Words. To Die By

Mojo, Emptiness Dancing

Words. To Die By

It is forbidden to kill, therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.
– Voltaire

Let’s focus our imaginations on civilians being shredded, blasted, fragmented, gunned down, maimed. Children, women, men, say, in Iraq. They are being bombed by US planes or attacked by US soldiers or sectarian insurgents or roadside bombs. Frail human flesh is meeting up with all the lethal hardware of war. Frail human souls are being traumatised for ever. Loved ones are being swept from people’s lives as if they had simply been dead leaves on trees. Children are being mangled, maimed, poisoned, orphaned. People are displaced from their ancient homes and forced to flee to other regions or countries.

Now multiply this horror hundreds of thousands of times until you have a screaming purgatory that simply puts an abrupt end to our imaginings limited as they are by our lack of evolutionary experience of such numbers. One family dead, we commiserate; hundreds, thousands, millions dead and we just go numb. If it were on our screens, which it isn’t, we would switch channels.

Then ask why. Why were these civilians being bombed, attacked, displaced, their land invaded and occupied by the armies of the US, GB and Australia? Why is the full extent of their suffering not on our screens?

The answer is, ultimately, as simple as it is ruthless: these people are ‘unpeople’. For our rulers and their media they are to remain for the most part uncounted, unnamed, faceless. In contrast to us, they had the misfortune of being born in a country full of oil, the ruler of which had moved from being an ally of the US Empire to being a recalcitrant, an impediment to what the masters of the empire had defined as their geostrategic resource interests in the Middle East and Central Asia. This particular ruler, Saddam Hussein, a despot like all the others they support or attack, had to be removed. Any civilian casualties were an unfortunate but necessary cost of the operation: ‘collateral damage’ in the dehumanised Newspeak of the military. No eggs cracked, no imperial omelette. No imperial omelette, no control of oil flows to our happy affluence and military machines.

The pretextual PR accompanying the military invasion is of course different. Its narrative is also very flexible, changing according to the circumstances. At first it’s Saddam’s purported link to Al Qaida and his weapons of mass destruction. When this link cannot be sustained and no WMDs are found, the mission switches to one of removing a tyrant and ‘introducing democracy’. After the invasion and usual difficulties of finding the right political puppets, the usual ‘democracy’ of rotating bourgeois and businessmen is introduced and so are the US military bases, the outbreak of civil war and continuing torture in Saddam’s old prisons.

At this point we will leave the discourse of the imperial PR that fills the corporate media. Any further dissection would cement the impression that it is serious and worth debating. It isn’t. It is risible to any thinking observer immune to the perennial propaganda of imperialisms of whatever stripe. That the Iraq invasion of 2003 was a war for oil and geostrategic control is willingly admitted by the more candid members of the ruling elites (Wolfowitz, Greenspan). What is important from a human and ethical perspective is the death and suffering of the victims of the imperial war machine. What is important from a human and ethical perspective is the issue of culpability.

Who are the perpetrators of this invasion, an illegal war of aggression according to the simple definition of the Nuremberg Trials, and thus the most serious crime according to international law? Beyond the immediate perpetrators – the usual military professionals ‘just doing their jobs’, to a greater or lesser extent believing in their own side’s propaganda of freedom and democracy ‒, the prime perpetrators are of course the political decision-makers of the US, GB and Australia.

PM John Howard immediately joined George Bush’s Anglophone ‘coalition of the willing’ to invade and occupy Iraq. Why? Beyond the PR guff, the main reason, even openly admitted in passing, was the one that has always motivated Australian mercenary participation in British or US imperial wars: the alliance, security, protection, insurance. Australian soldiers die overseas not (with the single and honourable exception of World War 2) to defend Australia from attack but because the Australian political elites, and probably most people if pressed, have always felt that Australia is incapable of defending itself against some hypothetical, usually Asian, invasion. It would thus need assistance from a strong, and white, ally, i.e. Britain and after 1942 the USA. Australian soldiers’ deaths and injuries are thus a form of premium payment for the hypothetical case of Australia having to make a claim on its allied insurance policy with Britain or the US.

