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No More Rage Against the Machine?

11/15/2010 01:13 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Dishearteningly unsurprising.

This somewhat awkward phrase is, to my mind, the best description of the emotional and moral impact of Wikileak's release of 400,000 classified US military documents.

In the wake of the GOP "landslide" in the US mid-term elections, most pundits and commentators have moved on from this all-too-troubling and familiar story. But their doing so only reinforces the basic problems that the release of the documents has revealed -- an almost brazen disregard for reality and willingness to ignore the lessons of history for political expediency and economic and strategic gain. And Obama's post-election "move to the center" and unwillingness to face the core systemic issues that helped lead to this electoral debacle will only strengthen the Republicans and diminish further America's global standing heading into 2012.

Clear Violations of the Laws of War

The individual details are bad enough, to be sure. First, there are the details of hundreds of civilians killed at check points and over 60,000 killed more broadly during the war; a figure which the US military had refused to release and in fact denied even having collected and which provides yet more proof of why one should never trust the US military's--or any military's--word. Then there is the continued torture by US troops of prisoners well after Abu Ghraib, and the even larger problem of ignoring, as a matter of official military policy per "frago 242" (Fragmentary Order 242) the even more systematic torture and mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners by their own jailers. And even more stunning, the cavalier manner in which military lawyers okayed the killing of Iraqis trying to surrender merely because "they could not surrender to a aircraft."

One can only wonder about now how the Nobel Peace Prize Committee feels about having bestowed their most cherished prize not only on a President who, admittedly, hadn't done very much to bring peace, but, it's now clear, handed over thousands of Iraqi detainees to that country's government and security forces, even though the US military had irrefutable evidence of massive, systematic torture by Iraqi security personnel. Is it time yet to ask for the medal back?

And lest we imagine things have gotten much better under Obama, the continued imprisonment of child soldier Omar Ahmed Khadr and the routine use of attack drones outside war zones with the attendant civilian casualties are both clear violations of the laws of war--and these are only the examples we know about.

Indeed, a huge share of the actions detailed by the Iraq War Logs are clear violations of the Laws of War, which the US is obligated by international treaty, its own Constitution, and customary international law to uphold (and when breached, to prosecute). That a Democratic Administration which, in good measure, owes its existence to Barack Obama's early opposition to the Iraqi invasion is not merely avoiding these issues, but actively working to suppress any attempts to address them, only illustrates how entrenched the amorality and criminality have become within the US politico-military system.

But however disturbing, all these revelations largely confirm what anyone who's bothered to pay attention to the last eight years of invasion and occupation in Iraq already new, albeit in less detail. Indeed, throughout the worst years of the occupation, from 2004-2008, the US military was in routine violations of at least a dozen articles of the Geneva Conventions, and it was precisely this disrespect for these foundational international treaties that created the situation revealed in all their gory detail in the latest Wikileaks release.

In fact, as the legal Occupier of Iraq, the US and Coalition forces were obligated under international law to do everything possible to stop abuses, and not to turn over control of prisoners if there was evidence that they would be mistreated. It was in fact in ignoring this obligation that the US reduced itself to the level of a typical occupying army.

Furthermore, it was very much the responsibility of the US that the entire situation described in the War Logs was created in the first place, through its commission of the ultimate "crime against peace," as the Nuremberg Principles adopted by the UN Charter describe it, with its unlawful invasion of Iraq.

When Violence Becomes all the Rage

Critics of the Iraq War Logs are correct, however, in arguing that those who imagine that the documents paint the US as uniquely responsible are wrong. Indeed, what is most troubling about the Iraq War Logs is their demonstration of just how easily people from all sides of this conflict have, from the start, given into the most base of human instincts at almost every turn; and how in so doing they were merely behaving in the same way politicians, soldiers, guerrillas and civilians have always done as soon as the veneer of civilized society is rubbed away even slightly.

For their part, US and other "Coalition" soldiers, commanders, and mercenaries have clearly shown a callous disregard for the Iraqis whom they were supposed to be liberating and protecting. But from the start, those fighting against the occupation have distinguished themselves by an equal and in many cases greater level of brutality and indiscriminate violence than the already high level reached by the occupation forces. It needs to be remembered that even after the US invaded Iraq, the chain of events that led to the present situation were not necessary, even if in hindsight it seems they were inevitable.

As important as it is to hold the US and its allies to account for the massive war crime that became Iraq, those opposing the occupation must be held to a similar standard. the Iraqi "resistance" could have built upon the wave of grass roots activism that had flowered in the first year after the invasion to develop a concerted non-violent resistance to the occupation. In fact, scores of international activists went to Iraq to help develop such a resistance, but they were overwhelmed by, and in some cases even became victims of, the violence of the armed resistance.

