Archive for May 26th, 2008


The United States’ Colonial Armed Forces: “Un-American” Troops?

Vietnamese French Foreign Legionnaire
It has long been the contention of Immanuel Wallerstein, among others, that one of the cost-effective ways of maintaining an empire is to get the colonized to colonize themselves. That is obviously a simple rendition of a long history. Yet let us note that the British Empire engaged in warfare with the help of the various West India Regiments that have existed, later becoming the Caribbean Regiment, the Corps of Colonial Marines, the King’s African Rifles, and the famous Nepalese Brigade of Gurkhas. The French had their Foreign Legion (the first Vietnamese man I ever met in life was an active duty French Foreign Legionnaire, in the photo at left). And now the United States has Latin American and Caribbean persons comprising almost half of all the foreign-born forces. Having an army peopled by troops from the colonies is a common historical feature of modern imperialism. We also know of the many American Indians who join the U.S. military, perhaps one of the reasons why early on there was an almost unanimous cheering of the invasion of Iraq from American Indian tribal governments. Indeed, apart from the American Indian Movement (AIM), which is not a tribal government, neither myself nor others were able to find exceptions when pressed to do so in a rather animated debate that took place on the world-systems discussion list.



Gurkha brigade (top), King’s African Rifles (bottom)

Caribbean World News, reporting numbers provided by the Migration Policy Institute, notes that foreign-born military personnel from Latin America and the Caribbean together comprise 38.7% of all foreign-born U.S. military forces. Specifically, 3,064 are from Jamaica while 1,372 are from the Dominican Republic. In broader terms,

According to data from the Department of Defense, more than 65,000 immigrants were serving on active duty in the US Armed Forces as of February 2008 while since September 2001, the US Citizenship and Immigration Services has naturalized more than 37,250 foreign-born members of the US Armed Forces and granted posthumous citizenship to 111 service members.

As proportions of the overall branches in which they serve, foreign-born individuals comprise 22.9% of those serving in the army, 20.7% of everyone serving in the air force, and 15.5% of the US Marine Corps consists of foreign-born persons.

It is well known, at least among friends and acquaintances of mine in Trinidad, that one route to U.S. citizenship is not across the Mexican border, as shrill media commentators like to “remind” us, but rather the U.S. military. When American political leaders and media personalities engage in their familiar incantations — “support the troops,” “the troops are heroes,” and suggestions that a real American is one who “served his country,” one who “wore the uniform” — it is ironic that they themselves do not realize that they are praising the American-ness of a substantial number of non-Americans.


Fidel: Obama, the “Empire’s Hypocrite”

Not all is cheerful on the Caribbean front for Senator Barack Obama, someone who has gained the public support, memorialized in reggae and calypso tunes (as featured on this blog), by some prominent artists in the region. Writing in Granma‘s edition for Monday, 26 May, 2008, in a column titled, “The empire’s hypocritical politics” — a surprisingly short column considering the title which suggests a piece of encyclopedic proportions — Fidel Castro begins by saying: “it would be dishonest of me to remain silent after hearing the speech Obama delivered on the afternoon of May 23 at the Cuban American National Foundation created by Ronald Reagan.” Fidel quotes Obama as saying the following:

“Throughout my entire life, there has been injustice and repression in Cuba. Never, in my lifetime, have the people of Cuba known freedom. Never, in the lives of two generations of Cubans, have the people of Cuba known democracy. (…) This is the terrible and tragic status quo that we have known for half a century – of elections that are anything but free or fair (…) I won’t stand for this injustice, you won’t stand for this injustice, and together we will stand up for freedom in Cuba,” he told annexationists, adding: “It’s time to let Cuban American money make their families less dependent upon the Castro regime. (…) I will maintain the embargo.”

(The Cuban American National Foundation does not carry the text of Obama’s speech on its website.)

