From 'Gook' to 'Raghead' -

Thoughts on Iraq

Pamela Olson
4 July 2005

One of the most dangerous things about the Iraq War is that for us back home in America, it's just a sideshow. It's a matter of a couple thousand of our expendable lower-income teenagers, who 'volunteered' to go to Iraq in the first place to try to get college scholarships, dying. It's a blurb on the nightly news. It's a few dozen faceless brown people dying in regular inconsequential chunks.

Sure, it's giant budget deficits and all our tax money going to defense contractors instead of health care and education -- basically throwing our future down the crapper -- but how does that affect my Friday nights?

For Iraq, on the other hand, this is their War of Independence. This is their defining moment in the modern era. They want a country free from foreign control, much like we did in 1776. Iraq is a proud and ancient center of culture and civilization, and they want their country back.

They didn't want Saddam, whom we armed and coddled right up until he got too cocky and invaded our oily friend Kuwait. (Saddam gassing his own people? Yeah, we were totally fine with that at the time.) And they don't want us.

"During the Civil War, Union soldiers were amazed to see poor Southerners without any stake in the slavery system defending it in suicidal charges. But there was a simple explanation, as a barefoot, emaciated Confederate captive famously put it when a Union soldier asked him why he kept fighting: 'Because you're here.'"

They've suffered inconceivably because of what we've done to them, from giving the green light when our ally Saddam was massacreing the Kurds to sanctions that seemed designed to hurt civilians, sanctions against things like basic medical and electrical supplies -- and quite literally bombing a modern, educated, first-world country back into the Stone Age.

We're reaping what we've sown, and we're not going to win. They want it more than we do. Even Americans are starting to see this. CNN said last night that 53% of Americans now think invading Iraq was a mistake. A majority also believe that Bush "intentionally misled" the American public in order to drum up support for a senseless war.

To quote from the Downing Street Memo home page:

"The July 23, 2002 [Downing Street Memo] minutes detail how our government did not believe Iraq was a greater threat than other nations; how intelligence was packaged to sell the case for war to both Congress and the American public; and how the Bush Administration’s public assurances of 'war as a last resort' were at odds with their privately stated intentions."

In other words, they "massaged" the intelligence to fit the policy rather than pursuing sensible policy based on credible intelligence.

I think we're very near a plurality believing that if Bush did lie to us intentionally about his reasons for going to war, impeachment will be in order.

In any case, here we are. Thanks to the Bush administration leading us into this criminal fiasco, we find our nation in an appalling lose-lose situation. But we can minimize the damage if we're smart. The first step, as always, is recognizing and understanding what is actually going on over there.

* * *

Here's a rare interview with Mark Manning, one of the few Westerners who visited Fallujah after America destroyed the city of almost half a million people.

He talks among many other things about an interview he did with a 17-year-old girl whose entire family was gunned down in a raid on her home by U.S. soldiers. She hid with her 13-year-old brother under a bed upstairs for three days, with her dead family on the floor all around, until U.S. soldiers came back, lifted the bed, and shot and killed her brother and shot her and left her for dead.

The videotapes and interviews he made in Fallujah contain compelling evidence of horrific U.S. war crimes, including the use of chemical and depleted uranium weapons on civilians and the sacking and destruction of hospitals (which entailed among other things dragging patients out into the streets while they were being operated on).

Other documented crimes include the shooting of ambulance drivers and refusal to allow thousands of critically sick and wounded people any kind of medical care whatsoever, no aid to the hundreds of thousands of refugees created by the siege of Fallujah, who are living in sheds and chicken coops (if they’re lucky enough to find one) because they have nowhere to go, the killing by sniper fire of unarmed fleeing civilians, night raids that turned into Vietnam-style massacres, and many other similar stories. Many of these things, of course, sound eerily familiar to me.

Maybe this is what Attorney General Gonzales was referring to when he called the Geneva Conventions "quaint"? It's amazing to me that so many people still believe that a war, especially an aggressive one, can be fought cleanly. There is simply no such animal. War means people like you and me, who just want to drink coffee and swim in the swimming hole, getting mutilated and murdered in vast numbers. Period.

