May 12, 2004

The Atrocity Exhibition



"War strips us of the later accretions of civilization and lays bare the primal man in each of us. It compels us once more to be heroes who cannot believe in their own death; it stamps strangers as enemies, whose death is to be brought about or desired; it tells us to disregard the death of those we love."
- Freud

I'm not going to make a habit of this, I promise ---- but here's a political post ----

Perhaps the most amazing aspect of the latest events in Iraq is that they reveal the extent to which American incursion has actually undermined US interests. Now this is surprising, since Leftist criticism of the Iraq war has assumed that the war was prosecuted to pursue American self-interest rather than out of some high minded ethical principle. The neo-conservative defence of the war has not disagreed; it has simply maintained that American interests are coincident with the best interests of humanity. Using a version of 'invisible hand' logic, neo-cons have argued that, in protecting their own interests, the Americans will produce a better world for everyone. Apologists for neo-con nutters like Wolfowitz like to present them as post-ideological pragmatists, single-minded in their protection of American interests.

But who really imagines that America and Americans are safer now than in the time before the war? Far from coolly driving through a program that will secure US interests, the American strategy in Iraq seems to have been guided by a strange death drive: an almost systematic will to make things worse for themselves. The Americans have now succeeded in transforming a secular state into a seething hotbed of Islamist extremism. On the Arab 'street', the abuse scandal has confirmed the lowest and most hyperbolically negative view of the decadance and barbarism of Western society. None of the lessons that the British learned in Kenya or Northern Ireland - that interning actually feeds local militicancy - have been heeded. And a correspondent in today's Independent speculates that the inevitable and ignominious departure of America from Iraq could presage not only a civil war in that country which will destabilise the entire region, but which could effectively end the States' influence on the Middle East.

Only a death drive could account for the American actions in setting up an interrogation centre in Saddam's former headquarters of torture: an act of such stupefying guilelessness and stupidity that it beggars belief. As someone observed: would the Americans in postwar Germany have set up a Nazi interrogation unit in Auschwitz? The symbolic power of the Americans installing themselves in the of Saddam's regime need hardly be underlined.

Oh, and I've just clocked onto this baffling media euphemism, 'contractor'. I'd previously naively imagined that 'contractor' meant a builder or something, when of course it means 'mercenary'.

"'In terms of television and the news magazines the war in Vietnam has a latent significance very different from its manifest content. Far from repelling us, it appeals to us by virtue of its complex of polyperverse acts." - Ballard.

Posted by mark at May 12, 2004 07:35 PM | TrackBack

Well, to be fair, most leftists, or at least any who still adhere
to the Leninist analysis of imperialism, do not imagine that
imperialism benefits the imperialist country per se -- though it
*can*, sometimes. Rather, it benefits certain interest groups within
that nation -- not even any class as a whole, but perhaps at most
certain hegemonic groups within the ruling class. Most Americans
may suffer from present policy; but it is reasonable to assume, at
least, that some Americans will profit greatly. This may perhaps
be only a very small number of Americans; but if that small number
hold the power...

Was it in the interest of the Roman Republic per se to sponsor
imperialism? Arguably not, since it was its sponsorship of the
imperialism of Julius Caesar that led directly to its destruction
(yes of course there were other factors, but the immediate cause
was Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon et seq, which he was only
able to do because of the loot he had amassed with enabled him to
buy the loyalty of his soldiers; and that loot he had only been
able to amass because the Republic paid for "his" (its, really)
army to invade Gaul in the first place).

That's obvious to us now; but how obvious was it to them then?
Maybe it's like that for the US, and by extension the rest of
us, now. It's as though we are living in a Punch and Judy show,
with our audience in the future desperately shouting "look behind
you!"; but of course, we can't hear them yet.

Posted by: The Shamrockshire Eagle, editor and sole proprietor of at May 12, 2004 08:54 PM

I accept the distinction that you're drawing, but I'm not sure that it's relevant in the case of US policy in Iraq. It's not clear that it has benefitted anyone in the US, including the power elite. The anticipated economic benefits look increasingly difficult to reap in so destabilized a situation. And it's hardly the case that the US administration is currently benefitting from the Iraq misadventure politically. So just who is benefitting?

