I used to think of the Iraq-Afghanistan Wars as somewhat Orwellian: the braying voices of politicians committing us to endless war against unseen enemies, the constant lies and the clumsy but barefaced covering up of those lies, the imprisonment of mildly dissenting citizens for crimes the state decides the nature of in secret and at their discretion and the presentation of the inciters of war as homely, steadfast and moral guardians of the social good.

Now, after the latest WikiLeaks release, it’s Dante that comes to mind. I need some metaphor to help with the visceral response to the revelation of Fragmentary Order 242. I’m not fond of using literary shibboleths to give me a way of coping with human suffering, but reaching for Orwell or the Inferno or both seems meaningful in this instance, as in others.

The thing that has always struck me about the Inferno is the kind of sickening claustrophobia that keeps being ratcheted as Dante descends the rings of Hell. Every time we think that we’ve been horrified by our own mental response, we seem to get an exponential increase in it as we level up while levelling down, so to speak.

Frago 242 orders coalition troops not to investigate any abuses of what the Guardian demurely calls ‘the laws of armed conflict’ – that is, torture, kidnapping, murder, rape etc – unless coalition troops are involved. This has essentially meant an official sanctioning of the grossest violations of human rights and a systematising of brutality as a mundane form of political control and conflict. What WikiLeaks has revealed is that beneath the lie of the war itself – and the lies about civilian casualties, the traumatised and abandoned vets, the further deceptions concerning secret prisons and rendition flights, and so on – there is now a whole other underworld where the lid’s torn off, showing visions that make the schlock-Dante depictions of horror in the Chapman Brothers works look positively anaemic.
Chapman Bros Hell.

If Bush and Howard and Blair had sat down to deliberately design a war that not only demonstrated the corruption at the heart of their politics, but also invent new horrors to appal a world that thought it had seen everything, they couldn’t have done a better job. It’s not just the scale of the torment in Iraq and Afghanistan that’s so unbelievable, but the enormous and mindboggling apparatus devoted to the official lying and justifications.

For the most part, the media is happy to use those lies as copy. With this raft of documents, WikiLeaks has tried to increase the impact by releasing them to a wider range of media organisations. It was certainly wise, if only to ensure that the initial framing of the content of the documents wasn’t just left to a few big guns. The Guardian has headlined the leaks and gone for key points such as Frago 242, well illustrated with their usual interactives and with plenty of links to the original logs. The New York Times, much more sinisterly, has led with a negative profile piece on Assange, shown paranoidly slinking around the globe in a clutter of personal controversy. I can only assume that they’ve been sitting on this piece waiting for the latest release of documents. Le Monde have bumped the leaks down beneath the current nationwide demonstrations and next to a video about Cristiano Ronaldo, while Al-Jazeera have gone for blanket coverage of everything they can fit on the page. The Fairfax papers have of course given the leaks a very tiny patch, just a few brusque lines under ‘World’. This is actually something of an upgrade from last time when the WikiLeaks dump was filed under ‘Technology’, along with reviews of the iPad and console games.

I can’t imagine that the Iraq-Afghanistan invasion can stop unravelling like this. Its evil, deliberately engineered by the democratically elected representatives of the West, seems to have no end. It’s impossible to know whether these demonic spruikers of the free market are just gobsmackingly stupid or, like the Preacher in the HBO series Carnivale, just sow mayhem and brutality because they can, because it suits them, because it’s expedient, and it makes them feel good. At any rate, the politics of the war are nothing new, and Orwell’s prescience seems more prescient all the time. It’s an unbelievable industry of lying, a lying masquerading as piety that’s so nauseating and so terrifying, lies spoken to mask the thousands and thousands of murders, and an even greater number of instances of torture, rape and mutilation.

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  1. Machiavelli has such a bad name: have you considered that your moral innocence and purity might actually be incompatible with the effective exercise of political power on any considerable scale?

  2. Mmm, if I had any moral innocence left I’m not sure where it’s hidden. I think political power has become synonymous with certain kinds of thinking, living and acting. ‘Moral purity’ is what many current political conventions are founded on; axis of evil, harsher sentencing, big society, mutual obligation and so on and so forth. I want to continue to foreground things like Iraq/Afgnanistan and so forth because they are pushed as political and moral enterprises – which they are, but not in the sense that I think of moral and political enterprises. The moral is always political, though the morally pure always seek to divide the moral from the political or unite it as they see fit. Your comment reminds me that its not the first time I’ve been told that I write as a moralist. I think the implication has been that such writing is not political, that it’s somehow a naive attempt to encourage people to be nice to each other, and that ‘political action’ is somehow more hard-headed, has more realpolitik in its honest, noble and grimy grappling with the injustice of the world etc etc. There’s a political element in everything we do, from having a cappuccino to buying a bottle of Scotch, and probably politics is never more present that when we claim it isn’t, that we’re just having fun or someone is just moralising, or whatever.