When Mark got back to America, almost all of his video tapes and camera equipment were stolen in a well-timed double break-in.

Mark has also been systematically harassed in America by cryptic and threatening phone calls and other in-your-face gangster-type intimidation. The U.S. government is compellingly implicated in both the theft and the harassment.

It's sad what we're coming to. Many of the things the world really loves and admires about America are being destroyed by the current regime. It's a terrible thing to be frightened of and disgusted by one's own country. Or at least the administration that heads it.

Another typical scenario, described by Iraq's Ambassador to the UN, involves the Ambassador's 21-year-old cousin being murdered in cold blood by U.S. Marines. The only atypical thing about this story is that the Marines unknowingly knocked off a VIP's relative and so might actually get in trouble for it. Here is the Ambassador's account:

Mohammed, an engineering student at the University of Technology in Baghdad, was visiting his family in the village of Al-Shaikh Hadid when the Marines knocked on the door, the ambassador said.

The young man rushed to open the door and greeted the group of about 10 Marines and an interpreter who appeared to be Egyptian pleasantly, "happy to exercise some of his English," he said.

The Marines asked if there were any weapons, and Mohammed said there was a rifle, which only had blanks, the letter said. He then led some of the Marines into his father's bedroom where it was kept, Sumaidaie wrote. His father, the local headmaster, was at school.

A short time later, his mother, brothers and sisters who were kept in the living room heard a thud but they were generally relaxed because they had nothing to hide, and 'they thought, nothing to fear,' he said.

But later a younger brother, Ali, was dragged by the hair into the corridor by a Marine and was beaten. The mother started sobbing. A Marine then went out and returned with a camera and went into the bedroom. After a while, the family went outside and waited on the porch as they were ordered, the ambassador said.

More than an hour later, as the soldiers were leaving, the interpreter asked the mother in Arabic if that was her son inside. When she replied 'yes,' the interpreter said, 'They killed him!' Sumaidaie said.

'The mother let off a deafening cry of anguish, but the Marines were smiling at each other as they were leaving,' he said. 'In the bedroom, Mohammed was found dead and laying in a clotted pool of his blood. A single bullet had penetrated his neck,' the ambassador said.

* * *

These things are being done by our boys and funded by our tax dollars, and we have no idea. America's systematic media blackout, including banning Al Jazeera from reporting from within Iraq altogether, is as impressive as it is disturbing. CNN doesn't do much more these days than give a short, hygienic body count each day -- no carnage, thanks -- and act like it's the Iraqis' own fault.

The "insurgents", a complex and heterogenous group, many (but by no means all) of whom are legitimately fighting the brutalizing and illegal presence of foreign invaders and occupiers, are grouped as incomprehensible, inhuman, ungrateful monsters -- a propaganda trick so shallow and counterintuitive that only a long and successful process of dehumanization could allow us to buy it so easily.

No one is allowed to tell the Iraqis' side except for the few handpicked Iraqis who are actually benefiting from the illegal war and occupation. If Palestine has taught me anything, it's that not everybody has a price, but enough people have a price that it's not hard to find local collaborators to cover up and "legitimize" almost any level of abuse, or even participate in it. (Sometimes that price is the occupying army allowing a sick relative to pass a checkpoint and get to a hospital.)

But, to quote Uri Avnery, a three-time Israeli Knesset member and founder of Israel's Peace Bloc (he was referring to an Israeli massacre in Gaza):

"A regular army, strong as it may be, cannot put down guerilla fighters who are supported by a desperate population. On the contrary, the mightier an army is, the smaller are its chances of succeeding. It can kill dozens and hundreds, destroy whole neighborhoods, drive masses of people from their homes and cause a small Nakba--nothing will help. A guerilla war can only be ended by compromise and a peaceful solution.

"A little reminder: the word 'guerilla' (little war) was coined in Spain during the struggle against Napoleon. The French reacted with the utmost brutality, witnessed for eternity by Goya's shocking painting. It did not help them."

It didn't help them in Algeria, either. It didn't help us in Vietnam. It won't help us in Iraq.

