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Tariq Ali on politics and the bombs

Tariq Ali | 12.07.2005 20:43

In the wake of the attacks in London, veteran anti-war activist Tariq Ali spoke on Iraq, Vietnam, terrorism and resistance

Tariq Ali on politics and the bombs

In the wake of the attacks in London, veteran anti-war activist Tariq Ali spoke on Iraq, Vietnam, terrorism and resistance

Dear friends, we meet in sad times. Before I start talking about the subject of this evening’s meeting, I think it’s important to speak a few words about what we’re living through at the moment.

What we’re living through is an attack, by a group of terrorists, on ordinary working people in London. It is not behaviour that anyone on the left can support.

But why did these attacks happen? That is the key question which the entire media and the entire political class in this country is trying to ignore. They are trying to ignore it because the government and the main opposition party know perfectly well why it happened. They have a guilty conscience.

It happened, without any doubt, because Tony Blair decided to lock himself in a coital embrace with the US president, from which he could not be easily dislodged. He decided to take a sceptical public into a war it did not support.

Opposition to this war was not confined to anti-war campaigners or the left, it existed in the upper reaches of the establishment. The week after Baghdad fell, a senior foreign office intelligence figure, who was national security adviser to 10 Downing Street, wrote a letter to the Financial Times.

He explained why the war was wrong, how we were stampeded into the war by lies, and why going to war was placing Britain itself at risk.

London mayor Ken Livingstone has taken to quoting Winston Churchill these days. We’ve been here before. Why can’t they think of anyone else to quote? Whenever there’s a crisis it’s back to the Second World War.

Ken himself, on a platform with myself and others, once said that one reason he was opposed to the war was that it endangered the lives of citizens in London. He was right then and he should get a grip on himself.

Unless you give people a political explanation for what has happened, the only other explanation is a civilisational one, which the prime minister gave—barbarians versus civilisation.

Blair says this, his wretched cabinet members have been repeating it, and even Bush has picked up a few phrases.

We have to be very clear. If the killing of innocent civilians in London is barbaric, and it is, how do you define the killing of over 100,000 Iraqi civilians?

In the dominant culture of the West there is a deep-seated belief that the lives of Western civilians are somehow worth more than those living in other parts of the world — especially those parts being bombed and occupied by the West.

This brings me to the subject of this evening. Are there war crimes being committed in Iraq? The answer is yes. If the media in Britain gave a quarter of the coverage that they devoted to the London bombings to what is being done to ordinary civilians in Iraq you would have a gigantic, uncontrollable anti-war movement.

Iraq brings back memories of Vietnam on a number of levels. In Vietnam, as in Iraq today, many politicians said, “It will soon be over, and we will bring our troops home by Christmas.”

Older members of the audience may remember General Westmoreland, the US military commander in Vietnam. Every year he used to say, “The boys will be back this Christmas.”

Another of the generals in Vietnam gave a statement contradicting the politicians and his fellow officers, saying, “If they want us to control this situation we could be here ten years.” At least he spoke the truth.

Another similarity is the wanton destruction of cities and human life. Over 100,000 civilians have been killed in Iraq. You can contrast that to the number of occupation troops that have died, about 2,000.

In Vietnam the ratio was the same. By the end of the Vietnam war 50,000 US soldiers had died and two million Vietnamese.

The big difference is that the people leading the struggle against the US in Vietnam described themselves as Communists and were, in their own fashion, part of that tradition.

They understood the importance of winning over the American population to the anti-war movement. There is no similar organisation leading the resistance in Iraq.

There isn’t even a single organisation, there are many—nationalist, secular and, increasingly, religious. They have no idea how to intervene politically in global politics.

One reason we don’t have a single resistance organisation is the decision of the Iraqi Communist Party to join the occupation, instead of opposing it, which is a disgrace.

The other big difference between Vietnam and Iraq, is that during the Vietnam War the majority of the British population supported the war. I remember the figures well, at the peak of our movement we had 38 percent of the population supporting us.

