Follies of the War

— David Finkel

Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal. By Anthony Arnove, foreword and afterword by Howard Zinn. New York: The New Press, 2006. 184 pp with notes and index. $19.95 paperback.

Is Iraq Another Vietnam? By Kale Baldock, 96 pages with notes. Kansas City, MO: North Kensington Manor Press, 2005. $9.95 paperback, available online at www.isiraqanothervietnam.com.

A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq. By Christopher Hitchens, New York, New York: Penguin Group (USA), 2003, 104 pages, $8.99 paperback.

THREE YEARS LATER, it is hard to believe that a gloating and triumphant Christopher Hitchens could write this (April 18, 2003):

"So it turns out that the slogans of the antiwar movement were right after all. And their demands were just. “No War on Iraq,” they said — and there wasn’t a war on Iraq. Indeed, there was barely a “war” at all. “No Blood for Oil,” they cried, and the oil wealth of Iraq has been duly rescued from attempted sabotage with scarcely a drop spilled….”Stop the War” was the call. And the “war” is indeed stopping. That’s not such a bad record. An earlier antiwar demand — “Give the Inspectors More Time” – was also very prescient and is also about to be fulfilled in exquisite detail." (A Long Short War, 83)

A “long short” war indeed. Its real-world consequences are summed up today by Anthony Arnove:

"The invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and the subsequent occupation of the country have already had profound consequences for world politics, and will do so for years to come. The United States has made the world a more dangerous place, has fueled reactionary political currents in Iraq and beyond, has increased the likelihood of terrorist attacks at home and in the countries of visible U.S. allies, and has undermined the potential for democratic developments in the Middle East — contrary to all the claims of President Bush and his apologists

Arnove also observes, in relation to Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo:

"Politicians (around the world) who are accused of human rights abuses openly protest that they are merely protecting themselves against terrorism, like the United States, when they assassinate Palestinians, Chechens, or domestic dissidents." (Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal, xix-xx)

For many of us, it must be said, these consequences are unsurprising. What’s harder today is to recall the euphoria of the “long short war,” as bitter as that phrase now seems. In this regard Christopher Hitchens’ book, although appalling, is instructive.

Contrary to the antiwar doomsayers and quagmire-mongers, Hitchens observed, the war had been short, overwhelmingly successful and welcomed by the liberated Iraqi population: “Oh yes, the Arab street did finally detonate, just as the peace movement said it would. You can see the Baghdad and Basra and Karbala streets filling up like anything, just by snapping on your television.” (A Long Short War, 83)

Any residual doubts, Hitchens was certain, would be swept away in the aftermath: Weapons of mass destruction would turn up, as would the irrefutable links between al- Qaeda and the overthrown Saddam Hussein tyranny. As for Arab-Americans, on April 9

"(T)he streets of Dearborn, Michigan were en fete. Crowds of Iraqi-American exiles displayed the Stars and Stripes, honked horns, shouted praise for the United States and Britain, and defaced pictures of Saddam Hussein. Their action was a sort of echo and replay of what could be seen in Baghdad…where the crowd enlisted American know- how to pull down the colossus of Saddam Hussein and later to drag its severed head through the streets, showered in kicks and spittle." (89)

Come to Dearborn today, let alone Baghdad, and see what those Iraqi-Americans and the Iraqi population think about the liberation. But even then, perceptive journalists and even some on-the-ground U.S. military commanders noticed that Iraqis’ joy over the destruction of that statue was embittered by the fact that they hadn’t pulled it down themselves — the Americans had done the job, after draping the U.S. flag over it.

Bloody Illusions

The exuberance of the moment was nonetheless understandable. The Iraqis thought they were getting their country back. The American troops thought they were going home. That’s what both had been promised, after all.

The antiwar movement, which Christopher Hitchens hilariously ridiculed to entertain his new right-wing readership (most of his book first appeared as columns in the months before and during the war in the online magazine Slate), with all its contradictions and weaknesses, did understand what Hitchens — who is not ignorant of Middle Eastern and Iraqi realities – should have known better than most.  Yet even those of us who knew then that the short glorious war was the beginning of a long gory occupation of Iraq hardly envisioned how ghastly it would actually get.