What we're doing in Iraq is psychopathic. It's barbarism. It's terrorism that makes 9/11 look like small change. It is masterfully creating the kind of psychosis and despair that lead to more and more fundamentalism and terrorism, and it won't stop any time soon, especially if we keep doing what we're doing.

Rumsfeld says we'll need another decade or so. Another decade of fanning the flames of a deep and at this point entirely understandable global hatred of the American government? Of suicide bombings and American sons and daughters being killed? Of maintaining Iraq as the world's leading terrorism recruitment arena, where guerrilla leaders exploit legitimate and terrible grievances for their own highly questionable purposes? Another decade of spending $300 million PER DAY on a foreign war while we can't even keep up with social security? That's our plan?

I'm still waiting for the punchline.

* * *

So what's my solution?

First of all, it's almost beyond doubt that Bush and his people lied and committed massive war crimes and crimes against humanity, and at the very least he should be impeached and thrown out of office. The greatest war crime is the waging of an unjustified war of aggression. Lying to the American public in order to perpetrate a war crime is certainly an impeachable offense. (If lying about Monica is impeachable, this is a no-brainer.)

It would do wonders for our standing in the world, and for our internal political situation as well, which is in desperate need of a shake-up. Think Watergate. Only much, much worse.

And then what do we do about Iraq?

First, here's an exerpt from a James Boyce post entitled "The President [Johnson] Says 'I Don't Think Anything Is Going To Be as Bad as Losing, and I Don't See Any Way of Winning.'":

"Ultimately, over 58,000 American men and women would die in Vietnam. 58,000. With tens of thousands more wounded and disabled.

"But in 1965, with the protests starting, with Senators looking for an exit plan, less than 500 had died...

"The advice was there. The lesser loss was within the President's grasp. Men like Dr. [Martin Luther] King were advocating it. What if Johnson had just pulled the plug in the summer of 1965? What if he had taken the hit from those who would scream he was abandoning South Vietnam to the Communists? Imagine. The Great Society would have had a better chance of fulfilling its promise. Johnson may well have run for re-election in 1968. Nixon as President, maybe not.

"All if LBJ had been strong enough to say, 'enough's enough.' All if LBJ had been able to face the situation objectively and picked the smaller disaster.

"Since the last heliopter lifted off in Saigon thirty years ago, historians and veterans and professors have debated on what is the lesson of the Vietnam War.

"Maybe now we know."

So what do we do about Iraq? My own personal best case scenario:

Apologize to the citizens of Iraq. Japan still hasn't formally apologized for its atrocities in WWII, and Turkey won't even acknowledge the Armenian genocide, and that just makes them look heartless, delusional, and retarded. Taking the high road will save us a lot of embarrassment later.

Create a reasonable timetable for full withdrawal. Find a way to guarantee true sovereignty to Iraq, not just a puppet regime like Karzai in Kabul. Give power to the Iraqi people, not to well-placed hand-picked collaborators.

After we pull out, militant forces might seize power illegally or provoke a civil war. But then it would be an international issue of nation building and upholding the rule of law, not just a bald American adventure in subjugation. The Iraqi population and the UN could actually get behind that kind of initiative in good conscience, and therefore it might actually succeed.

It might not look pretty at first, but it will be a hell of a lot better than another decade of suicide bombings, American troops terrorizing Iraqi civilians, and a devastating lack of the basic infrastructure that makes any kind of normal life possible. And America being seen around the world as the biggest threat to world peace since WWII's fascist nationalists.

(In a recent poll, Canadians were evenly split on whether Bush or Bin Laden was the bigger threat to world security. Travel abroad some time and look back at America from their perspective. We're not just hated -- our government is reviled as a cabal of lawbreakers, liars, and war criminals. Is this the image we want for our shining country with so many good people and so much potential?)

We made a mistake. We committed a crime. We, the American people, allowed it to happen. Big people own up to such things and try to make amends, and of course punish the ringleaders of the crimes. A humbled, contrite America would do amazing things for our image. When we were humbled on 9/11, the world flocked to our door in solidarity and sympathy. When we used it as an excuse to turn our shining exemplary republic into a dark, evil empire, the world said, WTF, mate? and turned a cold shoulder. Fair enough.

