Blind Man with a Pistol

Pyrrhic Victories

On 20 March 2003, under false pretences, under the grotesque banner of ‘shock and awe’, despite the protests of the largest demonstration the world had ever seen, despite two-million marchers in London on 15 February that year, the armed forces of the United Kingdom invaded Iraq. On 30 April 2009, with 179 British soldiers and untold hundreds of thousands of Iraqi citizens dead, UK combat operations ceased.

As someone who demonstrated against the invasion with 150 000 others in -30 C Montreal weather, an ‘I told you so’ has never come at a higher price. Exhausted with questions of the Downing Street Memo, the Dodgy Dossier, and Weapons of Mass Destruction, both now stale even as running jokes with the late-night talk show set, the question posed by the nation in the wake of  the British withdrawal is: ‘Was the UK mission in Iraq a success?’

What a question. A success for whom, one might wonder; and for what? Certainly the original rationale and legality of the war have been so crippled and enfeebled to render the prospect of success farcical. For those of us with functioning memories the answer is simple: there were no weapons of mass destruction, therefore any injury, incurred or evinced, returns a negative sum. Despite the fact that then-Home Secretary Jack Straw was caught on tape saying that the case for war was based on ‘thin’ evidence, on Question Time recently he desperately clung to a tortuous justification that would have made Michael Ignatieff proud: based on what we knew, we made the best decision we could; those who made what turned out to be the right decision, therefore, did so for the wrong reasons, and may God have mercy on their souls.

So much for weapons of mass destruction. But there is another helix to this double coil: the war on terror. Britain, who fought fascism alone in the streets of London, would rise again to help their American allies in the desperate wake of 9/11. Never mind that none of the World Trade Center hijackers came from Iraq. Never mind that Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party espoused pan-Arab secularism and was historically at odds with the fundamentalist Islamic al-Qaeda. If We Do Not Take The War To Them They Will Take The War To Us. Except they did. Would the 7/7 2005 bombings of London occurred if Britain was not in Iraq? Perhaps. Although the Spanish people thought otherwise when the Madrid underground was attacked: they almost immediately deposed the sitting government and voted in José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero’s leftist party who promised to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq. One question, however, renders such speculation instantly moot: are there less terrorists in Iraq now than there were on 20 March 2003? The answer is an emphatic and resounding no.

So our men and women in parliament turn to a new charade. The charade of democracy. Perhaps we did go into Iraq for the wrong reasons but look what we’ve done: we’ve deposed a tyrannical and genocidal dictator and given democracy to the Iraqi people. As if it was ours to give. As if the Iraqi people needed it given. What is democracy anyway? Listening to the cheerleaders of the invasion, you’d think it was a show of theatre: blue thumbs, long queues, smiles and broken English. But this is not democracy. It is a circus.

Such arguments that hope to rectify, if not erase, the lies and deception fostered by those we trusted to lead us want to cleave justice from history. Well, here we are now boys, in the bed we made, and by gum we will make a game of it. But, those who make this case, those who would have us believe that history is beside the point, forget, as always, that history is the point. History shows us that Saddam Hussein, the vanquished ace in the hole for Iraq warmongers, is himself a product of Western imperialism and meddling. History shows us that every time the Iraqi people attempted to rise up in chorus, they were thwarted by an empire promising first pacification, then civilization, now democracy.

Democracy is the people. Democracy is not a gift bestowed upon a willing nation by a guardian parent who feels its offspring is ready. It is not a thing that can be pounded into a square inch of dust like embossing in so much beaten copper. It is of the people, by the people and for the people; and its genesis in Iraq has been baffled by British egotism throughout the last one hundred years. But the thing about democracy is that it will not be baffled forever. Like murder, it will out. And no one knows this better than the citizens of Iraq, who, despite being bloodied, abused and beaten, have now seen the backs of British soldiers three times in a century.

So Britain continues to laud its military efforts, with soldiers who are kinder, gentler, than their American counterparts, and made the best of a bad situation. Keep calm and carry on, goes the motto. Besides, victory in Afghanistan awaits. So too, I hope, does democracy for Iraq. It’s been a long time coming.

