One reason that the world has been saddled with the current hellish situation in Iraq is that we have given too much credit to an ideology that sanctifies war. War is a great evil, yet this ideology sees it as a necessary part of the fabric of existence, and even as advancing the divine work of evolution. It is argued that war is intrinsic to human advancement, just as the evolution of animal species took place through a ceaseless struggle for survival. Or the destruction of war is factored in as a relatively small price to pay for the attainment of a higher spiritual good such as justice or freedom, or even peace.
President George Bush seemed totally in thrall to that ideology when he proclaimed to his troops in his Iraq victory speech of May 1, 2003: ‘Wherever you go, you carry a message of hope – a message that is ancient and ever new. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, “To the captives, ‘come out’, and to those in darkness, ‘be free’”. Much later, in May 2006, he was repeating the now jaded promise that millions of Iraqis would enjoy a free society, becoming precious allies of the USA in its War against Terror – a nice slap in the face for al-Qaeda. This time he was not posturing in military costume, but had his wife at his side, as if to tell doubting Americans, ‘We are all in this together’. Gone was the sacral magniloquence of the cocky early days.
The war ideology has surely taken a knocking as a result of America’s colossal blunders. Yet America has invested so heavily in a naïve providentialism that a thorough desacralization of its political discourse is still a long way off. Mayor Giuliani told New Yorkers a few months after 9/11: ‘Abraham Lincoln used to say that the test of your Americanism was ... how much you believed in America. Because we’re like a religion really. A secular religion’. George Monbiot remarked that ‘the presidency is turning into a priesthood’ (The Guardian, July 29, 2003). One suspects that American Christians are still possessed of a deep distaste for the Enlightenment origins of US democracy, for the coolness of the Founding Fathers to religion, other than the cold Civil Religion that was a cement of national unity. Thomas Paine, whose book Common Sense had inspired the American Revolution, died in poverty, shunned by a nation grown pious. The autonomy of democratic values over against religious ones has never been fully accepted.
The pro-war narrative gave prominence to the events of September 11, 2001, seen as inaugurating a new phase of historical time, even a sacred time. The figure of ‘Saddam’ was built up alongside that of ‘Osama’ as the religiously satisfying embodiment of pure Evil. The tale of his wicked deeds was told with more regard for the imaginatively satisfying than for such troubling facts as his friendship with the US at the time of the crimes now brought against him. The foregrounded image of Weapons of Mass Destruction, fearful but invisible, unlocatable, miraculously mobile, brought an element of fairytale, infiltrating the entire pre-war debate with an eerie unreality. As early as 2000, Slavoj Zizek was onto the non-existence of the WMD’s for which tens of thousands of Iraqis were to be slain:
The notorious Iraqi ‘weapons of mass destruction’ offer another example of the objet petit a: they are an elusive entity, never empirically specified, a kind of Hitchcockian McGuffin, expected to be hidden in the most disparate and improbable places, from the (rather logical) desert to the (slightly irrational) cellars of presidential palaces (so that when the palace is bombed, they may poison Saddam and his entire entourage); allegedly present in large quantities, yet magically moved around all the time by workers; and the more they are destroyed, the more all-present and all-powerful they are in their threat, as if the removal of the greater part of them magically heightens the destructive power of the remainder – as such, by definition they can never be found, and are therefore all the more dangerous….
When the WMD’s eventually failed to materialize, Bush and Blair would argue that everybody had sincerely believed in their existence. The element of fantasy in the pre-war stories thickened when 9/11, a torturing Saddam, and dangerous WMD’s were fitted together in a fearsome plot whose logical joints were often creaky. Spurious, meretricious, but potent, the myth was worthy of the age of Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code.
The pro-war narrative was conditioned, even programmed, by a history of violent conflict and by the canonical ways of imagining that history. Talk of ‘a crusade’, of the Wild West and its ‘dead or alive’, of Pearl Harbor, revealed an abyssal historical depth behind the President’s instinctive urge to strike back. The Cold War was a nearer historical precedent, and a whole set of attitudes perfected for dealing with the Soviet Union were refurbished for this new war. The potency of this historical shaping of America’s response has perhaps something to do with what Indian thought knows as karma, the way the habits formed by deeds in a distant past bind and dictate one’s action in the present. Historical memories blended with a particular kind of fantasy, in which awesomely evil and alien opponents are conquered by American heroes. Such fantasy is the staple of many Hollywood movies, and Bush’s rhetoric tuned in to it on many occasions. The assurance of a happy ending, the victory of goodness, democracy, over evil, tyranny, was an integral part of this myth. Even as he vamped up paranoia about terror, in the tried and trusted Hollywood style, Bush must have been reassured by this belief in happy endings.
An ideological reading of 9/11 was quickly imposed and any questioning of it was dubbed unpatriotic. There was no wide-ranging, free, probing discussion among the politicians, but rather a rash of jingoistic gestures, mandatory for those who did not wish to alienate their constituency. A rational and responsible interpretation would have weighed all the political implications of the event, in terms of its causes and consequences as well as with regard to the question of what policy to adopt in response. The policy of a war of Good against Evil, smoking the terrorists from their lairs, showing them the meaning of American justice, etc. was an ersatz for a truly reflected response. The American press, far from promoting reflection, became almost unreadable after 9/11, as a heavy party line set the limits of what could be thought and said. The whole world signed many a blank cheque at this time, not least as regards the war in Afghanistan. The American story was presented to Europe in tones of moral blackmail: America had rid Europe of Nazism and had protected European liberties all the length of the Cold War. Europe must stand by America now against the new global threat. Terror was the successor of Nazism and Communism, and the US was once again the heroic nation fighting an evil dragon.
A lie was in the air; the shrillness and thinness of propaganda could be detected by any sensitive ear. Yet the lie matched so well the American storyline, and was so laced with religious overtones, that few Americans were ready to perceive that it was a lie. The lie could not be fumigated, and the progress toward an attack on Iraq, fuelled by the lie, could not be halted. Subsequent revelations of ‘sexed up’ intelligence reports, of presidential deafness to reality-based argumentation, of an ideological hijacking of 9/11 by a war party that had their sights on Saddam all along, were fundamentally unsurprising. Whistle-blowers in the CIA and the White House filled out the picture of how America lurched toward what one expert called ‘a strategic mistake of terrific consequences’. That it was a legal and moral mistake as well was pointed out by moralists as different as Hans Küng and Peter Singer. Faith in the sacral story America had assembled in response to 9/11 had overridden strategic, legal and ethical doubts.
