Iraq: when a war is nothing but lies

Article published on March 14, 2005
community published
Article published on March 14, 2005

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

An exclusive preview of Victims, the latest book by Massimo Nava, a celebrated reporter for the Italian daily Corriere della Sera

From Georgia to Algeria and from Rwanda to the Balkan massacres, the latest book by one of Italy’s most famous reporters, Massimo Nava, is “not just a journey into the horrors of the wars that have devastated the world these past decades (…) but also an attempt to scrape back the layers of falsehood and unreality that render the truth so entirely inaccessible”, as summed up in the preface by Claudio Magris. A journey through conflicts often linked to disputes over an ever scarcer resource: oil. Here follow two extracts (a report and an opinion piece) on the May 2003 war waged by the United States against Iraq. A country which – as pointed out in this book – boasts the greatest reserves of oil in the world after Saudi Arabia, and which since the beginning of the intervention has suffered the losses of between 15,000 and 17,000 civilian victims, according to conservative estimates. How can these deaths ever be justified?

Baghdad, 16 March 2003

As the sunset refreshes the air, the multicoloured illuminations of restaurants, shops and open-air pizzerias begin to light up. The centre of Baghdad, with its display of plastic chairs and tables, gives the impression in this moment of being in the midst of some popular festival or public holiday. Like Riccione, a typical Italian sea-side town, but set amidst minarets and the odour of kebabs. Gridlocked traffic, take-away lamb snacks, dancing in courtyards, young couples on a stroll, children in playgrounds. War still seems for several evenings to come like a distant rumour, cancelled out by this surreal capacity to distance oneself and take recourse in dreams. I am beginning to see this as one of the most extraordinary virtues of the Iraqi people, the legacy of a millennia-old civilisation – and the most useful natural resource seeing that oil is never anything more than the booty of the latest conquistadors.

The isolation of Iraq by the world perpetuates the estrangement of its young people, who are acquiring useless qualifications, speak English, throw themselves into art and poetry, watch Italian football and flock to see fashion shows. Posters of Totti and Battistuta are the most up-to-date items for sale in book and newspaper shops, sold by the Iraqis along with the family jewels just to keep their heads afloat. In terms of TV audience, the Italian football championship beat the worldwide demonstrations for peace. In the popular imagination Saddam looms large like the war itself, impending yet unreal; an invisible yet omnipresent existence in every part of the city. You are hard-pushed in fact to see anyone else, save the Ali Baba statue and the Disney characters painted onto the walls of the children’s playground. (…)

In the secular Iraq that dresses in Western style and even tonight will listen to American tunes in restaurants on Saddam’s son’s radio station, religion could become the crucial factor in deciding what happens tomorrow, much more than other shared sentiments like fear or resignation. On this Friday night, in the majestic Musa Al Kadim mosque that is so dear to the Shiites, the ritual of prayer and mass lamentation reinforces the passion for Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, whose martyrdom stands at the very heart of the schism. History and geographical maps left a part of the Shiite population between the Tigris and the Euphrates, this demographic majority that is on the margins of Saddam’s power. (…)

The length of the war and the nature of the post-Saddam era will depend on the strength of feeling that accompany it – be it fear that leads to surrender, the will to dream of the future, or a religious, ethnic or tribal implosion. I have no idea whether the Iraqis that I have encountered will give in easily, or whether they will give body and soul to the cause, as demanded by the regime’s propaganda. One thing is for certain, there is neither anger nor pride here in Baghdad, just the dignified anticipation of a mass death sentence, to be declared without trial.

Paris, January 2005

We are living in a lie factory, which in its turn is coloured by a false perception of reality influenced by pressure groups that exert full control over the information system and ultimately sway decisions. Ours is the epoque of the functional lie, a modern version of the soviet-style “disinformatia”, aggravated through having been conceived by the needs of the event itself and a priori, based on a warped sense of reality according to interests and strategies.

(…) It is a fact that millions of Americans still believe Iraq was directly associated with the September 11th attacks and that the “arsenals” within reach of the bad guys were reason enough to start a war. This stands to reason when one considers that millions of them have in cinemas seen horrendous attacks and their terrible consequences, the kidnapping of presidents, star wars and biochemical terrorism.

The terrorism of Bin Laden is pretty simple to understand and to fight against, but in our mediatised reality it is transformed into planetary “hyperterrorism” for which no end of intelligence, global police collaboration, financial controls, special force deployment, Middle East diplomacy or even a new level of politico-economic engagement with the problems of the Arab world, will ever be sufficient. What is required instead is conventional warfare with armed forces, flying fortresses, stealth planes, sophisticated technologies and of course hell-fire bombardments and thousands of innocent civilian victims. Yet no one seems to be questioning the most insane of strategies: attacking a State or a people with the objective of destroying a terrorism that is without statehood, without borders, certainly transnational and often infiltrated within our own societies, even fed by the same financial channels that we ourselves use and sometimes enjoying business relations with the West, as is exactly the case between the Bin Laden and Bush families.

Faced with the threat of terrorism, the West continues to believe in military supremacy – as if the Cold War had never ended, as if we still need the “space shield”, and as if the various Bin Ladens could be eliminated simply using aircraft carriers and surface to air missiles. A reflection on heroes from Greek mythology might perhaps provide some clues: after all, was the intelligence used by Ulysses not more effective than the strength of Achilles’ heel?