By Tom Engelhardt
Let’s forget for a minute the recent Newsweek report that the Pentagon is considering funding 1980s El Salvador-style “death squads” in Iraq, an article which caused enough of a stir to be addressed both by the Secretary of Defense (“somebody has been reading too many spy novels and went off in flights of fancy, which I hope have been put to rest”) and by the White House press spokesman; or the urge among administration hardliners to extend a failing war and occupation across a border in the next few weeks with strikes into Syria; or the fact, just revealed in a front-page New York Times piece that the “we don’t torture” administration sent Condoleezza Rice on a special mission to Capitol Hill to oppose the imposition of Congressional restrictions on, and oversight of, what the two Times reporters politely call CIA “extreme interrogation measures.” Instead, what stays in my mind is a single incident reported recently that caught for me the desolation the Bush administration is spreading in its wake: a desolation of place, of our military, of our values, of our language.
On January 7, an American plane dropped a 500-pound bomb on a house in a village near the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. The house, the military announced afterwards, was “not the intended target” in what was called “a cordon and search operation to capture an anti-Iraqi force cell leader.” An argument promptly began as to whether, as the military claimed, 5 people had been killed or, as people on the ground claimed, 14 people, including 7 children. (This sort of argument has been a commonplace of such incidents in both Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001.) The military also issued an expression of regret — and it was a phrase in that statement which still hangs desolately in my memory. The military announced that it “deeply regretted the loss of possibly innocent lives.” Think of that. A 500-pound bomb hits what they themselves then believed not to be “the intended target” and what they regretted was the loss of “possibly innocent” lives. Was it simply assumed by now that so many Iraqis support the insurgency in areas like Mosul that even in the “wrong” house the odds of “innocence” were slim?
A homespun version of Iraqi desolation came my way recently via an e-mail sent in by an Iraqi exile from the Saddam years who is still in exile. She writes:
“I just finished reading Dahr Jamail’s article about Iraq and thought I might add my personal account of the situation there. Here is what I heard from my family (in Baghdad) in the last few weeks:
“1. As of last week, they have only two hours of electricity for every ten hours of black-out.
“2. Several female hairdressing salons have been bombed and the others are threatened by the fanatics. The result: Most salons are now closed for business.
“3. Male barbers were also given warnings not to do specific hair styles only God knows why!!
“4. One of my sister’s friends has been killed because he failed to stop at an American checkpoint. It was a bit dark and his eyesight wasn’t 100%. In his panic he just rushed past the checkpoint. It is one of the tragedies that are occurring every day and have been since the start of the war. The reason is so simple; no one educated the soldiers that the Iraqi, when faced with such a situation, accelerates instead of stopping. This habit had been instilled in the Iraqi mind during the terrorizing years of [Saddam Hussein’s] dictatorship. The last thing anyone would want was to be caught up at a checkpoint because this could lead to prison and possibly death, regardless of whether he/she was involved in anything suspicious. All that was needed was for someone to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“Unfortunately, I learned that the hard way when my husband was arrested at such a checkpoint. He was released one month later after the intelligence forces were satisfied he wasn’t involved in anything suspicious, but in that month he had gone through some horrible experiences, which to this day he refuses to talk about (even to me), and which still haunt his nights.”
Of course, there is now nothing more literally desolate in Iraq than the Carthage we’ve created in Falluja.
Tom Engelhardt is the writer and editor of Tomdispatch.com, where this piece first appeared as an introduction to Michael Schwartz’s essay, Falluja: City Without a Future?