In 2003, during the run-up to the war in Iraq, I was living in Hollywood, where at the time I was working as Ben Affleck’s stand-in on the movie Surviving Christmas. The experience is recounted in my book, Dreams That Die, just published by Zero Books. Given that Affleck has just won the BAFTA for the movie Argo, and with this week marking the tenth anniversary of the historic international day of protest on February 15 2003, here is an extract from the book on my experience on the set of the movie in the immediate aftermath of the February 15 demo in Los Angeles.
The Monday after the demonstration saw me arrive for the start of another week on the movie in high spirits. The enormous size and number of demonstrations that had taken place around the world had hit the headlines, managing to knock the pro-war consensus within the mainstream off the front pages of all the major newspapers, as well as relegating them in order of importance on the TV news bulletins.
On the set it was interesting to hear the differing opinions of the antiwar movement. More than a few, consisting of those who supported Bush without equivocation or condition and wholeheartedly believed in the ‘mission’ to get Saddam, dismissed the protesters as traitors. Others, more liberal in outlook, though still of the belief that the US was the greatest nation on earth, abhorred the Bush administration. Conscious of what they referred to as ‘America’s place in the world’, which they viewed as a shining example of other nations to follow rather than a hammed to be feared and loathed, they watched aghast as Bush and his cronies set about turning their beloved country into a rogue state. The liberal antiwar stance they espoused was reflective of the view that the US should only go to war against Iraq under a UN mandate and not unilaterally. They weren’t concerned about the damage already that had already been done to the Iraqi people by the sanctions, nor were they overly concerned at the prospect of innocent Iraqis being blown to smithereens if the US went ahead and attacked. Their primary concern was the welfare of the troops (our boys) and America’s image and standing in the eyes of the world. In other words, they supported the same aims as the neocons – namely US domination – but advocated different, subtler means of achieving those aims. This difference in form not content is what separated Democrats and Republicans and had done more or less throughout the nation’s history.
By now word had gotten round that I was involved in the antiwar movement, and I began to detect hostility from various quarters as a consequence. Affleck’s bodyguard Scott for example had taken to throwing me dirty looks when he wasn’t ignoring me completely. The same with his personal assistant. Too bad.
There remained one of two sympathetic voices on the crew as well, though. Sadly they weren’t very vocal, preferring to keep their antiwar and anti-Bush sentiments quiet. Their reluctance to speak out was illustrative of the fear, now commonplace, of being labelled unpatriotic or anti-American. It was a fear prevalent not just on the set of this movie but within the country as a whole.
Later that day another UN debate was due to be held on Iraq, on whether or not the Iraqi government was complying with the inspections that were now scouring the country looking for stockpiles of WMD. Despite being at work, I was determined to listen to some of the proceedings on the radio one way or another, especially now that events were approaching the point of no return.
Finally, Manny the DP announced that the shot was ready and the call went up for first team. Along with my fellow stand-ins, I began making my way off the set to make way for the principals, who began to arrive in their usual ones and twos. James Gandolfini as ever was the first to appear, hitting everyone with his customary jovial smile and friendly greeting as he took up his position. I was just heading over to the corner of the soundstage where the stand-ins were congregated when the soundstage door opened and in came Affleck’s entourage, followed by the man himself. Standing directly in their path it was a moment that called for acknowledgement in the form of a nod or a polite greeting. But this was Hollywood, where a different kind of normality prevailed, and all five of them walked right past me as if I didn’t exist, had never existed, and would never exist in any shape or form worthy of recognition. I continued on over to my chair and picked up the book I was reading – the Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Frederich Engels – and resumed reading where I’d left off.
‘The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freemen and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.’
Five or ten minutes later, I got up again and began walking across the soundstage in the direction of the exit, heading for the bathroom. As I passed the set I could hear the voices of Ben Affleck and his many sycophants, interspersed with loud laughter. Suddenly, Affleck led off on a rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. Almost immediately he was joined by others, until the entire set was united in song.
I continued on my way to the bathroom. What else could I do? I was desperate for a shit.
Dreams That Die is currently available from Word Power Books
by Joe Glenton
Contrary to the spin regarding the capabilities of the Afghan security forces,withdrawal of British troops from the country is being driven solely by insider attacks and opposition at home.
The exit strategy for the ISAF had been getting Afghan security forces to fend for themselves, so that control of the country could be continued by proxy. This task, by all credible accounts, has not been achieved. Rather, the insider attacks have scuppered the training program, and now we are seeing the onset of the “cut and run” that politicians have talked up for so long.
