The Invention of Monsters: Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya

By
Johnny Gaunt, March 2016.

 For centuries we have invented monsters: the thing in the woods; the troll beneath the bridge; the witch in the old house.

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Inventions of the Monsters – Salvador Dali, 1937

 

Inventing monsters has often served an extremely useful purpose: it allowed people to transfer the most horrific elements of society and project them elsewhere, like pumping sewage into the sea. This transference had a satisfying by-product of creating unity and consensus amongst the communities and societies which the monster was ‘victimising’; the good people could stand bravely together in the face of the external evil. This consensus of minds could then justify, with any alternative thinking effectively marginalised, acts of incredible cruelty: the execution or banishment of the physically or mentally disabled; the persecution of non-conformists; the burning of innocent women, men and children; the slaughter of our wild animals.

A third effect would often occur during these terrible punishments. The public torture of the monster, with stones, the noose, the stocks or fire, created an immediate and deep cleansing of these crimes from the consciousness of the people. Guilt would be replaced by righteousness.

In time, as our societies developed and changed, most of these monsters drifted into mythology or filtered down into fairy-tale and horror stories. And there, many of us perhaps thought they stayed; but our perception of the past, future and the present are demarcated only by time, which simultaneously links them together. The invention of the monster never really went away, and today its story-tellers sit in positions of great power.

 

The individuals mentioned below are undoubtedly very unpleasant people. Certainly not the kind you would rush home to meet mother. But evil is a concept often branded onto people (usually by the press and authorities) without any real thought to how wickedness and brutality in human beings occur.

When my children were born, I remember having thoughts such as, “I hope they will be healthy,” or, “I hope they will be bright and inquisitive.” What I don’t remember thinking is, “I hope they won’t turn out evil.” Our long and continuing history of misunderstanding first mental health and then genetics has served only to confuse this madness all the more. Modern research has shown that environmental factors are far more influential in human behavioural development than any genetic predisposition. It is more a case of extremely similar genetic seeds, cultivated within different environments, combining to create an individual personality. It’s also important to realise that there is never a finished article; more, human beings are in permanent development, always capable of changing and responding to the world around them.

Today’s monsters (at least from the Western perspective), are often the leaders of nations that appear to share a few distinct commonalities. In more cases than not their countries sit on resource rich land, or happen to be in geo-politically desirable positions. They are often authoritarian, but nonetheless rule over cohesive, sometimes socially progressive societies. Most adhere to a vague socialist ideology, offering free education and health care. But, the most monstrous common trait amongst contemporary monsters is the pursuit of independent home and foreign policies. This can lead to audacious ideas of considering their own nations first, avoiding external debt and being non-subservient to Western demands.

 

Looking at the decades before Saddam Hussein’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait, it becomes apparent that when to tell the story is just as significant and the story itself. During much of Saddam’s oppression of his people (and even during his use of chemicals weapons on civilians), he continued to covertly receive arms from the US and the UK governments. Ironically, this aid included materials that would lead to his eventual downfall as they constituted part of the evidence for the now infamous weapons of mass destruction. This is important as by accepting this aid, Saddam unknowingly gave the West its future pretext to destroy Iraq.

Literally days before his invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the US sent diplomats to Baghdad to talk to Saddam about the build up of tensions between Iraq and its neighbour. The US ambassador to Iraq, April Glespie, gave Saddam an official statement on the US position in regards to the high numbers of Iraqi troops massing on the Kuwaiti border. There’s been much written about the ‘advice’ Glepsie gave to the Saddam administration, which lacked anything direct and only repeated the textbook diplomatic message of the “US has a policy of non-involvement in Arab-Arab border issues”.

