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A Tragic Anniversary: Reflections on Iraq, Activism and Commitment


Every year around this time, I reflect on my experiences in Iraq and those as an activist. It’s been twelve years since the US’ criminal invasion and occupation, but as most people now know, and as the people of Iraq have always known, the tragedy didn’t begin in 2003.

We could go back to the 1990s, and properly recall the Clinton Administration’s murderous and insane sanctions inflicted on the country. Remember, as Madeline Albright infamously said, “we think the price [500,000 dead Iraqi children] is worth it.” In the US, those in charge of the Empire don’t fret over the deaths of Iraqi children. Hell, they don’t shed a tear for poor or dying US children, so why should we expect the managers of Empire to offer any mercy to the enemy?

Others would argue that we should look back to the eight year Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s in order to better understand today’s geopolitical reality in Iraq. Remember, the US supported Saddam’s invasion of Iran back in September of 1980. Horrifically enough, that war was the longest conventional war of the 20th century. Hundreds of thousands were killed on both sides, with hundreds of thousands more injured, displaced or permanently traumatized. Some estimate that more than a million people were killed from both nations.

To be honest, I don’t bother much with the specific numbers. One person is enough. Life matters. Indeed, all life matters. For those who’ve lived in, reported from, or fought in a war-zone, body counts don’t mean much. I couldn’t tell you whether or not there’s 1,000,000 dead Iraqis, or 250,000, reports vary. Again, I’m not sure it matters. Should US citizens feel better because the Empire didn’t murder as many as it could have if given free-reign? I don’t think so.

Perhaps, we should listen more closely to western commentators such as Robert Fisk and Patrick Cockburn, who remind us that western imperial policies have played a significant role in destroying Arab and Muslim nations for many decades. The significance of the colonial legacy can’t be overstated. Here, I’m grateful for the specialized knowledge and intellectual commitment of people like Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, Norman Finkelstein, among many others.

In the past, I’ve heard Finkelstein tell interviewers who ask why he doesn’t comment on other topics, “How could I just drop this issue and move on? The Palestinian people can’t move on, so I’ll continue fighting until there’s justice.” That sort of commitment is hard to come by in the modern world, for it seems all of us occasionally succumb to the forces of detachment. It’s hard to remain focused, no doubt. Yet, we must, as those on the receiving end of the Empire’s stick have no other choice.

Sometimes, it seems as though even the most astute commentators gloss over utterly unacceptable and insane facts. Now, I’m not saying people do this on purpose, I simply think we’ve all become a bit cynical and desensitized as time has worn on.

Constantly honoring the dead in a meaningful fashion is quite taxing for any human being, let alone those who have been exposed to extreme carnage and madness. We try our best, sure. Yet, I feel we’ve all fallen short when attempting to account for the death and destruction we’ve inflicted around the world. On the other hand, at this stage, we should be talking about these issues as one global community. After all, the European nations didn’t break ranks with the US over the war in Iraq, and the Chinese continued to produce our consumer products and absorb our debt, so why should they feel innocent as ISIS ravages Mesopotamia?

To be clear, I’m not trying to cast blame, or misdirect responsibility. I agree that the US is primarily responsible for the destruction of Iraq and the broader Middle East. There’s no doubt about it. However, who else is responsible? That’s an important question to ask. It’s not just US oil companies who are making out like bandits in Iraq and Afghanistan, to name just two nations the US has attacked while its allies (and enemies) have benefited from Uncle Sam’s plunder.

Yet, today, if you were to read the major headlines in newspapers across the continents, you would be hard-pressed to find many stories about the collective responsibility we should feel for the ongoing devastation taking place in Iraq. According to the mainstream press around the world, it’s Islam’s fault.

People, and nations, are concerned with other things: Ukraine, Yemen, Syria, etc. As always, little historical context is given by the major media outlets, so most people see virtually no connection between these various crises. The “situation is out of our hands” or “the Syrian people need to step-up” are the messages cynically spewed across the airwaves.

Most people are not viewing the events in Ukraine as “Cold War 2.0.” Most people don’t even understand the first Cold War, let alone the complexities involved in the current conflict in Ukraine. People know it’s bad. For older folks, it’s reminiscent of the 20th century, and that’s not a good thing. That century, unlike preceding centuries, unleashed a form of mechanized war that the Zeus himself couldn’t possibly fathom: chemical weapons, nuclear weapons, machine guns, rockets, missiles, tanks, submarines, drones, and that’s only the beginning.

