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On War and Protest October 31, 2002
Last fall I was writing vehemently against the military campaign in Afghanistan. After over a year of the War on Terror, I am more informed on international affairs, more frightened about whats going to happen to the post-9/11 world, and exceedingly conflicted over the proper course of action. Although I oppose the Bush Doctrine of unilateral preemptive military aggression and the Bush method of bullying the world into war, I have failed to protestnot out of apathy, but out of a perturbed ambivalence and a dissatisfaction with todays protest culture.
The weekend before this years anti-globalization protests, I marched with a few hundred anti-war activists from Dupont Circle to Dick Cheneys house. At the beginning, I was exhilarated by an ironic sense of patriotism: that in the heat of Congressional deliberations over Resolution 114, we the protesters were doing our democratic duty of voicing dissent to the Bush administrations bellicose "policy" of regime change in Iraq. But the voices clamoring against Cheneys "Oil War," spouting anti-imperialism/capitalism slogans, were far cries from my objections to a permissive authorization for the President to use force in Iraq. Inching up Massachussetts Avenue in a phalanx of purported peace activists, I was appalled at the sight of children wielding posters of Yasir Arafat, offended by declarations on T-shirts that "We Are All Palestinians," (as if "we" could fathom the suffering of a people so brutally dispossessed) and increasingly frustrated with the conflation, generalization, and simplification of the issues.
Anticipating more of the same, I did not join in the mass anti-war demonstration that took place on Saturday, October 24 in Washington, DC. But this one was different. To be sure, the protest featured the usual anarchist and socialist suspects, but it was also well attended by a-typical protesters: war veterans, Muslim Americans, members of unions, church, and community groups. This turnout is heartening, but the problem remains: There is not much of a venue for pure objections to Bushs precipitous pursuit of war for regime change in Iraq. Radical political factions have adulterated opposition to the war with their litany of grievances against the First World. Anti-establishment coalitions have gladly taken the reigns in the anti-war movement, which they are using as a forum for leftist grandstanding. And the hard-liners are talking back, with invective assertions of American might and right.
This has alienated me, and many like-minded Americans, into meager action and a flailing political conscience. My anti-war writing of last year is naïve and quixotic; my aversion to protest culture cynical and defeatist. I was wrong in my absolute opposition to war last fall, but right in my critique of the military campaign in Afghanistan: coalition forces wreaked tremendous havoc on the civilian population, and the U.S. government and aid organizations have made paltry efforts to pick up the pieces. I fear the same for the Iraqi people, and consequences more dire than humanitarian atrocities . President Bush is mobilizing both politically and militarily to invade Iraq. He has jumped the gun with a National Security Strategy that hinges on Americas right to unilateral, preemptive military offensives and made no clear commitment to post-war-on-terror reconstruction and rehabilitation .
Of course, these objections and more are part of the debate over Iraq, but the rhetoric of the controversy is increasingly polemical. Judicious voices get drowned out by vitriol from left and right. There is little public space for those who think between and anti- and pro-.
Groping for a way of constructive political activism, I find hope in the legacy of the late Senator Paul Wellstone, one of the few Congressmen who put his conscience before his electoral interests and voted against the resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq. This was one of his last acts in a lifetime of tremendous integrity. As Harold Meyerson writes in his recent tribute to Wellstone, "to the thousands of progressives he prodded and roused and inspired falls the challenge of animating it yet again."
Saving Daylight January 2002
In the first hours of October 28, 2001, the Western world fell back, to standard time. It was the quietest night in Kabul since the United States opened fire on Afghanistan three weeks earlier. The warriors against terror began the day before with half-ton bombs, marked each hour after with air raids, and finished with a slew of F-16s over Bagram. Officials in Tampa attributed the second B-52 bombing of a Red Cross complex to human error. As Americans were about to shorten their days, the bombing campaign in Afghanistan was extended around the clock.
Britain adopted Daylight Saving Time in 1916 to conserve energy resources for the first world war. The United States followed suit in 1918, and Americans observed war time one hour ahead of standard time, for the duration of WW II. Congress standardized the practice of daylight saving artificially extending the hours of light in the evening during the spring and summer months, with the Uniform Time Act in 1966. In response to the oil embargo of 1973, most of the United States was put on extended Daylight Saving Time for two years.
