"After Iraq: Dark Roads"
May 23, 2003
THE war in Iraq is over. US President George W Bush has proclaimed victory. At present, his administration it is trying to govern and reconstruct post-war Iraq. But the results are sorry. Crime is rampant in Baghdad, electricity and water unreliable at best. Former Baath Party functionaries – despite Saddam Hussein’s defeat – often appear to have US support in the ‘‘reconstruction’’ effort.
The war has not been without its costs. A month ago I attended the funeral of a US Marine who was born and raised in the small city of Burlington in Vermont. He was one of a small number of American casualties among the 20,000 who died, most of them Iraqis. He died bravely, fighting for his country, answering his nation’s call. The funeral service was moving. His grandfather, a rabbi, confessed in his grief” “I cannot tell you what God says of this. I cannot hear Him.”
My own thoughts were of how great had been the promise of a life suddenly ended. It has always been thus: in every military conflict, the majority of those who die in uniform are young. The writer Herman Melville noted this almost a hundred and fifty years ago, in the midst of the American Civil War: “Whence should come the trust and cheer?/ Youth must its ignorant impulse lend – /Age finds place in the rear./All wars are boyish, and are fought by boys,/ The champions and enthusiasts of the state.” As speakers at the funeral came forward to share their memories of the young man, it became clear how much still lay ahead of him, how much life seemingly had in store, when his life was tragically cut short.
As I thought of his death, it was but a short mental step to reflecting on the Iraqi lives similarly ended – of young soldiers who like the American I was mourning would now never find wives or watch their children grow, who would never encounter the joys and sorrows of experiencing their own lives unfold. Like those mourning around me, Iraqi cousins and friends were plunged into grief. And like the American parents whom I beheld in their mourning, Iraqi mothers and fathers too faced a loss truly inconsolable, feeling life close around them so tightly that it would never fully open again.
No one has a monopoly on loss and grief. Tragedy multiplies geometrically among friends and relations on both sides. The sorrows of those who mourn the fallen on the victorious side are not greater – nor any less – than the sorrows of those who mourn those fallen in a losing cause. Flag waving, either as fervid preparation for war or as a concluding sign of victory, does not erase in the slightest the terrible void left in the hearts of those whose family or friends perished on the fields of battle.
Yet loss and bereavement are consequences of every war. What, in particular, has marked this recent war ‘‘to liberate Iraq and free the world of a source of weapons of mass destruction’’?
Despite the young man whose funeral I attended, there were few American casualties. Despite great fears that the war would lead to a devastating number of civilian deaths in Iraq, this was not the case.
Since the above statement is so contrary to what many expected, let me repeat it, even at the risk of redundancy. Despite great fears that the war would lead to a devastating number of civilian deaths, this was not the case. Still, there’s no question that every mother, every friend, of the 20,000 who died has been grievously affected by the war, and no one should minimize their grief and loss.
BUT while this war was going on, another war was continuing. The civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo began in 1998 with a Rwandan invasion of that country. In the four-and-a-half years since then, as the International Rescue Committee recently reported, “at least 3.3 million people died in excess of what would normally be expected in this time.” Casualties have been greater than in any conflict since World War II. Nor are the Lendu and the Hema finished with their attempt to wipe each other out. They have displaced half a million people in the small eastern Ituri region alone – a situation fueled, one imagines, not merely by ethnic rivalry, but also because this region is home to the world’s richest goldfield, the Kilo Motu, and is already the locus of significance for oil exploration. (The imperial drive for economic wealth – Iraq has the world’s second-largest oil reserves – cannot be underestimated as a cause of the conflict in the Congo, or in Iraq.)
While the number of casualties in the Congo may dwarf those of the Iraq war, there is almost no outcry. After all, the world’s superpower is not directly involved, nor are the economic giants of the Group of 8. The skin color of the combatants on both sides is very dark, a not insignificant fact when attempting to understand the vagaries of press coverage or, for that matter, international concern. So while IRC finds out in the Congo that “in 3 of the 10 health zones visited in the east, more than half the children were dead before the age of two,” newspapers and TV stations are silent and UN Security Council members find other things to put on their agenda, and world leaders address crises that, curiously enough, never seem to be related to what’s happening in the Congo.
