Iraq, Newspeak and the War on the Imagination



Iraqi Artists decorates blast wall around the US ‘green zone’. Photo by John Spanner for NYT

As a film-maker and journalist who had spent time in Baghdad, I was asked to talk at a number of meetings prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Like many people I believed the machinations around ‘WMDs’ to be a pretext for war that concealed a different agenda – an agenda driven by a powerful coincidence of economic, strategic and ideological interests. I was skeptical, too, that the invasion would bring true ‘liberation’ to the Iraqi people, since I did not believe it was intended to do so. Unfortunately history has proved those who opposed the war right in both these regards. What follows is the transcript of a speech I made at a public meeting at Sussex University in March 2003, as reprinted in Eclipse Magazine.

Iraq, Newspeak and the War on the Imagination

The protagonist of George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four is employed to re-write history in line with the demands of the totalitarian state in which he lives. ‘The past was erased,’ he explains, ‘the erasure became truth, the lie was forgotten.’ Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.

Here in the UK we have re-written the history of our conflict with Iraq – a conflict which did not start after the 2001 attacks in New York, as is often implied, but which has been going on for twelve years. The narrative goes something like this: Western support for the Iraqi regime in the 1980s was an embarrassing oversight; ‘Saddam’s’ invasion of Kuwait was entirely unforeseen and reversed in an ‘operation’ with such extraordinarily light casualties it can barely be called a war; economic sanctions are intended only to contain the leadership but ‘Saddam’ abuses them to deliberately inflict suffering on his people, while refusing to co-operate with the United Nations weapons inspectors in flagrant violation of international law. None of these statements is accurate. On the last point, for example, a more exact account would be that the Iraqi regime has co-operated – grudgingly, imperfectly but co-operated nonetheless – with a weapons monitoring programme of unprecedented intrusiveness for nearly twelve years, despite the fact they knew the UN agency running it, UNSCOM,  had been infiltrated by CIA spies. Yet after more than a decade of sustained misinformation the orthodox version of events is restated without challenge – even by opponents of the war – because the original lies have been forgotten.

In 1991 evidence was faked in order to broker support for an attack against Iraq. The same thing is happening now. Arguing for war at the UN Security Council, General Colin Powell referred to a UK dossier ‘which describes in exquisite detail Iraqi deception activities.’ Much of the exquisite detail in that famously dodgy dossier was cut and pasted from a student thesis. The reason most of you will know about this is not because of the indefatigable work of investigative journalists, but because members of the Campaign against Sanctions on Iraq spotted the plagiarism and reported it to Channel 4 news and other members of the press. Only last week the International Atomic Energy Agency dismissed as ‘a transparent forgery’ a second British dossier, purporting to show Iraq had been buying uranium for a nuclear programme.

This tells us two equally important things. It tells us our rulers are prepared to fabricate evidence and present those lies to parliament and to the United Nations, and it tells us they are confident that those lies will not come under serious scrutiny from our much-vaunted free press. Now, as in 1991, the media have framed the ‘debate’ about the conflict as one where there are only two alternatives: war with a Security Council resolution or war without. This is little more than a diversionary tactic whilst the troop build-up continues.

Desert Storm and the targeting of civilians

In 1990 the United Nations Development Agency classed Iraq as a ‘high-middle income country.’ The Ba’ath Party had nationalised Iraq’s oil in 1972 and the revenue was invested in modern infrastructure, free education and an excellent free Health Service. These facts are never mentioned because they do not fit with the equally accurate depiction of Saddam Hussein as a ruthless dictator and Iraq as a vicious Police State.

In the first twenty-four hours of ‘Operation Desert Storm’ more bombs were unleashed on Iraq than in the Allied bomber offensive in Europe during the years 1942 and 1943 combined. By the end of the Gulf War the Allies had dropped over 88,000 tons of explosives.

Despite this the British media routinely reported that the war was being fought in such a way as to minimise civilian casualties. The reverse was true. For although only seven percent of that tonnage of bombs were the much televised ‘smart bombs’, these more accurate missiles were targeted on the infrastructure to devastating effect. Iraq’s power supply, communications, oil installations, food production and distribution – all were systematically targeted.