A More Perfect Rhetoric

Game Six, 1975 World Series. The Boston Red Sox, cursed, improbable participants against Sparky Anderson’s Cincinnati Reds who had beaten their closest Rivals in the National League West Division, the Los Angeles Dodgers, by 20 games. The game is a classic, and for good reason. It had everything: changing leads, brilliant catches, controversial calls and a pinch-hit home run in the bottom of the eighth to tie it for the home-team Red Sox.

Then comes Carlton Fisk, bottom of the twelfth. He connects with a Pat Darcy pitch and drills a swerving line drive towards left-field. The ball is heading certainly, tragically foul. But Fisk leaps up in the air, desperately flails both his his arms right, willing the ball fair. It kisses the yellow foul pole, an electric kiss, winning the greatest game ever played with a walk-off solo home run. Poetry and pandemonium.

Earlier this month, Barack Obama hit a home run of his own. “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union.”

Two hundred and twenty one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men gathered and, with these simple words, launched America’s improbable experiment in democracy. Farmers and scholars; statesmen and patriots who had traveled across an ocean to escape tyranny and persecution finally made real their declaration of independence at a Philadelphia convention that lasted through the spring of 1787.

The document they produced was eventually signed but ultimately unfinished. It was stained by this nation’s original sin of slavery, a question that divided the colonies and brought the convention to a stalemate until the founders chose to allow the slave trade to continue for at least twenty more years, and to leave any final resolution to future generations.

It was a beautiful thing. A poetic, virtuoso performance turned a difficult situation—the comments of Reverend Jeremiah Wright—into a positive, unifying gesture. Based on some of the responses by the media, you’d have thought Obama had eradicated racism with a single speech. It was reprinted in the New York Times for chrissakes! Home run? It was a career-defining grand slam.

So imagine Obama’s confusion when Rev. Wright did not disappear after Obama opined that his comments “had the potential to widen the racial divide” and “expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country [the United States].” Instead, Wright repeated his comments and insisted upon such inconvenient concepts of historical providence and poetic justice:

We took this country by terror away from the Sioux, the Apache, the Arawak, the Comanche, the Arapaho, the Navajo. Terrorism! We took Africans from their country to build our way of ease and kept them enslaved and living in fear. Terrorism! We bombed Grenada and killed innocent civilians, babies, non-military personnel. We bombed the black civilian community of Panama with stealth bombers and killed unarmed teenagers and toddlers, pregnant mothers and hard-working fathers. We bombed Gadafi’s home and killed his child. “Blessed are they who bash your children’s head against a rock!” We bombed Iraq. We killed unarmed civilians trying to make a living. We bombed a plant in Sudan to payback for the attack on our embassy. Killed hundreds of hard-working people; mothers and fathers who left home to go that day, not knowing that they would never get back home. We bombed Hiroshima! We bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye! Kids playing in the playground, mothers picking up children after school, civilians – not soldiers – people just trying to make it day by day. We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and Black South Africans, and now we are indignant? Because the stuff we have done overseas has now been brought back into our own front yards! America’s chickens are coming home to roost! Violence begets violence. Hatred begets hatred and terrorism begets terrorism.

Obama is a skillful speaker. But despite the acclaim he earns for speeches like “A More Perfect Union,” rhetoric cannot bridge the crevasse that American history has dug for itself. In fact, tragically, such rhetoric obscures righteous attempts like those of Rev. Wright to expose such fissures in the fabric of American society and packages racial divide as a challenge we can work through and “move beyond” rather than a crisis and trauma that requires intense interrogation and wholesale reconfiguration of social relations. Obama dresses racial prejudice in the comforting guise of an “issue,” much like the vomit-inducing grandstanding of Hollywood films like Paul Haggis’s Crash; whereas Rev. Wright shines a naked light on the catastrophe of racism in America.

I do not live in America and I do not know what I would do if I was faced with the difficult choice with which progressive Americans are faced. Between two lesser evils is never a pleasant decision. But what I do know is what is at stake when Obama dismisses the just diagnosis of Rev. Wright for a more politically expedient path, however eloquent: Obama is dismissing an ally of progressives everywhere in favour of appeasement. Reverend Wright is our ally, rhetoric is not.

Carlton Fisk can sympathize with Barrack Obama’s bewilderment; after Fisk’s career-defining thunderbolt, his game-winning home run, the Red Sox lost Game 7 and the World Series two days later. Don’t mistake a single round for the match, Obama. It ain’t over, not by a long shot.