With street fighting prevailing, Paul Bremer, the American administrator in Iraq, recently trotted out a new “two-sided approach,” according to the New York Times. US soldiers are now “combining military raids against suspected supporters of Saddam Hussein with high-visibility relief projects for Iraqi civilians.” They call it carrot and stick, but it sounds awfully like the kind of abusive marriage where he roughs her up then shows up at the hospital with flowers. Even American soldiers have acknowledged the contradiction. “You bomb them, and three roads over you’re fixing the school,” said one soldier whose unit was pelted with rocks, glass, apples. A director of another school felt that Americans should be maintaining order rather than repairing schools. The repair process itself sounds as though it is being conducted like an invasion. News accounts describe soldiers surrounding schools and cordoning them off while the fixer-uppers go in to dispense blackboards and other symbolic favors. One NPR report focused on the community’s distrust when the soldiers visited a school for autistic children as a good-will gesture. Imagine–and we must try to imagine, if for no other reason than to anticipate the consequences of our actions–how Iraqis must feel when autistic children, by definition sensitive to particular kinds of stress and traumatized further by the chaos of war, are visited by the same soldiers who might have killed their fathers or brothers or cousins the week before. Yes, war is hell, but this seems a tyrannical species of kindness. If I recall, it was misbegotten gestures like this that helped trigger the deep and ultimately destabilizing resentment in Somalia–soldiers were trying to wage war while playing Santa Claus (forgetting that Santa is at root a Christian icon).
And so we pursue the kind of psychology that lends insight into what kind of childhood Donald Rumsfeld must have endured: We are “breaking down” Iraqi prisoners by subjecting them to endless hours of the Barney theme song, while “cheering up” Iraqi children with real live GI Joes.
The double-edged approach to Iraqi reconstruction seems premised on the kinds of theories that prod pigeons and lab rats to obedience–over time, they learn how to tap this little button to get food and how not to tap that other little button, the one that zaps them with a brain-reordering electrical charge. But behavior modification works only in the most limited term and best when the subject is caged. In any event, simultaneously zapping and feeding creatures with even the smallest nub of a brain only demonstrates that biting the hand that feeds you can be rendered an autonomic response.
It is thus not surprising that our military’s random acts of kindness have been met with widespread suspicion. The suspicion has snowballed into a fear among Iraqis that Americans are going to corrupt local women–although from all accounts, the military has tried hard, and apparently generally succeeded, in keeping soldiers away from, or even from looking at, Iraqi women. So whatever is going on is not what we, in our Baywatch-suffused society, would think of as violative in the knock-’em-up sense. Certainly it may have to do with the house-to-house, body-to-body search for weapons being conducted. And certainly there were reports in the first days of the occupation that soldiers were bringing in a range of steamy men’s magazines, to the distress of the locals. Perhaps, too, it has to do with the effusive and much-publicized letter sent by one soldier to the largely female staff of the Iraqi Media Network, a television station guarded by the Third Infantry Division. With grand, Jeffersonian condescension, he wrote: “You are family to me, and will be missed very much. A lot of people would say, they are just Iraqis. I would say, they are my Iraqis.”
But I suspect the greater, more obvious source of resentment is that we just might be seen as picking off quite a few more Iraqi men than we are taking account of, and, if wars since biblical times are any kind of precedent, that often translates into a sense of social vulnerability about the fate of women. Officials continue to say that it is impossible to know how many Iraqi combatants have died. And despite Bush’s having declared the hostilities at an end, fighting has “unexpectedly continued” or “exceeded expectations” or “persisted in pockets” or “flared more than anticipated” or “resulted in unforeseen skirmishes.” Americans are being killed at a rate, it seems, of around one a day now, with Iraqi deaths anywhere from two to twenty times that, according to individual news stories. But there is no official word as to how many Iraqi combatants have died overall–how many, in sum, of those who are variously described as “Sunni henchmen” or “regime sympathizers” or “Baathist loyalists” or “remnants” or “holdouts” or “fedayeen” or “thugs” or “protesters” or “looters” or “criminal elements” or “warlords” or “tribal resisters” or “fundamentalists” or “rogue agitators” or “unknown saboteurs.” But when you put all those labels together, they might possibly indicate an ongoing war with quite a broad spectrum of Iraqi society. If so–and I’m not saying it is so, just asking the questions good citizens must–then this darkens the likelihood of seeing that country stable anytime soon.
In my humble opinion, it is not only the intelligence regarding purported weapons of mass destruction that must be questioned, it is the supposed intelligence that we would be welcomed as liberators, cleaved unto like lovers. If the highly anticipated dancing in the streets is only to be found among American oil contractors, Iraq is doomed for years of strife before any of the Administration’s stated objectives can be realized: It will not be safe, it will not be free and it will certainly not be good for business. Indeed, if the war that was justified as “pre-emptive” against Saddam’s suppression of his own people has in fact degenerated into myriad American “forays” justified as “self-defense” against those very people, then the supposed moral foundation of our presence there is not only double-edged, it is triply cursed.