Sunday 24 March 2013

Peacewashing Syria?

Marrickville Peace Group held a vigil calling for an end to the violence in Syria on March 20. Their statement reporting on this is reprinted below.

The attention of MPG to the Syrian crisis and their vigil is to be applauded – we need more groups and initiatives like this around peace and disarmament issues and the members of this group deserve support and respect for their action. It is however in this vein that I must take up some of the arguments used. I respectfully take them up because they have wider currency in Left/antiwar thinking about the situation in Syria. First the MPG statement:

Marrickville residents call for peace in Syria

Residents attending the peace vigil at the war memorial at Marrickville Town Hall on Wednesday morning called for a peaceful resolution of the war in Syria and an end to arms sales to either side of the conflict.

“The terror that each day confronts the people of Syria is fueled by the international arms trade, said Colin Hesse, spokesperson for Marrickville Peace Group.

“The five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States are the five largest arms exporting countries in the world, and these weapons are predominantly used against the civilian populations of the countries these weapons are sold to.

“The suffering of the Syrian people is directly supported by the most powerful nations, so we call for an end to the arms trade and peaceful resolution of the civil war in Syria, said Mr Hesse

Father Dave Smith from Dulwich Hill Anglican Church spoke passionately for peace, saying “So many of our sisters and brothers have suffered and so many acts of inhumanity have been performed that the country will remain scarred for many years to come.

“Though it’s not always obvious what we can do from here, one thing we can do is to tell the truth about what is really happening - about media bias, and about the way we profit from seeing Syria destroyed.

“We all have blood on our hands, but we can make a stand today for truth and for peace for the people of Syria, said Father Dave.

“Amnesty International has been campaigning for the last 10 years for an international arms trade treaty to stop the flow of weapons to those who will use them to abuse human rights, said Amnesty International spokesperson Karl Weaver.

“This week the negotiations for that treaty have resumed at the United Nations in New York and we are hopeful that a treaty will be secured.
"It is time for the killing in Syria to stop. It is time to take the weapons out of the hands of those who will use them to commit war crimes.

There is much to agree with here: the sentiments in favour of peace in Syria and opposition to arms flowing into the country, and the role they play in the commission of war crimes, no matter on which side of the conflict. The last thing the Syrian people need are weapons coming in from ANY source, or foreign intervention by ANY of the imperial powers or the wannabe’s like the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia, Turkey or Iran. However I take issue with the casting of the Syrian conflict as some kind of symmetrical civil war.

The principal dynamics of the conflict in Syria have their origin in the brutal response of the Assad regime to demand for political reform and the determination of the Syrian people to resist. Sure the conflict has taken on the characteristics of a civil war through its degeneration into an armed conflict. Like all such armed conflicts it has seen the emergence of some dodgy, armed groups, and human rights abuses but the underlying politics cannot be ignored. The task for a peace group, I believe, is to assert the primacy of civil resistance in the struggle, not retreat to position of false political symmetry.

This is analogous to casting the Israel-Palestine situation as a “conflict” between equal partners, only needing the intervention of a peace process. This ignores the asymmetry of the situation faced by the Palestinians and the validity of their struggle against occupation and ethnic cleansing, So it is in Syria, describing the struggle as a civil war only requiring only the intervention of arms controls and a peace process ignores the underlying asymmetrical political dynamic.

Further, as recently highlighted by a Syrian Leftist activist Ghayath Naisse in Socialist Worker, the principal imperial intervention in terms of supplying arms, and fuelling the violence, is the role of the Russians. There is also the lesser imperial wannabe in this context, Iran. This isn’t to say that the other powers, principally the United States, Britain and France aren’t playing a role or would not like to do more, but while fanning the conflict, they have to date been limited by their own fears of weapons in the hands of Islamic-oriented groups. Paradoxically, the Western imperialism’s trying to operate through their proxies in the Gulf states and Turkey has probably made this situation more difficult, skewing some of the power in the Syrian armed resistance further towards the more violent sectarians.

