NEW YORK — Although its appearance in The Nation guaranteed it would receive scant notice, a July 30 essay by Alexander Cockburn was one of the first to seriously address the most troubling internal contradiction of the anti-Iraq War left. War, everyone knows, is a zero-sum game. For one side to win, the other has to lose. If you “support our troops” you hope, at minimum, for their safe return.
Cockburn quoted antiwar activist Lawrence McGuire: “The grand taboo of the antiwar movement is to show the slightest empathy for the resistance fighters in Iraq. They are never mentioned as people for whom we should show concern, much less admiration.
“But of course, if you are going to sympathize with the U.S. soldiers, who are fighting a war of aggression, then surely you should also [my emphasis] sympathize with the soldiers who are fighting for their homeland.”
Each day a U.S. soldier survives at the front means another day he will occupy Iraq and another day he can kill Iraqi resistance forces. Supporting the troops, as rightwingers say, requires supporting their mission. Which means opposing the guys who are trying to kill them.
It kills me to say this, but neocon madman William Kristol was correct when he wrote in The Weekly Standard: “What mattered to the left was that it was dangerous politically not to ‘support the troops.’ Of course, the antiwar left hated what the troops were doing. So ‘supporting the troops’ meant feeling sorry for them, or pretending to.”
The 2004 discussion over U.S. soldiers who bought their own body plates, and resorted to “hillbilly armor” to protect their Humvees from roadside bombs, was a case in point. Antiwar pundits tried to drive a wedge between the Bush administration and the military by pointing out that the Pentagon was pinching pennies at the expense of soldiers’ lives.
But what if you’re an Iraqi? You risk your own life every time you place an improvised explosive device (IED) along the “Highway of Death” between Baghdad and the airport. The more Americans you blow up, the closer you come to achieving your goal of liberating Iraq. The last thing you need is “antiwar” Americans agitating for stronger armor plates!
A parallel to World War II, “the good war,” depicted in countless movies, is useful. You’re a German citizen living in Berlin, and you hate the Nazis. You’re against the war. Do you pray for the SS? Or the French Resistance? You can’t do both. (Well, you could — but you’d be an idiot.)
The moral quandary forced upon the left is epitomized by Phyllis Bennis, an in-the-box wonk for the Institute for Policy Studies. “Certainly,” she allows, “the Iraqi people have the right to resist an illegal occupation, including military resistance. But as a whole, what is understood to be ‘the Iraqi resistance’ against the U.S. occupation is a disaggregated and diverse set of largely unconnected factions, in which the various often-antagonistic armed movements (including some who attack Iraqi civilians as much as they do occupation troops) hold pride of place.
“There is no unified leadership that can speak for ‘the resistance,’ there is no NLF or ANC or FMLN that can claim real leadership and is accountable to the Iraqi population as a whole.”
For most of World War II, the same was also true of the French Resistance (history grants them the uppercase “R”). Communists, socialists and even monarchists fought the Germans — and each other — until Charles de Gaulle’s center-right faction prodded, bullied and ultimately muscled out his (more popular and more progressive) rivals.
There were, as in Iraq today, French criminal gangs who fought solely for money. If this was 1943 and Bennis and other mainstream liberals were anti-Nazi Germans, would they “support what is called ‘the French resistance’ “?
As their Iraqi counterparts do today, the Free French carried out what the press of the period called “terrorist attacks.” Kidnappings, assassinations and bombings were usually directed at government officials, German troops and French collaborators — but civilians were also killed. So why does the antiwar left find the Iraqis distasteful?
Peter Gelderloos argues that the post-Vietnam American left is hardwired with reflexive pacifism, denying that violent militancy can ever be a valid tactic, even when faced with horrific oppression.
Liberals frequently express disapproval of protesters who smashed windows at the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, and the Earth Liberation Front’s (ELF) torching of SUVs at auto dealerships — even though no one got hurt.
Knee-jerk nonviolence partly explains the reluctance to embrace the Iraqi resistance. Nationalism/patriotism is another factor. Who wants to see more funerals of American soldiers? And who wants to be smeared as the next “Hanoi Jane”?
When “asked who I think will then take power [after U.S. forces leave Iraq],” Bennis writes, “the only thing I can anticipate with any confidence is that, first, I probably won’t like them very much because they’re likely to have a far more religious orientation than I like but that second, it’s not up to me to choose who governs Iraq.”
The Islamist and/or totalitarian ideology of many of Iraq’s anti-U.S. factions is a turn-off to the secular American left. The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland worried aloud in late 2003, when the war against the occupation of Iraq heated up: “Not all of Iraq’s resistance will fit [a] romantic, maquis image. Some will be Ba’athist holdouts, Saddamites who once served as henchmen to a murderous dictator. No progressive should want to see these villains land a blow on British or American forces.”
Yes, war is a zero-sum game — it’s our guys or theirs. “Support the troops by bringing them home” is an empty slogan that belies reality. With both political parties supporting the war, U.S. troops are not going to come home anytime soon.
An ugly truth about antiwar lefties has been exposed: They don’t believe in national self-determination any more than U.S. President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney do.
Ted Rall is the author of the book “America Gone Wild,” which includes a behind-the-scenes look at the most controversial political cartoons since 9/11.
Copyright 2007 Ted Rall