Some imperial Americans could use a little humility and education regarding the nature of their "homeland."
A bit of such modesty and knowledge might have saved the life of the late Marine Corporal Jeff Starr. Starr was killed while participating in George W. Bush's deadly and illegal occupation of Iraq earlier this year.
A selection from a letter left on his laptop computer made its way into the conclusion of a speech Bush recently gave to the United States Naval Academy. As rendered by Bush's speechwriters, the passage reads as follows: "[I]f you're reading this, then I've died in Iraq. I don't regret going. Everybody dies, but few get to for something as important as freedom. It may seem confusing why we are in Iraq. It isn't to me. I'm here helping these people so they can live the way we live*.others have died for my freedom, now this is my mark."
These are noble sentiments which Bush finds useful in his campaign to sell his brazenly imperialist assault on Iraq as an idealistic effort to export freedom and democracy to a land yoked by tyranny.
Given the Bush administration's predilection for deceptively spinning stories about injured and killed soldiers in its "war on terror" (e.g. Pat Tillman and Jessica Lynch), it's hard not to wonder about the authenticity of Starr's posthumous letter. Based on numerous discussions I've had with pro-war Americans, however, my semi-educated guess would be that Starr really wrote something along the lines of what Bush quoted.
There are three core problems with the Starr-Bush passage.
"HELPING THESE PEOPLE"?
The first difficulty is its certainty that America's imperial occupation is helping Iraq. How many times have we heard Americans, including some GIs, express shock at the supposed "ingratitude" of Iraq that we, after all, are just trying "to help?"
The most relevant group to consult on the truth of the assertion that America's invasion is "helping" Iraq would be the Iraqi people. And curiously enough, the preponderant majority of that all-too un-consulted cohort wants U.S. troops out now.
That desire is hardly surprising when we consider that Bush's invasion has led to the loss of many tens of thousands of Iraqi lives, the collapse of civil authority, and a plague of daily terrorism in that shattered land.
According to Iraqi Body Count (www.iraqbodycount.org.press/pr12.php), 1 in every 1000 Iraqis was violently killed between March 20, 2003 (the day after the beginning of the U.S. invasion) and March 19, 2005. IBC reports that "tens of thousands of Iraqi women and children have lost a husband or father to violence since March 2003, a loss which will have long lasting psychological and economic consequences for the bereaved families." By IBC's tabulation, 42,500 Iraqis have been wounded during the occupation.
By IBC's careful account, based on multiple verifiable media reports, anti-occupation forces have killed less than 10 percent of the total number of the nearly 25,000 dead for whom the killers can be identified. "Criminal elements," who have thrived in the lawless environment created by the destruction of Iraqi civil authority, killed 8,935 or 36 percent. The biggest killers have been the U.S.-led armed forces, which violently ended the lives of 9,270 Iraqis or 37.3 percent.
In databases that include real-time accounts from reporters in Iraq, IBC presents a number of accounts of Iraqis killed by American "liberators." Its "Falluja Archive" contains (to give one among many examples) an April 2004 Associated Press (AP) story relating how more than 600 Iraqis, "mostly women, children, and the elderly," were butchered during Uncle Sam's massive "retaliatory" (after the resistance killed U.S.-funded Blackwell Security mercenaries) campaign in Falluja. "Iraqis in Falluja," the AP noted, "complained that civilians were coming under fire by U.S. snipers."
One such civilian was mentioned in an especially chilling account quoted in the Falluja Archive. "One of the bodies brought to the clinic," wrote Nation correspondent Dahr Jamail in The Nation, "was that of a 55-year old man shot in the back by a [U.S.] sniper outside his home, while his wife and children huddled wailing inside. The family could not retrieve his body for fear of being shot themselves. His stiff corpse was carried into the clinic, flies swarming above it. One of his arms was half raised by rigor mortis."
FOR IRAQI "FREEDOM?"
The second problem with chickenhawk Bush's Starr passage is the certainty with which it assumes that the president wants a truly free and independent Iraq. That's the last thing the Whites House wants to see, for some very basic reasons. Such an Iraq would never permit foreign (principally American) corporations to buy up its economy. It would deny the U.S. the right to place military installations on Iraqi soil. And it would also seek to control the production, price, and revenue of its own super-strategic oil resources, the second largest in the world.
Those remarkable petroleum reserves are the major reason, of course, that the United States is so much more concerned with "freedom" in Iraq than in, say, Burma or China or, for that matter Saudi Arabia, a brutally reactionary monarchy that happens to possess the world's largest petroleum reserves and to be a major U.S. client state.
