Ground Zero: On the Front Lines of a War Crime


During the holidays, whilst I was sojourning in that strange land that used to be America (I don't know what it is now; some kind of cheapjack, funhouse-mirror simulacrum of itself, I guess), I missed one of the most important stories about the ongoing war crime in Iraq to come down the pike in a long time: As the Iraqis See It, by Michael Massing, in the New York Review of Books.

There are mountains of commentary (making Ossa like a wart) that I could and should say about this devastating article, but time and circumstances are against me at the moment. So let me just urge you to run to the piece and read all of it for yourself. If you want to know what's really going on in Iraq -- behind all the ludicrous and sickening conventional wisdom about the "success" of the "surge" (which we see now consists largely of two main elements: bribing and arming Sunni extremists, and bombing the hell out of civilian neighborhoods) -- if you want to know what the Iraqis themselves think of what America (or the cheapjack, funhouse simulacrum of America) has wrought in their native land, then get thee not to a nunnery but to the NY Review of Books, pronto.

The story is based on the remarkable blog by Iraqi employees of McClatchy Newspapers. These are people happily working with Americans, English-speaking, not sectarians, not insurgents; yet the picture they paint of the American occupation, and its effect on the daily lives of ordinary Iraqis,  is damning indeed. As Massing notes:

The overwhelming sense is that of a society undergoing a catastrophic breakdown from the never-ending waves of violence, criminality, and brutality inflicted on it by insurgents, militias, jihadis, terrorists, soldiers, policemen, bodyguards, mercenaries, armed gangs, warlords, kidnappers, and everyday thugs. "Inside Iraq" suggests how the relentless and cumulative effects of these vicious crimes have degraded virtually every aspect of the nation's social, economic, professional, and personal life.

Massing tells of the confrontation that McClatchy blogger Sahar had with American troops who invaded her home one night. One soldier was astounded to find American science fiction books, John Grisham novels and even video games like Grand Theft Auto on her shelves:

She told me that when the American soldier discovered Grisham and Asimov on her bookshelf, "He was totally amazed. When he looked at me, he didn't see an Iraqi woman in a hijab, he saw a human being. You can't imagine the look on his face—there were tears in his eyes. He was inside a house, with love, a family, like anywhere else."

The incident, Sahar said, gave her a sense of the extent to which the Iraqi people are unknown. "People in America look at pictures of Afghanistan and think Iraq is the same," she said. "They think Iraqis are people who are uneducated, who are Bedouins living in tents, tending camels and sheep." Until the plague of wars began devouring the country, she went on, Iraq was the leading nation in the region, with a highly educated people boasting the best doctors, teachers, and engineers. Americans, Sahar sighed, "don't know this. And when you don't know a person, you can't feel for them, can you?"

She continued: "How many have been killed in Iraq? Bordering on a million. If you realize that these are real people with real feelings who are being killed—that they are fathers and husbands, teachers and doctors—if these facts could be made known, would people be so brutalized? It's our job as Iraqi journalists to show that Iraqis are real people. This is what we try to advance through the blog."

Massing's conclusion cuts to the heart of the matter: the relentless humiliation of having foreign soldiers occupying your native land:

The question on everyone's mind, of course, is whether the Americans should stay or go. On this, [McClatchy bureau chief] Leila Fadel told me, her Iraqi staff is divided. Some of them think the Americans should leave at once. While withdrawal would probably result in a bloodletting among Iraqis, they believe the country would be better off if this happened sooner rather than later, thus avoiding the effects of a prolonged occupation. Others think the Americans should stay and fix all the destruction they've caused over the last four and a half years. But, she adds, the staff's views on this keep shifting: "They're at war within themselves—on whether they want the Americans to stay or not, and whether they think that staying would make things any better. It's something they go back and forth on."

Whichever side they come down on, however, there is one feeling that predominates: humiliation. "They remind me of this constantly," Fadel says. "Americans believe their soldiers are working for the greater good. The Iraqis don't see that. They see people who are here for their own self-interest—who drive the wrong way on roads, who stop traffic whenever they want to, who they have to be careful not to get too close to so that they won't be shot." When one of her staff members wrote the post about the student who threw a rock at a US soldier, Fadel says, she asked him, "Why did this kid throw a rock at a man with a weapon, a helmet, and a vest? What was he thinking?" "These are foreign soldiers," he replied. "This is an occupation." That, Fadel notes, is a very common feeling among Iraqis. "Everybody I speak to thinks this. They don't have power in their own country."

There is much more to the article. Again, get on over there and give it a read.

UPDATE: Tom Englehardt has more on the obscene claims of "success" for Bush's surge. As Englehardt rightly says, the pro-surge PR that has now become conventional wisdom is not just putting lipstick on a pig -- it's putting lipstick on a corpse. You should read the entire piece, but here are a few choice excerpts (see the original for links):

In order to achieve an image of lifelike quiescence in Iraq, involving a radical lowering of "violence" in that country, the general and ambassador did have to give up the ghost on a number of previous Bush administration passions. Rebellious al-Anbar Province was, for instance, essentially turned over to members of the community (many of whom had, even according to the Department of Defense, been fighting Americans until recently). They were then armed and paid by the U.S. not to make too much trouble. In the Iraqi capital, on the other hand, the surging American military looked the other way as, in the first half of 2007, the Shiite "cleansing" of mixed Baghdad neighborhoods reached new heights, transforming it into a largely Shiite city. This may have been the real "surge" in Iraq and, if you look at new maps of the ethnic make-up of the capital, you can see the startling results -- from which a certain quiescence followed. Powerful Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a longtime opponent of the Bush administration, called a "truce" during the surge months and went about purging and reorganizing his powerful militia, the Mahdi Army. In exchange, the U.S. has given up, at least temporarily, its goal of wresting control of some of those neighborhoods from the Sadrists.

...All of this, including the lack of U.S. patrolling in al-Anbar province, the heartland of the Sunni insurgency, plus the addition of almost 30,000 troops in Baghdad and environs, has indeed given Iraq a quieter look -- especially in the United States, where Iraqi news has largely disappeared from front pages and slipped deep into prime-time TV news coverage just as the presidential campaign of 2008 heats up.....

What Bush has done with his surge, however, is buy himself that year-plus of free time, while he negotiates with Iraq's inside-the-Green-Zone government to cement in place an endless American presence there. In the process, he may create a sense of permanency that no future president will prove capable of tampering with -- not without being known as the man (or woman) who "lost" Iraq. Forget the Republican presidential candidates -- Sen. John McCain, for instance, has said that he doesn't care if the U.S. is in Iraq for the next hundred years -- and think about the leading Democratic candidates with their elongated (and partial) "withdrawal" plans. Barack Obama, for instance, is for guaranteeing a 16-month withdrawal schedule, and that's just for U.S. "combat troops," which are only perhaps half of all American forces in the country. Hillary Clinton's plan is no more promising....

What comes to mind is the Roman historian Tacitus' description of the Roman way of war. He put his version of it into the mouth of Calgacus, a British chieftain who opposed the Romans, and it went, in part, like this:

 "They have plundered the world, stripping naked the land in their hunger, they loot even the ocean: they are driven by greed, if their enemy be rich; by ambition, if poor; neither the wealth of the east nor the west can satisfy them: they are the only people who behold wealth and indigence with equal passion to dominate. They ravage, they slaughter, they seize by false pretenses, and all of this they hail as the construction of empire. And when in their wake nothing remains but a desert, they call that peace."

Folks, it's obscene. We're doing victory laps around, and dancing upon, a corpse.