The O Word: Christopher Dickey on What Occupation Means Today

Terrorists claim they are up against foreign occupation, but Americans find that idea hard to fathom.

Nicholas Kamm, AFP / Getty Images

Some of America’s first homegrown terrorists were the original Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and they can teach us a lot about the trouble we’re in today at home and in the rest of the world.

As these Christian night riders and cross-burners and lynch mobs of the Klan portrayed themselves, they were resistance fighters in an unequal struggle against foreign (that is, Northern) occupation after they lost their all-out war to secede from the Union in 1865. And they weren’t the only ones who felt that way. In a song I learned as a boy in Atlanta 100 years after Reconstruction, a “Good Ol’ Rebel” declares he “hates the ‘Glorious Union’—’tis dripping with our blood.” He hates the “Freedman’s Bureau” representing the interests of the emancipated slaves. He hates everything about the federal government, especially “the striped banner.” In one telling verse he declares, “300,000 Yankees is stiff in Southern dust! / We got 300,000 before they conquered us. / They died of Southern fever and Southern steel and shot. / But I wish we got 3 million instead of what we got.”

Just about any freedom fighter and any terrorist anywhere in the world would understand this song is about the hatred of foreign occupation. That’s the kind of never-say-die loathing it breeds. But Americans, when they look at the rest of the world, have a hard time imagining that other people feel that way.

It’s hard to overstate the importance and the danger of this disconnect. The narrative of occupation is barely mentioned in the electoral debates now under way, but it is at the center of the prolonged, bloody conflicts to which the United States has become a party.

Had we thought through the implications of occupation 10 years ago, we might not be in Afghanistan still. We might not be withdrawing from Iraq only now. We would have saved the taxpayer a trillion dollars spent on defending ourselves as strangers in strange lands, and we would have saved American families the loss of thousands of men and women. We could demystify the Israeli-Palestinian conflict if we chose. And, looking ahead, we would certainly talk about the risks of military options in Iran or Syria with a whole lot more clarity: some wars you win from the air with local forces on the ground—Kosovo in 1999, Libya in 2011—but not Iran, not Syria. And once you go in on the ground, the occupation begins.

This is a simple fact so inconvenient for American politicians that most of the time it’s just ignored. (The hawks in the George W. Bush administration simply refused to face it.) And as a result, as I pointed out last week in a three-minute video on The Daily Beast, the debate drifts off course. But in the comments about the video on the site, it seems that some readers thought I was adrift. So let’s take another pass, this time with annotations.

The occupiers always ask to be judged by their motives. In the old days, colonial occupiers had what the French called “a mission to civilize.” In Afghanistan and Iraq, the Bush administration told the locals its aim was the “liberation” of people oppressed, respectively, by the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. The Israelis, who fought ferociously against British occupation before they won their independence in 1948, occupied Gaza and the West Bank in 1967 with the idea they’d at last be able to win a deal for coexistence with their Arab neighbors by trading away those lands. No such luck. In 2005, some 38 years after they first occupied Gaza, the Israelis withdrew unilaterally because the burden of resistance and the weight of the Palestinian population—1.4 milllion people, half of them under the age of 18—had grown too heavy. They turned Gaza into a vast prison full of people whose hatred toward them just keeps growing stronger. In the West Bank, meanwhile, the continued growth of settlements—the ultimate symbol of occupation—has become the ultimate barrier to any serious peace talks.

Occupation is like an addiction: once it starts it’s very hard to stop. And there are always some voices that find righteous justification for the occupation to continue: to end it would be to admit error, which would be unacceptable; to end it would weaken the occupiers’ defenses, which would be unthinkable; to end it would be to abandon those locals who have benefited from the occupation, and cooperated with it, which would be unconscionable. And maybe the occupiers come to think of the land as theirs to begin with. The Israelis have tried to replace the term “occupied territories” with “disputed territories.” And so, the occupation goes on.

