Of Juntas, Storms, and Earthquakes-Natural and Man-Made
The Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, with its 225,000 or more deaths in 11 countries, shocked the world; so, in recent weeks, has the devastation wrought by a powerful cyclone (and tidal surge) that hit the Irrawaddy Delta of Myanmar. It resulted in at least 78,000 deaths (with another 56,000 reported missing) and a display of recalcitrance on the part of a military junta focused on its own security while its people perish. Similarly, a devastating earthquake in China's Sichuan Province that hit 7.9 on the Richter scale and whose tremors were felt 1,000 miles away has swept into the news. Its casualty count has already reached 51,000 with unknown numbers of Chinese still buried in rubble or cut off in rural areas and so, as yet, untallied, and an estimated five million people homeless.
These are staggering natural disasters, hard even to take in, and yet it's a reasonable question whether, in terms of damage, any of them measure up to the ongoing human-made (or rather Bush administration made) disaster in Iraq. Worse yet, unlike a natural disaster, the Iraqi catastrophe seems to be without end. No one can even guess when it might be said of that country that an era of reconstruction or rebuilding is about to begin. Instead, the damage only grows week by miserable week and yet, as has often been true in the last year, Iraq continues to have trouble even cracking the top ten stories in U.S. news coverage.
Just this week, Iraqi troops moved into the vast, battered Shiite suburb of Sadr City in east Baghdad after weeks of fierce fighting. The first descriptions of the damage -- U.S. air power was regularly called in over the last months in this heavily populated slum area -- are devastating: "As I moved into the neighborhood," writes Raheem Salman of the Los Angeles Times online, "the destruction from weeks of fighting was horrible. Most of the shops and kiosks have been damaged. Doors are knocked off their hinges. Windows are shattered. The walls are riddled with bullet holes. Some buildings are blown apart by missile fire."
But then Iraq itself is a devastation zone. From the first shock-and-awe attacks on Baghdad as the Bush administration's invasion began in March 2003 -- which killed only civilians -- and the early bombing, missiling, shelling, and even cluster bombing of urban areas as the invading U.S. military barreled north, death, chaos, and destruction have been the Bush administration's tidal surge in Iraq. By now, an estimated 4.7 million Iraqis are either refugees abroad or internally displaced and, depending upon which study or whose numbers you use, hundreds of thousands to a million or more Iraqis have died in the last five years. There is, of course, simply no way to measure the mental stress and anguish that those same years have inflicted on Iraqis.
The New York Times recently profiled a psychiatrist working with hopelessly antiquated equipment amid a tide of desperate, wounded humanity at Ibn Rushid, a psychiatric hospital in Baghdad. It's now a run-down hulk from which seven of its 11 staff psychiatrists have fled -- either for Kurdish areas to the north or abroad -- fearing kidnapping or assassination. In some hospitals and universities in Baghdad, staff has reportedly been reduced by 80%. The economy is in tatters; governmental authority hardly exists; disease is rampant; the medical system in ruins; significant parts of the middle class gone; militias in control; and still, amid this rolling, roiling catastrophe, the Bush administration adamantly persists in its course.
Much scorn has rightly been poured on the junta in Myanmar recently, but, when it comes to recalcitrance and putting self-interest ahead of the well-being of masses of desperate souls, the American President, Vice President, and their top officials have proven themselves a planetary junta of the first order. When it comes to Iraq, to this very day, they remain obdurate and well-defended from the results of the human version of the 7.9 quake they let loose on that country.
Back in January 2005, considering the Indian Ocean tsunami, Rebecca Solnit wrote at [The Nation]: "You can say in some ways that what has happened in Iraq is a tsunami that swept ten thousand miles from the epicenter of an earthquake in Washington DC, an earthquake in policy and principle that has devastated countless lives and environments and cities far away..." But this has not exactly been a popular image in the American mainstream media; and so, in recent weeks, no one has even thought to connect our ongoing Iraqi disaster to the natural disasters in Asia, or the acts of the Burmese junta to those of our own leaders in relation to Iraq. After all, we are largely inured to, and generally oblivious to, the ongoing harm for which we are responsible.
And yet, as Michael Schwartz points out in his latest piece, "River of Resistance," Iraqi resistance to Bush's desires and designs predictably continues. This sort of resistance has been with us at least since the Catholic peasants of Spain -- the Sunni fundamentalists of their day -- resisted, and finally defeated, Napoleon's army, the finest in Europe at the time. And to judge by Francisco Goya's famous series of aquatints, The Disasters of War, you would no more have wanted to meet those peasants in a back alley than you would many of the resisters in Iraq today.
"Think of it this way," writes Schwartz, "in a land the size of California with but 26 million people, a ragtag collection of Baathists, fundamentalists, former military men, union organizers, democratic secularists, local tribal leaders, and politically active clerics -- often at each others throats (quite literally) -- nonetheless managed to thwart the plans of the self-proclaimed New Rome, the 'hyperpower' and 'global sheriff' of Planet Earth. And that, even in the first glancing assessment of history, may indeed prove historic." And in return came the tsunami.
Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com, is the co-founder of the American Empire Project. His book The End of Victory Culture (University of Massachusetts Press) has been thoroughly updated in a newly issued edition that deals with victory culture's crash-and-burn sequel in Iraq.
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