Issue 256 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review
Civilisation is a word that has been on many people's lips since the attack on the World Trade Centre. The perpetrators acted out of 'hatred for the values cherished in the west, such as freedom, tolerance, prosperity, religious pluralism and universal suffrage', said the New York Times. For Paul Wolfowitz, a US Deputy Secretary of Defence, 'The whole civilised world has been shocked... and even portions of the uncivilised world have started to wonder whether they're on the wrong side.' It seems that it is this simple. The world is divided into the civilised and the uncivilised. They are the irrational, envy, and hate-filled fanatics. We are the moderate civilised world under attack. Or perhaps this is a war of different civilisations. It is a war of west against east, Christian traditions against Muslim states, Hindu states, Confucian states, and so on. There is even a book of this theory. It's called The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order. Its author is Samuel P Huntington. He is a Harvard professor who has been at the heart of the American establishment for four decades, a former director of security planning under Carter. His book comes endorsed by Henry Kissinger. Zbigniew Brezinski thinks that it will 'revolutionise our understanding of international affairs', and Francis Fukuyama finds it 'dazzling'. You can be sure now that these arguments will become more popular than ever.
They are not complicated. Huntington knows that the real forces in the modern world are states and big multinationals. But he wants us to believe that behind them stand different civilisations. With the Cold War over, it is the clashes of these civilisations that are creating the faultlines around the world. At one point he says that the dividing line in Europe 'has moved several hundred miles east. It is now the line dividing the peoples of Western Christianity...from Muslim and Orthodox peoples.' These 'clashes of civilisations are the greatest threat to world peace'. People who read Huntington quickly get confused over what he means by a 'civilisation'. Sometimes it seems to be something territorial, like 'African'; sometimes it's religious, like 'Islamic'; sometimes it's different facets of the same religion, like 'Western Christianity' versus 'Orthodox Christianity'; and sometimes it's national, like 'Japanese'. His difficulties reflect the dubiousness of the idea that the world is divided into separate civilisations. But there is no confusion over Huntington's central concern. It is the faultline between Islam and the west. 'Islam's borders are bloody, and so are its innards', he says.
At times like this it is good to remember what Gandhi said when he was asked what he thought of 'western civilisation'. He paused for a moment and answered that perhaps it would be a good idea. He was right. It would be a good idea. The development of capitalism in the west has released an enormous potential that could be turned for good. But so often it has been used differently, two world wars, the only two uses of the atomic bomb, and the Holocaust.
|'Civilisation' for the Vietnamese meant death and destruction thanks to the US establishment|
The idea that the bombing of the World Trade Centre can be understood as part of a civilisation war is a smokescreen. But if you disagree, there are now many who are happy to use the civilisation argument against you. In the Times Michael Gove attacked left wing journalists who questioned US policy as a fifth column that could not be at peace 'with civilised values'.
But the bloodlust of those who want to respond to the slaughter of innocent people with the slaughter of more innocent people hardly looks civilised. It is understandable that those who have lost their loved ones should thirst for revenge and vengeance. But in fact many, perhaps most, do not. We have seen this generosity before. In the Blitz in May 1941, Gallup polls found that only 45 percent of people in central London wanted revenge raids on German civilians. In Cumberland, Westmoreland and the West Riding, which hardly saw any bombs, the figure was over 75 percent. In Northern Ireland we know that the same happened. Some nurtured their bitterness. Others held out their suffering as a call for change. When the Enniskillen bomb in 1987 killed ten people, including his daughter Marie, the late Gordon Wilson did not look for blame, but understanding. 'Dirty sort of talk is not going to bring her back to life,' he said. 'Gordon and Marie Wilson became symbols both of the suffering of Northern Ireland and of hope for the future. Gordon was a crusader for reconciliation and forgiveness. He believed that communities could live together and, at a time when no one would have blamed him for anger or bitterness, he went out of his way to try to understand those who had caused him such pain.' The words are those of Peter Mandelson when he was Northern Ireland secretary, and he continued, 'Gordon knew that violence serves only to cement age-old bitterness and entrench historical divisions. It traps people in a partial worldview.'
