The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2020

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MAR 2020 Issue
Field Notes

Once More to the Breach

Protest in Rochester, NY, March 2003. Photo by the author.

“the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting” — Milan Kundera

A little over twenty years ago neoconservative American hawks were getting restless. They had ceased to be pleased with their so-called triumph in the Cold War and began agitating for the further flexing of American muscles they believed to have atrophied sans our antagonists from the Evil Empire. Replacing the virile militarism of the Reagan years were less militant (read: weak or effeminate) means of administering Pax Americana. But structural adjustments, embargoes, and the occasional bombing of a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant or Chinese embassy were insufficient reminders to the world of our awesome might; the neocon argument seemingly borne out by the decision of Bin Laden and his merry band to turn planes into missiles. That such a thing could happen confirmed we were weak and something needed to be done to reclaim the mantle of Teddy Roosevelt filibustering up San Juan Hill.

As we slide towards the latest installment of the War on Terror, it’s worth remembering we’ve been here before, traversing the same discursive terrain over the merits of war against a country that starts with the letters I-R-A-. Not only has very little changed, this ratcheting up and its discourses are direct consequences of the US left’s failure in 2002 to base its anti-war resistance on a political or moral foundation distinct from the logic of empire, leaving us vulnerable to the same mistakes. Instead of an alternative, the rationale for resisting the Iraq War rested on arguments over procedure and legality, arguments echoed today when Democratic primary candidates cannot fully disavow extra-judicial killings, such as the drone strikes that killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and nine others in Bagdad on January 3. Instead, they tell voters they will be more responsible stewards of the imperium; more Claudius than Nero; that is, Soleimani certainly deserved to die, just not at the hands of a buffoon who was inexplicably handed the keys to the convertible.

I remember clearly the atmosphere that draped over the US in the fall of 2002, an odd mix of bloodlust and calculation, the former having been yoked to the latter to achieve the goals of regime change and show the world that the US was still Number One. Afghanistan was not a sufficient demonstration of American might. Saddam had to go. It permeated the air as my fellow activists and I spent the Fall of my sophomore year in upstate New York building a campus coalition from the ashes of the No Sweat campaign in support of the Worker Rights Consortium—something more militant, something that would offer an alternative to the Amnesty-inspired candlelight vigils of the pre-9/11 world. In the Fall, we worked with union locals fighting for better wages for cafeteria and health care workers, and in the still-warm days of September, there was some time to be optimistic; but we knew the real fight would be over the militarized, anti-Muslim atmosphere into which the US had plunged, headfirst.

Rochester, NY, March 2003. Photo by the author.
Rochester, NY, March 2003. Photo by the author.

Then came alumni weekend in October. Senator Hilary Clinton arrived on campus within hours of voting “Yea” to the joint resolution on the Authorization to Use Military Force Against Iraq. As weekend-goers filed past to hear the Senator speak, our pleas and slogans and probably a few curses fell on mostly deaf ears. What had to that point felt likely, but avoidable, had become a fait accompli, despite the next few months which would see some of the largest demonstrations in history, spanning continents.

On the night the Coalition of the Willing—to this day a truly bizarre phrase—commenced its invasion of Iraq, a sovereign nation we had spent the better part of a decade starving, I remember making quarter sheets and preparing a campus-wide walkout. It was late, we were bleary-eyed, full of cheap coffee, our work punctuated by obligatory cigarette breaks in the freezing cold. I remember the next morning, standing before my modern lit class to explain why I was walking out. I remember our outrage carried over the crappy PA system we’d rigged on the library steps. I remember the air of defeat.

With the benefit of sixteen subsequent years I can start to see the reasons for the defeat. Both from a personal standpoint, but also from the much larger, institutional and international standpoint. And I can also see why defeat remains a distinct possibility today, regardless of who sits in the White House.

The personal reasons for defeat are simple enough to enumerate: too few people doing too much work in a campus milieu where students were steeped in notions of meritocracy and the necessity of building cultural capital. But this can provide insight into the larger forces at work that we must struggle against if we’re to effectively utilize campus energy. Currently, campus politics reflects mainly intra-professional-managerial class struggles about its traditional role as a mediator between the working class and capital, but also with new concerns about diversity and downward mobility. This has been largely the case since the Powell Memorandum in 1971, which Roderick Ferguson argues was a key moment in capital’s recapture of the university after 40 years in the clutches of the New Deal. Ferguson’s compelling argument in We Demand: The University and Student Protests is that, starting in the mid ‘70s the university became better at deflecting student movements which had, in the postwar period, worked to connect gown politics with the towns surrounding them.1

Putting those circumstances to one side, the major way in which our own campus resistance matched up with the wider problems of the anti-war movement was the liberalism that infected it. The early campus actions against the war at least contained a level of anger and determination. Perhaps it is simply the memory of winter which clouds my judgement, but the pre-invasion and early post-invasion events felt vital if not hopeful. By the spring, the rhetoric of peace had wormed its way in. I’m for peace. Who isn’t? But it’s a facile and wholly inadequate response to unbridled militarism, which too cloaks itself in the long-con of peace. I recall a fine spring morning in 2003 when we had to change a day of action to a “peace” rally in order to placate softer elements and convince prominent professors at the university to agree to appear. This negotiation certainly occurred beyond the campus boundaries and is something we must keep in mind should we re-intensify our perpetual war in the Middle East. A politics of peace has no meaning and thus no hope of succeeding.

