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Thursday, November 17, 2005

the U.S. and the people without history

Years ago, Eric Wolf wrote a book with the catchy title, Europe and the People without History. The book was about a pattern in the early modern mindset that became a template for the colonialist ideology. Europe, in this perspective, or the West, had a history – there was a definite progressive pattern to the changes in the West over time. But the Other did not have a history. The other lived in eternal cycles – the Asiatic despots – or had no history at all worth speaking of – the noble savage.

Over at Crooked Timber, there’s a post about the Jane Fonda myth that has aroused a lot of hot comments, some by LI. And the comments about the Vietnam war are oddly consonant with that old White Mythology, to use J.D.’s phrase. The war on the American side is considered to be full of dynamic changes. The students, the soldiers, the media all producing changes in the way the Americans felt and acted during the war. But on the other side, there are only monolithic, intemporal blocks. There are the South Vietnamese. There are the Vietnamese Communists. And though one can find, in fact must find, events that happened to these two blocks (reluctantly, Americans sometimes even concede that the Vietnamese war was about the Vietnamese), they remain unchanged players in an American folk drama.

I think this denial of time is an essential part of the American military mindset. By means of it, America has developed an onslaught strategy that attacks as though the enemy were an unchanging block. Dependent on this view of the unchanging block is the American fascination with counting enemy casualties. What do you do with a block? You atomize it.

That the enemy might not be a block – that it might be a shapeshifter, that it might have a history – is excluded from the picture. For instance: in Vietnam, the casualties that the U.S. inflicted undoubtedly impacted some parts of the guerilla structure more than others. In particular, by instituting village Einsatzgruppe-like warfare (the Phoenix program), the U.S. undoubtedly decimated the cadre of fighters who were native to the southern Vietnamese provinces. This gave a distinct advantage to the fighters from the North, in terms of organization. The war that the Americans fought was producing this kind of change in the “Vietnamese communists”, but the Americans couldn’t see it. That decimation of the village cadre had another effect on the “South Vietnamese.” As the war went on, a genuine, anti-communist, anti-american nationalism emerged in South Vietnam, undoubtedly filling a space left empty by the NLF’s decimation. This, too, happened under the radar.

The blindness in Iraq is even greater. We seriously doubt that most Americans know anything about the Iraqi government for which American soldiers are fighting. The American penchant for creating timeless blocks plays out, in the media, in terms of the ‘democratically elected” government versus the “terrorists.” That the democratically elected government consists of people once labeled terrorists by the Americans, for the very good reason that they devoted much organizational energy, in the eighties, to blowing up Americans has certainly gone under the radar. It simply doesn’t fit the atemporal story. It makes the blocks go wobbly. Wobbliness is a thing for which we all have a Thatcherite disdain, n’est-ce pas?

The real clash of civilizations is here: a civilization has grown up, has ideologically constructed itself, around the idea that no other civilization has a history. That ideology operates like a denial mechanism, allowing the West to simply forget its long, intricate history of dealings with the other. Those who have no history contaminate, with a sort of oblivion, those who do have history. Because the pattern of those dealings – the dealings of conqueror to conquered – don’t exactly reveal a progress, this story is best told as a magic act, in which the conquered ‘vanish.’ That’s, after all, what happened to the Indians – they vanished. They pulled a magic act.

That’s the Ur-story. Those dealings all happen in the heart of darkness, so to speak.

But the return of the vanished is now the story of our own era. The images of this story, although utterly unreal, operated, in the past, as an advantage to the West. But as the US stumbles and falls in slow motion in Mesopotamia, we can see the old Leatherstocking tale is on its last legs.

ps -- LI readers are urged to visit Chris Floyd's Empire Burlesque. Floyd has been gathering a lot of materials about the war crimes being committed in Iraq by the Americans and their allies, and he has a nice synopsis of the accusation that the Americans used chemical warfare in Falluja -- that is, they used phosphorus bombs for their napalm like effects, and not as a means of "illuminating' the battle scene. Those WMDs just keep coming back to haunt this war.

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