A Year Of War
By Robert Fisk
18 March, 2004
The Independent, UK
impact of the cruise missiles can still be seen in the telecommunications
tower across the Tigris. The Ministry of Defence still lies in ruins.
Half the government ministries in Baghdad are still fire-stained, a
necessary reminder of the cancer of arson that took hold of the people
of this city in the first hours and days of their "liberation".
But the symbols
of the war are not the scars of last year's invasion - we cannot say
"last year's war", because the war continues to this day.
No, the real folly of our invasion can be seen in the fortresses that
the occupiers are building, the ramparts of steel and concrete and armour
with which the Americans have now surrounded themselves. Like Crusaders,
they are building castles amid the people they came to "save",
to protect themselves from those who were supposed to have greeted them
In even the smallest
streets of Baghdad, you can smell the orange blossom, both sweet and
bitter, a little paradise amid the muck and the stench of benzine. But
you can also hear the sound of an alienated population, for whom every
problem, every indignity, every mishap, every tragedy, is the fault
and responsibility of its occupiers. Just as we blame Blair - and Blair
and Bush only - for the war, so Iraqis blame those who have come to
run their country: Americans, British, Westerners, foreigners. Oh, how
different we are. Oh, how different they are. Never the twain shall
meet. But we are not so different.
It was meant to
be a Boy's Own war. That's how our leaders present death and blood and
betrayal to us these days. And, strangely enough, that's how war is
presented to the Arabs, too, by their dictators and kings. When Saddam
sent his legions into Iran in 1980, he dubbed their aggression the "Whirlwind
War" - part two, 11 years later, was to be "The Mother of
All Battles". We had Desert Shield and Desert Storm and, last year,
Operation Free Iraq, and now the Americans - fighting the resistance
they could never have imagined would challenge their occupation of Iraq
- are initiating Operation Iron Anvil, Operation Iron Hammer and, even
this week, in Afghanistan, Operation Mountain Storm.
Our folk memory
of the Second World War (for most of the British population, like Tony
Blair's Cabinet, have little direct recollection of the 1939-45 conflict)
is now invoked as a trailer to the big picture, a necessary part of
a familiar narrative to war. The man with the moustache - Nasser or
Saddam - is like the little ex-corporal with the moustache who sent
the Luftwaffe over England in 1940. And the men who were going to defend
us against the Beast of Baghdad, the Hitler of the Tigris (albeit that
Saddam was a fan of Stalin) were Churchills, Roosevelts, titans in battle
against evil. Churchill, I fear, would have had no time for the little
men who wish to sit on his historical throne, with their desperate sincerity,
their arrogance, their constant use of "absolutely" and "completely".
Thus when the path
to war in Iraq was being laid down for us just over a year ago, the
old 1939-45 memory bank was dusted out. Those who did not wish to confront
Saddam were Chamberlains, appeasers, weaklings, potential fifth-columnists.
Those who were ready to de-fang the monster were marching off to battle
like the Desert Rats of * * Alamein. During the 1991 liberation of Kuwait,
the British commander, General Sir Peter de la Billiere, actually wore
an original Eighth Army Desert Rat patch on his shoulder. At Christmas
in 1990, as British troops waited in the Saudi desert to attack the
Iraqis, the BBC mixed entertainment for the troops and their families
with newsreel pictures of British tanks in the Western Desert in 1942.
There were some
slips. When Blair told us we must support George Bush, he reminded us
all of how America had come to our rescue in the Second World War, mercifully
neglecting to mention the profitable period of neutrality the United
States endured until the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December
1941. American commentators recalled for their British audiences that
the US had declared war on Hitler. This was untrue. It was Hitler who
declared war on America in 1941.
And if we dared
recall that Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defense Secretary, had been shaking
hands with Saddam back in the early 1980s - when he was at his most
genocidal - Churchill was brought back. I recall one of the US right-wing
"commentators" - in this instance from the Brookings Institution
- reminding me during a BBC interview that "Churchill said you
sometimes have to make a pact with the devil". Not so, I said.
