Category Archives: War

1917

 

This film tells the story of 2 fictionalBritish lance corporals in World War I on the western front, assigned to stop a battalion of 1,600 men from walking into a German ambush.  One of the men has extra incentive. His brother is part of the forces about to walk into that trap. The general warns the young corporal, “If you fail, it will be a massacre.” Apparently the film is based on true events told by the director’s father.

 

The film astonishes with its brilliant cinematography and unusual points of view. This is a war movie like I have never seen before. I am not sure this is what I wanted, but I really got the feeling that this is what war is like. And it doesn’t feel good. It an outstanding film. While not for the squeamish, I recommend it highly.

 

The scenes of war are unparalleled in their grizzly realism. The landscape is strewn with mud, dead horses, dead humans stuck inside mud, often with only parts revealed. Rats and birds consume the corpses. There are cows in the country-side doing their best to ignore the carnage. Buildings are horribly ravished. Violence is sudden, shocking, and explosive. All of this makes for a great film created by artists at the height of their powers. If this film does not win the Best Picture award, the film that does will have to be outstanding.

 

When the message to stand down is delivered, the officers who receive it safely ensconced in their bunkers, don’t want to believe. They are ready for war. The last thing they want to do is stand down. That idea is entirely contrary to their aggressive training. You’ll have to see the film to see what happens.

But I want to comment on a side bar. The film does not glorify the “heroes.” It does not glorify war. And that is good.

But why do so many war movies focus on the soldiers? For example, I would love to see a war movie that concentrates on a real life hero–like Bertrand Russell for example. I read his autobiography about 50 years ago after my first year of university. Russell was one of my intellectual heroes, but he was more than that.

I will never forget his description of going to Trafalgar Square in London when England declared war on the Germans in 1914. What surprised Russell, and me, was the immense joy experienced by the people. They were excited to go to war. The young men and women, aided and abetted by the old warmongers, were absolutely joyous at the prospects of the war. Of course it helped that most of them thought the war would be over soon. They fully expected to be, as they said, “home or homo by Christmas.”

Bertrand Russell could not believe it. It was his first experience of people braying for war. They screamed for war. They demanded war. And only a few voices dissented from this madness. People like Russell who were conscientious objectors to the war urged caution. They were the only ones who were sceptical about the objects of the war. They were the only ones who thought the war might not end soon. They were the only ones who exercised any humility or modesty. They were not consumed by the lust for war.

Of course, the people in England scorned Russell and his kind as cowards, traitors, Communists, and Huns. Many of them, like Russell were imprisoned for refusing to serve in the war. That took real courage.

Yet that war served absolutely no good purpose. It was fought mainly by young men and women from the working classes, to defend the dubious colonial businesses of the ruling classes. Why would they do that? Those hapless young people were pushed into a meat grinder for the sake of the higher classes. Millions lost their lives for no good reason at all. The war, like so many,  was a monstrous disaster. Old men called; young men and women died fro it.

When will we see a movie that glorifies the dissidents who told the truth about war, urging caution and humility while renouncing aggressive violence? That is a movie that I would like to see.

Camps: Incubating the next Jihad.

There are some consequences of the war to the “liberation” of Mosul that I was not familiar with.  That is the existence of camps for refugees. One of the often forgotten results of war is the displacement of people. It is just not possible for people to live in a war torn country. As Ben Taub reported in the New Yorker, “The war against the Islamic State displaced a million people in Nineveh Province.” (emphasis added) And that is just one province of Iraq! It is difficult for us in the west to comprehend 1 million people not being able to live in their own homes. Imagine the distress this would cause.

 

Many of these people were placed in refugee camps, often near by in other parts of Iraq some distance from the worst fighting. Originally the main inhabitants were people displaced by ISIS. Later ISIS linked families were added to the list of the displaced as the U.S. led coalition forces claimed “victory.”  Many were transported to the camps in 115°F weather in open trucks without shade or water.  Taub reported how the head of a major Non-governmental organization described the camps as“like a concentration camp.”

 

Many of the security forces were reluctant to protect the camp residents. They are more interested in exacting revenge for violence inflicted on their loved ones. Life inside those camps was gruesomely bad:

 

In some camps, humanitarian workers offer aid in exchange for sex. Many women are pregnant from having been raped by the security forces or from having sex to feed themselves and their children. Although the fighting has ended, “these camps are meant to stay,” the N.G.O. director said. “If you are ten years old now, and you have no food, no assistance, and your mother has to prostitute herself to survive, and the whole of Iraqi society blames you because you were close to ISIS—in two, three, four years, what are you going to do? It’s clear. The seeds for the next conflict are all here.” (emphasis added)

Many commentators criticized President Obama for the chaos he left behind in Iraq, saying it generated ISIS. Now the American supported coalition forces are doing it again. As Taub said,

“At a police compound in West Mosul, I asked a colonel named Mezhar Sedoon whether he thought that the camps are creating more security problems than they are solving. “Some of the mothers in the camp are raising ISIS children, but others have become prostitutes,” he said. He laughed. “Money-money, fucky-fucky!” he said in English. “I’d rather they become whores than raise terrorists!”

