A Dismal and Chaotic Place


There are very few good journalists anymore. You know, folks that develop sources and then write what they see and hear with the context provided by those sources and their own knowledge. Folks that write what they see and hear without fear of reprisal from an editor or publisher that must kowtow to their corporate sponsor. There are even fewer such reporters of this nature that write about the war in Iraq. Of those few, Patrick Cockburn may well be the most consistent and informative, if not just the best. This fact alone is reason enough to read his new book, The Occupation, just published by Verso of London and New York. Cockburn is quite familiar with his subject, having covered the country for well more than a decade. This provides him with a first-hand historical perspective that lets the reader compare the situation in the country before and after Saddam Hussein. Also important is that Cockburn has no program to push, unlike many of his compatriots in the rest of the world’s media that cover Iraq.

The book paints a dismal picture of Iraq–a future that should be obvious to anybody that reads the news and isn’t blinded by the parallel world of the Bush White House (where progress is always being made and turning points are coming soon according). It’s a land where fundamentalist Salafist cells bent on forcing everyone in Iraq to conform to their absolutist-take-no-prisoners version of Islam and Shia militias whose leaders favor Iran battle each other while al-Sadr’s army battles both these elements and the occupiers. Nationalist insurgents and their supporters that oppose US Marines and soldiers. Marines and soldiers who shoot at pretty much anyone they choose without knowing why they are doing so. Corrupt officials on all sides of the battleground and barracks and no one who cares enough to stop them. Shifting alliances everywhere–some made for money, some for religion, and some for politics. In short, the Iraq Cockburn describes is a combination of Hecate’s playground and the “Hell” panel from Hieronymous Bosch’s famous triptych.

Cockburn spends most of the text writing about events in Iraq during the first two years after the invasion. He describes the disintegration of the nation, the growing hatred of the US occupiers, and the consequent growth in the resistance. He details the incompetence of the Bremer reign in Iraq and the arrogance that created and exacerbated that incompetence. From the hiring of political friends with no expertise in running much of anything to the Orientalist assumption that the Iraqis knew nothing about their situation and therefore had no concern about their future, the story told here is one of classic colonialism. Every turning point touted by Washington and London is shown to be as empty as the the words “Iraqi democracy” when spoken by Bush and Blair. Every election is a choice between Iraqi exiles that depend on the occupier’s military to stay in power. Indeed, as I write this piece, the US is “handing over” command of the new Iraqi security forces to the current Prime Minister. Even the Associated Press article reporting this move admits that, like every other so-called transfer of power in Iraq, this transfer of the troop command is more procedural than substantive. Which means, of course, that Washington will still make the calls regarding where the troops go and who they will shoot at. (Think about it–Saigon controlled its own military on paper the entire time the US was at war in Vietnam, yet we all know who called the shots.)

Many have speculated as to whether the disintegration of Iraq along sectarian lines was part of Washington’s intention all along. After all, isn’t that what happened in Yugoslavia, thanks to US covert aid to the Bosnians and Croats, the Dayton Accords, and the 1999 bombardment of Serbia and Kosovo? Indeed, wasn’t the disintegration of the Soviet Union a primary goal of the Cold War? Whether Iraq’s division was a US goal or not, anybody that still believes Bush and Co. invaded Iraq to install democracy is a fool, since every Iraqi effort of that sort has been thwarted, primarily by Washington itself. There is little freedom of the press, little Iraqi control of anything in the country, and no sense of a peaceful future. Hell, even majority rule is denied the men and (few) women elected by those that voted. Cockburn does not provide much analysis as to why this is so in his book, but the situation he describes is a graphic portrait of a nation heading to its end as a physical unit. The facts speak well enough to the tragic situation and remove much of the need for analysis. So that’s what Mr. Cockburn provides in a readable and eloquent manner: the facts.

As far as I’m concerned, the primary drawback to this book is the author’s occasional equating the resistance’s violence and motives to that of the occupiers. While the results of Salafist cells’ car bombs are as repugnant and murderous as the results of a US Marine assault on a mosque or neighborhood in Fallujah or Baghdad, there is a difference in that the former would likely not have happened if the US had not invaded and occupied Iraq. This is not to say that the jihadists’ are right in their murderous attacks, but merely to point out the cause and effect of the US/UK actions. It is, suggests Cockburn, a cause and effect that the occupiers either fail to see or just refuse to see. But then, since Cockburn’s primary job as a reporter is to observe the events, comprehend them, and report them to his readers, that is what he does. Matter of fact, not only is that what he does, he excels at it. For that reason, this book deserves wide circulation, no matter what one thinks of the situation in Iraq.

RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: rjacobs3625@charter.net



Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com