As someone who was watching the US government march to invade Iraq from the streets of San Francisco, and from countless antiwar events, giving more of an insider’s view has been both chilling and darkly fascinating. A big help is last summer’s PBS documentary, No End in Sight.
Strangely for me after watching the film last night, this morning’s New York Times covers one of the main hidden histories exposed by the documentary. Early on in the occupation, sometime in the month of May 2003, a few highly placed Defense Department officials decided to disband the Iraqi army, without so much as asking Secretary of State Powell, National Security Adviser Rice, or the U.S. Army.Plans to screen and reconstitute the force were pushed aside, and Iraqi officers offering help had to be ignored. The Army’s head of policy in Baghdad, John Hughes remebers:
Later, a battalion commander from the 101st Airborne came in—to see me, and he said, “Hey, sir, I’ve gotta talk to somebody, I’ve got a group of Iraqi generals and colonels that want to talk to somebody from ORHA.”
And they—over the course of the war, even before the war, had been removing computers and software —of personnel lists from the Ministry of Defense and storing them at their home, because they knew they were not going to win this war.
And they wanted to help reestablish the Iraqi military with the Americans.
Absolutely. And I took intelligence officials with me to meet with these men. And these guys were willing to—to explain or provide information on anything that they could.
They were saying to me, “Colonel Paul, Baghdad’s burning. You tell me, and I can have 10,000 military police ready for you next week.”
I took that back, nothing ever became of it.
We were also going to—take some Iraqi units and let them become the labor force for reconstructing Iraq. If you needed the rubble from a bridge cleared, they would do that. And there on the news one morning was the announcement that the Iraqi army had been disbanded and abolished by—Ambassador Bremer.
You want to talk about feeling like the ugly American, that’s what I was. You know, here I was, trying to work with these men, to help them rebuild their country, to—to bring their soldiers under some semblance of control. And instead, they’re told they’re not worth the time.
Just two months later, lines had been drawn, and another reality began to unfold:
Hussein Saber shook with fury as he lay on a dirty hospital bed last night and told the story of another day in Baghdad, a city torn apart by killings, misunderstanding and the startling failures of America’s military occupation.
Yesterday Hussein, 33, should have collected a $50 (£30) emergency payment which all Iraq’s now unemployed soldiers are due to receive. The money did not arrive and so he and hundreds of other frustrated young men poured towards the gates of the US-led authority to protest.
Within minutes he was shot in his right side by a young, nervous American soldier. Hussein survived but two other Iraqis standing next to him in the crowd were killed.
“I hoped and I wished that when the American forces came they would bring us democracy and freedom but unfortunately we have seen the opposite,” said Hussein, a non-commissioned officer in the air force for the past 18 years. “The Americans are going to get hurt if the situation remains as it is.” (Rory McCarthy, “Just another day in Baghdad,” The Guardian, June 19, 2003)
Normally, I’m cautious about getting too deep into debates among war planners. The argument usually turns into some idea that if only more competent people were in charge, everything would go smoothly. In the context of one country ruling over another country, such an outcome seems extraordinarily unlikely. However, it is people who strive to do their very best under whatever circumstances that leave behind the archive and their regrets, both of which help us understand how an enterprise like our new colonialism could ever have happened.
This news and a lot of details in the film raise a deeper question. Aside from proving that a high tech, high corporate profit, but smaller military without the bother of too many actual American citizens on the ground, did Rumsfeld and Bremer have plans of their own? Was leaving Iraq in chaos, whatever the motive, something they were consciously pushing their colleagues and superiors aside to do?