The Tigris and Euphrates
by Arundhati Roy
On the steel torsos of their missiles,
adolescent American soldiers scrawl colourful messages in childish
handwriting: For Saddam, from the Fat Boy Posse. A building goes
down. A marketplace. A home. A girl who loves a boy. A child who
only ever wanted to play with his older brother's marbles.
On March 21, the day after American and
British troops began their illegal invasion and occupation of
Iraq, an "embedded" CNN correspondent interviewed an
American soldier. "I wanna get in there and get my nose dirty,"
Private AJ said. "I wanna take revenge for 9/11."
To be fair to the correspondent, even
though he was "embedded" he did sort of weakly suggest
that so far there was no real evidence that linked the Iraqi government
to the September 11 attacks. Private AJ stuck his teenage tongue
out all the way down to the end of his chin. "Yeah, well
that stuff's way over my head," he said.
According to a New York Times/CBS News
survey, 42 per cent of the American public believes that Saddam
Hussein is directly responsible for the September 11 attacks on
the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. And an ABC news poll
says that 55 per cent of Americans believe that Saddam Hussein
directly supports al-Qaida. What percentage of America's armed
forces believe these fabrications is anybody's guess.
It is unlikely that British and American
troops fighting in Iraq are aware that their governments supported
Saddam Hussein both politically and financially through his worst
But why should poor AJ and his fellow
soldiers be burdened with these details? It does not matter any
more, does it? Hundreds of thousands of men, tanks, ships, choppers,
bombs, ammunition, gas masks, high-protein food, whole aircrafts
ferrying toilet paper, insect repellent, vitamins and bottled
mineral water, are on the move. The phenomenal logistics of Operation
Iraqi Freedom make it a universe unto itself. It doesn't need
to justify its existence any more. It exists. It is.
President George W Bush, commander in
chief of the US army, navy, airforce and marines has issued clear
instructions: "Iraq. Will. Be. Liberated." (Perhaps
he means that even if Iraqi people's bodies are killed, their
souls will be liberated.) American and British citizens owe it
to the supreme commander to forsake thought and rally behind their
troops. Their countries are at war. And what a war it is.
After using the "good offices"
of UN diplomacy (economic sanctions and weapons inspections) to
ensure that Iraq was brought to its knees, its people starved,
half a million of its children killed, its infrastructure severely
damaged, after making sure that most of its weapons have been
destroyed, in an act of cowardice that must surely be unrivalled
in history, the "Allies"/"Coalition of the Willing"(better
known as the Coalition of the Bullied and Bought) - sent in an
Operation Iraqi Freedom? I don't think
so. It's more like Operation Let's Run a Race, but First Let Me
Break Your Knees.
So far the Iraqi army, with its hungry,
ill-equipped soldiers, its old guns and ageing tanks, has somehow
managed to temporarily confound and occasionally even outmanoeuvre
the "Allies". Faced with the richest, best-equipped,
most powerful armed forces the world has ever seen, Iraq has shown
spectacular courage and has even managed to put up what actually
amounts to a defence. A defence which the Bush/Blair Pair have
immediately denounced as deceitful and cowardly. (But then deceit
is an old tradition with us natives. When we are invaded/ colonised/occupied
and stripped of all dignity, we turn to guile and opportunism.)
Even allowing for the fact that Iraq and
the "Allies" are at war, the extent to which the "Allies"
and their media cohorts are prepared to go is astounding to the
point of being counterproductive to their own objectives.
When Saddam Hussein appeared on national
TV to address the Iraqi people after the failure of the most elaborate
assassination attempt in history - "Operation Decapitation"
- we had Geoff Hoon, the British defence secretary, deriding him
for not having the courage to stand up and be killed, calling
him a coward who hides in trenches. We then had a flurry of Coalition
speculation - Was it really Saddam, was it his double? Or was
it Osama with a shave? Was it pre-recorded? Was it a speech? Was
it black magic? Will it turn into a pumpkin if we really, really
want it to?
