The Absurdity of the Iraq War: Imprisoned in Hatred
"In immediate nearness to his oppressors, Mandela discovered a compassion and community wityh them in suffering. The oppressor and the oppressed are both robbed of their humanity, the oppressor by his humiliation in the captivity of hatred and the oppressed by degrading powerlessness..Americans in Iraq stand before a mirror of their own destructiveness,," translated from the German
The Absurdity of the Iraq War
Imprisoned in Hatred
By Horst-Eberhard Richter
[This article originally published October 10, 2003 in Freitag 42 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, http://www.freitag.de/2003/42/03420801.php. Horst-Eberhard Richter is a psychoanalyst, author and co-director of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW).]
When invited by schools to speak with young persons of the upper classes, with 16-20 year-olds about war and peace, I am very glad that a consciousness of responsibility with a wider horizon is developing in this age group. I often read the admonition of my honored friend Joseph Weizenbaum: "Every individual must act as though the future of humanity depended on him or her. Everything else is an evasion of responsibility or a dehumanizing power and confirms the individual in his or her idea of being a mere figure in a drama written by anonymous forces and hardly a whole person. That is the beginning of passivity and aimlessness."
What a sublime truth! How can this truth become an effective inner drive? When asked by students, I sometimes mention a little incident. When I was transferred to the Russian front as an 18-year-old soldier, I witnessed the life of a Russian peasant family in the single room of their little wooden house. I was greatly touched by the warmth and sensitiveness in the young couple's relations with their little children and the grandmother and by their approach to me. I was moved and at the same time shocked or frightened. I was deeply ashamed to be forced to suddenly attack these Russians who were not my enemies.
This feeling of intolerability has brought many changes in my life. There was the suffering in my failure, a forced human failure, and the positive discovery of nearness to people whom I wanted to help without being their enemy. My later zeal in overcoming divisions in personal nearness to the excluded was strengthened by these war experiences. Much later I found Emmanuel Levinas' saying: "Seeing the other face to face means not killing them."
"Even in the worst times in prison", Nelson Mandela wrote in retrospect to 27 years of imprisonment, "when my comrades and I were pushed to our limits, I saw a glimmer of humanity in one of the guards, perhaps only for a second. However that glimmer was enough to give me assurance so I could live again. Human goodness is a flame that can be hidden but not extinguished."
In this immediate nearness to his oppressors, Mandela discovered a compassion and a community with them in suffering. The oppressor and the oppressed are both robbed of their humanity, the oppressor by his humiliation in the captivity of hatred and the oppressed by degrading powerlessness. Both must be liberated from their respective suffering.
For a long time the media all over the world declared that a bloody war of revenge was inevitable after white apartheid rule in South Africa. Then Mandela and bishop Tutu accomplished what was seemingly impossible. They dared the unique experiment of truth commissions to negotiate face to face with culprits and victims before whites and black Africans about crimes perpetrated by apartheid. This experiment encountered all kinds of obstacles. Nevertheless this experiment set a radiant far-reaching sign. That Mandela's way hasn't become an orientation for dealing with problems in Israel/Palestine and Iraq can only be deplored.
Why wasn't Mandela's way attempted? This question is as important as the question about the motives of champions for humanization. Why is it so hard to firmly anchor humanity's great political successes in human consciousness and derive principles for future conduct? People celebrated Gorbachev for his initiative in overcoming the Cold War and admired Mandela for his reconciliation work. For a short time, millions felt lifted to a higher moral level. They identified with the triumphs as though they were their own triumphs. Then they soon fell back into skepticism and passivity. The newly opened ways were not followed.
They deserted Gorbachev when he saw in a far-sighted way that the stockpiled nuclear weapons would block the way to an order of peace grounded on trust. Again and again since 1987, Gorbachev urged a total nuclear disarmament by 2000. However the owners of these weapons didn't budge. People applauded Gorbachev when he said that agreement among people would decide over peace, not the balance or imbalance of weapons. This is now dismissed as self-evident. After the East-West tension died away, it seemed the nuclear beasts were in a safe place deactivated for all time. In those years in a small international circle around Gorbachev, I felt the deep disappointment of this man over the American partner's stubbornness and refusal to listen.
Hardly anyone could have predicted at that time that the US at the beginning of the new millenium would confront the world with a so-called "National Security Strategy" by which anyone critical of its superiority is threatened with an offensive war. The US wanted to be invulnerable through a missile defense shield and make all other people and nations toe the line or be docile and submissive, in other words build a hegemonial world order on the basis of military extortion.
