Book review: The Age of Jihad by Patrick Cockburn

Originally published by the Massachusetts Review on 15 December 2016

Journalism as a Tool of War

The Age of Jihad is an abridged but unedited collection of twenty years worth of conflict journalism from Patrick Cockburn, beginning with his coverage of the UN-US imposed sanctions on Iraq, then the invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, the Arab Spring with its successes and failures, and concluding with the rise and decline of the Islamic State. This collection largely refuses the benefits of hindsight or the revisions of scholarship, opting instead to give its readers an on-the-ground, in-the-moment perspective of these conflicts as Cockburn saw them. As such the collection reads like a diary, and intentionally so. Cockburn writes that “[j]ournalists are sometimes patronisingly congratulated for providing ‘the first draft of history’, though often the first draft is better than the last draft. There is credibility about eyewitness reporting before it has been through the blender of received wisdom and academic interpretation.”

Indeed, Cockburn’s view from the ground in Iraq during the mid-nineties’s—while the world ignored the genocidal impact of the sanctions, which starved hundreds of thousands to death—offered a rare perspective of an unfolding tragedy that is well worth revisiting in its original form. However, Cockburn has not always avoided the received wisdoms of Western journalism in his reporting. In fact, his narrations of the second US-led invasion of Iraq, the Syrian uprising, and the civil wars and proxy wars that followed rely on a number of explanatory tropes, ranging from the anti-analytical “chaos” and “unrest” to the pseudo-analytical qualifiers “extremist,” “Salafi,” “fundamentalist,” “Wahhabi,” and “jihadi.” This latter term, jihadi, plays a central role in The Age of Jihad. Its nominalized form is treated as an antagonist across Cockburn’s episodic narratives of the conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, and Afghanistan, and his belief that jihadis are a new phenomenon, or are at least of new importance, seems to ground the titular periodization of these conflicts.

However, a reader unfamiliar with the Arabic language or Islamic theology could easily be mislead by Cockburn’s simplistic and pejorative use of “Salafi,” “Wahhabi,” and “jihadi,” and his association of these terms with relative adjectives like “extremist.” For example, “jihadi” is an English coinage, but it is unclear why such an invention would be needed, when the borrowing “mujahid” already exists. While the later refers to one who engages in “jihad,” itself a poorly understood term in the West, often crudely interpreted as holy war; the question is whether “jihadi” is intended as a synonym to “mujahid” or whether it has a unique referent. Cockburn’s use of the term suggests that a “jihadi” is one who embraces the crude Western gloss of jihad as holy war and eschews its traditional complexity of duties and prohibitions in all areas of life—from the personal to the interpersonal, communal, societal, and military.

Cockburn offers no explanation for his use of these terms, and his appeal to theology as an explanatory factor is itself a leap of faith. Additionally, the relationship he posits between jihadism, ruthless violence, Salafist Islam (a religious movement advocating a return to the way of life exemplified by the Rightly Guided Caliphs in the earliest years of Islam), and the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab is unclear, but assumed to be significant and self-explanatory. The dramatic and mysterious title of the book begs these same questions. Cockburn neglects to explain why we are witnessing the Age of Jihad and not, for example, the Age of Proxy Warfare, or the Age of Inter-Imperial War, or the Age of Terror. Why should we take the alleged phenomenon of jihadism and not any other feature of these conflicts as their fundamental cause or defining characteristic? Cockburn acknowledges the problem only to dismiss it, asserting that the jihadi—and presumably not the mujahid—is the driving force of the last fifteen years of conflict in the Middle East and that their particular brand of “quasi-guerrilla warfare” is marked by its “strong political content” and its “religious fanaticism.” It is this fanaticism, he argues, that makes sectarianism a cause, not a consequence, of these conflicts.

If this sounds at all similar to mainstream narratives of the conflicts in the Middle East, which attributes war to internal causes and essential predispositions to violence, well, it is. For all of Cockburn’s important eyewitness accounts and his critiques of Western policy in the region, his interpretative framework is still marked by Orientalist tropes and the received wisdoms of Westerners looking in on events in the Middle East. Thus, the central task for a reader of The Age of Jihad is to balance the insights of Cockburn’s eyewitness testimony with the limits of his conceptual vocabulary. Could the last fifteen years of conflict in the Middle East and North Africa be understood with more nuance, with the motives and beliefs of local people understood in different terms, with their use of violence understood in historical relation with the violence of Western interventionism?