It was on war time that America launched its military campaign on Afghanistan, dropping food by day and bombs by night. The first two weeks of the war were a humanitarian fight that destroyed in the dark and saved in the light. Americans stood watch by television screens that droned of freedom fighting fear and flickered with the terror on the other side of the world-- bombs blasting villages, droves bolting for Pakistan, loved ones left unburied, refugees flooding Peshawar. The freedom-loving belligerents may have granted relief from air raids in the daylight hours, but all the Afghans saw was yellow falling from the sky human daily rations, or cluster bombs. They would risk crossing land mines to find what hadnt killed them yet, or, if lucky, flyers bearing Latin letters, explaining, inscrutably to them, ready-to-eat thermostabilized entrees and the United States is your friend.2 The aid packages set with the sun; the air strikes waxed with the moon, each terrible night toward Ramadan.
The terrorist acts that precipitated the War on Terror were committed while Americans were living an hour ahead of time. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were imperfectly synchronized, but the perpetrators were precise enough to reap almost 3000 innocent lives. Americas military campaign in Afghanistan has been so imprecise as to incur over 3800 civilian casualties.3 The bombs arent smart enough, the strategies not quite sound. The strikes have been miles off, minutes late, and America has amassed a heap of mishaps: bombs have hit the Northern Alliance, a military hospital for a senior citizens center, UN vehicles employed in the effort to remove land mines, tribal elders processing to witness the swearing-in of their new leader, relief trucks en route to Bamiyan, and scores of villagers. Are these any less infelicitous than the bodies burned and broken on September 11? Is an American life more valuable than an Afghans? The death tolls are comparable; the difference is a matter of intention. The terrorists were targeting civilians, while the prosecutors of the War on Terror kill accidentally. The terrorists and their sympathizers celebrate the casualties they incur, while American officials regret the collateral damage done by errant strikes.
Malice is worse than apathy, and murder is more criminal than manslaughter. But both sides are guilty of homicide, and neither acknowledges the crime. Washington has neglected to subject its foreign policy to the standards of its justice system and, in so doing, has compromised the integrity of its democracy. If American operations, wherever they may be, are not consistent with democratic principles, the struggle against despotism, oppression, tyranny, even terrorism, is hypocritical and illegitimate.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines terror as extreme fear, and terrorism as the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims. The relentless bombing campaigns of Operations Desert Storm and Enduring Freedom have certainly terrified the Iraqi and Afghan people. The Palestinian refugee camps are rife with fear over the next Israeli reprisal, executed with the generous arms of America. The American government never intends to terrorize, but facilitates and tolerates the use of terror when it serves its interests. In the eighties, the Western powers supported Iraq unequivocally, despite its use of chemical warfare against Iranian soldiers and civilians alike. Not long after, the United States armed the mujahadeen in Afghanistan, including Osama bin Laden, in their fight against the Soviets. And when the U.S.S.R withdrew in 1988, when the guerrillas had achieved the American objective with American weapons, Washington left Afghanistan to the wolves and didnt look back. Until September 11, 2001, the American public was largely ignorant of the Taliban reign of terror, the government apparently unfazed by the brutality of the regime and its hospitality to terrorists. Both the cases of Iraq and Afghanistan reflect the convoluted character of American foreign policy, the chronic disparity between its geopolitical activities and its democratic rhetoric, that imploded with the twin towers on September 11.
It is ironic that American policy makers were saving energy on artificial time when they chose to give President Bush license to use all necessary and appropriate force5 against the terrorists and those who harbor them. The President responded, in the American habit of excess, by promising the U.S. military unlimited resources6 to combat global terrorism. Apparently, America can conserve neither fuel nor force, which have become the dominant components of its unrelenting geopolitical hegemony that combines an invasive pursuit of strategic interests with a gratuitous use of force to secure them. Americas infiltration of the Arabian peninsula and its unyielding sanctions on Iraq almost a decade after the oil-motivated Desert Storm are evidence of the self-serving foreign policy that prioritizes national interest over the sovereignty of other nations and, in turn, contributes to the international problem of fanatical militancy.
September 11 was Americas first dose of terror on its own territory. Washington now confronts a dual crisis of security and integrity, but it has failed to acknowledge the latter. The military campaign in Afghanistan is another instance of the irresponsible use of force, which can only incur more innocent casualties and escalate the politics of vengeance that motivated the attacks. This unprecedented autumn most Americans have not empathized with the victims of terror, but have fallen on the side of revenge-- a human error that terrorizes people day and night, around the world.
Both terrorism and the War on Terror are self-serving, neo-imperialist enterprises misconstrued as heroic missions. Both are mired in self-righteous, Manichaean 7 rhetoric that muddles religion, nationality, and geography and polarizes peoples: terrorists are evil-doers, and Americans are tyrants; America defends freedom, while bin Laden wages blessed terror to reclaim his holy land.
