What 5 Years Buy
Or should we say 17 years as Col. Daniel Smith, U.S. Army (Ret.) reminds us this week? However we count this anniversary, we finish this week approaching the 4,000 mark for dead American soldiers. How many Iraqis have died during our invasion and subjugation of their country is unknown – dead Iraqis are not counted by our media or our leaders. And those shown become an abstraction as Erica Bouris writes:
And yet the numbers tumble out; 81,632-1,120,000 Iraqi civilians dead. How could we be so unsure? How could we not know whether 1,038, 368 people celebrated their eighth birthdays or graduated from high school or handed their daughters off in marriage? We are a bit more confident about our estimates of Iraqi refugees, 2.2-2.4 million (it helps that other countries are trying to count them as their cities and slums swell uncomfortably). But here too we don’t know whether the intended birthday trinkets were left behind, whether education was abandoned such that gutters could be swept or handouts could be taken in the streets of Damascus and Iran, or whether elderly fathers were left behind, too frail to make the trip outside Iraq.
Images of these victims are rare on the mainstream news and generally when they appear, perhaps as background snippets to a discussion of troop strategy, we cannot quite move beyond this level of Arab as abstraction. We can’t quite be moved at the gut towards a glimmer that we insist is the glimmer of a shared humanity. We may call these infractions human rights violations, we may count them and track them and remember to read these numbers most days of the week, but I have only rarely seen the lurching of a human gut towards these suffering people.
One instance when I have seen this primal lurch – and I write this with discomfort about what it says about ideologies and theories of ethnicity and kinship – is in the body of my own husband. A Lebanese-Palestinian who has been in the United States for a decade, he is in fact very assimilated, a man whose work and day to day life are quite far removed from the politics of the Arab world. Yet one evening, many months ago, we watched (on which channel, I cannot recall) coverage of the aftermath of a bombing that had hit a civilian neighborhood. The images were as they always are; too many effects of personal life strewn about gaping concrete, too many confused and dirtied people. A few minutes into the broadcast, the newsman let the sound of a woman in the background into the clip and it was a piercing, accusatory, sad, fractured voice. She spoke in Arabic, there was no translation. But as she yelled in her hijab my husband shook slightly, teared slightly. "It sounds like my mother. Like all the women I know."
We do not hear our mother’s cry in the voice of the few Iraqis we see in the media. We are told that Iraq is off the table this political season, yet a continually growing number of Iraqis have no table to bring their grievances to, nor homes to rest in.
Instead we have bought walls and destruction.
And killing fields
And shattered lives.
And two more incidents of civilians killed by US air strikes, one unnoticed by our press, one surprisingly given some small attention. Both incidents a dreadful addition to the tally we keep here each week.
In Salah al-Din, on Thursday:
Six civilians were killed when the U.S. army shelled their vehicle near Samarra, while U.S. forces said that they targeted a number of suspected gunmen in southwest Samarra, a police source said on Thursday.
In Samara on Saturday:
…a U.S. attack helicopter fired on two checkpoints manned by U.S.-allied Sunni fighters near Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad, killing six and injuring two, Iraqi police said.
The U.S. military said an AH-64 Apache helicopter fired on the positions after five people were "spotted conducting suspicious terrorist activity" in an area notorious for roadside bombs.
"Initial reports suggested the attack may have been a Sons of Iraq checkpoint," the military said, using a term for the armed U.S.-backed groups. "The incident is currently under a joint Iraqi-Coalition Force investigation."
A local official of the U.S.-backed group said the attack occurred about two hours after American soldiers stopped at the two checkpoints to meet the Sunni fighters.
"They asked us general questions like: ‘Have you gotten your IDs?’ and ‘Do you need anything?’ and then they left," Sabbar al-Bazi told The Associated Press. "Two hours later, after I had gone home, I heard two explosions, probably caused by two missiles, and machine-gun fire from a helicopter."
Lt. Col. Dhiya Mahmoud Ahmed, an Iraqi military officer in charge of security in the area, said he told the Americans after the attack that he had been aware of the friendly checkpoints for two days.
AP Television News footage of the aftermath showed awakening council members loading bodies into a pickup. Their faces were masked and they wore bright yellow vests — apparently to identify themselves for U.S. forces as members of friendly groups. Bloodstained rocks and bits of flesh could be seen around the checkpoint.
This week also brought word of an impending bloodbath in Mosul as US and Iraqi forces continue their drive on the city and desperate residents flee:
The Iraqi Red Crescent Society is warning of a massive exodus if U.S. and Iraqi troops go ahead with plans to attack Mosul, the country’s second largest city with nearly 3.8 million people.
But the society said it feared a joint attack in which units of Kurdish militias are to take part will lead to one of the largest waves of internally displace people the country has seen since the 2003 U.S. invasion.
Mosul is a predominantly Sunni Arab city and residents are unhappy with the role U.S. occupation troops have given to Kurdish militia fighters.
What we have bought, what we continue to buy is totaled up in Robert Fisk’s anniversary essay:
Minimum estimates for Iraqi dead mean that the civilians of Mesopotamia have suffered six or seven Dresdens or – more terrible still – two Hiroshimas.
And I will hazard a terrible guess: that we have lost Afghanistan as surely as we have lost Iraq and as surely as we are going to "lose" Pakistan. It is our presence, our power, our arrogance, our refusal to learn from history and our terror – yes, our terror – of Islam that is leading us into the abyss. And until we learn to leave these Muslim peoples alone, our catastrophe in the Middle East will only become graver. There is no connection between Islam and "terror". But there is a connection between our occupation of Muslim lands and "terror". It’s not too complicated an equation. And we don’t need a public inquiry to get it right.