Thursday, April 1, 2010



Two weeks ago, I watched Paul Greengrass' searing Green Zone. Although the movie masquerades as a pure action thriller, it actually deeply criticizes American involvement in Iraq, especially the manufactured casus belli that led us to war. At several points during the movie,my emotions surged. I have always spoken out against the War in Iraq. I always considered it an illegitimate, illegal, unethical, imperialist venture without justification in law, justice or good policy. The movie showed raw American power at work. And that reawakened my slumbering vitriol about the war.

Green Zone opens in the din of an air raid. It is March 19, 2003, the day the U.S. air force began bombing Baghdad. Sirens wail. We hear the buildings shudder as explosions rip through the city. Iraqi men and women frantically run through hallways, shouting and screaming. We see lights flickering. Dust falls from ceilings. Windows break. Then the shot pans out to a vista over the city. Massive fireballs light up the night. Buildings burn. Anti-aircraft fire streaks into the sky. Jet engines and cruise missiles boom through the air before yet another explosion rips the skyline.

That scene choked me up. So that's American power, isn't it: The power to bomb a city into oblivion. The power to make civilians scramble in panic as the house next door explodes into a million pieces. The power to knock out electricity and destroy infrastructure. And for what? In hindsight, I knew there was no justification for the war. There were never any weapons of mass destruction. Iraq did not plan 9/11, nor did any Iraqis hijack the planes that attacked the United States. No, America flexed its muscles against Iraq simply because it could. It ignored the United Nations and its weapons inspectors. It acted with breathtaking defiance, even if it mumbled about "reliable independent intelligence" concerning an Iraqi nuclear arms program.

Worse, we're still there, seven years and 6000 American dead later. That's to say nothing about the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed and countless more lives ruined for nothing.

War apologists will inevitably label be a socialist for making these observations. They will tell me that "intelligence was uncertain" about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in early 2003, so it was better to be "safe than sorry." They will also tell me that America had "good reason" to attack Iraq because Saddam Hussein was a brutal tyrant who tortured and murdered his own people. In fact, they will stress the fact that America "fights for freedom" around the world; even if we did not find nuclear weapons in Iraq, at least we gave Iraqis democracy.

I recoil from this facetious "freedom" explanation for the invasion. The argument is not just illogical; it also shows American involvement in Iraq for what it really is: A selective, hypocritical, arbitrary application of brute force. It is illogical because America does not really care about "worldwide freedom." In the first place, it is presumptuous to even suggest that "American-style freedom" can work in diverse cultures around the world. And even if such a thing as "freedom" were universal, why stop with Iraq? George W. Bush said that the war was necessary because "Iraqis needed freedom from a murderous tyrant who tortured and gassed his own people." Yet there are many nations across the globe that need the same treatment. The "freedom" rationale--if believed--would require U.S. military involvement in virtually every sub-Saharan African nation, as well as Saudi Arabia, several southeast Asian countries and even Russia. There are "tyrants" in all those nations who "murder their own people."

So why haven't we attacked all these other countries? If we truly care about "freedom," we should attack Rwanda, Uganda, the Congo, Pakistan and Malaysia. The fact that we haven't shows that our involvement in Iraq is purely selective. And because the freedom rationale is so weak, it begs the real question: Why Iraq? Only a naïve idiot could believe that America had a genuine interest in "Iraqis' freedom from tyranny." So what was the real reason?

For a long time, I thought that America invaded Iraq to gain access to its lucrative oil reserves. The cynic in me can never really suppress the thought. Yet after seven years of occupation, oil prices are no lower than they were in 2002. In fact, they have even spiked several times in the ensuing years. With oil men like Dick Cheney and George W. Bush in the White House, Iraq's oil must have been one reason why they decided to invade. In retrospect, it should have been an easy assignment: Knock out Saddam, capture the oil fields, set up some pipelines and start pumping.

But it did not work out that way. The war planners encountered a set of problems they did not anticipate: Sectarian strife. They must have underestimated how difficult it would be to occupy Iraq. They could not set up their pipelines or build their oil-carrying infrastructure because the Iraqis did not just roll over and allow the Americans to have their way with their country. They sabotaged roads, blew up tankers, ambushed convoys and beheaded "contractors." And because men like Donald Rumsfeld woefully miscalculated how much force would be needed to subdue Iraq, the U.S. military never had sufficient strength to pacify the countryside. Rumsfeld thought a "small, rapidly mobile force" with overwhelming air power could claim Iraq.

