Introduction: Iraq War Culture
Issue #63, April 2003
Cutbacks and Repression
The US political landscape of the Iraq War is characterized by massive cutbacks in social expenditures, together with tax structures that underwrite capital accumulation by a narrow alliance of social allies. Corporate, military and government leadership have become an integrated, interlocking circle, one that promotes an ideological culture of the nation-state as the fundamental source of progress and power to consume. Yet this is a crisis-bound society in need of affirmations of its superiority. Since the inauguration of the Bush administration, the US economy has lost 2.1 million jobs. The US educational system is in the middle of financial crises generated by astonishing military expenditures, corporate welfare, and tax giveaways to the rich.
According to a January survey by the National Council of State Legislatures, US states had cut $49.1 billion in public services, health and welfare benefits, and education in their fiscal 2003 budgets, and were due to cut another $25.7 billion. That $74.8 billion in cutbacks represents significantly less than the Bush administration's initial $80 billion budget request for the Iraq War, with many billions of future supplementary requests certain to follow. This is a war that is quite literally being fought on the backs of schoolchildren and university students, the working poor, single mothers, hospital and home-care patients, and now-unemployed teachers, health workers, and other public employees.
Culture, conceived in the broadest sense as the social exegesis of mass phenomena, assembles, integrates and responds to these profound and rapid social developments. Iraq War culture is much more than its imagery of Homeland Security orange alert warnings, proliferating global protests, video shots of nighttime blasts in Baghdad, or the still image of a wounded Iraqi woman caught in cross-fire. This culture represents a revolving economy between violent imagery and US political hegemonism that reinforces itself through reference to the same violent imagery. As a culture, it is an accumulation of adverse phenomena at crisis point, a continuing social cross-fire created by capital making markets and un-making labor rights. It is the clearance of shared communities — from villages in the occupied West Bank to cohesive but impoverished working-class neighborhoods in Cairo that send workers to the Gulf — and labor migrations endured by peoples of color without alternatives, the unrecognized neo-slaveries that support contemporary economies. This is a culture of exhibitionist violence and invisible labor.
A key linkage exists here, because the Iraq War marks the emerging division between global domains where interventionist violence is visible and labor invisible, and those where violent intervention is invisible and elite labor visible. Iraq is the site of permissible imperial violence and majority un- or underemployment, whereas military violence is nominally impermissible in the United States and its economy responds either favorably or less so to the success of overseas violence. We have reached a new high tide mark in the consolidation of global economic inequalities and the compounding advantages of Western economies that can finance information-driven and superior war technologies. Such is the cultural hierarchy that information labor has produced. Iraq War culture is the cutting edge of American economic, military and information culture, with its techno-aesthetic and assertion of universal dominion under an ideological banner of Freedom Incarnate. The truly liberated class today is the mercenary migrants of state violence, the global warrior class that asserts its rights of mobility and occupational freedom, with digital video uplinks from the front lines to document its work product.
Simultaneously, at a domestic level in the United States — one that can no longer be described accurately as domestic given its global integration — a set of repressive legal enactments adopted in the name of national security have been establishing new models for international imitation. Where Britain's Emergency Regulations once established the legal mechanisms for colonialism in India, Hong Kong, Kenya, Palestine and other locales, in this still-new century the United States is framing the security legislation that is already being promulgated by other West-allied nations. If enacted, the Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003 — also known as the USA/Patriot Act II — will radically alter constitutional legal protections, already in substantial decline since the first Patriot Act. Should John Ashcroft prevail, Fourth Amendment protections against domestic security surveillance will fade into a ghostly remnant, where surveillance would be conducted entirely at the Attorney General's discretion without judicial review. Secret warrantless searches would expand; nearly any private record would be subject to investigative demands; secret detentions would be permitted without criminal charge, and habeas corpus would be annulled by provisions to prevent such litigation and even forbid release of basic information about detainees; lawful residents could be deported without a hearing; and federal and state orders limiting police spying on community activists would be cancelled.
A new culture of systematic automated surveillance and Total Information Awareness has established itself, one that points to a vista of unending conflict as its self-justification. There is no particular note of social apocalypse here, only a gray statement of the rationales of perpetuation required in order to integrate an information economy with an economy that produces and exports violence, then must guard against its return. If this information culture attempts to transform the transactions that constitute social life into a security database, it treats absence of information as an identified object of suspicion. Non-integration into the global database signs either ungoverned or ungovernable; it signs the presence of an atavistic and potentially barbaric subject. The discipline of market control — and social cutbacks — cannot be exerted where citizens remain unintegrated into the dominant information culture. To be outside control, whether as nation-state or citizen-subject, is to invite the discipline of information technology and its potential forms of destruction.