As much as Cockburn’s more recent work on Syria and the Islamic State might at times resemble only a slightly more informed version of the punditry heard on CNN, this should not discredit the brave and valuable work he did in Iraq during the sanctions and US-led occupation. In fact, this unedited collection of his work makes the trajectory of his journalism over the years easily visible. The critical attitude that led Cockburn to question all of the explanations and justifications given by the US and UK for their actions in Iraq evolved into cautionary coverage of the Arab Spring, which warned against wishful thinking about revolutions and democratic outcomes. But now one can identify elements of sensationalism in Cockburn’s work, as exemplified in the bombastic title of this book. Or take, for example, his representation of the Islamic State—as a cult built around a commitment to extreme violence and puritanical religious values, with only a weak historical connection to the bloodbaths in the Middle East over the last twenty years—which seems to bank more on Western fear and sentimental outrage than on a concern for understanding how this all came to be.

But before we accuse Cockburn of opportunistic sensationalism, his use of attention-grabbing headlines and his preference for easy explanations over scholarship might instead simply reflect a misguided confidence in the ability of the war correspondent to perceive the truth about a conflict. Many do believe that the proximity of a journalist to a conflict lends “credibility” to its reportage. Conflict journalism, with its elements of danger and sense of adventure, and its seemingly intimate knowledge of its subject matter, can be a seductive genre (perhaps even to its authors), and it may lead us to conflate eyewitness testimony with truth. However, mere proximity to a conflict—without the corrective lens of historical, sociological, and cultural scholarship—does not help one rise above the interpretive danger of received wisdom.

How or why Cockburn’s journalism has evolved in such a way is as mysterious as the title of this book. However, his increasing failure to correct such opinions is at least one reason why so many who once looked to him as an ally now feel that he has abandoned them. Despite his lazy understanding of Islamic theology, Cockburn insists that religion is a better explanation for the conduct and character of Islamic militancy than the brutality of the occupation of Iraq, the violent repression of the Maliki government in Baghdad, and the state terrorism of Bashar al Assad’s regime in Damascus. As such, much of his most recent writing often feels like an echo of mainstream consensus: that the Islamic State alone constitutes a casus belli. Where as Cockburn once fought against the kind of conflict journalism that Western powers employ as a tool of war, his voice has now become indistinguishable from it.


The Revolution Continues

I’v found that Leila Al Shami is one of the best sources of information on Syria. Have a look for yourself.

Leila's blog

With the ceasefire deal, many communities have experienced their first break from bombing in years. Today people across the country took to the streets under the slogan ‘The Revolution Continues’

There were reports of over 100 protests. People chanted for the fall of the regime, for rebel unity, for the release of prisoners and for freedom.

CcuEynwW0AAwCd- Maarat al-Numaan, Idlib

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Review: Afterwar: Healing the Moral Wounds of Our Soldiers (2015)

This book review appeared in the American Book Review, volume 36, issue 5:

I read Nancy Sherman’s book Afterwar: Healing the Moral Wounds of Our Soldiers (2015) as a veteran of the US-led occupation of Iraq and as a board-member of the Islah Reparations Project. The intuitive answer to my own moral injury was to bring reparations to the people I helped hurt, and that has been my life for the past decade. For that reason, Nancy Sherman’s notion of “moral repair”— “repair” being the root word in “reparations”—was immediately attractive to me.

Lieutenant General (Dr.) James M. Dubik notes in the foreword that one of this book’s most important contributions is an expansion of our understanding of the jus post bellum beyond discussions of ending war justly. Drawing on her background in ancient philosophy, particularly the stoics, and her training in psychoanalysis, Sherman describes for us with impressive clarity the emotional worlds of veterans and all the what-ifs and should-haves that anguish them. She then makes a persuasive case for extending our notion of post war responsibility from being the task of government to the duty of individual citizens, assigning them an essential role in the healing process of our veterans.

