Facilitate the power of love - confront the love of power

Sat, 01 May 2004

Dogs and 'war'

After just a week of this inquiry into domination I'm already becoming overwhelmed by the evidence.

Fallujah looks like it was some kind of 'a bridge to far', a turning point, a cusp defining the limits of US hubris. Using battlefield weapons, c130 gunships, Apache helicopters and 500lb bombs to 'pacify' a town of 300,000 people, redefines the notion of overkill. Jo Wilding's 'The second trip to Fallujah and the courteous kidnappers' fills in some of the missing detail of what was happening on the ground. Her article, 'Inside the Fire', woke me up to why events in Fallujah were so important.

And then there has been Jeannie, our 17 year old dog, a very sharp reminder of how domination can be very close to home. I'll come back to her.

In your face examples of cultures of domination this week have also included the images of US military rednecks tormenting naked Iraqi men. Most media accounts neglect to say that these men have been mostly picked up at check points and are being held without charge and out of communication in a country that has no settled judicial system for prosecution or defense. For a detailed account of the arbitrary way many of these prisoners have been accumulated, see this blog: 'Baghdad Burning' (Tales from Abu Ghraib... Monday, March 29, 2004). And then today, as if this were not enough, a UK newspaper has a series of pictures of UK soldiers apparently abusing an Iraqi prisoner (my caveat is because, as a photographer, these pictures looked posed, not as they purport to be, live action shots)

Yet why should we be surprised at such a gross culture of abuse? Only if we are unaware of the kind of bullying that military training commonly involves. Only if we are uninformed. The US created, and the UK government has tolerated, the continuing illegal imprisonment of thousands of prisoners in the Guantanamo base in Cuba. And faced with world-wide exposure of video evidence of gross abuse in Abu Ghraib what does the US do? They import the governor of Guantanamo, Major General Geoffrey Miller to sort it out. The application of an emperor of abuse to an already abusive regime. For an eye witness account of the culture of domination he commanded see this article.

If you have read some of the earlier entries you'll have seen that in this inquiry, my take on domination is favors the notion of trance. That dominant elites are entranced by the idea that domination is natural and inevitable. To sustain their dominance they use speechifying, law-making and media and copyright control, to promote trance inductions that install and re-iterate this belief. Subordinate peoples and groups buy into the dominance/subordination trance partly because it comes to seem that this is 'the way things are' and partly because the price of contradicting it can be very high.

From this perspective, events such as the public emergence of images of US personnel interrogating prisoners in the Abu Ghraib jail, previously notorious for some of the most gross human rights abuse in recent history, are trance-breaking. I want to add that considering its history, choosing this jail to house several thousand detainees seems to me further evidence of the extent to which the abuses of dominance are intrinsic to the US administration and thus its military. They choose to adopt (rather than raze to the ground) a site that is an icon of damage, agony and loss for Iraqis, and thus signaled that the US and its allies belonged to the same spectrum of abuse and damage as the previous regime.

But we'll let that pass. When the spell, or trance, of Infinite Justice and Iraqi Freedom is broken by the CBS transmission across the US of US soldiers torturing Iraqis, how does the dominant elite, in this case the Bush administration, respond? In the White House rose garden, President Bush says:
"I shared a deep disgust that those prisoners were treated the way they were treated," "Their treatment does not reflect the nature of the American people. That's not the way we do things in America. And so I didn't like it one bit."
Here indeed is trance induction. The American People and the American Way is intrinsically virtuous. Implicitly, these perpetrators are not truly American. By reinforcing the trance in this way, Bush disconnects the audience from the normality of the torturer's behavior. People who are so entranced would fail to connect the images of the Iraqi abuse with the images or reports of Guantanamo (or for that matter, the fact that there are close to 2 million people in prison in the US)

If you didn't read the eye witness Guantanamo returnee interview above here it is again. It details appallingly offensive and systematically damaging treatment of 'enemy combatants' imprisoned without charge.

The Guantanamo regime detailed in this trance-breaking account, only makes sense as retribution/punishment for the 9/11 events and as described, surely merits continued attention as war crimes. Guantanamo shows that, contrary to the trance induction of President Bush's assertion of the ultimate virtue of the American Way, the Iraqi torture regime in Abu Ghraib is an intrinsic part of the American Way. Far from being an aberration, it is a method of choice. Were we to seek further evidence of the disconnect, replacing the commander of Abu Ghraib with the Guantanamo prison chief seems a bizarre reinforcement of this level of approval.

The Jeannie
This much focus on the macro extremities of domination may seem to over-balance this inquiry into domination in the direction of 'out there', of 'blaming', of identifying bad other 'others', when, as I am sharply aware, these matters are also local and personal, and can be acutely painful.

