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Some Early Lessons of the War with Iraq By: Paul Hollander
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, April 21, 2003


Before totally forgotten, it is of some interest to recall the numerous predictions which preceded and accompanied the recent war with Iraq. Most frequently proposed was that there will be horrendous American casualties (thousands killed) because the Iraqi troops, and especially the "crack" elite Republican guards will fight to the last man, defending their homeland; Baghdad will turn into a new Stalingrad with every house a fortress from which determined fighters will attack the American troops. There was the frequently mentioned possibility that chemical or biological weapons will be used against them. The war could last for months, the siege of Baghdad will be interminable. It will be a quagmire like Vietnam. The stunningly mendacious spokesmen of the Iraqi regime daily reinforced these notions on American television.

Another dire prediction was that all supplies from other Arab countries will be reduced or cut in a display of solidarity with their Iraqi brethren. We were also warned that the war will destabilize Arab governments friendly toward the U.S. such as Jordan and Egypt and that there will be a worldwide backlash against the U.S. including renewed terrorist attacks in the U.S. and against Americans around the world.

Relations with our European allies were to be seriously and irreparably damaged. After the war began and a few sniper attacks took place in areas by passed by the bulk of the coalition forces there was gloom and doom about a poorly conceived military strategy, insufficient number of troops on the ground, long supply lines and overconfidence in air power.

As of this writing none of the above happened. As on similar occasions in the past when the U.S. was about use its military power - the Gulf war, the Kosovo intervention, the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan  - the dire predictions were reflexive, for the most part stimulated by a visceral, ever-present opposition to the use of American military force.  Those predisposed to blame the U.S. and its policies as the root cause of all global misery and injustice cannot conceive of a U.S. military intervention that could do any good,  anywhere, any time.

Most, if not all, of these predictions were, not surprisingly, made by the supporters and spokesmen of the peace movement, which, as in the days of the Vietnam war protest, had attracted to its ranks all those who, for whatever reason, have been consumed by a profound and reflexively hostile predisposition toward American society and U.S. foreign policy. I am not suggesting that only such people flocked to the peace protest movement, but they certainly shaped it tone and character. The peace protest movement opened its ranks to all those who had other agendas and grievances: haters of Israel, Islamic extremists, hard-left extremists of different stripes, anti-globalists.  At each and every major peace demonstrations the banners and slogans carried and chanted reflected these agendas and attitudes. 

If the love of peace was the primary motivation of the war protesters, there should have been rejoicing in their ranks when the war came to an unexpectedly rapid end. This, however, did not happen --  reports of such rejoicing have been notably absent. Instead there is a muted disappointment that the U.S. won in such a short period of time, some confusion upon seeing the warm welcome extended to coalition troops, and more typically, a search for a new protest agenda. Those who had earlier protested the war decided to protest the U.S. occupation - not nearly as photogenic and emotionally satisfying as the protest against bloodshed. On the other hand it is not hard to predict that if the U.S. speedily withdrew its troops and total chaos ensued (or a fanatical Islamic regime emerged ) that too would become an excellent alternative opportunity for protest. 

Aside from protesting the occupation, peace activists are now also shifting to other causes such as protest against "the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and other global financial institutions" as the New York Times reported  ("Protesters, Unable to Stop War, Now Argue Against Occupation" April 13, 2003.) Such protests presumably spring from a concern with injustice and suffering of other kinds, not just those caused by the violence of war. But the same protesters concerned with suffering and injustice have been all along mute about the exceptional amount and kind of repression and suffering Saddam Hussein's regime inflicted  on the people of Iraq.

Even by the standards of 20th century totalitarianism this was an astonishingly and gratuitously  brutal regime which not only imprisoned, tortured and killed countless numbers of its citizens but devised novel cruelties as for example returning body parts of those tortured and executed  to members of their families; it was a regime that  beheaded women in public and created military training camps for children in a program called "Saddam's Lion Cubs". A Brookings Institute report noted that these children were "trained in 'techniques intended to desensitize youth to violence, including frequent beatings and deliberate cruelty to animals.' The best of the cubs are asked to join the Fedayeen Saddam. " The climax of this training was the initiation ceremony "where trainees rip apart a large dog and its innards with their bare hands... A video of the ceremony was played regularly played on Iraqi television." [New Republic, April 14, 2002, p. 11.]

The quality and character of the Saddam regime failed to enter into the moral equation of the peace activists (except for the occasional, perfunctory, grudging admission that he was not a nice man) and there was a striking discrepancy between the volume of the venom and indignation directed at the U.S. and the apparent indifference toward the moral character of the Iraqi regime. Most difficult was, and remains, the acknowledgment of the possibility that Iraqis could feel to be liberated by American troops, that anybody could be liberated by American troops. A letter in the New York Times memorably captured this visceral hostility toward American troops and the incomprehension that they could be liberators:" Reports of our troops walking through the rubble of a presidential palace, sitting in Saddam Hussein's chair and pulling down statues make us look less like an army of liberators and more like the Visigoths sacking Rome." [April 10, 2003].

But our troops were not  "pulling down statues," they gave a hand (as all could see on television) to the Iraqis who tried to pull down a statue of Saddam Hussein but did not have the equipment to remove it. Moreover Baghdad  was not exactly the heart of a civilising empire similar to ancient Rome, nor were the palaces and furnishings of Saddam Hussein works of art to be revered but grotesque, repugnant monuments to the corruptions of power and megalomania deserving to be treated with a modicum of disrespect conveyed by an American soldier lounging in one of his chairs.

Unhappily some supporters of the peace movement went beyond indifference to the moral character of the Iraqi regime, they actively and demonstratively supported it. These were the "human shield" volunteers willing to be used for both propaganda and military purposes by the regime, appearing on television and at press conferences and -- in the most egregious instance -- shaking hands with Saddam Hussein on Iraqi television (shown in this country as I witnessed). It would be interesting to know what went through the head of these idealists who did not recoil from such demonstration of friendship and respect toward the most notorious mass murderer of our times.

The explanation of such attitudes and of the incapacity of the peace activists to find any satisfaction in the liberation of the Iraqi people from an exceptionally brutal totalitarian system may have several explanations.  One is the lack of visual proof and information about the brutalities of this system -- there were no TV cameras in the Iraqi torture chambers and execution grounds while the pictures of civilians accidentally harmed by American bombs were daily shown on television.

But the apparent indifference to the brutality of this regime may also be explained by a deeper incapacity to understand what real repression and life in a police state is like. The relatively sheltered life of most Americans, and especially educated, middle class Americans, college students and teachers does not help to understand that there are political systems which are ruthless and repressive beyond the imagination of our peace activists who genuinely believe that the U.S. is "the greatest terrorist state."  Unless and until such an understanding is achieved every assertion of American military power will inspire reflexive dismay and condemnation such as we have witnessed recently.

One final lesson of the war with Iraq that totalitarian systems -- notwithstanding their façade of strength, unity and popular support -- melt away when given a push and their long repressed people, including its military forces, will not support them.  




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