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Helena Cobban on the Military Industrial Complex

Thank you, Clare. Thank you to all the organizers.

This is a great, a really wonderful initiative. It follows on the initiative earlier this year in January in Greensboro, NC, and I was just kind of transported back there mentally because I recall as I drove from Charlottesville down to Greensboro, NC, back in January, I was listening to the BBC on the satellite radio and they were giving live blow-by-blow accounts of what was happening in Tunisia at the time. It was so exciting.

I got to the conference, and when it came time to speak I got to speak about the Middle East. And I said, “You know, as we are sitting here speaking, the US military empire in the Middle East is starting to collapse.” And sure enough, you know, that was about the time that the long-time dictator of Tunisia supported by the US military, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, left his country under the pro-democracy activism, and then about a month later the same happened to President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. And the popular movements that forced those two dictators from power were something quite new and wonderful in the Middle East, and I’ll come back to that later.

My major thing that I want to talk about this afternoon is the need for us all to, as American citizens, to challenge our fellow citizens to reconsider this whole ideology of American exceptionalism which is one of the things that keeps the military industrial complex in power, that keeps us fearful that we might lose our special place in the world, and that we as five percent of humanity need to find a way to deal with the other ninety-five percent on the basis of the equality of all human persons.

So, it sounds like a huge challenge because when people have privilege, it’s hard to invite them, or urge them, or push them, or persuade them to give it up. On the other hand, what has that privilege and the way that our government has sought to hang onto it, what has that actually done for the lives of Americans and for the insecurity that we as American citizens feel whenever we go outside our borders and encounter people from other countries? It has not made us safer. It has made us a lot less safe.

In connection with this whole theory of American exceptionalism or manifest destiny or whatever, I think it’s at this point absolutely incontestable that the ideology of the ruling elite in Israel has played a huge part. And I know this is a difficult topic to talk about because there is always, there is always the fear of anti-Semitism and arousing anti-Semitic, the anti-Semitic currents that flow so deep in Christian society and have done historically. But at this point, I think we need to come straight out and say that Israeli exceptionalism has been a major motivating and inspiring and supporting feature of American exceptionalism, especially over the past fifteen to twenty years, and that the Israeli military industrial complex and political elite have shown the way to the American military industrial complex in so many different ways.

Now to point this out is not to point a finger at Jewish people in general, because the Israeli political elite does not represent Jewish people in general. They do not represent my wonderful daughter-in-law Liz Jackson who has been at the forefront of Students for Justice in Palestine over in Berkeley along with just about all of her wonderful Jewish family—very strong supporters of equal rights for Palestinians and the Israelis. There are so many wonderful Jewish people in the forefront of the movement for Palestinian equality that I think that those of us who happen to be Christian can be absolutely in solidarity with those wonderful Jewish and Palestinian activists. And we don’t need to be cowed or scared by the charge of “Oh, you’re just anti-Semitic.” No, we’re not anti the Jewish people as such. We’re anti certain policies of this ruling elite in Israel just as we are anti certain policies, many policies, of this ruling elite here in America.

I want to point out just a few of the ways in which the Israeli political elite has actually led the way in enabling whole new practices on behalf of the American military industrial complex.

One is extrajudicial killings, that is assassinations—killing of people around the world based on the suspicion that they might be about to do something. Not based on the rule of law and bringing the evidence out, but based solely on suspicions that may, and as we know in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere, often the suspicions are just based on the hearsay of a jealous neighbor or whatever who goes to the American military and says, “Oh, you know, that sheikh down the road he’s been involved with al Qaeda.” And then the American military will not have any kind of a judicial process. I mean, it’s bad enough here in Virginia where we have a so-called “judicial process” and end up executing somebody. How much worse is it when, based on hearsay and secret evidence, they take out somebody overseas who has no recourse. That policy of extrajudicial executions was introduced by the Israelis back in the 1980s in their dealings with the Palestinians and has continued since.

The use of drones, the use of these horrible, remotely piloted killing vehicles, pioneered by the Israelis.

The use of pre-emptive wars, or as they are now called preventive wars, pioneered by the Israelis.

The defiance of international law saying, no, we can’t be members of the International Criminal Court because that would imply that our servicemen and -women might be tried by foreigners; our generals might be tried by foreigners; our decision-makers who took us into a completely illegal and immoral war might be tried by foreigners. The defiance of international law is something that the Israeli elite pioneered and have pursued for many years, and they made it OK for our country to do the same. If you look at all the list of advisors and people who would justify the Bush administration’s defiances of international law, you’ll find that many of them were amongst the longest-running pro-Israeli activists in Washington, DC, people like Doug Feith, Paul Wolfowitz, John Hannah. The list is extremely long.