Iraq War culture is a culture that promotes the objectivity of a consensus of power. The test of cultural validity comes in its conformity with information power. When Iraq's minister of information, Mohamed Saeed al-Sahaf, looks into an al-Jazeera camera and speaks of crushing US forces, while 3rd Division tanks are moving at will through Baghdad, he occupies a paradoxical — and deeply antiquated — position as a political fabulator whose rhetorical disinformation meets simultaneous disproof via live feeds from the same city. The minister is reduced to arguing that these are Associated Press rather than Arab-owned media feeds. It is as though the minister has been transplanted from the Nasserite rhetorical world of the late 1960s, part of a once-collapsed and now-revivified rhetorical bubble. Al-Sahaf's extraordinary denial of reality was in part a retreat into a fictional, could-be, and might-still-be world, a familiar reaction to the imminence of cultural defeat. Validity and falsity are now functions of transmissibility and integration into technological networks. The information flow that matters in Iraq today comes from US Army colonels in P3 Orion intelligence planes, riding electronic shotgun with laptops and streaming video, flying over their advancing columns. An incorporative disciplinary culture stretches today between the US and Iraq, one based on the absorption of unincorporated territory into the infosphere.
The war occasions more than the war; it is a beginning of progressive regimentalization. It supplies rationales of repression, demands for the subordination of counter-argument, delimitations between permissible speech and silence that knows its place. War culture is speech in its own right, one that functions in rhetoric of demand and conquest. Yet the geist of attempted homogenization of opinion is unworkable home-front psy-ops, one that will fail because mass political opinion is chaotic in nature and hysterias are transitory phenomena. War culture, in all its efforts to heroicize and memorialize the dead, embraces state violence as the apogee of citizenship. Public speech responds to the demands of citizen-sacrifice.
Russ Castronovo argues in Necro Citizenship that "While US political culture revolves around intercourse with the dead — from suicidal slaves to injured white male sexual subjects, and from passive female clairvoyants to generic though lifeless citizens — the dead do not remain eternally estranged. No matter how enamored the state and its citizenry are of passive subjects, political necrophilia is also charged with an impossible desire to forget the dead." Iraq War culture expands the discourse of state-sanctified death, but that same vision of an ennobled battlefield requires symbols, codes and ideologies to mask its barbarism. Memorialization of the fallen-to-be proceeds before the fact and to dissent is to disgrace the memories of citizen-soldiers who have not yet died but must die. Speech that opposes unnecessary death is itself unnecessary, and political necrophilia waves its flags. But as Babak Rahimi points out, there is a collective shared experience of death that demands transformation through public rituals and ideological appropriation of citizen 'sacrifice.' "All of America is grateful for your sacrifice," George Bush tells Marines at Camp Lejeune, honoring the collaboration pact with civil suicide promoted by classes that remain alive to make speeches.
Where opposition to necrophilic citizenship was once limited to combatant nations, the last century's history has witnessed an ever-expanding international public assertion of entitlement to oppose state violence. Jurisdictional assertions have followed, entrained on that developing international consciousness, as the inauguration of the International Criminal Court evidences. Despite this development, the US invasion of Iraq, undertaken in defiance of world opinion, has been underwritten by State Department assertions of international legal exceptionalism for the US military and its actions. The American Empire is being underwritten by claims that a national willingness to promote and engage in a harmonization of collective necrophilia and destructive techno-worship entitles it to a higher standing in international citizenship. The transparent inadequacies of such US claims to national exceptionalism contribute both to immediate antagonism and to the continuation of global efforts to create and enforce preventative mechanisms based in international law.
In the world of opposition, Iraq War culture is the raw emotion of street demonstrations; of myriad coffeehouse discussions of energy-driven US imperialism and corporate colonialism; of popular intellectual counter-hegemonism in formation and yet-to-form; of experimental thought and democratic expression. Global contempt towards the US cites its transparent imperial interests, the hypocritical distance between its idealistic advocacies and barbaric means, and the transformation of a post-World War II model-nation (undeserved as this reputation may have been) into a twenty-first century Dirty Harry nation-state. Oppositional culture has found its anti-model, the sole remaining superpower operated as a fundamentalist Christian franchise licensee. In the days of its greatest success, US war culture has generated its greatest and most energetic opposition. Yet because 'culture' cannot be understood in itself as immanent and self-explained, its originating political and historical frameworks intertwine themselves throughout that expression. Without this simultaneity of understandings, an opposition remains inadequate to its purposes. Sloganeering critiques of US war culture mirror the simplifications and hollow cultural 'knowledges' that enable US policymakers to model a world that will appreciate its heroic necrophilia.
