Empire And Exterminism
Veteran activist David Watson ruminates
Last fall I told one of my students, a bright and thoughtful young woman, about being depressed over the latest war. She replied innocently: ‘Which one?’ No longer the latest act in this sordid drama of New World (Dis)Order, the war over Kosovo was already supplanted by other spectacles. Chechnya lately invades my dreams. Are gloom and confusion permanent features of our age?
The imperial arrogance and hypocrisy of NATO’s war, its incompetence, its cowardly and contemptible willingness to harm civilians in order to safeguard its pilots, were all sickening. And the chaos and strife of the aftermath offer little hope. Still, it was stunning to see solidarity activists in the West essentially apologizing for a regime that had perpetrated genocide in Bosnia, and that was carrying out a pogrom in Kosovo even before NATO’s ultimatum. NATO’s alleged provocations of Serb death squads to even more lavish displays of carnage were for some a more serious crime than the pogrom itself. The Left’s largely exclusive focus on damage to Serbian civil society, its repetition of Serb nationalist disinformation and its willingness to downplay and deny Serb violence against the Albanians (the mantra that this was ‘nothing compared to Guatemala’, etc) was at least as morally numb as mindless support for the war.
NATO’s war was clearly cynical and in many ways criminal and irresponsible. I opposed it in both conception and execution. Nevertheless, one could understand that the Kosovar Albanians, among the most oppressed peoples of Europe, might welcome a life preserver from the devil himself. When the ship is on fire, one leaps into rough waters. They faced fascism (neo-fascism, if you like) and though the intervention was an abomination, anyone not trapped by rigid dogma had to notice that worse abominations, a Bosnian-style massacre or a mass expulsion as in Palestine, were definite possibilities.
The latest Balkan debacle was fought by the wrong people in the wrong way with the wrong means. But in the tragic circumstances it was a war someone had to fight. Indeed, it’s arguable that NATO’s ‘humanitarian interventionism’, hypocritical as it was, brought harm to fewer people than the United Nations’ cynical ‘humanitarian’ non-intervention had in Bosnia. If (to borrow Slovenian writer Slavoj Zizek’s metaphor) the West played an indecisive and then clumsily homicidal Hamlet, there was also a whiff of Macbeth, the tragic cycle of things that have gone around now coming around, in their decision to bomb.
Personally, after a decade of feeling depressed and powerless about Bosnia, I would have preferred that some natural disaster, a hurricane or earthquake, had sent the Serbian cutthroats back to their barracks or to hell. But (as with Macbeth) since no natural phenomenon was available, some unnatural element would have to accomplish the task. That labour fell to NATO, a big bully taking on a smaller one.
It’s an ugly picture. But, as the 1982 Falklands/Malvinas War proved when it toppled the Argentinian junta, sometimes it is best for a nation and people to be defeated in war. Sometimes it even takes some evil empire to do the dirty work. Dissidents need to do better than a reflexive, anti-imperialist defense of ‘the enemy of my enemy’. If not, we risk falling into the passive or even active support of various Khomeinis, Milosevics, Saddam Husseins or Argentine generals simply because they come into conflict with the West. One-dimensional anti-imperialism surrenders to what Zizek calls the ‘double blackmail’, the false choice between the New World Order and its rivals. Such knee-jerk politics does people like the Kosovars or East Timorese no good at all. We need an anti-imperialism to match the challenges both of the New World Order and of the New World Disorder it generates.
This war is all too typical of a period of confusion and disintegration. For some, Kosovo signaled an optimistic new era of ‘military humanitarianism’; to others it indicated the eclipse of the UN by an increasingly dangerous US hegemony. Those who know about the Big Powers’ lavish arms trade and support of selected dictators are naturally suspicious of the first claim. As for the latter, when was the US not a ‘rogue superpower’ that did pretty much what it wished? The UN has been either a fig-leaf for inter-imperial manoeuvering, unwilling or unable to impose peaceful resolutions on local blood baths (graphically demonstrated in Rwanda and Bosnia); or a Trojan Horse of Western imperial interests (eg in Korea and the Persian Gulf).
Of course, be they rogue superpowers or not, the stewards of ‘World Order’ are far from invincible. They are unable to heal the plagues they themselves have helped unleash and are gradually becoming mired in a global morass of local wars, fractured states and semi-permanent refugee zones. And today’s crusade against barbarian pariahs inevitably spawns a myriad of future revenges.
