Sometimes it’s the small things. A week or so ago I was watching a news clip of a band on the march to Stormont celebrating the signing of the Covenant and half-listening to the commentary from the BBC news reporter. The band wasn’t at the St Patrick’s flash-point nor at St Matthews, where by all accounts the old atavistic tendencies were let off the leash. No, this was somewhere non-contentious, as they say - in other words, nationalists/republicans weren’t protesting. It wasn’t anything to do with the tune that was being played or the name of the band or the place it was passing. It was more the appearance of the band and marchers: the collarettes, the quasi-military all-step-in-time-boys. But above all it was the swagger. I once had a teacher who tore into a classmate because, as he left the classroom, he had shown (and I still remember the phrase) ‘dumb insolence’. That’s what was in that swagger - dumb insolence. It brought home, more completely than words ever could , that these people considered themselves The People, that those they were celebrating triumph over were several notches below them in the humanity chain, and that we run this show and call the shots.
You’re right, that’s a lot to read into a passing band, but it’s what I felt. In fact, there was a distinct flavour of the Ku Klux Klan group or Afrikan apartheid to the marchers: red-neck, red-cheeked, no surrender. Watching them was a depressing experience. After all these years since the Good Friday Agreement, here we were back where we started in the late 1960s: marching, so to say, in circles.
That glimpse matched, oddly enough, not with the Urinating Man or the repeated flouting of the Parades Commission ruling, but with another news item that caught my eye - the number of American soldiers who have died in Afghanistan. It hit 2,000 a couple of weeks back and there was a sadness there too. It didn't just mean body bags and coffins being unloaded well away from camera lenses in the US. It meant young men, who could have gone on breathing the air, eating food, drinking, chasing women, raising a family, growing old - all that had been cut in the bud, annihilated forever.
But - and this is where it links with that marching band - there was no mention of how many Afghans had died since the Americans invaded their country. The precise count is uncertain but Jonathan Steele of The Guardian figured that up to 20,000 Afghans may have died in the first four months of US air strikes. That’s ten times as many Afghans dead within one four-month period. Each year since, thousands more Afghans have died. You get the same sort of proportions when you consider the Vietnam War. I’ve been to the Vietnam Wall in Washington where the names of some 58,000 US soldiers killed in Vietnam are written, and the place has a mute melancholy to it. But there's no wall for the Vietnamese who died in their own country at the hands of the Americans. Maybe they couldn't find a big enough wall: figures for Vietnamese casualties in that war are reckoned by some to be around 5 million.
In both Afghanistan and in Vietnam, the massive losses were suffered by the people who live in those countries, as distinct from the people who invaded them. Which raises the question: why do so many people in the West know about and mourn the casualties suffered by US forces, and so few know or mourn the many casualties suffered by the invaded country? It’s simple, really: because the American lives are seen as more valuable than those of Afghans or Vietnamese. Behind this is the notion that, as in all its foreign ventures, the US was bringing the benefits of democracy to these countries. And yes, there’s no doubt that in some cases the countries invaded have derived some benefits from the American presence. Just as the presence of the Roman Empire and the British Empire indisputably brought benefits to the countries which they invaded and ruled for so many years.
But what did the countries under domination do, the first chance they got? They threw off the yoke of their invaders. Despite all the supposed benefits of being shaped in the image of the dominant power, despite all the assumptions of superiority held by the dominant power, these countries wanted to be left alone to decide their own destiny.
Sinn Féin MP Conor Murphy summed up the recent celebrations pretty well. "Saturday was about supremacy, it was about intolerance and it was about triumphalism". Imperial thinking hasn't gone away, you know.