Mesopotamia. Babylon. The Tigris and Euphrates
How many children, in how many classrooms, over how many centuries, have
hang-glided through the past, transported on the wings of these words? And now
the bombs are falling, incinerating and humiliating that ancient civilisation
Wednesday April 2, 2003
On the steel torsos of their missiles, adolescent American soldiers scrawl
colourful messages in childish handwriting: For Saddam, from the Fat Boy Posse.
A building goes down. A marketplace. A home. A girl who loves a boy. A child
who only ever wanted to play with his older brother's marbles.
On March 21, the day after American and British troops began their illegal
invasion and occupation of Iraq, an "embedded" CNN correspondent interviewed an
American soldier. "I wanna get in there and get my nose dirty," Private AJ
said. "I wanna take revenge for 9/11."
To be fair to the correspondent, even though he was "embedded" he did sort of
weakly suggest that so far there was no real evidence that linked the Iraqi
government to the September 11 attacks. Private AJ stuck his teenage tongue out
all the way down to the end of his chin. "Yeah, well that stuff's way over my
head," he said.
According to a New York Times/CBS News survey, 42 per cent of the American
public believes that Saddam Hussein is directly responsible for the September
11 attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. And an ABC news poll
says that 55 per cent of Americans believe that Saddam Hussein directly
supports al-Qaida. What percentage of America's armed forces believe these
fabrications is anybody's guess.
It is unlikely that British and American troops fighting in Iraq are aware that
their governments supported Saddam Hussein both politically and financially
through his worst excesses.
But why should poor AJ and his fellow soldiers be burdened with these details?
It does not matter any more, does it? Hundreds of thousands of men, tanks,
ships, choppers, bombs, ammunition, gas masks, high-protein food, whole
aircrafts ferrying toilet paper, insect repellent, vitamins and bottled mineral
water, are on the move. The phenomenal logistics of Operation Iraqi Freedom
make it a universe unto itself. It doesn't need to justify its existence any
more. It exists. It is.
President George W Bush, commander in chief of the US army, navy, airforce and
marines has issued clear instructions: "Iraq. Will. Be. Liberated." (Perhaps he
means that even if Iraqi people's bodies are killed, their souls will be
liberated.) American and British citizens owe it to the supreme commander to
forsake thought and rally behind their troops. Their countries are at war. And
what a war it is.
After using the "good offices" of UN diplomacy (economic sanctions and weapons
inspections) to ensure that Iraq was brought to its knees, its people starved,
half a million of its children killed, its infrastructure severely damaged,
after making sure that most of its weapons have been destroyed, in an act of
cowardice that must surely be unrivalled in history, the "Allies"/"Coalition of
the Willing"(better known as the Coalition of the Bullied and Bought) - sent in
an invading army!
Operation Iraqi Freedom? I don't think so. It's more like Operation Let's Run a
Race, but First Let Me Break Your Knees.
So far the Iraqi army, with its hungry, ill-equipped soldiers, its old guns and
ageing tanks, has somehow managed to temporarily confound and occasionally even
outmanoeuvre the "Allies". Faced with the richest, best-equipped, most powerful
armed forces the world has ever seen, Iraq has shown spectacular courage and
has even managed to put up what actually amounts to a defence. A defence which
the Bush/Blair Pair have immediately denounced as deceitful and cowardly. (But
then deceit is an old tradition with us natives. When we are invaded/
colonised/occupied and stripped of all dignity, we turn to guile and
Even allowing for the fact that Iraq and the "Allies" are at war, the extent to
which the "Allies" and their media cohorts are prepared to go is astounding to
the point of being counterproductive to their own objectives.
When Saddam Hussein appeared on national TV to address the Iraqi people after
the failure of the most elaborate assassination attempt in history - "Operation
Decapitation" - we had Geoff Hoon, the British defence secretary, deriding him
for not having the courage to stand up and be killed, calling him a coward who
hides in trenches. We then had a flurry of Coalition speculation - Was it
really Saddam, was it his double? Or was it Osama with a shave? Was it
pre-recorded? Was it a speech? Was it black magic? Will it turn into a pumpkin
if we really, really want it to?
After dropping not hundreds, but thousands of bombs on Baghdad, when a
marketplace was mistakenly blown up and civilians killed - a US army spokesman
implied that the Iraqis were blowing themselves up! "They're using very old
stock. Their missiles go up and come down."
If so, may we ask how this squares with the accusation that the Iraqi regime is
a paid-up member of the Axis of Evil and a threat to world peace?
When the Arab TV station al-Jazeera shows civilian casualties it's denounced as
"emotive" Arab propaganda aimed at orchestrating hostility towards the
"Allies", as though Iraqis are dying only in order to make the "Allies" look
bad. Even French television has come in for some stick for similar reasons. But
the awed, breathless footage of aircraft carriers, stealth bombers and cruise
missiles arcing across the desert sky on American and British TV is described
as the "terrible beauty" of war.
