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August 16, 2005

Independent thinking

If you can excuse the distinctly Fiskian tone of the whole thing, I think Robert Fisk's column in Saturday's Independent puts the blood and guts of Iraq — coverage of which is often decried as biased if not mildly treasonous — in the proper context:

On 14 July, the second grade schoolboy [named Yassin al-Sammerai] had gone to spend the night with two college friends and - this being a city without electricity in the hottest month of the year - they decided to spend the night sleeping in the front garden. Let his broken 65 year-old father Selim take up the story, for he's the one who still cannot believe his son is dead - or what the Americans told him afterwards.

"It was three-thirty in the morning and they were all asleep, Yassin and his friends Fahed and Walid Khaled. There was an American patrol outside and then suddenly, a Bradley armoured vehicle burst through the gate and wall and drove over Yassin. You know how heavy these things are. He died instantly. But the Americans didn't know what they'd done. He was lying crushed under the vehicle for 17 minutes. Um Khaled, his friends' mother, kept shouting in Arabic: "There is a boy under this vehicle."

"The Americans came back with an officer two days later," Selim al-Sammerai continues. "They offered us compensation. I refused. I lost my son, I told the officer. 'I don't want the money - I don't think the money will bring back my son.' That's what I told the American." There is a long silence in the room. But Selim, who is still crying, insists on speaking again.

"I told the American officer: 'You have killed the innocent and such things will lead the people to destroy you and the people will make a revolution against you. You said you had come to liberate us from the previous regime. But you are destroying our walls and doors.'"

Then one of Yassin's brothers says that he took a photograph of the dead boy as he lay on the ground… And suddenly it was in my hands, an obscene and terrible snapshot of Yassin's head crushed flat as if an elephant had stood upon it, blood pouring from what had been the back of his brains. "So now, you see," the brother explains, "the people can still see what the Americans have done."

I wasn't opposed to invading Iraq, but I was opposed to invading Iraq for the reasons that were on offer. Some accused me of splitting hairs, but I thought it was a crucial point: you can't just jump aboard a war with a few reservations. You're going to kill innocent people by accident — you're going to smoosh little boys' heads with Bradley armoured vehicles, for instance — and you had better have your "greater good" explanations down pat before you go. Needless to say, that didn't happen with Iraq, and Canadian involvement could have been disastrous in that light. We couldn't even figure out why we weren't going, for heaven's sake.

Saddam was as brutal a dictator as we've seen in recent times, but the Iraqis had it in their power to oust him. I'm not trying to trivialize that undertaking, but nor should anyone trivialize the efforts of the Americans, French, Poles, and so on, who stood up to their oppressors and won. It isn't cheating to accept help in such an endeavour, but it is incumbent upon the helper nations to ensure the people of the country in question actually want to trade in their current brand of oppression for a whole new kind of gruesome insecurity.

This was not considered important in the case of Iraq because self-interest had, ostensibly, played trump. There was good reason to believe that Saddam had WMD and the capability to use them against his neighbours, we were told. Liberating the Iraqis was a side order and not the main course, and had it been true I would have had no qualm with it. I simply don't understand people who oppose a policy of pre-emption based on good intelligence. But, now that the WMD justification has proven false, we have this bizarre situation wherein hardcore groupthink left-wingers advocate vacating the region immediately, thus abandoning the humanitarian high ground from which they once shouted their opposition to the war, while hardcore groupthink right-wingers simply assume, after the fact and forgetting that no one thought to ask, that freedom from Saddam was all the Iraqis ever wanted.

It is probably true that the media pays insufficient attention to the good news coming out of Iraq — political progress, the somewhat surprising lack of inter-factional violence, etc. But it is definitely true that the media downplays the sheer brutality that is playing out at street level. They could cover it in the current format 23 hours a day, but if they don't show the images then by definition they're underreporting it. Not that they have any choice — the images in question are unprintable, unbroadcastable.

To blanch at seeing a charred corpse swarming with flies or a young boy's brains pouring out the back of his head isn't necessarily a sign of weakness. People will say, "Well, that's what war is," but that's exactly the point. It simply brings us back to the original question: faced with the prospect of what is currently going on, which any honest pre-war assessment would have identified as a possibility, would the Iraqis have chosen liberation?

