The Tigris and Euphrates
By Arundhati Roy
April 3, 2003
On the steel torsos of their
missiles, adolescent American soldiers scrawl colourful messages in
childish handwriting: For Saddam, from the Fat Boy Posse. A building
goes down. A marketplace. A home. A girl who loves a boy. A child who
only ever wanted to play with his older brother's marbles.
On March 21, the day after American and British troops began their illegal
invasion and occupation of Iraq, an "embedded" CNN correspondent
interviewed an American soldier. "I wanna get in there and get
my nose dirty," Private AJ said. "I wanna take revenge for
To be fair to the correspondent,
even though he was "embedded" he did sort of weakly suggest
that so far there was no real evidence that linked the Iraqi government
to the September 11 attacks. Private AJ stuck his teenage tongue out
all the way down to the end of his chin. "Yeah, well that stuff's
way over my head," he said.
According to a New York Times/CBS
News survey, 42 per cent of the American public believes that Saddam
Hussein is directly responsible for the September 11 attacks on the
World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. And an ABC news poll says that
55 per cent of Americans believe that Saddam Hussein directly supports
al-Qaida. What percentage of America's armed forces believe these fabrications
is anybody's guess.
It is unlikely that British
and American troops fighting in Iraq are aware that their governments
supported Saddam Hussein both politically and financially through his
But why should poor AJ and
his fellow soldiers be burdened with these details? It does not matter
any more, does it? Hundreds of thousands of men, tanks, ships, choppers,
bombs, ammunition, gas masks, high-protein food, whole aircrafts ferrying
toilet paper, insect repellent, vitamins and bottled mineral water,
are on the move. The phenomenal logistics of Operation Iraqi Freedom
make it a universe unto itself. It doesn't need to justify its existence
any more. It exists. It is.
President George W Bush,
commander in chief of the US army, navy, airforce and marines has issued
clear instructions: "Iraq. Will. Be. Liberated." (Perhaps
he means that even if Iraqi people's bodies are killed, their souls
will be liberated.) American and British citizens owe it to the supreme
commander to forsake thought and rally behind their troops. Their countries
are at war. And what a war it is.
After using the "good
offices" of UN diplomacy (economic sanctions and weapons inspections)
to ensure that Iraq was brought to its knees, its people starved, half
a million of its children killed, its infrastructure severely damaged,
after making sure that most of its weapons have been destroyed, in an
act of cowardice that must surely be unrivalled in history, the "Allies"/"Coalition
of the Willing"(better known as the Coalition of the Bullied and
Bought) - sent in an invading army!
Operation Iraqi Freedom?
I don't think so. It's more like Operation Let's Run a Race, but First
Let Me Break Your Knees.
So far the Iraqi army, with
its hungry, ill-equipped soldiers, its old guns and ageing tanks, has
somehow managed to temporarily confound and occasionally even outmanoeuvre
the "Allies". Faced with the richest, best-equipped, most
powerful armed forces the world has ever seen, Iraq has shown spectacular
courage and has even managed to put up what actually amounts to a defence.
A defence which the Bush/Blair Pair have immediately denounced as deceitful
and cowardly. (But then deceit is an old tradition with us natives.
When we are invaded/ colonised/occupied and stripped of all dignity,
we turn to guile and opportunism.)
Even allowing for the fact
that Iraq and the "Allies" are at war, the extent to which
the "Allies" and their media cohorts are prepared to go is
astounding to the point of being counterproductive to their own objectives.
When Saddam Hussein appeared
on national TV to address the Iraqi people after the failure of the
most elaborate assassination attempt in history - "Operation Decapitation"
- we had Geoff Hoon, the British defence secretary, deriding him for
not having the courage to stand up and be killed, calling him a coward
who hides in trenches. We then had a flurry of Coalition speculation
- Was it really Saddam, was it his double? Or was it Osama with a shave?
Was it pre-recorded? Was it a speech? Was it black magic? Will it turn
into a pumpkin if we really, really want it to?
After dropping not hundreds,
but thousands of bombs on Baghdad, when a marketplace was mistakenly
blown up and civilians killed - a US army spokesman implied that the
Iraqis were blowing themselves up! "They're using very old stock.
Their missiles go up and come down."
If so, may we ask how this
squares with the accusation that the Iraqi regime is a paid-up member
of the Axis of Evil and a threat to world peace?
When the Arab TV station
al-Jazeera shows civilian casualties it's denounced as "emotive"
Arab propaganda aimed at orchestrating hostility towards the "Allies",
as though Iraqis are dying only in order to make the "Allies"
look bad. Even French television has come in for some stick for similar
reasons. But the awed, breathless footage of aircraft carriers, stealth
bombers and cruise missiles arcing across the desert sky on American
and British TV is described as the "terrible beauty" of war.
