December 14, 2004,
EDITOR'S NOTE:This is the second in a five-part series of excerpts from In the Red Zone by Steven Vincent. Together they constitute Chapter 4, "The 'Resistance.'"
France may see us as a barely-restrainable "hyperpower"; the Iraqis at least in the beginning of the "occupation" saw us as simply omnipotent. The ease with which our armies overran their country reinforced that idea, as did America's chest-thumping over its technological know-how. As a result, many Iraqis developed a warped view of U.S. competence and intentions. Since America was all-powerful, they reasoned, we couldn't make mistakes or act incompetently: such blunders must really be part of some Bush Administration master strategy.
Take, for example, the looting and fires that wracked Baghdad immediately after Saddam's fall. Where we might blame a catastrophic lack of Pentagon foresight, numerous Iraqis contended that America encouraged the looting in order to demonstrate the Iraqi people's inability to govern themselves. Approaching the status of an urban legend was the story of GIs who broke open the National Museum and invited passersby to help themselves to priceless antiquities. A cab driver swore to me that he had witnessed American soldiers exhorting crowds to ransack government buildings with hearty cries of, "Go on, people, take what you want!" I heard similar stories about Americans urging the pillage of expensive homes in Karada although in my perambulations through the neighborhood, I saw no evidence of such damage. But that is incidental: the real point of these stories isn't truth, but rather the comfort they provide Iraqi people in shifting the blame for acts of criminal vandalism from themselves to devious Uncle Sam.
The overestimation of U.S. capabilities also distorted Iraqi notions of what to expect from our country. Since America was omnipotent, why couldn't it gin up the electrical grid, restore peace and tranquility, and provide employment to everyone today? Here again, the U.S. was victim both of Iraqi projections and its own high-tech wizardry. Try to explain to an Iraqi housewife the difficulties of repairing an electrical system decades out of date and beset by saboteurs, and she'd cock a skeptical eyebrow. This from a nation with weapons so smart they can look up a target's address in the Baghdad yellow pages? No, the only reason America dropped the quality-of-life ball was that Bush wanted to keep Iraq downtrodden and dependent.
Not every Iraqi thought this way, of course. Still, I encountered these sentiments often enough to recognize that they pervade the nation's self-image and compensate for another, equally unrealistic, but even more debilitating characteristic: severe feelings of defeat and impotence. As Raphael Patai wrote in his classic, and controversial, 1974 book, The Arab Mind, "The encounter with the West produced a disturbing inferiority complex in the Arab mind which in itself makes it more difficult to shake off the shackles of stagnation."
A good illustration of Patai's observation was the conversation I had with Ahmed, the piano player at Fifties. Possessed of a superb knowledge of the American songbook, Ahmed would play, at my request, medleys of Sinatra songs, accompanying himself in a reedy, but serviceable, voice. One night, however, he ventured beyond "Angel Eyes" and "A Quarter to Three" to give me the low-down on the Iraq situation. "The only reason America invaded was to steal our national resources," he confided, during a break from his ivory-tickling. Ahmed's proof? America didn't actually have to invade Iraq in order to topple Saddam, he noted; all it really had to do was beam down special radiation from super-secret satellites orbiting overhead, which would scramble Baath Party communications and enable "the Iraqi people to overthrow Saddam." Why hadn't they overthrown him before? "Saddam wasn't in power just by himself, you know he had very powerful backers." And who were these backers? "The Jews," Ahmed replied. You see, Jews not only supported Saddam, the pianist maintained, but also manipulated him into attacking Iran in order to "keep the Arabs down and "
At this point, I requested he play "Send in the Clowns," and escaped to my room.
It is tempting to discount Ahmed's analysis as typical of the anti-Semitism one finds with tedious regularity in Iraq. But it reveals many of the demons that lie beneath the surface of the Iraqi national character: historical grievances, conspiratorial thinking, and a kind of bi-polar superiority-inferiority dynamic. Moreover, his comments point to another, equally troubling impulse that confuses Western observers and informs the nature of the Iraqi "insurgency": an unwillingness to take the blame for Saddam.
As dissident Iraqi intellectual Kanan Makiya wrote in The Monument, his 1991 book about art and culture in Iraq, "The question of responsibility has to be posed completely differently in a state ruled by fear than it would in an ordinary state, because on the whole the populace does not feel itself responsible for the actions of its rulers, even when it knows that momentous life and death decisions are taken in its name."
Iraqis refuse to accept that their society allowed a monster like Saddam to take power. Instead, they see him as an aberration, as if he were a maniacal gunman who suddenly burst into their homes, seized their families, and terrorized their neighbors, until the police finally stormed in and captured the lunatic. Now, standing amidst the ruins caused by the raid, they say to their rescuers, "It wasn't our fault this madman got in here. Thanks for getting rid of him now, how soon are you going to repair our house?" They overlook that from 1968 to 1980, Iraq lived happily under the control of the Nazi-inspired Baath Party, while reaping the benefits of an oil-rich economy. (How many times did I hear how wonderful Baghdad was in the 1970s?) Not until Saddam seized complete control of the nation in 1979 and launched the war on Iran and then on the Kurds, and then on Kuwait, and then on the Shia did they realize they belonged to a madman. But by then it was too late.
At the same time, though, there are many Iraqis who, like my Baquba lawyer, don't care why American troops are in their country, only that they are here and so must pay for that offense in lost and shattered lives. The shame that many Iraqis feel is not enough to compel them to take up arms against the Coalition if that were the case, the volume of weaponry in Baghdad alone would make the U.S. presence untenable. (The Shia, in particular, must have enormous secret depots of small-arms ordinance just to shoot into the air to celebrate marriages.) Rather, there is another, more combustible aspect in the Iraqi personality, something that seeks healing for the wound of humiliation in violence and bloodletting. To find it, I traveled to the Sunni Triangle itself.
Steven Vincent is a freelance investigative journalist and art critic living in New York City. He is blogging about Iraq at www.redzoneblog.com.