Truths of a Lost War

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[Note to Tomdispatch readers: This is part 2 of a dispatch on the Bush administration and Iraq. Part 1 was Losing the Home Front. One of the sections below is devoted to Riverbend, the pseudonymous “girl blogger” of Baghdad. For it, I read the collection of her blog entries that the Feminist Press at CUNY published in 2005, Baghdad Burning, Girl Blog from Iraq, and then the newest volume, Baghdad Burning II, More Girl Blog from Iraq, just now being published. These represent an unparalleled record of the American war on, and occupation of, Iraq (and Riverbend writes like an angel). The two volumes are simply the best contemporary account we are likely to have any time soon of the hell into which we’ve plunged that country. I can’t recommend them too highly. Tom]

Fiasco Then, Fiasco Now
Why Baghdad Will Keep Burning
By Tom Engelhardt

Are we now officially out of our minds? On Tuesday, General George W. Casey, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, and Zalmay Khalilzad, our ambassador to Iraq, gave a joint press conference in Baghdad that was all for home consumption. By home, I mean Washington DC. I mean Indiana. I mean Texas. Baghdad’s Green Zone was essentially a stage set for a political defense of the Bush presidency.

If the news hadn’t been quite so grim, this tandem’s act might have qualified as an Abbott and Costello comedy routine, including the moment when the lights went out — while “gunfire and bomb blasts echoed around the city” — thanks to our inability to resuscitate Iraqi electricity production. In fact, the New York Times just reported that, on some projects, more than 50% of U.S. reconstruction dollars are being spent on “overhead” as, for months at a time, whole reconstruction teams sit idly with the meter going waiting to begin work.

Some Democratic critics had been calling on the Bush administration for a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. Well, a timetable they got (though Ambassador Khalilzad preferred to call it a “timeline”). The catch was: The hopeless, essentially powerless Iraqi “government” inside Baghdad’s Green Zone was to deliver that timeline as a pre-election present to a disgruntled American public. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki himself would produce it with genuine “benchmarks” for upping oil production and splitting oil revenues, for disarming and dismantling Shiite militias and police death squads, and for negotiating with Sunni rebels.

Not only that, Maliki would have his “plan” in place (perhaps for the Iraqis to withdraw from their own country) “before the end of the year” — and this was just one of a welter of mini-schedules offered by the ambassador and general that would shove Iraqi matters at least beyond November 7th, if not into the relatively distant future. The ambassador, for instance, assured Americans that all those benchmarks would be met and “significant progress” achieved “in the course of the next twelve months” — the slight catch being: “assuming that the Iraqi leaders deliver on the commitments that they have made.”

General Casey chimed in with his own timeline: “And it’s going to take another 12 to 18 months or so until I believe the Iraqi security forces are completely capable of taking over responsibility for their own security.” (“Still probably with some level of support from us.”) Probably? These are the same forces some of whose battalions “demobilized” rather than accept transfer assignments to work with Americans in the dangerous streets of distant Baghdad. These are battalions that can have 30-50% of their troops either on leave, AWOL, or perhaps as ghost soldiers for whom commanders receive pay?

Ambassador Khalilzad finished off his Arabian Nights version of a press conference introduction with assurances that “victory” was possible and “success” achievable in the foreseeable future. The solution was simple: “Iraqi leaders must step up to achieve key political and security milestones on which they have agreed.” (There’s a new ad-jingle-style line to replace our President’s “As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down”: “As the Iraqi leaders step up, we will”)

Like some genie from a bottle, Prime Minister Maliki, our recalcitrant “partner,” who only the previous week had to check with George Bush to make sure he still held his job, promptly stood up at a rival news conference and “slammed” American officials for demanding a timeline. (“I affirm that this government represents the will of the people and no one has the right to impose a timetable on it.”) Still, he seemed to grasp the essence of the message the ambassador and general were sending out: “Al-Maliki said he believed the U.S. talk of timelines was driven by the upcoming U.S. midterm election. ‘We are not much concerned with it.'” Once all those American purple fingers fade, look for a new spike in coup rumors in Baghdad.

