I Survived

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Wednesday, July 7, 2004

We can hope Iraqis learn from Americans


RAMADI, Iraq — “I survived.”

So said the Frenchman to his son, when asked what he did during the Nazi occupation of France.

Today, millions of Iraqis can say the same. But while survival is an either/or, there are degrees of complicity and guilt. Saddam Hussein didn’t do it alone.

No one here survived without making compromises and submissions and Iraqis must carry in themselves those ugly memories. But because Saddam was a Sunni, he bargained with and used the Sunni. He knew the Sunni Triangle was a nest of smugglers and criminals, so he used them to evade U.N. sanctions. The United Nations was quite happy to share.

There is a suburb of Ramadi called Sufiyah. It is a place that not even Saddam could dominate totally. The residents control a great deal of wealth, within and beyond Iraq, and are remarkably unrepentant about what they did to gain it.

Ramadi is part of the operating area of Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, with whom I was embedded for several days. When they run their logistics convoys through the market, twice a day, they get a lot of hard looks. But what I saw on those Iraqi faces was not pride. These were poor young men, paid by the wealthy of Sufiyah to harass and attack the Marines, and also the Iraqi police and the new National Guard.

Who is harder to countenance, the street thugs or their patrons? Those Iraqis who prospered under Saddam know they’ll find a way to prosper now. It is those who survived on their leavings, and who take those leavings still, who are consumed with bitterness. And how that bitterness must be intensified by their contacts with an occupier who treats them with more mercy than they ever received at the hands of their own.

The Marines try to take these people off the streets, not by arresting or shooting them, but through a plethora of small contacts and contracts. Yes, contracts. The Marines wish to pay them honestly for honest work and merchandise, perhaps to see them established in small businesses.

But the residents of Sufiyah don’t like it. Nor do they want the street thugs to ponder too closely that the American presence may be the only thing standing between Iraq and a hideous civil war, perhaps even Iranian invasion. So they hate us because they need us, and attack us because they can count on our restraint, and because it helps them evade their own responsibility for both their complicity and their need.

As I have written on this page, there is in Iraq today no civil society, only a traditional culture of clans and tribes and sects, brutalized into stupor by decades of Saddam and set upon by those who want no civil society to emerge. How to create one — not just a government but also a society of citizens — is the paramount question. The answer lies, in large measure, with what to do with Sufiyah. For it is not enough to try Saddam and the “Dirty Dozen,” or even to deny future positions of responsibility to the nastier among the former Baathists. The fundamental issue is the complicity of those who prospered under Saddam, and who expect to prosper (and dominate) in an Iraq that may be less brutal, but no less corrupt.

As a college student, I was much taken with the wartime and early post-war writings of Albert Camus, the French existentialist who fought in the Resistance and wrote for the underground paper, Combat. I recall how he commented, bitterly but without surprise, on the slow re-emergence of political and economic business-as-usual in France, and on how those who fared well under the Nazis by and large continued to do so. In the end, he despaired of bringing so many to justice. But they too would pass, and in their eventual extinction there was hope, provided other examples were set, other ways and institutions established and nurtured.

Iraq can go back to business-as-usual. In some ways, it already has. But if there is to be any hope for this land, it lies in the creation of a society of citizens who deal with one another honestly as citizens. The Marines have the right idea. Show them the possibility of living differently.

Creating civil society will be a process of generations, against dreadful odds. But Saddam’s accomplices are mortal. And we can hope that someday, the question Iraqi children ask their parents will not be, “What did you do under Saddam?” but “What did you do while the Americans were here?”

The answer for millions, we can hope, will not be, “I hated them and fought them.” It will be, “I was glad to see them go. But while they were here, I learned.”


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