Nicholas Kristof tabulated the casualties of the war in the New York Times on Nov 19: “… at a cost so far of 400 American lives and (one study suggests) at least 11,000 Iraqi lives”.(1) I was struck by the obvious racism. Kristof does not mention it, but he is counting American troops and Iraqi civilians. The 30,000 Iraqi soldiers who perished in the war are not awarded the status of human beings. Kristof is a meek liberal but turning to more radical sources, I was distressed to find the same attitude. For example, writing for Counterpunch, David Vest argued that reconstruction benefits should be awarded to American troops and Iraqi civilians.(2)
The American government has set out the terms of discourse for discussions on the cost of the war. “We did not mean to kill their civilians, but those who took up arms against our boys deserved to die. You dare not suggest otherwise”. The anti-war movement, in a display of rare unanimity, has accepted these rules. In the mainstream as well as the alternative media, I have read dozens of articles discussing the plight of American troops. It is almost laughable to think of an article devoted to the travails of Iraqi militants. We seem to have accepted that they are illegitimate terrorists. I believe that this is part of a larger problem that we need to grapple with: our attitude towards the U.S. military and the Iraqi resistance.
The right wing has tried hard to appropriate the troops. Before the war, I remember counter-protesters at anti-war rallies yelling at me to ‘support the troops’. Michael Moore points to this: “One thing was for sure — if you said anything against the war, you had BETTER follow it up immediately with this line: ‘BUT I SUPPORT THE TROOPS!’”(3) Bush, with his foray to the USS Abraham Lincoln and his daredevil visit to Iraq, has tried hard to associate himself with the troops. This tendency has been noted and criticized.
What has not been noted is that the anti-war movement has also tried to appropriate the troops. Lest anyone suspect Moore of blasphemy, he quickly adds: “people like you have ALWAYS supported ‘the troops’.” Moore typifies a branch of the anti-war movement that proceeds with a highly romanticized view of the American army. In this view, ‘our kids’ oppose the occupation and would like to return home.
This viewpoint has its merits. It is undeniable that military service is a form of oppression. To quote Moore again: “They are our poor, our working class”. Moreover, it is true that many troops are speaking out against the occupation. Organizations like Military Families Speak Out [MFSO], are an important part of the anti-occupation movement.
However, this view cannot accommodate Corporal Ryan Dupre who was quoted during the war: “Wait till I get hold of a friggin’ Iraqi… I’ll just kill him”(4) or the hubris captured in the famous photograph of American troops ensconced on Saddam’s throne. Neither does it account for the fact that occupation troops are now guilty of every crime in the book ranging from rape and murder to petty larceny. Not a day passes without the emergence of a new story of the sadistic exploits of ‘the troops’. Tens of thousands of Iraqis have died. ‘The troops’ killed them.
In my view, the romantic outlook is untenable. I find it especially troublesome because it blinds us to the real victims. This was brought home to me when I visited the Vietnam Memorial in Washington while attending the anti-occupation rally on Oct 25. Now, this is an embarrassingly obvious propaganda monument. It was not built out of any sympathy for the troops but rather to whip up patriotic feelings and direct people’s anger away from difficult questions into a tangible symbol of tragedy. However, it is amazing that people can look at this monument and not ask the obvious question: “Why is there not a monument about 60 times as large commemorating the Vietnamese who died in the war? Indeed, why isn’t a single inch devoted to them?” It is a short step from this disgusting structure to casting the US as a victim of the Vietnam War. “The destruction was mutual”, President Jimmy Carter explained.(5)
I am also troubled by the argument that we must concentrate on American casualties, because that constitutes the most effective propaganda. If this is true, we are sunk. Not only does this imply massive racism within the population it also means that we will never be able to organize against wars like the Kosovo war, which as Wesley Clark proudly pointed out recently, was prosecuted without a single American casualty.(6)
I do not deny that we should continue to organize the soldiers, help them to desert and support them in their efforts against the occupation. But this should be done with an eye to the reality of the American army. Moreover, I believe that our primary appeal should be a humanistic appeal focusing on the people of Iraq.
Details of the Iraqi resistance have been hard to come by. The media has glossed over the role of organized labor choosing to focus on the militants. I would like to discuss the attitude of the anti-war movement towards the Iraqi resistance as a whole and then specialize to the militants. In both countries, the movements are extremely diverse, so I am wary of generalizations.
In a recent article, the editors of Monthly Review recalled that Kipling, on the verge of the annexation of Philippines, encouraging the US to take up its new racial responsibilities.(7) Kipling wrote:
“Your new caught sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.”