Within the context of the Iraq-Iran war (1980-1988) which had ended only 2 years earlier, and where US aid and weapons had secretly flooded into Iraqi hands in order to hurt Iran, it’s not difficult to see how Saddam may have misconstrued Glespie’s message as simply another official line, below which the true message can be inferred. However, this was bad judgement, as the Bush (Snr) administration were done with the Iraqi regime and its belligerent leader. The meeting with Glespie seems to be the extent of direct US diplomatic negotiations with Iraq prior to the air campaign (which would drop over 88,000 tons of bombs), and with diplomacy exhausted the need for war quickly became a non-debatable ‘fact’. The invasion of Kuwait took place less than a week later (Aug 2nd, 1990) and with immediate effect the media cross-hair locked on to its new monster: The Butcher of Baghdad.

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April Glespie meeting Saddam Hussein, 1990

The devastation the bombs and missiles brought to the people of Iraq were followed by thirteen years of severe sanctions. These sanctions, though not widely discussed in the media, were so severe that a similar number of Iraqi children died each month during the thirteen year imposition as all the people who died in the 9/11 attacks. The sanctions were so effective that by the time the second invasion began on 21st March 2003, there was barely any civilian society left to destroy, and the new bombs fell on an already decimated people, tearing down what remained of the Iraqi infrastructure.

Western media remained virtually silent about the sanctions imposed on Iraq, and the untold death and misery they were causing its innocent people. However, from the outset of the build up for public support to re-invade the country in 2003, it once again found its voice to disseminate the monster story; his brutality and indifference toward using outlawed chemical weapons (given to him by the West). The mythical WMDs became major headlines as the public were told a mixture of lies and truths designed to agitate the ancient monster hate emotions and support a war that had far reaching and violent repercussions.

 

Osama Bin Laden had also been a former beneficiary of Western generosity. During the prolonged struggle of the Afghan people against the Soviet invasion in 1979, Bin Laden was routinely aided by the US (and the Saudis amongst others) both financially and with arms. An interesting perspective is highlighted by Noam Chomsky in many of his lectures: the demands of both Osama Bin Laden and George W. Bush were very similar; Bin Laden wanted Western imperialism banished from Arab lands, and the US administration wanted Islam banished, but in this case from the world.

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Osama Bin Laden, 1980s, during the Afghan-Russian war

Prior to the 7/11 attacks in New York, the political opponents of the Taliban in Afghanistan welcomed the added pressure from the West to bring down the regime. But they envisaged change through the Afghan people’s uprising and the overthrow of the Taliban by internal political means, but it became increasingly clear that this was a road the US and allies were less enthusiastic about going down.

Abdul Haq was a prominent opposition voice and was highly respected throughout the Middle East and Western states. The ‘Lion of Kabul’, as he was affectionately named, was gifted with rare abilities to unite the diverse political groups that had been separated for many years along ethnic and regional lines, towards common goals which benefited the people and the nation of Afghanistan and ousted the Taliban. Indeed, he was for some time a UN Peace Mediator. A renowned warrior who bravely fought against the Soviet invasion, losing a foot on a landmine in the action, Haq became a central contact for the CIA, and considered a friend to the US. By the late 1990s, Haq was very close to forming a united front, which included almost all of the previously internally fighting groups, to stand against the decreasing popularity of the Taliban. However, once the the twin towers in New York fell, the idea of a Western backed Afghani led uprising, fell with them.

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Adul Haq, around 1999

However, this didn’t stop Haq, who had by this point fallen from favour with the CIA. US ally, Pakistan, were concerned about the unification of Afghans, and what that would mean to their own internal politics. There were reports of information being leaked from the ISI (Pakistan’s intelligence agency) to the Taliban when Haq re-entered Afghanistan from Pakistan in 2001. Further criticism mounted when the Taliban captured Haq and no Western aided attempt to rescue him was made. Abdul Haq was tortured and hanged by his captors a few days later.

What is hugely important about this story is that although the prominent facts were reported in the press, it was never discussed as a possible alternative to warfare. What remained fixed on the television and print news was the face of Osama Bin Laden, the cave-dwelling monster. Haq’s potential solution, and just how advanced it was, was largely ignored by the western media. Instead, they thrust forward military force as the one and only option.

