Monday 31 March 2003

“…always already writing about war”

Like a (relatively) few bloggers, I’ve been rendered nearly wordless by the war. When the coalition forces invaded eleven days ago, I decided I’d already written enough about Iraq, wishing only that the war be brought “to a swift conclusion, with the minimum casualties on both sides.” So I wrote about introversion/extroversion and telepathic communication and, oddly, I started photographing compulsively. But, essentially, I felt as though silence was preferable to opinionating.

I spent the first four days of last week in Melbourne, working. Friday I slept a lot. On Saturday, I saw Roman Polanski’s The Pianist in the morning and did my monthly accounts in the afternoon. Instead of writing all day Sunday, as I’d planned, I did a truly stupid thing: morbidly curious about what was likely to happen once the coalition forces entered Baghdad, I went to the local bookstore, bought a copy of Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down, and spent much of the day reading. It wasn’t until Sunday evening that, catching up on some of my favorite blogs, I came across a wonderful entry of Steve Himmer’s that gently nudged me back on course:

Like I said, I’d like to write about all that, but I’m having a hard time finding the words. As you may have noticed, I’ve been a lot more comfortable relying on the words of other people this week, words that have already been written or spoken in other, less immediate contexts and now, removed from their origins by the hindsight of interpretation, can by adjusted and maneuvered to say some of the things I’ve been struggling so hard to say for myself.

It’s a balancing act of sorts: Do I write about the war? Do I write about myself? Which is a better testament to living in these times? And all the while the answer is pretty obvious, really: no matter what any of us writes in these times, we are always already writing about war. I heard the point made last night that the novels of Jane Austen are very much of their time, full of markers of the immediacy of politics and warfare in the way that good men are literally hard to find, wiped out in the Napoleonic Wars, and that without resorting to the crutches of popculture markers and disposable references Austen presented a realistic image of the lived experience of her political moment. She, too, was always already writing about war.

Which gives me, I suppose, the freedom to engage whatever topics I want to, but unfortunately doesn’t encourage those topics to present themselves—I’m left only with the half-convinced sense that it’s okay to stop thinking about war for a minute, but no closer to actually being able to do so.

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the war, either, though I tried to stop writing about it. And, since the war is the only topic that presents itself, I’m left with the choice of the war or catatonia (as in immobility and stupor). I’ve been planning for a couple of months now to alter the focus of my weblog. The shift is already well underway within me, though probably not so apparent from the outside. So, I’ll write about this war—and other wars—since, after all, I started blogging out of a failed desire to write about the war against Japan. Yet, as Steve Himmer taught me, “no matter what any of us writes in these times, we are always already writing about war.”

“What happens after [the war is brought to its ‘swift conclusion’],” I wrote in my earlier entry, “is anybody’s guess but one thing is certain: it won’t even vaguely resemble the outcome planned by Bush & Co.” I was thinking not so much about the military campaign, but rather of its aftermath. My ideas weren’t fully formulated but I knew one thing at least: the Bush administration’s goal of establishing a “model democracy” in Iraq—à la post-war Japan—was laughably unrealistic.

Last night on the late news, I saw an interview with Professor Des Ball, Australia’s leading defence and intelligence analyst. Regardless of the successful military outcome, he said, which would result in the capture or death of Saddam Hussein, the United States and its allies had likely already lost the political war in Iraq.

In this story by Sharon Mathieson, he argues that “instead of putting an end to terrorism, coalition forces will have effectively strengthened al-Qaeda and other terrorist networks by the end of the war,” thus diminishing the security of the US, Australia, and other allies.

Professor Ball made a number of other points which suggest that, although Saddam and his regime will go, the coalition’s other war aims are in tatters:

  • It was unlikely that coalition forces would find any substantial quantities of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq of the type that might persuade world public opinion that their removal was worth the price.
  • The use of chemical weapons to defend Baghdad will be seen around the world as a legitimate means of defence against the onslaught of coalition bombing and missile attacks.
  • Coalition forces would fail to produce persuasive evidence of links between the Iraqi regime and the al-Qaeda terrorist network, which will be strengthened in Iraq and around the world.

He summarized his argument in these terms:

“The coalition faces defeat in the sense that it’s likely to emerge from this war with its global interests more threatened, its strategic standing in the world more challenged and its security, the security of the United States and its allies, ultimately diminished.

“It would take a brave person to argue that the security of the world is going to end up being enhanced by this war.”

The success or failure of the military campaign is now largely irrelevant. A coalition “victory” is merely the end of the beginning. After that, it will take perhaps a half a million troops to occupy Iraq and defend its fledgling “democracy” against a new intifada that will make the last twenty years in Lebanon, Palestine, and Israel look mild by comparison. A coalition defeat—as in a negotiated withdrawal that leaves Saddam or his minions intact—will, as Dave Rogers suggests, “only guarantee far more death and destruction in the years to come.”

