A few years ago, we saw them blazoned across our screens and newspapers: rugged, tough, battle-grimed warriors, slogging through hell to conquer evil and bring light to a land lost in darkness.
Last week, the New York Times brought them out again. But this time around, our clean-limbed, God-blessed fighters for a noble cause weren't conquering -- they were suffering. They felt sad, let down, even betrayed. Why? Because what had been the high point, the shining pinnacle, "the most iconic moment" of their righteous campaign was now tainted. Their conquest hadn't held; the old enemy had reared its head again in the city they had pacified with so much rugged, battle-grimed toughness long ago.
Now their feelings were hurt, their souls were troubled. All the goodness of their righteous campaign, all the noble intentions of their light-bringing crusade -- all had been for naught, it seemed. Theirs was indeed a lamentable tragedy. Here was real suffering, raw and anguished.
But what were they talking about exactly? What was this pinnacle, this extraordinary achievement whose great moral worth has now been besmirched?
The battle of Fallujah.
I kid you not.
2. Just over nine years ago, in November 2004, the United States military carried out an atrocious war crime at the behest of its civilian leaders. Having already committed what America's chief jurist at the Nuremberg trials called "the supreme international crime" -- aggresive war -- the American military now declared a whole city full of innocent civilians to be a "free fire zone" and proceeded to pulverize the town with bombs, missiles, chemical weapons and finally a ground attack by thousands of troops. This came after the American military had cut vital supplies of food and water to the city -- another brazen war crime.
"There are more and more dead bodies on the streets and the stench is unbearable. Smoke is everywhere. It's hard to know how much people outside Fallujah are aware of what is going on here. There are dead women and children lying on the streets. People are getting weaker from hunger. Many are dying are from their injuries because there is no medical help left in the city whatsoever. Some families have started burying their dead in their gardens."
One of the first moves in this magnificent feat of arms was the destruction and capture of medical centers. Twenty doctors – and their patients, including women and children – were killed in an airstrike on one major clinic, the UN Information Service reports, while the city's main hospital was seized in the early hours of the ground assault. Why? Because these places of healing could be used as "propaganda centers," the Pentagon's "information warfare" specialists told the NY Times. Unlike the first attack on Fallujah last spring, there was to be no unseemly footage of gutted children bleeding to death on hospital beds. This time – except for NBC's brief, heavily-edited, quickly-buried clip of the usual lone "bad apple" shooting a wounded Iraqi prisoner – the visuals were rigorously scrubbed.
So while Americans saw stories of rugged "Marlboro Men" winning the day against Satan, they were spared shots of engineers cutting off water and electricity to the city – a flagrant war crime under the Geneva Conventions, as CounterPunch notes, but standard practice throughout the occupation. Nor did pictures of attack helicopters gunning down civilians trying to escape across the Euphrates River – including a family of five – make the TV news, despite the eyewitness account of an AP journalist. Nor were tender American sensibilities subjected to the sight of phosphorous shells bathing enemy fighters – and nearby civilians – with unquenchable chemical fire, literally melting their skin, as the Washington Post reports. Nor did they see the fetus being blown out of the body of Artica Salim when her home was bombed during the "softening-up attacks" that raged relentlessly – and unnoticed – in the closing days of George W. Bush's presidential campaign, the Scotland Sunday Herald reports.
This was the battle of Fallujah. This is the noble cause that our Marlboro Men (and our "paper of record," which gave their laments such prominent play) now feel has been besmirched by the fact that some militant Sunni factions (many from the same groups the United States is now supporting, directly or indirectly, through its assistance to the Syrian rebels) seized control of the city for a time. It is this incident that has made the Marlboros and the Timesters suddenly feel that the "great sacrifices" of America's war of aggression in Iraq were made in vain. This -- not the multitude of Iraqis who have died this year alone in the violent sectarian strife that was created by the American invasion, and exacerbated by deliberate American policy.
Al Qaeda and its allies had no presence in Iraq before the American invasion. No, wait, that's wrong: al Qaeda associates were in fact living safely in Iraq before the invasion -- in Kurdish territory, which was controlled not by Saddam but by American-backed militias. Indeed, the seeds of the Fallujah atrocity sprang from this strange situation, where al Qaeda operatives lived under American protection -- or at the very least, their "benign neglect" -- even after the 9/11 attacks. As I noted during the 2004 storming of Fallujah:
What [we] saw instead were two loudly devout Christians, Bush and Tony Blair, clasping hands and proclaiming that Artica Salim had been torn to shreds in order to fight terrorism – specifically, the terrorism of Jordanian thug Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The city's alleged refusal to turn over Zarqawi was the ostensible reason for the attack; yet halfway through the assault, with dead civilian bodies already stinking in the streets, Coalition commanders finally admitted the truth: Zarqawi wasn't in Fallujah – and hadn't been there for weeks, perhaps months.
