12.11.2005

pinter again

The next time some wingnut accuses me of leaving the US because of who occupies the White House - because the Democrats "lost" the "election" - I'd like them to read this.

Of course, they won't read it, and if they did, they wouldn't believe it. If you only know the standard US history, if you toe the patriotic party line, you've never heard of any of this. The only people who talk about it are marginalized as crackpots and commies.

I grant you, the real history of the United States does sound rather unbelievable. I only wish it weren't true.

For a depressing history lesson and a sobering bit of truth telling, set aside 15 minutes of your day to read Harold Pinter's Nobel Lecture. (If you have 45 minutes, you can watch it on video.)
. . . As every single person here knows, the justification for the invasion of Iraq was that Saddam Hussein possessed a highly dangerous body of weapons of mass destruction, some of which could be fired in 45 minutes, bringing about appalling devastation. We were assured that was true. It was not true. We were told that Iraq had a relationship with Al Quaeda and shared responsibility for the atrocity in New York of September 11th 2001. We were assured that this was true. It was not true. We were told that Iraq threatened the security of the world. We were assured it was true. It was not true.

The truth is something entirely different. The truth is to do with how the United States understands its role in the world and how it chooses to embody it.

But before I come back to the present I would like to look at the recent past, by which I mean United States foreign policy since the end of the Second World War. I believe it is obligatory upon us to subject this period to at least some kind of even limited scrutiny, which is all that time will allow here.

Everyone knows what happened in the Soviet Union and throughout Eastern Europe during the post-war period: the systematic brutality, the widespread atrocities, the ruthless suppression of independent thought. All this has been fully documented and verified.

But my contention here is that the US crimes in the same period have only been superficially recorded, let alone documented, let alone acknowledged, let alone recognised as crimes at all. I believe this must be addressed and that the truth has considerable bearing on where the world stands now. Although constrained, to a certain extent, by the existence of the Soviet Union, the United States' actions throughout the world made it clear that it had concluded it had carte blanche to do what it liked.

Direct invasion of a sovereign state has never in fact been America's favoured method. In the main, it has preferred what it has described as 'low intensity conflict'. Low intensity conflict means that thousands of people die but slower than if you dropped a bomb on them in one fell swoop. It means that you infect the heart of the country, that you establish a malignant growth and watch the gangrene bloom. When the populace has been subdued – or beaten to death – the same thing – and your own friends, the military and the great corporations, sit comfortably in power, you go before the camera and say that democracy has prevailed. This was a commonplace in US foreign policy in the years to which I refer.

The tragedy of Nicaragua was a highly significant case. I choose to offer it here as a potent example of America's view of its role in the world, both then and now.

I was present at a meeting at the US embassy in London in the late 1980s.

The United States Congress was about to decide whether to give more money to the Contras in their campaign against the state of Nicaragua. I was a member of a delegation speaking on behalf of Nicaragua but the most important member of this delegation was a Father John Metcalf. The leader of the US body was Raymond Seitz (then number two to the ambassador, later ambassador himself). Father Metcalf said: 'Sir, I am in charge of a parish in the north of Nicaragua. My parishioners built a school, a health centre, a cultural centre. We have lived in peace. A few months ago a Contra force attacked the parish. They destroyed everything: the school, the health centre, the cultural centre. They raped nurses and teachers, slaughtered doctors, in the most brutal manner. They behaved like savages. Please demand that the US government withdraw its support from this shocking terrorist activity.'

Raymond Seitz had a very good reputation as a rational, responsible and highly sophisticated man. He was greatly respected in diplomatic circles. He listened, paused and then spoke with some gravity. 'Father,' he said, 'let me tell you something. In war, innocent people always suffer.' There was a frozen silence. We stared at him. He did not flinch.

Innocent people, indeed, always suffer.

Finally somebody said: 'But in this case "innocent people" were the victims of a gruesome atrocity subsidised by your government, one among many. If Congress allows the Contras more money further atrocities of this kind will take place. Is this not the case? Is your government not therefore guilty of supporting acts of murder and destruction upon the citizens of a sovereign state?'

Seitz was imperturbable. 'I don't agree that the facts as presented support your assertions,' he said.

As we were leaving the Embassy a US aide told me that he enjoyed my plays. I did not reply.

