Put Down Your White Man's Burden, Support Iraqi Resistance
"Before we prescribe how a pristine Iraqi resistance must conduct their secular, feminist, democratic, nonviolent battle, we should shore up our end of the resistance by forcing the U.S. and its allied governments to withdraw from Iraq." -Arundhati Roy
By Liz Sperber
04/20/05 "ICH" - - Unconditionally-that's the way I support the Iraqi Resistance these days. While I do not offer political support to all groups involved in the anti-imperial struggle in Iraq, I work to support its collective purpose: forcing the troops out now. Forcing, because the United States won't leave any other way.
On a good day, the US corporate media would have its audience believe that a kinder, gentler imperialism is the only way forward for Iraq. This is, of course, not the case. Nor does it seem plausible, after two long years of occupation, that any kind of imperialism will be tolerated by the Iraqi people, for reasons I will enumerate below. Simultaneously, predictions that a formal draft will likely supplement the current poverty draft in the United States have been made by the likes of Seymour Hersh and North Carolina National Guard Specialist Patrick Resta. While the recent claim that a draft should be expected within 75 days is, at best, a misunderstanding of the Selective Service Administration (a vestige of the Cold War, the SSA was created to intimidate the Soviets with the possibility of short-notice US conscription), a future draft is not by any means out of the question. With its roots in the mid-1990s, the national crisis in military recruiting has been marked by a recent plummet undoubtedly related to the multiform horrors of the war in Iraq-not least the increasing threats to under-armed and under-manned US troops which have resulted in the increased use of carpet-bombing (and civilian-killing) which has typically led to increased resistance, continuing the vicious spiral.
In this vein, it is clear that those reports in the Anglo-American media that cite a decline in insurgent attacks are relying on coalition force press releases. These reports have been directly contradicted by recent articles in Al Jazeera, the Washington Post, and even the New York Times (which has been particularly ambiguous in its reporting). Therefore, with our own lives potentially on the line, and with the continuing failure of elected officials to represent their constituents, it is left up to us, the public, to explore other options. I believe there is only one effective, though seemingly unspeakable, way to resolve the Iraq quagmire: immediate, unconditional withdrawal of US-led coalition forces. Outspoken, direct-action, grass-roots support for such a withdrawal is unambiguously advancing the cause of Iraqi self-determination while also adhering to the demands of those troops who have returned from Iraq opposed to the war.
The first step towards adopting such a plan of action is understanding why supporting Iraqi resistance groups is the imperative flipside of our support for US troops-even if we don't know, understand, or agree with the politics of the resistance groups themselves. The typical conversation concerning Iraqi sovereignty goes like this: Although the Iraqis deserve freedom and liberty, they can't have self-determination quite yet, because we can't just pull out. We could pay reparations but we can't support fundamentalist, sexist, elitist, terrorists who threaten to take over in the vacuum of power left by political upheaval. It is our duty to occupy Iraq to ensure the safety of the Iraqi people. With our history of democracy, our strong army, and with those ethnic rivalries and disorderly histories, without us they can't build a proper state. But we can, and therefore we must.
A terrorizing etymology
From there it gets uglier: for instance, the most pressing flaw in the argument is its bigoted presumption that Iraqis lack something that Americans can give them, teach them-ostensibly a rational democracy. Yet, the War on Terror, of which we are to believe the Iraq war is a part, is different from other wars wherein sides attempted to 'defeat' one another. Instead, the War on Terror has as its goal the elimination of so-called terrorists. We don't hear about a possible defeat or surrender of the insurgents in Iraq. Rather, we read insurgency casualty counts as if they were mounting a staircase to an imaginary final destination: the magic number that will signal elimination of all terrorist threats. Accordingly, our first question becomes, what is it that the US government means by the word "terrorism"? And how does this relate to our installing a democratic apparatus in Iraq?
Historically, terrorism has been defined as illegitimate violence, violence outside of a state's monopoly on the use of force. Yet I would like to complicate this use of the term 'illegitimate' with a contemporaneous, other kind of illegitimacy: that which characterized colonial regimes throughout the 20th century. In British, French, Portuguese and even South African colonies, governments were often illegitimate in the sense that only a minority of people inside the nation were enfranchised, or represented by the group in power. The United States enlisted this logic to indict Saddam Hussein, whose elections were a joke and who represented only a minority of his population. Yet, history reveals in no uncertain terms that opposition movements, which over time emancipated colonies from often brutal rule, were time and time again branded terrorists. The FLA in Algeria, the ANC in South Africa, ZAPO and ZANU in Zimbabwe, and the IRA in Ireland were not deemed terrorists because of their tactics, which at least initially did not target civilians-rather, they were deemed terrorists because they threatened to overthrow illegitimate colonial rule.
