Howard Jacobson’s article in the Independent’s Iraq one year anniversary “special” has really hit home. I have always respected Jacobson’s pieces and for a long time bought the Independent on a Saturday for the sole reason that it was the only place to find his weekly column.
His article highlights for me everything that was wrong with the mass demonstrations concerning the war, which forms a smaller part of the problems with society – I would even go as far as to say humanity (with a small h and a capital one) – in the age of our “spiritual” war.
So here we are again, united in rage and impotence, sharing the unshareable grief of peoploe we do not know. ‘Tears shall drown the wind’, Macbeth says, imagining pity in the future tense, but the pity of it is that while we may drown the wind, we cannot drown the deed. There is starting to be a terrible familiarity about all this…Some of it our doing, some of it not. Though there are many among us who would say we are the architects of everything that befalls us now.
Is it really a year since we invaded Iraq? Without the dates in front of me, I’d have guessed less: say, eight months since the first bombs fell on Baghdad, seven months since we pulled down the statue of the dictator, and about six weeks since we found the man himself in a rat-hole and opened his mouth for the whole world to look into. Whether these are calendar estimates – one’s usual reluctance to admit the passage of time – or whether they reflect a feeling of dissatisfaction with what’s been achieved, I’m not sure…
…I am certain of one thing – that over the last year we have made a dog’s dinner of ourselves.
He is certainly right about the passage of time. The routine of our daily existences makes it difficult to distinguish one weekend from the next: how could it possibly be easy for us to distinguish one month from another when we are so routed in that which we do?
We are a more horrible country to live in that we were. Since by that I mean more horrible intellectually and spiritually, and even socially, I accept that I am open to the charge of mere velveteen pessimism. If you want to see horrible, try walking through Baghdad after a suicide bomb has just gone off. But there is no point in pretending all is well with us because we are not – or yet – a battelfield. That our time will surely come, I know nobody doubts, whatever the irresponsible words of people who would have us believe that terror is just a mote in the eye of Tony Blair. How do you “exaggerate” the threat of terror? Because only hundreds and not thousands dies in Madrid, does that mean we have been fretting unnecessarily? Will it console their families to be told that the environment poses an even greater thret?
I have often wondered: in whose interest is it to harbour fear? Obviously, “terrorists” will benefit from this mindset, but such introductions to articles do not help the situation, despite the rest of the article making reasonable points.
But there are other injuries you can suffer anyway, other scars you can bear, and emotionally we are the walking wounded – more intolerant of one another as the result of Iraq, more self-righteous, quicker to sneer, less mannerly in our political and media discourse, more watchful of what we can and cannot say around a dinner table, more fatalistic, less convivial. If I have to hear one more person tell me we must understand the underlying causes of terror… But there you are, my friends think I have grown callous. While I think they have regressed to moral infancy.
…When you are not entirely sure whether it should be peace or war, the default position is peace. I accept that. But September 11 had happened, and better to be safe than sorry. Cut off future supplies, sever putative alliances, stop up the ingresses and egresses of terror. Nothing else mattered. And yes, of course, there is always the danger you will make things worse. But what is plan B?
The anti-war demonstrations were largely a disgrace. I do not doubt the sincerity of many of those that went on them, but I believed then, as believe now, that they should have thought twice about the associated causes they were sponsorgin whenever they marched. I mean the unthinking anti-Americanism, the kneejerk anti-globalism, the sentimental Third World-ism, the adolescent relativism – Blair equals Bush equals Saddam Hussein – and of course the anti-Zionism, which took no account of history and consequences and reasons why. I say “associated” causes not because they were inextricable in truth, but because that was how they were presented.
The latter points can not be argued with. Any demonstration at which the Socialist Worker Party are present – which is to say most of them – is hijacked for some supplementary purpose or other. Do they not appreciate that by diluting the process of a demonstration with their “associated causes” – no matter how important or justified they may be – they are diluting the motivation behind the demonstration, which is to say another perfectly important and justifiable cause.
Things that might look the same, however, are often not the same at all. Many a good cause founders because it lets itself be looped into the daisy chain of ideology, and peace a year ago was one of them. It didn’t lose everybody. I know people who abominated the hijacking of the Iraq issue by agitators who saw a chance to propogandise against America and Israel and whoever else was on the menu of the wicked, yet who marched and looked away. But it lost me. Not in their name the war; not in my name the daisy chain.
