Monday, March 17, 2008 

Iraq week.

It is then, Iraq week, decreed by those of many opinions and those of none, by those of few and by those of one. "Each day this week we'll be reliving the build-up to war", all of us of course safe in the knowledge that nothing we do or say will make any difference, just as it didn't back then. Then there's that other comfort, knowing full well that we weren't and aren't going to be the ones subject to the shock and awe, as the missiles that we are safely informed can now be dropped onto the eye of a needle inexplicably explode right in the middle of civilians areas/and or markets. Perhaps, grimly and deathly, those first blows were a portent of the carnage to come, and most of it not inflicted from the skies as the opening salvo was.

Iraq week. Or perhaps it would be better to refer to it by a more accurate moniker, such as wank week. Channel 4 announced back in 2006 that it was to screen 7 days of delights under that banner, only for even they to eventually decide that maybe that was taking it just a few steps too far. It seems perfect to resurrect now however; what better way to describe the mass of individuals, bloggers, columnists and newspapers that will pour forth their vested interests, much self-abasement in evidence as the extent of their view fails to go past their own navel? It'll feel good at the time, best to get it out as it were, but then afterwards that familiar feeling of self-hatred, impotence and overall failure, sated only for those who get paid for their work by the delivery of the latest cheque.

Perhaps it feels oh so pointless because never have words themselves felt so empty and meaningless as they did in the run-up to the war, nor have they ever recovered their potency which we require in order to be moved enough to do something or demand something. When so many did feel moved enough to do that something, it was already too late. We most likely will never reach a proper understanding of when war was actually agreed upon whatever the circumstances and when our involvement in it was also set in stone, but it certainly wasn't something that could be changed by us, whenever that decision was taken. The parliamentary vote was another of the illusions, offered up when both sides who had already decided knew that they would get their way, even if for a while it looked as though there might just be enough Labour backbenchers determined enough to go with their consciences, defy the whip, and also, if the numbers were enough, undoubtedly unseat the most successful leader they had ever had.

As others have commented, the noise of war and suffering has become so routine and monotonous that we've screened it out. This is coupled to how so much of the reporting from Iraq itself has become anodyne and safe, ironically because the country itself is so unsafe. Reading and watching the reports from Ghaith Abdul-Ahad today, how many of us could honestly say we knew that Baghdad had become almost entirely one gated community after enough, neighbourhood protected against neighbourhood by the blast proof concrete walls, by the checkpoints manned by the militias of both Sunni and Shia? Sure, we knew that it had occurred to a certain extent, that the walls had gone in and the barricades had gone up, but that most of the capital city of a country was a series of ghettoes that could only be travelled to if you had the appropriate identity cards, the right clothing or rings on one of your hands? That this was the city that some of the more optimistic have said was now getting on for returning to normal, or that was at least more safe than it had been? I keep referring to the collective rather than the singular, but I don't think I'm being too bold in invoking that most perhaps didn't know just what had happened.

Part of this is down to the media itself, and it's not all entirely its own fault. You can't blame newspapers for not sending journalists to Baghdad; few of them are up for living in possibly the most dangerous place on the planet. Those few that are there have made their content more difficult to access: the excellent IraqSlogger which had helped to illuminate what was happening there so well having gone subscription only. Instead we rely to some extent on Iraqis themselves, and the death toll of journalists, which is at least 126, attests to how those dedicated to informing have paid the price look the so many thousands of others. We instead now turn to those who take the time to aggregate the information that comes through, whether it be Juan Cole or the Iraq Today blog. For a while, these sources seemed to be drying up, but that was because the casualties, at least for a time, were down, although to those of us in the angst-ridden West, menaced as we are by the curse of the feral yobs here in violent, broken Britain, even those would be utterly horrific if experienced here. Now they're going up again, and with it that cautious optimism has also gone.

Optimism itself has perhaps been the real casualty of this conflict, or looking at it now, it should be. The whole plan for war itself was based on hopeless, unabashed optimism: optimism that the weapons of mass destruction were there; optimism that the war would be over quickly, the one thing that again at the time seemed to have come about; optimism that the Iraqis themselves would welcome their liberators with open arms; optimism that democracy would take off almost immediately; optimism that few on both sides would die; optimism that the plans which were drawn up for "afterwards" weren't going to be needed; optimism that the cost could be offset almost immediately by the expected oil-boom; optimism that the Iraqis wouldn't mind their main utilities being sold off and most of their laws being not drawn up by themselves but by the occupation forces; optimism that the looting was just a natural occurrence of a country getting used to its new-found freedom; optimism that the Iraqis wouldn't mind the troops on their streets, even when they turned out to think that the best way to respond to protests was to shoot into crowds; optimism that "outside actors" wouldn't take advantage of the vacuum to start the most significant jihad since the war against the Soviets; optimism that the Iraqis, feeling the power vacuum and waiting for their reward, the elections, wouldn't turn to their own sects and militias for protection; optimism that the troops, engineers and workers would quickly turn a society and country crippled by the self-same sanctions imposed by the coalition into a land of milk and honey, or at least somewhere where the lights stayed on and where the sewerage system worked; and an unspoken optimism, that this whole experience wouldn't destroy a generation not just of Iraqis, but also a generation like those destroyed in Vietnam, not just in the truest sense of the word, but also destroyed in faith, in word and in deed.

Writing all of this, I have quite openly fell foul of the exact same disease outlined in the second paragraph. I'll doubtless write more, both this week and in time to come, all while openly being in breach of not looking further than my navel. The truth is, this was never about us, and it most definitely shouldn't be about us now. Yesterday's terrible Observer leader on Iraq which will probably be a distillation of all that will be wrong about this week's coverage got three things completely and utterly askew: firstly, that it didn't say it got it wrong, that it was a mistake and that the readers who complained at the time were right; secondly that the very last thing that matters right now is that the blessed liberal interventionism that so many continue to defend and call for in relation to problems such as Darfur, where the very last thing that place needs is yet more soliders; and thirdly, that it didn't make clear this is Iraq's week, not Iraq week. Rather than fulminating over what we got wrong and why, we ought to be investigating exactly how and why Iraq is currently suffering. We need to know what's happening right now. We need to know from Iraqis personally whether we can actually help or not. All the signs previously suggest they want us out; is that still the case, or is the view that seeing as we broke it do they want us to fix it? Boiled do it the very bones, that's what matters now. The Observer leader talks about hindsight, about not retreating "chastened into wound-licking parochialism and diplomatic isolation". That's all well and good for us, but this is not just about us, just as it never been about us, something that has been forgotten all too easily over this past 5 years. Let the Iraqis speak. Everything else can come later.

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