In every antiwar meeting that I have ever attended, during the discussion of organizing strategies someone always says, "We have to go beyond preaching to the choir."
Although the choir also needs a lot of preaching (to keep up attendance at rehearsals and facilitate discussion about the selection of songs), it's true that one of the central tasks of antiwar organizing right now is outreach – bringing into the movement those not yet persuaded by a critique of the U.S. empire's war machine.
That project requires not only identifying potential allies but finding new and creative ways to reach them with antiwar arguments. A new book of "remixed" war posters, "You Back the Attack! We'll Bomb Who We Want!" by Micah Ian Wright (Seven Stories Press ) is one of the most creative of those new methods to come out of the opposition to the Iraq war.
Wright's method is ingeniously simple: He took old propaganda posters, mostly from the World War II era, that were designed to motivate people to support the war effort ("Buy war bonds!") and replaced the original text with new words that call into question the nobility of our Great Leader, the wisdom of the so-called "war on terrorism," and the larger costs of Americans' energy-intensive high-consumption lifestyle.
The result is posters that force a double take: Images that we are used to associating with old-style patriotism become a vehicle for messages that are ironic, edgy, critical – and consistently engaging. That's why, months before the book was published, I tacked on my office door several of the posters (printed off the internet) so that students waiting to talk to me could ponder just what Wright might have meant by his designs. Based on students' comments, the posters work; they spark discussion.
A typical example has the words "Attack, Attack, Iraq" over a drawing of soldiers charging forward, with the tagline, "Another war will surely pull us out of recession. A message from the Ministry of Homeland Security."
Several students asked me if I believed the claim of that poster. I told them, no, I didn't think the war was being planned specifically to pull us out of a recession, but that the motivations behind the war were largely economic – policymakers want to establish military dominance in part to guarantee economic dominance. Then I pointed out that it isn't obvious the artist is really suggesting that the administration wanted a war simply to end a recession. Maybe there's more to it, I suggested.
That's one of the strengths of Wright's "subverted propaganda," as he calls his posters; they don't provide a detailed analysis so much as they raise questions and force viewers to come up with their own answers. One of my favorites is a drawing of a woman who is saluting while sitting at a typewriter, under the headline "You write what you're told!" The bottom of the poster reads, "Thanks, corporate news! We couldn't control the people without you." Of course we don't live in a totalitarian state in which journalists write exactly what they are told by government officials, but sometimes in wartime the media world seems frighteningly close to that. How is it that a free press ends up fulfilling that kind of propaganda function? The poster invites people to think about that paradox.
To help readers sort through the issues, the posters are accompanied by text written by staff members from the Center for Constitutional Rights, who fill in crucial facts and offers analysis of the issues raised by the posters. The succinct commentaries make the book especially useful as an organizing tool – it's a good introduction to key questions about war and civil liberties.
Although the posters are the heart of the book, in some ways my favorite part was Wright's short introduction, "Moment of Clarity." The ironic sense of humor evident in the posters also energizes Wright's account of how he went from being a gung-ho U.S. Army Airborne Ranger to a political dissident. It turns out that one of Wright's posters (a drawing of a soldier throwing a grenade, with the text "What the fuck am I doing here? I only joined up for the college money") is a description of how he came to join the military and find himself in December 1989 parachuting into the U.S. invasion of Panama with his fellow Rangers. It was on that mission that Wright witnessed the U.S. bombing of El Chorrillo, a poor section of Panama City, which changed his life. As he puts it in the book:
"I never shot anyone who didn't shoot at me first – I didn't bury anyone in mass graves or burn their houses down – and yet I share the guilt of those who did these things, because I was there. And guess what? So do you. Because it was your government that did it."
After the Army, Wright did make it to college and then a career as a writer in a variety of genres – television, film, graphic novels and comic books, as well as the political posters that he keeps producing. The book contains 40, but about 175 are available on the Propaganda Remix Project website (www.antiwarposters.com), from which they can be downloaded. Wright has made it easy to print them out and slap them up on a bulletin board or office door. I recommend doing just that. It's an effective way to start political conversations with folks who have not yet put on the choir robes.
Robert Jensen is a founding member of the Nowar Collective, a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and author of "Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream" (Peter Lang, 2001).
