Michael Schwartz on America’s Fallujan dystopia

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A week after the assault on Falluja began in early November, our military announced that the city had been secured — at the cost of a thousand or more dead Iraqis and 51 American soldiers. Articles about the “reconstruction” of Falluja soon began appearing in our papers and tales of fighting fell away. You had to turn to the inside pages and read deep into articles to discover by early December that, somehow, in secured Falluja, the fighting hadn’t ended and another 20 Americans had died. Then all discussion of American casualties in Falluja itself disappeared, while greater numbers of casualties were suddenly reported more generally in al Anbar province (where Falluja is located), including 8 Marines killed on Sunday. On that day as well, missile-armed jets were once again called in to “pound” neighborhoods where insurgent holdouts were still clearly fighting tenaciously. “Although the Marines did not specify where or how their men died in al-Anbar, citing operational security,” writes Knight Ridder’s Tom Lasseter, “a top officer there confirmed that efforts to pick through every house in Fallujah are plagued by ambushes and gun battles [Lt. Col. Dan Wilson, deputy of operations for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in Fallujah] emphasized that the number of attacks last week was 58 percent lower than during the assault on Fallujah, Nov. 4-11. ‘We have the insurgents on the run,’ he said.”

In the meantime, as Michael Schwartz recounts below, reports began to ooze out about an American plan to “reconstruct” Falluja by turning it into some kind of Orwellian (or do I mean Kafka-esque) mini-statelet of control. As some of the Iraqi resistance clearly wanted to Talibanize Falluja (and other cities in the Sunni heartland), so now it seems Americans want to create their own fantasy city along more familiarly Western and technological but no less draconian lines. Our President has long said that Iraq is the “central theater in the war on terrorism”; in this spirit, the wanton destruction associated with the jet, the Apache helicopter, and the Hellfire-missile armed Predator drone has been pitted competitively against the wanton destruction associated with the suicide car bomber and the IED in Iraq’s heavily populated cities. Each of these weapons can be “targeted” — against “terrorist safe havens” in one case, against occupation forces and their “collaborators” in another. But each is defined by the “collateral damage” — dead civilians, the young and the old, noncombatants of every sort — which in any city has to be part and parcel of their mission.

Now we see evidence that the extreme fantasies of the most extreme elements on both sides of this struggle have similarly been loosed to compete in the Iraqi rubble. It’s a competition that offers subtle, almost farcical reminders of past Cold War competitions. Dystopian fantasies of a better (that is, more controlled) world, on both sides, are just that — fantasies (though the results of trying to impose such fantasy constructs on a real-life population are bound to be devastating).

From the beginning, the American invasion and “liberation” of Iraq has been little but a set of fantasies concocted by dreamy imperialists inside Washington’s Beltway, aided and abetted by exiled Iraqi tale-spinners who knew a group of suckers when they spotted one. Not surprisingly, then, almost any American postwar “plan” has proven to be no less fantastical. While touting Iraqi reconstruction, for instance, the Bush administration’s representatives in Iraq have been largely incapable of reconstructing anything in areas in which the insurgency has strength (and little where it doesn’t). So, don’t expect the “reconstruction” of Falluja to be much more than a pottage of unrealizable fantasies either. But fantasies, especially dystopian ones, especially ones that are seriously meant to be imposed on a real-world population, can tell us a great deal about those who dream them up, most of it painful. The rest of our particular Fallujan fantasy I leave it to Michael Schwartz to analyze below. Let me instead turn briefly to American realities in Iraq.

While we chalk up our destructive “victories” in places like Falluja, it turns out that, as befits those fighting what is essentially a brutal guerrilla war against an occupying army, the rebels have been achieving victories of their own. We are trying to take back Sunni cities. They are trying, with significant success, to choke off major supply lines by constantly attacking vulnerable supply convoys. Almost two weeks ago, the 20 kilometer road from Baghdad International Airport to the capital’s Green Zone was declared off limits first to British and then to American personnel who must now make it to town via helicopter. As Paul Rogers, geopolitical analyst for the openDemocracy website, commented recently, “Thus, the highway that connects possibly the two most significant American locations in Iraq is now considered too precarious for US forces to use.”