Chronicle of a Massacre Foretold
The story forged in response to 9/11 soon came to seem narrow and bizarre to European observers, or Europeanized ones like Susan Sontag. Those against the war used the categories of tragedy from the start, sometimes taking to pose of a Cassandra announcing doom on heedless Troy. For those who saw the Iraq invasion as a tragic crime, and drafted various tales of how that crime would bring nemesis, the counter-narrative of the pro-war people was a fiction to be unmasked. Both sides rooted for the victory of their narrative over the opposing one. The anti-war narrative tried to defuse the primordial, mythic status of 9/11 by recalling that its victim, the USA, with immeasurably greater resources, had perpetrated greater atrocities on civilian populations many times. Chile’s 9/11 in 1973 has an official death toll about equal to New York’s. Panama, Grenada, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Nicaragua, El Salvador were recalled. Some narrativized 9/11 early on as the tale of ‘America is getting its come-uppance’. As to the prehistory of Saddam’s crimes, the anti-war narrators talked instead of Saddam as a creation of the CIA, helped by the US in its war on Iran, given the green light to invade Kuwait, then mercilessly flayed in the ensuing war and the years of sanctions. What the pro-war people acclaimed as a necessary step to install democracy and end tyranny, the anti-war saw as an oil-grab in the interests of securing American hegemony. But the latter story was also espoused by the pro-war camp in its franker moments. This was indeed a war for hegemony, and its architects saw nothing shameful in that.
Meanwhile the anti-war camp deflated and desacralized its own motivations as well, in a way that sometimes provided a mirror-image of pro-war cynicism. According to Slavoj Zizek, for example, it was European resentment at American power, rather than any solidarity with the peoples of the Middle East, that prompted the protests against the war: ‘Can any serious analysis be allowed to forget the global context of the attack on Iraq, the new rules of international life that were exemplified and imposed by this attack? This – not sympathy for Saddam – was what moved millions in Europe to demonstrate against the war’. In this ‘first war between the USA and Europe’, he states, ‘the true economic aim of the war was not primarily the control of oil resources but the strengthening of the US dollar, the prevention of the dollar’s defeat against the euro, the prevention of the collapse of a dollar which is less and less “covered” by “real” value’.
In the anti-war story, Bush is a classic example of hubris. The tragic protagonist, intoxicated with a sense of mission and of fate, advances toward his fatal error or crime as if fate had overruled reason, despite the growing fear of all onlookers. Hubris blinds him to the evil omens, and deafens him to the warning voices of the chorus and of whatever far-seeing Tiresias dares risk his displeasure. Classic tragic irony: the raging Oedipus accuses his critics of hubris. The US accused the UN of hubris and condemned it to irrelevance.
The first anti-war person to enter the White House in six months was the Vatican envoy Cardinal Pio Laghi; he met a President whose mind was made up and who was unwilling to listen. Laghi’s March 5th 2003 report on the meeting stated: ‘The Holy See maintains that there are still peaceful avenues within the context of the vast patrimony of international law and institutions which exist for that purpose. A decision regarding the use of military force can only be taken within the framework of the United Nations, but always taking into account the grave consequences of such an armed conflict: the suffering of the people of Iraq and those involved in the military operation, a further instability in the region and a new gulf between Islam and Christianity’. In a press conference he added that a U.S. military attack on Iraq would be ‘illegal’ and ‘unjust’. At a conference on October 4th, he told the whole story. Bush had begun expounding the reasons for war at length, until the cardinal interrupted to say: ‘I did not come here only to listen, but also to ask you to listen’. Bush listened, raising objections to the Vatican’s moral arguments against use of force, its rejection of ‘preventive war’ and its warnings about the practical consequences for Iraqis and others. When Bush said that Saddam was training members of al-Qaida, Laghi asked: ‘Are you sure? Where is the evidence?’ He also questioned the administration's conviction that Iraq possessed and was ready to use weapons of mass destruction. But Bush had no doubt that he was right; he acted almost as if he were divinely inspired and ‘seemed to truly believe in a war of good against evil’. ‘We spoke a long time about the consequences of a war. I asked: “Do you realize what you’ll unleash inside Iraq by occupying it?”’ Bush insisted that democracy would be the main result. On his way out of the White House, a Marine general came up to Laghi, shook his hand and said: ‘Your eminence, don't worry. What we’re going to do, we will do quickly and well’ (see NC Catholic, Oct. 7, 2003).
Consciousness of the tragic nature of what was afoot was able to ripen in the long stretch of time between the first talk of an Iraq war and the actual invasion in March 2003. This long wait ensured that when the invasion happened, the effect was that of a huge slap in the face to world opinion. Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939 and the Soviet crackdown in Hungary in 1956 had caused similar outrage, but without the long build-up in which every aspect of the forthcoming event was fully and passionately discussed. There had been many other covert or overt interventions, invasions, massacres, but none that from the start had such breadth of exposure and sheer impact. More had died in other wars, but in none had each death weighed so much, because of the intensive media interest, the central location of the battlefield, and the controverted nature of every aspect of the war. Just as the composer Karl-Heinz Stockhausen could frivolously speak of 9/11 as a dazzling work of art, so the timing of the Iraq war seemed exquisitely calculated to maximize its grandeur as tragedy. America expected quick victory, acclaim by the liberated, a ceremonial triumph. It was unwittingly that it provided a tragic moment more shattering than the knocking on the door in Macbeth or the predicted assassination of Caesar. ‘In viewing this monstrous tragi-comic scene, the most opposite passions necessarily succeed, and sometimes mix with each other in the mind; alternate contempt and indignation; alternate laughter and tears; alternate scorn and horror’ (Burke on the French Revolution).
Tragedy is a public spectacle, lit up from every angle. On this point, too, the aesthetician might be grateful to the USA for its magnificent staging of its crime. This war was no hole-in-corner affair, but one that was announced long in advance. Every step in its preparation was followed by the world public. The sword had been suspended above our heads for months and now it fell with the weight of unalterable doom. The anti-war outcry had reached full pitch worldwide when the war began, yet the world was forced to follow, as trapped spectators, the unfolding of all they had foreseen. Up to the last minute we had reports, from the admirable Robert Fisk, of how the people of Baghdad were going about their business, oblivious of the impending axe. The declaration of war was a dashing of hope, a lesson in cynicism to the newly politicized young who shouted their protests on the streets of so many cities. Ex-premier Nakasone dismissed the anti-war sentiment in Japan as merely passive (and the experience of one-party rule for decades shows he is right). The know-it-all leaders – even in Ireland – pushed the youthful citizens back into their apolitical passivity. On the third anniversary of the war, Dublin staged a tiny demonstration, attended by eight parliamentarians, ‘the usual suspects’ from the fringes; the main parties were silent.
