We Are the Barbarians: Consequences of Colonialism in Iraq
- by M. Junaid Alam
A significant thing: it is not the head of a civilization that begins to rot first. It is the heart.
- Aimé Césaire
Jaw agape and fangs unsheathed, American colonialism has lashed out with severe brutality against the newly-unified Iraqi resistance, counting on its military might to crush the aspirations of Iraqis who seek to liberate their country from foreign control. Relying so heavily on the force of arms against a people it claims to liberate, the US has inverted Clausewitz's famous dictum that war is a continuation of politics by other means; our policy now is politics as a continuation of war by other means.
But it so happens that this is a double-edged sword - with both edges thrust firmly into the heart of the occupation. For no matter how many Iraqi patriots America kills, ten more will spring forward for each who has fallen; and no matter how many are silenced by American bullets, the viciousness and arrogance with which those bullets were fired will speak loudly and convincingly to thousands of Iraqis who will be inspired to resist.
To illustrate our point it is necessary only to direct our gaze upon that great unfolding tragedy of Fallujah, the epicenter and icon of Iraqi resistance. US forces surrounded and attacked the city on the grounds of pursuing Iraqis who killed and then mutilated the bodies of four American mercenaries. The massive assault was carried out with the usual concern for civilian life: namely, none.
'Precision' weapons such as 2,000 lb. bombs and the massive Specter gunship, armed with four high-powered machine guns, were brought to bear against the town, as were attack helicopters and 60-ton tanks. Our troops employed such life-saving tactics as lobbing 18 tank shells into one house to kill one person and firing helicopter missiles at a rebel wielding a slingshot. (1) One Fallujah resident explained to the press, "As soon as the Americans see a group of people in the streets, they shoot at them, people venture out only if their homes risk being bombarded or if they must carry the dead or wounded to the city's clinics." A young Iraqi member of the US-created Civil Defense Corps saw "heavy bombings" with the town market hit, and "tanks ringing the town." (2) US snipers in the city, perhaps the only precision weapons deployed, have put their uniqueness to good use: shooting through ambulance windshields and killing their drivers. (3)
What were the broad consequences of this operation for the people of Fallujah? Thousands have fled and over 600 have been killed; the main hospital director said "most of the 600 dead in Fallujah were women, children, and elderly." (4) Another volunteer doctor reported that "The main hospital was taken over by the Americans. Doctors and patients had to evacuate to local health clinics." This resulted in even more suffering: "patients had to lie on the ground because of a shortage of beds. We were doing operations in the open. But we didn't have enough sterilizing equipment." He added, "About half the injured are women, children, and the elderly." (5) Those who needed to be operated upon received no anesthetics, which were "lacking", according to a Red Crescent official. (6) Such were the horrors under which thousands suffered and hundreds died.
Let us be honest with ourselves: this barbarous assault had nothing to do with capturing anyone. One never sets out to capture a handful of people by mounting a military assault on a town of 300,000,. Those rebels responsible for the four US deaths most likely melted away into more remote areas long ago. In fact, US officials have now dropped the demand for a hand-over of the offending rebels altogether. (7) No, this vicious attack upon an entire city bore the hallmarks not of any manhunt, but rather that of an arrogant power lashing out at what infuriates it most: humiliation.
For the open, unrestrained, and public attack on those four "security contractors" with guns in tow - probably on their way to kill Iraqis - marked a definitive crossing of that line in colonial relations which separates occupier and occupied, dominator and dominated. The destruction, dismemberment and hanging of the bodies of men who usually have their heels placed on the neck of the native represents a violent rejection of the rules of colonialism. Our forces, which throughout our history are used to burying our enemies alive in the sands or napalming and carpet-bombing them into oblivion, could not tolerate the native's unforgivable crime of raising his eyes to meet ours. Thus began an orgy of violence to render the native not only blind, but deaf, dumb, and dead.
But listen closely: the jarring sound of a thousand Starbucks café doors bursting open fills the air; and a thousand "liberals", their tempers hotter than the cappuccinos they wield, start shrieking: "You endorse barbaric violence! You have no absolute moral values!" What these sages fail to understand is that anti-colonial struggle does not unfold like pull-out sofa-beds in their living rooms, nor does it bloom like budding flowers in their gardens. As Frantz Fanon, the most powerful writer on colonialism and a famous figure of the Algerian liberation campaign against the French, wrote: "The violence with which the supremacy of white values is affirmed and the aggressiveness which has permeated the victory of these values…mean that, in revenge, the native laughs in mockery when Western values are mentioned in front of him [...] the colonized masses mock at these very values, insult them, and vomit them up."
More notable is the peculiar timing the liberal faction has chosen to invoke its noble "absolute moral values." Where were they when hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were dying of sanctions? Where were they when thousands more were being killed during the first phase of the war? The answer: precisely where they are now, on the sidelines or complicit in imperialism, when Iraqis are being made homeless, amputated upon without anesthetics, and gunned downed like wild beasts. Only when violence is being committed by a force completely out of their control do they raise a voice of indignant protest. Such consistent cowardice certainly takes the "absoluteness" of their values right out of them.