But as Ghayath Naisse and others have pointed out, here is a lot more going on in Syria, with the armed sectarians actually not as significant as both the West, and some in the anti-imperialist Left, believe, Outside of and alongside the armed struggle (which, as a response to the violence of the Assad state, I understand but do not, as a non-violent, antiwar activist, support) there is a vibrant civil resistance and tens of thousands of Syrians building community governance mechanisms to try and manage their lives in a war zone or in areas freed from Assad’s influence.

Of course elements in the Syrian opposition “leadership” are calling for US and Western armed assistance but does this invalidate the Syrian people’s struggle on the ground? The links of the Palestinian leadership to foreign powers (the corrupt Fatah to the US and the authoritarian Hamas to the Iranians and the Brotherhood-dominated Egyptian government) does not invalidate the grassroots Palestinian struggles, particularly those involved in civil resistance, the BDS campaign and what is likely to be a coming, renewed, intifada. People fighting for their liberation are not necessarily to blame for the manipulations of their often self-appointed or unaccountable leaderships.  The presence of this manipulation in the direction of encouraging foreign intervention in Syria is no excuse to abandon political support for the oppressed Syrian people.

We are right to be concerned by the US and other Western imperialists – the US is the principal predator power in the Middle East with its support for Israel, its invasion of Iraq, its fuelling of conflict with Iran, its link to undemocratic states from Jordan through to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, and its attempts to undermine the Egyptian revolution through continuing to fund the Egyptian military. But as explained, it is not, as yet, the pre-eminent imperial power in Syria.

In this context I find the date chosen for the Marrickville vigil, March 20th, curious. This is the anniversary of the outbreak of the Iraq War, an American imperial venture. Why not the preceding Friday, the second anniversary of the March 15 beginning of the Syrian revolution, when protest broke out in Dara’a over the arrest of school kids for painting anti-Assad slogans on walls?. This avoids singling out the prime culprits in Syria, the Assad regime and its Russian backers, for criticism. MPG was not alone in ignoring this important anniversary, It was also ignored the bulk of the anti-imperialist Left, the Greens and anti-war activists in general. I except here Socialist Alternative, and there are no doubt others, who have maintained a consistent and principled stance of support for the struggle of the Syrian people.

If we are to genuinely seek peace in Syria it has to be in the context of supporting the Syrian people in their struggle, one which is part of the broader uprising throughout North Africa and the Middle East and which encompasses the struggle of the Palestinian people. The rights of people to push for their liberation are not divisible.

There are plenty of ways those of us who oppose violence can offer our support to the Syrian political struggle. By taking the side of the Syrian resistance political terms and being willing to clearly sheet home to the Syrian state and its Russian backers that the starting point for peace must be their ending attacks on the Syrian people, releasing political prisoners and implementing genuine democratic reforms (the departure of Assad will come, it does not necessarily have to be a precondition). And yes, we should call on the opposition to respond in kind, reject violence, and demand that both sides respect human rights. And yes we should continue to be vocal about demanding an end to all attempts at foreign interference in, and arms flows to, Syria, as MPG has effectively emphasised.

As peace activists, we should support a renewed emphasis on civil resistance against the Assad regime, in preference to armed struggle which ultimately only internalises the violence of the oppressor and debauches movements for political change.

Further suggest reading: the informative “Why Civil Resistance Works” by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan (Columbia University Press, Paperback Ed. 2013). Includes sources to the wider discussion on non-violence and civil resistance. There was also a shorter Q and A by Chenoweth on this subject in a 2011 edition of Foreign Policy magazine.

See also my February 11 blog below which deals with broader issues of war and violence.

Saturday 23 March 2013

Australian Labor in Crisis – go back to where it all began.

With the unravelling of the Left in the ALP in the 1980s.

This case study of the “making and unmaking” of the Labor Left in Leichhardt Municipality in the 1970s and 1980s presents insights into the changes in social democracy in Australia during this period – part of the global changes related to the post-Keynesian capitalist economy, the rise of the ecology and other social movements and the onset of the post-Cold War (and new Hot War) world.