The only evidence General Casey offered of Iraqi fortitude was the news that 300 members of their security forces had died over the Ramadan holiday “in defense of their country.” (In a gesture of American cross-cultural sensitivity, he referred to them as “martyrs.”) In the meantime, while waiting for that miracle moment when the Iraqi non-Army and militia-infiltrated police would truly “stand up” for Maliki’s non-government, the general hinted at a familiar solution: Bring in more U.S. troops. Gen. Casey put it this way: “Now, do we need more troops to do that? Maybe. And as I’ve said all along, if we do, I will ask for the troops I need, both coalition and Iraqis.” Expect that “maybe” to turn into various stop-loss orders and reservist call-ups soon after November 7th.

So think of Tuesday’s dog-and-pony show as “the light at the end of the tunnel” news conference. And think of Prime Minister Maliki as a poor stand-in for the recalcitrant-to-American-wishes South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, assassinated in a U.S.-backed military coup in 1963, after which it was all downhill.

Meanwhile, our chameleon President was in Florida visiting a company that produces devices to detect roadside bombs. No longer was he the plodding, “stay the course” George Bush; now, he was the maestro of “change,” a darting, dashing Wile E. Coyote of a president, zipping off a cliff while saying things like: “We’re constantly changing. The enemy changes, and we change. The enemy adapts to our strategies and tactics, and we adapt to theirs. We’re constantly changing to defeat this enemy.”

Unlike the President, Ambassador Khalilzad and General Casey undoubtedly know that they are putting on an act for the TV screens back home, that this is a moment to say whatever a desperate administration considers necessary to bring voters back into the fold. This is policy as vaudeville, a farce for everyone except those “martyrs,” the Americans dying in Iraq, and, of course, millions of Iraqi civilians who are unlikely to feel mollified by General Casey’s lame reassurance “that 90 percent of the sectarian violence in Iraq takes place in about a 30-mile radius from the center of Baghdad.”

The Vietnam Analogy

In the most hallucinatory moment of a news conference in which everyone must have been inhaling something, Gen. Casey offered this summary of the Iraqi War thus far:

“The American people already know what a magnificent job the men and women of their armed forces are doing here, and we continue to be grateful for their continuing support. But they should also know that the men and women of the armed forces here have never lost a battle in over three years of war. That is a fact unprecedented in military history.”

For old Vietnam-era hands, this had a ringingly familiar (and hollow) sound to it. From the beginning, the Bush administration has had a knack for highlighting how unfinished America’s Vietnam business still is. In planning their war, they had the “mistakes” of Vietnam on the brain and attempted to reverse them rather systematically (no body counts, no body bags, etc.) It didn’t matter. The Vietnam War returned to American consciousness (along with all the familiar Vietnam-era terms) within days of the invasion of Iraq and has never gone away again, not because Vietnam and Iraq are interchangeable pieces of a historical puzzle, but because that almost four-decade-old war remains an American obsession.

Now, the Vietnam analogy is front and center again, thanks to the President’s response to a question about the Tet Offensive. But as General Casey’s comment indicates, many top U.S. officials remain on Vietnam auto-pilot. Perhaps the commonest claim of American commanders in Vietnam was exactly the one the general brought up Tuesday. “Unprecedented in history”? Hardly, according to Vietnam-era commanders who insisted that they had never lost a battle in those years of endless war. Such a claim has all the advantages of rolling cluelessness about the nature of guerrilla warfare and a stab-in-the-back theory into a single package.

This brings to mind a story from the Vietnam era, as written up in the March-April 2005 Military Review: “While negotiating in Hanoi a few days before Saigon fell, U.S. Army Colonel Harry Summers, Jr. [later author of On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War], said to a North Vietnamese colonel, ‘You know, you never defeated us on the battlefield.’ The Vietnamese colonel replied, ‘That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.'”

Think of it this way: With the help of the Vietnam experience, our top generals are already beginning to create their own exit-strategies from this war. Along Vietnam lines, their tale will be simple enough: We won. They (still to be defined but leading candidates include Donald Rumsfeld and Pentagon civilian bosses, the media, and the American public) lost. We wuz betrayed! Talk about incipient “martyrs.”

Let me suggest to the non-generals among us, two Vietnam analogies that have yet to arise but couldn’t be more relevant. Think of them as “the bloodbath” and “the non-withdrawal withdrawal” analogies.

