Iraq: a year of war
The invasion of Iraq would,
we were told, rid the world of mortal danger. One year on, the
only people who feel safer are those who prefer not to think for
by Robert Fisk
The Independent, March 17,
The impact of the cruise missiles can
still be seen in the telecommunications tower across the Tigris.
The Ministry of Defence still lies in ruins. Half the government
ministries in Baghdad are still fire-stained, a necessary reminder
of the cancer of arson that took hold of the people of this city
in the first hours and days of their "liberation".
But the symbols of the war are not the
scars of last year's invasion - we cannot say "last year's
war", because the war continues to this day. No, the real
folly of our invasion can be seen in the fortresses that the occupiers
are building, the ramparts of steel and concrete and armour with
which the Americans have now surrounded themselves. Like Crusaders,
they are building castles amid the people they came to "save",
to protect themselves from those who were supposed to have greeted
them with flowers.
In even the smallest streets of Baghdad,
you can smell the orange blossom, both sweet and bitter, a little
paradise amid the muck and the stench of benzine. But you can
also hear the sound of an alienated population, for whom every
problem, every indignity, every mishap, every tragedy, is the
fault and responsibility of its occupiers. Just as we blame Blair
- and Blair and Bush only - for the war, so Iraqis blame those
who have come to run their country: Americans, British, Westerners,
foreigners. Oh, how different we are. Oh, how different they are.
Never the twain shall meet. But we are not so different.
It was meant to be a Boy's Own war. That's
how our leaders present death and blood and betrayal to us these
days. And, strangely enough, that's how war is presented to the
Arabs, too, by their dictators and kings. When Saddam sent his
legions into Iran in 1980, he dubbed their aggression the "Whirlwind
War" - part two, 11 years later, was to be "The Mother
of All Battles". We had Desert Shield and Desert Storm and,
last year, Operation Free Iraq, and now the Americans - fighting
the resistance they could never have imagined would challenge
their occupation of Iraq - are initiating Operation Iron Anvil,
Operation Iron Hammer and, even this week, in Afghanistan, Operation
Our folk memory of the Second World War
(for most of the British population, like Tony Blair's Cabinet,
have little direct recollection of the 1939-45 conflict) is now
invoked as a trailer to the big picture, a necessary part of a
familiar narrative to war. The man with the moustache - Nasser
or Saddam - is like the little ex-corporal with the moustache
who sent the Luftwaffe over England in 1940. And the men who were
going to defend us against the Beast of Baghdad, the Hitler of
the Tigris (albeit that Saddam was a fan of Stalin) were Churchills,
Roosevelts, titans in battle against evil. Churchill, I fear,
would have had no time for the little men who wish to sit on his
historical throne, with their desperate sincerity, their arrogance,
their constant use of "absolutely" and "completely".
Thus when the path to war in Iraq was
being laid down for us just over a year ago, the old 1939-45 memory
bank was dusted out. Those who did not wish to confront Saddam
were Chamberlains, appeasers, weaklings, potential fifth-columnists.
Those who were ready to de-fang the monster were marching off
to battle like the Desert Rats of * * Alamein. During the 1991
liberation of Kuwait, the British commander, General Sir Peter
de la Billiere, actually wore an original Eighth Army Desert Rat
patch on his shoulder. At Christmas in 1990, as British troops
waited in the Saudi desert to attack the Iraqis, the BBC mixed
entertainment for the troops and their families with newsreel
pictures of British tanks in the Western Desert in 1942.
There were some slips. When Blair told
us we must support George Bush, he reminded us all of how America
had come to our rescue in the Second World War, mercifully neglecting
to mention the profitable period of neutrality the United States
endured until the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
American commentators recalled for their British audiences that
the US had declared war on Hitler. This was untrue. It was Hitler
who declared war on America in 1941.