But people can forgive. They want to forgive. There is grace in the world, and we can receive it. I'm convinced of this. If even Vietnam can forgive us, anything is possible. Battles don't end immediately with apologies and understanding. But they tend to drop sharply and fizzle over time.

Without it, they tend to spiral out of control.

The only worry I have about apologizing would be if it were done by the wrong people for the wrong reasons. There's no doubt apologizing would strengthen our image and our influence in the world, and if, say, Rumsfeld got it into his head to take the high road, it might just serve as a clever cover for him.

    Bart: "I'm excellent at fake apologies."
    Marge: "Bart!"
    Bart: "I'm sorry."
    Marge: "That's better."
    Bart: "Heh heh heh..."

If there's one thing Bush has done for the world, it was to walk out in front of the throngs fully naked, like the emperor with his new clothes, and give everyone an unprecedented and undeniable chance to point and giggle -- or at least they would if they weren't so traumatized by what they saw.

He doesn't even bother to hide the fact that he's a lying jack-booted front-man. There's no room for doubt among people who know anything about history, politics, and dirty liars. It's the baldest display of puff-chested numbskullery I've ever seen. I'm trying to think of even a Hollywood character who is more ridiculous, and I can't.

Twenty years down the road, if there is a twenty years down the road, I'm going to be showing my kids news clips from 2005, and they are going to be slack-jawed in dumbfounded amazement. We're living in a bad parody, where hordes of people are hypnotized by internal denial of the fact that our government has simply gone off the deep end. It's a farce, and even the most die-hard red-staters are starting to see through the mile-wide cracks.

If you doubt me, save this email, and we'll talk in 2025. I'll give anyone who saves this email $2 if I'm wrong.

Anyway, America can be forgiven and trusted and even loved again, but it will be almost impossible for that to happen if we don't own up to our mistakes and find it in ourselves to apologize -- sincerely -- first.

That's what big people do.

Small people, on the other hand, shore up their flimsy defenses to the bitter end.

Looks like it will be bitter indeed.

* * *

I'm not the only crackpot who feels this way. Says Paul Krugman of the NYTimes:

"Mr. Bush claims that such a step [a timetable for full withdrawal] would 'send the wrong signal to our troops, who need to know that we are serious about completing the mission.' But what the troops need to know is that their country won't demand more than they can give. He also claims that it would encourage the insurgents, who will 'know that all they have to do is to wait us out.' But the insurgents don't seem to need encouragement.

"It's far more likely that if the Iraqi government knew that our support had an expiration date, it would both look to its own defenses and, more important, try harder to find a political solution to the insurgency.

"The Iraq that emerges once U.S. forces are gone won't bear much resemblance to the free-market, pro-American, Israel-friendly democracy the neocons promised. But it will pose less of a terrorist threat than the Iraq we have now.

"Remember, Iraq wasn't a breeding ground for terrorists before we went there. All indications are that the foreign terrorists now infesting Iraq are there on the sufferance of a homegrown insurgency that finds them useful for the moment but that, brutal as it is, isn't interested in an apocalyptic confrontation with the Western world. Once we're no longer targets, the foreign terrorists won't be welcome.

"The point is that the presence of American forces in Iraq is making our country less safe. So it's time to start winding down the war."

* * *

More about what American soldiers are seeing and doing in Iraq:

From 'Gook' to 'Raghead'

By Bob Herbert
New York Times
May 2, 2005

I spent some time recently with Aidan Delgado, a 23-year-old religion major at New College of Florida, a small, highly selective school in Sarasota.

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, before hearing anything about the terror attacks that would change the direction of American history, Mr. Delgado enlisted as a private in the Army Reserve. Suddenly, in ways he had never anticipated, the military took over his life. He was trained as a mechanic and assigned to the 320th Military Police Company in St. Petersburg. By the spring of 2003, he was in Iraq. Eventually he would be stationed at the prison compound in Abu Ghraib.

