How does it feel to be the father of 172,907* dead?


Who’s old enough to remember the Falklands War? I know we’ve experienced some sabre-rattling about the Malvinas from the Argentine and British camps of late, but it seems unlikely that anybody would go to war over their sovereignty in 2013. I hope not, anyway. Having grown up under the long shadow of the Second World War (my parents were born during it, my grandparents lived through it, one of them fought in it; it influenced the films we watched, the toys we desired and the games we played), and, as a boy, having been fascinated by all aspects of the 1939-45 apocalypse, it was surreal in 1982 to live in a country that was at war, with our tank-straddling Prime Minister sending something called a “task force” to this contested 12,173 square kilometres of dry land in the South Atlantic to repel a South American invader.

There was a war! Alarmist rumours went around school that conscription might be introduced, and, as a paranoid 17-year-old, I had to process what that might mean – even though it was highly unlikely. Anyway, around 900 people died in that stupid war, hence the title of the subsequent 1983 single by anarcho-syndicalist squat-rockers Crass: How Does It Feel To Be The Mother Of 1000 Dead? In many ways, the title was enough, not that it would have robbed Margaret Thatcher of any minutes of sleep on her notoriously short nights.

I hadn’t even fully assimilated my politics at that point, and was still living under the long shadow of my Dad’s, but my eventual conversion to left-wing idealism was taking shape somewhere inside my brain, and it was the accumulation of persuasive signposts like the title of that Crass song – and the collage that packaged it – that helped to build it.

Since 1982, the country I live, pay tax and vote in has been involved in a number of other wars, invasions, air strikes and “humanitarian interventions”, notably the Gulf War of 1990, and the Iraq war, which began with the illegal invasion in 2003 and was never officially declared. We are currently “celebrating” its tenth anniversary, and this means that Tony Blair’s face is back in the news, albeit mostly in montages. In Iraq, which is pretty much universally acknowledged to be in a far worse state than it was before we invaded it, the anniversary was marked by bombs killing 56 people and injuring 200 in Shia areas.

I say “we invaded it” – I didn’t invade it. Irag was officially not invaded in my name, because I marched on February 15, 2003 to say so, along with millions of other sane souls around the world. Ours was the largest march in London’s history, even according to the police’s massaged-down figure. (I also marched against the invasion of Afghanistan two years earlier, on October 13, 2001.) When I look back, I feel proud that I cared enough to march, although it also makes me a little sad, as the marching spirit was beaten out of me by the feeling of democratic powerlessness I felt after Operation Iraqi Freedom (cheers) kicked off regardless at 5:34 am Baghdad time on 20 March, 2003 (9:34 pm, 19 March EST).


What optimism I must have had in 2001-2003. I did not decide to march; I had no choice. I love the foregone conclusion of the way I felt then. I dislike the lack of fight in me ten years later. But there is, at least, one man to blame. And I still hold him to account for what happened: the Christian sense of destiny behind his dead eyes as he told us that Saddam Hussein could attack us with only 45 minutes’ warning with weapons of mass destruction that he was definitely hiding in Iraq. I didn’t believe a word Tony Blair or George W Bush said. And although this might have been viewed as kneejerk leftist aversion, history tells us that I was right not to. That he continues to stand by his decision to follow Bush into Iraq to help assuage his Oedipus complex rankles with me. He always says he “regrets” the loss of life, but not the decision to do the thing that caused the loss of life.

* He may or may not be the father of 172,907 dead, as a definitive figure is impossible to put your finger on. It could be more, it could be less, but is probably more. This is the best current estimate of the Iraq Body Count project – and of course it’s recently shot up after the violent protests to mark the tenth anniversary – and it’ll have to do. You might say I’m being melodramatic dredging up the Crass lyric, but the whole sorry, disgraceful episode offends me, yeah? And the rich, tanned, our-man-in-the-Middle-East Tony Blair really needs to get out of my sight, please.

And, as previously declared, I am reading Jason Burke’s The 9/11 Wars, a pretty exhaustive account of the mistakes, assumptions and dangerous strategic miscalculations made by the invading forces in Afghanistan and Iraq (not to mentions the abuses and crimes committed). We’re just at the point in 2006 when the author declares “the beginning of the end” for bin Laden loyalist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s archaic “Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia” network, whose worryingly broad stated aim was to “bring the rest of the Middle East and potentially the Islamic world within the boundaries of a new caliphate.” In November 2005, he claimed responsibility for suicide bombs that killed 60 people in three hotels in Amman in Jordan (including 38 members of a wedding party), after which opinion polls showed that Jordanians turned against the Iraqi insurgents, indicative of a wider rejection. If Burke’s book tells us anything it’s that the country, and the region, fell into factional chaos after the US/UK invasion, and took until 2006 before the death toll abated. Claiming strategic victory for the American “surge” strikes me as patting yourself on the back for removing some of a red wine stain you made by pouring white wine onto it.

So, you’ve got my kneejerk reaction, and you’ve got my well-read, analytical reaction. I’ll give the final words on this blood-stained anniversary to Crass.

Your arrogance has gutted these bodies of life
Your deceit fooled them that it was worth the sacrifice
Your lies persuaded people to accept the wasted blood
Your filthy pride cleansed you of the doubt you should have had
You smile in the face of death ‘cos you are so proud and vain
Your inhumanity stops you from realising the pain

"I have seen this movie. It was called Vietnam."