I should remind you that at the time President Reagan made the following statement: 'The Contras are the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers.'

The United States supported the brutal Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua for over 40 years. The Nicaraguan people, led by the Sandinistas, overthrew this regime in 1979, a breathtaking popular revolution.

The Sandinistas weren't perfect. They possessed their fair share of arrogance and their political philosophy contained a number of contradictory elements. But they were intelligent, rational and civilised. They set out to establish a stable, decent, pluralistic society. The death penalty was abolished. Hundreds of thousands of poverty-stricken peasants were brought back from the dead. Over 100,000 families were given title to land. Two thousand schools were built. A quite remarkable literacy campaign reduced illiteracy in the country to less than one seventh. Free education was established and a free health service. Infant mortality was reduced by a third. Polio was eradicated.

The United States denounced these achievements as Marxist/Leninist subversion. In the view of the US government, a dangerous example was being set. If Nicaragua was allowed to establish basic norms of social and economic justice, if it was allowed to raise the standards of health care and education and achieve social unity and national self respect, neighbouring countries would ask the same questions and do the same things. There was of course at the time fierce resistance to the status quo in El Salvador.

I spoke earlier about 'a tapestry of lies' which surrounds us. President Reagan commonly described Nicaragua as a 'totalitarian dungeon'. This was taken generally by the media, and certainly by the British government, as accurate and fair comment. But there was in fact no record of death squads under the Sandinista government. There was no record of torture. There was no record of systematic or official military brutality. No priests were ever murdered in Nicaragua. There were in fact three priests in the government, two Jesuits and a Maryknoll missionary. The totalitarian dungeons were actually next door, in El Salvador and Guatemala. The United States had brought down the democratically elected government of Guatemala in 1954 and it is estimated that over 200,000 people had been victims of successive military dictatorships.

Six of the most distinguished Jesuits in the world were viciously murdered at the Central American University in San Salvador in 1989 by a battalion of the Alcatl regiment trained at Fort Benning, Georgia, USA. That extremely brave man Archbishop Romero was assassinated while saying mass. It is estimated that 75,000 people died. Why were they killed? They were killed because they believed a better life was possible and should be achieved. That belief immediately qualified them as communists. They died because they dared to question the status quo, the endless plateau of poverty, disease, degradation and oppression, which had been their birthright.

The United States finally brought down the Sandinista government. It took some years and considerable resistance but relentless economic persecution and 30,000 dead finally undermined the spirit of the Nicaraguan people. They were exhausted and poverty stricken once again. The casinos moved back into the country. Free health and free education were over. Big business returned with a vengeance. 'Democracy' had prevailed.

But this 'policy' was by no means restricted to Central America. It was conducted throughout the world. It was never-ending. And it is as if it never happened.

The United States supported and in many cases engendered every right wing military dictatorship in the world after the end of the Second World War. I refer to Indonesia, Greece, Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay, Haiti, Turkey, the Philippines, Guatemala, El Salvador, and, of course, Chile. The horror the United States inflicted upon Chile in 1973 can never be purged and can never be forgiven.

Hundreds of thousands of deaths took place throughout these countries. Did they take place? And are they in all cases attributable to US foreign policy? The answer is yes they did take place and they are attributable to American foreign policy. But you wouldn't know it.

It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn't happening. It didn't matter. It was of no interest. The crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless, but very few people have actually talked about them. You have to hand it to America. It has exercised a quite clinical manipulation of power worldwide while masquerading as a force for universal good. It's a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis.

. . . .

What has happened to our moral sensibility? Did we ever have any? What do these words mean? Do they refer to a term very rarely employed these days – conscience? A conscience to do not only with our own acts but to do with our shared responsibility in the acts of others? Is all this dead? Look at Guantanamo Bay. Hundreds of people detained without charge for over three years, with no legal representation or due process, technically detained forever. This totally illegitimate structure is maintained in defiance of the Geneva Convention. It is not only tolerated but hardly thought about by what's called the 'international community'. This criminal outrage is being committed by a country, which declares itself to be 'the leader of the free world'. Do we think about the inhabitants of Guantanamo Bay? What does the media say about them? They pop up occasionally – a small item on page six. They have been consigned to a no man's land from which indeed they may never return. At present many are on hunger strike, being force-fed, including British residents. No niceties in these force-feeding procedures. No sedative or anaesthetic. Just a tube stuck up your nose and into your throat. You vomit blood. This is torture. What has the British Foreign Secretary said about this? Nothing. What has the British Prime Minister said about this? Nothing. Why not? Because the United States has said: to criticise our conduct in Guantanamo Bay constitutes an unfriendly act. You're either with us or against us. So Blair shuts up.