Mr. Delgado's background is unusual. He is an American citizen, but because his father was in the diplomatic corps, he grew up overseas. He spent eight years in Egypt, speaks Arabic and knows a great deal about the various cultures of the Middle East. He wasn't happy when, even before his unit left the states, a top officer made wisecracks about the soldiers heading off to Iraq to kill some ragheads and burn some turbans.

"He laughed," Mr. Delgado said, "and everybody in the unit laughed with him."

The officer's comment was a harbinger of the gratuitous violence that, according to Mr. Delgado, is routinely inflicted by American soldiers on ordinary Iraqis. He said: "Guys in my unit, particularly the younger guys, would drive by in their Humvee and shatter bottles over the heads of Iraqi civilians passing by. They'd keep a bunch of empty Coke bottles in the Humvee to break over people's heads."

He said he had confronted guys who were his friends about this practice. "I said to them: 'What the hell are you doing? Like, what does this accomplish?' And they responded just completely openly. They said: 'Look, I hate being in Iraq. I hate being stuck here. And I hate being surrounded by hajis.'"

"Haji" is the troops' term of choice for an Iraqi. It's used the way "gook" or "Charlie" was used in Vietnam.

[Hajji is an honorific in Arabic, denoting someone who has made a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. Using it as a racist pejorative is indescribably offensive and disrespectful.]

Mr. Delgado said he had witnessed incidents in which an Army sergeant lashed a group of children with a steel Humvee antenna, and a Marine corporal planted a vicious kick in the chest of a kid about 6 years old. There were many occasions, he said, when soldiers or marines would yell and curse and point their guns at Iraqis who had done nothing wrong.

He said he believes that the absence of any real understanding of Arab or Muslim culture by most G.I.'s, combined with a lack of proper training and the unrelieved tension of life in a war zone, contributes to levels of fear and rage that lead to frequent instances of unnecessary violence.

Mr. Delgado, an extremely thoughtful and serious young man, balked at the entire scene. "It drove me into a moral quagmire," he said. "I walked up to my commander and gave him my weapon. I said: 'I'm not going to fight. I'm not going to kill anyone. This war is wrong. I'll stay. I'll finish my job as a mechanic. But I'm not going to hurt anyone. And I want to be processed as a conscientious objector.'"

He stayed with his unit and endured a fair amount of ostracism. "People would say I was a traitor or a coward," he said. "The stuff you would expect."

In November 2003, after several months in Nasiriya in southern Iraq, the 320th was redeployed to Abu Ghraib. The violence there was sickening, Mr. Delgado said. Some inmates were beaten nearly to death. The G.I.'s at Abu Ghraib lived in cells while most of the detainees were housed in large overcrowded tents set up in outdoor compounds that were vulnerable to mortars fired by insurgents. The Army acknowledges that at least 32 Abu Ghraib detainees were killed by mortar fire.

Mr. Delgado, who eventually got conscientious objector status and was honorably discharged last January, recalled a disturbance that occurred while he was working in the Abu Ghraib motor pool. Detainees who had been demonstrating over a variety of grievances began throwing rocks at the guards. As the disturbance grew, the Army authorized lethal force. Four detainees were shot to death.

Mr. Delgado confronted a sergeant who, he said, had fired on the detainees. "I asked him," said Mr. Delgado, "if he was proud that he had shot unarmed men behind barbed wire for throwing stones. He didn't get mad at all. He was, like, 'Well, I saw them bloody my buddy's nose, so I knelt down. I said a prayer. I stood up, and I shot them down.'"

E-mail: bobherb@nytimes.com

* * *

Another few journalists' stories:

Molly Bingham, "Home from Iraq," speech at Western Kentucky University

Giuliana Sgrena, "My Truth," On being released from her Iraqi kidnappers only to be shot at by American troops

Dahr Jamail, an Unembedded Journalist in Iraq

* * * * * * *

"Few of us can surrender our belief that society must somehow make sense. The thought that The State has lost its mind and is punishing so many innocent people is intolerable. And so the evidence has to be internally denied."

    ~Arthur Miller

Next: Pre-Disengagement Thoughts

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