Dave adds: “I just hope we’re up to this challenge. With the right leadership, I’m sure we could be. I’m not at all confident we have the right leadership.”

We don’t have the right leadership. To put it bluntly, we’re fucked.

Unless the anti-war/peace movement can come up with something more sophisticated and useful than red-daubed faces, drumming, banal chants, puerile street theater, trite placards, histrionics, self-indulgent moralizing, and wishful thinking.

[Mark Pilgrim has gone to some considerable effort in assembling a comprehensive list of peaceblogging links. I have some reading to do.]

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Jonathon, don't. Do not mock the peace effort when before this battle started, we were starting to make a dent, the tiniest one, in the facade of 'world support' for this thing people want to call a war. If others had joined in. If millions had marched where thousands walked, if those who couldn't, or wouldn't, had voiced their concerns, we may actually not be in Iraq now. Jonathon, we tried to stop that which you now deplore. We saw this. We always saw this. At least we tried.

Posted by Burningbird on 1 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

In the UK, a million people DID march. It didn't stop anything, or even slow things down. Why is beyond me.

Posted by Simon Willison on 1 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

In the UK, a million people DID march. It didn't stop anything, or even slow things down. Why is beyond me.

Posted by Simon Willison on 1 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Some of the stuff I have read suggests that while protests are indeed useless to prevent a war, they *can* shorten it.

I still have hope for that. A little.

Posted by Dorothea Salo on 1 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Simon, you're seeing this as all or nothing -- we didn't stop the war completely, we failed, therefore we have no power. As Jonathon said, this is only the beginning.

Posted by Burningbird on 1 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I would just like to clarify that my list was in no way meant to be comprehensive. Clicking through to any of those sites will give you dozens more to choose from, and so forth from there.

Posted by Mark on 1 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

When 50 people die in the market in West Baghdad, and CNN USA or any of the other US news organizations consider it less newsworthy than a bomb in a Kuwaiti mall, we've already lost the battle because no matter how loud we speak, they wont hear us. It dosent matter whether we bombed them or Saddam bombed his own people, the emssage we've sent is we dont care, we're gonna fuck you over.

This despite all of us being opposed to this fucking over. But who is hearing? We can protest all we like, but until we strategize how to get heard by or take control of the media, no one will hear.

Eric Alterman's "What Liberal Media" is a good proof of where we are and how we got this way.

Posted by Rahul Dave on 1 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I do a lot of self-indulgent moralizing and wishful thinking. Itís all a fumbling and perhaps ineffective. But I have to hope that it pushes against something. Weakens it. And maybe, ultimately causes it to collapse.

I listened to a nineteen year old boy talk about his opposition to the war and his experience of being in a protest. And he wasnít very articulate. But he was learning. And he is forming. And he will keep pushing.

And so will I.

Posted by Tish on 1 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I won't say that the peace protests are ineffective and, as it was so elequently put, that they're "fucked" but I don't believe they are as effective as some people may believe. Yes, for a short time they got the anti-war message out but then it started to turn. Where before we were seeing peaceful protests against the war in various countries around the world, the news also started showing "pro-peace" protests that were anything but. That doesn't help to get the message of global peace out, and it never will. It just makes pro-war people (like myself) even more hard lined against it.

Also, I've tried to understand the pro-peace iniatives. I've talked to those who believe in it, asked their reasons and what they think should be done. Too many don't have an idea of what they are really supporting or what they want done, they're doing it because it's something cool, or they feel they should. You can't draw more people to your line with empty phrases and words. The polls in America and England are showing that, more and more people are showing support for the war effort. Or atleast, thats the general trend in England, my facts could be off about America's support.

Also too many protesters figured that it would be enough just to step out and, well, bitch at the TV cameras. Celebrate their 10 mins of fame and then move on, secure in the fact that they "did" something. I'm sorry, those rallies look great on national TV but they don't get the congressmen, or the senators, or even the president to think twice. These people are secure in THEIR ideals and vote based upon what THEY feel, as sad as it is. You want to make a difference? Flood them with your ideas and information. Don't be content with just sitting on the ground naked, chained to a fence.

As much as I don't agree with the peace protests and what not, its a right I'm glad we have and I'd fight WITH you to keep it. I just think the means that have been done and the thoughts behind it are not as "pure" as the ones many pro-war people follow either. Frankly, we all got alot to change.

