Matt Russell: The Face of Empire
The Face of Empire
By Matt Russell
Demokos: Tell us before you go, Hecuba, what is it you think empire looks like.
Hebuca: Like the bottom of a baboon. When the baboon is up in a tree, with its hind end facing us, there is the face of empire exactly; scarlet, scaly, glazed and framed with a clotted filthy wig.
Demokos: So empire has two faces: this you describe, and Helen’s.
- Jean Giraudoux, The Trojan War Will Not Take Place.
One thing we can learn about America from the November elections – the gullibility of U.S voters is in perfect balance with the genius of their marketers. This was less a victory for the Republicans than a reflection of the glaring bankruptcy of the Democrats however, the convergence of left and right now so intimate, and the subversion of democracy now so complete that Kerry failed to distinguish himself from Bush on a single major issue – and therefore offered no alternatives. In the land of the Pepsi-Coke wars, the Marlboro-Man, and the happy ending, image and brand-association reign supreme. Kerry’s pussyfooting, ham-liberal intellectualism was no match for Bush, the cowboy with his own personal stairway to heaven, the simple man who follows his “gut instincts” and strides forward heroically to “rid the world of evildoers”.
But as the neo-cons clear the deck of even the most minute foreign policy dissent and prepare to intensify the murderous assault on the Iraqi people in preparation for the formal installation of a client government come the January elections, it is difficult not to feel most keenly the fear, anger and inconceivable suffering of the Iraqi people – the unseen victims of the American will-to-power.
The first 21 months of Operation Iraqi Freedom have been nothing less than a horror-story, and following the logic of any colonial invasion, violence has been focused directly on the prime enemy of empire: ordinary civilians. The euphemism “shock and awe” was coined by ‘defence intellectuals’ within the Bush administration. As a terror tactic however – the idea being to shatter your adversary’s will to resist through a massive display of barbarity – it is nothing new. Genghis Khan used it to great effect during his invasion of China in 1213. His own version was to slaughter the entire population of cities that opposed him, while merely enslaving those cities that were sufficiently ‘awed’ to capitulate peacefully. The problem with this particular strategy is that most often it serves to inspire resistance rather than break it, as the Pentagon is now realising. As with Bush however, Genghis was a man who found a plan and stuck to it. Before the Mongol invasion, China had a population of about 100 million inhabitants. After complete conquest in 1279 a census showed it be roughly 60 million.
During the March bombing 240 000 cluster bombs were dropped on Iraq, Baghdad hammered with approximately 1000 cruise missiles in the first two days of bombing alone. Civilian infrastructure was targeted as a matter of strategy; bridges, power stations, sewerage treatment plants, water purification facilities and telephone exchanges were all reduced to smouldering rubble, with predictably devastating consequences for the civilian population. Over 10 000 Iraqis were killed during the initial phase, another 8000 wounded just in Baghdad.
The ground campaign was equally virulent. One example from many is the infamous battle along Highway One on the Western Bank of the Tigris where Saddam’s conscripts fought off an American tank column for 36 hours, the U.S tanks spraying shellfire down the motorway until every vehicle, civilian and military, was a blackened lump of metal. Robert Fisk, an independent correspondent described the scene. “I walked the highway as the last shots were being fired, peering into cars filled with the blackened corpses of men, women and children. Carpets and blankets had been thrown over several piles of the dead. In the back of one car lay a young, naked woman, her perfect features blackened by fire, her husband or father still sitting at the steering wheel, his legs severed below the knees. It was a massacre.”
Human Rights Watch recently described the occupying forces as “out of control and rapacious”. U.S. military officials have openly admitted to taking inspiration from Israeli urban warfare tactics, bombing and bulldozing whole communities in collective punishment for housing guerrillas, and even encasing entire towns in barbed wire – a practise associated with the Nazi SS and Wechrmacht, and explicitly defined as a war crime under the post-war Geneva Convention.
‘Shock and awe’ is the rationale of empire, a message both to Iraqis as well as other recalcitrant powers in the Middle East – and indeed, to the whole world. This is imperial communication: let them be as angry as they want, as long as they know who is the meanest, toughest son-of-a-bitch on the global block.