Canadian writer, filmmaker and journalist Gwynne Dyer (whose weekly column on international affairs appears in 175 newspapers worldwide and who is CBC-TV's principal commentator on the war) has written a new book, Ignorant Armies, an account of the strategy behind the September 11 attacks and the reasons for an American strike on Iraq.
From the back cover:
"Around the world thoughtful people are asking one vital question: How could an unspeakable terrorist act carried out by a small group of Islamist zealots, most of them Saudi Arabian, result in war being declared on Iraq, a country with a brutal but firmly secular government that had no known connection with 9/11? Is it a grotesque mistake, a sinister plot, or just the strategic equivalent of a highway pileup?
Far too many politicians and journalists who should know better have swallowed the story that Saddam Hussein is a threat to the West, that his weapons of mass destruction are about to fall into the hands of suicidal terrorist fanatics, and that we must invade Iraq before the Beast of Baghdad eats us, hair and all. And too few observers have pointed out that the weapons are not very dangerous, that Saddam has been successfully contained for over a decade without a war, and that the emperor has no clothes."
If historical ingratitude were a crime, the chattering classes of the West would be facing life sentences at hard labour. The luckiest generation in history, the people who got their future back because World War Three was cancelled, think that the world has changed forever just because a few terrorists have chosen them as targets.
About three thousand human beings were killed in the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001. That makes “9/11” the worst single terrorist incident in history, and it all played out on live television, so the immediate shock and outrage was entirely understandable. But the actual loss of life on that day was on the same order as the monthly death toll from traffic accidents in the United States – and there was almost no follow-up to those terrorist attacks, whereas the other loss occurs every month.
Numbers do matter. At least half the American population would have died in a World War Three fought with nuclear weapons. Therefore World War Three was an awesome possibility, one that could actually have ended American history. Only one American in a hundred thousand died on September 11, and not one in a million has been killed in terrorist attacks since then, so the new terrorism, viewed in this context, is virtually a non-event.
It is the media coverage that gives terrorism such huge apparent importance, of course – modern terrorism is almost entirely a media phenomenon – but it is nevertheless astonishing how big it has made this event seem, and how long it has kept it inflated. Even in 2003, the terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001 still shape American and Western foreign policy – or at least they are still being used, without much dissent, as justification for policies that may in fact have other motives and goals. September 11 did not change the world, but it is being used in an attempt to change the world.
This is not 1939, when great moral and ideological issues were involved, or even 1914, when at least great armies were involved. For all its modern technological trappings, this feels more like one of the colonial wars of the late nineteenth century – say, the Spanish-American War of 1898, Washington’s first excursion into imperialism. The pretext for the American attack on the Spanish empire on that occasion was an explosion that sank the battleship Maine in Havana harbour, killing over a thousand Americans. There was actually no evidence to connect the Spanish government with the disaster (sound familiar?), but the war was popular with the American public because it was over quickly, cost little, and allowed the United States to control Cuba for quite a few years, the Philippines for half a century, and Puerto Rico and American Samoa for good.
But the Spanish-American War was really a side-show. The main event at the turn of the last century was the Anglo-Boer War of 1899–1902, when Britain, the world’s greatest power, cooked up an unjustified war of aggression against the little Afrikaner republics of southern Africa, not because they were nasty – though they were, at least towards foreigners and blacks – but because they had one valuable resource that the imperial power craved: gold. Then, as now, everybody else disapproved of war, but chose not to lie down in front of the steamroller. Then – and maybe now – the war turned out to be a lot longer and harder than the planners calculated. And though Britain won it in the end, the war marked the beginning of a steep half-century decline that ended its superpower status. Could that happen to America too?
Almost certainly not: the United States today is far more dominant, relative to the other great powers, than Britain was in 1899. But there could be a modest silver lining if things get bad in Iraq, in the sense that if the Bush administration has a thoroughly miserable experience in the Middle East over the next year or so, the American right wing might be cured of its current fantasy that the United States can actually run the world. We should not wish for the lesson to be taught in this way, however, for the price would be too high, and sooner or later the unilateralist tide in the United States is bound to recede with or without disasters in the Middle East.