Finally finished Fiasco: The American Military Adventure In Iraq by Thomas E. Ricks, just in time to call it one of my books of the year. (It was published in hardback last year, so it’s officially one of the books of last year, but I read it in paperback this year, so fuck off. I rarely read books in hardback, so my books of the year are always books of last year. Ain’t it always the way?) Thomas E Ricks is an American journalist with a sound CV of military reporting behind him – he’s currently senior Pentagon correspondent at the Washington Post. This book, dedicated to “the war dead” is an exhaustive account of the occupation of Iraq up to mid-2006. It actually begins with George H W Bush’s decision not to remove Saddam Hussein from power in 1991, but concentrates on his idiot son’s reign after September 11, 2001, when “everything changed.” Ricks constructs his narrative from testimony of everybody from the top down in the US military, quoting emails home from disillusioned grunts and memos sent between departments at the White House and Pentagon. If there is a villain of the piece, it’s not George W Bush. He barely features, beyond unconvincingly cheerleading at press conferences and assuring the media that Iraq was going really well. This is not his war.

It’s Rumsfeld’s war – as set out in even more embarrassing details in Rumsfeld: An American Disaster by Andrew Cockburn, which I’ve also read and, hey, came out this year! Assisted by Tommy Franks, who certainly aimed to please his masters, if nothing else, it was Rumsfled who underestimated troop numbers, consistently failed to address post-invasion policy (which is why there wasn’t one), and overruled the State Department, parachuting in loyal Republicans with no direct experience in the Middle East to help run the Coalition Provisional Authority under Paul Bremer, who also comes out of all this as a prize dick. So many mistakes were made through sheer arrogance: the failure to seal the border with Syria, through which sympathetic fighters poured when the great public order vaccuum was created; the failure to stop looting after the fall of Saddam, which decimated the infrastructure in Baghdad; the break-up of the Iraqi army (something Bremer seemingly ordered without direct say-so from anyone in Washington), causing further unemployment and fuelling the insurgency; the “de-Baathification” of Baghdad, which left the occupiers with only a few surviving Iraqi ministers to play with, despite the fact that under Saddam, many civil servants joined the Baath party because they had no choice and were not necessarily pro-Saddam fanatics; it goes on. As indeed does the occupation, way beyond the end of this book.

You come out of the other end of it not hating the military. How can you, when they are doing the job that is handed down to them? Certain commanders in certain areas of Iraq did a good job of dealing sympathetically with the locals and attempting to build bridges with them, but this good work was so often undone by a new regiment (with different tactics) taking over the same patch. Although Abu Ghraib is the cornerstone own-goal of the whole sorry mess – the flashpoint at which public opinion, even in flag-waving America, turned against the occupation – the impression given is that it really was a few bad apples on the ground. It would be wrong to imagine that all US troops in Iraq were idiot, hotheaded, frankly homoerotic racists. (It still amazes me that servicewomen were involved in prisoner abuse – and have no real defence as to why they either got involved with those awful photos, or stood by while others did. Just goes to show: you shouldn’t have preconceptions, good or bad, based on gender.)

imperial life
I’m now reading Imperial Life In The Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, the much-admired book specifically about life inside the Green Zone, where a little America was recreated for those working in the CPA’s inner sanctum. This book really brings alive what Ricks constructs through testimony. I realise I am obsessed with the Iraq war, or that must be the impression given. In a way, I am. After September 11, I really resisted the received wisdom that “the world had changed” that day. I resisted it because it seemed like a convenient, wound-licking western media concept, but as time has passed, I’ve come to realise that, sadly, the world did change. Because when American foreign policy changes, or is allowed to change, the whole world changes with it, such is that country’s imperial power. Thus, the occupation of Iraq – botched, bloody, almost humorous in its surreal uselessness – becomes the key event of our times. Global security spreads out from the Middle East, and has done since 1991, when the US struck its bases in Saudi Arabia, and the likes of Osama bin Laden found a new focus for their war against the infidel. The rest is history, as they say.

Interestingly, I was stopped and searched today at the train station by police acting in accordance with our very own Prevention Of Terrorism Act. The stop was courteous and the search pretty flimsy – they looked in my bag, that’s all – but it still involved my name, address and date of birth being taken down by an officer of the law, which made me feel indignant, to say the least. They gave me a leaflet, which I read on a bench as I waited for my train. Luckily, I got to the bit that said, “If you are stopped and searched you are entitled to a copy of the form, which is completed at the time of the stop.” So I went back to the officer and asked for this. She was again courteous, and finished filling it in, so that she could give me my copy. In the reasons for stopping me, she had entered a section of the Act, mentioned that I was heading on a train into London, and that I was “also carrying a black holdall.” This makes me a terrorist suspect. Before September 11, 2001, I don’t think it would have. So well done, everybody. The other figure who barely gets a mention in Fiasco, the most complete history of the Iraq war, is Mr Tony Blair, who made anyone with a bag going to London a terrorist suspect with his puppy-dog enthusiasm for the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld project. What a shame his legacy goes pretty much unmentioned.

Jay Garner, first “viceroy” of Baghdad, replaced by the hapless Bremer, reported back to Rumsfeld and told him what he – a man on the shop floor – felt had gone wrong. Rumsfeld couldn’t care less, saying, “Well, we are where we are, there’s no need to discuss it.” It was, by the way, retired Marine general Anthony Zinni, former chief, US Central Command, who provided the quote I have used for the headline. Try getting anyone at the Pentagon to nod sagely at that.

These faraway blunders affect us all. (Except: are they really blunders? It’s convenient to think of the Bush administration as idiots, but they’re not, are they? I just can’t see, having read this and the other books on the subject, how the current mess can benefit them? It may even lose the Republicans the 2008 election, and that’s no good, is it? Fiasco and Rumsfeld and Emerald City don’t comment on the motives of the Bush administration. That’s for raving nutters to speculate upon. But they don’t paint a pretty picture, and they’re Americans.)