Sherman advances two main arguments in this book: That civilians have a responsibility to veterans, a responsibility that is grounded in their causal contribution to starting and facilitating war—through voting, paying taxes, participating in public debate, and lobbying—and, hence, to sending our armed service members into harms way. And that moral injury is a poorly understood, under treated condition that veterans suffer from upon returning home. The conclusion is that civilians have a responsibility to engage with veterans upon their return, because veterans need a sympathetic and dependable community to return to. Sherman sees her book as a convocation, as “a manifesto for how to engage in moral repair, one on one, with individual service members and veterans so that we can begin to build a new kind of integrated community.”

She believes that two main obstacles are preventing the sort of communion between civilians and veterans that she advocates. The first is the “gaping disconnect between those who wear the uniform and those who don’t.” And the second is shallow gratitude, which is expressed most clearly in the ritualistic “Thank you for your service.” The “military-civilian gap” refers to what active duty service members and veterans perceive as the relative normality of civilian life during wartime, and the lack of understanding amongst the general population of what veterans have experienced abroad. However, there are several scholars who argue for the opposite, that civilian life is being increasingly militarized. One such argument comes from Nick Turse in his The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives (2008). But Sherman takes it on assumption that there is in fact a military-civilian gap without arguing for it or addressing the arguments against it.

This very common assumption is not totally unrelated to another conventional wisdom—that Vietnam veterans were spat on, maltreated, and repudiated by their fellow citizens upon their return from war. Sherman devotes 32 pages to analyzing the common refrain “Thank you for your service,” which she argues is a “national reaction to a past negative reaction” when “[r]esistance to [the Vietnam] war turned into antipathy toward its warriors.” Again, Sherman does not engage with the works that question this assumption. For example, Jerry Lembcke fails to find evidence that a significant number of Vietnam veterans were maltreated by protestors in his The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam (2000). Instead, he reminds us that veterans were a large, and very welcomed, constituent of the anti-war movement.

These two assumptions, taken together, ground a common perception of veterans as a special interest group deserving of special care and special benefits. Perhaps it is this cultural assumption about veterans that motivates Sherman’s assertion that civilians’ post war responsibilities are limited to veterans, though, again, she gives no argument for why this is the case. If civilians are morally responsible for the harm that results from war due to their causal contributions to starting and facilitating wars, why aren’t civilians morally responsible to all parties that are harmed by war, including the civilians of other nations involved in the conflict? Particularly in the case of the recent US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, which caused hundreds of thousands of excess Iraqi deaths, displaced millions, internally and externally, and caused an environmental and public health catastrophe with some of the highest rates of birth defects and cancers the world has ever seen; why are we not morally responsible for what has been done to Iraqis?

Sherman analyzes “Thank you for your service” as performative expression of gratitude, which she argues is a “token acceptance of . . . shared responsibility and accountability for sending fellow citizens to war, independent of specific causal contributions to war activity or to its support” (39). Correspondingly, she points out the resentment that so many veterans feel towards the ease with which civilians relieve themselves of responsibility by uttering such platitudes. Resentment, after all, is a reactive attitude that “[holds] someone to account” (46). However, there is no acknowledgement of the widespread resentment that Iraqis feel towards Americans and other citizens of Coalition nations. Furthermore, by leaving the vocabulary of our traditional war culture unchallenged, the infelicitous use of the word “service”—and its corresponding semantic frame of a beneficiary, a benevolent act, and a recipient—goes unexamined. By preserving the notion that the war was a service to Americans, a service consciously and willingly performed by our veterans, it obscures any understanding that the war was a wrong done to others and that we might be responsible for the harm that our war caused them.

There are good reasons why Sherman might have wanted to avoid such a discussion. She explains that her lack of focus on the injustices of the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq was simply because it was not the focus of the veterans she interviewed. Their moral injury was most often the result of what they perceived to be their failures to protect their fellow soldiers, and in some cases, individual Iraqis and Afghans too. Most of the veterans that she interviewed did not feel burdened by the ethical question of whether the wars they participated in were just or unjust.

That has been my experience too. I’ve met few veterans who were raised with the internationalist perspective that I was, and even fewer who feel, as I do, that the relationship between occupier and occupied is an inherently immoral one. If Sherman were to advocate that we should feel morally responsible for the justness or unjustness of the war itself, as I am willing to do, she would run the risk of burdening veterans with new moral dilemmas that hadn’t previously occurred to them.

