War, Imperialism and Revolution
Written by Doug Lorimer
[Feature talk presented to the Democratic Socialist Perspective Socialist Summer School, January, 2007, Sydney.]
For those who believed that the overwhelming demonstration of US military power in Afghanistan and Iraq would “shock and awe” the rest of the world — and particularly Washington’s foes and aspiring rivals — into accepting its goal of making the 21st century a “new American century” of US political and economic global domination, 2006 was not a good year.
Not only has Washington become ever more bogged down — at the current rate of nearly three billion dollars and 20 soldiers’ lives a week — in a now publicly acknowledged failing counterinsurgency war in Iraq, but a resurgent Taliban has exposed the fragility of what gains have been made in Afghanistan since the US-led military campaign ousted the group from power five years ago.
Meanwhile in Lebanon, a US-backed Sunni-Christian government finds itself under siege from an opposition alliance between the secular Christian-based Free Patriotic Movement, the Lebanese Communist Party and the Shiite-based Hezbollah movement, which has emerged from the July-August US-Israeli war against Lebanon stronger and more confident than ever.
In 2006 the two surviving members of US President George Bush’s “Axis of Evil” — North Korea and Iran — continued to defy Washington. North Korea ended its longstanding moratorium on testing its ballistic missiles on the Fourth of July, thus making its own rather defiant contribution to the fireworks traditionally associated with Washington’s Independence Day celebrations. Apparently dissatisfied with Washington’s appreciation of this display, Pyongyang defiantly conducted its first nuclear weapons test four months later
In April, Iran announced that it had successfully enriched uranium and subsequently dismissed US and European demands, in blatant contradiction to Iran’s supposed “inalienable rights” under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, that it indefinitely halt its enrichment program..
The year ended with Washington securing a UN Security Council resolution imposing economic sanctions on Iran, that is a freeze on the foreign financial assets of 10 Iranian organisations and 12 Iranian individuals involved in Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. However, the final resolution, the outcome of four months of diplomatic haggling, was so watered down at Russia’s and China’s insistence and provides so many exemptions to the mandated sanctions as make them meaningless. As the December 28 New York Jewish Weekly observed: “The UN sanctions package for Iran might have come with one of those labels so familiar from other seasonal deliveries: some assembly required, teeth not included.”
Thus, according to paragraphs 12 and 13 of the resolution, funds of the designated organisations and individuals are frozen except in two cases:
1. If the funds are needed to meet regular expenses.
2. If the funds are needed to meet extraordinary expenses.
The resolution also bans the export to Iran of all material and equipment related to Iran’s nuclear and missile programs, except for material and equipment specified in all contracts signed before the resolution was adopted,
Perhaps the biggest blow to Washington’s imperial ambitions came on November 7 when the majority of US voters used the mid-term congressional elections to indicate their opposition to the Bush administration’s war policy.
While the warhawks predictably claimed that the results reflected more the US public’s lack of confidence in the way Bush had carried out the Iraq war policy than on the policy itself, a battery of opinion polls in both the run-up to the elections and immediately afterward found that a large majority of US voters believe the administration’s belligerent foreign policy had made their country — as well as the rest of the world — less, rather than more, secure.
On December 7, for example, the Centre for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland released the results of a survey that found that 6 out of 10 US voters believe that threatening foreign governments with “regime change” makes them more likely to develop weapons of mass destruction to defend themselves. When told that North Korea has offered to eliminate its nuclear weapons in exchange for a US nonaggression pact, and asked if Washington should accept this North Korean offer, 7 out 10 US voters said yes.
Three-quarters of those surveyed thought that Washington should seek “to build better relations” with Iran rather than trying to pressure it “with implied threats that the US may use military force”. Fifty-five per cent were in favour of the US agreeing to Iran’s demand that it be allowed to enrich uranium under United Nations supervision to the low levels necessary for nuclear power.
With regard to Iraq, the survey found that 58% of US voters believed the US military presence was provoking more violence than it was preventing. Seventy-five per cent want all US troops withdrawn within one year.
