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Analysis Last Updated: Nov 8th, 2006 - 01:26:30

Colonial hubris: Why Americans should organize to stop the war
By Luciana Bohne
Online Journal Associate Editor

Nov 8, 2006, 01:24

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Reading Mike Ferner's book, "Inside the Red Zone: A Veteran for Peace Reports from Iraq" (Praeger, 2006), makes one realize how vital it is for Americans to organize a stop-the-war/troops-out-now movement, made more urgent by the fact that both ruling parties, Democrat and Republican, offer Americans only one choice: support the war.

This slim volume recollects Ferner's encounters with people in Iraq, including US troops, during two visits. His first visit, just before the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in March of 2003, acquainted Ferner with the fear of living under the threat of imminent attack and with the despair, achingly recounted in the book, of a handful -- including Ferner -- of Western peace activists in Baghdad, principally from Christian Peace Team and Voices in the Wilderness, who failed to stop it. Ferner's second visit, in January and February of 2004, finds Iraq caught in the churning meat grinder fed by the predictable and legitimate resistance and the arrogant and unlawful occupation -- just two months before the US public discovers with horror that in a prison called Abu Ghraib the US government had flushed the Geneva Conventions, the US Constitution, and tUS laws against torture down the Pentagon's, the White House's, and the Department of Justice's collective toilet.

He concludes his book with a series of sweeping questions, the most important of which is "what do we owe the people of Iraq?"

"Having enforced brutal sanctions,� he writes, �and carried out intermittent bombings for a dozen years BEFORE invading in 2003; having reduced whole cities to rubble; having killed over 100,000 people, maimed many thousand more, and laid waste to Iraq's environment; having lain [sic] its entire economy prostrate to international corporations; what now?"

In the most illuminating chapter of Ferner's book, involving an exchange of letters between Iraqi and American students, we get the hint of an answer: begin by listening to what Iraqis have to say.

Before the invasion, the US war propaganda machine succeeded in conflating the identities of 24 million Iraqis into a single, uniform, monolithic identity; Saddam Hussein's, the "Butcher of Baghdad," into the new Hitler. Because to propagandized Americans all Iraqis subconsciously became replicas of Saddam Hussein and the killing, arrest, torture, and detention of tens of thousands of mostly innocent Iraqi civilians could be presented and normalized by Washington as a justifiable, necessary, and even desirable goal of the occupation.

The subconscious criminalization of a whole people ran counter to the stated noble cause of the war, surfacing after the mythical WMD could not be found. This �noble cause� alleged that the US invasion was undertaken to liberate Iraqis and to bring them freedom and democracy.

Lieutenant Colonel Nathan Sassaman, 1st Battalion, Third Infantry Division, stationed at Forward Operation Base Paliwoda, near Baghdad, attempted to bridge the moral gap between the �noble cause� and the brutality of its implementation. Quoted in the New York Times, Sassaman had asserted: �With a heavy dose of fear and violence, and a lot of money for projects, I think we can convince these people that we are here to help them.� Interviewed and challenged on this quotation by Ferner, Sassaman �smiled grimly and said it had been a �bad day� when he spoke with Times reporter, Dexter Filkins.� In early 2004, Sassaman still believed that �we are here to help [Iraqis],� but he gave no indication that he consulted them. Why should he? Within Ferner�s hearing, Sassaman called them �pathological liars,� a judgment repeated directly to Ferner by the Battalion�s XO, Major Rob Gwinner.

In the chapter titled "US and Iraqi Students Begin a Conversation," Ferner shows how crucial it is for Americans to begin listening to Iraqis. The chapter involves a response by Iraqi high school students to letters carried by Ferner from their counterparts in a Toledo, Ohio, high school.. One notices, with a pang of professorial shame, how much more articulate, correct, and vocabulary-confident is the Iraqi students' written English compared to that of the English-speaking natives in the US. Furthermore, one is struck by the Iraqi students' political understanding of the war.

"I think the US deserves a better president," declares one Iraqi student, after writing that the American invasion "ended a brutal dictatorial regime [but] it brought the American occupation which the Iraqis can't stand."

Another Iraqi student writes soberly, with more journalistic acumen and integrity than some of the top-paid reporters at The New York Times, "[The war] was about the oil, that damned liquid made a lot of people die for nothing and a lot of nations fight for it. . . . All we want is peace on this beautiful earth."

Yet another response: " . . . Don't be sorry. it's not your fault that we were invaded, we are living in a world where 'Power and Money' is the vital element that is running the show. Military troops were sent to Iraq for oil."