The same basic logic was clearly demonstrated during the three-week long siege on Fallujah, a city containing some 100 000 non-combatants at the beginning of bombardment. The crime of Fallujah – a pious Muslim community that has a history of resistance under Saddam’s regime – was its refusal to recognise the authority of Allawi’s puppet interim government, and upholding Iraqi’s moral and legal right to defend themselves against colonisation.
The city was razed in order to “teach a lesson” to the Iraqis and anyone else who dare to resist America’s historical mission. As retired Marine Col. Gary Anderson told the Wall Street Journal, “This is primarily a political battle. Fallujah has little to no military significance. But every day the insurgents hold that city is a political and psychological victory for them.” In other words, what is being carried out in Fallujah is a policy of collective punishment, of exemplary terrorism. The existence of Fallujah symbolised defiance, and was obliterated accordingly.
Of course, the battle was always obscenely one-sided, Iraqi fighters, armed with nothing more than AK-47’s and Rocket Propelled Grenades were pitted against the most sophisticated and devastating technology of modern warfare. To dislodge just one Iraqi sniper holding up U.S marines, an embedded New York Times journalist reported that a three story complex was targeted with two 500-pound bombs, 35 155mm artillery shells from Abram tanks and some 30 000 rounds from machine guns and small arms. The building, the journalist noted, was left a “smoking ruin”.
The U.S troops were worked into what can only be described as a psychopathic blood lust in preparation for the assault, a culture of ‘revenge-mentality’ purposefully incubated. The officer class well understand that they are not fighting against evil theocratic terrorists, foreign mujahideen and Al Qaeda operatives, but that the vast majority of the Iraqi resistance are simply patriotic civilians defending their homeland – the perpetuation of such illusions is deliberate and strategically motivated. The typical G.I. bluntness of some American soldiers in Fallujah resonates chillingly with Stanley Kubrick’s vivid representation of the processes of dehumanisation systemic to the American military (and for that matter, any military) in his film Full Metal Jacket. One young sniper was quoted in The New York Times, “I got me 5 of them with my night vision in a building. It was just like a video game.” Another marine summed up the assault, “Got my kills, love my job.”
In further violation of Geneva regulations, U.S forces cut off water and power supplies weeks before laying siege, ruinous for a community that’s existence depends entirely on artificial irrigation. They prevented all ‘military-age males’ between 15-55 from exiting the city, leaving non-combatants little choice but to stay and fight for their lives. They bombed two hospitals, and occupied the only remaining medical facility for military use. In the second week of attack Abbas Ali, a doctor in the city, told Al Jazeerah “I’m one of the few medical cadres that survived last Monday from the massacre. We are in a very tragic situation. Hundreds of dead bodies are spread in the streets. Even the injured are still there. We cannot transfer them. We cannot do anything to save them.” Further demonstrating that the target of the siege was not just the resistance, but all those who live in Fallujah, U.S forces then refused the Iraqi Red Crescent entrance into the city to distribute desperately needed medical aid.
A recent announcement in the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet estimates that 100 000 Iraqis have been killed since the initial invasion, eighty-four percent of these deaths caused by the actions of the Americans and the British. Latest conservative estimates of the slaughtering in Fallujah will add an extra 1000 dead to the Iraqi body count. It is speculated that, in Fallujah alone two thirds of this number would have been non-combatants, in keeping with the kill ratio since the start of the war. Perhaps the greatest tragedy here is that, due to the truly artful suppression of information maintained by imperial authorities in Iraq, we will have to wait months, if not years to know the real story of what went on in Fallujah. Left to our imagination is the terror of children hiding from artillery fire behind mud walls, the horror of those crushed to death under collapsing masonry, the sheer pointless agony of a child who’s shredded arm is amputated with a dirty scalpel and a blunting bone-saw, without anaesthetic, who later dies of shock, alone.
Last week Bush and Blair hailed Fallujah as showing the determination of the U.S and Britain to “help Iraqis achieve their liberty and to defend the security of the world”. November’s Democratic presidential hopeful hadn’t a word to say.
