(borrowed in good faith from Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited
Babylon. The Tigris
By Arundhati Roy
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
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
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 worst excesses.
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
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
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"
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 is cheating.
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 conference table'."
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
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?
vice-president Dick Cheney (who is a former director of Halliburton) is a
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 refined
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 about those!)
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? Would it?
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
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,
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.
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 ever seen.
Most courageous of all, are the hundreds of thousands of American people on
the streets of America's
great cities - Washington, New
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
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.
. . . page last updated 05/04/2003