Posted by: mark k-punk at May 12, 2004 09:07 PM

for the moment, i suppose Mr Chalabi seems to be one of the beneficiaries.
fine post btw.
not sure how secular the old regime was. the last para' of this Hitchens piece is interesting reading, anyway, in light of debate 'bout that one:

Posted by: scott at May 12, 2004 09:41 PM

Hmmm.... Hitchens is actually somewhat inconsistent here: he says 'If you can imagine a Hitler-Stalin pact (which, admittedly, a lot of American leftists still cannot), you can probably imagine collusion between discrepant factions with common interests.' But also seems to want to argue that the factions were NOT discrepant. It's clear that the Saddam regime was cynically prepared to use Islamic rhetoric - that doesn't make it Muslim. I don't doubt that Saddam was prepared to make common cause with Islamists if it suited his own purposes. But the idea that he would positively support the spread of militant Islamism through Iraq; that's more than a little implausible, donchathink?

Posted by: mark k-punk at May 12, 2004 09:59 PM

oh yes, of course (that was for spreading in Israel, and such); to be fair to ol' Hitch, i've not read that into his article there myself, as on this point he only seems to want to make hay himself with that was so "secular" that it not only did not collaborate, but axiomatically could not have collaborated with Islamists line.

Hitchens is often gloriously inconsistent (aren't we all, but of course it matters w' the subjects he's discussing), but no fear; the factor of - as you acknowledge yrself - Saddam making common cause with Islamists kinda exonerates him on the inconsistent charge (in his ballsy pragmatic way, that is).

i take him as arguing they were merely not so discrepant in the sense of a few shared interests, which is admittedly v. cynical, v. redactive, and all that, but this is Christopher Hitchens, and he's been a bit of a street-brawler of late.
have you seen the article on Eagleton's latest in the new NYRB? interesting. want the link, if not?

Posted by: scott at May 12, 2004 10:09 PM

on 2nd thought, "of late" is somewhat generous...

Posted by: scott at May 12, 2004 10:10 PM

of course, on 3rd thought, Hitch succeeds - to be fair to him - in proving what he sets out to do here (that 'liberals who don't believe' schtick re. Ba'athist and exremist Islamist collusion), and - you could say - let us give him his dues, and leave it at that.

no more, no less.

however, as i know you're aware, pretty much many things he's filed of late in this topic area can be read (intentionally on the author's part, or otherwise) as giving succour to the American Enterprise Institute.
which is obv. not cool.
unless he has a combined dictionary/encyclopaedia for a spellchecker on his shelves, and the year Noam stopped sending him Christmas cards, he went to the 'Chomsky' entry and tore out all the 'C' pages in disgust, only in his haste 'D' went for a burton too ("discrepant").

Posted by: scott at May 12, 2004 10:24 PM

FWIW, this leftist disagreed with the war on those terms, but you have a point--a lot of times I felt that was the disagreement I had with the mainstream anti-war movement, that they didn't seem to be couching this in the most convincing terms. I think it's been clear for a while, certainly since before the war, that the plan as it was presented de facto and de jure would be horrible for American interests and Americans--our soldiers would be dying, our military would be stretched thin, the more urgent task of helping Afghanistan would fall by the wayside, actual terrorists states would go ignored, etc. The neo-cons' case was that invading Iraq would basically "make an example" of Sadaam and cause a collective pants-crapping, which would be useful if the situation wasn't so clearly going to be a terrorist's wet dream, not to mention the fact that the defining aspect of modern terrorism is that it isn't statist. The neo-cons basically thought magic would happen, which is apparently why they didn't plan for the blindingly obvious negative consequences of invading. It's been an utter failure and WE KNEW IT WAS GOING TO HAPPEN. I'm just blindingly pissed off, because not only did we fuck up in the first place, it looks like we're not going to be able to make it much better, and being a globalization kinda leftist, I'd really love to see the Middle East become more free and more equal and all those good things. I don't want the US to pull out just because we shouldn't have been there in the first place, but I don't see how we can do much good at this point, and I'm real worried that we're going to feel compelled to stay for "honor" and all that bullcrap. Moral righteousness is a horrible basis for foreign policy, and we could have done a lot more ultimate good, both for America and for the rest of the world, with more subtle techniques.

Posted by: Eppy at May 13, 2004 05:23 PM

yeah for an academic sounding place name there seems to be a lot of flies flapping around btwn the walls of the AEI...

Posted by: scott at May 13, 2004 05:31 PM

Scott: if you're around that eagleton link would be much appreciated. I can only find a pay per view one..cheers

Posted by: sean at May 17, 2004 03:27 PM