Short Memory

If the war is a short one it will most likely be hailed as a success. If Saddam Hussein disappears, or is removed, we will undoubtedly see images of liberated Iraqi’s dancing in the streets in front of whatever infrastructure remains, while the rest of the world is encouraged to celebrate the triumph of humanitarian intervention. The other consequences of this war — the number of civilian deaths, the greater instability in the Middle East, the environmental consequences of depleted uranium weapons, and how the rebuilding of post-war Iraq is managed, will quite likely fade away for the short-term at least. Such complex issues, unfolding over time, will have little chance to compete with the spectacle of the ‘success’ of high-tech weapons and overthrow of global public enemy number two.

A short war will no doubt allow conservative and hawkish commentators to get stuck into the Left and the anti-war movement. How many columns will there be declaring that the concerns of the Left are now irrelevant in a world where high-tech intervention allows for the removal of dictators and the establishment of global security? In such a triumphant post-war climate, nagging questions such as what the US does now, what the effects are for the issue of global governance, and the relation of the war to terrorism, may well be discarded as the whining of an irrelevant anti-war Left.

The US’s plans for a post-war Iraq, however ill-conceived, certainly extend beyond the vetting of any new administration and the control of oil reserves. It also extends to large sections of Iraq’s economic infrastructure. Already the Bush Administration has made it clear that private US firms will get almost all of the projected funds for rebuilding Iraq. The UN and NGO’s stand to get a mere $50 million from a total of $1.5 billion, the rest going to private companies, many of which make large donations to the Republican Party. Putting aside the question of conflicts of interest , the fact that private companies seem destined to play a large role in post-war Iraq rather than organisations equipped with more expertise in nation-building, indicates much about US intentions.

That some in Iraq may resent this more extended form of occupation goes without saying. However, the US military is also pondering the transition from the war to the aftermath. According to a December paper produced by the War College’s Centre for Strategic Leadership entitled The Day After: The Army in Post-Conflict Iraq, a massive and long-term commitment will be needed in order to maintain stability. There are many consequence of a quick war. The report notes that ‘the establishment of democracy or even some sort of rough pluralism in Iraq, where it has never really existed previously, will be a staggering challenge for any occupation force … where anti-democratic traditions are deeply ingrained’. It goes on to consider other problems — the lack of people to fill administrative, police and legal positions after the purging of the administration; the effects of disarmament on the Iraqi army (one of the few institutions focused on national unity); the tension surrounding the return of exiled groups; the deep religious, ethnic and tribal differences which dominate Iraqi society — to name a few. It is not impossible to imagine that such differences can be reconciled. Indeed, as Dennis Halliday has noted, different groups within the Iraqi population have established relations of peaceful co-existence, even under present conditions. However, widespread co-operative relations need to be established from within, not from without — with private companies and the US Army providing the economic and military underpinning.

If the Left and elements of the anti-war movement are to counter the triumphalism that follows a quick war, it will need to go beyond considering the immediate political ramifications within Iraq, as important as these clearly are. It will need to fight another culture war with neo-conservatives and also, more importantly, with those able to disavow the political aims of the Bush Adminstration because they believe in the idea of military intervention for humanitarian purposes. To do this we need to ask broader questions. We need to consider what kinds of actions and assumptions will have been legitimised after a quick war? What are the broader consequences of the new framework though which the Iraq war has come about?

There is still a need to consider the implications of waging high-tech war at a distance. Ideologically, the use of ‘smart’ weapons enables the transition towards a culture of pre-emptive strikes. The US’s blatant defiance of the UN and the aggressive policy towards rogue states may well mean that we will in the future witness the more frequent use of smart weapons to take out what are regarded as legitimate (non-civilian) targets within the global arena. Two things can be said here.

Firstly, to the extent that smart weapons work, many civilians still die as a consequence. It is important however, to recognise that the action of such weapons goes beyond the question of unintended deaths — beyond the number of deaths/price of liberty calculation. It also goes to the question of how ‘democracy’ arises and is sustained. In an age when the US is unwilling or unable to distinguish between an industrial and a military installation, ‘rogue’ states like Iraq are unable to reach a sufficient point of development before their infrastructure is destroyed by smart weaponry. That democracies or civil societies rely on a minimum of such infrastructure seems to have been ignored by those who think it can be simply delivered from on high. The contemporary myth that all elements of life can simply be taken apart and reconstructed within technological systems, an ideology that underpinned both the information and biotech revolutions, equally informs the high-tech installation of democracy.

