The memory wars

NZDF in Iraq.

NZDF in Iraq.

Guest article by Val Morse for upcoming Fightback international issue.

In George Orwell’s novel 1984, the Ministry of Truth is responsible for the continual updating of historical records so that they always accord with the official party line. Original documents are incinerated in a “memory hole” and disgraced people are “unpersoned,” all traces of them erased. A state of perpetual war exists, and the enemy is being constantly redefined.
I’ve been thinking a lot about remembering and forgetting in terms of war and trauma. I’ve been thinking about it because New Zealand has gone back to war in Iraq, and I feel so full of anger with the memory of all that has happened there for the past 14 years alive in my mind. And I feel full of rage at the deliberate forgetting that is going on now.

I think it is easy to forget about the horror of war, about bodies being ripped apart by the millions, about the torture, about the summary executions, the nighttime raids, the drone strikes. It’s easy to forget the transparent power grabs and the blatant lies. It is easy, not because we willfully try to forget, but rather, because our forgetting serves power.

Power needs us to forget. It needs us to forget in order that we will consent to do it again. It simply needs to erase enough of the truth and enough of the horror, enough of the time, to make the desired course of action tenable in the minds of many, if not most, people.

This is the point at which we have arrived. New Zealand has now been in a state of perpetual war for 14 years. It started on 8 October 2001 when NZ joined Operation Enduring Freedom, and it has never stopped.

For 14 years, New Zealand has been fighting illegitimate wars of aggression in the Middle East and Central Asia resulting in the deaths of millions of people. It has committed grave human rights violations and has contributed to the massive destabilisation of the entire region that may ultimately engulf the entire world. It has done so for empire, for the continued triumphal march of western neo-liberal capitalism across the globe.

But lest we imagine that this war is simply about money, let us consider a comment from Edward Said’s Orientalism:

“…without examining Orientalism as a discourse one cannot possibly understand that enormously systematic discipline by which European culture was able to manage – and even produce – the Orient politically, socially, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively…European culture gained in strength and identity by setting itself off against the Orient as a sort of surrogate and even underground self” (2003, p3)

Waging this war is not simply about economic exploitation of the Middle East (defined as part of the Orient by Said), but rather about a very long project of European (and later American) empire to own, by way of produced knowledge, the very idea of what that place is and who those people are. It is the “other” against which the West is measured and understood. The “war on terrorism” should, then, also be understood as part of a continual exercise in re/establishing cultural superiority and promulgating white supremacy.

Lest we forget – or rather, lest some remember, New Zealand has been a regular contributor to this discourse of Orientalism for 100 years. Its invasions of the lands of Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran in the First World War produced enduring constructions of ‘the Turk,’ ‘the Gippo’ and the ‘nigger.’

The memory machine that geared up in anticipation of the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landing (and will continue for another 4 years) does not prefer that we remember the racism, both institutional and individual, that was a daily, intimate part of New Zealand life. Nor is power served by too many people thinking too much about the boots of New Zealand soldiers tramping through the same lands as “our” soldiers from 100 years ago did for much the same reasons. This is most certainly why the prime minister pulled back from his childish suggestion of deploying an “Anzac-badged” unit, caught up as he must have been in some deluded poppy-induced patriotic fervor, and instead, remembered that he was trying to make us all forget.

In one way, forgetting the reality of war is a good idea. It is good for the actual people who fought the battles, or who lost their friends, families, communities, and livelihoods. When I contemplate the extreme trauma that bearing witness to the execution of your family might entail, I imagine that some forgetting might well be necessary to enduring the crushing weight of the pain. How can a person go on living knowing that everyone they ever loved was brutally murdered? Similarly, it would seem that to some extent, those who are doing the murdering might also need to do a bit of forgetting – the First World War was where the first experiences of post-traumatic stress disorder were recorded. Young men, if they survived the trenches, were destroyed human beings haunted by memories of piles of bodies and body parts everywhere, the stench of rotting flesh and explosions all around them. Today, thousands of returned soldiers wander the streets in the United States, homeless and suffering from deep psychological disorders as a result of the war; they are expected to return to “normal life” after years of combat.

One of my favourite quotes is a line from Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” I think it says a lot about what the role of the radical left should be in this age of perpetual war. I think that the left can and should be remembering. We should remember George Bush and Tony Blair’s lies. We should remember Fallujah. We should remember Abu Ghraib. We should remember Guantanamo. We should remember Band-E-Timur. We should remember Labour’s deployment of NZSAS for “long range reconnaissance and direct action missions” in Afghanistan. We should remember NZ’s special trade status for joining the 2003 occupation of Iraq. We should remember Ahmed Zaoui. We should remember Daryl Jones. We should remember war is peacekeeping. We should remember the horror. We should remember the dead.

We should also remember our history – a history of resistance – to this perpetual war. We should remember February 15, 2003 when we joined the world to march against war. We should remember picketing the Labour Party and calling its war supporters “Scabs.” We should remember the “Citizens Weapons Inspection” of the US embassy. We should remember Father Peter Murnane pouring blood on the carpet of the US ambassador. We should remember hounding Australian prime minister John Howard as he toured Wellington. We should remember burning the flags of empires. We should remember shutting down the weapons conference. We should remember the Ploughshares popping the Waihopai spy dome. We should remember Chelsea Manning. We should remember the dreams of peace with justice and self-determination for all of the world’s people.

For if we ever hope to escape this Ministry of Truth – the so-called “war on terrorism” – we must wage a ceaseless war on forgetting.

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