Empire and exterminism
by David Watson
New Internationalist magazine, May 2000
Last fall I told one of my students, a bright and _ thoughtful
young woman, about being depressed over the latest war. She replied
innocently: 'Which one?' No longer the latest act in this sordid
drama of New World (Dis) Order, the war over Kosovo was already
supplanted by other spectacles. Chechnya lately invades my dreams.
Are gloom and confusion permanent features of our age?
The imperial arrogance and hypocrisy of NATO's war, its incompetence,
its cowardly and contemptible willingness to harm civilians in
order to safeguard its pilots, were all sickening. And the chaos
and strife of the aftermath offer little hope. Still, it was stunning
to see solidarity activists in the West essentially apologizing
for a regime that had perpetrated genocide in Bosnia, and that
was carrying out a pogrom in Kosovo even before NATO's ultimatum.
NATO's alleged provocations of Serb death squads to even more
lavish displays of carnage were for some a more serious crime
than the pogrom itself. The Left's largely exclusive focus on
damage to Serbian civil society, its repetition of Serb nationalist
disinformation and its willingness to downplay and deny Serb violence
against the Albanians (the mantra that this was 'nothing compared
to Guatemala', etc) was at least as morally numb as mindless support
for the war.
NATO's war was clearly cynical and in many ways criminal and
irresponsible. I opposed it in both conception and execution.
Nevertheless, one could understand that the Kosovar Albanians,
among the most oppressed peoples of Europe, might welcome a life
preserver from the devil himself. When the ship is on fire, one
leaps into rough waters. They faced fascism (neo-fascism, if you
like) and though the intervention was an abomination, anyone not
trapped by rigid dogma had to notice that worse abominations,
a Bosnian-style massacre or a mass expulsion as in Palestine,
were definite possibilities.
The latest Balkan debacle was fought by the wrong people in
the wrong way with the wrong means. But in the tragic circumstances
it was a war someone had to fight. Indeed, it's arguable that
NATO's 'humanitarian interventionism', hypocritical as it was,
brought harm to fewer people than the United Nations' cynical
'humanitarian' non-intervention had in Bosnia. If (to borrow Slovenian
writer Slavoj Zizek's metaphor) the West played an indecisive
and then clumsily homicidal Hamlet, there was also a whiff of
Macbeth, the tragic cycle of things that have gone around now
coming around, in their decision to bomb.
Personally, after a decade of feeling depressed and powerless
about Bosnia, I would have preferred that some natural disaster,
a hurricane or earthquake, had sent the Serbian cutthroats back
to their barracks or to hell. But (as with Macbeth) since no natural
phenomenon was available, some unnatural element would have to
accomplish the task. That labour fell to NATO, a big bully taking
on a smaller one.
It's an ugly picture. But, as the 1982 Falklands/Malvinas
War proved when it toppled the Argentinian junta, sometimes it
is best for a nation and people to be defeated in war. Sometimes
it even takes some evil empire to do the dirty work. Dissidents
need to do better than a reflexive, antiimperialist defense of
'the enemy of my enemy'. If not, we risk falling into the passive
or even active support of various Khomeinis, Milosevics, Saddam
Husseins or Argentine generals simply because they come into conflict
with the West. One-dimensional anti-imperialism surrenders to
what Zizek calls the 'double blackmail', the false choice between
the New World Order and its rivals. Such knee-jerk politics does
people like the Kosovars or East Timorese no good at all. We need
an anti-imperialism to match the challenges both of the New World
Order and of the New World Disorder it generates.
This war is all too typical of a period of confusion and disintegration.
For some, Kosovo signaled an optimistic new era of 'military humanitarianism';
to others it indicated the eclipse of the UN by an increasingly
dangerous US hegemony. Those who know about the Big Powers' lavish
arms trade and support of selected dictators are naturally suspicious
of the first claim. As for the latter, when was the US not a 'rogue
superpower' that did pretty much what it wished? The UN has been
either a fig-leaf for inter-imperial manoeuvering, unwilling or
unable to impose peaceful resolutions on local blood baths (graphically
demonstrated in Rwanda and Bosnia); or a Trojan Horse of Western
imperial interests (eg in Korea and the Persian Gulf).
Of course, be they rogue superpowers or not, the stewards
of 'World Order' are far from invincible. They are unable to heal
the plagues they themselves have helped unleash and are gradually
becoming mired in a global morass of local wars, fractured states
and semi-permanent refugee zones. And today's crusade against
barbarian pariahs inevitably spawns a myriad of future revenges.