Think what you will of the politics of the resistance, but even if you mischaracterise all, or even most, of the opponents of occupation as Islamist, the strategy of “insider” attacks has an undeniable Tet quality to it. It should also be noted that a resistance on any scale, let alone the scale of the insurgency in Afghanistan, needs support and sanction by the population to go anywhere.
An insurgent relies on the people for support, intelligence, shelter and political approval, even for extra firepower. Attacks on ISAF patrols in Afghanistan in the past have been supported, quite spontaneously at times, by locals coming from miles around to take pot-shots at the intruders, as was reported in David Kilcullen’s excellent book The Accidental Guerrilla.
The long game
Likewise, it’s easy to refute claims by a leading US general that a lack of fighting in Helmand – leading to the boredom of marines – constitutes a sign of progress. To make that argument you would have to ignore, firstly, the seasonal nature of fighting in Afghanistan – did anyone tell the general it is winter? Secondly, you’d have to miss the nature of the war itself; what insurgent would blunder into a province flooded with US Marines? The Afghans have played the long game. It has served them today as it has in previous occupations.
The only way out for ISAF was for the constituent militaries to train their way free, so the whole program had come to rest on this, and the threat of insider killings has made that plan politically untenable. For good measure, even our own side consider the ISAF presence an “occupation”.
The other major factor in this is, of course, the rejection of the war at home. Though not because the public do not grasp Afghanistan’s complexities, as has been suggested in the past – rather, it’s precisely because people do understand. The occupation has become a conversational punch-bag, it seems, everywhere except Westminster; though one suspects that in some quarters it is a grim in-joke there as well. At the same time as people support servicemen on a human level and condemn their betrayal by successive governments, the war has been a waddling tragedy since 2006.
It is an insult to talk of withdrawal in terms of the cost in pounds, as some do, when the cost in mutilation and death is what cuts us the most. I do not count these deaths as lightly as the government; I have seen a number of familiar faces appear on television, accompanied by words like: “Today, another soldier…”
What is clear is that the Afghans, portrayed as feckless and needy each time the occupation needed to be re-justified, are still, as ever, capable of controlling their own territory and their own lives and driving occupiers out of both. Defeat has been a steady drip-drip for the west, but it is defeat nonetheless.
Like Iraq, Afghanistan has a reasonably pliable government for now, but arguably the greatest collection of military power in history has been ground down by ordinary people with no planes, no armour, no drones and no illusions about why Afghanistan was invaded.
Even very recently in the Kabul Bank saga, it has been clear that capital flows out of the country and I would expect that to increase in the coming months. I also expect to see prominent public figures rushing to catch up with their loot in Dubai and similar sanctuaries.
More conventional attempts at robbery are being employed at home to escape a grim fate in Afghanistan. Only this week Private Stephen Evans, 20, of theRoyal Welsh Regiment was convicted for attempting an armed robbery in order to escape of a third tour of Afghanistan. The judge took into account his“suffering post-traumatic stress disorder following his tour of Afghanistan”.
A bizarre route to take, but not totally inexplicable when you realise the average reading age of a soldier joining the infantry is ten and most other ways to get treatment or air objections are obscured or denied.
This young man may have been expressing a conscientious objection; which soldiers have a legal, contractual right to have recognised. It is a hard road, but it is better than being the last man to die for hubris.
It’s not easy being on the left at this time of year. The annual Remembrance season unleashes a massive social pressure to conform to a national narrative of respect for the troops who’ve ‘sacrificed’ their lives for the nation in its wars in the past, and support for those currently fighting its wars in the present.
For those in the public eye this pressure is especially pronounced, with TV presenters, celebrities, and studio guests ensuring on pain of public opprobrium that they have a poppy pinned to their chests. A notable exception to this is Channel Four’s Jon Snow, who in the past has described it as ‘poppy fascism’. I recall this time last year George Galloway telling me how he was put under pressure by Sky to wear a poppy when he was on to review the papers. Of course, he refused, but it does illustrate the hysteria that is whipped up and of how the poppy and Remembrance Day has been politicised.
A few days ago I had a piece on Remembrance Day published at the Huffington Post. It’s an amended version of an article I posted on Socialist Unity this time last year. I have to admit I thought twice before deciding to send it in, anticipating a hostile backlash. I’m happy to say the response to the article has been overwhelmingly positive, with over 400 people clicking on the ‘Like’ icon thus far.