Though strongly opposed to US intervention in Iraq, I am prepared to acknowledge that the war was not the total disaster I had anticipated. Casualties were ‘‘light’’, especially considering that US military forces dropped a staggering tonnage of bombs on Iraqi cities, while a huge array of missiles hit military targets close to, or in the middle of, civilian districts. Reports from Iraq make clear that the predicted accuracy of these weapons turned out to be valid. Modern engineering, sophisticated computers and computerized circuitry, advanced videography and telemetry, all allowed an explosive payload of almost incomprehensible size to be dropped with minimal civilian casualties. War was mechanized to a degree never before seen in human history – and the mechanization worked, at least in military terms. It achieved ‘‘victory’’ by wiping out enemy positions and enemy personnel, while leaving not just civilian populations, but a remarkable amount of urban infrastructure, unharmed and intact.
There are, nonetheless, two dark roads into the future that have been opened by the events of the recent war. The first is that the conflict arose as an extension of modern imperialism: when the velvet glove fails, the iron fist is always a final resort. The war was an imperialist venture: at stake were control of oil Iraq’s reserves, the assigning of contracts to develop those oil fields and pump the oil, the lucrative contracts to reconstruct Iraq’s infrastructure with petro-dollars, and – lastly but certainly important – control of an entire region which provides most of the world’s oil. It was not Bush’s narrow-minded view of the world – that there are the good guys, all allied with and subservient to the USA; and that there are the adherents of evil, who can all be recognized by their opposition to US interests and their tendency to speak languages other than English and worship in buildings other than churches – which motivated the drive to make war on Saddam. It was a desire for economic gain. Imperialism in the post-modern age ends up looking like imperialism has always looked: it is a system which, in the end, rests on armaments and armies – and a willingness to use them.
The second dark road is related to the first. The technology of the war was so advanced that the war was rapid (a country subdued and overwhelmed in three weeks) and victory was achieved with minimal loss of American life. The war was an announcement to the world that those who do not serve American interests risk finding themselves at the mercy of American power. The war served to define that power is sudden, overwhelming, and technologically advanced. The technology was frightening, at least to any nation (or its inhabitants) which might one day be the object of the USA’s immense destructive power.
The mechanization of warfare – from cannons to guns to machine guns to airplanes to missiles to laser-guided weaponry – has proceeded at an increasing rate since the invention of gunpowder. In this war, machines guided by other machines delivered the destructive payloads at targets selected by still other machines. Soldiers served, primarily, to back up the machines; the primary ‘‘combatants’’ on the American side were people sitting in front of video consoles 1,000 or 500 kilometers away from the place where destruction was to be wrought. This was a war fought by technology, a war guided by remote control – with the emphasis on ‘‘remote’’.
US secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld wanted to deliver a message: The USA will no longer shrink from using its military power because it fears getting mired in a war of attrition, as was the case in Vietnam. There will be minimal American casualties in future wars, because there will be minimal American soldiers. The battlefield of the future will be automated – a situation where the USA has the advantage, as it has the most advanced machines.
Rumsfeld may yet be profoundly wrong in foreseeing an American dominance enforced by technological superiority. Iraq was an easy enemy, an unloved and corrupt dictatorship guarded by troops who fought not for independence or survival but for money and perks Still, it is clear that the Bush administration has sent out a terrifying message: Watch out, or you may be next.
The war in the Congo is an ongoing catastrophe, regardless. The nations of the world are meanwhile urged to march to the drumbeat of a new military order, shaped by the remaining superpower and enforced by a technology that threatens mechanized destruction to that superpower’s opponents. We can each say, as Bertolt Brecht wrote in another period when imperial ambitions were on the rise: “Truly, I live in dark times.”
Huck Gutman is a columnist for The Statesman in Kolkata, India and writes regularly for Dawn in Karachi, Pakistan. He teaches at the University of Vermont.