How bad could it get? The worst-case scenario is a bloody ground war in Iraq, perhaps followed by a lengthy and debilitating American occupation; the overthrow of existing, pro-Western regimes in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, or Pakistan by Islamist revolutionaries; the expulsion of the Palestinians from their remaining footholds west of the Jordan River (which would foreclose any hope of a general Arab-Israeli peace for the indefinite future); a large rise in oil prices and a prolonged global recession; and more and bigger terrorist attacks by Islamist groups on Western targets than has been the norm up to now. That is a lengthy tale of woe, but not all of it is likely to happen. Even if it did, it wouldn’t be the end of the world, or even of the Middle East. There have been bigger upheavals in the past half-century, and most of us are still here.
Nevertheless, the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001 set in motion an avalanche of events, clearly connected in some senses though hugely different in character and motive. The largest of those events, it now appears, will be a war of considerable size in the Middle East, and it is worth the effort to try to understand the goals and strategies of the major players, American, Islamist, Israeli and Iraqi. What did the planners of al-Qaeda actually hope to achieve with their attacks on the United States, and how serious a threat to the status quo are they? How has American strategy responded and mutated in the months since then – and in particular, why did the subject change from al-Qaeda to Iraq? Has there really been a revolution in military affairs that now enables technologically advanced military powers to fight and win wars virtually without casualties, and could it be the foundation of a lasting Pax Americana? Is Saddam Hussein dangerous to anybody other than his immediate neighbours? Indeed, is he even dangerous to them any more?
I should mention that I do not oppose war in the right cause on principle. I supported using military force under United Nations authority to drive Saddam Hussein’s army out of occupied Kuwait in the Gulf War of 1990–91 because invading your neighbours is wrong. More recently I supported military action in Bosnia and later in Kosovo, because attempted genocide is also wrong. My unease about the motives and probable consequences of the Second Gulf War (as it will probably be called) are specific to this occasion.
To write a book about a war before it starts – without even being certain that it will start – is to give rather too many hostages to fortune. But it still seems worthwhile to try make sense of the recent past and present, especially as the near future may not make much sense at all.
[As Charles W., who forwarded this link, writes to me: "i'm sure something similar is going on in this here war...though, as usual, we probably won't know all the details until all the victims are dead and buried. i mean, somebody sure has been working overtime to get 42% of americans to believe that saddam hussein was directly responsible for 9-11 (when, once upon a time, it was only 3% who were that delusional.)"]
"US Congressman Jimmy Hayes of Louisiana - a conservative Democrat who supported the Gulf War - later estimated that the government of Kuwait funded as many as 20 PR, law and lobby firms in its campaign to mobilize US opinion and force against Hussein. Participating firms included the Rendon Group, which received a retainer of $100,000 per month for media work, and Neill & Co., which received $50,000 per month for lobbying Congress. Sam Zakhem, a former US ambassador to the oil-rich gulf state of Bahrain, funneled $7.7 million in advertising and lobbying dollars through two front groups, the "Coalition for Americans at Risk" and the "Freedom Task Force." The Coalition, which began in the 1980s as a front for the contras in Nicaragua, prepared and placed TV and newspaper ads, and kept a stable of fifty speakers available for pro-war rallies and publicity events.
Hill & Knowlton, then the world's largest PR firm, served as mastermind for the Kuwaiti campaign. Its activities alone would have constituted the largest foreign-funded campaign ever aimed at manipulating American public opinion. By law, the Foreign Agents Registration Act should have exposed this propaganda campaign to the American people, but the Justice Department chose not to enforce it. Nine days after Saddam's army marched into Kuwait, the Emir's government agreed to fund a contract under which Hill & Knowlton would represent "Citizens for a Free Kuwait," a classic PR front group designed to hide the real role of the Kuwaiti government and its collusion with the Bush administration. Over the next six months, the Kuwaiti government channeled $11.9 million dollars to Citizens for a Free Kuwait, whose only other funding totalled $17,861 from 78 individuals. Virtually all of CFK's budget - $10.8 million - went to Hill & Knowlton in the form of fees."
[Yet another site with very clever, old-timey posters for printing out, etc., but this one's becoming a book with writing by Vonnegut and Zinn. It seems that the language critique that some are suggesting poets should be engaged in has moved on to the language/image complex, and is already being done by a small army of underground photoshoppers -- something of a phenomenon.]