The bloodbath was a constant companion of Americans in the later Vietnam years. Vietnamese civilians had, by then, died by the hundreds of thousands. Huge swaths of the Vietnamese (as well as Cambodian and Laotian) countryside were bombed and napalmed as well as shelled into a state of near uninhabitability. “Free fire zones” were declared in rural areas of a largely peasant land and treated exactly as the term indicates. “The bloodbath” as an image referred to none of this, but to something that had not yet arrived.

In his memoirs, Richard Nixon tells how Alexander Haig informed him of intelligence information indicating that the North Vietnamese and the National Liberation Front (the Vietcong) had “instructed their cadres the moment a cease-fire is announced to kill all of the opponents in the area that they control. This would be a murderous bloodbath.” This sea of blood to come, constantly thrown in the collective faces of those who wanted the U.S. out of Vietnam, deflected attention from the nature of the struggle at hand. As an image, it was certainly both a projection of American fears and American wishes, for the bloodbath-to-come promised to cleanse those involved in the bloodbath then in progress (as “victory” too would have done, had it ever arrived, and as the unpredicted Cambodian genocide would do in the years to come).

We find ourselves in a surprisingly comparable situation today. As the recent Lancet study figures (or even the more “modest” ones at Iraq Body Count) indicate, there is a bloodbath of staggering proportions underway in Iraq with no end in sight. Now, as then, “victory” — despite Ambassador Khalilzad’s use of the word and our President’s love for it — is inconceivable. Now, as then, a future bloodbath deflects attention from the present one and from withdrawal possibilities.

The Iraqi future bloodbath happens to go by the name of “civil war.” Of course, an actual civil war is underway there, but the claim has long been that, whatever blood is now being spilled, it will be nothing compared to what might happen if the U.S. military, the last bulwark between bloody-minded Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish enemies, were withdrawn. That would mean, as Sen. John McCain put it back in 2004, “all-out civil war and the violence [we] see today will pale in comparison to the bloodletting.” As Robert Kaplan wrote in a recent Atlantic Magazine while arguing against any kind of withdrawal, “Iraq may be closer to an explosion of genocide than we know. An odd event, or the announcement of pulling 20,000 American troops out, might trigger it.”

Of course, this is but one possible scenario we humans, who hardly have flawless records when it comes to prediction, can project into the future and yet there is no way to disprove such a possibility because it has yet to happen. The problem is that it stands not as one possibility among many (or even among many gradations of bloodletting), but as a (capital F) Fact, a given, a sure thing, and so as a powerful way to disarm all serious discussion of withdrawal.

The non-withdrawal withdrawal plan was a commonplace of the Vietnam years. Then, “withdrawal” regularly involved not departure but all sorts of departure-like maneuvers — from bombing pauses that led to fiercer bombing campaigns to negotiation offers never meant to be taken up to a Nixon-era “Vietnamization” plan in which American ground troops were actually withdrawn, but only as our air war was intensified. Each gesture of withdrawal allowed the war planners to fight a little longer, to hope a little longer for some glimmer of “success” to emerge.

As the pressure for timetables and some form of phased withdrawal ratchets up in Iraq, you will certainly see the same sort of thing — “withdrawal” plans, like the one former State Department official Richard Armitage recently suggested, that will take endless (reversible) years to complete. A five-year withdrawal plan is not a withdrawal plan. It’s a pacification plan for the “home front,” a way to keep on keeping on.

These are among the possible endgame Vietnam analogies that are likely to arise. Unfortunately, that endgame could take a while. After all, if the Tet Offensive was the “turning point” in the Vietnam War, the war itself lasted almost as long after Tet as before, with almost as many American casualties.

How Long Has Baghdad Been Burning?

In that press conference, Ambassador Khalilzad said: “My message today is straightforward: Despite the difficult challenges we face, success in Iraq is possible and can be achieved on a realistic timetable.” By “we,” he meant “the American people,” but at this late date what exactly can “success” mean for an Iraqi? Or, to put it another way, with the likelihood of somewhere between 400,000 and 900,000+ “excess deaths” since the invasion of 2003 (and with morgues, urban killing fields, and rivers still filling with bodies), what is the value of one Iraqi life?

