impression of one). The Republicans and Democrats are not going to take up arms against each other. Dennis Kucinich’s guerillas are not building IED’s to ambush Republican convoys. Political crises in the United States happen when the intangible becomes tangible, and that is in the form of a legitimacy crisis.

Legitimacy crises are not created by elections.

On the contrary, elections are designed to legitimize the rule of the dominant class. After each election, political pundits and think-tank spokespersons all get together and puff up on TV to congratulate America for another peaceful transition, even as 2,000,000 people rot in prison, crappy factory jobs that pay $13 an hour become crappier fast-food jobs that pay $6 an hour, cops turn Miami into a paramilitary zone, thousands of women are beaten half to death by controlling spouses, and whole neighborhoods look more and more like the Third World.

Legitimacy crises are provoked by demands from the people that are real demands, not yassa-massa requests respectfully submitted to elected officials with our hats in our hands. A demand that is really a request–this is what the faux-radical “reformer” presents–is an acceptance at the outset that the power relation will remain unchanged. A real demand does not seek to make itself respectable or “realistic.” A real demand is an exercise of power that says we are not going to accept, we are not going to shut up, we are not going to compromise, we are not going to obey, and we are not going away. It is not based on what we might be granted, but on the conditions we demand be created before we stop struggling.

Everyone has heard the old Frederick Douglas quote, that “power concedes nothing without a demand.” People love to repeat it, and they slap it on bumper stickers and open conferences with it on the program to prove they are down… but they have seldom studied it. And what he said merits study.

Here’s what he said: “Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims, have been born of earnest struggle…

“Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”


“These will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.” Put THAT in your next foundation funding request!

He didn’t say find the limits of what the powerful are willing to do. He didn’t say THEY draw the line. He said that WE draw it. It is only when it is proven that state power cannot stand us down, when their impotence is on display, that we will have mid-wifed the crisis of legitimacy that translates into a real change in the relations of power.

So here at last I come to the issue of the slogan, “Bring the troops home NOW.” If we allow ourselves to be drawn by these charlatans and gangsters into a discussion of how a decision will be implemented as a precondition to the decision being made, then we have written them a nice, fat blank check. We will have entered into negotiations before our most fundamental demand is met. We will have surrendered the initiative.

Our demand is not how the decision will be implemented. That is a practical matter in any case, the circumstances of which cannot be foreseen. Our demand is for the decision to end the occupation. We will discuss the implementation of the decision only after it is made. That is the “demand-position.” That is how WE draw the line.

“We don’t care whether it is politically ‘impossible.’ We are not interested in your political survival. [It is the “impossible” demand that gives birth to the crisis.] Bring them home. Bring them home now. We are not going anywhere, and we do not consent to be governed by you.”

Our job in the US is not to direct the history of Iraq. It is to take our own history in hand right here at home, by prescribing “the limits of tyrants.”

STAN GOFF is the author of “Hideous Dream: A Soldier’s Memoir of the US Invasion of Haiti” (Soft Skull Press, 2000) and of the upcoming book “Full Spectrum Disorder” (Soft Skull Press, 2003). He is a member of the BRING THEM HOME NOW! coordinating committee, a retired Special Forces master sergeant, and the father of an active duty soldier. Email for BRING THEM HOME NOW! is bthn@mfso.org.

Goff can be reached at: sherrynstan@igc.org


Stan Goff retired from the US Army in February 1996. He is a veteran of the US occupation of Vietnam, and seven other conflict areas. His books include Hideous Dream: A Soldier’s Memoir of the US Invasion of Haiti (Soft Skull Press), Full Spectrum Disorder: The Military in the New American Century (Soft Skull Books), Borderline: Reflections on War, Sex, and Church (Cascade Books), Mammon’s Ecology: Metaphysic of the Empty Sign (Cascade Books), Tough Gynes: Violent Women in Film as Honorary Men (Cascade Books), and Smitten Gate (a novel about Afghanistan, from Club Orlov Press).