When invading American soldiers
(from the army "that's only here to help") are taken prisoner
and shown on Iraqi TV, George Bush says it violates the Geneva convention
and "exposes the evil at the heart of the regime". But it
is entirely acceptable for US television stations to show the hundreds
of prisoners being held by the US government in Guantanamo Bay, kneeling
on the ground with their hands tied behind their backs, blinded with
opaque goggles and with earphones clamped on their ears, to ensure complete
visual and aural deprivation. When questioned about the treatment of
these prisoners, US Government officials don't deny that they're being
being ill-treated. They deny that they're "prisoners of war"!
They call them "unlawful combatants", implying that their
ill-treatment is legitimate! (So what's the party line on the massacre
of prisoners in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan? Forgive and forget? And
what of the prisoner tortured to death by the special forces at the
Bagram airforce base? Doctors have formally called it homicide.)
When the "Allies"
bombed the Iraqi television station (also, incidentally, a contravention
of the Geneva convention), there was vulgar jubilation in the American
media. In fact Fox TV had been lobbying for the attack for a while.
It was seen as a righteous blow against Arab propaganda. But mainstream
American and British TV continue to advertise themselves as "balanced"
when their propaganda has achieved hallucinatory levels.
Why should propaganda be
the exclusive preserve of the western media? Just because they do it
better? Western journalists "embedded" with troops are given
the status of heroes reporting from the frontlines of war. Non-"embedded"
journalists (such as the BBC's Rageh Omaar, reporting from besieged
and bombed Baghdad, witnessing, and clearly affected by the sight of
bodies of burned children and wounded people) are undermined even before
they begin their reportage: "We have to tell you that he is being
monitored by the Iraqi authorities."
Increasingly, on British
and American TV, Iraqi soldiers are being referred to as "militia"
(ie: rabble). One BBC correspondent portentously referred to them as
"quasi-terrorists". Iraqi defence is "resistance"
or worse still, "pockets of resistance", Iraqi military strategy
is deceit. (The US government bugging the phone lines of UN security
council delegates, reported by the Observer, is hard-headed pragmatism.)
Clearly for the "Allies", the only morally acceptable strategy
the Iraqi army can pursue is to march out into the desert and be bombed
by B-52s or be mowed down by machine-gun fire. Anything short of that
And now we have the siege
of Basra. About a million and a half people, 40 per cent of them children.
Without clean water, and with very little food. We're still waiting
for the legendary Shia "uprising", for the happy hordes to
stream out of the city and rain roses and hosannahs on the "liberating"
army. Where are the hordes? Don't they know that television productions
work to tight schedules? (It may well be that if Saddam's regime falls
there will be dancing on the streets of Basra. But then, if the Bush
regime were to fall, there would be dancing on the streets the world
After days of enforcing hunger
and thirst on the citizens of Basra, the "Allies" have brought
in a few trucks of food and water and positioned them tantalisingly
on the outskirts of the city. Desperate people flock to the trucks and
fight each other for food. (The water we hear, is being sold. To revitalise
the dying economy, you understand.) On top of the trucks, desperate
photographers fought each other to get pictures of desperate people
fighting each other for food. Those pictures will go out through photo
agencies to newspapers and glossy magazines that pay extremely well.
Their message: The messiahs are at hand, distributing fishes and loaves.
As of July last year the
delivery of $5.4bn worth of supplies to Iraq was blocked by the Bush/Blair
Pair. It didn't really make the news. But now under the loving caress
of live TV, 450 tonnes of humanitarian aid - a minuscule fraction of
what's actually needed (call it a script prop) - arrived on a British
ship, the "Sir Galahad". Its arrival in the port of Umm Qasr
merited a whole day of live TV broadcasts. Barf bag, anyone?
Nick Guttmann, head of emergencies
for Christian Aid, writing for the Independent on Sunday said that it
would take 32 Sir Galahad's a day to match the amount of food Iraq was
receiving before the bombing began.
We oughtn't to be surprised
though. It's old tactics. They've been at it for years. Consider this
moderate proposal by John McNaughton from the Pentagon Papers, published
during the Vietnam war: "Strikes at population targets (per se)
are likely not only to create a counterproductive wave of revulsion
abroad and at home, but greatly to increase the risk of enlarging the
war with China or the Soviet Union. Destruction of locks and dams, however
- if handled right - might ... offer promise. It should be studied.
Such destruction does not kill or drown people. By shallow-flooding
the rice, it leads after time to widespread starvation (more than a
million?) unless food is provided - which we could offer to do 'at the
Times haven't changed very
much. The technique has evolved into a doctrine. It's called "Winning
Hearts and Minds".
So, here's the moral maths
as it stands: 200,000 Iraqis estimated to have been killed in the first
Gulf war. Hundreds of thousands dead because of the economic sanctions.
