Casualties and Causalities
How to ruin an occupation.
Hannah Allam's moving obituary for Yasser Salihee, one of Knight Ridder's Iraqi correspondents in Baghdad, would be upsetting enough on its own if it were not for two additional considerations. The first is that Yasser Salihee joins a list of three intrepid Iraqi reporters and broadcasters killed in Baghdad last week. The second is that all three were slain by American fire. Ahmed Wael Bakri, the program director at al-Sharqiya TV, and Maha Ibrahim, a reporter for the same network, were both shot seemingly either for coming too close to American soldiers, or for misinterpreting signals or gestures from them.
These brave people were not murdered or targeted, or else slaughtered indiscriminately, as would be the case if they had been victims of the al-Qaida-Baath alliance. But it would not be entirely correct to say that their deaths were quite accidental, either. They were victims of a policy of "force protection" that mandates Americans to treat any questionable action or movement with "zero tolerance." It's a moral certainty that many more Iraqi citizens die this way than are ever reported.
I have been very reliably assured that the British commander, Gen. Michael Jackson, has privately told his American counterparts that if they go on in this manner they will risk losing Iraq. I am not one of those Brits who likes to bang on too much about the superiority of English tact and restraint over Yankee brashness. And, though it is true that British-held Basra has got its pulse back much sooner than Baghdad and is displaying other vital signs as well, the task of keeping order in a Shiite majority city is clearly an easier one. Nonetheless, there must be something to Jackson's belief that soldiering also involves a degree of visible fraternization and a willingness to go on the streets with Iraqi police and civilians, rather than gesture at them from inside a space-suit or armored vehicle, and then shoot them dead if they don't get it right the first time.
But the truly sobering reflection is that crimes and blunders of this kind are committed, in effect, by popular demand. It is emphasized every day that Americans do not want to read about dead soldiers. So it is arranged that, as far as possible, they will read (or perhaps not bother to read) about dead civilians instead. This is the price that a "body-bag" mentality exacts. Incidentally, when is the New York Times going to start running a "Names of the Dead" regular feature from Afghanistan? And how long will it be, as the Taliban forces try for a comeback, before we hear demands for a deadline for withdrawal from Kabul as well? If "quagmirism" has its logic one way, then it has it the other way, too (unless you don't believe that retreat also has its quagmires).
The enemy has understood our domestic and insular mentality from the beginning. I call your attention to a report in the London Independent from Patrick Cockburn, published on Dec. 1, 2004. I should say that Cockburn is an old friend of mine, an extremely brave veteran of Iraqi reportage for three decades, and no admirer—to say the very least—of the war or the occupation. He reprinted a letter from Naji Sabri, Saddam Hussein's foreign minister, to his supreme leader. It is dated five days before the fall of Baghdad. In the letter, Sabri expresses concern that world opinion is receiving an impression of too much fraternization between Iraqis and American forces. A cure for this, he argues, is "to target their vehicle checkpoints with suicide operations by civilian vehicles in order to make the savage Americans realize that their contact with Iraqi civilians is as dangerous as facing them on the battlefield."
This delightful suggestion possesses many points of interest. It demonstrates that the Baath Party already had organized links with jihadist suicide bombers. And it shows a cruel but shrewd understanding of how public opinion, and indeed American policy, might be forcibly altered. (It also illustrates the stony evil of the Saddam regime and its fedayeen, which at about that time also publicly hanged a woman who had applauded the arrival of coalition forces in Nasariyah. One would not need to emphasize this if it were not for those who sneer every day at the idea that Coalition troops were greeted as liberators. They often were. I saw it myself and will not be told that I did not see it. But the disincentive to such greeting was higher than the sneerers know.)
Military and civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan are a test of something beyond themselves. They are part of a design, by those who boastfully claim to be unmoved by killing or by being killed, to evoke in us an emotion that they themselves negate. This terrible quandary cannot be escaped by leaving our civilian allies unprotected, let alone by shooting them if they don't wave quickly enough.
A near-perfect statement of the opposite view—that the root cause of Islamic fundamentalism is provided by the resistance to it—comes in a letter to the July 4 edition of the New Republic. The author, professor Joseph Ellis of Mount Holyoke College, inquires why it is that we do not follow a strategy of "containment" as adumbrated by the late George Kennan. Why waste time on Ellis' false analogy, since the proper comparison would be between jihadism and the irrational death-wish of fascism? But the good professor inadvertently answers his own query. He wants to know "why have we chosen to attack it [Islamic fanaticism] frontally in its own homeland?" Well, perhaps because—like the Axis powers but unlike Stalin—it "chose" to attack us in ours. As with Ellis' reckless fabrication of his own military record, a question as naive as this seems subliminally designed to expose the denied but unwelcome truth.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.