I don't know the answer, and certainly there would be no consensus. But there weren't any WMDs, so it's a bloody important question. For better or worse, and not by design, the only legitimate reason for this war was to free the Iraqi people. And free they are — free like a man sucked out of an airplane with no parachute. If and when the West pursues another war of liberation — and ideally I'd like to see more of them in the future, not fewer — it needs to give the child amputees and the maggot-infested corpses and the heads-smashed-in second-graders a lot more thought than Blair and Bush did with Iraq. North Americans can't even debate the war rationally — imagine being Yassin al-Sammerai's father. Liberation is an act of generosity, and though it might be considered rude, or stupid, it's well within anyone's rights to look his gift horse in the mouth.

Posted by Chris Selley at August 16, 2005 11:59 PM

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Comments

Tremendous post.

Posted by: sacamano at August 17, 2005 08:22 AM

"Saddam was as brutal a dictator as we've seen in recent times, but the Iraqis had it in their power to oust him."

If the rest of the post weren't so cogent, I'd have asked if you were drunk when you wrote this. Saddam had crushed rebellions before, and he was not going anywhere. When he died, his sons were right there ready to take up the mantle. You're going to have to do a lot more work to convince me that the Iraqis could have somehow overthrown the Husseins without major outside assistance.

Personally I'm not one to complain about media coverage of Iraq, mainly because I'm adult (as opposed to a child with ADD) who's perfectly capable of keeping what's on the news perspective. Consider the following: 1) The violence is fairly localized. Nearly all of the ongoing violence in Iraq is confined to three of Iraq's 18 provinces plus Baghdad. The rest are pretty quiet. 2) Making some back-of-the-envelope calculations based on numbers supplied by the Iraq government (and rounding up a bit to compensate for any underestimations), the violent death rate in Iraq is still about half the average death-by-government rate under Saddam (and that's excluding the Iran/Iraq war).

None of this is to downplay how bad things are in those parts of Iraq now, but going by these indicators I think we can safely say that even this an improvement. Of course, because of regular cognitive biases everyone sees the concentrated costs and misses the diffuse benefits, but focusing on the big picture is what's really relvant.

That aside, as someone who would also like to see more dictators deposed this century, I agree that the US & UK governments were woefully underprepared for what they were getting into. The biggest share of the responsibility for that goes to the Pentagon and NSA for not paying enough attention to the State department's suggestions for the postwar period (mainly Condi's fault, since managing inter-agency co-ordination was supposed to be her job). But the silver lining here is that the US military learns by its fuckups, and this series of fuckups has taught them several lessons. Next time this happens -- and there will be a next time, inevitably -- they'll be more prepared.

Posted by: Matt McIntosh at August 17, 2005 12:24 PM

Any ex post facto rationalization about freeign Iraqis cannot be credible. In the run-up to the war, the entire focus of the US's trumped up allegations was on a pre-emptive strike for self-protection. When WMDs were not found, nor any other allegation substantiated, the administration had to come up with something to justify why they were pouring billions of dollars into a "war" or "struggle" or whatever they're calling it now.

The statistics about deaths do not represent the entire horror of the US at work in Iraq. Because of medical advances, US forces that are injured die less frequently then people who had similar injuries in previous wars. These people are still amputees, psychologically traumatized, and have to see pictures of children with their brains out of the back of their head everyday - the happy media censor cannot stop that.

In fact, it is a terrible thing that they won't show these images, because the American population that pushed so strongly for the war needs to see the true consequences of their decisions. Otherwise, there can be no wonder at their naivete about the issue. In fact, the only true resistance only came about when their own children came back in body bags.

As to the post that said that the US military learns from its mistakes, the empirical evidence of the Iraqi war proves otherwise. Another long engagement with an enemy that demolished the US using conventional warfare and hid behind civilians also proved to be an abysmal loss of life, resources and generally a disaster: Vietnam. That was also a war with no clear way of declaring victory (thwarting communism) as in this instance (ex post facto: securing freedom).

