Pick almost any date on the calendar and it’ll turn out that the US either started a war, ended a war, perpetrated a massacre or sent its UN Ambassador into the Security Council to declare to issue an ultimatum. It’s like driving across the American West. “Historic marker, 1 mile”, the sign says. A minute later you pull over and find yourself standing on dead Indians. “On this spot, in 1879 Major T and a troop of US cavalry ”
It’s three o’clock in the afternoon, Sunday March 18, one day short of the anniversary of US planes embarking on an aerial hunt of Pancho Villa in 1916;of the day the U.S. Senate rejected (for the second time) the Treaty of Versailles in 1920; of the end of the active phase of the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2002; of the 10 pm broadcast March 19, 2003, by President G.W. Bush announcing that aerial operations against Iraq had commenced.
This was the attack on Dora Farms outside Baghdad where some Iraqi whispered into his phone that Saddam Hussein was visiting his children. Down hurtled four 2000-pound bunker-busters and 40 cruise missiles. There were high fives in the White House situation room at news of a mangled Saddam being hauled from the rubble. It all turned out to be nonsense, like most military bulletins out of Iraq. The bunker busters all missed the compound. Saddam Hussein wasn’t there. Uday and Qusay weren’t there. Fifteen civilians died, including nine women and a child.
Here I was, a couple of days shy of four years later, in a used paperback store in a mall in Olympia, Washington, flicking through Tina Turner’s side of the story on life with Ike. My cell phone rang. It was my brother Patrick, calling from Sulaimaniyah, three hours drive east through the mountains from the Kurdish capital of Arbil, in northern Iraq. He gave me a brisk précis of the piece he’d file the next day. Every road was lethally dangerous; every Iraqi he met had a ghastly tale to tell of murder, kidnappings, terror-stricken flights, searches for missing relatives. Life was measurably far, far worse for the vast majority of Iraqis than it had been before the 2003 onslaught. He’d talked that day to Kassim Naji Salaman, a truck driver replacing his murdered brother at the wheel of an oil tanker. Salaman was now the sole bread earner for 18 women and children because so many of his male relatives had been killed “I can’t even visit the village where they live,” he told Patrick. “Soldiers or militia or just men in masks might kill me. I don’t even know how to send them money”.
I’ve had many such phone calls from Patrick since March 2003, as he returned time after time to Iraq, either to Baghdad or to the north. Unlike the embedded reporters he’s never felt moved to announce a “turning point”, as when they blew away Uday and Qusay on July 22,2003. CNN’s studio generals said on the news that night it was a big blow to the Iraqi resistance. Then Saddam was hauled out of a hole on December 15, 2003, just in time for Christmas. Maybe the death knell of the resistance, the studio generals exulted. Then came one “new dawn” for Iraq after another: the handback of Iraqi sovereignty in June 2004, the two elections and the new constitution in 2005. Now we have the “surge” into Baghdad, designed to whip the Shi’a back into line.
Contemptuous of all such bulletins, right from the start Patrick has relentlessly described the disintegration of Iraq, by measurements large and small. Remember that 13 years of sanctions - a horrible international onslaught of the health and well-being of a civilian population, enthusiatically supported by liberals in the US and Europe - Iraq’s plight was already dire. When the war began, Baghdad had 20 hours of power a day. Now it’s down to 2. Not thousands, not tens of thousands, but hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have died. Not hundreds of thousands but two million have fled the country, mostly to Syria and Jordan. It’s the largest upheaval of a population in the Middle East since the Palestinian Naqba of 1948. Dawn after dawn rises over Iraq to reveal tortured corpses in the river beds, on the rubbish dumps, by the side of the road: bodies riddled with bullets, punctured by drills, whipped with wire cable, blown apart.
The U.N. says that in the two months before this last Christmas 5,000 Iraqi civilians were killed. The months since have probably been as bad. Saddam dragged his country into ruin. Then the US took it from ruin to the graveyard, plundering the corpse as it did so.
There’s plenty of blame to go round. You’d think these days that the cheerleaders for war were limited to a platoon of neocons, as potent in historical influence as were supposedly the Knights Templar. But it was not so. The coalition of the enablers spread far beyond Cheney’s team and the extended family of Norman Podhoretz. Atop mainstream corporate journalism perch the New York Times and the New Yorker, two prime disseminators of pro-invasion propaganda, written at the NYT by Judith Miller, Michael Gordon and, on the op ed page, by Thomas Friedman. The New Yorker put forth the voluminous lies of Jeffrey Goldberg and has remained impenitent till this day.
