War and the Home Court Advantage
Issue #64, September 2003
In the midst of the American campaign in Afghanistan last year, my car was recognizable as the only one in my patriotic mid-western town that remained flagless. When asked in a survey by the cyber-artist Colette Gaiter whether my attitude towards the American flag had changed after September 11th, I realized that I felt flying the flag was improper as long as our nation was at war in a foreign land. Only when the stars and stripes no longer appear on bombers causing collateral damage, can it then in all good conscience be unfurled. I hold this position because I think that war sucks.
Politics (especially in democracy) however is a process of negotiations and renegotiations to accommodate changing social and economic events. War is the failure of politics, and to declare war a leader is in effect saying he or she has failed at civilized discourse and persuasion. American history is full of Presidents who promised to keep us out of war — Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson — and then brought us into it, but at least in their reverses or hypocrisy they acknowledged war's undesirability until they called Americans up.
Bill Clinton called air strikes against Iraq and Yugoslavia, but didn't realize that for some Americans, the fact that he had evaded military service and mildly protested the Vietnam War had been a strong reason for electing him. May Democratic Presidential candidate Senator John Kerry, a founder of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, take note. The two Presidents named Bush seem to relish war as their holiday from troubling domestic issues. After he used the Gulf War's distraction from addressing the 1991 Recession, I assumed the name George Bush would be poison to voters, and his sons would have to remain out of politics. The joke's on me.
1. The Violation that is Violence
Perhaps I ought not to have implied that pacifists are always people who as individuals have led sheltered lives, though it is a fact that 'pure' pacifists usually belong to the middle classes and have grown up in somewhat exceptional circumstances . . . Government cannot be conducted on 'pure' pacifist lines, because any government which refused in all circumstances to use force could be overthrown by anyone, even any individual, who was willing to use force. Pacifism refuses to face the problem of government and pacifists think always as people who will never be in a position of control, which is why I call them irresponsible.
— George Orwell, letter to Rev. Iorwerth Jones, April 8, 1941
To examine war, one has to begin with examining one's experience of personal violence. As a kid on the way to school, white working-class bullies kicked my bookish butt. I avoided the black kids strolling home in big noisy gangs or they would've kicked it too. As an adult, I was mugged one night in San Francisco when walking by some housing projects. A burly resident helped me escape my young, wiry knife-wielding attacker, but I never felt quite as safe in that part of the city after that.
While I have come damnably close to failing to resist domestic violence, I have never engaged in it. I have felt the anger and frustration from whence it springs, when a man seeks assault as mistaken release from rage that's impotent, incapable of healthy release. The mass media constantly feeds — and feeds upon — this rage, and I'm convinced the treadmill of television violence (cop shows every night!) is served up to displace and discharge rage built up in the family and home. I grew up in an angry household, and when my father raged at my piano teacher for wearing a peace symbol button during the Vietnam war, I got a sense of how family anger might get displaced into support of brutal foreign adventures.
2. The Home Court Advantage
It is impossible even yet to decide what to do in the case of German conquest of England. The one thing I will not do is to clear out, at any rate not further than Ireland, supposing that to be feasible. If the fleet is intact and it appears that the war is to be continued from America and the Dominions, then one must remain alive if possible, if necessary in the concentration camp. If the U.S. is going to submit to conquest as well, there is nothing for it but to die fighting, but one must above all die fighting and have the satisfaction of killing somebody else first.
— George Orwell, diary entry, June 16, 1940
It is characteristically American to use sports as a metaphor for military matters, and I want to designate defending one's homeland a moral "Home Court Advantage." Invasion of another's nation is comparable to the violent assault of an individual, wrought on a large scale. Those who are on their own turf and defending their land are most certainly in the right. "Homeland" is a very resonant idea, no small reason Bush called Governor Ridge's super-police agency the Office of Homeland Defense. The most moral and just use of violence is to pick up the gun to repel an intruder, an aggressor, an invader. Though this position has been used around the world to justify xenophobic ethnic cleansing ("Though they've lived among us for centuries, they're foreign invaders"), it must be restricted to the violent incursion across recognized borders. Defense is the legitimate use of violence, to repel the invader. Defense is legitimate, offense isn't. Troops lose their moral legitimacy once they cross over and out of their nation's border. The Vietnamese farmer had the moral edge over the American B-52 overhead (arguments on the left begin as to the moral status of the Vietnamese soldier come down from the north).
Can some room on the side of good be made for volunteers to "the good fight"? Are people who have gone overseas to fight, without a nation commanding them, for commitment to a place or cause — like volunteers in the Spanish Civil War — in the wrong? This commitment is an extension of political solidarity campaigns. For decades one has noticed the donation box "for the children of Palestine" in Palestinian-run inner city groceries. In the 1980s Latin Americans and leftists in California attended and funded Casa El Salvador, the San Francisco organization supporting the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional. Perhaps one needs to make moral space for those who perceive a struggle overseas with a sense that this is my nationality, this is my fight. I am not sure if I can defend this idea though, for I note so many instances of its abuse.
