The risks of war? There was the risk of being bombed if you had the misfortune to live in a neighborhood where US targeters thought Saddam Hussein might be located. It could be the Iraqi dictator’s remains are at the bottom of that hole in a residential district of Baghdad, waiting for DNA identification from some scrap of cell tissue covertly taken, maybe years ago during a warm handshake by April Glaspie, the US envoy who told Saddam back in 1990 that Iraq’s quarrels with Kuwait were of scant interest to the United States. Or maybe Saddam was miles away when the pilot launched those four bombs. But we do know that nine people in houses next to the restaurant, supposedly perched on a Saddam bunker, are absolutely and positively dead.
Then there’s the risk of just trying to run away, down the wrong road at the wrong time, like those Iraqi families fleeing Nasiriya or al-Hillah, chewed up by cluster bombs or riddled with bullets. Mark Franchetti counted twelve in one appalling episode, described in a wonderful piece of war reporting for the London Sunday Times on March 30.
And there’s the risk of being a journalist in Iraq, particularly if you work for an Arab news network like Al Jazeera (which recently got a prize from the Index on Censorship for its skill in maintaining independent commentary), taking news footage of scenes like the one described by Franchetti, footage that would never make it onto US TV screens. No doubt remembering the US attack on its Kabul office in 2001, Al Jazeera notified the US military of the location of its office on the banks of the Tigris. The Pentagon said it had taken due note and promised it wouldn’t be attacked.
According to Robert Fisk of the Independent, the day before the attack “the US State Department’s spokesman in Doha, an Arab-American called Nabil Khouri, visited al-Jazeera’s offices in the city and…repeated the Pentagon’s assurances. Within 24 hours, the Americans had fired their missile into the Baghdad office,” scoring a direct hit on the network’s Baghdad correspondent, Tariq Ayoub, who was on the roof with his second cameraman filming a battle in the streets nearby. Ayoub died almost instantly.
About four hours later came the US tank blast at the Palestine Hotel, where some 200 non-Pentagon-sanctioned journalists were located, covering the war from what had been the Iraqi side of the lines. The shell exploded in the Reuters bureau on the fifteenth floor, killing a Ukrainian cameraman, Taras Protsyuk, who was filming the tanks, and seriously wounding three other journalists. On the next floor, Tele 5’s cameraman, José Couso, was mortally wounded. All eyewitness agree, and a French videotape confirms, that contrary to the claims of US Gen. Buford Blount, there had been no fire directed at the tank in the minutes before it fired that shell. Figure out the odds. A thousand journalists in Iraq and ten dead; about 200,000 US/UK soldiers and maybe 125 dead.
Early on in the invasion I adjusted briskly to changed circumstances by not turning on my TV at all. Why wade through all the muck on CNN when I could go online and not only learn that the goddess of CNN Headline News, Rudi Bakhtiar, calls her horse Dogchow, but get a thousand useful dispatches a day?
Somewhere around Day 7 of the war I gave a talk in Fort Bragg (Northern California) to about 200 people and asked for a show on how many were going to the web to get their war news. A very substantial majority put up their hands.
One could go to a site like the Minneapolis-based cursor.org and get a vast anthology of worldwide war reports. Through iraqwar.ru and aeronautics.ru I could get detailed accounts (shut down after April 8) of the military campaign from a Russian group in close touch with Russian military intelligence. The British press had some very good reporting in the Guardian, Independent, Financial Times and BBC. There was good eyewitness stuff and commentary too from across the Third World. And this isn’t to derogate some fine stories from the embedded crowd, not just Franchetti of the Murdoch-owned Sunday Times but from the (Moonie-owned) UPI, from Frederik Balfour of Business Week, pulled from Hong Kong and thrown into Iraq, and from Pepe Escobar of the Asia Times.
But yes, that’s if you spend a few hours a day peering into a computer screen, as opposed to gazing into Paula Zahn’s eyes. In range of a Pacifica radio transmitter, you could get Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now! But elsewhere? NPR was pretty awful and AM radio mostly unspeakable.
There’s cheering in the streets now. No big surprise. Saddam was not a popular guy, and anyway, people know which side their bread is buttered on. Never forget, upstanding citizens of Nagasaki sponsored a festive Miss Atomic Bomb contest almost at the onset of the US occupation at the end of World War II. As I’m sure Martha Stewart would tell us, the art of living is learning to adjust briskly to changed circumstances.
Iraq will slowly slide from the headlines. The press will head for home. Life for ordinary Iraqis will be unimaginably unpleasant. Resistance will slowly grow, probably led by Dawa, a Shiite resistance group; by the Iraqi Communist Party; and perhaps by pro-Syrian elements of the Baath Party, which has retained, through years of repression, a surprising amount of strength.
How long will US occupation last, if there are lethal assaults of the sort that killed more than 200 Marines in Lebanon in the Reagan years, prompting rapid withdrawal? From across the border, the Iranians will be pretty good at this sort of game, and of course will be eager to speed US departure. For a sense of perspective, read the grand speeches of the British upon entering Mesopotamia in World War 1, only to face a concerted uprising by Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds in 1920.
Do I hear a question from the back about the US economy? Since you ask, it’s in truly dreadful shape. An accelerating unemployment rate, no investment, consumer spending down and, if there’s a real break in the housing market, kiss it all goodbye. But hey, by that time we’ll probably be at war with North Korea.