What's Left

February 5, 2003

When a child screams in Baghdad, will anybody hear?

By Stephen Gowans

The deaths of seven astronauts is a catastrophe, an event to be pored over and grieved. But the deaths of thousands of Afghans, and the future deaths of possibly hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, is barely noticed in the West, and is hardly considered a catastrophe. Instead, it's just one of those largely invisible tragedies, like death from starvation or from preventable disease that carry off numberless people every day, in out of the way Third World places we don't worry about, because we don't notice them or because we don't see them, or maybe can't notice them and can't see them.

We call these tragedies "regrettable," because that's what you're supposed to call them, but we don't really feel much regret, except maybe in a kind of intellectual way, as if we're saying, "Well, it's not the kind of thing I'd wish upon my enemy, but what happens, happens, and there's no point in obsessing about it."

The deaths of seven astronauts, which must have been terrifying and violent, or the deaths of 3,000 people on Sept. 11, cruel, brutal, and horrible -- that hits home, for those people are more like us than the dark skin people are, who dress in strange ways, and speak a language we can't understand, and live in a country headed by a man who, we're told, is evil, and wishes us harm.

These people are not Americans, not Canadians, not Westerners, not Christians, not Jews, which may be why their deaths are barely noticed, and are called "regrettable" rather than "intolerable" or "criminal." But what would you call the killing of tens of thousands of people, dismembered, blown apart, incinerated, ex-sanguinated, starved (as is very likely to happen in Iraq) if this was engineered by a country that had launched an attack on the basis of a doctrine of pre-emptive war that owed much to the Nazis?

And so it is that everywhere we look -- in newspapers, on television -- the deaths of seven astronauts count for infinitely more than the impending deaths of seven thousand, or seven hundred thousand, who may be human, but who, in the universe of concentric circles which define how close any other person is to ourselves, occupy the farthest rings, the Plutos in our own personal solar systems.

To say you are not an American, not a Jew, not a Christian, that you're a person who measures his kinship with others on the basis of shared humanity, not shared language or shared religion or the shared accident of being born in the same country -- that is considered naively idealistic. Are the concentric circles not fixed, not a cross-cultural universal and therefore inevitable and, as conservative would contend, desirable?

I once told a friend who I thought would understand that I think of myself not as a member of any one country, or any one ethnic or cultural group, or religion. I am, rather, a member of the human race first. And maybe, being an atheist, with a jumbled genetic heritage and a distrust of patriotism, the concentric rings have always been fewer for me. But to expect understanding when others find themselves at the centre of a rich complex of circles which stretches out in the distance, as humans almost always have, is perhaps, to expect too much.

"What is patriotism," asked George Bernard Shaw, "but the conviction that your country is superior to all others because you were born in it?" Among Americans who reject pro-American patriotism there are still shockingly many of them who embrace someone else's patriotism -- the patriotism of the Serbs, or of Palestinians, for example -- as if patriotism, some kind of patriotism, must always be clung to, like a security blanket. To them it's important to hive off some small part of humanity with which they can identify; in their case, whoever the victims of the pro-American patriots are. And so they're like the others, the difference being their orientation: to the losers, not the winners.

"We" are Winners?

Flipping through TV channels I stumbled across an interview with a man, an American, who had written a defense of US foreign policy. "They say we're stupid, we're short-sighted, we're bumblers," he complained, bitter about the way Washington is regarded outside of America and 10 Downing Street. "Well, if we're so stupid, so short-sighted, so bumbling, why is it that we keep winning?" This summed up the two defining characteristics of American foreign policy. First, the idea that America's relations with other countries is a collective enterprise in which all Americans participate ("we" keep winning) rather than one planned by a tiny minority for the benefit of the same tiny minority. And two, the idea that foreign policy is a game (of conquest and control) whose object is to win.