I also appeared on BBC Scotland’s ‘Call Kaye’ phone-in show last week to debate the politicisation of the poppy with Ian McGregor, Chief Executive of Poppyscotland. When I was contacted about doing the show the night before, I was told that McGregor had come out publicly and stated that people can wear the red poppy and still be antiwar. They were trying to get me to say the opposite – i.e. that you can’t wear the poppy and be antiwar. I realised immediately that this was a set-up, so I responded to the producer that conceivably you can be antiwar and wear anything you like, but that the red poppy cannot be considered an antiwar symbol, given that it’s been so politicised. Anyway, I went on the show the following morning and lo and behold they did their best to make me out to be against the poppy and therefore against the troops and their families, etc.
You can listen to the debate here. The item starts at around 47.00 in.
As a result of the Huffington Post piece, I received a tweet this morning from someone who’d read and liked it. She drew my attention to the furore that’s broken out in response to the decision by Daniel Cooper to refuse, in his capacity as Vice President of the University of London Union, an invitation to lay a wreath at the University of London remembrance service. Daniel, a socialist, wrote an outstanding letter laying out the reasons for his decision not to participate, which everyone should read.
Regardless, his decision has met with condemnation bordering on anathematization, consisting of a dedicated Facebook page demanding his resignation and this article in the Daily Tab, a London newspaper I’ve never heard of.
This to me emphasises the need for the left to challenge the conventional narrative surrounding the poppy and Remembrance Day no matter how hard or difficult it might be. The alternative is to cede ground in the battle of ideas to the right when it comes to setting the narrative not only in terms of the history of Britain’s wars, but more importantly over fomenting support for its present and future wars.
Overall, this week leaves me even more in awe of those giants in the history of the left who paid a far heavier price than any of us have had to pay for maintaining an antiwar stance in the face of such nationalist hysteria and patriotic fervour surrounding the militarisms of their respective countries. I’m thinking here of people like John MacLean, Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg, and Eugene Debs.
As Liebknecht wrote: ‘Capitalism is war; socialism is peace’.
A simple statement, one he dedicated himself to upholding, and ultimately one that cost him his life.
The ritual of tribute to fallen soldiers is a tradition which stretches back to ancient times. From antiquity to the present day the exaltation of those who have died fighting in a tribe’s, city state’s or nation’s wars has played a crucial role in uniting said state or nation around a common narrative of shared purpose and values.
In this country we have the annual tribute of Remembrance Sunday, observed each year on the closest Sunday to November 11, the anniversary of Armistice Day which brought the First World War to an end in 1918.
Young and old, rich and poor, the message embraced on Remembrance Sunday is that regardless of our differences we are all joined by a common nationality, heritage and history; and that those who died fighting in the nation’s wars did so in the interests of the entire nation, and as such are worthy of the entire nation’s admiration, gratitude and honour.
However there is an insidious side to this annual ritual, a ritual which has taken on the mantle of a national shibboleth. It is that at bottom the trumpets, monuments, and fanfare are not designed to mourn the dead but instead to glorify the nature of their deaths and, by extension, extol the virtues of militarism and the nation’s martial might.
This is even more relevant when we consider Britain’s recent participation in the wars in Iraq and its continuing role in Afghanistan – wars in which tens of thousands of civilians have also been killed or maimed, and for whom there is no monument or ritual of remembrance – not forgetting the myriad other colonial wars in places like Malaya, Kenya, Yemen and closer to home, Ireland.
The sight of politicians, the royal family and various other members of the nation’s ruling elite laying wreaths at the cenotaph to commemorate the deaths and slaughter of the untold thousands of working class men, used as cannon fodder to maintain the class privileges which they and theirs enjoy, is an act of sickening hypocrisy to behold.
No amount of national propaganda can conceal the truth that lies behind this hypocrisy – namely that Britain’s role in the world is an ignoble and eminently dishonourable one, and that the apotheosis of militarism which this annual ritual engenders acts as a recruiting sergeant to encourage succeeding generations of young men, starved of opportunity and prospects at home, to join up and likewise kill and be killed in the interests of national prestige and economic advantage for the few.
Even when it comes to those wars that may have been morally justified in being waged, such as the Second World War against fascism, there are truths attached that dare not speak their name. The first of these is that were it not for the savage peace terms forced on Germany in the wake of the First World War, Hitler’s rise on the back of the destitution endured by millions of Germans would probably never have taken place. The second is were it not for the subsequent years of appeasement that was largely driven by the sympathy and latent support for the Nazis on the part of a significant section of the ruling class in this country, he would likely have been stopped at a far earlier stage in his ambitions.
