Imperialism’s war woes

Posted: June 11, 2016 by Admin in 'Counter-insurgency', At the coalface, Capitalist ideology, Imperialism and anti-imperialism
Napalming children was only one of the casual barbaric practices of the Western imperialists in Vietnam (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

Napalming children was only one of the casual barbaric practices of the Western imperialists in Vietnam (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

by Philip Ferguson

The past couple of decades have been bleak times for anti-imperialists.  Many leftish national liberation movements abandoned struggle in favour of a place at the imperialists’ table, in some cases becoming the new rulers and in other cases becoming important players in new political dispensations.  From the African National Congress in South Africa, to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua to the Provisionals in Ireland to the main body of Maoists in Nepal to Fatah in Palestine, the sheer power of capital has pushed and pulled liberation forces into a new status-quo.  On top of this, radical change from within the system, such as the Bolivarian project in Latin America, most especially Venezuela, has run up against the limits to change without overturning the capitalist state and capitalist property relations.

Some important changes have certainly been registered – the abolition of the monarchy in Nepal, the removal of formal, legal discrimination in the north of Ireland and in South Africa – but the overall system of capitalist exploitation remains in place.  Indeed, often it has been strengthened by being modernised.  This is perhaps most obvious in South Africa where much of the black population is worse off materially now than they were under apartheid and are being just as violently repressed when they protest, as was pointed up by the Marikana massacre, the ANC’s equivalent of Sharpeville.

Intervening at will

The imperialists themselves have been able to intervene almost at all will around the globe.  The United States, whose ability to military intervene with ground troops was stymied in the years immediately following Washington’s defeat in Vietnam, struggled to turn US public opinion around.  It began with small interventions in which there were likely to be few casualties, most notably Grenada in 1981.  And it worked its way up from there, especially in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the restoration of the capitalist market in China.  US allies and cats’ paws have continued to enjoy a largely free hand against oppressed peoples and movements which continue to fight – the classic case being Israel’s ongoing oppression and barbarism against the Palestinians and attempts to break the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

At the same time, leftist movements in the West went into decline.  The old Labour parties, which were already capitalist parties politically, became much more blatantly so, imposing austerity in the 1980s as it became clearer and clearer that the end of the long postwar boom was not temporary and that the 25-year period of rising economic fortunes was not going to make a comeback – instead we were in for a period of protracted slump capitalism.  During this time, much of the vibrant young anti-imperialist left in the western powers reached middle age and turned inwards, more concerned about buying houses, paying mortgages, doing DIY and raising kids than raising hell against imperialist war.  Many of the former anti-imperialists converted into advocates of the western powers carrying out bombing raids on countries like Serbia, all in the name of ‘humanitarian concern’ of course.

The demise of progressive, secular liberation forces, so many of which have been corrupted by imperialist funds and drawn into political fly-traps has opened the way for the rise of reactionary anti-imperialism, most notably the right-wing Islamic military groups, the most (in)famous currently being Daesh (ISIS).  The viciously reactionary and repressive activities of these movements have helped allow the imperialists to pose as forces for liberality and progress in regions like the Middle east and parts of Africa.

The result of the collapse of the Soviet bloc and restoration of capitalism in China, the political (and in some cases organisational) collapse of longstanding national liberation movements, and the collapse of the ‘1968 left’ and the substantial current of genuine anti-imperialism in the West, has meant that from Desert Storm (1990) on, imperialist powers, led by the US, have been able to intervene virtually at will.  Even when intervention, or in the case of Iraq in late 2002 and early 2003, the threat of intervention, has led to massive protests – the anti-intervention protests of February 2003 were probably the largest since the lead into World War One – the imperialists have gone ahead anyway.  They worked out that if they kept going, most people would give up protesting and go back to their home improvement and liberal parenting fixations.  And so it proved to be.

Anti-imperialism in an era of working class passivity*

The problem – or, really, the great weakness – of those massive demonstrations of February 2003 – was that they were not attached to any general forward movement in society.  Huge and impressive as they were on the day, they constituted simply a massive one-off.  All the frustrations that people had about the state of the world became concentrated in one issue many people felt comfortable protesting and thought they could affect.  When their one-off huge protests made no difference they returned home to their politically fragmented and disconnected existences.

So far the picture painted in this article has not been uplifting.  But it is important to face reality and not gloss it over with feelgood pronouncements, as many of the left frequently do.  We’d like it to be different, so we’ll talk about it as if it really is different, as if each new spark that is soon suffocated is really the new fire of mass rebellion, pregnant with all kinds of possibilities, an approach that was taken, for instance, in the case of the misnamed ‘Arab Spring’.  (I won’t even comment on the widespread propensity of the New Zealand left to ‘talk up’ things, acting more like the copy writers on greeting cards than serious Marxists.)