The war party virtually monopolized television. AM radio poured out a filthy torrent of war bluster. The laptop bombardiers such as Salman Rushdie were in full war paint. Among the progressives the liberal interventionists thumped their tin drums, often by writing pompous pieces attacking the antiwar “hard left”. Mini-pundits Todd Gitlin and Michael Berube played this game eagerly. Berube lavished abuse on Noam Chomsky and other clear opponents of the war, mumbling about the therapeutic potential of great power interventionism, piously invoking the tradition of “left internationalism”. Others, like Ian Williams, played supportive roles in instilling the idea that the upcoming war was negotiable, instead of an irreversible intent of the Bush administration, no matter what Saddam Hussein did. “The ball will be very much in Saddam Hussein’s court,” Williams wrote in November, 2002. “The question is whether he will cooperate and disarm, or dissimulate and bring about his own downfall at the hands of the U.S. military.” (In fact Saddam had already “disarmed”, as disclosed in Hussein Kamel’s debriefings by the UNSCOM inspectors, the CIA and MI6 in the summer of 1995 when Kamel told them all, with corroboration from aides who had also defected, that on Saddam Hussein’s orders his son-in-law had destroyed all of Iraq’s WMDs years earlier, right after the Gulf War. This was not a secret. In February 2003 John Barry reported it in Newsweek.Anyone privy to the UNSCOM, CIA and MI6 debriefs knew it from 1995 on.)
As Iraq began to plunge ever more rapidly into the abyss not long after the March, 2003 attack, this crowd stubbornly mostly stayed the course with Bush. “Thumpingly blind to the war’s virtues” was the head on a Paul Berman op ed piece in February, 2004.Christopher Hitchens lurched regularly onto Hardball to hurl abuse at critics of the war.
But today, amid Iraq’s dreadful death throes, where are the parlor warriors? Have those Iraqi exiles reconsidered their illusions, that all it would take was a brisk invasion and a new constitution, to put Iraq to rights? Have any of them, from Makiya through Hitchens to Berman and Berube had dark nights, asking themselves just how much responsibility they have for the heaps of dead in Iraq, for a plundered nation, for the American soldiers who died or were crippled in Iraq at their urging ? Sometimes I dream of them, — Friedman, Hitchens, Berman — like characters in a Beckett play, buried up to their necks in a rubbish dump on the edge of Baghdad, reciting their columns to each other as the local women turn over the corpses to see if one of them is her husband or her son.
Post coldwar Liberal interventionism came of age with the onslaught on Serbia. Liberal support for the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq were the afterglows. Now that night has descended and illusions about the great crusade shattered for ever, let us tip our hats to those who opposed this war from the start the real left, the libertarians and those without illusions about the “civilizing mission” of the great powers.
A Memory of Tanya Reinhart
Amid the shock of Tanya Reinhart’s sudden death from a stroke in New York, CounterPuncher Vanessa Jones reminded us of a little description she’d done of Reinhart, giving a talk at ANU in Canberra, late last year. It’s a nice vignette of a woman who gave her all for the struggle for justice for Palestinians.
She was: calm, thoughtful, down to earth, unpretentious, clear speaking, practical, not bitter, accessible, no need to smile, comfortable with her own seriousness. All the books sold out the hour before, lecture hall three quarters full, audience sympathized and laughed, but mainly listened. Over half the audience was grey or white haired- a third youngish- i.e. around 30 or 40 years old. It was easier to listen to her than read her- the content of her political writing I find depressing, with any writer. Coming from her, I found it simple and easy to digest- when you can see the sincere humanness of where she is coming from. She had the only map published in Israel before the Oslo deal- the one before the Camp David meeting. It was projected up onto the large screen. She was given a lecturer’s pointing stick to point up at the slide projected map, after her pen seemed inadequate, and Tanya laughed at the huge size of it, which seemed double her height, and hid it, until it was useful for pointing out areas.
Didn’t stay for her to sign my book. She looked like she’d be looked after for the evening. She wore short, suede-type lace up black boots, long tailored khaki skirt, with rear low slit, and black long sleeved stretch shirt, with a leather satchel on her back. When she walked down the stairs to the lecture area, she walked past, next to where I was seated, and I noticed she had a spring to her step. She had a certain vitality to her, and had that Israeli type of dress sense- slightly European and slightly hippy- or maybe I’ve only met hippyish Israelis. Sad that her view is a minority view amongst Israelis and Jews worldwide. Can’t see why her views are a minority- they seem perfect sense to me. Reminded me of an Israeli woman I met long ago- same outlook, and openness. So, I will try and read her book, but I would much rather sit and hear her read out a chapter each 2 hours. That would be easier, as it makes the situation seem as I see it- simply human, and not academic. But it’s not everyday that we can sit and hear people talk about things they would normally write about, so writing is a way to link the ideas with other minds. Communicate. I like seeing the writer/ thinker in the flesh- always comes across as normal and human, compared to the print, which at times can seem academic. Tanya Reinhart was quietly spoken and modest in her approach, with people asking for the volume up. Lots of questions at the end- they had to be limited.
ALEXANDER COCKBURN’s new book, End Times: the Death of the Fourth Estate, is now available.