March 09, 2004

THE ROOTS OF HORROR: Iraq -- the Practice of Denial

At the beginning December 2003, before I embarked on my lengthy series on "The Roots of Horror," I wrote an entry entitled, "The United States as Brutal, Violent -- and Hated -- Parent." Here is the central argument from that post:
I have argued, as have many others (including Friedrich Hayek, and historian Barbara Tuchman) that the idea of centrally-planned "nation-building" is a delusion doomed to failure, and that history conclusively demonstrates that not everyone in the world wants freedom in precisely the form in which it has manifested itself in the West, and particularly in the United States. This is simply a recognition of the inescapable fact that history and culture matter -- that it is not possible to graft a political system onto a country which has very scant social or intellectual traditions to support it.

There is nothing remotely racist about any of this. As I said, this is simply a recognition of the fact that the history of any given country is obviously crucial to what may be reasonably expected of that country in the future. Nonetheless, for stating these obvious truths, many hawks have irresponsibly accused people of viewing Arabs and/or Muslims as somehow innately "inferior," as being "unworthy" of "democracy." Such an accusation, at least insofar as it relates to the kind of argument I have been making over the last many months, is simply wrong and without foundation.

But now, in connection with our new "get tough" policy in Iraq -- a policy which involves surrounding entire towns with barbed wire among other delightful "innovations" (as if there is anything new about such methods, especially for the Iraqis) -- we have American military commanders making statements like the following:

"Underlying the new strategy, the Americans say, is the conviction that only a tougher approach will quell the insurgency and that the new strategy must punish not only the guerrillas but also make clear to ordinary Iraqis the cost of not cooperating.

"'You have to understand the Arab mind,' Capt. Todd Brown, a company commander with the Fourth Infantry Division, said as he stood outside the gates of Abu Hishma. 'The only thing they understand is force — force, pride and saving face.'"

This is nothing less than insane. There is a well-recognized syndrome in psychology -- a syndrome which leads to a never-ending intergenerational cycle of violence. A parent beats a child, constantly repeating: "But why don't you understand that I love you? Why don't you see that I'm just doing this for your own good?" And all the while, the parent physically brutalizes the child, who then grows up and does the same to his child.

And one of the notable results of this behavior is hardly surprising: the child fears -- and hates -- the parent. Yet this is how we now propose to win over the Iraqis, and prepare them for democracy: "a heavy dose of fear and violence" -- and monetary bribes -- will "convince these people that we are here to help them."

This is the same road the British traveled down in Iraq -- and after 40 years, the British finally gave up, recognizing the hopelessness and self-defeating futility of their task. But in close to record time, we have crossed over into very dangerous territory: this is the kind of occupier psychology that could easily lead to the killing of large numbers of Iraqis, a massacre or massacres which could unleash a horrific wave of violence directed at Americans, and possibly also directed at other Iraqis.

It is time for some very harsh truth-telling, and it is time to strip away the comforting and false self-delusions in which many hawks wrap themselves. There is nothing kind or benevolent about a parent who beats his child, while claiming that he does it out of love and concern for the child's well-being. And there is nothing kind or benevolent about forcing Iraqis (or anyone else) to adopt a form of government or a way of life which they may not want -- and which they certainly do not want if it comes at the ends of the guns wielded by an occupation force.
Even though I did not mention Alice Miller or her work in this post, this entry was obviously informed by my reading of her books over the last decade.

What I want to focus on here is the extent to which the obedience-denial mechanism is being practiced with regard to the Iraq occupation. It is not at all surprising to me, in light of the clear truths identified by Miller, but the fact that most of the more rabid hawks almost never mention stories like the following ones is nonetheless very revealing. It is as if the suffering and pain experienced by many Iraqis is simply not real to them -- as if the Iraqis' pain is somehow less significant, and less compelling, than pain suffered by others. This dehumanization of the enemy is a commonplace of every war, but the truth of the matter is more significant: most of the wars in history, and most of the "reasons" which informed them, would not have been possible without that kind of dehumanization.

If the pain experienced by others is fully real to us -- which requires that we first realize the extent of the pain inflicted on us, first by abusive or neglectful parents, and later by an authoritarian God or a demanding, totalistic ideology -- then we will not be so eager to embark on military adventures, especially when they are not demanded by the genuine needs of our self-defense. But when that pain is not allowed to become real, then monstrous horrors are possible. In this sense, the lack of attention paid by most hawks to the suffering of Iraqis is much worse, and much deeper, than simple racism (although that might be true in some instances). The denial being practiced is much broader than that revealed by hatred of one particular group of people.

Consider some of the details from this recent New York Times story:
Iraq has a new generation of missing men. But instead of ending up in mass graves or at the bottom of the Tigris River, as they often did during the rule of Saddam Hussein, they are detained somewhere in American jails.

