Wednesday, October 19, 2005

How To Piss Off an Iraqi

One of the wonders of digital, internet is it's democratizing tendency when wielded properly. Slate does this with Fray Watch, where readers take issue with Slate's writers. One of Slate's more controversial writers is Christopher Hitchens naturally.

His article, "Tribal Ignorance," elicited this funny, wry and very intelligent response from Anonymous_Veteran --a veteran of the "liberation of Iraq" -- entitled "Smells Like Imperial Spirit. Let me just set it up with the graf from Hitchens used by Anonymous Veteran to open his great "little" digression with the Hitchman.
Ever wonder how to piss off an Iraqi? It's relatively simple. Just ask one, no sooner than you have been introduced: "So you're an Iraqi? How absolutely fascinating. Do tell: Are you a Kurd or a Sunni or a Shiite?" This will work every time, just as it's always so polite and so useful to ask a brown-skinned American if he or she is Chicano or, you know … Latina.
Have at him Anonymous:
Well, if I wanted to piss off an Iraqi, I'd invade their country. Then, after the smoke cleared, I'd fail to restore peace, electricity, running water or economic stability. Also, instead of helping the Iraqis rebuild their country, I'd force them to accept brutally liberal economic policies and give reconstruction contracts to American companies in a process so rife with corruption and malfeasance that millions of dollars intended to be spent on rebuilding Iraq would simply be lost—unaccounted for. I would disband the Iraqi Army, too, just to put another 500,000 people out of work and dismantle what could have been the core of a working Iraqi security force. I would put expatriate Iraqis, especially criminals and CIA cronies like Ahmed Chalabi, in important positions of power. Then, in order to give the country "freedom," I would retreat behind the walls of a fortified complex, where in the luxury of Saddam's old palaces I would "guide" and "help" Iraq's "elected" government write a "constitution."

But that's not even my point.

Firstly, Hitchens' argument about the media's Shia/Sunni/Kurd nomenclature is facetious: Yes, the Kurds are Sunnis (they also tend toward Sufism), and yes, the news companies and reporters should make a point of saying Shi'ite Arabs and Sunni Arabs and Kurds, because these distinctions, whatever other minorities Hitchens in his jolly multiculturalism would like to use to illustrate his point, are the salient cultural divisions in Iraq. I fail to see what Iraq's pre-1947 Jewish population (which had its own problems—like the Farhud in 1941—and did not always, as Hitchens seems to want to imply, live in glorious peace and harmony with their Muslim brethren) or Christian Iraqis have to do with recognizing that the country is divided, roughly 60%-20%-20%, between Shi'ite Arabs and Sunni Arabs and nominally Sunni Kurds, and that these are divisions have—at least since Iraq was established as a British mandate after World War I—been at the root of a great deal of violence within the country.

It is interesting to read a little about Iraq's history, because you find guys named al-Barzani and al-Sistani rebelling against the British, rebelling against the monarchy appointed by the British (I'm sorry, not appointed but rather "freely elected" by 98% of the voting population. . . three cheers for "democracy," in all its wondrous forms), and rebelling against the Sunni Arab minority that ruled Iraq after 1932.

I also found it interesting that Hitchens said Sistani is ethnically Persian, rather than ethnically Iranian, which might have complicated his stupidly simplistic Pollyanna view of the Western Man's Glorious Burden of bringing Democracy to the Heathen Middle East. Edward Said would be ashamed today of his old friend, who has become if not a Bush shill, then at least a cheerleader for Imperialism. But I digress. . .

It is true that the "media," including Hitchens, have many boring and philistine habits, both intellectually and morally. One of them is that they often deliberately obfuscate an issue in order to make a point. Such as Hitchens' fond remembrance of the Balkan wars, when Serbs and Croats were actively seeking out Muslims—specifically Bosnian Muslims—to exterminate. I suppose any fool who thought that these two Christian apples were trying to eradicate the Muslim oranges because of some sort of "partitionist and segregationist language" would have been ruefully mistaken.

Another boring and philistine habit of the "media" is to establish false dichotomies. For example: "This same tribal habit of mind—tribal on our part, I mean, not on the part of the Iraqis—allows some people to make the lazy assumption that the liberation of Iraq has created these differences, or intensified them, rather than sought to compose and heal them." So the invasion and occupation of Iraq by a foreign country can only have either created the ethnic differences—which is patently ridiculous—or, and I love this, oh man, "sought to compose and heal them."

You know, when I was riding around Baghdad in the back of a Hummvee and pointing my M16 at suspicious Iraqis (I didn't care what their religious proclivities were), I don't remember a lot of "healing" going on. But I suppose it fits somehow in the twisted logic of Hitchens' beleaguered idealism that you can "heal" people through armed occupation. . . But I again digress. . .

Lost in this false dichotomy is the truth of the matter—these differences have existed as long as Iraq has existed as a state or as a "mandate," and even before—and in any case were in place well before Hussein took over. Sunni Arabs have been lording it over Kurdish Sunnis and Shi'ite Arabs for decades. If you want to blame anyone, blame the British. Or maybe the Ottomans.

I'm glad for Hitchens that in his fierce struggle, down there in the trenches, for Iraqi democracy, he can find "encouragement" in probably faked documents debating tactical arguments in Al Qaeda's international jihad. I certainly don't find much encouragement in the fact that our "intervention," which seemed a lot more like an invasion to me, got rid of one brutal dictator only to open the door to many lesser brutal dicators—"If you fall into conversation with an Iraqi," they might say they've traded one big Saddam for many little Saddams.

And while the US is not responsible for Al Qaeda (despite our early funding and support of the organization—blowback's tough. . .), the US is responsible for the results of its invasion of Iraq. Not only by any reasonable ethic or moral view, but as well by international law. If you invade a country and take it over, it's your responsibility. And it is morally reprehensible, absolutely disgusting and idiotic of Hitchens to continually contend that the United States is free from responsibility for the anarchy that Iraq and Baghdad have fallen prey to. He could argue that all the dead Americans and dead Iraqis are laying the foundation of a peaceful and prosperous democratic Middle East, and that the terrible burden of so much devastation is outweighed by the promise of the beautiful dream that Bush, Wolfowitz, Perle et al., have dreamed—but he can't really argue that the US isn't responsible for the effects of its invasion. He can assert it, and assert it he does, over and over and over again with tiresome righteousness, but he doesn't ever seem to really. . . argue it.

But what do I know? I'm apparently a moral cretin. Perhaps if I were a moral wizard like Hitchens and his neocon fellow-travelers, I would be able to find some way to reconcile imperialism with democracy. As it is, I'm at a loss.

PS- I'm not at a loss, though, for ways to "piss of Iraqis." I can remember a dozen off the top of my head, and they all involve myself or other American soldiers. To paraphrase Conrad, the conquest of Iraq is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. But then, we should all know that by know, if we'd bother to open our eyes.
Anonymous Veteran gets at all the salient points Hitchens frustratingly ignores in much of his writing, especially the dichotomy of imperialism and liberation. But more broadly, I'm just glad we have soldiers that are indeed critical human beings that are taking their experiences from Iraq and speaking out. Who knows, maybe a few good leaders will emerge out of this Iraqi adventure.