What's Left

March 24, 2003

This is what war looks like

By Stephen Gowans

She's eight, maybe nine years old. Hair matted, clothes tattered, she hangs limply in the arms of a man who stands before a pile of corpses. Her pants are ripped and out the end, where her feet should poke, pokes something else: pulp and clumps of bone, twisted beyond all recognition.1

She must be part of the Iraqi regime, for American and British forces are not bombing civilians. According to US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, "there are a large number of military targets and command and control and regime targets...that is what we were bombing, and it was very precise...The city was not ablaze. The Iraqi regime was ablaze."2

Journalist Mark MacKinnon describes a "two-year old...lying in a Basra hospital bed, his eyes closed, obviously dead...[T]he doctor pulls back the blanket around the unknown Iraqi child's head, revealing that the top of his head had been cut off, apparently by shrapnel from a U.S. bomb. A woman kneeling beside the bed screams her sorrow."3 This child too must be part of the Iraqi regime.

Reporter Geoffrey York is travelling through the town of Safwan, in southern Iraq. He says, "Many of Safwan's people were still in shock from the bombardment that had killed a dozen people in the town, just a few hours before the U.S. and British marines had rolled in to capture it."4

Fahad Kamel, a 14-year old, tells York, "The Americans planes shot at our houses. Some of our farms and houses were damaged, and some people were killed."5 The farms and houses must have been the regime's farms and houses, for only the regime is ablaze.

Another, Kathem Sajed, says "The British and American armies are a curse, not a blessing. If you are really helping Iraq, why are you shooting people?"6

But Iraqis, we're told, are welcoming their "liberators."7  How to explain Sajed's words: "Within three days, we will do a suicide bombing and kick these people out"?8  He too must be part of the regime.

A day later, one newspaper9 reports that Anglo-American forces have encountered setbacks and opposition, a dramatic change from the day before when the Iraqis were said to be welcoming their liberators. Abandoning any pretense of neutrality, the newspaper runs the headline "Worse day of the war." For who?

Dejected Iraqi soldiers, captured by Anglo-American forces -- they too are what war looks like. An Associated Press photograph shows them marching two abreast, under the watchful eye of an American stormtrooper.10

Below the photograph is an article, "U.S. infuriated by footage of PoWs." Journalist Dawn Walton writes that "U.S. and international leaders were incensed" at the broadcast of images showing captured US soldiers, "calling it a violation of the rules of war."11

The article quotes Rumsfeld. "The Geneva Convention," he says, "indicates that it's not permitted to photograph ... prisoners of war."12

But apparently the Geneva Conventions only prohibit the photographing of American and British prisoners of war, because staring me in the face is the AP photograph of Iraqi prisoners of war. Rumsfeld and other "international leaders" aren't incensed about that.

Nor, it seems, do the Geneva Conventions apply to Taliban soldiers imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay. Maybe because they were defending their country from attack. The conventions must only apply to aggressors, the invaders.

Prisoners at Guantanamo are locked in tiny cages in the sweltering heat. The men have no contact with their families during their detention. They're allowed a shower only once every six days. They're chained during frequent and lengthy interrogations. The Geneva Conventions aren't followed here. Haji Mohammed Sediq, an old man, thought to be in his 70's, or older, said of his captivity: "We were eating and defecating in the same place. We were kept like animals."13 (The newspaper that reports this, runs Sediq's words under the headline, "Guantanamo prisoners have few complaints.")

Dead American soldiers (and British too, killed by American friendly fire, something that seems to happen a lot to America's allies) are also part of the picture of war, but they're not pictures Washington wants you to see, and America's laughably named "free-press" is all too willing to  cover up the carnage. But this has become an American tradition. The horrors of war, whether depicted by Al-Jazeera, or in Picasso's Guernica, are not to be seen. Americans mustn't know.

