Hard News by Russell Brown

Moral fog

After all these years, a nice early start on Fridays has been etched into my neurons, and Good Friday wasn't any different. So just before seven, I was up in a quiet house, reading about Iraq. There was something eerie about encountering this noise and chaos from the distance of the quietest day of New Zealand's year.

I was, in part, trying to work out what I thought. If you have crystalline moral clarity on this - and a few people seem to think they have - you're either deluding yourself or you're not paying attention, or you're Gordy: "Far more killing and arab humiliation is required in Iraq than has been dished out thus far. If it wasn't for the defeatist media this war would have been well won by now," he ejaculated, noting as he did so a risible column by Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mark Steyn who, er, went to Fallujah once.

Gordy, of course, raged for a week about the killing of four security guards in Fallujah. But they were American. Estimates of the death toll from a week's siege of Fallujah have ranged from 470 (by a group of international aid agencies) to 600 (by doctors at the local hospital). They've been digging up the local football pitch to bury their dead. About 1200 people have been injured, and thousands of families have fled with what they can carry. US forces refused to allow men of "fighting age" to leave the city of 200,000 people, so sons, husbands and fathers stayed behind to face who-knows-what.

The Boston Globe had a disturbing story, which includes this paragraph:

Ghazwan Arrawi, 30, who fled Fallujah on Friday, described five days and nights of explosions and gunfire that kept his family huddled in their house. He said five people in his neighborhood, including two of his childhood friends, were killed in blasts that hit their houses, and when he and others tried to bury them, the gravedigger was shot to death.

Can you blame anyone for regarding this as a collective punishment? But it's not enough for brave old Gordy. He's angry. I'm surprised he's not over there already, giving those ungrateful Iraqis what-for …

US command has claimed that 95 per cent of the dead in Fallujah are fighting-age males; TV pictures have focused on the bodies of women, children and the elderly, and the doctors claim most of the dead were non-combatants. Any number of stories suggest that the siege of Fallujah has been grossly counterproductive: stoking support for the insurgents rather than quelling them. Riverbend reported thus from Baghdad a few days ago:

A convoy carrying food, medication, blood and doctors left for Falloojeh yesterday, hoping to get in and help the people in there. Some people from our neighborhood were gathering bags of flour and rice to take into the town. E. and I rummaged the house from top to bottom and came up with a big sack of flour, a couple of smaller bags of rice, a few kilos of assorted dry lentil, chickpeas, etc. We were really hoping the trucks could get through to help out in the city. Unfortunately, I just spoke with an Iraqi doctor who told me that the whole convoy was denied entry... it seems that now they are trying to get the women and children out or at least the very sick and wounded.

Even Healing Iraq, whose post-Saddam blog has been approvingly quoted in the past on NZ Pundit, is sounding bleak:

A whole year has passed now and I can't help but feel that we are back at the starting point again. The sense of an impending disaster, the ominous silence, the breakdown of most governmental facilities, the absence of any police or security forces, contradicting news reports, rumours everywhere, and a complete disruption in the flow of everyday life chores. All signs indicate that it's all spiralling out of control, and any statements by CPA and US officials suggesting otherwise are blatantly absurd …

And any one who suggests that they rebelled for nationalist reasons can never be more far from reality. This is NOT a Shia rebellion or Intifada. The only case where a Shia uprising would take place is if the Grand Ayatollah Ali Taqi Al-Sistani issues a fatwah to that effect, along with the support of the other three leading Shi'ite clerics (Ayatollah Mohammed Sa'eed Al-Hakim, Ayatollah Bashir Al-Najafi, and Ayatollah Mohammed Ishaq Al-Fayyadh) who constitute the Hawza alilmiyyah of Najaf. And Sistani might lose patience any moment and do so considering the deteriorating situation. An agent of Sistani was quoted once saying "We receive so many requests each day from Iraqis asking us to issue a fatwa for Jihad against the Americans. We say no, but this No will not be forever".

On the other hand, Ghaith Abdul Ahad - Salam Pax's friend and fellow archtitect "G" - writes a moving column in the Guardian, surveying the death and despair - and deciding that it was still worth it.

Do I regret the war, especially now that things seem to be moving towards chaos here? Not at all. I still think we are much better off than under Saddam. At least now we are free to dream.

His friend Salam is less inclined to forgive US ineptitude:

I was listening to a representative of al-sadir on TV saying that the officers at police stations come to offer their help and swear allegiance. Habibi, if they don't they will get killed and their police station "liberated". Have we forgotten the threat al-Sadir issued that Iraqi security forces should not attack their revolutionary brothers, or they will have to suffer the consequences.

Dear US administration,
Welcome to the next level. Please don't act surprised and what sort of timing is that: planning to go on a huge attack on the west of Iraq and provoking a group you know very well (I pray to god you knew) that they are trouble makers.

Salam and Gaith's friend Raed also contemplated death in Fallujah, just after the ceasefire:

So, what did we achieve? What did Bush and his administration achieve? What did the Iraqi and the American people achieve?

Another destroyed town? Another example of how heavy tanks and air fighters can be used in street fighting? Another example of how mosques (the culturally sensitive places) can be bombed if “enemies” were hiding inside them? And how other mosques can be used as strategic positions for American snipers? (which is a culturally incorrect thing to do) Another example how public services such as electricity and water can be cut off and used as weapons?

