The Chickens Come Home to Roost

I lived for a time in suburban
Madrid, with its bells
and its clocks and its trees

Till one morning everything blazed:
one morning bonfires
sprang out of earth
and devoured all the living

Come see the blood in the streets,
come see
the blood in the streets,
come see the blood
in the streets!

Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (Nobel Prize for Literature, 1971), “A Few Things Explained” (“Explico algunas cosas,” ca. 1938, trans. Ben Belitt), on how a previous Spanish government’s friendship with fascism brought blood to the streets of Madrid.

The chickens have come home to roost in Spain. Under heavy pressure from the U.S., the Spanish government agreed last year to participate in the war on Iraq opposed by the great majority of Spaniards, who believed the war was both unjustifiable and likely to increase rather than diminish terror threats. The terror bombings in Madrid May 11, apparently intended as punishment for the Spanish deployment, confirm the latter supposition. The initial, apparently deliberate effort of the Aznar regime to link them to Basque terrorists, even as the separatist group ETA disclaimed responsibility and police found evidence for an al-Qaeda connection, struck many as a desperate ploy of worried (guilt-ridden?) Bush allies to conceal the attacks’ connection to the Iraq war. Ongoing opposition to the war, itself perhaps insufficient to oust the Popular Party and bring in the Socialists, combined with outrage at a perceived cover-up to produce the defeat of President Jose Maria Aznar’s government three days after the bombings. Aznar’s bad karma.

The chickens come home to roost in the U.S. too—great squawking flocks of them. Scandals about prewar lies. The embarrassingly absent weapons of mass destruction. Scandals about reconstruction and oil contracts. The Plame Affair. A relentless, indigenous insurgency in Iraq. Ongoing political confusion and ethnic strife. Shiites and Sunnis alike demonstrating for “democracy, not occupation.” General lack of security, with women and girls especially at risk. The threat of civil war. Mounting anti-American feeling everywhere in the world. Rising support for Osama bin Laden, now admired by a majority of Jordanians. Plummeting popularity figures for Bush and Cheney. $ 125 billion price tag, so far. Most of all, 571 body bags, so far as the first year closes.

None of these fruits of the Iraq war and occupation is terribly surprising, except, perhaps, to the insufferably arrogant neocons, who thought they could persuade not just the American people that a terrible threat to themselves necessitated war on Iraq, but also convince the world that war was necessary. Those who felt the conquest would be a cakewalk, and the popular reception of the occupying forces would be all flowers and cheers. Those who thought the oil revenue would pay for the war and reconstruction, and the infrastructure would quickly be rebuilt. Those who thought allies hesitant to support the fight would have to accept its results, learn how unwise it is to challenge U.S. policy, and eventually get on board the program of U.S. empire-building, if as somewhat leery junior partners.

Aznar’s Spain was an eager supporter of the war from early on, and in January 2003, its leader joined those of the U.K., Italy, Poland, Denmark, Portugal, Hungary and Czech Republic in issuing a statement declaring the “Iraqi regime and its weapons of mass destruction constitute a clear threat to world security.” This was just around the time that France, Germany and Belgium (“Old Europe”) were blocking a U.S. effort to supply NATO Patriot missiles and AWACs early warning radar system to Turkey preparatory to a war the Turks wisely decided not to support.

In both GDP and annual military expenditure, Spain was the third most significant member on the pro-war list, and as a nation with influence throughout the Spanish-speaking world, its loyalty to the Bush administration was much appreciated. Aznar was one of the quartet of leaders, along with Prime Minister Blair, President Bush, and Portuguese Prime Minister Barroso who issued their de facto declaration of war on Iraq in the Azores last March.

But over three million Spaniards (out of a population of 40 million) had taken to the streets to protest the war a month earlier, and polls showed 80-90% opposition. Even so, 1300 Spanish troops were sent to Iraq, the first such deployment in memory (Spain had stayed out of both the First and Second World Wars, although it took part in the first Gulf War, losing one soldier out of a token force, and its air force took part in NATO’s “strategic bombing” of Kosovo in 1999). 28 of those troops were killed in a single attack in November, when a poll showed 85% of Spaniards opposing their presence in the country. Still, Aznar’s Popular Party looked likely to win the election before the Madrid bombing attacks. Clearly many are blaming Aznar for exacerbating the security threat to Spain and the world by joining in a U.S. war virtually guaranteed to generate more hatred for the west.

Surely the new Spanish leader, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, does. He has honestly noted that the war is “based on a lie.” “The war has been a disaster,” he observes, and “the occupation continues to be a disaster There must be consequences. There has been one already, the election result. The second will be that Spanish troops will come back.” President Bush, of course, in some alarm responds that troop withdrawal will send a “terrible message,” and the neocon pundits are already talking about “appeasement.” Just as relations with Germany and France resume a degree of cordiality, we may expect some more frosty exchanges across the Atlantic. House Speaker Dennis Hastert attacks the whole Spanish nation: “a nation that succumbedto threats of terrorism, changed their government.” Criticism of Spain will be bipartisan: occupation supporter John Kerry, whose election Zapatero openly favors, calls on Zapatero “to reconsider his decision and to send a message that terrorists cannot win by their acts of terror.” (Surely Kerry is aware that Zapatero advocated withdrawal from Iraq before the bombings and election, so it’s his long-standing decision he’s asked to reconsider. And Kerry clearly implies that he buys the Bush line and believes the occupation of Iraq is what most Europeans think it isn’t: part of the “War on Terror.”)