She might further have made a deliberate choice to avoid topics that are interpreted in our culture as bing radical—such as responsibility for civilian deaths or war crimes, topics that might just be interpreted as ethical issues in other parts of the world—in order to avoid alienating her audience. Instead, by limiting her focus to the invisible wounds that veterans carry, wounds that cannot be healed by prescribing them more medication, and the ways in which the civilian community is essential to their process of moral repair, this book stands to do a great service to veterans by building the sympathetic community that they need. However, such an approach does not fully address all of the post war responsibilities of civilians.

Afterwar is an important challenge to our national war culture. Sherman provides us with a matrix of concepts—such as “affective access” and “self-forgiveness”—that act as a set of tools for a national discussion about moral injury and how best to care for our veterans. This valuable contribution provides a starting point from which we can begin to have a discussion about the jus post bellum that is not limited to the actions of nation states, but rather addresses the ways in which we as citizens can live ethically in globally connected world. It is a step towards a deeper understanding of the ways in which we as individuals are connected to global events, such as war, and the responsibilities we have towards one another, and the ways in which we can begin to repair what has been broken.

218 Civilians Killed in Fallujah Since Start of Ramadan

Since the start of Ramadan on June 17th, the Iraqi government has increased its airstrikes on the city of Fallujah in anticipation of a much prophesized assault to recapture the city. The Iraqi government has been indiscriminately bombing residential neighborhoods in its Sunni provinces almost daily since the start of this conflict over a year and a half ago, killing and wounding thousands of civilians. The recent increase in airstrikes on Fallujah has caused an alarming spike in civilian casualties. But what’s more concerning is lack of outrage from the international community.

Dr. Ahmed Shami Jasim, Chief Resident at the Fallujah Teaching Hospital, told me in a personal correspondence that 194 civilians had been killed as of July 9th, including 38 women and 49 children. But by the time of this writing on July 14th, the death count has risen to 218. And since the start of the conflict in January 2014, 5128 civilians have been wounded and 3139 have been killed in Fallujah alone.

Fallujah is seen by the Iraqi government and its allied Shiite militias as the Islamic State’s most important stronghold in Iraq. And many American commentators confer that an assault to retake Fallujah is necessary. All of this echoes the rationale for the brutal, US-led 2nd Siege of Fallujah in 2004 in ways that should not be ignored.

The airstrikes by the American and Iraqi governments are presumed in our national debate to be a good thing on the belief that the strikes only kill Islamic State fighters and that the sole source of instability in Iraq is the Islamic State. The logic follows that if we could simply kill every last member of the Islamic State, peace and security would ensue in Iraq.

These assumptions are not only factually inaccurate, they obscure a number of ethical questions that have not been asked about this mini-war against the Islamic State. The conflict has been described by pundits and politicians as a morally unequivocal fight between good guys (the US and the Iraqi government) and bad guys (the Islamic State).

However, the situation on the ground is far more complicated. The Iraqi government and its allied Shiite militias have committed crimes equally heinous as those committed by the Islamic State. And few analysts or observers have considered what a victory would look like that defeated the Islamic State and left the Iraqi government in place.

The new Iraqi government was a sectarian institution from its inception—it was dominated by the sectarian Dawa and SCIRI parties from day one. But it was when SCIRI’s armed wing, the Badr Brigade, was brought under the command of the Ministry of Interior that sectarianism in Iraq became institutionalized. This was the beginning of the dirty war tactics—the use of sectarian, paramilitary assassination units to terrorize the Sunni community—that came to define the US-led occupation and the new Iraqi government.

As brutal and oppressive as the Islamic State may be, they are the lesser of two evils for Sunni Iraqis. The US’s mission in Iraq, for them, is in defense of a sectarian government that has tortured and terrorized them for the better part of the last decade. The reality of the American mission in Iraq is that the US has chosen sides in a sectarian war. And if the US were to succeed in its mission, the result would be the permanent subjugation of Sunnis in Iraq.

