Ignited Iraq | The Nation


Ignited Iraq

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Our imperial errand is not so hard to begin, not so easy to complete. We conquistadors currently have a government for whom the dollar is a communion wafer. How much of a surprise is it, then, that we hope to make Iraqis buy everything from education to medical care? If we won't provide these at home, can we really be expected to give them to a vanquished enemy? And then there is the resistance. Each day the bulletin board at US headquarters lists coalition accomplishments--new schools in session, police academy graduations, a clinic reopened. Casualties are also noted--one soldier killed, ten injured, for two days no casualties, then five soldiers killed. With postcombat American deaths surpassing those of the invasion itself, we might ask, What is the acceptable balance among these statistics?

Peter Davis was on assignment in Iraq this summer for The

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Peter Davis
Peter Davis received an Academy Award in 1975 for his documentary on the Vietnam War, Hearts and Minds. His novel...

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

El Salvador today is an Exhibit A casualty of the American imperium.

In a sleight of hand faster than the eye can see, combined with an Alphonse-Gaston routine, a US official answers a question about what is going on by telling you to ask the Iraqi governing council, it's their country. Go to the governing council for the answer, and they say the Americans are in charge, ask them. They are both accurate, both insincere. This gives the press the opportunity to cover events staged either by the coalition or the resisters, which allows a pessimist to conclude everything is a mess while the optimist can say it's all going according to plan. The fundamental US public-relations effort is driven not by accurate information but by political doctrine. Eventually, whether we condemn or support the occupation, we look at it through a moral lens, but the lens is ground, and grounded, in America. Iraqis, with their own lens, will never see the same view.

Forget the Bremer operation for a moment: He's doing a good job or a poor job, he has good people with him and they're struggling, or he has self-interested bureaucrats who want to award contracts and then catch on with their clients like Kellogg Brown & Root or Bechtel once the initial phase of the occupation is over. The uglier fact jumping up to be seen and heard is that we are two vitally separate kinds of societies. What the majority of Iraqis I spoke with (of both genders) want to do with women should not happen, in our view, to any human being. Conversely, the society we want to make Iraqis fit into never worked with groups as disparate as Native Americans and Vietnamese, so what makes us think it will work in Iraq?

Japan and Germany are what make us think that. Both of them are, however, homogeneous societies with rich histories of organization, and the main thing we had to do was shift that organization. In both cases it took seven years, but we were able to do it because they were rigorously structured in the first place. Crucially, we had beaten them in long wars that utterly sapped their will to resist, and in the case of one of them we had dropped, in the space of seventy-two hours, two bombs that took the lives of more than 200,000 people, almost all civilians. "Collateral damage" be damned; the civilians were the point. In the case of the other, it was the second time in three decades they had fought, and lost, a major war. No more fight left in those dogs. The army of Iraq mostly did not fight at all, and it assuredly did not surrender.

Iraq today is unarmied, but it is hardly unarmed. Many thousands of former soldiers are out there still, angry young men without jobs or purpose, and you feel this wherever you go in Iraq. They will choose when, where, and whom to attack. In addition, Islamic fundamentalists are coming--a trickle? a stream? who knows?--through the sieve of Iraq's borders from all over Arabia to fight the infidel. In August the insurgency struck down the valiant peacemaker Sergio Vieira de Mello along with at least twenty-two others at UN headquarters in Baghdad. "It just breaks my heart and leaves me so angry," a UN colleague of Vieira de Mello's e-mailed me, "at the arrogance and stupidity of US policy that has created such a muck-up and ruined the lives of so many innocents in the process." Vieira de Mello, who could have been a worthy successor to Kofi Annan, instead became a victim of holy rage stoked by the vanity of a US President who invites violence with his swaggering "bring 'em on" challenge to militants.

One afternoon in US headquarters, at a sparsely attended press conference, an American official from somewhere in the hierarchy's mid-range was announcing the appointment of a number of Iraqi bureaucrats to positions in the police and fire departments of Baghdad, as well as to chairmanships of district and neighborhood councils. Since the event was not considered important enough to warrant the presence of a translator, and since the appointees of course knew what their new jobs were, they simply sat and looked up appreciatively at the speaker they did not understand. "The power," the American official concluded truthfully, "has just now shifted back to the Iraqis."

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