Guest Writings

When occupation is more than an idea By Stephen Gowans



March 24, 2005

When you’re the biggest, toughest kid on the block, you don’t have to do what anybody tells you to do, or even what you agreed to do. Power comes from the barrel of a gun, and the US happens to have more of them than anyone else. 

There is, however, an innocent idea that behavior is regulated by law, and by law alone, and not the threat of violence that backs it up. That this is na´ve is evident in the reality that the US does what it likes on the international stage – tramples international law, ignores treaty obligations, and thumbs its nose at world court rulings – because it can. Who’s going to stop it? It’s not like there’s a global cop to enforce the law and throw miscreants in jail.

Some say public opinion will, and others says a Democratic administration would have at least cleaved to the law (in some cases) — but they’re living in a fantasyland, where mountains of contradictory evidence are looked upon as Alpine ranges rich with intoxicating pixie dust. Public opinion – its armies arrayed in overwhelming numbers against the Anglo-American conquest of Iraq – was as powerful as a puff of wind; Washington ignored it; the invasion went ahead; Bush was re-elected; barely anybody showed up to protest two years later. Clearly, public opinion isn’t enough.

Walden Bello says that if an end is going to be put to the US occupation of Iraq, people are going to have to do more than organize demonstrations as expressions of public opinion. They’re going to have to “disrupt business as usual” by staging boycotts, sanctioning companies that conspicuously profit from the occupations, and engage in civil disobedience. Good advice. But will it be followed? What’s obviously the right course of action is not, by virtue of being the right course, or even being obviously so, the course of action that’s always or even often going to be pursued. Were that so there wouldn’t be a bonanza of profits to be made in sales of hefty-size pants to the legions of overly plump Americans who know that piling on the pounds isn’t good for them, but nevertheless add an extra few pounds every year as if they were trees adding annular rings.

The problem is the conditions that need to be in place to get us off our asses don’t exist – and until they do, we’ll probably go on waiting for someone else to disrupt business as usual — because face it: disrupting business as usual for the beneficiaries of US imperialism means disrupting business as usual for ourselves too. You’ve got to be awfully motivated to do that. Which means what you stand to gain is greater than what you’re giving up, or have already lost.

Ask yourself this: What do you stand to gain by disrupting business as usual? A job? No. Resumption of electricity? No. Clean water? No. An end to the threat of being rounded up and thrown into a filthy, overcrowded prison where the guards get their kicks by shoving batons up the assholes of inmates? No. An end to the danger of frightened, trigger-happy soldiers putting a few rounds through your head because you didn’t slow down fast enough as you approached a checkpoint? No.

The fact of the matter is that you stand to gain very little, if anything, in any material way, by making yourself enough of a pain in the ass to disrupt business as usual, but you could lose your job and you could go to jail. So, who’s motivated?  Iraqis are. Not all of them, but many of them. And that’s because the penalties they have to pay to engage in a determined opposition pale in comparison to the benefits they may secure if they manage through their opposition to dig themselves out of the hole into which occupation has cast them.

But Americans? They’d have to live in a hole first, and while many do, it’s a rather shallow one by comparison. The occupation of a distant country doesn’t affect them in any direct and tangible way. For them, their country’s wars of conquest are either a matter of national pride (which will disappear in a puff of smoke the moment they’re touched personally in a deep, disruptive way), an abstraction involving strange people they know nothing about who live so far away they may as well be on Pluto, or a matter of national shame and embarrassment. The only Americans inclined to do anything about their country’s shameful foreign policy, recognize that anything they’re sufficiently motivated to do wouldn’t make much of a difference anyway.

Opposition to the US occupation is rooted in the circumstances of Americans’ lives, as much as the opposition of Iraqis to the occupation of their country, with its attendant disadvantages, is rooted in their material circumstances, but the intensity and form of the opposition is shaped by (a) the extent to which the occupation has materially affected each group and (b) the material costs of the various forms of resistance open to them. There’s no chance under current circumstances of Americans taking up arms against the American State to end the occupation of Iraq, because the costs, for individual Americans, are much too high relative to the expected gains. The very thought of it is laughable. Indeed, there are no immediate, concrete and personal gains Americans can expect to obtain from their country’s soldiers pulling out of Iraq. Their lives will become no more comfortable, no richer, no fuller. On the other hand, there are substantial immediate, material and personal gains Iraqis can expect to secure as result of driving Anglo-American forces from their country, so the material calculus favors more costly forms of resistance. Attached to each form is a quotient of benefits to costs, and the form with the highest quotient prevails. For Iraqis that means, for some of them, entering a world of guerilla combat and suicide bombs. For Americans that means, for some of them, going to a peaceful demonstration every few years – and for others, voting Democrat.