All, however, is not doom and gloom.  While the imperialists have not been beaten anywhere for some decades, nor have they been able to triumph.  The interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan turned into quagmires; the end result has been to expose the weaknesses of twenty-first century imperialism rather than awe us with its ability to sweep all before it.  If they can’t see off a few thousand jihadis, who have no appeal to the vast majority of people in the West, how can the imperialists ever hope to see off a future mass, progressive national liberation movement in the Third World whose politics can resonate with workers and progressives in general in the West?

Imperialists unable to win

Even at the level of on-the-ground tussles in the countries they have been invading and trying to reshape, the imperialists have found the going very hard indeed.  This has meant they have tried one strategy, it has failed; they’ve tried another strategy and it, too, has failed; they’ve tried another one, and it has also met with failure.  The imperialists are not in good shape; they stay on top because of the lack of progressive, anti-imperialist movements in the Third World and imperialist centres alike.

Let’s look at on-the-ground imperialist strategy.  Here I’m relying partly on notes I took at a recent talk given by Douglas Porch, Professor of National Security Affairs at the US Naval Postgraduate School and former Chair of the Department of National Security Affairs for the Naval Postgraduate School at Monterrey, California, as well as my own understanding of ‘pacification’, a term with which I became very familiar as a young high school activist against the imperialist war on the Vietnamese people, and some work I did for anti-imperialist activities in the 1990s on US foreign policy .

In colonial-type wars – that is where there was a rebellion against the population’s ruling power or some other imperialist power which had taken over from it (eg the French directly ruled IndoChina but were defeated and replaced by the US, which stood behind a puppet regime in South Vietnam) – counter-insurgency (COIN) was the name of the game for decades.  It drew, however, on an earlier period, specifically the strategies used by European powers in relation to the oppressed peoples of their empires in the 1800s.  The tactics of these powers also involved the euphemistically-titled ‘pacification’, which essentially involved taking out not simply insurgents but the villages and towns in which they were based.  Rather than highly-specific targeting of individuals or small groups in particular areas, it involved large-scale destruction of human settlements and flora, movement of significant numbers of people to militarily-enclosed settlements and other forms of intense, repressive control over large amounts of people and territory.

COIN, in further contrast to pacification, was also supposed to win over hearts and minds in ‘biddable populations’ – ie populations that were open to being won over by acts of kindness and good works, “a sort of armed social work” as Porch characterised it.  In other words, it has to be sold to populations prepared to buy it.

From COIN to ‘counter-terrorism’

It is, however, noted Porch, a myth that COIN worked in the past when used, for example, by the Brits in the ‘Malaya emergency’.  What the COIN enthusiasts in the US failed to recognise that there were specific political and racial factors that worked to Britain’s advantage against the insurgency in Malaya; their success was simply not due to the supposed strengths of COIN.  Thus it was not, or should not have been, that COIN tended to failure when used by the United States; it failed because the politicians, policy-makers and military leaders who were advocates of it failed to see that COIN rejects von Clausewitz’s crucial point that war is political.  Instead, it treats war simply as war, taking it out of any political context.

Since all insurgencies ‘look alike’, COIN suggested the response amounted to imposing a template, one which ‘seemed’ to have worked in the past.  No deep analysis was made of all the factors involved in the past or the specificity of each armed conflict.  One result was that COPIN wasn’t so much a coherent, thought-out, changeable strategy as a ‘strategy’ of set tactics.  But that is not what a strategy is.

COIN drew the imperialists deeper and deeper into unwinnable situations.  Indeed, whereas Condoleeza Rice had been a strong critic of attempts by the Clinton administration to engage in state-building abroad, for instance in the states of the former Yugoslavia, and suggested he was too focussed on international issues and not enough on domestic politics, once she was involved in the Bush regime as his national security advisor she herself was soon immersed in precisely this in relation to Afghanistan and Yugoslavia.  In the cases of Afghanistan and Iraq, ‘state-building’ has been dominated by US military personnel.  The claim is that this is a modernising project and will ‘save’ the Middle East from itself.

The preparation for imperialist intervention in Afghanisatan and Iraq, and the relatively easy initial victories over the Taliban and the Baathists respectively, renewed debate within policy-making circles in the United States as to why Washington had lost its war in Vietnam.  The standard right-wing response was that:

  1. Johnson, the US president who had massively escalated the war, introducing over half a million US ground troops, was ‘too restrained’, especially by the American public.
  2. Commanders like Westmoreland, the head of the US forces in Vietnam for much of the war, was, like many of those around him, the product of WW2 – ie a ‘big war’ conventional general – and thus someone who didn’t know how to do COIN properly.
  3. The US public doesn’t like expeditionary warfare.

