John Chuckman: The Parable Of Samarra
The Parable Of Samarra
By John Chuckman
December 9, 2003
Front-page stories announced the greatest battle since the end of combat in Iraq with fifty-four insurgents killed and not an American soldier lost. We were given breathtaking details about two separate, coordinated attacks, the firing of rocket-propelled grenades at American vehicles, and the fact that many of the attackers wore Fedayeen militia uniforms associated with Saddam Hussein. Early reports even claimed eleven insurgents were captured.
In addition to headlines, we had sources like CNN pouring on the infotainment-interviews and instant wisdom. I noticed on the Internet that the redoubtable Wolf Blitzer exchanged schoolboy fantasies with a CIA dropout in search of his fifteen minutes. Never mind whether the attack happened, America learned that it would represent new tactics by insurgents, massing large forces against an armored American column. Oh, that does sound ominous and impressive.
Gradually, enough bits of information, including a story that it was actually an attempted heist of new Iraqi banknotes being delivered, raised serious questions over the battle. The idea of a heist made a little more sense than insurgents in uniform since Iraq under U.S. occupation is a country full of angry, unemployed people with streets too dangerous to walk at night.
There were so many doubts, the kinds of clues and irregularities that make a good detective avoid accepting first appearances. Not a single American killed by two large forces firing at them? And you had to wonder what desperate man would come close enough to a 60-ton Abrams tank to be seen firing a rocket-grenade capable of nothing more than scratching its paint? And how about those guys, before and after the attack, running around occupied Iraq in uniform? Where were the captives?
On the same day the Washington Post and other major American publications featured the dazzlingly fuzzy tale, a few sources like al Jazeera quoted the local hospital as having received the bodies of eight civilians, including a woman and a child, plus sixty more wounded by American fire. American tanks and other armored vehicles, said witnesses, had sprayed heavy fire recklessly over an urban area, including a pharmaceutical plant where at least one worker was killed
We now have enough information to be sure there was no battle. Yes, there was plenty of shooting and destruction, but not a single dead insurgent has been produced by American authorities who worked tirelessly to get pictures of the blood-soaked corpses of Saddam Hussein's sons quickly beamed around the world. Not a single militia uniform has been produced, nor any of the dozens of weapons necessarily left behind by dead insurgents dragged away by comrades.
The reports of residents, reports from the hospital, and the blunt, published observations of at least one American soldier tell us there was only a big shoot-up by Americans, blasting away at anything that moved, shattering buildings and the people huddled inside and leaving the street littered with tank-crushed cars. Who knows, perhaps a landmine or gunshot somewhere triggered it all, and trigger-happy soldiers, angry about being in what they regard as a hellhole, let loose enough firepower to level a city block.
It could be that American authorities actually believe there was a battle, with the dead and wounded having been dragged away by survivors. There is an irresistible tendency for people to create acceptable fantasies around the work they do, even when that work is killing.
I think it unlikely a retraction is coming. With a number of senior military men quoted by name that first day on non-existent details, a retraction would be impossibly embarrassing. Has there been any retraction of the fantasy about nuclear and other deadly weapons that sent American armies hurtling into Iraq? Bush just stopped talking about weapons and started talking about democracy. Good stuff, democracy, and it's hard to argue even with tongue-twisted platitudes praising its merits.
America's press will soon forget the Battle of Samarra, as it soon forgets everything from which most of the easily-squeezed juice has been consumed. I very much doubt Iraqis will forget it, certainly not the relatives, friends, and neighbors of those killed and mutilated by fear-crazed Americans rolling through their streets with terrible weapons at the ready.
Perhaps the New York Times will do some digging, following its usual practice of joining the mob in its first bloody howls, and only later, when ardor has cooled, doing an investigation that keeps the paper technically accurate for the record. It's a way of enjoying the best of both worlds, although generally the conclusions of its follow-up investigations are left ambiguous enough not to embarrass the establishment the paper serves.
The war's main goal - smashing Iraq and resurrecting it as a liberal democratic state - is also a fantasy, although one on a vastly greater scale. There is no historical authority whatever to support even the plausibility of this idea.