In direct opposition to this, Bush reportedly plans to put an extra 20,000 US combat troops into Iraq in 2007, with most of them being deployed to “stabilise” Baghdad. This has already been tried before and failed. As part of Operation Forward Together, between August and October last year, US combat troop strength in Baghdad was doubled with an extra 14,000 US soldiers being deployed there. The increased number of US military patrols and raids throughout the city had little impact on the scale of the anti-occupation insurgency. All it did was lead to a surge in the US casualty rate — from 48 US troops killed in July to 65 in August, to 72 in September and 110 in October. In November, the US troop death toll fell to 79 — still almost double the level in the months before the July-October Baghdad offensive. It then jumped again with 118 US soldiers being killed in December, making that month third deadliest for the US forces in Iraq since the occupation began in March 2003. The two previous deadliest months were April and November 2004, when 135 and 137 US troops were killed. In both of those two months, the US occupation forces suffered high casualties during bloody assaults on the heavily defended rebel city of Fallujah, 55 kilometres west of Baghdad.
The reason why a 20,000 “surge” in the size of the US occupation force in Iraq will not enable Washington to defeat the anti-occupation insurgency was revealed by the results of a survey of Iraqi public opinion taken in the second half of 2006 by the US State Department and by the University of Maryland’s Program for International Policy Attitudes (PIPA).
The September 27 Washington Post had reported that, according to a US State Department survey, in Baghdad “nearly three-quarters of residents polled said they would feel safer if US and other foreign forces left Iraq, with 65% of those asked favouring an immediate pull-out”.
The Post’s report added that interviews with “Baghdad residents in recent weeks suggest one central cause for Iraqi distrust of the Americans: They believe the US government has deliberately thrown the country into chaos … to create an excuse to keep its forces here.”
This was confirmed by the PIPA survey, conducted on September 1-4. It found that an “overwhelming majority” of Iraqis “believe that the US military presence in Iraq is provoking more conflict than it is preventing”. This view was held by 78% of Iraqis — by 82% of Shiites and a near-unanimous 97% of Sunnis.
The PIPA poll also found that 61% of Iraqis approved of insurgent attacks on US forces — up from 47% in January. Support for attacks on US forces among Shiites had risen from 41% in January to 62% in September. Support for such attacks among Sunnis was 92%, up from 88% in January.
Bush’s plan to deploy an extra 20,000 US combat troops runs counter to the public comments made by General John Abizaid, the Pentagon’s top Middle East commander, in testimony given on November 15 before the US Senate armed services committee. Abizaid said the US Army and Marine Corps simply do not have enough troops to sustain a larger force in Iraq for very long. “We can put in 20,000 more Americans tomorrow and achieve a temporary effect. But when you look at the overall American force pool that’s available out there, the ability to sustain that commitment is simply not something that we have right now with the size of the Army and the Marine Corps”, he told the committee.
Over the course of 2006, US commanders have grown increasingly alarmed about the burden long deployments in Iraq are placing on the regular army. General Peter Schoomaker, the US Army’s chief of staff, warned Congress last month that the active-duty army “will break” under the strain of current Iraq war deployments.
Former secretary of state Colin Powell, a retired US Army general who headed the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1989 to 1993, told CBS TV’s December 17 Face the Nation program that “the active army is about broken” and that the US was “not winning, we are losing” the war in Iraq. Commenting on proposals for a “surge” in US troop strength in Iraq, Powell said: “There really are no additional troops. All we would be doing is keeping some of the troops who were there, there longer and escalating or accelerating the arrival of other troops.”
While the majority of ordinary Americans, like the majority of ordinary Australians, are opposed to the war in Iraq, the big challenge facing Marxists and other antiwar activists in both countries is to turn this passive opposition into activity, into mass protest. The experience of the struggle against the Vietnam War in the 1960s and early 1970s demonstrated that only when this happens on a sustained basis will it led to active resistance by the working-class youth who make up the ranks of the imperialist rulers’ armies to being passive cannon fodder, thus causing the collapse of the imperialist military machine as a reliable fighting force.