Anti-war Cultural Criticism
This special issue of Bad Subjects is born in political anger and the need to develop a critique. Like millions of others worldwide, many Bad Subjects editors have turned out for demonstrations and demanded international justice and peace. Most of those same millions demonstrated and marched with few illusions about either the nature of the Bush administration's plans or the Iraqi regime. Despite overwhelming opposition from international opinion and the refusal of the United Nations to sanction an Anglo-American imperial expedition, a twenty-first century version of Lord Kitchener's Nile campaign, the war proceeded, driven inexorably by the preemptive and militaristic unilateralism that has been brewing in right-wing US policy circles for a full generation and more. Prosecution of this war represents the defeat of international democracy, not the vision of Baghdad's liberation that emerges in the Napoleonic rhetoric voiced by George Bush.
The Gordon Memorial Service, September 4, 1898, held by military chaplains for British forces after the Battle of Omdurman and the capture of Khartoum. "Well, we have given them a good dusting," spoke Lord Kitchener as he looked out over a battlefield at Omdurman littered with over 10,000 enemy corpses killed by British Maxim guns.
Even as such aggression contravenes international law, it also constitutes a window of publishing opportunity for cultural politics, for that aggression emerges from US culture that desperately needs analysis. No one journal or special issue can pretend to offer more than a glimpse, a provocation, or a public rumination. To publish an emergency issue at this time is a collective re-assertion of the same democracy that has been abused by Iraq War culture; it speaks towards an alternative culture based on values of dialogue, reason, and repugnance towards militarism. In short, this issue affirms the global social justice that the Iraq War attempts to deny but cannot.
When Theodor Adorno wrote "Cultural criticism rejects the progressive integration of all aspects of consciousness within the apparatus of material production," he specified the task of cultural criticism in the contemporary US where the integration of global production functions to supply the means of empire and its military policing. Inasmuch as social justice begins with the framing of grievances and their rationales, cultural criticism is integral to anti-war politics in the Iraq War era. Criticism's function becomes to disassemble a consciousness based on what, in his excellent essay that opens this issue, Portuguese critic Boaventura de Sousa Santos describes as "a political logic [based] on the supposition of total power and knowledge, and on the radical rejection of alternatives." de Sousa Santos argues that the Iraq War has its roots in the prevailing climate of neo-liberal globalization and that violent domination on behalf of the West is an endemic force of these politics. Adorno speaks here to a role for cultural criticism as a mobile force, as a resistance to immobilizing ideologies and pseudo-knowledges, as a discourse that floodlights intolerant antagonisms and privilege embedded within claims to an objective and non-ideological knowledge. Where there is a repressive surveillance and suppression of dissent, normalized as broad public agreement, cultural criticism has an irreplaceable function in developing critiques of that consciousness.
Protest and Resistance Narratives
American cultural insularity is arguably a major contributing factor to the Iraq War, one that enables and animates a nationalistic mono-perspective. A counter-tradition, identifiable in American narrative since at least the eighteenth century, emphasizes the social enlightenment and self-understanding gained from distance. To be profoundly 'American' does not necessarily correspond with physical location within the United States.
Two US academics, Leslie Roberts and Dickie Wallace, contribute essays from New Zealand and Croatia respectively. As Roberts joins a peace march in Christchurch with her daughter, she discovers that, against her own desire, she wears the unwanted identity of 'enemy.' Wallace writes from the Croatian town of Knin where news of war crimes trials dating from the Yugoslav break-up form a paradoxical and very current backdrop against which to view news of the US invasion of Iraq. Both essays evidence the profound discomfort of US citizens abroad who are contemptuous of their government's international behavior and who need to voice their alienation. If US globalism represents an empire of privilege, it also creates a space from which its subjects can construct new civil visions from the outside, from places that are not America and better off for it.
From New York City, David Manning reflects on participating in the massive February 15 pre-war demonstration, contrasting its "much fuller demographic spectrum" with memories of demonstrations against the Vietnam War where "we were bound by a sense of self-selected minority identity, sociological martyrs united in spirit against the misguided mainstream."
