'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Sir! No Sir! . . . But What About the Iraqis? 

On September 24th, I arrived late for the antwar protest in San Francisco. Having missed the march, I walked over to Jefferson Square Park from the Civic Center BART station, and listened to several speakers. Later that evening, I wandered over to the New College over in the Mission District to watch an excerpt from the film Sir! No Sir!, a documentary about GI resistance to the Vietnam War, and listen to some of the participants profiled in the film describe their experiences.

The documentary is significant, because, as director David Zeiger said, the social history of GI resistance has been completely forgotten, even by people familiar with it when it occurred. It is a companion to the reissue of David Cortright's book on the same theme, Soldiers in Revolt. Both conclude that rebellion within the ranks played a significant role in finally bringing American involvement in Southeast Asia to an end, and some, like Alexander Cockburn, for example, believe that it was an essential one. There is no doubt that their stories are remarkable.

After a 15 minute segment of the film was shown, a panel composed of Tom Bernard, Matthew Rinaldi and Keith Mather described their involvement in the GI Resistance movement. Rinaldi and Maher were soldiers that participated in civil disobedience at the Presidio. Rinaldi was subsequently involved in providing legal assistance to people in the military who objected to the war. Troops within Vietnam, possibly one of the few areas of the GI resistance effort still ingrained within the public memory, seriously impaired the combat readiness of the military, provoking officers to recognize the peril of the loss of control over their soldiers.

Bernard, an Air Force intepreter responsible for monitoring North Vietnamese communications during the 1972 Christmas bombing of Hanoi, engaged in a work stoppage along with several of his associates, an action so threatening in its implications, even as past history, that it has been expunged from memory. Bernard's action paralleled equally serious actions of disobedience in the Air Force that impaired the bombing of North Vietnam and Cambodia, a companion to the disobedience, sabotage and racial conflict within the Navy during this period that disrupted its capacity to assist in the conduct of the air war.

No doubt, the film appears to be very good, and the GI resistance effort was, and remains, a noble, praiseworthy endeavor. But, during the subsequent panel discussion, a discussion that invariably turned toward soldiers and the war in Iraq, the Iraqis, the people most directly affected by the continuing occupation, remained typically invisible. Everyone knows that we are approaching 2000 dead American soldiers, but how many Iraqis have died? Tens of thousands? Over one hundred thousand? Note that the lower estimate, from Iraq Body Count, relies significantly upon news media reports. while the the higher one, from the medical journal, The Lancet, attempts to address this deficiency through cluster studies.

Towards the end of the session, I asked the panelists, wouldn't it be a good idea to work with Muslims to refute the tendency to conflate the entire Iraqi resistance with Islamic extremists? Silence. And, then, someone in the audience took the opportunity to announce another event. After he finished, someone on the panel started to talk about something else, but Bernard, bless his heart, interjected, and responded. He vaguely spoke about how, based upon his Vietnam experience, you never get the real story, but, at least, he stepped forward.

It is this inability of Americans, even those in the anti-war movement, to confront the scope of the atrocity that we have inflicted upon the Iraqis, and, by extension, acknowledge their right to resist the occupation, that drains the energy out of our efforts to bring this conflict to an end. In effect, we are fetishizing American life at the expense of Iraqi ones, and it invariably leads to well meaning, but morally evasive, attempts to split the difference, and please everyone, transforming the anti-war movement into more of a national therapy effort for its participants than one seeking fundamental political change. And, thus, one that can be easily coopted, so that the next war can go forward.

The classic instance of this phenomenon is a common variation on the "Support the Troops" theme. During a discussion on the DC indymedia website, I engaged in a dialogue with a purportedly antiwar woman who said the following:

Not everyone is privileged enough to be able to spend their time protesting. Many people have to make hard economic choices, and joining the military is one of them.

And, then later, after I disagreed, inquiring about her attitude about the loss of Iraqi life, and the harshness of the occupation:

I OPPOSE the war. That is a separate issue and I should not have muddied the water. I stand by my belief that my brother's choice to serve his country as a way to feed and clothe his kids is honorable but I abhor the war as much as he does.

