How America Lost Iraq
Reviewed by Joe Lockard
Late in his journalistic account of the Iraq War, Aaron Glantz writes about his nightmares. After seeing the corpse of a middle-aged woman in Fallujah, he sees her whether awake or asleep. “When I was awake she hovered directly in front of my eyes with a kind of translucent quality. When I was asleep, she appeared whole in the ground.”
It is these nightmare moments that shape the aftermath of violence, and it is these moments that few Americans experience. The United States has become a global military society, exercising its political and military will on a scale never before experienced in human society. Yet the realized consequences of its policies and violence appear to very few in US society, remaining unknown except to those who care to know.
Instead of a domestic awareness that great swathes of Iraq have been visited with military violence that has caused injury and death to hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, Americans associate locales such as Fallujah with the highly selective image of four burned and mutilated private US mercenaries hung cruelly from a bridge. The cruelty that results from state violence gains an unwarranted exception, an exception that enables US global militarism to function with domestic support.
The accounts of independent journalists and filmmakers that have been emerging from Iraq constitute a collective autobiography of the US political unconscious. Even if the US public remains in denial concerning its sanction of brutality, the collective witness provided by both Iraqi and journalists’ accounts provide a compelling counter-narrative. “Un-fucking-believable,” says British filmmaker Julia Guest after returning from Fallujah, “Your people are butchers.” Then she shows Glantz videotape taken at a Fallujah hospital of old women and children shot in the neck by US snipers.
Witness literature comes alive at such moments of visualized pain, screaming, and blood. There is an obscenity that creates an immediate desire to avert one’s eyes, to refuse to see such evidence of human and state sadism. The relative unpopularity of such witness narratives owes to that desire to refuse their entry into immediate consciousness, even as factuality and historicity are undeniable. We do not wish to do ourselves the social self-injury of admitting the reality of such images, preferring to avoid ideological contradiction. Good citizens resist being haunted by the traumatic images that follow after Glantz and other witnesses, else they would no longer be good citizens.
Iraq War anti-war conscience in the United States is a minority conscience today, but one that has spread throughout the political spectrum. Even conservative opponents like Andrew Bacevich in The New American Militarism question the interminability of the war and its baleful effects on individual liberties. Mainstream opposition from within the Democratic Party argues that the war was mishandled, not that the war represents an indictment of US society for its willingness to sanction such violent cruelty in the name of creating democracy. For this school of liberal opposition, the question lies in how to leave with the new Iraqi government still standing and bring American troops home with honor. Neither option is available, since the war has magnified and intensified the inherent fractiousness of Iraqi society and irreparable damage already done to US international standing.
Witness literature from Iraq brings home the points of Iraqi internal divisions, their exacerbation by US policy, and the scorching toll on human lives. Unfortunately, there will be a great deal many more such narratives produced as Iraq will be engaged in years more bloodletting, and the United States will be discovering the limits of its power in the Middle East.
In How America Lost Iraq, Aaron Glantz has written a political autobiography dressed as Iraq War journalistic reportage. It is a statement of a war re-considered. Much of the US public is going through much the same process of re-consideration that Glantz, the Pacifica network’s on-the-ground reporter, experienced in post-invasion Iraq.
He opposed the war entirely but did not share many of the pre-conceptions of the “Berkeley salad-eaters,” as he terms them derisively, who were his Pacifica editors. Glantz writes of doing stories on post-invasion revelations of Saddam Hussein’s massacre-grounds that brought opposition from editors who seemed interested only in the blood on the US government’s hands. He finds that he cannot place a report on Pacifica concerning the Free Prisoners Committee engaged in documenting the fate of the Ba’ath government’s prisoners. Glantz identifies with the opposition both in Iraq and the United States and much of this book is concerned with the contradictions inherent therein.
What makes this an autobiographical text lies in how it registers the development of such a multi-directional oppositional consciousness, one that rejects the militaristic imperialism of the Bush administration, the hideous atrocities of Saddam Hussein and his minions, and narratives of either right or left that focus on one while minimizing the other.
On the left – Glantz mentions Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 for its misleading peaceful images of pre-war Iraq — there has been a willingness to ignore the hideous brutality of Hussein’s regime and a refusal to seriously seek out alternative solutions to address such regimes. Left-wing groups like the pre-war Iraq Peace Team and Voices in the Wilderness did not critique the Baathist dictatorship and preferred to ignore unpleasant facts in order to focus opposition against US and international sanctions that isolated Iraq.