When invading American soldiers (from the army "that's only here to help") are
taken prisoner and shown on Iraqi TV, George Bush says it violates the Geneva
convention and "exposes the evil at the heart of the regime". But it is
entirely acceptable for US television stations to show the hundreds of
prisoners being held by the US government in Guantanamo Bay, kneeling on the
ground with their hands tied behind their backs, blinded with opaque goggles
and with earphones clamped on their ears, to ensure complete visual and aural
deprivation. When questioned about the treatment of these prisoners, US
Government officials don't deny that they're being being ill-treated. They deny
that they're "prisoners of war"! They call them "unlawful combatants", implying
that their ill-treatment is legitimate! (So what's the party line on the
massacre of prisoners in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan? Forgive and forget? And
what of the prisoner tortured to death by the special forces at the Bagram
airforce base? Doctors have formally called it homicide.)
When the "Allies" bombed the Iraqi television station (also, incidentally, a
contravention of the Geneva convention), there was vulgar jubilation in the
American media. In fact Fox TV had been lobbying for the attack for a while. It
was seen as a righteous blow against Arab propaganda. But mainstream American
and British TV continue to advertise themselves as "balanced" when their
propaganda has achieved hallucinatory levels.
Why should propaganda be the exclusive preserve of the western media? Just
because they do it better? Western journalists "embedded" with troops are given
the status of heroes reporting from the frontlines of war. Non-"embedded"
journalists (such as the BBC's Rageh Omaar, reporting from besieged and bombed
Baghdad, witnessing, and clearly affected by the sight of bodies of burned
children and wounded people) are undermined even before they begin their
reportage: "We have to tell you that he is being monitored by the Iraqi
Increasingly, on British and American TV, Iraqi soldiers are being referred to
as "militia" (ie: rabble). One BBC correspondent portentously referred to them
as "quasi-terrorists". Iraqi defence is "resistance" or worse still, "pockets
of resistance", Iraqi military strategy is deceit. (The US government bugging
the phone lines of UN security council delegates, reported by the Observer, is
hard-headed pragmatism.) Clearly for the "Allies", the only morally acceptable
strategy the Iraqi army can pursue is to march out into the desert and be
bombed by B-52s or be mowed down by machine-gun fire. Anything short of that is
And now we have the siege of Basra. About a million and a half people, 40 per
cent of them children. Without clean water, and with very little food. We're
still waiting for the legendary Shia "uprising", for the happy hordes to stream
out of the city and rain roses and hosannahs on the "liberating" army. Where
are the hordes? Don't they know that television productions work to tight
schedules? (It may well be that if Saddam's regime falls there will be dancing
on the streets of Basra. But then, if the Bush regime were to fall, there would
be dancing on the streets the world over.)
After days of enforcing hunger and thirst on the citizens of Basra, the
"Allies" have brought in a few trucks of food and water and positioned them
tantalisingly on the outskirts of the city. Desperate people flock to the
trucks and fight each other for food. (The water we hear, is being sold. To
revitalise the dying economy, you understand.) On top of the trucks, desperate
photographers fought each other to get pictures of desperate people fighting
each other for food. Those pictures will go out through photo agencies to
newspapers and glossy magazines that pay extremely well. Their message: The
messiahs are at hand, distributing fishes and loaves.
As of July last year the delivery of $5.4bn worth of supplies to Iraq was
blocked by the Bush/Blair Pair. It didn't really make the news. But now under
the loving caress of live TV, 450 tonnes of humanitarian aid - a minuscule
fraction of what's actually needed (call it a script prop) - arrived on a
British ship, the "Sir Galahad". Its arrival in the port of Umm Qasr merited a
whole day of live TV broadcasts. Barf bag, anyone?
Nick Guttmann, head of emergencies for Christian Aid, writing for the
Independent on Sunday said that it would take 32 Sir Galahad's a day to match
the amount of food Iraq was receiving before the bombing began.
We oughtn't to be surprised though. It's old tactics. They've been at it for
years. Consider this moderate proposal by John McNaughton from the Pentagon
Papers, published during the Vietnam war: "Strikes at population targets (per
se) are likely not only to create a counterproductive wave of revulsion abroad
and at home, but greatly to increase the risk of enlarging the war with China
or the Soviet Union. Destruction of locks and dams, however - if handled
right - might ... offer promise. It should be studied. Such destruction does
not kill or drown people. By shallow-flooding the rice, it leads after time to
widespread starvation (more than a million?) unless food is provided - which we
could offer to do 'at the conference table'."
Times haven't changed very much. The technique has evolved into a doctrine.
It's called "Winning Hearts and Minds".
