Notes from the Imperium

And from a lost war (or the tunnel at the end of the dark).


By Tom Engelhardt

No place too small: While Pentagon officials swear that no draft is on the horizon (the horizon being, of course, November 2, 2004), a draft of sorts — it’s referred to as an “involuntary recall” — is underway; and that giant sucking sound you hear is Iraq sucking in American troops from garrisons as far away as South Korea (this is dubbed rearranging our “footprint” in the world), from Reserve and National Guard units being called up with increasing frequency, from soldiers being kept with their units in Iraq beyond their contracts, and from among the 5,674 Individual Ready Reservists, defined by the military newspaper Stars and Stripes as “former soldiers living as civilians and awaiting expiration of service obligations.” These — the involuntarily recalled in our all-volunteer military — are generally soldiers from combat-support units who had fulfilled their active-duty obligations and believed themselves done. They’re about to return because, as Gen. Richard A. Cody, the Army’s vice chief of staff, testified recently, “The Army is having trouble getting civilians to fill such assignments.” I wonder why.

Calling this a “worst case” scenario, Cody “blamed a surprising level of violence in Iraq that forced changes in deployment requirements several times over the last year.” Could it be that Donald Rumsfeld’s military privatization program has a downside? Did he consider that hired civilian corporations might not be quite as willing to deploy into that “surprising level of violence” as military units under orders?

In the meantime, at the distant island fringes of empire, the Pentagon is scraping the barrel’s bottom. John Ravelo of the Saipan Tribune reports that island policemen in reserve units are being stripped from the local force in an Iraq-driven call-up of reserves. He writes, “[Press Secretary for the Governor] Callaghan refused to officially disclose the number of police officers headed to Hawaii [for training], but said it was ‘enough to be a matter of concern for the Governor and the [DPS] commissioner.'”

Your Congress quietly at work: According to Arnaud de Borchgrave of the Washington Times (Iran in bombsights?), “A U.S. House of Representatives resolution last May 6 authorized ‘all appropriate means’ to end Iranian nuclear weapons development. The Senate is yet to vote on the resolution. But it leaves no doubt it is a green light for offensive military strikes against Iran’s three nuclear facilities…. While an ‘October surprise’ of U.S. air strikes to rid the world of Iran’s looming nuclear threat might help President Bush Nov. 2, the blowback of unintended consequences would further destabilize the world’s most volatile region — the Middle East.” (Conservative critic William S. Lind also recently suggested that an attack on Iran might prove to be Bush’s “October surprise.”)

But here’s my question: Where has the Senate been when it comes to giving carte blanche to the President to make war, not — forget the Clinton administration — love? If, even in a second Bush term, we — with or supporting the Israelis — attacked Iran, we might manage to create a completely police-less Saipan. That would be an accomplishment.

Notes from a lost November: Hand it to the Bush administration. Is there a paranoid fantasy or conspiracy theory in America that they’re not rushing to fulfill? Just when you think it’s too wild to take seriously — Poof! There’s Tom Ridge or John Ashcroft ready to carve your fantasies in stone. The latest thing to set the political Internet abuzz — and it’s vintage Bushiana — came from Michael Isikoff of Newsweek magazine whose piece began:

“American counterterrorism officials, citing what they call ‘alarming’ intelligence about a possible Qaeda strike inside the United States this fall, are reviewing a proposal that could allow for the postponement of the November presidential election in the event of such an attack, Newsweek has learned… sources tell Newsweek, Ridge’s department last week asked the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel to analyze what legal steps would be needed to permit the postponement of the election were an attack to take place.”

Given the latest splendidly vague terror warnings from Ridge, this was a genuine whopper and by last night it had morphed into a full-fledged news story and leaped onto network prime-time TV news shows. Well done, Bush officials!