Fidel reports on an irony, in light of Hillary Clinton’s odd obsession with referencing Senator Robert Kennedy’s assassination in totally unrelated contexts, that Obama himself praised a man, Jose Hernandez, whose plans to assassinate Fidel himself in Venezuela were unmasked by authorities there. Given the furious outrage over any shadow of a comment that “something might happen” to Obama, it is interesting, but not by any means surprising, to see how utterly silent American public commentary is on the issue of murdering foreign heads of state, even when the prospective murderers are applauded by the likes of an Obama. When there is not silence, there is cheering, when even “The Daily Show” can make grotesque humour of the hanging of Saddam Hussein (one wonders how many lower halves of exploded US troops they featured in comical spoofs for Memorial Day).

Of course the other irony is that everything Obama stated could just as easily, or more easily, apply to China…which does not seem to be suffering from anything remotely resembling an embargo. Why does Obama fall into line so easily, and what sort of different candidate is he, to be exact?

Fidel sums up his reaction to the speech’s contents as follows:

“Presidential candidate Obama’s speech may be formulated as follows: hunger for the nation, remittances as charitable hand-outs and visits to Cuba as propaganda for consumerism and the unsustainable way of life behind it.”

In addition, Fidel poses a reasonable question to Obama, which is to explain how he thinks such terrible injustices could be perpetrated in Cuba for so long:

“No small and blockaded country like ours would have been able to hold its ground for so long on the basis of ambition, vanity, deceit or the abuse of power, the kind of power its neighbor has. To state otherwise is an insult to the intelligence of our heroic people.”

The rest of Fidel Castro’s commentary elaborates on the injustices perpetrated by the United States worldwide, without showering Obama with enmity. It is useful to have this sort of balance, when it is doubtful that, in terms of its global positioning, the United States will differ in any substantial manner under a President Obama. While promising a “phased” withdrawal from Iraq, Obama has promised renewed military action in Afghanistan. Why? Did Afghanistan attack the United States in 2001? Is Al Qaida based in Afghanistan? The same questions apply to a host of European nations, as well as Canada, which also have troops there.

Where are Obama’s stirring speeches against the use of torture, against the abusive detentions of hundreds of innocents in Guantanamo, of the countless violations of international treaties? When has Obama sought to educate his fellow citizens against maintaining imperial ambitions? When has Obama questioned why the U.S. is engaged in the world in the way it has been, why there is the automatic assumption that the U.S. must be ubiquitous like some god? Why has Obama not led his fellow citizens in questioning their right to tell anyone what to do and how to live? When has Obama questioned the U.S. approach in denying Iran’s international rights to nuclear energy? How has Obama proposed to pay compensation to millions of Iraqis, and to thousands of illegally detained persons? How does Obama propose to bring an end to NAFTA, which he seemed to criticize a few months ago?

If, however, Obama is “secretly” planning a serious transformation in the ways the U.S. engages in geopolitical dominance, then the problem that raises is that of votes acquired under false pretenses. That problem would be magnified given Obama’s insistence on courting votes from almost every sector imaginable, including the upper crust of Miami’s Cuban elites in this case. One does not, and ought not, play to every gallery in town when proposing radical changes. The resilient lack of fundamental questioning of U.S. imperial engagement, and the multiple masks and shields that have been politically instituted and culturally elaborated so as to make imperialism immune to the threat of such questioning, effectively render the U.S. a one-party state governed by decreasingly covert, and increasingly orthodox and defensive forms of totalitarianism. I still find it jarring to hear every leading candidate in the U.S. speak in terms of enemies, force, striking, leadership, and war — ultimately, this is the most consistent and distinctive feature of American domestic politics that contrasts violently with the political discourse to be found in most if not all other self-declared democracies. The U.S. has been in a permanent state of war since World War II*, and I have heard nothing from Obama that suggests an end is in sight.

(*This is a conservative statement: depending on some chronologies, such as this one, the U.S. has been engaged in warfare for over 200 years, almost constantly and with only very brief pauses.)