Reporter Walton says that showing images of dead American soldiers is a violation of the rules of war, but apparently this only applies to dead American and British soldiers,  not dead Iraqi soldiers. A Reuters photograph, carried widely in the Western press on March 23, showed two dead Iraqi soldiers in a trench. An Ottawa Citizen caption reads, "British soldiers assess damage caused on Iraqi trench positions as the bodies of two Iraqi soldiers remain in their trench with a white flag, following the British assault on the Al-Faw peninsula in southern Iraq."14

It may be that capturing, not killing, soldiers who wave white flags is a rule to be followed by Iraqi soldiers alone. American and British soldiers can do what they like. They did, in 1991, in the original Gulf War, when Iraqi forces withdrawing from Kuwait were slaughtered.

American networks kow-towed to a Pentagon request not to broadcast images of dead American soldiers. The images would be "offensive," they said.15 It apparently escaped the understanding of network lickspittles that this is what war, and what this war in particular, is: offensive, not only metaphorically, but literally. One could add that it also escaped their understanding that if they're going to cover the war, and not the fantasy that follows a script written by the White House, they'll have to show all its multiple, offensive, horrors. But that would assume they're simply dunderheads, and not collaborators in vast crimes, who have willingly accepted as their role one of pacifying the population by withholding the truth, replacing it with the administration's manifold lies and absurdities.

The media critic Normon Solomon has dug up a fitting quote from Voltaire: "Anyone who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit injustices."16 American soldiers who drop bombs and pull triggers and "just fix broke stuff," as one captured American GI said, commit injustices, as do Americans who cheer on the blitzkrieg. They have been made to believe the absurdities that spew from the mouths of vile, cold-blooded, killers, the pathological liars who make up the Bush cabinet, whose crimes rank with those of Mussolini and whose fate, if much of the world had its druthers, would be the same as that which befell the Italian dictator and his henchmen.

Rumsfeld, the most arrogant of the repulsive bunch, doesn't want disturbing images of the dead, especially American dead, broadcast at home, because it is demoralizing, which is another way of saying it undermines support for the killing.

But the dead are precisely what the war is all about, and all those who support it, and make it possible and fight it, are voting for the mangling of the bodies of nine-year old girls and for the sheering off the top of the skulls of two-year olds with shrapnel, and for mothers who weep long into the night beside the cold, lifeless forms of their dead children. Washington is in the process of making the ultimate, 21st century snuff film, but they don't want you to see it, because if you did, you'd figure out that that's what war is: snuffing out people, including little kids. It isn't the regime ablaze, and surgical strikes, and removing a dictator to make the world a better place to live.

Defenders of the war, who blanche at disturbing images, reply in the same hackneyed way. War is brutal, they say. And so is murder, but that doesn't make murder right.  It's Saddam's fault they say, which is like saying the Nazi invasion of Poland was the Pole's fault, which Hitler did say, and Washington mimics to justify its war. "Are you against war in principal, because it kills and maims the innocent?" they ask. I am against unprincipled war, which is why I'm against this one.

The war is not about international law. That's clear. It's not about respecting UN Security Council Resolutions. How could it be? It's not about protecting the United States from Iraq, for how could Iraq, devastated by two wars, forced to disarm and crippled by over a decade of sanctions, be a threat? It's about oil, and about Dick Cheney's old company Halliburton, getting to bid on $3 billion worth of contracts to rebuild Iraq's infrastructure.17 It's about Richard Perle, chairman of the Defense Policy Board, an influential Pentagon advisory panel, "participating in a Goldman Sachs conference call to advise clients on investment opportunities arising from the war, titled, 'Implications of an Imminent War: Iraq Now. North Korea Next?'"18  It's about men like Donald Rumsfeld, PaulWolfowitz, Richard Armitage and Richard Perle, turning their dream of the United States as an imperial Rome for the 21st century into a reality.19 It's about bringing control of Iraq's oil under America's thumb, and squeezing French and Russian and Chinese competitors out, and gaining leverage over Europe, which depends on oil from the Middle East.

