As the U.S. comes to terms with its 2000th combat casualty in Iraq and counting, I was reminded of one of the last postings I sent out to my email list on the war’s eve, on January 10, 2003. The idea of tens of thousands of Americans from modest or poorer families, a disproportionate number of them kids of color, being marched off to die in an imperial adventure in the sands of Mesopotamia reminded me of that great line from Brecht about “an army marching off to war, not knowing that it’s enemy marches at its head.” Here’s the piece: (And don’t miss the Joe Strummer obit at the bottom!):
The weirdest thing about the current moment is just how cartoonish Bush appears, sounding more and more each day like a caricature drawn by some agitprop lefty theatre-troupe. This week it was all this “war can still be avoided” stuff when it’s written all over his face (never mind his actions) that he believes the exact opposite. And his announcement of more than $300 billion in new tax breaks for corporations and the rich, in the name of restarting an economy that has millions of working poor and unemployed Americans gasping for breath – along with the warning that anyone who dared challenge this was engaging in “class warfare.” (He’s not short on chutzpah!) And just in case anybody starts getting any wussie doubts about invading Iraq just now, his office comes out with the estimate that a war would cost the US no more than $60 billion – that’s after his own former economic adviser had put the figure at $200 billion last fall, while Congress factored in the inevitability of a long-term occupation and suggested a far higher figure. And then to cap it all, a restatement of his Nixonesque policy on government secrecy – and how about appointing John Poindexter to head up a program to browse your email and your Amazon.com purchases – he mislead Congress? Hell, that’s a virtue in the Bush administration…
I had been reminded, for a while now, about a Brecht poem that included lines about an army marching off to war, not knowing that its enemy marches at its head. Good old-fashioned “imperialist war” stuff. Browsed the web for it recently, and came up with extracts from his “German War Primer.”
And found myself giggling at the extent to which Bush appears to be auditioning for a role in Brecht’s epic theatre where the whole idea is to create cardboard cutouts rather than three-dimensional believable characters.
THOSE WHO TAKE THE MEAT FROM THE TABLE
Those for whom the contribution is destined
Those who eat their fill speak to the hungry
Of wonderful times to come.
Those who lead the country into the abyss
Call ruling too difficult
For ordinary men.
WHEN THE LEADERS SPEAK OF PEACE
The common folk know
That war is coming.
When the leaders curse war
The mobilization order is already written out….
WHEN IT COMES TO MARCHING MANY DO NOT
That their enemy is marching at their head.
…The man who speaks of the enemy
Is the enemy himself.
Then again, Brecht was about nothing if not “class warfare.” Click here for more on the curiously prescient poet.
As we noted a few weeks ago, the inspectors have found nothing in Iraq. Of course, they still might – but they have not yet been given any intelligence by the Bush administration that would point them to any place where they might find any. Bush promised two weeks ago that such intelligence would be provided, but sources in the inspection system say they’ve been given nada. Could be, of course, that Bush is simply trying to get all his ducks in a row before pointing them to a killer piece of evidence. More likely, though, is that the cupboard is rather bare.
All of this diminishes the prospects of achieving UN backing for war when the inspectors make their formal report on January 27. As Kofi Annan noted at the new year, Iraq’s cooperation with the inspection program means there is no basis at this time for military action. (And, as one reader who trawls the corridors of the UN notes, Kofi’s interventions probably carry some backing from the Powell camp in Washington.)
That doesn’t mean there won’t be a war, of course. This is not about weapons of mass destruction, nor has it ever been. I don’t really believe it’s simply about oil or Sharon, either, by the way, although oil certainly plays a key role in shaping the long-term strategic agenda of which it forms part. As the BBC notes, Cheney’s energy report warned that the US would have to double its oil imports by 2020 (no wonder Kyoto was given short shrift) and would have to secure the necessary supplies in the Mideast, Central Asia and Africa (all of which goals are currently being pursued).
But Iraq is not simply an oil-grab as some on the left would have it. As Nicholas Lemann explained in the New Yorker last fall, Iraq is the launching pad of a new imperial strategy designed to impose a Pax Americana on the increasingly unruly Middle East.
While such a Pax Americana would certainly ease the oil flow, it’s also based on the much broader (Orientalist) idea of pacifying the region through force, impressing the Arabs (according to the theories of the White House’s favorite scholar of the Arab world, Bernard Lewis) with a massive show of force that renders any challenge to Washington’s writ folly in the eyes of the would-be mujahedeen.
