A Sense Of History

Steve on Iraq, three years on:

So why did anyone think Chalabi, a fat crook of a banker, was going to be greeted as some kind of hero, especially when he waqs talking about selling oil to Israel. That shit sold at cocktail parties for the gullible, but for the Iraqi man in the street, the Sadr family was his heroes. Sure, the Hakims have their cult, and everybody respects Sistani, The Sadrs were the heroes of the Iraqi shia poor. They opposed Sadaam, they were killed by him, Moqtada the last man standing.

So, when picking a leader, would you want a puppet of the CIA, someone who tortured Iraqi Shia POW’s, or someone who suffered with you?

Let me tell you something about the Balkans. Someone there has a grudge, they write an epic poem and make the children recite it before bedtime every night for the next 500 years.

— The Sparrow

Back when I was talking to my publisher about the Doug Feith book, we were going over all the rosy-hued scenarios Feith and his fellow Pentagon geeks had cooked up for Iraq. And I said, you know, they make sense on paper, if you know nothing about the Middle East.

And Tom said to me, “Forget the Middle East. They only make sense if you’ve never read Shakespeare, if you know nothing about humanity.” He was right.

There’s a question I used to get a lot from family and friends who don’t know a single person either from the Middle East or who’s spent time there. They always ask, “Why do they blow each other up over there?” And it never fails to completely enrage me, and I usually respond, say, to my mother, “If someone killed me, my brother, my sister, my father, your parents, what would you do? How far would you go to punish those who did that? Would you forgive and walk away? Or would you seek revenge, and tell the story for the rest of your life, of what tragedy tempered you, what you did to protect your own and avenge their memory, of who you are and what happened to you to make you that way?” The answer I get is never the former.

And I think what drives me the most nuts about this is that it’s not like America doesn’t have its cultural blood feuds. In my own city, there are streets you don’t walk if you’re black, places where it is literally not safe for you to exist if you’re a different color. Places where everything, from the church to the barbershop to the hot dog stand to the railway station, is defined by fight and flight that took place 40 years ago. To them, it’s yesterday, the rage and sorrow simmer that close to the surface. There might as well be walls of concrete topped with barbed wire, for all we are one nationality here. And that’s up north, in the bluest city in one of the bluest states. People snap and snarl and bite over it, and don’t even bother with the “I’m not a racist but …” part of it. Mutual loathing, fear, segregation and self-segregation.

What continues to apall me is that we act as if the rules by which we’d govern ourselves in such a situation don’t apply to the Iraqis, as though they’re doing something which is beyond our comprehension, as though (feel how you like about their aims and the methods they use to carry them out) their reactions aren’t perfectly human. How would you feel if your neighborhood was bombed, and you had the chance, in the smoking aftermath, to settle some scores? In the chaos, with no one looking? With no consequences? Don’t tell me you wouldn’t do it. You can tell me it’s right or it’s wrong, but you can’t tell me it isn’t predictable.

Yet we go out there and we say we don’t understand the ingratitude of the Iraqis for our benevolent invasion, the speed with which the situation has deteriorated into civil war. I used to think it was because our country was so young, that we simply could not conceive of hatreds and resentments buried that deep, but the more I think about it, the more I realize it’s a lot easier to see yourself as a force for good when you’ve got the ammo to prove your noble intentions.

Now I come down more on the side of selfishness and self-indulgence than I do on sincere ignorance and simple incompetence. I was listening to NPR yesterday and David Brooks was blithering on that the main problem with finding a way out of this colonialist clusterfuck was an inability to recognize our mistakes, as though if the administration was aware of the fuckups and humble about them, it would bring the dead back to life. As if what’s really important here is how America is taking all this. How should we feel? Should we pray?

We probably should. But not for our own souls. After three years, it’s far too late for that.