During the occupation, it became a regular occurrence for the bodies of Sunni men to be returned to their neighborhoods with their internal organs removed and their torsos sewn back up with zip ties. These were the sort of crimes that motivated the Iraqi Spring, the year long, nonviolent protest movement that lasted most of 2013. Cities throughout Iraq held weekly Occupy Wall Street style demonstrations demanding an end to sectarianism, but specifically an end to discrimination against Sunnis.

While the protests were concentrated mostly in the Sunni provinces, and particularly in Fallujah and Ramadi; there were strong sentiments of nationalism throughout the movement, and the protests received considerable support from the Shia community as well. Even Muqtada Al Sadr, a populist religious leader in the Shia neighborhoods of Baghdad, voiced his support for the protests.

But rather than addressing the concerns of the Sunni community, the Iraqi government attacked the protestors repeatedly, most notably in Hawija where they killed at least 50 civilians. The Iraqi Spring finally fell apart on December 28th, 2013, when the government attacked the protest camps in Fallujah and Ramadi and transformed a nonviolent movement into an armed rebellion.

By New Years Day 2014, many tribes in Anbar providence, notably the tribes in and around Fallujah, were in full scale revolt against the Iraqi government. This explosion of violence gave ISIS an opportunity to come back into Iraq and find support (where previously they had very little) by helping the tribal militias fight against the government forces. ISIS seized this opportunity and quickly grew from being an auxiliary force fighting under the command of the General Military Council of Iraqi Revolutionaries to an independent force that took orders from no one.

These complexities were glossed over by the American media and politicians. The standard analysis was that Fallujah had “fallen” to ISIS in January 2014 and that all attacks against government forces were nothing more than the fanaticism of jihadist extremists bent on making their religious goals a reality by force.

However, there remains to this day two separate movements fighting agains the Iraqi government with very different goals and of very different moral characters. Even as the growth of the Islamic State has eclipsed the Sunni uprising, these movements are still, at times, cooperative—like when they jointly captured Mosul—and, at times, antagonistic towards one another, with attitudes and allegiances differing from militia to militia and even from neighborhood to neighborhood.

More importantly, this overly simplistic binary of good guys versus bad guys was assumed in the Iraqi and American military responses to the rebellion. All rebels were treated uniformly, whether they were associated with groups calling for government reform and equality for Sunnis or whether they were associated with the Islamic State.

The US continued to supply the Iraqi government with weapons and intelligence as it bombed civilian neighborhoods in Fallujah, leading to hundreds of civilian deaths and a new wave of internally displaced people. When the US decided to increase its level of intervention in August by renewing airstrikes, Obama preserved the basic contours of the news media’s narrative of the conflict, which begins with the Islamic State’s aggression in Iraq, not American and Iranian support for the Iraqi government’s internal repression.

Even when Maliki was forced to step down (and cleverly shuffled to one of Iraq’s three Vice President positions) the bombing of residential neighborhoods continued unabated. The new Prime Minister, Haider al Abadi, called for a cease to all airstrikes on residential neighborhoods on September 13, but then proceeded, the very next day, to bomb and shell Fallujah, killing six civilians and wounding twenty-two. Again on September 15th, two civilians were killed and fourteen were injured. And again on September 16th, three civilians were killed and nineteen wounded. And so on, and so on, with near daily regularity.

Barrel bombs, like those used by Bashar al Assad against his own people in Syria, have been a preferred weapon of the Iraqi government. But the use of this illegal weapon has received far less attention in Iraq. And civilian deaths, other than those killed by the Islamic State, have gotten minimal media coverage in general.

Our mini-war against the Islamic State has done little more than facilitate the Iraqi government’s internal repression of its Sunni population. Everything about the Iraqi government’s past conduct in Fallujah suggests that the planned assault on Fallujah will be conducted in a brutal and indiscriminate manner. However, even if the Iraqi Army and its allied militias were to abide by the international norms or armed conflict, there is no just outcome to this operation. A victory against the Islamic State would not solve the problems that the Sunni community is facing in Iraq.