Then the whole ideology of exceptionalism is something that, of course it runs long and deep in American history. The idea that you can wipe out the native peoples here because we have some kind of, white folks have some kind of manifest destiny, is something that has happened and been part of our history, a shameful aspect of our history for so long. But it’s also been pushed by the Israelis who have their own form of exceptionalism, who think, who portray themselves, present themselves as representing some kind of civilizational force amongst people who are backward and primitive and, as it happens, mainly Muslim, although there are many Christians in Arab countries. And so, that ideology, and especially the way that it’s come back home here in terms of islamophobia, an exaggerated and completely manipulated fear of those of our fellow citizens in this country and people around the world who follow the religion of Islam.

That’s in a sense the bad news, you know, how we’ve gotten to this stage where because of the political power of the pro-Israeli forces in Washington, DC, many of Israel’s worst practices have become embedded in the practice of our country and our military industrial complex.

The good news is what I talked about at the beginning about what’s been happening in Egypt and Tunisia, so many other countries in the Middle East where the people whose governments for decades have been supported by our military at the expense of their own, you know, internal democratic accountability, the people just finally rose up and went to the public square and said we’ve had enough. We’ve had enough of the oppression. We’ve had enough of the torture that was often carried out by their governments at the express request of our government under the renditions policy. The oppression, the torture, the mind control, the lying, all of that—people went out to the public square and said we’ve had enough of that. It was so inspiring.

I was there, actually. I was in Tahrir Square in June, and I was lucky enough to get to Gaza in June as well. I went in overland from Cairo. It takes about five hours if there’s no security checkpoints but there are lots of security checkpoints, but there are security checkpoints. Anyway, it was a very long trip; it was a very difficult trip. I got there and we spent three days with our friends in Gaza which is this tiny little enclave that we have been told in this country is a source of violence and oppression of women and just rockets—they fire rockets for no reason whatsoever at the Israelis, those peace-loving Israelis. And we’re told this completely nonsensical story about what’s happening in Gaza.

I was there. All the stories that were in the Western media about Gaza are completely untrue. I’ve been to Gaza many times before. On this occasion we were told there’s no need for flotillas and such because the borders of Gaza are open. Not true. Absolutely not true. We’re told that the people who are ruling Gaza, who were the elected authorities (they were elected in 2005) are irrational, Islamist madmen who want to oppress women. Not true.

I met four of the elected Hamas women parliamentarians—extremely intelligent, well-educated, professional women who get great support from the Hamas party in their endeavors. One of them is the head of the Human Rights Committee in the elected parliament. We had a lot of discussions about Western policy and Palestinian policy. Very smart women. I went to a media center where there were people from Hamas and from other parties and there was very open discussion about policies. There are young women there who are on Twitter all the time and they are tweeting internationally and in touch. It’s just like night and day compared with what we are told in the Western media.

And, you know, they have tried to have a ceasefire with Israel, and by and large the ceasefire has worked since the end of the terrible war of 2008-2009. The ones who keep breaking it are the Israelis, and as a result you have deaths in Gaza, maybe two or three every month, people killed and many more wounded and maimed as a result of these killings by . . . They normally have drones that kill automatically from the air, but they have machine gun nests on the walls around the edge that if the farmers go closer than 500 meters, the machine guns automatically fire so the farmers cannot . . . It’s an extremely constrained area. They need every square inch of farming land they can use. If they go closer than 500 meters to the border the machine guns fire automatically.

But they have pulled themselves together after the war of 2008-2009. Things were functioning very well at a low economic level but with great social solidarity. You don’t see a lot of gunmen on the streets, for example. I go to Ramallah which is run by an unelected, US-supported Palestinian Authority. There are a lot of gunmen on the streets there; there is a lot of insecurity there.

So then, we spent a little bit of time in Cairo. We went to Tahrir Square. There weren’t big actions in Tahrir Square when we were there. There were a couple of small actions. But we talked to so many of the people who had participated in it. One of the things one of my friends said there that really struck me was that what happened in Tahrir Square seemed to be the end of the neoliberal sort of approach to economics, the kind of “me first” and “me for myself.” He said there was a whole new moral economy there on Tahrir Square that rich people, poor people would come along, the would bring whatever they had and share it. They would bring their skills, whether they were dentists or doctors or barbers or cooks, they would bring whatever they had and share it freely and create this whole new idea of a society.

They were challenging the authority. They were challenging the military authorities who had ruled there for so long through a combination of fear and spreading distrust. They were standing together whether they were Islamists or secularists. You’d see them all together on the square, and they talked about national unity as being one of their key assets. Most of all they were asserting the end of the humiliation that they had experienced as a result of being ruled by this US-supported, US-imposed leadership. Hosni Mubarak was the president since 1981. He had completely fake elections every so often, and the most recent of those elections was at the end of last year actually, in September 2010. Once again his electoral shenanigans got a complete pass from Washington who said, well, it’s OK; it’s imperfect as a democracy, but what can you expect.