Posted by Chris on 1 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I suspect we're programmed to receive moralizing rhetoric as shrill, self-righteous, and not particularly convincing because of the problemmatic effects of receiving it in any other way -- we have an acquired social instinct for knowing that when people talk in a certain way, it's going to be bad news for us (hitting at our ability to engage the world in the way we want), so we've learned to tune out. For the most part, _moral_ rhetoric is perceived as _moralistic_ rhetoric -- merely to raise the issue is to undercut one's credibility as a speaker, so that moral criticisms cannot be made in a way that others find psychologically relevant or engaging. It's one of the frustrating parts of rhetoric -- that there is no "right" way to raise certain issues, because people are pretty effectively insulated psychologically from the beginning, more likely to interpret certain opinions/rhetorics as originating in the dysfunction of the speaker rather than the truth/falsity of their opinions.

I suspect this is true, or would become true, of any genre protest movements fastened upon in order to oppose war. That it's not a matter of certain rhetorics being histrionic, puerile, maudlin, self-righteous, or moralistic, but of people being trained to filter out moral discourse as such.

What do you do about that? Hope against hope that something, somehow, will get through. That the Spirit still breathes "peace on earth, good will towards men" in our hearts in some way we cannot entirely suppress or ignore.

Make noise. Don't blame yourself for the dysfunction (rhetorical or social) people project on you because of what you say. Keep on saying what you have to say.

Posted by PJ Johnston on 1 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

It's hard to know exactly what to write. This war crowds out nearly every other thought, especially those precious few that weren't merely the product of ego-centric habituated thinking.

Right now, those are about the only ones that come to mind, so I'm just trying to read some things and to be still a bit. With limited success. We're all a bit trapped in our perceptions and our habituated thinking.

Look, the anti-war protests didn't stop the war. The war is on. Sorry, nice try. You get points for effort, you were all good people, but it's time to do something else. It seems to me that those who opposed this war might now turn their thinking to what the best way is to end it, and not commit the same mistakes, albeit from a different point of view, that started it in the first place.

Those mistakes included focusing on habituated thinking, limited perceptions and a failure of imagination. This is what made the war possible.

The neo-cons who drove this agenda won the debate because they were better organized, and because they enjoyed the advantage of being nearer the seat of authority (not "power").

The anti-war movement needs to break out of its own habituated thinking and limited perception. What is the "best" way to end this war? What is the "best" peace? I submit that the first answer an anti-war person will offer is almost certainly not the "best" peace.

Circumstances change, actions must change to accommodate new circumstances. The anti-war movement is not changing its actions.

It needs to identify some authorities it can get close to, world leaders in those countries who opposed the war, and leaders within the U.S. government who opposed the war. It needs to begin shaping the debate of what the peace will look like, what will the U.S. and the rest of the world do in the wake of the war in Iraq and in the rest of the Moslem world. It needs to begin stating what it is _for_, as constrasted with what the Bush administration is going to offer.

Lots of people are dying. To me, almost worse than the deaths, are the emotional wounds inflicted on those who survive. We can make it mean something, or we can leave it a meaningless spasm of fear and ignorance. But that means we have to give up some of our preferred notions of how we respond to events like this.

Call off the street protests, they simply distract from the debate and actually play to the strengths of those you oppose. Raise money. Organize. Find smart people who can articulate a vision for Iraq, preferably smart people _from_ Iraq and other middle east contries. Find someone like Tony Blair, hell, conscript Tony Blair - that might even be better, to lead the debate for actually delivering on this promise of a free and democratic Iraq.

Don't worry about whether or not the U.S. is properly chastised or pilloried or otherwise punished for this, that won't help anything. Whatever anyone thinks, the U.S. is going to have to be heavily committed to this to make it work. Administrations come and administrations go, but popular support from the American people is going to be necessary if this thing is going to work. Alienating them serves no one.

I'm so sick of reading about how technology changes things. There is no technology that can change a person's mind. If we want the suffering to have been _for_ something, we'd better get busy thinking about what that something is and how we're going to help the Iraqi people realize it. If we don't do that, then what the Iraqi people will end up with will almost certainly be far less that what it could have been, and probably nowhere near worth what it cost.

Posted by dave rogers on 1 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Dave, exactly how to do we organize or get the word out about organization without protest -- through osmosis? I'm sorry but what I'm seeing from you is a great deal of acceptance of the status quo.

More at my weblog.

Posted by Burningbird on 1 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Imv (in my view-of-the-universes), Steve pretty much NAILED it, in

I commented at length (relatively short, fer me...;-). One point I didn't make is that I am NOT mocking the "so-called-peace" effort, or even saying it's not effective... It is VERY effective, as it effects the morale of those fighting and dying in the conflict very deeply. Unfortunately, the "peace" protests undermine the morale of US/Allied soldiers, and boosts the morale of the Fedeyeen and Republican Guard... So sorry that this is the case, and this is the case, but I do NOT view this as unpatriotic... Just that these are NOT a-TALL protests over massive casualties like We saw in Viet Nam over a period of many years. These are the protests of sore losers who were disempowered by the Electoral College and Ralph Nader's voters and non-voters. This is largely about the election of 2000.

