by Sadu Nanjundiah
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
--George Santayana, The Life of Reason, Volume 1, 1905
[S]ocieties that do not confront the past remain trapped …in a world whose most important truths are felt – then repressed – every day, a world where official lies are perpetuated by a vast bureaucracy.
-- Chris Hedges, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, 2002
It has been said that wars are America’s way of learning about the geography (and history) of other parts of the world.
The U.S -led “coalition of the willing” (i.e George Bush and his British butler) has been at “war” with Iraq since March 20. More correctly, the U.S bombing of Iraq never ceased since the end of Gulf War I. The present invasion had no international sanction other than the usual self-proclaimed ones. It is illegitimate and immoral. The United States of America has once again, in the time-honored American tradition, destroyed a country to “save” it. The smug and triumphant Bush administration (with a chortling Defense Secretary who is a scary mix of Jack the Ripper and Buck Turgidson from Kubrick’s epic movie Dr. Strangelove) has not yet claimed victory because it is already setting its sights on Syria and Iran. In this next phase of World War 1V (as several neo-conservative advisers and ideologues have proclaimed), the Bush administration has the exuberant support of the Sharon government in Israel. It is encouraged, no doubt, by the complicity or deafening silence at its occupation of Iraq from the Arab countries. The world at large has been stunned into inaction as well.
A country of 270 million people with a per capita GDP of $ 36,000 has pummeled into submission a nation of 24 million with a GDP estimated at $2,500 per person. The most powerful and fearsome weapons that 300 billion dollars could buy were targeted relentlessly on a shattered nation, decimated through the severest economic sanctions ever imposed on a country. The U.S.A., the world’s richest country, has attacked with utmost ferocity an already devastated country that, only two decades ago, could justifiably claim to be the most advanced in the Arab world. A nation armed with a limitless supply of million $ cruise missiles, GPS guided cluster bombs and DU weapons has hurled them, from the safety of the open skies or the depths of the oceans, at a country unable to defend itself with a totally outmatched, ill-equipped army. The cradle of civilization has been reduced to rubble, its ancient, priceless artifacts and antiquities looted and destroyed. No doubt the ones that can be salvaged will find their way into American museums and collectors homes. A proud people has been reduced to utter penury. Their humiliation, by the “liberators” from the new world, is complete. Iraqis must feel privileged that they were given a choice of how they wanted to be “liberated” by Bush - either instantly through one of the several weapons of death in his arsenal or by the slightly slower, more agonizing way from injury, starvation, disease. And the Iraqi deaths number in the thousands. But unlike American casualties which are significantly fewer, limited to the military and have faces and names associated with them, and buried with full military honors in the midst of family and friends or treated for injuries in ultra-modern hospitals, the Iraqi dead, dying, mutilated and devastated people, civilian and military, are without identity. Their dead would be fortunate to be buried in marked graves before the corpses rotted in the heat of the desert sun. Their grieving survivors will take no consolation in the fact that their husbands, wives, sons, daughters were liberated by “freedom-loving, god-fearing” American troops. This sanitized war has been presented, perversely, as a sporting event. Americans (not all by any means) are seen as indifferent to the indescribable suffering of the Iraqi people- just as they have been to the Palestinians (in which they follow the Israeli example). The Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Powell group has demonized, and dehumanized, an entire people to make their death and suffering inconsequential, incidental, accidental or justifiable.
Not since the war on Vietnam and Cambodia (there being absolutely no defense in the various other American invasions since then, such as in Grenada, Panama, Kosovo or Afghanistan) has a “war” been more asymmetric for the sheer scale of its disparity. Israel’s devastating assault on the Palestinian people in the occupied territories is reported to have served as a model for the Pentagon planners of the Iraq invasion. In both cases, the underlying premise is that American and Israeli lives (other than those who oppose their respective government’s policies) are more precious and more important than the lives of anyone else on planet Earth. A country twice the size of the state of Idaho with a population half of whom are under the age of fifteen was unable to fend off the American juggernaut. A $ 30-billion economy (all based on oil) has not a fighting chance against an aggressor whose high-tech defense budget itself is ten times larger. The fight was as unjust as it was unfair.
