Hearts, Minds, And The Military in Iraq

by Gilles d'Aymery

April 12, 2004   


"The time has come for a new approach in Iraq. [...]

[O]ne year after the fall of Baghdad, the United States should not be casting about for a formula to bring additional U.S. troops to Iraq. We should instead be working toward an exit strategy. [...]

[F]rom the flood of disturbing dispatches from Iraq, it is clear that many Iraqis, both Sunni and Shiite, are seething under the yoke of the American occupation. [...]

It is staggeringly clear that the Administration did not understand the consequences of invading Iraq a year ago, and it is staggeringly clear that the Administration has no effective plan to cope with the aftermath of the war and the functional collapse of Iraq. It is time - past time - for the President to remedy that omission and to level with the American people about the magnitude of mistakes made and lessons learned. America needs a roadmap out of Iraq, one that is orderly and astute, else more of our men and women in uniform will follow the fate of Tennyson's doomed Light Brigade."
—US Senator Robert C. Byrd (GA. D.); Remarks to the floor of the Senate, April 8, 2004.

Once more, the powerful remarks of Sen. Byrd will resonate with those who opposed the War in Iraq in the first place, and have, ever since this gruesome disaster began over one year ago, principally and courageously ("It has been suggested that any who dare to question the President are no better than the terrorists themselves," says Sen. Byrd.) advocated to bring the troops home. Once more, the thousands who demonstrated in the streets of New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, etc. this past weekend, and the millions all over the world who pray that reason may prevail, will hope that the powers that be in Washington D.C. will heed the words and the wisdom of the good senator. Once more, they will be disappointed -- but hopefully not disillusioned further into the darkness of cynicism -- for the voice of this octogenarian will eventually carry the day.

Their hope may be momentarily (years, decades?) thwarted, for power is blinded by careerism and self-interest, reason has been trashed along the same corridors, and a pathological cultural gene -- some call it a meme -- has deluded the white "liberal" elite and its whored lackeys and other palatial guard dogs -- the punditocracy -- to herald, for as long as one can remember, that we, the good fornicating Christian capitalist consumers, were the holder of the truth, the sole possessor of knowledge, and the definer of progress.

So, "[F]irst, we are going to win," says Gen. John Abizaid, the head of the Army's Central Command in Iraq. "Secondly," he adds, "everyone needs to understand that there is no more powerful force assembled on earth than this military force in this country backed up with our naval and air forces in near proximity." To be pin-pointedly clear, he follows with "those who oppose moving democracy forward will have to pay the consequences if they don't cease and desist." We will "pacify" the country, the American military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, assures us. We have overwhelming forces. The bad guys, the Saddam remnants, the Sunni diehards, the al Qaeda extremists, the foreign suicide bombers, the Shia thugs, the Mahdist fanatics, the insurgents, the rebels -- they all are terrorists now according to Bill Safire (1) -- will be defeated. If necessary, more troops will be sent to advance progress in this far-away land. We are the force of good against evil. We will carry the day. It's called Freedom and Democracy -- the latest example of our mission civilisatrice.
My battalion carries out dozens of missions all over the city -- missions that are improving peoples' lives. We have restored schools and universities, hospitals, power plants and water systems. We have engineered new infrastructure projects and much more. We have also brought security and order to many of Baghdad's worst areas -- areas once afflicted with chaos and brutality. Our efforts to train vast numbers of Iraqis to police and secure the city's basic law and order are bearing fruit.

Our mission is vital. We are transforming a once very sick society into a hopeful place. Dozens of newspapers and the concepts of freedom of religious worship and expression are flowering here. So, too, are educational improvements.
--Joe Roche, U.S. Army's 16th Combat Engineer Battalion in Iraq, and adjunct fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research, a Washington think-tank. (2)
Let's give the benefit of the doubt to Mr. Roche and take for granted that he actually wrote those words -- instead of disseminating the disinformation concocted in one of the many PR departments at the Pentagon -- and that he believes them.

