Study, Learn & Resist: Historians Against the War 2013

Study, Learn & Resist: Historians Against the War 2013

Stephen Downs & Hany Massoud speak about political prisoners; behind them, a wall of names lists people suffering because of pre-emptive prosecution in the "War on Terror"

Historians Against the War formed in 2003 as a coalition of scholars opposing the USA invasion of Iraq. Since then it has conducted numerous events and actions to spread awareness about War. With its 2013 conference, “The New Faces of War”, the group opened its doors to local activists. The conference began with a well-attended event at 2640 Space and continued through the weekend at Towson University.


Habits of Empire


Many of the Historians observed patterns in how techniques of domination spread across time and space. Imperial powers tend to paint local populations with a broad brush, and thus use similar methods to repress them. These methods are copied, shared, and adapted among governments as well as within them.


Imperial powers, by definition, habitually intervene abroad to advance their own economic, military, & political interests. In a panel on the history of USA interventions, Michael Sullivan presented his work on a dataset of 34 USA “adventures” since World War II.


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One of several tables reproduced from Sullivan's American Adventurism Abroad (2008)


Nathan Christensen added Yemen to the list of targets. Christensen discussed the history of foreign intervention in Yemen and explained how the USA has gained control of the country with an extremely militaristic foreign policy. As in Iraq, the USA presence is consolidated in a fortified Green Zone. In the Q&A, Margaret Power pointed out that Puerto Rico, though initially invaded in 1898, has been subjected to the ongoing violence of military colonialism.


In the same panel, Roger Peace analyzed USA policy toward Central America, arguing that these actions within the American “sphere of influence” served as experiments for the exercise of power elsewhere.


The CIA's 1954 coup in Guatemala, for example, achieved immediate regime change with its terrifying combination of military force and psychological warfare. The CIA dubbed the operation an “unblemished success”, and it served as the model and justification for decades of subsequent interventions. That this single event resulted in decades of military rule and violence against indigenous Guatemalans is evidence of how the USA regime defines success.


In a session titled “Plus ça change”, three speakers exposed “old habits” of Empire that persist into present-day wars.


Alice Bullard spoke on war and patriarchy, addressing the unique position of women as a subjugated group that is fully integrated with larger populations. She showed an artwork captioned “First they came for the immigrants” and challenged the audience to imagine what it would mean if “First they came for the women.”


Violence against women, including sexual violence, is an element and a tool of war. It is also a pretext of war, Bullard explains, when one group of men demonizes another by arguing that “they abuse their women”. She emphasized that although the USA has used women's rights as a major justification for its 12-year occupation of Afghanistan, its actions do not reflect attention to this issue.


Melissa Ptacek detailed some military doublethink on France's use of torture in Algeria: a mantra among military academics and officers that, with torture, France "succeeded tactically but failed strategically".  The implication is that torture alienates local populations and loses the hearts and minds, and so is not a wise strategy in the long run. Yet Ptacek has noticed that these same military thinkers actually advocate using torture in the USA War Of Terror, arguing flimsily from the claim that the USA is not a colonial power. Torture has indeed played a major role in today's War.


To Garrison the Empire


Elizabeth F. Thompson (University of Virginia), also in the Plus ça change group, discussed the history of Anglo-American colonialism in Iraq.


Although liberal observers in the USA might have perceived the 2003 Iraq invasion as an exceptional disaster—motivated perhaps by Bush II's desire to continue his father's work—historians like Thompson perceive the most recent Iraq War as an extension of a century-old colonial project. She suggests that many Iraqis feel the same way. The continuity is clear, right down to the claim "We will be greeted as liberators" made both in 2003 and in 1920.


The British Empire began to consider Iraq as part of its domain during World War I. Even as USA President Woodrow Wilson publicly promised self-determination, Britain and France agreed secretly to each take control of Iraq and Syria, respectively. When “Iraq” came into being as a territory in 1920, its people were already in a state of unrest. (Incidentally, this was bipartisan unrest, with organizing meetings held in both and Sunni and Shiite mosques.)


The British cracked down on opposition leaders with arrests and violence. The resistance responded with a fatwa proclaiming that British rule would not be expected. (Thompson identifies this point as a major origin for isolationism within Islamic society, which is generally receptive to the idea of international law and respect for other cultures.)


Winston Churchill, then the British Secretary of War, was among those who called for the Empire to use its air power. “The first duty of the RAF [Royal Air Force] is to garrison the British Empire.”


“I want to suggest that maybe drones are garrisoning an American Empire right now”, added Thompson.


She provided a succinct and chilling description of how Imperial Britain used air power to terrorize and subjugate the Iraq population:



[For more on continuities of imperialism in Iraq, check out Barry Lando's Web of Deceit. Here's an informative interview with Lando, comparing imperialist war crimes with those attributed to Saddam Hussein. Also refer to Ryan Harvey's "Empires Repeat History: The Status of Forces Agreement, The British Mandate, and the Future of Iraq".]


