Frantz Fanon and the Construction of the Colonial Subject: Defining ‘The Enemy’ in the Iraq War

The invasion of Iraq by the United States has been correctly seen by the left as an expression of US imperialism.1 In the period after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States was freed of the political and military constraints on its exercise of global power, such as they were, that the Soviet Union once offered.2 The United States has sought to make full use of this opportunity to demonstrate to allies, potential competitors (e.g., China), and ‘rogue states’ alike that it will not allow any state to challenge its position as the sole global superpower. In this context, the Iraq war represents an attempt to solidify the global hegemony of US-led neoliberalism. As a result, the left critique of the war, at least within the academy, has focused on the political-economic aspects of imperialism, emphasizing either the specific sectors of capital that have benefited from the war (such as oil companies and the military-industrial complex) or the significance of Middle Eastern oil for the United States and its competitors.

Unfortunately, the racialized nature of imperialism has received less attention. US policy elites have presented the Iraq war as benign: as an important step ensuring the spread of capitalist markets, democracy, human rights, and individual liberties to less fortunate regions.3 They see the US as bearing what was once called the ‘white man’s burden’ of bringing civilization to the darker corners of the world. In setting for itself this ‘civilizing’ mission, however, the US demonstrates just how ‘uncivilized’ it is. The ‘white man’s burden,’ in its 19th-century expression, involved extraordinary violence, at times reaching the level of genocide, against its supposed beneficiaries. A major component of this violence was the collection of cultural images and themes by which colonized people came to be known by the colonial power. The status of colonial subject, of being ‘known’ by the colonizer, simultaneously enforced and rationalized the colonial power’s dominance of indigenous populations, thereby giving imperialism a fundamental racial dimension.

Using the insights of Frantz Fanon, I will examine US discourse of ‘the enemy’ in its invasion and occupation of Iraq. Fanon’s theorization of global capitalism as both a racial and a class system is especially valuable for understanding the Iraq war in all its complexity. His theory’s grounding in the Algerian national liberation struggle4 gives it added relevance.

Fanon’s Theory of Colonialism

Fanon’s social theory extends Marx’s concept of alienation to the analysis of how race is constructed and reproduced within colonialism.5 For Marx, alienation represents the systematic denial of species-being, our fundamental nature as social beings that produce the material and social conditions of our existence (Marx 1964). As alienated beings our productive abilities are organized and appropriated by others, and in this way we are incapable of expressing our humanity. Alienation is an inescapable feature of capitalism, in which capitalist control of the means of production condemns the vast majority of the population to sell their labor power in a relation of exploitation; rather than having our productive activity reflect our essential humanity, we are converted into ‘workers’ who produce surplus value for capitalists. Fanon’s social theory asserts that race, like class, is a denial of our species-being. Our humanity is a function of being recognized by others in a social relationship:

Man is human only to the extent to which he tries to impose his existence on another man in order to be recognized by him. As long as he has not been effectively recognized by the other, that other will remain the theme of his actions. It is on that other being, on recognition by that other being, that his own human worth and reality depend. It is that other being in whom the meaning of his life is condensed (Fanon 1967: 216f).

Colonialism is not simply the economic exploitation and political domination of the periphery by the capitalist core. It is also the separation of colonized peoples from their individuality and culture:

Because it is a systematic negation of the other person and a furious determination to deny the other person all attributes of humanity, colonialism forces the people it dominates to ask themselves the question constantly: “In reality, who am I?” (Fanon 1968b: 250).

Colonized peoples are denied the opportunity to know themselves. Instead, the colonizer claims to ‘know’ the colonized, but this knowledge “betrays a determination to objectify, to confine, to imprison, to harden” (Fanon 1968a: 34). The rich history and institutions of the indigenous population are physically and symbolically destroyed, and in their place the colonizer produces a people who deserve only to be ruled. The colonizer constructs colonized peoples as ‘lazy’ and ‘unproductive,’ thereby justifying low wages or coercive systems of labor. He also constructs them as ‘stupid,’ thereby justifying the imposition of the colonial power’s institutions and practices. Finally, he constructs them as ‘savage’ and ‘dangerous,’ thereby justifying military conquest and coercive forms of social control. The result is a people “in whose soul an inferiority complex has been created by the death and burial of its local cultural originality” (Fanon 1967: 18).

