Fallujah and the Reality of War
The assault on Fallujah has started. It is being sold as liberation of the people of Fallujah; it is being sold as a necessary step to implementing “democracy” in Iraq. These are lies.
I was in Fallujah during the siege in April, and I want to paint for you a word picture of what such an assault means.
Fallujah is dry and hot; like Southern California, it has been made an agricultural area only by virtue of extensive irrigation. It has been known for years as a particularly devout city; people call it the City of a Thousand Mosques. In the mid-90’s, when Saddam wanted his name to be added to the call to prayer, the imams of Fallujah refused.
U.S. forces bombed the power plant at the beginning of the assault; for the next several weeks, Fallujah was a blacked-out town, with light provided by generators only in critical places like mosques and clinics. The town was placed under siege; the ban on bringing in food, medicine, and other basic items was broken only when Iraqis en masse challenged the roadblocks. The atmosphere was one of pervasive fear, from bombing and the threat of more bombing. Noncombatants and families with sick people, the elderly, and children were leaving in droves. After initial instances in which people were prevented from leaving, U.S. forces began allowing everyone to leave - except for what they called “military age males,” men usually between 15 and 60. Keeping noncombatants from leaving a place under bombardment is a violation of the laws of war. Of course, if you assume that every military age male is an enemy, there can be no better sign that you are in the wrong country, and that, in fact, your war is on the people, not on their oppressors,, not a war of liberation.
The main hospital in Fallujah is across the Euphrates from the bulk of the town. Right at the beginning, the Americans shut down the main bridge, cutting off the hospital from the town. Doctors who wanted to treat patients had to leave the hospital, with only the equipment they could carry, and set up in makeshift clinics all over the city; the one I stayed at had been a neighborhood clinic with one room that had four beds, and no operating theater; doctors refrigerated blood in a soft-drink vending machine. Another clinic, I’m told, had been an auto repair shop. This hospital closing (not the only such that I documented in Iraq) also violates the Geneva Convention.
In Fallujah, you were rarely free of the sound of artillery booming in the background, punctuated by the smaller, higher-pitched note of the mujaheddin’s hand-held mortars. After even a few minutes of it, you have to stop paying attention to it and yet, of course, you never quite stop. Even today, when I hear the roar of thunder, I’m often transported instantly to April 10 and the dusty streets of Fallujah.
In addition to the artillery and the warplanes dropping 500, 1000, and 2000-pound bombs, and the murderous AC-130 Spectre gunships that can demolish a whole city block in less than a minute, the Marines had snipers criss-crossing the whole town. For weeks, Fallujah was a series of sometimes mutually inaccessible pockets, divided by the no-man’s-lands of sniper fire paths. Snipers fired indiscriminately, usually at whatever moved. Of 20 people I saw come into the clinic I observed in a few hours, only five were “military-age males.” I saw old women, old men, a child of 10 shot through the head; terminal, the doctors told me, although in Baghdad they might have been able to save him.
One thing that snipers were very discriminating about every single ambulance I saw had bullet holes in it. Two I inspected bore clear evidence of specific, deliberate sniping. Friends of mine who went out to gather in wounded people were shot at. When we first reported this fact, we came in for near-universal execration. Many just refused to believe it. Some asked me how I knew that it wasn’t the mujaheddin. Interesting question. Had, say, Brownsville, Texas, been encircled by the Vietnamese and bombarded (which, of course, Mr. Bush courageously protected us from during the Vietnam war era) and Brownsville ambulances been shot up, the question of whether the residents were shooting at their own ambulances, I somehow guess, would not have come up. Later, our reports were confirmed by the Iraqi Ministry of Health and even by the U.S. military.
The best estimates are that roughly 900-1000 people were killed directly, blown up, burnt, or shot. Of them, my guess, based on news reports and personal observation, is that 2/3 to ¾ were noncombatants.
But the damage goes far beyond that. You can read whenever you like about the bombing of so-called Zarqawi safe houses in residential areas in Fallujah, but the reports don’t tell you what that means. You read about precision strikes, and it’s true that America’s GPS-guided bombs are very accurate - when they’re not malfunctioning, the 80 or 85% of the time that they work, their targeting radius is 10 meters, i.e., they hit within 10 meters of the target. Even the smallest of them, however, the 500-pound bomb, has a blast radius of 400 meters; every single bomb shakes the whole neighborhood, breaking windows and smashing crockery. A town under bombardment is a town in constant fear.
You read the reports about X killed and Y wounded. And you should remember those numbers; those numbers are important. But equally important is to remember that those numbers lie - in a war zone, everyone is wounded.
The first assault on Fallujah was a military failure. This time, the resistance is stronger, better-armed, and better-organized; to “win,” the U.S. military will have to pull out all the stops. Even within horror and terror, there are degrees, and we - and the people of Fallujah - ain’t seen nothin’ yet. George W. Bush has just claimed a new mandate - the world has been delivered into his hands.
There will be international condemnation, as there was the first time; but our government won’t listen to it; aside from the resistance, all the people of Fallujah will be able to depend on to try to mitigate the horror will be us, the antiwar movement. We have a responsibility, that we didn’t meet in April and we didn’t meet in August when Najaf was similarly attacked; will we meet it this time?
Rahul Mahajan is publisher of the weblog Empire Notes (www.empirenotes.org), with regularly updated commentary on U.S. foreign policy, the occupation of Iraq, and the state of the American Empire. He has been to occupied Iraq twice, and was in Fallujah during the siege in April. His most recent book is Full Spectrum Dominance: U.S. Power in Iraq and Beyond. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Recent Articles by Rahul Mahajan