Naturally, these actions are all defined as war crimes under international law – Geneva Protocol was formulated to protect civilians when states wage war with one-and-other. As liberal commentators are so loath to realise, to chastise the American military for targeting civilians is about as intelligent as criticising a dog for licking its balls.
One would think the Chiefs of Staff have studied the Mongolian campaigns in detail; after all, military historians generally credit Genghis Khan with first inventing ‘scorched-earth’ warfare and terrorism as military strategy. The comparison is accurate, the U.S military and the Mongolian hordes have the same imperial functionality: to ravage, kill and conquer with maximum efficiency, which means maximum brutality. Genghis even invented a mandate from heaven promulgating his own destiny to put the world under the Mongolian knife, which reads almost identically to Manifest Destiny. History grinds on, civilisations rise and fall – but the logic of empire remains unchanged.
Of course, if the peons of imperialism – the soldiers who do the physical killing – are going to be good at their job, if they are to accept this kind of barbarism as normalcy, then they must be indoctrinated thoroughly, stripped of any capacity for independent thought, and made to feel subjectively blameless for their crimes. Here, racism has always been the biggest asset of empire.
In Kenya in the 1950’s, the British slaughtered and estimated 10 000 Kenyans and ran concentration camps where conditions were so harsh that 402 inmates died in just one month. Torture, flogging and abuse of women and children was endemic. Imperial historian V.G Kiernan wrote of these prisons as being “as bad as any similar Nazi or Japanese establishment”. None of this was reported at the time, newspapers frothing in similar tones about the “Mau Mau Terror” – “demonic” black against white.
In Vietnam Americans regarded the Vietnamese as “human lice” to be exterminated in industrial quantities during the decade long war of attrition termed ‘Operation Meat Grinder’ – the object being, in the words of Gen. William Westmoreland, to decimate the Vietnamese population “to the point of national disaster for generations to come”. When asked to comment on the suffering of the Vietnamese civilians, Westmoreland replied, “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as a Westerner”.
In 1968, Col. George S. Patton sent out Christmas cards of dismembered Vietnamese National Liberation Front soldiers stacked neatly in a pile, inscribed with the words “From Colonel and Mrs George S. Patton—Peace on Earth”.
After the My Lai massacre in 1968 when the army’s Charlie Company murdered 347 unarmed men, women, children and infants, some members of the Company were psychologically evaluated during the internal whitewash in 1971. An Army phycologist concluded that the massacre was only allowed to occur because “the men did not feel as if they were killing humans, but rather they were animals with whom one could not speak or reason”.
Racism functions to deny human victims their humanity, the Vietnamese were ‘slopes’, dinks’, ‘slits’ and ‘gooks’ just as today the Iraqi’s are ‘towel-heads’, ‘rag-heads’ ‘terrorists’ and ‘sand-niggers’. A senior British officer was quoted by John Pilger last week stating that the Americans view Iraqi’s as Untermenschen, a term that Hitler used in Mien Kampf to describe Jews, Romanies and Slavs as sub-human. Indeed, there is an obscene parallel between Operation Barbarossa and Operation Iraqi Freedom – the fashion in which the Nazi Army laid waste to Soviet towns and cities, butchering combatants and non-combatants alike.
Put in this context, those lurid pictures of exultant Americans laughing as they degrade Iraqi captives at Abu Ghariab, the revelations of Iraqi’s beaten to death in British custody and the images of British soldiers urinating on the faces of prisoners quickly lose their novelty value. Those American soldiers in Saddam’s old torture dungeons at Abu Ghraib, those young British squaddies in Basra came from towns and cities where the imperial culture of race hatred has its roots.