In terms of some stock American pathologies, shared by a number of American anthropologists who have no qualms about marching into Iraq and Afghanistan, armed and uniformed, “to do research to help people,” Obama is nothing new and offers no correctives and no example of inspiring difference. For someone who can so easily speak of the “marvelous” and “heroic” job done by U.S. troops in Iraq, this should serve as a chilling reminder that “change” in U.S. politics is often very superficial and sometimes the prelude to a new phase of imperial expansionism. Among those routinely singled out for representing a break with the pattern of America-the-brute, one can count John Kennedy (Vietnam, Bay of Pigs, Alliance for Progress), Jimmy Carter (El Salvador), and Bill Clinton (Desert Fox, Kosovo). Indeed, since World War II, and arguably for over 100 years, with the possible exception of Gerald Ford there has not been one single U.S. President who has not committed U.S. forces abroad or ordered military attacks against another nation. That is quite a track record, even for a rogue state, and nothing Obama has said promises any difference on this score. Hypocrisy is not so interesting by itself, were it not for the fact that one can use it to point to the presence of orthodoxy, since hypocrisy is an almost universal feature of all orthodoxies.


Revolution (3 Canal): “This land is ‘mines’ “

Another of my favourite Rapso pieces from 3-Canal, a visually very attractive video in my eyes, one that manages to bring out the revolutionary shades of the Trinidadian flag itself, in an act of reinterpretation. The last quarter of the video, showing the singers and dancers splashed in black oil, paint, and beating biscuit tins is a fairly good representation of what one would see during J’Ouvert street celebrations at the dawn of Carnival in Trinidad. If Soca has been associated with Carnival, then one might argue that 3-Canal is a J’Ouvert music band given its consistent use of J’Ouvert imagery. J’Ouvert is arguably the last, largely non-commercial, non-competitive, free, open, even home-spun activity of the Carnival season. Costumes are improvised, humorous messages quickly painted on placards, little acts performed in the street, with a deep plunge into otherness in the depths of the night — it’s in J’Ouvert that Carib breweries might throw a few dollars at a small band called Taliban, giving us “Carib Taliban,” a name loaded with cannibalism, terrorism, and beer. In J’Ouvert, everybody “loses it” for a good while, Trinidadians and foreign visitors alike, brought on by a mixture of trance, drunkenness, heat exhaustion, arousal. It’s great to be part of a pulsating throng of dark silhouettes in chaos moving through the streets of Port of Spain at night, getting a spiritual sense that anything could happen, that the world has fallen away, that something new could come. No wonder that 3-Canal’s cutting lyrics are accompanied by this J’Ouvert ethos. Enjoy the video — I know you will be back to see it again when three days from now you find yourself humming it without any provocation.


Restoration: More Indigenous than the Ancestors, in the Poet’s Eye

I was struck by this passage from Derek Walcott‘s acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992. I had read this at the time it was released and had forgotten this passage until I accidentally found it again in the last few weeks.

Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole. The glue that fits the pieces is the sealing of its original shape. It is such a love that reassembles our African and Asiatic fragments, the cracked heirlooms whose restoration shows its white scars. This gathering of broken pieces is the care and pain of the Antilles, and if the pieces are disparate, ill-fitting, they contain more pain than their original sculpture, those icons and sacred vessels taken for granted in their ancestral places. Antillean art is this restoration of our shattered histories, our shards of vocabulary, our archipelago becoming a synonym for pieces broken off from the original continent.

The love that goes into restoration is even stronger than the love which took reality for granted. In the vision of the poet, what some have called the “Taino restoration” brings us face to face with people who are more firmly committed, attentive, and protective of indigenous heritage than even the ancestors that they take care to respect — what a refreshing difference from scornful remarks about the “neo-Taino” as mere “wannabes” who are not “real,” not “real” like “real Indians of the past.” I take it that “white scars” can have multiple meanings here: a direct reference to glue, thus of binding, and healing; the sea, uniting Caribbean islands, these fragments of the mainland; and/or, the history of colonialism, white domination, that wrought the breakage to begin with. And finally the poem places the Antilles within a South American embrace, now bringing together the poet with the archaeologist while reminding a region of a history that is too often forgotten, willfully even.



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May 2008
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trinidad street graffiti images courtesy of; all other photos courtesy of caribbeanfreephoto, under Creative Commons licenses.


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