As Baghdad burned, on the night of ‘shock and awe’, Bush could boast ‘I have done the deed’. The melodramatist could plausibly see him as acting with the precipitation of the compulsive but self-blinded murderer. Then as the invasion progressed, one might imagine him exclaiming: ‘If it were done when 'tis done, then ‘twere well it were done quickly’. But like Macbeth, he would discover that closure was elusive. Not the victory speech, not the capture of Saddam, not the various political landmarks such as the elections of January 2005 could bring an end to the violence unleashed in March 2003. But through it all Bush showed impervious aplomb, none of the panicky hysteria of Macbeth and his spouse. The tragedians saw Bush saying: ‘I am in blood Stepp'd in so far that, should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o’er: Strange things I have in head, that will to hand; Which must be acted ere they may be scann’d’. They wished he would say: ‘Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather The multitudinous seas incarnadine, Making the green one red’. But in reality Bush was not thinking in such tragic terms at all. Sustained by the capacious vision of US foreign policy, which can amend mistakes when necessary, he could scorn his simplistic critics. Neither Bush nor America would ever come to the moment of recognized guilt that tragedians relish, would never be forced to say: ‘Here’s the smell of the blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand’. Unlike Germany, Japan and Russia in the twentieth century, America has never been forced to face tragedy. As bombs rained on Baghdad, Bush did not say: ‘I heard a voice cry, “Sleep no more! Macbeth does murther sleep” – the innocent sleep, Sleep that knits up the ravel’d sleave of care...’ The tragedian might rant that Bush had murdered sleep, literally murdered the children of Baghdad as they slept, and therefore America would sleep no more. Against all such suggestions, America would calmly point to 9/11 as the primal crime. America was not the initiator of violence, but the policeman seeking to stem it.
The special effects were worthy of Hollywood: as Baghdad exploded, Bush gave a stirring speech to delirious soldiers at Fort Tampa, and an unlikely baby was produced for him to kiss; the meretricious saga of Private Jessica Lynch provded the sort of sentimental fodder to which a thousand movies have conditioned us. As non-embedded journalists were targeted and killed by US forces (see Jehane Nouhaim’s film Storyville), a series of media shows were staged: the toppling of Saddam’s statue by a group of alleged Iraqis brought in by the US; the victory speech modeled on Top Gun. The US calculated that if a convincing simulacrum of Victory could be created, the question of the war’s justification would be forgotten. Other issues would turn up, other things to think about.
What most heightened the tragic character of the events was that they had all happened before, in the same place, to the same victims. Eugen Drewermann delivered a series of prophetic sermons denouncing the 1991 war. He warned:
It will all come back again, if we do not remember. That is why I wish this to be a Mene Tekel in your souls, buried there until the Last Day, and that you may tell it to your contemporaries and your children. A war like this must never happen again, in no place on earth. That is the lesson of the war for Kuwait.
But a war like this did happen again, after twelve years of starvation and bombardments that took more than a million lives.
Even in the details, there were chilling repetitions, or rather the protagonists were acting out a scenario that was written long ago and had been implemented many times. US Vice President Dan Quayle spoke of nuclear bombs as a ‘real option’ in the 1991 war; the same sentiment was voiced in the 2003 war. The US spoke in 1991 of keeping open the option of war; Colin Powell in 2003 said that war is the last resort but it must be a resort. The rhetoric of absolute Good against absolute Evil and the comparisons of Saddam with Hitler were already in full spate in 1991. George Bush senior declared on January 27, 1991, that the war was no one between Jews, Christians and Muslims, but concerned what lies at the basis of all religion, the battle between Good and Evil; and the end of this war could only be the triumph of the Good. On both occasions blank lies about the enemy’s power and intent became common currency. ‘We believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons’ (Vice President Cheney on NBC's ‘Meet the Press,’ March 16, 2003). The war machine is oiled by these hallowed ways of speaking. War without end is what these rituals of speech dictate.
Bloodshed is of the essence of tragedy, and the US has never been sparing in this effect. No obscenity was lacking: depleted uranium was dumped in five times the quantity as in 1991, bombing sorties were again numbered in tens of thousands, cluster-bombing was inflicted even on residential areas by both the US and UK, as they first denied, then blithely admitted (The Guardian, March 29, 2003; The Financial Times, April 4, 2003), leaving hundreds of thousands of bomblets liable to blind or mutilate children for years ahead; the ragged conscript army was fire-bombed from the skies, burned alive with a substance equivalent to napalm; ‘daisy cutters’ created instant helicopter pads; stray missiles twice massacred people in a market place; casual shooting of civilians occurred again and again and is still continuing.
Rock music blaring in their ears, young Americans indulged in a killing spree, even using Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries to terrorize the inhabitants of Falluja in imitation of a scene in Apocalypse Now. In World War II as few as 15% of soldiers fired at their adversaries in battle. The US then succeeded in making its soldiers into automatic killers, with scant regard for their moral or mental health, so that in Vietnam 95% were willing to kill the adversary. A Los Angeles Times report of July 2004 by Charles Duhigg found ordinary soldiers happy to blather about their experience: ‘The first time I shot someone, it was the most exhilarating thing I’d ever felt’. ‘I enjoy killing Iraqis. I just feel rage, hate when I’m out there’. ‘Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill. It’s like it pounds at my brain. I’ll figure out how to deal with it when I get home’. The young killers often suffered mental illness on their return home.
The young soldiers’ jinks became a jinx for Bush, but again he should have asked with another tragic hero, ‘Whom have I to complain of but myself?’ Justice Brandeis said long ago: ‘Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or ill, it teaches the whole people by its example. Crime is contagious. If the government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for the law; it invites every man to become a law unto himself’. That was a partial explanation of the abuse scandal. Law, especially international law, was for the Bush mentality a tiresome abstraction, and he had tapped into a populist resentment of elites and intellectuals to encourage a general scorn for legal niceties. The erosion of civil liberties at home went hand in hand with utter contempt for them abroad.
Everyone had underestimated the depths of American callousness. We should have paid more attention to a famous, regretted remark of President Clinton’s Secretary of State on ‘60 Minutes’: Leslie Stahl: ‘We have heard that a half a million children have died. I mean, that's more children than died in Hiroshima. Is the price worth it?’ Madeleine Albright: ‘I think this is a very hard choice, but the price – we think the price is worth it’. Similarly, the death squads in El Salvador and Nicaragua were ‘worth it’ to stop communism; the El Salvador option was touted as a successful strategy that might be redeployed in Iraq.