Exceptions, to some degree, are American soldiers and their families, who, by virtue of their involvement in the occupation, either directly as participants or vicariously through a family member, have a direct and potentially bloody and lethal connection to their country’s foreign policy in Western Asia. A change in policy that would result in a withdrawal of US forces would substantially benefit this group. The threat of violent death and permanent injury would be removed, long separations and months of anxiety would be ended, and for members of Reserve and National Guard units, unexpected disruptions to their lives would be thankfully brought to an end. The material calculus is more favorable to their adopting more determined, and therefore more effective, forms of dissent, but by the same token, the penalties for doing so are also more severe.

Of course, all this talk of the necessity of disrupting business as usual comes about because the meager degree of democracy tolerated in capitalist democracies prevents the majority from easily shaping public policy. By default, any chance of altering the trajectory of US foreign policy devolves to the carrying out of a fierce and resolute extra-parliamentary opposition (and the only chance of altering it in any meaningful way means going beyond resistance to altering the conditions and systemic imperatives that have placed it on its current course – which, to put it in a few words, means nothing short of socialism.) But a resolute and effective opposition to the Anglo-American conquest of Iraq won’t arise in the US, because the costs for Americans are too high relative to the expected gains. The best hope for thwarting the exercise of US imperialism in Mesopotamia lies in the fierce and relentless opposition of the Iraqi resistance.

This conflicts with the idea that the anti-war movement of the Vietnam era was decisive in bringing about the US withdrawal from Vietnam, and therefore ought to be a model for the development of an anti-war movement in the present. That the Vietnam era anti-war movement disappeared after the US withdrawal from Vietnam, as if US aggression in Indo-China was an anomaly, and not symptomatic of US imperialism, and that opposition could therefore be an ad hoc affair, is a good reason not to adopt it as a model. An effective model is one that doesn’t regard individual aggressions as anomalies, but as essential to the system – not an anti-war movement, but an anti-imperialism movement, one that organizes disparate and disconnected strikes, boycotts, and protests around a leading idea, based on the aim of replacing capitalism, the engine of imperialist wars, with socialism.

What’s more, you can argue endlessly about how much influence, if any, the anti-Vietnam war movement had on American withdrawal from Vietnam and how much was due to the fierce and indefatigable resistance of Vietnamese guerillas. The matter is irresolvable. But you would be hard pressed to conclude the guerillas didn’t deal a heavy blow, and that against the blows they dealt to frustrate US imperialism, those dealt by the anti-war movement at home were but pinpricks in comparison. And while it may be said that the US public’s growing unwillingness to accept an intolerably high US death toll was decisive, it should be added that without the guerillas there would have been no intolerably high US death toll for the US public to find intolerable.

In the history of colonialism and imperialism, defeats have always come as a result of the recalcitrance of the natives, not as a consequence of anti-imperialist sentiments at home, which, in any event, have often failed to recognize the inextricable connection between imperialist conquest and capitalism and have amounted, accordingly, to nothing more than the innocent and pious expression of benevolent hopes. Hope for an effective anti-war resistance in the United States under current circumstances is Pollyannaish. The only real hope for US withdrawal from Iraq lies in the ability of the Iraqi resistance to frustrate the aims of American capital. The means by which this goal is pursued are as regrettable and ugly as the occupation that has occasioned them, but they are a necessary consequence of the logic of resistance and are dictated by opportunity. Many in the West will deplore these means, but in the end, whether they deplore them or approve of them, or simply recognize them as inevitable, is of little moment. Power – of the oppressor and of the oppressed to resist – is based on violence. That’s unfortunate, but its ugliness doesn’t make it any less true.

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