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Bourne: Not in Our Name of a Different Sort


At the turn of the last century, Randolph Bourne could have been writing for our times. Disabled people have claimed him as one of our own. Radicals can claim him as both an accurate historian and timeless prophet in that his writings consist of an exceptional critique of militaristic barbarism applicable to today and his political understanding of class struggle clearly unraveled the self-interest behind the hawk mentality, which has dominated US foreign affairs.

For Bourne, war is at its center imperialist carnage waged by the institution the militaristic State. Bourne’s great anti-war manifesto “War is the Health of the State” lay unpublished and was luckily rescued from the wastebasket at his death. There he explains that in war the State is imminent (not the country or the nation), mobilized through its military to “slowly bring it into collision with another state.”

As Max Boot, a fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, recently explained in an op-ed for the New York Times “Who Says we Never Strike First” (Oct. 4, 2002) pre-emptive interventions are not “a relic of by gone imperial days.” Between 1800 and 1934 US Marines staged 180 landings abroad.

Boot, writes, “Some were in response to attacks on United States citizens or property but many were launched before such attacks had occurred.”

There have been many US interventions, in the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the intervention in the Dominican Republic in 1965, in Grenada in 1983, the Gulf War in 1991, and Kosovo in 2000 to name but the most well known. This doesn’t count the CIA maneuvers to help Washington establish and maintain empire. The US has a long and proven track record of military action on behalf of wealth and power.

Now comes President-select Bush with oil interests who would have the State engage in another war with Iraq to rearrange the Middle East. But Americans, for the most part, lack Bourne’s talent for observation that would reveal the US actually does possess a real and well-documented danger to sovereign nations in the world. Another war with Iraq could well expand to include the “Axis of Evil” nations Bush named in his State of the Nation Speech last January. The “War on Terrorism” is such a vague and open-ended proposition. The administration has announced that it will launch a unilateral pre-emptive attack on anyone whom it feels might someday pose a danger to its supremacy.

All US wars have been State empire-building as real as the still standing Empire State Building in New York City though signs of crumbling empire walls are distinctly there. What we’re watching now is discordance between US economic strength and its elite’s aspiration to maintain world domination, which is tipsy and made less viable by a stumbling Wall Street, the recession, growing government deficit, yet at the same time even more needed to distract from our present domestic realities.

“War is the health of the state,” writes Bourne. “It automatically sets in motion throughout society those irresistible forces for uniformity, for passionate cooperation with the Government in coercing into obedience the minority groups and individuals which lack the larger herd sense.”

Witness the congress who forced into a vote on a First Strike Resolution cowers to the President least they are labeled “unpatriotic”~! This when the vast majority of calls through the congressional switchboard are in opposition to Bush’s Resolution?

Bourne describes the State as “an instrument by which the power of the whole herd is wielded for the benefit of a class.”

Bush and the hawks are framing it just as Bourne described in this passage, “A war free from any taint of self-seeking, a war that will secure the triumph of democracy and internationalize the world!” (Bourne, “The War and the Intellectuals”)

It is precisely the self-seeking who beat the exaggerated Iraqi threat war drums today. Bush wants a blank check on Iraq as an election strategy amongst other reasons. He and Security chief Condoleeza Rice have common interests as members of the oil elite, Rice as a member of the board of directors of Chevron who just happens to have an oil tanker named after her.

VP Dick Cheney as a former supplier to Iraq has profited to the tune of millions from war, and second time Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld is a salesman for the missile defense system which will bring untold millions to defense contractor corporations and fame in certain circles for putting that one over on the American taxpayer.

Financial rewards and lucrative contracts often come through the revolving door between government and private enterprise. For instance, after the 1991 Gulf War the former Secretary of Defense under Bush Sr., Dick Cheney became CEO of Halliburton Corp. While its CEO, Halliburton sold more technology to Saddam Hussein than any other U.S. corporation. Starting in 1998, at least two Halliburton subsidiaries sold Iraq $23.8 million worth of oil industry parts and equipment. These deals were arranged by Halliburton and routed through subsidiaries to avoid political exposure.

Bourne writes “The rulers soon learn to capitalize the reverence which the State produces in the majority, and turn it into a general resistance toward a lessening of their privileges.”

Witness the military tribunals proposed to prosecute accused terrorists that would throw away respect for basic notions of fairness and due process, as a matter of both democratic principle and international law. Witness the Patriot Act that would pit neighbor against neighbor in order to root out the supposed terrorists. Bush’s words “Those who are not for us are against us” ring harshly in my ears.

Bourne notes “The sanctity of the State becomes identified with the sanctity of the ruling class, and the latter are permitted to remain in power under the impression that in obeying and serving them, we are obeying and serving society, the nation, the great collectivity of all of us . . .”

Issues for the American collectivity today include immediate threats to our personal welfare. The number of people unemployed has risen dramatically since corrupt corporations have collapsed and the remaining have been relentlessly firing workers.

The stock market is down 34% since January of 2001 – that has affected retirement savings and pension funds. More people worry after a lifetime of working if they will be impoverished in old age. 1.4 million more people have been added to the ranks of the uninsured; 41 million Americans can’t afford to be sick. Where were the “pre-emptive strikes” against these realities?

