It was a crisp, sunny day in San Diego 20 years ago, when I stood on the curb next to friends and comrades. My placard read: “No War for Oil! No to Imperialism!”. We waited for hours before George W. Bush’s entourage arrived, there to protest his illegal war against Iraq. On the opposite side of the road, counter-protestors jeered and mocked us. One held a sign that said the exact opposite of mine. It became obvious that despite the spin of the Bush administration, his fans knew exactly what this was about. And they reveled in the idea that the American Empire could invade any nation, take anything that it wanted by force, and no one would be able to stop it.
Over the next months to years, those of us on the left endured near constant harassment for our antiwar positions. “Freedom fries,” an imbecilic jab at France for not joining Bush’s “coalition” of death. Journalists and academicians banned, silenced or fired from their jobs. Death threats and accusations of treachery. Indefinite detention. The normalization of “pre-emptive” war. Demonization, attacks and persecution of Muslims. Intrusions into citizen’s (and foreigners) private lives. This was the aftermath of the attacks on 9/11. The malignant growth of a militarized surveillance state that would have repercussions into the present day.
Bush’s unprovoked war on Iraq would proceed to claim hundreds of thousands of lives. Millions more would be forever displaced, scarred and mutilated from the carnage. Fathers and sons would be tortured at Abu Ghraib. Innocent men would be spirited away to a concentration camp in a US-occupied section of Cuba. Children born after battle would suffer from horrific birth defects and cancer thanks to the use of depleted uranium in armaments. An entire region would be destabilized for decades to come. And the US would never have to answer for any of its crimes.
Today, we are witness to the horrors of another war. Putin’s assault on Ukraine. And if one is honest, it is impossible to miss the many similarities to Bush’s war on Iraq. Similar excuses being made to justify barbarism. For Bush it was a “war on terrorism”. To fight an enemy “over there” rather than on US soil. For Putin, it is a “war against Nazis”. To protect Russia from the encroachment of the West. Just like Bush, Putin has persecuted dissidents who oppose his war. Threats, demonization and even imprisonment have awaited many who dissent. In both cases, truth was replaced by meaningless slogans, vulgarity and sentimental nationalism. And in both cases, real flesh was torn, real bones were crushed, real blood has been spilt, and real people have been killed, all thanks to propaganda and lies.
But as Putin justifiably faces charges of war crimes in the International Criminal Court, I cannot help but see the glaring hypocrisy of it all. Bush, a man who destroyed countless lives, walks free. He gets to paint portraits, go to football games with celebrities, and occasionally share wistful nuggets of wisdom to a fawning and forgetful press.
And how many other world leaders and military or state officials are living a life free of prosecution after committing similar crimes? Netanyahu. Modi. Kissinger. Salman. Bolsonaro. Assad. The list is long. Men (and some women) who committed war crimes, genocide, ethnic cleansing, toppled democratically elected governments, oversaw brutal occupations, apartheid, drone bombings of ambulances, weddings, funerals, a grandmother picking okra in her field, a teenager sitting at a café, or provided cover for these crimes. They are not only free from criminal prosecution, they enjoy the spoils of power or prestige as if nothing ever happened. In a sane world, wouldn’t they all be on trial in the Hague?
We are told by some that we are living in a multipolar world now, and that we should be happy about that because the evil American Empire is no longer the primary global power. But this simplistic worldview conveniently ignores other forms of despotism, imperialism, colonialism and oppression. It makes it seem that the US is the sole arbiter of barbarity and injustice. It makes it easy for some to erase the lives of others who languish and suffer under a different sphere of oppression. And it obliterates solidarity for the international working class, which exists independent of the government it languishes under.
Regardless of whether we are living in a unipolar or multipolar world, the effects of this arrangement of power remain virtually the same for most of us. The powerful, in whatever polarity they may reside in, use their assets, armaments, institutions and political leverage to avoid prosecution for their crimes. All the while, they get book deals, go on speaking tours, get wined and dined at lavish restaurants and resorts, and stuff their bloated coffers with coin. In the meantime, ordinary people, especially in the Global South, are exploited, slaughtered, displaced, disappeared and brutalized. And the living earth itself continues to be besieged and rendered unlivable thanks to their unbridled greed and rampant militarism. It is worth reminding that unipolarity or multipolarity are meaningless terms on a dead planet.
Twenty years ago I protested an illegal, unprovoked war of imperialism against a sovereign nation. Today, I protest the same. Unequivocally. Because the stench of hypocrisy is more than I can bear. Because solidarity with people is far more important than solidarity to any state entity. I choose a sane world, however elusive, where all power is held to account, over normalizing, justifying or providing excuses for the insanity and barbarism we see around us today. Because, no matter who it is, be it the US, NATO, Russia or any other powerful state actor on the world stage today, their destination for us is the same. And it leads to our collective demise.
Kenn Orphan, March 2023