It is easy to analyze the Bush administration within the framework of “The White Man’s Burden”. However, I suggest that this paradigm applies equally well to sections of the anti-war movement.
It is arguable that the anti-war movement, through US public opinion, has a say in running Iraq. The movement has accepted this strange power with effortless grace and has proceeded to furiously debate the future of Iraq. This tendency is prominent among the supporters of Howard Dean. To them, it is obvious that the US must continue to rule Iraq. It is just that Bush and his cronies at Halliburton are doing a bad job; they would do better. In this worldview, the Iraqi resistance is a minor irritant.
Large groups of activists proceed with the idea that the re-liberation of Iraq is crucially dependent on them. This also accords very little respect to the Iraqi resistance. [The counter-example is again to be found in organized labor. US Labor Against the War [USLAW] has formed excellent partnerships with Iraqi trade unions.]
In a recent article for Signs, Iris Marion Young argues that the appeal of the war derived from the imagery of ‘masculinist protection’ that the Bush administration invoked.(8) This paradigm also applies to the peace movement. Sections of the movement adopt a protective attitude towards Iraq. “‘We’ need to protect ‘them’ from the Bush monster”. This hypothesis is admittedly far-flung but I would argue this is one of the reasons that the peace movement focuses on Iraqi civilians. They arouse its protective instincts whereas Iraqi militants do not.
First and foremost, we need to acknowledge the right of the Iraqi people to resist imperialism in any way they see fit. This includes the right to violent resistance.
I am not discounting the role of non-violent resistance. It is just that I believe it is somewhat futile for the anti-war movement to debate the strategic merits and demerits of militant resistance in Iraq. We are not in Iraq. We need to focus on our responsibilities in the U.S.
It is clear that violence will continue to be important in the resistance. It is also clear that the administration will use this violence as an excuse to perpetuate the occupation. Hence, it is incumbent upon the anti-war movement to take a public stance on the issue. We need to explain the reasons for the violence to the American people.
A few days ago, a person I was speaking to told me that “Iraqis are nasty people because they are blowing up the troops.” It is essential that we fight a propaganda battle against this mindset. Whether or not we believe violent tactics are effective, it is our responsibility to publicly point out that the militant resistance is not composed of ‘terrorist’ but is a legitimate, grassroots movement against the occupation. Our aim should be to ensure that the next time Bush uses the phrase ‘terrorist attacks on our troops’, everyone doubles up with laughter.
The militants gain further legitimacy when we recognize that the resistance is directed against American military targets with precautions — such as warning signs in Arabic — to avoid Iraqi casualties. I do not wish to dehumanize American troops soon after pointing out that the American government dehumanizes foreign troops. However, I do believe that an American soldier has no right to walk down the streets of Baghdad with a gun, humiliate or in any way exercise power over the native population. I also firmly believe that the people of Iraq have a right to self-defense.
The only resolution to this dilemma, respecting the human rights of the Iraqi people and the occupation troops, is to bring the troops home.
1. Safety First, Nicholas Kristof, New York Times, Nov 19, 2003.
2. Bush Drops the Mask, David Vest, Counterpunch, Dec 11, 2003: http://www.counterpunch.org/vest12112003.html
3. Letters the Troops Have Sent Me, Michael Moore, Dec 19, 2003: http://www.michaelmoore.com/words/message/index.php
4. US Marines turn fire on civilians at the bridge of death, Mark Franchetti, Sunday Times(London), Mar 30,2003.
5. “Well, the destruction was mutual. You know, we went to Vietnam without any desire to capture territory or to impose American will on other people. We went there to defend the freedom of the South Vietnamese, and I don’t feel that we ought to apologize or to castigate ourselves to assume the status of culpability.” Transcript of President’s News Conference on Foreign and Domestic Issues, New York Times, Mar 25, 1977. Also see: The Holocaust Industry, Norman Finkelstein, Verso(2000), Pg 84.
6. A New Approach to Iraq, Wesley Clark, Harvard Crimson, Dec 8, 2003:http://www.thecrimson.com/article.aspx?ref=356666
7. Kipling, the ‘White Man’s Burden,’ and U.S. Imperialism, Monthly Review, Nov 2003: http://www.monthlyreview.org/1103editors.htm
8. The Logic of Masculinist Protection: Reflections on the Current Security State, Iris Marion Young, Signs, Vol.29, Autumn 2003.