Softly, Softly: War in Black, White, and Grey

by Chris Knipp

The Iraqi people don't need CNN or Fox or even Al Jazeera to see what's really happening. They are there. It's their lives, their families who are lost and bleeding. It's not some video game to them, like it is to too many of us.

A recent sidebar in The Economist ("Softly, softly," April 5, 2003) describes a truck melted by high-explosive missiles fired by Fox Company of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit at a vehicle fleeing from Umm Qasr. The only result: the killing of two innocent civilians and the severe wounding of four more. "Standing amid the wreckage, next to vast puddles of spent American ammunition," the writer observes, "it is hard to conclude that the marines were anything but trigger-happy." The British officer in charge of the prisoner-of-war camp at Umm Qasr "makes a similar observation." This officer has to deal with daily rioting of prisoners angered "not just by the awful conditions--flies, dust and heat--but by the resentment of people arrested willy-nilly by the Americans," including a goatherd taken away leaving his flock untended and a man brought in bruised and handcuffed after asking an American patrol to help his wounded daughter.

American conduct in Iraq has been marked by aggressive, hasty, and fearful action. Enormously superior firepower has been an excuse for destroying everything and killing everybody in sight. The whole "war" itself was, to begin with, an aggressive, hasty and fearful action. Considering the disproportionate power involved and the relative lack of casualties on the powerful side, it is more a genocidal invasion than a "war."

The Economist writer contrasts the way the Americans and the British behaved in two separate encounters at Umm Qasr. "When Fox Company thought it spotted 'enemy' in a group of buildings, it fired missiles and mortars at the 'position' for four hours. The next day, when a British patrol was fired at from a house in Umm Qasr, the six soldiers got out of their vehicles, approached the building on foot and arrested two gunmen. The incident was over in ten minutes, and no civilian property was damaged. . . 'For the Americans, there just does not seem to be anything between peace and all-out combat,' says a British officer. 'Their military doctrine remains one based on the use of overwhelming firepower in every circumstance.' British soldiers, though, can draw on 30 years spent on peace-support operations in the Balkans. They know that a wide spectrum of gray lies between the white of peace and the black of war."

We can see the US "war" on Iraq in the light of this contrast between British and American tactics. The US forces were not operating in a gray area between peace and war, between military and civilian targets. They were conducting an enormous video game whose one mad objective was "Get Saddam!" But ninety-nine percent of the time that objective had nothing to do with the actual millions of bullets and bombs unleashed. The bombing of Baghdad was a spectacular nighttime sound and light show, illuminating the city with a terrible beauty as the river gleamed and burning palaces and government buildings gave off huge plumes of smoke and artillery swept across t he sky like fireworks. It was a video game. And the tactics were destructive rather than subtle. Contrasted with the British strategy of simply going in and arresting a few men, the whole American approach to Iraq has been like an event that has occurred too often in the ghettos of American cities, or, notoriously, in Waco, Texas: religious extremists, political dissidents, or suspected drug dealers (they're all called "terrorists" now) are holed up in a building. Instead of coaxing them out, the American police come in en masse and terrorize them, or they simply firebomb the premises and destroy everything in sight.

But what has happened in Iraq is not a video game. Behind the explosions and triumphs shown to the majority of Americans, whose limited view of the events and naive understanding of world politics lead them to support George Bush even as he tarnishes our image and puts our pocketbooks and our very lives in danger, there is another war--not of bright victories but of suffering and death. This is the war that Al Jazeera and all the foreign journalists in the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad have shown us. Whether accidentally or on purpose, the American forces struck a blow against that truth when they bombed Al Jazeera headquarters and the Palestine Hotel and killed three journalists. Still the images have gotten through: whole families wiped out by accidental American shooting of vehicles or bombing of houses; hospital staffs desperately trying to deal with hundreds of new casualties and dying civilians brought in hour after hour; weeping mothers and fathers; children decapitated or with their arms or legs destroyed by cluster bombs; emergency surgeries using headache medicine; and patients lying in pools of blood. The Iraqi people don't need CNN or Fox or even Al Jazeera to see these things. They are there. It's their lives, their families who are lost and bleeding.

Iraq's UN Ambassador has--tellingly--declared that "the game is over." Americans are declaring "it's a wrap" and "we've won." Attention is already shifting. Some European newspapers are dropping their level of coverage of Iraq. Bush's cronies are directing threats toward Syria, Iran, and North Korea: see what you'll get if you don't tow the line? Time to move on, the implication is; our point has been made. We've won! We're the toughest boys on the block!

That is not the reality on the ground in Iraq, however. This is not a video game. In Iraq, the game can't be started up again with a clean screen and a new score. There is chaos, massive suffering, and complete disorder. Something has to be done.

As the independent American journalist May Ying Welsh reported to Amy Goodman of the "Democracy Now" radio show on April 10, quoting an Iraqi citizen, "The world better take responsibility for this." Another person she quoted said, "It's a catastrophe" and added that he "didn't have any faith there's going to be anything else."

Copyright © 2003 The Baltimore Chronicle and The Sentinel. All rights reserved. We invite your comments, criticisms and suggestions.

Republication or redistribution of Baltimore Chronicle and Sentinel content is expressly prohibited without their prior written consent.

This story was published on April 11, 2003.