Thursday, July 19, 2007
Of Principalities and Powers ~ “The Floodwall”
I spent many hours during my boyhood along the Ohio River, exploring land that lay behind a floodwall. On one side of the wall was the city, busy with people and traffic; on the other side, the strange fecund world of a waste wilderness. I loved the river side of the wall—the rank vegetation, the strange fungi, the groundhog burrows, the driftwood and debris tossed up on the shore, the sheer freedom to roam. I could stand on the sandy bank of the river, watching its oily surface and an occasional barge float by, and hear, at the same time, behind me, cars and truck streaming along the avenue on the other side of the wall. Our national discussion on Iraq has that same feeling of a strict, partitioned duality.
Debate in Congress, and on corporate radio and television, has turned—albeit slowly and reluctantly—to a consideration of how we can pull ourselves out of the disaster in Iraq. Yet several things are so thoroughly taken for granted in this debate that the imperial audacity of the assumptions is well nigh invisible.
Off the top of my head, here is a list of the controlling assumptions: The assumption that the time and pace for a U.S draw down is entirely a U.S. matter. The assumption that we will leave only when western energy companies are handed the keys to the oil fields. The assumption that a large U.S. force will be permanently garrisoned in Iraq at five huge bases under construction. The assumption that, if the present government of Iraq can’t deliver, the U.S. will have to make changes in the Iraqi government. The assumption that the Iraqi police and army can be developed into an effective force responsive to U.S. priorities and loyal to U.S. aims. The assumptions that we are the “good guys” here, just trying to spread a little democracy around the world, and the “bad guys” hate freedom. The assumption that any outcome which doesn’t operate with the other prior assumptions will lead to a vast “bloodbath” and an unacceptable U.S “defeat.” The assumption that operating with these assumptions will avoid a “bloodbath” and will salvage some kind of American victory.
Those are the continuous assumptions on talk shows and in our corporate news. They are the traffic you hear on the other side when you stand on the bank of the river. And it is startling, once you focus on it, how these assumptions frame the entire official public conversation on Iraq. There is nothing else. Any “debate” revolves around details confined by those assumptions, details such as the date for starting our pullout, the timetable for the Iraqi government to sign off on our oil arrangement, and the size of the U.S. contingent which will remain behind. That’s it. There is nothing more.
In fact, it might be a healthful awareness technique to sit in front of your television, or open a news magazine, or scan the editorial page of your newspaper, with a little checklist of these assumptions, and see how many you can tick off each time Iraq comes up.
On the river side of the wall, where millions of ordinary citizens stand, is a broad stream of consciousness which challenges those assumptions at every turn. On this side of the wall is knowledge that the U.S. invaded Iraq on the basis of lies which had already been exposed as lies in Europe and on the Internet prior to the invasion. Knowledge that the invasion violated international law, basic morality, and human decency. In short, an awareness that we shouldn’t have been there to begin with, are an occupying army despised by the people we pretend to be helping (confirmed by all Iraqi polling data), and don’t belong there now.
On this side of the wall, we see transparently manipulative attempts to sell the U.S. invasion by portraying soldiers as lovable heroes, first with Jessica Lynch, then with Pat Tillman. Both stories turn out to have been sheer fabrications, with the strands of lies going right up the chain of command. There’s no question about this; documentation is readily available.
We see, too, the undemocratic control of reporting on the war. The “embedding” of reporters within U.S. forces. The prohibitions on travel. The murder of numerous reporters, photographers, and members of news teams. The withholding of images of death and suffering and destruction unless they were the result of enemy action. The return of bodies of U.S. soldiers at odd hours of the night in out of the way corners of airports. The alarming effectiveness of efforts to render this an invisible war.
On this side of the wall, we see statistics revealing that a “bloodbath” has already been drawn and is ongoing—close to 700,000 excess deaths in Iraq since the war started, the majority of them children. On this side of the wall we see that the deaths of U.S. military personnel (now nearing four thousand) are mourned, while the deaths of fifteen to twenty times as many Iraqis, most of them entirely innocent, go unlamented and unregretted.
On this side of the wall, we see the murderous ethnic cleansing of neighborhoods and towns where Shi’ites and Sunnis once lived together peaceably, and recognize that this tragedy is a direct consequence of our invasion and our policies after the invasion. We see daily reports of car bombings and suicide bombings, with ghastly carnage, all of that set into motion by our assault and occupation.
