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The Mismanagement of America's Great Disaster in Iraq

November 17th 2008

Book Covers - War Without End

Michael Schwartz. War Without End: The Iraq War in Context. 320 pages. September 2008, Haymarket Books.

The Iraq War has been among the greatest disasters in modern American history. Michael Schwartz’ illuminating new book War Without End: The Iraq War in Context provides a comprehensive overview of the ideological roots of the war and its harrowing social costs for the Iraqi people. He argues quite convincingly that rather than it being purely a matter of administrative incompetence and mismanagement, the ideological zealotry of leading neo-conservatives was a principal cause of the American failure to establish political legitimacy after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. He shows how neo-liberal policies and the rapid privatization of state resources backed by a doctrine of massive force helped to exacerbate the suffering of ordinary Iraqis who increasingly turned to resistance against U.S. power and rule and remain disdainful of the occupation.

According to Schwartz, a professor of sociology at Stony Brook University, America’s war aims were clear from the outset: to create a strategic base for the establishment of control over the Middle East’s prized energy reserves and to usher in an economic transition from the “socialist dictatorship” of Saddam Hussein to an unfettered free-market capitalist state capable of serving as a model for the region. In the aftermath of the invasion, Lieutenant L. Paul Bremer and his staff moved to rapidly privatize state resources, including the formerly state-owned oil industry and all sectors of the economy including the health and educational systems. They rewarded multinational corporations like Haliburton and Bechtel with major contracts to help rebuild the country’s infrastructure, which had been devastated during the shock and awe campaign and previous wars and economic sanctions.

The consequences of these policies were profound: They confirmed for a large number of Iraqis that America had invaded the country for self-serving reasons. Furthermore, they caused a social and economic crisis of epic proportions, which gave strength to the insurgency. The dismantling of state industries caused the loss of thousands of jobs, which were replaced by foreign contractors. Local businesses were bankrupted by the flooding of the country with cheap imports and by a lack of regular electricity. Unemployment rates in the once prosperous nation skyrocketed to over 60 percent. Massive corruption in the rewarding of contracts and the dismissal of skilled local technicians resulted in gross inefficiency. This trend was typified by a failed $70 million dollar Halliburton project to reconstruct an oil pipeline in Al Fatah, which came to resemble, as one observer put it, “some gargantuan heart-bypass operation gone nightmarishly bad.”

Most disconcerting was the decline in health and educational services bred by the U.S. occupation and war. Schools damaged by the fighting were never properly repaired and lacked basic textbooks and school supplies. The U.S. military sometimes even used schools as a staging base for military incursions. By 2007, UNICEF reported that only one-sixth of Iraqi children were being educated at all. After dismantling the state health-care system, which had been among the best in the Arab world before Hussein’s ascent to power, occupation officials promised to construct dozens of private clinics across the country. Most of these never materialized, resulting in a decline in accessibility of basic medicines and equipment.

In the newly “liberated” Iraq, doctors would fill out prescriptions that the pharmacies could not provide. Family members of patients even had to serve as nurses and IVs and needles had to be reused. Over time, doctor shortages and the imposition of curfews in cities made the situation grow worse. The inability of occupation officials to provide clean water throughout the country resulted in outbreaks of cholera and other diseases which the hospitals were ill-equipped to treat. The overflow of raw sewage into city streets was another factor breeding disease in the teeming urban slums of Iraqi cities which came to resemble something out of a Charles Dickens’ novel.

One of Schwartz’ important contributions is to show how the failure of America’s privatization and “nation-building” programs contributed to the rise of the insurgency in Iraq. Rather than being composed of “dead enders,” in Donald Rumsfeld’s now infamous words, or foreign jihadists or ex-Bathists, he demonstrates how resistance was in fact driven by “local factors that grew strength from deep grievances and a widespread hostility to the presence of foreign troops,” as U.S. intelligence analysts concluded.

