Publisher's Note — August 18, 2010, 4:23 pm

Of the IRA and the Afghan war

John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper’s Magazine and author of the book You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America. This column originally appeared in the August 18, 2010 Providence Journal.

SAG HARBOR, N.Y. – I know it was supposed to recall the drama of Vietnam, the Pentagon Papers and Daniel Ellsberg, but when WikiLeaks jolted Washington last month with its “revelations” about the Afghan debacle, I was disappointed.

This isn’t to minimize the courage of Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, and the leaker, or leakers, who gave him the documents. I was pleased to see The New York Times, so badly tarnished by its biased reporting in the run-up to the Iraq invasion, help amplify the news. It took guts. I hope that more Ellsberg types will surface in the patriotic mission of providing their fellow Americans with more facts than they usually get from the politicians and the press.

But there was something unrevealing about the actual information that came out. Did we not recognize the incompetence of Hamid Karzai’s Potemkin army? Didn’t we know that many innocent civilians have been killed by unthinking American bombs and terrified American soldiers? Are we really surprised that the Pakistanis are playing a double, or even triple game with Karzai and the Taliban? Does it amaze us that the guerrillas have weapons more sophisticated than land mines and rifles?

Something else troubled me about the ritual exposure of “secret” documents — and the government’s ritual denunciation of the leakers — that brought to mind not Saigon and its infamous bubble of denial but Northern Ireland, which I visited in early March 1983. There, in the midst of a low-intensity civil war, I learned a more powerful lesson than any “secret” document could teach about the causes of violence in Afghanistan.

I had decided to go to Belfast at the end of a trip I had made to report on Michael Flannery, the elderly New York-based leader of NORAID, the American branch of the Provisional IRA, who had been named grand marshal of the St. Patrick’s Day parade in spite of — or because of — his acquittal on federal gunrunning charges. New York’s Irish establishment was in an uproar, with its most prominent members — Cardinal Terrence Cooke, Sen. Patrick Moynihan, and former Gov. Hugh Carey — vowing not to appear on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral when Flannery passed by. I spent many hours with Flannery and liked him, even though I had little sympathy with IRA terrorism or overly sentimental Irish-American support for “reunification” between the overwhelmingly Catholic Republic and its Protestant-dominated, British-ruled neighbor to the north. While I supported the civil-rights struggle of the Catholic minority in Ulster, I tended to agree with Noel Quinn, a Dublin taxi driver and a Catholic, whom I interviewed for my profile of Flannery: “It’s easy to be patriotic and warlike when you’re 3,000 miles away. I frankly feel I’ve more in common with the English working man than I have with the Irishman in the States who gets drunk at a bar and throws money into the hat for the IRA.”

But none of my preconceptions prepared me for the Catholic ghetto of West Belfast. Ushered along my journalistic route by Flannery’s network of IRA contacts, I found myself entering Sinn Fein headquarters through locked, double metal gates that brought to mind a fortress or a prison. My youthful tour guide’s hard face matched the mood of this unadorned bunker — the IRA’s political front, though legal, had all the grim aspects of a clandestine guerrilla movement. Nobody on the staff was smiling, and it wasn’t just because of the routine frisking that I and everybody else who visited certain parts of Belfast had to endure at the hands of the widely hated Royal Ulster Constabulary.

Outside, as my host accompanied me along the Falls Road, I witnessed a principal cause of those hard faces. While we discussed “the troubles,” a British Army armored vehicle rumbled by us, braked abruptly, and disgorged red-bereted members of the elite Parachute Regiment.

Brandishing automatic weapons, the soldiers quickly dropped into ready position, aiming their guns at some middle distance and doing circular sweeps of the immediate surroundings. For the pedestrians on the sidewalk, including women and children, the point was clear: Her Majesty’s Government was reminding the Catholic rebels and their families who really ruled the neighborhood, and that its agents were prepared to shoot if anyone dared say the contrary.

For me, being only partly informed, the impact was somewhat different. I remember saying to myself, “I’m standing in the middle of a foreign military occupation.” It didn’t matter that the soldiers were white and spoke English, or that the Protestant majority wanted them there. For the Catholics in the Falls Road, the British Army was as alien as the Red Army was in Kandahar province in the 1980s and the American and British armies are today. You didn’t have to approve of the IRA’s cruelty and violence to understand perfectly their cry of “Brits out!” You don’t have to like the Taliban’s opposition to Western-style feminism to comprehend their drive to rid their country of armed foreigners in uniforms.

Next time you hear Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama or Christiane Amanpour try to justify the reckless stupidity of the Afghan war by invoking human rights or international law, try to imagine how the local citizens might feel if British soldiers were patrolling the streets of Boston, Washington or Austin — to enforce, let’s say, a ruling by the International Criminal Court against U.S. soldiers for atrocities committed in Iraq against women and children. It’s no secret that many Americans would reach for a gun. You won’t find that sort of information in the WikiLeaks documents, and it isn’t classified.

Share
Single Page

More from John R. MacArthur:

Publisher's Note April 16, 2015, 3:51 pm

The Grind and the Gun

“Attributing white-on-black violence entirely to racism misses the larger problems that poorer people face in this country. They suffer a thousand cuts that never get talked about, except when the victims bleed to death.”

Publisher's Note March 19, 2015, 4:05 pm

The Mayor and the Machine

“Emanuel’s position in the local party is insecure because he was not raised in the machine, or, for that matter, in a working-class city neighborhood.”

Publisher's Note February 26, 2015, 3:00 pm

French Fiction Reveals Faux Democracy

“Houellebecq, who is neither radical nor left-wing, understands perfectly France’s political elites and its duped and disempowered electorate.”

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

June 2015

Loitering With Intent

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Polite Coup

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Findings

What Went Wrong

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Shooting Down Man the Hunter

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Legends of the Lost·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“A bond with reality has gone, and sometimes you wonder whether that fosters our feeling that movies are a fleeting art.”
Photograph by Alexander Perrelli
Article
What Went Wrong·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In the seventh year of his presidency, Barack Obama was presenting himself as a politician who followed the path of least resistance. This is a disturbing confession.”
Photograph by Pete Souza
Article
Surviving a Failed Pregnancy·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“If this woman — who spent her days studying gray screens for early signs of gestation — could not see my pregnancy, what were the chances that anyone else would?”
Illustration by Leigh Wells
Article
Interesting Facts·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“My husband is forty-six. I am forty-five. He does not think that, in my forties, after cancer, chemotherapy, and chemically induced menopause, I can get pregnant again, but sisters, I know my womb. It’s proven.”
Photograph by McNair Evans
Post
Kid Chocolate’s Place·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Cuban eyes often look close to tears.”
Illustration by the author

Length in days of the sentence Russian blogger Alexei Navalny served for leading an opposition rally last year:

15

Israeli researchers developed software that evaluates the depression of bloggers.

It was revealed that reading material recovered during the U.S. raid of Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan included Popular Science, Time, silk-screening instructions, and a suicide-prevention manual called “Is It the Heart You Are Asking?”

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today