After dropping not hundreds, but thousands
of bombs on Baghdad, when a marketplace was mistakenly blown up
and civilians killed - a US army spokesman implied that the Iraqis
were blowing themselves up! "They're using very old stock.
Their missiles go up and come down."
If so, may we ask how this squares with
the accusation that the Iraqi regime is a paid-up member of the
Axis of Evil and a threat to world peace?
When the Arab TV station al-Jazeera shows
civilian casualties it's denounced as "emotive" Arab
propaganda aimed at orchestrating hostility towards the "Allies",
as though Iraqis are dying only in order to make the "Allies"
look bad. Even French television has come in for some stick for
similar reasons. But the awed, breathless footage of aircraft
carriers, stealth bombers and cruise missiles arcing across the
desert sky on American and British TV is described as the "terrible
beauty" of war.
When invading American soldiers (from
the army "that's only here to help") are taken prisoner
and shown on Iraqi TV, George Bush says it violates the Geneva
convention and "exposes the evil at the heart of the regime".
But it is entirely acceptable for US television stations to show
the hundreds of prisoners being held by the US government in Guantanamo
Bay, kneeling on the ground with their hands tied behind their
backs, blinded with opaque goggles and with earphones clamped
on their ears, to ensure complete visual and aural deprivation.
When questioned about the treatment of these prisoners, US Government
officials don't deny that they're being being ill-treated. They
deny that they're "prisoners of war"! They call them
"unlawful combatants", implying that their ill-treatment
is legitimate! (So what's the party line on the massacre of prisoners
in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan? Forgive and forget? And what of
the prisoner tortured to death by the special forces at the Bagram
airforce base? Doctors have formally called it homicide.)
When the "Allies" bombed the
Iraqi television station (also, incidentally, a contravention
of the Geneva convention), there was vulgar jubilation in the
American media. In fact Fox TV had been lobbying for the attack
for a while. It was seen as a righteous blow against Arab propaganda.
But mainstream American and British TV continue to advertise themselves
as "balanced" when their propaganda has achieved hallucinatory
Why should propaganda be the exclusive
preserve of the western media? Just because they do it better?
Western journalists "embedded" with troops are given
the status of heroes reporting from the frontlines of war. Non-"embedded"
journalists (such as the BBC's Rageh Omaar, reporting from besieged
and bombed Baghdad, witnessing, and clearly affected by the sight
of bodies of burned children and wounded people) are undermined
even before they begin their reportage: "We have to tell
you that he is being monitored by the Iraqi authorities."
Increasingly, on British and American
TV, Iraqi soldiers are being referred to as "militia"
(ie: rabble). One BBC correspondent portentously referred to them
as "quasi-terrorists". Iraqi defence is "resistance"
or worse still, "pockets of resistance", Iraqi military
strategy is deceit. (The US government bugging the phone lines
of UN security council delegates, reported by the Observer, is
hard-headed pragmatism.) Clearly for the "Allies", the
only morally acceptable strategy the Iraqi army can pursue is
to march out into the desert and be bombed by B-52s or be mowed
down by machine-gun fire. Anything short of that is cheating.
And now we have the siege of Basra. About
a million and a half people, 40 per cent of them children. Without
clean water, and with very little food. We're still waiting for
the legendary Shia "uprising", for the happy hordes
to stream out of the city and rain roses and hosannahs on the
"liberating" army. Where are the hordes? Don't they
know that television productions work to tight schedules? (It
may well be that if Saddam's regime falls there will be dancing
on the streets of Basra. But then, if the Bush regime were to
fall, there would be dancing on the streets the world over.)
After days of enforcing hunger and thirst
on the citizens of Basra, the "Allies" have brought
in a few trucks of food and water and positioned them tantalisingly
on the outskirts of the city. Desperate people flock to the trucks
and fight each other for food. (The water we hear, is being sold.