Marxism and pacifism
The Marxist approach to war differs radically from the pacifist approach. In his classic pamphlet, Socialism and War, Lenin distinguished between the Marxist and pacifist oppositions to war:
Socialists [Lenin wrote] have always condemned wars between nations as barbarous and brutal. Our attitude towards war is fundamentally different from that of the bourgeois pacifists … in that we understand the inevitable connection between wars and the class struggle within a country; we understand that wars cannot be abolished unless classes are abolished and socialism is created; we also differ in that we regard civil wars, i.e., wars waged by an oppressed class against the oppressor class, by slaves against slaveholders, by serfs against landowners, and by wage workers against the bourgeoisie, as fully legitimate, progressive and necessary. We Marxists differ from pacifists … in that we deem it necessary to study each war historically (from the standpoint of Marx’s dialectical materialism) and separately. There have been in the past numerous wars which, despite all the horrors, atrocities, distress and suffering that inevitably accompany all wars, were progressive, i.e., benefited the development of mankind.1
We Marxists reject an absolute position on war. We examine each war concretely and separately, locating each in its distinct historical context. We disagree with pacifists that all war is bad, immoral and harmful to those who engage in it. Those are ahistorical, moralistic dogmas divorced from material reality. Indeed, from our working-class viewpoint, rejecting necessary or liberating violence is inherently immoral. A gun used in war by a Warsaw Ghetto fighter aimed at a German soldier was an instrument of liberation. The same gun in the hands of a German soldier aimed at a Jew in the Warsaw Ghetto was an instrument of Nazi terror. An abstract disgust with guns and violence cannot see this truth — only politics and class morality can.
We Marxists don’t equate the violence of the oppressor with the violence of the oppressed. We don’t agree with pacifists that the violence of oppressed people or workers’ revolution debases the human spirit by practising hatred, and that it should be replaced by a strategy of winning over enemies through nonviolent reconciliation, Christian love or moral witness. Pacifists preach peaceful reconciliation of differences between oppressor and oppressed — “nonviolent conflict resolution” — not the class hostility and hatred workers should feel for their exploiters.
Ruling classes have never in all of recorded human history paid the slightest attention to pacifist or moral pleadings to peacefully give up their wealth and power. Pacifists consequently direct their appeals to the oppressed, which disarms and weakens successful resistance and contributes to the maintenance of the system which causes war.
The Marxist approach to supporting or opposing a particular war draws heavily on the early 19th century Prussian writer and soldier, Carl von Clausewitz, arguably the greatest theoretician of war. Clausewitz’s starting point was the famous proposition that “war is politics continued by other [that is, violent] means” This, Lenin noted, “was always the standpoint of Marx and Engels, who regarded any war as the continuation of the politics of the powers concerned — and the various classes within these countries — in a definite period”.2 Lenin later expanded on that idea, saying that we have to look at “the class character of war: what caused that war, what classes are waging it, and what historical and historical-economic conditions gave rise to it …”3
As Marxists, we attempt to analyse all of the political aspects of a war: the real policies (not the stated ones) of which the war is a continuation, and the policies of the classes waging the war. To fully understand the politics of the war, we have to examine all of the belligerent powers, not just one. If we agree with the politics that have led to the war, then we continue to support the struggle for those politics, even when they are continued through violent means, through war. Conversely, if we are political opponents of those policies, of the policies of the ruling classes and governments involved, we don’t put aside our political opposition when the struggle is continued by other, violent means. We remain opponents of the politics that led to the war, and therefore of the war itself.
This key unlocks the mystification that surrounds war. It makes plain the method that we use to decide which wars we consider just, progressive and worthy of support, and which we consider reactionary, unjust and not worthy of support. We are for wars we can support politically — we are in favour wars of national liberation, wars for democracy, and revolutions and civil wars of the oppressed against their oppressors. We oppose those wars whose politics we reject: wars for the defence or expansion of the wealth, power and privileges of the exploiting and oppressor classes. It is our politics, political analysis of real events and political judgment on the dynamics of the forces and events propelling any war, placed in their historical, economic and class context, that determine our position on each, separate war.