In Australian Labor, the opportunity to build a vibrant diverse and combative Left within the party during these two decades, drawing on the energy of the new social and union movements, failed. The Left, particularly in the dominant NSW branch, chose to fight the Right on their own terms, becoming co-opted into branch-stacking, rulemongering, parliamentarism and the creation of an inward-looking, authoritarian, factionalism. This was to become dominated by the emergence of a party political caste of full-time political professionals and union bureaucrats.

Much of this was played out in the febrile politics of inner Sydney, where this case study is based.

In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of people sought membership of the ALP branches of the inner-Sydney municipality of Leichhardt. These were people whose politics had been shaped by the social movements of the times and by the hopes and disappointments associated with the Whitlam Government. The political clashes between this Left-leaning new membership and the conservative working class, and working-class-made-good, patriarchs of the local Labor Right have become legendary. Yet as the fruits of victory were in reach, the Left began to fall apart in often bitter conflict. By the beginning of the 1990s many of these participants, in what has sometimes been called the ‘middle-classing’ of Labor, had deserted the branches and switched their political allegiance to independents, Democrats and the Greens. This is the story of this turbulent transition told from the point of view of the members at the branch level, and the ALP political life they sought to construct. As the Australian Labor Party struggles with its identity and purpose at the beginning of the twenty-first century, Basket Weavers and True Believers provides a timely case study of the recent making, and unmaking, of the Labor Left. 

Basket Weavers and True Believers, is based on my PhD and my own party activism, and is freely available on Google Books or in hard copy from Gould’s Book Arcade, Sydney (some may also be still available through Gleebooks, Sydney).

A curious historical footnote: One of the episodes in the book is the preselection contest, which resulted in the Left’s Peter Baldwin replacing the Right’s Les MccMahon for the federal seat of Sydney in 1980. I was one of the three Left candidates – the minor one on the far Left campaigning as a “Socialist for Sydney”. Our preferences along with those of the other Steering Committee Left candidate Ann Catling were essential to getting Baldwin elected but my own vote was quite small (around 35 out of over 600). One thing I didn’t mention in the book was that one of those votes came from an activist in Young Labor at the time: Anthony Albanese.

Sunday 17 March 2013

The Lies of Australian "War" Memorials

This is not a war memorial – it is a museum of Australian military history.

The galleries of Australian military war dead at this military museum are moving, particularly when we consider that overwhelmingly these young soldiers had their lives thrown away for empire: British or American. But missing from these gallery walls are the victims of the wars in which Australia has fought: the Egyptian nationalists gunned down by Australian troops in 1919, the millions who died in Vietnam and the tens of thousands in Iraq and Afghanistan; the thousands of Iraqi’s who died as a result of the post Gulf War naval blockade and sanctions (aided by the internal policies of the Hussein dictatorship). If this were a war memorial it would have something to say about these dead and the folly of the wars in which they died..

An example of the failure of this museum as a war memorial is seen in the exhibit dealing with post-1945 conflicts. While there is some lip-service paid to antiwar sentiment around Vietnam and Iraq, overwhelmingly the exhibit extols the virtues of Australian troops in these dubious conflicts complete with the usual display of war toys: a long-range patrol vehicle used by the SAS in Iraq and Afghanistan, (the military units most prone to situations of human rights abuse and unlawful killing); an armoured personnel carrier from the Vietnam era (of the kind used to drag dead suspected National Liberation Front fighters through a Phuoc Tuy village); a loud and ridiculous boys-own Iroquois helicopter display which ignores the fact that this was an instrument of terror deployed by occupying armies against the Vietnamese people. No mention is made of issues raised by veteran and historian Terry Burstall: the general carelessness and brutality directed against the Vietnamese of Phuoc Tuy province by Australians, water torture of a female National Liberation Front fighter, targeting of civilians with artillery, and forced relocation of villagers.

Set in a décor of battleship grey the post-45 exhibit is oppressive, presenting a dismal celebration of Australia’s war culture, concluding with the “soft-jingoism” that is becoming more typical of ANZAC and other commemorations in the light of more controversial recent wars – a melancholy acceptance of both the futility and inevitability of war:

Despite the efforts of all those who served in conflicts from 1945 to today, peace remains as elusive as ever

And near the aeroplane hall, the footnote to the museum’s exhibits, the extolling of the “Anzac Spirit Today”, the familiar nationalistic mythologising of “courage and endurance and duty, and love of country, and mateship, and good humour and the survival of a sense of self-worth and decency in the face of dreadful odds”

…And this is not a Shrine of Remembrance - it is a Shrine of Forgetfulness.

Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys has the teacher Irwin questioning the motives behind war commemoration. In Britain’s case it was to mask that country’s own responsibility for the First World War in the face of the large number killed.

We don't like to admit the war was even partly our fault 'cause so many of our people died. And all the mourning's veiled the truth. It's not "lest we forget," it's "lest we remember." That's what all this is about — the memorials, the Cenotaph, the two minutes' silence. Because there is no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.

Using memorials like this as part of a process of forgetting is seen in the current ”Peace” exhibit at the Shrine. The exhibit presents a mélange of items including Australia’s participation peace-keeping operations, some peace activist paraphernalia, quotes form the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, information on the Quakers and peace movements and activists in Liberia, Northern Ireland, and Afghanistan, to name a few items. But there is virtually nothing on the rich history of antiwar and peace movements in Australia (a photo of the Peace slogan daubed on the Shrine during the Vietnam War era is included). The Women’s Peace Army and WW1 conscription struggles don’t get a look in and nor does the antiwar movement of the Vietnam era in any systematic way. There is no reference to the antiwar opposition to the construction of the Shrine in the 1920s, including by Labor Premier George Prendergast.

Again, with recent wars being more controversial and the shift in ANZAC commemoration from the marches of declining numbers of living veterans to the war dead (commemorated at dawn services) it is necessary for the political, military and remembrance elites to soften the jingoism that has accompanied Anzac day in the past, referring to the futility, yet inevitability of war. As the Shrine’s own description of the Peace exhibit puts it:

Peace cannot be taken for granted, and it seems, demands our eternal vigilance.

Peace ultimately can only be secured by war.

“War is the Health of the State” (Randolph Bourne 1918) – war memorials and the militarisation of the Canberra constitutional Landscape.

The memorial to Australian and US collaboration during WWII (long called “Bugs Bunny” by Canberrans) forms the centre piece of the Russell Hill “Jannisariat” – the cluster of Defence buildings (with ADFA and Duntroon nearby) that holds down one of the points of Canberra’s parliamentary triangle, a physical expression of the construction of Australia’s war machine around the interests of the US. Indeed this is one corner of the Western part of the parliamentary triangle, the “iron triangle” that represents the increasing militarisation of the Canberra constitutional landscape. The War memorial/Anzac Parade and the bunker-like parliament house itself make up the other points with the new ASIO headquarters buttressing the base.

Below, the Eastern axis of the “iron triangle” from the Russell Hill complex and Australia-US memorial, looking towards Capital Hill – the new ASIO headquarters is being constructed along the base to the right.

The Western  axis of Canberra’s “iron triangle” – looking from the “war” memorial to the Capital Hill parliamentary bunker

But does this war memorial also hide truths?

This Canberra memorial is to the seventy Australia men and women who went to Spain between 1936 and 1939 to defend the fledgling republic against Franco and German and Italian fascism. It is a welcome departure from the usual nationalistic and jingoistic remembrance of the involvement of Australians in war. It rightly commemorates those who were prepared to stand up to fascism at a time when Right-wing nationalists in Australia and elsewhere either ignored, or were sympathetic to, the emergence of military nationalism in Italy, Germany and Japan. Yet even here the full truth is avoided. As historian of the involvement of Australians in the civil war, Amirah Inglis, explained it:

The civil war has been argued and the character of the (International Brigades) disputed in Australia by old fashioned anti-communist and catholic journalists like Gerard Henderson and BA Santamaria by revisionist historians like Michael Jackson who following George Orwell and more recently Ken Loach ignore every other aspect of the Civil war but the May days of 1937 and focus only on the nasty facets of the Soviet Union’s role.

There was more to the conflict between Stalinism and the other revolutionary and socialist forces in Spain than a few “nasty facets”. Sweeping this history under the rug doesn’t serve the interests of revealing the truth about war, politics or revolution. For the Left as well it can be the case that “there is no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it”.