Roaming through the al-Jazeera Arabic headquarters in Doha, Qatar, last month, I was struck by its wall of relics. Behind glass lay the remains of their journalists who were either killed in action or else held in Guantanamo under false pretenses. The one tableaux that most affected me was that of Tareq Ayyoub (1968-2003), the reporter killed when US forces fired on the al-Jazeera station in Baghdad on April 8, 2003 – three weeks into the Iraq War. It was a day when the blood of journalists flowed through the streets of the city: US aircraft struck Abu Dhabi Television’s station that day, and a US Abrams Tank struck the Palestine Hotel, killing Taras Protsyuk (Reuters) and Jose Couso (Telecinco).
After an internal US investigation, General Colin Powell said, “Our forces responded to hostile fire appearing to come from a location later identified as the Palestine Hotel.” Nothing was further from the truth. Journalist Robert Fisk was on the ground in Baghdad. He wrote at that time, “I was between the tank and the hotel when the shell was fired. There was no sniper fire – nor any rocket-propelled grenade fire, as the American officer claimed – at the time. French television footage of the tank, running for minutes before the attack, shows the same thing. The soundtrack – until the blinding, repulsive golden flash from the tank barrel – is silent.” Mohamed Jassem al-Ali, al-Jazeera’s then head, had given the US the coordinates to its Baghdad station so as to protect it from attack; it was precisely those coordinates that were targeted. A month later, al-Ali was fired by al-Jazeera allegedly for hiring three “Iraqi agents” to work at the station. Pressure to silence the buzz of criticism from al-Jazeera and to remove the images of civilian casualties and suffering from its screens was fierce.
During the war, the US government either embedded journalists or tried to excise them. The war could have only one story-line, particularly given the unseemly means by which the US and the UK went into the war: with lies and evasions told to the UN to strong-arm a compliant set of governments into allowing the Bush-Blair team its way against an already prone Saddam Hussein and his regime. Now, with the war gone ten years, the challenge has been to try to remind ourselves that it happened in the first place. The US “withdrawal” of troops in 2011 is treated as an opportunity to withdraw the world’s attention from Iraq. We are told to forget the criminal
conspiracy that led the North Atlantic into a war of aggression. We are told to forget the way a country has been systematically destroyed not only since March 19, 2003, but perhaps since the West colluded with Saddam Hussein’s regime against Iran in 1980, flattering Hussein’s immense ego to take his people into a murderous conflict with its neighbor (1980-88), selling Hussein’s army chemical materials to allow him to launch them against the restive Kurds (1983-88), and then trying to contain his ambitions when he came asking for payment for Iraq’s services to the West against Iran (1989-91). There is an imposed amnesia about imperial motives and war aims, about the fact that many opposed the war on grounds that came to pass, and about the sheer suffering about the war.
What have we forgotten?
* The total number of dead – a figure impossible to fathom, somewhere near a million or maybe higher (the Lancet’s figure from 2006 if updated would lead us higher yet).
* The total number of refugees – around seven million according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Many fled to Syria, where the two-year bloody war has now left these Iraqis in a position of great peril.
* The destruction of infrastructure – now reconstructed on lines that favor the sectarian impulses of the new political class.
* The war crimes – Abu Ghraib, Falluja, the very rush to war itself.
Obama, who had staked out his own position on the impending Iraq War clear in 2002 (“a dumb war, a rash war”), could not revisit them in 2011: he was now the Commander in Chief and would find it awkward to belittle the sacrifices of troops who were sent to fight a false war. At most Obama could acknowledge the debate before the war, with the lead-up “a source of great controversy here at home, with patriots on both sides of the debate.” The Iraq war was not perfect, he accepted, but its outcome was good, with the troops leaving behind “a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people.” American liberalism is not capable of any more than that. It is why American liberalism will not be willing to register its complicity in such a grotesque imperialist project, nor be willing to break with that project in the first place. Too much is to be gained through its silence.
To go beyond Obama’s anodyne comments from last year is to accept that Iraq was not a “dumb war” but the outcome of a system premised on militarism and one that is capable of the harshest violence against its enemies. During the week of the US withdrawal from Iraq, a reporter for The New York Times found 400 pages of US military investigations on the 2005 massacres at Haditha, where US marines killed 24 Iraqis (including a 76-year-old man in a wheelchair, children and toddlers). Most of the US troops had been acquitted by their justice system, leaving a bad taste in the Iraqi body politic. As Michael Schmidt put it in The Times, “That sense of American impunity ultimately poisoned any chance for American forces to remain in Iraq, because the Iraqis would not let them stay without being subject to Iraqi laws and courts, a condition the White House could not accept.”
It was the aftermath of Haditha that forced the Iraqi government to no longer give a carte blanche to US troops. The Iraqi Parliament, in a sense, ejected the US because Washington would not allow its troops to come under Iraqi jurisdiction. That is how the Iraq War finally ended – not with a withdrawal but with an ejection.
I write this essay in New Delhi, remembering the day ten years ago when Shock and Awe began and remembering the months that led to the war. I remember two friends and teachers who departed over this decade, and write these words with their memory in mind – Edward Said (1935-2003) and Alexander Cockburn (1941-2012). Till the very end, Said, who died ten years ago, held fast against the imperialist project. Not long before he died, Said told al-Ahram that he felt that the imperialist states wanted to “terminate some countries” and “install regimes friendly to the United States,” a “dream that has very little basis in reality. The knowledge they have of the Middle East, to judge from the people who advise them, is to say the least out of date and widely speculative.” There were no flowers and sweets thrown to US troops as Fouad Ajami and Kanan Makiya assumed; more likely the troops were fired upon or found themselves victims to roadside bombs. I saw Edward speak bravely in late 1990 against Gulf War 1 in Chicago, when the tide was decidedly in favor of that bombardment and only a handful of people saw the ruse for what it was.
One of those other people was Alexander Cockburn. During 2002-03, I had several wonderful interactions with Alexander as he edited the essays I wrote for CounterPunch on the lead-up to the war. There was no fine line to be walked – the war was being based on false pretenses. We already knew that, and Alexander encouraged as much honest writing as possible against imperial mendacity on Iraq. I remember once asking him how he kept his nerve. His ancestor had burned down the White House, he told me. Nothing his pen can do matches that. High standards set by his past, not only for him but also for journalists with the memory of Tareq, Taras and Jose in mind.
Vijay Prashad’s new book, The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South, is out this month from Verso Books.