Moral Cowardice, as Practiced by Experts

It is acknowledged almost everywhere except in official Washington and London that Iraq and Afghanistan have gone to hell in a hand cart, thanks in the main to appallingly poor planning by the Pentagon of Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Feith, an arrogant trio of silly asses whose combined allocation of common-sense would fit comfortably in a peanut shell. Their incompetence is almost matched by that of their former representative in Baghdad, L Paul Bremer, who was masterly in his uncanny ability to make decisions that were exactly opposed to what would have worked in restoring the country to some sort of order.

The US army must take its share of blame, because after defeating a disorganized and ineffective enemy its orders were to arrest hundreds of ‘wanted’ people under civil law, a task for which it was manifestly unprepared. It went about its task in a brutal and inflammatory fashion, treating the civil population as it would its enemies on the battlefield, where utmost force is the rule. By its tactics of crash, smash and bash, and menacing cowering families in their bedrooms at dead of night, it alienated even the most fervent US-supporting Saddam-haters. Its exultant and swaggering attitude was ludicrous, but this was how the troops had been taught to behave. Their violations of culture, customs and religion were only to be expected, because these soldiers had no idea how to conduct themselves in the policing role, especially in a country inhabited by people whose history and values are not only complex but totally alien to anything with which they were familiar. There was no intention by their superiors, uniformed or civilian, Pentagon or field, to provide them with instruction and information concerning the country whose ancient national habits and traditions were grossly, and, as it transpired, dangerously trampled in the mire of conquest.

The aim of Bush was to destroy Saddam Hussein. He and his war-happy minions imagined that after that objective was achieved the whole of Iraq and indeed the world would pour blessings on his name, and the United States would be regarded as the benevolent protector of justice for the entire globe. It didn’t matter, in the Bush Crusade conjured up by the bunch of charlatans surrounding him, that there were countless thousands of totally innocent people who would suffer terribly from their combined lunacy. It didn’t dawn on any of his coterie of war-mongering zealots that the citizens of a country that had been humiliated by an invader would object to exultation and brutality on the part of the conquering heroes. No matter how wicked their former dictator might have been, Saddam Hussein was an Iraqi. The majority of his country-folk hated him ; but the actions of the jubilant victor in replacing him with an equally malevolent scoundrel to rule them has been the final straw in national humiliation.

The Bush people lacked the moral fiber to permit elections, because they thought the results might not suit them, and there is no point in saying that mechanisms did not exist for elections, because there were extensive records of all citizens, as there always are in a police state. And there had been an election in Iraq only a year before the invasion ; it had been fiddled, of course, but the point is that everything was in place for the holding of democratic elections. Had the Bush administration not feared their outcome, Iraq would now have a legal government.

Although it was largely the US army’s bizarre and barbaric conduct that impelled thousands of young Iraqis to rise up against the occupiers of their country and to rebel against the Iraqi apparatchiks appointed by the conquerors, responsibility for the present disaster must be shared by the foolish Bremer and his masters who refused to permit the majority of Iraqis to be employed in transport, construction, defence and civil community tasks after the invasion. The legions of unemployed young men, many of them former civil servants, public works’ employees, police and military who owed no loyalty to Saddam Hussein, would have been happy to work for the occupation forces had the opportunity been given them. But instead of being awarded the dignity and much-needed wages of gainful employment, they were treated with casual contempt. Most of them were declared to be untrustworthy and therefore unemployable. They then saw mass importation of tens of thousands of highly-paid, low-grade, semi-skilled workers from all over the world, which fueled their sense of humiliation and frustration.

The awarding of lucrative contracts to mainly US firms, especially to Halliburton, whose employees conducted a major scam involving millions of dollars, was yet another slap in the face for ordinary Iraqis. These people aren’t ignorant savages, as they are regarded by the most American citizens (and especially by the US soldiery). They are quite as sophisticated as the inhabitants of the countries that invaded them, and they know very well what is going on in their own country, courtesy of the conquerors’ machinations. They are only too aware that Cheney is associated with Halliburton, and they don’t care about Washington’s tap-dancing official apologias about the relationship.

The fact that Cheney receives hundreds of thousands of dollars a year from Halliburton yet is in some mysterious manner not associated with Halliburton cuts no ice in downtown Baghdad, or anywhere else, for that matter. The Iraqis realize they have been taken for a humiliating ride, and that the vice-president of the United States is personally involved in their degradation. The best thing that multi-millionaire Cheney could have done for his country was to say that he wouldn’t take Halliburton’s million dollars. (“Cheney’s financial disclosure filings with the Office of Government Ethics listed $205,298 in deferred salary payments made to him by Halliburton in 2001 and another $162,393 in 2002. The filings indicated that he was scheduled to receive more payments in 2003, 2004, and 2005.”) Rather he should have announced that he would forfeit it in the interests of personal honor and America’s dignity. He doesn’t need the money, after all, being already a very wealthy man. But he is also a stubborn, dark and nasty-minded creep to whom the very notion of backing down from a morally indefensible position smacks of personal surrender rather than a pragmatic and honorable decision. In this he epitomizes the entire Bush administration ethos, right down to the rotten core of its basic moral cowardice.