This fact is Australia’s at once open and ‘dirty little’ defence secret that defines most of Australian defence, alliance and foreign affairs policy. It also defines some of the ambivalent characteristics of political life and contradictions of the Australian national character of ‘obedient larrikinism’ or ‘dependent independence’. An ex-colonial nation that still cannot stand on its own feet to defend itself but continues to cling to the apron strings of a stronger nation is by definition not an independent adult nation but is stuck in childlike dependence. Some, perhaps most, of the macho Anzac posturing and flag waving merely overcompensates for this unpleasant reality.

This dependence has even been embraced by Australian political leaders in past and present as if to confirm Australia’s willing client state status. One remembers Menzies’ adulation of the Queen and all things British, Holt’s ‘all the way with LBJ’ or Howard’s proud acceptance of Bush’s designation of himself as ‘(Bush’s) sheriff in the Asia-Pacific region’. In this craven role Howard even indulged in some ludicrous sabre-rattling of his own with talk of ‘preventive invasion’ of close Asian neighbours where necessary.

Howard’s co-culpability for the immense suffering of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians is, by any objective measure, a banal fact. According to such disparate sources as the UN’s Kofi Annan, NSW Liberal Party President John Valder and internal legal advice to the Blair cabinet, the invasion was illegal under international law, i.e. a war of aggression. Those who ordered it are thus war criminals.

Cut to the Sydney Writers Festival in May 2011. Here John Howard was interviewed by the ABC’s Fran Kelly on his autobiography published by Melbourne University Press (‘Books With Spine’). The event, referencing the autobiography’s title and interview site, was called ‘Lazarus at the Wharf’. The sub-title of the Festival, appearing on a screen before the interview, was ‘Words. To Live By’. Given Howard’s co-complicity for imperial mass murder perhaps this should be changed to ‘Words. To Die By.’

With this event, the Sydney Writers Festival is objectively honouring and validating a war criminal. In doing so, it is normalizing mass murder. It is helping ‘disappear’ hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqi women, men and children. It is, in the words of Harold Pinter’s 2005 Nobel Prize Speech, ‘as if it all never happened.’

Two friends and I considered this a scandal. During the interview at the Sydney Theatre my two friends silently unrolled a large banner proclaiming Howard a war criminal as I filmed them. The audience of irate Howard devotees reacted with strong booing. Howard, a master in the projection of reasonableness, reacted with the astute politician’s most advantageous form of damage control: the well-honed bonhomie of ‘let them be’. My friends were asked to leave by Festival attendants but didn’t. In question time they later asked Howard two direct questions in relation to the Iraq invasion. I was asked to stop filming which I did after the second and rather aggressive threat of being forcibly removed.

We note with interest that, to our knowledge, the Australian intellectual community, assuming there is such a thing, has neither in print nor action in any way responded to the scandal of Howard’s validation by the Sydney Writers Festival. There has been a deafening silence. Does this indicate anything about the state of this intellectual community? We would assume it does.

It would seem that writers and intellectuals have always had three choices with regard to their relation to the powerful and their victims: (a) either to sing the praises of the powerful, (b) to sit on the fence and/or ignore them for one’s own special field of inquiry or craft, (c) or else to declare solidarity with the victims and attempt to ‘speak truth to power’. We assume that intellectuals knowing about Howard at the Sydney Festival and not of the first persuasion mainly chose the second option. If so, their stance, like that of the ABC and SWF, is subject to Bishop Desmond Tutu’s objection: ‘If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.’

To participate in a festival that honours a war criminal is to betray a critical intellectual’s responsibility and to further trivialise public discourse about things that matter to one of self-serving talk-fests, writer celebrities and pure entertainment. It is also to be complicit in the continuing ‘disappearance’ of hundreds of thousands of dead, maimed, displaced Iraqi men, women and children. As long as this complicity continues, ‘words to die by’ will continue to mock their lives or memories.


~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on May 21, 2011.

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