Then, forget the fact that had we not deliberately destroyed Iraq's infrastructure through Gulf War I, a decade of decimating sanctions, repeated bombing raids over the years, culminating with Gulf War II and the occupation, there would be little need for the Joe Roches of this world to perform their missionary work as part of the most "powerful force assembled on earth." Ignore that the Iraqis never asked to be "liberated." Disregard the number of Iraqi families whose father or son, mother or daughter, cousin, uncle, nephew, grandparent, friend, acquaintance, died in the past 13 years because of the two wars and sanctions we inflicted upon Iraq. Discount the growing hatred and resistance to, for better or worse, the occupiers, which is quite precisely what Americans and their puppets are. What counts for the Joe Roches of the world, what only counts, is that we believe we are the forces of good, always at the ready to deliver the downtrodden masses from their dark caves and frozen ignorance.

Thanks to a November 2001 pertinent analysis by Louis Proyect, "Colonel Gordon and the Mahdi," based on a review of the 1966 film, "Khartoum," one is reminded of the late 1800s British colonial expedition in the Sudan (3) -- and of so many other efforts by the European powers to enlighten the world, bring modernity to the barbarians and pacify the savages. Each and every time, it was done, as it is now, in the name of our "superior values."

Proyect cites Eduard Bernstein, a member of the German Reichtag in 1920 and a leader of the Social Democrat Party, advocating colonial rule over Morocco in a January 5, 1898 article titled "The Struggle of Social Democracy and the Social Revolution."
There is a great deal of sound evidence to support the view that, in the present state of public opinion in Europe, the subjection of natives to the authority of European administration does not always entail a worsening of their condition, but often means the opposite. However much violence, fraud, and other unworthy actions accompanied the spread of European rule in earlier centuries, as they often still do today, the other side of the picture is that, under direct European rule, savages are without exception better off than they were before.

Even before the arrival of Europeans in Africa, brutal wars, robbery, and slavery were not unknown. Indeed, they were the regular order of the day. What was unknown was the degree of peace and legal protection made possible by European institutions and the consequent sharp rise in food resources... (4)
Replace Europe with the U.S., European and Europeans with American and Americans (of the US of A), add the Middle East, Central Asia, Asia, etc. to Africa, and these words could as well be those of Michael Ignatieff, the great partisan of Empire, or Christopher Hitchens for that matter.

Take a look at what Hitchens wrote in 1992 on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the discovery of the North American continent by Columbus, in which he gloats over the historical date -- "1492 was a very good year" -- and goes on belittling the anti-Columbus movement, which is "sinister because it is an ignorant celebration of stasis and backwardness, with an unpleasant tinge of self-hatred."
But those who view the history of North America as a narrative of genocide and slavery are, it seems to me, hopelessly stuck on this reactionary position. They can think of the Western expansion of the United States only in terms of plague blankets, bootleg booze and dead buffalo, never in terms of the medicine chest, the wheel and the railway.

One need not be an automatic positivist about this. But it does happen to be the way that history is made, and to complain about it is as empty as complaint about climatic, geological or tectonic shift. (5)
The annihilation of almost the entire indigenous nations in the name of "the medicine chest, the wheel and the railway..." What an advance for humankind, what a symbol of the glowing, radiant values of modernity! And that's how history is made!

This chilling logic was recently echoed by Israeli historian Benny Morris, in an interview with Ari Shavit on January 5, 2004 for Ha'aretz, in which he defended the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestinians by the Israeli armed forces:
There are circumstances in history that justify ethnic cleansing. [...]

A Jewish state would not have come into being without the uprooting of 700,000 Palestinians. Therefore it was necessary to uproot them. There was no choice but to expel that population. It was necessary to cleanse the hinterland and cleanse the border areas and cleanse the main roads. [...]

I feel sympathy for the Palestinian people, which truly underwent a hard tragedy. I feel sympathy for the refugees themselves. But if the desire to establish a Jewish state here is legitimate, there was no other choice. [...]

Even the great American democracy could not have been created without the annihilation of the Indians. There are cases in which the overall, final good justifies harsh and cruel acts that are committed in the course of history. [...]

