In debates about whether or not the United States should withdraw all troops from Iraq, a frequently mentioned factor is the need to prevent civil war and genocide. That denies the realities on the ground: we have already ensured a civil war and committed genocide. The time for “prevention” has passed. But there is another factor that is often brought up in the context of these debates that troubles me — the notion that, because we caused so much damage, we need to stick around to clean it up. I would like to pose a simple question in response to that assertion: should companies and individuals with connections to Al Qaeda have been granted the contracts to rebuild the World Trade Center and the Pentagon after September 11, 2001?
To speak of what the U.S. has done in Iraq as the result of bad strategy or foreign policy mistakes is not only unhelpful — it is part of the problem. Such language erases the humanity of the 1.2 million lives that have been extinguished and the countless others that have been forever traumatized. It reduces individuals to random numbers to be crunched in progress assessment reports. Since the attacks of September 11, there have been incredibly important tributes and memorials that serve as moving testimonies to the human tragedy that results from such acts of monumental violence. But in the U.S. we are not seeing similar tributes, memorials, and testimonies to the Iraqi lives that have been destroyed through the acts of monumental violence we have perpetrated and continue to perpetrate. We are complex human beings, they are abstractions. This is why it is easy for us to speak of what is happening in Iraq as issues of strategy and policy rather than as crimes against humanity. This is what allows us to speak of a quagmire (the tricky situation we have gotten ourselves into and have to figure out how to get ourselves out of) rather than to speak of a genocide (the horrors we have brought to others). This is what allows us to think we should have any part to play in reconstruction and in setting the agenda in Iraq.
I ask those who think the U.S. should be involved in reconstruction in Iraq to remember the pain they felt after September 11, the pain that for some is undoubtedly still very present. Should those who were responsible for that pain be allowed to profit from the reconstruction of the buildings they destroyed? Allowing U.S. companies to profit from the destruction of Iraq is just as ludicrous and insulting a proposal. An inability to recognize that is a symptom of an immense superiority complex that has taken root in this country. It demonstrates that, despite all the evidence on the ground, we still think the U.S. is ultimately righteous and just trying to do good in the world — and more capable of doing so than anyone else.
A couple days ago, I went to a talk at UC Berkeley given by Josh Rushing, who became famous as the U.S. marine defending Al Jazeera in the film Control Room. In his talk, he explained that it is a big mistake on the part of the U.S. government and military to shun Al Jazeera, that it is important for them to utilize the Arab media well because the media is one of the combined arms of any mission. In his talk, he repeated a question he posed in a recent interview on Democracy Now, “What would be more important than explaining to the Arab people why we’re taking these kinds of military actions in the Arab world?” The idea that there could be any explanation whatsoever that would justify the murder of 1.2 million people reveals just how disposable the Iraqi people are in the minds of many in the U.S. I should be clear that Rushing said he does not think the media should be used to spread propaganda. He believes the media must be “permanently skeptical” and that it is important that networks like Al Jazeera don’t only show missiles being launched but what it looks like on the ground when they land and hit people. He is a person who has written about the dehumanization of Arabs in the U.S. media. And yet he still has enough faith in our government to believe that there must be a good explanation for what we are doing. He still believes that our government and our military — while they might make mistakes — have good intentions, and that it will ultimately be to everyone’s benefit to go along with their plans.
This faith, a part of the U.S. superiority complex that I mentioned before, is very dangerous. It is a faith that declares, “We might not be perfect, but we’re better than everyone else.” It is a faith that assumes we are the most enlightened, that we are worth emulating and that our agenda should be adhered to all over the world. It is a faith that leads us to search for and accept justifications for crimes that cannot be justified. It is a faith that will leave the world asking of Americans, “How could they have let that happen?” The U.S. military needs to be taken out of Iraq. The U.S. government needs to be taken before the International Criminal Court.
I would like to end by drawing attention to the demands of the 500-member strong (and growing) Iraq Veterans Against the War: immediate and unconditional withdrawal of all occupying forces in Iraq, full benefits and adequate physical and mental healthcare for them when they get home, and reparations for the destruction and corporate pillaging of Iraq so that Iraqi people can control their own lives and future.
Reparations, not reconstruction contracts.
Cecilia Lucas lives in Oakland, California.