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10 Questions with Anthony Arnove
In his new book Iraq:The Logic of Withdrawal,writer, editor, and activist Anthony Arnove takes up the most pressing questions facing the anti-war movement. Arnove is the featured author on The New Press’s End the War tour. He is also editor of Iraq Under Siege, and co-editor with Howard Zinn of Voices of a People’s History of Iraq. Virginia Harabin asked Anthony Arnove about the war, activism, elections, and the politics of the anti-war movement.
Virginia Harabin: Can you comment on the news that is coming out right now about the atrocities carried out and covered up by the US military?
Anthony Arnove: Iraqis have known about the Haditha massacre of November 2005, in which U.S, troops massacred 24 Iraqis, and other similar massacres, for months. We are only now beginning to find out about the details. It is important that we see the atrocities in the context of soldiers who were told that they would be welcomed as liberators in Iraq, not resisted as occupiers, that they would be uncovering deadly weapons of mass destruction, that they would be home quickly, since the occupation would not last long. Instead, soldiers face widespread resistance. They have seen more than 2,400 of their friends killed and many more wounded, often badly. They have had their tours of duty extended, and each day the situation gets worse. Meanwhile, U.S. troops are being trained to see all Iraqis as the enemy, to dehumanize them. The Haditha massacre, like the torture at Abu Ghraib, is not an aberration but an inevitable outcome of a colonial occupation.
VH: We’ve seen a proliferation of books about the invasion and occupation of Iraq, including many books by journalists as well as by officers and soldiers. In spite of all the competition, reviewers like Jeff Tweedy in Rolling Stone have said that your book has been absolutely invaluable to them. What makes this book different from the other books about Iraq right now?
AA: Some excellent books have been published about Iraq. I think what is distinct about my book is that I am making an argument for immediate withdrawal of U.S. and allied troops from Iraq. The invasion of Iraq was illegal and unjust, and the situation will only get worse the longer the United States stays. The war has made the world a far more dangerous place, not a safer one. It has fueled a global arms race and set a terrible precedent for “preemptive” wars. And the costs of the war, for Iraqis and for people here in the United States, grow every day.
VH: The title of your book refers to the 1967 book by Howard Zinn called Vietnam: the Logic of Withdrawal. Why did you make that choice?
AA: Howard's work and his example have been profoundly inspiring to me. When I became an editor at the independent book publisher South End Press in Boston, I had the chance to republish some of Howard's classic books, such as SNCC: The New Abolitionists and Vietnam. I reread Vietnam at that time, as I was working on an updated edition of my book Iraq Under Siege: The Deadly Impact of Sanctions and War, with another major assault on Iraq imminent. I was repeatedly reminded of the power of Howard's argument in that book, in which he argued for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam. As the occupation of Iraq was underway, I was struck by how many people who had opposed the invasion had come to support, however reluctantly, the occupation that followed it. I hoped that a sense of historical perspective, which Howard’s book and his work generally provides, could help turn that tide. So I saw that parallel as an important one to make.
VH: There’s a prevailing idea that the Vietnam War was, in some sense, a mistake. We also hear echoes of that interpretation today. What do you think about the conception of these wars as the product of good intentions gone wrong?
AA: Most of the U.S. public now feels the war in Vietnam was fundamentally immoral and wrong, not simply a mistake or a question of good intentions gone wrong. That’s important. The war was not based on good intentions, but on power politics, the drive to replace the French as the colonial power in Vietnam, to contain independent nationalism in Asia, to check the emergence of any rivals in East Asia. It led to millions of deaths. It’s important, though, that we learn from this experience, and don’t confuse the rhetoric used to justify empire (liberating people, spreading democracy, fighting tyranny) with the reality of empire, which is always based on other concerns. In the case of Iraq, the central concern is domination of the Middle East, home to two-thirds of world oil reserve and significant (and increasingly important) natural gas reserves, and through that regional hegemony, projection of U.S. economic, military, and political power globally.
VH: People in the U.S. and all around the world mobilized in 2003 to protest the US plans for invasion, and yet the anti-war movement has lost momentum since then. How do you explain that?
AA: I think people were demoralized when the war began, in part because some in the antiwar movement downplayed how much it would take to stop the invasion. I think that was a political mistake. Others were demoralized by the 2004 election, misinterpreting the election as a popular mandate for Bush and for war. It was nothing of the sort, though. Bush’s popularity ratings today are dismal. Opposition to the war is widespread. I think it was a mistake for the antiwar movement to mobilize for a candidate, John Kerry, who was prowar. There are encouraging signs, though, of revival. In particular, I am encouraged by the success of counter-recruitment efforts, which have had a real impact on the military’s ability to meet its recruitment goals, and on the increasing confidence of Iraq war veterans, such as the members of Iraq Veterans Against the War who are speaking out and organizing for immediate withdrawal.
