Empire building, greed, thirst for oil, misplaced media-stoked fear of those who are different, Western superiority complex – whatever the true motivation, one can only look with wonder on an individual, or a nation, which exerts the kind of arrogance displayed by the United States in such historical proportion since the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The country’s collective, “How dare they?!” launched itself against first Afghanistan and then Iraq in a blinding fury that overlooked not only any reasonable justification for such action, but any discernable goal as well. The bogey of terrorism and the oft-trumpeted weapons of mass destruction were effective smokescreens which allowed the U.S. military machine to invade sovereign nations in a supposedly defensive posture. The saying, "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter,” variously attributed to people from Samuel Adams to Ronald Reagan, holds true; it all depends on which side of the battle one stands. Rather than admitting that the 9/11 attackers may have reasonable grievances against Western nations, President Bush grouped their alleged homelands in a tenuous “axis of evil” that we needed to destroy. This makes about as much sense as attacking the state of New York after the Oklahoma bombings because Timothy McVeigh was born there, yet such illogical reasoning has served the White House well for eight years.
Now we are mired in Iraq, in a nation devastated economically, structurally and politically by our sadly misguided efforts to save them from themselves, and to impose democracy. Western interests have consistently ignored the lessons of history showing that democracy cannot be asserted from the top down, it must grow from the people up to their chosen form of government. In Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone, the reconstruction effort’s senior advisor for higher education, John Agresto, states:
Freedom, democracy and rights are not magic words. The transfer of sovereignty will bring about some form of ‘democracy.’ But a liberal democracy, with real notions of liberty and equality and open opportunity – without strongmen,, or
sectarian or sectional opposition – well, I think that’s doubtful (321)
Saddam Hussein was no better, and no worse, than countless other autocrats throughout the world. Under his rule, Iraqis had food, jobs, education, electricity, and healthcare. In a review of a draft report “Hard Lessons: The Iraq Reconstruction Experience,” to be issued by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, New York Times columnists James Glanze and T. Christian Miller note that:
And by the time of the security improvements in 2007 and 2008, electricity output had, at best, a precarious 10 percent lead on its levels under Saddam Hussein; oil production was still below prewar levels; and access to potable
water had increased by about 30 percent, although with Iraq’s ruined piping
system it was unclear how much reached people’s homes uncontaminated. (4)
“How can we care about democracy now when we don’t even have electricity?” an unemployed oil engineer asks Chandrasekaran (174). But as the author points out, sadly and eloquently, in his depressing indictment of the occupation of Iraq, what the people of the country wanted and needed was not the measuring stick of progress. The ruling Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and D.C.-appointed Viceroy L. Paul Bremer were more concerned with sending favorable reports back to the White House, particularly during the campaign years, than with any tangible improvements in the lives of the people they were supposed to help. From the beginning, the rebuilding teams (rebuilding what we bombed and destroyed, in large part), lived in almost total isolation from the neighboring city. Saddam’s Republican Palace and the gated riverfront Green Zone became a “Little America,” where the staff lived in a “bubble” which allowed them to continue to believe their efforts were necessary, accurate and productive while the “real Baghdad,” full of decay and debris and the lingering odor of explosives, was just beyond the Hesco barriers and concrete slabs which protected the conclave.
How could such arrogance prevail in the face of dissonant reality for so long? Political pressure from home was intense. In a statement eerily reminiscent of Bush’s 2003 “Mission Accomplished” banner, on June 28, 2004, the CPA announced the end of American occupation of Iraq and theoretically ceded authority to the fledgling Iraqi government. The reconstruction forces held a celebratory wrap-party and departed, confident in their success. They left behind a devastated country in the throes of an unacknowledged (in the West) civil and religious war which is still blamed on an isolated insurgency.
The money spent on the CPA’s less than effective work is staggering. According to Glanze and Miller, “By mid-2008, the history says, $117 billion had been spent on the reconstruction of Iraq, including some $50 billion in United States taxpayer money” (1). Chandrasekaran and “Hard Lessons” both cite the lack of organized preparation for the vast undertaking needed to complete the reconstruction efforts, as well as continued ignorance – intentional or simply misguided – of the needs of the Iraqi people. The CPA and Western forces repeatedly “missed opportunities” and “neglected the big picture” in favor of glowing reports for the White House and the U.S. media (Chandrasekaran 278, 314; Glanze 2).
The saddest part of that “big picture” is the number of lives, American coalition and Iraqi, which have been ruined by this ill-fated effort at empire building. U.S. headlines are just beginning to report on the long-term issues faced by returning soldiers, from physical challenges due to combat injuries, to mental and emotional trauma. The loss of life on both sides is nearly incalculable, as the numbers depend on who is doing the reporting. CBS News reports the number of U.S. Iraqi war dead surpassed the number of lives lost in the 9/11 attacks (2,973, with some 6,200 injured) on September 2, 2006, while a Department of Defense count of American casualties in Iraq stands at 4,200 confirmed dead and 30,871 wounded as of December 6, 2008. Documented Iraqi civilian deaths have reached 98,000; the number of wounded does not appear to be available.
As Chandrasekaran points out, many of the Iraqi youth are driven to join the insurgency out of anger at Western occupation, dire economic straits, and fear. It would seem we are adding to the number of “terrorists” as quickly as we are killing them. But the arrogance continues and Washington continues to insist we are winning…something.
Our Western show of superiority and strength in the Middle East has done nothing to quell the stealthy work of terrorists, however they may be defined. We continue to profile airline passengers and strangers on the street; we dutifully take off our shoes to board a plane; we cede more and more civil rights to a Department of Homeland Security that is not even secure in its own operations. As Jean Baudrillard notes in his essay “The Spirit of Terrorism,” the Other must change the rules in order to win against overwhelming military might, and they have done so. In our arrogance, we just refuse to admit it.
It seems the only hope that remains of escaping from Iraq, or any other formless “war on terror,” is as expressed in Daniel Alacón’s Lost City Radio: “What does the end of a war mean if not that one side ran out of men willing to die?” he asks. “When enough of them died, it was finished” (40, 155). If only the arrogance could die with them.
December 15, 2008