from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

The War Against Truth 

I offer for your consideration today a book which I read this week. It is entitled,
A War Against Truth: An Intimate Account of the Invasion of Iraq by Paul William Roberts, a Canadian who was reporting unimbedded for Harper's, but I warn you the book is devastating. He cites his own experience, provides footnoted information from others, and weaves in appropriate epigraphs.

When I read his last 3 paragraphs, and the final epigraph from the letters of Aldous Huxley, I sat stunned and in silence for several minutes. I then departed the Starbucks where I had been reading, and walked very slowly across the parking lot to my car, incredibly aware of how normal our lives were, how little we have any real sense of what our nation has done to others.

I ask you to take the time to make a brief exploration of this book with me. I hope that you will be provoked enough to read it, to tell others about it, and to be motivated towards whatever action can make a difference.

Roberts was born and educated (in classics) in England, and now resides in Canada. At the time of the events of the book, largely from 2003 when our current escapades in Iraq took off, he was a correspondent for Harper’s. He had spent much time in the Middle East, in Iraq in particular. He knew people in embassies in Amman, and in the government in Iraq. He had once interviewed Saddam Hussein. During the war, after the Iraqi government fell, he actually twice talked, albeit briefly, with Tariq Aziz. In other words, he knew Iraq and Iraqis. Many became aware of his work through the writing he did for the Globe and Mail during and after the main conflict. He was in Baghdad when the US attack began in March of 2003. In the first attack, the house next to where he was in East Baghdad was crushed by flying concrete from an explosion some distance away. We experience with him living through the attacks, the devastation, the human suffering.

In this book, completed in May of 2005, Roberts is able to place all this in the context of the 5 millenia of settlement in Iraq, in what we know as the place where civilization, writing, urbanization, agriculture, all began. In fact, after some very brief introductory material, including an invaluable timeline of Iraqi history, he begins with an epigraph of his own writing for the aforementioned Canadian newspaper. I will offer many selections from this powerful book. Part One is simply entitled “War” and begins (on page 3) like this:
As I write, Baghdad lies in ruins around me. A reddish-orange fog, aftermath of a sandstorm, hangs in the air, mingling with the cordite, sewage, burning oil and fear. Ever few minutes, there are bomb blasts, near or far, the thump-thump-thump of anti-aircraft batteries, and the dull thud of mortar shells exploding. Twice-hit by the so-called Coalition’s missiles in the past twenty-four hours, Iraqi television is back on the air, broadcasting a call to arms for the tribes of Arabia to rise up in Jihad, holy war, and help Saddam Hussein repel the infidel invaders. It is inter-cut with stirring scenes of military triumph in art ranging from the Akkadian to the British Empire. Apart from technology, we could be at almost any time in Iraq’s long, long history …

I learned a lot of important factual information in this book. I had not known that Saddam Hussein and most of those around him had at best an elementary school education (the dictator only through 4th grade). I had had at best a vague understanding of the nature of the still extant tribal structure of Iraqi society. I had grasped only partly the level of destruction we wrought in the first hours of “shock and awe” – where we reduced Baghdad’s public facilities, which included almost every single building identifiable as a government structure except schools, hospitals, and the ministries of Interior and Oil, to smoking heaps of rubble. As he notes looking back on page 84:
In less than 24 hours, 1,500 cruise missiles and precision-guided bombs had been hurled down on Baghdad.

And as he tells us later, on p. 137, after reminding of Eisenhower’s warning about the military-industrial complex:
During the first two minutes of the attacks on Baghdad, thirty million dollars in cruise missiles went up in flames and smoke, destroying some fifty billion dollars worth of Iraqi property, little of it with any military functions. Who gains? The arms manufacturers, of course; the oil companies; and the Halliburtons, the Argyle [sic] Groups. This is what Eisenhower meant. When what a company manufactures is missiles – each of which is like a very expensive match; you cannot use it twice – imagine how concerned it will be to prevent war at any cost. When that same company is actually represented in the highest levels of government – well, clearly they should not be. This seems so obvious. I wonder why it needs to be pointed out. More important is to see that it does not have to be this way. Are countries like Sweden, or Denmark, or New Zealand -- ones that do not have military forces intervening in the affairs of sovereign nations – prey to terrorist attack or threat? No, they are not.