On this side of the wall, we see millions of Iraqis uprooted from their homes and set adrift as refugees, having lost nearly everything they own and everything that gave them a familiar place in the world, at the same time we claim the war is to give Iraqis a better life.
On this side of the wall, we see that the sizable U.S. forces slated to remain in Iraq after our “withdrawal” make a mockery of Iraqi sovereignty and provide an ongoing insult and provocation to Islamic believers. The claim that U.S. forces are present only to “provide security for Iraq’s fledgling democracy” is a transparent falsehood. U.S forces are there to insure American dominance over the Iraqi oil industry and to hold a powerful military threat over the heads of other nations in the region.
The huge new bases we have raced to construct in Iraq also represent a tradeoff with the bin Ladens. The U.S. closed its bases in Saudi Arabia, where Osama bin Laden and many others regarded them as an affront to the holiness of their homeland. The new bases in Iraq are to be their replacement.
On this side of the wall, we see the president of the United States asserting repeatedly that we are locked in a struggle with al Qaeda in Iraq, while our own intelligence estimates say that our primary opposition is from Iraqi nationalists resisting the occupation and from Shi’ite militia, with a small al Qaeda force far down on the list of enemies. We see the president’s absurd distortions reported as straight news, without challenge or contradiction.
On this side of the wall, we see that victory in Iraq, by any normal standard, is impossible. Powerful empires repeatedly overestimate their capacity to control the world around them. Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. assault on Viet Nam, and now the U.S. invasion of Iraq, were all based on imperial hubris, and the U.S. invasion of Iraq will fail as the others failed. Placing hope on a “surge” and the development of Iraqi forces as reliable surrogates are fantasies familiar to anyone who lived through the Vietnam War.
On this side of the wall, we see that our supposed effort to “spread democracy” has been undertaken in the most undemocratic way possible, with contempt for the public will, with state-sanctioned torture and kidnappings, with secret prisons, the denial of legal representation and rights to the accused, and numerous other attacks on fundamental liberties.
We also see that the undermining of our own democracy and the loss of our own liberties are not even issues in what passes for political debate among the collection of candidates currently campaigning for president. An authentic patriot would be campaigning on an end to torture, an end to secret wiretappings, an end to wild claims of executive privilege, an end to denial of habeas corpus, and an end to imperialism. Those would be major issues in the campaign to lead a genuine democracy.
Now, why is it that the views I’ve described on the “river side” of the wall never make it into the official public discussions of policy? Some, after all, are indisputable, based on easily-found polling data, historical data, our own government’s reports, eyewitness accounts, et cetera. Some are arguable, but at least legitimate alternative views, as plausible and in accordance with the facts as the views publicly circulated. All are steeped in the love of liberty, the mistrust of rulers, and the passion for democracy that characterize our history at its best. Why are they walled off?
Beyond that, why do people who want peacefulness, wisdom, and compassion get a government that is bellicose, foolish, and unfeeling? Why is the electoral system so near-totally devoid of candidates who address our hopes and our deepest beliefs?
One world, with a division separating two viewpoints as effectively as the earthen levees and concrete barriers of the floodwall separated the worlds of my boyhood. What is the floodwall cutting through our country, separating an official public world reliant on force, lies, coercion, and manipulation on the one side from an alienated private world left adrift and unrepresented on the other? Who built the wall? How is it maintained? Why is the wall invisible?
It flabbergasts me that William Greider’s wonderful book Who Will Tell the People, which raised and addressed all of those questions, is now fifteen years old and largely forgotten. Current polling data, reported in the vaguest possible terms, says that a substantial majority of Americans believe the country is “on the wrong track.” That “wrong track” was Greider’s starting point in the introduction to Who Will Tell the People. Mind you, this was written in 1992!
…a climate of stagnant doubt has enveloped contemporary politics, a generalized sense of disappointment that is too diffuse and intangible to be easily confronted. The things that Americans were taught and still wish to believe about self-government…no longer seem to fit the present reality. …American democracy is in much deeper trouble than most people wish to acknowledge. …The substantive meaning of self-government has been hollowed out. What exists behind the formal shell is a systemic breakdown of the shared civic values we call democracy.
“On the wrong track” indeed! Greider’s analysis of the “floodwall” I’ve alluded to was prophetic; it is even more relevant now than the year it was written. It is an original, highly recommended study of the unraveling of our democracy, a process only accelerated by the war in Iraq and the current administration.
© Tony Russell, 2007