 

The destruction of Libya, under the pretence of actioning a no-fly-zone, was an opportunity to open up the land’s resources whilst simultaneously doing away with a major thorn in the side of western governments. Although Colonel Gaddafi allowed international private companies to pump and sell the rich deposits of Libyan oil, he was never the reliable economic partner preferred by the US and the dominant nations of the EU. In fact, many reports suggest Gaddafi was intent on creating an African single currency, backed by gold and known as the gold dinar. This would have had serious  implications on the economies of the US and the EU.

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Muammar Gaddafi, around 2005

There is no denying Gaddafi’s dictatorship, the corruption of his office and the ‘disappearances’ of his critics, but this needs to be balanced off against what Libya has become since its liberation, and against certain lesser discussed facts: Libya was a stable and cohesive society, boasting free education, free health care (the best in North Africa and most of the middle east), free electricity and 0% interest on loans from the national bank. Homelessness had been all but wiped out, and literacy stood at 90%. All this was in stark contrast to life in Libya for the two decades before Gaddafi’s rise to power, when literacy was at 10%, people were denied access to fresh water and most people’s idea of a home was a tin shack or a cave.

Of course, a section of society were rightly pressing for democracy in Libya, and to an end of Gaddafi’s regime. The so-called Arab Spring gave a platform to some of these voices, although the demonstrations were quickly hijacked by armed, extremist militias. The Colonel’s troops handled the uprising in brutal fashion. This led to much criticism in the Western press, which showed little of the armed militias (by this point referred to as ‘rebels’) but plenty of Gaddafi’s troops responding. This culminated in UN resolutions for NATO to enforce a no-fly-zone. Within days of the intervention, the number of deaths increased ten-fold.

Gaddafi’s tendency towards cronyism and family involvement in the state was always going to lead to a tricky hand over of power whenever he decided he’d had enough. His sons became embroiled in several years of political manoeuvring amongst themselves to optimise their positions, with the British educated Saif al-Islam Gaddafi looking favourite to to take over. Saif, a very complex person as you might expect being the privileged son of a dictator, was arrogant, patronising and corrupt, but he had carried the hopes of many Libyans of introducing reforms that would start the process of making the nation more democratic. But NATOs bombs left that hope in tatters. Saif was captured whilst trying to escape the invasion, and is believed to be held by the Zintan militia in the west of Libya, although he hasn’t been seen since 2014.

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Benghazi, Libya, 2015

The country remains completely unstable, and now exists in three major ‘ruling’ divisions within Libya. To the east, in Tobruk is the former internationally recognised government, the House of Representatives (HoR). In Tripoli is the moderately Islamic government of the General National Congress (GNC). Between the two northern centres is Sirte (the birthplace of Gadaffi) which has become an IS stronghold. Until recently, when the western talk of another intervention in Libya became rife, the eastern HoR had been seen as the legitimate power in Libya by overseas nations and the UN. However, when both the HoR and the GNC in Tripoli declined the idea of further foreign military intervention, another governmental body was created by the UN, the Government of National Accord (GNA) which supersedes both other governments and is now the officially recognised ruling power outside of Libya. Within it, it is ignored. Of course, the GNA, originating from the UN with US and EU support, is pro- foreign intervention, and so neatly sidesteps the objections of both the HoR and the GNC, along with the majority of Libyans.

During the uprising, high ranking members of the Libyan military were rumoured to be asking for foreign tutelage on how best to handle Gaddafi’s weakening grip of power; work, you might think, cut out for the UN. But instead of diplomatic support, the West, under UN humanitarian cover, delivered a brutal lesson on military destruction and the perversion of international law.

The west cheered as images of Gaddafi being sodomised with a kitchen knife appeared on YouTube, and his bloodied face was printed onto every major newspaper in Europe and the US. Another monster done away with, another country in ruin, a new monster was needed. It didn’t take long to find one:

Bashar al-Assad.

