This war was not worth a child's finger
Date: Saturday, April 12 @ 22:43:46 UTC
Topic: Troops

By Julian Barnes, The Guardian

So, peacenik, you lost. We told you so. Sure, it wasn't exactly the pushover we'd war-gamed. The Iraqis didn't rise in rebellion as we promised, the flower-throwing was a little tardy, but that was just because we'd underestimated how terrorised they were. Still, a three-week campaign with a couple of hundred coalition dead; the end approaches, and the Iraqis are dancing on fallen statues. Soon your fellow peaceniks can start trucking in the relief and nation-building can begin. May I hear a squeak of rejoicing?

So, warnik, you think you've won? Please consider this. On Monday afternoon your guys thought they had found Saddam in a restaurant. A US plane dropped four very clever 2,000lb bombs on it. The next night, BBC News showed an enormous crater and its correspondent said that no one who might have been there could have got out alive. According to Peter Arnett, the sacked NBC correspondent, the targeted restaurant was still intact, but three neighbouring houses were reduced to rubble instead. According to most people, Saddam escaped. When asked about this, Torie Clarke, the US defence spokeswoman, said crisply: "I don't think that matters very much. I'm not losing sleep trying to figure out if he was in there."

I don't know how much of the above paragraph - apart from Clarke's words, which I saw coming out of her mouth - is true. It probably approximates to some sort of truth, and it's possible that years down the line an accurate version might emerge: how good was the tip-off, how accurate was the bombing, how many were killed, and how many of those were civilians? But I know this: if I were Clarke, I would think I ought to lose a little sleep. If I were Clarke, I might wonder about my American home town, and how secure it might be from terrorist attack. Because if her words, in their brutal flippancy, seemed shocking to me, then imagine their effect on someone whose father, brother, sister, friend, acquaintance was killed in that raid. Would they say, "It was a sacrifice we are happy to accept, because after all, you were trying to kill Saddam Hussein"? No, I doubt they would react like that.

As the war began, like others I tried to imagine what the best result might be. A quick war with single-figure casualties and Saddam ousted painlessly? But that might mean Rumsfeld and co merely forcing their troops to Damascus and Tehran, centres of acknowledged recalcitrance and listed evil. A slow, horrible war with so many Anglo-American dead that leaders in both countries would realise that go-it-alone invasions, which look to neutrals like neo-imperialism, were simply not practicable. But that would mean wishing for the extinction of hundreds, maybe thousands of troops, and even more civilians. An unanswerable either-or. So, something in-between? Well, something in-between is what we're getting. Enough for some to call it a stunning professional victory, others a vile and unnecessary bloodbath.

But there's another tacit calculation going on. The war depends on domestic public support. Public support depends in part on disguising the reality of war (hence the hypocritical hoo-ha about the "parading" of prisoners) and on calculating the acceptability of death. So what would be the best way of scoring the game? Someone, somewhere, some Machiavellian focus-grouper or damage statistician, is probably doing just this. Let's start with the basic unit: one dead Iraqi soldier, score one point. Two for a dead Republican Guard, three for Special Republican Guard or fedayeen. And so on up to the top of the regime: 5,000, let's say, for Chemical Ali; 7,500 for each of Saddam's sons; 10,000 for the tyrant himself.

Now for the potentially demoralising downside. One Iraqi civilian killed: if male, lose five points, female 10, a child 20. One coalition soldier killed: deduct 50 points. And then, worst of all (as it underlines the futility and hazard of war), one coalition soldier killed by friendly fire: deduct 100 points. On the other hand, gain 1,000 for each incident which a couple of years down the line can give rise to a feel-good Hollywood movie: witness "Saving Private Lynch".

By this count, the war is a success. And television has more or less reflected the weighting of the above scoresheet: film a swaddled, bleeding, terrified child in hospital and airtime is guaranteed. With what blithe unconcern, too, it has disregarded the one-pointers. How have the Iraqi military been presented? a) as massively outgunned; b) as foolishly sallying forth in columns and making themselves easy meat for aerial attack (though the words "turkey shoot" have doubtless been sensitively banned); c) as experimental subjects for live testing of daisycutter bombs; d) as "fanatically loyal", ie still fighting when massively outgunned; e) as running away in their underpants.

The return of British bodies has been given full-scale TV coverage: the Union-Jacked coffin, the saluting Prince Andrew, the waggling kilts of soldiers escorting the hearse of their fallen comrades. Then each dead soldier's face comes up on screen, sometimes in a blurry home colour print, with listing of wife, fiancee, children: it thuds on the emotions. But Iraqi soldiers? They're just dead. The Guardian told us in useful detail how the British Army breaks bad news to families. What happens in Iraq? Who tells whom? Does news even get through? Do you just wait for your 18-year-old conscript son to come home or not to come home? Do you get the few bits that remain after he has been pulverised by our bold new armaments? There aren't many equivalences around in this war, but you can be sure that the equivalence of grief exists. Here come the widow-makers, goes the cry as our tanks advance. Here too come the unwitting recruiters for al-Qaida.