Historical amnesia makes for poor politics. In refusing to join in any amnesia that ignores the deeds of either Hussein or Bush, Glantz points the way towards both a new history and future policies that speak to the fact that no one either lacks or bears entire responsibility for this situation. Non-sectarian political critiques of all sides, like How America Lost Iraq, provide the best antidote against amnesia.
To his credit, Glantz complicates rather than simplifies Iraq. As he explores the complexities of Iraqi society, he finds it difficult to maintain pre-assigned labels of ‘good’ or — excepting Saddam Hussein — ‘bad.’ The US invasion, he finds, is by no means entirely bad or unwelcome. In the town of al-Mufwrakiyya, alongside the Tigris, for example, he discovers residents are delighted that the US forces have disposed of Hussein, even though they suffered casualties in the fighting. Yet the theme that emerges constantly in discussions is ‘now that Hussein and the Ba’ath are gone, go home.’
The basic trajectory of Iraqi public opinion over 2003-2004, Glantz finds, underlies this growing resistance to an American presence in the country. No longer are the Iraqis welcoming and forgiving of American trespasses, but instead they grew angry at the manifest American failures in civil affairs and security. Those who did not care initially about the occupation soon discovered its obnoxiousness. “It’s just an occupation,” says one mother with a son in Abu Ghraib, “There is no freedom…. Everything they say about democracy and human rights. It’s all a lie.”
The Coalition Provisional Authority headed by Paul Bremer appears increasingly authoritarian, closing the al-Hawza al-Natiqa newspaper aligned with Muqtada al-Sadr’s Shiite movement. A few unflattering and untrue journalistic attacks against Bremer were sufficient to call out the troops. The deteriorating relations with the al-Sadr movement continues to point where, in the town of Hilla, US troops walk into a large public meeting, arrest the head of the local al-Sadr office, and according to multiple witnesses execute two sheikhs on the spot. One of the witnesses, a leader of the Babylon Human Rights Organization, introduces himself as a friend of Paul Wolfowitz and brings out photographs to prove it. But after such a public execution, he says, “America has lost this fight. The people in this meeting were from the whole spectrum of the city and they all saw what happened.” But this is neither what makes news in the United States nor does it comport with the heroic view the United States takes of its soldiers.
According to Glantz, coalescing strength among religious forces in Iraq may well bring about a fundamentalist religious regime because “at some point America will be forced to leave, and at that point the will of the people will prevail in some form or another. In the meantime, the occupation will make Iraq more dangerous, and the people, who will be looking for protection, will find it in the most bellicose of their religious leaders.”
Part of that Iraqi future will be bound up with, even possibly modeled upon whatever emerges in Kurdistan. Glantz’s travels inside Iraq take him to the northern Kurdish territories to interview figures in the Kurdish independence movement, survivors of the Hallabjeh gas attack, and impoverished residents of the refugee camps.
More than any other people in the Middle East, the Kurds have been at the mercy of their geographic division between competing nations guarding territorial borders set by imperial powers, a precarious position that Mustafa Barzani spent his political career attempting to overcome. The only certainty is that such conditional terms of national existence mean that the Kurdish future holds considerable bloodshed.
Given its refusal to recognize Kurdish independence the United States will bear significant responsibility for this outcome. While the Kurds are today the most loyal US allies, the contradictions of their opposed interests can be expected assert themselves sooner or later. Once the United States no longer has strategic interests to defend in Iraq it will abandon the Kurds and their autonomous protectorate as quickly as they have been abandoned previously. The US alliance with Turkey, a NATO power that remains fundamentally opposed to Kurdish independence, ensures Kurdish interests will remain disposable.
The Iraq War has been in the service of US global policy interests, never in the service of Iraq’s people. Over the past two years of occupation the naked charade of US self-interest has been exposed continually. It is not too cynical to suggest that even if the US public is shifting slowly against prolonged occupation, the majority of public opinion has yet to comprehend that America was never engaged in a noble struggle to promote ideals of liberty.
There’s good reason it was the United States where P.T. Barnum made a fortune from suckers.
Published by Penguin.
Joe Lockard is assistant professor of English at Arizona State University.