The Exception Is the Rule
By Jonathan Schell
Sometimes the truth of a large, confusing historical enterprise can be glimpsed in a single news report. Such is the case in regard to the Iraq War, it seems to me, with the recent story in the Washington Post by Anthony Shadid and Steve Fainaru called “Building Iraq’s Army: Mission Improbable.” Shadid and Fainaru did something that is rarely done; spend several days with a unit of Iraq’s new, American-trained forces.
(The typical treatment of the topic consists of a few interviews with American officers in the Green Zone in Baghdad, leading to some estimation of how long it will take to complete the job.)
The Post story starts with the lyrics of a song the soldiers of the unit, called Charlie Company, were singing out of earshot of their American overseers. It was a ballad to Saddam Hussein, and it ran:
We have lived in humiliation since you left
We had hoped to spend our life with you
The American press often discusses the political makeup of the insurgency, but no one until now has suggested that some of the very forces being trained by the United States might be longing for the return of Saddam. To the extent that this is the case—or that these forces are otherwise opposed to the occupation—the United States, far from improving “security,” is now training the future resistance to itself. Indeed, the soldiers of Charlie Company told Shadid and Fainaru that seventeen of them had quit in recent days. They added that every one of them planned to do the same as soon as possible. Their reasons were simple. They were bitter at the United States. “Look at the homes of the Iraqis,” one soldier remarked, “The people have been destroyed.” When asked by whom, he answered, “Them”—and pointed to the Americans leading the patrol. The Iraqis had enlisted in the new army only for the salary—$340 per month, an enviable sum in today’s ruined Iraq. But the money had come at the price of self-respect. The new recruits had been bought off and hated themselves for it. One said that after they had all quit, “We’ll live by God, but we’ll have our respect.”
One might wonder whether the reporters had deliberately or unknowingly picked an exceptionally rebellious unit. But in fact, Charlie Company was selected by the U.S. Army itself, presumably eager to put its best foot forward.
The American officers’ response to their sullen recruits is of a piece with the entire American effort in Iraq. The officers treat their charges as if, owing to certain mysterious personal defects, they somehow are not quite up to the job they have been given. After a typical episode in which the unit was attacked and ran away (four hailed taxis to make their escape), Sgt. Rick McGovern, who leads the unit, dressed them down.
“You are all cowards,” he informed them. He went on, “My soldiers are over here, away from our families for a year. We are willing to die for you to have freedom. You should be willing to die for your own freedom.” The tongue-lashing assumed that the Iraqis and the American shared a cause that, as the story shows, was actually 100 percent missing. Iraqi men who hate the American occupation are not cowards if they decline to shoot other men who are fighting the occupation. On the contrary, the more courage they had, the less they would engage in such a fight. The men of Charlie Company do indeed lack courage—courage to turn down the money they accept for pretending to fight for a cause they despise. Their most cowardly moment, given their beliefs, was when they sat still while Sergeant McGovern called them cowards. One soldier, Amar Mana, explained the situation in the clearest terms: “We don’t want to take responsibility,” he said. “The way the situation is, we wouldn’t be ready to take responsibility for a thousand years.”
And so the Americans and the Iraqis of Charlie Company, like the United States and Iraq in general today, are led, by choice on the one side and by bribery and compulsion on the other, to play roles in a script that has little or nothing to do with the situation they are actually in. In this situation, it is not necessary to form a whole sentence to tell a lie. Use of single words or phrases—“Iraqi sovereignty,” “freedom,” “election,” “security,” “democracy,” “anti-Iraqi forces,” even “courage” and “cowardice”—involve the speaker in deception, for they are the constitutive elements of a framework of thought and belief that is itself a fabrication.
The American occupation of Iraq is something new, but the fundamental error of the United States has a long pedigree. It is the imprisonment of the human mind in ideology backed by violence. The classic example is Stalin’s Russia, under which decades of misrule were rationalized as a “stage” on the way to the radiant future of true communism. As for the miserable present, it was amusingly called “actually existing communism.” The future, when it came, of course was not communism at all but the disintegration of the whole enterprise. All the “stages” turned out to lead nowhere.
Once the mind is in the grip of such a system, every “actually existing” horror can be seen as a mere imperfection in a beautiful larger picture, every defeat a stage on the way to the glorious future. The simpler and more coherent an ideology, the better it can withstand the assault of fact. So today in Iraq, every act of torture, every flattened city, every gushing sewer, every car-bombing and beheading, is presented as a bump on the road to “freedom” for Iraq, or for the Middle East, or even for the whole world, in which our President has promised an “end to tyranny.” (It’s apparently a rule of ideology that the more sordid the reality, the more grandiosely splendid the eventual goal must be.)
But a moment comes—perhaps it is a sudden defeat, or perhaps it is merely reading a story like Shadid and Fainaru’s—when the fantasy dissolves, and then one is left face to face with the factual truth. All the “exceptions” turn out to be the rule. When that happens with respect to Iraq, America’s grotesque misadventure there—born of lies, sustained by lies and productive of more lies every day it continues—will be brought to a close.
Jonathan Schell, author of The Unconquerable World, is the Nation Institute’s, Harold Willens Peace Fellow, The Jonathan Schell Reader was recently published by Nation Books.
This article will appear in a forthcoming issue of The Nation magazine.
—TomDispatch.com, June 16, 2005