Two eras of war
Marx and Engels did not abstain on the question of war. They took definite sides on particular wars using the criteria of victory or defeat for which of the belligerent camps most represented historical progress. That approach was appropriate to the era of ascending capitalism when the socialist revolution was not yet a historic possibility. In the period from the American War of Independence of 1776 until the Paris Commune of 1871, the capitalist class could still play a historically progressive role. The wars led by the bourgeoisie overturned outmoded feudal relations, clearing the way for the more rapid development of capitalism and of its unique product, the modern working class, the embodiment of socialised labour.
The best example of a war of this type was revolutionary war waged by the revolutionary French Republic at the end of the 18th century. The spread of the French Revolution challenged feudalism throughout Europe. Had the revolution not spread to the rest of Europe, it would have been strangled by aristocratic counter-revolution from abroad. The radical left of the time, the Jacobins, were aggressive proponents of revolutionary warfare.
Other progressive, bourgeois wars of this period included the wars of German and Italian unification, which ended the division of those countries into feudal mini-states and created unified national states and markets.
Another type of progressive war of that period was civil war to end the racial slavery. The Haitian Revolution at the beginning of the 19th century resulted in a long period of brutal warfare for human freedom from racial slavery. Similarly, the American Civil War between the Northern industrial capitalism, in alliance with the free blacks of the North and the slaves of the South, against the Southern Confederacy of capitalist plantation slave owners was a war for human liberation as well as for capitalist progress. It was one of the last acts, anywhere in the world, of the bourgeoisie as a progressive class.
To dismiss these events as limited because they were bourgeois is ahistorical. Compared to past conditions they were progressive historical developments. They created industrial capitalism whose mechanised means of production and proletarian labouring class are the preconditions for socialism. Marx and Engels decided their positions on the wars of that era based on which side’s victory was a victory for historical progress, and which side represented the future interests of the working class.
By the beginning of the 20th century, the rise of capitalist monopolies and finance capital had laid the basis for a new stage of world capitalism, the imperialism stage, and a different era of warfare: imperialist war.
By the end of the 19th century, capitalism had broken out of the restricted limits of national economy. Competition among the major groups of capitalists, new investment outlets, markets, strategic raw materials and cheap supplies of labour-power became global.
This distinctive phase of capitalism — imperialism — has remained the life-and-death economic imperative of the system up to the present time. The character of imperialist wars defines the reactionary nature of contemporary capitalism, and its over-ripeness for socialist transformation. Under imperialism, the immense accumulation of wealth and the technological and scientific advances of humanity, rather than serving human needs, have become the means to create surreal weapons of mass destruction.
These weapons and other “life-saving” devices of capitalism illuminate the reactionary traits of imperialist war: its propensity for historically unprecedented mass slaughter (25 million dead in World War I; 55 million dead in World War II) and the direction of this carnage at civilians. Prior to the World War I, 10% of the victims were typically civilian casualties. In both world wars and in the imperialist wars against Korea and Vietnam, the majority of those killed were civilians. These facts are the most damning indictment that this social system is a form of modern barbarism.
We oppose all imperialist wars as reactionary wars for the perpetuation and extension of the oppression and exploitation of foreign peoples..
No imperialist army, of course, marches off to war under the slogans “Higher Corporate Profits” or “Blood for Oil” on its banners. The imperialist rulers’ ideological agents — its politicians and its mass media — work overtime to convince ordinary people that the war they are fighting is against tyranny, for democracy, for defence of their families against aggression or for some other “noble” purpose that masks the true imperialist war aims and big capital’s class interests. Socialist opposition to imperialist wars often has to start with exposure of these ideological lies, establishing the real aims and politics of the war.
Defensive and aggressive wars
Modern imperialist war has an inherent contradiction, which often explodes in revolutionary fury at the end of the conflict. The imperialist ruling class often requires mass mobilisations, the mass conscription of working people into its army and heavy taxation for a war that benefits only itself. To overcome this contradiction, the imperialist rulers have to lie to their own people to gain mass support. The primary lie is: “We did not want this war. It was unavoidable, forced upon us by enemy aggression. We are only defending our nation.”
