The “victory” over an already devastated and disarmed Iraq led Bush, Rumsfeld, and their teammates into a locker-room frenzy of exultation and self-congratulation. I half expected to see Bush joyfully pouring beer on Rumsfeld’s head and Ashcroft snapping a towel at Ari Fleischer’s derriére.
But it turns out that the war did not bring order to Iraq, but chaos, not crowds of cheering Iraqis, but widespread hostility. “No to Saddam! No to Bush!” were the signs, as Iraqis contemplated their ruined historic treasures, their destroyed homes, and the graves of their dead–thousands and thousands of civilians and soldiers, with many more men, women, children wounded. And it goes on as I write this in mid-June–an ugly occupation. I see a headline: “U.S. Troops Kill 70 in Iraqi Crackdown.”
With each passing day, the Bush Administration’s lies are being exposed. There were the lies about war being necessary to destroy Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction.” But an American army of 200,000, moving aggressively throughout the country, cannot find them. The only weapons of mass destruction in Iraq have been the bombs and missiles raining down by the thousands, the cluster bombs spewing out their deadly pellets, the arsenal of the greatest military power on Earth visiting destruction on a country ruled by a murderous tyrant, but militarily helpless.
There were the lies about wanting “self-determination” for the Iraqis, as the new officialdom, headed by wealthy exiles, was flown into positions of power, just as once Ngo Dinh Diem was flown into Saigon by the United States as Washington proclaimed its intention that Vietnam should govern itself. Through all this there is a sinking feeling that most Americans remain ignorant of these things, and so still support George Bush by a decisive majority.
But consider how volatile is public opinion, how it can change (and has done so many times) with dramatic suddenness. Note the large majority support for George Bush the elder, and then the quick collapse of that support as the glow of victory in the Gulf War faded, and the reality of economic trouble set in.
Think of how in 1965 two-thirds of Americans supported the war in Vietnam, and a few years later two-thirds opposed the war. What happened in between? A gradual realization of having been lied to, an osmosis of the truth, of information seeping more and more through the cracks of the propaganda system. That is beginning to happen now.
A bit of historical perspective reminds us that governments that seem to be in total control–of guns, of money, of the minds of the population–find that all their power is futile against the power of an aroused citizenry. The leaders awake one morning to see a million angry people in the streets of the capital city, and they begin packing their bags and calling for a helicopter. This is not a fantasy but history. It’s the history of the Philippines, Indonesia, Russia, of East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Rumania, and other places where change looked hopeless and then it happened.
Throughout history, imperial powers, gloating over victories, become overextended and overconfident, as their citizens begin to get uneasy because their day-to-day fundamental needs are being sacrificed for military glory while their young are sent to die in wars. The uneasiness grows and grows, and the citizenry gather in resistance in larger and larger numbers, and one day the top-heavy empire falls over.
We don’t expect Bush to scurry off in a helicopter. But he can lose the next election, just as he lost the last one, and this time perhaps not all the king’s judges or all the king’s men will be able to put Humpty Dumpty together again.
And there are already people around the country calling for his impeachment. Of course, we do not expect a craven Congress to impeach him. They were willing to impeach Nixon for breaking into a building. They will not impeach Bush for breaking into a country. They were willing to impeach Clinton because of his sexual shenanigans, but they will not impeach Bush for his pandering to the super-rich. Still, it is good to bring up impeachment, because the Constitution allows it for “high crimes and misdemeanors,” and it is an opportunity to discuss the high crimes of this government.
The change in public opinion starts with a low-level discontent, at first vague, with no connection being made to the policies of the government. And then, as some connections become unmistakable, indignation rises, and people begin to speak out, to organize, to act.
Today, all over the country, there is a growing awareness of the shortage of teachers, of nurses, of medical care, of affordable housing, of cuts in human services in every state of the union. A teacher writes a letter to The Boston Globe: “I may be one of 600 Boston teachers who will be laid off as a result of budget shortfalls.” And the teacher connects it to the billions spent for bombs “sending innocent Iraqi children to hospitals in Baghdad.”
Rebellion often starts in the culture, which we are seeing today–the poets in defiance, the actors and writers speaking out, the musicians and rap groups taking a stand—a rebellion that is first ignored by the major media, and then becomes hard to ignore. We see Michael Moore winning an Academy Award and speaking his mind to a huge national and international audience. We see the radical collective Def Poetry Jam winning a Tony Award as millions watch.
The arrogance, the posturing of this Administration, is becoming more and more hollow as its lies become exposed, its “victory” in Iraq a sham, its tax program an obvious theft by the rich.
The rest of the planet (and remember, we in the United States are only 4 percent of the world population) views this nation not as a liberator but as a marauder. After the unprecedented worldwide demonstrations of more than ten million people against the invasion of Iraq, a New York Times reporter wrote: “There are two superpowers, the United States and world public opinion.”
In Aeschylus’s play The Persians, now running in New York, we see the fall of another seemingly invincible empire. The chorus recognizes a new reality:
All those years we spent jubilant,
seeing the trifling, cowering
world from the height of our
shining saddles, brawling our might
across the earth as we forged an
empire, I never questioned . . .
It seemed so clear–our fate was to rule.
That’s what I thought at the time.
But perhaps we were merely
deafened for years by the din
of our own empire-building,
the shouts of battle,
the clanging of swords,
the cries of victory.
Those of us who become momentarily disheartened by “the cries of victory” should remind ourselves of that long history in which seemingly insurmountable power fell not only of its own unbearable weight, but also because of the resistance of those who refused finally to bear that weight, and would not give up.
Published in The Progressive • August 8, 2003