Sovereignty and Citizenship

I titled this piece “Sovereignty and Citizenship” when I wrote it in Iraq.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Sunday, June 27, 2004

After the handover: U.S. policies should be infused with our troops’ perspective


NEAR RAMADI, Iraq — On Wednesday, there will be a formal transition of power to the Iraqi Governing Council. In reality, little will change — for two reasons.

The first is that the Iraqi Governing Council will not have power over coalition military operations. True, for weeks now, the U.S. Army has been turning operations over to the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps (ICDC) and Iraqi Police (IP). True also, the ICDC and IP are staying on the job, responding, along with Iraqi ambulances, to car bombs and improvised explosive devices. This is hopeful.

But there is another reason. Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq became a nation of cannibals. The great Russian poet, Anna Akhmatova, who bore witness to her people’s suffering under communism rather than accept comfortable exile, called the years of the Great Terror cannibalistic times. She was referring to the collaboration that made slaughter possible. “Here,” she wrote, “the prettiest girls vie for the honor of marrying executioners.” Hussein greatly admired Stalin and Ba’athism was a spin-off of Stalinism but alas, both Hussein and Ba’athism were Iraqi. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi corpses, and millions of horror stories, prove it.

American troops have made this nation better than it was. They have built schools, even in Ramadi, capital of Al-Anbar province here in the Sunni Triangle, arguably the most dangerous place in Iraq. They are working on water and electricity projects. They have pleased many a child by giving gifts such as toys and candy. They’ve taught them English ABCs and learned a good bit of Arabic in return. By nearly every quantitative standard of the nation-building that we’re so good at, Iraq is healing.

Iraq is healing, also, because of what hasn’t happened. The troops have imposed extraordinarily high standards of discipline on themselves. The junior enlisted stand watch for 12 long hours in Kevlar helmets and body armor, looking for insurgents planting improvised explosive devices. When it is time to kill insurgents, they do. When it is time to befriend or build, they do that, too. They move across the full spectrum of operations for little pay and few thanks.

They also have a very simple comment on the constant, casual, low-grade brutality that Iraqis inflict upon each other, their women, children and dogs: “It will break your heart.” You especially hear it from the combat soldiers and officers, who are most likely to go outside the wire.

And they sense their very civility baffles the Iraqis. They’re not used to the presence of soldiers who search and seize and arrest and sometimes kill but who do not murder, torture, steal or slaughter livestock. Saddam had his soldiers rape women. Now, many Iraqi men cannot fathom why a conqueror would treat them more gently than they often treat their wives — or each other.

To quote Lt. Col. W. D. Brinkley, the commander of the 1st Engineer Battalion, “Iraqis are so used to brutalizing each other that when the power or water goes out, they think Americans are punishing them. Saddam did this, but we don’t have a clue as to why they’ve lost water or power.”

So the issue is not, is Iraq better off for American intervention? It is. The problem is that there is no civil society in Iraq. And there is no concept of communal defense: Iraqis will revenge their dead but they will not stop the insurgents before they kill yet more Iraqis. Any trust between them was destroyed by decades of cannibalism, and a traditional culture filtered through decades of Iraqi-imposed hell. America may have made use of Saddam Hussein but we didn’t create his Mukhabarat, or tell him how to raise his sons, or choose their recreations for them.

There are the beginnings of civil society. But it will take Iraq years, perhaps decades, to become a decent society that Iraqis themselves believe is worth defending. It will take generations for them to become citizens who think their country is theirs to create, protect and defend together with each other as equals.

Iraqis need to become citizens of Iraq. Americans need to remember that we are citizens of the United States. We need to remember this before we make any further policy decisions in Iraq.

We cannot withdraw from Iraq. We’re in the Islamic world to stay. It is now incumbent upon Americans to demand the Democratic and Republican presidential contenders articulate a clear strategy, outlining ends and means and relating them to each other. We owe it to the world. We owe it to each other as citizens responsible for the uses of American power. And most of all, we owe it to our fellow citizens, the troops whom everybody nowadays so loudly claims to “support.”

Many of these troops are married, and many are parents. There are wives who have not lived with their husbands for six months of the last two years, husbands who have had only a few months with their wives. There is the yearning for their children. They are veterans of not just one deployment, but two or even more, in the Balkans as well as Afghanistan and the march up to Baghdad. Many are prevented from leaving the service under “stop loss” orders, which can keep people in uniform up to 18 months beyond their obligated service. Some of the stop loss soldiers in the1st Brigade Combat Team of the 1st Infantry Division have been killed or wounded, and these casualties are even more difficult for commanders to bear than “ordinary” losses.

It is these men and women who are bearing the burden of this war. Supporting them means asking honest questions about this war in Iraq, such as: What is our energy policy? How do we break the back of the oil cartel to cut off funds to Islamists here and elsewhere? How do we intend to maintain our industrial base so we can supply our troops? How do we intend to pay for this war, beyond putting it on the national credit card? Above all, it means asking, just how do we plan to provide enough soldiers so that these men and women can come home to their families? Is a draft necessary?

Supporting the troops means telling those who hector us that “we” the citizenry must see this war through. The neoconservatives, especially those who are unelected, have never served in the military and have no one they love in the military. It means asking serious questions of President Bush, Sen. John Kerry and of every candidate for Congress.

Wednesday will mark a formal handover of limited power in order to give the Iraqi people a chance to form a “vegetarian” government. U.S. soldiers devoutly hope that eventually a genuine civil society can take root here: Quite a few of them have given all anyone can for that end.

It is not asking too much of the American people that they remember they are citizens, and now is a good time to start acting like it.


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