Let's get this straight: she opposes the war, but publicly supports a family member who made a hard economic choice to feed his kids by volunteering to go to Iraq and kill people there. Now, I could understand if she privately expressed this within her family, but to publicly do so, and expect others to empathize with it . . . well, as I said there, it's morally myopic, a failure to hold someone accountable for their actions. Nowhere in this dialogue, despite being prompted to do so, did she ever express any sadness for the loss of Iraqi life, and the brutalities, like the torture at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. For her, the allegedly "hard economic choices" of Americans are more important than the Iraqis who are subjected to American military violence every day. Furthermore, it turns out that, contrary to her assumption, that there are plenty of alternatives to military service. Participants in the counter-recruitment effort inform young people of them all the time, achieving great success in diverting them away from military service.

Such an emotionally understandable, but politically and morally ineffectual, elevation of the importance of American lives over Iraqi ones gives birth to another absurdity, alarm over the prospect that the effectiveness of the US military will be impaired. Medea Benjamin made the following statement within an article published in advance of the September 24th protests:

We're marching because the war in Iraq is undermining the capacity of the US military. The military has been unable to reach its recruiting goals for months now, because young people don't want to be sent off to fight in a war they don't believe in.

Say what? If the military is failing to meet its recruiting goals, that's a good thing. If the military had failed to meet its goals in the years prior to Iraq, there's an excellent chance that the war never would have happened. Just as the woman with the brother in the military wants us to identify with someone who facilitates the occupation, but purports to be against the war, Benjamin encourages us to partially ground our opposition in the need to assuage the fears of the military-industrial complex. Activism transformed into giving and receiving emotional comfort. This is the path that lead Benjamin protege Marla Ruzicka to bond with US troops in Iraq, support the occupation and, ultimately, give it a false, human face, with tragic results.

Is it any wonder that Bush continues to conduct the occupation of Iraq with a free hand? The antiwar movement should take on a more challenging task than craving the approval of its opponents by emphasizing the connections between recruitment and the extent to which the United States relies on military power to dominate much of the world. Chalmers Johnson has addressed it quite directly:

As distinct from other peoples, most Americans do not recognize -- or do not want to recognize -- that the United States dominates the world through its military power. Due to government secrecy, our citizens are often ignorant of the fact that our garrisons encircle the planet. This vast network of American bases on every continent except Antarctica actually constitutes a new form of empire -- an empire of bases with its own geography not likely to be taught in any high school geography class. Without grasping the dimensions of this globe-girdling Baseworld, one can't begin to understand the size and nature of our imperial aspirations or the degree to which a new kind of militarism is undermining our constitutional order.

Indeed, the network is vast, almost beyond comprehension:

It's not easy to assess the size or exact value of our empire of bases. Official records on these subjects are misleading, although instructive. According to the Defense Department's annual "Base Structure Report" for fiscal year 2003, which itemizes foreign and domestic U.S. military real estate, the Pentagon currently owns or rents 702 overseas bases in about 130 countries and HAS another 6,000 bases in the United States and its territories. Pentagon bureaucrats calculate that it would require at least $113.2 billion to replace just the foreign bases -- surely far too low a figure but still larger than the gross domestic product of most countries -- and an estimated $591,519.8 million to replace all of them. The military high command deploys to our overseas bases some 253,288 uniformed personnel, plus an equal number of dependents and Department of Defense civilian officials, and employs an additional 44,446 locally hired foreigners. The Pentagon claims that these bases contain 44,870 barracks, hangars, hospitals, and other buildings, which it owns, and that it leases 4,844 more.

It's a daunting, seemingly impossible ambition: to participate in the liberation of much of the rest of the world from US military and economic hegemony. Perhaps, there are even Americans receptive to such an endeavor. After all, isn't it plausible that many of us, especially African Americans, recognize the most sinister aspects of our own history when we see US troops using dogs on detainees at Abu Ghraib? People who have served in Iraq, like Camilo Mejia, have spoken passionately about our imperial aspirations there. If we want to avoid the prospect that young Americans will continue to kill and be killed, destroying the societies of countries like Syria, Iran, Venezuela, and possibly, if the more extreme neo-conservatives are to be believed, even China, we must abandon our provincial attitude about Iraq, and reach out to those around the world who enthusiastically await our assistance.

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