I know students who summered in Israel, volunteers on collective farms working to build a spiritually-based socialism. I know Americans who have served in the Israeli armed forces, in some cases because they had family living there. Most of these fortunately saw only Sad Sack duty, manning the perimeter on a lonely night, never having to deal with Arab attackers. The question remains at what point dedicated border-crossing service can push one into the fanaticism of a Dr. Baruch Goldstein, machine-gunning Islamic worshippers in their mosque, or the de-Arabizing advocate Meir Kahane, idealistic American volunteers both. Religious faith has long and often pushed its believers beyond boundaries of more temperate secular politics, in all centuries past and in our times.
3. So Sick of September 11th
"Apparently there is what amounts to war in Iraq. At the very best this is a disaster...In all probability we shan't even deal properly with the so-called army of Iraq, which could no doubt be bombed to pieces in a few hours."
— George Orwell, diary entry, May 3, 1941
On September 11th a group of Al Qaeda volunteers from Saudi Arabia, sincere and mortally dedicated to their cause — not my own! — undertook to kill many people in the land they believed defiled their sanctified homeland with its military bases and supports their enemy Israel. Because the massive killings of the day took place in the United States, they demand a response from it. But how could a just one be framed? The diabolically simple and low-rent plot of September 11th — well-fueled commercial airliners! box cutters! — might have excused George W. Bush for initially talking in comic book phrases about "evildoers" rather than articulating subtle diplomacy. Four months later he fabricated a comically impossible and ahistorical "Axis of Evil", singling out Iran, Iraq and North Korea as punks we itched to fight while grouping them into a nonexistent alliance. Perhaps Bush talked like a comic book in 2002 to help promote the "Spiderman" movie, his speech reminiscent of some Marvel Comics special issue where Dr. Octopus teams up with Dr. Doom and the Krull planet to fight Spiderman. It would be funny if such talk from a President didn't lead to war.
A rhetoric of pacifism rose to meet the brutal rhetoric of war. In e-mails late in the day of September 11th, 2001, some women pacifists in California suggested total forgiveness, no military response at all. David Potorti, whose brother died in the North Tower of the World Trade Center, began the antiwar group September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows in anger at Bush's mention of his brother in a speech promoting the war in Afghanistan. Activist Tom Cornell of the New York city Catholic Worker House said in a talk in Michigan in early 2002 that he appreciates the New York police who deal with troublemakers disrupting his agency, so that a "police action" in response to September 11th would be appropriate. Yet the phrase "police action" rings in my ears, for that was the ostensible purpose of the first U.S. troops sent to Vietnam in the early 1960s, soon followed by hundreds of thousands more. A similar six hundred troops were sent in 2002 to quell "Muslim terrorists" in the Philippines, the site of one of America's nastiest, most brutal wars a little over a century ago. The jungle rebels had kidnapped an American evangelizing missionary couple, only one of whom returned alive from their bloody rescue by the Philippine Army. Perhaps these rebels are more mercenary bandits than insurrectionists, but to admit that wouldn't loosen American purse-strings the way the cry of "terrorist" does.
In some of the most significant ways, nothing changed on September 11th. There has barely been a re-examination of the United States' uncritical support of Israel's policy in the occupied territories — Palestine — under Ariel Sharon (the depth of the White House's recently-announced commitment for the "road map" to a Palestinian state remains to be seen). Nor of America's support for the Saudi royalty — one member of which, during the Gulf War twelve years ago, reportedly said "We've got our American slaves to do the fighting for us" — nor of the American military presence there long after the eviction of Iraqi troops from Kuwait.
President Bush rejected the idea of any international trial for Osama bin Laden or Al Qaeda officers knowing those troubling questions would be raised and find an international forum, to say nothing of the long cordial business relationship between the Binladen and Bush families. In contrast, note that even the Nazi Adolf Eichmann, tried in Jerusalem, saw his defense openly published. The war in Afghanistan installed Karzai's shaky new regime that a year later controls only portions of Afghanistan. By some accounts the 2002 Afghan war killed about as many civilians as died in the World Trade Center towers. Despite the bombing of caves and camps Bin Laden had occupied, one wonders to what degree it left Al Qaeda — and especially its well-heeled Saudi and fervent Pakistani support bases — substantially intact.
In 1990 George Bush Senior yearned for something to get the name of his son Neil out of America's headlines for his failed Silverado Savings and Loan. Almost immediately Bush was blessed with Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, and he had his war to save his family name and put an end to those "wimp" insinuations and dead-on Dana Carvey impersonations. Instead of elation at victory, I only remember images of several thousand retreating Iraqis, well into their own homeland, incinerated from the air in a manner supposedly more moral than Dachau's ovens. Among the two dozen American casualties, I recall a young tank soldier appearing on Oprah's show with his face horribly disfigured; I fail to appreciate that war as worth even that price. In the mid-1990s wags rumored that each and every night, the ghost of an Iraqi child who died as a result of the war and blockade stood mutely by George Herbert Walker Bush's bed, and a psychic told him that only that parachute jump on his 80th birthday would free him from the curse.