Let me offer another epigraph, which appears on page 149, and which is from W.H. Auden, and very a propos of that which Roberts seeks to have us understand:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

I cannot and will not try to fully present to you all that the book covers. It is too rich. It is superbly well written, well crafted. The selections I will offer will give you some sense of Roberts’ skill as a writer, and the few from the many epigraphs I repeat will give you a glimpse of the range of scholarship and understanding he has brought to his reportage and reflection.

I propose from here out to offer you far more of his words, and those of others that he found relevant, and far fewer of my own. This will be long. Read as much as you can, but please read toward the end.

The experience he had of the reactions of other people from other nations as he had flown from Toronto towards Baghdad. He had been in the Middle East for our previous engagement with Iraq, but now no one was for war, and they had negative opinions of George Bush:
I made note of the terms used across half the world to describe the president of the United States: hypocrite, liar, stupid, moron, cowboy, hick, fool, gunslinger, two-faced, warmonger, greedy, Zionist pawn, idiot, evil, dangerous, half-wit, trying to prove something to Daddy, blind and deaf, insane, ignorant, foolhardy, couldn’t pass a grade ten history test, can’t tell the difference between Iraq and Iran, makes Clinton look like a god, thinks Baghdad is two words, the myopic leading the blind, brain-dead, simpleton, a bad Christian, has watched too many movies, inhuman, a zombie, a tyrant, without conscience, lacking a soul, immoral, a greedy scoundrel, and well-intentioned but naïve – this last being the most positive comment made.
-- from page. 21.

Roberts does remind us that at several points prior to 1991 Saddam Hussein was “our guy” for the powers that be in the US, most especially during the lengthy war with Iran. But what he really does is, on pages 38-39, place this in the appropriate larger context:
To say that America’s post-World War foreign policy made a habit of cultivating – or even creating – leaders like Saddam is no exaggeration. Possibly with the model of Hitler in mind, Washington’s covert ops people sought out, as leaders in places for which they had an interest, men would be particularly easy to take down when or if the need arose. The Shah, Saddam, Pinochet, Suharto, Marcos, Noriega, to name but a few, were all propped up initially or placed in power with CIA help; and they were also all corrupt and brutal dictators who oppressed their own people. Their advantage to Washington lay in the ease with which they could be deposed. The mere revelation to a gullible media of their crimes would have the West howling for their removal – which gave Washington the kind of security it needed, however things turned out. Nothing about politics in America is missionary work.

This attitude of generations of Washington insiders is immediately demonstrated by a quote from Donald Kagan, co-chair of the Project for a New American Century (and simply think of the arrogance of the title of the group, and the impact it may have had overseas):
People worry a lot about how the Arab street is going to react. Well, I see that the Arab street has gotten very, very quiet since we started blowing things up.
(also from page 39).

Our increasing militarization of foreign policy has greatly cost the American taxpayer, a point Roberts visits several times. He puts is bluntly in one sentence on p. 34:
Just the amount of increase in the defence budget from 1999 to 2003 is far more than the total spent annually on defence by China, the next-biggest spender.

The end result of what our nation has done can be described in many ways. Roberts is very blunt on the effects of the actions of the current administration. Let me quote from p. 248:
Rather than enhance and enlarge the legacy of good will that America once enjoyed in the world, the Bush II regime has chosen to rather unveil the ugly face of America that many suspected was the real truth behind the PR façade. The criminal attack and invasion of Iraq will now abide as an emblem of this greedy and violent reality. That such shoddy, barbaric thinking can prevail over all of the alternatives available should give all modern nations pause, just as all Americans should look at their current leaders and wonder if these are the best democracy can provide.

The impact of U S actions on Iraq and its people go back well before this administration took office. Roberts wonders if the encouragement of the administration of Bush 41 for those in the N and S to rise up against Saddam knowing we would not come to their assistance, which inevitably meant they would be slaughtered, weakened as a possible force towards disintegration of Iraq, was not a deliberate tactic. Surely he heard things like from Iraqis.