But all of this is academic, I think, because once there are 100,000 US troops, complete with hospital ships, in the Gulf (by some time in February) Bush may find it politically impossible to bring them home without Saddam’s head in a bag. This despite the antics of coif boy in North Korea who is, after all, simply negotiating in his own, inimitable way. Interesting thing about the Koreas, actually, is how the Bush administration has lost the South. South Korean democracy is forcing an end to the Cold War framework of dealing with the North, despite the Bush administration’s reluctance to let go. Although the U.S. always maintained that South Korea was a democracy in the Cold War sense (i.e. anti-communist), it only actually became a democracy in 1989. Kim Dae Jung is known these days for his sunshine policy of engagement with the North, but it’s often forgotten that he was basically South Korea’s Nelson Mandela — he spent decades in the prison of a U.S.-backed dictatorship for advocating precisely the policies for which he was later elected president.
So I think what you have here is the end of the Cold War allowing South Korea to become a democracy, and once it became a democracy its electorate essentially renounced the Cold War framework of dealing with the North that still guides the Bush administration. South Korea had been simply a client regime whose dictators could be relied on to march in step with Washington (and frankly, it was not unlike North Korea in many respects — a friend of mine who grew up there recalls with horror his school years of forced mass morning exercises chanting anticommunist slogans…); once it became a democracy a third element emerged in the equation — the South Korean people, caught between the archaic regime in Pyongyang and the bellicose Bush team in Washington, and demanding that both sides compromise. And that’s a huge problem for the Bush administration, because they had previously assumed that Kim’s party would be voted out and they’d have a government in Seoul more amenable to the Rummy worldview; now that’s not going to happen.
White Man in Hammersmith Palais
Hamba kahle, Joe Strummer
Back in South Africa in the late 70s and early 1980s, whiteys who’d opted to join the liberation struggle found themselves in a state of weird cultural alienation, identifying with black South Africa and yet for all our love of Orlando Pirates football club and the mbaqanga sound of Soul Brothers and “Zulu Boy” sandals and even nqushu porridge, we were never going to feel part of it. And yet we were equally alienated from our own roots in white South Africa because of the choices we’d made. And for many of us, I think, that cultural gap was filled by our ability to identify ourselves with a cosmopolitan global progressive culture that came to us in the form of regular injections while traveling abroad and through our imported movies, books, records etc. We may have had little in common with most of white South Africa and most of black South Africa, but we were somehow plugged into the world of Bertolucci and Marquez and, of course, Joe Strummer, who died just before New Year.
The Clash represented a fusing of the rebellious instincts of white youth culture with black youth culture, musically and politically, in a way that resonated powerfully with our own experiences. In an inimitably cool style, they made clear that if you wanted to dance to it, you’d better be on the barricades when the Nazis come marching, ready to throw a brick if you have to, that you had an obligation to join the march against racism, that the white youth and black youth of Thatcher’s Britain had a common enemy, that you could make the reggae rebellion your own, and they used their popularity in America to expose Americans to what their government was doing in Latin America, introducing us to the legendary Chilean troubador Victor Jara, tortured to death in the Santiago Stadium by Pinochet’s thugs who broke his hands and then ordered him to play his guitar – and The Clash made damn sure we understood that Pinochet’s thugs were also Kissinger’s thugs. And they did this effortlessly, unselfconsciously, without preaching, showing how music and musicians could have a message without ever losing its sense of humor and irony about itself, even as their record company was, as Strummer acidly noted, “turning rebellion into money” – of which they saw very little, because they had one of those old-style record deals. They showed countless other bands the way to fuse pop and politics, and did so without hardly trying. So, yes, I’ll freely admit, I cried a few tears the night he died and NPR played out its obit segment with my favorite Clash song, “White Man in Hammersmith Palais.” The world is a poorer place without him. And so we’ll play out with some lyrics from that 1978 classic:
Dress back this is a bluebeat attack
‘Cos it won’t get you anywhere
Fooling with your guns
The British Army is waiting out there
An’ it weighs fifteen hundred tons
White youth, black youth
Better find another solution
Why not phone up Robin Hood
And ask him for some wealth distribution
Punk rockers in the UK
They won’t notice anyway
They’re all too busy fighting
For a good place under the lighting
The new groups are not concerned
With what there is to be learned
They got Burton suits, ha you think it’s funny
Turning rebellion into money
All over people changing their votes
Along with their overcoats
If Adolf Hitler flew in today
They’d send a limousine anyway…”