Even though my mind is trying to stay focused on the people of Iraq, today my heart is also heavy for the people of Venezuela. Once again, it’s clear that the US is hell-bent on destroying any and all alternatives to state-capitalism, although some would argue that Venezuela isn’t necessarily a fundamental break with the dominant system, it has provided a glimmer of hope in a world inundated with cynicism. Though, all of that could be finished if the US and its lapdog allies get their way.

Again, what can we do? Last week, there were scattered protests around the country, but more people in the US are talking about affordable housing and living wages than issues surrounding US foreign policy. After fifteen years of non-stop war, torture, spying and assassinations, somehow liberals and progressives have still failed to make the connection between Empire and Austerity.

To be fair, the failure of the antiwar movement to build lasting relationships with liberal groups is also my fault, our fault, the movement’s fault. How have we failed so miserably in even somewhat achieving our stated goals? Let’s say the antiwar movement re-kickstarted itself in 2002. If that’s the date we can reasonably use, then we’ve been at it for thirteen years. Personally, I’ve been involved on a full-time basis for the last eight years, and politically conscious for about ten. In that time, there’s been more torture, more wars, more spying, more drones, more weapons being manufactured, more assassinations, more coups, and so on.

Why do we not talk about these facts openly, critically and honestly? It does the movement no good to reject serious criticism. Obviously, whatever we’re doing isn’t working. And that needs to be said regularly because a lot of activists seem too complacent and willing to repeat the failed actions of previous movements, without critically examining whether or not we’re actually making progress and meaningful gains.

What’s more than clear is that there is no longer an antiwar/anti-Empire/anti-militarist/anti-imperialist movement in the US. There are sporadic groups and individuals operating throughout the country (mostly on the East Coast, West Coast and in the Beltway), but few of their actions or events are connected to broader community struggles. Hence, the movement has not grown in the past decade, but, rather, dwindled.

What does a vibrant anti-Empire movement look like on a local level? What does it look like on a national scale? What shape does it take on the international stage? Should we approach state power? Should we have functioning chapters and regular meetings? What groups can people participate in that aren’t connected with sectarian organizations or toxic politics?

Unfortunately, in the US, I think any meaningful discussions or organizing prospects around the issue of Empire will be postponed until Obama is out of office and a new President is elected. I’ve watched the antiwar movement utterly disappear during my short time as an activist, and it’s been heartbreaking. Those experiences have made me realize that many people were more interested with party affiliations and personality politics than principled opposition to Empire.

All that being said, I don’t write this essay with “sour grapes.” I’m happy to be involved and I’ve dedicated my life to doing work for multiple movements, but particularly the anti-Empire movement. For better or worse, that’s what I know best. But, I want to be a part of a growing, vibrant and most importantly, successful movement.

For some people being involved is good enough. I’ve had plenty of my activist friends tell me so. They say, “Vince, we’re doing the best we can and that’s all we can do.” On some level, they are correct. But from a different angle, I think that retort is a sort of cop-out, a way to diffuse criticism or meaningful debate.

I want to win. And winning for me is stopping wars, not mitigating the number of those who will undoubtedly get killed because we have no chance at actually stopping the bombing, coup, etc. Winning for me is completely dismantling the US Empire, every single base of the over 1,000 now operating world-wide. Winning for me is not allowing the US Empire to fight proxy wars, conduct torture campaigns or assassinations.

We need to be clear that holding the moral high-ground does not inherently mean we’re going to win the long fight. We need people to start writing articles and producing documentaries about strategy, tactics and vision. What do we want? How are we going to accomplish our objectives? What are we willing to do to achieve our goals?

Undoubtedly, symbolic protests, street theatre, speaking-out, writing articles and making documentary films is not going to stop the Empire. Stopping the Empire is going to require that people sacrifice their time in order to build mass-movements that are willing to put their lives on the line. I don’t say that in a hyperbolic fashion. I say it with complete awareness of what it means.

After witnessing firsthand what the Empire is willing to do to achieve its ends, I have a difficult time believing that it will be stopped without activists and organizers possibly losing their lives. For some reason, movements in the US do not talk in these terms. We talk about narratives and messaging, but not discipline or sacrifice.

Finally, I’m not prescribing martyrdom for the movement. I’m simply wondering what sort of sacrifices, discipline and commitment it will take to stop the most powerful military machine in the world? Are we personally and collectively prepared to undertake such a task?

I hope others are asking similar questions on this somber anniversary.

Vincent Emanuele is a writer, activist and radio journalist who lives and works in the Rust Belt. He can be reached at vince.emanuele@ivaw.org

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