I feel more acutely the death of a fellow Jew than anyone else, a Jew confesses. Another person, a non-Jew, who deplores the injustices Israel has visited upon Palestinians, feels more acutely the deaths of Palestinians than the deaths of Israeli Jews. Americans, for their part, feel more acutely the deaths of fellow Americans, something the Pentagon duly notes, and plans wars around. American soldiers are kept as far removed from danger as possible while foreign cities and towns -- and the non-Americans in them -- are laid waste by explosives launched from 30,000 feet above the ground and from warships steaming thousands of miles away, the launch buttons pushed by men and women celebrated as "heroes" who "put their lives of the line" to "protect Americans." They are not heroes, they don't put their lives on the line, and they're not protecting Americans. They're killing foreigners who pose no real threat to Americans. They're doing what America's soldiers have almost always done: killed in the service of aggrandizing the power and profits of an elite whose personal interests are called "American" interests.

And so there are gradations of human beings, gradations of suffering that matter. Gradations of catastrophe, too, that can thrust the deaths of seven to the fore, and sweep the impending deaths of hundreds of thousands to the shadows. That, to those who plan wars, and gull others to go along or acquiesce, is well and good.

There is a quotation from Herman Goering.

"Why, of course, the people don't want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece. Naturally, the common people don't want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship."

These comments, from Gustave Gilbert's Nuremberg Diary, are based on a conversation Gilbert had with Goering while the latter was on trial at Nuremberg.

Gilbert told Goering that he didn't quite agree. "In a democracy the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United States only Congress can declare wars."

"Oh, that is all well and good," the old Nazi replied, "but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."

It works even better when there are gradations of humans: Germans versus Jews, Americans versus Iraqis.

Civilian Casualties Doesn't Mean Us

"Would you not go to war," he asked,  "simply because war inevitably produces civilian causalities?"  He was an American, for whom civilian causalities always means poor people, in some far off land, never Americans, in places like Biloxi or Rhode Island. War for him was an abstraction, and more than that, a foreign abstraction, not blood, not viscera strewn across a kitchen floor, not kids screaming in terror, not the charred remains of children littering a street, not brains blown out.

All of these horrors he knew happened in war, but he preferred not to think about them, and he didn't really have to think about them, because the wars his government was so ready to inflict upon others and that he was so ready to support as his patriotic duty were not wars that would leave his 10 year old son a paraplegic, would not leave his aged mother crushed under the beam of a bombed out building, and would not leave him whimpering in terror, huddled in some dank corner of his basement, in the dark, as bombs exploded outside, the noise deafening. Those fates would be visited upon other people, not him, not his neighbors, not his friends, not his family. He could afford to be cavalier about civilian casualties.

What's more, the media -- that active reconstruction of the world, moulded to suit the purposes of those who control it -- would never let the reality of what his government was doing overseas intrude on his enjoyment of Survivor, or a trip to the mall, or the certainty that his country was engaged in a moral mission of liberation, or was it a struggle against terrorism, or a battle to restore the legitimacy of the UN? The names for his country's acts of aggression seemed to change every day.

He would never have to see the bits of crushed bone, the smashed skulls, the entrails oozing from bellies. We don't need to see that, say Washington's grandees and America's network executives. All we need to see, all we need to remember, are 3,000 killed on Sept. 11; think about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction (oh yes, he has them, because we say he does); think about his resolve to harm Americans (oh yes, he intends to harm Americans, because he hates our freedom and democracy and because he's evil.) "All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked... It works the same way in any country."

There is another quote, though not from Goering.

"Why, of course, people think of themselves as Germans or Christians, Jews or Americans, and believe the group they belong to is better or more moral or more worthy than other groups. And that serves well the purposes of those who plan wars and lead conquests.

It's equally true that people feel the suffering of those who belong to their own group most acutely. Not out of racism entirely, though there's some of that. But there's another reason, too. It's that they're sheltered from the suffering of others, by design, for in seeing the grief and pain of other people one sees what makes them like us. Americans won't see the immense suffering their government will inflict on others, as they haven't seen the immense suffering it has already inflicted. That's bad politics, and it's bad for war, it's bad for oil, it's bad for profits."

There's nothing that makes Americans struggle with their support for their government's wars of conquest more than seeing what those wars do to other people, who, for all their differences in religion and language and culture, are just like them. They too grieve the deaths of loved ones, even if you don't see it.


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What's Left