This was noted silently and without expression as a long expected inevitability. This indifference strengthened the assumption that the proclaimed strategy can hardly be critically questioned any more. In other words, the US only draws a normal conclusion from its superior strength. In fact, our neoliberal system favors the principle of gaining a definitive edge in the inexorable competition for market advantages and ultimately soaring to maximum independence.
The American project is illusory. Nevertheless it is asserted in a headstrong way in a deeply rooted cultural will to dominate. September 11 and the tragedy in Israel/Palestine prove as strikingly as possible that the most powerful military superiority can get nowhere against the counterforce of suicide attacks. The strongest can never stop conquering the weaker. However the strongest can never become independent through oppression of others in a world where we all depend on one another. Even the most powerful is always fettered with a remnant of powerlessness to the remnant of power of the most powerless. The power of the most powerless can explode in terror any time when the oppression becomes unbearable. The American political scientist Benjamin Barber emphasized this in a single sentence in a letter to president Bush: "Terrorism is only the negative and distorted form of the mutual dependence that we are not ready to recognize in its positive and beneficial form."
Once Americans had thrown their arms around the devout Jimmy Carter when the humiliation, disgrace and shame of Vietnam burnt on their souls. Carter also owed his sudden ascent to the longing for purification in a national crisis of self-esteem. Many things suggest that the West is whirling in a moral crisis triggered by the US that is reminiscent of the moral crisis of Vietnam. This time our world order threatens to be shaken to its foundations. We stand before the sad remains left behind by an absurd Iraq war with reasons that weren't true.
The alleged work of liberation drives the liberated to hatred and guerilla resistance against the liberators. The goal of the Americanization of the whole Islamic Middle East is made to seem remote. Saddam Hussein's nuclear beasts from which the world was to be saved turn out to be a projection of a nightmare of the attacker. The inwardly frightening evil that should be eliminated as a potential threat in the hand of the monster of Baghdad now unmasks the supposedly persecuted as the real persecutors. The GIs may often break up Iraqi resistance. These GIs will not find any relief for their own pangs of conscience.
Recently Hiroshima's mayor Tadatoshi Akiba said Americans worship their nuclear bombs like God. That was certainly true for a long time. They even believed they lived in God's own country and were one with this God. They Christianly blessed the Hiroshima bomber. The punishment of the Last Judgment occurred to General Thomas Farrel in seeing the 1945 nuclear inferno in Japan that the Americans carried out with all the powers previously reserved to the Almighty. That was his report to President Truman. Americans in Iraq now stand before a mirror of their own destructiveness as in a classic psychiatric textbook case, imprisoned in their own hatred, morally isolated and stricken by the knowledge that their supposedly heroic deed a la Nigh Noon is about to plunge them into disgrace.
Still there are the other Americans who took to the streets on February 15 in hundreds of thousands in New York and Boston, Detroit and Chicago together with millions in Sydney and Rome, Cape Town, London, Madrid, Berlin and other metropolises. A great international community zealous for peace is ready to support the other America that did its utmost in 1945 to codify the principle of the equality of all nations in the UN.
The bankruptcy of the colonial war in Iraq - as the former UN General secretary Boutros Boutros Ghali described it - now offers the great chance for a change in thinking. This change has to start from below, from the will of people to no longer let themselves be artificially divided in good and evil. Fundamentalist suicidal terror develops more and more into a paradoxical complicity with state military terror. The good-evil division is directed by the nuclear weapons of mass destruction. For self-anesthization, threatening with these weapons requires an abolute self-idealization and an absolute dehumanization of the threatened. Therefore the US media before Hiroshima often labeled the Japanese as rats, apes or simply animals. A nation that makes all others nuclear hostages robs itself of humanity. The nuclear extortioner denies that its weapons already terrorize and threaten by destroying the most important social bond of interpersonal relations, namely trust.
The Iraq war was only possible for a great number of Americans because in their minds Iraqis were merged with Saddam Hussein. They didn't know and didn't want to know who these people were and what they felt. When former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was asked in 1996 whether the death of over a half million Iraqi children through the economic sanctions was acceptable, she replied "We think it is an acceptable price." The official estimates of the number of victims by the WHO and UNICEF are in that range. The present development of a fourth generation of nuclear weapons by the US is only possible because the people falling in the sights of this destructiveness are suppressed.
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