Iraq: A Place of Ambivalence

In many areas of Iraq, generally, palpably pro-American feeling was not imaginary, it was not rare, and -- apart from the total-infatuation, flower-tossing phase which did fade quickly -- it was not all that short-lived.
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I know I should be passionately following the showdown between Congress and the president over legislation tying the funding of American troops in Iraq to a timetable for the troops' withdrawal from Iraq. Honestly, though, I find it hard to follow it at all. Showdowns are all about certainty, and for me, Iraq has always been a place of ambivalence.

I lived in Baghdad from April 2003 through September 2004, when I left without, of course, really leaving. Even if it weren't for the endless reels of bad news, I would have reels of memory on constant re-play in my mind.

I remember Riyadh, a bright and supremely idealistic young Shi'ite who had signed on as a translator for the U.S. Army but who, on his days off, used to take me around -- in ordinary, randomly hailed share-ride vans and taxis, if you can imagine it now - to markets and mosques and people's houses, just to scrounge around for stories...until, one morning on his way to work, Riyadh was shot to death.

I remember Mohaymen, a 26-year-old Iraqi who, with my then-fiancé, co-founded JumpStart, a humanitarian organization that directly employed thousands of Iraqis in the rebuilding effort. Every morning at an ungodly hour, he would show up to pick up Sean, and the two of them would drive around in Mohaymen's white Hyundai Galloper to building sites all over the place....until one day in July 2004, when Sean and I were briefly back in the States, some gunmen pulled even with the Galloper on a busy highway in broad daylight and shot Mohaymen to death.

I remember having lunch someplace when a car bomb went off -- not, as it sounded, right under the table, but close enough so that when we - the not-yet-dead Mohaymen and I -- stepped out onto the street, it was black with smoke and littered with human remains. And I remember later interviewing the family - or was it just the son? -- of someone who had literally been scattered by that bombing. I don't recall the details of how the family had retrieved the body, but they had definitely had to go around, collecting him.

Whatever you think of the rest of this post, please do not write in to impress upon me the horrors that have descended upon innocent Iraqis since the American-led invasion. I really feel that I know.

I know other things too, though. Maybe it's just the contrarian in me, but it is these other things that I feel the need to stress, especially to those who are now reveling in their rightness about the war. Those who opposed the war seem to feel that they are the perfect opposite of those who sold the war - and of course, in the important sense of the invade-or-not-to-invade question, they are. But in their collective allergy to any fact that may complicate their position; their proud blindness to the color gray, and their fervent faith in their own infallibility, the two sides have always struck me as very much the same.

Don't get me wrong. If I felt that this post were going to be read by a bunch of war apologists, I would take them angrily to task for the manifest, manifold failures in Iraq, and the criminally self-indulgent fictions on which those failures were based. But since this post is presumably being read mostly by war critics, I will devote it to challenging anti-war activists on their apparent belief that everything they say about Iraq is, always has been, and ever shall be true.

It is not, for instance, true that it was the American-led invasion that opened season on the slaughter of innocent Iraqi civilians. Whatever else the Bush administration made up about Iraq, the rank murderousness of Saddam Hussein was not one of them. Amid the gunfire and giddiness of Baghdad right after its fall in April 2003, it was common to find people converging onto bits of infrastructure, manically fueled by the rumor mill: someone had said that there was a torture chamber underneath this stretch of highway; a secret prison built into this wall. People had no time to be interviewed; if they talked at all, they'd keep going as they panted: "My husband/brother/son disappeared twenty odd years ago; he could still be alive; I have to get him out." I remember going to a mass grave; a "minor" one, not far from Hilla. People were digging there, too: for bones, which were piled everywhere, a sickening canine bonanza. Close by there still lived a man who had seen what had happened there in the days after the war with Kuwait, but kept his mouth shut for years: busloads of innocent Shi'ites, screaming 'God is Great' at the top of their lungs, had been unloaded, rung around pre-dug graves, and shot.

Of course, it makes sense for Americans to feel more interested - and implicated -- in suffering that is inflicted in the context of an American occupation. And there is no question that - and it kills me that it has come to this -- fewer and fewer Iraqis see life after Saddam as any better than life under Saddam. Still, one needn't be a hawk, nor a rocket scientist, to give half a moment's thought to the possibility that the post-invasion suffering in Iraq, which we see and hear about constantly - as, of course, we should -- may seem disproportionately greater to us than the pre-invasion suffering, which we almost never saw or heard about at all.