The ruling class lies to get what it wants. Professor Abukhalil associate professor of political science at California State University at Stanislaus writes that Bush has failed to mention that “Reagan’s and his father’s administrations -prominent members of which included Rumsfeld and Cheney– for their help in the construction of Saddam’s arsenal, especially in the area of germ warfare. (As’ad Abukhalil, Bin Laden, Islam & America’s New ‘War on Terrorism’); The CIA has been more forthright by stating that the chances of any attack on the US by Iraq are “low”.

Bourne, in opposition to unleashed militarism, held fast to principle as other intellectuals accommodated the imperialist carnage of the First World War. Rejected by many of his intellectual peers (including his mentor, John Dewey), for these anti-war views, Bourne died in 1918 of influenza at the young age of 32. He left behind a formidable intellectual body of work.

So what is the connection between Bourne and Not in Our Name? (I use Not in Our Name to symbolize the entire developing anti-war movement) It is the dehumanization of impairment that seems to inevitably come along with denouncing acts of military aggression and has been a hallmark of former war resistance campaigns.

Bourne was born with an impairment that all too often writers use as a metaphor for that which is horrible, undesirable, and pitiful. For instance, Christopher Phelps puts it this way about Bourne’s physical characteristics:

” Å  As a literary radical, he gave voice in stirring essays to the values of aesthetic beauty, cultural democracy, and personal friendship, ideals that many since have considered in poignant contrast to his own misshapen face and hunchbacked body. Bourne was that rarity: the authentic tragic hero.” (emphasis mine)

While singing his praise, Bourne’s physical appearance elicits this passage from John Dos Passos in 1946:

If any man has a ghost Bourne has a ghost, a tiny twisted unscarred ghost in a black cloak hopping along the grimy old brick and brownstone streets still left in downtown New York, crying out in a shrill soundless giggle; War is the health of the state.

From historians we know that Bourne’s editor at the Atlantic Monthly was embarrassed to lunch with him in public restaurants.

Bourne, himself, certainly knew of the prejudice his impairment elicited and was not a self-hating cripple. Instead, like many of us, he learned to fend off the glares, the stares, the pity, the unspoken thoughts easily read by one who has seen them a zillion times.

Already I am hearing protests against the war on Pacifica and elsewhere that is welcomed indeed. I have participated in opposing Bush’s plans. But within the context of the anti-war rhetoric comes the objection that our military personnel may be “maimed” in a war with Iraq. No one questions the horrors of war but a “maimed” person is by default used here to signify the body made less, the superior body turned into an inferior body and that is a thorn in the side of any self-respecting disabled person.

In the past anti-war activists have used the wheelchair as a symbol for what is wrong with war. Think about that. What happens to the person sitting in that wheelchair? They shrink in size to being less than human. They get mixed messages from the non-disabled. Are they still valuable members of society? They are pitiable. They are “maimed”! Assigned to being mutilated they are no longer complete persons in the eyes of nondisabled persons.

The disability rights movement sees the wheelchair as a welcome tool that provides us mobility. Over the years we have made some progress in dispelling nondisabled persons’ fears of wheelchairs.

Many persons are injured by war. The euphemism “collateral damage” includes not only those killed during bombing but those left injured as well. The Afghanistan war, for instance, has left impaired living persons in its wake. Amputees are living in countries all over the world where land mines have been a part of warfare tactics. Do we abandon them as less than human, not deserving of a job, a home, family, and a future because they are missing a limb? Unfortunately, this is exactly what happens to too many labeled and discarded as “maimed.”

Why dehumanize wheelchair-using veterans by making them poster children for the anti-war campaign? It dehumanizes all persons who are impaired. Just because our bodies are different, are we not to be treated as full human beings deserving of the space to live free from the prejudices and stereotypes that others project onto us?

A ramp, of course, symbolizes that wheelchair users are welcome as equals. What about tackling the disablist society instead by making discrimination the object of protest?

Further, the people who survive war with an injury will have needs far beyond your pity. Look at what happened to the Gulf War vets who developed Gulf War Syndrome. For years they could not get the government to acknowledge that they had a condition caused by war or get appropriate supports for their illnesses. 23% of homeless population consists of veterans of former wars. What about accessible housing, food, jobs, economic justice for all the people war will make a social justice casualty?

The Bush administration has just threatened to veto the $355 billion defense authorization bill for the new fiscal year if House and Senate conferees do not eliminate new pension benefits for disabled military retirees.

“We simply cannot continue to add ever-expansive obligations to the defense budget,” Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said in a letter to the conferees, who could decide the issue this week. “This would divert critical resources away from the war on terrorism, the transformation of our military capabilities and important personnel programs such as pay raises and facilities improvements.” (Washington Post, October 7, 2002; Page A02)

A disabled vet just does not rate.

Already the Bush & Co. warlords are getting ready to shave the future costs of doing their dirty business. (Pentagon estimate is that a war with Iraq will cost $200 billion. KPFK, Oct. 7, 2002)

Is it not militaristic imperialism, as Bourne writes so eloquently about, and the mode of production where profit reigns and all human beings do not matter that is at issue here?

“In all wars the object is to protect or to seize money, property and power, and there will always be wars so long as Capital rules and oppresses people.” (Ernst Friedrich, War Against War, 1924)

I hope the anti-war movement can get with the disability rights movement and not use the wheelchair as a symbol to denounce war this time around. Please, Not in Our Name.

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