Acting as a vengeful god

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Quotes of the day:

“He’s being hard on himself; he gave up sweets just before the war began.” From the USA Today portrait of President Bush quoted yesterday (and thanks to the reader who pointed this line out to me).

“America is shouldering the burden of freeing Iraq – and killing its vermin.” From an editorial, also pointed out by a reader, in the rabid New York Post headlined “Euro-Weasel Overreach.”

From a Guardian round-up report (US forces ‘in Baghdad’)
on the fighting around Baghdad: “Col David Perkins of the US 3rd Infantry told Sky News more than 1,000 Iraqis had been killed in the raid into Baghdad. ‘There was some very intense fighting, with just about every kind of weapons system you can imagine. Now we basically own the main road going into Baghdad, so we’ve cut Baghdad in half, so to speak. We’ve taken out his defences, all his prepared organic defences are destroyed, we have destroyed probably in excess of 1,000 dismounted infantry.”

From CNN yesterday on fighting around Baghdad’s international airport: “Iraqis had tried to stop the U.S. advance by charging with dump trucks, pickup trucks and buses filled with Iraqi soldiers firing their weapons, according to reports from CNN’s Rodgers. The Army called the soldier-filled vehicles ‘suicide buses.’ U.S. tanks easily destroyed the Iraqi vehicles, he said. At least one of the buses blew up as if it had explosives inside.”)

Finally, from Winston Churchill, at the time an embedded war reporter, covering the battle of Omdurman in the Sudan a little over a century ago:

“while we watched, amazed by the wonder of the sight, the whole face of the slope became black with swarming savages. Four miles from end to end, and as it seemed in five great divisions, the mighty army advanced swiftly [British gunboats on the Nile begin to fire.] The range was short; the effect tremendous. The terrible machine, floating gracefully on the waters – beautiful white devil – wreathed itself in smoke. The river slopes of the Kerrerri Hills, crowded with the advancing thousands, sprang up into clouds of dust and splinters of rock. [The British soldiers] fired steadily and stolidly, without hurry or excitement, for the enemy were far away and the officers careful. The tiny figures seen over the slide of the back-sight seemed a little larger, but also fewer at each successive volley. The rifles grew hot – so hot that they had to be changed for those of the reserve companies Their empty cartridge-cases, tinkling to the ground, formed small but growing heaps beside each man. And all the time out on the plain on the other side bullets were shearing through flesh, smashing and splintering bone; blood spouted from terrible wounds; valiant men were struggling on through a hell of whistling metal, exploding shells, and spurting dust – suffering, despairing, dying.”

Taken from Jonathan Schell’s new book The Unconquerable World (pp. 76-77).

When that dust cleared at Omdurman, 13,000 “valiant” Sudanese and forty-eight Englishmen were dead. We don’t know exactly how many Iraqi troops – the “vermin” mentioned by the Post — will be dead when the dust clears from Iraq, if it ever does, but we already know the story. It’s hundreds of years old. History tells it to us in a boring litany. Omdurman took place in 1898. The European (and American) advantage in weaponry had already been growing for at least two hundred years. In all that time, the “valiant” enemy fell at a rate somewhere close to perhaps a hundred to one. (Beside such technological power went a sense of the inferiority of other, lesser peoples whose virulence made epithets like “vermin” commonplace in all these wars.) Only when war was brought into the heartland of Europe in World Wars I and II did these figures equalize in a series of intra-European carnages still largely beyond comprehension.

To engage in battle against such odds, against such weapons – the gunboats and Maxim guns having morphed into Apache helicopters, B-2 Stealth bombers, JDAM bombs, cluster bombs, and the latest in Abrams tanks, you had to be “fanatic.” Who else would advance down that slope at Omdurman or get into a garbage truck or a lightly armed pick-up truck at the former Saddam International airport and charge tanks? It’s obviously a form of madness. A hundred years-plus after Omdurman, you might think the world had seen enough of this – and its results, which were, after all, a series of bloody, protracted rebellions, revolutions, and people’s wars which finally, with similar lop-sided casualty figures and similar fanaticism freed what came to be known as the Third World of the empires that controlled it but consigned most of the resulting independent countries to immiseration.

There is now, as many of you know, a site for the counting of “collateral damage,” of the civilian dead of the Iraqi war —www.iraqbodycount.net. As Peter Rothberg describes it in his ever-useful Nation magazine on-line weblog, Act Now, the site which “keeps a running tally of civilian deaths in the US war against Iraq is attracting a lot of traffic and attention, and, in the process, is emerging as an authoritative source of information beyond the spin of either the Bush Administration or Saddam Hussein’s propaganda ministers.

“The Iraq Body Count site is attracting 100,000 visitors a day, many of them journalists, who are increasingly citing the site’s reporting in their own accounts. The material is critical given that no government, NGO or other organization is currently chronicling this information. As US General Tommy Franks has said: ‘We don’t do body counts.’

“Launched this past January, IBC is run by 16 researchers, based in the United States and the United Kingdom, who closely analyze reports from a range of both corporate and independent mediaIf a death is cross-referenced in two different sources, independent of each other, they count it.”