All the US has done is provided a safe haven for terrorists and mercenaries to pour in from all over the world and create chaos with little fear of reprisal. Bush managed to drive the price of oil up causing economic chaos, but also filling the pockets of the oil industry. Only George Bush can proprely give us a sense of how wrong he is, and how little foresight his administration has, when despite stating "mission accomplished" a couple of years ago, Iraqis and Americans are being killed daily in a war that not even the President knows why they're there.

Maybe he's thinking about it during his 5 week vacation. Maybe not.

Posted by: Andrew at August 17, 2005 01:54 PM

Okay, now Andrew I can reasonably accuse of being drunk. Allow me to summarize his post:

Paragraph 1: "The fact that Saddam didn't have massive stockpiles of WMD at the time of invasion makes the whole enterprise one big fraud. Yes, I am really so myopic that I can't project 10 years into the future, when he likely would have."

Paragraph 2: "Thanks to medical technology, more people are surviving injuries than ever before. Contrary to what common sense and your silly moral intuitions might tell you, this is a bad thing."

Paragraph 3: "People should constantly be bombarded with gory images of battlefield aftermath to show the consequences of war. Likewise, people should be constantly bombarded with images of dead fetuses to show the consequences of abortion. Again contrary to common sense, people make better decisions based on visceral emotional reactons rather than detached reasoning." [NB: I am pro-choice.]

Paragraph 4: "Iraq is just like Vietnam. Nevermind that the objectives are different, the type and size of enemy faced is different (and is not even one cohesive force), there is relatively little support for this enemy among the locals, the casualty counts are nowhere near alike, and the attrition rate of Coalition forces to insurgents is something like 1:20. Uh, quagmire!"

Paragraph 5: "Iraq is a safe haven for terrorists, despite the fact that they're getting killed there in significant numbers. Bush went to war to raise the price of oil, despite the facts that 1) he has no apparent motivation to do this, 2) Iraq's oil production is only slightly lower than prewar levels, and 3) the rising price of oil is mostly due to China and India's increasing demand than anything else."

Of course. It all makes perfect sense now!

Posted by: Matt McIntosh at August 17, 2005 07:04 PM

Matt - I don't think youy quite caught the point,

Re response 1: crystal ball predictions about someone maybe getting WMDs in 10 years are not acceptable justifications for attacking a country. You actually need proof - as a matter of common sense, an unsubstantiated gut feeling about 10 year plans cannot be sufficient.

Re response 2: you are using a straw man to attempt to counter the point made, and no, I never said that people surviving injuries is a bad thing. The point was that the mortality statistics are misleading and rarely if ever mention the people who are not killed, but are permanently physically and mentally disabled.

Re response 3: I believe there is some merit to the analogy that you draw in this point. On a moral level you might be correct, just as showing how someone slaughters a cow for a hamburger might also bring the consequences home. I think the Simpsons made a go of this in one episode. I will have to think about this point - in the meantime I will suggest that in deciding to go to war against Iraq in the first place, the American public (including their interpid leader) used "visceral emotional reactions" as opposed to any true evidence.

Re response 4: I never said that Vietnam was exactly like Iraq. This is reductio ad absurdum. To use your standard of comparison, then no war is "exactly" like any other war, and hence no comparisons can be made. This position only helps to support my contention that apparently the american military hasn't learned many effective lessons. While there are differences based on the points that you bring up, the points that I originally stated (namely lack of clear goal, use of civlicans as shields, and unconventional warfare) are valid, and you haven't engaged them. I accept the differences you state, thank you for the information, but they do not challenge my original contentions. "Uh, quagmire", yes, quuagmire - the US has no good way out.

Re response 5: I never said that Bush went to Iraq to raise the price of oil, I wrote "he managed to raise the price of oil". This is not a statement of intent, but effect. As in previous paragraphs, you are addressing issues and statements that were not made. Again, your points about oil demand are interesting, but do not change the stated results of Mr. Bush's campaign. As to terrorists being "killed there in significant numbers", I haven't heard of any statistics or numbers that verify how many terrorists are being killed. My point was simply that in the absence of an effective centralized policing force, fanatics have been able to inflict serious damage without major reprisal.

