I was very curious to hear the opinions of former US army people working in the Middle East on the war in Iraq.
By Phil Hall
Colleagues of mine working in the Middle East had retrained as English teachers. One of them had been a prison guard in Guantanamo and one of them was a tank commander. The third was a patriotic Puerto Rican American who joined the US army for an education and a wage. He was grateful.
I was very curious to hear the opinions of these former US army people working in the Middle East on the morality of the war in Iraq.
Now, these army veterans were not necessarily supporters of the war in Iraq, but they took my inquiry amiss. They thought I was attacking them. They responded by boasting about how great the USA was and by stating how proud they were to be US citizens. They were deeply patriotic people.
All the same, I was shocked. They didn’t seem to want to criticise their government for going to war in Iraq. At least not to a foreigner.
For most morally responsible, artificially naïve idealists, the ordinary SNAFU of US foreign policy has almost always been a mystery.
Any of these three people could easily have been sent to fight in Iraq, though none of them were. Surely, the whole war must have concentrated their minds. Surely, they had taken time to think their way through the morality of that war, the second Gulf War.
Even worse, when I mentioned it, all three of the veterans actually defended the US invasion of Vietnam. They said they regretted the fact that politicians had ‘prevented the US Army’ from achieving an easy victory and they laughed when I mentioned the destruction the US had caused in Vietnam. They laughed!
The US was responsible for environmental catastrophe in Vietnam, for the death of two million people and the maiming of millions more. It used napalm and agent orange. It carpet bombed North Vietnam with B52 Stratocasters.
As kids and teenagers, the news backdrop to our lives was the Vietnam war. Ho Chi Min and the North Vietnamese Liberation Army members (just like Fidel Castro and his party in Cuba) started out as nationalists trying to liberate their respective countries from US economic and political domination.
In Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, the Near East and even Europe, the United States actively opposed legitimate national liberation movements in order to support its own perceived interests.
why did the US support the Apartheid regime in South Africa almost to the death?
For most morally responsible, artificially naïv, idealists in the West the ordinary SNAFU of US foreign policy has been a confusing mystery. Why do they always take the side of the bad guy? For example, why did the US support the Apartheid regime in South Africa almost to the death? You could argue, I suppose, that it was because the USSR (and China to some extent) supported anti-imperialist and national liberation movements.
The explanation sometimes given for the immorality of US foreign policy was that it was ‘The Cold War’ and that US foreign policy was determined by its opposition to whatever the USSR and China did. But that is unconvincing. The US was gung ho against the ANC from the start. It wasn’t just being knee jerk and opposing. That was the era when the USA had its own Apartheid in the South. It was a CIA agent, Gerald Ludi who actually betrayed Nelson Mandela to the Apartheid authorities into his 27 year imprisonment.
But why would the US automatically support the forces that repressed legitimate expressions of anti-colonialism? Why would the United States step in on the side of the Portuguese colonialists against Africans struggling to liberate themselves in Angola and Mozambique? It doesn’t make immediate sense.
What was it in the US strategic interest that caused it to support almost every deeply evil, murderous, fascistic regime on every continent against the interests of its own people?
Why would the United States, with all its allies dragging along behind like tin cans, organise coups? They put Trujillo, Pinochet and Samoza into power. They put the Shah into power? The US was on the side of fascists, on the side of truly evil people.
Or, Suharto: Suharto in Indonesia was responsible for the mass murder of hundreds of thousands of East Timorese. Any opposition to the Indonesian tyranny was annihilated. The United States supported Suharto to the hilt.
Why was it in the US strategic interest to support almost every deeply evil, murderous, fascistic regime on every continent against the interests of the people who lived in those oppressive countries?
Let’s not kid ourselves about the USSR, either.
Well, we can say that. We can say the USA supported many pseudo fascist dictatorships, but it is also important not to be blinded and one sided. The USA’s opposition to anti-democratic, nominally socialist nations like the USSR was powerful because it was legitimate.
There were some redeeming features of post and pre-Stalinist Russia, and many excuses for the USSR were made by fellow travellers. The whole world was grateful to the Soviets for defeating fascism. But the post Stalinist USSR was certainly not a workers’ paradise or a model for any other country to follow. It was a dictatorship of a party nomenklatura
One could – and should – argue that the USSR’s progressive and enlightened foreign policy went some way to offsetting its vile history of Stalinism and the Communist Party’s perpetual and tyrannical suppression of dissent and free thinking. But by how much did it offset it?
Most of the new born billionaires who fed on the carcass of the former USSR were part of the system. They were former party bosses, or the henchmen of party bosses. Immediately after 1990 the former nomenklatura of the socialist countries found their way into positions of power.
The Iraqi watershed
Perhaps the most interesting example of a watershed moment, where all these seeming US foreign policy contradictions came to a head, was the Iraq war. After the first Gulf War many people on the left attacked George Bush Senior for leaving Saddam Hussain in power after clearing the Iraqi army from Kuwait. They accused the US of colluding with Saddam.