For all the coverage, I don't know what I've seen. Embedding journalists has certainly worked from the military point of view. This is not to disparage them, and they have taken proportionally much greater casualties than the military. But they can at best provide footage, which is not the same as telling us what is actually happening; for that they, and we, depend on official spokesmen. And journalists have to be approved. French television ran a documentary about journalists who had been refused approval, and thus access. British television lets us assume we are getting as much, and as pure, information as it is possible to give in the circumstances.

But in wartime we are even less able, and willing, than usual to see ourselves as others see us. For us, the war consists of coalition troops, Saddam, Iraqi troops, and Iraqi civilians; with bit-parts for the Kurds and Turkey. In the first days of the war I saw a report on French television news which told me - I think - that the US had closed down its embassy and cultural centre in Pakistan; I say "I think" because I never saw it confirmed here. Reaction from the wider Arab world has been sketchily covered, as if to say: let's pretend this is a localised struggle with no wider repercussions, and then it might be. A friend of mine, who works in television, quickly realised he wasn't getting the full picture and signed his household up for six months of al-Jazeera. Only when his wife asked where he'd been learning Arabic did he realise the flaw in his thinking. But his instinct was absolutely right.

As Baghdad falls to conventional warfare, I keep remembering that mantra in Jack Straw's mouth: "nuclear, chemical and biological." He repeated it again and again while trying to round up support. Then the "nuclear" had to go, after the UN inspection report. So it was down to the other two villains. Like some, I believed (no, "very much wanted to believe" is as close as you get in this world of claim and counterclaim) Scott Ritter's judgment that if the Iraqis still had some bad stuff, it was past its use-by date and turning into hair-gel. Even so, it seemed a grotesque gamble on Bush and Blair's part to seek to prove that Iraq had chemical and biological weapons by provoking Saddam to use them against coalition troops. Now we're told that the wily bastard has moved them to Syria. (Hey, let's invade Syria! Then he might move them to Iran. We could look there afterwards!)

The peacenik question before the war went like this: suppose Saddam destroys all his weapons tomorrow, do we still invade on humanitarian grounds? I can't imagine there would have been too many cries of, Yes please. But that, in retrospect, may be what we've done, or shall endeavour to claim we have done and therefore had been intending. Does it look like a humanitarian war to you? Are "shock and awe" compatible with "hearts and minds"? Early on, a US infantryman was seen grimly returning fire over a sand dune, then turning to camera and complaining: "They don't seem to realise we're here to help them." How odd that they didn't.

In the past three weeks, I've had emails from friends in different parts of the world. Almost without fail, they have expressed incredulity at our prime minister's position. "We can understand Bush, we see exactly where he's coming from, we aren't surprised by his gross limitations and gross ambitions. But what is your Blair up to? He seems a civilised, intelligent man. What does he think he's doing? And what on earth does he think he's getting out of it?" Oil? Reconstruction contracts? Hardly. As for what he thinks he's doing: it seems, I explain, to be a mixture of deluded idealism (finding a moral case for war where neither the Anglican bishops nor the Pope - moral experts he might acknowledge - can see one) and deluded pragmatism: he really does believe the military conquest of Iraq will reduce the likelihood of terrorism.

This is Blair's War; and as he reminded us, history will be his judge. But since we'll all be dead by the time history comes along, three key Blair moments should be pondered. The first came long before the war was mooted. The prime minister was asked in the House of Commons about Iraq and replied with a satisfied gleam: "Saddam is in his cage." At the time I merely noted the crudeness of the diction, which is why the phrase has stuck. What few of us realised at the time was that the self-appointed zookeepers were abrogating to themselves the right to shoot the beast.

Then the question of the second UN resolution. Do you remember being told that we wouldn't go to war without a second resolution? How quickly came the slippage. On the February 15 anti-war march, one of the talking-points was how Blair seemed to have shafted himself: if he didn't get a second resolution, he would have to choose between going back on his promise to the British people or going back on his friendship with Bush. Soon, we knew his choice, which led to a third key moment. When accused once too often of being Bush's poodle, Blair responded that, on the contrary, if Bush had proved timorous over Iraq, he, Blair, would have been pressing him harder to take action. Not a typical example of our "restraining influence".

Well, peacenik, are you happy now that peace is coming? No, because I don't think this war, as conceived and justified, was worth a child's finger. At least, are you happy that Saddam's rule is effectively over? Yes, of course, like everyone else. So, do you see some incompatibility here? Yes, but less than the incompatibilities in your position.

And in return, warnik, I have two questions for you. Do you honestly believe that the staggering bombardment of Iraq, televised live throughout the Arab world, has made Britain, America, and the home town of Torie Clarke, safer from the threat of terrorism? And if so, let me remind you of another statement by your war leader, Mr Blair. He told us, in full seriousness, that once Saddam was eliminated, it would be necessary to "deal with" North Korea. Are you getting hot for the next one - the humanitarian attack on Pyongyang?

Julian Barnes 2003

Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003

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