Finally, opening your statements with a statement about drinking habits is does not reflect well on the comments that follow. I'm happy that you feel "It all makes perfect sense now!". Thank you for your response.

Posted by: Andrew at August 18, 2005 07:42 AM

"crystal ball predictions about someone maybe getting WMDs in 10 years are not acceptable justifications for attacking a country. You actually need proof - as a matter of common sense, an unsubstantiated gut feeling about 10 year plans cannot be sufficient."

Says who? You've got a brutal dictator who is a declared enemy and not known for making wise strategic decisions, is not going anywhere anytime soon, and certainly did intend to obtain a nuclear program at the first available opportunity. Prior to the invasion the unpopular sanctions regime was slowly beginning to be dismantled, and guys like AQ Khan were running around selling nuke technology to dictators like Kim Jong Il, so he'd have had his opportunity soon enough. Can you not do the obvious math here, bright eyes?

"The point was that the mortality statistics are misleading and rarely if ever mention the people who are not killed, but are permanently physically and mentally disabled."

And...? Even taking all of this into account, the bottom line is that the Iraq war and occupation is still the least costly (in human terms) large-scale military operation in history. The only reason I can see for you to even raise this pseudo-objection is that you're against war full-stop, and therefore don't like the idea that it's become less costly since that makes it easier to do.

"I will suggest that in deciding to go to war against Iraq in the first place, the American public (including their interpid leader) used "visceral emotional reactions" as opposed to any true evidence."

True enough in some cases I'm sure, but the case for Iraq still stands on its own and many people have actually thought seriously about it. [NB: I was against it to begin with, but gradually changed my mind.] My point was that we should encourage people to step back and weight the costs and benefits abstractly rather than encourage knee-jerk reactions. If you object to emotional manipulation when Republicans do it, you should object to it consistently when anyone does it.

"While there are differences based on the points that you bring up, the points that I originally stated (namely lack of clear goal, use of civlicans as shields, and unconventional warfare) are valid, and you haven't engaged them."

Then allow me to do so now:

1) There is a clear goal: to get Iraq up and running as a reasonably stable, reasonably liberal democracy. This is a slow process with no single bright finish line, but still seems pretty clearcut to me.
2) Civilians are not actually used as shields all that often by this point, except in the banal sense that the insurgents try to blend into the population. The situation is different from Vietnam in that there's little actual support among the civilians for the terrorists, and indeed we've been seeing more and more instances of them giving tipoffs to the Iraqi police and US military.
3) Unconventional warfare, sure. We have one genuine similarity then, but this is so general as to be meaningless. Unconventional warfare simply requires unconventional responses (e.g. this). It doesn't make them invincible.

"yes, quuagmire - the US has no good way out."

Yes, it does, and Bush has said so: "as the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down." The more the insurgency wanes and the better the Iraqi government and armed forces get at handling matters themselves, the less American help will be required. There is no exit strategy other than getting the job done, and this is as it should be.

"I never said that Bush went to Iraq to raise the price of oil,"

You implied it strongly with "filling the pockets of the oil industry."

"Again, your points about oil demand are interesting, but do not change the stated results of Mr. Bush's campaign."

Um, right. So the fact that China's and India's growing demand is the primary driver of rising oil prices, and that Iraq only produces about 4% of the world's total oil supply, it's still somehow Bush's fault. I stand by my original assertion, you must be drunk.

"As to terrorists being "killed there in significant numbers", I haven't heard of any statistics or numbers that verify how many terrorists are being killed. My point was simply that in the absence of an effective centralized policing force, fanatics have been able to inflict serious damage without major reprisal."

Then maybe you should try paying attention. There has been a whole lot of reprisal going on right under your nose (battle of Fallujah? the ongoing Anbar campaign? Hello?). I don't think anyone has totalled it all up, but in every military operation the Army or Marines carry out in Iraq, we typically see dozens of militants dying for every couple of American soldiers being killed. Raw attrition matters a lot, and by that standard the US is consistently winning.