Of course, these figures, which stand between 859-1032 today, are only for “civilians” killed and they are both misleadingly precise sounding and far too low because they are based only on doubly corroborated reports, that is, only on deaths recorded by reporters who happened to be on the spot — and they don’t deal with the deaths of Iraqi fighters, whether fanatic or unwilling, irregular or regular, trying to charge or trying to flee.

If you are an American soldier fighting outside of Baghdad, this war may at any moment be a fierce and frightening event. You may die. You may be maimed. An Iraqi bullet or mortar or grenade, if it reaches you, may prove no less deadly than anything in the American arsenal. Nonetheless, looked at coldly and in the context of several hundred years of European and American-style warfare in the Third World, what we are seeing (or often not seeing, especially here in this country) is not really war, but wholesale slaughter.

This war has also proved, as such wars usually do, a useful way to test out most of the latest generations of American weaponry in action – and this is no small matter to many of the men who planned the war and are planning for ones to come. For instance, though Richard Perle has recently been in the news for various ethical “lapses,” a recent report from the Center for Public Integrity on the Defense Policy Board of which he was the head found, “Of the 30 members of the Defense Policy Board, the government-appointed group that advises the Pentagon, at least nine have ties to companies that have won more than $76 billion in defense contracts in 2001 and 2002. Four members are registered lobbyists, one of whom represents two of the three largest defense contractors.” (To read the full report click here)

It’s true that this war has had its surprises and, no matter what happens in the next few days, the war and its aftermath could have many more to come. Under the pressure of 24/7 media attention, the urge to guess, interpret, speculate, predict becomes overwhelming and just about everyone writing about this “war” has guessed wrong and predicted incorrectly, or too quickly, myself included. But what is happening in Iraq has been in a sense perfectly predictable and it is the kind of pre-emptive war the Bush administration is ready to take elsewhere, whether now or in a prospective second term. And here’s the truth of it, war – the immediate events – never prove the end of the matter, as Paul Rogers indicates below in his latest analysis, aptly entitled, “The Thirty Year War.”

Among the predictable results of this war will be the establishment of permanent American bases in Iraq. Hans Greimel in an Associated Press article “Airport Could Be Used as ‘Superbase'”) is already speculating on whether the vast Baghdad airport complex might be the first of these.

“CAMP AS SAYLIYAH, Qatar – For the U.S.-led forces on Baghdad’s doorstep, Saddam International Airport is potentially a massive military base for bringing in weapons and troops and channeling aid to the Iraqi people.American strategists prize the airport’s main runway because it is long enough at 13,000 feet to land the military’s largest transport planes as well as civilian jumbo jets. It also has a second 8,000-foot runway, once used by Iraqi fighter jets, that could help speed the flying in of supplies.

“At the Tallil Airfield farther south, a hastily erected sign at that base’s entrance reads ‘Bush International Airport’ for President Bush.”

I’ve been thinking recently about the nature of the American bombing campaign against Baghdad. For instance, just the other day American planes took out an Olympic stadium that evidently fell under the control of Udday, one of Saddam’s wretched sons, and reportedly had a torture chamber in its basement. However, like all the other monumental Saddamist buildings in downtown Baghdad, it has undoubtedly been unpopulated since the first days of the war. Does it occur to no one that Iraqis might actually like to have an Olympic stadium in the postwar years? But who will ever rebuild it and with what? (On the problems of “reconstruction,” far more to come in the weeks ahead.) There is, it seems to me, an element of pure vengeance to the repeated destruction of all “monuments” the Iraqi regime built to its own vain glory. It’s as if we were indeed immersed in Biblical times in Biblical lands and our government had taken the Old Testament role of an angry, vengeful god for its own.

I also include below a piece by professor of religion Ira Chernus at www.Alternet.org that addresses the nature of counting the dead in America’s wars – though no one should actually wish for the “body count” back. Tom

Bring Back the Body Count
By Ira Chernus
April 3, 2003

“We don’t do body counts,” says America’s soldier-in-chief, Tommy Franks. That’s a damn shame.

During the Vietnam war, the body count was served up every day on the evening news. While Americans ate dinner, they watched a graphic visual scorecard: how many Americans had died that day, how many South Vietnamese and how many Communists. At the time, it seemed the height of dehumanized violence. Compared to Tommy Franks’ new way of war, though, the old way looks very humane indeed.

True, the body count turned human beings into abstract numbers. But it required soldiers to say to the world, “I killed human beings today. This is exactly how many I killed. I am obliged to count each and every one.” It demanded that the killers look at what they had done, think about it (however briefly), and acknowledge their deed. It was a way of taking responsibility.

Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Email him at [email protected].

To read more Chernus click here

A thirty-year war
By Paul Rogers
March 4, 2003

The arrival of the American army at the gates of Baghdad heralds a decisive phase of the Iraq war. However it ends, the US’s current global ambitions guarantee bitter and prolonged conflict in the Middle East and beyond.

The Iraq war is only two weeks old yet the Iraqi civilian death toll is already in the high hundreds, and Iraqi military losses (while harder to estimate) in the several thousands. The duration of this immediate conflict is yet uncertain, but some of its aspects already suggest that it may inaugurate a much longer conflict lasting for decades.

The war itself was initiated by the United States and Britain without UN endorsement and in the face of opposition stretching far beyond the Middle East to encompass public opinion across most of the world. In these circumstances, a very short war was needed, involving the almost complete collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime.

To read more Rogers click here