Churchill made no such statement. What he did tell John Colville after
the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 was that "if Hitler
invaded Hell, I would at least make a favourable reference to the Devil
in the House of Commons". Rumsfeld was making a lot more than a
In the days before
we invaded Iraq a year ago, the threats also had to have a Cold War
as well as a Second World War flavour. Condoleezza Rice, Bush's specialist
on threats and terror, warned us about a "mushroom cloud"
- the Russian version, presumably, rather than Hiroshima or Nagasaki
- and the word "holocaust" was invoked. Blair's preposterous
"dossier" - and journalists went along with this ridiculous
description of the Prime Minister's ill-written and meretricious document
- suggested obliquely that London could be attacked; take a look at
the Express newspapers' report to this effect, which our most senior
intelligence man saw nothing wrong with when he was questioned at the
Hutton inquiry. Here again were the old nightmares - Blitz on London.
And our European
friends and allies? Should they dare to oppose our rush to war, they
were gutless, cowardly and ungrateful to the Americans for liberating
them from under the heel of Nazi Germany. "Old Europe", to
use Rumsfeld's disgraceful expression, was collaborationist, potentially
Nazi or - in France's case, of course - Peacute;tainist. Poor old France.
When The Wall Street Journal sent its correspondent back to the 1944
D-Day beaches, it was gratifying to find that the still grateful French
who live there remembered that the Americans had given their lives for
their liberation, not for their future political obedience. Germany
was a more difficult nation to condemn because the Second World War
parallels couldn't be applied. The Germans, after all, could hardly
be abused for not being warlike enough. It's chilling to reflect, however,
that when I was talking to Osama bin Laden about attacks on Americans
in 1997, he compared those bombings to the French resistance against
Nazi occupation during the Second World War. The conflict of 1939-45
is a mountain at which we can all quarry away.
All of this, however,
was a narrative that could be - and was - combined with war for the
bloke on the street. This began, I suspect, before and during the Kosovo
war, when Hitler was dug up again (rather inappropriately, in view of
Yugoslavia's wartime courage against the Nazis) to further blacken the
name of the Beast of Belgrade. This was the first post-war war - if
you take my meaning - in which the Germans were involved. Thus reporters
at Nato headquarters were encouraged to call the Luftwaffe the "German
Air Force". Slobodan Milosevic himself, of course, had provided
the images to go with the Holocaust memories: the long lines of dispossessed
and brutalised Kosovo Albanians streaming into Macedonia.
But Nato set the
stage. We had the slightly comical, cockney spokesman Jamie Shea, always
ready with a good Hobbesian quotation and a quick way of dismissing
questions that might prove troublesome. When a Nato plane bombed a train
on the Gurdulice bridge in Serbia, up he popped with a camera-video
of the bomb - too late to abort because of the speed with which the
train approached the bridge - without mentioning that the film had been
speeded up and, much more damagingly, that after the train stopped,
the pilot went on to bomb the bridge again.