The tragedy took on new intensity as it became apparent that America was using torture systematically. A majority of Americans, especially Roman Catholics, found torture to be justifiable. The torture revelations were seen as a sideshow, a topic for moralists to froth over rather than from major political debate. Vote-conscious John Kerry did not refer to them in his presidential campaign. As Bush shook hands with Europe’s leaders on the first foreign trip of his new term, none of them spoke of torture. In winning tolerance for its reprehensible methods, the empire had won a major battle for legitimacy, by lowering the hurdle. Worry about torture, when it surfaced in political debate, focussed more on damage to America’s image or fear that captured Americans might themselves be tortured than on basic human decency. It took an old-fashioned moralist to point to the fundamental issue:
Have all the people in the world but Americans become invisible to Americans? Torture is not wrong because someone else thinks it is wrong or because others, in retaliation for torture by Americans, may torture Americans. It is the torture that is wrong. Torture is wrong because it inflicts unspeakable pain upon the body of a fellow human being who is entirely at our mercy… To abuse or kill a person in such a circumstance is as radical a denial of common humanity as is possible. It is repugnant to learn that one's country's military forces are engaging in torture. It is worse to learn that the torture is widespread. It is worse still to learn that the torture was rationalized and sanctioned in long memorandums written by people at the highest level of the government. But worst of all would be ratification of this record by a vote to confirm one of its chief authors to the highest legal office in the executive branch of the government. Torture destroys the soul of the torturer even as it destroys the body of his victim. The boundary between humane treatment of prisoners and torture is perhaps the clearest boundary in existence between civilization and barbarism. Whether the elected representatives of the people of the United States are now ready to cross that line is the deepest question before the Senate as it votes on the nomination of Alberto Gonzales.
Gonzalez was ratified without difficulty.
On February 2, 2005, in his State of the Union speech, Bush vowed to ‘stand with the allies of freedom’ in ‘ending tyranny in our world’. On the same day he named Elliot Abrams as his deputy national security advisor. Abrams pleaded guilty in 1991 to lying to Congress about the Contras, which as the State Department official in charge of human rights (!) he had helped organize. Bush senior pardoned him on Christmas Eve that year. Abrams pooh-poohed reports of atrocities by US-backed dictatorships, such as the one described by the UN-sponsored Truth Commission in 1992: ‘On 10 December 1981, in the village of El Mozote in the Department of Morazan, units of the Atlacatl Battalion detained, without resistance, all the men, women and children who were in the place. The following day, 11 December, after spending the night locked in their homes, they were deliberately and systematically executed in groups. First, the men were tortured and executed, then the women were executed and, lastly, the children, in the place where they had been locked up’. It has since emerged that the US State Department was fully informed about this slaughter at the time that Abrams was claiming it never happened and slandering journalists as communist dupes. After the assassination of Archbishop Romero, Abrams said: ‘Anybody who thinks you’re going to find a cable that says that Roberto d’Aubuisson murdered the archbishop is a fool’ (Washington Post, March 21 1993). At the time, the State Department was in possession of two such cables from its embassy in San Salvador. One read: ‘A meeting, chaired by Maj. Roberto d'Aubuisson, during which the murder of Archbishop Romero was planned. During the meeting, some of the participants drew lots for the privilege of killing the archbishop’ (Dec. 21, 1981). Anybody who thinks you’re going to find a cable that says that Roberto D’Aubuisson murdered the archbishop is a fool detailing the death squad leader’s role in organizing the killing. Abrams dismissed the 1985 abduction, torture and murder of Guatemalan human rights activist Maria Rosario Godoy, who was killed together with her brother and her two year old son. Their mutilated bodies were found in a ravine. It was evident that the young mother had been brutally raped and the child’s fingernails had been ripped off. Abrams insisted that there was no reason to disbelieve the Guatemalan regime’s official story that the three died in a car accident.
With Alberto Gonzalez and Elliot Abrams to care for their human rights, could any American citizen feel safe from arbitrary arrest? Or rather, since the US has its finger in every pie, and has made the entire planet the arena of its new war, could anyone anywhere feel safe? A British citizen was arrested in South Africa in a case of mistaken identity; a French citizen spent two life-threatening weeks in an American jail for making a harmless joke to a flight attendant; a Canadian citizen was picked up in transit at JFK airport and whisked off to a middle east detention centre where he was tortured for a year.
America banked on an efficient operation, which would bring closure to a situation judged to be intolerable, and instead found itself caught up in a tragedy. The world watched, like ‘guilty creatures, sitting at a play’, as the tragedy unfolded. Tragedy is a literary genre, that we do not expect to find reproduced in real life. But real life offers the raw material out of which literary tragedies are wrought. The raw material is often crude, disordered, grotesque, closer to Shakespeare’s gruesome early play, Titus Andronicus, than to his shapely later works. History produces not tragedy but horror stories. Yet the best way to discern some kind of meaning in the march of events could be to project a tragic vision on it, to reach down for the great tragic emotions of pity and fear, hoping for some catharsis, and seeking the patterns of hubris and its punishment, and of an inalterable logic of fate. The tragic vision is born of a thirst for justice. It wants the victims not to be forgotten, the brutal victors to be punished. It wants to create a sense of justice and humanity in the audience, to curb the dynamics of cruelty and slaughter.
Tragedy is something no one wants to be part of. We do not want the dread and suspense, the sense of impending doom. We do not want the atmosphere of oppressive guilt. We do not want to be thrust into naked misery and made an object of pity. But when we find ourselves up to our neck in tragedy, the only thing to do is to live it as tragedy. As the tragedy deepened, the politicians kept up their rhetoric of denial, and refused to their people the possibility of mourning. The word ‘tragedy’ was deleted from their speeches, and even when all the news was bad, they went on celebrating the war against Saddam as effective management of a chronic problem. That such a brutal war should have happened at all, even if it were legal and moral, was in itself a tragedy. But even this thought was never expressed by the American and British leaders. At a late stage, May 2004, Bush began to offer the Iraqi people a future of freedom or of tragedy – to speak like a providential god who held out blessings to the Iraqis if only they had the wisdom to embrace their opportunity. The tragedy would not be his tragedy. Crude and unreflective like Othello and Macbeth, in their shallow motivation and blind acts of murder, the leaders became as reflective and subtle as Hamlet in their rationalizations and defences. Their self-image as benign liberators, sustained in the face of rejection by the vast majority of those they claimed to liberate, became a battle of beautiful image against horrid reality. Meanwhile Iraqis themselves were compounding their tragedy by slaying one another. The Western leaders could look on in the role of concerned, well-meaning benefactors, any glimmers of nascent tragic consciousness quickly extinguished as the whole sorry affair faded into the grey texture of history.