Yet the 2002–03 protests existed beyond the campus. How could such mass dissatisfaction have failed to materialize a politics that did not rely on, let alone reply to, the rationale of empire? That such an alternative was not forthcoming was apparent as early as the week after September 11, when Susan Sontag was excoriated for pointing out that the attacks were a “monstrous dose of reality” for the US empire.2 Instead of heeding Sontag, the Democrats gave Bush their blessings then offered up Lieutenant John Kerry. Finally, they pasted over the whole mess with the liberal internationalism of Barack Obama, who burnished his bona fides as the putative 2008 anti-war candidate—winning him the Nobel Peace Prize after only nine months in office—and then turned much of the world into a garrison state. Now our perpetual war extends into numerous peripheries, such as Pakistan’s Swat Valley and Northern Yemen, where no bromides about it being all about oil apply.

Much of this failure can be located in the left’s unwillingness to develop an anti-war stance in opposition to imperialist expansion. Instead, anti-war opposition was mostly based on sophistry, technicality, and procedural quibbling, especially once the war was underway. Chief among them were the fight over the truth, of WMDs, of 9/11, and the ways in which the war in Iraq (and Afghanistan) were prosecuted, and both aspects have serious implications for resistance in 2020. If the coalition forces had found WMDs, would a pre-emptive (read: offensive) war have been justified? Would this have vindicated the neocon mandarins at the DoD and Project for the New American Century? What if the Perles and Wolfowitzes had prepared the military better for the war? Required troops to learn Arabic and learned about the sectarian quilt the Baathists had held together?

Based on the rhetoric from the 2020 hopefuls such things would have made all the difference. It wasn’t the war that was wrong, merely the way it was carried out. Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg talk about doing war the right way and “being prepared for the consequences” and having a “long-term vision,” which means following proper procedure, such as asking Congress’s permission, something it was quite willing to provide in 2002 in the most nebulous terms, to “defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq.” Buttigieg has gone so far as to say “The lesson of the Iraq disaster is not that there is anything wrong with standing for American values, but rather that any action in the name of such values must be strategic, legitimate, and constrained by the premise that we only use force when left with no alternative.”3 As Phil Ochs once sang, “We’re the cops of the world.” Meanwhile on twitter, the left candidates, seemingly without irony, argue that we can’t afford any new wars. Bernie Sanders writing that the president “promised to end endless wars, but this action [Soleimani’s assassination] puts us on the path to another one” while Elizabeth Warren cautioned that “[w]e can’t afford another forever war.” No, just the one we’re currently engaged in, of which Iran is simply a node, same as Ferguson or La Paz.

Such positions can be seen as mere continuations of a logic that has guided US foreign policy for a long time now. It runs from Bitter Lake to National Security Directive 54 for the first Gulf War straight through to 9/11—America’s very own Reichstag moment, to borrow from Masha Gessen—to now.

September 11 and its aftermath should have been our reckoning. And in some ways it can be still. Last year, Ted Fertik argued in n+1 it is necessary for the left to articulate a foreign policy that deals honestly with the fact of empire and chooses to wield power differently; the key obstacle being a failure to reckon with history. He notes politicians, professors, and policy-makers of all persuasion have made “soft power” programs like the Marshall Plan into fetish objects, while failing to apprehend their goals, overtly militaristic, often anti-Leftist. Indeed, when the Council on Foreign Relations asked candidates about the US’s greatest foreign policy accomplishments since the Second World War, both Sanders and Buttigieg name-checked the Marshall Plan as a proof that US foreign policy doesn’t have to be offensive and unilateral. Fertik, however, puts paid to myth of the Marshall Plan as some beneficent gesture at world piece: “A policy that advertised itself as one of peace was in fact a policy of war.”4 Sounds familiar.

I thought about Fertik’s exhortations to consider history on a recent Sunday afternoon walking through PS1’s “Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991–2011.” Amidst the often poignant reminders of the human cost of war, such as Oday Rasheed’s film “Underexposure” (2005) filmed in the immediate aftermath of the 2003 invasions on 20-year-old film thanks to embargo or the burnt canvases of Hanna Malallah’s “She/he Has No Picture” (2019), what I couldn’t shake was another moment, from deep into the war on terror. One which contrasted with the images, the objects and sounds in the galleries. On May 2, 2011, throngs took to the streets. These were the massive, spontaneous demonstrations of unbridled joy over the killing of bin Laden. They struck me then as deeply ugly scenes in which vengeance washed away sin and created a forgetting. For many Americans, the war ended with those words “We got him” even as it quietly continued. And as I sat at PS1, thinking about that moment, it seemed unsettling but apropos that the curators of an exhibition meant as a reminder of the recent costs of imperialism would choose to delimit at 2011 what is a total and endless war.

  1. Roderick Ferguson, We Demand: The University and Student Protests, (Berkeley: UC Press, 2017) 
  2. Susan Sontag “Tuesday, and After: New Yorker Writers Respond to 9/11,” New Yorker, September 24, 2001
  3. Pete Buttigieg, Speech on Foreign Policy, Indiana University, June 11, 2019 ↩
  4. Ted Fertik, “Geopolitics of the Left,” n+1,


John W. W. Zeiser

John W. W. Zeiser is a poet, critic, and frequent contributor to the Los Angeles Review of Books.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2020

All Issues