Secondly, high-tech weapons increasingly remove the human element. We are moving from the cyborg soldier, where the human exists merely as part of a technological network, towards a scenario where humans are removed from the theatre of war altogether. Experimental drones, automated weaponry and so on increasingly make up the US arsenal. This transformation has implications beyond the level of military strategy. We have to take seriously the long-established link between human life and its relation to the moral framework that governs whether or not to wage war. This relation not only concerns the victims (the populations of the non-West) but also those who wage war on behalf of more powerful nations. To decide whether the possibility of human sacrifice is justified in terms of some greater good has always governed the question of whether to wage war. Indeed much of the opposition to the Iraq war came from people who did not want a repeat of Vietnam, who did not regard this war as worth the price of a soldier’s life. High-tech weapons which remove the human also remove the basis for such decision making. The transition towards a state of perpetual war in order to sustain the current framework becomes easier.

The perceived success of a short-term war will further marginalise arguments that nations achieve democracy without the need for war by gradually building up their economic and civil infrastructure. We have seen this in relation to Iraq. The recognition that sanctions simply made the Iraqi people worse off, and effectively prevented them from creating their own civil and political structures — predicated upon a minimum of material wealth — was simply cast aside by the coalition of the willing, who preferred to bring democracy in from the outside. The investment in Saddam as the cause of all evil (and there is no denying his brutal dictatorship) allowed the alternative course towards democracy — building up civil society from within — to be ignored. Instead we are presented with the more spectacular form of high-tech war. This militarily imposed ‘democracy’ from without, mirrors the economic policies of the IMF — both attempt to reconstruct nations according to a policy framework which assumes transportability from one place to another — at the expense of local traditions and frameworks of understanding. That all nations are moving towards more abstract modes of being and acting reflects a process that both governs this particular war but has wider consequences outside of it.

The ‘success’ of the short war will legitimate in the eyes of many the pre-emptive approach to terrorism. While many people have never been convinced of the link between Iraq and global terror, any ‘blowback’ effect of the war — in fact any future terrorist act at all — given the imaginative manner in which isolated terrorist acts can be linked up, will simply crank up the commitment to increased policing, surveillance and undermining of individual rights. The cultivation of paranoid communities and the use of high-tech as a means to combat terror is becoming increasingly endorsed. That the Howard government could even raise an absurd idea such as obtaining a missile defence shield to protect us from North Korea gives an indication of their commitment to this path. The undermining of civil and legal rights in order to fight terrorism already well underway in the US, and culturally legitimated by poplar culture (for example the TV series 24) — is likely to increase in the wake of a short war. One day after committing Australian troops to the war (‘officially’), John Howard was attempting again to get the notorious anti-terrorism bill — an astonishing assault on civil liberties — through the legislative process. Arguments along the lines that the Iraq intervention increases the possibility of terrorist strikes may, in the light of a short war, simply be recognised as the situation we have to all deal with, a situation countered only through the surveillance and disciplining of civilian populations.

What might be the effect on a cultural level of a short war? The justification of high-tech intervention and pre-emptive strikes. The erosion of any commitment to other means of handling state-based dictators or terrorists, such as the international criminal court or commitment to policing rather than war. In the short-term, the ‘liberation’ of oppressed populations by rapid military interventions rather than slower forms of economic and political commitment to nation building will be ignored. And what of the possibility after the war — of reconciliation with the non-West? Is this possible within a framework that emphasises high-tech reconstructions from without — effectively wiping the civil, political and economic slate clean in order to begin again — and only then with the support for foreign private business rather than NGO’s or the UN? What happens to the more traditional social and cultural structures within non-Western countries? Can they survive such ‘shock-treatment’? And within the West itself, can we be reconciled to this new form of life based on the constant surveillance of abstract flows of people, money and information? From where will we derive our ethical capacity to decide what is legitimate or otherwise within this new framework?

Categorised: Cooper's Last

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