Empire will therefore use air power, like cyberwar, to prolong its period of military dominance during a period of economic decline and public unrest. Drones represent a more effective and more deadly solution to the problem of domestic backlash, since pilots face no physical threats.


Nevertheless, a determined network of activists has already begun to shift public opinion about these robotic killers. 


Know Drones on Campus


A full panel on Sunday morning was devoted to the issue of drone research at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (“JHU/APL”). Speakers connected to the Human Rights Working Group at JHU talked about the APL and its relationship to the University.


Tim Vasko opened the panel by discussing racism on the Hopkins campus itself, arguing that the administration-supported bubble of fear separating the JHU campus from Baltimore City relates directly to the xenophobia and indifference allowing Hopkins researchers to produce robotic instruments of death.


Derek Denman and Joel Andreas delved into the history and structure of the APL, beginning with its creation in 1942 to produce proximity fuzes for the USA in World War II. Since that time, the APL, which occupies a separate campus in Laurel, MD, has become enormous, employing more than ten times the number engineers and scientists than work in JHU's Whiting School of Engineering. This work pulls nearly $1,000,000,000 annually in contracts from the Department of Defense, the the Department of Homeland Security, the National Security Agency, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The APL plans to continue this work, with plans already in place to meet the military's future requests.


The Human Rights Working Group seeks to “make drones controversial at Hopkins”—and they're already succeeding. The group partnered with Luminous Intervention in February to make drones visible during a lecture by General Stanley McChrystal. They have conducted several events in April (a month of nationwide anti-drone activism), including an elaborate operation to educate Hopkins students about Careers in Drone Warfare:



To get involved with the Human Right Working Group: you can get on their email list, follow their Twitter account, or just show up at the events described on their website.


Criminalizing Dissent


Stephen Downs and Hany Massoud gave a presentation on “Criminalizing Dissent”, discussing the incarceration and persecution at home that result from war abroad. Downs talked about how laws against providing “material support” to terrorists are used to criminalize virtually any organization working with Arabs or Muslims in the Middle East. The Holy Land Foundation, for example, was targeted and eventually shut down for “supporting terrorism”—even though the Foundation received no response when they asked the government for instructions on what organizations they could work with.


We heard Hany Massoud's story of how the FBI infiltrated his humanitarian volunteer group in Houston, then arrested everyone except him.



Downs provided some anecdotes about Marlene Jenkins and Tarik Shah, hinting at the range of ridiculous tactics used by the FBI in achieving their (also ridiculous) goals.



Downs spoke about how persecution of this type served not only to silence dissenters, but also to entrench the racist ideology that makes war possible. As Vasko observed about fear and loathing at Johns Hopkins, racism against groups at home makes it easier to demonize their counterparts abroad.


Though not mentioned anywhere on the schedule, the case of Bradley Manning seemed to be on everybody's mind. Manning is a hero for the peace & justice movement because he put himself in harm's way in order to raise awareness about the culture of abuse and dehumanization within the military. No doubt many were thrilled to hear his statement—audio of which (appropriately) leaked out from the courtroom and onto the internet—admitting that he did provide classified materials to Wikileaks, and explaining why he did so.  



Political folk musician (and IndyWriter) Ryan Harvey provoked us with a new song about Manning: “To Keep You Silent” (starts at ~11:45). The song looks at the role of people—whistleblowers and journalists, not to mention political folk musicians—who speak publicly against war and corruption. This group of truthsayers does have enemies: “Some of the same U.S. officials sent over to Iraq specifically to train these parts of the Iraqi security state who are repressing these journalists, are the same people who went and did that across in Latin America in the 70s and 80s. Same types of training, same type of concepts.”


Strategies and tactics of imperialist war will continue to appear and develop on a global scale—since, to the powers waging these wars, the Third World represents nothing more than a source of natural and human materials available for exploitation. Resistance to imperialism therefore also has global significance, particularly when we can shine a light on these secret techniques of domination.


If you live in Maryland, you can attend Bradley Manning's legal events at Fort Meade. Manning supporters gather from 7:30AM to 9:00AM to hold a vigil at the main gate.


Ft. Meade main gate (Annapolis Rd. & Reece Rd.) View Larger Map


Then proceed to Fort Meade Magistrate Court:


Ft. Meade Magistrate Court (4432 Llewellyn Ave.) View Larger Map


The next (and final) pre-trial hearing, concerning how the court will deal with classified information during the trial, takes place on May 21–23. The trial itself is scheduled to begin on June 3 and last for two months; a mass demonstration will take place outside Fort Meade on June 1.



Professor Marc Becker and activist Anna Simons worked hard to facilitate the conference (Photo: James SwartsCC-BY-NC-ND)