Leaked Pentagon documents make it clear torture is widespread in Iraq, Amnesty International describes it as “systemic”, and the briefest glance at the history of U.S colonialism proves that torture is as American as God and apple-pie. Since its inception the CIA has taken a keen interest in torture, ardently studying Nazi techniques and protecting their exponents such as Klaus Barbie. In his book Whiteout, drawing from declassified government documents; Jeffery St. Clair recounts how in 1968 the CIA became frustrated with the ineffectiveness of usual methods of torture and interrogation used against Vietnamese prisoners. As he writes, “The agency had begun more advanced experiments, in one of which it anaesthetised three prisoners, opened their skulls and placed electrodes in their brains. They were revived, put in a room and given knives. The CIA psychologists then activated the electrodes, hoping the prisoners would attack one and other. They didn’t. The electrodes were removed, the soldiers shot and their bodies burned.”
More recently, following repeated condemnation from Amnesty International over torture and human rights abuse at Guantanamo Bay, in March this year The Guardian published extensive revelations from former guards and prisoners detailing the interrogation techniques carried out by U.S authorities, one of the most effective apparently being sexual abuse. Prostitutes are allegedly employed to sexually degrade the more pious Muslim prisoners, smearing menstrual blood over their faces, defecating in front of them, forced penetration for young virgin Muslims, sodomy and other forms of violation.
And so Ivan “Chip” Frederick and Lynddie England, the trailer-park torturers, were offered up as sacrificial-lambs to appease the outrage of Western civilisation, to restore our certainty in order, and to recast the integrity of Western moral superiority. After all, isn’t it the belief that we don’t do this type of thing that separates ‘us’ from all ‘them’?
Saddam was dubbed the ‘Hitler of Baghdad’, but wasn’t Hitler a product of the West, of our own culture? If Hitler could murder 6 million Jews, why is it so hard to believe we are willing to perpetrate similar crimes in Iraq today? The global media has indeed moved to the left post 9/11, and in doing so has contributed even more effectively to the containment of critical thought. The liberal media reports on these atrocities, it may even vehemently condemn them, but only at the most superficial level, and always with the view of channelling public outrage back into the institutions of reform. This is understandable, by our own standards to not be outraged would disqualify us from civilisation. To really probe to the root of such atrocities however, would be to call for revolution.
The only way anyone can still believe the war on Iraq was for anything other than to seize control of the profits flowing from Iraqi oil, and to make sure the global oil trade stays in U.S dollars is through wilful ignorance. Accordingly, as the coalition carries out its last-ditch effort to crush the resistance in anticipation of elections, we can expect a blizzard of platitudes from the liberal media expressing the nobility of democracy as we dress ourselves up in the uniforms of righteousness and carry forward the great historical civilising mission of the West.
There will be no talk about how the Americans have assumed control over the electoral process with an “electoral commission” that effectively gives them the power to eliminate parties they don’t like. There will be no talk on how Allawi and Rumsfeld plan to exclude recalcitrant areas from the vote. There will be no talk on how the basis of any free society – public ownership of national assets and resources – have been auctioned off in the form of oil credits to U.S banks to finance the reconstruction of the half of Iraq bombed into oblivion by the U.S army. There will be no talk of Bremer’s notorious “Order 39” which decrees foreign corporations can own 100% of Iraqi banks, mines and factories, and allows these corporations to remove 100% of their profits from the country.
America will reap the shit storm. As with the initial invasion, Fallujah was a pyrrhic victory. Resistance has intensified greatly in Baghdad, Mosul, Ramadi, Samarra, Baquba, Hiyt, Qaim, Latifyah and Taji, and the multitude of militant rebel groups are showing more and more signs of unification and coordination (although it is speculated that ex-Baathists are now monopolising strategic leadership). Iraq will never defeat America militarily, but the resistance, which effectively has unlimited regional support, can protract the war indefinitely, and inflict such casualties that will make the U.S campaign untenable, and unsustainable at the level of domestic support.
The Bush clique has run the domestic economy like its own private fiefdom to finance this war, and unless it succeeds in Iraq, will have drastically debased American economic power for generations to come. In ravaging Iraq, the neo-cons have also ravaged their own country. The costs of imperialism are always borne by society as a whole, while the benefits are enjoyed by a privileged few. Costs are socialised, benefits privatised, also the logic of free-market capitalism.
Americans themselves will indeed be forced to look at the real face of empire, but this will be little compensation for those who have already seen it, dead or enduring.