Domestication of animals and pets in particular is one of the more obvious forms that domination takes. Pets are likely to be entirely dependent on their owners, and as they age bring sharply into focus the extent to which, however politically correct we may believe we are, domination is still with us. My wife's long-time companion Jeannie, a fox terrier (think of Millou in the Tin Tin illustrated stories) is getting close to the end of her life. She is very deaf, almost entirely blind, and has lost the use of her hind legs. Very fit, having enjoyed vigorous exercise all her life, Jeannie is otherwise healthy and not in any pain. For many months she has not been able to walk and so has to be carried everywhere, including up and down many flights of stairs to the street. My partner, honoring the decade and half of companionship they have shared, cares for her diligently, willingly carrying her up and down the many stairs several times a day and, using an improvised sling, takes her out for her visits to the grass patch nearby. A tremendous strain, endured willingly, even happily.

The usually invisible, but for us sharply defined, context of Jeannie last days, as you'll have guessed, is domination. She is my wife's 'possession', and convention about pet ownership gives her, within some limits, the power of life or death. Any vet seeing Jeannie would willingly end her life. But while severely disabled and fairly obviously very bored and frustrated, she is very evidently alive, if week by week, less present. Immobilized in her waking life, she runs and runs in her dreams, chasing, or being chased, growling and biting.

The choice, free of the trance words of 'putting her to sleep', 'letting go of her', 'mercy killing', 'putting her out of her misery', is between keeping her, or killing her. I certainly experience a tremendous tension between honoring the continuing living warmth of her life, and trying not very successfully to hold part of the responsibility for deciding that the time has come where her life may have mutated into intolerable suffering and should be ended. This is not a time for misplaced sentimentality, for distressed attachment. A choice for life means tolerating the inconveniences of dying, and bearing the grief of loss. Honoring life means being in touch with its astonishing improbability, that this bundle of fur with a cold wet nose, snuffling around for tidbits, and licking any available foot, continues to breathe and digest and look eagerly to her mistress, the leader of the pack, for reassurance and companionship.

The spell binding trances of domination make it easy to regard pets such as Jeannie as objects, things, possessions, adornments, status symbols, lifestyle enhancements—encouraging us to colonize the life a pet offers and end it when the demands of its living become burdensome. We are a species who have licensed ourselves to kill. Trouble is, the power we take to ourselves to kill pets and farmed animals is all of a piece with the power to declare some other living, breathing, digesting, human beings, people with histories, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, dreams and ambitions, and hurts and uncertainties, as 'objects', 'unmenschen', people who lives are regarded as devoid of value.

The perpetrators of the atrocity in Fallujah, the marines who visited retribution on its civilian population, the abusive interrogators of Abu Ghraib, and if confirmed, the British army abusers, appear to have lost sight of the intrinsic value of life in general and human life in particular, seeing themselves as dealing with 'unmenschen', non-persons. So far as we 'bystand' it and do nothing , just as most of the German population did in the middle of the last century, we join the trance.

As I mentioned in a previous item in this blog, the US administration rubbished AlJazeera's trance-breaking TV images of civilian casualties in Fallujah and tried to make the departure of the alJazeera crew one of the conditions for the cessation of their siege. That AlJazeera evidently sees Iraqi people as persons, people who do have a life of value, breaks the trance that some, or many Iraqis are likely to be 'terrorists', or at best, inadequate, uncivilized people who need a superpower parent.

Such news management, which in recent months has included the banning of images of dead American 'soldiers remains' being returned to the US, contrasts with this Faces of the Fallen website in the Washington Post. The title, 'The Faces of the Fallen' sustains the trance of righteous sacrifice, of American soldiers dying in defense of Iraqi Freedom and Infinite Justice. I nevertheless found it very touching, so many of the dead soldiers were in their early twenties, and surprised that there were so few black people among them.

The catalogue of horribilities of the last few days has masked for me the potentially massive contradiction of the American imperial model of how to be a powerful nation promised by the accession to the European Union of 10 more countries.

I live close to the heart of the EU in Brussels. I hear first hand of the painstaking negotiation that building such a communion of nations entails. While the jury is still out on whether the EU will feed an oppressive extension of globalization, the recent enlargement is a further historical moment in a deepening tradition of non-violent transformation, as Jonathan Schell points out his recent book “The Unconquerable World"; a family of countries running on improved, if imperfect levels of democratic transparency and accountability, where governments change without violence, where elbowwork in committee (and football) has replaced battlefield formations.

I presently look on the EU as a source of optimism, the continuing emergence of model of social relating that contradicts the whole style of American hegemony, which despite its unsurpassed technocratic sophistication, begins, by contrast to the EU, to look archaic and primitive. In its relation to the rest of the world, the US knows so much, and yet often, as in Iraq, seems to know nothing that is of value.

More later on the EU, perhaps including my recent visits to Mons in Belgium, and Lille in France.