Some women try to carry out abortions inside their tents. Others give birth, and discard the babies in unpopulated parts of the camp. Those who are found alive often end up in the care of Sukaina Mohammad Ali Younnis, an Iraqi government official who is in charge of women’s and children’s issues in Mosul. Over tea in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, she showed me hundreds of photographs of children she has found in camps, on the streets, and dead in trash cans. Earlier this year, she saw someone throw a bundle out of a car, and found that it was a baby boy. She showed me a video of herself cradling him in the back of an ambulance, as blood bubbled out of his nostrils. He died on the way to the hospital.

Outside the camps, thousands of other children have been abandoned or orphaned by the war. Many of them were born to Yazidi women who had been kidnapped by ISIS and forced into sexual slavery. “After ISIS, the Yazidis accepted the women back into the community, but not their half-ISIS babies,” Younnis said. “They force the women to turn over their children to the orphanage. Every day, these women call me, wanting to know how their children are doing.” (emphasis added)

Hundreds of very young children are living in Iraqi prisons because their parents have been sentenced to death. As Taub said,

“Iraqi children whom ISIS trained to become fighters and potential suicide bombers, are imprisoned, as if their lives were irredeemable. “They are useless in interrogations—they just cry,” the senior Iraqi intelligence official said. “We are holding children as young as twelve in cells with hard-core jihadi fighters.”… Thousands of children in Mosul live on the street, searching through the trash for scrap to sell. “After their parents were killed or imprisoned, their relatives refused to take them in,” Younnis said. “They are seen as tainted, even if they were too young to absorb the ideology.” Many of them hang out in traffic and at checkpoints, choking on dust and diesel, trying to wipe down windshields or sell water and tissues to passing motorists. “They will do anything for fifty dollars,” she said. “I go to many government officials, asking to find ways to help these kids, but they all say, ‘It’s not my area of responsibility.’ ” (emphasis added)

Thousands of children in Mosul live on the street, searching through the trash for scrap to sell.

So the American supported coalition forces have created a problem that will come back to haunt not just he Middle East, but likely, the world.  All of this is just one more unintended consequence of war. Taub put it this way,

“The camps are a time bomb,” Younnis continued. “The fathers are in prison or dead. The mothers are being raped. They will raise the kids accordingly, and their sons will seek revenge. This won’t just affect Mosul, or Nineveh, or Iraq. This will affect the whole world.” (emphasis added)

At least the Pentagon is not saying “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq. They have learned that the next generation of jihadists is being incubated. No matter what Trump says, ISIS is not destroyed. He did not start any of these wars, but he seriously misjudged, as did Obama, how difficult it is to end these crazy wars in the Middle East. That is one more reason not to start them in the first place. Already since its “defeat” ISIS has set up checkpoints and has carried out abductions and assassinations in parts of Iraq. It has been said that they have buried large quantities of weapons and even cash to be unearthed when the next jihad is declared. Taub concluded his article in the New Yorker this way:

” According to the Pentagon, ISIS is “more capable” now than Al Qaeda in Iraq was at its peak, in 2007, and there are still some thirty thousand fighters operating in Syria and Iraq. Citing the camps, Umm Hamad told me that she expects the Islamic State to return to Mosul. “Not soon, but more powerful than before,” she said.

The other woman was Umm Hamad’s niece. She was in her twenties, and spoke softly and wistfully of the past. “Everyone in my family welcomed the Islamic State, except my youngest brother,” she said. “He hated them.” Throughout the occupation, she and her other brothers had tried to convince him of the merits of the caliphate, to no avail. Then he was arrested by the Iraqi security forces, under suspicion of ISIS affiliation. He was twelve years old. She has no idea where he is, or when he will get out of prison—she knows only that, if the government doesn’t kill him, by the time it lets him go it will have taught him that she was right.”

 I keep thinking about my American friend who wants to “take out Iran.”  How easy will that be? What unintended consequences would such actions usher in? The United States has helped cause the death of thousands of people, helped displace millions of others, spent hundred of billions of dollars (if not trillions) in Iraq and the result has been the Middle East is filled with people who hate Americans and the next generation of jihadis has already been  born to unleash their reign of terror on a new generation of innocents. This is not madness; it is much worse than that!

The Battle for Mosul: Who are the Good Guys?

 

I know I have been going on and on about war in the Middle East, particularly the wars in Iraq.  My American friend got me going on these thoughts when he said if he was President he would “take out Iran.” That sounds so simple.

Ben Taub in his New Yorker article described the battle to retake Mosul from ISIS as the” most intense urban combat since the Second World War.”  One of the interesting things about that battle was that the brutal ISIS fighters were often seen as preferable to the U.S. supported Iraqi security. As Taub said,

“They told us that the Iraqi security forces would kill the men and rape the women,” a young woman from the village of Shirqat told me… “We trusted ISIS more than the Iraqi state.”

Of course that did not end brutality by ISIS. As Taub reported,

“We trusted ISIS more than the Iraqi state.” Other villagers, who had spent years awaiting liberation, were loaded onto buses at gunpoint by ISIS fighters, and packed into Mosul’s front-line neighborhoods, to be used as human shields. In the ensuing months, the jihadis murdered hundreds of people who tried to escape, and hung bodies from electrical pylons.”

 Mosul was a very difficult place to fight a war. After all it was an old city. The west part of the city was particularly difficult because it was so densely packed with narrow streets and alleyways. As Taub said,

“The coalition concluded that the Old City could not be captured according to the rules of engagement that had governed the battle in East Mosul, so it loosened its requirements for calling in an air strike. In March, the U.S. dropped a five-hundred-pound bomb on a roof in the Old City, in an effort to kill two ISIS snipers. The explosion killed a hundred and five civilians who had been sheltering inside the building. Survivors reported that there were no ISIS fighters in the vicinity at the time of the strike.” Who thinks this makes sense?

There is only one question that is really pertinent here: “Who are the good guys?”  After all this was “our side.” Our side is always the good guy right?

Of course both sides were guilty to atrocities. ISIS fighters killed thousands, so the Iraqi forces retaliated in kind.  Taub described it this way:

“By early July, ISIS fighters had killed thousands of government troops and police officers, and Iraqi commanders were under enormous pressure to finish the battle. The next few weeks were a bloodbath. ISIS fighters who surrendered were executed on the spot. Iraqi security forces filmed themselves hurling captives off a cliff, then shooting them as they lay dying on the rocks below. Helicopters buzzed the Tigris, bombing people as they tried to swim across. The troops assumed that anyone still living in the Old City sided with the Islamic State. For the rest of the month, corpses bobbed downstream, dressed in civilian clothes. “We killed them all—Daesh, men, women, and children,” an Iraqi Army officer told a Middle Eastern news site, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS. As he spoke, his colleagues dragged a suspect through the streets by a rope tied around his neck. “We are doing the same thing as ISIS. People went down to the river to get water, because they were dying of thirst, and we killed them.” When the battle was over, soldiers used construction equipment to shovel rubble into the entrances of ISIS tunnels—ostensibly to suffocate any remaining jihadis, but also to mingle corpses and concrete, thereby obscuring the scale of the atrocities. As late as March of this year, journalists were still finding the bodies of women and children on the riverbanks, blindfolded, with their hands tied behind their backs and bullet holes in their skulls.

When the battle was over the Old City of Mosul was in ruins.  According to the UN, besides the dead and wounded, the battle for Mosul has left behind around ten million tons of rubble. Many of those destroyed buildings were continuously inhabited from the 7th century until July 2017. Of course the greatest losses were suffered by people.

The brutality of ISIS forces is well known and for good reason. The brutality of coalition forces, supported by the US and Britain are less well known. As Taub reported,

“In October, 2016, Iraqi security forces filmed themselves executing a captive in Qayyarah, an hour south of Mosul. They also tied the bodies of several dead ISIS fighters to the back of a Nissan pickup truck and dragged them through Qayyarah’s main road, while villagers cheered; children kicked the corpses, and a man stood on one of the bodies, surfing. According to Human Rights Watch, which obtained thirteen videos from the scene, a man from a nearby village came to Qayyarah after hearing that the man who had killed his father and three of his uncles was among the dead fighters. He beheaded the man and cut out his heart, then presented it as a gift to his mother.”

Little wonder that coalition forces tried their best to conceal the casualties:

“The coalition has acknowledged a civilian death toll in the low hundreds. But the West Mosul civil defense has retrieved thousands of corpses from the Old City. Last December, the Associated Press obtained a list of nearly ten thousand civilians whose bodies had been registered at the local morgue. Most had been crushed to death by falling concrete; for others, the cause of death had been entered into the morgue’s database simply as “blown to pieces.” (Thomas Veale, a U.S. Army colonel and a spokesman for the coalition, told the A.P. that it was “irresponsible” to draw attention to civilian casualties in West Mosul. If not for the coalition’s campaign, he said, Iraqis would have suffered years of “needless death and mutilation” at the hands of “terrorists who lack any ethical or moral standards.)”

Are we to believe that “our side” is ethical and moral?  The evidence clearly does not support that assumption.

Ben Taub did not mince words in his description of Iraqi forces and Iraqi people:

“Elsewhere in Iraq, security forces filmed themselves punching, kicking, and whipping men in ad-hoc detention sites, including school classrooms. They dragged suspects by the hair, stepped on their heads, slammed knees into their faces, and threw furniture at them. They beat people unconscious; they beat people to death. They filmed themselves gunning down captives in open fields and stabbing them in the face with knives. A group of Hashd members struggled to interrogate six foreign fighters who couldn’t speak Arabic; in the end, they shot them, doused them in gasoline, and lit them on fire—including two who were still alive. A federal police officer filmed himself beheading captives, including minors, and posted the videos to his Facebook account. He told a Swedish reporter that he had decapitated fifty people so far, all while they were still alive; as he paraded through the streets holding severed heads aloft, other uniformed police officers and soldiers cheered and marched alongside him. All through northern and western Iraq, anti- ISIS forces kept lists of people they wanted to kill. They hung bodies from telephone poles, and encouraged civilians to desecrate the corpses of their former jihadi oppressors. The irony was not lost on the killers—they knew that they were mirroring the Islamic State’s worst acts.” 

The Iraqi government has sought to minimize attention to such atrocities. Haider al-Abadi, who served as Prime Minister between 2014 and October, 2018, dismissed them as “individual acts” for which the perpetrators would be held to account. But there have been no meaningful investigations. According to the senior Iraqi intelligence official, “all Hashd violations are carried out with the knowledge and approval of the national-security apparatus, in all governorates.” He added that the government has provided official cover for numerous civilian massacres, by organizing press conferences and lying about the provenance of mass graves. “The Iraqi government brought in journalists and said, ‘Look, ISIS killed these civilians,’ when in fact it was the Hashd al-Sha’abi,” he said. “The reality is totally different from what ends up in the media. At least ISIS had the courage to not hide its crimes.”

Yet even that is not enough to describe what the liberators–people who were liberated from ISIS by American sponsored forces have done.  As Taub said, “Throughout the ISIS period, in the aftermath of terrorist attacks, the Iraqi government has carried out mass executions in order to mollify an outraged public.”

If there are no good guys in a war, what does that mean?

Humility is as important as a good military: The First Iraq War

Some have asked if I am a passivist who believes that all wars are morally wrong. The answer is no, but I admit I am very close to that.  There are not many wars I think were justified.

The first Iraq War had what we lawyers like to think of as ‘colour of right.’ There was some justification for that war. After all a cruel and vicious dictator, Saddam Hussein, led Iraq into an invasion of a small neighbour, Kuwait, entirely without provocation. This was reminiscent of Adolf Hitler leading Nazi Germany in invasions of Czechoslovakia, Austria and Poland just because he could, and because the neighbour’s big bully, the USA, hinted it would look the other  way. That invasion would have given Iraq access to all of Kuwait’s oil.  Saying that this was unacceptable made sense.

George H.W. Bush the American President at the time got a solid international core of support for his venture.  The broad coalition of countries he got to sign on included Britain, various European countries, Australia,  as well as a number of Middle Eastern countries. He even got Canada to come on board.

The key to that war, unlike the Second Iraq War, was limited aims. The coalition forces  joined to stop the aggressor from its invasion of Kuwait and drive them drive it out of the country.  Iraq was not allowed to convert its gains on the ground into potentially valid claims against the country.  This contrasted sharply with the Second Iraq War where George W. Bush’s lieutenants, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, wanted to initiate what they famously referred to as “regime change.”

Many American conservatives had thought George H.W. Bush had stopped the first Iraq War too soon. The Coalition forces could have driven the Iraqi invaders back into Iraq in order to removed the widely perceived ‘evil’ Iraq government led by Hussein, into submission, but the elder Bush decided to stop when the goal was accomplished.  George W. Bush was not so easily satisfied. He wanted to topple the government, and not just the statue of Hussein. This changed the war entirely. Bush Jr. wanted to do what he thought his father should have done–see too it that the regime changed.

The younger Bush had goals that could not be considered modest or humble. He wanted to end the Hussein government and turn the country into a democracy.  Wars without humility are very dangerous things. George W. Bush and the American people found that out the hard way. They ended up with a war that has lasted nearly 2 decades and is still not over. They are still having trouble extricating themselves from Iraq.

The second problem with the Second Iraq War, unlike the First Iraq War, was that there was no legitimate instigation or provocation. The Americans tried to manufacture one, but that failed. They claimed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and it did not matter that the Americans had them too. Iraq could not have them.

There is no time where humility is more important than war. Hubris is as much of an enemy as the foe. If countries fail to remember this, even powerful countries can be made to pay a heavy price.

 

Victory in Mosul

 

Mission Accomplished

What does victory look like? Donald Trump bragged about how he had helped the Iraqi forces defeat ISIS (or ISIL or IS as it is sometimes called). For convenience I will refer to them all as ISIS.  ISIS as we all know is not an organization of Sunday school teachers.

I suppose such a victory is what my American friend was looking for when he called for the American forces to “take out Iran.”

Mosul is Iraq’s second most populated city. In June 2014, much to their surprise, ISIS  captured Mosul as the government forces, trained and outfitted by the Americans, collapsed at the mere sight of the fearsome  ISIS warriors. Much to the disappointment of the Americans, the Iraqi forces abandoned all that fancy and expensive American equipment largely without a fight. Years of American training, advice, and money, created security forces that at the first sign of trouble folded up and left their military hardware behind.

The Iraqi government was dominated by Shia Muslims. ISIS was dominated by Sunni Muslims.   That made for natural enmity. It was in Mosul that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the beginning of their self-proclaimed “caliphate.” At the time the population of Mosul was 2.5 million people After ISIS ruled for more than 2 years those numbers dropped to 1.5 million.

ISIS had about 3,000 to 5,000 ISIS fighters in Mosul.  The estimates of their strengths varied widely. Many of them were not well trained and included teenagers, but because of their reputation for brutality they struck fear into the hearts and minds of Iraqis and westerners alike. Only the Kurds were keen on fighting them. About 10,000 were foreign fighters in including both Arabs and non-Arabs. The rest of ISIS fighters were Iraqi.

The Iraqi-led coalition that eventually drove out ISIS included about 100,000 Iraqi security forces, (ISF), 16,000 Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF or PMU) 40,000 Peshmerga that included about 200 Iranian Kurdish female fighters from the Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK). It was estimated that Peshmerga and ISF outnumbered ISIS fighters by about 10-1. The Kurds did  most of the fighting for the American military, until the US abandoned them at the end of 2019. The world was notified of that abandonment by a tweet from President Trump and it shocked the world. The Kurds were more shocked than anyone else, even though many people told them not to trust the Americans.

The forces against ISIS were supported by many countries, including Canada, but most importantly the United States. The assault to recapture the city of Mosul really started in October of 2016. The coalition forces inflicted severe pain on ISIS in that effort and because by then ISIS was totally embedded in Iraq, the local population also suffered greatly. As the above photograph makes abundantly clear, the “victory” of retaking Mosul from ISIS came at a horrendous cost to the city and the people who lived there.

The UN stated that ISIS had taken tens of thousands of civilians to use as human shields in Mosul. Those who refused to go were executed. Life (and death) was simple in Mosul.

Airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition targeted ISIS positions, and ISIL started tire fires to reduce visibility. Heavy fighting occurred in the city. The city was “won” back from ISIS by hard block-by-block fighting.  Before the battle to take back Mosul was over, it was estimated that it would cost more than $1 billion to repair “basic” infrastructure in the city. This process would likely take years. Again looking at the photograph above that is hardly surprising.

 The UN also estimated that more than 5,000 buildings have been damaged and another 490 were destroyed in the Old City. During the battle Amnesty International accused Iraqi, Kurdish  and United States forces of using unnecessarily powerful weapons including MOAB the so-called Mother of All Bombs, the most powerful non-nuclear bomb in the world. Both sides damaged many religious sites.

The US accused ISIS of using civilians as human shields. It was confirmed that this happened and was widely condemned by human rights organizations.  The International Business Times reported that ISIS had forced boys as young as 12 to fight for them and that ISIS had trained the children to behead prisoners and make suicide bombs. Civilians were shot and deposited into mass graves in the city. ISIS also carried out retribution killings of civilians for welcoming Iraqi and Peshmerga troops.

The presence of Iraqi forces with several militias with histories of human rights abuses caused various organizations to criticize the US led coalition forces.  The International Business Times reported cases of Iraqi security forces torturing and interrogating young children for information about ISIS. On March 17, 2017 a U.S. led coalition air-strike in Mosul killed more than 200 civilians.  Amnesty Internationals reported, “The high civilian toll suggests that coalition forces leading the offensive in Mosul have failed to take adequate precautions to prevent civilian deaths, in flagrant violation of international humanitarian law.”

Kurdish intelligence estimated in July of 2017 that the total number of civilian casualties at the time were 40,000. The largest portion of this loss of life is attributable to the unyielding artillery bombardment by U.S. supported Iraqi government forces. The US-led coalition forces were one of the significant sources of civilian deaths.

Thousands of people had been forced to flee the country as a result of ISIS attacks and bombardment by U.S. led coalition forces.  Of course, many of these refugees were children. The refugees were not welcome in the Us as part of his Muslim ban. All sides were accused of violating human rights laws. About one day after victory was declared by Iraqi forces, Amnesty International accused both sides of violating international laws. The Iraqi forces, supported by the U.S. were accused of carrying out unlawful attacks using explosive weapons and failing to take necessary precautions to prevent the loss of civilian life and in some cases including disproportionate attacks.

An Associated Press investigation that cross-referenced independent databases from non-governmental organizations, claimed that 9,000–11,000 residents of Mosul were killed in the battle. It blamed airstrikes and shellings by Iraqi forces and anti-ISIS coalition of being responsible for at least 3,200 civilian deaths. The coalition on the other hand has acknowledged responsibility for 326 deaths. ISIS was held responsible for killing one third of the civilians out of the death toll. Both sides were brutal. As I said before, savagery was the chief legacy of the war in Iraq, not democracy as George W Bush an dDick Cheney had envisioned.

Official victory over ISIS was declared in July of 2017, but that did not stop further heavy fighting as ISIS continued to resist in the Old City of Mosul.

It has been estimated that removing explosives from Mosul and repairing the city will cost $50 billion over the next 5 years.

This is what “victory” looks like. It’s not a pretty picture. Who is looking forward to another victory in the Middle East?

Iraq: The Chief Legacy of War is Savagery

As a result of my conversation with my American friend where he suggested the current foe, Iran, should obliterated, I have been thinking a lot about what succession war would look like. It is not obvious.

The Second War in Iraq started in 2003 and in 2017 Donald Trump bragged about how the Americans had defeated ISIS in Iraq. Of course he neglected to mention how most of the heavy lifting in that battle was done by the Kurds. Those were the same Kurds he shamelessly abandoned in 2019.

Originally that war was started to remove Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction with which he could not be trusted. Only the US and their friends can be trusted with such weapons. Later, when none of such weapons were found, the purpose of the war switched to defeating ISIS who had rushed into the country to fill the void left by Hussein.

But there is more to this story than victory. Ben Taub wrote a very interesting article for the New Yorker on what has happened in Iraq since ISIS had been defeated (more or less) in 2017.

To begin with, we must remember that the Iraqi government was installed by the Americans after they defeated Saddam Hussein and his army during the second Iraq War. Ever since then the US has been engaged in nation building in Iraq with pretty meager success. They have trained the military and police, since they did not want to keep Saddam Hussein’s Baathist security forces around for fear they would revive Saddam’s government. So really the Americans now own those security forces and the problems they have created. The US can’t really say it is not responsible and wipe its hands of the matter.

Taub described how a trial of Iraqi terrorists proceeded in 2018. After ISIS was largely defeated the Iraqis went on a rampage of revenge.  Taub saw dozens of suspected  terrorists who were crammed into a jail cell. Several of them had not yet seen a lawyer yet but were already dressed for execution.

Taub described the trial of one of those suspected terrorists this way:

“In terrorism cases, lawyers are usually denied access to their clients until the hearing begins. Shortly after ten o’clock, three judges in long black robes shuffled into Courtroom 2 and sat at the bench. Suhail Abdullah Sahar, a bald, middle-aged man with a thin, jowly face, sat in the center. There were twenty-one cases on his docket that day, sixteen related to terrorism. He quietly read out a name; a security officer shouted it down the hall to one of his colleagues, who shouted it to the guard, who shouted it into the cell. Out came a young man named Ahmed. A security officer led him to a wooden cage in the middle of the courtroom. Judge Sahar accused him of having joined ISIS in Qayyarah, a small town south of Mosul.

“Sir, I swear, I have never been to Qayyarah,” Ahmed said.

Sahar was skeptical. “I have a written confession here, with your thumbprint on it,” he said.

“Sir, I swear, I gave my thumbprint on a blank paper,” Ahmed replied. “And I was tortured by the security services.” Sahar listed Ahmed’s supposed jihadi associates; Ahmed denied knowing any of them.

“Enough evidence,” the prosecutor said. “I ask for a guilty verdict.”

Ahmed had no lawyer, and so Sahar called upon an elderly state attorney named Hussein, who was seated in the gallery, to spontaneously craft a defense. Hussein walked over to a lectern, repeated from memory what Ahmed had said, and, without requesting his release, concluded with a plea for “mercy in his sentencing.”

Ahmed wept as he was led out of the room. His trial had lasted four and a half minutes.”

And we should remember that the usual sentence for terrorist cases is death.

The second trial Taub observed lasted 8 minutes while the lawyers in the room yawned, cracked jokes, or closed their eyes. The Defendant said he was charged by mistake because his name was similar to that of someone in ISIS.

The trial of the third Defendant was a 23 year old from a village near Mosul who was charged with being a member of ISIS and again claimed it was a case of mistaken identity.

2 of these accused men had lawyer, which according to Taub was a good sign that they were innocent, since lawyers rarely wanted to represent guilty people because often after doing that the lawyers would be charged with being members of ISIS.  “As the lawyer spoke, the judges tended to administrative tasks. The trial was over in nine minutes. “I hate ISIS—they blew up my house!” the suspect shouted, in tears, as he was led out of court.”

In each case the prosecutor said: “Enough evidence—I ask for a guilty verdict.” It was the only phrase he uttered in court that morning. He did not have to do any more to get convictions from the judges even though many Defendants explained how they had been tortured into giving confessions.

One accused man had waited 4 years for his trial and then had a 3-minute trial during which time the judge paid no attention to his case. As Taub said,

 “The Islamic State has been mostly destroyed on the battlefield, but the war is far from over. Air strikes cannot kill an idea, and so it has fallen to Iraq’s fractured security, intelligence, and justice systems to try to finish the task. But, insofar as there is a strategy, it seems almost perfectly crafted to bring about the opposite of its intent. American and Iraqi military officials spent years planning the campaign to rid Iraq of ISIS, as if the absence of the jihadis would automatically lead Iraq toward the bright democratic future that George W. Bush’s Administration had envisaged when U.S. forces invaded the country, in 2003. But ISIS has always derived much of its dangerous appeal from the corruption and cruelty of the Iraqi state.”

As if this is not bad enough, we must remember that by far most of the young men and boys who were convicted of ISIS never made it to trial. They were disposed of without trials!

Ben Taub reported this way:

“Thousands of men and boys have been convicted of ISIS affiliation, and hundreds have been hanged. But, according to the senior intelligence official, these cases represent only a small fraction of the total number of detainees. “A few of the suspects are sent to court, but only to maintain the illusion that we have a justice system,” he said. (emphasis added)

 From 2014 to 2017, ISIS controlled about half of Syria and 1/3rd of Iraq. This territory was about the size of Great Britain. Millions of people lived inside this territory. Some of ISIS’s military leaders were former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime. They combined a police state with what Taub called “the certainty of Jihadism.” He describe the situation in Iraq this way:

“The group blew up mosques and ancient archaeological sites, and pursued a campaign of ethnic cleansing through mass murder and sexual slavery. It conscripted local bureaucrats, doctors, and teachers, often on pain of death, and devoted enormous effort to radicalizing a generation of children and inuring them to violence, suffering, and loss. At the height of its success, in 2014, there was a real possibility that ISIS would capture Baghdad, and the Iraqi state would collapse. Now, more than a year after ISIS lost Mosul—its largest source of legitimacy, wealth, and power—hundreds of thousands of civilians are suffering at the hands of their liberators. Anyone with a perceived connection to ISIS, however tenuous or unclear, is being killed or cast out of society.’

 Nothing is more dangerous than such incinerating certainties. Iraqi forces, supported and trained by America, were laying waste to what was left in Iraq. As Taub said,

 “Not long ago, I met with a senior Iraqi intelligence official who is deeply involved in counterterrorism operations. For three hours, over tea and cigarettes, he described systematic criminality within the security forces, detailing patterns of battlefield executions, murders in detention centers, and coverups organized by the state. He spoke as a witness, but also as a participant; although he is in a position to have stopped certain abuses, by intervening he would have risked incurring accusations that he is sympathetic to the group he has sought to destroy.

He believes that the Iraqi government’s response is as much a tactical blunder as it is a moral one; it plays directly into the jihadis’ narrative—that Sunnis, who make up a minority of the Iraqi population, cannot live safely under a government dominated by Shiites. “The reaction is one of vengeance—it is not well thought out,” he told me. “We rarely abide by the law.”

It is noteworthy that the conviction rate in Iraq is 98%.  I wonder how that compares with the regime of Saddam Hussein. I suspect the similarities are overwhelming.  The real problem, according to Taub is that “We’re deleting thousands of families from Iraqi society,” the official told me. “This is not just revenge on ISIS. This is revenge on Sunnis.”

This is the regime that Bush and Cheney thought would encourage all of the Middle East to jump on board the democracy train. This is the regime the Americans have spent billions (if not trillions) to uphold.  As Taub told the story:

“Nine years ago, two C.I.A. officers walked into an Iraqi prison and saw a hallway filled with hooded men, about to be executed for supposed affiliation with Al Qaeda in Iraq, the group that gave birth to ISIS. “We were hammering A.Q.I., but the Iraqi government was just rounding up Sunnis,” one of the C.I.A. officers recalled. “And, for a moment, it worked.” But, instead of releasing the innocents, the Iraqi government sentenced them to death. “So, of course, they came back,” the officer said, of Al Qaeda in Iraq. “What do you expect? You literally killed their dads.”

 Now the people of Iraq are in the unenviable position of deciding who is better: ISIS or the Iraqi government?  It does not matter that the Americans have spent billions supporting the current Iraqi regime. Ben Taub has a significant warning for the rest of us:

 “Iraq is now entering one of the most delicate moments in its recent history. To the extent that ISIS functioned as a state, it was entirely predatory. But, by having lost on the battlefield rather than being toppled by its own depravity, the caliphate lives on as a fantasy of Islamic justice and governance which is measured against the corrupt reality of the Iraqi state. What is at stake, in this post-conflict period, is whether the Iraqi government can win over the segment of the population for whom ISIS seemed a viable alternative.

Of course none of this should surprise. This has happened around the world over and over again. The Americans back one side of a dispute, support them with equipment, training, and money and then discover, much to their surprise, that these “good guys” are just as bad as the regime they were to replace.   And again, much to their surprise the people they were saving were not very grateful. All too often this is what “success” in war looks like.

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.

 

 

These Colors Run

 

Have you seen that bumper sticker with an image of the American flag—Old Glory—with the caption, “These Colors Won’t run?” I have. The problem is it ain’t true. They do.

America used to be a proud country. And for good reason. There was  a lot that was good about it. Sometimes I wonder what happened?

Recently the American military, under the command of their  Commander-in Chief –Donald Trump–abandoned a long-standing ally—the Kurds.  At the same time, in tweet, Trump made it clear that Turkey a long time foe of the Kurds, could have their way with them. And very few Americans have grumbled about it. Most have accepted the lame attempts by that Commander-in-Chief to dismiss the shabby, dishonorable treatment of an ally with a shrug of the shoulders.

That Commander-in-Chief poured scorn on the Kurds saying they did not help much. They didn’t even help in World War II. As is so often the case with this leader, the truth is different. Trump and the truth keep little company. The Kurds have been America’s chief ally in the fight against Syria and ISIS. The Kurdish forces are called the Syrian Defence Forces (‘SDF’).

Dr. Kori Schake put this in perspective: “They have been the ground forces doing the fighting for the defeat of ISIS and you can see it in the casualty figures.  The U.S. suffered only 5 casualties in the Anti-ISIS campaign. The SDF suffered over 11,000! They have been doing the hard dangerous work and we have just abandoned them!

And the Americans through their chosen President mock the efforts of their closest ally and prepared to abandon them. It did not take the Turks, who have it in for the Kurds, to take advantage. This then allowed the Syrians, who used poison gas on their own people, to win the Civil War that has cost so many lives and resulted in so many refugees and asylum seekers around the world. Of course, the Americans refused to accept them, even though they were so instrumental in creating their problems. First the Americans abandoned the Syrian rebels, then they also abandoned the Kurds.

So the Kurds made a deal with the Syrian leader Assad rather than face the brutality of the Turks. As Schake said, “which tells you a lot too.”

Where has all the honor gone? Whose colors don’t run?

 

Vice

https://www.dropbox.com/s/6ixotr99s75zi64/Screenshot%202019-02-03%2021.29.24.png?dl=0

The film Vice is the far from unbiased story of Dick Cheney the controversial former Vice President of the United States. It opens up with scenes of the horrendous aftermath of the September 11 attacks in the United States. There were scenes of disbelief, panic, and astonishment everywhere, including in the government offices. I wish they had included the video of President George W. Bush reading a story to kindergarten children in a Florida school. Bush was told of the attack by an aide, as he was reading,  but Bush did not stop reading the story. He clearly was stunned, but had no idea what to do. So he just kept reading. I think this scene would have grounded this film.

The scenes that followed showed how the United States was maneuvered into attacking Iraq in response for reasons I will never understand. There really was no connection between Iraq and the attacks in the United States. Cheney however either believed in the mythic connection or just had it in for Saddam. The war had absolutely no discernable purpose. Iraq, unlike Afghanistan had little to do with the war on terrorism.  But Cheney wanted that war. Cheney always promised that weapons of mass destruction would be found, but that promise proved flatulent.

According to the film, the war resulted in the death of 600,000 Iraqis, mainly civilians, and 3,000 to 4,000 Americans. Other estimates have varied from much less than this to even more. Actual reliable numbers are hard to find. Before the war even started credible sources estimated that as many as 500,000 people in the country died as a direct result of sanctions levied by the US led coalition forces.

The numbers vary greatly. What is true and what matters is that a lot of people died as a direct result of this war and it was a war without any logical  purpose. Many of the deaths were suffered by children and other civilians. Of course, many wars have been initiated by elites for their own purposes, too often nefarious, while the price, the awful price, has been paid by grunts and their families. This alone is a darn good reason to be sceptical when the political leaders are braying for war.

Dick Cheney was instrumental in starting the war in Iraq. Many think that he was easily able to manipulate a young and inexperienced President to enter that war for reasons that remain opaque. Cheney was a former executive with Halliburton, a private American company that benefited greatly from contracts secured during and after the war.

The disproportion between Iraqi and American deaths was stark. It was a war by the richest, most powerful, and most technologically advanced country, and its allies, against a 3rd world country led by a cruel and vicious dictator. Few people in the United States were clamoring for this war. There were some extreme right-wingers who saw the corporate opportunities as a result of the war. Some of these were cronies of Cheney. This is the background to the film. I think it is important.

The film shows  Cheney as the great manipulator hiding and really, lurking, in the shadows behind George W. Bush. Bush is shown frankly, and not entirely without justification, as a boy beside the man, Cheney. Vanity Fair reviewer Richard Lawson bluntly dismissed the basic approach of McKay, when he said McKay’s film “issues at a busy, self-satisfied blare”

I found the shotgun approach of the film too scattered for my taste. But there were some fascinating parts. For example, I really enjoyed the scene with young Cheney and his mentor Donald Rumsfeld in the US Congress. After getting introduced to the inner workings of the political machine Cheney asks Rumsfeld, “What is it that we believe in?”  Rumsfeld is stunned at the absurdity of this question and he reacts by howling uncontrollably with laughter. What a stupid question.

I was amazed at how well Christian Bale, starring as Cheney, captured his physical dimensions. He evoked well his mannerisms.  He looked liked Cheney. He sounded like Cheney. He was Cheney. Admirable as this performance though was, it is not enough to make a great film.

Near the end of the film Cheney turns away from the camera, it seems and speaks instead directly to us the viewers. He shows no remorse for what happened. Only pride. He really believes he did the right thing and he did it for our benefit. To keep us safe. Sort of like Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men. I was not convinced in that film; I was not convinced now

One o the things the film showed was how Cheney believed in the absolute power of the President. Sort of like the current President.   This of course is deeply disturbing at this particular time in which America is led by a man who is the most narcissistic man I have ever seen, and who at the same time has very little knowledge, and is entirely satisfied with that state of affairs. Now that we have a much less thoughtful President than Bush (I never thought I would say that this was even possible), we must fear for America and even, the world.  In my own life I have proved over and over again, that life is hard when you are stupid. But when the so-called leader of the Free World and most powerful man the world is stupid, we are all in deep trouble. Life will be hard.

Unusually, as the credits were rolling,  and it appeared the movie was over, the film resumed after most of the audience had left. That was unfortunate for a short insert showed a focus group discussing the film, collapsed into a melee when a boldly opinionated right winger rejected the film as biased (which certainly could be true) and then ended up wrestling a feeble liberal on the panel. Meanwhile 2 other panellists discussed the most recent Fast and Furious movie completely ignoring the chaos beside them. You get the clear impression that this is where we are headed with our increasingly extremist society. Chaos. Thats sort of scary isn’t it?