Prior to September 2011, Ward Churchill was unremarkable and not well known outside of the typical tiresome Marxist academic circles. A University of Colorado professor at the time, Churchill’s claim to fame was a dubious claim to American Indian heritage which he could not prove. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Churchill wrote an infamous essay entitled “‘Some People Push Back’: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens” which set off a firestorm of controversy by calling the victims who died in the World Trade Center “little Eichmanns.” Understandably, comparing innocent murder victims to Nazi war criminals did not sit well with Americans. While many are content to merely dismiss Churchill as a loon, it is important to understand his dubious reasoning and to see his errors in thinking.
Ward Churchill is a hardcore collectivist. He believes that human beings do not have individual metaphysical significance or value. They are only significant as part of a larger group. Given his Marxist leanings, this is not surprising. Given how prevalent collectivism is today in the guise of the two dominant mainstream American political movements of neoconservatism and neo-progressivism, it is instructive to consider some implications of collectivism. Given that the collectivist views collective society and not the individual human being as the basic unit of metaphysical analysis, collective guilt is a sensible concept. Under the individualist worldview, collective guilt is nonsensical. Nearly all of Churchill’s intellectual mistakes in his argument are based upon incoherent collectivist assertions.
Churchill begins by claiming that the United States was guilty of war crimes verging on attempted genocide against Iraqis in the Gulf War and beyond. Rather than debate this claim, assume that it is true. He then asserts: “[I]t was pious Americans who led the way in assigning the onus of collective guilt to the German people as a whole, not for things they as individuals had done, but for what they had allowed—nay, empowered—their leaders and their soldiers to do in their name.” This is entirely untrue. Only those Germans who individually committed crimes against humanity were prosecuted at Nuremberg. The Allies made a concerted effort not to repeat the mistakes of World War I. West Germany was quickly brought back into the family of civilized nations, and the Allied occupation ended by 1952. All things considered, the United States allowed the Germans a quick and thorough redemption.
As a whole, the American public greeted these revelations [of an alleged American program of attempted genocide against the Iraqi people] with yawns. There were, after all, far more pressing things than the unrelenting misery/death of a few hundred thousand Iraqi tikes to be concerned with. Getting “Jeremy” and “Ellington” to their weekly soccer game, for instance, or seeing to it that little “Tiffany” and “Ashley” had just the right roll-neck sweaters to go with their new cords. And, to be sure, there was the yuppie holy war against ashtrays – for “our kids,” no less – as an all-absorbing point of political focus.
Let us again allow Churchill to have the strongest possible argument. Assume that the American people were aware that Iraqi civilians were dying in large numbers due to the military operations of the Gulf War and the crippling economic sanctions which followed. Ignore the obvious fact that for consistency, one would have to assign collective guilt to the Iraqi people for the war that their government started by invading Kuwait. There is every difference in the world between inappropriately cheering something on and actually doing it. Those in foreign nations who cheered on the 9/11 attacks were not responsible for carrying them out. This is also true of the American people if they did actually cheer on the violence and brutal sanctions against Iraq. Despite the fact that the United States is a democratic republic, its citizens still cannot be held morally responsible for the actions of their President and Congress. The United States does not have a direct democracy, and elections are not held often. Even if every American had voted for and approved the Gulf War and the sanctions against Iraq, this still would not make them morally culpable. If such a notion of collective political guilt were to be held, it would mean that when a politician commits a criminal offense involving corruption, each and every constituent would have to be sent to prison. In addition, crony capitalism, disrespect for the Constitution among elected federal officials, and a broken electoral process all make the American people more and more attenuated from the harm caused to the Iraqi people. Also, the fact that the government lied to the American people about Iraqi soldiers killing Kuwaiti babies in incubators and about Iraq preparing to invade Saudi Arabia indicates that the American people were not fully informed. The government and the corporatist mainstream media used propaganda that would have made Goebbels jealous in selling the war.
