As the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq approaches, commentators who supported military action have been insisting that it be recognised that they had good reasons to want Saddam to fall. Indeed they did! It is hard to express what an appalling man the late dictator was: a man who was cruel that he would not merely invade a nation but torch its resources as he fled; a man who was so spiteful that when militants shot at his car near a little town he threw hundreds of its residents into jails and torture chambers; a man who was so arrogant that he claimed to have had an 100% approval rating in the polls. The great tragedy of the Iraq war is that it began in a country run by this specimen and made things worse.
I have neither the expertise nor the desire to judge between claims as to how vast the graveyard of the conflict is but it is sobering to think that 180,000 is the conservative estimate of civilian deaths. Each one of them represents a tragedy, not just in the life that was lost but in its effects on the lives that were attached to it.
Over two million Iraqis have fled into Jordan, Syria and Egypt. These include a large proportion of the middle classes: the teachers, doctors and businessmen nations depend upon to stabilise their institutions. These people find it hard to create new lives in unfamiliar, unwelcoming societies. Tens of thousands of girls are thought to have been forced into the sex trade.
Even Saddam, brutal as he was, never succeeded in devastating Iraq. The conflict has been effective in this regard. Iraq’s Christian minority has undergone its worst crisis in its centuries of existence. Sectarian violence is thought to have driven over half the nation’s Christians out, and those who stay are regularly attacked and harrassed. The country’s intellectual culture has been shattered. Libraries and archives were burned in the first weeks of the war and hundreds of academics were slaughtered or forced to leave. Iraq’s major universities were said to need 1.2 billion dollars to be rebuilt. The U.S. offered less than one percent of this.
Iraq has lost much of its heritage and also seen the makings of its future devastated. Never mind that the professionals of today have been killed or driven out – think of what the country’s children have been through. Hundreds of thousands of them have been left without a mother, father or both. All of them, meanwhile, have been forced to come of age in villages, towns and cities where bombs could explode at any time and leave horrific scenes of death and destruction. If, as is claimed, the children of Sderot are traumatised imagine the damage done to the children of Baghdad. And these kids, with all the stress that they have undergone, live in a country less than 200 psychiatrists and social workers to help them.
The nation’s institutions show signs of recovery. As the violence has decreased investments have risen, and oil production is helping its economy to grow. Its state remains frighteningly dysfunctional, though. This is a country whose Vice President was forced to run after facing murder charges. The infrastructure is inadequate and poorly managed: more schools, for example, are being torn down than built; the health system is so crooked that tons of counterfeit drugs are served out to Iraqis and the nation is, according to Transparency International, the most corrupt in the Middle East. In a frightening echo of Saddam’s regime, meanwhile, President Maliki has harassed journalists, attacked peaceful protesters and, it is alleged, detained and tortured suspected criminals and political opponents.
The violence, meanwhile, has decreased but continues at levels that would seem horrific in most countries. Hundreds of Shia Muslims have been killed in sectarian attacks this year alone. Then there is the threat of the murderous vigilantes who have been enforcing puritanical standards on the nation’s streets. In Basra, where British troops were stationed, hitmen have been known to kill women and pin censorious notes to their bodies. Gay men are targeted and killed. There were even a series of young men who were stoned to death in what appeared to be a state-enabled war against “emos” by Shiite militants. The freedom Iraqis were promised may arrive but for now, a decade on, it remains a dream.
The war was, of course, not merely foolish but baleful. Ever since John McCain strode onto the Letterman show a month after 9/11 and baselessly linked Iraq to the anthrax letters lie after lie poured from the lips and pens of Colin Powell, Dick Cheney, George Bush and Tony Blair. Who remembers Hussein’s “long-standing relationship” with Al Qaeda? Few people now but millions of them thought they knew about it ten years ago. Who remembers Iraq’s fearsome aluminium tubes? Next to no one now but millions of Westerners shuddered to think of them a decade ago.
Once inside Iraq the U.S. took sweeping measures to remove from Baathists from power. As they constituted the vast bulk of the officials within its institutions everything from hospitals to universities were emptied and chaos was inevitable. As U.S. troops stood back and allowed what Donald Rumsfeld called the “untidiness” that was the ransacking of Iraq’s state infrastructure and culture heritage they witnessed merely the first rumblings of the turbulence they had enabled.