It's NOT about one group being in favor of US/Allied soldiers getting killed, and another group in favor of babies getting killed. This is a difference of opinion on when/if 4 million Americans are gonna die, in the future, with 2 million of these civilians being children.

Since NOBODY knows the future, there is a difference of opinion on how to best deal with this situation... Yet I don't see the inescapable confusion as a cause for despair, however.

I "hear" a vew lone voices that are getting shouted down by people, throughout Western Civilization, who are in favor of fighting each other rather than fighting the tough fight against the twin-headed evils of injustice and intolerance.

This, to me, here are some-a the soundest views of the situation:

I find one-a the best views of the current situation presented here:

But Ymmv (Your milage may vary), as would Your choices for soundest discussion.

Posted by jt on 1 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

We have not lost until we stop caring.

The only reason to give up now is if you sincerely believe everything will be fine once the US conquers Iraq.

If you believe that the Muslim backlash will not cause a rise in terrorism.

If you believe that the conflict and tensions in the Islamic world will not further destabilize WMD-enabled Pakistan.

If you believe that a US-led Iraq will not end up in an armed conflict with Iran.

If you believe that Syria and Lebanon will be safe from Israel in a world where the US has legitimised pre-emptive strike.

I am personally not only protesting the loss of civilian lives in Iraq but also the concept of a global, ruthless and bloody "Pax Americana".

If we do not make sure that this war has a high political price for Blair and Bush then I'm personally convinced that there will be another war before Bush's term ends.

Relations between Iraq and Iran are tense to begin with, future-Iraq being viewed in the Muslim world as a US puppet-state almost guarantees some sort of conflict. Iran is the next nation in Bush's 'Axis of Evil' after all.

We protest not only to shorten this war, but also to show that while they may have gotten away with starting this war, they will not get away with starting the next one in the same way.

And they will try to start another one.

Posted by Baldur Bjarnason on 1 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I do not find myself in agreement with much-a anything You wrote, in this case, Baldur.. sorry...

Nobody has stopped caring.

The US is not conquering Iraq. Can You point to an example in the 20th century where the US kept territory it conquered in war...?

I'd say there was a fair rise in extremist-non-Muslim terrorism already before this war.

It is possible what You say about WMD can happen in Pakistan, as well is in America where the stuff is probably ALREADY on the way, if not here.

I'm glad Your crystal ball is so clear. Mine says the PEOPLE of Iran will decide the issue with little intervention on the part of the US... You know better, presumably, and I hafta admit I haven't read much-a the Iran press since the war in Afghanistan.

Your bloody "Pax Americana" lives only in Your own bloody mind. It's a straw man, but fight on if You will.

I would imagine there will be a possibility of another war during Bush's term. You think the terrorist organization that bombed the WTC are impotent...??? Not hardly. Btw, how many of You understand that President Bush puts His LIFE on the line every day. Goes with the territory, Him being the most powerful person on the planet. You think Hussein's the only person with a price on His head...??? Well guess again. How many of You are seriously prepared to trade places with the President...?!?!?

Well, are You an American, Baldur...??? Then how do YOU know that Iraq will be a US puppet...? (You don't, but You imagine it that way. Jes hope You aren't one to imagine that the British are just puppets of the US, too.)


And Your protest, how does that protect the people of New York City and Washington DC (and all other large cities in the US) from the next attack...??? I guess I'm not understanding that part, but I take You're "caring" just doesn't extend very far towards the PEOPLE that live in America.

Yes, there is a likelihood they will start another one, all right.

Posted by jt on 1 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I'm not sure it's relatively few bloggers "rendered nearly wordless by the war."; I think it's many, many. I have a distinct sense that, for the most part, posts are coming slower, less frequently. At least until now. Perhaps now people are starting to find words.

From my simplistic viewpoint, I think we're on the cusp of a new age where governments won't get to control and lie and manipulate as they do. I think it's too early this time around, but the signs are there. So, last night I wrote in my humble blog:

"I have a question: how do we mobilise the people to ensure that never, ever again do we allow a bunch of old men, with a pathetically unrealistic ideology and expectations, to commit millions of people to a dirty, horrible, sick-making, hate-generating, divisive, so-called war for reasons none of us can adequately understand?"

Where I was coming from is that I think there'll be a time when we can route around governments; not allow them to commit us to endeavours that are not in our interests. So, what are the mechanics of that? It sure ain't the 20 pathetic protestors I saw outside the defence building in Melbourne yesterday, sitting silently, watched by twice as many bored police.

Posted by Andrew on 1 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour