Wars in Iraq

 

 

I have been thinking a lot about the Wars of the United States in the Middle East.  There have been so many of them I have a hard time keeping track of them all. As I said in an earlier post on this blog, my American friend believes they should start another war, this time with Iran. He wants the Americans to “take out Iran.”

The first Iraq war was a response to the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein. He attacked a small country just because he could. He had been led to believe America would look the other way.  Until then Iraq  had been A US ally in the Middle East. I think some American describe Hussein this way: ‘He may be a son-of-a-bitch, but he’s our son-of-a-bitch.’ President George H.W. Bush had made the sensible idea of stopping the war as soon as Hussein was driven out of the country. Many in the US, particularly belligerent Americans, were disappointed, for they  thought The U.S. should have gone ahead and driven him from power too. But Bush senior stopped when his limited goal was achieved.  Regime change was not part of the goal. Limited goals are important.  Too often, political leaders forget that in the heat of the moment when they are seeking blood and fame.

Does anyone remember how the 2nd Iraq war started? President George W. Bush, the son of George H.W. Bush,  got America into the second Iraq war. No one was demanding it. In the American election that preceded it no one in the US was calling for it except some neo-liberals or neo-conservatives. It was not even an issue. Dick Cheney, Bush’s Vice-President and some like Donald Rumsfeld the Secretary of Defence wanted it. Just like John Bolton, Donald Trump’s recent security advisor, wanted war with Iran, Cheney wanted war with Iraq. They wanted “regime change”. Both thought victory would be easily attained.  After all the US was the most powerful country in the world.  They really believed that after a short war, the people of Iraq would thank the Americans for invading and removing a brutal dictator. This was hubris of the worst sort. We know what happened. A long war that right now, 18 years after it started, seems endless.

The Americans, led by Cheney and Rumsfeld, demanded that Saddam Hussein, their erstwhile ally, turn over all weapons of mass destruction. Inexplicably Hussein refused. How could he do that? Most Americans thought that was because he was hiding them. Well in time the answer was clear. He had none to turn over!  Dick Cheney was convinced he had them and they would find them, but they never did.  I remember hearing an interview with him where he confidently assured us those weapons of mass destruction would soon be found. So America went to war. This time only a few allies followed them, unlike the first War in Iraq led by the first George H. W. Bush where there was a broad coalition of supporting countries behind the US led attack.

When George W. Bush and his Vice-President Dick Cheney led America into the 2nd Iraq war they believed that after defeating Saddam Hussein a brutal dictator, the Iraqi people would welcome the Americans as liberators. After all, Hussein tortured and gassed his own people. They also believed this might lead the entire Middle East towards democracy. All they had to do was get rid of the oppressive dictator. It was simple! After he was toppled they fully expected the Iraqi people to embrace the Americans for delivering them from this cruel and vicious dictator.

But  in war  things are never that simple. As we all know, things did not work out that way. Not at all. War is a perfect time for humility not hubris.

The war was not over in May 2003 when George W. Bush was photographed aboard a U.S. aircraft carrier under a sign that read “Mission Accomplished.”  In fairness to Bush, at that time he had only declared that the major battles were over, but his supporters thought he was being too modest. Yet, he was photographed grinning broadly under that sign with a thumbs-up sign of approval. The initial battle only took a few days and there was remarkably little American bloodshed. The mighty Iraqi army had crumbled in a few days. Hussein had promised “the Mother of all Wars,” but it was an empty boast. Or was it? 18 years later we might have to say he had a point. At the time the Americans appeared to have reason for self-satisfaction. But again, it was not quite that simple. Wars seldom are that simple. The U.S. has been there ever since continuing what more and more looks like an endless war.

What has happened to the war in Iraq since supporters of George W. Bush declared “Mission Accomplished” in 2003? Do we have something to learn from that war?  I think so. Will we learn a valuable lesson? Listening to my belligerent American friends it seems unlikely.

My American Friend Wants to “Take Out Iran”

Shortly  after we arrived in the United States, President Trump ordered the assassination of one of Iran’s military leaders, general Qassem Suleimani, by an unmanned drone. It really was an assassination but they call it a “targeted killing,” because assassination is illegal in the U.S. You tell me what the difference is? I suggest there is none. The hit was clean. Well relatively clean. “Only” 2 others were killed. The driver of the General’s car and one other person, presumably his body guard.

Shortly after our arrival in Arizona, Chris and I joined some of our American friends around their backyard fire. Like me, they love fires. We had a pleasant chat. It got a little dicey however when we started talking about the assassination.  Usually I am better at avoiding controversy with my American friends. I am trying to be a good guest. Sometimes that is hard. Like today. But he made me do it.

My friend said if it was up to him he would “take out Iran.”  This seemed astonishing to me.  He said, the Americans had managed to kill Qassem Suleimani in a nice and neat operation.  If the Americans could do that, he said, they should take out all of the top military leadership. He seemed to think that somehow they could obliterate the entire military that way, leaving the country intact. He said he wanted to make it clear that he was not advocating bombing the entire country into the Stone Age as General Curtis Lemay had advocated for the North Vietnamese in the Vietnam War. But he did want to “take them out” as he called it. He made it sound like precise surgery. His wife got very upset at these statements. She called them “stupid.”

I told him that I did not think the American military could be that precise and that wars are never that neat and tidy. I thought America might be able to eventually overpower the armed forces of Iran, but like the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq this would probably drag on indefinitely too. Could the US really afford one more war? Why would this one be any better?

I reminded my friend how American was still involved in the War in Afghanistan 18 years after it started. I believe it is now the longest war in American history.

I reminded him that the United States had spent $6 trillion in the Middle East since 9/11.  I don’t know how many American soldiers have been killed. Thousands of Afghanis have been killed. Thousand of Iraqis as well. That is just two of the wars the US has been involved in.  Was it worth it? Think of how many schools could have been built for that money? How many hospitals. How many young people could be given a free education? How many people could be given free medical care?

What has the US accomplished with all these wars? Do Americans feel safer? Is the Middle East a safer place? The people in the Middle East hate Americans even more than they did 18 years ago. What was the point?

After the assassination the Iraq government has asked the Americans to leave, fearing that their country will be turned into a battleground between Iran and the US. That is not a paranoid concern.

This discussion with my American friend made me think  wars. Wars are brutal. And they never go as planned. They are never neat and tidy.

I thought about World War I–the Great War–where European soldiers battled each other in the muddy trenches of Europe for 4 years. That was a war that was started for no reason whatsoever.  A bunch of European countries arguing about who could exploit which colonial countries. Finally the war was called because every country was exhausted. By then millions were  dead for absolutely no purpose at all.

Then there was World War II.  In that war there were clear villains. Heroes were more opaque and well camouflaged. Again millions of people were killed. Yes the allies stopped a brutal dictator who was responsible for the death of millions, bu the legacy of these wars was a century of brutality. Savagery and brutality to which the world has since grown accustomed. Some historians have even suggested the the Nazis could not have ushered int he Holocaust without the cover of war. In any event, it delivered death on an awesome scale. After that such death and brutality  became matter of fact. All I am saying is the the cost of the war was incredibly high.

We sure should think twice about going to war. Cocksure claims like “taking them out” are extremely dangerous.

 

 

Being a Friend or being a citizen requires we think critically

 

Now that we have arrived in the United States I have to be careful. I am a guest here. Sometimes I want to criticize it. But America believes in free speech. They are in some respects fanatical about it. Yet they hate to be criticized. Sometimes that makes for a difficult dance.

I criticize the United States as a friend. I speak as a friend who is dismayed at how it has gone awry and strayed from the ideals of its constitution. Not that I worship that constitution. It is deeply flawed. For example, it tolerated slavery and discrimination against indigenous people. Yet it championed noble ideals too.

So I criticize the United States with love. I ask it to live up to its ideals enshrined in its own constitution. As I have said many times, I love the United States; I love Americans. But sometimes I have to be critical of it.

I am a Canadian, but like Canada is a friend of America, I am a friend of Americans. Canada has been a staunch supporter and ally of the United States. It has not followed it blindly. It accepted the American invitation given by George H.W. Bush in the first Iraq war to support the coalition led by the United States. That war made some sense. Saddam Hussein had blatantly invaded Kuwait.

The war in Afghanistan was a little different. It followed the attacks on 9/11. The US. had invoked the provision in the NATO treaty that an attack on one is an attack on all. As a result when it wanted to invade Afghanistan to attack the supporters of Al Qaeda Canada joined in.

However, when the United States, under George W Bush wanted to reinvade Iraq because of threats it felt from Saddam Hussein and his alleged weapons of mass destruction, Canada did not join in that time.  I think Canada was right to dissent. This was not a time to follow blindly. This was a time to warn a friend that it was embarking on a big mistake. I think, with hindsight, that Canada was right. That war was brutal, futile, and meaningless because it was based on faulty intelligence if not outright lies.

When a person or a country sees a friend making a misstep the person or the country will stand up and warn the friend.

As a result of being a supporter of the United States Canada has also earned criticism. As I have said before, Canada is just the United States on valium. USA Lite. Sometimes Canada is a mouse trying to be a rat. Canada cannot claim to be virtuous just because it has no claws.

So I will look at the United States critically, just as I look at Canada critically. As citizens we have that duty. We must not accept all our leaders tell us without thinking critically. That is an abdication of our duties as citizens. That is not being a good citizen or a good  friend.

With that introduction I will make some critical comments of this great country that is allowing me to visit here.

Civilized People and Savages

 

Europe was not as civilized as we have been taught. Not all Europeans were blinded by a sense of superiority, but many were. There are always sharper minds.  Take Montaigne for example. In this book On Cannibals, he described what happened when Europeans kidnapped 3 Tupinamba natives from Brazil and brought them to “civilized” Europe so that they could see what “savages” were like. They were brought to France so that the boy-king Charles IX could see them in 1562 and this is what Montaigne said:

“The King talked with them for some time; they were shown our way of living, our magnificence, and the sights of a fine city. [I] asked them what they thought about all this, and what they had found most remarkable. [They said] they had noticed among us some men gorged to the full with things of every sort while their other halves were beggars at their doors, emaciated with hunger and poverty.  They found it strange that these poverty stricken halves should suffer such injustice, and that they did not take the others by the throat or set fire to their houses.”

The “savages” of Tupinamba knew the truth about European civilization. They saw it was a corrupt shell. Actually, it reminds me a lot of what seems to be happening in the world now (both east and west) with its incredible widening inequality where Jeff Bezos earns $1million dollars every 50 minutes while his employees earning minimum wages are not allowed to take bathroom breaks. Some of them have to wear adult diapers to work on the job. In our own society we also have to ask who are the savages? As Ronald Wright said, “The Tupinamba saw through Europe’s alien splendor to the flaws of society. The answer to their question, as they perhaps knew only too well, was that the poor of Europe were cutting throats and burning houses in America.”

Cowburnt: The American West

After leaving Amarillo Texas, heading southwest, we drove through cattle country. The first town in fact was called Hereford and claims to be the Herford Capital of the World. And it smelled like it too. It smelled like one huge feedlot operation, which is more or less what it was. A GIANT feedlot.

All of this reminded me of what Edward Abbey said in a famous article he wrote for Harpers Magazine in  1986.  Abbey did not appreciate cattle.  Like me, he did not believe that cattle were an adequate replacement for the bison that we lost. This is what he said about cattle:

“Most of the public lands in the West, and especially in the Southwest, are what you might call “cowburnt.” Almost anywhere and everywhere you go in the American West you find hordes of these ugly, clumsy, stupid, bawling, stinking, fly-covered, shit-smeared, disease-spreading brutes. They are a pest and a plague. They pollute our springs and streams and rivers. They infest our canyons, valleys, meadows, and forests. They graze off the native bluestem and grama and bunchgrasses, leaving behind jungles of prickly pear. They trample down the native forbs and shrubs and cactus. They spread the exotic cheatgrass, the Russian thistle, and the crested wheatgrass. Weeds.”

Sometimes I wish Abbey told us what he really thinks. Of course he did not stop there. He described the American West of the cowboys this way:

“Even when the cattle are not physically present, you’ll see the dung and the flies and the mud and the dust and the general destruction. If you don’t see it, you’ll smell it. The whole American West stinks of cattle. Along every flowing stream, around every seep and spring and water hole and well, you’ll find acres and acres of what range-management specialists call “sacrifice areas.” These are places denuded of forage, except for some cactus or a little tumbleweed or maybe a few mutilated trees like mesquite, juniper, or hackberry.”

Of course as much as he hated cattle, he did not like cattlemen or ranchers or cowboys any more. He thought they did not respect the land, and to Abbey that was the big sin. He believed they had devastated the west all as a result of their greed.

“Anyone who goes beyond the city limits of almost any Western town can see for himself that the land is overgrazed. There are too many cows and horses and sheep out there. Of course, cattlemen would never publicly confess to overgrazing, any more than Dracula would publicly confess to a fondness for blood. Cattlemen are interested parties. Many of them will not give reliable testimony. Some have too much at stake: their Cadillacs and their airplanes, their ranch resale profits and their capital gains. (I’m talking about the corporation ranchers, the land-and-cattle companies, the investment syndicates.) Others, those ranchers who have only a small base property, flood the public lands with their cows. About 8 percent of the federal-land permittees have cattle that consume approximately 45 percent of the forage on the government rangelands.”

Abbey called the product of this desecration “a cowburnt wasteland.” And I have to admit much of what we drove through in and around Amarillo and Hereford Texas looked exactly like that. The land looked to me, a neophyte tenderfoot, overgrazed. That was why most of the cattle had to be fed as if they were on a feedlot. Abbey thought that overgrazing was as bad as strip- mining, clear-cutting, and damning of rivers.

Abbey also decried the false mythology of the cowboys of the west:

“The beef industry’s abuse of our Western lands is based on the old mythology of the cowboy as natural nobleman, the most cherished and fanciful of American fairy tales. In truth, the cowboy is only a hired hand. A farm boy in leather britches and a comical hat. A herdsman who gets on a horse to do part of his work. Some ranchers are also cowboys, but many are not. There is a difference.

There are many ranchers out there who are big-time farmers of the public lands — our property. As such, they do not merit any special consideration or special privileges. There are only about 31,000 ranchers in the whole American West who use the public lands. That’s less than the population of Missoula, Montana.”

Abbey also had little good to say about ranchers:

“The rancher (with a few honorable exceptions) is a man who strings barbed wire all over the range; drills wells and bulldozes stock ponds; drives off elk and antelope and bighorn sheep; poisons coyotes and prairie dogs; shoots eagles, bears, and cougars on sight; supplants the native grasses with tumbleweed, snakeweed, povertyweed, cowshit, anthills, mud, dust, and flies. And then leans back and grins at the TV cameras and talks about how much he loves the American West. Cowboys are also greatly overrated. Consider the nature of their work. Suppose you had to spend most of your working hours sitting on a horse, contemplating the hind end of a cow. How would that affect your imagination? Think what it does to the relatively simple mind of the average peasant boy, raised amid the bawling of calves and cows in the splatter of mud and the stink of shit.

Finally he was unimpressed with the work ethic of cowboys. They claimed to be working hard all the time, but Abbey thought differently about them:

“Do cowboys work hard? Sometimes. But most ranchers don’t work very hard. They have a lot of leisure time for politics and bellyaching. Anytime you go into a small Western town you’ll find them at the nearest drugstore, sitting around all morning drinking coffee, talking about their tax breaks. Is a cowboy’s work socially useful? No. As I’ve already pointed out, subsidized Western range beef is a trivial item in the national beef economy. If all of our 31,000 Western public-land ranchers quit tomorrow, we’d never miss them. Any public school teacher does harder work, more difficult work, more dangerous work, and far more valuable work than any cowboy or rancher. The same thing applies to registered nurses and nurses’ aides, garbage collectors, and traffic cops. Harder work, tougher work, more necessary work. We need those people in our complicated society. We do not need cowboys or ranchers. We’ve carried them on our backs long enough.”

The American west–not quite what we thought it was.

The Invaders of North America

The invaders of North America represented (sort of) the Holy Roman Empire. Europe at the time of 1492 and for a couple of centuries after that was filled with tribal territories often with boundaries that were not fixed or agreed upon. At the time there were few countries. Nationalism really came later. At the time there were mainly city-states and small nations. Napoleon was really right when he said, “the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire.”

When two imperialists from worlds apart met, the Castilian of Spain and the Aztecs of Mexico, they represented two expanding empires that both had a tribal origin. Both had gained control of other people. Mexico of course was much larger. The Aztec capital on the site of what is now Mexico City contained one quarter of a million people. That was 4 times as many as Tudor London.  About 20 million people were under their control. At the time the British islands had about 5 million people and Spain about 8 million.

Europe was not really as civilized as Europeans might want us to think. Ronald Wright in his book Stolen Continents described Europe this way,

“European secular government was a tangle of decayed feudal loyalties and personal ambition.  The last proper roads had been built by the Romans more than a thousand years before.  The rapidly growing cities were unplanned, ramshackle, without sanitation, seething with poverty and disease. If famine struck a region, the state was quite unable to provide relief. Life expectancy oscillated between the high teens and low thirties, lower than in the most deprived nations of today. The achievements of Europe were technological, not social. It had the best ships, the best steel, the best guns; it also had conditions desperate enough to make its people want to leave and use these things to plunder others. Spain, in particular, was scarcely touched by the Renaissance; 700 years of war against the Moors had produced a warrior culture filled with loathing and contempt for other ways of life, not a new spirit of inquiry.”

The invaders of North America  were dirty, hairy, uncouth, and, let us be clear about this, savage. I am not saying the Indigenous people were angels, but the Europeans were certainly not.

Making a Big Splash in Arizona

 

We did not plan on it but we made a big splash in Arizona. After our first full day in Arizona, at about 9 p.m. a neighbour came and rapped on our door. Our door bells don’t work.  We found that out in a big way. We had not been introduced. He said water was pouring into his yard from ours.  How could that be?  Well it turned out water was gushing from our pool pump over the concrete fence into our neighbour’s yard. It was dark and we hd not noticed it. And he was not very impressed. In fact it was a volcano of water spurting about 10 feet into the air.

Of course I had no idea what to do about it. Panicking I ran to the back, picked up a flashlight, and, of course, could not figure out how to shut the pump off. I could not find a  water shut off valve or switch. Chris phoned the  owners in Oregon. Even though it was only about 8 p.m. in Oregon where they live, they were asleep when Chris called. They were not impressed either.  But the owner explained to us how to shut off the pool pump and mercifully the deluge stopped.

What a great introduction to the neighbourhood. It was not exactly  a beautiful day in the neighbourhood.

Lies, Damn Lies and History

 

Mark Twain got it wrong. It is not true that there are ‘lies, damn lies, and statistics,” as he claimed.  There are lies, damn lies, and history. I said that.

The facts of the invasion of the western hemisphere by Europeans are to a large extent unknown by people who make no effort to find them. Which of course means they are largely unknown except to scholars. The rest of us have a learned a very one-sided history—the history of those who saw themselves as victors.

Yellow Wolf, of the Nez Percé, an indigenous nation of the western United States, put this accurately in 1877: “The whites told only one side. Told it to please themselves. Told much that is not true.  Only his own best deeds,, only the worst deeds of the Indians, as the white man told.”

I want to look at both sides, but the fact is that the side of the whites has been well told for centuries.  I learned their stories in school. For example, I learned how mean and cruel the Iroquois were to those nice kind priests from France. I never learned the other side the story at at all. It took me many  years to learn otherwise. So I want to redress that. I want to look at all sides.

As Ronald Wright said in his wonderful book Stolen Continents,  “Few things are so dangerous as believing one’s own lies”. The first lie, a vital part of what I have called the Original Sin, was that the Europeans were civilized and the people of the Western Hemisphere were savages. That is a lie we should stop believing. It was a convenient lie. It allowed the Europeans to ravage the western continents with a clean conscience.

For example, and this is just a beginning, it is not true that most of the people living in the western hemisphere were nomadic hunter-gatherers. Many of them were exactly that. But many of them lived settled lives in towns and cities.  There were some amazing cities in North and south America.  One of those cities was Cahokia. I will talk about that later. According to Wright, “Hollywood may have convinced us that the ‘typical’ Indian was a nomadic hunter, but in fact the majority had been living in villages, towns, and cities since long before Columbus.”

In fact there is a lot of evidence now that the real barbarians, the real savages, came sailing in on big ships!

A New World

 

The Europeans that followed Christopher Columbus to the western hemisphere referred the western hemisphere as “the New World.”  Of course it was no more a new world than it was India. The people of Europe were wrong—again.

The history we learned in school taught us that this “discovery” was one of the  greatest achievements of mankind.  The people that were “discovered” had very different views.  The people in the western hemisphere, as it has come to be called, with a little more justification, believed that their world was the only world. They were also mistaken. They believed that they lived on a great island floating on an ancient sea.  Some of them referred to this world as “Turtle Island.”

These people on the western hemisphere were amazing people. They had occupied all habitable areas of this hemisphere  (and some like Manitoba are arguably not really habitable at all) from the Arctic tundra, to the plains, mountains, forests and deserts of North America. They occupied the Caribbean islands, Mexico, Central America and the incredible rainforests, deserts, plains and mountains of South America. They developed many different kinds of society. They included nomadic groups of hunter-gatherers to settled farming communities and cities as large as any in the rest of the world. Numbers vary, but by 1492 there may have been 100 million Native Americans in the South and North combined. This was about 1/5 of the entire human race.

To the people of the Americas, their encounter with people from Europe was not a discovery, it was an invasion! It was an invasion with profound effects for both sides.  As Ronald Wright said, “Within decades of Columbus’s landfall, most of these people were dead and their world barbarously sacked by Europeans. The plunderers settled in America, and it was they, not the original people, who became to be known as Americans.” “Unlike Asia and Africa, America never saw its colonizers leave.”

The original people did not however disappear.  As Wright put it, “Many survive, captive within white settler states that built on their lands and on their backs.”

 

Mining Towns

 

As we drove to Arizona we listened to CBC radio. There was a story about Lynn Lake. In many ways it is a familiar story. It is a story about mining towns. And it happens over and over again.  A valuable mineral is discovered, a mining corporation or international conglomerate gets wind of it, scoops up the rights, usually along with some “incentives” from various levels of government, and establishes a mining town.

For a while the town booms. Everybody is happy. Everybody makes money. People move in to work in the mines, others to support the miners. Life is good. For awhile at least.

Then the industry collapses either because the rich vein of minerals is exhausted or prices drop so low it is no longer economical to keep the industry alive. Profits dry up and so does the town. The mining corporation of course, gathers up its chips and moves out. Ordinary people are left holding the bag, in more ways than one. People who owned homes in town find that their homes are worthless. No one wants to move in. Most want to move out, not in. Some die-hards want to stay. After all this is their home. They want to live there. Even though it no longer makes economic sense to stay. This can work for awhile, until the population is so low the town just can’t keep going anymore.

Then sometimes–as in Lynn Lake–remnant problems remain. Often these are environmental. The corporations leaves a mess behind. A mess that someone else has to clean up. This is what happened in Lynn Lake. According to the former Mayor who was interviewed on CBC, the contamination of the water was caused by tailings from the mine. A fund has been created from mining taxes but for some reason can’t be used to clean it up or pay for the Lynn Lake Water Treatment Plant upgrades that are required. So poor citizens in a dying town are left holding the bag. The townspeople don’t want to pay more for water they are told not to drink. That is understandable but who should pay?

I would say the polluter should pay. If that was the mining corporation they should pay, but often it is costly and time consuming to pursue legal uncertain remedies. The townspeople want the province to pay, but why should the province pay? I am all in favor of the collective helping out a group down on their luck, but does it really make sense to keep a town like Lynn Lake going? Is this going to be a classic case of throwing good money after bad?

The town of Lynn Lake now has a population of about 500 from a high of near 4,000. Now it has many abandoned houses. Such homes are not easy to deal with. There were at one time more than 230 abandoned lots in the town and 50 of those have vacant homes that are an invitations to rodents and vandals. They also pose a fire threat to the rest of the community. The town has taken to burning them down or pushing them, literally pushing them, to the dump. After that their foundations have to be covered up and sewer pipes closed. All of this costs money, for a community that does not have a lot of money.

Is this the best the mining industry can do?  Can it just cut and run without any heed to the consequences. Is this how our mining industry works. Often it seems that is exactly how it works. If so is it time to abandon the mining industry? I admit I don’t now squat. I just raise questions. Awkward questions.