Veteran activist David
Watson ruminates on our unpalatable choices as the New World Order sinks
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?
New Internationalist, Issue 323, May 2000
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
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, anti-imperialist 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 (e.g. 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 finally
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 within it?
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 ‘peace-keeping
mission’ is going on. As for the victims, the ship is on fire, even if the
waters are stormy.
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 Greek 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.
David Watson earns
his living teaching Shakespeare’s Macbeth, among other things.