What is clear is that the various insurgent groups and militias have claimed the lion's share of Iraqi victims since the start of the occupation, and succeeded in largely closing the public sphere to the myriad Iraqis who were trying to find peaceful ways both to force the Americans out and build a democratic system within the country after decades of harsh dictatorial rule. Watching that happen with my own eyes in late winter and early spring of 2004 was one of the most depressing things I've ever witnessed.

Raging for the Machine

Sadly, it seems that when US soldiers and "insurgents" had each other in their sights, they were in many ways looking into a mirror. And both sides were perfectly willing to sew a high level of chaos in Iraq to achieve their strategic directives, with little concern for the costs to everyone else.

Of course, if there were a Wikileaks release of the Congo, Chechnya, Kashmir or innumerable other war logs, there is little doubt they would reveal similar levels of lawlessness, violence and inhumanity among the warring sides. And sadly, there is little chance President Obama is pushing his Indian counterpart to conduct a more humane occupation; what moral ground would he have to stand on if he did so?

What is behind such actions, which reflect the worst tendencies of humanity?

Generalizing is rarely a good idea, but at least in the case of Iraq and the US a common denominator seems to be misdirected or uncontrolled rage. In the wake of 9/11 Americans were filled with anger and rage, which was easily redirected by the politico-military elite towards an invasion of Iraq. This type of misdirection has a long history in the US, as Thomas Frank documented in his 2004 bestseller "What's the Matter with Kansas," and is continuing to this day. As the Tea Party's corporate funders have so well demonstrated, it's much easier to get people to rage for the machine than against it.

And so in Iraq, decades of rage--at a brutal government, at Western imperialism, at members of "other" sects or ethnicities--was turned towards extreme violence rather than productive activism with remarkable ease.

And if it's not misdirected rage, it's apathy keeping people from actively working to stop the machinery of violence and hold those who've so profited from it to some sort of account. This was brought home to me over the weekend while reading through the Iraq War Logs, when my son discovered Rage Against the Machine's recently re-famous anthem "Killing in the Name Of."

One of the most important functions of art is to help people understand complex realities in visceral ways, and in so doing provoke some kind of response or even action. In that sense Rage Against the Machine was without question the most politically and sonically powerful band of the 1990s. It was also the most prophetic--it's rage against militarism, against the injustices of the emerging neoliberal globalization anticipated not merely the rise in global activism and anger after the groundbreaking anti-corporate globalization protests in Seattle in 1999, but the larger globalized militarism and war after 9/11.

Yet the relatively peaceful and prosperous--at least in the West--1990s were a relatively easy time to be filled with rage. When the band lent its song "Wake Up" to the film The Matrix (whose critique of neoliberal globalization and the police state that was emerging to protect it was surely lost on most moviegoers, few understood that singer Zack de La Rocha's screams to wake up were being directed at them.

Sadly, the band broke up in 2000, just when its angry and thoughtfully provocative music would have been most useful. By the time it reunited in 2007, Americans' rage had been numbed, at least when it came to focusing on the political, economic and military elite that the band famously railed against.

Things are seemingly no better in the UK, the other main power responsible for the Iraq disaster. Sure, a Christmas 2009 facebook campaign famously helped make "Killing in the Name" the top selling single of the year, beating out the previously undefeated crop of "X-Factor" winners for the top spot.

Taking it to the Streets

When Rage played a free concert in London to thank fans for their support, 40,000 concert-goers happily screamed "F*** you I won't do what you tell me!", the song's famous closing refrain, along with de La Rocha. But only a few months later, when the British government largely gutted the country's education and social welfare budgets, the rage demonstrated by young students was--at least as of now--easily managed by the government and its media allies.

And where are the fans who crowd US festivals where Rage continues to perform when it comes to taking the streets and channeling that anger to political ends the way fans did during the Vietnam and Civil Rights eras?

The fact is that without action, rage becomes just another commodity or marketing tool, useful to sell albums and concert tickets, and even to pump up soldiers before battle (not surprisingly, its seems that most prefer less political bands like Metallica and Slayer to Rage Against the Machine for that purpose).

But now, with 400,000 new pieces of evidence screaming for justice, the question still needs to be asked, Where is the rage at the revelations brought on by the release of the Iraq War Logs?

In the US, the Republicans are now arguing that the answer is clear--the rage is against Obama and his evil band of liberal of liberal elitists. However laughable this argument seems to the rest of the world, Americans are clearly buying that narrative in larger numbers. The question remains, Will Americans, Brits, Iraqis and others who have been so harmed by the legacy of the Western invasion of Iraq ever turn the anger on the forces who have so well manipulated them? Will they begin to rage, and act, against the machine rather than for it, however unwittingly?

That's the question my son had for me, as he began to understand the meaning of "Killing in the Name Of"... And sadly, it seems that no amount of revelations of the horrors the US has brought to Iraq will succeed in waking Americans up to the reality of what has been wrought on Iraq, Afghanistan, and increasingly at home, in their name.