And that, I think the fact that Washington just kept him in power and turned a blind eye to all his excesses . . . not just turned a blind eye. We were sending him people for him to torture. We were supporting his torture machine completely. So when the people rose up against him they were also rising up against that assertion of American power, and we have to understand that and respect it. It’s not an anti-American sentiment as such; it’s an anti-oppression sentiment. Personally I felt quite safe walking around and talking to people and, you know, it was a wonderful feeling to be there with my friends who had been part of that movement.

I think, and really it’s going to come on more with this very soon, what we need is a Tahrir moment, a Tahrir movement here in the United States. The word “Tahrir” actually means liberation. And so it was wonderful that both in Tunis and in Cairo the central square where people gathered was already called Tahrir Square because it was a tahrir, it was a liberation of an earlier era that didn’t work out totally well, but they had named their square Tahrir Square. Well, we need to have a Tahrir moment, a Tahrir movement here where we liberate ourselves from all these sick ideologies of American exceptionalism of me firstism, of a kind of ideology, I think it’s based on fear. It’s based on fear and guilt.

We kind of know that our military industrial complex, our country’s government, have actually inflicted a lot of harms on other peoples around the world, most of all in Iraq. I don’t believe there is anybody sane in this country who think that what we did in Iraq turned out well. I understand that many of the people who argued for the, and they call it intervention but of course that’s a mealy-mouthed word for a war and a brutal invasion. I don’t think anybody who supported that. . . no, that’s not true. Most of the people who supported that did so from good motivations, I think. They thought that Saddam Hussein is a brutal dictator, that we are supporting the Iraqi people by launching this war. Or they thought that he’s about to develop nuclear weapons because they believed everything that the government told us (wasn’t that a mistake), and so they thought they were making the world safer by supporting the invasion. None of that was true. It was all completely a lie.

It’s not a lie that Saddam Hussein was oppressive, but what is a lie is that what came after has been any better, as we know from the stories from 2004 onwards from Abu Ghraib; from the terrible, terrible internal social breakdown that our military oversaw in Iraq in 2006-2007 in the course of which hundreds of thousands of Iraqi citizens lost their lives while we were “in charge.” And it continues today if you read the newspapers. Day after day after day there are mass killings, usually on a sectarian basis, that were part of a process that our military accelerated.

So, I don’t think that many people now can stand up in this country and say that that was a great idea—invading Iraq. What’s more we know what the costs have been in terms of purely financial and, as we heard yesterday again and again, the terrible human costs.

But just imagine if we had taken that $3 trillion and put it into, over this past ten years, put it into rebuilding schools and hospitals, infrastructure, a decent train system in this country, green energy. Three trillion dollars, what could we have done? Instead of which it all ended up with Haliburton, with the contractors, with General Dynamics, with very corrupt Iraqi and Afghani subcontractors, with Saudi Arabian arms dealers, with Israeli so-called security consulting companies that put in place all the mechanisms of human control, or tried to, in Iraq with retina scans and all of this fine stuff.

Three trillion dollars, I mean, you know, that’s why we need, that’s why we need to transform our relationship with the rest of the world. And that’s why we have the opportunity now because we have a very powerful story to tell. You know, you don’t actually persuade people by and large by throwing figures at them. You persuade people if you can tell them a story that connects with something inside them. And we have a very powerful story to tell about the folly of war, about the way that that war in particular and the war in Afghanistan . . .

Do you know it costs $1 million a year to keep one American service member in Afghanistan. The gasoline that they use there, and they use a lot in those big tanks and MRAPs and other vehicles that they use, it costs $400 a gallon. To get it there, if you look at a map, I mean, it’s not easy to get gasoline into Afghanistan. That’s where our money is continuing to drain. That’s why we have to say enough. We have the evidence, we have the story, we have the compelling case to make.

You know I’ve been working on my Southern drawl for fifteen years, but I have to tell you I did grow up in England. I know that will come as a surprise to you. But I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s at a time of decolonization there, when Britain was under the pressure of self-bankruptcy that had happened to the country as a result of a series of imperial wars, including one against Egypt in Sinai and Gaza in 1956. The UK, the British people were having to draw back and completely reimagine themselves. What does it mean to be British? Until then, to be British meant we have an empire. In the 1950s and 1960s we stepped back and I was part of this as a child—a new process of what it means to be British. Actually, interestingly, one of the things it meant was that we had a National Health Service.

But what I want to say is that for the UK, ending imperialism and empire was OK. You know, the British people are OK. For South Africa, ending apartheid was OK. The white people have not been wiped out. The white people are doing very nicely in South Africa, thank you. If we transform our relationship with the ninety-five percent of the world who are not Americans into one of human equality and mutual respect, we will not only be OK but we will be a lot better off than we are now. Thank you.


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