Racism and its objectification of the colonized, Fanon argues, can only be understood through its connection to capitalism. The colonial relationship between core and periphery in global capitalism is, like that between capitalist and proletariat, based on exploitation:

The wealth of the imperial countries is our wealth too…. For in a very concrete way Europe has stuffed herself inordinately with the gold and raw materials of the colonial countries: Latin America, China, and Africa. From all these, under whose eyes Europe today raises up her tower of opulence, there has flowed out for centuries toward that same Europe diamonds and oil, silk and cotton, wood and exotic products. Europe is literally the creation of the Third World. The wealth which smothers her is that which was stolen from the underdeveloped peoples (Fanon 1968b: 102).

Colonialism thus represents the systematic underdevelopment of the periphery to the benefit of the core. Racism is the ideological component of this process of underdevelopment:

If there is an inferiority complex, it is the outcome of a double process -– primarily economic -– subsequently, the internalization, or, better, the epidermalization, of this inferiority (Fanon 1967: 11).

In this sense, questions of race are but a superstructure, a mantle, an obscure ideological emanation concealing an economic reality (Fanon 1968a: 18). This deep structural connection between capitalism and racism explains Fanon’s commitment to democratic socialism. The project of disalienation is simultaneously the abolition of class as well as race, and this requires social ownership of the means of production and democratic planning through cooperatives and other popular organizations (Fanon 1968b: 179f). Only through such social self-management, Fanon argues, can we free ourselves from race and relate to each other in the fullness of our humanity.

Race Words Are War Words

Fanon’s examination of the racialized colonial subject is essential for understanding the significance of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq. Parenti (2004) writes of the common use by US forces of ‘hajis’ as a slang term for Iraqis. Soldiers who have served in Iraq and subsequently have sought conscientious objector status as a result of their combat experiences likewise report the widespread use of ‘hajis’ to refer to Iraqis.6 As Herbert points out, this term is not reserved for the nationalist resistance or their more fundamentalist counterparts who are fighting US forces, but instead applies to all Iraqis, combatants and civilians alike. In this regard, Herbert (2005) states, “It’s used the way ‘gook’ or ‘Charlie’ was used in Vietnam.” It is not just Iraqis, though, who are referred to as ‘hajis.’ Anyone from the Middle East or South Asia, including prisoners held by the US military in Afghanistan (Jehl & Elliott 2004) and low-wage migrant workers hired by US contractors to provide services to the US military in Iraq (Price 2003), is a ‘haji.’ Another term that is used to describe Iraqis is ‘sand nigger.’ This term has some history in the Middle East, with reports of its widespread use during the Persian Gulf War of 1991. In the words of a member of the 101st Airborne Division, “Most of the white troops call Iraqis and even the Arabs who are our allies ‘sand niggers’ and they don’t bother to hold their tongues in the presence of the black soldiers” (Spicer 1991). More recent reports of the use of this term include a senior officer’s statement on entering the Iraqi city of Tikrit that “The only thing these sand niggers understand is force and I’m about to introduce them to it” (Gordon & Trainor 2006: 447). Like ‘haji,’ this term has not been reserved solely for Iraqi combatants; Muslim members of the US armed forces report that they have encountered this phrase from fellow members of the US military (Golden 2004).

The use of ‘Indian country’ to refer to dangerous or potentially dangerous territory in the Middle East goes back to the Persian Gulf War of 1991. News accounts of the fighting between US and Iraqi forces in Kuwait and Iraq made frequent reference to descriptions of ‘Indian country’ as “a no-man’s land” (Branigin & Claiborne 1991; Dowden & Fisk 1991; Lorch 1991), a “natural killing ground” littered with “charred tanks, the torn hulls of armored personnel carriers and twisted frames of light transports” (Nickerson 1991).7 ‘Indian country’ was evoked not only by combat troops or journalists; Brigadier General Richard Neal, spokesman for US forces in Saudi Arabia, also used this phrase to describe the territory behind Iraqi lines (Apple 1991). More recently, the Iraqi city of Hawija, one of the last cities to be occupied by US troops, was referred to by US officers as ‘Indian country,’ by which they meant that the city was “bad guy central” and “untamed by the military” (Booth 2003). Northern Babil province was also ‘Indian country,’ since “When there are ambushes on Army supply convoys, when roadside explosions claim the limbs and lives of American servicemen driving in Humvees, when humanitarian aid workers’ cars are shot at, this is usually where it happens” (Hess 2006); like Hawija, the proof that Northern Babil province is ‘Indian country’ is its concentration of “bad guys.”8 As Kaplan (2005) points out, the use of ‘Indian country’ is not limited to Iraq: “‘Welcome to Injun Country’ was the refrain I heard from [US] troops from Colombia to the Philippines, including Afghanistan and Iraq” (2005: 4). Kaplan, who is usually described as a ‘correspondent for Atlantic Monthly’ but who is a dedicated neoconservative whose commentary has been presented in the Wall Street Journal and publications of the Hoover Institution and the American Enterprise Institute (Kaplan 2004a/b, 2006), offers an elegy to the ‘white man’s burden’ that makes clear that ‘Indian country’ is any region of the world demanding to be tamed, “zones of sheer chaos” that recalled the “Hobbesian world” (2005: 9f) the military found as the United States expanded westward.9