This week the Air Force announced that it was “sharply expanding its airlifts of equipment and supplies to bases inside Iraq to reduce the amount of military cargo normally hauled in ground convoys vulnerable to roadside bombings.” This includes cargo going not just to major military bases, but to smaller and more remote ones as well. This is, of course, a far more expensive way to resupply than by truck (as anyone will realize who remembers, at an extreme, the Berlin Airlift of 1948) and so it represents a secret testimonial to the effectiveness of the Iraqi resistance — as were the recent tour-of-duty extensions for American troops slated to leave Iraq that effectively upped our troop levels there close to 150,000.

In the meantime, let me just lay out some of the grim American figures for this war, the ones that (buried though they might often be) don’t cede ground to anyone’s fantasies. Last month, 136 Americans died while the battle for Falluja raged, the highest U.S. monthly death toll of the war. This month, with American combat deaths since the invasion passing 1,000, a marker little noted here, another 39 Americans have already died at December’s not-quite-halfway point.

Overall 1,297 Americans have died so far in Iraq, a figure not in dispute. But it is also a deceptive figure because so many more soldiers, thanks to improved medical care and better body armor, are surviving their wounds — a number, according to a recent report in the New England Journal of Medicine, 17% higher than in Vietnam (and representing the greatest disparity between wounded and killed of any American war). This in turn means that many soldiers with wounds that would previously have killed them are coming home to exceedingly difficult lives. According to Raja Mishra of the Boston Globe, “US troops injured in Iraq have required limb amputations at twice the rate of past wars.” The Pentagon has announced 9,844 wounded in Iraq, though it is calculating this in a highly restrictive way. The real figure, as the reliable website estimates it, is in the range of 15,000-20,000. According to Atul Gawande, the author of the report cited above, “At least as many US soldiers have been injured in combat in this war as in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, or the first five years of the Vietnam conflict, from 1961 through 1965.” (In addition, back at home, in a predictable pattern, the first vets from Iraq and Afghanistan are showing up at homeless shelters.)

That is one grim part of the picture of our overstretched military. In all, according to recent Pentagon data, one million Americans have been deployed to either the Iraqi or Afghan wars, one out of every three of them more than once — a clear indication of the increasing strain the military is experiencing from an insurgency Bush administration strategists never even imagined possible. According to CBS’s “60 Minutes,” 5,500 U.S. troops, under the pressure of an increasingly unpopular war, have already deserted, while military recruitment figures are down. Elaine Monaghan of the British Times reports that “for the first time in a decade, the Army National Guard missed its recruitment target this year. Instead of signing up 56,000 people, it found 51,000.” Ferment is growing in our all-volunteer military. Legal challenges are rising to the “semi-draft” of the National Guard and Reserves. There has been a rise in resignations of reserve officers, and a recent Army survey indicates that less than half of all soldiers are at the moment planning to re-up. It is in this context of increasing desperation that the decision to destroy Falluja took place; it is in this context that planning for the New Falluja has occurred — and it shows. Tom

America’s Sinister Plan for Falluja
By Michael Schwartz

The chilling reality of what Falluja has become is only now seeping out, as the American military continues to block almost all access to the city, whether to reporters, its former residents, or aid groups like the Red Crescent Society. The date of access keeps being postponed, partly because of ongoing fighting — only this week more air strikes were called in and fighting “in pockets” remains fierce (despite American pronouncements of success weeks ago) — and partly because of the difficulties military commanders have faced in attempting to prettify their ugly handiwork. Residents will now officially be denied entry until at least December 24; and even then, only the heads of households will be allowed in, a few at a time, to assess damage to their residences in the largely destroyed city.

With a few notable exceptions the media has accepted the recent virtual news blackout in Falluja. The ongoing fighting in the city, especially in “cleared” neighborhoods, is proving an embarrassment and so, while military spokesmen continue to announce American casualties, they now come not from the city itself but, far more vaguely, from “al Anbar province” of which the city is a part. Fifty American soldiers died in the taking of the city; 20 more died in the following weeks — before the reports stopped. Iraqi civilian casualties remain unknown and accounts of what’s happened in the city, except from the point of view of embedded reporters (and so of American troops) remain scarce indeed. With only a few exceptions (notably Anthony Shadid of the Washington Post), American reporters have neglected to cull news from refugee camps or Baghdad hospitals, where survivors of the siege are now congregating.

Intrepid independent and foreign reporters are doing a better job (most notably Dahr Jamail, whose dispatches are indispensable), but even they have been handicapped by lack of access to the city itself. At least Jamail did the next best thing, interviewing a Red Crescent worker who was among the handful of NGO personnel allowed briefly into the wreckage that was Falluja.