(At least that lot has been saved from Saddam Hussein.) More being killed
every day. Tens of thousands of US soldiers who fought the 1991 war
officially declared "disabled" by a disease called the Gulf
war syndrome, believed in part to be caused by exposure to depleted
uranium. It hasn't stopped the "Allies" from continuing to
use depleted uranium.
And now this talk of bringing
the UN back into the picture. But that old UN girl - it turns out that
she just ain't what she was cracked up to be. She's been demoted (although
she retains her high salary). Now she's the world's janitor. She's the
Philippino cleaning lady, the Indian jamadarni, the postal bride from
Thailand, the Mexican household help, the Jamaican au pair. She's employed
to clean other peoples' shit. She's used and abused at will.
Despite Blair's earnest submissions,
and all his fawning, Bush has made it clear that the UN will play no
independent part in the administration of postwar Iraq. The US will
decide who gets those juicy "reconstruction" contracts. But
Bush has appealed to the international community not to "politicise"
the issue of humanitarian aid. On the March 28, after Bush called for
the immediate resumption of the UN's oil for food programme, the UN
security council voted unanimously for the resolution. This means that
everybody agrees that Iraqi money (from the sale of Iraqi oil) should
be used to feed Iraqi people who are starving because of US led sanctions
and the illegal US-led war.
Contracts for the "reconstruction"
of Iraq we're told, in discussions on the business news, could jump-start
the world economy. It's funny how the interests of American corporations
are so often, so successfully and so deliberately confused with the
interests of the world economy. While the American people will end up
paying for the war, oil companies, weapons manufacturers, arms dealers,
and corporations involved in "reconstruction" work will make
direct gains from the war. Many of them are old friends and former employers
of the Bush/ Cheney/Rumsfeld/Rice cabal. Bush has already asked Congress
for $75bn. Contracts for "re-construction" are already being
negotiated. The news doesn't hit the stands because much of the US corporate
media is owned and managed by the same interests.
Operation Iraqi Freedom,
Tony Blair assures us is about returning Iraqi oil to the Iraqi people.
That is, returning Iraqi oil to the Iraqi people via corporate multinationals.
Like Shell, like Chevron, like Halliburton. Or are we missing the plot
here? Perhaps Halliburton is actually an Iraqi company? Perhaps US vice-president
Dick Cheney (who is a former director of Halliburton) is a closet Iraqi?
As the rift between Europe
and America deepens, there are signs that the world could be entering
a new era of economic boycotts. CNN reported that Americans are emptying
French wine into gutters, chanting, "We don't want your stinking
wine." We've heard about the re-baptism of French fries. Freedom
fries they're called now. There's news trickling in about Americans
boycotting German goods. The thing is that if the fallout of the war
takes this turn, it is the US who will suffer the most. Its homeland
may be defended by border patrols and nuclear weapons, but its economy
is strung out across the globe. Its economic outposts are exposed and
vulnerable to attack in every direction. Already the internet is buzzing
with elaborate lists of American and British government products and
companies that should be boycotted. Apart from the usual targets, Coke,
Pepsi and McDonald's - government agencies such as USAID, the British
department for international development, British and American banks,
Arthur Anderson, Merrill Lynch, American Express, corporations such
as Bechtel, General Electric, and companies such as Reebok, Nike and
Gap - could find themselves under siege. These lists are being honed
and re fined by activists across the world. They could become a practical
guide that directs and channels the amorphous, but growing fury in the
world. Suddenly, the "inevitability" of the project of corporate
globalisation is beginning to seem more than a little evitable.
It's become clear that the
war against terror is not really about terror, and the war on Iraq not
only about oil. It's about a superpower's self-destructive impulse towards
supremacy, stranglehold, global hegemony. The argument is being made
that the people of Argentina and Iraq have both been decimated by the
same process. Only the weapons used against them differ: In one case
it's an IMF chequebook. In the other, cruise missiles.
Finally, there's the matter
of Saddam's arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. (Oops, nearly forgot
In the fog of war - one thing's
for sure - if Saddam 's regime indeed has weapons of mass destruction,
it is showing an astonishing degree of responsibility and restraint
in the teeth of extreme provocation. Under similar circumstances, (say
if Iraqi troops were bombing New York and laying siege to Washington
DC) could we expect the same of the Bush regime? Would it keep its thousands
of nuclear warheads in their wrapping paper? What about its chemical
and biological weapons? Its stocks of anthrax, smallpox and nerve gas?
Excuse me while I laugh.
In the fog of war we're forced
to speculate: Either Saddam is an extremely responsible tyrant. Or -
he simply does not possess weapons of mass destruction. Either way,
regardless of what happens next, Iraq comes out of the argument smelling
sweeter than the US government.