As opportunistic as his father, George W. Bush has skillfully used the nation's shock and confusion over the September 11th attacks to advance the domestic right wing agenda on all fronts, from a massive military buildup to Alaskan and offshore oil drilling to corporate handouts to diminished civil liberties and defunded social services. Disagree with the President? You mean you support Osama bin Laden? Across the aisle in Congress, the Lapdog, I mean Democratic Party has with few exceptions acquiesced on nearly all of these, as it demurely avoids bringing up the administration's coziness and license with Enron or even the dubious 2000 election. In the first six months after September 11th, it seemed that Representative Barbara Lee and Senator Russell Feingold were the only ones to do what they're elected and paid to do — carefully examine and reflect upon the bills before them — and to have then shown the courage to Just Say No to bad policy in the heat of war. It takes courage and nonconformity to resist war, likely requiring as much courage and threat to one's personal safety to resist as to serve. Someday there shall be bronze statues in cities like Detroit near the Canadian border in commemoration of Vietnam-era draft resisters who emigrated rather than kill.
In February 2003 an unscientific though thought-provoking CNN website poll saw 38% of Americans claim the U.S. as the biggest threat to world peace, and only 34% cited Iraq. President George W. Bush claimed Iraq is the world's biggest threat, and convinced the U.S. Congress to support military action against it. I can't help but wonder if this focus is because the hunt for Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda takes us too close to our problematic "allies" that support them. In early March 2003, before shooting had begun in Iraq, the United Nations inspection and even destruction of Iraqi weaponry proceeded despite Washington's impatience to start a war. Opposition to a war with Iraq was strong around the world, among Europeans and in the United States; my own conservative Republican relatives, from Maine to the San Diego Navy base, saw no purpose in a war with Iraq.
A campaign of insinuation in America's propaganda channels — FOX News, CNN and the broadcast television networks — resulted in linking the secular Saddam Hussein with the Wahhabi fundamentalist attacks September 11th in the minds of our still-frightened citizenry. The disarming of Iraq, especially when it appeared to have biological, chemical and nuclear armaments, was admittedly a very desirable goal. As would be a similar disarming of India, Pakistan, Israel — and the United States — too. Yet despite its promotion of gunboat diplomacy, I would have gladly praised George W. Bush if his rhetoric had encouraged Iraqis to resist their state, and if in March 2003 the dictator Saddam Hussein fell in a genuinely Iraqi revolution (an American coup is not the same thing) without a single shot fired. American warships could have turned back and come home, declaring their mission accomplished. Bush's inflamed speechmaking did everything possible to make Saddam Hussein lose face, which doesn't seem to me to be the best way to deal with an authoritarian ruler. To what degree George W. Bush was driven by household dramas, a fervent desire to vindicate his own father, remains yet to be explored by our best psycho-biographers.
I deeply respect and honor the men and women of the United States armed forces, who take up arms when called, while I lament that many chose the military since well-paying industrial jobs are disappearing. Since they are under a civilian Commander-in-Chief, I curse the venal politicians Republican and Democratic who needlessly put them in harm's way, rather than keeping them at home to defend this land. When a nation claims the right to invade another in order to liberate it, history shows it has usually been an excuse for imperialistic exploitation. Despite our nation's history of military incursions, I was shocked when the U.S. invaded Iraq in March and April, 2003.
Increasingly it is evident that it wasn't a war about freedom or a war about Iraq's threatening weapons (seemingly nonexistent), it was a war about oil. Iraq was invaded to void contracts Iraq had with nations like France, Russia and Japan and give American companies the spoils. One figure lists about 7,500 Iraqi soldiers and 3,500 civilians dead, but such numbers are barely circulated in the United States. It made me wonder how my mid-western neighbors might defend our town should a foreign army ever invade. I think we would all be fiercely fighting the invader.
As the United States initiated the war, I guess that made the Iraqis who shot at our armored battalions rolling over their land the de facto good guys, and the U.S. the rogue superpower that Iraqis had every right, maybe duty, to endeavor to drive out. I expected folksingers to compose plaintive odes to heroic defenders of Baghdad, but decades of Saddam's tyrannical dictatorship so disheartened them that many Iraqis merely started grabbing whatever they could. There was no intention for the vile Saddam to be caught and brought to trial for, if he was, he might have spoken of his support by the United States in the 1980s.
Despite his invocations of a certain antique Israelite who preached peace, George W. Bush, repugnant in his bald-faced hypocrisy, clearly reveres only weaponry, where superior firepower brings with it a superior morality. All people of conscience who believe there is a moral right above military might, stand before the judgement of a power greater than armies — like the secular one, history — and are worried and shamed by what the United States has done in the spring of 2003. And if history is the final referee, it will note that the United States handed over to Iraq the Home Court Advantage.
— Memorial Day, 2003
Quotes are from The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, Volume 2: My Country Right or Left 1940-43, Penguin Books Ltd., Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England, 1970.
Mike Mosher served his country in the 1980s as an occasional civilian bartender at the Non-Commissioned Officers and Enlisted Persons club, Presidio of San Francisco, U.S. Army, a tour of duty that included several All-Night Soul Discos until dawn.
Credits: Images copyright © 2003 by Mike Mosher.