Unfortunately for the occupiers, no matter how much they believe their rationales, and no matter how virtuous their original motives, the people who are occupied tend to hate them. They feel humiliated by these foreigners who’ve come to impose themselves at every hour of the day and night, telling them what they can and cannot do. Maybe the roads improve, the schools improve; maybe governance and the economy improve (although this is rarely the case). But the occupied do not thank the occupiers, they despise them, as Rudyard Kipling noted at the end of the 19th century, when he warned the Americans about their “savage wars of peace.”

Because occupation and humiliation are pretty much the same thing in the minds of those who are conquered, some will try to win back their pride through violence. Robert Pape at the University of Chicago argued in his 2005 book Dying to Win that there’s a direct correlation between occupation and the proliferation of suicide bombings in the world, starting with the non-Muslim Marxist-Leninist Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka in the 1980s. That civil war, based on a narrative of "foreign" oppression, went on for more than a quarter century. And those extremists who play to that instinct for violent vengeance, claiming it's the best way for people to regain their dignity, will always find a receptive audience among those who are, or have been, occupied. Indeed, that is precisely the line taken by the resurgent Taliban, Hamas, Hezbollah, and, yes, al Qaeda.

At the same time, the United States has found it almost impossible to respond in the battlefield of ideas because American politicians have so much trouble with the O word. President Obama clearly understood the issue when he came into office. Way back in 2002, as a state senator in Illinois, Obama anticipated all the fruitless pain and suffering that would come from what he bluntly called a “dumb war” in Iraq. (It’s a speech worth rereading today for its uncompromising assault on the “weekend warriors” of the Bush administration trying to “shove their ideological agendas down our throats.”) And high on Obama’s bill of particulars in 2002 was the fact that “even a successful war against Iraq will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences.” But Obama dialed back that sort of talk once he changed from opposition candidate to occupier in chief. Euphemisms have triumphed, and one searches in vain for any blunt discussion on the official White House website.

When Americans do think in terms of military occupation, they tend to think of Germany and Japan after World War II, which turned out well. The Bush administration studied those as examples of what could be achieved in Afghanistan and Iraq. But they were the exceptions, not the rule. The Germans and Japanese had to accept there was no other way to rebuild after the vast destruction wrought by the Allies’ merciless war. Urban landscapes had been devastated by napalm and white phosphorous; two major Japanese cities had been leveled by atomic bombs. In Asia the communists of China loomed on the horizon. And in Europe the rump-state half of Germany occupied by the Americans saw clearly that the alternative—occupation by the Soviets—would be much worse.

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So how do you bring home to Americans the importance of this word “occupation” today? Well, in a sense, it’s already here, as a small but growing number of Americans come to believe that “their” America is under the threat of occupation either by Washington, or by Wall Street, or both.

That angry song I learned as a kid has even had a revival of late, and not just in the South. Since Obama’s election, “Good Ol’ Rebel” has been picked up on YouTube as a kind of Tea Party anthem, with hundreds of thousands of clicks on the various versions, including “I’m a Good Ole’ American,” which ends “I’ll gather up my gun / My freedom won’t be taken / I’ll fight ’em ’til I’ve won.” The old threat of white-supremacist violence is still with us. And in many ways that many of them are loath to admit, the Tea Party’s ideologues are the political heirs of the secessionists before and after the Civil War. The Occupy Wall Street movement, toward the other end of the spectrum, may have more of an affinity with the anarchists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Yet unlike their ideological forerunners, the movements of today have learned that the tables can be turned on occupiers with moral force. Those with guns and money find themselves up against people who are determined to take back their space peacefully but relentlessly. We saw it with Gandhi in India; we saw that same spirit when black Americans occupied the fronts of buses and seats at lunch counters in the Jim Crow South; we’ve seen it in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and throughout the Arab world. And we’ve seen it on Wall Street.

To paraphrase a line from the real-estate business, it all comes down to occupation, occupation, occupation.