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.

‘I see three oranges, I juggle. I see two towers, I walk.’


I saw James Marsh’s fantastic Man on Wire (2008) last night. It’s a film about Philippe Petit, wire walker par excellence. Paced like an action film, Marsh uses interviews, tasteful re-enactments and original footage to recreate Petit & co.’s daring ‘coup’ in which they counterfeit identification, dress-up alternatively as workmen and businessmen, fire an arrow from one tower to the next with a cord attached and string a 450-pound cable between the newly constructed World Trade Center towers. All this for the easy part: for Petit to walk above 110 stories in the early hours of 7 August 1974.

Even the Port Authority police officer, Sgt. Charles Daniels, sober in his report to the press, couldn’t hold back his wonder in the final instance:

I observed the tightrope ‘dancer’—because you couldn’t call him a ‘walker’—approximately halfway between the two towers. And upon seeing us he started to smile and laugh and he started going into a dancing routine on the high wire….And when he got to the building we asked him to get off the high wire but instead he turned around and ran back out into the middle….I figured I was watching something that no one would ever see again, that it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

There is the added thrill of seeing these artists, vagabonds, grifters and potsmokers break into the WTC in the context of the 1993 attempted bombing and of course, 9/11. As Marsh says in an interview with Time Out,

it’s basically a plot against these buildings, and they’re all foreigners. They’re hanging around and taking all sorts of photographs and pretending to work for various official companies in order to gain access. The big difference is that the end result is something beautiful. It’s illegal, but it’s not wicked.

For me, that’s the magical part of Petit’s story. After 9/11, Electronic music pioneer Karlheinz Stockhausen, when prompted for a reaction to the attacks on the WTC, famously responded by calling them ‘the greatest work of art that is possible in the whole cosmos’. The hijackers, he continued, had achieved ‘something in one act’ that ‘we couldn’t even dream of in music’, in which ‘people practice like crazy for ten years, totally fanatically, for a concert, and then die….You have people who are so concentrated on one performance, and then 5000 people are dispatched into eternity, in a single moment’. It was grotesque detachment on the part of Stockhausen, but certainly, this sentiment is going through the back of our minds when we watch Marsh’s film. Except wonderfully, magically, Marsh, through Petit, subverts the horror, the ate of the September 11 attacks and gives us the beautiful image of a man dancing a quarter mile above the streets, kneeling in midair and saluting us with an impish flourish.

Marsh inlays Petit’s story with all the conventions of a heist flick: love interest, ‘professionals’ vs amateurs, the untrustworthy accomplice, and a bond of homosocial love between the protagonist and his lifelong friend shattered by the momentousness of the crime. However it is difficult for any mere action plot to recreate the drama contained in this candid statement from Petit:

I had to make the decision to take my foot, anchored on the building, and put it on the wire. Not many people dare to take that first step – to land on the Moon, to dive into a great abyss in the sea. I feel that sensation each time I grab the balancing pole and start a high-wire walk. It is not exactly the same feeling each time, but it is a feeling of intimate decision. Not for nothing is it called the first step, like the first step on a new continent.

It’s a beautiful thing. See it!