I’ll come back to what the three books reviewed here have to say regarding the antiwar movement — Anthony Arnove and Kale Baldock address their message to the movement, whereas Hitchens was completing his separation from it — but first it’s worth briefly discussing how Iraq became such an imperial disaster.

We now know many of the details. The New York Times correspondents Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor, in their new book Cobra 2, have chronicled the bloody illusions and incompetence of political leadership on both sides.

Saddam Hussein, more concerned about another Shia uprising and convinced that the Americans weren’t coming to Baghdad, forbade his generals to destroy the bridges to the capital city. The Iraqi generals were stunned to learn that no chemical weapons stockpiles still existed — although Saddam wanted the Iranians to think they did! Meanwhile, U.S. military commanders who requested more troops and time to suppress the guerilla insurgency (initiated by “Saddam Fedayeen” originally created to crush the Shia!) were peremptorily overruled and threatened with dismissal.

We also know, thanks to the reporting of New Yorker writer George Packer (The Assassins’ Gate: American In Iraq), how the crucial first postwar period in Iraq was botched by the arrogant and ignorant L. Paul Bremer, the Michael Brown of the occupation. Seymour Hersh has uncovered how the U.S. military and CIA not only took over Saddam’s torture center at Abu Ghraib but improved upon the previous management’s techniques.

Most important and underreported was the U.S.-imposed “economic reconstruction” policy of sweeping privatization and opening to multinational capital, which amounted to the deconstruction of Iraq’s national economy, detailed by Michael Schwartz.

As Schwartz cogently observes, this crippling de-nationalization both deepened the insurgency and prolonged the looting that crippled major institutions. (See “Does the Media Have It Right on the War?” Tom Dispatch, March 28, 2006.)

Miscalculations and blunders aside, what happened is that the U.S. occupation not only overthrew the hideous Saddam regime but also destroyed the Iraqi state. It’s not clear whether this was consciously planned, but it was the combined effect of dissolving the Baath party which was so closely tied to the state, the Iraqi army and the national economy. Nor was there the semblance of a plan for a new state structure beyond the fantasy of economic liberalization on the ruins of a shattered one.

One might have thought that a Marxist-educated writer like Hitchens would have foreseen such a problem, and the crucial distinction between the overthrow of a brutal and yes, genocidal party-state by an internal revolution and its destruction by an outside colonialist occupying power. But while he refers briefly to his long-ago editorship of the British journal International Socialism and opposition to the Vietnam war, Hitchens shows little memory of what he once knew about imperialism.

His longstanding dislike of religion intact, Hitchens describes himself on the eve of the war as “a member of Atheists for Regime Change” and derides the broad range of religious leadership speaking out against it.

"The Almighty seems, if anything, to have smiled on Saddam Hussein for a quarter of a century. If we want to assure ourselves of a true “coalition of the willing,” we might consider making a pact with the devil." (79)

In essence, that’s the pact he made — along with his Iraqi friends Kanan Makiya and Ahmad Chalabi — in calling for Iraq’s liberation by the American regime most heavily influenced in our nation’s history by a coalition of the Christian religious right, secular and religious neoconservatives, and crony capitalists.

Makiya, who like Hitchens is a former Marxist and revolutionary internationalist, proposed an Iraqi constitution that would enshrine citizenship separate from ethnicity or religion, not an Arab or Muslim state but a secular democracy. If implemented, this would have transformed Iraq in one giant leap into the most advanced democracy in the Middle East (much superior to the Israeli “Jewish state,” certainly).

Yet however seductive such a vision might have been, this was not Christopher Hitchens’ or Kanan Makiya’s or even Thomas Friedman’s war. It was and it remains Bush’s and Cheney’s and Rumsfeld’s and corporate America’s war, waged under the leadership of a messianic-imperial presidency that is flushing the U.S. Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights down the Guantanamo toilet along with the Koran.

