Just Change the Channel

If any shred of moral authority remained to the US occupation of Iraq, it finally evaporated in a single historical phrase, at a press conference in Baghdad this Easter morning. For those who missed it, an Arab journalist had asked commanding Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt what people should understand about the US occupation from the images they were seeing of women and children killed in Fallujah, where over four hundred civilians have been killed and thousands wounded so far in the US attack to repress–who exactly? But the tall general had his answer. Nailing the journalist with flashing eye, he pronounced the measured solution to this moral dilemma: “Change…the…channel! Change…the…channel!”

It is, apparently, just the baseless propaganda of Arab media like al-Jazeera which has hallucinated, for a gullible public, hundreds of Iraqi civilian dead under the US attack. Switch to some “honest” coverage and we will get the “true” story–apparently, of US soldiers fighting the good fight and not killing the women and children whose bodies are being carted out of Fallujah in convoys. As Iraqi doctors in Fallujah scream frantic pleas for a US ceasefire into CNN ABC, CBS, NBC, and MSNBC camera lenses, it is not clear precisely what “changing the channel” is supposed to gain us. But, the General stressed, the US troops didnâ’t kill those innocents on purpose and, if we get the right commentary, we might rightly grasp that point and be relieved.

Instead of sober humility regarding a ferocious policy gone foul, Kimmitt radiated indignation as he laid out the grossly unfair situation in which his forces struggle. Militants take cover in a mosque, you see. Then they fire on US troops from that mosque. When the US forces blow up the mosqueâ’s wall to get at the militants, they use the mosqueâ’s loudspeaker to denounce the US occupation for brutality and human rights violations. How can anyone be so blind as to blame US soldiers for doing what they have to do, facing such nefarious treatment? The Generalâ’s own logics, of course, preclude his mental backtracking to consider that the US should not be confronting militants in a mosque in the first place. That, if US forces find themselves in such a dilemma, it is because they have screwed it all up.

The similarity to the moral rot of Vietnam is so glaring that it hardly needs mention (“we had to destroy the village in order to save it,” “children will kill you just as quick as an adult,” etc.). But another ghostly image floated behind the fine general as he made this amazing pronouncement, one picked up by the film Gandhi because it was, indeed, a turning point for British colonial rule in India. In 1919, one General Dyer had brought his troops to repress a demonstration against British rule in a walled garden square in Amritsar. Ten-thousand Indians–unarmed women, children, men and activists–had crowded into the space to listen to speeches and chant slogans for independence. The fine British general ordered them to disperse; when they hesitated, he drew up his troops; when they milled in confusion, he ordered his troops to open fire with machine guns. Some four hundred people died, most of bullets, others crushed beneath dozens who jumped into the central well trying to escape. Another 1200 wounded lay bleeding helplessly as Dyer pulled his troops out and left them there. On a symbolic level, British rule wrote its epitaph that day.

Yet the ultimate demise of British authority was capped later: in the elevated chin, steely gaze, and unassailable moral certainty of the British general (war criminal) as he explained his actions to a investigating tribunal as just action against a dangerous unruly mob. His fatuous image formed the ghostly backdrop behind the aquiline profile of General Kimmitt, as with equally steely moral certitude, he blamed stubborn and irrational Iraqi militants for failing to grasp the moral lesson of his guns: if they would simply and unilaterally stop fighting, his troops would stop bombarding those women and children and all would be well.

Political suicide indeed reeked from the press conference as Kimmitt and his civilian counterpart explained the iron-fist policy which has flabbergasted the international community for its short-sighted and self-destructive stupidity. For these architects of occupation, the horrible dismemberment of four US mercenaries in Fallujah did not call for what might seem obvious: urgent enlistment of local Iraqi authorities in Fallujah, who were equally appalled by the event, to help identify and isolate (politically and socially) the few dozen people who had been involved. Rather, it called for surrounding the entire city and ultimately attacking the entire populace, to crush and flush out the evil-doers–a strategy that scandalized the entire country and lost the peace even while it flailed about in the battle. For things were already pretty bad. As Patrick Graham wrote recently in the Guardian Observer, “In the areas outside Falluja, the American army controls only what it can shoot.”

Similarly, the hard-line resistance of Muqtada al-Sadr has not manifested to the US military as it has manifested to the rest of the world: as a difficult but subtle political matter calling for careful coordination with alternative Shiâ’a figures–other Shiâ’a clerics, sympathetic Shiâ’a business networks, Sunni clerical intermediaries–to cultivate factional rapprochement, foster public debate and steer political direction within the Shiâ’a community toward defusing and minimizing al-Sadrâ’s appeal. Such methods were simply not in the worldview of a US military authority which understands all serious Iraqi protest as an extension of war. Rather, al-Sadrâ’s appeal was granted vastly more moral authority by clumsy US closure of his dinky newspaper, arrest of his lieutenant and now his own arrest warrant. Al-Sadr might even be thanking the US forces for transforming him from a fringe voice to a charismatic anti-occupation icon. The US approach is all the more bizarre for its ludicrous premise: that it can arrest al-Sadr without an all-out assault on the holy city of Najaf, which is impossible without losing all of southern Iraq to a general uprising. Having established such terms for itself, the US occupation is doomed in its failure or in its success. It has already lost the peace.

The whole fiasco signals one other factor, one which stood invisibly behind the US generals throughout the Fallujah attack but is not a ghost: the Israelis. Few people familiar with the regionâ’s history watched Fallujah without thinking of Jenin. One could almost hear the Israeli voices around the paper-strewn tables of US command centers: “O US brethren, at last you have fully grasped the dangers of Arab terror, and at last you will listen to us. We have long experience and great expertise in military occupation. We know how to be tough with the Arabs. Here is what you must do.” And so the US military has picked up Sharonâ’s big stick, and US citizens are all staring at the oncoming consequences: we are preparing to live like Israelis. But, hey, all we really need to do is change the channel.

VIRGINIA TILLEY is Associate Professor of Political Science at … She can be reached at: TILLEY@hws.edu

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VIRGINIA TILLEY is associate professor of Political Science and International Relations, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and author of The One-State Solution: A Breakthrough for Peace in the Israeli-Palestinian Deadlock. She can be reached at: virginia.tilley@gmail.com.