These terms are important in a number of ways. First, their immediate function is to dehumanize the enemy. The use of racial or ethnic stereotypes in wartime makes it easier for combatants to kill on the battlefield. These stigmatizing labels also serve the function of facilitating support for war among the domestic population, creating a very stark division between the humanity of ‘our troops’ and the essential inhumanity of ‘the enemy.’ The significance of these terms, however, goes well beyond their immediate utility in a particular war. On a grander scale, they reflect how the US invasion and occupation of Iraq is embedded in five hundred years of racial exploitation associated with capitalism. The labels are not accidental or random, but rather illustrate the continuity between the most current expression of US imperialism and its historical precedents. Dower (1986), for example, points to a long history of imagery associated with one race or ethnic group being used to describe other ‘enemy’ groups during wartime. For example, US forces fighting in the Philippines after its seizure by the US from Spain in 1898 made frequent reference to fighting ‘niggers’ and ‘Injuns.’ During the Second World War, the Japanese were often referred to as ‘yellow monkeys,’ thereby connecting them with a central image in the portrayal of people of African descent for centuries, and ‘gooks,’ which linked them to the ‘goo-goos’ in the Philippines;10 in addition, combat in the Pacific (but not in Europe) was regularly referred to as ‘Indian warfare.’ This was partly the result, Dower states, of how close the Indian Wars, the insurgency in the Philippines, and the Second World War were in time. More important than this, however, the “free-floating quality to portrayals of the enemy” (Dower 1986: 29) was the result of the similar conditions under which cultural images of nonwhite peoples have been constructed in the modern world: “the blacks of Africa, the Indians of the ‘New World,’ the many peoples of Asia all entered the Western consciousness amidst scenes of extraordinary violence. These violent images remained ever present, but often residual, like a great underground stream that bursts to the surface when the earth shakes” (Dower 1986: 148). Given this shared history of subordination to the West, it is not surprising that the boundaries between the cultural images of specific racial and ethnic groups became blurred, as they have in Iraq.

Fanon: Colonization as Repressive Universalism

While Dower presents a powerful analysis of how “these prototypical race words were also war words” (1986: 148), I would argue that he does not go far enough. It is not simply that multiple, overlapping images of nonwhite peoples are available to whites in their effort to legitimize war against a nonwhite ‘enemy.’ The ease with which these images are used outside their specific context suggests that wars waged by the United States against a nonwhite ‘enemy’ have been fundamentally wars whose target is all nonwhite peoples. In these conflicts, the United States is acting immediately against a specific racial or ethnic ‘enemy,’ but at the same time it is reaffirming the supremacy of its racialized capitalist power globally by defining this ‘enemy’ in terms of other racial ‘enemies.’

Fanon’s social theory offers a powerful perspective from which to understand how the racial discourse of the Iraq war reflects this broader process of reinforcing a racialized global capitalism. The US invasion and occupation of Iraq represents an attempt to demonstrate the unlimited and unchallengeable capacity of the United States to impose and enforce the rules of global capitalism. Iraq’s Ba’athist constitution promoted a model of development characterized by state planning, nationalization of natural resources, state-owned industries in major economic sectors, and limits on the ownership of private property. In addition, the state subsidized the prices of basic necessities, provided free education and health care, and offered extensive employment guarantees to workers (al-Khalil 1989). Although Iraq’s commitment to this model wavered in the face of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the destructive consequences of the economic sanctions which followed the Persian Gulf war of 1991, the remaking of Iraq’s economy along neoliberal lines was a major component of US planning for a post-invasion Iraq.11 At the same time, the US invasion of Iraq was meant to send a message to other countries in the capitalist core (and rising countries such as China) that, in the words of the National Security Strategy of the United States of America, “[o]ur forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States” (White House 2002: 29f). Given the central role that oil plays not only in economic growth as a source of energy and as an input for manufacturing but also in maintaining a large military, and given that Iraq is one of the world’s major sources of oil, with proven reserves that are second only to those of Saudi Arabia (Klare 2001), the US invasion of Iraq must be seen as part of a strategy to maintain US dominance within the capitalist core (Harvey 2003); whoever exercises dominance in the region will necessarily exercise dominance globally.

US policy in Iraq thus reflects structural forces inherent in global capitalism that drive the core’s exploitation of the periphery. However, as Fanon suggests, these forces are not in themselves sufficient to accomplish the subordination of the periphery to the core; this subordination is accomplished through the institutionalization of race. The United States can be an imperial power only so long as there is a colonial subordinate. The racialized language of the Iraq war performs the important function of defining Iraqis as being ‘worthy’ of subordination. In referring to Iraqis as ‘hajis,’ US forces make assumptions that all Iraqis are Muslims (for whom the haj –- the pilgrimage to Mecca -– is a religious duty) and that all Iraqis are the ‘enemy’ or are potentially so regardless of their political or religious affiliation. Orientalist notions of Arab peoples as an undifferentiated mass reducible to the irrational forces of religion are in contrast to assumptions of a rational, modernized West (Said 1979), which is apparently free of such premodern spectacles as religious pilgrimages and other expressions of strong religious belief, and so further demonstrate the inferiority of Iraqis. At the same time, using ‘hajis’ as a descriptive term broadens the ‘enemy,’ at least symbolically, beyond the Iraqi nationalist resistance and their fundamentalist, ‘jihadist’12 counterparts to include all Muslims (Arab and non-Arab) anywhere in the world. Despite claims by US officials that they recognize the distinction between ‘good Muslims’ and ‘bad Muslims’ (Mamdani 2004), ‘haji’ reinforces the conclusion that the Iraq war reproduces the longstanding colonial relationship between the West and the Islamic world.

The reduction of Iraqi culture and history to a premodern essence which makes Iraqis an appropriate object for colonization – that is, the objectification of Iraq – is not the end of the story. Fanon’s analysis of colonialism enables us to see the construction of the colonized as a double process of objectification. Orientalist conceptions of the Islamic Other are reinforced by an even more basic essentialism -– what I call repressive universalism –- that unites all colonized peoples. Through references to ‘sand niggers’ and ‘Indian country,’ the ‘enemy’ in Iraq is symbolically broadened in time by recalling centuries of state violence directed against African-Americans and Native Americans (Churchill 1997; Zinn 2005). In this way the construction of the colonial subject in Iraq has been built upon codes that have been at the core of US history. It is not enough that Iraqis have been reduced to ‘hajis’; their subjugation is multiplied by linking their status to that of peoples who have borne the brunt of US genocidal violence. At the same time, this linkage has the felicitous effect of serving as a contemporaneous reminder to African-Americans and Native Americans of their subordinate status under US capitalism (Lipsitz 2006; Martinot 2003); colonization is thus reproduced within the colonial power as well as globally. All colonized peoples are presumed to share an essential nature, one that demonstrates the correctness of their subordination, and so one set of colonial representations are just as good as another.13

Conclusion: The Possibility for Humanist Universalism

“It is the racist who creates his inferior” (Fanon 1967: 93). Racial categories are not universal and absolute, but are instead a historically conditioned social product. Race is constructed as a means of institutionalizing, in material and symbolic ways, the domination of one group over another within capitalism:

The Negro problem does not resolve itself into the problem of Negroes living among white men but rather of Negroes exploited, enslaved, despised by a colonialist, capitalist society that is only accidentally white (Fanon 1967: 202).

The phrase “accidentally white” is important here. There is nothing inherent in whiteness that makes whites more fit for rule than blacks. Rather, whiteness is a quality that comes to be associated with a collection of social meanings (reason, culture, etc.) and the power necessary to impose these meanings on others, a process which necessarily produces the binary opposite of ‘black.’ For Fanon, language plays a major role in this project. If, as Fanon states, “to speak is to exist absolutely for the other” (1967: 17), then the denial of speech is the denial of that existence.

The racial discourse of the Iraq war demonstrates how the language of the colonizer is organized so as to ‘prove’ the subordinate status of the colonized. Despite official claims to be concerned for the freedom of Iraqis, the widespread use of ‘haji’ suggests that Iraqis, even those supportive of the US occupation, are expected to know their place relative to US power. Indeed, to the extent that ‘haji’ implicates all of Islam and much of the Arab world as ‘the enemy,’ the term imposes an awareness of subordination throughout global capitalism. Likewise, use of ‘sand niggers’ and ‘Indian country’ demonstrates to Iraqis how subordinate they are -– they occupy a position similar to that of African-Americans and Native Americans in the United States. As a result, while this discourse is used within a specific context and directed against a specific colonial subject, in uniting these different colonized peoples it reproduces the most fundamental features of colonial social relations.

