Columns

Unapologetic men brag 10 years after start of fruitless war

Keeble McFARLANE

Saturday, March 23, 2013    

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WAR, by its very nature, is the suspension of the values that civilised people hold dear. As the old saying goes, when war is declared, the first casualty is truth. Indeed, it is impossible to wage war without employing disinformation, misinformation, dissembling, prevarication, lying. First, you take truth outside and shoot it in the head. Then, you get on with the fighting. Which is exactly how things unfolded in the lead-up to a conflict which began 10 years ago this week and whose ramifications are still very evident.

Its roots go back to the final years of the 20th century, when a group of American right-wing ideologues founded a think tank in Washington they called Project for the New American Century. These troglodytes included a Who's Who of the neo-conservative brigade --William Kristol, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, James Woolsey, Eliot Abrams and John Bolton.

Dissatisfied with the outcome of the first Gulf War, which destroyed Iraq's army and air force but left Saddam Hussein's regime still largely intact, they harassed President Bill Clinton to do what George Bush the First didn't do -- get rid of Saddam. Clinton, like many other western leaders, wanted to see regime change in Iraq, but he faced this stark reality: he would have to go against the charter of the United Nations and declare war on a fellow-member, a sovereign country which had not attacked the United States.

The US and its ally, Britain, drew lines on the map of Iraq and declared "no-fly zones" -- areas in which no Iraqi aircraft were allowed to fly. Night and day, their supersonic jets zoomed back and forth, reducing Iraqi anti-aircraft sites to rubble. Accompanying this harassment was a string of UN-approved sanctions which cut Iraq off from trade with much of the world. Iraqi citizens could no longer obtain normal supplies of imported food, medicines, spare parts and all the other things a modern society relies on. It took a terrible toll on Iraq's children, the elderly and the sick.

Then, along came that September day in 2001 when a bunch of Arabs affiliated with the terrorist group, Al Qaeda, commandeered airliners and flew them into buildings in New York and Washington. As is customary, the people who worked with Clinton had briefed his successor, George W Bush (the Second), about these matters. But they weren't too interested in Osama bin Laden -- Saddam Hussein was all they could see in their rangefinders. All the same, Bush very quickly cobbled together a wide range of international support and dispatched military forces to faraway Afghanistan to seek out and eliminate bin Laden.

Mere months after those Marines and special forces were deployed in Afghanistan, Bush launched his campaign against Saddam. He had a personal grudge against the Iraqi leader -- during the previous election campaign he proclaimed that Saddam "tried to kill muh daddy". Bush's henchmen, led by Vice-President Dick Cheney and his White House attack dog, Karl Rove, were deployed to sell the message that Saddam was somehow bound up with Osama bin Laden.

Saddam Hussein was no paragon of virtue

Saddam himself was the epitome of evil -- he put down any sign of resistance among his fellow citizens with a heavy hand and launched a war against his neighbour, Iran, in 1980. That conflict lasted eight years and cost an estimated 1.7 million lives and another million wounded. It was rooted in an old regional rivalry between Iraq and its larger neighbour, but some more immediate disagreements triggered it.

The bloodthirsty Saddam, who had unleashed nasty chemicals against Iranians and Iraqi Kurds, wasn't satisfied, and a couple of years after that war ended, attacked Kuwait, a small neighbour to the south, accusing them of drilling sideways to extract oil from under Iraq's soil. That's when George Bush the First, an old-line Republican politician with a fair knowledge of the outside world, harnessed international support and began the largest build-up of military forces and arms since World War Two. Five months later, in January and February 1991, the US-led coalition drove Saddam's forces back across the border and all the way to Baghdad.

The coalition forces soon withdrew, but the US and Britain kept up pressure on Iraq. In addition to the no-fly zones and the trade embargo, the UN sent in waves of inspectors to determine whether Saddam had nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. The inspectors turned up nothing, but towards the end Saddam ejected them, while refusing to deny that he had such weapons.

The die was now cast. In the months leading up to the launching of "Shock and Awe", as the Americans dubbed their assault, Bush's minions trod the circuit of TV public-affairs programmes, planted newspaper stories based on dubious grounds, and manufactured 'evidence' when none existed. The Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, the vice-president and Bush's security adviser, Condoleeza Rice, talked about aluminium tubes Iraq was supposed to be importing for use in machinery to enrich uranium; they described how yellowcake -- a type of uranium ore -- was being shipped from Niger in West Africa; and how Saddam had developed mobile laboratories on highway semi-trailers to make chemical weapons.

In the process they destroyed the careers of several people, including a senior CIA officer whose husband blew the whistle on the fictitious uranium ore. Then, in the biggest display of ruthlessness, they dispatched the most trusted member of Bush's entourage, Secretary of State Colin Powell, to go before the United Nations and rattle off a string of fictitious stories about Saddam's non-existent weapons.

Bush had his way, with the enthusiastic support of only one major ally -- Britain, whose Prime Minister, Tony Blair, eagerly took part in the intricate tissue of lies and fabrications and committed his forces in support.

The United States was now fighting two wars halfway round the world without raising taxes by a single cent to pay for them. In fact, the year before that, Bush had brought in extensive tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, who now stood to profit even more from supplying the guns, bullets and butter every army needs to prosecute a war. In addition, companies such as Haliburton, which Dick Cheney helped run before joining Bush's team, made huge profits for doing what soldiers once used to do -- build and maintain bases, maintain equipment and tend the canteens and barracks.

It's hard to put a definitive figure on what this all cost. One estimate says the overall cost is between three and four trillion US dollars. Between March 2003 and December 2011, more than one million Americans in uniform were deployed in Iraq. Many of these people served several tours of duty, since after the bloody, disruptive and costly Vietnam War the US abandoned conscription and now relies on volunteer fighters.

As dire as the dollar cost is, the human cost is even higher. More than 110,000 Iraqis (mostly civilians) lost their lives and well over 800,000 were wounded. Almost 4700 American and British military personnel were killed, and more than 33,000 wounded. The conflict and its disruptive aftermath drove more than a million Iraqis from their country; many will never return.

Hardest to swallow is that Cheney, Rumsfield and others have been making the rounds of US talk shows to stoutly maintain how right they were in their campaign of character assassination, deceit and downright lies. About the only one who has mostly kept quiet is Bush himself, in retirement at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.

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