Every time I turned on Question Time or the like, there were [the people] that stamped and jeered the moment anyone so much as glanced at the argument for war. Whereas let a speaker dip no deeper into his rhetorical bag of tricks than to call Blair a liar, and you would have thought Demosthenes had stood up and spoken.
At the best of times, I disapprove of opinion-spouting programmes. Opinions are the least worthy part of us, and why we should applaud a person merely for holding an opinion idential to our own I have never understood. Mainly, though, it is of no account: they shout their shout and we move on to something else. But Iraq had the whole country by its ears and suddenly the discourse of intolerance, in which you were blind unless you saw as you were meant to see, had turned universal. Ironical, of course, that this seeing as you were meant to see was being passed off as dissent. In fact I have never seen this country so obedient as it became, and has remained, since we first started to debate the Iraq war. True, it is not Tony Blair we obey. But if you’re slaves you’re slaves, no matter who your master is.
There was a time, too, since we are now remembering a golden age before Iraq made a laughing stock of us all, when accusing politicans of lying and spying was something we grew out of in fourth form. Of course politicians lie and spy…
…Whether we made the decision, as a nation, not to grow up long before the Iraq war, I can’t say. But we had certainly begun to immerse ourselves in children’s literature. It would be interesting to know if we’ve been reading even more of it in the year just gone. Without doubt, anyway, there is a correlation between what passes as political opinion at the moment and the contents of children’s books. Good versus evil. Nice people against bad. Our hearts on our sleeves. And nothing we can’t understand.
In Dr David Kelly we found a hero to match our children’s literature expectations. An unworldly, boffinish, avuncular fellow…pitched against dark machinations that were the undoing of him. When it became evident that it wasn’t quite the true story, we stopped reading. Indeed, rather than accept a version of events to the contrary to the fairy tale we’d constructed, we tossed another fanciful character, that once nice but not nasty Judge Hutton, into the flames ourselves. A low moment in our history, the near unanimous cry of “whitewash”! A nation with its mind set like a trap. “Whitewash, whitewash! Bliar, Bliar!” Tell us the story we want to hear, or tell us nothing.
Myself, I spent the first days after the publication of the Hutton report barely able to breathe. Misanthropy I have known before, but this time I did not simply hate the species to which I belonged. I couldn’t recognise it. Who were they? Who were these people who believed that an inquiry was meant to be the expression of their own views, who thought a finding was something already found, who cried foul the moment their conclusions were not concluded? It was like a bad dream. I would wake and discover it hadn’t happened. But I woke to hear it being opined that Andrew Gilligan had sort of, in a manner of speaking, to all intents and purposes got it more or less, give or take, approximately right. As though careless approximation had not been the nub of the things from the start!
After centuries of the British believing that rectitude resided with us alone, here we were finding it exclusively somewhere else. At a stroke, there was no horrid deed unless we did it, and the only villain of the peace was us [and] we had seen the lights and been born again. Hence the consciousness of revelation that radiated from out faces as we marched to peace, shoulder to shoulder with those who would “smash Israel”, those who would save the planet with lemon drizzle cake and lentils, and the schoolkids who couldn’t spell their names or tell you woh Churchill was but who were suddenly historical know-alls.
…A year on, or two and a half years on, depending on when we started counting, there is little to be cheered by. That things will get worse before they get better, I do not doubt. Iraq will bedevil the American alliances for years to come, and there is no shortage of commentators who will take pleasure in that. Bring it on! Bring on Doomsday! And in the meantime, whatever the authorities do to make life safer for us here will be read as incursions into our civil liberties.
Forgive me if I laugh at the phrase “civil liberties”, for what is liberty of any sort worth once a bomber has done their work? To me, the human rights arguments have never looked more threadbare. The concept of human rights assumes we know what humanity is, and share it. This much only to we share – that we number among us some who will randomly damage the innocent in reparation for the damage suffered (or imagined to be suffered) by themselves, and others who not only find that twisted logic seductive, but even, through the publicity given to their “empathy”, encourage it. Which means, since no man is an island, that we are not, as a species, entitled to the liberties we claim. We have reneged on the deal, and, as to out entitlements, gone backwards. Protection: that is all we have a right to ask for now. And if that means protection at any price, I for one will pay it. So yes, that’s where we are one year on: we are one year less civilised than we were.