He was wrong. In the end, U.S. forces in Iraq wound up fighting a desperate "fire brigade" war in which they struggled to respond to local hotspots without bringing overall stability to the country. As a consequence, America could not realize its initial commercial war goal: Oil mercantilism.

Still, I am not writing today to summarize America's strategic failure in Iraq. Rather, I am writing to stress that America's failure was far larger than mere military stalemate. America sacrificed much more than young soldiers' blood to occupy Iraq. It also sacrificed its historically "moral high ground" in war by engaging in illegal, unethical behavior on an unprecedented scale. In the end, American occupiers showed themselves little better than the Baathist torturers they set out to depose in 2003.

Green Zone alludes to this. In brief, the movie follows an army officer (Matt Damon) assigned to locate nonexistent "weapons of mass destruction" at various sites throughout Baghdad. After coming up empty every time, he begins to wonder whether his intelligence is sound. He decides to investigate his sources and gradually uncovers a tangled web of official deceit running all the way down from the Pentagon. When he realizes that the Pentagon has basically misled the army into supporting the war, he sets out to locate an Iraqi general who met with a senior Pentagon official (Greg Kinnear) prior to the war. The general told the Pentagon official that Iraq had no WMD program. The Pentagon official lied about what the general said and told Washington that Iraq did have such a program. To prevent the truth from emerging, the Pentagon official sends a hit squad to kill the general. Meanwhile, the army officer rushes to save him and expose the truth.

Green Zone's plotline makes for a good thriller. But it also makes a valuable point: America's case for war against Iraq was marred from the outset. It was built upon official deception. It threw ethics to the wind and committed American blood for fabricated reasons. The movie shows the American government working in a criminally underhanded manner. It shows senior American officials manipulating the truth and authorizing murder to conceal it. While Green Zone might just be a movie, it is certainly based on real events.

I thought America was supposed to be better than this. What ever happened to America as the "White Knight" of international politics? There was a time when America went to war for good things--and only as a last resort. There was a time when people around the world looked to America as a beacon of freedom and justice. During that time, no one would have dared think America could be tyrannical or evil. America did not lie, cheat, deceive, torture, murder or kill. It punished those who did while remaining true to its ethical principles. Hitler tortured, killed and invaded. America liberated the death camps and freed Europe from Nazi domination. That was noble and just. That was America's international reputation. That America could never act a villain.

Sadly, America did act a villain in Iraq. In a telling scene, Green Zone reminds us that American forces committed atrocities against Iraqi prisoners. It shows us a "detainee camp" in which U.S. forces hold allegedly "high-value" Iraqis in a stockade. It shows U.S. troops brutalizing prisoners with clubs, barking dogs and extremely loud music. It shows them forcing prisoners to sit in uncomfortable positions. We hear prisoners crying out in pain from darkened solitary cells. Some even lie bleeding on the floor without medical care.

Ironically, a sign over the stockade reads: "Camp So-and-So : Honor-Bound to Defend Freedom."

What kind of freedom is this? What kind of honor? It is as if the American army in Iraq still believed that it was the "White Knight" of 1945, even though its "intelligence division" members acted more like SS torturers than noble liberators.

There is no honor in torture or inhumane treatment. America said it waged war in Iraq to overthrow tyranny and torture. Yet within weeks, it began committing the same outrages on Iraqi prisoners that Saddam committed against his own people. Of course, war apologists will say that troops in the field must discover valuable battlefield intelligence "by any means necessary." That may be so as a practical matter. But America used to draw ethical strength from its refusal to engage in the unsavory tactics of its enemies. America acquired a sterling reputation because it refused to be Machiavellian.

We have drifted far from our ethical moorings. The war in Iraq has cost this country more than individual soldiers. It has also cost us our international reputation. We are no longer noble liberators committed to justice. Rather, we are now petulant rogues who wage war simply because we want to, without regard to ethics or international law. Our involvement in Iraq is a very dark chapter in American history. It is the chapter in which America became just another Machiavellian State determined to do its will, no matter the cost in blood or principle.

I wonder whether we will ever repair the damage we have done to ourselves.

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