So, here's the moral maths as it stands: 200,000 Iraqis estimated to have been
killed in the first Gulf war. Hundreds of thousands dead because of the
economic sanctions. (At least that lot has been saved from Saddam Hussein.)
More being killed every day. Tens of thousands of US soldiers who fought the
1991 war officially declared "disabled" by a disease called the Gulf war
syndrome, believed in part to be caused by exposure to depleted uranium. It
hasn't stopped the "Allies" from continuing to use depleted uranium.
And now this talk of bringing the UN back into the picture. But that old UN
girl - it turns out that she just ain't what she was cracked up to be. She's
been demoted (although she retains her high salary). Now she's the world's
janitor. She's the Philippino cleaning lady, the Indian jamadarni, the postal
bride from Thailand, the Mexican household help, the Jamaican au pair. She's
employed to clean other peoples' shit. She's used and abused at will.
Despite Blair's earnest submissions, and all his fawning, Bush has made it
clear that the UN will play no independent part in the administration of
postwar Iraq. The US will decide who gets those juicy "reconstruction"
contracts. But Bush has appealed to the international community not to
"politicise" the issue of humanitarian aid. On the March 28, after Bush called
for the immediate resumption of the UN's oil for food programme, the UN
security council voted unanimously for the resolution. This means that
everybody agrees that Iraqi money (from the sale of Iraqi oil) should be used
to feed Iraqi people who are starving because of US led sanctions and the
illegal US-led war.
Contracts for the "reconstruction" of Iraq we're told, in discussions on the
business news, could jump-start the world economy. It's funny how the interests
of American corporations are so often, so successfully and so deliberately
confused with the interests of the world economy. While the American people
will end up paying for the war, oil companies, weapons manufacturers, arms
dealers, and corporations involved in "reconstruction" work will make direct
gains from the war. Many of them are old friends and former employers of the
Bush/ Cheney/Rumsfeld/Rice cabal. Bush has already asked Congress for $75bn.
Contracts for "re-construction" are already being negotiated. The news doesn't
hit the stands because much of the US corporate media is owned and managed by
the same interests.
Operation Iraqi Freedom, Tony Blair assures us is about returning Iraqi oil to
the Iraqi people. That is, returning Iraqi oil to the Iraqi people via
corporate multinationals. Like Shell, like Chevron, like Halliburton. Or are we
missing the plot here? Perhaps Halliburton is actually an Iraqi company?
Perhaps US vice-president Dick Cheney (who is a former director of Halliburton)
is a closet Iraqi?
As the rift between Europe and America deepens, there are signs that the world
could be entering a new era of economic boycotts. CNN reported that Americans
are emptying French wine into gutters, chanting, "We don't want your stinking
wine." We've heard about the re-baptism of French fries. Freedom fries they're
called now. There's news trickling in about Americans boycotting German goods.
The thing is that if the fallout of the war takes this turn, it is the US who
will suffer the most. Its homeland may be defended by border patrols and
nuclear weapons, but its economy is strung out across the globe. Its economic
outposts are exposed and vulnerable to attack in every direction. Already the
internet is buzzing with elaborate lists of American and British government
products and companies that should be boycotted. Apart from the usual targets,
Coke, Pepsi and McDonald's - government agencies such as USAID, the British
department for international development, British and American banks, Arthur
Anderson, Merrill Lynch, American Express, corporations such as Bechtel,
General Electric, and companies such as Reebok, Nike and Gap - could find
themselves under siege. These lists are being honed and re fined by activists
across the world. They could become a practical guide that directs and channels
the amorphous, but growing fury in the world. Suddenly, the "inevitability" of
the project of corporate globalisation is beginning to seem more than a little
It's become clear that the war against terror is not really about terror, and
the war on Iraq not only about oil. It's about a superpower's self-destructive
impulse towards supremacy, stranglehold, global hegemony. The argument is being
made that the people of Argentina and Iraq have both been decimated by the same
process. Only the weapons used against them differ: In one case it's an IMF
chequebook. In the other, cruise missiles.
Finally, there's the matter of Saddam's arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.
(Oops, nearly forgot about those!)
In the fog of war - one thing's for sure - if Saddam 's regime indeed has
weapons of mass destruction, it is showing an astonishing degree of
responsibility and restraint in the teeth of extreme provocation. Under similar
circumstances, (say if Iraqi troops were bombing New York and laying siege to
Washington DC) could we expect the same of the Bush regime? Would it keep its
thousands of nuclear warheads in their wrapping paper? What about its chemical
and biological weapons? Its stocks of anthrax, smallpox and nerve gas? Would
Excuse me while I laugh.
In the fog of war we're forced to speculate: Either Saddam is an extremely
responsible tyrant. Or - he simply does not possess weapons of mass
destruction. Either way, regardless of what happens next, Iraq comes out of the
argument smelling sweeter than the US government.