To revitalise the dying economy, you understand.) On top of the
trucks, desperate photographers fought each other to get pictures
of desperate people fighting each other for food. Those pictures
will go out through photo agencies to newspapers and glossy magazines
that pay extremely well. Their message: The messiahs are at hand,
distributing fishes and loaves.
As of July last year the delivery of $5.4bn
worth of supplies to Iraq was blocked by the Bush/Blair Pair.
It didn't really make the news. But now under the loving caress
of live TV, 450 tonnes of humanitarian aid - a minuscule fraction
of what's actually needed (call it a script prop) - arrived on
a British ship, the "Sir Galahad". Its arrival in the
port of Umm Qasr merited a whole day of live TV broadcasts. Barf
Nick Guttmann, head of emergencies for
Christian Aid, writing for the Independent on Sunday said that
it would take 32 Sir Galahad's a day to match the amount of food
Iraq was receiving before the bombing began.
We oughtn't to be surprised though. It's
old tactics. They've been at it for years. Consider this moderate
proposal by John McNaughton from the Pentagon Papers, published
during the Vietnam war: "Strikes at population targets (per
se) are likely not only to create a counterproductive wave of
revulsion abroad and at home, but greatly to increase the risk
of enlarging the war with China or the Soviet Union. Destruction
of locks and dams, however - if handled right - might ... offer
promise. It should be studied. Such destruction does not kill
or drown people. By shallow-flooding the rice, it leads after
time to widespread starvation (more than a million?) unless food
is provided - which we could offer to do 'at the conference table'."
Times haven't changed very much. The technique
has evolved into a doctrine. It's called "Winning Hearts
So, here's the moral maths as it stands:
200,000 Iraqis estimated to have been killed in the first Gulf
war. Hundreds of thousands dead because of the economic sanctions.
(At least that lot has been saved from Saddam Hussein.) More being
killed every day. Tens of thousands of US soldiers who fought
the 1991 war officially declared "disabled" by a disease
called the Gulf war syndrome, believed in part to be caused by
exposure to depleted uranium. It hasn't stopped the "Allies"
from continuing to use depleted uranium.
And now this talk of bringing the UN back
into the picture. But that old UN girl - it turns out that she
just ain't what she was cracked up to be. She's been demoted (although
she retains her high salary). Now she's the world's janitor. She's
the Philippino cleaning lady, the Indian jamadarni, the postal
bride from Thailand, the Mexican household help, the Jamaican
au pair. She's employed to clean other peoples' shit. She's used
and abused at will.
Despite Blair's earnest submissions, and
all his fawning, Bush has made it clear that the UN will play
no independent part in the administration of postwar Iraq. The
US will decide who gets those juicy "reconstruction"
contracts. But Bush has appealed to the international community
not to "politicise" the issue of humanitarian aid. On
the March 28, after Bush called for the immediate resumption of
the UN's oil for food programme, the UN security council voted
unanimously for the resolution. This means that everybody agrees
that Iraqi money (from the sale of Iraqi oil) should be used to
feed Iraqi people who are starving because of US led sanctions
and the illegal US-led war.
Contracts for the "reconstruction"
of Iraq we're told, in discussions on the business news, could
jump-start the world economy. It's funny how the interests of
American corporations are so often, so successfully and so deliberately
confused with the interests of the world economy. While the American
people will end up paying for the war, oil companies, weapons
manufacturers, arms dealers, and corporations involved in "reconstruction"
work will make direct gains from the war. Many of them are old
friends and former employers of the Bush/ Cheney/Rumsfeld/Rice
cabal. Bush has already asked Congress for $75bn. Contracts for
"re-construction" are already being negotiated. The
news doesn't hit the stands because much of the US corporate media
is owned and managed by the same interests.
Operation Iraqi Freedom, Tony Blair assures
us is about returning Iraqi oil to the Iraqi people. That is,
returning Iraqi oil to the Iraqi people via corporate multinationals.