Mesopotamia (meaning, “between the rivers”) is the ancient region of Asia between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Its history essentially chronicles the origins of human civilization on earth. It was settled, from about 6000 BCE, by people known to us as the Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Assyrians and Chaldeans. The code of Hammurabi was the first recorded compilation of rules to govern civilized society, named for the Babylonian ruler who united Mesopotamia around 1790 BCE. One of the famous seven wonders of the ancient world, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, were built by Nebuchadnezzar in the 6th century BCE. In 539 BCE the region became part of the Persian Empire until Alexander the Great conquered it on behalf of Greece in 331 BCE. He was soon followed by the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire and finally the Arab Abbasid caliphs who made Baghdad their capital in year 762. The Abbasid dynasty descended from an uncle of the Prophet Mohammed and marked a flourishing of arts and sciences, reaching its peak under the reign of Haroun al-Rashid and his son (786 - 833) whose rule extended from North Africa to the Indian subcontinent. In the legendary Arabian Nights, this period is remembered as the golden age. Fast forward to Hulagu Khan (1215-1265), a grandson of the notorious Genghis Khan, founder of the Mongol Empire on the north central and eastern part of the Asian land mass. Genghis Khan united the tribes of Central and North Asia into a huge, well-disciplined, well-armed, swift (horseback) and powerful army. By 1215, his control extended from Persia to China. His son Ogotai Khan continued the wave of terror, destruction and bloody invasions across Russia. In 1257, Genghis Khan’s grandson Hulagu Khan routed the Abbasid caliphate that controlled Mesopotamia (Iraq) and proceeeded to capture and sack Baghdad. Hulagu Khan proceeded to invade Syria until driven back as far as Persia (Iran) by the Egyptian army. Even as the legendary Kublai Khan (1260-94) organized the empire into four regions (khan-ates), the strains began showing and his death marked the disintegration of the Mongol Empire, marked by utter deprivation and disrepair. But the tradition of conquest and pillage was revived by Tamerlane in the 1300’s and Babur (founder of the Mughal dynsaty in India) in the 1500’s.
Until last week, the National Museum of Iraq was the repository of the most important collection of Iraqi antiquities. When the Taliban in Afghanistan destroyed the towering carvings of the Buddha in Bamiyan some years ago, the U.S joined the rest of the world in condemning this act of vandalism. An historic cultural heritage had been lost forever. But the looting that followed the U.S invasion of Baghdad shows the utter U.S. disdain for international rules and civilized conduct (the Hague Conventions) that require an occupying power to protect the culture and heritage of the occupied country.
How did it feel to be at war? For the Iraqis, and the Americans?
If you are an Iraqi, there is still the constant threat of death and destruction from a variety of sources – immediately from American bombs, missiles, gunfire; more slowly from inoperable wounds lying in a devastated hospital without electricity or medicines; somewhat delayed, if more painfully, from infections acquired from depleted uranium dust, polluted water, untreated sewage or a compromised immune system. If you are an Iraqi adult, there is no factory work or office job to go to; if you are an Iraqi child or teenager, there is no school or college to attend. Wherever you are, there is the constant threat of being struck by a “precision” bomb or becoming “collateral damage”. There is no "entertainment" other than the ineluctable, real violence and constant fear of just how to survive. There is the real “thrill” of trying to escape the inferno with one’s children, trying to drive past American blockades without getting shot-up to bloody pieces. The meager rations doled out by their government before the U.S invasion will not last long. And yet there is little effort on the part of the Bush administration to send relief to the beleaguered, battered Iraqi people. The only music filling the air is the whistling sound of "smart” missiles and bullets before they strike their “targets” (even market places and homes). Just the psychological trauma of not knowing what will come is a war crime committed against a people who have done nothing to deserve this racist “war” and all its awful consequences.