It is not true that the Americans invaded Iraq against the will of the Iraqi people. They did so against the will of Saddam, against the will of those who flourished under Saddam, and against the will of numerous Sunn'is and Christians, most of them utterly blameless for the crimes of the regime, who feared what would happen to them after the Shi'ites got out from under Saddam. This last is not an inconsiderable group - except as compared to the Shi'ites and the Kurds, who overwhelmingly wanted the invasion and welcomed it.

I know that these anecdotes will sound as if Karen Hughes or somebody paid me to cook them up, but they all really happened: The day I met Riyadh, he told me what he had been doing before the war. He and his family would sit around and listen to underground BBC radio. And if the French or somebody else in the U.N. seemed to come up with something that would offer the world a glimmer of hope that war could be avoided, their reaction was not, "thank God." It was: "Oh shit."

I remember that in May - after about thirty days without a shower - I went to a beauty salon that had just re-opened. This was in Aadamiyah, which is quite a Sunn'i district. Out of gratitude for the invasion, the owner would not let me pay.

In the late spring of 2003, like hundreds of reporters, I joined the multitudes flocking to Karbala for ashura, the Shi'ite pilgrimage which had been forbidden under Saddam. Concerns about violence were high, but unfounded: As it turned out, in every possible sense, it was the brightest possible day. Flags were flying. Great ropey lines of men were stepping rhythmically and ritually beating their bare backs. Granted, the whole scene could have been a coming attraction for theocracy, but for the moment, it looked and felt like an entire country's drawing of a deep breath after years of suffocation. Like every woman there, I was swathed in black from head to toe. Throughout the day, I could feel myself being sized up by people, and this, I'll admit, made me a little nervous. No need: when they were sure of the foreignness of my face, people did not insult or attack me. They smiled and said: "Thank you Bush, thank you Blair."

None of this was really surprising. In the months prior to the war, I had spent almost all my time in neighboring, not-so-democratic countries. Among average people, the biggest sentiment expressed about the ever-more-likely prospect of American action in Iraq wasn't "how dare you come to our region and topple a sovereign government!" It was, "jeez - why don't you come here too?" Once in Iraq, when I would get e-mails from concerned friends and family as to whether people hated me because I was an American, I'd laugh. It wasn't the idea of Americans being disliked that cracked me up; it was the idea of Americans being alone on the list, or even in the top ten. Let's see: Iraqis hated the French and the Russians for doing so much business with Saddam. They hated other Arab governments for leaving them to be brutalized by him. They hated the Palestinians for having sided with Saddam in the war of '91, and they hated the Syrians for sending in - or at least allowing the sending-in of --- jihadists to make trouble now. As for anti-American sentiment, that which was most commonly expressed was not against George W. Bush for having taken Saddam out. It was that expressed against George H.W. Bush for not having done so when, as they viewed it, he had had the chance.

All this, of course, was very early days, before disillusionment set in, then anger, then rage. But that evolution was not swift, nor, I firmly believe, was it inevitable. In many areas of Iraq, generally, palpably pro-American feeling was not imaginary, it was not rare, and -- apart from the total-infatuation, flower-tossing phase which did fade quickly -- it was not all that short-lived. In fact, I'd say - with considerable anger and frustration of my own - that the U.S. had at least one year in which the overwhelming majority of Iraqis were only too willing to believe that much as they disliked and then despised the fact of foreign occupation, that occupation was going to lead them somewhere they wanted to go. This shocked me. About eight or nine months into it, the bloom was well and truly off the American rose: the initial post-Saddam chaos, far from being calmed, had simply become the rule. Crimes -- political, semi-political, and just plain old crooked - were committed with impunity. Kidnapping rings, like internet cafes and car dealerships, had begun springing up everywhere. And of course, the promise of jobs and housing and restored electricity and all the rest of it never came close to being kept. It is true that even the most brilliant, best organized administration would have been hard pressed to bridge the gap between the expectations of Iraqis and the limits of reality - but also true that the U.S. established a tyranny of ineptitude that baffles me to this day. In short, by that time, I would absolutely have bet that as far as the Iraqis were concerned, anything, including Saddam, was better than this. But I had that wrong.