Churchill also suggests that capitalism is to blame for the crimes against humanity committed against Iraqis:
Property before people, it seems—or at least the equation of property to people—is a value by no means restricted to America's boardrooms. And the sanctimony with which such putrid sentiments are enunciated turns out to be nauseatingly similar, whether mouthed by the CEO of Standard Oil or any of the swarm of comfort zone “pacifists” queuing up to condemn the black block after it ever so slightly disturbed the functioning of business-as-usual in Seattle.
While history has shown ad nauseum that free markets produce exponentially better economic outcomes for nations than the disastrous Marxist policies that Churchill favors, this is the one place where Churchill is not entirely off base. Corporatism involving the Military-Industrial Complex and war profiteers such as Halliburton does lead to the ginning up of unnecessary wars. The corporatist banking cartel of the Federal Reserve likewise encourages wars for its own ends.
Churchill’s next mistake is in his characterization of the 9/11 hijackers. He lionizes these murderers as brave warriors. He views them as “combatants” instead of terrorists. Given that the hijackers were predominantly Saudi, there is simply no way to characterize them as “combatants” connected with the Gulf War. The United States waged war against Iraq partly in defense of Saudi Arabia. Churchill’s claim is as ridiculous as Belgians claiming that they are waging war against the United States in response to Americans warring against Germany in WWII. To avoid this absurdity, he takes an even wider approach:
A good case could be made that the war in which they were combatants has been waged more-or-less continuously by the “Christian West”—now proudly emblematized by the United States—against the “Islamic East” since the time of the First Crusade, about 1,000 years ago. More recently, one could argue that the war began when Lyndon Johnson first lent significant support to Israel’s dispossession/displacement of Palestinians during the 1960s, or when George the Elder ordered “Desert Shield” in 1990, or at any of several points in between.
Churchill’s collectivist worldview is even more inappropriate here. There are no individuals in this collectivist vision. Those who live in the “West” or “Islamic East” are not individual humans beings. Neither Christians nor Muslims are individuals. They simply exist in virtue of class membership. Apparently, based on this reasoning, all collectivized humans are engaged in countless wars based upon their race, ethnicity, nationality, etc. Greeks and Iranians should still be killing each other as part of the ancient Greco-Persian Wars. And Parthonons and Fomorians should still be warring in Ireland.
Churchill’s most incendiary claim—the aforementioned “little Eichmanns” comment—is that there were no innocent victims on 9/11:
There is simply no argument to be made that the Pentagon personnel killed on September 11 fill that bill. The building and those inside comprised military targets, pure and simple. As to those in the World Trade Center . . .
Well, really. Let's get a grip here, shall we? True enough, they were civilians of a sort. But innocent? Gimme a break. They formed a technocratic corps at the very heart of America's global financial empire – the “mighty engine of profit” to which the military dimension of U.S. policy has always been enslaved—and they did so both willingly and knowingly. Recourse to “ignorance”—a derivative, after all, of the word “ignore”—counts as less than an excuse among this relatively well-educated elite. To the extent that any of them were unaware of the costs and consequences to others of what they were involved in—and in many cases excelling at – it was because of their absolute refusal to see. More likely, it was because they were too busy braying, incessantly and self-importantly, into their cell phones, arranging power lunches and stock transactions, each of which translated, conveniently out of sight, mind and smelling distance, into the starved and rotting flesh of infants. If there was a better, more effective, or in fact any other way of visiting some penalty befitting their participation upon the little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers, I’d really be interested in hearing about it.
In Churchill’s fevered brain, nobody is innocent. This collectivist belief provides a sickening justification for total war. It is also a double-edged sword. It means that innocent civilians—including children—in the Middle East are fair game in this war. A bloodthirsty neoconservative could use Churchill’s argument and claim that because the brave Islamic “combatants” attacked the United States on 9/11, this means that the United States has the right to strike back. Since young Muslim children will grow up to become militants who will hate the United States and may attempt to attack Americans, they are all fair game.
Ultimately, Ward Churchill’s hateful collectivism promotes endless cycles of bloody killing. One wonders with his cultural hyperopia if he is actually even able to physically see individual human beings.
(For a much more detailed critique of collectivism, read my new book The Real Culture War: Individualism vs. Collectivism & How Bill O’Reilly Got It All Wrong available now on Amazon in both print and Kindle.)