When Nato bombed a narrow road-bridge and killed a party of civilian
rescuers in a second raid, Shea blandly pointed out that the bridge
could carry a tank. It couldn't; it wasn't wide enough. When Nato killed
patients at a hospital, Shea described it as a military target. Post-war
enquiries by The Independent proved that Yugoslav troops had been hiding
in the hospital basement. Nato must have known this, just as it knew
about the patients. So it bombed the hospital anyway. And got away with
The missile that killed hundreds of Iraqis in an air-raid shelter in
Baghdad in 1991 become a turning point in the war. The old canard about
Iraqi anti-aircraft missiles exploding among Iraqis collapsed when Brent
Sadler of CNN - the network briefly doing its job of telling us the
truth - produced part of a cruise missile that had exploded in a Baghdad
Nato tried the same
game when it bombed a Kosovo Albanian refugee convoy in 1999, suggesting
that Yugoslav planes had attacked the civilians. On that occasion, it
was The Independent that found the computer codings on the shrapnel,
which proved the bombs were Nato's. But by and large, Nato's bloke-in-the-street
approach worked. Milosevic was such an ugly character that we could
forget his prominent role in the 1995 Dayton accord - when he was fecirc;ted
by Richard Holbrooke, the US chief negotiator, who wanted to get US
troops into Bosnia without a battle, and when the Kosovo Albanians were
witheringly told to shut up - and we could, too, ignore the fine print
of the 1999 Rambouillet peace talks over Kosovo. An annexe to the proposed
agreement stated that the Serbs had to allow Nato access to all of Serbia's
roads and railways, radio stations, territory and frontiers - something
no sovereign nation would ever accept. Thus was the path to war concreted
In the months leading
up to last year's invasion of Iraq, I suspect that this was remembered
all too well in Whitehall. The Blair "dossier" was worthy
of Jamie Shea, its catalogue of human-rights abuses - albeit in some
cases the re-heating of dubious material already 11 years old - contained
lies by omission. It recalled the Shia Muslim rioting in Basra in 1991
and Saddam's subsequent repression without once mentioning that it was
we, Britain and America, who had urged these poor people to rebel and
then betrayed them by leaving them to Saddam's mercy. Which is not that
different to General Wesley Clark's 1999 declaration that Nato was bombing
Serbia to put Kosovo Albanian refugees back in their homes - even though
most of them had been in their homes when Nato began bombing.
I also suspect that
one of the principal reasons why so many tens of thousands of Britons
- and Europeans - marched against the war was not only because they
believed the war was unjust and based on lies, but because they sensed
that they were being talked down to, treated as children, treated with
disrespect by Blair and his supporters. Britain's Minister for Europe,
Denis MacShane, gave the game away in Brussels just before the invasion
of Iraq when he told British critics that it was sometimes a prime minister's
job to "guide" his people. Europeans did not need to be reminded
that the German for "guide" is F?hrer.
And I rather think that this is what Blair now believes he is - a "guide"
who leads his people because of his own moral clarity. It was the Irish
prime minister, Eamon de Valera, who once said that when he wanted to
know what the * * people of Ireland thought, he had only to look into
his own heart. Alas, this is what Blair thought when he went to war.
Our feelings, our views, our beliefs, our long-held convictions and
our arguments didn't count. Because he knew best. If we could only see
the intelligence material on Iraq that passed across his desk, Blair
told the House of Commons, we would not be questioning him about the
war. Of course, now that we know exactly what was passing across Blair's
desk, we know we were right to be suspicious.
And yet - the "and
yet" is an important part of every Middle East story - there is
an eerie, disturbing parallel, almost a mirror image of our own childlike
walk to war, among the very people we invaded. Historically, we have
provided most of the Middle East's dictators, funded them, armed them,
supported them or (if they nationalised the Suez Canal, attacked Americans
in Berlin or invaded Kuwait) bombed them. What we have never been able
to explain is their tenacity; or, more to the point, their subject people's
ability to lie docile under their heels. We used to ask: why don't the
Iraqis get rid of Saddam? And we forgot how few Germans dared risk the
ferocity of Hitler's revenge.
But we also have
to face a fact: that Arab societies seem to be uniquely capable of absorbing
these dictatorships, of playing along with the 99.9 per cent presidential
election victories, and the secret policemen and the torture chambers,
and the lies and distortions - able even (here is the difficult part)
to give real loyalty to the monsters we decided should rule them.
The French have
a very good word for this: infantilisme. Many Arab populations have
indeed been "infantilised" by their leaders and regimes. In
private, they may cast their eyes to the ceiling to show their abhorrence
of the regime, but in front of an audience their enthusiasm might almost
be real. And I suspect that it often is real. I recall a very intelligent
Syrian lady who, in private, would always criticise the late president
Hafez Assad. Could I believe how stupid the regime is, how little Assad
understands the world or, indeed, Syria? Did I realise how the Syrian
people would be happy when his regime ended? Yet when I met her the
day after Assad's death, this same woman turned to me with tears in
her eyes. "Robert, you cannot understand how we feel," she
cried. "He was a father to us, a real father."
