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Fear Eats the Soul | The Nation

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Fear Eats the Soul

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"I think we agree, the past is over." --George W. Bush

About the Author

John Berger
John Berger's collection of essays, The Shape of a Pocket, was recently published by Pantheon.

Baghdad has fallen. The city has been taken by the troops who were bringing it freedom. Its hospitals are wailingly overcrowded with burnt and maimed civilians, many of them children, and all of them victims of the computerized missiles, shells and bombs launched by the city's liberators. The statues of Saddam Hussein have been destroyed. Meanwhile, in the Pentagon at a press conference, Mr. Secretary Rumsfeld is suggesting that the next country to be "liberated" may be Syria.

Early this morning an e-mail arrived from a friend of mine who is a painter: "The world today is hard to look at, let alone think of." All of us can recognize ourselves in that cri de coeur. But let's think.

There are certain moments of looking at a familiar mountain that are unrepeatable. A question of a particular light, an exact temperature, the wind, the season. You could live seven lives and never see the mountain quite like that again; its face is as specific as a momentary glance across a table at breakfast. A mountain stays in the same place, and can almost be considered immortal, but to those who are familiar with the mountain, it never repeats itself. It has another time scale.

Each day and night of the ongoing war in Iraq is different with different griefs, different acts of defiance, different stupidities. It remains, however, the same war, the war that almost everyone in the world perceived, before it began, as an aggression of unprecedented cynicism (the ravine between declared principles and real aims). This war was undertaken not only to seize control of one of the world's richest oil reserves and to test out new weapons like the microwave bomb--weapons of pitiless destruction, many of which were offered to the Pentagon free by the manufacturers seeking substantial contracts for wars to come--but principally and above all to demonstrate to our fragmented but globalized world what "shock and awe" is.

This can be put less rhetorically. The primary aim of the war, launched in defiance of the United Nations, was to demonstrate what is likely to happen to any leader, nation, community or people who persist in refusing to comply with US interests. Many propositions and memos about the vital need for such a demonstration were being discussed in corporate and operational planning circles well before Bush's fraudulent election, and before the terrorist attacks of September 11.

The term "US interests" can lead to confusion here. It does not refer to the direct interest of US citizens, whether poor or well-off, but to the far-reaching interests of the most powerful multinational corporations, often dominated by US capital, and now, when necessary, defended by the American military.

What Rumsfeld, Cheney, Rice, Wolfowitz, Perle and Co. have succeeded in doing since September 11 is to shut down any debate about the legitimacy or ultimate efficacy of such a threatening deployment of power. They have used the fear spawned by the Twin Towers attack to enlist the media and public opinion in support of unilateral, pre-emptive strikes against any target they identify as terrorist. As a result, the world market with its spin is being woven into the Stars and Stripes, and the making of profit (for the few who can) is becoming the only inalienable right.

"Terrorism is the war of the poor, and war is the terrorism of the rich," Peter Ustinov, the actor and playwright, recently observed with succinct clarity.

An equally succinct remark was made by one of Rumsfeld's spokesmen when questioned about the future role of countries that had not joined the coalition, notably France and Germany, in the reconstruction of Iraq when the war is over. "If you haven't joined the club, why should you come to the dinner?"

Although the assertion that Iraq still had weapons of massive destruction was the official justification for the country's invasion, there has perhaps never been a war in which the inequality of firepower between the combatants has been so great. On the one hand, satellite surveillance night and day, B-52s, Tomahawk cruise missiles, cluster bombs, shells with depleted uranium and computerized weapons that are so sophisticated they give rise to the theory (and virtual dream) of a no-contact war; on the other hand, sandbags, elderly men brandishing the pistols of their youth and handfuls of fedayeen, wearing torn shirts and sneakers, armed with a few Kalashnikovs. Many of the conventionally armed troops of the Republican Guard either deserted or were bombed out of existence during the first week. The comparative casualty rates between the Iraqi forces and those of the coalition will almost certainly be, as in "Operation Desert Storm," well over 100 to one.

Baghdad was taken within five days of the land army being given the order to attack. The obligatory destruction of the dictator's hideous statues followed the same pattern; the liberated citizens only had hammers while the US troops assisted with tanks and bulldozers.

The speed of the operation convinced the tame journalists, but not the courageous wild ones, that the invasion was, as promised, a liberation. Might had turned out to be right! Meanwhile, Baghdad's poor, fatally deprived during the twelve-year embargo, started to pillage empty public buildings. The chaos began.

Let us return, now, to the mountain, which proposes another time scale, and observe from there. The victors, with their historically unprecedented superiority of weapons--the victors who were bound to be victors--appeared frightened. Not only the gas-masked Marines, dispatched to a problematic country and undergoing real desert storms, but faraway spokespeople in the comfort of the Pentagon, and, above all, the coalition's national leaders, appearing on TV or conferring, conspiratorially, in out-of-the-way places.

Many of the errors committed during the early stages of the war--soldiers being killed by friendly fire, civilian families being blown to pieces at point-blank range (an operation called "killing the vehicle")--were said to be caused by overnervousness.

Any of us can become terrified at any moment if fear overlays us. The leaders of the New World Order, however, would seem to be married to fear, and their subordinate commanders and sergeants to be indoctrinated from above with something of the same fear.

What are the practices of this marriage? Day and night the partners of fear are anxiously preoccupied with telling themselves and their subordinates the right half-truths, half-truths that hope to change the world from what it is into something it is not. It takes about six half-truths to make a lie. As a result, these leaders become unfamiliar with reality, while continuing to dream about and, of course, to exercise power. They continually have to absorb shocks while accelerating. Decisiveness becomes their invariable device for preventing the asking of questions.

Married as they are to fear, they cannot come to terms with, or find a place for, death. Fear keeps death out, and so the dead desert them. And people deserted by the dead lose any sense of continuity. The past becomes obsolete and the future frenetic and short-term. The present is reduced to a sequence of instants, unrelated to the experience of past and future lives. Those deserted by the dead find themselves alone on the planet. Married to fear, deserted by the dead, they still wield incomparable power, both economic and military, and are terrifyingly dangerous. But, in the long run, can their power survive? Ask the dead and the not-yet-born. I doubt it.

On the twenty-third day of the war the chaos increased exponentially. The regime had toppled. Saddam Hussein could not be found. The aerial bombardments continued their havoc wherever Gen. Tommy Franks saw fit. And on the ground in Baghdad and some other liberated cities, everything was being pillaged, stolen, dismembered, not only from deserted ministries but from shops, houses, hotels and even hospitals, to which more and more maimed and dying were being hopelessly carried. Some doctors in Baghdad took up guns to try to defend their services and equipment. Meanwhile, the forces who liberated and traumatized the city stood by, astounded, nervous, doing nothing.

The scenario for the jubilant toppling of the statues was foreseen in the Pentagon and studiously prepared for, because it contained a half-truth. The whole truth of what is happening in the cities was not foreseen. Mr. Secretary Rumsfeld has referred to the chaos as merely an "untidiness."

When one tyranny is overthrown not by its subjects but by another tyranny, the result risks being chaos, because it will seem to the people that the ultimate hope of any social order has been totally destroyed, and then the impulse to seize for personal survival takes over and looting begins. It is as simple and terrible as that. Yet the new tyrants know nothing about how people in extremis behave. Their fear stops them from knowing. They are familiar only with half-truths addressed to clients.

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