President Bush assures us that our cause is just and noble. The military campaign in Afghanistan, however, is merely justifiable. He congratulates the American military on liberating the Afghan people from one of the most brutal regimes in history and on the prospect of doing the same for the Iraqis. These humanitarian perks are as incidental to the operations that precipitate them as the collateral damage that malfunctioning bombs and faulty intelligence incur. Unintended casualties accrue while the prosecutors of the War On Terror obfuscate the human tragedy with a self-righteous complacency in their application of democracy.
The Islamic militants are the misguided agents of a rationalized violence. They call mass murder martyrdom, as if suicide could save a soul. They would rather blow up themselves along with countless innocent civilians and groom their children to do the same than to concede that modernity has rendered their vision of a revived Arab-Islamic empire inviable. These are the horrific consequences of a will to power frustrated by post-colonial repression.
Make no mistake: we are not embroiled in a jihad, nor a clash of civilizations, nor a struggle between civilization and terror, but a conflict of interest and a war of retribution. America is struggling to maintain its hold on the volatile and vital Middle East, while the Islamic militants are revolting against its neo-colonial clutches. America is defending the security of its citizens and avenging the atrocities of September 11 acts of reprisal, on the part of the perpetrators, for the oppression Arabs suffer at the hands of Israel and corrupt regimes throughout the region. These motives are neither good nor evil, but charged with more force than their agents can wield responsibly. America has a surfeit of weaponry and dollars; her enemies are armed with desperate populations susceptible to radical militancy. The combatants are, in fact, two sides of an inhumane coin that inflicts terror while undermining compassion by vilifying the enemy. Both operate according to delusions of righteousness that pervert the values they purport to defend. Both conduct their campaigns as if the sanctity of life were contingent upon nationality or religiousaffiliation. Perspectives are skewed; values are applied selectively; terror prevails.
The Islamic ideologues of terrorism would like Muslims to regard Christians and Jews as diametric others, as distinct from them as the sun from the moon. The difference is as deceptive as that between day and night, light and dark. The earth spins continually from one to the other. East and West are only apparent opposites-- conceptual directions that gird the globe, perspectives determined by astronomical orientation. The peoples of the Book agree: the God of Abraham encompasses all. What, then, is to be saved by belligerence? By tampering with time? The subtext of international politics whimpers petty answers: more oil, wounded pride. And what is the cost? Dead, dark afternoons; missed mornings in the spring; human life.
The notion that America is waging a war for civilization is as illusory as that of saving daylight. We are in a battle over the disparate remnants of fallen and deflated empires, rendered hardly recognizable by historical developments since the era of imperialism: two global wars that changed the map of the world, the disappointments that ensued de-colonization, the failure of Arab nationalism, the Islamic resurgence, and globalization. As in the perpetual Israeli-Palestinian catastrophe-- another repercussion of colonialism, it is people and land that suffer the horrific consequences.
In the closing decades of the 20th century Afghanistan was an arena for the Cold War. Now President Bush declares that it is the first theater in our war against terror 9 , the exposition of yet another convulsion in the global clamor for resources and sovereignty that exploded in 1945 and flickers continually after.
A campaign to eradicate international terrorism is a necessary and appropriate response to the attacks of September 11. Vigilance and heightened intelligence are exigent; bombardments are not. The principle of war for peace is as unsound as the practice of coupling imprecise barrages with humanitarian aid, as the notion, espoused by terrorists and their adversaries alike, of killing to save. A scrutiny of international politics, a judicious revision of diplomatic policies, and the implementation of a national energy plan that diminishes dependence on foreign oil, are requisite. This does not mean appeasement, nor a blank, utopian pacifism, but what Hannah Arendt, in her investigation of the origins of totalitarianism, calls comprehension 10: a brave acknowledgment and confrontation of reality, informed by a scrupulous contemplation of history and ensuing phenomena.
Humanity is terrorized by the threat of nuclear, chemical, and biological belligerency and by such practices as ethnic cleansing, suicide bombing, and vengeful politics that combine the limits of retributive justice with the excesses of modern warfare. In his account of world history from 1914 to 1993, Eric Hobsbawm asserts that the greatest cruelties of our century have been the impersonal cruelties of remote decision, of system and routine, especially when they could be justified as regrettable operational necessity.12 The new millennium has inherited 20th-century practices of callous destruction as readily as those of keeping time. Radar and television cannot do justice to terror, nor can relentless military campaigns that decimate civilians while missing the mark.