The Bush-Blair war on Iraq was illegal and unnecessary, but their violent subjugation and brutal occupation of a sovereign nation has been cataclysmic in terms of long term effects. It was marked by a series of blunders made by bumbling dunderheads who paid no attention to the wise advice proffered by the State Department and the British Foreign Office, whose experts were treated with suspicion and contempt by their own governments, unlike the con-men expatriate Iraqis who are now discredited as lying fraudsters and in the most high-profile cases as deliberate provokers of war.

These grubby tricksters, some of whom were pathological liars, were paid vast sums by the US administration (let’s be blunt : the US taxpayer) to purvey their fairy-tales about non-existent Weapons of Mass Destruction to the armchair vandals in the White House and Downing Street who were all too anxious to believe their fantasies. Governments in Moscow, Paris and Berlin didn’t believe a word of all this rubbish. They were right, and Bush Washington was wrong ; and for that they will never be forgiven by the Bush coterie. The moral cowardice evident in this attitude is as intriguing as it is despicable, because it reveals the deep streak of vindictiveness that runs though the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld foreign policy. (Forget Powell ; he neither contributes to foreign policy nor exercises influence in the White House. Only misplaced loyalty keeps him from resigning following a series of immensely humiliating incidents in which he has been sidelined and ignored.) But the world, with the exception of the British, Italian and Australian governments and a few other hangers-on, now knows exactly what to expect from the Bush administration : deviousness, disloyalty, deception and moral cowardice. The notion of a Bush-led America that could be morally courageous in its foreign policy is dismissed as preposterous by most countries, for Bush and his people have shown, over and over again, that they prefer confrontation to confabulation, and that their word is worthless.

Moral cowardice is evident in Washington-endorsed official reporting of deaths and casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. When two Polish soldiers were killed and five wounded on Thursday their HQ issued a detailed description of what happened, and the country’s newspapers covered the action in depth. When a US Marine was killed on the same day, here’s what was reported : “One U.S. marine was killed in action in the southern city of Najaf, the center of a two-week uprising led by radical Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, the U.S. military said on Thursday. The marine, assigned to the First Marine Expeditionary Force, was killed on Wednesday while conducting security and stability operations, a statement said.”

This laconic release was an insultingly banal public epitaph for a member of the US armed forces. You might think that he deserved a bit more than that, because, after all, the military and the White House were only too eager to provide lots of details about operations in Iraq only a year or so ago, and it would be reasonable for the world to know exactly what happened to him. The American public, in fact, has a right to know in what circumstances a US Marine gave up his life for . . . . Well, for what, exactly?

This is the rub. Bush’s war-obsessed whizkids don’t want to release details about soldiers dying because US citizens might become concerned about what is going on in Iraq, and would ask why so many US citizens are being killed. In the unlikely event of a prominent newspaper or television company getting details of how this Marine was killed, they would spread it as an important story (except Fox, of course). But they don’t know (or want to know?) what is going on, and, therefore, neither does the American public, because sure as eggs the Bush administration isn’t going to tell them.

Marine John Doe died as if he had never lived. He is mourned by his family, comrades, and hometown friends. But even when his name is made public, after his family have been told (that dreaded knock on the door by a uniformed figure . . .) the rest of America won’t know why and how he died. Especially why.

It is official Pentagon policy to give only the briefest notification of US deaths in Iraq, and incidents of hideous injury are covered in exactly the same fashion. This is not because publication of the circumstances in which soldiers die or are blinded or lose a leg or are emasculated might betray their comrades or their country. The reason for the terse press releases is quite simple : the Bush administration doesn’t want stories about dead Marines to hit the headlines. The Brits, of course, wouldn’t stand for any of this sort of crap. When a British soldier is killed the tabloid press are onto the story before his last heartbeat, in as mawkish, maudlin and Diana-mode a fashion as can be expected from papers that prosper because of their grubby sensationalism. But at least the British public is told the details of how their soldiers die, and are not kept in the dark by use of impudently patronizing PR phrases like “The marine, assigned to the First Marine Expeditionary Force, was killed Wednesday while conducting security and stability operations”.

Bush and the rest of the Washington warriors don’t want America to know the details, because they would have to answer questions about why these kids are dying. They lack the moral courage to admit that the deaths are futile, just as their whole war was futile.