But then, Zarqawi leads a peculiarly charmed life. Three times before the war, U.S. forces were set to kill him and destroy his organization. It wasn't that difficult; after all, he was operating in Kurdish-held Iraqi territory, where the U.S. military had free rein. Yet each time, Bush called off the strike, the Wall Street Journal reports. He needed Zarqawi for his pre-war propaganda, so he could point to an "al Qaeda ally in Iraq" – even though Zarqawi was on Bush's Iraqi turf, not Saddam's.
The vicious, murderous, criminal attack on Fallujah was a microcosm of the vast atrocity of the invasion of Iraq -- an atrocity that continues today. A fake reason for an act of aggression was sold to a gleefully gullible media, and through them to a docile public raised on the potent poison of "American exceptionalism," to provide a "justification" for an action whose real purpose had to be concealed. And what was that purpose? To demonstrate and advance the bipartisan American elite's unslakeable desire for domination -- and to demonstrate that anyone who resists that desire will be punished, tormented or killed.
Iraq had no connection to 9/11, and the architects of the aggression (and their Democratic enablers, and their 'progressive' defenders like Christopher Hitchens and the New York Times) knew it. Zarqawi and his group were not in Fallujah, and the military planners of the atrocity knew it. (Indeed, they had let him go long before, even as they imposed a months-long siege on the city.) The civilian and military instigators and enablers of the invasion of Iraq (and of all of the inevitable crimes and atrocities that followed) acted in the full and conscious knowledge that they were perpetrating acts of mass murder on innocent people. This is an historical fact, this is what actually happened. And, according to the reckoning of America's willing executioner in the Iraq war crime, the government of Great Britain, somewhere around one million innocent people have been needlessly slaughtered as a result of the war. And the slaughter goes on -- again, as a direct result of this willful, deliberate, savage, inhuman act of mass murder, which was carried out to further the domination agenda of a morally depraved elite.
This is what actually happened in Iraq. This is the reality.
I have no doubt that the overwhelming majority of the soldiers who fought in Fallujah or took part elsewhere in this gigantic war crime thought of themselves as good people trying to do a good thing in difficult circumstances. That's what they were told they were doing; and, poisoned from birth, like all of us, by that all-pervasive myth of exceptionalism, of special privilege for anything and everything done by the United States, most of them lacked the will -- or even the conceptual tools -- to question this belief. (Brave souls like Chelsea Manning and the Iraq Vets Against the War are among the exceptions.) I am sorry if some of them -- and the survivors of the thousands of Americans killed in the process of unleashing this mass murder -- now feel that the war was fought in vain, and that the American dead "were sacrificed for nothing," as one "angry" ex-Marine told the Times after hearing that Fallujah was temporarily in the hands of the extremist militias engendered by the American invasion of Iraq.
This is unfortunate for them -- but let us be absolutely clear on this point. To any American soldier who thought he or she was fighting in Iraq for anything other than the aggrandizement of a bloodthirsty elite, then yes, yes, a thousand times yes: you fought in vain. You fought under false premises, you were ordered to carry out a great crime -- and you carried it out. And yes, yes, a thousand times yes: every American soldier who was killed in Iraq was "sacrificed for nothing." This was true from the very first moment of the war, from the moment you set foot in Iraq. [As Arthur Silber notes here.] It did not suddenly become the truth 11 years later, when Fallujah became embroiled in the sectarian strife the war set loose.
So remember again the reality. Remember again what actually happened. The United States military, at the behest of its political leaders, carried out an abominable war crime in Iraq that killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people. Think of those innocent people who were murdered -- and those who go on being murdered in the hellhole America made of Iraq -- and then consider where the real tragedy lies, whom the real victims are. Some might think it was people like Artica Salim, whose young body was blown apart by an American bomb during weeks of bombardment to "soften up" the city before the Marlboro Men moved in. But the New York Times -- which "stovepiped" so many helpful lies from government warmongers to help make the entirely specious case for aggression, and speaks today, as it spoke then, as the voice of the American establishment -- thinks the real victims were the Marines who attacked Fallujah.
3. As noted, the Iraq war was an atrocity from the beginning -- from long before the beginning, in fact. Its very conception -- the idea of launching an act of aggression against a broken-down country which posed no threat, could not defend itself, and which had already seen more than half a million of its children killed by American-enforced sanctions -- was an atrocity. And the brutal -- and brutalizing -- atrocities on the ground began long before the attack on Fallujah.
Just as a brief reminder, let's go back in time with -- who else? -- the New York Times, which carried this report about our Marlboro Men and their crusade for truth and light just a few days after the invasion began.