On the seventh day of the war Allied commanders were given a US Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) report called Iraq’s water treatment vulnerabilities. It detailed the fact that Iraq was dependent on imported chlorine and that, as a result of the economic blockade, their supplies were low. In the weeks that followed the Allies bombed three chlorine factories, eight major dams, four of Iraq’s seven major water-pumping stations and thirty-one municipal sewage and water purification plants. A second DIA report was published three weeks after the first. This is what it said:

‘Conditions are favourable for the communicable disease outbreaks, particularly in areas affected by coalition bombing. Most likely diseases (descending order): diarrheal diseases (particularly children); acute respiratory illnesses; typhoid; hepatitis A (particularly children); measles; diphtheria; meningitis (particularly children) and cholera.’

After the ceasefire UNICEF reported that Iraq’s drinking water supply was less than five percent of pre-war levels. By the end of that year tens of thousands of people (particularly children) had died from waterborne disease. What is that but biological warfare?

‘A deliberate policy to destroy the people of Iraq’

In the words of a UN report, Desert Storm left Iraq ‘relegated to a pre-industrial age’. Yet Iraqi assets were to remain frozen and the economic blockade – originally implemented as an alternative to war – remains in place to this day. The attacks on the infrastructure, combined with sanctions, were part of a deliberate strategy: to reduce the country to ruin from which it could not recover without foreign aid – and the mechanism which allowed the sanctions to remain was the weapons inspections.

Sanctions, as the US ambassador to the UN Madeleine Albright said, ‘are amongst the most powerful weapons in our armoury.’ Sanctions kill people quietly, unobtrusively, by obstructing the basic provision of food, clean water and healthcare and by preventing the population from rebuilding the production base that would enable them to provide these things for themselves.

In 1996 Iraq and the UN agreed on an ‘Oil for Food’ programme which permitted the Iraqi government to sell limited amounts of oil every six months. The proceeds of the sale are kept in an Escrow account administered by the UN. This fund must pay for everything – food, medicine, power, transport, education, health – and it has averaged at less than $180 per person per year. No money from the sale ever reaches the Iraq government who are therefore unable to purchase food or goods produced within Iraq. Until very recently every single item that came into the country had to be individually licensed by the Security Council Sanctions Committee – a complex and protracted process which, according to UN officials, has been further abused by the United States and Britain who have worked as a team within the committee to block the flow of goods.

When I interviewed Hans Von Sponeck, one time Humanitarian Co-ordinator for Iraq, he explained that Britain and America routinely manipulated the supply of inter-related items. The example he gave was this: the sanctions committee would receive an application from the Iraqi government for insulin and syringes. They would approve the license for the insulin, which has a short shelf-life, but would withhold the license for the syringes until the insulin was out of date and could no longer be used.

By 1998 UNICEF estimated that half a million Iraqi children under the age of twelve had died as a result of the blockade. When Madeleine Albright was asked whether this death toll was warranted in pursuit of US foreign policy goals she replied: ‘I think this is a very hard choice but the price – we think the price is worth it.’

By 1999 one in four children in Iraq were chronically malnourished, physically and intellectually stunted, a condition from which many will never recover. It was in protest at this fact that Hans Von Sponeck and his predecessor Dennis Halliday – both of them senior diplomats with many years of service at the United Nations – resigned. Both now campaign against a policy which they describe as genocidal. When I questioned Dennis Halliday over his use of the word he told me:

There is no other way to describe the death of one, possibly one and a half million people; to describe the death of almost 600,000 children since 1990. What else is that but genocide? And it’s not a passive thing, it’s not neglect, it’s an active decision making process of the member states of the Security Council. They know what they’re doing.  […]. Washington, and to a lesser extent London, have deliberately played games through the Sanctions Committee with this programme for years. It’s a deliberate ploy […]. That’s why I’ve been using the word genocide, because this is a deliberate policy to destroy the people of Iraq. I’m afraid I have no other view at this late stage.’

Iraq on the eve of war

After twelve years of sanctions Iraq has been completely ‘undeveloped.’ Two million people, many of them professionals, have left the country for economic reasons. Essential services – power, water, transport, communications, healthcare, education – are all operating at fractions of pre-war levels. Computer equipment is heavily embargoed, no science textbooks or medical journals are allowed into the country and UNSCOM weapons inspectors have burned chemistry text books in at least one university.

In a country where education was free to post-graduate level and which had one of the highest literacy rates in the world, one third of children no longer attend school because they are forced to work to support their families. The streets of Baghdad, a once prosperous city, are now full of destitute and begging children and Iraq has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world.

