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Reflections on an Anniversary
"Everything feels obscene," a friend said seven years ago, when we carpet-bombed Baghdad, launching the invasion. It still does, but in a dull, chronic, "used to it" way - outrage mixed, these last few years, with "hope," smearing the war effort with a thick, national ambivalence.
Is it still going on? Well, yeah, with a grinding pointlessness that's not worth talking about or even debating anymore. The smorgasbord of justifications has been permanently shut down: the 9/11 tie-in, the WMD, "another Munich," democracy for the Middle East. No one's hawking Freedom Fries anymore. The war in Iraq simply continues because a war in motion, especially when it's not really a war, when there isn't an enemy with whom to negotiate, is incapable of just, you know, stopping. When we don't really have a mission, completing it is difficult indeed.
So I find myself witnessing the seven-year anniversary in a state of private grief, chewing bitterly on the limits of politics. Whatever slow, cautious change President Obama believes in at the deepest level of his political soul, he can only attempt to conjure it out of politics as usual.
I fear that what the future requires isn't to be found there, and that shaking our fists and demanding change - peace - from it, or from politicians caught up in it, by, for instance, marching and protesting on the anniversaries of bad wars, will not bring about the changes I hope to see in my lifetime. I say this not to devalue protest or the antiwar movement, which over the course of the last hundred years has grown into a permanent cultural presence.
Indeed, seven years ago, when millions of people around the world took to the streets in protest of the Iraq invasion, Dr. Robert Muller, former assistant secretary general of the United Nations and founder of the United Nations University for Peace in Costa Rica, called the phenomenon "the other superpower."
"Never before in the history of the world," he said, "has there been a global, visible, public, viable, open dialogue and conversation about the very legitimacy of war."
For a vibrant moment I believed that a tide of outrage, a global tsunami of compassion, could check an empire and shut down a war. If enough people made their voices heard, we could dig down past the fear and moral relativism that turns love of country into hatred of a designated enemy - that is to say, patriotism - and uproot war itself.
Seven years into the Iraq fiasco, eight and a half years since the war on terror (what I call the war to promote terror) began with the invasion of Afghanistan, I see things with a little more clarity. While we have a few impressive accomplishments on the negative side of the ledger - chasing the Republicans and neocons from power, challenging and censuring torture - little in fact has changed.
The wars continue and the debate over them, as refereed by the mainstream media, is as narrow and shallow as ever. The defense budget is still the overstuffed goose of the military-industrial complex. And, domestically, crime and punishment thrive, feeding the prison-industrial complex. The United States is the outsize world leader in both areas.
And the withdrawal of the GOP and the fear-mongering right from political dominance is, of course, only temporary. We're one good terror attack away from their triumphant return to the center of American politics, weapons at the ready, a list of enemies in hand. The war culture springs eternal, no matter its grotesque failures of yesterday.
No wonder, as Clare Bayard and Sarah Lazare pointed out on Common Dreams last week ("Time for Rebirth: The U.S. Antiwar Movement is Grieving, Dreaming, Growing"), "The sheer numbers of antiwar demonstrators, which just a month before the invasion of Iraq coordinated the biggest street protests in the history of the world, have dropped precipitously each year as we hit this awful anniversary."
Was Muller's "other superpower" an illusion? Has it been defeated by burnout and despair? Is the marriage of the military-industrial-media complex to the evangelical Christian right too momentous and entrenched a force ever to displace? This is a fighting force, lavishly financed, disciplined by fear, unencumbered by rationality, oblivious to the negative consequences of its actions, and prepared to go to any length, it seems, to maintain and further its power.
Disarming and redirecting this force, which draws from the patriarchal certainty that shaped the great civilizations of the past (Rome "made a wasteland and called it peace"), is more than the ad hoc mobilization against a war can possibly accomplish. This is the task of many lifetimes, but we must remember that such enormous successes as the invention of democracy, the spread of ecological awareness and the triumph of the civil rights movement are significant milestones already achieved.
The other superpower, the citizens of a world in constant transformation, ever striving to build a more just and far-reaching peace, is alive, radiant, and quietly creating the future with countless initiatives to calm the heart of violence. The anniversary of this reckless war pierces me, but I stand committed to the creation of a world where the next one is not an option.