What our liberals fail to comprehend, our generals grasp with ease. Brigadier General Kimmit, when informed about Arab anger at seeing so many slain Iraqi innocents on TV, responded: "Change the channel…The stations that are showing Americans killing women and children are not legitimate news sources." (8) Any outlet shedding light on the havoc wrought by American armor, or focusing on the deaths of Iraqi women and children, is "not legitimate." That the hospital reports confirm these "not legitimate" channels is of course irrelevant; what is relevant is our racism, our dismissal of Arab life, the "legitimacy" of which is derived from firing the bullet rather than being pierced by it.
Kimmit himself knows this full well. But knowing the dialectics of colonialism, the general is also a part of it: the colonizer's side. His crass dismissal of the native's life, both in rhetoric and action, are strands of a thread trying to symbolically sow back together the bodies of those four dismembered hired guns - an attempt to sow back together the status and position of colonial power.
It is an attempt that will fail. Iraqis have already crossed the threshold of enduring resistance; the bridge beyond that threshold was laid by the same arrogance and brutality now being employed to sever it. A Baghdadi day-laborer who was long experiencing what a reporter called "humiliation, fear, anger, and depression," said, "in the last two weeks, these feelings blow up inside me. The Americans are attacking Shiite and Sunni at the same time. They have crossed a line. I had to get a gun." A young 13 year-old boy in Baghdad said, "We may be scared of [American] weapons. But we're not scared of them." (9)
The people have discovered, to borrow Fanon's words, "that the settler's skin is not of any more value than a native's skin; and it must be said that this discovery shakes the world in a very necessary manner…For if, in fact, my life is worth as much as the settler's, his glance no longer shrivels me up or freezes me…in fact, I don't give a damn for him. Not only does his presence not trouble me, but I am already preparing such efficient ambushes for him that soon there will be no way out but that of flight."
This is true not of one or two individuals but the entire city: the US press recently reported that the siege of Fallujah has "produced a powerful backlash in the capital. Urged on by leaflets, sermons, and freshly sprayed graffiti calling for jihad, young men are leaving Baghdad to join a fight that residents say has less to do with battlefield success that with a cause infused with righteousness and sacrifice." The American reporters also came upon a group of young men discussing the need to resist - among them "a dentist, a prayer leader, a law student, [and] a lieutenant colonel in the Iraqi police…" As one teenager hopped into a truck with other volunteers, he smiled and shouted to the reporters, "We will defeat you, God willing." (10)
Fallujah resonates with Iraqis beyond bravado and an increasing will to fight - it has had the thoroughly revolutionary effect of uniting the previously discordant Sunni and Shia groups in solidarity for a common cause. Last week in Baghdad, "Solemn announcements boomed from mosques…beseeching Iraqis for donations of blood, money and medical supplies for 'your sons and brothers struggling in Fallujah'. And across the capital, Shiite Muslims joined the Sunnis in rolling up their sleeves and reaching into their pockets." One poor old woman had arrived with the last food in her home, ready to donate "for my brothers in Fallujah". Both Sunnis and Shias "filled a tent erected behind the shrine, flexing and unflexing their fists to push blood from their veins into plastic sacks that would be carried to war wounded in Fallujah," a scene repeated across 70 Sunni mosques across Baghdad. (11)
A day later almost 200,000 Iraqis, "many of them Shias, crowded into the precinct of Baghdad's largest Sunni mosque to denounce the American occupation and pledge solidarity with the people of Fallujah" and the Shiite uprising. (12) The main preacher thundered, "The Americans invaded the land of Iraq, but they did not penetrate its people or their souls." He later declared, "The Americans are carrying out vicious terrorist attacks on the people of Falluja," and "hundreds of people wept" in response. Shias and Sunnis organized large aid convoys and led them toward Fallujah to relieve the plight of their fellow countrymen, bypassing or overrunning US military blockades. (13)
This heroic display of sacrifice and solidarity, achieved by a people beaten and battered time and time again, rings as a thundering indictment of those racist liberals and pundits who brandish the threat of "civil war" in Iraq to maintain our stranglehold on that country.
Of course, this has not prevented certain "practical men" from insisting on the feasibility of "pacifying" Fallujah and Najaf, of reestablishing control and crushing and isolating militants. For them, the superficial is the whole. The lull in violence in Fallujah, brought about by the partial cease-fire, combined with Sadr's signs of willingness to negotiate in Najaf, signal to them that the troubles are nearing an end.
But the dynamics of colonialism are not those of a set-piece battle. The fact that the colonial apparatus is negotiating with Sadr at all shows that they understand he is a force who must be reckoned with. Sadr's maneuvering to avoid a bloodbath in Najaf also shows that he is tactful, not suicidal. In an insurgency, there is no army on the battlefield to be destroyed; the army is the people, who can be mobilized at a moment's call with any number of light weapons.