While the question of who was the aggressor may help in disproving government lies and understanding the politics of a war, war politics can’t be reduced to who is the aggressor or the most aggressive, and who is the defender. The most primitive level of this question is, “Who fired the first shot?” When war begins, all sides attempt to pin the label of aggressor on the other side, manoeuvring to make the antagonist appear to be firing the first shot. The purpose is to manipulate public opinion into believing the claim of a war for self-defence.
The Vietnam War, for example, began with such an incident in August 1964, when the United States charged that two US naval vessels were fired upon off the coast of North Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin. The US House of Representatives voted 416-0 for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which gave the government the authority to take any actions it deemed necessary to “defend South East Asia from communist aggression”. Five years later, the Pentagon Papers revealed that President Johnson had written this resolution months before, and had waited to introduce it until Washington could claim that it had been attacked. The Pentagon Papers further documented that the two US warships were off the coast of North Vietnam on spying and kidnapping missions. It is not clear if the North Vietnamese in fact fired on the ships. Even if they did, that fact tells us very little about what caused those shots to be fired or the policies behind the so-called “aggression”.
A more sophisticated orchestration to convince the US public of the defensive nature of Washington’s war was the plan for the launching of the US air war against North Vietnam in February 1965. The decision to bomb had been made three months earlier by Johnson and his advisers. They ordered the Joint Chiefs of Staff to devise a strategic plan, which they called “provocative engagement”, i.e., to stage repeated acts of provocation, covert raids against North Vietnam in the expectation that the Vietnamese would eventually retaliate. When, after months of this operation, the Vietnamese did attack a US base at Pleiku, in South Vietnam, the Pentagon began the previously planned air war, claiming it was a defence of South Vietnam from “communist aggression”.
Despite Washington’s manoeuvring for a war it wanted, had the Vietnamese been the aggressor, the underlying politics of the war would not have changed: it was a just war of national liberation on the Vietnamese part, and of imperialist conquest on the part of the US — no matter who fired first. If the political goal of the “aggressor” is just, we support the aggressor. (Marxists might in fact support an aggressive policy that results in war to gain a goal like national liberation.)
In sum, the issue of whether one side was the aggressor may tell you something about whether or not that side is lying about the claimed defensive nature of its war and may provide indications of what its real objectives are, but it cannot tell you the most important questions about the political dynamics of the war.
Wars of national liberation
The character of warfare since half of the 20th century has been marked, on the one hand, by imperialist conquest and domination, and on the other by its dialectical opposite: wars of national liberation against imperialist conquest and domination.
The right to national self-determination is a democratic right, in which a nation determines its political fate free of foreign domination, up to and including its right to secede and set up its own sovereign state. It is a right that should be supported by all consistent democrats. Yet virtually no one other than Marxists defends national self-determination as a principle that should apply to all nations, rather than as a privilege for some nations.
An oppressed nation is entitled to self-determination no matter how undemocratic or politically backward its leadership or ruling class is. National self-determination is not socialism, and a ruling class often leads the struggle for it with all of its ruling-class faults. We Marxists make no condition that a nation should be free only if its political leaders live up to socialist standards. If a war decisively continues the struggle for national self-determination, it is a war for national liberation and we Marxists support it regardless of the political views of those leading the anti-imperialist struggle for national liberation.
The statement of Jules Humbert-Droz, a leading member of the French Communist Party to the Executive Committee of the Communist International in 1925 when Morrocan Rif peasants under the leadership of tribal and Islamic religious chief Abd el-Krim launched an armed insurrection against French colonial occupation retains certain relevance today:
The right has protested against the watchword of fraternisation with the insurgent army in the Rif, by invoking the fact that they do not have the same degree of civilisation as the French armies, and that semi-barbarian tribes cannot be fraternised with. It has gone even further, writing that Abd el-Krim has religious and social prejudices that must be fought. Doubtless we must fight the pan-Islamism and the feudalism of colonial peoples, but when French imperialism seizes the throat of the colonial peoples, the role of the CP is not to combat the prejudices of the colonial chiefs, but to fight unfailingly the rapacity of French imperialism.4
As Marxists living in an imperialist country, our main enemy is at home: our own imperialist ruling class, who are junior partners in US imperialism’s rapacity in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The victory of the imperialist coalition occupying Iraq would strengthen the world’s most powerful gang of exploiters, whose imperative is further wars to expand its economic empire. Our main weapons must be directed against it — its propaganda, its lies, its atrocities and its war carried out in our name.