 

“Silence by media; war by media.” J. Pilger.

 

The Great British Truncheon (part 1)

Orgreave-Battle-Picket-li-005

“I have no particular love for the idealised ‘worker’, but when I see an actual flesh-and-blood worker in conflict with his natural enemy, the policeman, I do not have to ask which side I am on.”

George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia

Growing up in the North of England during the 1970s and 80s seemed a fairly normal existence to me. Playing street-football in the evenings, watching T.I.S.W.A.S on Saturday mornings, and getting through the fights and scrapes of school was a pretty standard week. But behind all of that, a shift was spreading through the psyche of Britain. It emanated from Westminster, where the government was force-marching the country on a long journey right-ward. Songs of ‘personal freedom’, ‘personal wealth’, and ‘privatisation’ were perpetually sung by its leaders, and these catchy individualist tunes were beginning to lodge in the minds of much of the nation.

The council estate in Rotherham where I lived from a baby until 15, was populated with straight-laced, working-class people, tasked mainly with the gruelling labour of cutting coal from the earth, forging steel in the furnaces of British Steel and looking after their family the best they could. There was little crime that I can recall, so a police car parked on the street was rare. Yet the vast majority of these families were almost by nature distrustful of the police, referring to them in bad-news tones. We kids copied and did the same. I still do until I check myself. I don’t think this is unusual of working class communities. I think it’s older than the hills.

Today it’s easy to forget that each of the rights we now take for granted, has had to be fought and won, usually by the working classes, through protest and organised confrontation. British history is spilling over with the blood of up-risers, and at such flashpoints, since the mid 1800s at least, it has been the police who stands protector to the ruling classes, and therefore the opposer of any urgent demand for change from the masses.

In 2012, the South Yorkshire police referred itself to the IPCC (Independent Police Complaints Commission – the body served with investigating complaints brought against the police). It did so in light of the investigative work of a local BBC journalist (click here to watch the documentary) and The Guardian. The charges are some of the worst possible for a police force to have levelled at it and include assault, perverting the course of justice and perjury. The criminal evidence unearthed (that the current South Yorkshire police force must feel substantial enough to effectively ‘turn itself in’) dates back over 30 years to the miner’s strike; specifically, one day in that strike.

On the 18th June 1984, a quiet northern village between Rotherham and Sheffield became the backdrop for the outpouring of violence that must, it seems, accompany any political ‘regime change’.

The strike was in its third month, and had started to gain some positive momentum from national and local papers, as well as increasing public support. Even so, a number of men going to the picket that day found it unusual that the police allowed so many miners to gather together without turning any away. The mass picketing at the coking plant had been going on for four weeks, and police had always tried to break up the number of pickets getting to the site by stopping cars, making arrests and even building road-blocks. But on this day, the police even escorted coaches full of miners off the M1, through the shimmering farmland, to the coking plant at Orgreave.

In South Yorkshire, industry and agriculture mingle together at their edges in acres of beautiful wasteland, meadows of wildflowers and stones. This was predominantly the terrain at Orgreave, the land cut across with winding country roads, and the the flow of the River Rother, towards the Don. As the gates opened to allow in the first truck carrying coal, some of the miner’s, as was routine, jeered and pushed at the police line in a halfhearted attempt to break through the police line and get to the truck. But on that hot day, instead of simply pushing the men back to the picket line as before, the police went berserk.