The New York Times recently saw this process in motion: "The Khadamiya bazaar exploded in a frezy. Shopkeepers reached beneath stacks of sandals for Kalashnikov rifles. Boys wrapped their faces in black cloth. Men raced through the streets, kicking over crates and setting up barriers. Some handed out grenades. Within minutes this entire Shiite neighborhood in central Baghdad mobilized for war." (14) Given that mass support for the resistance has only spread, the idea that it will simply fizzle out as if by magic is utterly baseless.
The supposed lull in fighting does not even reflect actual conditions on the ground. On April 12, guerrillas shot down an Apache helicopter 3 miles outside Baghdad's airport and "cut off communications between military posts on a key road leading west from the city," where numerous ambush attacks have been launched. (15) These attacks also extend to the south of Baghdad, where "A convoy of flatbed trucks carrying M113 armored personnel vehicles was ambushed and burnt." US supply lines to Fallujah, Ramadi, and further forces down south have also been disrupted. (16)
Insurgents have also "sharply increased the sophistication, coordination and aggressiveness of their tactics" according to US Army officers, blowing up and crippling bridges and highways to be used by American convoys, reflecting what one colonel described as "a regional or even national level of organization." This has been precipitated by what another US major described as "a marriage of convenience between Sadr's militia and Saddam loyalists." (17)
But we must look behind the propaganda to truly grasp this remarkable development. The "Saddam loyalists", who were expected to blow up bridges to halt the American advance in March 2003, never materialized. They have taken action only now -and in cooperation with the poorest element of the Shia community. Why? We must admit that that these so-called "Saddam loyalists" were never loyal to Saddam - that they are in fact genuine nationalists within what was the Iraqi Army has been proven through both their past inaction and present action.
This applies even to Fallujah, where one US soldier said, "It's the fight that never came last year. I guess these guys didn't really want to die for Saddam. But all this anti-American feeling is now uniting them." (18) Such "anti-American feeling" is quite understandable, given that Iraqis are being murdered in assaults planned by American commanders who hold Nazi attitudes towards Arabs as "untermeschen", according to a senior British officer. (19)
The most desperate argument now being aired by assorted 'experts', however, is that regardless of the violence, all Iraq needs is to "move the political process forward." But the utter failure of the occupation authorities to exercise its political-diplomatic muscle in coping with the resistance is a good indication that those muscles have either atrophied or never existed. The Iraqi Governing Council almost completely fell apart when the atrocities in Fallujah took place; four members resigned and the others were forced to denounce it in strong terms as "collective punishment" to avoid appearing like complete puppets in front of the populace. (20)
Even the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, trained and funded by the US, has failed the occupation. A whole battalion refused to serve in Fallujah, announcing "We did not sign up to fight Iraqis." One Iraqi soldier, whose comrades were jailed for not partaking in the fighting, declared, "How could an Iraqi fight an Iraqi like this? This meant that nothing had changed from the Saddam Hussein days. We refused en masse."(21) Others simply dropped out or defected to the resistance.
The response of American officials has been laughably pathetic. One general blithely announced, "The lines are blurring for a lot of Iraqis right now, and we're having a lot of problems with security functions right now." (22) The truth of the matter is that the lines are not "blurring" but sharpening, as more and more Iraqis come to see the undesirability of colonialism and the violence with which it announces its presence.
No credible occupation-backed domestic government or military force exists. It is therefore not possible to speak of any legitimate political process in the colonial context. Come the June 30th "handover", there will be nothing to hand over to anyone and no one to hand anything over to. No amount of violence or sophistry will suffice to inflate this farce enough to prevent its puncturing by that demand which many Iraqis are now willing to lay down their lives for: freedom.
Implicit in any recognition of this demand for freedom is an obligation upon the citizens of that nation which is denying freedom's fulfillment: absolute, unwavering, and resolute struggle against the platform of war by the people of the United States. This is, in essence, a demand to re-civilize ourselves. We must shatter the illusions crafted by our own elite that so often send us cowering into the corners of hatred and paranoia against this or that invented or exaggerated demon.
It is high time for us to cease imagining that we are merely "defending" ourselves against ubiquitous - and convenient - "barbarians at our gates." Let us instead open our eyes, and look upon those charred, mangled gates of Chile, Nicaragua, Indonesia, Vietnam, Palestine and now Iraq with an honest gaze. Let us angle away from the homes and bodies of the racial Other those torches we have been wielding so violently for decades, and instead aim them towards our own very real demons of racism and oppression to set them aflame; in their burning fires we may yet illuminate our own humanity and rediscover our innate connection with peoples abroad.
M. Junaid Alam, 21, of Boston, is co-editor & webmaster of Left Hook. He takes and dishes out the heat at firstname.lastname@example.org