One of the most prevalent myths about the Iraq war, launched three years ago this week, is that the relative lack of domestic popular support in the US and UK made it all the more shocking that the war ever went ahead, and that, accordingly, this war will be looked back on as another Vietnam. The latter part of this prediction betrays a startling and unfounded optimism, if we consider that the US was ultimately defeated in that protracted and bloody conflict. In 2003, the fact of the war was presented as a presumption, to be rebutted by the population at large – a calculated gamble. The US and UK electorate sleepwalked into war because the democratic systems of both countries are completely dominated by pro-war parties. Excepting an historic sea change in this parliamentary politics, the rebuttal would therefore have to take an extra-parliamentary form. Only a fully-mobilised civilian resistance campaign will be able to subvert our stagnant democracies and force an end to the carnage. Its scale will have to be utterly unprecedented, because the machinery of US imperialism is cleverer than it ever was in the 1960s and 1970s.
That the conflict feels detached, politically and militarily, from the US electorate is a key component of the Orwellian nightmare of this never-ending cycle of death. At the forefront of this component is the politically expedient and systematic alienation of the military machine from ordinary civilian life and, by extension, the democratic process. The shift in US public opinion against the war in Vietnam, motivated primarily by domestic discontent at a considerable and mounting American death toll, was translated into a formidable and ultimately victorious popular resistance movement. When considering the oft-cited comparisons with the present situation in Iraq, two points of grave concern arise.
Firstly, there is the fact that the large majority of the US war effort is being fought by a proxy-army, with Iraqi soldiers, policemen and civilians forming a literal human shield as well as the metaphorical fig leaf for the US war effort. Such is the barely latent racism of US mainstream opinion, as dictated by the corporate interests which control the dissemination of information, that it is unlikely that a slow trickle of American body bags would have the desired effect, as it were, to stimulate a backlash on a comparable scale. For this endemic racism to change, meanwhile, would require nothing short of complete social revolution.
Secondly, there is the fact of the call-up. Conscription necessarily popularised the Vietnam war. Young men were plucked from all walks of civilian life, crucially still thinking and reasoning like civilians, as distinct from killing machines. This was an inherent check against the normalisation of war. The resistance, when it came, was popular precisely because the armies themselves were, in their composition, popular in the simplest sense of the word – they were “of the people”. The explosiveness and invincibility of the resistance is thus explained.
The only form of conscription that exists in today’s USA is the insidious conscription by economic duress, which has quite the opposite effect of targeting that very section of American society which is marginalised to the extent of being almost completely voiceless – military training courses appear on the curricula of schools in New Orleans, and Native American reservations are proving increasingly fertile ground for US army recruitment. The backdrop is of a nation where the State has quite deliberately shunned its social responsibilities and left, in many parts of the country, a vacuum of bleak deprivation and fragmentation, with the consequence that the military is for thousands the only visible avenue for well-paid, secure employment and a sense of dignity. Where once conscription to some extent democratised the military, poverty is now the lifeblood which sustains a detached and wholly non-civilian project. The modern professional army, estranged from civil society and restricted by career pragmatism and contractual obligation, retains only a tenuous link to the society which produced it.
The sinister deployment of private, so-called “security consultants” – mercenaries – would appear to be a nod in this direction, an extension of this process, in this case circumventing legal certainty rather than moral authority. Clearly the political and practical benefits of operating outside any system of accountability are not lost on the decision-makers at the multiplicity of Western, predominantly US, corporations who have instigated this imperialist aggression, this bloodbath, for their own ends. As the distance grows between the individual, human components of the war machine on the one hand, and the institutions of the civil society it represents on the other, so the chances diminish of breaking the stranglehold of imperialism on a mainstream America that is discomforted, but not unduly put-out, by the “long war” raging in a distant, only half-real world.
[i] This article appeared in the Morning Star newspaper on 31st March 2006 [/i]