So here's Iraq - rogue state,
grave threat to world peace, paid-up member of the Axis of Evil. Here's
Iraq, invaded, bombed, besieged, bullied, its sovereignty shat upon,
its children killed by cancers, its people blown up on the streets.
And here's all of us watching. CNN-BBC, BBC-CNN late into the night.
Here's all of us, enduring the horror of the war, enduring the horror
of the propaganda and enduring the slaughter of language as we know
and understand it. Freedom now means mass murder (or, in the US, fried
potatoes). When someone says "humanitarian aid" we automatically
go looking for induced starvation. "Embedded" I have to admit,
is a great find. It's what it sounds like. And what about "arsenal
of tactics?" Nice!
In most parts of the world,
the invasion of Iraq is being seen as a racist war. The real danger
of a racist war unleashed by racist regimes is that it engenders racism
in everybody - perpetrators, victims, spectators. It sets the parameters
for the debate, it lays out a grid for a particular way of thinking.
There is a tidal wave of hatred for the US rising from the ancient heart
of the world. In Africa, Latin America, Asia, Europe, Australia. I encounter
it every day. Sometimes it comes from the most unlikely sources. Bankers,
businessmen, yuppie students, and they bring to it all the crassness
of their conservative, illiberal politics. That absurd inability to
separate governments from people: America is a nation of morons, a nation
of murderers, they say, (with the same carelessness with which they
say, "All Muslims are terrorists"). Even in the grotesque
universe of racist insult, the British make their entry as add-ons.
Arse-lickers, they're called.
Suddenly, I, who have been
vilified for being "anti-American" and "anti-west",
find myself in the extraordinary position of defending the people of
America. And Britain.
Those who descend so easily
into the pit of racist abuse would do well to remember the hundreds
of thousands of American and British citizens who protested against
their country's stockpile of nuclear weapons. And the thousands of American
war resisters who forced their government to withdraw from Vietnam.
They should know that the most scholarly, scathing, hilarious critiques
of the US government and the "American way of life" comes
from American citizens. And that the funniest, most bitter condemnation
of their prime minister comes from the British media. Finally they should
remember that right now, hundreds of thousands of British and American
citizens are on the streets protesting the war. The Coalition of the
Bullied and Bought consists of governments, not people. More than one
third of America's citizens have survived the relentless propaganda
they've been subjected to, and many thousands are actively fighting
their own government. In the ultra-patriotic climate that prevails in
the US, that's as brave as any Iraqi fighting for his or her homeland.
While the "Allies"
wait in the desert for an uprising of Shia Muslims on the streets of
Basra, the real uprising is taking place in hundreds of cities across
the world. It has been the most spectacular display of public morality
Most courageous of all, are
the hundreds of thousands of American people on the streets of America's
great cities - Washington, New York, Chicago, San Francisco. The fact
is that the only institution in the world today that is more powerful
than the American government, is American civil society. American citizens
have a huge responsibility riding on their shoulders. How can we not
salute and support those who not only acknowledge but act upon that
responsibility? They are our allies, our friends.
At the end of it all, it
remains to be said that dictators like Saddam Hussein, and all the other
despots in the Middle East, in the central Asian republics, in Africa
and Latin America, many of them installed, supported and financed by
the US government, are a menace to their own people. Other than strengthening
the hand of civil society (instead of weakening it as has been done
in the case of Iraq), there is no easy, pristine way of dealing with
them. (It's odd how those who dismiss the peace movement as utopian,
don't hesitate to proffer the most absurdly dreamy reasons for going
to war: to stamp out terrorism, install democracy, eliminate fascism,
and most entertainingly, to "rid the world of evil-doers".)
Regardless of what the propaganda
machine tells us, these tin-pot dictators are not the greatest threat
to the world. The real and pressing danger, the greatest threat of all
is the locomotive force that drives the political and economic engine
of the US government, currently piloted by George Bush. Bush-bashing
is fun, because he makes such an easy, sumptuous target. It's true that
he is a dangerous, almost suicidal pilot, but the machine he handles
is far more dangerous than the man himself.
Despite the pall of gloom
that hangs over us today, I'd like to file a cautious plea for hope:
in times of war, one wants one's weakest enemy at the helm of his forces.
And President George W Bush is certainly that. Any other even averagely
intelligent US president would have probably done the very same things,
but would have managed to smoke-up the glass and confuse the opposition.
Perhaps even carry the UN with him. Bush's tactless imprudence and his
brazen belief that he can run the world with his riot squad, has done
the opposite. He has achieved what writers, activists and scholars have
striven to achieve for decades. He has exposed the ducts. He has placed
on full public view the working parts, the nuts and bolts of the apocalyptic
apparatus of the American empire.
Now that the blueprint (The
Ordinary Person's Guide to Empire) has been put into mass circulation,
it could be disabled quicker than the pundits predicted.
Bring on the spanners.