With ‘reluctant warrior’ Barack Obama’s declaration of war against Islamic State, the United States has found another in a seemingly endless series of justifications for waging war in the Middle East. In 1990/91 it was saving Kuwait. In 2003 it was weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Last year it was the chemical weapons ‘red line’ in Syria – an attempt that only failed because of vocal public opposition. Now it’s ‘evil’ and ‘extremism’ and a ‘network of death’ and this time there is very little opposition at all.
Ostensibly, this war is directed against the IS ‘caliphate’ in Iraq and Syria, and is being waged by a coalition that includes Arab states, but that coalition is essentially a fig-leaf for yet another Western intervention in which IS is as both a pretext and a military objective.
Even as the US is bombing IS it is already paving the way for the formation of ‘moderate rebel’ enclaves in Syria that will be used to attack the Assad regime – a development that will intensify the civil war and escalate the destruction. Already the US has identified another organization called Khorasan, which some analysts claim is even worse than IS, so that even if IS is ‘degraded’ there will be another enemy to take its place.
Generals and politicians now insist that the war against IS/extremism/whatever will last not for months, but for years. All this points once again to a very disturbing conclusion: that Western democracies have tacitly embraced the toxic principle of permanent war as an instrument of policy in order to achieve specific strategic objectives internationally (control and supply of vital resources, strategic denial, the elimination of regional competitors in areas of strategic interest), while simultaneously imposing ever more authoritarian models of national security governance on the population.
In this sense we are edging closer to the world that George Orwell satirised in 1984, of endless wars with a constantly shifting array of enemies and alliances. In Orwell’s novel the Party promotes its wars through the orchestrated ritual of ‘Hate Week’ directed against the enemy de jour, a festival of militarism which exhausts Winston Smith with its ‘processions, the speeches, the shouting, the singing, the banners, the posters, the films, the waxworks, the rolling of drums and squealing of trumpets, the tramp of marching feet, the grinding of the caterpillars of tanks, the roar of massed planes, the booming of guns.’
Orwell was writing in the age of mass politics, of Busby-Berkeley style orchestrated crowd spectacles and displays of militarism that were associated with the European dictators. Today the West’s ‘generational’ wars on more subtle forms of manipulation.
Ever since the first Gulf War, when the Pentagon first rolled out its ‘information warfare’ strategies for the CNN era, Western governments have attempted to transform war into a pervasive but acceptable media spectacle, humming pleasantly in the background of our lives like a fishtank in an office.
For the most part the public doesn’t have to participate in these spectacles. All it has to do is accept that such wars are necessary, because our governments are fighting evil or ‘terror’ and ‘extremism’, or opposing tyranny or trying to stop rulers from carrying out genocide against their own people, or trying to ‘keep us safe.’.
On one hand we are encouraged to be afraid, and very afraid, of whatever our governments say we should be afraid of. At the same time we are also expected to ‘go shopping’ as George Bush once urged Americans to do after 9/11, and leave these wars to Cobra and the National Security Council and all the big boys who know what they are doing, occasionally oohing and aahing like a crowd at a fireworks display while our governments unleash their latest weaponry or boast about the killing prowess of our special forces.
The war against Islamic State has already begun to follow the same familiar parameters. As in Operation Desert Storm and Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, there are the daily presentations from generals with chestfuls of medals, pointing to charts and listing strikes on IS ‘ vehicle staging’ ‘storage facilities’, and ‘compounds’, and even a Khorasan bomb factory supposedly preparing ‘non-detectable’ bombs for use against the West, like factory production managers listing the day’s output.
Once again there are the newsclips of cruise missiles and warplanes taking off from aircraft decks and the video-game imagery of exploding buildings in crosssights, silently bursting into smoke and flames like blooming roses. Yesterday AOL News published videos containing ‘raw footage’ of Islamic State strikes, and cheerfully reminded its readers to ‘ Be sure to tell us what you think in the comments’.
Readers duly obliged, with comments like this:
They say that death is more important to them than life. Our job is to make them happy.
Great shot. just make sure you don;t send any of our tax dollars there to rebuild that country,
Blow the towels off their filthy heads! The nerve of these bastards to think they actually
“terrify” us! Keep messing with us and we’ll turn your God-forsaken land into carnival glass.
Not impressed, want to see troops and bodies, this could be anything.
NUKE EM ALL and make it the overflow parking lot for Euro Disney!!
Well no one can say that those wars against evil don’t have the capacity to bring out the finest instincts in the population. In 1984, the Party needed daily hates and hate weeks to bring emotions like these into play. Now all you need to do is sit back on a sofa in front of an HD television or a computer screen and eat popcorn while F-22 Raptors and Reaper drones eliminate evil from the world-beyond-our-borders.
It’s all rather painless and satisfying – to us, especially when we don’t have to think about the consequences of the latest war or who is being killed and for what. It should be the job of journalists to inform and educate the public about the meaning and motives behind these wars, but war has an astonishing ability to rob mainstream journalists of their critical facilities
In his superb introduction to 1984, Thomas Pynchon compared the more direct forms of censorship imposed by the Party to the more indirect forms of control employed by democratic states in which ‘ Every day public opinion is the target of rewritten history, official amnesia and outright lying, all of which is benevolently called ‘spin’, as if it were no more harmful than a ride on a merry-go-round.’
This ‘merry-go-round’ has become the stuff of democratic politics for many years, but it tends to speed up once the bombs start falling. Yesterday I watched Jon Snow interview former general Tim Cross and a creepy former advisor to Tony Blair on the Iraq war. Snow, like many mainstream journalists, is clearly somewhat in awe of military men. At one point he actually apologised to Cross for ‘talking politics to a general’ – as though war is some kind of apolitical activity.
Having a former Blair advisor on Iraq might have provided an opportunity for some forensic questioning about that war and its connection to this one. Instead Snow’s guests were allowed to pontificate with Cross on the pros and cons of ‘boots on the ground’ – an expression that increasingly makes me want to bite my own hand whenever I hear it.
At no point have I heard or read any mainstream attempt to critique the official representation of the war against IS as a ‘war against evil’; or analyse the historical factors that gave rise to it, the impact of previous interventions, or the deeper strategic and political objectives behind the war. Few journalists question the Imperium’s right to ‘intervene’ anywhere in the world or ask whether the seemingly endless capacity of Western states to create enemies that it must fight against might have ulterior motives.
There are a number of questions that Snow could have asked: Was it a good idea to fund Islamist rebels in Syria, either directly or with the same proxy states that have now joined in Obama’s grand coalition? Isn’t it odd, that the West should find itself fighting ‘extremism’ with the assistance of Saudi Arabia, a corrupt tyranny which has done more to promote IS-style jihadism than any other state, with the exception of the United States? How can Saudi Arabia train ‘moderate Syrian rebels’, as Obama is now proposing, when IS came from those same rebels? Why did the Iraqi army collapse despite a $25 billion training and equipment programme?
But such questions aren’t asked because they aren’t acceptable in a time of war, which is one reason why war is so useful to those in power.
And there is one other question that Snow could have posed: when does this end? The answer is that it won’t, because too many powerful people simply don’t want it to, and unless we can figure out a way to stop them, we are heading towards far worse conflagrations than those we have already seen.