If you are an American (other than the 30 million living in poverty and the millions campaigning for peace and against the endless Bush war), you could have chosen to turn off the “war” entirely. The 24-hour reality TV show starring Pentagon-embedded journalists brought the “heroism” of our troops live from the battlefield into American homes. It showed none of the atrocities committed that claimed the lives of thousands of Iraqi men, women and children. Whenever one had one’s fill of the "pristine and immaculate" American military, there were the non-stop sit-coms and dramas, violence and sex programming, sports and cooking lessons, religion and shopping on 100 other channels to surf. Or one could hop in the car and go to the mall, the supermarket, to buy yet another thing one did not need and the food/beverage one is recommended to avoid consuming, or that one indulged in excess, choosing from the ever more staggering variety of items offered.
American culture means being able to opt out of reality and the outside world, to wrap oneself up in flags in the belief that it will ward off "evil", to experience vicariously the thrill of futuristic violence at movie multiplexes, to go to restaurants and bars and indulge in food and drink in amounts undreamed of in most of the world and Iraq. March madness is followed by April mayhem. A new season of baseball and golf has resumed to supplement the daily dose of basketball and ice hockey. Children ride to school plugged into their Discmans or Nintendos. College students stagger across wide-open campuses engrossed in cell-phone conversations with family and friends when they cannot communicate meaningfully person-to-person, in the classroom or other such gatherings (other than on some trivial aspect of sport or entertainment). Office employees and workers rarely disagree in public, or loudly, with the Bush administration's belligerence towards other countries for fear of being "anti-patriotic". Besides, that is antithetical to the company policy (that is convergent with U.S policy) and retributions might follow in this "greatest democracy on earth". People drive miles to work, burning limitless amounts of gasoline (probably from Iraq) with some proclaiming their “patriotism” by barreling down highways in the civilian equivalent of the Army's gas guzzling Humvee (giving new meaning to the phrase, "bringing the war home"). But Americans are yet warned, under Code Orange, to be fearful of the "hate-filled" world outside that is “envious” of their “living standards” and “freedoms”, to watch out for people who look "suspiciously Middle-Eastern" and live amongst them. Unabashed jingoism pervades the airwaves and the print media with endless stories of “our brave troops” who are only fighting for the "liberation" of Iraq (not its oil), to free its people from the evil clutches of a tyrant (don’t ask who installed him). After all, do not Americans have the god-given exclusive right to "security" from "terrorists" lurking all over the world, especially in the "axis of evil"? The shills in the media unabashedly proclaim the Pentagon/White House statements as truth. They have printed pictures of 55 former Iraqi leaders (the collectors item deck-of-cards) on America’s most wanted list. But there is no plan to issue a similar list from the U.S leadership. It would be nice to think of playing poker with these two sets!
A brainwashed public and idiotic looking men with reverted baseball caps on their heads have been blinded by the "shock and awe" of the Pentagon. Many people fail to see that the bandicoots running U.S. corporations are merrily and brazenly engaged in looting their companies, pauperizing their employees and passing on the clean-up costs to the tax-payers with the full assistance of a collaborative White House and a pliant Congress. Every day's business section in the newspapers chronicles the insatiable greed, corruption and arrogance that pervade the corridors of power in George Bush’s America. The wretched, the poor, the working class are enticed into doing their "dirty" work across the globe and at home, and yet made to feel that such is their proud, bounden and pleasurable duty on behalf of the “greatest” country (and its plutocracy). The deliberate intent with which the discriminatory and inhumane Bush policies are being implemented will surely widen, even more, the chasm between the rich and the poor. His proposals are dazzling for their sheer audacity. Just one example will suffice. Bush proposed massive tax cuts for the rich as he demanded $ 80 billion in emergency funding for the $ 47 million an hour war on Iraq. But at the same time, he reduced services and subsidies for the poor and the unemployed, including nutrition, medical care for children and child care assistance and cut veterans benefits. We have, in short, a Bush budget that is Robin Hood in reverse, taking from the poor and funneling it to the rich. It even penalizes the very people (veterans) who have defended his ilk. Consider this, the 400 billion dollar U.S "Defense" (truth in advertisement should require this to be labeled Offense) Department could feed, clothe, shelter and educate every individual on planet Earth for 9 years. And $ 2,500 of every taxpayer remittance (assuming one pays at least that much) goes to the U.S war machine. Already the Raytheon and Lockheed-Martin factories are gearing-up to replenish the armaments expended in Iraq and get ready for the next "war" on Syria, Iran, Lebanon, North Korea. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman (April 15) noted, “I’ve always assumed that at some point the American people would realize what was happening and demand an end to the process. Now, though, I’m not so sure.”