And if we dared recall that Donald Rumsfeld,
the US Defense Secretary, had been shaking hands with Saddam back
in the early 1980s - when he was at his most genocidal - Churchill
was brought back. I recall one of the US right-wing "commentators"
- in this instance from the Brookings Institution - reminding
me during a BBC interview that "Churchill said you sometimes
have to make a pact with the devil". Not so, I said. Churchill
made no such statement. What he did tell John Colville after the
Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 was that "if Hitler
invaded Hell, I would at least make a favourable reference to
the Devil in the House of Commons". Rumsfeld was making a
lot more than a reference.
In the days before we invaded Iraq a year
ago, the threats also had to have a Cold War as well as a Second
World War flavour. Condoleezza Rice, Bush's specialist on threats
and terror, warned us about a "mushroom cloud" - the
Russian version, presumably, rather than Hiroshima or Nagasaki
- and the word "holocaust" was invoked. Blair's preposterous
"dossier" - and journalists went along with this ridiculous
description of the Prime Minister's ill-written and meretricious
document - suggested obliquely that London could be attacked;
take a look at the Express newspapers' report to this effect,
which our most senior intelligence man saw nothing wrong with
when he was questioned at the Hutton inquiry. Here again were
the old nightmares - Blitz on London.
And our European friends and allies? Should
they dare to oppose our rush to war, they were gutless, cowardly
and ungrateful to the Americans for liberating them from under
the heel of Nazi Germany. "Old Europe", to use Rumsfeld's
disgraceful expression, was collaborationist, potentially Nazi
or - in France's case, of course - Peacute;tainist. Poor old France.
When The Wall Street Journal sent its correspondent back to the
1944 D-Day beaches, it was gratifying to find that the still grateful
French who live there remembered that the Americans had given
their lives for their liberation, not for their future political
obedience. Germany was a more difficult nation to condemn because
the Second World War parallels couldn't be applied. The Germans,
after all, could hardly be abused for not being warlike enough.
It's chilling to reflect, however, that when I was talking to
Osama bin Laden about attacks on Americans in 1997, he compared
those bombings to the French resistance against Nazi occupation
during the Second World War. The conflict of 1939-45 is a mountain
at which we can all quarry away.
All of this, however, was a narrative
that could be - and was - combined with war for the bloke on the
street. This began, I suspect, before and during the Kosovo war,
when Hitler was dug up again (rather inappropriately, in view
of Yugoslavia's wartime courage against the Nazis) to further
blacken the name of the Beast of Belgrade. This was the first
post-war war - if you take my meaning - in which the Germans were
involved. Thus reporters at Nato headquarters were encouraged
to call the Luftwaffe the "German Air Force". Slobodan
Milosevic himself, of course, had provided the images to go with
the Holocaust memories: the long lines of dispossessed and brutalised
Kosovo Albanians streaming into Macedonia.
But Nato set the stage. We had the slightly
comical, cockney spokesman Jamie Shea, always ready with a good
Hobbesian quotation and a quick way of dismissing questions that
might prove troublesome. When a Nato plane bombed a train on the
Gurdulice bridge in Serbia, up he popped with a camera-video of
the bomb - too late to abort because of the speed with which the
train approached the bridge - without mentioning that the film
had been speeded up and, much more damagingly, that after the
train stopped, the pilot went on to bomb the bridge again.
When Nato bombed a narrow road-bridge and killed a party of civilian
rescuers in a second raid, Shea blandly pointed out that the bridge
could carry a tank. It couldn't; it wasn't wide enough. When Nato
killed patients at a hospital, Shea described it as a military
target. Post-war enquiries by The Independent proved that Yugoslav
troops had been hiding in the hospital basement. Nato must have
known this, just as it knew about the patients. So it bombed the
hospital anyway. And got away with it.
The missile that killed hundreds of Iraqis in an air-raid shelter
in Baghdad in 1991 become a turning point in the war. The old
canard about Iraqi anti-aircraft missiles exploding among Iraqis
collapsed when Brent Sadler of CNN - the network briefly doing
its job of telling us the truth - produced part of a cruise missile
that had exploded in a Baghdad hotel.