The destruction of the Iraqi state by imperialism, not by its own population, led inevitably to the atrocities that we now know by the names of Fallujah, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and many more still unnamed. Those American or Iraqi liberals who advocated war in the name of a fantastically advanced “democratic republic” imposed from the outside bear some moral responsibility for consequences that they may abhor but were readily predictable.

Facing the Facts

I’ve spent considerable space (and would devote more if there were room) to Hitchens’ book, not only because the political death of a brilliant and principled leftwing polemicist was a terrible loss but because his argument illustrates the powerful pull of “humanitarian imperialism” and the absolute imperative need to resist it.

Here is where Chapter 3 of Anthony Arnove’s Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal is so important. Drawing upon the work of Sid Lens (The Forging of the American Empire) as well as historian Clifford Kuhn and the writings of Mark Twain, Arnove reminds us that the more brutal the practice of American imperialism abroad and the internal genocide of the Native American peoples, the more it has been wrapped in the language of moral rectitude and altruism.

Throughout this book, Arnove elegantly draws together the work of observers and analysts of the failed and disastrous Iraqi occupation with its historical antecedents. The work is explicitly patterned on Howard Zinn’s influential Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal first published in 1967, and as Zinn himself writes here:

"(A)t that time I heard the same arguments against withdrawal that we are hearing now. The United States did not pull out its troops for six [actually eight] more years. In those years at least a million more Vietnamese, and perhaps thirty thousand U.S. military, were killed…

   "[In Iraq] There is no certainty as to what would happen in our absence, but there is absolute certainty about the result of our presence: escalating deaths on both sides. Mostly, the loss of life is among Iraqi civilians, many of them children. But even the smaller casualty toll on the U.S. side includes thousands of maimed soldiers, some losing limbs, others blinded. And tens of thousands face psychological damage in the aftermath." (xii)

Arnove himself reviews (89-90) the factors of resistance and domestic and international opposition that ultimately forced U.S. elites to accept defeat and withdrawal from Vietnam. He also notes, “In Iraq, the United States and its allies have run up against the limits of empire.” (xx)  It might be added, however, that Vietnam in material terms (oil and strategic position) never had the importance for imperialism of Iraq today, a point made effectively by Kale Baldock. (Is Iraq Another Vietnam? 65)

In any case, for those who remember the Vietnam war, the argument still echoes. Indeed little if anything in Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal claims to be original. But that’s the point — the American propaganda machine and education system act to suppress history. It’s not only Vietnam that’s ancient history – not to mention the genocidal conquest and occupation of the Philippines, the long military occupations of Haiti and Nicaragua, the sponsorship of dictatorship and extermination of the Indian peasants of Guatemala —  but the memory that Saddam Hussein and for that matter Osama bin Laden were American clients and friends in the glory days of the Reagan presidency is mostly lost.

That’s why Zinn’s book was such a powerful statement in 1967 and why Arnove’s is an essential text for the movement now. One thing that’s true today that wasn’t in 1967 (although it would become true a year or so later) is that “a clear majority of people in the United States now believes the invasion was not worth the consequences and never should have been undertaken.” (Arnove, 65)  

In these circumstances, the antiwar movement has the awesome challenge of speaking for, and organizing, that majority. The contradiction we face is that the movement is less visible and vocal today than it was just before the war, on February 15, 2003, when millions were in the streets in the most magnificent antiwar mobilization in history — at a point where opposition to the war was only a minority, though significant, sentiment.

That’s part of the reason why Against the Current, beginning in this issue, is publishing viewpoints on the question of immediate withdrawal from Iraq.

Vietnam Then and Now

Kale Baldock knows the history of the Vietnam war, and if you or a friend aren’t familiar with it, you can use Is Iraq Another Vietnam? as a primer on the subject, along with the chilling parallels of how the war was sold to the American public and its realities, the nature of the insurgency, and who suffered.