The United States of America, claimed by its leaders to be the very epitome of human freedom, has two million people incarcerated and 30 million people living in poverty (disproportionately African-Americans and Latinos). A country that has 5% of the world's population, uses 25% of the its energy and produces 20% of global pollution, invaded an emasculated people who just happened to possess the second largest repository of the world’s most coveted energy resource. Without Iraq's oil, there is not one who can argue that the Bush administration would be engaged in "regime change". In fact, it has always suited the U.S. leadership’s interests to have manageable dictators control such precious commodities. The sole exception to this category, Iran, is another bete noire of the Bush administration and next in the gun sight of the Pentagon.
Only a deluded person can believe President Bush when he proclaims that Iraq's oil will be entirely at the disposal of the Iraqi people. Already, Vice-President Cheney’s former employer, Halliburton, has obtained no bid contracts worth $ 7 billion, for repair to the destroyed Iraqi facilities and services to occupying troops. Others licking their chops in the gravy train include the rent-a-cop Dyncorps company, Father Bush’s Carlyle Group (which until two years ago had a certain bin Laden as an investor on board), the secretive and private Bechtel corporation (the Reagan era George Schulz’s bailiwick). Retired U.S. Lt.Gen. Jay Garner, a self-proclaimed admirer and unabashed supporter of Israel, has been appointed satrap of Iraq to manage the Bush-Cheney portfolio. The tragedy is compounded when one considers the fact that the foot soldiers defending "American interests" (the insatiable greed and life-styles of the rich and powerful) come largely from the ranks of the lower classes including non-citizens. The first U.S soldiers killed in Iraq were Mexican-American immigrants who were given citizenship posthumously. Like other inner-city poor, the military is a job that offers them a living when the situation is desperate otherwise. In the case of non-immigrants, it also gives them an opportunity to legalize their status. Despite this, persecution of people who look “Middle Eastern” continues unabated. Eighty percent of America’s wealth belongs to only one-fifth of its people (within whose ranks there are very few people of color). The message drummed into people’s heads is that this gross disparity is the immutable, natural order.
So is Bush the re-incarnated Hulagu Khan? He surely is not a Pharoah because pharoahs are at least credited with getting the Great Pyramids built (by slave labor of course).
There is little doubt that the endless “wars” Bush-Cheney want to wage are not only to secure the interests of their corporate benefactors but also to ensure that they can continue to use their weapons of mass deception and deflect public attention from a bad economy. The periodic “terrorist” warnings with color-coded alerts are also used to scare people, keep them on edge and support the powers that be. Besides the continual erosion of civil liberties (“to protect the people”), the public is castigated if it voices any criticism or opposition to the Bush agenda by both the government and the fawning corporate media. Watching and reading the U.S mainstream corporate media on the Iraq invasion and comparing its reporting to that in the foreign media and press was like seeing two different “realities” of the “war” and its devastating effect on the people of Iraq.
Congress is largely “missing in action” and the third pillar of government, the Courts, is increasingly under the Bush administrations control. Right-wing Christian zealots together with Zionists who forcefully propound the Israeli position for re-ordering the Middle East, mirror images of Osama bin Laden, are in firm control of the reins of power in Washington. There is not a single official in the Bush administration with the guts to criticize any of the murderous activities of the Sharon administration, even if it affects the life and limb of an American citizen (as evidenced by the recent killing of Rachel Corrie who was trying to prevent the destruction of yet another Palestinian home by a U.S-supplied Israeli military bulldozer). Israel’s manufacture, possession and deployment of weapons of mass destruction are well known. But Colin Powell refused to include, even name, Israel in his answer to a question that asked about U.S. efforts to make the region free of WMD (at a Washington news conference with foreign journalists on April 15).