Like Shell, like Chevron, like Halliburton. Or are we missing
the plot here? Perhaps Halliburton is actually an Iraqi company?
Perhaps US vice-president Dick Cheney (who is a former director
of Halliburton) is a closet Iraqi?
As the rift between Europe and America
deepens, there are signs that the world could be entering a new
era of economic boycotts. CNN reported that Americans are emptying
French wine into gutters, chanting, "We don't want your stinking
wine." We've heard about the re-baptism of French fries.
Freedom fries they're called now. There's news trickling in about
Americans boycotting German goods. The thing is that if the fallout
of the war takes this turn, it is the US who will suffer the most.
Its homeland may be defended by border patrols and nuclear weapons,
but its economy is strung out across the globe. Its economic outposts
are exposed and vulnerable to attack in every direction. Already
the internet is buzzing with elaborate lists of American and British
government products and companies that should be boycotted. Apart
from the usual targets, Coke, Pepsi and McDonald's - government
agencies such as USAID, the British department for international
development, British and American banks, Arthur Anderson, Merrill
Lynch, American Express, corporations such as Bechtel, General
Electric, and companies such as Reebok, Nike and Gap - could find
themselves under siege. These lists are being honed and re fined
by activists across the world. They could become a practical guide
that directs and channels the amorphous, but growing fury in the
world. Suddenly, the "inevitability" of the project
of corporate globalisation is beginning to seem more than a little
It's become clear that the war against
terror is not really about terror, and the war on Iraq not only
about oil. It's about a superpower's self-destructive impulse
towards supremacy, stranglehold, global hegemony. The argument
is being made that the people of Argentina and Iraq have both
been decimated by the same process. Only the weapons used against
them differ: In one case it's an IMF chequebook. In the other,
Finally, there's the matter of Saddam's
arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. (Oops, nearly forgot about
In the fog of war - one thing's for sure
- if Saddam 's regime indeed has weapons of mass destruction,
it is showing an astonishing degree of responsibility and restraint
in the teeth of extreme provocation. Under similar circumstances,
(say if Iraqi troops were bombing New York and laying siege to
Washington DC) could we expect the same of the Bush regime? Would
it keep its thousands of nuclear warheads in their wrapping paper?
What about its chemical and biological weapons? Its stocks of
anthrax, smallpox and nerve gas? Would it?
Excuse me while I laugh.
In the fog of war we're forced to speculate:
Either Saddam is an extremely responsible tyrant. Or - he simply
does not possess weapons of mass destruction. Either way, regardless
of what happens next, Iraq comes out of the argument smelling
sweeter than the US government.
So here's Iraq - rogue state, grave threat
to world peace, paid-up member of the Axis of Evil. Here's Iraq,
invaded, bombed, besieged, bullied, its sovereignty shat upon,
its children killed by cancers, its people blown up on the streets.
And here's all of us watching. CNN-BBC, BBC-CNN late into the
night. Here's all of us, enduring the horror of the war, enduring
the horror of the propaganda and enduring the slaughter of language
as we know and understand it. Freedom now means mass murder (or,
in the US, fried potatoes). When someone says "humanitarian
aid" we automatically go looking for induced starvation.
"Embedded" I have to admit, is a great find. It's what
it sounds like. And what about "arsenal of tactics?"
In most parts of the world, the invasion
of Iraq is being seen as a racist war. The real danger of a racist
war unleashed by racist regimes is that it engenders racism in
everybody - perpetrators, victims, spectators. It sets the parameters
for the debate, it lays out a grid for a particular way of thinking.
There is a tidal wave of hatred for the US rising from the ancient
heart of the world. In Africa, Latin America, Asia, Europe, Australia.
I encounter it every day. Sometimes it comes from the most unlikely
sources. Bankers, businessmen, yuppie students, and they bring
to it all the crassness of their conservative, illiberal politics.