It's not for nothing that barely 1 percent of Iraqis think the U.S. invaded their country to spread democracy.
And even assuming that Uncle Sam wants to liberate Iraq (a position rejected by common sense and 99 percent of the Iraqi people), let us briefly note the arrogant and paternalistic nature of the notion that "freedom" can be exported through the barrel of an imperial gun - a project that arguably contains the seeds of its own immediate negation.
"THE WAY WE LIVE:" THE REPAIR OF BROKEN SOCITIES BEGINS AT HOME
The third and for me most troubling problem with Bush's Starr passage is the blinding narcissism is expresses on the supposed and self-evidently superior nature of "the way we [Americans] live."
There are a number of related and core aspects of American "life" that we would do best not to encourage among Iraqis or anyone else. These less-than-desirable characteristics include massive over-concentration of economic resources (so great that the top 1 percent owns more than 40 percent of American wealth), widespread child poverty (including more than 1 million black children living at less than half the U.S. government's notoriously inadequate poverty level), severe racial inequity and segregation, badly under-funded schools and social services, chronic overwork, rampant debt-financed hyper-consumerism, racially disparate mass imprisonment (the "land of liberty's" disproportionately black army of 2 million prisoners gives the U.S. the highest incarceration rate in the world), a vast populace (more than 43 million) without health insurance, rotting and poorly financed civil infrastructure, ecologically destructive and socially dysfunctional automobile/petroleum addiction, infantilizing and democracy-deadening corporate media, harsh racial and related socioeconomic health inequalities, and the corporate-plutocratic domination of core political and policy processes by the privileged few in "the best democracy that money can buy."
I doubt that Bush's Corporal Starr died wanting to help Iraq develop any of these and numerous other depressing parts of the American experience.
Tragically, his belief that the occupation of Iraq is about liberating that nation enables and feeds an imperial foreign policy that both draws on and fuels these negative facets of the "the way we live" (and die) in America. Every billion dollars spent on pummeling other nations in the name of "freedom" comes at massive domestic social opportunity cost. Besides wreaking bloody havoc abroad, it comes at the expense of helping solve social problems in "the homeland," where millions go hungry, poorly clothed, and badly sheltered while a super-affluent over-class enjoys unimaginable opulence.
As a Chicago doorman from that city's west-side ghetto said to me in the summer of 2003, while discussing the name of Bush's operation on Iraq ("Operation Iraqi Freedom"): "how you gonna export something you ain't really got at home?"
However one evaluates that harsh judgment, there is clearly no shortage of human misery and oppression that needs to be overcome right here in the nation that U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-Texas) once described as "the beacon to the world of the way life should be."
Hutchinson offered that modest national self-description in a speech supporting the Senate resolution that authorized Bush to use force against Iraq.
EMPIRE AND INEQUALITY
The point of criticizing American foreign policymakers' claims that the U.S. is qualified to export freedom is not merely to discredit the tendentious propositions of those who justify the U.S. global empire by conjuring distorted and embarrassingly false visions of democracy at home. It is also and more importantly to suggest the intimate interconnection between empire abroad and inequality (and repression) at home: the relationship, inseparable and self-reinforcing between American domestic hierarchy and authoritarianism, on the one hand, and American imperialism, on the other.
The repair of "broken societies" begins at home.
The real tragedy of Bush's Corporal Starr is that he isn't alive expressing his desire to help others in the task of domestic correction. He could be working right now to save future lives by helping rebuild the levees of devastated New Orleans, whose protection against hurricane waters was neglected partly because of Bush tax cuts. He could be helping staff a health clinic on the West Side of Chicago**or working to reduce gun violence on the east side of Detroit*or building a school in South Central Los Angeles*or helping implement an alternative renewable energy program in Kentucky *or* fill in the blank with one among the many activities required to address any among the vast number of America's unmet social needs.
The ultimate blame for the murderous misdirection of Corporal Starr's wish to assist his fellow human belongs, lies, of course, with the policymaking "elite" and its friends in the opinion-shaping class. Consistent with the ancient, interrelated projects of domestic inequality and international empire, it is one of that power elite's central missions to keep the common citizenry focused on mysterious threats from distant and evil others, not on the unjust and alienating nature of core domestic societal arrangements. As James Madison explained more than 200 years ago, "the fetters imposed on liberty at home have ever been forged out of weapons provided for defense against real, pretended, or imaginary dangers abroad."
Paul Street (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2004, order at www.paradigmpublishers.com); Segregated Schools: Race, Class, and Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York, NY: Routledge: 2005); and Still Separate, Unequal: Race, Place, Policy, and the State of Black Chicago (Chicago, IL: 2005).