An alternative doctrine was the Weinberger/Powell doctrine, enunciated by Caspar Weinberger and Colin Powell.  Weinberger served as US secretary of defense, while Powell was the US military chief-of-staff under Weinberger and subsequently served as George W. Bush’s secretary of state, although he resigned after one term, making way for Rice to take on the post, with even less success.  The Weinberger/Powell doctrine suggested that Washington should go to war when the military thought it wise and the decision would come about, according to Powell, only when all diplomatic and economic means of averting war (ie gaining what the imperialists wanted) should US military might be deployed.  Such deployment involved winning popular support in the US, international backing and having a clear idea of an exit strategy – all things which the key policy-makers in the George W. Bush era ignored, thinking the sheer scale of US military might would sweep everything before it.

In the Weinberger/Powell view, the military itself would be organised around an ‘Army of Excellence’ made up of big divisions with lots of armoured vehicles.  While this kind of force was deployed in Desert Storm, it also turned out to have drawbacks; for instance, after the initial ‘shock and awe’ of US bombing, the ‘Army of Excellence’ forces turned out to be difficult to move around.

Such an army also seemed archaic once the Soviet bloc collapsed.  Neo-conservatives, who were becoming an important faction within US policy-making and who operated a number of important think tanks, argued for a move away from the ‘Army of Excellence’ towards a smaller, technologically highly-advanced force, able to dominate the battlefield and quickly defeat the enemy before civilians could ‘interfere’.  Think tanks acted as ‘boosters’, people mobilised as cheerleaders for this perspective.  But smaller, more mobile and technologically-advanced forces on the battlefield and a greater resort to COIN and ‘special ops’ ran into problems too.  For a start, COIN and special ops were talked up as being successful in Anwar province in Iraq and so were then transferred to Afghanistan, where the imperialists had found the going after the overthrow of the Taliban regime much harder than expected.  But the problem was that COIN had not really been successful in Anwar.  At the end of the day the US government was forced to return to more conventional activities such as ‘the surge’ in Afghanistan, whereby more US ground troops were sent in.

In addition because COIN simply doesn’t work, officers who have been told it does and are then forced to deal with its failure become frustrated.  In the talk by Porch that I went to, he mentioned that COIN therefore always resulted in atrocities.  My Lai was the one that was known in Vietnam but, he said, there was now considerable evidence that there were many My Lais during that war.  He also talked of US officers telling him of their frustrations.  For instance, one told him of how his troops would come under sniper fire if they went out at night even though they had been helping the locals during the day with various civilian projects; once a couple of his men had been killed, the soldiers simply went on a violent rampage against the locals, something which rather defeated the ‘winning hearts and minds’ side of the COIN equation.  In addition, the US ended up ion alliances with local warlords who terrorised and extorted civilian populations.

In recent years COIN itself has given way to ‘counter-terrorism’, based on drones, special ops, ‘decapitation’ of enemy forces, but this approach simply radicalised the next layer of potential leaders.  Porch suggested that even with all its incredible power, Washington simply cannot win because essentially it was intervening in other’s people’s civil wars.  The result was inevitably stalemate, or even defeat, the erosion of civil liberties at home, a loss of moral stature for the US government and a series of other problems, all of which added up to “catastrophic consequences”.

Two NZ Navy frigates were deployed in the Persian Gulf in 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2008; the NZ ruling class is an integral part of the imperialist world order

Two NZ Navy frigates were deployed in the Persian Gulf in 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2008; the NZ ruling class is an integral part of the imperialist world order

Creating an anti-imperialist pole

The fact that imperialism is in a much more difficult situation abroad than it is at home makes anti-imperialism at home even more important.  It’s also vital if the working class at home is to see itself as, and act as, a class – moreover, a global class.

This is especially so when we in the West are a minority of that global class.  Making common cause with the majority of our class, a majority which is now situated in the Third World and ever-growing, is in our own direct material interests.

In New Zealand, a particular focus is needed on opposing our own imperialist rulers and their front parties, National and Labour.  It means opposing all deployment of NZ police and military forces abroad – from Iraq to Tonga to South Korea to Sinai to South Sudan to the Solomons to Timor Leste to Kosovo to Afghanistan, to name some of the places NZ forces have been deployed since 2000.

Secondly, it means active solidarity with progressive forces confronting imperialist power, such as the PFLP in Israel/Palestine.

* I’m not suggesting the working class is passive everywhere – there are important workers’ struggles in some parts of the Third World and a great deal of class ferment right now in France, and to some extent Belgium and Ireland. But these are very much exceptions.

  1. John O'Brien says:

    I appreciate this thoughtful article which places many things in
    proper context – but the main thing missing from my view – is
    how do we get large numbers of working people in the various
    imperialist nations to not identify with those governments and
    military – which they feel provides them economic benefits and

    Without a draft in the United States, there has been enough military
    recruits to provide sufficient mercenary forces for the “New Army”
    which is as this article mentions – a smaller number size with new
    technological weaponry.