In the US right until the end the majority supported the government. The minority kept increasing, and eventually that minority captured the ranks of ordinary GIs. When the GIs demonstrated against the war with their uniforms and medals, some on crutches, the establishment realised they could not carry on.

The Vietnamese made a special effort to talk to black troops. I was in Vietnam and saw their propaganda. It asked, “Why are you defending your ruling system? What has it done for you?” You began to see the number of desertions by black GIs grow from a trickle until you had a special group called Black GIs Against the War.

Their slogan was: “I ain’t gonna go to Vietnam, because Vietnam is where I am. Hell no, I ain’t gonna go.”

The raising of consciousness was because of what they found when they got back to the US — racism and appalling social conditions. In 1968 a wave of riots swept US cities.

Many of the riot leaders were black GIs who knew how to use weapons.

During the Vietnam War we set up a War Crimes Tribunal. One reason was that Jean-Paul Sartre and Bertand Russell said that war crimes were being committed in Vietnam.

We were attacked by the media and told it was fantasy. But six months later they were forced to accept that the My Lai massacre had taken place, because the US journalist Seymour Hersh had got hold of the evidence and published it. Suddenly everyone was talking about atrocities.

Today there is publicly available information about US soldiers shooting Iraqi prisoners dead. When they are asked why they did it they say, “We were being kind to them, they were wounded and we were putting them out of their misery.”

They have humiliated prisoners in Abu Ghraib, which is well known, but they also have torture centres in Jordan, Pakistan and Egypt where they send people to be tortured by specialists.

We know that they have made it their policy to urinate and shit on prisoners to humiliate them.

This is how colonials behave. They don’t know any other way, because there isn’t any other way if you are occupying someone’s country. It’s the logic of colonial occupation. There is continuity in what empires do.

I remember the French occupation of Algeria. The French used to call the Algerians filthy terrorists because they bombed cafes in Algiers.

The Algerian National Liberation Front used to reply, “We do what we have to do to drive you out of our country. If you don’t want us to bomb cafes where you and your friends sit, then please lend us a few fighter bombers and we can bomb your barracks.”

Throughout the Vietnam War the US denounced the Vietnamese when they planted bombs in the capital, Saigon. But the resistance had to do this to make the country ungovernable.

It is not a pretty thing. But the character of the occupation determines the nature of the resistance — this is true in every single instance.

We in the anti-war movement shouldn’t lose our nerve when things happen, such as the bombing in London.

The people who carried out these bombings are not part of our world, but they are angered by what they’ve seen. One argument that’s been taking place is with those who say, “We hadn’t attacked Iraq when 9/11 took place.”

But that was an attack on the US empire by people who were almost its former employees — people who had worked with the US in Afghanistan.

And they said why they carried it out — because of the US presence in Saudi Arabia. It is the Western presence in the Arab world that causes these problems. Unless there is a political solution, the terror will go on.

I notice George Galloway is in the audience tonight.

I’d like to say something publicly to George Galloway — your presence in the House of Commons is one of the biggest weapons we have in this country.

I know how the media goes after people in this country. They did it to me in the 1960s, they did it to Arthur Scargill during the Miners’ Strike, they did it to Ken Livingstone when he was running the GLC, they did it to Tony Benn when he ran for the leadership of the Labour Party and now they are doing it to George.

When the Sun publishes a picture of George, with a headline saying this is the most vile man in Britain, he should be proud. It shows that the political point we are making cannot be answered.

We may have our own opinions on Blair, his hairpiece or his wife’s shopping habits, but we attack his politics.

The ideas we have put forward — the link between the bombing and the war on Iraq — is more or less common sense on the streets throughout Britain. People who might not even like us are saying, “If we hadn’t gone to Iraq, they might not have bombed us.”

That’s why the establishment have united around the idea that this has nothing to do with Iraq. We have to be clear — it does have something to do with Iraq and, unless we pull out, it may happen again.

Tariq Ali was speaking at Marxism 2005. CDs of this and other meetings can be ordered from Bookmarks. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

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