In the rarefied atmosphere of television ‘debate’, dwelling as it does on international diplomacy and military tactics, the Iraqi people barely make an entrance. Often the entire country is reduced to one word: ‘he.’ Occasional talk of ‘the Sh’ia south’, Kurdish North and ‘sunni centre’ obscure the fact that Iraq is a modern, secular state where seventy percent of the population live in multicultural towns, marrying, learning and working together. The notion that Iraqi people have anything of which they might feel proud or wish to defend is an anathema. In this endless present we see only that Iraq’s people are poor. We are shown pictures of women queuing for rations as though this had always been the case: just another hapless third world country that we will have to ‘bail out’ sooner or later – after we have bombed them, presumably.

 A new kind of war

The scale of destruction planned for Iraq is apocalyptic. It is based on a strategy known as ‘Shock and Awe’, as described by US officials interviewed on CBS:  ‘The sheer size of this has never been seen before, never been contemplated before […] you have this simultaneous effect – rather like the nuclear weapons at Hiroshima.’ The intent, apparently, is ‘to impose a regime of shock and awe through the delivery of instant, nearly incomprehensible levels of massive destruction […] The employment of this capability against society and its values is called ‘counter-value’ in the nuclear deterrent jargon.’

What would happen if the United States intended to launch this assault on Paris or Venice or Rome? The fact that it is being discussed and reported without an outcry is a measure of the very deep contempt in which the political elite hold not only the Arab and Muslim world, but all our humanity.

When I read about ‘shock and awe’ I was reminded of something my Iraqi friend Nasra said. On the first night of the 1991 war she and her husband barricaded themselves into a small passageway in the middle of their Baghdad house with their two young children. The power went out within minutes and the noise of the bombing was all around them. To distract the children from their fear they lit a candle and she and her husband made shadow puppets with their hands on the wall. But what Nasra particularly remembered was the noise – the noise of the bombs, the planes and the cries of the neighbourhood cats who ran, terrified and screaming, across the rooftops. ‘This combination of sounds,’ she told me, ‘was something very ugly. It bought everything ugly to the imagination. And this, I think, is the real war.’

The contamination of the imagination she described is exactly what Shock and Awe is calculated to do. The level of debate about the war has the same effect, denying the Iraqi people any presence in our minds that is not either squalid or brutal. So I will end by reading notes from the diary I kept when I first went to Baghdad, in the hope of introducing some ‘counter values’ of my own:

Amongst the many memories I will cherish from this trip is my first meeting with Enam’s sisters – all of them students despite the modest means of their family. Delicate Nada whose name, as Zeinab translated it, means ‘the little drops of water that lie on the mountains in the morning’ but who holds her own in the engineering college she attends. Flirtatious Hoda who refuses to take life seriously in spite of all that is happening, and Zeinab herself whose name means ‘a beautiful flower that grows only in heaven’ and whose youth is slipping away as she tends the dying children in the hospital where she works. In their family alone you can see the emotional price that is being exacted, most of all from the parents. Instead of watching her young children flourish, Zeinab’s sister Taghred told me, ‘I look at them every day for the first signs of the malnutrition I know will come.’

As a parent myself I cannot imagine greater torture than this. Yet for all the suffering in the hospitals, where children come only to die, the overwhelming memory I have is of the humanity of the doctors and the gentleness of the parents, not just towards their own kids but to everyone around them. Unforgettable, too, are odd details that bring a smile to the face, even in the country’s  present state of ruin: the love of decoration visible everywhere from the curlicue street lamps to the exquisite beauty of the mosque at Kerbala; the ramshackle maze of the suq; the enthusiasm for maths; the glasses of pomegranate juice we drank by the river; the forest of date palms under a stormy sky; the lemon-scented leaves that Nasra gave me to scent my clothes and the many magical evenings we spent with her and Mustafa, drinking Arak, talking about books and football and music and how we would all give up smoking once things got better.’

Five years after I wrote this, Mustafa, a genial man who loved his city with a passion, died of a heart attack when he learned the Americans had bombed Al Mustansariya University – one of the oldest universities in the world, which is in Baghdad.

The iconic image of the 1991 war was the cross hairs of a laser guided bomb which cut out at the moment of impact. This one image created a kind of ‘endless present’ of its own, in which we viewers were never invited to think of the consequences of what we were seeing. That is our struggle now. We can continue to live our lives – to drink, eat, work, play, talk of mundane things, sleep soundly – oblivious of the slaughter that is being performed with our money and in our name. Our rulers and their cheerleaders in the media will do just that, aided by an implicit racism that values Arab lives as less than our own. It is up to us, collectively, to move beyond this failure of the imagination and to come together to work for real peace, real security and the equitable distribution of resources in our fragile world.

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