It would certainly be uncomfortable to be told something on the lines of :

“An American soldier screams as medics hoist him into a helicopter on a stretcher, his face twisted with pain from shrapnel wounds to his arm and head. Roaring rotor blades drown out the young man’s cry as the Blackhawk lurches upwards, its wheels seeming to brush the flat roofs of central Baghdad in a full-throttle race to hospital. For US medics riding to the airborne rescue of the wounded, a surge in fighting in Iraq since Aug. 5 has shattered weeks of relative calm at their base. Working round-the-clock, crews have tripled their missions since the clashes erupted between US forces and militia loyal to Shi’i Muslim cleric Moqtada Al Sadr in Baghdad and Najaf. The leap in activity not only points to a sharp increase in US casualties, but provides an insight into the cost in life and limb to the men doing the fighting. “It’s not like anything in the movies,” said Major Christopher Knapp, 40, a pilot and commander of the 45th Medical Company based at Taji, just north of Baghdad. “There’s torn flesh, blood everywhere. There’s no way to be able to describe it, it’s just horrific,” he said on Tuesday at the base housing Blackhawk transports and Apache gunships. At least US soldiers can expect to be whisked to surgeons in Iraq, or if necessary, treated at US bases in Germany. For wounded Iraqis, medical facilities are often makeshift at best. As the helicopter banked towards the US military hospital in Baghdad, a medic in a bulky flying helmet and visor searched the wounded soldier’s wrist for a pulse. There was none. A roadside bomb blast that morning appeared to have severed an artery, draining the life from the man’s arm, swathed by his comrades in bandages stained with dried blood. On the stretcher stacked beneath him lay an Iraqi man who had been working alongside the soldier as a translator, his knees bandaged to cover less serious shrapnel wounds . . . ” And so on.

Horrible, isn’t it? But you say you didn’t see that report of August 12? I’m not surprised, because it was from Reuters, and was picked up by al Jazeera and the Jordan Times, and nobody else printed it.

There is little wonder that the new dictator of Iraq, the bloodstained mega-thug Allawi, has closed down the al Jazeera office. Reuters’ correspondents produce excellent, indeed absolutely outstanding reports, but they might as well be farting into the wind, because descriptions like the one above are decidedly uncomfortable and won’t see mainstream US publications. In contrast, here’s the Washington Post of August 6 : “Since the beginning of July, the city of Baghdad, through a grant from the U.S. Agency of International Development (USAID), has spent $12 million hauling off the garbage. The program has two goals: to clean up the city and to create jobs for the unemployed.” Oh wow.

And here is the New York Times of the same day, with a different helicopter slant, as it were, describing a casevac without quite as much blood : “But from the air, too, more starkly than on the ground, there is also the new world of Iraq beyond Mr. Hussein, a world where almost every roof has a satellite television dish, banned by the ousted dictator except for his acolytes; where markets that were once nearly deserted for lack of spending power are now crowded from dawn to dusk; where almost every open space, as the sun sets, is busy these days with men and young boys playing pick-up games of soccer. “Down there, right now, that’s the new Iraq”, said Capt. Roderick P. Stout, 28, of Gainesville, Fla., commanding a flight that carried the soldier from Abu Ghraib to the Ibn Sina hospital. “They’re out there playing, they’re out there shopping. That’s good”.”

But here’s what really happened that day : “Lance Cpl. Larry L. Wells, 22, of Mount Hermon, La., was also killed Friday August 6 in An Najal Province, Iraq. He was assigned to Unit Battalion Landing Team 1/4, 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, I Marine Expeditionary Force, Camp Pendleton, Calif.” And, as Associated Press reported (on the same level as Reuters ; these people are good) : “Assailants and militiamen loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr wounded 15 American troops in four separate attacks in Baghdad, the U.S. command said Friday. The attacks took place over a six-hour period late Thursday, the military said, as fighting raged separately with al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia in the holy Shiite city of Najaf, south of the capital. The military had earlier reported seven U.S. soldiers wounded in violence in Baghdad on Thursday . . .”

The place is hellish (Afghanistan is, too, and we hear almost nothing about the quagmire there), and US soldiers are being maimed and murdered every day. But unless they search the net for Reuters, AP and al Jazeerah the American public cannot know what is going on, and this suits Bush and the warniks just fine. The truth hurts people like that. The trouble is that it doesn’t hurt them as much as those who suffer “torn flesh, blood everywhere. There’s no way to be able to describe it, it’s just horrific.” But there is certainly a way to describe the Bush policy of deceiving the American public and the world : downright moral cowardice. And that’s horrific, too.

BRIAN CLOUGHLEY writes on military and political affairs. He can be reached through his website


Brian Cloughley writes about foreign policy and military affairs. He lives in Voutenay sur Cure, France.