A report by Katarina Kratovac of the Associated Press (picked by the Washington Post) about military plans for managing Falluja once it is pacified (if it ever is) proved a notable exception to the arid coverage in the major media. Kratovac based her piece on briefings by the military leadership, notably Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, commander of the Marines in Iraq. By combining her evidence with some resourceful reporting by Dahr Jamail (and bits and pieces of information from reports printed up elsewhere), a reasonably sharp vision of the conditions the U.S. is planning for Falluja’s “liberated” residents comes into focus. When they are finally allowed to return, if all goes as the Americans imagine, here’s what the city’s residents may face:

* Entry and exit from the city will be restricted. According to General Sattler, only five roads into the city will remain open. The rest will be blocked by “sand berms” — read, mountains of earth that will make them impassible. Checkpoints will be established at each of the five entry points, manned by U.S. troops, and everyone entering will be “photographed, fingerprinted and have iris scans taken before being issued ID cards.” Though Sattler reassured American reporters that the process would only take 10 minutes, the implication is that entry and exit from the city will depend solely on valid ID cards properly proffered, a system akin to the pass-card system used during the apartheid era in South Africa.

* Fallujans are to wear their universal identity cards in plain sight at all times. The ID cards will, according to Dahr Jamail’s information, be made into badges that contain the individual’s home address. This sort of system has no purpose except to allow for the monitoring of everyone in the city, so that ongoing American patrols can quickly determine if someone is not a registered citizen or is suspiciously far from their home neighborhood.

* No private automobiles will be allowed inside the city. This is a “precaution against car bombs,” which Sattler called “the deadliest weapons in the insurgent arsenal.” As a district is opened to repopulation, the returning residents will be forced to park their cars outside the city and will be bused to their homes. How they will get around afterwards has not been announced. How they will transport reconstruction materials to rebuild their devastated property is also a mystery.

* Only those Fallujans cleared through American intelligence vettings will be allowed to work on the reconstruction of the city. Since Falluja is currently devastated and almost all employment will, at least temporarily, derive from whatever reconstruction aid the U.S. provides, this means that the Americans plan to retain a life-and-death grip on the city. Only those deemed by them to be non-insurgents (based on notoriously faulty American intelligence) will be able to support themselves or their families.

* Those engaged in reconstruction work — that is, work — in the city may be organized into “work brigades.” The best information indicates that these will be military-style battalions commanded by the American or Iraqi armed forces. Here, as in other parts of the plan, the motive is clearly to maintain strict surveillance over males of military age, all of whom will be considered potential insurgents.

In case the overarching meaning of all this has eluded you, Major Francis Piccoli, a spokesman for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, which is leading the occupation of Falluja, spelled it out for the AP’s Kratovac: “Some may see this as a ‘Big Brother is watching over you’ experiment, but in reality it’s a simple security measure to keep the insurgents from coming back.” Actually, it is undoubtedly meant to be both; and since, in the end, it is likely to fail (at least, if the “success” of other American plans in Iraq is taken as precedent), it may prove less revealing of Falluja’s actual future than of the failure of the American counterinsurgency effort in Iraq and of the desperation of American strategists. In this context, the most revealing element of the plan may be the banning of all cars, the enforcement of which, all by itself, would make the city unlivable; and which therefore demonstrates both the impracticality of the U.S. vision and a callous disregard for the needs and rights of the Fallujans.

These dystopian plans are a direct consequence of the fact that the conquest of Falluja, despite the destruction of the city, visibly did not accomplish its primary goal: “[To] wipe out militants and insurgents and break the back of guerrillas in Falluja.” Even taking American kill figures at face value, the battle for the city was hardly a full-scale success. Before the assault on the city began, American intelligence estimated that there were 5,000 insurgents inside. General Sattler himself conceded that the final official count was 1,200 fighters killed and no more than 2,000 suspected guerrillas captured. (This assumes, of course, that it was possible in the heat of the battle and its grim aftermath to tell whether any dead man of fighting age was an “insurgent,” a “suspected insurgent,” or just a dead civilian.) At least a couple of thousand resistance fighters previously residing in Falluja are, then, still “at large” — not counting the undoubtedly sizeable number of displaced residents now angry enough to take up arms. As a consequence, were the U.S. to allow the outraged residents of Falluja to return unmolested, they would simply face a new struggle in the ruins of the city (as, in fact, continues to be the case anyway). This would leave the extensive devastation of whole neighborhoods as the sole legacy of the invasion.