The tragic interpretation of horrific affairs like the war and ensuing quagmire in Iraq gives form and dignity to the shapeless mass of human suffering. But the ever-mounting heap of corpses in Iraq fits into no uplifting tragic tale. The death of tragedy is not a modern event. Tragedy has always had a limited writ. It has focused on the agonies of princes but been powerless to transfigure the lot of thousands upon thousands who died like dogs. Tragedy as a mode of imagining is a fragile human protest against a world that exhibits only in fitful glimpses the sort of logic that tragedy celebrates. Even in so bleak a work as King Lear the wicked are punished and the sufferers learn compassion and solidarity. In real life the wicked go unscathed, unconscious of their crimes, and the sufferers are driven to cynicism, despair, suicide. The construction of tragic vision is an effort to bring the wicked to repent and the sufferers to hope. How very fragile are the poems of Wilfred Owen as a comment on the carnage of the Great War:
Not in the hands of the boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
Tears can humanize horror. But in reality they are an aesthetic avoidance. When Britten uses those lines in the War Requiem he can tap into the emotions of soldiers who have lost their buddies, but they are strictly irrelevant to the holocausts of Dresden or Hiroshima. Yet their very disparity to the horror of events may make them an effective protest against war. They reassert the little world, the world of domestic sentiments, over against the monstrous killing machine. Perhaps many Iraqis would have preferred to let their little worlds flourish in the shadow of dictatorship, rather than have to endure debasement of their basic humanity as the price of the birth of a questionable democracy – or rather, as it increasingly seems, for no purpose at all.
Yet some people are willing to view the Iraq war as a kind of comedy – the comedy of American over-reaching, spelling the happy end of a grandiose imperial project. Emmanuel Todd opined in Der Spiegel on March 17, 2003, that ‘the moment war is declared, the power of the Empire will be broken’. To the ears of Europeans, who were realizing that the American drive for power threatened the liberties not only of third world nations but of their own, Todd’s prophecy was thrilling, and gained some plausibility from his earlier success in predicting the fall of the Soviet empire. Has his prophecy begun to come true? The imperial project of the neo-conservatives has failed the test of an encounter with recalcitrant reality – but has by no means been abandoned. America has suffered a hemorrhage of its legitimacy in the eyes of the world, and anti-Americanism has become a feeling of almost mystical intensity in many quarters, which is bound to have long-term economic and political consequences. Maybe Hegel’s ‘ruse of reason’ will come into play – the slow advance of progress, writing straight with the crooked lines of human stupidity, and able to take the worst tragedies in its stride. But even that grim form of optimism may be too sanguine. Maybe the war is sheer waste, with no redeeming aspects whatever. ‘Whoever believes that evil actions cannot produce good results, nor good actions evil results, is an infant in politics’ (Max Weber). Yet it would be equally infantile to imagine that evil actions are bound to produce good results. Trust in the ruse of reason leads to a fatuous complacency or to Leninist callousness.
History is the accumulated record of all the hurts and traumas inflicted on humankind, most often by itself. To read history is to meet at every turn man’s inhumanity to man, and to find denied at every turn the basis of belief in any kindly superintending Providence. Yet humanity rises on the dung-hill with amazing resilience, for there is always the virgin dimension of the future waiting to be conquered by the one who dares. For the seasoned pessimist, this eternal recurrence of hope is the bitterest irony of all. The future holds out the possibility of better times, but the likelihood of as bad or worse. Around 2000, people allowed themselves to be lured into a wishful mood, entertaining the notion that the change of date would be a welcome exit from a century of catastrophes into one of peace. We complain all the time about missed chances in the past and the defects of the present, but we never complain about the future, always imagining it to be as bright as can possibly be expected. Prophets of doom, especially ecological ones, are rarely listened to, since any projection about the future is regarded as speculative and as liable to be overturned by the emergence of some unexpected factor. ‘Something will turn up’ is the eternal hope of those for whom nothing ever has.
It is less the sudden catastrophe that tests the resilience of hope than the long-drawn-out, intractable headaches of history, in which one despairs of ever finding a decisive breakthrough. Catastrophes wake us up and draw out the most generous and compassionate responses. But intractable quagmires drag us down into a routine of low expectations. The eternal social plight of so many groups throughout the world seems so vast that people retire to the cultivation of their own garden rather than cast themselves into a losing battle with the woes of the world.
Anti-imperialists had one hope left. The cost of the war would bankrupt America. Bush had doubled the US military budget, and sent many additional bills to Congress for funding of a war and reconstruction effort that was costing hundreds of billions of dollars. Soaring deficits and financially suicidal taxcuts would combine with this extravagance to break the empire’s back. Previous empires had been able to afford their wars, and even to make them pay, but America had embarked on a costly miscalculation and would be forced, in the absence of strong allies, to bear the costs. These auguries were, of course, little more than wishful thinking. Economics leaves plenty of room for luck and unintended consequences, and cannot be expected to reward the good and punish the wicked. Eventually, the oil benefits might make the Iraq adventure quite a profitable one. Those who hoped that the euro might replace the dollar as the reserve currency, and that Europe would acquire military autonomy, had to fantasize about a powerful European political will and economic vigour that were far from existing. Or would Europe’s modest, peacefulness and common sense be enough to ensure its triumph over a belligerent and shrill USA? Would the superpower fall by its own weight, while Europe quietly reaped the fruits of its more mature culture? Some speak of guarding the memory of the victims, those crushed by history’s triumphant chariot. But the kind of justice that this solidarity with victims would entail is not of this world. Practically, only the victims who can be helped in the here and now can draw our full attention.
The Absentee Protagonists
American narcissism has been a component of the tragedy, as pointed out by a group set up by the Pentagon: ‘Muslims see Americans as strangely narcissistic – namely, that the war is all about us. As the Muslims see it, everything about the war is – for Americans – really no more than an extension of American domestic politics and its great game. This perception is ... heightened by election-year atmospherics, but none the less sustains their impression that when Americans talk to Muslims, they are talking to themselves’ (reported by Sidney Blumenthal, The Guardian, Dec. 2, 2004). Vague horror at what has befallen the Iraqi people is not enough; for a true understanding we would need to study the language, history, religion and culture of that region. But that is beyond me, and I focus instead on the tragedy as it affects America and Europe.
Adroit self-deception was much in evidence as nations sleepwalked into this war. Slavoj Zizek applies to the motives for the war the Freudian parable of the broken kettle. Accused of breaking a kettle he borrowed, the accused replies: (1) You never lent me a kettle; (2) It was already broken when you lent it to me; (3) It was in perfect condition when I returned it! Garret Fitzgerald offered a similar argument about Ireland’s role in the Iraq war; (1) We can be proud of resisting the US at the United Nations by not approving the war; (2) We can be proud of not making a song and dance about this, as France and Germany imprudently did; (3) Allowing the US to use our airport in its war effort was right, in view of our neutrality. A senior British Foreign Office figure offered a borrowed kettle argument that rivals Fitzgerald’s: ‘When you’re dealing with intelligence, you can’t pretend to be a lawyer, to prove something beyond reasonable doubt. You have to rely on these people, who’ve seen all the pieces in the jigsaw. We listened to the advice. We are told now it is going to take more time to find WMD. We were sure he had WMD all the way through. We are still sure. Saddam Hussein’s whole behaviour led us inexorably to the fact that he had WMD’. The carelessness with which the category of ‘fact’ is abused in such statements leads one to suspect that the deconstructive and relativist philosophies of our postmodern times, which have made the notion of truth so unfashionable, have softened heads even in high places.