So, initially, when the United States and the UK decided to institute regime change in Iraq in 2003, wasn’t this a good thing? Saddam was gassing the Kurds. Saddam was shooting relatives dead at the dinner table. Saddam extirpated the communists from Iraqi society. He acted ruthlessly against all opposition. He was an evil man.
There were tens of thousands of Iraqis in exile egging the US on to invade. Did we, middle class Brits who have never experienced sanctions or civil war or a murderous tyranny, have the moral high ground when we argued against war, or were those exiled Iraqis right who were arguing for liberal adventurism and an opportunity to get rid of a bestial mobster?
What had changed that made the left, and even the liberals say:
‘We don’t want to overthrow Saddam after all.‘?
Whereas, in the previous Gulf War, many on the left were arguing for regime change. Isn’t there a contradiction there? Why did we feel that it was the right thing to do to argue against overthrowing Saddam? Tony Blair and George Bush Junior were right, weren’t they? Getting rid of Saddam was a gift to the Iraqi people.
In retrospect, it seems relatively clear. Perhaps my conclusion is a little simplistic, but the intervention in Iraq was not intended to restore full democracy to Iraq and strengthen the Iraqi state in order that it defend the interests of its own people. The US foreign policy objectives instead, were to set up a puppet regime and to keep the civil war bubbling away on the back burner; a strong Iraqi state would have resisted US interests more effectively. Meanwhile, Iraq’s oil wealth would be stolen from under it. That was the hidden agenda. Hindsight is wonderful.
In fact, many of us who marched against the Iraq war to try and dissuade that lap dog, Blair from joining in with George Bush Junior’s oil war actually knew what was up.
Others on that march: centrists, liberals, Greens, might have been there because they were ‘against war and death in general’ or because they didn’t want British involvement in a war we had nothing to do with. But we on the left were there because we had a clearer idea of the motivations behind US foreign policy and we opposed it.
(It was too late to ask that Britain not be involved, by the way. The British created Iraq like a Frankenstein; from the body parts of different tribes and nations).
We on the left were there because we understood that US foreign policy is always conditioned by what it considers to be its strategic interests, the interests of US multinational companies and its military industrial complex and (almost) never by any form of altruism.*
The reason why the US supported Pinochet was because AT&T needed the copper. The reason why the US supported the Apartheid regime was because it had skin in the game. There were US companies making big profits in South Africa. There is always a reason that trumps the needs and rights of the people of the countries which the US dominates and controls. The US’s overwhelming economic and military power then comes into play and it is usually more than enough to crush almost any outbreak of independent action by smaller nations and ensure compliance.
Certainly, huge US oil companies won’t forgo vast profits for the sake of the impoverished inhabitants of a tiny speck of a nation.
Take the example of Guinea Bissau: huge US tankers slide up to the tiny country on the western bulge of Africa, long, fat bloodsuckers, and they suck out, almost unmetered and unregulated, enormous amounts of oil to take back to the US. If the islanders want to see more of that money from the oil, then either kickbacks or targeted assassinations are the result. Certainly, huge US oil companies won’t forgo vast profits for the sake of the impoverished inhabitants of a tiny speck of a nation.
I think it was Lenin who pointed out that when members of the European working class were sent out as soldiers in expeditions to repress and kill colonised peoples – and perhaps to die while doing so – they would try to understand their predicament and perhaps refuse to carry out orders. At the very least, they would begin to understand the mechanisms of imperialism.
In this way Vietnam radicalised a whole generation of US citizens sent out to fight an unjust imperialist war. Many became war resistors and they had to argue their corner.
Nowadays, despite the fact that the soldiers in the US military are all there by choice, earning a wage (mercenaries) there are still people like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden who take a stand because they are forced into situations where they have to make excruciating moral choices, and they made the right ones. Then they are made to pay the full price for taking that stand against imperialist wars. This is the capitalist, and the mafia law of Omertà.
There are pictures of former veterans of the Iraqi war weeping and shouting and throwing their medals into a river saying things like:
‘This is for the innocent people of Iraq we killed.’
Mohammed Ali, perhaps the most famous Vietnam war resistor, put it best:
‘My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America,” . “And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality…’Mohammed Ali
But my former army US colleagues didn’t feel the same way as Mohammed Ali. Did they regard him as a hero or a traitor? Two of them were from very poor backgrounds, but neither seemed to feel any remorse for Iraq and certainly they felt absolutely no remorse or contrition for the actions of the US in Vietnam. They gloried in the destruction the US had caused in Vietnam. It’s unfair to say they were entirely representative.
Veterans For Peace (VFP) was founded in 1985 with 8,000 member, but it now has chapters in every U.S. VFP is an established NGO with representation at the UN.
*1Biden has is about to announce the Troop Drawdown from Iraq according to the NYT of 25th July 2021
*2My father, an editor of international magazines focused on the Middle East and Africa in the 80s and 90s, Tony Hall, argued that the exception was the US intervention in Somalia.
Phil Hall is a university lecturer. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine. He started Ars Notoria in May 2020.