In seeking to building an antiwar movement in imperialist countries like Australia, Marxists also have the task of political clarification. We have to argue the case for anti-imperialism, for the right of oppressed nations such as Iraq to self-determination, for international solidarity among working people, and particularly with the working people who are resisting arms-in-hand the imperialist armies that are used in our name.
The key way that we can accomplish these tasks is carry out propaganda, agitation and organising work to build the broadest mobilisations possible around the demand that our imperialist rulers get their armies out, immediately and unconditionally.
Imperialism and the ‘war on terror’
Since the emergence of imperialist capitalism, the ordering of political power among the various nation-states has shifted considerably. At the beginning of the imperialist epoch, the principal global reality was the growing rivalry among the imperialist nation-states leading to the first and second world wars. The victory of the world’s first socialist state, the Soviet Union, against Nazi Germany’s imperialist onslaught posed an external challenge to the capitalist system, leading to the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the US rulers and their imperialist allies. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 left the United States as the world’s sole military superpower. By the end of the 20th century, the US rulers had also made gains on their main economic rivals. The result was that at the beginning of the century, as Henry Kissinger declared in his 2001 book Does America Need a Foreign Policy? Toward a Diplomacy for the 21st Century, that the US rulers had achieved “a pre-eminence not enjoyed by even the greatest of empires past”.5
This naturally led to the question, what were the US rulers to do with this imperial “pre-eminence”?
Back in September 1999, Dick Cheney, who was then CEO of Halliburton, the world’s largest oil services company, gave a speech to his oil industry peers at the London Institute of Petroleum, in which he noted that only about one-tenth of the world’s oil reserves were in the hands of the Western oil corporations. He went on to observe that:
While many regions of the world offer great oil opportunities, the Middle East with two-thirds of the world’s oil and the lowest cost, is still where the prize ultimately lies. Even though companies are anxious for greater access there, progress continues to be slow. It is true that technology, privatisation and the opening up of a number of countries have created many new opportunities in areas around the world for various oil companies, but looking back to the early 1990s, expectations were that significant amounts of the world’s new resources would come from such areas as the former Soviet Union and from China. Of course, that didn’t turn out quite as expected.6
What Cheney was alluding to was that the oil industries in Russia and China had remained in the hands of state monopolies and thus closed to the Western oil corporations. Furthermore, a considerable part of the oil resources of the Middle East, “where the prize ultimately lies”, were also closed to Big Oil, remaining in the hands of state monopolies controlled by bourgeois nationalist regimes hostile to US political and economic domination, that is the Baathist regime in Iraq and the Islamic republican regime in Iran.
How was this “ultimate prize” to be opened up to Big Oil? Cheney did not say, but in the same year that he gave his speech, Richard Haas, who had been special assistant to the president under George Bush senior and was to become Bush junior’s director of policy planning for the United States State Department until July 2003, published a book entitled Intervention: The Use of American Military Force in the Post-Cold War World.
Force can create a context in which political change is more likely, but without extraordinary intelligence and more than a little good fortune, force by itself is unlikely to bring about specific political changes. The only way to increase the likelihood of such change is through highly intrusive forms of intervention, such as nation-building, which involves first eliminating all opposition and then engaging in an occupation that allows for substantial engineering of another society.7
Such a “nation-building” occupation, Haas stressed, would require “defeating and disarming any local opposition and establishing a political authority that enjoys a monopoly or near-monopoly of control over the legitimate use of force”. It therefore requires, Haas concluded, a US occupation of “imperial proportions and possibly of endless duration”.
A year later, in November 2000, Haas delivered a paper in Atlanta entitled “Imperial America” in which he argued that “the fundamental question that continues to confront American foreign policy is what to do with a surplus of power and the many and considerable advantages this surplus confers on the United States”. This “surplus of power”, Haas argued, should be used to pursue an “imperial foreign policy … a foreign policy that attempts to organize the world” to meet US interests. This would require convincing the majority of Americans “re-conceive their role from a traditional nation-state to an imperial power”.8
In the final section of his paper, which was entitled “Imperialism begins at Home”, Haas concluded that “‘the greatest risk facing the United States at this juncture … is that it will squander the opportunity to bring about a world supportive of its core interests by doing too little. Imperial understretch, not overstretch, appears to be the greater danger of the two.”
The 9/11 terrorist attacks a year later provided the US rulers with the opportunity to present their planned imperialist occupation of Iraq in terms that could rally support for it among US working people, to present it as part of a “Global War on Terror” to defend them from the threat of Islamist terrorists. The real objective of course was to carry out “regime change” in Iraq so as to enable Cheney’s Halliburton and his friends in ExxonMobil and Chevron to get control of the “ultimate prize”. As the US Business Week magazine explained to its corporate readership in January 2003, “Since the US military would control Iraq’s oil and gas deposits for some time, US companies could be in line for a lucrative slice of the business”, and thus they could “feel just as victorious as the US Special Forces”.
Today, almost four years later, the euphoric feeling of impending victory has been replaced by a desperate sense of frustration and despair within US ruling circles. Sustained Iraqi resistance to Washington’s imperialist occupation has produced openly acknowledged “imperial overstretch” for the US military machine and public divisions over the war among ruling-class policy makers and advisers.
In a December 6 interview Richard Haas, now president of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, the leading US foreign policy think tank, described the report produced by the Iraq Study Group, the bipartisan commission headed by former secretary of state and ExxonMobil legal counsellor James A. Baker III, as “refreshingly honest” for its admission that Washington’s position in Iraq is “grave and deteriorating”.
Haas said: “I can’t tell you that if the administration does everything in this report, it will succeed. But it probably gives the administration the best chance that exists for making progress.”9
Coming from the advocate of an occupation of “imperial proportions and possibly of endless duration” this may seem surprising, given the corporate media has peddled the idea that the Bake commission advocated the withdrawal of all US combat brigades from Iraq by early 2008. However, as Haas noted in his interview, what the Baker commission actually proposed is an acceleration of what the Pentagon is already doing, i.e., attempting to “Iraqise” Washington’s counterinsurgency war by “embedding” US soldiers as “advisers” in its puppet Iraqi security forces.
The Baker commission did indeed recommend that by “the first quarter of 2008, subject to unexpected developments in the security situation on the ground, all combat brigades not necessary for force protection could be out of Iraq”. These combat brigades make up about 55,000 of 140,000 US troops in Iraq. The 80,000 or so US military police, the US air force, the soldiers that order, store and move supplies and equipment, and so on are not part of the combat brigades, nor are the 4000 US soldiers currently “embedded” as “advisers” in the puppet Iraqi security forces. Under the Baker commission’s recommendations, they would all have to stay — as well as the combat troops to protect them and the extra 20,000 or so US military “advisers” that the commission recommends flood into the puppet Iraqi army. Where will these extra 20,000 “advisers” come from? They will have to be “redeployed” from the “withdrawn” combat brigades. That is, the combat brigades will be “withdrawn” from Iraq by renaming their personnel “advisers” to puppet Iraqi combat units. This is the essence of the Baker commission’s new war strategy — a Clayton’s withdrawal policy, aimed at defusing the US public’s demand for an actual withdrawal.
The same trick was pulled by Washington in Vietnam after Richard Nixon assumed the presidency in 1969. His plan to gradually withdraw US combat troops through the “Vietnamisation” of the ground war proved to be an abysmal failure, though it cost the lives of many more Vietnamese and many more US soldiers than the previous strategy.
Lessons of Vietnam War
Washington’s war against the people of Vietnam lasted 15 years. By its end in 1975, the Vietnamese had won a victory against the mightiest military power of all time. But it came at the cost of over 4 million dead.
The antiwar movement in this country and in the United States played a major role in winning that victory. It made the domestic political cost of continuing the war too high for imperialist rulers, and as I mentioned earlier, it helped politically undermine the US military as a reliable fighting force.
