The U.S. war against Iraq has found its own Lewis Carroll, its true poet and genius of the absurd: Lt. Colonel Nathan Sassaman. He commands a battalion that controls the Iraqi town of Abu Hishma. The other day, he told a New
York Times reporter: "With a heavy dose of fear and violence, and a lot of
money for projects, I think we can convince these people that we are here to help them."
A heavy dose of fear and violence can convince these people we are here to help them. Colonel Sassaman's Alice-in-Wonderland illogic pierces to the heart of the insanity of war. He ranks right up there with officer in Vietnam who had to destroy the village to save it. His comment should go down in history as the epitome of U.S. policy in Iraq. Every American should be required to memorize it and repeat it every day, while watching the news on television.
Colonel Sassaman probably did not intend, or even understand, the absurdity of his words. Listen to his fellow officer, Captain Todd Brown: "You have to understand the Arab mind. The only thing they understand is force. " This is the theory now guiding U.S. policy in Iraq. It's the same policy that guided U.S. policy in Vietnam. There is no territory to be won or lost. There is simply a contest of wills between the occupier and the occupied. Make it painful enough for the occupied, the theory goes, and they will eventually give up and let us "help" them. No doubt it makes perfect sense to Colonel Sassaman, as he and the whole U.S. effort in Iraq vanish down the rabbit hole.
It didn't work in Vietnam. It won't work in Iraq.
Captain Brown explained clearly, if unwittingly, one good reason why it won' t work. After explaining that "the Arab mind" understands only force, he
added: "force, pride and saving face." Wounded pride can stir up a powerful resistance.
But the importance of saving face can easily be exaggerated. Long ago, European imperialists created a stereotype of "the Arab mind" that included a hugely exaggerated concern with pride and saving face. This helped the colonial powers convince themselves that "the Arab mind" was excessively emotional, inherently irrational, and thus incapable of moving into the modern world where logic and pragmatism rule. The Arabs would remain stuck in their memories of medieval glory and their wounded pride, it was said, unless the Europeans pushed, pulled, educated, and cajoled them into modernity.
Now the U.S. has taken up where the Europeans left off. The Americans cannot admit that domination is their goal. They must believe they are there only to help. They must convince themselves that Iraq is a backward nation, unfamiliar with and incapable of the ways of the modern world. Then they can picture themselves as educators and saviors, taking up the old white man's burden.
If only the stubborn, irrational "natives" would realize that the occupiers are there to help, everything would be fine. So the Americans must fondly imagine that they will persuade the Iraqis to want their "help." Just like the colonizers of old, they plan to do it with force and violence.
It didn't work for the British, the French, the Dutch, the Germans, the Belgians, or the Italians. It won't work for the Americans.
Abu Hishma is getting the same treatment as other Iraqi towns where U.S. troops have come under attack. The whole town is surrounded by a razor wire fence. Every inhabitant must show an ID card at a checkpoint to get in or out. A curfew prevents people from getting to morning and evening prayers at the mosque. Homes of suspected guerillas are being demolished. Perhaps most outrageously, totally innocent people are being jailed because they have a relative merely suspected of being a guerilla. Sentence first, verdict afterwards.
The U.S. military has copied all these tactics from the Israeli occupation forces in Palestine. It is obviously not working for the Israelis. It won' t work for the Americans.
Who should understand better than the Americans why it won't work? Imagine your home town turned into a prison. Imagine your spouse or your child imprisoned because one of their relatives is suspected of resisting the occupation. Imagine Iraqi soldiers ordering you around every day in Arabic, because they cannot speak English.
Yes, your wounded pride would move you to join the resistance, too. But you would resist much more out of a perfectly reasonable sense of justice and human rights. When the government no longer guarantees your right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, it is your right to alter or abolish it-by any means necessary, if we follow the example of our Founding Fathers. We think of that as "the American mind." But it is simply a logical response that we should expect from any human being.
When the debacle comes in Iraq, as it surely will, let us hear no talk of "the Arab mind." Let us remember who showed the real irrationality in this war. Let us remember Colonel Sassaman and all the others who thought that fear and violence would convince the Iraqis we were there to help them.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. firstname.lastname@example.org