At the base camp of the Fifth Marine Regiment here, two sharpshooters, Sgt. Eric Schrumpf, 28, and Cpl. Mikael McIntosh, 20, sat on a sand berm and swapped combat tales while their column stood at a halt on the road toward Baghdad. For five days this week, the two men rode atop armored personnel carriers, barreling up Highway 1.
They said Iraqi fighters had often mixed in with civilians from nearby villages, jumping out of houses and cars to shoot at them, and then often running away. The marines said they had little trouble dispatching their foes, most of whom they characterized as ill trained and cowardly.
''We had a great day,'' Sergeant Schrumpf said. ''We killed a lot of people."
...But in the heat of a firefight, both men conceded, when the calculus often warps, a shot not taken in one set of circumstances may suddenly present itself as a life-or-death necessity.
''We dropped a few civilians,'' Sergeant Schrumpf said, ''but what do you do?'' ... He recalled one such incident, in which he and other men in his unit opened fire. He recalled watching one of the women standing near the Iraqi soldier go down.
''I'm sorry,'' the sergeant said. ''But the chick was in the way.''
"The chick was in the way." I've carried this story with me for 11 years. Less than two weeks into the war, it seemed to sum up the whole shebang. It embodied the amoral philosophy that has guided the bipartisan American elite -- and its media enablers -- not only throughout the Iraq War and its still-churning aftermath, but in every action undertaken to advance the agenda of domination. This is what it all comes down to, this is the blank, inhuman, heartless heart of the imperial enterprise: "The chick was in the way."
And those who get "in the way" -- even if they are innocent "chicks" -- get "dropped." That's just how it is. "What do you do?" Shrug it off. Keep going. Keep shooting
And if it doesn't work out, start crying.
4. When I first saw the headlines of the NYT story, "Fallujah's Fall Stuns Marines Who Fought There," I confess I couldn't read it. I knew what it would say. I knew it was a specimen of the "shooting and crying" genre that is so popular in Israel, where soldiers tell of the anguish they suffer in their own noble occupation duties. I knew it would be a sickening display of exceptionalism. I planned to get to it at some point, but I just couldn't face it at the time.
Then I saw that Arthur Silber had bravely waded into the Times' morass of tears and gunpowder. And his powerful essay went much further into the deeper implications of the story than the background and context I've given above. Indeed, I had intended this piece to be a short introduction to extensive excerpts from his post. But once I got into the story, following Silber's lead, and began recalling the actual history of the atrocity, it "did put me into a towering passion," as the Elsinorean said, and I ended up writing much more than I'd planned. Silber is inspiring that way.
Now here some of those excerpts. But you must, without fail, read the whole of this eloquent blast of hard truth. (And follow the links! There's gold in them thar archives.)
On numerous occasions (here's one representative example from August 2008), I also pointed out that the most severe criticisms of these monstrous crimes permitted by our culture of denial were (and are) that it was a "mistake" based on "bad intelligence," and that it was a "blunder." The first of these evasions is a lie based on a complete misunderstanding of the role of "intelligence" with regard to decisions of policy, while the second represents the superficial babblings of a person so severely damaged that he is incapable of grasping the meaning of words such as "value" and "life." The U.S. government and its military (and all other personnel involved) committed a series of horrifying crimes, they murdered countless people, they wounded and damaged huge numbers of additional persons, and they destroyed a country. Carelessly smashing a vase or blurting out an inappropriate comment before your employer is a "mistake" or a "blunder." Murder and destruction on a vast scale require deliberate, intentional, planned actions over a lengthy period of time; they are crimes which annihilate the concept of forgiveness.
I frequently argued that there is still one more horror beyond these crimes: that neither the U.S. government, nor the ruling class, nor many Americans have learned a single, goddamned thing from these ghastly events. The commitment to America's "right" to dominate world events and the necessarily related commitment to America's perpetual military superiority remain axiomatic and unchallengeable. The ongoing treatment of Iran as a nation that must be brought to heel, the "pivot" to Asia, and the actions of the U.S. government around the globe all attest to the ruling class's belief that America remains unique and uniquely suited to lead and direct events everywhere, a belief that most Americans also continue to accept enthusiastically.
It is one thing to simply deny the reality of our own history. It is quite another to reach back into the past, completely recast the actions of the U.S., transform horrifying crimes which defy description into acts of nobility, and make ourselves into sympathetic victims -- moreover, the only sympathetic victims worthy of note. This New York Times story does all of that, in a manner which caused me to veer between shocked disbelief and nauseated horror: "Falluja's Fall Stuns Marines Who Fought There." The article discusses the "Sunni insurgents, some with allegiances to Al Qaeda," who "retook" Fallujah "and raised their black insurgent flag over buildings" where American Marines had fought. Its focus is on the reaction of the Marines who fought there, and its tone is one of deep sympathy and understanding. That is, deep sympathy and understanding with regard to the Marines. Is there any recognition of the ongoing agony of the Iraqis, agony which is the direct result of the U.S.'s actions -- and of the actions of these Marines themselves? Of course not.