In his recent State of the Union address President Bush proclaimed that the War on Terror will not end on our watch. How, then? When? Bush is as irresponsible and imprecise with his words as the Pentagon is with its weapons. His designation of Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as an axis of evil elicited the latest chorus of Death to America in Tehran.
-pursuit of weapons of mass destruction
-reductive rhetoric 11 America as scapegoat for worlds problems
(The only commonality among these disparate nations is that they are pursuing weapons of mass destruction. Are only Israel and the United States entitled to such capabilities? They are, indeed, the best-equipped and most liberal employers of arms in the world.)
President Bushs self-righteous, bellicose rhetoric prefigures egregious human error: an escalation of power politics that embroils all who do not comply with Americas geopolitical preeminence. The real subtext to Bushs speech is that offense, not defense, has become Americas strategic posture.13 Preemptive operations, unsolicited regime changes, and sanctions that starve civilians are abuses that thwart international diplomacy, inflict terror on innocent populations, and incite terrorism.
The prosecutors of the War on Terror cannot determine what they have wreaked in Afghanistan. An Air Force team in Riyadh has reviewed several scores of reports of accidental damage incurred since October.14 Donald Rumsfeld blames Taliban propaganda for many of the humanitarian grievances, asserting that the collateral damage is almost impossible to assess due to the inaccessibility of bombed targets.
The Taliban has fallen, Al Qaeda has been mostly routed out of Afghanistan, and Osama bin Ladens whereabouts and vital status remain unknown. Demolished villages teem with unexploded cluster bombs, and the first phase of the War on Terror has dwindled to sporadic attacks on suspected targets. President Bush is galvanizing his constituents for the next confrontation between civilization and barbarism while no one knows exactly what happened in Oruzgan or Zhawar Kili. Rumsfeld concedes that the former may have been a mistake due to false intelligence, while the Pentagon assures the public that the latter was a legitimate target. In both cases the warriors on terror struck in the obscurity of night and let daylight reveal the reckoning. The pre-dawn raid on Oruzgan destroyed a cache of weapons that villagers identified as a storehouse for confiscated arms and left twenty-one dead napping Al Qaeda fighters, or innocent Afghans? Sunriseover Zhawar Kili showed what was left in the wake of the first armed Predator drone: body parts and debris-- the remains of evil-doers or of peasants foraging for scrap metal? Only the fragments can tell whose figures the CIA had seen moving among the rocks and trees on camera and blew to pieces-- hellfire by remote control, lethal surveillance by a fallible instrument 15.
The warriors on terror blunder through the shortest, darkest month, celebrating their victories and dismissing their mistakes, poised for further belligerence. They fail to recognize the resemblance between the aftermath of the latest war in Afghanistan and the deeds of the terrorists they are targeting: bomb craters near Bagram, bare niches in Bamiyan rock; a broken mosque in Herat, the rubble of the Twin Towers.
Soon, America will spring forward, with or without allies, into the next arena of
its War against Terrorism. Time will tell; daylight will be saved. But who can distinguish in the evening, in twilight prolonged by countless synchronized clocks, through the artificial light of destruction paling sun and moon, between day and night, good and evil, civilization and terror? The remnants Arab and Afghan, Palestinian and Israeli, militant and innocent, are the same: human remains.
Eric Schmitt and David Rohde, Raids on Taliban Troops the Heaviest Yet, The New York Times (December 17, 2001).
2 Cullen Murphy, The Gold Standard: the Quest for the Holy Grail of Equivalence, Atlantic Monthly (January 2002, 16-17).
3 According to a research report by Professor Marc Herold.
5 nytimes.com (December 29, 2001).
6 BBC News Online
7 Refers to a gnostic school of philosophy that posits good and evil as distinct substances.
9 In his address to the Cattlemens Beef Association in Denver (February, 2002)
10 Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1973: xiv).
12 Hobsbawm, 50.
13 Michael Hirsh and Roy Gutman, Powells New War, Newsweek (February 11, 2002: 26).
14 Barry Bearak, Uncertain in the Fog of War: Civilian Deaths in Afghanistan, nytimes.com (February 10, 2002).
15 According to Barry Bearak (nytimes.com), Predator drone planes had been used strictly for surveillance until this strike, in which it fired a Hellfire missile on an area where suspected Al-Qaeda fighters had been viewed on camera by CIA officials. Villagers claim that the victims of the attack were peasants looking for scrap metal. The body parts, documents, and weapons that were found afterwards have been sent to the U.S. for examination.