45 of the posters in full color, perfect for protest signs or mass photocopying. The book contains a foreword by Kurt Vonnegut, an introduction by Howard Zinn, and political commentary by the Center for Constitutional Rights. (book available in your local bookstore May 1st, 2003 from Seven Stories Press)
April 4, 2003 4 In late January, Sam Hamill called upon writers to "reconstitute a Poets Against the War movement like the one organized to speak out against the war in Vietnam." He asked writers, “to speak up for the conscience of our country and lend your names to our petition against this war” by submitting “a poem or statement of conscience to the Poets Against the War web site.”
The response was overwhelming. Over 13,000 poems were submitted including work by Adrienne Rich, W. S. Merwin, Galway Kinnell, Robert Bly, Marilyn Hacker, Grace Schulman, Shirley Kaufman, Wanda Coleman, Yusef Komunyakaa, Katha Pollitt, Hayden Carruth, Jane Hirshfield, Tess Gallagher, Sandra Cisneros and former Poet Laureate Rita Dove. Poets Against the War collects some of the best poems submitted to the website. This anthology is both a cry against impending war and a celebration of the long and rich tradition of moral opposition and dissent by American writers and artists.
A reading and book party
at the Bowery Poetry Club (308 Bowery, north of Houston)
Saturday March 8th at 1:00 PM
Anselm Berrigan, Charles Bernstein, Jackson Mac Low, Sasha Steensen, Leslie Scalapino, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Pierre Joris, Kristin Prevallet
Editors: Rick London and Leslie Scalapino. 160 pages. $16.00
O Books. ISBN # 1-882022-48-3. $16.00. 160 pages
Available from Small Press Distribution: 1341 Seventh St., Berkeley CA 94710.
And: O Books, 5729 Clover Drive, Oakland CA 94618.
enough, which the editors began to assemble following 9/11 at the start of the U.S. war on Afghanistan, is a collection of poets whose writings are interactive with the current time, writing as its matter and syntax not separate from oppressive conditions and war. In enough, U.S. poets, British, Palestinian, Iraqi, Israeli, speak back and forth to each other only in the medium of their art. The editorial basis of enough is that these poets’ art is not separate from their being in the world — and that: Seeing what’s happening is a form of change.
“We are alone. We are alone to the point of drunkenness with our own aloneness,/with the occasional rainbow visiting...The prisoner said to the interrogator. ‘My heart is full/of that which is of no concern to you. My heart is full of the aroma of sage./My heart is innocent, radiant brimming...in the remains of dawn I walk outside of my own being...” Mahmoud Darwish.
“This moment,/this second/cuts in be-/tween in two...” Pierre Joris. “THE CUPS WE DRINK FROM ARE THE SKULLS OF ARABS/AND THIS SILK IS THE SKIN OF BABIES...THE SOULS HAVE NO VALUE THEY ARE FOX FURS/THAT WE DRAPE OVER WELL-FED ARMS AND SHOULDERS...” Michael McClure.
“Are you glutted yet, no there are other countries to vomit bombs out on, the sec of defence that is the every moment of cruelty, has a gleeful face, carnage who knows the new wind, there isn’t enough oil so...” Alice Notley. “Where, that which is interior side half rind, throughout, or half of a rind that’s no retina out ahead floating in it night meets black night is disintegrate cut savagely by them, not ignored—it’s reversed there and to, disintegrates—but suddenly she gets it that she doesn’t have to fight that which disintegrates it, her, lye, that one can just be near it, all the time beside it go on and on, without...” Leslie Scalapino.
“A corpse the size of my body, turning into coal. Protecting the head between the shoulders. An impacted tooth. A wide forehead, and long fingers. A silver ring I inherited from my father, and the residue of burns suspended between my jaws. Waw turning over a dying ember, ta with a gouge in its belly and nun that has became a hearth for ashes [watan: homeland]...” Nasri Hajjaj. “you mean guerrilla loose/weave in another language...” Heather Fuller. “It is perhaps lucky that the spoken word remains wild inside us, rushing and vanishing out of our bodies. Speech is not thought...is a form of breath” Fanny Howe