Silber gives many examples of the Marines' shooting-crying anguish -- and the vast rewriting of history -- in the story, including this:
...The officer cited what he called the Marines’ success in helping foster the Awakening movement — where local tribesmen turned against jihadists and partnered with American forces — and said that “without these victories, we might still be there today.” The officer added: “What the Iraqi forces lost in the last month, four years after transition, is not a reflection of Marine efforts. If it is a reflection of anything, it is the nature of the Iraqi social fabric and long-suppressed civil discord.”
...Those who refuse to acknowledge the horror of what the U.S. government has done -- and the horror of what they have done -- are always led to the final redoubt of the blasted, shriveled, unrecognizable soul: Anything bad that has happened and that continues to happen is the fault of the Iraqis -- those primitive, barbaric, uncivilized Iraqis. This is exactly what Hillary Clinton has said, as well as almost any politician you can name. We are expected to forget that the U.S. deliberately fomented "civil discord" (and "ethnic cleansing," too) among the contending groups as a means of fostering "stability," which they also knew would only be temporary in nature but would allow the U.S. to claim "victory" for a brief moment.
Siber kindly quotes from some of the articles I've written about Fallujah, detailing the horrors of the American chemical attack on the city, and its continuing aftermath. (But as you are going to read his piece in full, I won't requote those bits here.) He also provides a sharply illuminating passage from Hannah Arendt, where she writes of "those who adamantly refused to be 'participants' in the Nazi regime." Silber writes:
Arendt asks: "in what way were those few different who in all walks of life did not collaborate and refused to participate in public life, though they could not and did not rise in rebellion?" Here is part of her answer:
The answer to the ... question is relatively simple: the nonparticipants, called irresponsible by the majority, were the only ones who dared judge by themselves, and they were capable of doing so not because they disposed of a better system of values or because the old standards of right and wrong were still firmly planted in their mind and conscience. On the contrary, all our experiences tell us that it was precisely the members of respectable society, who had not been touched by the intellectual and moral upheaval in the early stages of the Nazi period, who were the first to yield. They simply exchanged one system of values against another. I therefore would suggest that the nonparticipants were those whose consciences did not function in this, as it were, automatic way—as though we dispose of a set of learned or innate rules which we then apply to the particular case as it arises, so that every new experience or situation is already prejudged and we need only act out whatever we learned or possessed beforehand. Their criterion, I think, was a different one: they asked themselves to what extent they would still be able to live in peace with themselves after having committed certain deeds; and they decided that it would be better to do nothing, not because the world would then be changed for the better, but simply because only on this condition could they go on living with themselves at all. Hence, they also chose to die when they were forced to participate. To put it crudely, they refused to murder, not so much because they still held fast to the command “Thou shalt not kill,” but because they were unwilling to live together with a murderer—themselves. The precondition for this kind of judging is not a highly developed intelligence or sophistication in moral matters, but rather the disposition to live together explicitly with oneself, to have intercourse with oneself, that is, to be engaged in that silent dialogue between me and myself which, since Socrates and Plato, we usually call thinking. This kind of thinking, though at the root of all philosophical thought, is not technical and does not concern theoretical problems. The dividing line between those who want to think and therefore have to judge by themselves, and those who do not, strikes across all social and cultural or educational differences. In this respect, the total moral collapse of respectable society during the Hitler regime may teach us that under such circumstances those who cherish values and hold fast to moral norms and standards are not reliable: we now know that moral norms and standards can be changed overnight, and that all that then will be left is the mere habit of holding fast to something. Much more reliable will be the doubters and skeptics, not because skepticism is good or doubting wholesome, but because they are used to examine things and to make up their own minds. Best of all will be those who know only one thing for certain: that whatever else happens, as long as we live we shall have to live together with ourselves.
The story of Fallujah, and the war that engendered that atrocity -- and the attitude toward that atrocity shown in the New York Time's recent story -- all speak plainly, despairingly of "the total moral collapse of respectable society" in this imperial age of ours. Silber concludes:
Our politicians, our military personnel, and many Americans still refuse to face honestly and completely the reality of what the U.S. did in Iraq, just as they refuse to recognize the blood-drenched reality of U.S. foreign policy in general. It is inconceivable that any of the catastrophic consequences of our actions, including the suffering of U.S. military personnel, should be our own responsibility. We therefore blame anything and anyone else, including the victims of our own crimes.
The article makes one further fact unavoidable: The U.S. government, and many Americans, are fully prepared to do it all again. Perhaps in the next year or two, perhaps further in the future, perhaps against Iran, perhaps against some other country that will be designated as the target of our next campaign of destruction once it has been suitably demonized. When that happens, we must resist in every way we can, and we must say, No.