While a bomb in Birmingham or London was never-and I repeat never-a good thing because the IRA initially only targeted British soldiers in Ulster, this kind of terrorism is necessarily complex. History is equally clear on the fact that the media of occupying governments are essentially prohibited from accurate representation of the occupation itself. Ideologically, the fact that a group of people in this country supported the war enough to enable it to happen indicates that the media will represent the view that Iraq does in fact need to be occupied, for various reasons. This prohibits them from portraying the evils of occupation as necessarily evil; rather, they portray the occupation as unfortunate but necessary. In this war in particular, however, there is the added factor of intense government censorship and the unprecedented embedding of reporters.
Thus, while the ostensible savagery of targeting of civilians does help the US government label the freedom fighters of the present as terrorists, the simultaneous media censorship omnipresent throughout the war in Iraq blinds us to the equally if not more savage violence perpetrated by our state against the Iraqi civilians. In Fallujah, for instance, where reporters were prohibited for several months beginning in November 2004, 65 percent of buildings were leveled to the ground and anywhere between 600 to 3,000 civilians were murdered, mostly by carpet-bombing, the increasingly favored technique employed in Iraq as manpower begins to dwindle. All of these conditions must be recognized when we consider our relation to the Iraqi resistance.
Don't be so romantic
This etymological history, along with proof of a propagandistic media, is significant only to a point. On the one hand, an understanding not only of past invocations of the term 'terrorism,' but the situations in which terrorism became the only weapon of the majority of citizens in a nation-as was the case throughout the 20th century era of decolonization-underscores how imperative the stigmatization of 'terrorism' has been for minority regimes to maintain militarized rule. On the other hand, though, this history often tempts us to romanticize anti-imperial struggles, and similarly has lead to the romanticization of Iraqi resistance. Such romanticizing obscures what I believe to be the most essential point of this entire argument. If there is one thing that we take away from 20th century history, it should be this: it is neither your place nor mine to decide who is worthy of what degree of autonomy. Not only do romantic portrayals of resistance rely on self-serving reductionism, they also implicitly pronounce the kind of moral authority and higher-judgment that are part and parcel of maintaining an imperialist way of thinking. Thus, to argue that resistance in Iraq deserves our support "because (insert homogenizing, descriptive reason here)," is to invoke the same paternalist authority, which, in another era argued that "the African (singular) is a savage and must be governed accordingly."
Rather, if we support the Iraqis right to self-determination, it must be because we identify a common, equal humanity between us; because we recognize that US occupation of Iraqi land and the US-sanctioned torture, rape, murder, and theft are unjust. That, in addition to the plight of our soldiers, which many of them argue is worsening every day, is why we must demand troops out now. For no other reason. Accordingly, since the Iraqi resistance is the force working to regain Iraqi sovereignty, we support them-unconditionally. We must bring American troops home simply because it is not their place to stop the insurgents. Granted, even the most inspiring national liberation movements had their crimes and their tragedies. Many liberation struggles, fought under the watchful eyes of the Cold War superpowers, even failed, in the end, to achieve their objectives (Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Algeria, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Chile, the list goes on). Yet, suffice it to say here that the limits or failures of a movement do not nullify its purpose, although they may hamper it. Past failures cannot justify the abandonment of our commitment to the right of people everywhere to self-determination.
They are easy traps to fall into-romanticizing past struggles or indicting 'insurgents' for use of terroristic tactics. Yet, concerning the flat and stigmatized notion of 'terrorism,' 20th century history, in concert with brave soldiers such as Carmello Mejia, and the invaluable independent (unembedded) media shows us that our understanding of the word 'terrorism' is necessarily compromised when our government is occupying the land of the so-called terrorists. Conversely, regarding the romanticization of the resistance we have a model in Louisa May Alcott's writing through Jo in Little Women: "it is not because women are good that they should vote. It's because it is fair and just." To romanticize resistance moralizes women, totalizes, does violence, and gets us nowhere outside the haughty hegemonic box of imperial thought. Instead, historical hindsight would have us see a certain truth, a certain continued struggle, in the efforts and desires of people in Iraq-without needing to judge or purify them.
Liz Sperber studies English, History, and Africana Studies at Brown University. She is active with the Brown Student Antiwar Coalition and looks forward to your feedback at
(this article was originally published in The College Hill Independent, April 7, 2005)
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