In April 2006, papal biographer George Weigel, writing in the right-wing Catholic online journal First Things, still stands over the casus belli advanced by the US in 2003. He champions the sincerity of the belief in WMDs:
The Bush administration’s stress on weapons of mass destruction as a crucial component of the casus belli against the Iraqi regime was based on at least three factors: the administration’s sincere conviction that Saddam had a capacity for such weapons and sought to increase it; the belief that Iraq’s defiance of the United Nations’ disarmament resolutions made the strongest case for military action at the Security Council; and the political needs of British prime minister Tony Blair, who had told the American administration that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction had to be emphasized in order to keep his own Labour back-benchers in line in the House of Commons.
Weigel positively gloats over the success of the war, that took tens of thousands of Iraqi lives, in ensuring that the WMDs, whether they existed or not, are now no longer a threat to US security:
Prudent statecraft assumed that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction; the debate was over what to do about that. And, as James Q. Wilson has pointed out, whatever else can be said about prewar intelligence failures, we now know for certain that an aggressive Iraqi regime does not have weapons of mass destruction with which to threaten the region and the world. Ensuring the disarmament of Iraq was one facet of the just cause argument in favor of deposing Saddam by military force; that desirable and morally defensible end has been achieved.
Weigel still believes that the PNAC and the 2002 National Security document breathe the spirit of an idealist quest to bring democracy to the whole world. This he sees as the noble motivation and justification of the Iraq invasion. Weigel’s very permissive take on just war theory has been refuted by Rowan Williams.
This uncanny bliltheness about the casus belli has gone hand in hand with complete blindness toward the real human beings that the war has most immediately affected. These were people who had already been pushed to the utmost limits of despair, and their renewed humiliation in 2003 brought many to understand at last why one would dream of being a suicide bomber. ‘It is the sheerest disorder to get up in arms against misery, against the aggression that comes from misery, against the hatred that stems from despair, and always to act as if we were in the right’ (Drewermann). Warring on the despairing and the helpless, the US has made for itself the most dangerous of foes, the one with nothing to lose. The dialectic of Master and Slave, analysed by Hegel in The Phenomenology of Mind, was set up again, just as in Vietnam or in the thousands of independence struggles of colonized nations. Prepared to be mowed down by the Americans, the Iraqis scored not only moral and propaganda victories, but even military ones. They realized the inside the awesome American tanks were human beings like themselves, scared boys who had no idea what they were up to and whose morale was falling through their boots.
But more interesting was the dialectic going on in Washington, the dialectic in the breasts of the Masters, for whom the distant Iraqi Slaves had no real existence. This dialectic is mapped in the tragedies of Corneille. In the early ones, young paladins, prove their honour in duels and exploits of war (Le Cid); in the later ones, decrepit emperors scheme in decaying courts. Bush spoke as if he were the youthful idealist Cid, but acted in the style of the most advanced imperial decadence. He set out to demonstrate mastery against Saddam, an enemy who was largely fictional, a projection of the Master's mind. Crushing Saddam where his father had failed, Bush would establish personal mastery and ensure as well the hegemony of the USA. But the dialectic of mastery proved not to be an advance from triumph to triumph, as expected, but a treacherous downward path, in which each apparent victory turned out to have been a failure. The sequence of delusive victories accelerated, becoming a cascade of humiliations for the project of imperial mastery. Each humiliation was ritually denied, which had the effect of intensifying it each time.
Bush revelled in Mastery – ‘I get to say’ he boasted to reporters months before the war. ‘This gesture, which can never be fully grounded in reasons, is that of a Master’. Blair and Bush could play the Churchill role to the hilt, in a display of strength. But neither had sufficient command of international politics to couple their strength with wisdom. Their Mastery quickly came to grief on the dialectic. ‘If a political Leader says, “I am your Master; let my will be done!”, this direct assertion of authority is hystericized when the subject starts to doubt his qualification to act as a Leader’. Doubt overcome by denial altered the texture of Blair’s discourse from mastery to hysteria as he continued to assert the existence of the non-existent WMD’s, the rightness of his cause, the purity of his motives. Bush meanwhile, forswearing such reflection, focused on the mechanics of getting re-elected.
When the Master falters he hands over authority to the discourse of Knowledge – represented in this case by the various official inquiries set up in the US and the UK, each of which duly whitewashed the Master. The naivety of the ‘hystericized subject’ which we all became as we awaited the moment of truth, the devastating judgment, of the Hutton or Butler reports, only to have our projections dashed by the whitewash that anyone could have foreseen from such carefully chosen establishment figures, suggests that we do need a lot of psychoanalytical wising up to handle the manipulativeness of our slick leaders. Zizek’s reinforcement of Hegel and Marx with Lacan is just what is needed to show us politically inept flies the way out of the flybottle. The perpetrators of the Iraq war were curiously absent from their own tragedy, for they refused to let the buck stop with them, but handed agency over to shadowy bureaucratic authorities as much as possible. The illegal aggression against Iraq was somehow supposed to have issued from UN Resolutions. The management of the subsequent mess was left to various Iraqi authorities that, like the Coalition of the Willing, seem to exist more on paper than in effective power to police or govern. Mistakes abounded, thousands of them admitted Condoleezza Rice at one point, but the USA nonetheless remained unquestionably right. As in the world of Kafka, ‘it is a basic working principle of the authorities that one never reckons with possibilities of error’. In England, where universities are paralyzed by exercises in control and supervision such as the notorious Research Assessment Exercise (‘Ob es Kontrollbehorden gibt? Es gibt nur Kontrollbehorden’), four public inquiries were set up to whitewash Blair’s proceedings. Were mistakes made? The inquiry would tell. Kafka again: ‘And who will assert that the second controlling officials will give the same judgement and likewise the third and further the others?’. Can one have tragedy without a tragic hero? None of the prominent warmongers were particularly outstanding human beings; they were little men, in some cases quite deficient in head or in heart. But Shakespeare’s Macbeth was a little man, a run-of-the-mill serial killer. The tragic grandeur of this play comes not from the protagonist but from the horror of murder. And the Iraq war likewise drew its tragic force not from the little bureaucrats running it but from the nakedness of its sheer evil.