For several weeks, before the first anniversary of the invasion, I made it a habit to end any interview with any Iraqi -- whether the topic was -de-Ba'athification or arranged marriage or the (extreme) availability of all kinds of weaponry on the black market - whether, knowing every negative thing - of which there were many -- that they knew now about the Americans, they would turn back the clock, have the coalition stay home, and put Saddam back in the palace. But I should mention that during this time I was not in Fallujah or Ramadi or any of the so-called Sunn'i triangle, where my "poll" would have had very different results. Still, I was and am amazed that not a single person hesitated to say 'no way.'

Now, I am sure that if I went back today and asked the same people the same question, many would answer differently. But now as then, I'd bet anything that many would also answer confusingly.

Take the night that Saddam Hussein was captured, when I went around to various parts of Baghdad and asked people what they thought. In one breath, they'd fantasize in gory detail how they'd kill him if they could: how, for instance, they wanted to personally chop him up in little pieces and then feed him to wild dogs, ideally with his heart still beating. In the next breath, they would lament that they felt sorry for him as he had his post-capture medical examination videotaped; he was, after all, their leader.

Asked, many times over many days, what, if anything, could be done to salvage the deteriorating situation, they'd insist: things would never improve unless the Americans supplied jobs, fought crime, restored the schools, guarded the banks, built homes and sewage systems, even mediated family quarrels....and also left Iraq immediately.

My point is not that Iraqis are somehow hopelessly loopy or illogical. It's that, having careened from one kind of national trauma to another kind of national trauma, they have some strongly felt but deeply conflicting feelings about things. For most Iraqis, the whole question of the invasion was extremely complicated, and, even now - without remotely minimizing the disasters that have increased in the intervening years -- I imagine that it still is.

That's what drives me crazy about the whole American discussion of Iraq now: it's treated as being so damned simple, when, if you care about the Iraqis at all, it's anything but.

If you are still reading at this point, I could forgive you for saying:

"OK, OK, enough with memory lane. Even if everything you are saying was true as of a couple of years ago, why rehash what went wrong when? It's all gotten worse and worse. Let's just get the hell out of there and be done with it."

In terms of the what-now in Iraq, that might be the only option we've got. But in terms of the what-next for the United States, it's not enough.

It's easy to rewrite a very complex story as a dark fairy tale that begins and ends with the evil of Bush and Cheney. This, presumably, is why so many people are doing it. But it's still wrong.

If none of this was ever hard - if the consensus is simply that this whole invasion was always a stupid idea and there was never, ever any reason why any good or intelligent person would have considered it - then all we have to do is elect someone nice and smart, and ignore whatever legitimate factors there may have been to mitigate our certitude. We won't have to think about what, if anything, a dictator can do to compromise his sovereignty in the eyes of the world. We won't have to think about what, if anything, should be done to enforce peace agreements that have been shredded, or international sanctions that have been ignored. We don't have to worry about where, if anywhere, we draw the line between allowing international bodies, such as the U.N., to prevent war, and allowing them to perpetuate, if only indirectly, very serious violence of other kinds.

Finally, what depresses me, and makes me despise so much war criticism even when I agree with it, is that so many of those positing it seem so happy about what's gone wrong. They seem to relish the probability that Iraq will get worse and worse so that they can be righter and righter.

This isn't new.

I remember an anti-war activist who was staying in our hotel in Baghdad, who had not come to Karbala for that first ashura. A good person trying to do good things, she had stayed behind to prepare a media alert on the horrors of the occupation -- which, especially at a time when the coverage out of Iraq was largely very upbeat, was a very worthy thing to be doing. Still, one thing really bothered me about her. When, upon everyone's return from Karbala, the activist heard that the day had actually been free of violence, and full of jubilation, she looked as if she had tasted a bad olive, and spit out her response: "Oh, fuck."

How she must be gloating now. Reality has made sages of the most dire prophets. It's perfect: Iraq really has gone to hell, and the demon neocons are the ones that sent it.

Like liberals - and thinking conservatives, and sentient beings -- everywhere, I gravely doubt that the troop surge - so little so late -- will do anything to save Iraq. But for the sake of the Iraqi people, I sure hope it does - even if that helps the Republicans.

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