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Well say did you hear..
by Tony Phillips
With 2242 American soldiers killed in Iraq by the end of January 2006, and another 16,400 maimed in some way or another, with the Iraqi population suffering horribly and catastrophically, and all the while the affluence of America and Australia gliding along oblivious, one cannot help but feel a little bit of Vietnam coming back. Of course much is different but there is the pattern - of a floundering superpower, callous and crazy leaders, and a tragic morass of innocents killed from a distance, by men in offices making decisions in another language and with other priorities. It is all such that one can’t help but feel like a little bit of history repeating.
I was therefore struck by the historical chords present in one of the biggest downloads of the year, half poem, half essay, certainly artistic artefact in the zeitgeist of its time, Eliot Weinberger’s What I heard about Iraq published by the London Review of Books. This has since been followed by What I heard about Iraq in 2005.
The piece has been criticised, seemingly without irony, for containing inaccuracies and misrepresentations and being just a selection of grabs. But that is its strength as art and as something approaching a deeper truth. What I heard about Iraq replicates an experience of the media mishmash that makes up the context in which we, citizens of the coalition of the willing, experience the Iraq “adventure”. An experience that is far, far away from the actual bloodletting and screaming, from the gushing oil and the tables strewn with kickbacks, promises and privatisations, from the grand visions and the grubby deals. Iraq has become a background to our wealth and our concerns about that wealth, and a regular but intermittent foreground, supplying copy and image for our entertainment based news. The poem both makes sense of the nonsense and nonsense of the sense.
I also couldn’t help but feel What I heard about Iraq’s resonance with that great poem of the Vietnam war as experienced by citizen/consumers then, To whom it may concern (more often known as Tell me lies about Vietnam). Below I place some excerpts from the Weinberger poem (can be found in full by following the link above) and all of English poet Adrian Mitchell’s To whom it may concern.
March 20 will be the third anniversary of the outbreak of the war on Iraq and a reading of the poem will be held at La Mama theatre in Melbourne to mark the event. Eliot Weinberger was interviewed by Romana Koval for the ABC Radio National’s Book Show and you can obtain a podcast of the interview there.
Excerpts from What I heard about Iraq
“In 1992, a year after the first Gulf War, I heard Dick Cheney, then secretary of defense, say that the US had been wise not to invade Baghdad and get ‘bogged down in the problems of trying to take over and govern Iraq’. I heard him say: ‘The question in my mind is how many additional American casualties is Saddam worth? And the answer is: not that damned many.’
In February 2001, I heard Colin Powell say that Saddam Hussein ‘has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction. He is unable to project conventional power against his neighbours.’
That same month, I heard that a CIA report stated: ‘We do not have any direct evidence that Iraq has used the period since Desert Fox to reconstitute its weapons of mass destruction programmes.’
In July 2001, I heard Condoleezza Rice say: ‘We are able to keep his arms from him. His military forces have not been rebuilt.’
On 11 September 2001, six hours after the attacks, I heard that Donald Rumsfeld said that it might be an opportunity to ‘hit’ Iraq. I heard that he said: ‘Go massive. Sweep it all up. Things related and not.’
I heard that Condoleezza Rice asked: ‘How do you capitalise on these opportunities?”
“I heard Private Jessica Lynch say: ‘They used me as a way to symbolise all this stuff. It hurt in a way that people would make up stories that they had no truth about.’ Of the stories that she had bravely fought off her captors, and suffered bullet and stab wounds, I heard her say: ‘I’m not about to take credit for something I didn’t do.’ Of her dramatic ‘rescue’, I heard her say: ‘I don’t think it happened quite like that.’
I heard the Red Cross say that casualties in Baghdad were so high that the hospitals had stopped counting.
I heard an old man say, after 11 members of his family – children and grandchildren – were killed when a tank blew up their minivan: ‘Our home is an empty place. We who are left are like wild animals. All we can do is cry out.’
As the riots and looting broke out, I heard a man in the Baghdad market say: ‘Saddam Hussein’s greatest crime is that he brought the American army to Iraq.’
As the riots and looting broke out, I heard Donald Rumsfeld say: ‘It’s untidy, and freedom’s untidy.’
And when the National Museum was emptied and the National Library burned down, I heard him say: ‘The images you are seeing on television you are seeing over, and over, and over, and it’s the same picture of some person walking out of some building with a vase, and you see it twenty times, and you think: “My goodness, were there that many vases? Is it possible that there were that many vases in the whole country?”’
I heard that 10,000 Iraqi civilians were dead.”
“I heard Colin Powell say: ‘I’m absolutely sure that there are weapons of mass destruction there and the evidence will be forthcoming. We’re just getting it now.’
I heard the president say: ‘We’ll find them. It’ll be a matter of time to do so.’
I heard Donald Rumsfeld say: ‘We know where they are. They’re in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad, and east, west, south and north, somewhat.’
