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There are no more arguments.
Each image of an Iraqi, man or woman, either staring angrily at the camera, pierces the distance between us with fear, resentment or something that I have never experienced and cannot name. Even the images of those who celebrate, or else who come out to ask the marines for food or water, evoke in me a sense of their ambivalence. On PBS, we are told that five thousand Iraqis have decided to abandon their quiet lives in the other Arab lands and return to Baghdad to defend their homeland. One man told the reporter that he has no love for President Saddam Hussein, that he fears for his family, but nonetheless he feels compelled to leave Amman, Jordan to stand beside the other ill-equipped men and women who live in the small towns that ring the marshlands around Baghdad. Without irony, the media has named this heavily populated zone that rings the capital, South Central Baghdad. There is a South Central in every country on the planet.
A few of my students have siblings who are in one or other of the detachments en route to the Baghdad region. One of them almost wept when we quietly talked about her brother, when she told us that he did not particularly support the war, but that, being one of the many working-class youth for whom the military was a way forward, he had no choice but to go along. Images of men and women, no, boys and girls, many in the late teens or early twenties, young Americans with heavy arms, being jeered at, fired upon, hated. It is obscene that the hawks rebuke us for being against our troops. I fear for them, for they stand as the proxy for all that is wrong with our foreign policy, for the integration of our war machine with dollar corporations (please take a look at the Institute for Policy Studies’ excellent report, “Crude Visions: How Oil Interests Obscured US Government Focus on Chemical Weapons Use by Saddam Hussein,” March 2003).
It was one or more of these young people who opened fire at the Najaf checkpoint and killed ten people.
I’ve been following the toll of the dead at iraqbodycount.org, whose website tracks the number of dead with citations and other details fairly regularly. “Shock and Awe” did not conduct the type of indiscriminate bombardment we saw in 1991. Indeed, the campaign did not immediately produce the death toll in the Afghan bombings where our forces, we heard at the end of the first week, “ran out of targets.” My initial reaction to this war was that our massive, planetary protests, backed by the diplomatic debacle at the Security Council and in the Turkish Parliament, checked the ability of the Rumsfeldians to run riot over the Iraqis: one indication of this is the relatively low death toll (only 77 civilians dead according to Iraqi officials in Basra, after a torrent of firepower engulfed the city). In a small way, the limited force, I felt, was a victory for the anti-war movement. [I find it hard to get worked up about Seymour Hersh’s revelations that Rumsfeld wanted a small force, with heavy bombing, and that the generals wanted the overwhelming force associated with 1991: are we supposed to want more troops there simply to spite the administration?]
But the frustration seems to have set in, with the resistance and the suicide attack impelling a harsh reaction from the imperial forces. The armed forces underestimated the depth of Iraqi nationalism. Even though the Iraqis showed off their suicide squads in the parades preceding the war, it seems that the generals did not train the troops to keep their calm at civilian check points. Then again, the experience of the Israeli Defense Force shows that if there are suicide attacks, the army tends toward indiscriminate violence against all those whom it sees as the potential enemy. The British, with a violent history in Iraq that stretches to its conduct against the Iraqi uprisings of the early 1920s, have declared Basra, Iraq’s second largest city, a legitimate “military target.” Iraq will be our Occupied Territories.
The logic of the Coalition seems to be this:
* We are Civilized.
* We only fight a clean, rule-based war.
* They are not fighting by the rules.
* They are forcing us to break our rules.
* They have made us act like barbarians.
* We will act like barbarians.
Every imperial force has used the same, benighted logic.
There are no more arguments. Positions have hardened as the Iraqi defense lines weaken. We have the realists who say that people die in war, yes, but the whole episode is for a greater good. Then there are those who say that nothing good will come from death and conquest, that the blowback will be immense. There is no room to have a discussion, or even to agree on a language for a conversation. War does that. It diminishes civility and it makes us hunker down in our premises, unwilling to engage with each other.
The death count will continue to rise. The rage and suffering of the Iraqis, and other Arabs, will also rise. Those who are not Arab may also get upset, but Arab nationalism is yet a potent force, despite the fulminations of State Department thinkers like Faoud Ajami, and it is this patriotism that is kindled by the images of the American soldier raising the Stars and Stripes at Umm Qasr or of the dead civilians in the bazaars of Baghdad.
When I put my two year old daughter to bed, I shut the windows, close the doors, draw the curtains, make sure that our guests stay quiet for at least fifteen minutes. We read books, talk a bit, drink some milk, sing a song, and then, in absolute silence, she goes to sleep.
Every child should have such a gradual, calm, night.
Iraqi children are no strangers to suffering. In late 1999, UNICEF reported that the death rate among children under five had doubled during the sanctions regime: half a million children died in this period who may have otherwise lived, according to UNICEF chief Carol Bellamy. Iraq is a young country, with half its population under twenty. These are children who have been raised in a siege, some have taken up arms, others are looking, as the poet Suheir Hammad put it, “toward the night sky with fear, as though there are no stars, only bombs in the cosmos.” Without being sentimental, can we consider what hope means for these Iraqis, especially as our bombs erode their steadfastness (samoud, the same word that was the name of the Iraqi missiles)? Can those American children who are protected from harshness ever know what it must be to survive as an Iraqi child? Aadmi tha, bari mushkil se insaan hua: we are people, with great difficulty we became human.
We’ll count the dead, but what about those hearts and minds that will suffer the torment of noise, fear, blood. Our ethical horizon has already been diminished by the trauma of the Iraqis. We have sent our youth, those from among the working class, to do our dirty work. We are yet complicit in this violence. Let us not forget this as quickly as the British, for instance, forgot their brutality in India, or the Belgians forgot their barbaric rule of the Congo. They don’t make us act like barbarians. In our blood lust, we are barbarians.
VIJAY PRASHAD is an Associate Professor and Director of the International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT. This article is an excerpt from his new book: Fat Cats and Running Dogs: The Enron Stage of Capitalism. Prashad can be reached at: Vijay.Prashad@trincoll.edu
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