Published on Monday, March 31, 2003 by the Guardian/UK
Bombs and Biscuits
Every Iraqi Child is Now an Unwitting Participant in This Obscene War. And Every One of Us is Morally Implicated
by Madeleine Bunting
After the bombings, the ambushes and assaults, the newsreaders' voices lighten as they reach the humanitarian aid slot in the story running order. The images of bloodied limbs and bombed buildings are replaced by jostling crowds being roughly corralled by British troops distributing bottles of water. This is the battle for hearts and minds, we are repeatedly told. The crude attempt at manipulation beggars belief: whose heart and mind are won by such images of angry desperation? Certainly not the Iraqis, bewildered by the invader who has deprived them of the water in the first place, who kills their children and then throws them the paltry solace of one bottle - enough to last one person a couple of hours.
Humanitarian experts believe the amount of aid needed to support the 16 million Iraqis dependent on aid is 32 times the pitiful cargo the Sir Galahad finally delivered last week. The enormity of this dwarfs the capacity of the one port of Umm Qasr, a tight funnel for both the huge military and humanitarian supplies now needed. The well-being of an entire population is now the legal responsibility of the Americans and the British, as Kofi Annan reminded them, and the prospect of them being able to meet it is fanciful. No, the real hearts and minds the Americans and the British are hoping to win by this grotesque charade are those of their domestic audiences at home, and then the global audience watching this war. The aim is to reassure supporters and dampen protests. So far, it seems at least to be having some success at home; British public opinion rallies behind its brave squaddies as they throw the boxes of water into the outreached hands.
The issue of aid and how it's being played on our television screens reminds us what this war is all about. Not oil, not weapons of mass destruction, but a demonstration of US power, necessary after 9/11 to impress appropriate fear and respect in the hearts and minds across the globe - in Europe as much as in the Middle East. The assumption was that Iraq offered a suitable stage for this performance - not too dangerous or too strong and with some oil booty thrown in. The media would convey the two crucial lessons which the American administration believed the world needed to be taught: of the terrifying technological prowess of American weaponry and the benign nature of the Pax Americana.
Only 12 days in and the war has failed to demonstrate either of these. Firstly, the "shock and awe" has failed. The most sophisticated military machine in the world got bogged down in sandstorms and rain; the prospect dawns of a bloody and protracted urban guerrilla war in which much of America's cleverest weaponry could prove useless. America is not invincible after all, its room for maneuver severely restricted by the need to win Iraqi allies and avoid totally destroying the second of its lessons - the benign bit.
This was supposed to be a war of liberation, but the Iraqis are now going to have to be "forced to be free", a delusion which will cost thousands of lives. The Camp David press conference last week was the most obscene piece of political theatre I have ever seen: when has a British prime minister so publicly murdered his own integrity? Not because of the quavering voice berating Saddam's depravity for the alleged executions of British soldiers. That was bad enough, but it was the grimness with which Mr Blair declared to the Iraqis, "we will liberate you. The day of your freedom draws near," which sent shivers of horror down the spine. The reaction of intense fear was reinforced by the blatant contradiction of his words when juxtaposed with images of burning cities and bloated bodies in the desert. Wrenching the concept of freedom out of all normal usage to justify violence was a plague of the 20th century, beloved of totalitarian dictatorships. Now the poison of political leaders who declare black is white is infecting a new millennium; President Bush promised this Iraqi adventure was intended to make the "world more peaceful," a ludicrous claim across a Muslim world convulsed with anger.
So America is well on the way to losing the peace as the inherent contradictions of this war of liberation become apparent: you can't instill fear and respect at the same time, you can't bomb and hand out biscuits. And this is where the future becomes truly frightful because there's no way back, and if America and Britain are not going to be welcomed and loved on the streets of Basra and Baghdad, they will make themselves feared instead. Here, the logic of war takes grip and choices narrow. This war has to be won, and in the end the US will use any means necessary to do so - dragging its British ally with it into a bloody mess. In 1939, did the British ever imagine they could commit the Dresden atrocity? War corrupts all of its participants.
Already, the pressure is evident on Britain's army in the plaintive comment of Major Charlie Lambert of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards: "When people don't play by the rule book, it is easy to make things very difficult for a much larger force which does play by the rules." At one point will American and British niceties about avoiding civilian casualties be relaxed as an unaffordable luxury? At what point will the nerves of frightened soldiers tautened by ambushes and suicide attacks - smiling peasant one moment, terrorist Fedayeen the next? - turn ordinary decent men into monsters?
The coalition forces will give up on the rules while Saddam Hussein has never abided by them anyway. Like anyone who has been cornered, he will in his desperation resort to anything - and all he has now are the lives of his people. He's used them cheaply many times before and now with 24/7 global media coverage, their blood is his most potent pawn, and he won't hesitate to spend it freely in urban warfare as shields, bombers, even targets. It will be grotesque, and it doesn't require a complicated understanding of moral reasoning to grasp that we will bear some responsibility for the atrocities he may commit in defending his country and regime. It is we who have invaded a sovereign nation, and there has always been a legitimate principle of self-defense.
In the 20th century, civilians became the greatest casualties of war but they were still collateral damage; in this first major war of the 21st century, the nightmare scenario is that the last vestiges of a distinction between combatant and civilian disintegrates. Every child is an unwitting participant in the battle, their dull reproachful eyes from hospital wards become Saddam's most lethal weapon.
So we sit in our armchairs confronted with painful moral ambiguities which we either ignore (it's too depressing so we switch channels) or against which we can only helplessly rail. We've done our marching, but it's made no difference, we are still morally implicated. Will our children be apologizing to the Iraqi people a generation hence? Will they ask us how we could ever have let this happen? And will our defense - we did what we could but we had families to care for, work to be done - stand up to their scrutiny?
I have never before written a column in which I so fervently wanted every one of my fears to be proved unfounded. For every word of it to be wrong.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003