And as he notes on p. 135, the impact of our actions extends through multiple administrations, as does what can surely be considered the lack of sensitivity of American leaders:
During the thirty years his regime ruled Iraq, Saddam slaughtered thousands upon thousands of his own people – all too true. Yet in a third of that time, the U. S. government has slaughtered many times that number of Iraqis itself. It is still slaughtering them. Yes, there is a difference between the two slaughters, and it is this: Saddam killed men – and a few women – who opposed him in some way; America’s victims were and are largely civilians, old people, women and children who just happened to be in the way, Asked, “Do you feel that 300,00 dead Iraqi children is a price worth paying for the possibility of regime change in Iraq?,” Clinton’s secretary of state Madeleine Albright replied, “Such decisions are never easy; but yes, I think it is worth the price.”

And we know the deleterious effects of the sanctions, with up to half a million Iraqi children dying because of lack of nutrition, medicine, and the like. But it has gotten far worse since we began to prepare the 2003 attack. On page 356 we read the following:
The poor suffer most, and poor children are the hardest hit of all. Indeed, Jean Ziegler, the U.N. Human Rights Commission's special expert on the right to food, recently confirmed that Iraqi children were actually better off under Saddam Hussein's rule than they are now. The number of children under five suffering from malnutrition has doubled, from four percent in 2002 to nearly eight percent by the end of 2004.
. And if anything, the situation is far worse now, with many people having no access to potable water, to medicine, to medical care after we have apparently deliberately targeted hospitals in places like Fallujah, a city whose encirclement and destruction was a clear violation of international norms and agreement binding on the combatants and government of this and all supposedly civilized nations.

We are nearing the end of the diary, and the end of the book. I want to go back, to a long epigraph that I have not yet shared with you, before we explore the very powerful end of the book. It is words by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, appearing at the very end of Part One of this book, on p. 168. It is from a poem “Fears in Solitude”, which Coleridge penned in the midst of the Napoleonic wars, in 1798, “during fears of an invasion.” Here are the words cited by Roberts, upon which I ask you to pause and reflect before you go further in this diary. They start in the middle of a stanza, and run to its end:
Boys and girls,
And women, that would groan to see a child
Pull off an insect’s leg, all read of war,
The best amusement for our morning meal!
The poor wretch, who has learnt his only prayers
From curses, who knows scarcely words enough
To ask a blessing from his Heavenly Father,
Becomes a fluent phraseman, absolute
And technical in victories and defeats,
And all our dainty terms for fratricide;
Terms which we trundle smoothly o’er our tongues
Like mere abstractions, empty sounds to which
We join no feeling and attach no form!
As if the soldier died without a wound;
As if the fibres of this godlike frame
Were gored without a pang; as if the wretch,
Who fell in battle, doing bloody deeds,
Passed off to Heaven, translated and not killed;
As though he had no wife to pine for him,
No God to judge him! Therefore, evil days
Are coming on us, O my countrymen!
And what if all-avenging Providence,
Strong and retributive, should make us know
The meaning of our words, force us to feel
The desolation and the agony
Of our fierce doings?


Part Two of the book is entitled, clearly ironically, with one word: “Peace”. Of course we know that one thing still lacking from Iraq, more than a year after Roberts finished this book, is peace.

I will pick up my citation from just after the passage on malnutrition. I am, at this point, pushing the limits of fair use. I will, if my fingers do not fail me, type out the remaining 6 paragraphs of Roberts’ prose as it appears in my paperback edition, spread over pages 356-358, and immediately follow, as does he, with a quotation from the letters of Aldous Huxley – that is how he ends the book, and it is appropriate that I in this attempt to introduce you to the book end in a similar fashion.

As I just did with the Coleridge, I am going to make a request -- that when you finish you do not move, or think, or speak, for at least a minute, and let the impact of the words sink in. Perhaps then you will grasp at least in part why this book had such a powerful impact on me as I completed it yesterday. Then perhaps you can understand why I tell you that you should, as quickly as possible, get a copy and read it in its entirety. It may break your heart, it may anger you, at times it will inspire you. I assure you, it will in some way change you.

Enough from me.

