No More Fallujah’s

This month marks the anniversary of the second siege of the city

Over half a century ago, in 1955, the British governor of Kenya, speaking during the infamous Mau Mau uprising, pleaded with all concerned to appreciate the enlightened project that was his Empire’s burden: “The task we have set ourselves is to civilize a great mass of human beings who are in a very primitive moral and social state.” About a decade earlier, his predecessor Philip Mitchell had outlined this duty in starker terms still: “The African has the choice of remaining a savage or of adopting our civilization, culture, religion and language.” (Incidentally, both were eventually knighted.) Blinded by an unshakable conviction in their own tradition’s superiority, it mattered little to these administrators that numbers, facts, and figures told a very different story about barbarity and civilization in almost-independent Kenya.

Against the colonial myths that the Mau Mau epitomized intrinsically “African” savagery, history makes clear systematic British inhumanity. Even though the rebels were responsible for the deaths of almost 2,000 locals enlisted in the colonial cause, more than 10,000 Kenyans were killed by the British, with some estimates running much, much higher (in contrast, only 90 Europeans were murdered by the rebels). The British ran infamous concentration camps, assisted actively by their (civilian) settlers, one of whom described his role in the interrogation process as follows: “Things got a little out of hand. By the time I cut his balls off, he had no ears, and his eyeball, the right one, I think, was hanging out of its socket. Too bad, he died before we got much out of him.”

Much like the British in colonial Kenya, this country’s present-day administration has presided over a similarly stupefying self-righteousness in Iraq. Despite the intervening half-century, in which the great powers were supposed to have outgrown colonial pretence, the barbarity of the ‘civilizing mission’ makes itself apparent in Iraq today. And no episodes in the four and a half years of occupation better demonstrate this than the brutality of the two sieges of the city of Fallujah in 2004.

The first of the two operations began on April 4, concocted hastily by senior administration officials as a knee-jerk response to the murders of four Blackwater employees in Fallujah a few days earlier. Mainstream media here had alluded to the viciousness of the people involved in that crime, speaking of “a barbaric orgy,” “an act of savagery,” and “sheer bestial violence.” In a not-so-precise way, the people of Fallujah were implicated; the event was intentionally left inexplicable, attributable only to the excesses of an angry Arab mob.

What came after, Operation Vigilant Resolve, followed logically from the bigotry of this diagnosis. All of “them” just couldn’t matter as much as “us.” And thus, after roughly a week of furious and sustained military activity, reports were emerging that “over 600 Iraqis ha[d] been killed by American aggression, and the residents ha[d] turned two football fields into graveyards.” While no undisputed account of the details of the devastation exists, doctors working on the ground were seething with rage: One claimed that “not less than 60 percent of the dead were women and children. You can go see the graves yourself.” Another condemned the operation as a “massacre.”

In violation of international conventions safeguarding the rights of civilians in conflict, the U.S. military made assistance to the wounded virtually impossible. Aside from sealing off a major hospital, American snipers targeted ambulances, maintaining that they carried insurgents. Of course, shootings of ambulances transporting only civilians and doctors were reported regularly. When the Iraqi Minister of Health conveyed his outrage over the policy to Paul Bremer, the then-head of the coalition efforts did not deny, but actually defended, the strategy. As the journalist Dahr Jamail has argued, this constitutes an endorsement of “the very definition of collective punishment.”

Not six months later in November 2004, after this first siege had failed, the US attacked again. American Lt. Col. Gary Brandl set the scene, invoking the holiness of the coalition’s efforts in epic fashion: “The enemy has got a face. He’s called Satan. He’s in Fallujah. And we’re going to destroy him.”

And what destruction it was. The head of the city’s compensation commission estimated that Operation Phantom Fury destroyed roughly 70 percent of the city’s buildings. Allegations that the US used white phosphorous as a chemical weapon surfaced soon after. While officials initially denied that the shells were used in an illegal way (according to international law, white phosphorous can be used to illuminate terrain, but not against individuals), they were forced to modify their position a year later when a military magazine revealed that troops had used it to “flush out” insurgents. And, of course, the estimated death tolls were extraordinary: According to Iraqi NGOs and medical workers, up to 6,000 Iraqis perished, again mostly civilians.

As we remember the anniversary of this madness, then, it will not be enough simply to register our disgust. In the face of the gross depravity of this country’s imperial presence in Iraq, we have to be prepared to assert actively our wholesale opposition. Sentiments must become convictions; inklings must become arguments. To the pessimists among us, Joan Baez said it best: “Action is the antidote to despair.” Let us make sure that this anniversary also marks the beginning of the end.

Adaner Usmani '08 is a social studies concentrator in Dunster House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.