These are not things eight-year old girls should die for. These are not things two-year old children should be killed for. These are not things American soldiers should make the ultimate sacrifice for. But they are the things the people in Washington hold dear, and will kill and maim to get.

Horribly, it doesn't end in Iraq, unless we make it end there. "This is just the beginning," an administration official told the New York Times. "I would not rule out the same sequence of events for Iran and North Korea as for Iraq."20

And so there are plans to mangle the bodies of more children, to crush the skulls of more infants, to make more mothers weep bitter tears long into the night, so that people like Perle can take advantage of new business opportunities abroad and men like Cheney can line their pockets with lucrative contracts to rebuild countries the Pentagon will devastate. As a consequence, more American soldiers will be captured and shot through the head in future wars by foreigners who become more infuriated, more hostile, more enraged by American arrogance, bullying and atrocities. If a mainstream politician from Canada, a country that regards the US as its closest friend and ally, can blurt out in anger that she "hates those Americans bastards," you can imagine the depth of animosity in those parts of the world in which the US is held in less esteem.

Hitler and Mussolini, whose illimitable imperial ambitions gave rise to the concept of preventative war, invoked to justify the invasion and conquest of other lands, carried out with the zealous support and in the interests of industrialists at home, backed up by the big lie, are not gone. Their ghosts hover over Rumsfeld as he proclaims his doctrine of pre-emption, smile on Bush as he tells his big lies, and applaud Blair as he fawningly supports Washington's aggressions. This is the face of the new axis. This is what its wars look like.

(1) Nabil/Associated Press photograph, The Globe and Mail, March 24, 2003. Caption reads: "An Iraqi man holds a young girl wounded after US air strikes in Basra yesterday. Images such as this, broadcast around the clock on Arab television, are hardneing pro-Iraqi, anti-American sentiments." A similar AP photograph, carried in The Ottawa Citizen on the same day, shows the same man, and what is apparently the same girl. But in this photo, the girl's feet are intact. Different girls? Or has one of the photographs been altered? Since graphic images of mangled bodies are usually considered offensive, and avoided by daily newspapers, one might surmise that it is the gruesome photo that has been sanitized.

(2) "Rumsfeld fits the role of bad cop on Bush team," The Globe and Mail, March 24, 2003.

(3) "Bloody images of destruction, death foment anti-American sentiments," The Globe and Mail, March 24, 2003.

(4) "Town may be conquered, but it's far from pacified," The Globe and Mail, March 24, 2003.

(5) Ibid.

(6) Ibid.

(7) "Iraqis welcome liberators," Ottawa Citizen, March 23, 2003.

(8) "Town may be conquered, but it's far from pacified," The Globe and Mail, March 24, 2003.

(9) Ottawa Citizen, March 24, 2003.

(10) Laura Rauch/Associated Press. The Globe and Mail, March 24, 2003. Caption reads: "Iraqi soldiers who have surrendered are escorted by US marines near Az Bayr on Saturday. The Geneva Conventions stipulate that prisoners of war are to be humanely treated."

(11) "U.S. infuriated by footage of PoWs," The Globe and Mail, March 24, 2003.

(12) Ibid.

(13) "Guantanamo prisoners have few complaints," National Post, October 30, 2002.

(14) Stephen Hird/Reuters, Ottawa Citizen, March 23, 2003.

(15) "Media in Canada balk at sanitizing war coverage,"  The Globe and Mail, March 24, 2003.

(16) Cited in Solomon, Norman, "Casualties of war: First truth, then conscience," The Jordan Times, March 22, 2003.

(17) "War Could Be Big Business for Halliburton," Reuters, March 23, 2003.

(18) "Perle's Plunder Blunder." The New York Times, March 23, 2003.

(19) "Pre-emption: Idea With a Lineage Whose Time Has Come," The New York Times,  March 23, 2003.

(20) Ibid.

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What's Left