Ignited Iraq | The Nation


Ignited Iraq

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

During his final year and a half as lord of misrule, Saddam Hussein liked to joke that Iraqis should win the contract to rebuild the World Trade Center since they had so much experience at reconstruction after the Gulf War of 1991. As events unfolded, something like the opposite happened. The military-industrial complex that recently destroyed so much of Iraq will now be hired to repair the damage. Few Iraqis this summer believe that the postwar contractual arrangements are a coincidence. "You encouraged the looting and burning after you got finished bombing," a maintenance worker at the Baghdad Polytechnic Institute told me, "so you could get paid for putting it all back up again."

Peter Davis was on assignment in Iraq this summer for The

If you want to read everything The Nation has ever published on Iraq, click here for information on how to acquire individual access to The Nation Digital Archive.

About the Author

Peter Davis
Peter Davis is an author and filmmaker who received an Academy Award in 1975 for his documentary on the Vietnam...

Also by the Author

In the early part of the twentieth century, women’s creative talent was far more widely recognized and valued in the filmmaking community.

When the war began in March I was in Hanoi, where the US Embassy helpfully sent a fax to "American citizens in Vietnam" warning of the danger posed by "armed conflict with Iraq." "Remain vigilantly aware of surroundings, avoid crowds and demonstrations, keep a low profile.... This Public Announcement is being updated to alert Americans to an increased potential for anti-American violence," and on and on. Since Vietnam is neither a Muslim country nor one where threats against Americans have occurred--it is only a country we invaded a few wars ago--the conclusion was inescapable that the government knew how widely unpopular its action would be. Intellectual isolationism had led to global unilateralism, with the British as the tail of the kite. September 11 had both scared and emboldened us into the second of our new blitzing wars.

Dry, blazing, ignited Iraq is a country whose capital does not loom over its landscape but instead shimmers up out of the desert as though it may or may not eventually materialize. As soon as I arrived in the second week of July it was apparent the country's needs are so simple as to be alliterative: security, services and structure are the mantra, the liberté-égalité-fraternité of this proposed revolution from despotism to something resembling a representative distribution of power. There was still only sporadic electricity, the water was polluted and Baghdad was considered so dangerous Americans were warned not to go out at night and never to go anywhere without a driver and translator. "This is a rule," an American said to me the day I arrived. "Don't break it."

Yet there was something else, even more obvious than danger though easily overlooked in the rush to keep up with unfolding crises, that quickly became clear. Between most Americans and most Iraqis is a gulf more unbridgeable than the nearby Persian Gulf itself, both in terms of worldview and self-recognition. Like Americans, Iraqis have all kinds of opinions, but almost all of our new subject citizens have such utterly different concepts from ours of words like "freedom," "liberation" or even "country" and "national identity" that to speak of these where they are concerned is to court major misunderstanding before we have even begun. "Democracy," of course, has been pounded out of shape on the postwar anvil.

The best time of day in Iraq is between 5:30 and 7:30 in the morning, when everything is still in shade or shadow yet there is enough light for observation. Tradespeople are coming to work and merchants are filling the souks, offering a range of goods from air-conditioners to shoelaces to newly available magazines to fresh lamb. You could almost be anywhere east of Greece, and if you looked only at the market stalls and not at the scarred, charred and blasted buildings above, you would not know at such a time that although its army and government did not so much lose as melt away, this is now a conquered country. The worst time of day is late afternoon, when you expect the onset of coolness, relief from the inferno of noon, yet it is still so hot you could bake bread in your car, and no one is moving who doesn't have to. Again, if you kept your eyes on the somnolent bazaars and the vendors who are now bestirring themselves only to ward off flies, you could easily forget you are in a territory occupied by a foreign force whose nationality you share and whose presence is the occasion for both earnest gratitude and violent resistance. The Bradleys rolling down the littered streets tell you where you are.

Know your colony. With a population of 26 million, Iraq possesses the approximate area of California and at least as many citizens who consider themselves candidates for leadership as are running to become that state's governor. Culturally, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers was thriving 4,000 years before Christ. Take numbers, for example. In A History of Mathematics by Carl B. Boyer, the author finds "a high order of civilization" with "progressive mathematical achievements" that include a Mesopotamian numerical base of 60 rather than the more common 10, a system that "has enjoyed a remarkably long life, for remnants survive even to this day in units of time and angle measure." Examples of their mathematical facility abound: "The fundamental arithmetic operations were handled by the Babylonians in a manner not unlike that which would be employed today.... One finds among the Old Babylonian tablets some table texts containing successive powers of a given number, analogous to our modern tables of logarithms.... The solution of a three-term quadratic equation seems to have exceeded by far the algebraic capabilities of the Egyptians."

All right then, politics. This is where we run into some problems. Hammurabi brought forth a system of laws admirable for its day, which was 1,750 BCE, but its commonly remembered feature was the vengeance code of an eye for an eye. Nebuchadnezzar defeated the Egyptians while extending his territory in the sixth century BCE, and his Babylonian magnificence was supported by slaves. Saladin, a Kurd to whom Saddam Hussein has likened himself, successfully beat back the twelfth-century Crusade, captured Jerusalem and built himself an empire extending from what is now Egypt to Syria to Yemen. It didn't last.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.