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Empire Notes"We don't seek empires. We're not imperialistic. We never have been. I can't imagine why you'd even ask the question." Donald Rumsfeld, questioned by an al-Jazeera correspondent, April 29, 2003.
"No one can now doubt the word of America," George W. Bush, State of the Union, January 20, 2004.
A Blog by Rahul Mahajan
It is both an honor and a pleasure to introduce Naomi Klein, but before I do I’d like to say a few words about an upcoming event that is of tremendous, incalculable consequence to all of us. I’m not talking about the thing on Tuesday. I’m talking about the plans for an all-out assault on Fallujah, which are almost certain to be realized, whether we elect the candidate who says he will “stop at nothing” to hunt down and kill America’s enemies or George W. Bush.
A recent study in the Lancet concluded that, as of September, at least 100,000 Iraqis had been liberated from life as a consequence of the American liberation. I was in Fallujah during the siege in April, and I want to paint a word picture for you of what such an assault means.
Fallujah is dry and hot; like Southern California, it has been made an agricultural area only by virtue of extensive irrigation. It has been known for years as a particularly devout city; people call it the City of a Thousand Mosques. In the mid-90’s, when Saddam wanted his name to be added to the call to prayer, the imams of Fallujah refused.
U.S. forces bombed the power plant at the beginning of the assault; for the next several weeks, Fallujah was a blacked-out town, with light provided by generators only in critical places like mosques and clinics. The town was placed under siege; the ban on bringing in food, medicine, and other basic items was broken only when Iraqis en masse challenged the roadblocks. The atmosphere was one of pervasive fear, from bombing and the threat of more bombing. Noncombatants and families with sick people, the elderly, and children were leaving in droves. After initial instances in which people were prevented from leaving, U.S. forces began allowing everyone to leave – except for what they called “military age males,” men usually between 15 and 60. Keeping noncombatants from leaving a place under bombardment is a violation of the laws of war; conversely, if you assume that every military age male is an enemy, that’s a pretty good sign that you are in the wrong country, and that, in fact, your war is on the people, not on their oppressors.
The main hospital in Fallujah is across the Euphrates from the bulk of the town. Right at the beginning, the Americans shut down the main bridge, cutting off the hospital from the town. Doctors who wanted to treat patients had to leave the hospital, with only the equipment they could carry, and set up in makeshift clinics all over the city; the one I stayed at had been a neighborhood clinic with one room that had four beds, and no operating theater; doctors refrigerated blood in a soft-drink vending machine. Another clinic, I’m told, had been an auto repair shop. This closing of the hospital, which was not an isolated incident, also violates the Geneva Convention.
In Fallujah, you were rarely free of the sound of artillery booming in the background, punctuated by the smaller, higher-pitched note of the mujaheddin’s hand-held mortars. After even a few minutes of it, you have to stop paying attention to it – and yet, of course, you never quite stop. Even today, when I hear the roar of thunder, I’m often transported instantly to April 10 and the dusty streets of Fallujah.
In addition to the artillery and the warplanes dropping 500, 1000, and 2000-pound bombs, and the murderous AC-130 Spectre gunships that can demolish a whole city block in less than a minute, the Marines had snipers criss-crossing the whole town. For weeks, Fallujah was a series of sometimes mutually inaccessible pockets, divided by the no-man’s-lands of sniper fire paths. Snipers fired indiscriminately, usually at whatever moved. Of 20 people I saw come into the clinic I observed in a few hours, only five were “military-age males.” I saw old women, old men, a child of 10 shot through the head; terminal, the doctors told me, although in Baghdad they might have been able to save him.
One thing that snipers were very discriminating about – every single ambulance I saw had bullet holes in it. Two I inspected bore clear evidence of specific, deliberate sniping. Friends of mine who went out to gather in wounded people were shot at. When we first reported this fact, we came in for near-universal execration. Many just refused to believe it. Some asked me how I knew that it wasn’t the mujaheddin. Interesting question. Had, say, Brownsville been encircled by the Vietnamese and bombarded (which, of course, Mr. Bush courageously protected us from) and Brownsville ambulances been shot up, the question of whether the residents were shooting at their own ambulances, I somehow guess, would not have come up. Later, our reports were confirmed by the Iraqi Ministry of Health and even by the U.S. military.
The best estimates are that roughly 1000 people were killed directly, blown up, burnt, or shot. Of them, my guess, based on news reports and personal observation, is that 2/3 to ¾ were noncombatants.
But the damage goes far beyond that. You read all the time about the bombing of so-called Zarqawi safe houses in residential areas in Fallujah, but the reports don’t tell you what that means. You read about precision strikes, and it’s true that America’s GPS-guided bombs are very accurate – when they’re not malfunctioning, the 80 or 85% of the time that they work, their targeting radius is 10 meters, i.e., they hit within 10 meters of the target. Even the smallest of them, however, the 500-pound bomb, has a blast radius of 400 meters; every single bomb shakes the whole neighborhood, breaking windows and smashing crockery. A town under bombardment is a town in constant fear.