Expressive rights are fundamental to an anti-war movement, since to contend with violent nationalist ideologies is to refuse their articulations and thus speak from an alienated, inherently questionable citizenship. Hostile delimitation of the extent of expressive rights increasingly relies on 'market forces' and, in public environments, on nominally benign institutional guidelines. Two essays focus on the incursions against speech and civil rights, part of the Iraq War cultural environment. Niaz Kasravi and Rafik Mohamed review two post-9/11 high-profile free speech cases — Bill Maher and Michael Moore — to illustrate how corporate-denominated 'profitable speech' operates. Michelle Matisons examines how a university that protects free speech in relation to the Iraq War simultaneously sets out to channel unruly expression and sentiments via teaching guidelines that normalize a war culture.
Another group of essays reflect on the American Empire and its iatrogenic social communications. Max Fraad-Wolff and Rick Wolff review and describe the basic form of imperial America and its elements, emphasizing their inseparability from the lengthy history of global imperialism. A vital interrelationship between games, entertainments and empire, once the sustainer of the British empire, has re-appeared in Iraq War video culture that conjoins military training and media reportage. Debra Benita Shaw relates the ethos of Iraq War militarism and its 'invincible warriors' to Robert Heinlein's science fiction novel, Starship Troopers, as sharing an endless military-political pursuit of empire. In a set of personal reflections, Bad Subjects Collective editor Arturo Aldama explores similar themes of video-games and reality television as para-war imaginative entertainments. Television critic Cynthia Fuchs continues such engagements in her essay, "The War Show," which examines the features of televised war, its embedded reporters, and the specter of a 'disloyal' media informant like Peter Arnett. Babak Rahimi argues that US media are deeply implicated in formulating and transmitting a ritualistic cycle of war sacrifice, memorialization, and civil resurrection of the dead. CNN, MSNBC and other major networks become, in this reading, sites of "ritual enactment that [allow] the deceased soldier in the immortality of a transcendent entityִhe nation."
The rituals of American reportage provide an interpretive key for Michael Hoffman's reflective essay, one that implicates pattern repetition across an array of media reports of historical events during the past decades. In the end, Hoffman prefers the cool medium of newsprint to understand the Iraq War. Mass communications lecturer Steven Rubio blogged under heavy fire from the Berkeley fedayeen to complete his mission: a media review that considers the Iraq War as the first blogging war. Jo Rittenhouse and Elisabeth Hurst bring the home-front back into focus with an essay that addresses the news that disappears, the news of everyday life and human rights violations that disappear beneath the war news.
Just as visibility is key to political campaigns, visibility is key to individual human rights. The Iraq War makes clear the consequences of violence's invisibility in a world-system, as the destructive invisibility of the closet has internalized gender violence to catastrophic effect. Beginning in queer theory, Nathan Snaza maps out reflections emerging from this parallel. New sets of permitted visibilities and enforced invisibilities create conflicts that demand humanization without reference to particularistic identity.
Binoy Kampmark examines the paradox of an American demand that a foreign nation disarm while US citizens arm themselves as part of a gun culture unequalled anywhere else in the world. Gun culture provides a false emancipation, a belief that freedom arises from an equality of fear. Kampmark's essay points to the role of the gun-state, to the symbolic reification of destructive will in underwriting political monopolies, and to the equation of precise sniping with precision bombing. Claire Norton identifies another paradox in the naming of the agents of violence, or why Western combatants are called 'soldiers' while Iraqis are called 'fedayeen.' The naming of enemies is heavily value-laden and by legitimizing government terminology the media situates enemy combatants within an official narrative whose purpose is to legitimize the US-British invasion.
Developing responses to the persuasive capacities of capital-intensive media that dramatize and provide running commentary on exhibitionist state violence is crucial to creating resistance. tobias van Veen discusses Brian Massumi's theorization of a tactics of affect, a discussion that reformulates a historic debate in US progressivism, dating to at least the early nineteenth century, between the roles of warm sentiment and cold analysis in shaping a receptive political topology. van Veen advocates mass media involvement and "tactical engagement with affect" as means of creating positive and communicative politics.
This Extra Bad! edition of Bad Subjects is only a beginning, a sample of social critique occasioned by rampant state militarism. Go read, go act, be extra Bad! yourself.
Joe Lockard teaches early American literature at Arizona State University and has been a member of the Bad Subjects Collective for nine years. He joins the Collective in thanking Elisabeth Hurst — eshet hayil — for her instrumental work on this emergency issue.