And since we’re at it — why should everyone else have all the fun? — let me offer my own paranoid leap. There have been many suggestions for possible July-November surprises (one of the latest and most sobering being in a New Republic piece that reported top Bush officials pressuring Pakistan’s leadership to deliver HVTs — high-value targets or high al-Qaeda officials — dead or alive on July 26, 27, or 28, which just happen to be the first three days of the Democratic convention), or election theft (those dang computer touch screens and Florida felon lists), and now postponed elections. Not a soul seems to have given a thought to the period from November 3, 2004 to late January, 2005, should none of this round’s paranoid fantasies come true and Kerry be elected. Consider that for a moment. But do it quickly, before Ridge or Ashcroft can call a news conference.

Notes from a lost war (or the tunnel at the end of the dark)

Casualties off the front pages: Remember when American deaths in Iraq were front-page news? Well, has anyone noticed that, during and after the “transition to Iraqi rule” period, American casualties have largely dropped off the front pages of our papers? Picking up your morning rag, you may well have a sense that things have quieted down since an “Iraqi government” took control. Actually, based on the figures kept daily by the Antiwar.com website, quite the opposite has been the case — at least for American troops. Fewer car bombs may have gone off, but more Americans are dying. In the thirteen days before the surprise early “transition” non-ceremonies, there were 19 American military deaths in Iraq. In the thirteen days since, there have been 31.

And who — other than readers of Antiwar.com — would even know that last week we passed another landmark from hell: the thousand-death mark. Combined American casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan rushed past that mark at mid-week to no notice whatsoever.

I wonder whether that ban on photographing coffins returning from Iraq is slowly extending to living and dying Americans in Iraq itself. Are they all heading toward the back pages of our lives? Naomi Klein wrote in the Toronto Globe and Mail of a mother who decided not to accept any of this. It’s a remarkable tale:

“Last week, California resident Nadia McCaffrey defied the Bush administration by inviting news cameras to photograph the arrival of her son’s casket from Iraq. The White House has banned photography of flag-draped coffins arriving at air force bases, but because Patrick McCaffrey’s remains were flown into the Sacramento International Airport, his mother was able to invite the photographers inside. ‘I don’t care what [President George W. Bush] wants,’ Ms. McCaffery declared, telling her local newspaper, ‘Enough war.'”

Doonesbury and uncovered stories of the Iraq War: And speaking of what we don’t see, it took a comic strip to bring up the single most glaringly uncovered story of the war in the American press — the construction of somewhere between 6 and 14 permanent American bases in Iraq to the tune of $2-3 billion dollars. These bases — some evidently as large as those we once built in Vietnam — give the lie to much that we claim to be doing in Iraq. They explain the almost immediate post-war downsizing of the 400,000-man strong Iraqi army to a future force of 35,000 lightly armed soldiers without armored vehicles, heavy weaponry, or an air force. (Yes, Virginia, we weren’t ever planning to go anywhere. From its permanent bases in a peaceful, grateful Iraq, the Pentagon had long been prepared to “defend” the country until hell froze over.) With the exception of one front-page New York Times piece just after the war and a couple of pieces in recent months in the Chicago Tribune, these bases remain unwritten about, though stories have poured out on so many other topics in occupied Iraqi.

This is a shocking record on a matter of real importance, remedied this Saturday by Doonesbury‘s Gary Trudeau. Roland Hedley, his hilariously inept reporter, now based in Baghdad (“I’m Roland Hedley, alive…” “You mean ‘live,’ don’t you?” “It’s one day at a time here, Lou.”) offered the following in a strip this Saturday:

“Lou, despite all the excitement over the handover of sovereignty, the fact is the U.S. is building permanent bases in Iraq, digging in for the long haul. Publicly, some officials now concede U.S. troops won’t be coming home for at least five years!”

Lou then asks: “What do they say privately?”

Hedley replies: “10 years. If they’re drunk, 15.”