This question has been on my mind these last weeks because one Iraqi life had come to mean something to me. And I wasn’t alone.

She arrived online on Sunday, August 17, 2003, just over four months after Baghdad was occupied by American troops. “So this is the beginning for me, I guess,” was her first sentence. “I never thought I’d start my own weblog I’m female, Iraqi, and 24. I survived the war. That’s all you need to know. It’s all that matters these days anyway.” Reading that passage over now still gives me a little chill.

She took the pseudonym Riverbend, called her blog Baghdad Burning, and we did learn a bit more about her over the years: that, like many Iraqi women, she had worked — as a computer programmer, a self-styled “geek”; that she had lost her job soon after the war ended as hostility toward women in the workplace grew; that she was a Sunni (though for a long time she clung to the hope that Iraqis would not make religious affiliations their identity) and believed in God; that she did not wear a hijab or headscarf; that she lived in a middle-class neighborhood in Baghdad with her beloved younger brother “E” (who would soon be sporting a pistol for protection) and her parents in a world that was slowly, slowly slipping away. We learned that she had spent some years of her youth abroad, though not where.

We know, from a rare e-interview she did with Lakshmi Chaudhry at Alternet, that she started her “girlblog from Iraq” at the suggestion of Salam Pax, a well known male Iraqi blogger and wrote it in English — stunning, American-style English — because she didn’t want to “preach to the choir” in Arabic. We learned a little about her life as a young reader (Jane Austen to John LeCarré) and about the limitations her parents put on her TV watching as a child. Bits and pieces slipped out. But, in the end, she was generally as good as her word. Signing off on each post as “river,” she offered remarkably little more in the way of biographical information — but so unimaginably much more about everything else.

About what it felt like over several years, for instance, to have the lights of civilization literally blink off; about how it felt to lose the things city dwellers normally take for granted: the water in your house (and hence the ability to bathe or wash your clothes), your electricity (and so the ability to turn on the air conditioning in 120 degree heat or even post the blog entry you just wrote); the telephone, and so the ability to speak to friends and relatives, especially as your house became something close to your prison. She taught us what it was like to retreat to the roof in the heat of the evening and watch the explosions going off in your own city; what it was like to become an expert in telling one kind of weapons fire from another.

It took Washington Post reporter Thomas Ricks until this year to produce his bestseller Fiasco. Riverbend has produced her version of fiasco then (as well as fiasco now) on the fly and if you read her online, you generally learned about the disasters of the moment first there, not in our papers: the first deaths of those she knew; the first brutal, humiliating U.S. house searches and arrests of neighbors; the first kidnappings; the first mentions of the rise of fundamentalism; the first signs of an incipient civil war and ethnic cleansing campaign; the first mention of horrors at Abu Ghraib prison; the first suicide bombs and car bombs; on and on. On the fiasco of L. Paul Bremer, then our viceroy in Baghdad, disbanding the Iraqi Army, she wrote on August 24th, 2003: “The first major decision [Bremer] made was to dissolve the Iraqi army. That may make sense in Washington, but here, we were left speechless.”

Hers were often the quietest of descriptions — of the comings and goings inside a single house, but they were also war reports. By the nature of things, as the explosions and chaos crept ever closer, as they morphed into the familiar wallpaper of her life, she became, even inside her own home, a war correspondent on the frontlines of some unnamed conflict. (“When Bush ‘brought the war to the terrorists,’ he failed to mention he wouldn’t be fighting it in some distant mountains or barren deserts: the frontline is our homes the ‘collateral damage’ are our friends and families.”) Her prize-winning blog entries, gathered into two books, Baghdad Burning, Girl Blog from Iraq, and more recently Baghdad Burning II, More Girl Blog from Iraq, add up to the best account we have of what it’s been like to live through the American “liberation” of Iraq — and, though it’s a terrible thing to say, her work was beautiful to read because she wrote her English like an angel.