Their military operations across the country, meanwhile, could be brutal. In Fallujah, the name of which has gone down in infamy, chemicals were fired among buildings where civilians still crouched and soldiers shot so wildly that even ambulances were said to have come under attack. “Usually we keep the gloves on,” said one army captain, “For this operation, we took the gloves off”. The torture of Baha Mousa or that in Abu Ghraib are rightly infamous but the tacit acceptance of the practices of Iraqi interrogators escaped attention. The irony of going into a nation to remove a brutal dictator and then failing to object when supposed comrades whipped victims with cables; hung them up by their wrists; raped them and tortured them with acid is gruesome.
Many soldiers, of course, believed that they were doing good. The thousands of Americans and British troops who were sent into the country under a banner of lies and emerged in body bags and flying hospitals should not be forgotten. They have lost their lives and health, and in a cause that will be forgotten by most of their countrymen and looked on with shame by others.
The elites of British and American society have snatched up everything that they can take from Iraq’s ruins and fled lest anybody tries to hold them to account. Corporations, some of which the architects of the war actually profit from, have reaped billions in contracts. The defence company General Dynamics, for example, saw their profits triple in the years after 9/11. (They, along with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Kathryn Bigelow, are among the few people who have benefited from the War on Terror.)
The men and women who engineered the conflict have evaded responsibility. Robert Kagan, Bill Kristol and the ideologues who began to call for the invasion in the 1990s still counsel presidents when any sane society would not allow them to offer advice to plumbers. Bush, Cheney, Wolfowitz and the other scoundrels who were in positions of power have retreated to luxurious retirements. Tony Blair is paid millions to spout cliches to plutocrats. Alastair Campbell is a guest of honour on satire programmes.
Western intellectuals have enabled this avoidance of accountability by desperately trying to rationalise the disaster. Some try to convince themselves that it was for the good. John McTernan, one-time Political Secretary to Blair, claimed that the war was “by and large, a success” while this was too restrained for Michael Gove, for whom it was simply “a success”. I am tempted to ask what would constitute a failure to these men but the prospect of it is too fearsome to imagine. David Frum, a one-time speechwriter for George Bush, outdid them for obscenity by granting that the war had dreadful consequences but asserting that “for an Iraqi, there was no price too high to pay to rid the country of Saddam”. How a rich American thinks he can know the minds of the Iraqis is beyond me but I think he should be forced to ask a prostitute in Syria or orphan in Baghdad how they feel about the “price”.
For some commentators this was insufficiently depraved. They have blamed the Iraqis for their own devastation. They are “ingrates”, proposed Andrew McCarthy. “If Iraqis couldn’t build a secure democracy without years of bloodshed,” sniffed Robin Shepherd of the Henry Jackson Society, “That was their fault”. Dana Rohrabacher, a U.S. Congressman, even proposed that the Iraqis should be compensating the U.S. for what it spent on the invasion. As I have asked before, if I save a woman from her abusive husband by crashing into the house; breaking all the furniture; killing the pets and leaving the door open for thieves and rapists, is she an ungrateful slag if she fails to thank me?
The myopia, pomposity and callousness of these men is truly awesome: evidence of an ability to ignore the most blatant facts and simplest of moral laws when they are inconvenient to their perceptions of the world. How much better, though, is it to gripe about the origin and outcomes of invasion but fail to clearly acknowledge its true implications: that deeds of our governments caused and enabled the damaging and destruction of a country’s past, present and future and that the amoral cynicism and blinkered idealism that underpinned it must be opposed lest it become tomorrow’s Vietnam to a future Iraq war.
Prime among the people obscuring clear thought are, I’m afraid, the liberal interventionists, who may have been inspired by compassion for the oppressed and enthusiasm for freedom when they backed the war but whose griping about perceived slights and trivialities seems downright callous when there is such suffering to be considered. John Rentoul, for example, alleges that opponents of the war should be “alarmed” because some of the people who share this opinion can express unrational views. Alarmed? Really? Alarmed? It is alarming – rather than, say, tiresome – that a few anorak-smothered miscreants chant peculiar slogans? Why? What harm are they? What are they in a position to do?
I am more alarmed by the thought of Hiba, who was forced, at the age of 16, to dance in a Syrian club with her “frail shoulders bathed in colored light”. I am more alarmed by the thought of Mustafa, who lost both his parents and lives in a run-down orphanage where he “feel[s] like a bird in a cage”. I am more alarmed by the thought of Omar Moussa Smith, who was twelve when he was gunned down by U.S. soldiers. I am alarmed by the chaos that is unleashed by war, and the fear, hatred and viciousness that is nurtured within it. This seems more important than a few nutjobs on “my side of the argument”. It seems more important, indeed, than any of our arguments. Perhaps we should stop arguing sometimes. Perhaps we should just look, and listen, and think, and feel.