It tells us a great deal about our last couple of years in a media bubble that, on one of the crucial stories of the occupation, our press can be overshadowed by a comic strip. Oh, and while we’re on the subject, Trudeau did something that was unprecedented in comic-strip history. As most of you probably know, to highlight another of the largely hidden stories of this war — the heavy numbers of war-wounded being sent home to hospitalization without fanfare, often in the dead of night — he decided that his character BD, in a reserve unit in Iraq, would become one of them. So BD lost a leg in Iraq and has been undergoing rehabilitation ever since. For this, Trudeau took a fair amount of flak. Now, a military website, DCMilitary.com reports:

“For the most part, Soldiers recuperating at Walter Reed said the strip mirrored their experience… Sgt. Ray Mitchell, a Soldier in a light infantry unit with the 10th Mountain Division [who also lost a leg], said he’s been a regular reader of Doonesbury. ‘I try to catch the strip as much as I can. I really enjoy it,’ Mitchell said. ‘You have to bring reality into the world. People want to live in a happy-go-lucky world. Bringing reality into a comic strip is a good idea…The first initial strip related to what I was going through,’ he said, referring to the disorientation he felt when he was hit, which in the comic strip, involved a black panel of blankness when BD gets wounded, followed by his drifting in and out of consciousness with the disjointed chatter of concerned comrades anxious to staunch his wounds as an aural backdrop.”

Truce in Iraq: In first two weeks after the “transition,” our media largely gave the Bush administration a free ride in Iraq. It declared an unofficial, one-sided truce, generally painting a picture of the new Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, not as a former Baathist thug with next to no support in the country, or as the head of a former terrorist organization that placed car bombs in downtown Baghdad in the 1990s, or even as the CIA’s prospective strong-man (Newsweek on-line’s Christopher Dickey calls him our “anointed dictator in waiting”) of a reconstituted proto-Baathist regime, or as a politician whose first impulse was to “postpone” upcoming elections, but as a perfectly reasonable, if tough, semi-democrat and generally responsible soul who just happened to be unbearably eager to declare martial law in his country. (As Robert Fisk of the British Independent asked, “Who was the last man to impose martial law on Iraqis? Wasn’t it Saddam?”)

We are a people stunned by, engulfed by imagery, and surrounded by spin. We are swept along in a torrent of representations. As Todd Gitlin wrote in his illuminating book Media Unlimited, that’s our civilization, the ocean in which we swim or drown. So we’re inordinately impressed by appearances, by surfaces, by the look of things. We have an administration that has endlessly announced its public desire to put an “Iraqi face” on Iraq — as if Iraqis would have no idea that behind the “face” was a vast body of American troops. Perhaps it seems normal and unremarkable to us exactly because our own political campaigns, our political lives such as they are, take place largely on or through the TV set, and there our leaders are constantly donning comforting masks and offering distracting images of themselves as they imagine we would like them to be.

In the post-transition days, there was a remarkable amount of coverage in the vein of Alissa J. Rubin’s aptly headlined Los Angeles Times piece, “Premier Gets Off to Strong Start.” She began, “Although daunting challenges lie ahead, Allawi showed himself to be tough, politically savvy and able to navigate between American demands and Iraqi expectations in his first week on the job.” She then approvingly quoted Marina Ottaway, “a senior fellow specializing in nation-building at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace” as saying, “Allawi has done extremely well on two fronts: He’s managed to project the impression that he’s in charge despite the presence of the American troops, and he’s been very good at dodging questions he’s not ready to answer.”

“Projecting the impression…” — that’s the sort of thing that struck many American reporters in those first post-transition days. Later in her piece, Rubin added, “For the moment, such tactics are playing well with the Iraqi people.” But was this really a TV show? Could Iraqis not tell the difference between the dismal reality in which they were immersed and what Saddam Hussein at his arraignment — in a case of when-bad-men-say-good-things — described as “theater by Bush to help him with his election campaign”? Is putting an Iraqi face on things really enough? Perhaps it is — for Americans anyway, if you never report on those permanent bases. And let’s remember that much of the theatrics in Iraq at present is directly or indirectly aimed at the American public — or at least at our media and at the possibility of getting the horrors of Iraq off front pages and off screen until November.