I’m a 62 year-old book editor, so it’s not unknown for me to fall in love with someone through their words and I now realize that, when it came to Riverbend, I did so. Then, on August 5th of this year, she posted a blog eerily entitled, “Summer of Goodbyes” which began: “Residents of Baghdad are systematically being pushed out of the city. Some families are waking up to find a Klashnikov bullet and a letter in an envelope with the words ‘Leave your area or else.'” Telling us that she no longer dared go out without wearing a hijab, she signed off this way: “I sometimes wonder if we’ll ever know just how many hundreds of thousands of Iraqis left the country this bleak summer. I wonder how many of them will actually return. Where will they go? What will they do with themselves? Is it time to follow? Is it time to wash our hands of the country and try to find a stable life somewhere else?”

And then she blogged no more. Those of us who regularly read her waited. She had been gone before, the first time in early September 2003 (“I haven’t been writing these last few days because I simply haven’t felt inspired”); once for a month and a half. Sometimes family crises, simple lack of electricity, and the heat kept her away; sometimes, clearly, it was depression and perhaps a sense of her own insignificance — this fierce, yet gentle young woman whose blog had links to both Iraq Body Count and Dilbert, Iraq Occupation Watch and the Onion — given the magnitude of the catastrophe happening around her. (“The war was brought to us here, and now we have to watch the country disintegrate before our very eyes.”)

As time passed and nothing appeared, readers began writing in to Tomdispatch, asking if I knew anything about her fate. No, I knew nothing. I had written her a couple of times and once even gotten an e-line back, so I went to her site, found her email address, and wrote again. No answer, no entries. More days, then weeks passed. Months passed, two of them, and I found myself at odd moments wondering, whether she had been among the estimated one and a half million Iraqis who had fled the country for almost anywhere else. Or had she, like the neighbors down the street been taken in a U.S. raid and imprisoned, or like one of her relatives kidnapped, or had she even and here I would hesitate become victim 655,001? And would we ever find out?

How can you care for someone you don’t know? What does that caring even mean? I’m honestly not sure. But I found I did care in a way that was impossible when it came to Iraqis en masse, no matter the fact that my own country, the place where I grew up and to which I’m deeply and undeniably attached, has been so central to those hundreds of thousands of wasted lives and all the other ones to come.

I called Riverbend’s publisher, the Feminist Press at CUNY, and talked to a couple of worried souls there. They, too, had heard nothing. Finally, I decided to do something about her absence — the one small thing I could actually do — write a dispatch. So I got my hands on those two books of hers and was just beginning to relive her Baghdad experiences when, on October 18, readers started emailing me that she had just blogged, that she was back. She had written a new entry on the Lancet casualty study. In it, she admitted that she had stopped writing, in part, due to “a certain hopelessness that can’t be put into words and that I suspect other Iraqis feel also.”

On the Lancet figures themselves, she found nothing strange. (“There are Iraqi women who have not shed their black mourning robes since 2003 because each time the end of the proper mourning period comes around, some other relative dies and the countdown begins once again.”) Nor was she surprised that American war supporters were not about to embrace the study’s figures: “Admitting a number like that would be the equivalent of admitting they had endorsed, say, a tsunami, or an earthquake with a magnitude of 9 on the Richter scale, or the occupation of a developing country by a ruthless superpower oh wait — that one actually happened.”

So amid the carnage, Riverbend has returned to us, though only once thus far. Given the world she inhabits, once already seems like a small miracle.

Truths of a Lost War (or Why Baghdad Will Keep Burning)

If someone could protect the polls and there were a plebiscite tomorrow, there seems little question what the majority of Iraqis would vote for: The withdrawal of American troops, the end of the occupation. And these are people who know that things could get a lot worse. Like Riverbend, they are there to witness or experience the present bloodbath. Like Riverbend, like most human beings, among their fondest wishes is surely not to die, nor to live without water or electricity, without easy access to fuel in one of the energy-richest lands on the planet; to be secure from car bombs, death squads, assassins, kidnappers, and criminals in a land that is losing its educators, its engineers, its doctors, its middle class, in a land where so much has been deconstructed, where women are being sent home, where ever more extreme theologies are gaining the upper hand, where militias rule the streets, killing grounds dot cities, bodies float in the rivers, and anarchy rules. That is how we have liberated and protected the Iraqi people thus far.