And I think she
meant it. Because dictatorship does not just bestow brutality and fear
upon a society. It takes from the necks of grown people the yoke of
blame, the burden of responsibility. They can forget Western adult cares
- where to send the children to school, which political party to vote
for, how to find the best tax adviser, how to resolve women's rights,
equality, crime, social injustice. Under the dictatorship, the people
are returned to their childhood. They can live for ever as children,
forever young, nursed and loved by the Great Father, the Caliph, the
Sultan, he whom God has chosen to protect them and guide them, a guide
who has only to look into his own heart to know what his people think.
Eternal youth is
what they are offered in return for their loyalty. True, the price of
infidelity is too terrible to contemplate - certainly too terrible to
endure physically - but these are difficult times. The Great Father
has to enact emergency laws for us. They are in our interest. And who
are we to reject this benevolence when foreigners - Americans like Rumsfeld,
for example - turn up to shake our leader by the hand and to extend
to us the good relations of the West?
I rather think that
this explains the patriarchal society that exists in the Arab world.
The father who has no role in his society - unless he is a party apparatchik,
in which case a new set of childlike rules comes into play - can only
rule at home, a place in which his word, his law, his wishes are sacrosanct.
Unable to play a role in real society, he mimics this role inside his
He becomes the dictator
whose portrait hangs in every home, indeed (for this was the case in
Iraq) often in every bedroom. He decides what his children should do,
whom they should marry, what his wife should think. A visit from a secret
policeman - always supposing the father is not a policeman himself -
is an event of fear and potential humiliation. All the more important,
then, for the father to appease the policeman, to be his friend and
then to reassert his own power in the house.
In earlier days,
Saddam would turn up unexpectedly at the home of a poor family in Baghdad
or Tikrit to hear what the people were thinking. He wanted to know their
fears and concerns and complaints as well as what made them happy. Up
to a point, he was told: the sewers that flooded, the houses that were
badly built, the hospitals that did not immediately accept patients.
And it was in Saddam's interest to listen and hear what his people might
be thinking before he stored it in his own heart. It was Saddam's version
of Tony Blair's Big Conversation. The Iraqi television cameras would
be there, the secret policemen playing the role of spinmeisters just
in case things got out of control.
Arabs may think
that all this is unfair. A combination of historical tragedy and cultural
chance - the Islamic faith, the Caliphate, the political and military
encroachment of the West at the very time when the Muslim world might
have shared a renaissance with Europe - can account for present-day
dictatorships in the Middle East, along with our own ruthless colonisation.
Didn't Germans behave in much the same way under Hitler, Italians under
Mussolini, the Spanish under Franco?
But it remains true
that Iraqi society was "infantilised" by Saddam. How else
can we account for its dogged loyalty during the appalling eight-year
war with Iran, when Muslim Shia fought Muslim Shia with human-wave attacks
and poison gas? They were people who had no responsibility, who were
told what to say and read and think, and who were - perhaps, in some
dangerous way - the happier for it.
When Iraqis tell me today that "things were better under Saddam",
they want to suggest that they had law and order and dictatorship rather
than freedom and anarchy (the twin blessings Bush and Blair have brought
them). But I also darkly fear that they look back to an age when they
had no responsibility, when they could cast aside their cares and their
powers of enquiry, when certainties were cast in iron, when love was
unquestioning, however corrupt.
Yet this is what
I suspect we now share: the Iraqis who lived through Saddam's rule,
and we who now go to war so blithely, who now occupy the lands of other
people with such sublime certainty. We feel a need - or at least our
leaders feel the need - to have a childlike society, where dissent is
derided or ignored, where wisdom and integrity and truth are the sole
characteristics of those who lead us and those who give their support
to those leaders.
No, Blairite Britain
and Bush's America are not Saddam's Iraq. But societies require what
Coleridge called the "willing suspension of disbelief". We
must trust. We must agree. We must accept. We must go along with what
our leaders want, we must - an unhappy phrase from the Hitler period
- "help to give the wheel a shove".
This is the legacy of the Iraq war, which is now a year old and shows
no sign of ending. We are all children now.
© 2004 The