Mahmoud Osman, a member of the former U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, put the matter succinctly: “The important thing for the Americans is to ensure the reelection of George Bush. The achievement of a specific accomplishment in Iraq, such as the transfer of power, increases, in the eyes of the Republican Party, the chances that Bush will be reelected.”

We’ve been through a version of this before and we should know how such stories tend to end. Just recall Richard Nixon’s policy of “Vietnamization” — a previous example of Americans putting a native face on an American-controlled war. The difference was that in Vietnam we had actual allies, however weak and corrupt. Our allies in Iraq, it seems, remain largely a group of former exiles. This is a sad story. As with much else, reportage of the sort we’re seeing at present is likely to turn on a pin when disaster strikes.

If you want a different viewpoint on this, consider Peter Beaumont’s Saddam paradox divides Iraqis in the British Observer:

“Last Thursday’s court appearance of Saddam, planned as it was to convince doubtful Iraqis that their country was once more back in their hands, seems to have backfired just as last week’s other momentous event — the secretive and low-key handover of power — only convinced them that they are right to be suspicious of anything involving the US… These were moments in the story of the troubled new Iraq that, for all the violence and instability and disagreement, for all the risk, should have forged new memories and expectations. Instead, it unfolded in secrecy and separation from the Iraqi people, jarringly managed by US officials for US consumption…

“Amid a sea of secrecy and anonymity it has left Saddam where he wants to be: a manipulative and charismatic killer, now self-proclaimed victim, at centre stage, surrounded by a host of faceless nobodies. He is the only character in a Samuel Beckett play rewritten for Iraq — evil, yes, but also uncertain, sometimes confused, robbed of his voice. It is for this reason, perhaps, that so many Iraqis say that they feel sorry for him.”

Who are we fighting anyway?: While we’ve been so intent on strapping that Iraqi face on Iraq, we’ve had a bit of a problem identifying a few of the actual faces in that country. In fact, our inability to do so not only explains some of the horrors of Abu Ghraib (panicked administration officials pushing for information on the insurgency by any means available), but represents an intelligence failure on a par with anything in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report released last Friday. Out of curiosity, where do all those multi-billions in “intelligence” funds actually go?

Bush administration and CPA officials have been claiming forever that there are only 5,000 members of the Iraqi insurgency. Now, the reliable Jim Krane of the Associated Press (Iraq Insurgency Larger Than Thought) raises the figure to 20,000 (including part-timers) and offers the following comments, based partly on information from “a U.S. military official in Baghdad, speaking on condition of anonymity”:

“The official and others told The Associated Press the guerrillas have enough popular support among nationalist Iraqis angered by the presence of U.S. troops that they cannot be militarily defeated. … One hint that the number is larger is the sheer volume of suspected insurgents — 22,000 — who have cycled through U.S.-run prisons. Most have been released. And in April alone, U.S. forces killed as many as 4,000 people, the military official said, including Sunni insurgents and Shiite militiamen fighting under the banner of a radical cleric. [Yet] there has been no letup in attacks… Most of the insurgents are fighting for a bigger role in a secular society, not a Taliban-like Islamic state, the military official said. Almost all the guerrillas are Iraqis, even those launching some of the devastating car bombings normally blamed on foreigners — usually al-Zarqawi…

“Civilian analysts generally agreed, saying U.S. and Iraqi officials have long overemphasized the roles of foreign fighters and Muslim extremists. Such positions support the Bush administration’s view that the insurgency is linked to the war on terror. A closer examination paints most insurgents as secular Iraqis angry at the presence of U.S. and other foreign troops.”