Nato tried the same game when it bombed
a Kosovo Albanian refugee convoy in 1999, suggesting that Yugoslav
planes had attacked the civilians. On that occasion, it was The
Independent that found the computer codings on the shrapnel, which
proved the bombs were Nato's. But by and large, Nato's bloke-in-the-street
approach worked. Milosevic was such an ugly character that we
could forget his prominent role in the 1995 Dayton accord - when
he was fecirc;ted by Richard Holbrooke, the US chief negotiator,
who wanted to get US troops into Bosnia without a battle, and
when the Kosovo Albanians were witheringly told to shut up - and
we could, too, ignore the fine print of the 1999 Rambouillet peace
talks over Kosovo. An annexe to the proposed agreement stated
that the Serbs had to allow Nato access to all of Serbia's roads
and railways, radio stations, territory and frontiers - something
no sovereign nation would ever accept. Thus was the path to war
In the months leading up to last year's
invasion of Iraq, I suspect that this was remembered all too well
in Whitehall. The Blair "dossier" was worthy of Jamie
Shea, its catalogue of human-rights abuses - albeit in some cases
the re-heating of dubious material already 11 years old - contained
lies by omission. It recalled the Shia Muslim rioting in Basra
in 1991 and Saddam's subsequent repression without once mentioning
that it was we, Britain and America, who had urged these poor
people to rebel and then betrayed them by leaving them to Saddam's
mercy. Which is not that different to General Wesley Clark's 1999
declaration that Nato was bombing Serbia to put Kosovo Albanian
refugees back in their homes - even though most of them had been
in their homes when Nato began bombing.
I also suspect that one of the principal
reasons why so many tens of thousands of Britons - and Europeans
- marched against the war was not only because they believed the
war was unjust and based on lies, but because they sensed that
they were being talked down to, treated as children, treated with
disrespect by Blair and his supporters. Britain's Minister for
Europe, Denis MacShane, gave the game away in Brussels just before
the invasion of Iraq when he told British critics that it was
sometimes a prime minister's job to "guide" his people.
Europeans did not need to be reminded that the German for "guide"
And I rather think that this is what Blair now believes he is
- a "guide" who leads his people because of his own
moral clarity. It was the Irish prime minister, Eamon de Valera,
who once said that when he wanted to know what the * * people
of Ireland thought, he had only to look into his own heart. Alas,
this is what Blair thought when he went to war. Our feelings,
our views, our beliefs, our long-held convictions and our arguments
didn't count. Because he knew best. If we could only see the intelligence
material on Iraq that passed across his desk, Blair told the House
of Commons, we would not be questioning him about the war. Of
course, now that we know exactly what was passing across Blair's
desk, we know we were right to be suspicious.
And yet - the "and yet" is an
important part of every Middle East story - there is an eerie,
disturbing parallel, almost a mirror image of our own childlike
walk to war, among the very people we invaded. Historically, we
have provided most of the Middle East's dictators, funded them,
armed them, supported them or (if they nationalised the Suez Canal,
attacked Americans in Berlin or invaded Kuwait) bombed them. What
we have never been able to explain is their tenacity; or, more
to the point, their subject people's ability to lie docile under
their heels. We used to ask: why don't the Iraqis get rid of Saddam?
And we forgot how few Germans dared risk the ferocity of Hitler's
But we also have to face a fact: that
Arab societies seem to be uniquely capable of absorbing these
dictatorships, of playing along with the 99.9 per cent presidential
election victories, and the secret policemen and the torture chambers,
and the lies and distortions - able even (here is the difficult
part) to give real loyalty to the monsters we decided should rule
The French have a very good word for this:
infantilisme. Many Arab populations have indeed been "infantilised"
by their leaders and regimes. In private, they may cast their
eyes to the ceiling to show their abhorrence of the regime, but
in front of an audience their enthusiasm might almost be real.