In the early 1980s the historian EP Thompson discerned behind
the nuclear standoff of the Cold War a system of bureaucratic
mass annihilation which he called 'exterminism'. By the end of
the century this exterminism had mutated into 'Balkanized' fragments
as empires squabbled, politics imploded, new ideological-military
blocs emerged and unlucky peoples got crushed between the tectonic
movements of history. In this prison called modern civilization,
warlords large and small fight for turf. The rest of us find ourselves
compelled to join in or take cover as best we can, hoping to survive
the crossfire. The 'extermination of multitudes' foreseen by Thompson
is now an everyday affair. Dozens of wars drag on with the mass
murder more archaic, less high-tech than Thompson imagined, taking
place by siege (antiseptically labeled 'sanctions') or in Iron
Age-style butchery (as in Rwanda). And still nuclear conflagration
looms in the background.
Perhaps it's only the state of my present disposition, not
the present disposition of states, that makes me feel like I'm
living in a time of terminal empire. One might imagine societies
of victims and executioners reconciled and lands once denuded
I have heard, for example, that the exquisite old Ottoman
bridge at Mostar, destroyed by Croat nationalist gunners during
the Bosnia war, is now being renovated. Like the bridge, however,
a whole society was shattered and the town of Mostar is still
violently divided. And Mostar is the world: Cambodia, Burundi
and too many other places. As we are swamped by an information
glut of genocides we become progressively less capable of processing
it into practical knowledge and more prone to a late-imperial
senility. It is as if we all lived in some vast Beirut; everywhere
a 'Green Line' divides us from one another, from our own humanity.
How, then, to exercise some human coherence when the spectrum
of ruling neo-liberal ideologies, and the false oppositions of
much dissident politics, seem to be slouching together toward
Armageddon? How to create some human space? How to choose real
human beings over instrumentalist strategies? To declare of all
empires, minuscule or gargantuan, as did the old revolutionary
movements, 'neither your war nor your peace'? How, without deluding
ourselves, can we live against empire while having to survive
We now live in a state of permanent war - a global arms industry,
apparently the largest single international business, must have
its products used up so more can be sold. There must be profits
for the capitalists and jobs for the proles. Is this entirely
$ new? Are we not still in Caligula's Rome? Global empires stretch
across continents and archipelagos, and cellularized mini-empires
hunker in every town and barrio. Finally, there's an individualized,
portable empire in every head. Somewhere, across the ocean or
down the street, a war or a 'peacekeeping mission' is going on.
As for the victims, the ship is on fire, even if the waters are
Somewhere in the Adriatic Sea two fighter bombers, flown by
warriors, take off from the ramp of an aircraft carrier. One tips
a wing and flies off to the left to bomb the enemies of imperial
peace and prosperity, over the Field of Blackbirds (the ancient
battlefield of Kosovo), passing over burning villages where other
warriors go about their grim work. The other plane tips to the
right, turning across the Grecian isles and the wine-dark sea
and south to Babylon (Iraq). The enemy warlords momentarily cease
their own butchery and take cover. No need.
The bombs, smart as they are, fall instead on a peasant girl
gathering eggs, or on a family hiding in their basement, or on
a traffic jam of refugees pondering the mystery of a map. They
hit military targets, too - cowering draftees, or an anti-aircraft
battery, or the electrical grid, the foundation for any war economy
in a world where war is peace and peace is war.
We're so deep in civilized barbarism's gore that, as in Macbeth:
'Returning were as tedious as go o'er.' Why not be depressed?
How to fight a hydra?
Hell is murky. I don't have an answer, except that my former
placard and protest power seems inadequate. Perhaps we can only
bear witness, learn to tell the truth, even when it cuts against
our cherished chimeras. As Michael Sells observes about the Bosnian
genocide in his wise and angry book, The Bridge Betrayed: 'The
willingness to accept an unpleasant, even devastating truth, when
we are faced with it, is necessary if we are to become truly human.'
We need to rethink that celebrated call of the last century
to be neither victims nor executioners. The dialectic of New World
(Dis) Order no longer allows us this choice. We have to find ways
to face these harsh realities without surrendering to paralysis
or to late-imperial stupor. Once our illusions are finally shattered
we might learn to resist the double blackmail. Perhaps then we
can dismantle once and for all the New World Order and the New
World Disorder with it.