The dialectic of American downfall goes as follows: (1) You believe yourself to be in the position of Invulnerable Mastery. (2) But you need to have this recognized by a display of total submission from a feared hostile world. Your mastery ‘in itself’ must be confirmed as mastery ‘in and for itself’. You feel insecure – nominally because of a terrorist attack, actually because you sense the lack of legitimate basis to your mastery and the lack of real strength in your position. Or at a deeper level: nominally because of the unreliability of the Persian Gulf oil supply (close this window of vulnerability, have your hand on the spigot, and the whole world will dance to your tune); actually because your present position of near total dominance leaves you intrinsically dissatisfied and you feel the urge to shore it up. (3) So you project an imaginary enemy who will allow you to express your dominance and prove your invulnerability to yourself. All failing empires do this. You set up a theatrical war scenario to shock and awe the world and have them at last pay you the tribute you desire. You now expect total security based on total recognition. That will give you at last a satisfying sense of your own identity. (4) The enemy turns out to be an illusion and you find yourself pounding defenceless frightened people just as Hitler pounded the scapegoat Jews. (5) The Recognition you sought becomes recognition of another kind, you are recognized as a murderer. You have now failed totally to secure the confirmation of your Mastery by a grateful world. They did not accept your offer of liberation and must be punished. (6) At this point there occurs ideological implosion. The discourse of mastery loses legitimacy in the eyes of the Master himself! Your language of freedom turns to ashes for it is seen that you fight freedom in the name of freedom, despise democracy in the name of democracy. You must choose between the project of Empire and the project of Democracy. You choose Empire and now use the language of Democracy in a totally cynical way. Even children are taught it in a way that ensures they do not take it too seriously. (7) You advance to a position of naked Mastery, dismissing the quest for legitimacy and the pretence of standing for freedom and democracy. Now you are in the position of Nero or Caligula. (8) At this point the dialectic turns Sadean and calls for Nihilistic Heroism. The Sadean Master Race must have the moral nerve to trample on conscience and to pay a huge blood price for nothing more substantial than a demonstration of power, shutting down all moral reflection and adopting instead a perverse logic of killing. They knuckle down in their bunkers and continue to spit in the face of the whole world, showing a heightened degree of steely resolve and libidinal excitation with every new perverse act. Now is the time for America to give the world’s greatest demonstration of nihilistic heroism. Of course it is ultimately suicidal, but suicide can be heroism too! The forces of decency step in from the outside, Fortinbras stands appalled in the corpse-strewn hall in Elsinore, and we are back to plodding everyday life. But what a sublime fiasco!
The previous paragraph was a nightmare fantasy, an extrapolation to extremes. Yet to the victim of torture in the American gulag, such fantasy would seem to fall short of the horrible reality he is living. Casual killing of civilians marked the invasion from the start. As the Iraqi leader raised a feeble protest against trigger-happy US troops, The Independent asked the question in many minds, on its front page of June 3, 2006: ‘Could Haditha be just the tip of the mass grave? The corpses we have glimpsed, the grainy footage of the cadavers and the dead children; could these be just a few of many? Does the handiwrok of America’s aremy of the slums go further?’
A tenet of the tragic storyline was that Bush was incapable of reflection, that his mind was the mind of Hollywood gore movies or of video games. But the genius of Bush was that he could play that role to the hilt, and win great popularity in doing so. An enclave of controlled and marginalized universities has no power to resist the appeal of popular culture, which provided the base of Bush’s appeal. And behind the homely act lay a sophisticated political calculus, not Bush’s own, but that of his team of strategists. The cultural pauperization of the populace made their reactions easy to foresee and manipulate.
Colin Powell, outwitted again and again by those who were better at manipulating the President, publicly sacrificed his integrity as he held on to his position, and perhaps of all the players was the one who might best assume the mantle of tragic protagonist. His tragedy began early. The ‘subtle flaw in the man’ (as in Conrad’s Lord Jim) first showed up when he compliantly attempted to whitewash the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. Powell tried to recapture his integrity by criticisms of the White House, which were invariably followed by retractations or clarifications, notably his use of the word ‘Gestapo’ as reported in Bob Woodward’s book, or his comparison of the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal to My Lai. Powell had launched his own career by delivering a whitewash report on the My Lai scandal, and even his evocation of it now savoured of an attempt to count it as just one of those things that happen in war. Powell would have done better to sulk in his tent like Achilles.
It became increasingly apparent that the peculiar rhetorical style of Rumsfeld, who smiled perpetually, his spectacles glinting, was based on denial, defence, and emotional disconnection. He gave a new sense to the title Secretary of Defence. Asked about possible casualties, he referred to soldiers experiencing a premature termination of their existences. How far the disconnect in perception and emotional response could go was seen when Wolfowitz, Assistant Secretary of Defence, misstated the number of American casualties as 500 when it had passed 700. Pity for the sufferings of the Iraqi people was not an ingredient in America’s emotional cocktail – unless one counts the opportunistic indignation at Saddam’s mistreatment of them. American emotions centered narcissistically on America itself: fear of terrorism, pride in American strength, unease as things went wrong, frustration, fear of failure, embarrassment and shame at the abuse, hatred of terrorists, scorn for feckless Iraqis, contempt for French appeasers. Since there was no vision, there could be no genuine nobility of feeling. America stumbled unintelligently to its doom like a gangly adolescent astray in Friday the Thirteenth or Scream 3.
Who is the protagonist in this tragedy? Just the President, the Prime Minister, and their advisers? Or the entire citizenry of America and Britain? If we casually concede that all are guilty, we can comfortably conclude that none are really guilty. The churches prayed and hymned their way through the war and its aftermath just as they did in 1991, in tones that amounted to self-excusation. The people of Britain and America, facing the huge bill that has been handed to them, soon began to experience a severe bout of buyer’s remorse. Bush confidently predicted that the war would be self-justifying. Now the multitude does not want to be saddled with guilt and casts the blame back on those who misled it. Iraq has proved a graveyard of reputations in Westminster and Washington. It has often seemed that politicians cared more about their reputations and their re-election than about the lives of innocents, and the embarrassing death of Dr Kelly caused Blair to pale where the massacre in Baghdad dinted his aplomb not a whit. Only when it became clear that the aftermath of the war would demand a high price in soldiers’ lives and taxpayers’ money did the Democratic Party begin serious discussion of the question that should have been debated before the war: ‘Was this war necessary?’ To which they may subjoin a more popular question: ‘If it was not necessary, can we now somehow get out of paying for it?’
Twenty years after the fall of Hitler, Jews were able to pose the question of guilt to the world’s conscience. The ‘banality of evil’ diagnosed by Hannah Arendt at the time of the Eichmann trial linked us all to the perpetrators of Auschwitz, bringing the Nazi monsters within the ambit or moral if not legal forgiveness. The American conscience is spared by being muffled in a myth of innocent gung-ho enthusiasm for freedom motivating all American wars. This myth is scarcely dinted by figures like Chomsky or Sontag, who see these wars as a series of callous massacres prompted by ignoble motives and always using extremely disproportionate firepower. The myth is so powerful and now so systematically reinforced by a subservient media that it would seem to absolve those who believe in it from all moral culpability. American innocence knows no bounds: ‘We thank all of the citizens of Iraq who welcomed our troops and joined in the liberation of their own country. When Iraqi civilians looked into the faces of our service men and women, they saw strength and kindness and good will’ (Bush victory speech). On January 26, 2003 Colin Powell expressed the noble selflessness of the American cause in response to a question from Archbishop George Carey: ‘We have gone forth from our shores repeatedly over the last hundred years and we’ve done this as recently as the last year in Afghanistan and put wonderful young men and women at risk, many of whom have lost their lives, and we have asked for nothing except enough ground to bury them’. Yet the US does ask for something. As Powell said on March 26, 2003: ‘We didn't take this huge burden with our coalition partners not to be able to have a significant dominating control over how it unfolds in the future... We have picked on a greater obligation – to make sure there is a functioning Iraqi government that is supported by the coalition, the center of gravity remaining with the coalition, military and civilian’. And the fight for freedom means the fight for American security and hegemony.
