Blood and Sand

A grim story in today’s New York Times begins as follows:

The United Nations reported Tuesday that more than 34,000 Iraqis were killed in violence last year, a figure that represents the first comprehensive annual count of civilian deaths and a vivid measure of the failure of the Iraqi government and American military to provide security.

This is indeed a sickening tally of human misery. And to be sure, the Iraqi army and police have been, by all accounts, at best useless, and at worst, have themselves been agents of grisly violence. It is also quite clear by now that the US management of postwar Iraq — attempted, as Tom Friedman put it, “with our pinky” — was vastly inadequate.

What I find striking, however, is that the story is told as if the US had done a bad job keeping the weather out, or had built a house that was not sufficiently impervious to mice, or in some other way failed to safeguard against expected natural hazards. The fact, though, is that these civilian deaths — and the deaths of over 3,000 of our own sons and daughters, as they sought to guard the safety of the Iraqi people — weren’t caused by hail, or microbes, or lightning, or floods, but by the deliberate acts of other human beings: people who might elect to settle their differences by more civilized means, but who, instead, as responsible moral agents, consciously choose to slaughter innocent men, women, and children as they work, eat, shop, go to school — in other words, as they simply try to live as free people in their own homeland. There appears to be an underlying assumption that of course they are going to massacre each other; that it is just in the natural order of things for such people to hack and bomb and behead and shoot and stab and kidnap and rape and burn and torture each other over their ancient tribal and religious hatreds. This is, however, an infinitely insulting and contemptuous thing to assume: that an entire culture, comprising hundreds of millions of people, is simply incapable of civilization, empathy, responsibility for its actions, or even of considering one another as fully human — but that seems indeed to be what is presumed by all, and I must say that the sorry fact is that every day offers new evidence in support.

To hear it told, though, day after day, you’d almost think we were the ones massacring civilians by the tens of thousands. We aren’t.

However you feel about the history of this war — while reasonable people can and do differ, in my own opinion it has been catastrophically, disastrously bungled, by a president who may well come to be regarded as one of the worst in US history — it is important to keep this in mind.

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  1. Bill says

    I agree the post-war was bungled, and possibly the war itself in places. The degree of bungling we could argue from now to our death-beds. The way we waged war and the aftermath are the natural consequences of a political rather than principled President. He gets high marks for sticking by his decisions, but low marks for the way he arrives at them.

    I agree totally. It is assinine to give the enemy a total pass on their blood-thirsty behavior. To say it is expected and to be tolerated is the ultimate in the bigotry of low expectations.

    Posted January 18, 2007 at 11:46 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Thank you, Bill – as you might imagine I’ve been getting some email in response to this post, expressing a rather different view. I’m glad you agree.

    Posted January 18, 2007 at 11:58 pm | Permalink
  3. galileo says

    Hello Malcolm,

    I can understand your reaction. One gets the impression from many of these reports that the writer lays the whole responsibility for these deaths with the US government. I think though that one ought to be able to say honestly that the US/UK/Iraqi governments have lost the monopoly of violence in Iraq without implying that the Iraqi people are utterly barbaric.

    The situation in Iraq has parallels, though on a much nastier scale, with developments here in the UK during the 1970s and 1980s, in Northern Ireland. Two factions, the majority of whom are prepared to live peacefully with one another, are driven apart by atrocity and counter atrocity committed by minorities within them. A key issue is the loss of trust by one or other faction in the impartiality of the police and armed forces. Ordinary people begin to look for their security to what we learned to call ‘paramilitaries’. Inevitably there is inter-faction violence and further resort to paramilitaries on both sides who are then in a position to exploit their own people. In Northern Ireland the violence was limited for a number of reasons: the UK government was effective in controlling the supply of arms; the security services were able to obtain good intelligence; the neighbouring Irish Republic was co-operative despite an affinity with the republican faction in the North; the factional animosity was largely confined to poor ghettos in Belfast and Londonderry so that the paramilitaries had but small constituencies from which to recruit and were never able to operate openly because of the relative strength of the British Army presence. Nevertheless, it took two decades of sporadic violence before the paramilitaries, which by then had degenerated into criminal gangs preying on their own communities, lost their political support. The implications for Iraq are not encouraging.

    Posted January 20, 2007 at 7:08 am | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Hi David,

    You are quite right; I’m sorry if I have appeared to suggest that the entire population of Iraq are savages, which of course they aren’t — Baghdad has (or had, at least, before the war) one of the more modern, better-educated, and secular communities in the entire Middle East. Had we acted more aggressively to prevent the power vacuum and resulting chaos immediately follwing the invasion, we might have kept the warring factions who now bathe the city in blood from establishing themselves so successfully.

    Your points regarding the parallels between Iraq and Ireland are well taken. The US administration would have benefited greatly from drawing, even from before the war, upon the expertise of British antiterror commanders, which I believe they are only now beginning to do. And many of the reasons that you mention for the success of the British effort might have been available here, had we been more attentive: controlling the flow of arms into the region (especially across the porous border with Syria), and a greater preparation prior to the invasion as regards acquiring experts in, and members of, the indigenous culture as intelligence sources, might have made a tremendous difference in those early days.

    One crucial distinction is that Iraq is at the center of a gathering regional, if not global, storm, and has interested parties upon all of its frontiers, whereas the struggle in Ireland was strictly a local conflict.

    Thanks very much for your informed and thoughtful comment.

    Posted January 20, 2007 at 3:37 pm | Permalink