The Week in Iraq is a weekly assessment of significant incidents and trends in Iraqi civilian casualties by IBC's news collector and Recent Events editor Lily Hamourtziadou.
The analyses and opinions presented in these commentaries are personal to the author.
The Week in Iraq
The ethos of war
by Lily Hamourtziadou
20 May 2007
Thousands of soldiers have vowed to hunt until the missing, abducted, 3 US soldiers are found. ‘It’s about an ethos, it’s about who we are as people,’ said US army Lt. Col. Smiley (LAT 18 May). Sounds good, noble. Unfortunately, war ethics are nothing like this; they are not about fairness, compassion, civility or humility. What they involve is brutality, arrogance, aggression, the sacrifice of the innocent. War is blood, death, the struggle for power. Stories of heroism, comradeship and self-sacrifice in battle are moving, but heroism, comradeship and self-sacrifice are best served in peace-time, for in war they are never alone, but always accompanied by their opposites.
In war people do things they had never dreamt of doing before, back home. Things that may leave them traumatised for the rest of their lives. And ‘our’ soldiers are far more likely to commit atrocities, to kill civilians, when our war is aggressive, when it is conducted on someone else’s land, in someone else’s society, when the civilians are someone else’s civilians. ‘Our’ soldiers are far more likely to be careless when it comes to civilians, using aerial bombardment as a way of causing ‘shock and awe’, of killing terrorist targets. Back home, when a gunman is among civilians, they don’t bomb the neighbourhood he is in, just to kill him. Back home, the police or army do not endanger civilians in this way.
Japan and Germany were mercilessly bombed at the end of World War 2, and thousands of civilians were deliberately killed. Not accidentally, this time, but deliberately. The US would have never sacrificed thousands of its own civilian population to end a war.
‘Our’ people/soldiers have names, faces, relations, personal histories. When one of them dies, we come to learn of their personalities (‘he had a good sense of humour’ or ‘she was kind and giving, a good friend, wanted to serve her country’). The ‘others’, the dead civilians, are given no names, we don’t see their faces, we never come to know about their families, their personalities. Their deaths do not cause us pain or sorrow.
This week the nameless and faceless Iraqi civilians who died exceeded 620.
Over 80 die on Monday 14 May, half of them in Baghdad. US troops kill an Iraqi policeman in Abu Dsheer in Baghdad; US forces also kill a child when they open fire on a house near Dujail. In a gun battle between British forces and gunmen in Basra 2 students are killed, caught in the crossfire.
Over 100 die on Tuesday 15 May, including 45 killed by a suicide truck bomb in a market in Abu Saida, 7 killed by bombs in al-Tayaran square, Baghdad, and 4 by mortar fire in Ur, Baghdad. Police find 23 bodies in Baghdad, Suwayra and Baquba. In Karbala, 91 unidentified bodies are buried in a mass grave.
Around 90 die on Wednesday 16 May. Among them 9 civilians killed in clashes in Nasiriya, 2 by mortars in Baghdad’s Green Zone, while a child is shot dead by Iraqi police trying to break up a protest. In Baghdad 30 bodies are found.
On Thursday 17 May 80 civilians lose their lives, half of them in Baghdad. Among the victims 2 journalists working for ABC news, ambushed and shot dead in Baghdad, and 30 bodies found bound and tortured in Baghdad. More bodies are found in Baquba, Kirkuk, Latifiya and Karma.
On Friday 18 May the civilian death toll is 90. A US patrol, firing randomly, shoots dead 2 civilians in Baghdad, after a roadside bomb explodes next to them. Gunmen shoot dead 3 lorry drivers near Kirkuk, a suicide bomber kills 3 policemen at a checkpoint in Jarf al-Sakhr, police find 25 bodies in Baghdad, 30 in Diyala, 5 in Hilla and 5 in Kut. All tortured and shot, one of them a 12-year-old child.
Over 100 die on Saturday 19 May. In a Kurdish Shiite village gunmen shoot dead 15 men and 1 woman, 15 are killed in various incidents in Baghdad, 3 children are blown up by a bomb in Nassiriya, and police find 60 bodies in Baghdad, Mosul, Falluja, Basra, Hilla, Khalis and Muradiya.
Around 70 die on Sunday 20 May, half of them in Baghdad.
Those were people who died in the terror we brought to their country, a terror we wouldn’t want in ours. Those were people that belonged to another nation, another religion, not our own. We therefore are not mourning their deaths. Our national myths exclude them from our conscience.
This is understandable. Nations are constructions based on and fed by myths. Myths are instrumental in a variety of ways: They give self-definition, attributing special qualities to the group. They simplify complexity, helping communities make sense of events and situations. They are used by political elites to elicit a large emotional response, or to preserve their own power.
Myths are about differences, in self-perception and identity, and in the perception of others. Myths address deep psychological needs that have to be satisfied for society to hold together.
Among a nation’s myths are the myths of election. These myths state that the nation in question has been entrusted, by God or by History, to perform some special mission, some particular function, because it is endowed with unique virtues. This myth legitimates an assumption of moral and cultural superiority to all others, and requires them to recognise one’s unique moral worth.
Not surprisingly, a degree of narcissism is involved in the national narratives of all nations. ‘We’ have never wronged anyone, while the evil people, the ‘others’, slaughter innocent people. The Greeks believe this about the Turks and vice-versa. The Serbs believe themselves good, as opposed to the bad Croats, and vice-versa. ‘Our’ press is reliable, truthful, while ‘theirs’ is full of lies, propaganda.
We react when told that ‘our’ people have behaved badly, have killed, tortured, spilt innocent blood. We don’t want to accept it, because it threatens our own identity.
Again, this is understandable. Yet there is a danger: as patriotism gives way to nationalism, it easily becomes fascism –a belief in the supremacy of one’s own national or ethnic group- or racism –when the lives of others don’t count as much as those of our own group.
This week the ‘Independent’ reported that the British Army is facing new allegations that it was involved in ‘forced disappearances’, hostage-taking and torture of Iraqi civilians. There have also been many reports of abusive treatment by US troops, some have even been convicted of rape and murder –and those don’t include the bombardment and killing of civilians while ‘in action.’
This is what war is. We should all remember it before we allow our leaders to wage war on yet another country. On someone else’s children, mothers, fathers, friends.