“Americans Know Nothing About Suffering”
From An Iraq Journal

by Ed Kinane

Ed worked with Voices in the Wilderness in Baghdad from August to November. These notes are adapted from his journal. Contact SPC to arrange for speaking engagements for Ed.

Hearing explosions in the distance, Ghareeb, our guide, decides to avoid the main road as we head for Tikrit. All morning long we have been passing US convoys – as always each vehicle is manned by soldiers with guns at the ready. G. says the stretch of road between Baghdad and Samarra is particularly known for attacks on US forces. He wants to keep as much distance between them and us as possible.
Out of their compounds, these soldiers never can forget that, although they are the conquerors, they are the ones under siege.
It was outside Tikrit that Saddam spent his fatherless, hardscrabble childhood. Saddam distributed much patronage to this area – especially to members of his tribe. He’s probably still distributing patronage here. These days the area, the apex of the “Sunni triangle,” vigorously resists the Occupation. In Tikrit Saddam is “family.”
We drive into the center of town, park on the main street, and enter a restaurant. Men immediately gather around us. It’s not every day that a Yank enters this lion’s den! We’re led to a side dining room. On the wall is a photo portrait of Saddam-as-Bedouin. In dark glasses, he cuts a dashing figure.
The manager takes pride in this hallowed photo. He tells us that if the Americans try to remove it, they’ll have a fight on their hands. He says, if one day Iraq got a leader chosen by Iraqis, that leader’s photo might be placed along side Saddam’s.
During the few minutes we’re left to ourselves to eat, I ask G. if it is possible here to speak frankly about Saddam. Dryly, he says, “Not if you want to leave alive.”
So when our host returns, I’m ready for the inevitable, “What do you think about Saddam?” I reply, “Back home we hear nothing good about Saddam. But he seems much cleverer than the Americans.”
**
Heading back to Baghdad we see lots more US military hardware on the move. In Bellad, we stop for tea. We get talking to a schoolteacher here. He tells us about a US soldier knocking down a 70-year-old imam [cleric]. Within hours, he says, eight US soldiers were killed in retaliation.
He says the imams are helping to lead the resistance. He says that come Ramadan the imams will stir up more resistance. He says in this area it’s common business to smuggle US soldiers north to Turkey to escape the war.
The teacher asserts that US casualties are underreported. He says the US authorities dump the bodies of dead US soldiers in the Dijila [Tigris]. Sometimes, he says, Iraqis retrieve and bury them. He says the soldiers don’t look North American and must not have relatives in the US to inquire about them. (I’ve heard this report before. Is it fact…or disinformation?)
**
Iraq Today, the English-language weekly here, reports that US forces in the north are destroying date palm trees. They want to deny resisters a place to hide. The forces refuse to compensate the date farmers for their loss. The forces argue that the farmers should somehow prevent the resisters from using their property. Uh-huh. Just try shooing away guerillas. The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) has a gift for losing hearts and minds.
US soldiers, being picked off one by one and two by two, bear the brunt of such chiseling. US military recruiting should nosedive as the soldiers get home and share how callously the military has treated them. As depleted uranium starts taking its toll on the vets, recruitment should also take a hit.Is the empire getting overextended?
**
Ramadan begins today; it’s the Islamic month of fasting and reflection. Like tens of millions of other households from Morocco to Indonesia, our house will abstain from food and drink from dawn to dusk.
But Ramadan may be different this year. Today we hear numerous explosions all over town. Altogether hundreds are wounded or killed. Things are heating up. The International Red Cross is downsizing and the UN is pulling out the remnants of its international staff.
It’s an unhappy coincidence that we three Voices/Baghdad staff must begin heading back to the States on November 7. Salam and Ghareeb are troubled by the timing. But our departure date has long been set.
We’ll go, leaving vital parts of ourselves here. No time is the right time to leave. In Iraq this may be true for months – or years – to come.
**
Aircraft were out in force last night. Hour after hour tanks kept rumbling by. Unless we watch from the roof, we don’t know whether they are coming or going. It’s a totalistic sound – the assault of heavy metal. Like locomotives or like choppers, flying low to avoid being shot out of the sky, the tanks’ dull roar is suddenly upon you in the night.Startling. Disturbing.
**
In a harsh world, I’ve led a sheltered life. I can’t tell a firecracker from a gunshot. I can’t tell a mine from a mortar from a missile from a rocket. But, apart from “force protection,” I wonder how useful the ungainly and hard-to-hide tanks are in urban warfare. How maneuverable are they on main streets clogged with traffic throughout the day and into mid-evening? Surely all the new traffic cops have been trained and ordered to clear the way for the US tanks.