In the early 1980s the historian EP Thompson discerned behind the nuclear standoff of the Cold War a system of bureaucratic mass annihilation which he called ‘exterminism’. By the end of the century this exterminism had mutated into ‘Balkanized’ fragments as empires squabbled, politics imploded, new ideological-military blocs emerged and unlucky peoples got crushed between the tectonic movements of history. In this prison called modern civilization, warlords large and small fight for turf. The rest of us find ourselves compelled to join in or take cover as best we can, hoping to survive the crossfire. The ‘extermination of multitudes’ foreseen by Thompson is now an everyday affair. Dozens of wars drag on with the mass murder more archaic, less high-tech than Thompson imagined, taking place by siege (antiseptically labeled ‘sanctions’) or in Iron Age-style butchery (as in Rwanda). And still nuclear conflagration looms in the background.
Perhaps it’s only the state of my present disposition, not the present disposition of states, that makes me feel like I’m living in a time of terminal empire. One might imagine societies of victims and executioners reconciled and lands once denuded finally restored.
I have heard, for example, that the exquisite old Ottoman bridge at Mostar, destroyed by Croat nationalist gunners during the Bosnia war, is now being renovated. Like the bridge, however, a whole society was shattered and the town of Mostar is still violently divided. And Mostar is the world: Cambodia, Burundi and too many other places. As we are swamped by an information glut of genocides we become progressively less capable of processing it into practical knowledge and more prone to a late-imperial senility. It is as if we all lived in some vast Beirut; everywhere a ‘Green Line’ divides us from one another, from our own humanity.
How, then, to exercise some human coherence when the spectrum of ruling neo-liberal ideologies, and the false oppositions of much dissident politics, seem to be slouching together toward Armageddon? How to create some human space? How to choose real human beings over instrumentalist strategies? To declare of all empires, minuscule or gargantuan, as did the old revolutionary movements, ‘neither your war nor your peace’? How, without deluding ourselves, can we live against empire while having to survive within it?
We now live in a state of permanent war – a global arms industry, apparently the largest single international business, must have its products used up so more can be sold. There must be profits for the capitalists and jobs for the proles. Is this entirely new? Are we not still in Caligula’s Rome? Global empires stretch across continents and archipelagos, and cellularized mini-empires hunker in every town and barrio. Finally, there’s an individualized, portable empire in every head. Somewhere, across the ocean or down the street, a war or a ‘peace-keeping mission’ is going on. As for the victims, the ship is on fire, even if the waters are stormy.
Somewhere in the Adriatic Sea two fighter-bombers, flown by warriors, take off from the ramp of an aircraft carrier. One tips a wing and flies off to the left to bomb the enemies of imperial peace and prosperity, over the Field of Blackbirds (the ancient battlefield of Kosovo), passing over burning villages where other warriors go about their grim work. The other plane tips to the right, turning across the Grecian isles and the wine-dark sea and south to Babylon (Iraq). The enemy warlords momentarily cease their own butchery and take cover. No need.
The bombs, smart as they are, fall instead on a peasant girl gathering eggs, or on a family hiding in their basement, or on a traffic jam of refugees pondering the mystery of a map. They hit military targets, too – cowering draftees, or an anti-aircraft battery, or the electrical grid, the foundation for any war economy in a world where war is peace and peace is war.
We’re so deep in civilized barbarism’s gore that, as in Macbeth: ‘Returning were as tedious as go o’er.’ Why not be depressed? How to fight a hydra?
Hell is murky. I don’t have an answer, except that my former placard and protest power seems inadequate. Perhaps we can only bear witness, learn to tell the truth, even when it cuts against our cherished chimeras. As Michael Sells observes about the Bosnian genocide in his wise and angry book, The Bridge Betrayed: ‘The willingness to accept an unpleasant, even devastating truth, when we are faced with it, is necessary if we are to become truly human.’
We need to rethink that celebrated call of the last century to be neither victims nor executioners. The dialectic of New World (Dis)Order no longer allows us this choice. We have to find ways to face these harsh realities without surrendering to paralysis or to late-imperial stupor. Once our illusions are finally shattered we might learn to resist the double blackmail. Perhaps then we can dismantle once and for all the New World Order and the New World Disorder with it.