  3. And what I also neglected to say – or started to, but got side-tracked by myself – is that thinking about Iraq and so on, at least publcly such as Overland’s blogs, is much more interesting than discussing fiction, where politics is either ignored or reified as writing about climate change, or Indigenous possession and so forth.

  4. Sorry, I don’t mean to imply that your writings, or you yourself, have pretensions of moral purity or suffer from political naivety.
    Even in this present context, I think we can agree that ethical conduct is invariably compromised in both the private and the public sphere. In the former it is almost unavoidable but in the latter there is the additional idea that politics and politicians are not only necessarily compromised but that politics rightfully can claim its own ethically autonomous virtues.
    In this idea morality is one thing and politics another. Experience tells us so. This is realism. This is Machiavelli, or a common interpretation of him. Politics is about power. It would be almost fatuous to deny it. There may be some of this in Frag242 and the whole shebang of American foreign policy. Deploying this logic, American presidents can maintain their authentic show of Christian humility.
    Be that as it may, the surreptitiousness of Frags and renditions and the rest, reveals an anxiety on the part of Americans about whether these are necessary and justified moral compromises. Certainly allies might ask this question.
    But perhaps these actions are simply and horribly a natural outcome of their whole political and moral ideology, which turns out not to be too different from that of Machiavelli: vigour, vitality, strength of purpose, boldness, ambition, patriotism and the desire to acquire and hold on to power. Kinda Roman ideals.
    Just as you say there is politics in a cuppa, so there is morality in bi-lateral talks.
    One would hope that a Gillard can properly weigh up the compromises from an Australian ethical perspective.

    1. What on earth is “an Australian ethical perspective”?
      Is is sharing the vegemite? Not lying about the footy results?

      1. It’s making value judgements from an Australian perspective which might just mean from the other side of the Pacific but I suspect it’s a whole lot more. Why should it be assumed that our values and interests are identical to the Americans? We’re not as religious as they are for a start. We have long had Afghanistan people living in the centre of the outback. We spell words differently. We have different ideas about sanity and madness and what makes the good life. And yes, we have vegemite and our own footy. In fact, the sardonic reflexive viewpoint which I take you to be expressing, is another point of departure from the Septic Tanks who are singularly lacking in irony. Australians have refused to accept the raison d’etat for torture since the end of the convict days. Maybe if they respected our opinion and politely asked for it, we might courteously tell them to stop doing it.

  5. Feel free to impugn as you wish. No problem. Ethical stances are always compromised in some way. Its a question of whether or not I can build that into my ethical stance and how I do so. There is always power at work. Generally power always seeks to deny its own existence; its the natural order of things, or it’s justice, or it’s best practice, or a standard of excellence, or whatever. Or even, ‘This not the time for moralising, it is the time to act’. But as you say, there’s always some structural anxiety in there that has to be buried, or obscured, but that leaks out anyway. Bit if you put ‘Gillard’ and ethics in the same sentence, you’re always going to be asking for trouble.

  6. OK, impugn I will.
    That’s very interesting, the concept of building compromise into an ethical system, because then there can no longer be such thing as compromise. The theory and practice of power subsumed into an irresistible concept of the good. We all can and will improve ourselves above and beyond the point at which considerations of power are relevant. There is only one correct, objectively valid solution to the question of how all humanity should live and the beauty is that you already have a way to enforce it. Go direct to cosmic editorship. BTW, mind if I indulge in a spot of torture?

  7. I need to clarify something I think. The cpmpromised ethical stance is not a compromise of the ethics, but a flexibility of method. Which is the same as saying that my methods can be endlessly innovative. I’m not seeking to engage in the faux-ethical question of the sort typified by the ‘Would you torture someone to prevent a September 11’ argument. For example, I may be committed to a certain kind of justice, in relation to certain people or structures and so on. But programs and stances and so forth to create that justice have to be infinitely pluralist. When my ethical stance is wedded to a specific method, a specific utopia, then I’m in trouble.

    1. A plurality of kinds of justice – Plato would be offended. What’s the body count for Australian soldiers up to now?

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