In 1971, when the US antiwar movement staged its largest street marches in Washington involving nearly a million participants, US Army Colonel Robert D. Heinl Jr. authored a report entitled the “Collapse of the Armed Forces”, in which he concluded that:
By every conceivable indicator, our army that now remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers and non commissioned officers, drug-ridden, and dispirited where not near mutinous …
All the foregoing facts … point to widespread conditions among American Forces in Vietnam that have only been exceeded in this century by … the collapse of the tsarist armies in 1916 and 1917.10
Although there are important differences between the guerrilla war now being waged in occupied Iraq and the high casualty war in Vietnam, there are many lessons to be learned from the antiwar movement during the Vietnam war that can be used by the antiwar movement today.
Underlying the approach we took here to Australia’s participation in the US-led war in Vietnam and our cothinkers in the Socialist Workers Party took in the United States was the Marxist view that the working class is the only class with the potential and actual power to change society.
Our approach to building the antiwar movement was oriented to mobilising the broadest masses of working people against the war. It had three basic components: (1) mass action, (2) independence from ruling-class politics and parties, and (3) principled demands on the government that respected the right of the Vietnamese people to national self-determination.
Each aspect of this approach was based on the idea that only a mass working-class movement could force the US and Australian imperialist rulers to end the war. The tactics we advocated flowed from this basic strategy. The mass actions we advocated were street demonstrations called for by non-exclusionary united fronts, that is, action committees of all who could agree to come together in common antiwar actions. We organised them to be peaceful and legal demonstrations. It was important to make it as easy as possible for ordinary working people to take their first tentative steps in publicly opposing government policy after more than a decade and half of the Cold War anti-communist hysteria aimed at demonising the left as “enemy agents”.
We promoted the tactic of peaceful, legal street demonstrations because we had the confidence that the movement would be able to win a majority over to the antiwar cause, and this method would put no roadblocks in the way of that goal.
The demands we advocated for the movement likewise reflected our strategic orientation to mobilising working people. “Immediate and unconditional withdrawal of the troops”, shortening into the slogan “Out now!”, was the central demand we promoted in the movement.
This was in opposition to the conscious reformists in the movement, who advocated a “negotiated” solution to the war. We argued that Washington and Canberra had no right to negotiate for anything in Vietnam and that the only demand on them that respected the right of the Vietnamese people to determine their own destiny was to unconditionally withdraw the troops.
But there was another and very important reason for the slogan to get the troops out now, and that was the strategy of building the movement into a working-class movement with the social power to affect the actions of the imperialist governments waging the war. It was a concrete way of reaching out to and winning support for the movement among working people concerned about saving their conscripted relatives’ lives.
The correctness of our approach was demonstrated by the fact that the movement achieved its greatest mobilising power in 1970 and 1971, when this approach was adopted by the big antiwar coalitions. In 1971 the Liberal government of PM Billy McMahon announced that all Australian combat troops would be withdrawn by the end of that year, which is what happened.
There were some who argued that the antiwar protests had little impact on the US government. But when the Pentagon Papers were fully published in 1972 this was disproved. They exposed the fact that, as secret US State Department memorandum in March 1968 put it, “the growing disaffection [with the war] … runs [the] great risk of provoking a domestic crisis of unprecedented proportions”.11 The culmination was the US signing a peace agreement that led to brought the war to a close.
The movement against the Vietnam War of course did not prevent new and future US military interventions. Nor could it. In order to deprive the US and Australian imperialist rulers of the ability to use their military machines abroad, will require more than an antiwar movement. It will require a revolution that organises the working class as the ruling class.
While we are still a long way from this in either Australia or the US, the war of national resistance being waged by patriotic Iraqis against the imperialist occupation of their country is playing an active and important role today in assisting the advance of revolutionary working-class forces elsewhere in the world, particularly in Latin America. By tying down US imperialism’s war machine in their country and generating mass antiwar sentiment within the US working class, the Iraqi resistance fighters have created precious political space for the socialist revolution in Venezuela to advance unhindered by a US military intervention. This makes our task of continuing to build active solidarity with these fighters all the more important.