While many of the rich are raised in wealth, one in five American children is raised in poverty. Income disparities at the beginning of the 21st century are greater than ever before. But public awareness of poverty and malnutrition in the land specially “blessed” by the gods is almost non-existent. The United States is number one in wealth and power but number 26 in childhood mortality under the age of twelve. Nearly one-third of the food produced in the U.S. is wasted. One hundred billion pounds of safe, usable food is thrown away by farmers, restaurants, food stores, school and college dining halls as one in ten Americans go to bed hungry (13 million of them under age twelve). But despite such distress amidst plenty, its plutocrats proclaim to the world the "lofty" principles that under gird American society – “gender and race equality, class mobility, human rights, democracy”. The corporations and the wealthy have as a firm a hold of power in this society as ever. Their genius, so far, has been to make the vast majority believe that endless war, persecution of people who look “suspicious” and restrictions on everyone’s civil liberties are in the people’s own interest. In his powerful and moving memoir as a war correspondent covering various conflicts over the last decade, Chris Hedges (“War is a force that gives us meaning”, 2002) writes, “Historical memory is hijacked by those who carry out war. They seek, when memory challenges the myth, to obliterate or hide the evidence that exposes the myth as lie. The destruction is pervasive, aided by an establishment including the media, which apes the slogans and euphemisms parroted by the powerful by the powerful. Because nearly everyone is wartime is complicit, it is difficult for societies to confront their own culpability and the hate that led to it.” Surely this applies as much to Iraq under Saddam Hussein as to the U.S.A under George Bush. How different are al-Sahaf (the Iraqi Information Minister until a week ago who spoke of the valiant fight being waged in Baghdad against the invading U.S troops) and Fleischer (the White House mouthpiece who refused to characterize the “window of opportunity” bombing of the Presidential palace in Baghdad that claimed the lives of untold civilians as a criminal act)?
Critics of any and every Bush policy, be it on the endless “wars against terrorism” or on his economic policies favoring the super-rich, are reviled and called unpatriotic and anti-American. The shrill Ashcroft is revived from his slumber, in the interregnum between “wars” abroad, to resuscitate the homeland security “threats” and people’s anxieties. At a time of “war”, the puerile argument goes, people must rally around the President (however violent and idiotic he be). This is a recipe for disaster in the U.S and worldwide that can only affect millions of people, given the power and stranglehold exerted by this country around the globe.
What of the future? As the Nobel Peace Laureate Jody Williams reminded her audience at a recent talk in Farmington, “Emotion without action is irrelevant”. The most hopeful thing to come out of this tragic and dangerous beginning to the 21st century is the galvanizing movement of young and old across the world in opposition to the merciless greed of global corporations and their representatives in power, principally in the U.S. There has never been such coordinated mass opposition to the plans of the most dangerous rogue government on earth ever. This effort must not flag for the sake of the people of Syria, Lebanon, Iran, North Korea, the whole world even. The Bush administration contemptuously ignored the huge, unprecedented demonstrations across the globe. It exploited and then sidelined the United Nations. But people are increasingly realizing that the imperial wars are not only immoral and a thing of the past but they have devastating consequences for people everywhere, including those living in the rogue nation. The cost to the poor, the defenseless, the jobless, the people of color in the U.S. will be staggering. Students and workers, young and old, who desire peace with justice and fairness for all the world’s people have nothing in common with the Bush agenda. They may not have been able to stop the U.S. devastation in Iraq but they must continue to promote and disseminate the revolting truth. They must continue to organize against it and argue against it with renewed vigor. Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed in 1967, in opposing the brutal war against the Vietnamese people, that the United States of America was the major purveyor of violence in the world. It still is and by all counts, it has become even worse with the pre-emptive/preventive Bush doctrine on war. The message to war-mongerers in Washington from the broadest possible coalition of workers, scholars, peace-activists, artistes and students must be clear and unflinching, “There will be no more business as usual.”
Sadu Nanjundiah teaches physics at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, Connecticut, and works with the Coalition for Social Justice, a group of faculty and students at CCSU that discusses and acts on issues of peace and justice, locally and internationally. Email: email@example.com