American desperation is expressed in a willingness to treat all Fallujans as part of the insurgency — the inevitable fate of an occupying army that tries to “root out” a popular resistance. As General Sattler explains, speaking of the plan for the “repopulation” of the city, “Once we’ve cleared each and every house in a sector, then the Iraqi government will make the notification of residents of that particular sector that they are encouraged to return.” In other words, each section of the city must be entirely emptied of life, so that the military can be sure not even one suspect insurgent has infiltrated the new order. (As is evident, this is but another American occupation fantasy, since the insurgents still hiding in the city have evidently proven all too adept at “repopulating” emptied neighborhoods themselves.)

The ongoing policy of house-to-house inspections, combined with ultra-tight security regulations aimed at not allowing suspected guerrillas to reenter the city, is supposed to insure that everyone inside the Fallujan perimeter will not only be disarmed but obedient to occupation demands and desires. The name tags and the high-tech identity cards are meant to guard against both forgeries and unlawful movement within the city. The military-style work gangs are to insure that everyone is under close supervision at all times. The restricted entry points are clearly meant to keep all weapons out. Assumedly kept out as well will be most or all reporters (they tend to inflame public opinion), most medical personnel (they tend to “exaggerate” civilian casualties), and most Sunni clerics (they oppose the occupation and support the insurgency).. We can also expect close scrutiny of computers (which can be used for nefarious communications), ambulances (which have been used to smuggle weapons and guerrillas), medicines (which can be used to patch up wounded fighters who might still be hiding somewhere), and so on.

It is not much of a reach to see that, at least in their fantasies, U.S. planners would like to set up what sociologists call a “total institution.” Like a mental hospital or a prison, Falluja, at least as reimagined by the Americans, will be a place where constant surveillance equals daily life and the capacity to interdict “suspicious” behavior (however defined) is the norm. But “total institution” might be too sanitized a term to describe activities which so clearly violate international law as well as fundamental morality. Those looking for a descriptor with more emotional bite might consider one of those used by correspondent Pepe Escobar of the Asia Times: either “American gulag” for those who enjoy Stalinist imagery or “concentration camp” for those who prefer the Nazi version of the same. But maybe we should just call it a plain old police (city-)state.

Where will such plans lead? Well, for one thing, we can confidently predict that nothing we might recognize as an election will take place in Falluja at the end of January. (Remember, it was to liberate Fallujans from the grip of “terrorists” and to pave the way for electoral free choice that the Bush administration claimed it was taking the city in the first place.) With the current date for allowing the first residents to return set for December 24 — heads of household only to assess property damage — and the process of repopulation supposedly moving step-by-step, from north to south, across neighborhoods and over time, it’s almost inconceivable that a majority of Fallujans will have returned by late January (if they are even willing to return under the conditions set by the Americans). Latest reports are that it will take six months to a year simply to restore electricity to the city. So organizing elections seems unlikely indeed.

The magnitude of the devastation and the brutality of the American plan are what’s likely to occupy the full attention of Fallujans for the foreseeable future — and their reactions to these dual disasters represent the biggest question mark of the moment. However, the history of the Iraq war thus far, and the history of guerrilla wars in general, suggest that there will simply be a new round of struggle, and that carefully laid military plans will begin to disintegrate with the very first arrivals. There is no predicting what form the new struggle will take, but the U.S. military is going to have a great deal of difficulty controlling a large number of rebellious, angry people inside the gates of America’s new mini-police state. This is why the military command has kept almost all of the original attack force in the city, in anticipation of the need for tight patrols by a multitude of American troops. (And it also explains why so many other locations around the country have suddenly found themselves without an American troop presence.)

The Falluja police-state strategy represents a sign of weakness, not strength. The new Falluja imagined by American planners is a desperate, ad hoc response to the failure of the battle to “break the back of the guerrillas.” Like the initial attack on the city, it too is doomed to failure, though it has the perverse “promise” of deepening the suffering of the Iraqis.

Michael Schwartz, Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, has written extensively on popular protest and insurgency, and on American business and government dynamics. His work on Iraq has appeared at TomDispatch, Asia Times, and ZNet and in Contexts and Z Magazine. His books include Radical Politics and Social Structure, The Power Structure of American Business (with Beth Mintz), and Social Policy and the Conservative Agenda (edited, with Clarence Lo) His email address is [email protected].

Copyright C2004 Michael Schwartz