Or is it just a new example of how to build a mass grave, but Bush style? Does Bush really think that he KILLED all the “bad” and “evil” people there? And can KILLING anyone solve any problem?

When Bush decided to start his “War on Terrorism”, secular people (including myself) didn’t feel offended at all; I mean… that was OUR war, the war in which we spent years of our lives fighting against fundamentalism and extremism in our countries. But after a couple of years, I can say that the Bush administration war was the best chance for extremists to gain more popularity and to have a louder voice in our communities.

Raed's mother, Faiza, was also angry.

Baghdad witnesses a general protest today, in both governmental and private sectors. You could hear explosions around the city most of the time today. Yesterday, bombing and shooting hardly stopped between the two sides.

People in mosques are praying for god to be with Iraqi's and to support them and give them victory against those who hurt them and kill unarmed civilians.

Some people came from Falluja as refuges, I saw many families that came to stay with their relatives here, the Americans used cluster bombs against them, and kept them with neither electricity nor water. The grave yard of the city is completely filled; they are using the football field as a grave yard temporarily. The Americans allowed women and children to leave the city, but prevented men.

And on it goes. Never mind the Islamist crazies: it's the hearts and minds of liberal, educated, West-facing Iraqis being lost here.

Also in the Guardian, David Aaronovitch, who supported the invasion, writes about visiting Iraq a year on:

If Iraq gets through the next week it may be OK. Baghdad at the moment is actually far less chaotic than Gaza. It isn't Beirut in the 70s or 80s, with private armies fighting for territory. It is, however, mostly worse than I expected a year ago. And more depressing.

But this is a people who we have (and please excuse my language here) fucked up for a long time now. We colonised them, then neglected them, then interfered out of our own interests, not theirs. We tolerated Saddam and - somewhat later - even supported him. We waged war on him, but refused to help liberate his people. Instead we hit them with sanctions which the regime (which we wrongly believed would fall) ensured caused the maximum damage to the people. We and the Russians and the French, and the UN, and the Turks and the other Arabs, permitted millions of people to die or be reduced to misery and pauperdom.

So, of all the things we have done, the invasion may be bloody appalling, but it is the least bloody appalling thing of all. And the only thing that has offered hope.

If there is a consensus, it is that, for whatever reason, coalition assumptions and actions in post-Saddam Iraq have frequently been wrong and foolish, that the pessimists about the invasion seem to have been closer to the truth than its backers were willing to acknowledge, and that the conduct of the US military has been clumsy and counterproductive. A summary withdrawal is unthinkable, yet it is entirely possible that the Americans may end up at war with the people they came to save.

Even the British are losing patience. The Sunday Telegraph had this interview with a senior British officer in Iraq:

The officer, who agreed to the interview on the condition of anonymity, said that part of the problem was that American troops viewed Iraqis as untermenschen - the Nazi expression for "sub-humans".

Speaking from his base in southern Iraq, the officer said: "My view and the view of the British chain of command is that the Americans' use of violence is not proportionate and is over-responsive to the threat they are facing. They don't see the Iraqi people the way we see them. They view them as untermenschen. They are not concerned about the Iraqi loss of life in the way the British are. Their attitude towards the Iraqis is tragic, it's awful.

Of course, the press in the region has been damning. And it's this that Arabs are reading, and pictures of the dead that they're seeing on their news channels. Small wonder people are saying this:

He then looks me in the eye and firmly says, "Why are 60 innocent people in Falluja killed because 4 Americans were killed there? If the American Army wants to stay in Iraq, you must kill all of the Iraqi people!"

Then there's this sort of thing on the part of individual troops - barely reported in the West, but stoking anger in the Islamic world.

Unqualified Offerings has been dutifully agonising about the moral conundrum in a long post called Late Night Thoughts of a Defeatist, which is worth reading. At least he has the decency to acknowledge his own conflict.

Anyway, the Centre for American Progress did what appears to be an impressive fisking of Condoleezza Rice's opening statement for the 9/11 hearings. I suspect blame will ultimately be impossible to lay. We can't know whether the attacks could have been prevented, only that they weren't. Janet Jackson's Condi skit on Saturday Night Live was pretty funny though.

But Newsweek did turn up one fact that suggests that the culture of the Bush White House worked against national security:

Ashcroft never saw that Aug. 6, 2001, PDB warning of an Al Qaeda attack inside the United States. Why? Because President George W. Bush, with his penchant for secrecy, had restricted the distribution of the PDB to just seven national-security officials. The A.G. didn't make the cut. On July 12, it is true, Ashcroft had been briefed by Pickard about the rising number of Al Qaeda threats abroad. But when Ashcroft inquired, "Do you have any information indicating a threat to the continental United States?" Pickard responded no.

Hang on. So the US attorney general - whose job involves oversight and liason with the FBI - didn't get to see FBI reports warning that there were indications of a calamitous terrorist plot? Wow.

Anyway, just to change the topic - to creepy fundamentalists of another stripe - Garry Wills has a dazzlingly good take on The Passion of the Christ in the New York Review of Books, via a new book on the conservative Catholic cult The Legion of Christ. In the same issue, Steven Weinberg administers a scientific slamdunk to the Bush space plan.