The last few months have been received by most as a foreign policy boon for our fledgling sitting President. In a global climate dominated by a “war on terror,” ever-expanding and apparently without end, Mr. Obama has distinguished himself as a war president in troubled times. He presided over the tracking and killing of Osama Bin Laden; oversaw the country’s role in the NATO intervention in Libya that resulted in the ousting and killing of former Western ally, Col. Muammar el-Qadaffi; successfully assassinated Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen and key terrorist target in Yemen; and, most dramatically, perhaps, the President only recently announced the official end to military operations in Iraq. The U.S. withdrawal and the end of the nearly decade-long occupation of the country at the high-pitch tune of some $800 billion is welcome news here at home for a population experiencing near unprecedented economic uncertainty and privation. But the war’s conception, prosecution, and legacies are still very much in question, despite the diplomatically expedient, ahistorical, and paternalistic injunction that Iraqis must take control of their own destiny; and notwithstanding the self-interested angst among the American pundit-class concerning the possible outbreak of Civil War in the country—a disintegration, we are told, which would erode our “gains” over these last years. It is not exactly clear what advances were made, but rarely are the tangible human and psychic costs Iraqi citizens continue to bear factored in as a substantial variable in this explosive regional equation. The situation is almost always narrated as one of military tactics and strategy in uniformly hostile territory—with ameliorative references to the global good of emerging democracies and lip-clenching gestures to soldiers and their families who pay the “ultimate price.”
Besides the not unremarkable fact that (some) of our “boys and girls in uniform” are coming home at year’s end, what, can I ask, is to be celebrated about the “end” of this radically destabilizing military errand the auspices of which proved entirely false? If we recall, the invasion of Iraq was inaugurated against global outcry by a President elected by decree and fought with the help of a very soon unwilling coalition.
The assumption then was that the now famously dead Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and that the Iraqi people would welcome American soldiers with flowers and full-throated cheers. As billed, the operation did feature much military shock and awe, and an idolatrous statue was symbolically toppled with the help of a small but carefully-framed crowd gathered for embedded Western cameras. As we know, no weapons were ever found and the campaign quickly became protracted, deadly, and unwieldy years after President George W. Bush’s Hollywood-style announcement in May 2003 of “Mission Accomplished,” as he landed by Navy plane on the USS Abraham Lincoln, decked out in an uncomfortably cinched green flight suit and carrying a white helmet. The declaration was almost wholly embraced by a fawning mainstream media strangely taken by the administration’s masculinist choreography of the Commander-in-Chief turned returning military hero. This vulgar exhibition of misguided and ultimately ineffective military prowess was disturbing enough.
More upsetting is the loss of $12 billion dollars in cash of U.S. tax dollars that simply vanished in the corruption and chaos that often accompany such conflicts. Worst still is Paul Bremer’s staggering orders issued on September 19, 2003, which disclosed the profit imperative of the U.S. operation by mandating the opening up of the country’s ample resources to foreign interests. Extraordinary renditions, torture, and the domestic incursion on civil liberties enshrined in the Patriot Act round out the recent American adventure in Iraq. And if not Civil War, the routine acts of sectarian violence that has been the norm since the invasion will most certainly continue. Already precarious, the lives of Iraqis have been radically altered in ways most Americans could not possibly imagine. Again, that the administration called an end to military operations after learning that the troops that were scheduled to remain in the country would not have immunity is a welcome turn of events. It is not cause for celebration.
By the end of the year, the nation will be formally at war in one very unstable theater, fighting the Palestinian application for full member status in the UN, and launching drone attacks in several countries—one of which, Yemen, our supposed ally in this war on terror, has seen its leader in a bloody struggle for social transformation for months now. The stakes and the sacrifices have been high, with the population still taking to the streets almost certain that they will meet bullets from snipers or members of the government’s security forces. But as in Syria, the people keep putting on their “marching shoes” convinced that there is a future worth struggling or even dying for.
Here at home, growing frustration with corporate greed, staggering wealth inequality, unemployment, a coddled and unaccountable financial sector, and a bankrupt political system, has brought Americans out in large numbers around the country and inspired movements around the globe as citizens take over and inhabit public space. That people are engaged in the act of collectively “occupying” space as an expression of dissent has been met by some fierce resistance on the part of police across the country. Scott Olsen, the young Iraq War veteran who was struck and critically wounded by a projectile launched by Oakland law enforcement during their alarming crackdown on the Occupy Oakland encampment, is only one striking example. The irony of an Iraq veteran having survived combat only to be injured in his own country by police attempting to squash the national plea for real change is not lost on me. And I understand the impulse for a cause célèbre—that readily palatable poster-child who embodies the righteousness of one struggle or another. But similar to the unavoidable historical challenges of employing the word “occupy” to describe the reclaiming and inhabiting of public space as a political act, I am troubled by the narrative elevation of Scott Olsen.
The outcome of war is not simply about military force; it is also a discursive affair that involves consent and winning the “hearts of minds” of the dominant population. As I watched Mr. Olsen being carried on a make-shift gurney with anxious comrades attempting to get him medical assistance in the chaos of rubber bullets and tear gas, I was reminded of Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, and all the recent state-sponsored attempts to forcibly crush public dissent. Yes, this is beginning to feel like the American Winter. The struggle for recognition among working people has begun and will only get more difficult. The success of this fragile and emerging movement hinges on how much genuine and sustained effort is expended in the building of coalitions across the many identity categories that fragment our society; and it will necessarily require that we “dust and clean” old scripts and narratives and set about the business of re-imagining not only the world, but also our language. Given the inherent violence of the military, I am skittish about the easy evocation of the narrative of the fallen soldier—especially when so many nameless “soldiers” in the global struggle for an end to the status quo keep dropping like flies.
Scott Olsen’s injury, though incredibly unfortunate, betrayed the bad faith and brutality of a police department well-known for its rough tactics and has galvanized the movement. As of this writing, there is a general strike planned in Oakland for Wednesday, November 2; Olsen’s widely-reported attack has played a huge role in sustaining national attention on the local activist community and the actions of the police. The power of Olsen’s injury should not simply rely on the shocking tale of the war veteran being attacked by unhinged and bloodthirsty law enforcement. This rhetorical turn leaves the war unquestioned and re-invented as an unqualified national good. Recently, I saw a picture of a young white woman holding a sign and a young child at an Occupy Wall Street protest. Written on cardboard, the sign announced that she was not a “mob,” a “hippie,” or any of the other supposed pejoratives that have been used to characterize OWS. The sign closed by declaring that she is just a mom trying to take care of her daughter. But what if she was a hippie? Would this somehow diminish her rage and worry about the direction of the country? And what if Scott Olsen never served in the military? We will have to modify our national vocabulary so that every person’s dissent and sacrifice counts; and so that the prominence of the movement does not simply spring from the “lucky” shot of an officer, but from our boundless imaginations.
Rich Blint, writer and cultural critic, is busy completing his dissertation, “Trembling on the Edge of Confession: Racial Figuration and Iconicity in Modern American Culture,” in the Program in American Studies at New York University. His areas of interest include, American capitalism, media studies, and US popular culture; American and African American literature and culture; postcolonialism and diaspora; and urban form and politics in the context of the global. Blint is guest editor of the Winter/Spring 2008 issue of Black Renaissance Noir and co-editor (with Douglas Field) of a special issue of African American Review on James Baldwin forthcoming in 2012. He serves on the Executive Board of Vanderbilt University’s, ‘Issues in Critical Investigation: The African Diaspora,’ and has taught courses at NYU, The Brecht Forum, and Hunter College, The City University of New York. He lives in New York City.