On Power and Delusions of Grandeur
First the video of United States Marines urinating on bodies of Afghans who had been killed. Then the revelation that copies of the Quran had been burned at Bagram Air Base, which also serves as an American prison camp in Afghanistan. Nearly thirty Afghans and several NATO troops died in the violent reaction. And as I mentioned in my column of March 4, the BBC Kabul correspondent described these events, and the violent public reaction to them, as the tipping point for NATO in the Afghan War.
Just as the U.S. commander Gen. John Allen and President Obama hoped that apologies from them would help calm the situation comes another disaster. If official accounts are to be believed, an American soldier left his base in the middle of the night, entered villagers’ homes, woke up Afghan families from sleep and shot his victims in cold blood. After the killings, the soldier was reported to have turned himself up to U.S. commanders, and was flown out of the country. He has since been named as St. Sgt. Robert Bales. Other reports tell a different story, indicating that a group of soldiers was involved. Looking drunk and laughing, they engaged in an orgy of violence, while helicopters hovered above.
The massacre was committed in Kandahar, a province where NATO forces regularly carry out night raids on Afghan homes. They capture and kill men sweepingly described as Taliban, their supporters or sympathizers. Male family members therefore leave their homes at night to escape foreign forces. This explains why 9 of the 16 murdered were children. The rest included at least four women, and five Afghans were wounded. Several bodies were burned.
The massacre of Kandahar has echoes of My Lai––a village in South Vietnam where American troops massacred unarmed civilians including women, children and old people almost exactly 44 years ago, on March 16, 1968. The full horror of the My Lai massacre took time to surface, for many attempts were made to downplay it. Soldiers who had tried to stop the killings were denounced by U.S. Congressmen and received hate mail and death threats. It took thirty years before they were honored. Only one American soldier, Lieutenant William Calley, was punished. He spent just three years under house arrest, despite being given a life sentence.
The conduct of the U.S. authorities following the massacre of Afghans will be under critical scrutiny. Those who must bear ultimate responsibility will have to live with the guilt for years to come. And the carnage will continue to haunt the conscience of many people in America and elsewhere. The general sentiment in Afghanistan had already been turning dangerously hostile to foreign troops. Now, reports from Kabul say that Afghans “have run out of patience.”
In the midst of these events (U.S. Marines urinating on dead bodies in January, Quran burning in February, massacre in March), President Obama decided to invoke a comparison between himself and two of history’s legendary figures, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. To me, the latest events in Afghanistan are dismaying, and the timing of the president’s attempt to invoke parallels with Gandhi and Mandela is sickening. It goes to show what power does to its holder.
Much has been written about the New York fund-raiser, where President Obama gave his address as he sought support for a second term. I repeat the obvious to say that the country he leads has been engaged in a number of wars resulting in deaths and destruction on a vast scale. Their legacies will continue to take a heavy toll. Even when U.S. forces have withdrawn from occupied lands, or high-altitude bombing without deploying American troops on the ground has ceased, we will not know how long and in how many places Obama’s secret wars are waged. In the November 2008 election, he had offered a hope of change for good. It remains as illusive as it was under his predecessor, George W. Bush.
Obama and NATO have moved and expanded the war theater––in Pakistan, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Kenya, Somalia and possibly places we are not aware of. His tactics have steadily become more threatening with foes and friends alike, linking ever more war and routine matters of international relations, trade and so forth.
Despite the U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq and the Afghan project heading toward an end, there exists a more explosive situation from South Asia to North Africa. The scenario of a major war in the region haunts many. Obama may appear reluctant to attack Iran or Syria. But that clandestine warfare by major powers and their proxies continues is hardly in doubt. The Obama administration’s aggressive, interventionist instinct is on open display. And to draw parallels between himself and great souls such as Gandhi and Mandela is a grotesque parody of their historic struggles. At the New York fund-raising event, Obama said that “the change we fought for in 2008 hasn’t always happened as fast as we would have liked…real change, big change, is always hard.” Next, making a leap into history, he continued, “Gandhi, Nelson Mandela––what they did was hard. It takes time. It takes more than a single term…”
Corruption infects our world in many forms: material and moral, visible and invisible, direct and indirect. But the underlying motive behind all things corrupt is a strong opportunistic instinct to benefit oneself at the cost of others by allurement or deception. No wonder politics has fallen so much into disrepute. The aphorism of the nineteenth-century English historian Lord Acton that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” has acquired a special meaning today.
Employing his political mantra of “change” and attempting to show likeness with Gandhi’s and Mandela’s life and achievements is one thing. Truth is a different matter. Gandhi never aspired for any political office, never held one, and did not fight any election. After his incarceration in prison for 27 years, Mandela was a reluctant president of South Africa. And he made clear that he would serve only one term while a new generation of successors was groomed. Above all, Mandela used his presidency to avoid a bloodbath and stabilize the country as apartheid collapsed. Precisely for these reasons, both Gandhi and Mandela were such formidable opponents of the unequal and unjust systems which they fought.
Non-violence was Gandhi’s tool. When violence erupted, Gandhi withdrew his movement against the British. He thought of others, Muslims and Untouchables he called Harijans (Children of God). He paid the ultimate price when a Hindu fundamentalist assassinated him in 1948. Neither Gandhi nor Mandela considered attacking another country, signing assassination orders, exaggerating or inventing facts about people they saw as adversaries. Mandela’s African National Congress was inspired by Gandhi. But once the organization had realized that South Africa’s vast black majority was up against an apartheid regime whose brutality was exceptional, the ANC did engage in a low-intensity war. And the United States and Britain listed Mandela as a “terrorist.”
President Obama recently justified his drone attacks inside Pakistan by saying that they “have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties.” It is impossible not to interpret this as an admission that drones do kill and wound civilians. But it is a minor matter in the president’s eyes. Only a few days ago, the German news magazine Der SPEIGAL said that while under the Bush presidency there was a drone attack every 47 days, the interval now under President Obama, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, is just four days. The Americans have “already executed 2,300 people in this manner.” Nobody has a chance today if this president decides that their time is up.
Gandhi’s agitation for boycott of British goods in favor of home-made products and his advocacy for an austere life were fundamental elements of the anti-globalization movement of his time. His ethos was “to consume less for the uplift of others from poverty and deprivation.” He lived the life he preached, for which Winston Churchill, then leader of the Empire, disparagingly called him the “naked fakir.” In the world ruled by President Obama today, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, were he not in his nineties and so frail, would be his greatest enemies. And they could well have been on Obama’s list for drone attacks. Mercifully that is not the case, and this president can indulge in comfort. Great people like Gandhi and Mandela use power to curb power. Barack Obama stands among those who use power to accumulate more of it. Therein lies the moral of any comparison in this debate.