Liberation at Gunpoint

by Angana Chatterji

Dissident Voice

May 6, 2003


In Baghdad, the devastation of war, incomprehensible disarray. The desperation in children’s eyes, the twisted laughter of survival. Since March 19, 14,000 bombs have rained on Iraq. Minimally, 2000 have died. How do you measure violation? How do you compensate for it?


Myths project parallels between the United States invasion of Iraq and the Allied intervention in Nazi Germany. The United States fought with valour for Europe’s sanity. Yet, if we delve deeper into the politics of truth in the making of history we will uncover that the emasculation of Germany through the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles contributed to the triumph of fascism. We will find that, in 1939, America turned away "St. Louis," the German transatlantic liner carrying 937 refugees. Most were Jewish émigrés. America did not enter the war until the tragedy of Pearl Harbour. It responded with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, "peace" through unprecedented destruction. America fractured the Nuremberg trials to secure Germany’s support in fighting Soviet communism. America granted asylum to Nazi scientists. It is too easy to glorify a nation’s past and silence stories of complicity.


Let us remember that Iraq is not Nazi Germany. It is a different place in a different time. Much of the world was against this war and the ensuing occupation, but fear of alienating the United States has weakened official dissent. In a new world, the lone superpower is acting to ensure its dominance. It is, at the turn of a century, a sad testimony to an era in which the world confronted colonialism, fascism, enslavement and segregation. The postcolonial world has been unequal from the start, with an international order dominated by the United States and European nations.


Saddam Hussein, the dictator, has fallen. The Iraqi people are celebrating that fact. America cannot confuse this with an affirmation of the United States onslaught on Iraq. What is to become of post-war Iraq? Saddam Hussein’s dreaded police are back on the streets, stamped, "clean" and "ready for duty" by the United States. Is this the security that America promised? As the Iraqi National Museum was looted, a company of United States Marines in armoured vehicles was guarding the Iraqi Oil Ministry. Is this independence, to leave people without a history?


As we count, there are 164 Coalition casualties. Who fought this war? The colour of collateral damage is muddy. The front lines are crowded with African-Americans, who comprise 19.7 per cent of the soldiers on active duty. Thirty five percent of the troops are people of colour even as 79.6 per cent of Americans are white. Military recruitment is fervent on school campuses, especially in underprivileged minority and working class neighbourhoods. Currently, of the 535 members of Congress, only four have a direct relationship to the United States armed forces. The burden of "service" is disproportionately borne by the economically marginalised and the socially targeted.


What next? Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Iran, Venezuela? Rich with oil, ripe for immiseration? After Iraq, will the United States invade North Korea? Or, is the message to small nations, "acquire the bomb, and big brother will leave you alone"? At home, America watches the war on television, punctuated by commercials that sell us cars, drugs, vacations. The comfort of oblivion to avoid the misfortune of insight. The reportage mimics the administration’s language, telling us stories about the valour of "good guys" and the cowardice of "bad ones". One might mistake Baghdad for a football field. The human faces of this war are American soldiers and their families. Few brown or Muslim faces are seen on American television, few Iraqi children, women, widows. Bunker busters were dropped on residential complexes, yet Iraqi casualty figures appear in small print.


The United States says that Iraqis must select their leaders, not have them imposed from the outside. Then why the plan for puppet regimes? In direct contradiction, the United States is preparing a post-war tenure in Iraq to usher in a pro-American government. This is liberation at gunpoint. What role will the international community have in post-war decisions? Will America accept Iraq’s dissent to the occupation? Will there be transparency and accountability in how Iraq’s oil is managed? Will the United States re-establish Iraq so she can defend herself?


The United States and coalition forces are contradicting the provisions of the Geneva Convention that chart the responsibilities of an occupying power. Are Iraqi deserters incarcerated by Kurdish or United States military in northern Iraq being granted prisoner of war status? About 225,000 Iraqis have been killed or disappeared during Saddam Hussein’s rule. A United States championed Iraqi-led judicial process sketched by the Pentagon cannot prosecute Iraqis charged with past crimes. The Iraqi judicial system is deeply impacted and cannot be repaired with technical assistance from the United States. For it to be ethical, this process must take place before an international tribunal. Forced evictions, deaths, destruction, clashes between Ba’ath party officials prevail in Kirkuk. What is to become of the Kurds, Turkomans, Assyrians? About 120,000 minorities have been expelled since 1991 in the Arabisation of northern Kurdish provinces. About 100,000 Kurds were murdered or have vanished. How will the United States attend to the demands of Iraq’s minorities?


Who is going to rebuild Iraq? Humanitarian agencies are concerned that the invaders, the United States and the United Kingdom, are the primary states that will mount and benefit from the reconstruction. American forces will stay on to remake Iraq. Why? Because it is more important than Afghanistan! Remake in whose image? Estimates calculate 20 billion dollars each year, for the next few years. Where will the funds come from? Occupation for how long? How long does it take to impose a democracy? How is it possible? Especially when you invade, disrespect and subordinate a nation. This war has facilitated a breakdown in Iraq and international law. Are these the conditions in which to empower a will to change?


Today, the United States feels a self-righteous obligation to dictate the pathways to freedom to an unwilling world. Immense power makes for immense dreams. This liberation of the Islamic world is perceived by many as a machination in Christianity’s will to dominance over Islam, the cultural companion to economic imperialism. This invasion is based on assumptions that mask the complexities at play in arbitrating Islam’s experiments with democracy in the Middle East. It refuses to understand the link between colonialism and the postcolonial present.


On the streets of Baghdad, turbulent looting is a heartbreaking testimony to how brutalisation works, to the indignity that informs life, and makes aspirations horrific. For the destitute across the word, this is a symbol, repeated over and over. People transformed into thieves on their lands, denied livelihood, repressed and tortured, enacting cycles of violence and destruction. The belly aches, hearts clench in despair in the winding pathways heaped and layered with life. What have we permitted? The night is a long journey of self-reflection. In the early hours of the day, history is in mourning.


Angana Chatterji is a professor of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco (http://www.ciis.edu/faculty/chatterji.htm). Email: Angana@aol.com



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