Monday, June 16, 2008

Fallujah's legacy

The media chorus is unmistakeable, and obscene. Iraq now looks more hopeful than ever, they crow. Iraq is back on its feet, and terrorists are finally being driven to the margins. One could go on at nauseating length. The vilest extreme of this tendency is the extollment of Fallujah as the supreme example of such victory: once crawling with evildoers, this new haven of civility and neighbourly conduct shows what can be accomplished with gravel in the guts. In fact, this sort of depraved propaganda began in 2006, at the height of the US-incited sectarian warfare in Iraq, when American military officials began to laud Fallujah as a safe haven for the embattled Sunni population (on whom the Badr Organisation had just been sicced).

Let me just recount the salient details of what was done to Fallujah. Prior to April 2004, there had been a growing military conflict between Fallujans and the occupation forces, particularly after a massacre of peaceful demonstrators outside occupation headquarters. That conflict culminated in the capture and public defilement of four mercenaries, all of whom were carrying out the functions of the army in a privatised form. These modern day imperial adventurers were rapidly defined as innocent civilians, when in fact they were defending US trucks and outposts. Mercenary operators are not well-behaved mothers' boys when they're in Iraq: we've seen enough footage of them to know that, and infer a great deal more. It is a telling sign of how hated the mercenaries are that a recent malarial infection that spread throughout Fallujah was named 'Blackwater' by residents. At any rate, the US subsequently planned a siege of the city, but - despite killing hundreds in a few days and committing serious war crimes, including the bombing of a hospital - they were unable to keep control, and eventually had to cut an ad hoc withdrawal deal, leaving effective authority in the hands of local notables. (We now know for that Bush and his cabinet were fully planning a complete blitz in April 2004. Bush's pep talk to his cabinet on 6 April is reported by Lt Gen Ricardo Sanchez: "Kill them! Be confident! Prevail! We are going to wipe them out! We are not blinking!'") They continued to carry out raids and bomb attacks, but it wasn't until after the November 2004 election victory that their blitzkrieg resumed. They decided to order out the civilian population and relentlessly bombed the city in order to 'encourage' the evacuation. They shut off the water and electricity and started to pound the place, with weapons including white phosphorus, until thousands were dead. With over 150,000 refugees living in tents outside the city, US troops overran the territory and shot at anything that moved. They considered any boy older than ten to be a potential insurgent. They destroyed half of the homes, at least.

Having blasted, fried or shredded thousands to death and thousands more to injury, having destroyed tends of thousands of homes and mosques and schools, they put the city under a strict curfew, with a biometric lockdown and forced labour. They set up Camp Mercury on the outskirts of the city and used it as a base for torturing prisoners - which procedure the Marines referred to as 'fucking' them. There is more to say on this, but for the moment, let's consider the strategy employed here. I summarised the findings of one extensive report on America's urban warfare strategy in Iraq here. To condense, the strategy appears to involve seven key points: encircle and close off the city; forcefully evacuate those who remain; cut off food, water and electricity; confine reporters and block media coverage; massive bombardment; conduct an urban assault, using sniper fire, and put survivors through violent searches; attack hospitals, ambulances and other medical facilities.

This kind of intense urban warfare was planned and meditated on for years in advance. In a piece for the journal Environment and Planning in November 2005, the geographer Stephen Graham recounts a glitzy event he was asked to attend in Haifa in 2001. It turned out to be stuffed full of IDF and Marine Corps figures, senior US military planners, RAND corporation clerks and such. He recalls:

We were sickened by the euphemistic and obfuscatory language where every discursive trick was employed not to call a killing `a killing'. We were amazed to discover that US, Israeli, and British `experts' in this emerging field of urban warfare were such close friends that they seemed to constitute a transnational social body, orchestrating the intense exchange of technology, experience, training, and experience between the three nations. We were nauseated at the bellicose technophiliac masculinities, where systematic repression and state killing were portrayed in glossy PowerPoint slides with a palpable sense of fascination, even excitement.

He goes on:

Strikingly, the tricks of the trade of such warfare have, since 2001, quickly morphed to once again become central platforms of state geopolitical power. Fueled by a paranoid sense that global urbanisation is somehow working to undermine the technoscientific, disciplinary, and killing abilities of imperial nation-states, military urban specialists, such as those who attended the Haifa event, are helping to rethink radically how the United States, the other Western powers, and Israel wage war. The symptoms and results of such a transformation are now all too clear. In fact, they are difficult to escape. There are the demonisation and the calls to annihilate cities that symbolise resistance to colonial power; the masking of atrocities through an all-encompassing `terrorist' discourse; and the Orientalist `Othering' of Arab urban places and their inhabitants. Then there are the assaults on dense cities with helicopter gunships, cluster bombs, and artillery; the `psychological operations' that involve the bombing and targeting of journalists who have the temerity to show the resulting carnage on the ground; and the voyeuristic consumption of city-killing for pleasure and entertainment in news, films, novels, and video games (some produced by the militaries themselves). Finally, there are the political calls to destroy, `cleanse', or `pacify' aberrant, dehumanised `terrorist nest' cities, the inhabitants of which, it is endlessly implied, might easily project unimaginable terror onto Western cities if not annihilated.

These combined techniques of repression and representation were unmistakeably deployed in Fallujah (as Graham goes on to show in his article), so what the media pundits are in fact celebrating is a masterpiece of grand urban terror and repression, the pre-meditated destruction of a city in which up to 100,000 civilians were still living.

The results of the attack are still emerging, incidentally. One side-effect has been a surge in birth deformities, probably resulting from the chemical weapons, including depleted uranium and white phosphorus, used by the US in the area. But the main effect of the seige was the intended one: the complete subordination of Fallujah's population to martial law. What is currently lauded as 'stability' is in fact a harsh despotism run by former Republican Guards who round up suspects arbitrarily, then beat and torture them. It is a city riddled with blast walls and checkpoints, and any imam who preaches against the occupation is ordered to shut down. It is a place where the mere suspicion of insurgency can result in your fingernails being pulled out as you are beaten up. A city in tatters, a "big jail" still under biometric lockdown, still without regular electricity or clean water (which one reason is why malaria is spreading). And you can do all this to a city and call it progress because of the success of the preparatory propaganda. Not only was the whole terrain suffused with evil (a 'terrorist nest'), but it was home to the supreme evil-doer himself, 'Satan', according to Colonel Gareth Brandl. It is telling that in the WaPo piece linked above, US military propaganda, which held that the city was under the control of 'Al Qaeda', is recited by the Awakening Council cretin in charge of the place. He knows perfectly well that it's nonsense, but also knows that American newspapers will believe anything unless its officially denied. Because that is what it takes for what is sure to be recorded as one of the crimes of the century, giving expression to a brutal doctrine of urban warfare, to become a success story.