And I suspect that it often is real. I recall a very intelligent
Syrian lady who, in private, would always criticise the late president
Hafez Assad. Could I believe how stupid the regime is, how little
Assad understands the world or, indeed, Syria? Did I realise how
the Syrian people would be happy when his regime ended? Yet when
I met her the day after Assad's death, this same woman turned
to me with tears in her eyes. "Robert, you cannot understand
how we feel," she cried. "He was a father to us, a real
And I think she meant it. Because dictatorship
does not just bestow brutality and fear upon a society. It takes
from the necks of grown people the yoke of blame, the burden of
responsibility. They can forget Western adult cares - where to
send the children to school, which political party to vote for,
how to find the best tax adviser, how to resolve women's rights,
equality, crime, social injustice. Under the dictatorship, the
people are returned to their childhood. They can live for ever
as children, forever young, nursed and loved by the Great Father,
the Caliph, the Sultan, he whom God has chosen to protect them
and guide them, a guide who has only to look into his own heart
to know what his people think.
Eternal youth is what they are offered
in return for their loyalty. True, the price of infidelity is
too terrible to contemplate - certainly too terrible to endure
physically - but these are difficult times. The Great Father has
to enact emergency laws for us. They are in our interest. And
who are we to reject this benevolence when foreigners - Americans
like Rumsfeld, for example - turn up to shake our leader by the
hand and to extend to us the good relations of the West?
I rather think that this explains the
patriarchal society that exists in the Arab world. The father
who has no role in his society - unless he is a party apparatchik,
in which case a new set of childlike rules comes into play - can
only rule at home, a place in which his word, his law, his wishes
are sacrosanct. Unable to play a role in real society, he mimics
this role inside his own home.
He becomes the dictator whose portrait
hangs in every home, indeed (for this was the case in Iraq) often
in every bedroom. He decides what his children should do, whom
they should marry, what his wife should think. A visit from a
secret policeman - always supposing the father is not a policeman
himself - is an event of fear and potential humiliation. All the
more important, then, for the father to appease the policeman,
to be his friend and then to reassert his own power in the house.
In earlier days, Saddam would turn up
unexpectedly at the home of a poor family in Baghdad or Tikrit
to hear what the people were thinking. He wanted to know their
fears and concerns and complaints as well as what made them happy.
Up to a point, he was told: the sewers that flooded, the houses
that were badly built, the hospitals that did not immediately
accept patients. And it was in Saddam's interest to listen and
hear what his people might be thinking before he stored it in
his own heart. It was Saddam's version of Tony Blair's Big Conversation.
The Iraqi television cameras would be there, the secret policemen
playing the role of spinmeisters just in case things got out of
Arabs may think that all this is unfair.
A combination of historical tragedy and cultural chance - the
Islamic faith, the Caliphate, the political and military encroachment
of the West at the very time when the Muslim world might have
shared a renaissance with Europe - can account for present-day
dictatorships in the Middle East, along with our own ruthless
colonisation. Didn't Germans behave in much the same way under
Hitler, Italians under Mussolini, the Spanish under Franco?
But it remains true that Iraqi society
was "infantilised" by Saddam. How else can we account
for its dogged loyalty during the appalling eight-year war with
Iran, when Muslim Shia fought Muslim Shia with human-wave attacks
and poison gas? They were people who had no responsibility, who
were told what to say and read and think, and who were - perhaps,
in some dangerous way - the happier for it.
When Iraqis tell me today that "things were better under
Saddam", they want to suggest that they had law and order
and dictatorship rather than freedom and anarchy (the twin blessings
Bush and Blair have brought them). But I also darkly fear that
they look back to an age when they had no responsibility, when
they could cast aside their cares and their powers of enquiry,
when certainties were cast in iron, when love was unquestioning,
Yet this is what I suspect we now share:
the Iraqis who lived through Saddam's rule, and we who now go
to war so blithely, who now occupy the lands of other people with
such sublime certainty. We feel a need - or at least our leaders
feel the need - to have a childlike society, where dissent is
derided or ignored, where wisdom and integrity and truth are the
sole characteristics of those who lead us and those who give their
support to those leaders.
No, Blairite Britain and Bush's America
are not Saddam's Iraq. But societies require what Coleridge called
the "willing suspension of disbelief". We must trust.
We must agree. We must accept. We must go along with what our
leaders want, we must - an unhappy phrase from the Hitler period
- "help to give the wheel a shove".
This is the legacy of the Iraq war, which is now a year old and
shows no sign of ending. We are all children now.