You read the reports about X killed and Y wounded. And you should remember those numbers. But you should also remember that those numbers lie – in a war zone, everyone is wounded.
Finally, on this topic. The first assault on Fallujah was a military failure. This time, the resistance is stronger, better-armed, and better-organized; to “win,” the U.S. military will have to pull out all the stops and indeed, as John Kerry would say, stop at nothing. Even within horror and terror, there are degrees, and we – and the people of Fallujah – ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
There will be international condemnation, as there was the first time; but our government won’t listen to it; aside from the resistance, all the people of Fallujah will be able to depend on to try to avert or mitigate the horror will be us, the antiwar movement. We have a responsibility, that we didn’t meet in April and we didn’t meet in August when Najaf was similarly attacked; will we meet it this time?
Okay, now that I’ve got you in a mood to go skydiving without a parachute, let me turn to the pleasant part, introducing Naomi.
Her remarkable first book, No Logo, was also remarkable in its timing. Published in January 2000, just after the Seattle demonstrations brought the world’s attention to the long-growing global justice movement, it became a runaway best-seller, with about a million copies in print; I think it’s fair to say that even Naomi could not have predicted the degree of its success.
At the age of 30, she was an instant celebrity. Like many instant celebrities, it took her years of hard work to get to that point, but just the same she was suddenly confronted with it. Had she been like many celebrities on the American left, she would immediately have taken this as license to, on the one hand, keep on writing the same book over and over and, on the other, to pontificate randomly on issues about which she knew nothing.
Instead, she made the very wise and ultimately very fruitful decision to, as she says herself, get an education at the hands of experienced activists, organizers, revolutionaries, freedom fighters all across the world; an education the like of which few people have ever had.
Although I had read quite a bit of her before, I remember when I first began following her work obsessively. In late 2002/early 2003, Christopher Hitchens stopped writing his column for the Nation. If I may speak as a Longhorn for a minute, you may have heard the one about the Aggie who moved to Oklahoma and increased the average IQ of both Texas and Oklahoma. Well, when Hitchens defected to the right wing, he raised the intellectual level of both the left and the right; he dramatically raised the intellectual level of the Nation, because his replacement was Naomi Klein.
Since then, even though Iraq was never an area of specialization for her, Naomi has consistently written some of the most important, most insightful articles about the occupation. Her article last year about the illegality, under international law, of Paul Bremer’s economic restructuring of Iraq was profound and really helped put wind in the sails of an antiwar movement out of energy and out of ideas. Her article on James Baker’s finagling and secret deals with the Kuwaiti government over the debt Iraq owes to Kuwait already has the Carlyle Group reeling.
I disagree with some of her analysis. In particular, her article in the September issue of Harper’s, while extremely well done and informative, seems to me to elide the distinction between neoconservative and neoliberal and shortchange the neocolonial military messianism and belief in power as the ultimate ideal that is at the heart of the U.S. failure in Iraq. But, even so, when I read an article by Naomi, I expect to learn things I didn’t know and, more important, to be given a way to think about things that hadn’t occurred to me; I’ve read a lot about Iraq, and I can’t say that about almost anyone else.
The most important thing about Naomi, though, is that she is a celebrity who doesn’t think like a celebrity. I’ve heard others inveigh against the cult of celebrity that afflicts progressives and the left just as much as it does the rest of the world; I have never seen any do what she did in the 2003 World Social Forum, very ostentatiously attending the conference but refusing to speak on any panel, to draw attention to the fact that there were plenty of non-celebrities with important things to say as well.
Even more fundamental: On the American left, we are dominated by celebrity icons who seems as if they should be carved in stone on Mount Rushmore. They speak and it could be 1970 or 2004, you don't know which. Many of them, oddly, are older white guys.
Their consistency can be comforting, but it's not what we really need right now.
The world is different after 9/11. The world is different after the end of the Cold War and the destruction of a generation of political movements. The world is different in an era not just of mass media but of mass entertainment not to mention media as entertainment.
We face new challenges that we must grow to meet. The motto of the World Social Forum, "Another world is possible," directly presents those challenges. What does "another world" mean? More important, what does "possible" mean -- we need not just a utopian vision but a way to get there from here.
Naomi is not a prophet come to lead us to the new Jerusalem, but she is one of the few leaders we sophisticated First Worlders have who evolves, who grows with the times, who learns from events, from successes and failures, who assimilates new experiences and distills them into a new worldview. We have no more pressing imperative than to evolve as a movement; to do it, we need her and many more like her.
Rahul Mahajan is publisher of Empire Notes. His latest book, “Full Spectrum Dominance: U.S. Power in Iraq and Beyond,” covers U.S. policy on Iraq, deceptions about weapons of mass destruction, the plans of the neoconservatives, and the face of the new Bush imperial policies. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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