Although the insurgency has cooled, with suicide attacks against civilians now eclipsing armed clashes with American troops, American forces are still conducting daily raids, bursting into homes and sweeping up families. More than 10,000 men and boys are in custody. According to a detainee database maintained by the military, the oldest prisoner is 75, the youngest 11.

Military officials say some of the detainees have been accused of serious offenses, including shooting down helicopters and planting roadside bombs.

But the officials acknowledge that most of the people captured are probably not dangerous. Of a recent batch of cases reviewed by military judges, they recommended that 963 of 1,166 detainees be released. ...

Ms. Kudi, whose son, Muhammad, was detained nearly nine months ago, has been to Abu Ghraib more than 20 times. The huge prison is the center of her continuing odyssey through military bases, jails, assistance centers, hospitals and morgues. She said she had been shoved by soldiers and chased by dogs.

"If they want to kill me, kill me," Ms. Kudi said. "Just give me my son."

Ms. Kudi is a compact woman with tribal marks and the sorry story of modern Iraq tattooed on her face. She says she is around 50 years old. She looks much older.

Her first son died in the Iran-Iraq war, her second in Kuwait in 1991, her third during the American invasion last year. Two more boys have been crippled in battle. Her husband is dead.

On June 23, she said Muhammad, a 32-year-old furniture maker, was waiting in his truck at an American checkpoint in Ramadi when a gun battle broke out. Witnesses said Muhammad was lightly wounded in the cross-fire and then detained by American forces.

Three days later, American troops returned Muhammad's truck. But they did not know what had happened to Muhammad.

The other day, as she had done before, Ms. Kudi went to an assistance center in Baghdad to check the computer database of prisoners. Again, she stepped into a little office and sat down in a little chair. Again, she watched a woman behind a desk key in her son's name. Again, she was told there was no record. ...

Ms. Hassan, who lives with her 10-year-old grandson, said American soldiers took her four adult sons. "Couldn't they have left me one?" she asked.

Most of the village teachers were led away, too.

Saba Muhammad, an Abu Sifa elder, began to count them on his hands: Salah, Faisal, Ahmed, Ayub, Emad, Raad.

Soon he ran out of fingers.

"Eleven," Mr. Muhammad said. "Eleven teachers. Now you tell me how we're supposed to feel about Americans."
Among the other justifications for these actions, we are repeatedly told that all of this is unavoidable, that it is a "tragic necessity," and that, after all, we're only doing it for their own good. This is precisely what the brutal father tells his child while he mercilessly beats him, or fails to pay attention to any of his child's deeply felt needs.

It is very important to note that this denial has been implemented by our government as a matter of official policy:
President Bush's rationale for taking us to war in Iraq has crumbled. The truth about supposed Iraqi weapons of mass destruction is being told. At the same time, another truth remains hidden by the Bush administration: the 550 troops who have returned from Iraq in caskets and the thousands returning with severe physical and psychological damage.

The military planes carrying human remains fly into Dover Air Force Base in Delaware under cover of darkness. Unlike Vietnam, when Americans could see the consequences of war, the media are now banned from Dover Air Force Base by military order, reinforced for the Iraq war by an edict from Mr. Bush.

One does not need to be a historian to know that the image of dead Americans, returning day after day in body bags, helped turn America against the war in Vietnam. This administration has gone to great lengths to prevent a repeat by keeping images of lifeless and broken bodies away from the cameras and the consciousness of the American people. Mr. Bush has not yet attended a single funeral for anyone killed in Iraq - not a single one. Spain and Italy held state funerals for their countrymen who died in Iraq, but the Bush Administration's policy for our own war dead is to hide them.

The media blackout extends to the legions of wounded who have returned from Iraq as well. Media stories on wounded troops often use Pentagon figures for those officially wounded in combat, numbering around 3,000. These numbers ignore the well over 7,000 troops who have been injured or made ill as a result of the war. According to the Disabled American Veterans, an additional 6,891 troops were medically evacuated between March 19, 2003 and Oct. 30, 2003, for everything from vehicle accidents to attempted suicides. ...

In their effort to keep this reality from the public, the Bush administration has gone so far as to restrict access of professionally trained and accredited representatives of Disabled American Veterans from military hospitals - access that the DAV has had for more than six decades to counsel and work with service members. The few visits that have been allowed are with pre-selected patients, and closely monitored.
When the mechanisms of denial become deeply engrained mental habits and patterns of behavior, they will encompass the enemy -- or those "lesser" people we say we are "liberating" -- and finally the members of our own military.

These are some of the additional ways in which the denial continues -- and the horrors go on.

And the corpses pile up.