Tanks have the firepower to destroy whole buildings and blocks. But that would kill many civilians. Not a cool move in a city wired to the world with media…only some of it in bed with the Brits and the Yanks. We sometimes forget that most media here, broadcast internationally, is consumed in Arabic and other languages besides English. Its images and texts help shape the world that our children will have to live in.
**
I ask an Iraqi friend what Baghdadies think about the recent shooting down of the Chinook and the death of the 15 US soldiers flying out on leave. He says, “Some people are happy. Some couldn’t care less. No one is sad.” My friend is wrong about that. I’m sad. US soldiers are among the first victims of this thieving, corporate war.
**
Baghdad isn’t rural Viet Nam or El Salvador or Afghanistan. The invaders aren’t up against mud or grass huts here. Nor, as in Panama, against mere tenements. Here when you destroy people’s homes you destroy taxable real estate.
For millennia Iraqis have been builders and engineers. They build solidly and with brick and concrete. The urban buildings are dense and contiguous. It’s easy to slip from one to another via backdoors or over the rooftops. Nor is this Syracuse: having no snow, the roofs of Baghdad are flat – ideal for sniping.
Unlike peasant guerillas in many other US wars, the resistance here isn’t tucked away in some remote jungle. It doesn’t just control the countryside or the mountains. It has the run of the city.
Nor is it lightly armed. Except for the huge number of hired guards with their kalashnikovs (cheaply bought), people typically don’t go around armed. In fact people seem remarkably convivial and respectful with us and with one another. But weapons and weapon caches are near at hand.
Arms are so widespread that possessing them isn’t necessarily evidence that one is a combatant or guerilla or “terrorist.” One may simply be protecting one’s home from the thievery and other crime unleashed by Saddam’s fall and by the occupation. Violence trickles down.
**
In certain ways Iraq is like Viet Nam under US invasion. Few of the invaders speak the language – a severe handicap in gathering intelligence or having any clue about what’s going on.
Most Iraqi men, willingly or not, have had military training. Most have survived military experience. Iraq is a society where most have never known a time without war. It is a society where many families have known detention and premature death. It is a society that knows intrigue and totalitarian discipline. Like Viet Nam this is a society that has experienced the genocide of the US-imposed sanctions. And the terror of aerial bombardment.
These aren’t a people new to loss. Or to hardship. Yesterday afternoon when Salam asked how I was doing, I said, “I’m thirsty,” (remember, it’s Ramadan). Salam said, “Americans know nothing about suffering.” I couldn’t argue the point.
**
The wheel…astronomy…writing… agriculture – all began here. Iraq is the land of Gilgamesh, the Old Testament, the Arabian Nights. It’s the land of the Islamic holy cities. Iraqis are proud of their antiquity, their history, their culture. Iraqis are proud of their hospitality. But how can you be hospitable to barbarians at the gate?
Before the sanctions, Iraq wasn’t a “third world” country. When it came to education, health care and food distribution, Iraq was more or less socialist. Safety nets leveled disparity, humanizing poverty. Iraq had a large well-educated middle class. [Salam, reading these words, says, “So what. More to the point, many of Iraq’s poor are highly literate.”] In the pre-sanctions era many Iraqis got technically trained in the West. Most have studied English.
Iraqis know us far better than we know them. For better or worse, with the Occupation and “freedom of press,” many urban Iraqis have acquired satellite dishes. Iraqis are proud that, thus far, their culture has avoided the drugs, alcoholism and materialism that they see on TV and that saps the US. They also have avoided the sexual commodification that typifies Western culture.
Many Baghdadis we encounter have relatives in Detroit or Chicago or California. Many of these relatives fled Saddam Hussein – the same Saddam Hussein who was a US ally and client for decades before he outlived his usefulness as arch-foe of Iran’s ayatollah.
Compared to other Islamic countries Iraq may be somewhat secular, but it isn’t the rudderless secularity of the West. In confronting the invaders, Iraqis don’t experience quite the same disorientation that some of the US’s other targets have over the years.
The Iraqis were systematically isolated from the West by 13 years of sanctions. Now they are imprisoned within their borders by an army of occupation. Their isolation is imposed; the isolation of the US from the rest of the world is self-imposed. Whose isolation is more lethal? Whose isolation is more tragic?