Saturday, May 12, 2007

Revisiting Definitions of War and Insurgency: To Those Who Can’t Afford to Define Themselves

As I write this, the U.S. military is in its fifth day of hearings concerning the Haditha Massacre. Several marines are charged with “unpremeditated murder” of civilians there. The courtroom squabbles concern who in the chain of command was responsible for reporting the allegations of murder, as well as whether soldiers can be charged with killing civilians in combat at all. The larger issues, of course, concern the punishment of the marines who (it is clear by now) slaughtered 24 Iraqis and tried to cover it up. It is that dynamic between the Iraqis, the U.S. marines who killed them, and the U.S. government who get to punish the killers, that has again sparked me thinking about the power to define legitimate and illegitimate enemies as well as fair and unfair violence. It's really a question of who gets to define identities. From Falluja to Haditha to the communities in America giving up their families for a war we did not choose, identity is sold to the highest bidder.

Since 2003, I have wrestled with myself and others over the issue of who enjoys “ownership” of the street struggles in Iraq. My position has always been that neither U.S. and coalition forces, nor “insurgents” or “terrorists,” ever received the opportunity to define themselves and define each other through the establishment of communicative understanding. They lost this ability by virtue of their material servitude to others—to the American and global ruling class that sanctioned this war, to practitioners of backward ideological wars from both the East and West, to a power structure that considers the life of workers (in or out of uniform) expendable. Since the initial invasion and occupation, through periodic revelations of particularly brutal behavior by various factions there (including “ours”), I have posited an admittedly unreasonable, utopian counterfactual: A world where the effort to discern the understanding and perspectives of those affected by a decision (eg, invading a country to remove a dictator) precedes the decision itself, and a world where the powerful would have to justify, really justify, their decisions to the powerless.

The late Robert Anton Wilson wrote “the power to define is the power to destroy” into his play Wilhelm Reich in Hell[1]—and I’ve spotted the occasional use of that phrase, without attribution to Wilson, throughout the blogosphere…including, ironically, on both a Canadian First Nations site and a “Vanguard” White Power site. Wilson writes the phrase coming from Dr. Reich himself, meaning that this discursive power is tied to a network of material and psychic power, in the pursuit of manufacturing more power, in the form of authority, predictability, and the deployment of “primal might” in the form of face-to-face killing.

To some degree, the management of that primal might, the ability to keep it from getting “out of control” and crossing unacceptable lines, is the razors’ edge of managing an occupation. The recent Mental Health Advisory Team report that created a ripple of concern for a few days a couple of weeks ago, confirms the suspicion that we are dealing with extremely an extremely raw human condition.
The study exposes the deteriorating behavioral health status of US troops—including depression, anxiety, alcoholism, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), marital problems and suicide. These mental health and personal problems are shown to directly influence the attitudes US soldiers hold toward the Iraqi population—resulting in increasing levels of terror and brutality meted out to civilians.
Asked whether “all non-combatants should be treated with dignity and respect,” less than half of soldiers agreed. Close to a third of all soldiers reported they had insulted or cursed at non-combatants in their presence. Twelve percent of marines and 9 percent of army soldiers said they had unnecessarily damaged or destroyed Iraqi property; 7 percent of marines and 9 percent of soldiers said they had physically hit or kicked civilians.[2]
Although the United States may be failing strategically in Iraq,(there are not enough coalition soldiers, nor would it be possible to send enough, to gain a strategic advantage), U.S. forces are holding their own tactically, insofar as face-to-face violence is a tactic, where the primacy of the enemy-other eludes definition. The indefinite nature of the occupation further exacerbates this looseness of identity. “We at home,” (the artificial "affected public"[3]), who know nothing about Iraq or Iraqis, know more about the ideologically-assigned identities of Iraqis than those of us who are there.

The moral superiority we draw from lawful punishment of our own soldiers for their brutalities serves to further strengthen our claim to superior brutality. Demarcations of violence exist, which intersect with the rhetorical demarcations of law (itself backed up with the promise of still more violence). We create a spectacle that would have been the envy of all the Caesars: A few of our soldiers slaughter civilians, which is wickedly, impressively brutal, but our legal apparatus is more impressively brutal still, and even has the power to kill our own slaughterers—an act we’re willing to commit in the name of a higher justice than violence, even as we are the masters of violence. Life becomes doubly expendable: those who are initially slaughtered get to have their deaths justified on multiple grounds: It was war, and look, we found out who did it and we’ll punish them; those who did the slaughtering can be trotted out, imprisoned, even executed, to provide closure to the moral questions posed by these relatively un-nuanced displays of violence.

One of the legal-rhetorical demarcations that intersect with the real levels of violence in Iraq is “the power to define.” It’s a question of words, but it has real consequences in the effort to manage perceptions of brutality. In 2004 Paul Craig Roberts wrote that

the US has largely destroyed Fallujah, once a city of 300,000. Hundreds, if not thousands, of civilians have been killed by the indiscriminate use of high explosives. To cover up the extensive civilian deaths, US authorities count all Iraqi dead as insurgents, delivering a high body count as claim of success for a bloody-minded operation.[4]
Now, think for a moment about the demarcations that erase each and every one of the noncombatants killed indiscriminately in the battles of Fallujah. The ethical differences (that is, the way we negotiate the meaning of each other, the treatment we stand to receive from each other, the struggle for identity in each others’ eyes) between those unfortunate civilians in Fallujah and those in Haditha is virtually nonexistent. Once we cross the line and decide that innocent, non-involved living beings are expendable in the service of geostrategic objectives, then all that’s left are legal demarcations, the occasional sacrifice of a few particularly brutal sacrificers, and inevitable cover-ups in a never-ending information management war that follows the real war around like Mother Courage.[5]

Of course, if U.S. forces leave Iraq, atrocities against innocents will continue. There may be other reasons for the U.S. and coalition forces to leave, but the overall level of brutality will remain constant, because the “causes” of that brutality are not found in the national identity of the perpetrators. Instead, brutality is the inevitable outcome of a system that entitles the commission of certain acceptable violence against certain acceptable others—all of those, and all of us, who lack the agency to define our status and identity.

The cry of the dispossessed, whatever their relative level of disposession, in contemporary society is a whispered: We can't afford to be. And yes, the low-level brutalizers now sitting in an air-conditioned American military court are crying it too.

[1] Robert Anton Wilson, Wilhelm Reich in Hell, see
[2] Kate Randall, “Pentagon survey exposes deep demoralization of US occupation troops,”
[3] See Dana Cloud, “Therapy, Silence, and War: Consolation and the End of Deliberation in the 'Affected' Public,” Poroi Online,
[4] Paul Craig Roberts, “There is no one left to stop them,” Counterpunch 19 November 2004,
[5] Bertold Brecht, Mother Courage and Her Children, see


Renegade Eye said...

Really important issues raised.

We have a certain Mr. Luis Posada Carriles is able to shoot a passenger airplane down, and get amnesty in the USA.

The whole moral framework is in danger. The laws are discarded.

matt said...

I agree that the inconsistent application is a travesty, and especially in the instance of Posada, a revelation of the constructed nature of the "war on terror."

But while I am all for consistent application of law, it's the construction of the law itself, whether done deliberatively and without regard to capital or not, that really motivated my post. In a more just social order, the question of Posada would be constructed and settled quite differently, better I would think, even if not perfectly.