A year after the invasion began, Germany and France can heave deep sighs and say, “We told you so.” That’s irking enough to the warmongers, coping as they must with their own mounting internal doubts about the quagmire. But here’s Spain saying publicly: “You lied to us. You led us into a disaster, and now we want out.” That, from the neocons’ point of view, is a betrayal of, and attack upon, the common cause. I can’t see them responding to their NATO ally, “Well, we’re sorry you feel that way,” and leaving it at that. Unless the U.S. agrees to a dramatically different scenario in Iraq amenable to Spain, involving a rapid turnover of power to the U.N., I’d expect some very frank exchanges.

Zapatero, for example, could say this to Mr. Bush: “You’re the one sending a ‘terrible message’ by attacking a country you knew damn well didn’t threaten your country, and had nothing to do with al-Qaeda. You didn’t convince many people around the world that Iraq had attacked you on 9-11, you just convinced most of your own people, who you notice aren’t liked very much any more here in Europe, that Saddam had to have been involved. You send a terrible message to Arabs and Muslims that 9-11 gives you the right to attack anybody you want, usually Muslims (people we Spaniards know a lot about because of the centuries of Muslim rule in Spain and our experience of colonization in the Sahara). You send a terrible message when you say that Afghanistan (where we have troops alongside yours, for the time being) and Iraq are ‘just the beginning’ in a long war, in which you seek ‘regime change’ all over the Middle East, a place you and your troops don’t know anything about. Don’t you realize how happy you’ve made bin Laden, by swallowing his bait and taking actions bound to antagonize the Muslim world, splitting and weakening the western alliance, while setting us all up for an unnecessary clash of civilizations? Don’t you realize how you’re encouraging other nations, like India, China, Russia, to act ‘preemptively’ and destroy the structure of international diplomacy dating back to the seventeenth century?”

Bush’s answer, I suspect, would be, “No I don’t realize any of that. We acted on the best intelligence. The Iraqi people are free. We are promoting democracy in the region, democracy for Muslims. If we pull out now, the terrorists who hate our freedoms win, and will continue to threaten us with weapons of mass destruction programs. You’re either for us or against us. We don’t think the Spanish people should wait until there’s a mushroom cloud over Madrid to take action against the terrorists” to which Zapatero, thinking, “Joder, el tío este es un auténtico papanatas, como dijo la señora canadiense”, might ask, “Mr. President, could you please hand the phone over to your Secretary of State?”

* * * * *

Fidel Castro has written a congratulatory note to Zapatero—normal diplomatic etiquette. Cuba and Spain of course have deep cultural ties and friendly relations. In his message, Castro draws attention to other ties between Spain and Latin America, mentioning accurately that “by virtue of actions and pressures on the part of Mr. Aznar as president of the government of Spain, more than 1,000 young men from small and impoverished Latin American nations were sent as cannon fodder to Iraq under the command of the Spanish Legion,” so that “the possible death of any of those young people is the responsibility of the Spanish state.” He urges Zapatero to do what he can to prevent the “death of any one of those young Salvadorans, Hondurans, Dominicans and Nicaraguans” so far sent.

Honduras has already announced it will follow Spain’s lead and withdraw its 370 troops by June. Let us say El Salvador, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic follow suite. Won’t Zapatero be blamed for plucking off each little “Coalition” fig leaf? John Bolton has long averred that Cuba is part of an expanded “axis of evil;” will the axis come to include Spain as well? (Here’s the spin: Socialist Spain, linked to terror-sponsoring communist Cuba, is aiding al-Qaeda by appeasement, meddling in the Caribbean, attempting to split Latin American countries from the U.S. in the War on Terror, and by embracing Franco-German anti-Americanism weakening NATO.)

Now let us suppose that the population of Italy, as opposed to the war as the Spanish, but dragooned into it by the government of Silvio Berlusconi (Italy’s richest man, sometimes Mussolini defender, who controls three private television stations and the nation’s largest publishing house, a man facing bribery charges which because of a law he pushed through last June cannot be prosecuted while he remains in office), is inspired by its fellow Latins to resist the war, effect regime change in Rome, and pull out the 3000 Italian troops as well. A La Repubblica poll shows two-thirds of Italians wanting the troops brought home in the absence of U.N. authorization for their presence. The European Parliament elections in June could crucially undermine Berlusconi, maybe even force a withdrawal.

It would then be hard for the 2400 Poles, 2000 Ukrainians, and 1100 Dutch to stay in, and certainly hard for Portugal’s 120 troops, and the token Japanese, Estonian, Croatian, Kazakh and other mercenary detachments who hate the bloody streets of Iraq and fear blood in their streets back home. The U.S. forces would be left alone by mid-summer on the so-called “central battlefield in the War on Terrorism,” holding the bag of unilaterialism, possibly just accompanied by the Brits. Maybe not even them. The Coalition of the Willing will be exposed for what it is: an ad-hoc band of the bribed and bullied crumbling like mercenaries often do when the work no longer pays. The American people if they hadn’t figured it out already would have to wonder why the world has become so soured on the Bushite vision of “Iraqi Freedom.”

Meanwhile, the House of Representatives discusses the awarding of another medal to the deposed Aznar, who has “committed blood and treasure to both Afghanistan and Iraq, where Spanish forces continue to serve alongside our own.” I wonder if this will enhance Aznar’s reputation among his compatriots.

* * * * *

Yo vivía en un barrio
de Madrid, con campanas,
con relojes, con árboles.

Y una mañana todo estaba ardiendo
y una mañana las hogueras
salían de la tierra
devorando seres

Venid a ver la sangre por las calles,
venid a ver
la sangre por las calles,
venid a ver la sangre
por las calles!

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa, Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa, Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900.

He can be reached at:



Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: