Nation of Cannibals

The working title for this piece was “Nation of Cannibals,” after the Soviet poet Anna Akhmatova’s observation that some times life under Communist rule was cannibalistic, and at other time, relatively vegetarian.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Iraq survived by feeding on itself


NEAR RAMADI, Iraq — Hajji’s life, U.S. soldiers say, is cheap. And they don’t mean to them. As Capt. Joe Jasper, the First Brigade public affairs officer, a cavalryman who used to command the brigade’s Reconnaissance Troop, explained, GIs feel very strongly that killing an unarmed insurgent, who has nevertheless just placed an improvised explosive device meant to kill and to maim, is dishonorable. They usually have to lose some friends first. Then it becomes easy to kill an unarmed insurgent.

But only then.

Civilians are at constant risk in the cities and towns of Iraq, and not from U.S. troops, who worry constantly about them. The enemy knows this too and works to draw fire into civilian areas so that he (and in these soldiers’ experiences it is always a he) can point to the ensuing casualties as evidence of U.S. barbarism.

The U.S. response is to impose the highest possible standard of fire discipline on the troops. In a raid very early on the morning of June 22 on a suspected safe-house for foreign fighters by the troops of Delta Battery, 1-5 Field Artillery, the pre-raid rehearsals stressed the absolute necessity of being certain that an armed man was a threat before killing him. Every Iraqi house has weapons for self-defense; a man who picks up a weapon thinking he is dealing with a robber is not considered a threat.

The GIs handled the suspected foreign fighters they found considerably more gently than they did each other during the rehearsals. Lt. Col. Mike Cabrey, commander of 1-5, is all about using so much force, intimidation and deliberate speed that insurgents cannot even think about resistance and therefore do not need to be killed: He has run 30 such raids without one of his soldiers having to fire a single round.

This burden is carried with incredible grace by soldiers who are often married, often parents: Their stake in avoiding needless death, particularly among women and children, is very personal. These are not plaster saints but soldiers who have lost friends. They are horrified by the Iraqi acceptance of payments to compensate for accidental death and wounds. Such payments are a legitimate response to lost income and earning power, but to the soldiers, it smacks of setting a cash value on human life.

They have seen families with young children open their homes to armed and violent young men whom they do not even know by name, in an attempt to give them safe passage into Iraq to kill U.S. soldiers. They have been on the receiving end of fire that has killed their own, deliberately initiated by the enemy from homes containing women and children. They have withheld their fire from mortar men who have set up in populated areas and seen other mortar men repeatedly shoot rounds at them that fall short, into villages. They watch the Iraqis torn to rags by insurgent car bombs and assassinations, and they try to persuade Iraqi men to inform on the insurgents in order to protect their families: This is a society in which women may have influence but no power. Time and again, they hear Iraqi men refuse to do so because it is “too dangerous” for them to tell someone how to help protect their families.

Saddam Hussein and Baathism may have been influenced by Stalinism, but they were authentically Iraqi. One of the ways Saddam maintained control was by doling out water, power and jobs to favored individuals and communities, in return for individuals from those communities to serve in his army and as members of the Mukhabarat. And they murdered, tortured, maimed and raped their fellow Iraqis by the tens of thousands.

Under an occupation that has made Iraqis both more free and safer than they were under Saddam, Iraqis have had to face not only how little they sold themselves for, but what they sold. They had become a nation with more than their fair share of cannibals. To refuse to feed upon other Iraqis was to court a terrible death, and to feed upon them was something many boasted of, while many others could not bear the moral implications of what they saw and how they were forced to live.

U.S. troops have become accustomed to the filth and squalor of Iraq: the raw sewage stagnant in open drainage ditches, the fields of garbage, the yards littered with feces and car parts, the poorly built houses with walls and cabinets that have been unwashed for years, rotting food squirreled away in a pot on the stairs, drawers crammed with everything from gold jewelry to papers of intelligence value to ammunition that matches no weapon in the house. But it makes them sad. And they grow angry, not only at Iraqis, but for them, when they will answer every question with lies that add up to nothing, when telling the truth would do them no harm.

This is the despair of a nation that marched open-eyed into hell and survived therein by consuming itself. Now, it cannot leave hell without retracing the moral degradation so many allowed others to impose upon them, step by loving step.


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