In A Time of Reckoning in the American Conservative magazine, Andrew J. Bacevich makes a simple point about the intelligence war the U.S. has so decisively lost:

“In a situation truly without precedent in all of American military history, American forces in Iraq have for more than a year been engaged in a full-fledged shooting war and still do not know whom they are fighting. The reliance on generic terms to describe the ‘terrorists,’ ‘insurgents,’ or ‘foreign fighters’ tells the story. Exactly who is the enemy? How is he organized? Who gives the orders? What are his aims? We don’t know. And as long as we don’t, the enemy will retain the initiative.”

Scott Ritter, the former UN weapons inspector who was laughed out of the media before the war when he insisted that Saddam probably had no weapons of mass destruction, suggests in Facing the Enemy on the Ground at the Alternet.org website that he knows who we are fighting and that the Bush administration “continues to misidentify the true nature of the Iraqi insurgency. As a consequence, the resistance will inevitably continue to flourish and grow until no force can defeat it, Iraqi or American.” He suggests that the Allawi regime will fail largely because Washington ignored and misunderstood a “transformation of the political dynamics” in post-Gulf-War-I Saddamist Iraq. “The Iraqi resistance,” he writes, “is… a product of planning years in the making. Rather than being absorbed by a larger Islamist movement, Saddam’s former lieutenants are calling the shots in Iraq, having co-opted the Islamic fundamentalists years ago, with or without their knowledge.”

They throw rocks, don’t they?: Scott Wilson of the Washington Post in what passes for an upbeat story in today’s Iraq reports that, in the Shiite slum of Sadr City in Baghdad (In Place of Gunfire, a Rain of Rocks),

“it is perhaps a measure of progress that U.S. soldiers… are feeling the sting of stones more often than bullets… [T]he daily rock fights between U.S. soldiers and ordinary Iraqis, many of them children, highlight the mutual antipathy that has built up since the handover of political power to an Iraqi government… Candy, once gleefully accepted in this part of Baghdad, is now thrown back at the soldiers dispensing it. The military partnership with new Iraqi security forces appears to be foundering on a mutual lack of respect. The Iraqi police occasionally ignore U.S. orders, described as recommendations by U.S. commanders in the days since the handover, to conduct night patrols in troublesome districts and prohibit Sadr’s militants from manning traffic checkpoints. The Iraqi National Guard has refused dangerous assignments, even when accompanied by U.S. troops…

“[On patrol in Sadr city], Sgt. Timothy Kathol, 24, of Amarillo, Tex., handed a bag of lollipops up to the gunner as the stones continued to rain down. ‘They throw rocks, we throw candy — really hard candy,’ Kathol said. ‘With sticks in it.'”

A couple of quotes from a superb piece by Christian Parenti in the Nation magazine, The Rough Guide to Baghdad, give a sense of just how desperate our situation there actually is. Referring to the Iraqi capital as “this politically diseased metropolis,” Parenti points out that “the only truly open road [into or out of the city] is the heavily patrolled route north through Kurdistan to Turkey or Iran” and that the only way in from Baghdad International Airport (itself the only moderately “safe” way for foreigners to reach the Baghdad area), is a “twenty-kilometer dash… called ‘RPG alley.’ This, despite the airport being contained within a huge US military base.” Nuff said.

Parenti, too, visited Sadr City and he noted several walls along a main drag, al-Radhewi Street, with big block letters in English spelling out “Vietnam Street.” When he inquired about its meaning from one of the armed members of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s “Mahdi army” the response was simply, “This is called Vietnam Street because this is where we kill Americans.”

It’s worth remembering that there is now a global audience; that we are not alone in writing scripts for Iraq; and that, after a fashion, we’re all now capable of watching the same programs.

Hints of things to come?: Yesterday, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi was punished by Japanese voters, in part for sending troops to Iraq. As Juan Cole comments, “Bush’s Iraq war may be the biggest setback for the international Right in decades.”

Read the rest of this post, as well as additional dispatches from Tom Engelhardt, at TomDispatch.com, a web log of The Nation Institute.