Compare this choral harmony issuing from Iraqi high-school students on the motivation for the war to its causal assessment by a �young captain from Michigan, not long out of West Point.� "Why do you think you're here?" asks Ferner. �To get rid of Saddam Hussein; to give Iraqis their freedom; to fight terrorism.� One �bone-tired� US soldier, however, perhaps because his brain escaped the coddling, doctrinal massage of a superior military academy, utters a single word -- "Oil." He and the Iraqi students share the same common sense in examining the evidence. Had Iraq been rich in turnips instead of oil, they both imply, there would have been no war.

But there is a war, the brutality of which, even in the first year of the occupation, Ferner uncovers by listening to ordinary Iraqis -- farmers in villages enclosed by razor wire for "their security," according to US military rationale; taxi drivers with engineering degrees unable to get work in their profession in Saddam-free Iraq; translators who prefer to work for NGOs rather than for the occupiers, collaboration being a betrayal few sentient beings under an illegal occupation would consider less evil than fratricide.

Particularly enlightening is Ferner's report on how so many largely blameless Iraqis came to be detained in US-run prisons so soon after their liberation from Saddam Hussein.

Investigating the detention of 83 men (among 10,000 then detained without charges all over Iraq) and incarceration at Abu Ghraib, Ferner reveals the murky underside of the �noble cause,� two months before it beaches, belly up, on the innocent shores of the homeland�s public consciousness with the pictures of the Abu Ghraib horrors. �On December 16, 2003,� Mohammed Al-Tai, citrus grower, reports to the visiting Christian Peace Team delegation, which includes Ferner, �at 2 a.m.., on a rainy night, all the houses of Abu Siffa, about two dozen, were surrounded by U.S. troops in tanks and Humvees. They surrounded the fields of the farmers by tanks and they destroyed the fences of the fields.�

In Ferner�s own summary of Al-Tai�s narrative, �soldiers from the Army�s 4th Infantry Division rounded up two attorneys, fifteen schoolteachers, men in their eighties, a blind man, police officers, young teens, and an elderly man so frail he had to be carried by the soldiers. . . . In all, eighty-three men disappeared that night, virtually every male in the village.�

Al-Tai further reported to the CPT delegation, documenting detainees� stories that �they also stole from Imad, the attorney, 4.5 million dinars ($10, 370)� and from other detainees the additional total of

approximately $6,375 to $6,400.

When Ferner interviewed Lieutenant Colonel Sassaman, he asked why the army detained the men of Abu Siffa three days after arresting Kais Hattam, a resident of Abu Siffa, wanted for links to the resistance. Sassaman replied that �the amount of weapons and explosives [found in the village] implicated Abu Siffa as a center of resistance.� Six weeks after the raid, 79 men were still held in Abu Ghraib, guilty by association with the resistance. This is the logic of an occupier who violates international law. The Nazis had it, too, in occupied Europe during WW II. The Geneva Conventions of 1949 called it �collective punishment� and forbade it.

Ferner�s book is a work of vital importance, especially at a time when liberal and conservative officialdom and the media punditry are attempting to shift the blame for the failure of the US occupation onto the Iraqis themselves. It bears remembering that the US invasion of Iraq was the �supreme international crime,� having violated international law by waging war without the approval of the United Nations� Security Council. It follows from this �supreme crime� that the occupiers bear all the responsibility in the catastrophe they have created in Iraq with their reckless, naked, and unlawful aggression. Occupiers do not have rights; they have only obligations.

Reading Ferner�s book -- a record not only of the suffering of the people of Iraq caused by the neo-imperialist designs of the US economic elites and by the US army forced to serve them but also a record of courage, humanity, and solidarity by an ordinary American citizen unable to silence his conscience at the injustice perpetrated by his government in his name against a blameless people -- burdens the reader with thoughts of responsibility.

�What now?� Ferner asks. �First, read this book or inform yourself in some other way; then organize� is the suggested first response. Unless the people of the United States rise up to oppose this war, it will not end. The world is waiting for the sleeping American giant to shake off its slumber, its confusion, its sense of powerlessness and mount once more the historic resistance to yet another imperialist war, as the American people of a previous generation had done before, thereby, stopping the war in Vietnam, aided by the resistance of the people of Vietnam. This waiting for deliverance from the disaster and the inhumanity that is the war in Iraq, either through the ballot or through some external military or economic debacle that checks Washington�s bellicose adventurism, is unworthy of the power and privilege that the American people enjoy to force their government to change course.

Luciana Bohne teaches film and literature at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. She can be reached at

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