Since 1991, the United States has been directly responsible for the deaths of over one million Iraqi civilians, more than half of them children. They still run daily bombing missions, flattening entire blocks of buildings where resistance fighters are alleged to be hiding, yet were innocent people also live. This is a form of collective punishment, and is illegal under the Geneva protocols. Cities known to be centres of the Sunni resistance have become ghost towns; the worst example is Fallujah, where some seventy percent of the buildings are now rubble, under which bodies still lie crushed. Of the 350,000 inhabitants living there before the U. S. military launched its campaign of terror in which even the quisling Allawi government admitted at least 2,000 civilians were slaughtered, only 25,000 have so far returned to occupy their homes, or to pick through the rubble for whatever can be salvaged of their possessions and whatever remains to be buried of their loved ones.
Iraq is still largely a tribal society, where traditional codes take precedence over everything, including religion. When a brother, sister, mother or father is murdered – no matter why or by whom – these codes dictate that the remaining sons or brothers must avenge the death or else bring shame upon the family. With 100,000 civilian dead, a large number of them killed by American bombs or guns, it is not hard to do the arithmetic and work out where Iraqi resistance groups are getting their recruits. As Time magazine’s correspondent in Baghdad reported late last year, “the U. S. military here are merely acting as wet nurses to the next generation of al-Qaeda terrorists.”
The devastation of Iraq’s cultural heritage by U. S. forces has also continued. The National Museum’s irreplaceable treasures have vanished forever – perhaps one percent were recovered or returned; the library of ancient manuscripts at Ur was looted by U.S. soldiers, who also sprayed ancient scrolls with graffiti; the ceremonial road of Babylon, made from bricks bearing a cuneiform inscription by Nebuchadnezzer, has been completely destroyed by U. S. tank treads; and 2,500-year-old tiles from the ancient city’s gateway were pried out by army souvenir hunters while their commanders looked on. Babylon is a World Heritage Site, so the barbarians are stealing from all of us and from generations unborn. This is also the case with the latest cultural casualty, Samarra’s unique ninth-century spiral minaret, which Omar had once so proudly shown me. It was partially destroyed in a mortar attack after U.S. troops had been using the roof as a sniper position – yet another war crime according to the Geneva protocols, which provide for the protection of historic sites by occupying armies. Omar and his brother Zaid are also believed to be dead now, victims of the city’s siege by U. S. forces last year. The reader may recall that Samarra was the one city ready to welcome the invaders, and Omar and Zaid had freed American soldiers held hostage there. I can only imagine these good men’s final thoughts as the people for whom they had once risked their lives laid waste to their home town.
Whatever happens to Iraq, no American will be welcome there for decades to come. If something good is to come out of all this misery, it ought to be a recognition that, in an increasingly multicultural world, where few nations do not contain large populations of non-indigenous peoples, war and military force of any kind are no longer viable solutions to political problems and need to be removed from the quivers of leadership. In a sense, all future wars will be evil. The wars already waged will forever remain as the most shameful aspects of our communal past, and their lessons must be studied and learned until the end of time. We are better than this now, I believe, and we will need to be in order to deal with the more global concerns that lurk in the shadows beyond time’s bend.
We all live on this beautiful blue and white ball, and the sooner we realize it is our only home the better off both we and the planet will be. There are no unilateral actions in the Third Millennium. Anywhere is everywhere, and the effects from any cause hit us all. I think, too, that America is going to need the world’s help and goodwill sooner than anyone believes is possible. That help would be so much easier to guarantee if Washington awoke from its evil enchantment, remembered its Constitution and once-glorious destiny, and became determined to lead the world in eradicating the scourge of war -- if only as penance for its deeds over the past half century.
It needs only to be added here that the money spent on destroying Iraq could have been used instead to give Americans the kind of health care and education systems that most other civilized nations regard as basic rights, not privileges for the oligarchy. Of course, it would also have been sufficient to permanently end AIDS in Africa and feed for a hundred years every one of the world’s two billion human beings who go to sleep each day hungry.

“Defending democracy” sounds fine…but to defend democracy by military means, one must be militarily efficient, and one cannot become militarily efficient without centralizing power, setting up a tyranny, imposing some form of conscription or slavery to the state. In other words the military defence of democracy in contemporary circumstances entails the abolition of democracy even before war starts.

— Aldous Huxley (1894–1963)

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