In the early phases, many Iraqis staged demonstrations against the occupational authorities demanding basic social services and jobs. Rather than seeking to respond to their demands, the authorities instructed the military to greet any act of dissidence as suspicious and to shoot at any perceived threat. U.S. soldiers consequently fired upon peaceful crowds and killed and wounded civilians, thus stoking popular anger. Many more innocent civilians were killed by fearful Marines at often poorly marked checkpoints throughout the country. The routine raiding of homes designed in part to strike fear among the population helped to further stoke popular anger and resentment, as did the prevalence of deplorable prison conditions and the revelations of torture as at Abu Ghraib. The U.S. construction of a gaudy multi-billion dollar embassy made apparent America’s ambitions to remain in Iraq indefinitely.

In order to try to maintain its grip on power, and in clear violation of international law, the U.S. adopted a doctrine of collective punishment designed to annihilate not only the insurgent fighters but anyone who harbored and supported them. The consequence was the perpetration of many massacres, such as the notorious incident at Haditha where 24 civilians, including women and children were slaughtered by Marines.

The doctrine of collective punishment was on display during the siege of Fallujah where the U.S. military killed thousands of people and turned the entire city into “a desolate world of skeletal buildings, tank-blasted homes, weeping power lines and severed palm trees,” in the words of New York Times journalist Erik Eckholm. A marine lieutenant proclaimed afterwards: “This is what happens if you shelter terrorists.” As these comments reveal, the siege of Fallujah was intended as a warning sign to others that it would suffer the same fate if it defied U.S. power.

Much like the Vietnamese in an earlier American failed colonial intervention, the Iraqis refused to bow to U.S. pressure and thus paid a high price in fighting for their sovereignty and independence. The backbone of the resistance took root in Sunni as well as some Shia cities like Sadr city where local warlord Muqtada Sadr gained in prestige not only by defending Iraqi cities from attack but also by seeking to provide basic social services that had been abandoned under the occupation. The resistance in Iraq, however, was never unified and became factionalized and ridden by sectarian tensions which culminated in the onset of full-scale civil war.

The war’s ugliness was compounded by the tactics of many insurgent fighters - particularly the small number of Al Qaeda operatives in Iraq whose agenda was to expel the U.S. from Iraq and establish a caliphate through the Arab Middle East embodying the principles of Salafi Islam. They adopted terror techniques such as suicide and car bombings directed against supposed colonial collaborators and Shia, which only intensified public suffering. Criminal gangs seized upon the violence and chaos to carry out the looting of public resources and facilities and to extort money for ransom.

According to Schwartz, the United States bears a large share of the blame for creating a climate in which these trends emerged. In his view, the tactics of Al Qaeda in Iraq resemble those of the U.S. in Fallujah with the aim of inducing civilians to withdraw their support for the enemy once they experienced the agony of punishment. Contrary to the false impression given by a majority of America’s mainstream media, through the extensive air campaigns and search and destroy missions, U.S. forces and their proxies bear responsibility for the majority of both civilian and combat deaths, which scientific studies have placed at well over one million. Schwartz estimates plausibly that the U.S. has been responsible for at least 57 percent of the killings, many of which he attributes to a hysterical use of firepower by American troops in urban combat zones.

The much vaunted “surge” strategy of President George W. Bush only worsened the carnage and further inflamed Iraqis, which remains weary of the American presence and continues to live in conditions of utter destitution. The U.S. backed Maliki government and military, meanwhile, remain predominantly powerless outside Baghdad’s Green Zone due to the growing strength of the sectarian militias who control many neighborhoods.

On the whole, while destined to create controversy, Schwartz has written a very powerful book on the U.S. occupation of Iraq and its devastating consequences for the country. He sheds great insight into the mindset of American policy-elites and military officials and documents the stark brutality of their programs. He demonstrates furthermore that the rise of insurgency in Iraq was not irrational or driven exclusively by an Islamicist agenda or hate but was rather a product of the arrogance of American occupying officials and the failure of U.S. state-building policies and neo-liberalism, which failed to guarantee basic social services and thereby helped to facilitate Iraq’s social decay.

Most of all, Schwartz reminds us who the true victims of the war are. In order to move forward the next administration needs to accept accountability and not simply withdraw troops but provide reconstruction and reparations aid so that Iraqis can rebuild their country on their own terms.

Jeremy Kuzmarov is Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Bucknell University, Pennsylvania. 

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