That absurd inability to separate governments from people: America
is a nation of morons, a nation of murderers, they say, (with
the same carelessness with which they say, "All Muslims are
terrorists"). Even in the grotesque universe of racist insult,
the British make their entry as add-ons. Arse-lickers, they're
Suddenly, I, who have been vilified for
being "anti-American" and "anti-west", find
myself in the extraordinary position of defending the people of
America. And Britain.
Those who descend so easily into the pit
of racist abuse would do well to remember the hundreds of thousands
of American and British citizens who protested against their country's
stockpile of nuclear weapons. And the thousands of American war
resisters who forced their government to withdraw from Vietnam.
They should know that the most scholarly, scathing, hilarious
critiques of the US government and the "American way of life"
comes from American citizens. And that the funniest, most bitter
condemnation of their prime minister comes from the British media.
Finally they should remember that right now, hundreds of thousands
of British and American citizens are on the streets protesting
the war. The Coalition of the Bullied and Bought consists of governments,
not people. More than one third of America's citizens have survived
the relentless propaganda they've been subjected to, and many
thousands are actively fighting their own government. In the ultra-patriotic
climate that prevails in the US, that's as brave as any Iraqi
fighting for his or her homeland.
While the "Allies" wait in the
desert for an uprising of Shia Muslims on the streets of Basra,
the real uprising is taking place in hundreds of cities across
the world. It has been the most spectacular display of public
morality ever seen.
Most courageous of all, are the hundreds
of thousands of American people on the streets of America's great
cities - Washington, New York, Chicago, San Francisco. The fact
is that the only institution in the world today that is more powerful
than the American government, is American civil society. American
citizens have a huge responsibility riding on their shoulders.
How can we not salute and support those who not only acknowledge
but act upon that responsibility? They are our allies, our friends.
At the end of it all, it remains to be
said that dictators like Saddam Hussein, and all the other despots
in the Middle East, in the central Asian republics, in Africa
and Latin America, many of them installed, supported and financed
by the US government, are a menace to their own people. Other
than strengthening the hand of civil society (instead of weakening
it as has been done in the case of Iraq), there is no easy, pristine
way of dealing with them. (It's odd how those who dismiss the
peace movement as utopian, don't hesitate to proffer the most
absurdly dreamy reasons for going to war: to stamp out terrorism,
install democracy, eliminate fascism, and most entertainingly,
to "rid the world of evil-doers".)
Regardless of what the propaganda machine
tells us, these tin-pot dictators are not the greatest threat
to the world. The real and pressing danger, the greatest threat
of all is the locomotive force that drives the political and economic
engine of the US government, currently piloted by George Bush.
Bush-bashing is fun, because he makes such an easy, sumptuous
target. It's true that he is a dangerous, almost suicidal pilot,
but the machine he handles is far more dangerous than the man
Despite the pall of gloom that hangs over
us today, I'd like to file a cautious plea for hope: in times
of war, one wants one's weakest enemy at the helm of his forces.
And President George W Bush is certainly that. Any other even
averagely intelligent US president would have probably done the
very same things, but would have managed to smoke-up the glass
and confuse the opposition. Perhaps even carry the UN with him.
Bush's tactless imprudence and his brazen belief that he can run
the world with his riot squad, has done the opposite. He has achieved
what writers, activists and scholars have striven to achieve for
decades. He has exposed the ducts. He has placed on full public
view the working parts, the nuts and bolts of the apocalyptic
apparatus of the American empire.
Now that the blueprint (The Ordinary Person's
Guide to Empire) has been put into mass circulation, it could
be disabled quicker than the pundits predicted.
Bring on the spanners.
"If you tell a lie big enough and
keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it."
"The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State
can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military
consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for
the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the
truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the
truth is the greatest enemy of the State."
- Joseph Goebbels, German Minister of
"The people can always be brought
to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to
do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers
for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It
works the same in any country." -- Hermann Goering
"Liberty can not be preserved without
general knowledge among people." (August 1765) John Adams
When the rich make war, its the poor that
die. Jean Paul Sartre