Never a good war or a bad peace

By Robert Jensen

with Rahul Mahajan

Published in The Hindu · October, 2001

[This article was published in The Hindu (Sunday Magazine), October 28, 2001.]

SINCE September 11, we have written and spoken against the United States Government’s plans for war. Many responses have been positive, but there has been a variety of crude personal attacks — some calling us cowards, others suggesting that we should go to Afghanistan (preferably where bombs are dropping). Some are overtly genocidal, suggesting that all Afghanistan is terrorist and safety can come only from exterminating all Afghans, if not all or most of the Islamic world.

Those responses were not surprising; we have long known of the racism that lurks beneath a polite veneer. More disturbing are responses from people who simply do not want to think. Some wish to continue in their blissful ignorance of American history and foreign policy. Others, including opponents of the war, think we should focus on good thoughts and not be so “confrontational”.

Many antiwar activists have assessed how U.S. policy in West Asia and Central/South Asia is relevant to understanding the terrorists’ motivations and, hence, to fashioning an effective response. For this, we are often attacked, sometimes in the very place where one would expect such discussion, a college campus.

For example, at a New York City University, faculty members were explicitly told by administrators not to discuss in class anything political that might make students feel uncomfortable. But, of course, the most learning takes place exactly when students are made uncomfortable, forced to challenge their pre- conceived notions.

The depth of ignorance most Americans have about U.S. foreign policy can be difficult for an outsider to understand. When one gently suggests that the killing of 6,000 civilians, while a horrible crime against humanity, pales in comparison with various acts of our Government, the most common refrain is “Give me one example, just one, where we killed innocent civilians”. This in the only country to use nuclear weapons, on civilian populations in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In the post-World War II era it is actually more difficult to find one example where innocent civilians were not targeted by the U.S., in direct wars (such as Vietnam), by proxy armies (such as the Contras’ attack on Nicaragua), and by U.S. client states (the death squads of Guatemala and El Salvador). Recent episodes such as the Gulf War and the war on Serbia have featured the deliberate and near-complete destruction of the civilian infrastructure, so that the killing continues long after the bombing is over as malnutrition and disease take their toll.

Many in the U.S. have been asking, “Why do they hate us?” One commentator suggested, “They hate us because we do not know why they hate us,” to which we must add, “And because we still do not want to learn.”

Though frightening, this ignorance is easy to understand. The mass media give little background, and what they do is carefully expurgated. Pre-university education is no better, and university education only slightly better. And, most important, since Vietnam Americans have not felt that U.S. foreign policy affected them.

With the Internet and a wider variety of information sources, however, more Americans than ever before are being exposed to such truths. And the destruction of the World Trade Center ought to have suggested that we are not invulnerable.

But anyone who tries to discuss the sources of terrorism can expect to be denounced. This suggestion that anyone criticising current government policy is un-American, along with the continued unwillingness to delve beneath the surface, shows a frightening intellectual void at the core of our society, a void with deadly consequences. It allows leaders to whip up war fervor even when questions about the morality and effectiveness of a military strike have not been asked, let alone answered.

For example, one poll showed that while 63 per cent believed that a military strike would probably spark more terrorism, 90 per cent supported such strikes as a response to terrorism. What does one say to a public that endorses an action they believe not only will not solve, but exacerbate, the problem?

Bush administration officials, like all American politicians, count on this wilful ignorance when they plan public-relations campaigns. Take the way in which the bombing of Afghanistan was sold as a humanitarian effort.

When the sympathies of the American people were touched by the plight of the long-suffering Afghan people, public opinions swung towards helping them. In response to this, the administration concocted the most shameless and cynical cover story for military strikes in recent memory. The idea went like this:

The Afghan people are starving. So, we need to do food drops. (Never mind that all those experienced in humanitarian aid programmes are opposed to food drops because they are dangerous, wasteful and preclude setting up the on-the-ground distribution networks necessary to effective aid.) We need to destroy the Taliban’s air defences so that transport planes will be safe.

Because the Taliban has many of the Stinger anti-aircraft missiles that the U.S. supplied the Mujaheddin in the 1980s when they were fighting the Soviet Union, the Afghani air defense is mobile.

So, we have to bomb all over Afghanistan to feed Afghanistan.

Predictably, the bombing hindered existing aid efforts, which helped millions, while the airdrops could help thousands at most. The chaos and violence created by this bombing — combined with a projected assault by the Northern Alliance — forced aid personnel temporarily to withdraw, with disastrous effects for the Afghan people. One week after the bombing, the World Food Programme began reporting the first civilian deaths from starvation.

The success of the Bush propaganda is a failure of our intellectual culture. We do not mean “intellectual” in an elitist sense, restricted only to those in professions based in thought and writing. We are talking about the way in which people are trained to think, or avoid thinking. That process includes the schools, universities, corporate public relations and advertising, journalism — all of which are steeped in the same American ideology. The core of that ideology is that, unlike any other nation in history, the U.S. acts in the world to promote peace, freedom, and democracy.

What Americans are reluctant to acknowledge — but is taken as given throughout most of the rest of the world — is that the U.S. is the new empire, and it acts as empires throughout history have acted: To consolidate and extend its power in the quest to control resources. And just as in other empires, the people must come to believe that such dominance is justified.

In Great Britain, it was the White man’s burden to “civilise” India. In the U.S., we talk of bringing our freedoms to others.

That the world which has to deal with the empire sees it quite differently is to be expected. People who face power are typically much more clear about that power than the ones wielding it.

Unfortunately, Americans are not the only ones who suffer from prejudice and wilful ignorance; some of our hate mail came from Indians.
To see India — long a staunch opponent of America’s imperial adventures and a consistent voice calling for national independence based on nonalignment — reduced to among the most abject, craven supporters of this current military aggression is deeply saddening.

The Indian Government has much to answer for. Its support for Bush’s dangerously insane national missile defence policy — which would severely compromise India’s security by giving China an incentive to build more, bigger and better bombs — was criminal. Offering logistical support for current operations makes it a party to the killing of innocents in Afghanistan. Detaining students for distributing anti-war leaflets imperils Indian democracy. Even with all these sacrifices of principle, India is currently in the comical position of having rushed to the U.S. side only to find Pakistan there first.

Much of the populace must also question itself. Public opinion polls (no doubt reflecting at best urban middle-class sentiment) indicate that Indians are second only to Israelis and ahead of Americans in support for U.S. military aggression. No doubt, it has to do with the growing Hindu fundamentalism of the urban middle class.

It may be tempting for Hindus to believe that Islam is different from other religions, since it breeds fundamentalism and terrorism. To counter that, one need only remember the Bombay riots of 1992 and 1993, where 500 — 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed mostly by Hindus, while the police watched.

With India and Pakistan engaging in renewed skirmishes, the time to learn the lesson that entire communities should not be targeted for the acts of a few extremists is now.

There are signs of hope. More Americans than ever are interested in learning the truth about our foreign policy and the peace movement is reaching new audiences every day, including people who had been apolitical before September 11.

We can only hope that the same is true in India, that many are newly galvanised to face the greatly increased threats of sectarian violence and nuclear brinksmanship.