I recently heard an American academic pontificating on the subject as though it were something one could study and be expert in, but it is not. Much like the numerous American experts in terror who make substantial livings giving scare-lectures to corporate leaders on expense accounts or Pentagon working lunches, this man is an expert in a subject at which it is virtually impossible to be expert.
Terrorism is not a science, it is an opportunistic approach to hurting a militarily superior enemy, although it is clearly possible to put a lot of cumbersome words around the topic. The pseudo-science of smashing closed societies and rebuilding them as democracies is loaded with the same kind of coined, self-serving words that fill ephemeral, anecdotal books on psychology, management, and healthy living. The subjects are close kin to the junk science that clogs the arteries of America's courts.
In the isolated, paranoid, and money-drenched atmosphere of Washington, junk science is serious stuff. Bush, in making his foolish decision to invade Iraq, may be seen ultimately as the victim of well-paid quacks.
Perhaps the only cases in history with superficial resemblance to what is intended for Iraq are those of Germany and Japan after World War II, but, in truth, there are almost no parallels here.
Germany and Japan had suffered war with millions of casualties. In the massive, late bombing of Japan, before America resorted to atomic weapons, there were no primary or secondary targets left standing. What has been inflicted on Iraq is nothing quite so terrible. Japan or Germany was as close as you can get to being a tabula rasa.
The successful conversions of Germany and Japan to liberal democracy occurred in the extraordinary context of the Cold War. The people of Germany and Japan were faced with the stark choice of joining one camp or the other. The correct choice, despite many qualms about America, was pretty clear with Stalin's terrifying face glowering over the Soviet Union. Today, the United States is not viewed by the world as the alternative to a tyrannical, frightening Soviet Union; it is viewed as an arrogant, privileged land that does pretty much as it pleases.
The case is even stronger than that because America today is so intimately associated with Israel. Even though Arab states are resigned to Israel's existence, they can hardly be expected to embrace occupation and constant abuse. Moreover, parallels in the circumstances of occupied Palestinians to those of occupied Iraqis are unpleasantly close and appear to grow more so each day.
Germany and Japan were both advanced countries, undoubtedly on the cusp of developing their own democratic institutions, Germany having already gained some experience between the world wars. Police states simply do not survive over the long term in advanced countries. Democracy comes precisely out of the overwhelming force of middle-class interests that flood an advanced economy.
It is almost universally true that poorly-developed countries are not democracies. There are few enough institutions of any kind in such countries, and certainly none to sustain democracy. There is no balance of interests where there is a small privileged group and a great mass of poverty and ignorance. Purchased courts, purchased police, and laws written to favor the powerful are the rule. This kind of imbalance is felt even in the United States. In a poor country, its influence is decisive. Where such countries are officially designated as democracies, we typically find rigged elections.
Germany and Japan were both old nations with strong identities. Iraq is an artificial construct of British imperialism dating only to the last century. It is composed of groups having little in common, having been held together only by the brute force of a dictator. Each of these groups is also subject to many external influences, a reflection of the arbitrary and recently-set boundaries in the region.
There is also difficulty with the notion that you can have popular democracy in a place like contemporary Iraq and yet have a country friendly to American interests, especially as those interests are reflected in the activities of an uncompromising, combative, nuclear-armed Israel. Bush has achieved nothing in pushing Israel towards peace, so why expect favorable decisions from an Islamic population voting freely?
In other places in the Middle East, like Egypt, America supports a combination of winked-at authoritarian government and substantial bribe-paying. Why does America support this if there are realistic alternatives? That was the situation that existed in Iraq until the Gulf War. The populace of Egypt, so far as we can understand in the absence of genuine measures of public opinion, is not one that would freely elect a government friendly to a number of American interests. The same is almost certainly true of Iraq.
Is the U.S. likely to leave behind in Iraq either a highly unstable government, one whose quick collapse would bring civil war between the major groups, or a democratically-elected government, stable but hostile to American interests? These and so many other questions only show how little Bush thought before he reached for a gun.
We are unlikely to learn the truth from officials about the Battle of Samarra, and so it is with the entire reckless adventure of invading Iraq. American troops are going to be in Iraq for a long time, and there is no reason to expect they are going to make any more friends for America than the boys doing the shooting in Samarra.