If Ben-Gurion had carried out a large expulsion and cleansed the whole country -- the whole Land of Israel, as far as the Jordan River. It may yet turn out that this was his fatal mistake. If he had carried out a full expulsion -- rather than a partial one -- he would have stabilized the State of Israel for generations. (6)
Since Benny Morris is an historian, he could have added that a) the Israelis made the desert bloom (the definition of progress?), b) the country is renown for its high-tech, military, and scientific achievements (the definition of modernity?), and c) in light of historical precedents they have been a relatively benign destructive force (a few massacres, a few rapes, a few destructions, unfinished cleansing, but no full-scale genocide "à la Hitchens").

Still, the logic is disturbingly similar. Omelets can't be made without breaking eggs. Ethnic cleansing is legitimate under some circumstances. Genocide is a necessary tool for, or an unfortunate legacy of, the advancement of progress. People with superior values, which seem eerily synonymous with the power of their military, will pacify the savages -- and the winners will write the history books, anyway!

Meanwhile as history also suggests through the ages, subjugated people tend to have a different appreciation of the facts on the ground; they tend to revolt, rebel, launch peaceful or violent insurrections. In other words, the savages resist.

They in turn are regarded as, and labeled terrorists, and become fair game. Shoot to kill is the leitmotiv, as it was with the Indians of pre-American fame. Five bucks for an Indian kill was widely advertised then. Today, we do not advertise as much. We hire mercenaries (Blackwater?) to do the dirty work. Still, the buffalo must be exterminated... The long walk to progress will not be deterred...

But there is another outlook. 2004 is not 1492. Hitchens's assertion that history is made through large-scale genocides, as repugnant as it may be, is no longer valid. Yes, indeed, the US military can crush the resistance in Iraq, this time around, and the next, and the next, and the next... But, like the world found in Vietnam and in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there is no will to exterminate the "enemy," when that "enemy" is an entire population, like was done to the Indians -- notwithstanding Mr. Bush's bravado ("Bring 'em on."). Fundamentalist ideologues confront a different world in which perception is fuzzier and public opinion is increasingly shaped or influenced quite rapidly by instant communications (which in turn explains the desperate attempts by the powers that be, both corporate and political, to control the message through their obedient owned media).

The hearts and minds of people cannot be won by shooting at them. The Israelis know that. The US military is learning, or will quickly learn it. Even with the most "powerful force assembled on earth," like the Romans or the British in times past, people can't be subjugated. The more violence and destruction the US military inflicts upon the Iraqis, the more resistance will ensue, the more objections will be raised all over the world, the more the U.S. will become an international pariah.

The world is changing, notwithstanding the Joe Roches (as well-intentioned as they may be), all the Hitchenses and Morrises with their determinism, their sophistry and casuistry. Certainly, Senator Byrd is not the only decent human being in the U.S. and the only mind who understands that the U.S. has already lost the Iraq War!

Bring the troops home.

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Notes and Resources

1.  William Safire, "Two-Front Insurgency," The New York Times, April 7, 2004.  (back)

2.  Joe Roche, "Keep the Faith: Letter from Iraq," National Center for Public Policy Research, April 7, 2004 - http://www.nationalcenter.org/2004_04_01_BlogArchive.html#108134824118333461 (as of April 9, 2004).  (back)

3.  Louis Proyect, "Colonel Gordon and the Mahdi," November 2001 - http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/fascism_and_war/mahdism.htm (as of April 9, 2004)  (back)

4.  Proyect, "Colonel Gordon and the Mahdi."  (back)

5.  Christopher Hitchens, "Minority Report," The Nation, October 19, 1992.

See also, Steven Salaita, "Hitchens was never innocent -- and neither were we," YellowTimes.org, December 11, 2002 - http://www.yellowtimes.org/article.php?sid=921&mode=thread&order=0 (as of April 8, 2004).  (back)

6.  Ari Shavit, "Survival of the fittest," Ha'aretz, January 5, 2004, (interview with historian Benny Morris) - http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/380986.html (as of 1/10/2004) and http://www.haaretzdaily.com/hasen/pages/ShArt.jhtml?itemNo=380986 (as of April 8, 04 -- only part of the interview is displayed).  (back)

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Published April 12, 2004
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