Within the police squads were British Army soldiers dressed in police uniform, minus the officers’ number badge. These soldiers had no policing training. They had no idea how to even make an arrest. As the violence increased, more and more police/army arrived at the site and were immediately sent into the fray.

orgreave truncheon

Wherever the miners ran, police lay in wait for them, usually on horseback, but sometimes with dogs. Men unaware of the police attack and walking back to the picket with cups of tea were suddenly ambushed by police with truncheons. Near the coking plant, a few lines of workers tried to rally, but were swallowed up by riot police and again the swinging truncheons. Throughout the day, the violence escalated, with with the police continuing it barrage of brutality. Some miners threw what looked like stones, which incurred yet more police battery raids.
By the end of it, men of both ‘sides’ needed medical care. Some miners had suffered broken limbs. The police figures had more officers reported hurt than miners. Ninety-five men were arrested that day, all charged with riot.

Why did this happened? Why did a police force, having sworn an oath to uphold human rights and maintain the peace, on that day throw it under the hooves of its police horses and the boots of its riot police? Well, as always, there’s a bigger picture.

In 1977 the UK police force was having serious problems recruiting and maintaining officers. The Labour government had commissioned a review that concluded the force required a 45% pay rise. Labour and the police force had parted ways when the force had been denied a union and the right to strike in 1919, so there wasn’t a great deal of solidarity between them. Instead of implementing the 45% fully, the government decided to phase in an agreed amount, which didn’t really solve their recruitment problem and did nothing for police/labour relations.

But then in 1979, Margaret Thatcher came to power, and one of the first things she did was grant the police the full 45% pay award. Whatever Thatcher was, she was no fool. She knew that in order to change Britain’s direction as much as she intended, she would need the police in her pocket. Five years later, at Orgreave, she got a HUGE return on that investment.

Another thing to know is that in 1972 the miners were involved in another strike, and their success was largely due to a mass picketing campaign at another coking plant – this time at Saltley, near Birmingham. Arthur Scargill, a senior officer of the Yorkshire National Union of Miners at the time, led the rally. It was an amazing union triumph, and perhaps the last great act of workers solidarity in Britain, as thousands of men and women in factories and other workplaces in Birmingham walked out too, most of them joining the other picketing miners at Saltley. Up to 10,000 protestors gathered there by the afternoon. The police could no longer secure the trucks leaving the coking plant and the gates finally shut to the roar of the crowd.

The government was also well aware of the significance of the coking plant, and the union victory it represented, and they were not prepared to see it happen again. The Ridley Report, commissioned by Mrs Thatcher, was an instruction manual on how to break down a strike and dismantle the unity of the working man. A couple of Ridley’s suggestions stand out: “The government should if possible choose the field of battle.”; and “Train and equip a large, mobile squad of police, ready to employ riot tactics in order to uphold the law against violent picketing.”.

It was a revolution-by-proxy, for it paved the way, with the unions castrated, from a shift of a nation of ‘producers’ to ‘consumers’. The full regime change. Uniforms aside, the strike pitted working men against each other. But who could really see that then. It was the short-sharp-shock version of culture change. I hope we all feel it was worth it.

At the time of writing the IPCC has given no new updates on it’s plans to investigate the crimes of 18th June 1984.

Please watch Yvonne Vanson’s brilliant Battle for Orgreave

A Search for Quality

“Farewell to the besoms of heather and bloom

Farewell to the creels and the basket

For the folks of today they would far sooner pay

For a thing that’s been made out of plastic”

Ewan McCall

 

 

There is a small 7mm ratchet spanner on the side of the desk in the department where I work. It was forgotten by an engineer that came to service some equipment a few months ago. I like to pick it up and hold it. It has a weight that gives you a pocket of confidence in your hand. It is stainless steel and shines. The switch that alternates the ratchet is a dark alloy; it reassures the thumb as it snaps left to right. The reason it feels so good to hold is because the design is ergonomic, mimicking the space around your hand. The weight balanced. The function clear. Its moving parts fluid and strong. It is a high quality tool that as you hold it, feels like a natural extension of your hand.

There is something else which makes this little ratchet special. In 2014, this kind of quality is rare.

