“U.S. troops psyched up on a bizarre musical reprise from the Vietnam war film ‘Apocalypse Now‘ before crashing into Iraqi homes to hunt gunmen on Saturday…. With Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ still ringing in their ears and the clatter of helicopters overhead, soldiers rammed vehicles into metal gates and hundreds of troops raided houses in the western city of Ramadi…”—Reuters, June 21.
A lot is said about how Americans don’t know our own history, but I thought we at least understood the plots of our own movies. Although, as a friend of mine noted, “We won that ‘scene’ of Apocalypse Now. We got to surf.”
If US soldiers are molding and interpreting their experience in Iraq in terms of our own stories and movies, so, no doubt, are the Iraqis. And the story-line we are unwittingly playing into–with our Wagner music and our shock and awe and our house-to-house searches for weapons and guerrillas–is that of the Russians versus the Chechens.
That story goes like this: A superpower of Christian invaders arrives to bomb and kill and occupy, but a plucky underdog band of Muslims stands up for its land, honor and women, and against all odds throws back the invaders.
The Muslim world is well acquainted with this particular take on Chechnya thanks to, yes, movies–videos, perhaps some even set to Wagner–of footage from the war zone against the Russians. The videos are circulated “from London to the Gulf,” for recruitment purposes.
The Russians hit Chechnya in 1994 first with a bombing campaign that killed tens of thousands of civilians, then with a ground army of poorly equipped, poorly fed and frightened conscripts. Chechen guerrillas fought back, often in ways that drew Russian fire upon civilians–which, of course, radicalized the civilians and swelled the ranks of the guerrillas. After a brief and uneasy truce, the war was reprised in 1999–carpet-bombing, then ground troops, then guerrilla war. There was initially some fine talk about making Russian-occupied Chechnya into a shining democracy–with rebuilt schools, social-safety-net payments, milk and honey. Instead, the schools provided cover for guerrillas, and Russians would return fire against both. Russian forces for years now have engaged in house-to-house searches called zachistki— “cleansings”–and whatever they once were, they rapidly become one non-stop war crime. Murder, looting and rape have been common zachistki byproducts.
And this has been going on for ten years.
There are dozens of ways the Russian experience in Chechnya can’t be compared to the American experience in Iraq. Our anti-guerrilla campaigns, such as Operation Desert Scorpion, aren’t like Russian zachistki operations–they aren’t broodingly, systematically evil. But they are just as doomed and self-defeating. Consider this account by the Washington Post, in which our troops arrest 400 men, come under drive-by fire from a Volkswagen Passat, return fire in every direction (!) and then wonder why, when our soldiers try to smile and clean litter from a soccer field, even the children throw stones at them.
Or this similar account, in which US troops searching for pro-Saddam fighters roar into a village with helicopter gunships and heavy armor, shouting in English, and with an “informer”–a man with a burlap sack over his head–to point out whom to arrest. In the process, one shy teenage boy is gut-shot twice and left to die, another holding a 7-month-old girl is shot in the arm and drops the baby and a mentally retarded 19-year-old struggles in terror because he fears he’ll suffocate as soldiers duct-tape his mouth shut. By week’s end, fifty Iraqi men are still held in a secretive, makeshift detention center with “Welcome to Camp Black Knight” spray-painted over the entrance. And the informer with the bag over his head is marked for revenge-death by his neighbors.
Mix into this the memory myth of the Chechen war recruiting videos, and Iraqi expectations of the worst. Already there are new fog-of-war myths–a newspaper report based on eyewitnesses about eighteen US soldiers gang-raping two Iraqi girls, aged 14 and 15; a family that believes, or says it believes, that US medics who tried to save a protester who’d been shot twice by US soldiers actually finished him off with a third gunshot to the temple, a man who says American troops tortured him with electrodes.
And we’ve been there less than two months. Given the dynamic we’re on now, the longer we stay, the edgier we become, the worse it will get. I never, ever want to see the day when Americans are systematically organizing disappearances, torture, extrajudicial killings. But Russia is like America’s fun-house mirror–in which we see our reflection distorted and deformed, and hope that it’s not our future.