I heard the US was building 14 ‘enduring bases’, capable of housing 110,000 soldiers, and I heard Brigadier-General Mark Kimmitt call them ‘a blueprint for how we could operate in the Middle East’. I heard that the US was building what would be its largest embassy anywhere in the world.
I heard that it would only be a matter of months before Starbucks and McDonald’s opened branches in Baghdad. I heard that HSBC would have cash machines all over the country.
I heard about the trade fairs run by New Bridges Strategies, a consulting firm that promised access to the Iraqi market. I heard one of its partners say: ‘Getting the rights to distribute Procter and Gamble would be a gold mine. One well-stocked 7-Eleven could knock out 30 Iraqi stores. A Wal-Mart could take over the country.’
On 1 May 2003, I heard the president, dressed up as a pilot, under a banner that read ‘Mission Accomplished’, declare that combat operations were over: ‘The battle of Iraq is one victory in a war on terror that began on 11 September 2001.’ I heard him say: ‘The liberation of Iraq is a crucial advance in the campaign against terror. We’ve removed an ally of al-Qaida, and cut off a source of terrorist funding. And this much is certain: no terrorist network will gain weapons of mass destruction from the Iraqi regime, because the regime is no more. In these 19 months that changed the world, our actions have been focused and deliberate and proportionate to the offence. We have not forgotten the victims of 11 September: the last phone calls, the cold murder of children, the searches in the rubble. With those attacks, the terrorists and their supporters declared war on the United States. And war is what they got.’
On 1 May 2003, I heard that 140 American soldiers had died in combat in Iraq.
I heard Richard Perle tell Americans to ‘relax and celebrate victory’. I heard him say: ‘The predictions of those who opposed this war can be discarded like spent cartridges.’”
“I heard about Operation Ivy Cyclone. I heard about Operation Vigilant Resolve. I heard about Operation Plymouth Rock. I heard about Operation Iron Hammer, its name taken from Eisenhammer, the Nazi plan to destroy Soviet generating plants.
I heard that air force regulations require that any airstrike likely to result in the deaths of more than 30 civilians be personally approved by the secretary of defense, and I heard that Donald Rumsfeld approved every proposal.
I heard the marine colonel say: ‘We napalmed those bridges. Unfortunately, there were people there. It’s no great way to die.’ I heard the Pentagon deny they were using napalm, saying their incendiary bombs were made of something called Mark 77, and I heard the experts say that Mark 77 was another name for napalm.
I heard a marine describe ‘dead-checking’: ‘They teach us to do dead-checking when we’re clearing rooms. You put two bullets into the guy’s chest and one in the brain. But when you enter a room where guys are wounded, you might not know if they’re alive or dead. So they teach us to dead-check them by pressing them in the eye with your boot, because generally a person, even if he’s faking being dead, will flinch if you poke him there. If he moves, you put a bullet in the brain. You do this to keep the momentum going when you’re flowing through a building. You don’t want a guy popping up behind you and shooting you.’
I heard the president say: ‘We’re rolling back the terrorist threat, not on the fringes of its influence but at the heart of its power.’
When the death toll of American soldiers reached 500, I heard Brigadier-General Kimmitt say: ‘I don’t think the soldiers are looking at arbitrary figures such as casualty counts as the barometer of their morale. They know they have a nation that stands behind them.’”
On the occasion of Iyad Allawi’s visit to the United States, I heard the president say: ‘What’s important for the American people to hear is reality. And the reality is right here in the form of the prime minister.’
Asked about ethnic tensions, I heard Iyad Allawi say: ‘There are no problems between Shia and Sunnis and Kurds and Arabs and Turkmen. Usually we have no problems of an ethnic or religious nature in Iraq.’
I heard him say: ‘There is nothing, no problem, except in a small pocket in Fallujah.’
I heard Colonel Jerry Durrant say, after a meeting with Ramadi tribal sheikhs: ‘A lot of these guys have read history, and they said to me the government in Baghdad is like the Vichy government in France during World War Two.’
I heard a journalist say: ‘I am housebound. I leave when I have a very good reason to and a scheduled interview. I avoid going to people’s homes and never walk in the streets. I can’t go grocery shopping any more, can’t eat in restaurants, can’t strike up a conversation with strangers, can’t look for stories, can’t drive in anything but a full armoured car, can’t go to scenes of breaking news stories, can’t be stuck in traffic, can’t speak English outside, can’t take a road trip, can’t say “I’m an American,” can’t linger at checkpoints, can’t be curious about what people are saying, doing, feeling.’
I heard Donald Rumsfeld say: ‘It’s a tough part of the world. We had something like 200 or 300 or 400 people killed in many of the major cities of America last year. What’s the difference? We just didn’t see each homicide in every major city in the United States on television every night.’
I heard that 80,000 Iraqi civilians were dead. I heard that the war had already cost $225 billion and was continuing at the rate of $40 billion a month. I heard there was now an average of 130 attacks on US troops a day.
I heard Captain John Mountford say: ‘I just wonder what would have happened if we had worked a little more with the locals.’”