The mess that is Iraq-4: Why things fell apart

One of the peculiar things about history is how the great powers of any given era do not think that the lessons of history apply to them, that somehow the present conditions are so qualitatively different that there is little to be learned from the past, because the old rules are not applicable anymore. And by ignoring the lessons of history, they suffer the consequences.

This particular administration seems to have not avoided this kind of hubris. In fact, it seems to have been even more arrogant than its predecessors, even to the extent that it thinks it could create its own reality.
Patrick Cockburn, longtime observer of Iraq and a correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent writing in the October 1-15, 2005 issue of the CounterPunch newsletter draws upon some of the lessons from history that might have been useful if they had been fully considered.

One of these lessons is that there have always been two countervailing tensions in Iraq. There are the traditional suspicions and tensions that divide the Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish communities. But these divisions have been countered by their greater joint dislike of foreign occupiers. This fact, that uniting to repel an occupying force tends to trump internal divisions, has been an almost constant factor in colonial history in many countries and yet it always seems to come as a surprise to the new occupying forces.

Cockburn points out that when the British captured Baghdad in 1917, they eventually faced an uprising from the Iraqis that left 2,269 dead and wounded occupying British and Indian troops and an estimated 8,450 Iraqi’s dead. Cockburn points out that “highly informed British officials in Baghdad at the time underestimated the fact that, however much Shia and Sunni disliked each other, they hated the British even more.”

But while the first major rebellion against the British in 1920 took nearly three years to come to fruition, it took only three months for a rebellion on a similar scale to occur following the 2003 invasion. Cockburn says that the vast majority of Iraqis did not support Saddam Hussein and did not fight for him, thus leading to the initial ‘cakewalk.’ But he adds “Strangely, the Americans and the British never seem to have understood the extent to which the occupation outraged Iraqi nationalism, though anger might take a different form in the Sunni and Shia communities.”

Support for Cockburn’s position comes from this secret survey recently commissioned by the British Ministry of Defence (and revealed by the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph) which found that the majority of Iraqis support attacks on UK troops. Keep in mind that British troops are supposed to have better relations with the local population than the Americans.

According to the Telegraph report:

The survey was conducted by an Iraqi university research team that, for security reasons, was not told the data it compiled would be used by coalition forces. It reveals:

  • Forty-five per cent of Iraqis believe attacks against British and American troops are justified – rising to 65 per cent in the British-controlled Maysan province;
  • 82 per cent are “strongly opposed” to the presence of coalition troops;
  • less than one per cent of the population believes coalition forces are responsible for any improvement in security; (my emphasis)
  • 67 per cent of Iraqis feel less secure because of the occupation;
  • 43 per cent of Iraqis believe conditions for peace and stability have worsened;
  • 72 per cent do not have confidence in the multi-national forces.
    The opinion poll, carried out in August, also debunks claims by both the US and British governments that the general well-being of the average Iraqi is improving in post-Saddam Iraq.

The opinion poll, carried out in August, also debunks claims by both the US and British governments that the general well-being of the average Iraqi is improving in post-Saddam Iraq.

As Cockburn points out, the extent of the dislike for the occupation forces can be seen by the reaction of bystanders to the killing of American and British personnel. In the well-publicized incident in 2004 when American contractors bodies were mutilated in Fallujah “they were mutilated not by the insurgents who killed them but by townspeople, day laborers waiting by the roadside for a job. The same savage joy was visible on the faces of the Shia crowd setting fire to the British armored vehicle in Basra on September 19 this year.”

Then just last month, on September 10 in an incident which received surprisingly little news coverage and was confirmed by the US military only on October 23 “Four US contractors for the US military were killed in Iraq last month, the military says, confirming an attack that a British newspaper said saw two of the men murdered in front of a jeering crowd.”

The report goes on:

At least two of the men were dragged alive from their vehicle, which had been badly shot up, and forced to kneel in the road before being killed, it said.

“Killing one of the men with a rifle round fired into the back of his head, they doused the other with petrol and set him alight,” the newspaper report said.

There is a very strange coda to this story that cries out for further explication. These contractors were not alone but were actually being escorted by a US military convoy but “US soldiers escorting the convoy were unable to respond quickly because the hatches on their Humvees were closed.”

History tells us that military occupations breed resistance. The longer the occupation, the more determined and widespread the resistance becomes.

You can learn from history or you can ignore it at your peril. People who think that they can control reality are likely to choose the latter option. And the current administration seems to belong in that camp.

POST SCRIPT: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

trail of dead1.jpg I am not sure how many of you have seen Luis Bunuel’s classic 1972 absurdist comedy with the above name. On the surface it deals with the repeated attempts by a group of sophisticates to get together for a meal and having it repeatedly disrupted by a series of increasingly improbable events, while beneath the surface it is a satire on social manners and hypocrisy.

The main narrative segments of the film are separated by scenes in which the characters are shown walking determinedly down a remote road on a hot sunny day. These walking scenes have no obvious connection with what went on previously or came later. It is not clear where the people are coming from or where they are going, but they walk with a sense of purpose. Each repetition of this sequence makes you laugh more at the sheer pointlessness of it all.

When I saw this photograph over the summer, it felt vaguely familiar but I could not pin it down. Now I realize that it reminded me, both literally and metaphorically, of that film from long ago. A group of determined people resolutely going nowhere…


  1. Mary says

    They may be clueless on where they are going, but the quadruplets are clearly walking a downward slope …

  2. arvin says

    Dear Professor,
    The pic in the postscript reminds me of a cartoon by Walt Handelsman (Time, 10 Oct 2005, Page 15) in which W Bush is shown walking repeatedly around a block titled IRAQ. He keeps saying “We’re turning the corner….” over and over!

    By the way, how come no posting today? Hope you are doing well.

  3. says

    I’m fine. Thanks for asking. It is just that I was traveling today and did not have internet access until late in the evening. So I have deferred today’s posting until Monday.

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