So here's Iraq - rogue state, grave threat to world peace, paid-up member of
the Axis of Evil. Here's Iraq, invaded, bombed, besieged, bullied, its
sovereignty shat upon, its children killed by cancers, its people blown up on
the streets. And here's all of us watching. CNN-BBC, BBC-CNN late into the
night. Here's all of us, enduring the horror of the war, enduring the horror of
the propaganda and enduring the slaughter of language as we know and understand
it. Freedom now means mass murder (or, in the US, fried potatoes). When someone
says "humanitarian aid" we automatically go looking for induced starvation.
"Embedded" I have to admit, is a great find. It's what it sounds like. And what
about "arsenal of tactics?" Nice!
In most parts of the world, the invasion of Iraq is being seen as a racist war.
The real danger of a racist war unleashed by racist regimes is that it
engenders racism in everybody - perpetrators, victims, spectators. It sets the
parameters for the debate, it lays out a grid for a particular way of thinking.
There is a tidal wave of hatred for the US rising from the ancient heart of the
world. In Africa, Latin America, Asia, Europe, Australia. I encounter it every
day. Sometimes it comes from the most unlikely sources. Bankers, businessmen,
yuppie students, and they bring to it all the crassness of their conservative,
illiberal politics. That absurd inability to separate governments from people:
America is a nation of morons, a nation of murderers, they say, (with the same
carelessness with which they say, "All Muslims are terrorists"). Even in the
grotesque universe of racist insult, the British make their entry as add-ons.
Arse-lickers, they're called.
Suddenly, I, who have been vilified for being "anti-American" and "anti-west",
find myself in the extraordinary position of defending the people of America.
Those who descend so easily into the pit of racist abuse would do well to
remember the hundreds of thousands of American and British citizens who
protested against their country's stockpile of nuclear weapons. And the
thousands of American war resisters who forced their government to withdraw
from Vietnam. They should know that the most scholarly, scathing, hilarious
critiques of the US government and the "American way of life" comes from
American citizens. And that the funniest, most bitter condemnation of their
prime minister comes from the British media. Finally they should remember that
right now, hundreds of thousands of British and American citizens are on the
streets protesting the war. The Coalition of the Bullied and Bought consists of
governments, not people. More than one third of America's citizens have
survived the relentless propaganda they've been subjected to, and many
thousands are actively fighting their own government. In the ultra-patriotic
climate that prevails in the US, that's as brave as any Iraqi fighting for his
or her homeland.
While the "Allies" wait in the desert for an uprising of Shia Muslims on the
streets of Basra, the real uprising is taking place in hundreds of cities
across the world. It has been the most spectacular display of public morality
Most courageous of all, are the hundreds of thousands of American people on the
streets of America's great cities - Washington, New York, Chicago, San
Francisco. The fact is that the only institution in the world today that is
more powerful than the American government, is American civil society. American
citizens have a huge responsibility riding on their shoulders. How can we not
salute and support those who not only acknowledge but act upon that
responsibility? They are our allies, our friends.
At the end of it all, it remains to be said that dictators like Saddam Hussein,
and all the other despots in the Middle East, in the central Asian republics,
in Africa and Latin America, many of them installed, supported and financed by
the US government, are a menace to their own people. Other than strengthening
the hand of civil society (instead of weakening it as has been done in the case
of Iraq), there is no easy, pristine way of dealing with them. (It's odd how
those who dismiss the peace movement as utopian, don't hesitate to proffer the
most absurdly dreamy reasons for going to war: to stamp out terrorism, install
democracy, eliminate fascism, and most entertainingly, to "rid the world of
Regardless of what the propaganda machine tells us, these tin-pot dictators are
not the greatest threat to the world. The real and pressing danger, the
greatest threat of all is the locomotive force that drives the political and
economic engine of the US government, currently piloted by George Bush.
Bush-bashing is fun, because he makes such an easy, sumptuous target. It's true
that he is a dangerous, almost suicidal pilot, but the machine he handles is
far more dangerous than the man himself.
Despite the pall of gloom that hangs over us today, I'd like to file a cautious
plea for hope: in times of war, one wants one's weakest enemy at the helm of
his forces. And President George W Bush is certainly that. Any other even
averagely intelligent US president would have probably done the very same
things, but would have managed to smoke-up the glass and confuse the
opposition. Perhaps even carry the UN with him. Bush's tactless imprudence and
his brazen belief that he can run the world with his riot squad, has done the
opposite. He has achieved what writers, activists and scholars have striven to
achieve for decades. He has exposed the ducts. He has placed on full public
view the working parts, the nuts and bolts of the apocalyptic apparatus of the
Now that the blueprint (The Ordinary Person's Guide to Empire) has been put
into mass circulation, it could be disabled quicker than the pundits predicted.
Bring on the spanners.