It is this willingness to search for understanding on the part of those who have least reason to give it that makes the cynicism of our leaders and those who try to manipulate opinion so disgusting. Grief and compassion are something to be used when it suits them. Don't make the mistake of being too sympathetic to our leaders in the face of the horrors that we have seen. In planning and briefing rooms in Washington, London and Brussels there are no tears. There is calculation and cold self interest. Their violence will be 'discriminate'. They will unleash it from afar and then go to their dinner parties and perhaps church on Sunday.
Take Samuel P Huntington himself. A few years ago I tackled my Labour MP (that's Peter Bradley, Wrekin ) about his betrayal of his earlier radicalism. Did he reject everything in his past? No, he said. There are things he would still do again. He had helped organise a demonstration against Samuel P Huntington when he came to Britain in the late 1960s. He would do it again in the same circumstances. With the word 'civilisation' on Blair's lips too, he might want to forget that today. But I did not. I had read the debate Huntington's civilisation ideas had created. They seemed crazy, but what had he done in the 1960s that was so objectionable?
Now I know. It was Samuel P Huntington who helped create the rationale for saturation bombing of the Vietnamese countryside. The argument was simple. In South Vietnam the Viet Cong were finding support amongst the peasantry of a peasant country. This made them 'a powerful force that cannot be dislodged from its constituency so long as the constituency continues to exist'. These are weasel words. The 'constituency' was the Vietnamese countryside and people. Never mind, said Huntington: 'We can ensure that the constituency ceases to exist by "direct application of mechanical and conventional power" on such a massive scale as to produce a massive migration from countryside to cities.' A forced 'urban revolution' would stop the Viet Cong in their tracks. Of course it didn't. But this was the logic of carpet bombing, napalm, Agent Orange and the hundreds of thousands of deaths that followed. The justification flowed from the pen of 'Civilisation Huntington'. If there are war criminals aiding and abetting state terrorism then Samuel P Huntington is surely one.
Huntington was back again in the 1970s. Protest movements, the defeat in Vietnam and Watergate all helped undermine the confidence of the American ruling class. It began to worry about the 'governability of the US'. The Trilateral Commission--an elite global think tank--produced a report, 'The Governability of Democracies'. It was Huntington who wrote the American section, 'The Democratic Distemper'. The trouble was, he said, that the US was now facing 'an excess of democracy'. Not only did this mean trouble within but 'the question necessarily arises...whether if a new threat to security should materialise in the future (as it inevitably will at some point), the government will possess the authority to command the resources, as well as the sacrifices, which are necessary to meet that threat'.
Which brings us back again to his civilisation wars today. For this is a handy way of hiding the grubby motives behind the role of the west and the regimes it backs. It means that we don't have to look at the consequences of past policy, at the anger and despair that unleash the suicide bomber. It encourages us to line up in a battle of good against evil or the better against the worst.
It is not a new idea. Western policy has always prided itself on its 'civilised nature'. It was the British imperial poet Kipling who urged the US to 'take up the White Man's Burden'. The US had to join with Britain and Europe in taking civilised values to peoples 'half-devil and half-child'. If you were and are on the receiving end it looks very different. When the white man came, says an old African joke, he had the Bible and we had the land. Now he has the land and we have the Bible. Zimbabwe is a good example. The colonial seizure of lands was finally consolidated by a Land Apportionment Act. Some 48 million acres went to 50,000 white settlers and 28 million acres to 1 million of the black population. Today the vast majority of land is still controlled by white farmers. And the date of the act? 1930--still in living memory and only 18 years before the Stalinist regimes seized land and property in Eastern Europe after the end of the Second World War. When these regimes fell there was much talk of restitution and compensation. But elsewhere it was different. Mugabe's current polices may be motivated by a different agenda, but it is not hard to see the injustice that they draw on.
It's the same elsewhere. Islam's bloody borders that Huntington talks of were created by western states when they carved out areas like the Middle East after 1918. They are borders of regimes that as often as not are backed by the west or backed until they are dispensable. Here too 'western civilisation' looks rather different. In Britain there was controversy over whether Arthur 'Bomber' Harris--responsible for the bombing of German cities in the Second World War--should have a statue built. Few noticed that Harris's love of the bomb was born in Iraq in the 1920s. Then a young squadron leader, he wrote, 'The Arab and Kurd...now know what real bombing means in casualties and damage; they now know that with 45 minutes a full-sized village can be partially wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed by four or five machines'. One of Harris's colleagues wrote that 'air control is a marvellous means of bringing these wild mountain tribes to heel. It is swift, economic and humane, as we always drop warning messages some hours before, so that they clear out... An eastern mind forgets quickly, and if he is not punished for his misdeeds straight way, he has forgotten all about them, and feels his punishment is not merited if delayed.'
It was this kind of thinking that led George Orwell on the eve of the Second World War to write his essay 'Not Counting Niggers'. The title was deliberately offensive. Orwell was sickened by the idea that it could be called a war for 'democracy'. How, he asked, could this be when Britain ruled the fates of hundreds of millions of colonial subjects? You could only say it if what you did in the rest of the world didn't count.
Sixty years on it is not much different. The world is no longer full of colonies, but it remains moulded by the Great Powers and their client states. And where the US was once a junior partner to Britain, now it is Britain that is its junior. To say this is not, as even many liberal commentators suggest, to attack the American people. It was Martin Luther King who charged the US government with being 'the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today'. King recognised that it is vital to draw a distinction between government and people. For ordinary Americans are victims too. If a ground war starts it is their sons and some daughters who will die. Vietnam showed this, as young working class Americans, black and white, fought and died. A study of Chicago found that youths from low income neighbourhoods were three times as likely to die in Vietnam as youths from high income neighbourhoods. At the start of the war the black share of combat troops was 31 percent. In 1965 blacks accounted for 24 percent of all army combat deaths. But college graduates made up only 23 percent of those who served during the Vietnam War. More glaring still, only 9 percent of those who served in combat in Vietnam were college graduates. At Harvard a survey of its 1970 class found that of the 1,200 graduates only 56 entered the military, just two went to Vietnam. 'No Harvard man died in Vietnam. Nor, I believe, did any son of a president, vice-president or cabinet secretary,' says one recent writer.
This is something that Huntington and all the past and current advisers of the US and British state understand. In his discussion of the 'democratic distemper', Huntington drew a picture of power in the US that the historian Howard Zinn says 'was probably the frankest ever statement made by an establishment adviser'. 'To the extent that the US was governed by anyone,' he said, 'it was governed by the president acting with the support and cooperation of key individuals and groups in the executive office, the federal bureaucracy, Congress, and the more important businesses, banks, law firms, foundations, and media, which constitute the private sector's "establishment".'
It is the interests of these people that lie behind the global realities today. Regimes that are disliked are destabilised. Ironically, the bombing of the World Trade Centre took place on the anniversary of the 1973 US coup in Chile. Regimes that are liked, however undemocratic and repressive, are supported. Friends are rewarded with money and arms, enemies with sanctions and embargoes. 'Suffer the little children to come unto me,' it says in the Bible--but not, apparently, in Iraq where several hundred thousand children have died under sanctions. In 1996 Madeleine Albright was asked on the US TV show 60 Minutes, 'At least half a million children have died in Iraq due to the sanctions. I mean, that's more dead than at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. Is the price worth it?' She replied, 'This is a very hard choice, but we think the price is worth it.'
The hypocrisy is outrageous. But the lives lost in the US have not served to weaken this system. The suicide bombing is always a weapon of weakness. These have sown new confusion, and out of this will come new cycles of frustration and violence. But, contrary to those who say that this is not the time to raise uncomfortable questions, we have to say that it is.