The poet Kleist characterized the rumour-mongering French press of his day as follows: ‘If you tell the people something three times, they’ll believe it is true.’ In 2003 as in 1933-45 the lie worked its magic, and had the war been a success the lie would have gone unquestioned. Joan Chittister OSB raised the question of collective guilt: ‘The point is clear: If the people speak and the king doesn’t listen, there is something wrong with the king. If the king acts precipitously and the people say nothing, something is wrong with the people’ (National Catholic Reporter, May 7, 2003). Yes, the lack of effective opposition to the war, and later to the practice of torture, does show something very wrong with the people. But what is chiefly wrong is the failure to assure the correct working of democracy by properly educating and empowering the electorate. Despite the vast amount of political discussion that America has produced, the actual implementation of democratic ideals is stymied by forces that have no desire to see democracy flourish. Those with huge sums of money at their command can ensure that ‘government of the people by the people for the people’ translates as government of the poor by the rich for the rich. If politicians need a lot of money to get anywhere, the government becomes a plutocracy. Media manipulation hollows out the democratic forms – rule of the people, democracy, becomes rule of an indoctrinated mob, ochlocracy, or, in the case of an unworthy President idiotocracy. Democracy is sustained by a constant effort of public education, which is undermined when misinformation and hostility to legal constraints becomes the order of the day in government. What is wrong with the American people is not so much insensitivity to crimes committed in its name as its enslavement to the capitalist and mediatic manipulation that is pauperizing American culture.
The failure of democracy is found in all the countries that joined in the American misadventure – the bizarre Coalition of the Willing. Ireland was not on any official list of that ragbag of fifty or more nations, yet Ireland played the part the US asked of it with exemplary spinelessness. Democratic debate was ruled off limits as Shannon Airport was put at the disposal of the invaders of Iraq; protestors were jailed; the government turned a blind eye to the evil practice of extraordinary rendition of suspects to nations likely to torture them. It could hardly have been clearer that Ireland, like many other countries, is securely in the pocket of the US, unable to say No or to offer criticism where any major US interest is involved. Yet one remembers gratefully a number of countries which significantly refused to join the Coalition: Canada (though apparently some Canadian troops were unofficially present in Iraq in 2004), Russia (though Putin made supportive noises as he pursued his own repressive agenda toward Chechenya and Ukraine), China, India, France, Germany, and above all the smaller nations on the UNSC who stood out against American bribery and bullying: Guinea, Cameroon, Mexico, Chile, Syria, Pakistan. Unlike Ireland, these countries were prepared to pay the price of conscience. ‘These countries, some small and impoverished, never wanted to be under the spotlight, determining the fate of world peace. They wanted the permanent five to sort it out. But, thrust into this uncomfortable role, they proved far more resistant to blandishments than Blair or Bush had predicted’. Threats and bribes are the US method of garnering votes from UN member nations. After Yemen’s delegate registered dissent to the 1991 war, ‘a senior American diplomat was instructed to tell him, “That was the most expensive ‘No’ vote you ever cast”. He meant what he said: America immediately cut off more than $70 million in foreign aid to Yemen. America still punishes Malta economically for alerting Libya to the bombing raid intended to kill Ghaddafi. The US Secretary of State James Baker ‘admitted how he had dealt with the Security Council “in an intricate process of cajoling, extracting, threatening, and occasionally buying votes”’.
The war was a moral tragedy for Japan also. Prime Minister Koizumi had stonewalled through parliamentary debates, rebutting arguments that the Japan-America security agreements in no way obligated Japanese to assist in American military adventures in faraway places. His scolding of the released Japanese hostages in April 2003 appealed to an authoritarian streak in the Japanese people: ‘the mainstream opinion is that any resistance to so-called authority is depraved and punishable behavior, and that is the mold into which the former hostages have been cast’, observed a letter-writer in The Japan Times (May 9, 2004). The pacifist Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, imposed by the US occupation authorities, who soon realized they had made a mistake, has been whittled away over the years by rightist ideologues responsive to American pressure.
For the people of Iraq the war has been a tragedy written in blood and pain. For the comfortable citizens of the nations responsible for the war it has been a tragedy too, a tragedy without blood, suffering or even awareness. It has revealed that when it comes to the crunch the notions of freedom and democracy have become paper-thin fictions, and that our world is ruled by other powers – militarist, capitalist and imperialist forces that override all opposition, easily dragooning our governments into their service. My question in this book is whether Christianity and Buddhism, critically used, can provide a site of resistance to this dismal fate. But since we are dealing with tragedy, I advance with no expectations that it can easily be reversed. The most one can do is to try to free up some of the resources that may some day serve to change or alleviate our tragic condition of powerlessness.
 Slavoj Zizek, The Fragile Absolute, or, Why is the Christian legacy worth fighting for? (London: Verso, 2000), 162.
 Der Spiegel, March 2003.
 The President of Good and Evil: The Ethics of George W. Bush (London: Granta, 2004)..
 Slavoj Zizek, Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle (London: Verso, 2004), 8.
 Ibid., 36.
 Eugen Drewermann, Reden gegen den Krieg (Düsseldorf, 1991). To its shame, the Diocese of Paderborn printed one of Drewermann’s anti-war sermons in a volume justifying its expulsion of the theologian, to show that he was an eccentric preacher who did not follow Vatican guidelines!
 Jonathan Schell, ‘Letter From Ground Zero: What Is Wrong With Torture’, The Nation, February 7, 2005; see also Paul Surlis, ‘Torture: Integral to US Foreign Policy or Aberration in Iraq?’, The Japan Mission Journal 60 (2006), 108-28.
 John Kampfner, Blair’s Wars (London: The Free Press, 2004), 340.
 See the classic study of Serge Doubrovsky, Corneille et la dialectique du héros (Paris: Gallimard, 1963).
 Zizek, 136.
 Ibid., 143.
 Franz Kafka, Das Schloss (Frankfurt: Fischer, 2001), p. 82.
 Kampfner, 288.
 Ibid., 19.
 Ibid., 20.