The irony here is that, for Fanon, the colonized peoples of the world are connected, although not in the essentialist manner constructed by the colonizer: “Negro experience is not a whole, for there is not merely one Negro, there are Negroes” (Fanon 1967: 136). In place of the repressive universalism associated with colonialism, Fanon argues for a humanist universalism based on solidarity, freedom and the desire to be recognized by others for one’s uniqueness. Iraqis, African-Americans, and Native Americans (as well as other historically colonized peoples) are united in having “one right alone: That of demanding human behavior from the other” (1967: 229). This goal requires the abolition of racial and ethnic categories, which can be accomplished only through the abolition of imperialism. Fanon sees this project as one that includes the disalienation of the colonizer as well as colonized peoples, for the failure of colonizers to recognize the colonized is simultaneously a failure to recognize their own humanity: “The white man is sealed in his whiteness. The black man in his blackness” (1967: 9). Repressive universalism is not, in fact, universal. As an expression of the core’s exploitation of the periphery, it by definition excludes the colonizer from its conception of universality.

Decolonization is for Fanon a world-historical project in which the roles of both colonized and colonizer are abolished, thereby allowing all to express fully their fundamental, shared species-being. Resistance to the US invasion and occupation of Iraq can be part of this world-historical project, but only if it confronts head-on the repressive universalism of the colonizer. The colonial discourse of the war makes clear that the war is not simply about Iraq, but about maintaining the subordinate position of the colonized within global capitalism. Fanon’s social theory instructs us of the necessity to see the war from a similarly global perspective, but one that rejects colonialism in all of its international as well as national forms.


1. See Amin 2005; Harvey 2003; Foster 2006.

2. See Blum 2003 for an examination of what the United States was able to accomplish in the face of these constraints.

3. The principal statement of this is still the 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States of America (White House 2002).

4. See Cherki 2006; Gendzier 1973.

5. Caute 1970; Hansen 1977; Onwuanibe 1983; Zahar 1974.

6. Harris, Beaumont & al-Ubeidy 2006; Herbert 2004, 2005.

7. The bodies of dead Iraqi conscripts are consistently missing from these reports.

8. Reference to contested regions of Iraq which “US forces are struggling to tame” as “Iraq’s Wild West” (Barnard 2005) is a variation on the ‘Indian country’ theme.

9. Kaplan’s embrace of the racist assumptions of the ‘white man’s burden’ is made quite clear by his glowing reference to the significance of “the great southern military tradition that had produced the gleaming officer corps of the Confederacy” (2005: 205, as well as his passing reference to Custer’s defeat at Little Big Horn as “the 9/11 of its day” (2005: 367).

10. ‘Gook’ was also used extensively during the Korean War to refer simultaneously to the North Korean and Chinese ‘enemy’ as well as to the United States’ South Korean allies, and during the Vietnam War to refer to Vietnamese on either side of the conflict. In addition, Roediger (1994) states that ‘gook’ was used to describe guerrillas fighting US forces occupying Nicaragua during the late 1920s and early 1930s.

11. Center for Strategic and International Studies 2003; Council on Foreign Relations 2003; King 2003; Klein 2004.

12. Within mainstream political discourse this term is more focused than ‘haji.’ In referring specifically to armed fundamentalist Islamic movements, it appears to avoid the problems associated with ‘haji,’ but in fact it does not. As Mamdani (2004) argues, ‘jihad’ refers to a struggle for a just world. This struggle is an obligation for all Muslims; it is not only political and social, but also spiritual and personal, a struggle to live an exemplary life. The political form of ‘jihad’ is in fact close to Christian notions of ‘just war,’ in which war is a rational, proportionate, and legitimate action taken in self-defense. This is in contrast to more Orientalist conceptions which, by translating ‘jihad’ as ‘holy war,’ reproduce the premodern essentialism associated with Islam. If ‘the enemy’ are ‘jihadists,’ then all Muslims are the enemy.

13. This essentialist equivalence is reproduced in popular culture. Gibson’s (1994) study of the paramilitary popular culture that arose after the US defeat in Vietnam finds “a world where all symbolic boundaries are weak,” where “all of the enemies are connected to each other, no matter how different they may seem at first glance” (Gibson 1994: 66, 68). In this world, “all nonwhites are the enemy” (71). Also, see Engelhardt (1995) for the central role played by Native Americans in popular culture portrayals of ‘the enemy.’


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