Posted by: Matt McIntosh at August 18, 2005 02:35 PM

Okay, looks like now it's my turn to be a little drunk. I said: "...the Iraq war and occupation is still the least costly (in human terms) large-scale military operation in history." This is obviously not true since Afghanistan and the first Gulf War had less casualties, but what I meant was that its human cost (from the US point of view) is dramatically lower than the majority of previous large-scale operations like Korea, Vietnam, etc. Mea culpa.

Posted by: Matt McIntosh at August 18, 2005 03:19 PM

Matt - little comments like "bright eyes" and speculations about drinking really take away from you arguments.

You wonder who says that crystal ball predictions are not enough? Aside from international law, speculation without proof cannot justify the invasion of a sovereign country, no matter how bad you might think they are. This is the logic that Al Qaeda claims to use when it attacks the "great Satan" and all that crap when justifying brutal actions it undertakes. As a point of law, jus cogens, and commone sense your assertion cannot hold. To follow your logic would create complete anarchy.

What you say is a clear goal: "To get Iraq up and running as a reasonably stable, reasonable liberal democracy." I'm glad this seems pretty clear cut to you, and probably George Bush. Again it doesn't speak to the point made: there is no way to measure this. Determining when a war is over based on a gut feeling is not a true strategy, and results in a, you guessed it, quagmire!

I never said that unconventional warfare makes an eenemy invincible - it just makes them better at fighting the type of war they're fighting than the US is.

As to what you read into supposed implications about the oil industry - that's your prerogative.

As to the final paragraph, which is particularly condascending, viz. "Maybe you should try paying attention". You then admit that no one's totalled up the number of militant's killed. In fact, militants don't have easy indicators to distinguish them from regular civilians (as you agree in your response). Thus, it's likely civilians are being killed as well as militants.

Overall, I disagree with most of your assertions, and don't feel that you've directly engaged some points in my first post. Should you wish to have the last word on the matter, I invite you to post your thoughts as this will be my last post on this string. I must admit that while the prospect of this discussion was interesting, the open hostility of the comments has made this tiresome. As a further note, if you choose to quote statistics about casualties and oil demand, it would be helpful to provide links to corrobarating sites. As it's been said before "there are lies, damned lies and then there are statistics". Thanks for you post.

Posted by: Andrew at August 19, 2005 10:35 AM

"...speculation without proof cannot justify the invasion of a sovereign country..."

Hang on a second, Chris. There was more than speculation that Saddam had WMDs. For one thing, he had, uh, used them both on his own citizens and against the Iranians. He had never accounted for the chemical weapons he was known to have. He had never demonstrated the destruction of those weapons. He had never allowed unfettered access to the industrial facilities capable of making more such weapons, and was widely suspected of intimidating the staff who ran those facilities so they would not cooperate when inspections were allowed. He periodically made threats against his regional rivals (either Iran or Israel) that he would use similar weapons, and he was known to have had a nuclear-weapons research program.

Now, with the benefit of hindsight it is easy to say that he used his entire stock of chemical weapons on Kurds and Iranians, and didn't have any more. It is possible to assume that this was just a closely-calculated bluff: he needed the threat of WMDs to stave off Iran, and gambled either that the US would see that he didn't really have any, or that the US was a paper tiger that wouldn't attack in any event. I don't think it is correct to make these assumptions - just easy. In any event, at the time, and without the benefit of hindsight, the WMD argument was more than "speculative." I would go so far as to say that it was the 'null hypothesis,' and anyone arguing that Saddam did not possess WMDs had an obligation to show how items that he had undeniably used in the past were no longer available to him when he was doing his best to provide exactly the contrary impression.

Hey, 'bright eyes' doesn't have to be an insult, does it, twinkle toes?

Dean

Posted by: DCardno at August 19, 2005 01:48 PM

I'm sorry - I thought I was replying to Chris, when it was to Andrew. I take back the remark about twinkle toes - that's below the belt ;)

D

Posted by: DCardno at August 19, 2005 01:50 PM