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Opinion
No more rage against the machine
Where is the anger at the horrors revealed in the latest Wikileaks Iraq war logs?
Last Modified: 08 Nov 2010 13:22
Were the Wikileaks Iraq war logs just 'dishearteningly unsurprising'? [GALLO/GETTY]

Dishearteningly unsurprising.

This somewhat awkward phrase is, to my mind, the best description of the emotional and moral impact of Wikileak's release of 400,000 classified US military documents.

In the wake of the GOP "landslide" in the US midterm elections, most commentators have moved on from this all-too-troubling and familiar story. But their doing so only reinforces the basic problems that the release of the documents has revealed - an almost brazen disregard for reality and willingness to ignore the lessons of history for political expediency and economic and strategic gain.

And Barack Obama's post-election "move to the centre" and unwillingness to face the core systemic issues that helped lead to this electoral debacle will only strengthen the Republicans and diminish further the US' global standing.

Violating the laws of war

The individual details are bad enough. First, there are the details of hundreds of civilians killed at checkpoints and over 60,000 killed more broadly during the war; a figure the US military had refused to release and denied even having collected.

Then there is the continued torture by US troops of prisoners well after Abu Ghraib, and the even larger problem of ignoring, as a matter of official military policy per "frago 242" (Fragmentary Order 242) the even more systematic torture and mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners by their own jailers. And even more stunning, the cavalier manner in which military lawyers okayed the killing of Iraqis trying to surrender merely because "they could not surrender to an aircraft".

One can only wonder how the Nobel Peace Prize Committee now feels about having bestowed their most cherished prize on a president who handed over thousands of Iraqi detainees to that country's government and security forces, even though the US military had irrefutable evidence of massive, systematic torture by Iraqi security personnel. Is it time yet to ask for the medal back?

And lest we imagine things have gotten much better under Obama, the continued imprisonment of child soldier Omar Ahmed Khadr and the routine use of attack drones outside war zones with the attendant civilian casualties are both clear violations of the laws of war - and these are only the examples we know about.

Indeed, a huge share of the actions detailed by the Iraq war logs are clear violations of the laws of war, which the US is obligated by international treaty, its own constitution and customary international law to uphold (and when breached, to prosecute). That a Democratic administration, which in good measure owes its existence to Obama's early opposition to the Iraq invasion, is not merely avoiding these issues, but actively working to suppress any attempts to address them, illustrates how entrenched amorality and criminality have become within the US politico-military system.

But however disturbing, all these revelations largely confirm what anyone who has bothered to pay attention to the last eight years of invasion and occupation in Iraq already new, albeit in less detail. Indeed, throughout the worst years of the occupation, from 2004 to 2008, the US military was in routine violation of at least a dozen articles of the Geneva Conventions. And it was precisely this disrespect for these foundational international treaties that created the situation revealed in all their gory detail in the latest Wikileaks release.

Here I would like to take issue with Robert Grenier's otherwise thoughtful critique, Wikileaks: An Inside Perspective, when he downplays the significance of revelations the US turned its eyes away from Iraqi torture of prisoners by declaring that for the US to have intervened more forcefully would have been to "behave like colonialists".

In fact, as the legal occupier of Iraq, the US and coalition forces were obligated under international law to do everything possible to stop abuses, and not to turn over control of prisoners if there was evidence that they would be mistreated. It was in ignoring this obligation that the US reduced itself to the level of a typical occupying army.

Furthermore, it was very much "the fault of the Americans" that the entire situation described in the war logs was created in the first place, through its commission of the ultimate "crime against peace" - as the Nuremberg Principles adopted by the UN Charter describe it - in its unlawful invasion of Iraq.

When violence becomes all the rage

Grenier is correct, however, in arguing that those who imagine that the documents paint the US as uniquely responsible are wrong. Indeed, what is most troubling about the logs is their demonstration of just how easily people from all sides of this conflict have given in to the most base of human instincts at almost every turn; and how in so doing they were merely behaving in the same way politicians, soldiers, guerrillas and civilians have always done as soon as the veneer of civilized society is rubbed even slightly away.

For their part, US and other "coalition" soldiers, commanders and mercenaries have clearly shown a callous disregard for the Iraqis whom they were supposed to be liberating and protecting. But from the start, those fighting against the occupation have distinguished themselves by an equal and in many cases greater level of brutality and indiscriminate violence than the already high level reached by the occupation forces. It needs to be remembered that even after the US invaded Iraq, the chain of events that led to the present situation were not necessary, even if in hindsight it seems they were inevitable.

As important as it is to hold the US and its allies to account for the massive war crime that became Iraq, those opposing the occupation must be held to a similar standard. The Iraqi "resistance" could have built upon the wave of grassroots activism that flowered in the first year after the invasion to develop a concerted non-violent resistance to the occupation. In fact, scores of international activists went to Iraq to help develop such a resistance, but they were overwhelmed by, and in some cases even became victims of, the violence of the armed resistance.

