Ten days after President Obama’s Nobel acceptance speech, I have come to some sense of clarity concerning my feelings about it. My immediate gut reaction was revulsion, and it marked the point at which I finally have stopped liking Obama personally (a “liking” which I see in retrospect was a far too hopeful reaction against my hatred of the barbaric yawping of Bush-Cheney and the neofascist forces they represent).
Just on the surface, it seems troubling to accept the peace prize with an argument for just war. Coupled with Obama’s recent escalation in Afghanistan, which I oppose, this might account for the sense of dissonance. Of course, the Nobel Peace Prize is symbolic, and a very weak and compromised symbolism at that. What little good it can do lies in the accumulated prestige conferred upon it by the world, prestige that may perhaps provide some help to a truly brave and embattled figure of peace, such as Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi. A lot of the time it seems like not much more than self-congratulation for liberal moneyed elites. To give the prize to Henry Kissinger, for instance, because he helped negotiate an end to a war that he had viciously prolonged, symbolizes not peace but blind complacency. Obama’s award seems to indicate a desperate hope that the U.S. will recover from the sink of depravity represented by Bush-Cheney.
Knowing, therefore, that the prize is symbolic, it is clear to me on reflection that the President’s acceptance speech symbolizes something more disturbing than any immediate political significance it may have. I see now that what I find revolting in such an argument for “just war” doctrine, presented in the context of peace on the world stage, is its stubborn refusal of accountability for unjust war, in short, its embrace of imperial hubris.
The invasion of Iraq and its aftermath resulted in somewhere between 500,000 and 1 million deaths, according to the most conscientious and objective sources. In 2007, the Iraqi government reported that there were about 5 million orphans in the country. Estimates of the number of children killed have ranged between about 8-12% of total casualties, with many thousands more killed by malnutrition and disease. Iraqis themselves have reported that virtually every family in Iraq has experienced the violent death of a first- or second- degree relative. During much of the war, there were terrorist bombings going off on practically a daily basis, with casualties often in the hundreds. If a comparable death toll had taken place in the United States, it would have plunged the country into unimaginable grief and terror. Yet the relatively prosperous citizens of the U.S., insulated by distance and a silent and complicit news media, did not adequately comprehend or feel the enormity of Iraqi losses. Attention has been paid to the deaths of over 4300 American soldiers, although even that has been blunted by government and media neglect, of which the prohibition against showing photographs of dead soldiers, or up until recently, even their coffins, is a symptom. In addition, there have been over 30,000 wounded soldiers, many of them seriously, and this toll has been similarly muted.
Proponents of this war have often said that getting rid of Saddam Hussein has made Iraq a better place, but Iraqis themselves disagree: the death toll during his reign was much lower, and the displacement of people has been catastrophic: somewhere between 1.5 and 2 million Iraqis fled the country, almost 10% of the entire population. It should be abundantly clear to all but the most ignorant by now that the U.S. invasion itself was based wholly on deception. The claim that Iraq was involved in the September 11 attacks was a shameful lie that has been repeatedly disproved. The Cheney fall-back position from this, that Saddam was aiding Al Qaida, has been thoroughly discredited. Then of course there was the claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. The evidence is now overwhelming that intelligence reports were manipulated and in some cases completely fabricated in order to support this false claim.
Once the invasion took place, the United States did nothing to help Iraq stabilize its infrastructure or to promote a peaceful transition to a post-Saddam government. The “strategy” of the Bush-Cheney war effort was one of utter venality. The oil resources were to be protected, but the people were expendable. The callous behavior of the military (and the mercenaries) towards civilians produced a death toll that actually exceeded the deaths from sectarian violence in the war’s first two years. The neocon crackpots who tried their hand at nation-building failed at every step of the way and on every level. The piles of dead bodies, the tragic destruction of an entire nation, are directly attributable to the greed, imperial ambition, and stupidity of the United States government.
So as a result of an invasion that was based on deliberate falsehoods, and carried out without the approval of the United Nations, many hundreds of thousands of people, probably over a million, have died, and millions more lives have been shattered forever.
By the time the so-called “surge” was put into place in 2007, Iraq was already a broken shell of a country and the bloodletting had already destroyed whatever hopes there might have been for a better post-Saddam reality. The war enthusiasts now use this contemptible and phony “surge” as a point of pride, even claiming that the United States somehow “won” the war, although what exactly we have won I have been unable to fathom.
I won’t even try to detail the massive looting and impoverishment of Iraqi resources (and the U.S. treasury) by rapacious corporations such as KBR, or the shameful use of torture on detainees which has called into question our very values as a people. The list of murders, crimes, and obscenities goes on too long to adequately discuss in a short piece.
And here is my question to the United States of America, not only to President Obama and the Congress but to our servile excuse for a news media, our corporate elites, the millions of flag-waving warmongering “patriots,” and the many more passive citizens watching their TV and saying nothing: Where is our remorse? Will there be no acknowledgment of guilt at all? Will no one express even a public sense of grief for the terrible damage and loss of life caused by this unjust, illegal and immoral war?
The so-called leaders of this country, the politicians, corporate executives, and other public figures and spokespersons, seem to think that you can wish murder away with silence and denial. And in this, I’m afraid, they represent the ignorance and sense of entitlement of a large percentage of the American people. The best many can do is admit that the war was a “mistake.” Many can not even do that, trapped as they are in the delusion that the United States has to be magically right in all things. The delusion of power, of “we’re number 1,” the fatal soul-sickness known as “American exceptionalism,” prevents most of us from even seeing the blood that stains our country.
If it is too much to ask for an admission of fault, guilt, or remorse, will we not at least allow mourning for what has been done to be publicly expressed? No, apparently, we will not. It is, I am told, politically unfeasible to do so. Those of us who express such things will be labeled weak at best, and at worst traitorous. So instead we have our President accepting the Nobel Peace Prize with a feeble and misguided apology for American “just war.”
“Whatever mistakes we have made,” Obama said, “the plain fact is this: the United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms. The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea, and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans. We have borne this burden not because we seek to impose our will. We have done so out of enlightened self-interest.”
This is the refined pseudo-intellectual version of the imperial lie. We kill for the good of the world, and for peace. I suppose Obama believes the lie. Henry Kissinger, at least, knew that “enlightened self-interest” was a rhetorical device masking what he considered the necessities of realpolitik. The military industry that has been in charge of American foreign policy for over half a century (at least) plays a global chess game with the lives of millions, and for the consumption of the stupid dolts, the citizens and voters, the game is called “just war” and “self-interest.” Well, it does represent the self-interest of a very few men whose ideas are centered solely on naked power and the economic control which sustains it. The actual self-interest of the vast majority of the human beings don’t matter. We are just pieces in this game.
There is a price to be paid. Responsibility for mass murder may be hidden and denied, and the killers may go unpunished in our courts of law. But crimes of such enormity take their toll on the spirit of a country’s people, and unless they are acknowledged with grief, remorse, and correction in values and behavior, they result in a gradual and steady corruption which can only end in disaster. No pretty words by eloquent politicians, no phony peace prizes, no empty proclamations of hope, can change that. Staying upon our present course, like a blind giant stumbling through chaos while proclaiming his own greatness, we will surely fall.