The distinctions between the highly coherent and disciplined Communist-dominated and Soviet-backed Vietnamese resistance, compared to the highly disunited Iraqi insurgency with its nationalist, Sunni and Shia, and jihadist-terrorist components engaged in a civil war as well as a resistance struggle, are obvious. Yet the results eerily converge.

In Vietnam, a series of U.S.-installed puppet governments, sometimes dictators of the week, disintegrated for lack of a base. In Iraq, the United States is unable to manipulate contending political forces into a fraudulent “national unity government,” precisely because they do each have their own base — and militias, especially after the national army was abolished by Bremer’s fiat! The end product is essentially U.S. political impotence despite overwhelming firepower.

While giving a powerful picture of the agony the Vietnam war created there and at home, Baldock loses much of his coherence when trying to lay out what to do about Iraq:

"It would be equally wrong to simply pull out and let the country devolve into civil war among its various religious and ethnic groups…A U.S. withdrawal must be backed up with intense negotiations by all Iraqi parties and factions. Unconditional cease-fire and amnesty must be the goals. A coalition of world powers should be involved…The major point of contention will of course be between the Sunnis and Shiites. But steps are already being taken to bring the Sunnis into the political process most of them have boycotted up to now…" (72-73)

This sounds like the kind of we-shouldn’t-have-gone-in-but-can’t-leave-now posture of New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, combined with the “intense negotiations” being conducted at this point by U.S. Ambassador Khalilzad. At this writing, there are also ominous signs of another tilt in U.S. policy, this time toward targeting Shia militia forces rather than “Sunni insurgents,” perhaps in tandem with the American campaign against Iran.

Not only is this kind of maneuvering murky and dangerous, it rests on political quicksand and in no way, shape or form can the antiwar movement afford to endorse it. The problem is certainly not that the United States will withdraw “too quickly.” Rather, it’s that the U.S. occupation every day produces bloodier chaos. Not only that: Any serious proposal for the United States to “prevent chaos” by its military presence would require doubling the troop numbers on the ground.

There is another point, policy-wonking pretenses aside: The antiwar movement can win only by convincing the American people, who have come to hate this war, that there IS a “logic of withdrawal” and that withdrawal is indeed the only logic.

No antiwar movement ever won by demanding pseudo-realist “intense negotiations for national unity” or nostrums of that sort. When Bush preaches about a “strategy for victory,” the only effective answer is that there was one way in, and one way out: Bring the Troops Home Now!

Today’s antiwar struggle may greatly influence future events far beyond Iraq. It’s important that the U.S. government be forced to leave Iraq under the pressure of mass revulsion at home. That’s necessary in order to make it politically impossible for the Bush gang, or the next administration, to make withdrawal from Iraq a springboard for the next piece of criminal mischief — like a war against Iran, or, perhaps, military intervention in Venezuela.

The Voice for Sanity

A couple more things need to be said about the antiwar movement. Grotesquely, Christopher Hitchens makes fun of “potluck peaceniks,” as if $1000 a plate dinners to hear Paul Wolfowitz or Dick Cheney praise “regime change” were morally far superior. It’s worse yet when Hitchens lectures that he could instantly spot the “obvious phony” — that is, anyone who got up at a meeting to denounce Saddam Hussein and then oppose the war. (A Long Short War, 54, 85)

Unlike those who wish to ridicule and demoralize the antiwar movement, Anthony Arnove and Kale Baldock wish to build and strengthen it. While my sympathies in the argument over immediate withdrawal will be clear, it’s important within the movement to treat our differences over this and other questions (how to speak about Palestine, linkages to other issues and struggles, dealing with Iraqi trade unionists, the sensitivities that exist among military families, etc.) in a spirit of inclusion and mutual respect.

The antiwar movement doesn’t have vast sums of money, instant media access or any perquisites of power. What it has, first and foremost, is the integrity and clarity of its message. That’s what we must preserve and build upon in our role as the voices of sanity against this insane war and the larger imperial “mission” it serves.

ATC 122, May-June 2006