What is clear is that the various insurgent groups have claimed the lion's share of Iraqi victims since the start of the occupation, and succeeded in largely closing the public sphere to the myriad Iraqis who were trying to find peaceful ways to both force the Americans out and to build a democratic system after decades of harsh dictatorial rule. Watching that happen with my own eyes in 2004 was one of the most depressing things I have ever witnessed.

Raging for the machine

Sadly, it seems that when US soldiers and "insurgents" had each other in their sights, they were in many ways looking into a mirror. And both sides were perfectly willing to sew a high level of chaos in Iraq to achieve their strategic directives, with little concern for the costs to everyone else.

Of course, if there were a Wikileaks release of the Congo, Chechnya, Kashmir or innumerable other war logs, there is little doubt they would reveal similar levels of lawlessness, violence and inhumanity. And sadly, there is little chance Obama is pushing his Indian counterpart to conduct a more humane occupation; what moral ground would he have to stand on if he did so?

But what is behind such actions, which reflect the worst tendencies of humanity?

Generalising is rarely a good idea, but at least in the case of Iraq and the US a common denominator seems to be misdirected or uncontrolled rage. In the wake of 9/11 Americans were filled with anger, which was easily redirected by the politico-military elite towards an invasion of Iraq. This type of misdirection has a long history in the US, as Thomas Frank documented in his 2004 bestseller What's the Matter with Kansas, and is continuing to this day. As the Tea Party's corporate funders have so well demonstrated, it is much easier to get people to rage for the machine than against it.

In Iraq, decades of rage - at a brutal government, at Western imperialism, at members of "other" sects or ethnicities - was turned towards extreme violence rather than productive activism with remarkable ease.

And if it is not misdirected rage, it is apathy that keeps people from actively working to stop the machinery of violence and to hold those who have profited from it to some sort of account. This was brought home to me over the weekend when my son discovered Rage Against the Machine's recently re-famous anthem Killing in the Name Of.

One of the most important functions of art is to help people understand complex realities in visceral ways, and in so doing to provoke some kind of response. In that sense Rage Against the Machine was the most politically and sonically powerful band of the 1990s. It was also the most prophetic - its rage against militarism and the injustices of the emerging neoliberal globalisation anticipated not merely the rise in global activism after the groundbreaking protests in Seattle in 1999, but the larger globalised militarism and war after 9/11.

Yet the relatively peaceful and prosperous - at least in the West - 1990s were a relatively easy time to be filled with rage. When the band lent its song Wake Up to the film The Matrix (whose critique of neoliberal globalisation and the police state that was emerging to protect it was surely lost on most moviegoers) few understood that singer Zack de La Rocha's screams to wake up were being directed at them.

Sadly, the band broke up in 2000, just when its angry and thoughtfully provocative music would have been most useful. By the time it reunited in 2007, Americans' rage had been numbed, at least when it came to focusing on the political, economic and military elite that the band famously railed against.

Things are seemingly no better in the UK, the other main power responsible for the Iraq disaster, even though a Christmas 2009 facebook campaign famously helped make Killing in the Name Of the top selling single of the year - beating the previously undefeated crop of X-Factor winners to the top spot.

Taking it to the streets

When Rage played a free concert in London to thank fans for their support, 40,000 concert-goers happily screamed "F*** you I won't do what you tell me!" - the songs famous closing refrain - along with de La Rocha. But only a few months later, when the British government largely gutted the country's education and social welfare budgets, few if any of those fans took to the streets to protest and actually do something.

And where are the fans who crowd US festivals where Rage continues to perform when it comes to channeling that anger to political ends the way people did during the Vietnam and Civil Rights eras?

The fact is that without action, rage becomes just another commodity or marketing tool - useful to sell albums and concert tickets, and even to pump up soldiers before battle (not surprisingly, its seems that most prefer less political bands like Metallica and Slayer to Rage Against the Machine for that purpose).

But now, with 400,000 new pieces of evidence screaming for justice, the question still needs to be asked: where is the rage at the revelations brought on by the release of the Iraq war logs?

In the US, the Republicans are now arguing that the answer is clear - the rage is against Obama and his evil band of liberal elitists. However laughable this argument seems to the rest of the world, Americans are clearly buying that narrative in larger numbers.

The question remains: will Americans, Brits, Iraqis and others who have been so harmed by the legacy of the Western invasion of Iraq ever turn the anger on the forces who have so well manipulated them? Will they begin to rage, and act, against the machine rather than for it?

That is the question my son had for me, as he began to understand the meaning of Killing in the Name Of. And sadly, it seems that no amount of revelations of the horrors the US has brought to Iraq will succeed in waking Americans up to the reality of what has been wrought on Iraq, Afghanistan, and increasingly at home, in their name.

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine and senior visiting researcher at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. He has authored several books including Overthrowing Geography: Jaffa, Tel Aviv and the Struggle for Palestine (University of California Press, 2005) and An Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books, 2009).

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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