 

I spoke to my friend Tom recently, a highly skilled joiner and craftsman. I’ve watched him carefully repair all our sash-box windows over the last 2 years. He showed me a tool box set aside in the back of his Transit. “These I’ve had since I started.” He opened the lid and disclosed a variety of old, but extremely well looked after hand tools. Twelve solid steel chisels with boxwood handles, their edges gleaming; hand drills with chucks still hungry and ready to bite; a claw hammer on a hickory shaft, its patina a testament to servitude. There were others buried beneath, but the back of the van was dark. “All the others,” he motioned to several other buckets filled with screwdrivers, Stanley knives, drill bits, saws, and other bits and pieces, “need replacing every couple of years.” He clunked shut the Transit’s wonky back door.

 

Samsung seem to have raised the bar on marketing strategy. Forgive me if there is a company that spends more on advertising, but at $14billion for 2013 I doubt anyone is even close. Samsung’s budget has increased 14 fold since 2003 taking spending in this arena to a new level. There are a cluster of other super-corporations all jostling around the $2.5 – $4billion mark. Now that someone has made a move, surely the others will follow.

Maybe 100-120 years ago, marketing and advertising behaved differently to what we see today. It saw itself more of an advising and describing role. This was mainly because as a consumer it was assumed you knew pretty much what you wanted to buy, and the advertising helped you out with the fine tuning, making sure the product came as close as possible to matching your original needs. This allowed the consumer accurate information before buying. This remains the philosophical backbone of advertising. Except these days, it doesn’t really work that way.

The nature of the economical market means that competition always gives rise to competing brands. Take for example shampoo. I have no idea how many different brands there are out there of ‘hair soap’, all probably purporting to be, usually through pseudo-science, different to their rivals. But really, although there will be some variety in quality, all shampoo does the same thing. It cleans your hair. What advertising is doing now, and spending billions to achieve it, is convincing us otherwise.

With this arrangement it would be difficult for quality to be anything other than a market novelty or so expensive as to make it an unlikely purchase for the average consumer. However, there is another, more underhand technique employed inherently into almost all the goods we buy. Its called planned obsolescence, and although economists advocates this ploy through the philosophy of Philip Kotler et al, to me it is quite obviously unethical. The basic idea is that whatever you purchase has a predetermined lifespan before becoming obsolete. Be it having to upgrade your computer’s operating software or a deliberately designed weakness in a mechanism; it all leads to the same thing: a perpetual cycle of purchasing semi-disposable or ‘faulty’ items. I don’t have to mention the Black and Decker Workmate, do I? If anyone compared the version from the 80s to the one of today, it would probably be inferior in every way.

 

So what’s my point? Ok, so they don’t make things like they used to. So what?

Well I think there is a point to be made here. When we hear western leaders (and by that I mean any country that has allowed itself to be governed by money) talk about ‘progress’, we have all naturally assumed that they had in mind somewhere we were progressing to. Somewhere better. I no longer think that is the case. Instead, we are tracking along on a conveyor belt of consumerism, struck senseless by a global barrage of $500billion worth of advertising. The longer we sit on this banal ride the further we move from quality and closer to a degrading of our way of life. To see human design fail us the way it currently is may have unknown effects on society as a whole. Our consumer driven, disposable culture has distanced us from quality, perhaps even lowering other baselines as it went? Surely it’s not difficult to imagine that inferior tools lead to an inferior job? Let me give you an example. The NHS in Britain has, for the last decade or so, been going through a constant process of planned obsolescence. By that I mean almost all safe and robust systems of practice have been replaced with flimsy, but cheaper, replicas. When these begin to break, they are simply replaced by an even inferior model that runs along for even less time before showing signs of strain. When these weak systems fail completely, it is staff that becomes the focus of the problem, not the blunt and broken tools they are left holding.

 

And what about the conveyor belt? Anyone interested in where it is carrying us? You could ask your politicians, but their answer would be the usual confused rhetoric. Instead, let me tell you: it goes nowhere, just around and around until it splutters and stops.

Here’s a better question to ask. What’s your definition of progress?