The invasion of Iraq was a bandit act, an act of blatant state terrorism, demonstrating absolute contempt for the concept of international law. The invasion was an arbitrary military action inspired by a series of lies upon lies and gross manipulation of the media and therefore of the public; an act intended to consolidate American military and economic control of the Middle East masquerading – as a last resort – all other justifications having failed to justify themselves – as liberation. A formidable assertion of military force responsible for the death and mutilation of thousands and thousands of innocent people.

We have brought torture, cluster bombs, depleted uranium, innumerable acts of random murder, misery, degradation and death to the Iraqi people and call it 'bringing freedom and democracy to the Middle East'.

How many people do you have to kill before you qualify to be described as a mass murderer and a war criminal?
And that is why I'm here. (Now please go and read the speech.)

9 comments:

gibgric said...

From Pinter's speech: "I believe that despite the enormous odds which exist, unflinching, unswerving, fierce intellectual determination, as citizens, to define the real truth of our lives and our societies is a crucial obligation which devolves upon us all. It is in fact mandatory.

If such a determination is not embodied in our political vision we have no hope of restoring what is so nearly lost to us – the dignity of man."

I'll call it the dignity of woman, but still, amen.

Tresy said...

What Pinter said. The reason we left the US was that, for the first time, really, the US public owned the criminality that was being committed on their behalf. The public by and large was unaware of the scope of the killing and criminality going on in Central American in the 80s, and to their credit, large majorities still opposed Administration policy there. In 2004, they ratified the theft of the White House in 2000, the malfeasance of the Administration before 9/11, the jingoism that followed it, the rapidly unraveling lies that stampeded them into Iraq, and the unfolding abuses of Abu Ghraib. The American public participated in all that, and when the facts came out, re-elected the criminals that carried it out and dragged America's name even farther into the sewer. In short, the American public (or at least a very large part of it) demonstrated that they were fundamentally morally unserious. We didn't want our children growing up in such a culture. Bush is a symptom of the rot, not the cause.

L-girl said...

Ah, Tresy. I don't suppose you'll come back to read more comments... I've been looking for you...

L-girl said...

Bush is a symptom of the rot, not the cause.

That's well said. And the general culture of the US is certainly morally unserious. But don't discount the effects of two stolen elections.

Wrye said...

Gwynne Dyer has a different take on things--definitely not a counterargument, more of a musical counterpoint: here. Dyer's view is a bit more nuanced, dare I say.

I used to use Pinter as an audition piece. But all the Pinter in the world couldn't convince my Insane Polish movement teacher to allow me into the third year of Theatre School. He liked women, and he liked 'em short, with big assets.

One for the road, indeed.

L-girl said...

More nuanced, yes - but also more questionable in its logic.

You could make Pinter's list of countries even longer, if you wished, but the striking thing about it is that over half the countries he names are in Latin America, although only a tenth of the world's population lives in that region.

And? This excuses what?

American support was vital in
shepherding defeated Japan and the shattered nations of western Europe into a prosperous and democratic future.


Yes. But how could anyone write this without mentioning Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the firebombing of Tokyo? (Let's not pretend any of that was necessary to end the war; that fiction was laid to rest years ago.)

America and the Soviet Union were the only two great powers that actively supported decolonisation in Asia and Africa

Lumumba, anyone? You know, the democratically elected, home-grown, anti-colonialist leader of the Congo that the CIA murdered?

Pinter didn't have to focus on Latin America. There are plenty of other examples. What was the US doing in Vietnam in 1957, assassinating leaders and installing their own?

Lone Primate said...

