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May 6, 2004

Meltdown in Iraq


by George Hunsinger

One year after "Mission Accomplished" was proclaimed by President Bush, America may have lost the war in Iraq. Insurgency, instability and social chaos, the familiar problems dogging the occupation, were exacerbated in April by mutiny, collapsing authority and military deadlock. Then came the devastating revelations of atrocity first in the brutal siege of Fallujah, then in the unspeakable photographs of torture from the Abu Ghraib prison. The occupation has reached the point of meltdown.

"We have failed," stated retired Gen. William E. Odom, currently director of the Hudson Institute, a pro-administration think-tank. In an interview which rocked the foreign policy establishment, Odom told the Wall Street Journal he had abandoned all hope for success in Iraq. Predicting a radical Islamist regime hostile to the West, one prepared to fund terrorist organizations, he called for the swift withdrawal of U.S. forces. Otherwise Iraqis will be radicalized even further, he warned, risking the destabilization of the entire region.

"The issue is how high a price we're going to pay," Odom insisted, "less, by getting out sooner, or more, by getting out later." Any "continued U.S. troop presence is a losing proposition. Once you've done a stupid thing, you don't fix it by keeping doing it. Our troops are exposed; we're going to take more casualties without any capacity of destroying the enemy. That's a losing proposition." Odom made his remarks before the Abu Ghraib photos were released.

The electrical system in Iraq has still not been repaired. Contrary to President Bush, electricity is not more widely available than before the war. Without the provision of electricity, clean water and sewage treatment also suffer. The New York Times reports that the hospitals are in ruins: "At Baghdad's Central Teaching Hospital for Children, gallons of raw sewage wash across the floors. The drinking water is contaminated. According to doctors, 80 percent of patients leave with infections they did not have when they arrived." In Baghdad the streets remain unsafe. Bombings, drive-by shootings, hostage-takings and a wave of assassinations continue. Other cities are safer, often at the price of theocratic rule. Meanwhile, the effects of depleted uranium throughout Iraq the "silent genocide" go unnoticed in America and undiscussed.

The guerillas are winning the war, in part because no segment of the population has turned against them. They have seized control of the roads, and disrupted the supply lines. "The main problem in Iraq today," writes military critic Carton Meyer, "is the massive logistics effort required to sustain U.S. Forces at over a hundred dispersed camps." Supplies arrive by ship, with the closest major seaport being in Kuwait. "This means everything must be hauled hundreds of miles over war-torn roads among hostile natives." Most convoys are attacked, supplies run short, ammunition is rationed, and the Army is stretched to the limit.

Fallujah is the graveyard of Americans! At the end of March this slogan was chanted by jubilant residents. It accompanied the charred corpses of four "foreign contractors" (highly paid mercenaries) that were dragged through the streets before being hanged from a bridge over the river Euphrates. By the end of April the slogan had grimly assumed a double aspect. For Fallujah, which will perhaps be remembered as the battle where, politically, America lost the war, also became a graveyard for hundreds of civilians killed in the retaliatory siege, which President Bush had personally ordered.

Although the coalition military denies any targeting of noncombatants, numerous eyewitness reports say otherwise. A young man named Ahmed is quoted by UPI: "The Americans have snuck snipers all over Fallujah and everyone can be hit any time. I have seen their snipers kill women and children. The hospital is full of their bodies, all shot in the heart or the head."

The Christian Science Monitor told of a mother who tried to run from an attacking U.S. Apache helicopter: "My children tried to run away and the helicopters chased them. Families were running through the streets. . . . Windows were broken and many, many people were dead." Writing in the respected Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Orit Shoat summed up:

"During the first two weeks of [April], the American army committed war crimes in Fallujah on a scale unprecedented for this war. . . . Some 600 Iraqis were killed during these two weeks [estimates are now at 800 - G.H.], among them some 450 elderly people, women and children. . . . According to the organization Doctors Without Borders, U.S. Marines even occupied the hospitals and prevented hundreds of the wounded from receiving medical treatment. Snipers fired from the rooftops at anyone who tried to approach."

500-pound bombs were dropped on the city from U.S. AC-130 gunships. So many dead needed to be buried that the soccer field became a makeshift graveyard, completely filled. Under the Geneva conventions, collective punishment is a war crime, as is the deliberate targeting of civilians.

The iconic image of the torture victim standing on a box, pointed black hood on his head, dangling high-voltage wires attached to his outstretched, Christ-like arms - this image, and the others equally horrifying, will be the pictures that lost the war. "Is it realistic," asks the University of Michigan's Juan Cole, "after the bloody siege of Fallujah and the Shiite uprising of early April, and in the wake of these revelations, to think that the U.S. can still win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi Arab republic?"

Anyone who thinks that the U.S. military has never perpetrated or condoned torture on an administrative basis - in places like Vietnam, Latin and Central America, Iran under the Shah, or Afghanistan today - has not been paying attention (to say nothing of Guantanamo under our very noses).

"Our extensive research in Iraq suggests that this is not an isolated incident," writes Amnesty International of the Abu Ghraib revelations. "It is not enough for the U.S.A. to react only once images have hit the television screens." Nor is it enough to blame these unspeakable crimes on isolated individuals. In the New Yorker Seymour Hersh cites a lengthy internal army report on the prison. It found a pattern of "sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses."

What kind of people have we become? What will shake us from our culpable ignorance? Will we continue to live in a fantasy land where our country is always inherently good, where people elsewhere have no reason to hate us, and where victory will be achieved only through military means?

"What the world expects of Christians" wrote Albert Camus, "is that Christians should speak out loud and clear in such a way that never a doubt, never the slightest doubt, could rise in the heart of the simplest human being. They should get away from abstraction and confront the blood-stained face history has taken on today. The grouping that we need is a grouping of persons resolved to speak out clearly and pay up personally." May God help us before it is too late.


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George Hunsinger teaches at Princeton Theological Seminary. He once worked on the staff of the Riverside Church Disarmanent Program in NYC.

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