In this case, if the history of the last few years is our guide, until we decide that we are at the heart of the problem and begin to draw back and out, things will only get exponentially worse in Iraq. Shoring up Maliki will make no difference. A coup is only likely to destabilize the situation further. Even the return of a Saddam-style Baathist strongman under our aegis would be unlikely to restore order. After all, along with doing more than our fair share of the killing — only the other day, for instance, four firemen in Falluja mistaken for “insurgents” were gunned down by American troops — we have also destroyed an intangible of every state that wants to establish some version of law and order: sovereignty. It’s gone and, no matter what James Baker’s Iraq Study Group or any other group in Washington may suggest, we are incapable of restoring it.

Had the United States left Iraq in 2003, the country would certainly have been a mess and there would have been explosive tensions waiting to be relieved, but it’s unlikely such a bloodbath as has already happened would have occurred. Time, as I wrote in October of that year, was never on our side.

It was always going to get worse as long as American forces remained an occupying power in an alien land. If such things were possible for imperial powers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they are no longer possible in our world. That is the simplest — and most truthful — analogy you can make between the otherwise disparate Iraqi and Vietnamese situations. It seems such an obvious conclusion today. It seemed obvious enough before the invasion of Iraq ever began. It is, after all, a large part of the history of the previous century.

The longer we stayed, the worse it was always going to be. When we finally do leave — one year, two years, five years from now — it’s likely to be even worse, possibly far worse than the “all-out civil war” predicted if we left tomorrow.

Here, to my mind, is the deepest truth of the present situation, and the hardest for Americans to grasp: We are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

The neocons and other top Bush officials were dazzled by American military power. They believed that, as the leaders of the planet’s only “hyperpower,” its last imperial superpower, its New Rome, they could do just about anything. Now, having attacked two weak countries, one among the poorest on the planet, and finding that they can achieve nothing they want, they — and others in Washington — are sitting around desperately dreaming up further hopeless solutions to the Iraqi catastrophe. Should the country be divided into three parts? Should the Iraqis share oil revenues in a certain way? Should the Iraqi constitution be amended? And on and on.

The deep belief that, even at this late date, the United States can somehow “solve” the problem of Iraq is part delusional self-regard, part leftover goodwill, and part a greedy desire to remain, as well as a total fantasy. But as long as we believe that the problem is ours to solve, we will only continue to rev up the motor that is actually making it worse, no matter what “tactics” we turn on or off.

Withdrawal from Iraq is no longer a good path. Long ago, in fact, any good path may have been drowned in a sea of blood and suffering. It is, however, the only path that has any hope of relieving the situation. Don’t believe otherwise. Exactly how we get out, on what timetable, and under what conditions are important but secondary matters. First, we have to decide that leaving is what we’re about; second, we have to declare that we have no future interest in retaining permanent bases in Iraq or permanent control over Iraqi energy resources; third, we should offer genuine reconstruction help to a future Iraq — help not bound to the hiring of corporate looters like Halliburton’s KBR. (Let me not even mention offering apologies for what we’ve done. That’s not in the American grain.)

Unfortunately, we continue to build the largest, most permanent embassy in the universe inside Baghdad’s Green Zone; we continue to upgrade our vast bases in Iraq (and are reputedly building a “massive” new one in Kurdistan, undoubtedly a fallback position for keeping our hand in a future Iraq). On Wednesday, at his surprise news conference, the President managed once again not to repudiate the permanent basing of American forces in Iraq. As of now, whatever tactics are changing, whatever supposedly strategic decisions may be made after the elections, the top officials of the Bush administration have by no means made up their minds to leave Iraq.

To write all this, I’m aware, is to consign Riverbend, the girl blogger of Baghdad, to hell on Earth. But I don’t have to tell her that. She’s already there and knows it all too well.

This is the impasse we are presently in. But our impasse is just a formula for more deaths in Iraq, a formula guaranteed to keep Baghdad burning.

[This is the second of a two-part dispatch on the Bush administration and Iraq. For the first part, see Losing the Home Front, the Bush Administration’s War of the Images.]

Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s (“a regular antidote to the mainstream media”), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews with American Iconoclasts and Dissenters (Nation Books), the first collection of Tomdispatch interviews.

Copyright 2006 Tom Engelhardt