I don't mean to dump on individual Americans here, but Laura's got a point. At least since the British Empire hung up its skates, the US has been the biggest obstacle to self-determination among nations. That opinion would shock a lot of people, I know, who are used to thinking of the US as a fairy godmother who floats in shining, waves a wand, and decks Cinderella out in the ballgown of democracy (which later turns back into rags because she can't manage to hold an election before midnight, or some other such nonsense). In truth, most of the time a banshee comes crashing in, ties Cinderella up, and charges big corporations tax revenues to come in and takes turns raping her. This has been alternately called "freeing people from communism/despotism/colonialism". God help Cinderella if she demands her rights and resists, attempting to protect herself... then she's a terrorist and you know what happens to terrorists. Fingernails are weapons of mass destruction!!

The US could easily be one of the biggest catalysts for real, decent change in the world. Instead, it's most often been the instigator of human misery in the name of greasing the wheels of commerce.

Wrye said...

I think the arguments are passing in the night here. I'll try to pull them together.

Lumumba, anyone? You know, the democratically elected, home-grown, anti-colonialist leader of the Congo that the CIA murdered?

Dyer, of all people, is perfectly aware of the entire list of American dark deeds over the past half-century. He's not basing his knowledge on Pinter, but riffing off Pinter's list as an illustrative example. When he says that the US is more of a menace the closer you get to it, I assure you he's done the math.

I think his argument boils down to this: The US is every bit as bad as its critics accuse it of, AND it (and the Soviet Union, for that matter) also represented a step forward (in the broadest historical sense) from the Imperial European powers that preceded it. The Raj, Apartheid, and even the Portugese and Belgian colonies in Africa had simply staggering amounts of blood on their hands. It's important to remember this. Vietnam was comprehensively screwed by the French long before the US appeared on the scene and disembowelled the country in a new and innovative way. It's good that the US never called it American Indochina or tried to annex the country: but that good got overshadowed by (for instance) the dropping of more munitions of the country than were used in all of WW2. Funny how that works.

At this point, Wingnuts will say, aha, "Dyer thinks what the US has done is worth it. Remember the infrastructure we built in Iran under the Shah?", at which point they need to shut up, because a), he doesn't and b)that's not the goddamned point.

See, a burglar who breaks into your house and robs you, but leaves you some groceries in the fridge, is still a burglar; While he's better than the previous burglar who moved into your house, made you sign it over to him and did horrible things to your family, he's still an asshole. When Dyer says that the atrocities commited by the US and the USSR aren't as bad as those of Imperial Britain, Japan, or Portugal, he's not saying that to compliment the US; he's saying that Imperialism was really that much worse.

Now, since mainstream US discourse denies that the US has ever commited atrocities, it has real problems grappling with reality outside its borders: yes, Iranians liked the new roads and everything, but this tended to get overbalanced by the way their familiy members were getting killed by the Shah's death squads and secret police. Again, funny, that.

See, the ambiguity lies in that the US does both good AND bad things; and when critics fall into the rhetorical trap of implying that the anti-US side is always that of the angels, it leads to defending the Slobodan Milosovecs of the world. The US can be very bad indeed; but that doesn't mean that sometimes there are other actors who are even worse, just as those worse actors don't change the fact that the US has commited atrocities so bad that they are counterproductive to US interests and/or Global stability (the two are not by any means the same).

Dyer is, I think, much more interested on where things are going: the economic implosion of the US a la The decline of Rome and Imperial Spain (thanks, usual suspects) presages the reemergence of some sort of multipolar world. For Dyer, this greatly increases the risk of World War Three and the extinction of the species. And from that perspective, I suspect he wants folks to hurry the hell up in grappling with reality. Pinter is a starting point, but things are even more complex than that.

So suck it up, wingnuts. Your soap-bubble comfort zone is going to have some real problems very soon.

L-girl said...

Dyer, of all people, is perfectly aware of the entire list of American dark deeds over the past half-century. He's not basing his knowledge on Pinter, but riffing off Pinter's list as an illustrative example. When he says that the US is more of a menace the closer you get to it, I assure you he's done the math.

Oh yes, I know that. And I know Dyer knows a way hell of a lot more than I do.

I either didn't read his piece carefully enough, or I'm so befuddled with anger at the US that I can't focus on the ambiguities. So thanks for the recap.

As far as the future goes, even the greatest historians and keenest observers never know what's coming - but I wouldn't put any money on folks grappling with reality.