    However, we now see not only the new drones, but what is shown
    in Hollywood films such as “Terminator” – that is becoming a reality –
    of robotic soldiers. How do we convince many working people in
    the imperialist nations that the death and destruction by the “New Army”
    of robots, that provides lithium for their smart phones and other
    rare minerals – without blood of “the new non-human troops”, to
    not be a concern for their consumerist interests?

    The needed “solidarity” by working people in the imperialist nations,
    with those workers in those nations mines extracting these minerals
    with a military force overseeing that they labor and provide these
    minerals at either low wages and poor working conditions – or resent
    “their nation’s minerals” going overseas and not for most locals use.

    And then there is the future possible wars over clean water with
    the “New (robotic) Army”. These are all real possibilities in addition
    to cyber wars.

    Creating needed “international workers solidarity” and how to eliminate
    such imperialist “new army forces” that require less civil liberties and
    rights in the imperialist homelands to maintain controls, while also used
    on the “developing overseas nations” being exploited of those resources.
    Is a real concern to me.

    While the “invincible” military forces of earlier empires were eventually
    overcome – whether the Roman Empire or the more recent Nazi Germany,
    the technological advances in drones/cyber wars, interspersed with other
    weapons of mass destruction – will raise values/morality concerns to create
    an opposition to this out of control military technological “new army”.

    This new technology army, will be an increasing component of imperialist war.
    The development of guns, canons, tanks, planes, did not create mass opposition
    to these machines of death. The use of chemicals and biological war did enlicit
    opposition around WWI, but was used elsewhere with little opposition when
    used by Britain against the Iraqis following WWI and by the U. S. in the 19th
    Century against Native Americans when spreading small pox on infected clothing.
    Since the Iraqis and the Native Americans were viewed as “lesser humans” with
    racism and national chauvinism used to justify this weapons usage.

    It was the usage of napalm (a banned chemical weapon of jellied gasoline used
    greatly by the U. S. on Vietnamese) that helped radicalize me and my opposition
    to that war. But many other Americans “accepted” the use of that weapon and
    Agent Orange, etc. caring to view Vietnamese as “less human” with “less feelings”.
    The imperialists will be counting on a usage of patriotism, consumerism and racism
    to gather local support among the residents/citizens in the imperialist nations with
    the usage of the “New Army” technological weaponry – and how we in those
    imperialist nations counter that war/militarist propaganda, I believe was a missing
    part of this otherwise good article.

    John O’Brien
    Los Angeles, CA

  2. Admin says:

    Thanks John for your thoughtful comments.

    You say, and I agree, “the main thing missing from my view – is how do we get large numbers of working people in the various imperialist nations to not identify with those governments and
    military – which they feel provides them economic benefits and security.”

    The reason that is missing is that. . . I simply don’t know.

    I could lay out a set of ideas but I don’t think it would be especially helpful. The reason is that I’m writing within NZ where the working class has not only been pushed back considerably but has actually internalised the passivity the ruling class has sought to wrap them up in.

    If we had some serious motion in the class I think it would be much more possible to say we should do this and this, and they’d be much more specific things. For instance, at the height of the Vietnam War there was a lot more industrial militancy in NZ and there was an identifiable layer of militant trade union activists and workplaces. It was fairly clear what to do – take an anti-capitalist perspective to those activists and workplaces and engage with them about why anti-imperialism was in their interests.

    But those days are long gone. There are still some exceptions, where visiting anti-imperialists from oppressed countries can be taken to the odd workplace. But it doesn’t really go anywhere.

    There are also some specificities to NZ imperialism. We have what my friend Tom O’Lincoln calls ’boutique imperialism’ – he applied it to Australia but I think it applies even more in the NZ case. Our ruling class are social liberals – all ‘our’ interventions are phrased in humanitarian terms and our ruling class don’t use old-style racism when they go to war. They use liberal nationalism, which is far more effective and far harder to organise against. Our entire ruling class would view Trump as a dangerous lunatic. There’s almost zero social base here for that kind of rhetoric.

    Also, NZ is a very liberal politically-correct sort of place, so most of the liberals support NZ nationalism because its dominant form is liberal.

    What we need is for serious anti-capitalists here to sit down and start working out how to counter this – but most of the ostensibly anti-capitalist left here is also riddled with ‘kiwi nationalism’, so we’re talking about a handful of people when we talk about a real anti-capitalist left, ie an internationalist left.

    I don’t think it’s any surprise that the bulk of people who have expressed interest in the Imperialism study group are from outside NZ. Anti-imperialism, to the extent it means anything to most of the left here, is just anti-US imperialism while not even recognising NZ imperialism. The notion that the main enemy of NZ workers is at home is almost entirely absent. There’s us and the libertarian communists of AWSM (Aotearoa Workers Solidarity Movement) and a few individuals here and there, and not much more.

    Phil F