The untold thousands of predominately young working class men who have gone to their deaths in Britain’s wars and countless military adventures have done so in the interests of a ruling elite which has demonstrated little desire to offer them anything at home apart from poverty, alienation and a perennial struggle to make ends meet.
This is the ugly reality that lies behind the mask of ritual surrounding Remembrance Sunday. And no amount of fanfare or propaganda can ever completely conceal it.
In the words of James Connolly: “…the first blast of the bugles of war ever sounds for the time being the funeral knell of human progress.”
The decision by both China and Russia to veto the European UN Security Council Resolution on Syria earlier this week has served noticed on the West by both countries that further interventions in the region will be opposed.
Despite amendments made to the text of the resolution by the European allies involved – France, Britain, Germany and Portugal – to try and alleviate the concerns of Russia and China, both governments remained dissatisfied and vetoed it. Russia’s UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin said that draft was based on “the philosophy of confrontation”, while China’s UN ambassador Li Baodong said that Beijing opposed the idea of “interference in (Syria’s) internal affairs”.
The response of the US UN ambassador Susan Rice to the veto was unsurprisingly scathing, describing it as a denial of universal human rights for the Syrian people. That she felt empowered to try and seize any moral high ground on the application of universal human rights when the US remains a major ally of Saudi Arabia, and up until recently was key in helping to maintain Mubarak in power in Egypt, is stark evidence of the hubris that continues to abound in Washington even after the humanitarian disaster precipitated by the US-led invasion of Iraq, and the continuing quagmire in Afghanistan.
What seems clear is that the Arab Spring which has swept through the Middle East in recent months, toppling autocratic regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, and which has seen serious unrest in Bahrain and Yemen, has been actively joined by the US, France, Britain and their attendant allies in order to ensure that what emerges are pro-western regimes and governments that will uphold their geopolitical interests in the region.
Providing further impetus in this regard has been the success of the NATO intervention in Libya, which has proved to be a win-win in terms of the resources applied and its successful outcome. Indeed, the success of the Libyan operation has breathed new life into the concept of humanitarian intervention by the West, or to give it its old name, imperialism, with the prospect of unleashing the same template on Syria clearly a motivating factor in both the drafting of the UN Security Council resolution by the European allies and its subsequent veto by Russia and China.
In fact the experience of Libya – when a UN Security Council resolution to protect innocent civilian life was subsequently transmuted into providing military support for one side in a civil war with the objective of regime change – will understandably have deepened the resolve of both China and Russia not to be caught out in this regard a second time.
Though the Cold War is no longer central to international affairs, there has been a resurgence of something akin to it in recent years, a result of China’s emergence as an economic powerhouse, Russia entering a new era of assertiveness vis-à-vis the West, and the West’s comparative economic decline leading to an increased reliance on hard power to maintain and advance its interests. The oil rich Middle East remains every bit as vital to each of the aforementioned power blocs, which is why what we are beginning to witness with regard to the region is a re-enactment of the Great Game that took place in the 19th century between the British and Russian empires. Then the prize was Central Asia and its strategic importance. Now it is oil.
The collection of states that make up the region are currently undergoing seismic upheaval as the contradictions that have for so long defined their existence have burst asunder. This has come under the weight of a global economic crisis which has negatively impacted on their ability to rule in the old way, resulting on the one hand in an inspirational wave of people power rising up from below, and on the other a worrying resurgence of hard power being exercised by western powers, primarily the US, Britain and France, as they seek to place their stamp on its trajectory after being taken by surprise when it first erupted.
The Syrian government’s crime in the eyes of the West isn’t so much the repression being carried against a section of its people. Rather the crime is the consistent support the current regime provides to Hamas and Hezbollah, both implacable foes of Israel, along with its history of opposition and refusal to kowtow to the West.
While the Syrian people are certainly justified in demanding reforms from a regime that for too long has placed an over emphasis on security at the expense of civil rights, the fear of suffering a similar fate to that suffered by Iraq at the hands of the US and its allies, with the same prospect of sectarian civil war, is all too real and cannot be underestimated or easily dismissed.
This is why Russian calls for a diplomatic solution in Syria must be taken seriously, especially as the Kremlin enjoys influence with the Syrian regime. Furthermore, the fact that representatives of the Syrian opposition recently travelled to the Kremlin to meet with deputies from the Russian parliament suggests that this trust is present on both sides when it comes to Moscow’s desire to find a peaceful solution to the crisis.
Salma Yaqoob is interviewing Andrew Murray and Kate Hudson on Politics and Media Show, tonight 10pm, Sky 813 (Islam Channel)