VH: What do you think about Bush’s “War on Terror?”
AA: Iraq is not a “distraction” from an otherwise legitimate “war on terror.” The “war on terror” is a way of selling an endless war to the U.S. public. It’s an effort to replace the Cold War framework for intervention with a new, open-ended one that can justify interventions around the globe. Also, we should acknowledge that, by any honest definition, the Bush administration is using terrorism in Iraq. And it is sparking recruitment for organizations such as al-Qaeda, or groups inspired by al-Qaeda, by fueling the anger that so many feel around the world about the occupation of Iraq, U.S. support for Israeli takeover of Palestinian lands, and U.S. support for dictatorships in the Arab world. It’s not reducing terrorism or waging war on terrorism.
VH: Why do you think that John Kerry received the support of so many people who opposed the war? Do you anticipate the emergence of an anti-war candidate in forthcoming elections?
AA: Kerry received support mostly out of desperation. People wanted him to stand for something that he did not. And people supported Kerry out of fear. The Democrats often rely on the fact that people will not vote for the Republicans and are afraid to support a third-party candidate, so they repeatedly take left constituencies for granted. What’s remarkable today is that, even with the occupation and Bush so unpopular, you don’t see a clear antiwar voice emerging within the Democrats. You expect politicians to be unprincipled and opportunistic. But the democrats right now can’t even be that. They are unprincipled and seemingly incapable of being opportunistic.
VH: It’s pretty clear that Bush’s abysmal approval rating is connected to the deep discontent about the war, among other things. And yet, there’s also very little hope and confidence that we can do much to oppose him. Do we need more demonstrations in the street, or better candidates, or to get out the vote—what will it take for a majority opinion to be able to find expression in political power?
AA: I think we need to organize on a number of fronts. In terms of electoral initiatives, I am very supportive of efforts to build an independent political party in this country, such as the Green Party. It’s important that the Greens were instrumental in winning referendums in 24 towns in Wisconsin recently calling for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. But the antiwar movement also needs to maintain its independence. While we encourage those independent electoral initiatives, and challenges to prowar candidates, we also need to be supporting soldiers who are speaking out and who are declaring conscientious objection. We need to challenge the lies recruiters tell to entice vulnerable young people into the military. We need to link the war abroad with a different kind of war (but a related war) that is taking place in this county against immigrants and poor and working people.
VH: Many people who oppose the war express frustration with the absence of widespread and public opposition to the war. One explanation frequently given is that without a draft, only a portion of the population is directly affected by the war. Do you think the absence of a draft affects people’s willingness to mobilize in opposition to the war right now?
AA: We should not be nostalgic for the draft. The reality is that we have a backdoor draft in this country today. Reservists are being sent to Iraq and Afghanistan in large numbers, in many cases far beyond their expected tour of duty. They are being kept in Iraq through “stop loss” orders and also are being returned to battle through the Individual Ready Reserve program. But it’s also a myth that only a small number of people have been affected by this war. The costs of this war are now, conservatively, hundreds of billions of dollars. One study estimates the full cost of the war is closer to 1.5 trillion. Meanwhile, communities across the country have seen cuts in health care, education, job training, and other vital social programs. The number of families with loved ones and friends killed or injured in Iraq is growing every day. All of our civil liberties have been sacrificed by the expansion of federal powers that has gone hand in hand with the prosecution of this war.
VH: I’ve always been impressed with how well documented your work is. You cite the major press on a regular basis, and all of your arguments are based upon reports and opinions that appear in the Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Economist, the Post, et cetera. Can you say something about how you, a radical intellectual, read the popular press in order to craft your own positions?
AA: I was conscious of wanting my book to be well documented. I also deliberately emphasized sources that would have credence in mainstream debates so that it would be easier for readers to check my sources but also to avoid the charge that my sources were not credible. As terrible as the mainstream media have been on Iraq, paving the way for the invasion by front-paging the bogus claims of the Bush administration about Iraq, it’s important to look for the cracks in their reporting. Often you will find information buried in the last paragraph of an article that contradicts the headline and lead on page one. There are often honest, thoughtful journalists who are working within very difficult constraints of the establishment media to convey information that goes against the received wisdom.
VH: Your book tour has been billed as the End the War Now Tour and has included a number of other writers and speakers. Who are some of the other activists and writers who have joined you on this tour? Where else will you be appearing?
AA: I have been really honored to appear on this tour with members of Iraq Veterans Against the War, Studs Terkel, Howard Zinn, Cindy Sheehan, and student activists in the Campus Antiwar Network. The tour has been organized in conjunction with the contributors to an excellent book from my publisher, The New Press, Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg’s edited anthology Ten Excellent Reasons Not to Join the U.S. Military. People can read more about the books and the tour at http://www.endthewartour.org. I have upcoming appearances in England and Scotland. Then June 22-25, I will be taking part in the Socialism 2006 conference in New York City: