01/09/2008 05:21 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The invisible men

When I saw John McCain's comments about how the American army could stay in Iraq for 100 years, 1000 years, 10,000 years, hell, any number you like multiplied by 10, I kept wondering what it was that was missing from his speech.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as European imperial powers were invading and annexing countries in Africa, Asia, South America, Australasia they often maintained a fiction that the countries concerned were either effectively unoccupied, or occupied only by very primitive people who weren't making the proper use of them (and their resources) that people from the advanced civilizations of Europe could do. In the case of Australia the legal fiction, regarding a whole continent at the time occupied by at least a million people, was that the country was "terra nullius", that is a land owned by no one, effectively empty. There were people in the country of course, and the white colonists knew this (the spears they were ducking were one source of information), but they behaved as if no one owned the land and it could simply be taken from the lazy primitive original people and divided up among the colonists. A land, it turned out, which had been occupied, and owned, by people with a unique culture and civilization, for tens of thousand of years.

So there I was, reading McCain's words - fine by him if the American military stayed in Iraq for a "million years" with permanent bases. There was only one concern - "The point is it's American casualties" - and as long as American troops weren't being killed both he, and the American public, would have no worries at all. And it struck me - in McCain's world Iraq was "terra nullius". There were, and still are, no Iraqi people on this patch of desirable, oil-soaked, desert sand. The place was up for grabs by whichever imperial power was ready for the job at the time. There were no people there with thousands of years of cultural history, or, if there were (and the odd bullet the invaders were ducking was one source of information) they were a primitive lazy people who didn't deserve to own that oil.

So, an empty land on which the redcoats could set up permanent bases - Australia 1788, Iraq 2003, the more things change, the more they stay the same. And you get the feeling that to John McCain the whole world, outside the bit of north America that runs from sea to shining sea, is potentially terra nullius. Resources are visible, people are invisible.

Like William Pitt in 1777 "If I were an American, as I am an Englishman, while foreign troops were landed in my country, I never would lay down my arms, never, never, never" the Watermelon Blog throws no flowers.