American Sniper and 12 Years of War on Iraq

As we approach the 12th anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq, we must note how strange our current historical moment is with regards to Iraq. On the one hand, most Iraqis feel that their country is in the worst state it has been since the Mongol invasion of 1258. Despite the immense suffering in Iraq, brought on by 24 years of American war, sanctions, and occupation; the US is currently escalating its use of military force in Iraq. Yet no sense of fault can be found in the American public’s enrapture with the film American Sniper and its celebratory depiction of American war-making. Based on this casual observation, it becomes clear that the Iraqi experience of American military action in their country and America’s imaginative story telling of those same events run almost parallel to one another—the two never intersect. But if we were to engage with the Iraqi experience, it would become further obvious how much the American understanding of our actions in Iraq has almost entirely been shaped by story telling, in other words, by narrative.

Cognitive scientists now regard narrative as an unconscious, readily available structure that we use to help us understand complex events, or series of events. Narrative abstracts away the many irrelevant details of an event and simplifies the relevant ones into a plot-like, temporal structure with a clearly marked beginning and end. Also, the infinitely complex causal forces that bring an event into being are condensed and simplified into easily identifiable agents with goals and motives. Actors are neatly sorted into familiar categories, such as protagonist and antagonist, with explicit motives at either of the spectrum of good vs. evil. And human meanings (such as purpose) are imposed onto worldly events. The power of narrative is that it makes thinking about complex events easier. It cuts out the irrelevant stuff and finds an easy way to explain the important stuff; it takes complex realities and translates them into a format that the human mind can comprehend. It also performs important identity forming functions. Yet these same cognitive and social tools that narrative provides us are exactly the features that limit our understanding of our nations long history of interference in Iraq.

Over the past 24 years, the mass media has relayed information about US military action in Iraq in the format of a story, or of a series of stories, with artificially imposed beginnings and ends, unrealistic abstractions of good guys and bad guys with overly simplified goals and motives, and complex causalities reduced to the actions of single individuals (like Saddam Hussein, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, and now Abu Baker al-Baghdadi). Each narrative ends when the President declares “mission accomplished”; and a new one begins with a new caste of characters, new conflicts, and new goals. Each narrative is encapsulated, to a degree, such that each one rarely informs later narratives and we never see reoccurring patters.

Consider the justifications given for the initial invasion of Iraq—that Saddam Hussein possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) and thus constituted a threat to the world (this is the self-defense narrative in which the US is both the hero and the victim) and that he was a dictator who killed and tortured his own people (this is the rescue narrative which positions the US as the hero and the Iraqi people as the victim). Yet these stories begin after 9/11. The facts that the CIA aided Saddam Hussein in his rise to power, facilitated his purges of the communists in his country, and armed him with the very WMDs we accused him of possessing were simply not included in this story. And George Bush provided closure and resolution to the plot by declaring “mission accomplished” on May 1st, 2003. For a moment there was some questioning about the status of US troops in Iraq, since the official justifications for them being there (the presence of a dictator and WMDs) had evaporated. But then a new threat emerged—the insurgency—and an entirely new cast of characters appeared in the media discourse with a new set of goals.

The insurgency eventually became characterized (and I mean “characterized” in the literary sense) by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. All the complexities of the insurgency—the hundreds of militias fighting against the occupation with various ideologies, tactics, and goals—were reduced to single persona; and all the other resistance fighters running around Iraq were portrayed as mindless drones who were nothing more than enactments of Zarqawi or Bin Laden’s will. The US (the protagonist) now had to defend Iraq against the bad guy (Zarqawi) and his jihadist army. But notice who is not an actor in this story—the Iraqi people. This story was rarely challenged by the voices of ordinary Iraqis, who neither wanted Zarqawi nor the American-led occupation. This narrative also imposed an order and logic of events, in which the US-led occupation was justified by the insurgency, when in actual fact it elicited it. Furthermore, the US played a significant role in narrating its own antagonist, since most the information that was put out about Zarqawi was the product of a US military Psychological Operation.

President Obama concluded this narrative in his speech at Fort Bragg on December 15th, 2011, when he said that, “[o]ne of the most extraordinary chapters in the history of the American military will come to an end . . . America’s war in Iraq will be over.” However, the situation on the ground changed very little for Iraqis. Occupying soldiers were merely replaced with the soldiers of a client state, and much of the same oppression remained in place. It wasn’t until June 2014 that Iraq reemerged in the US media, when rebel forces pushed the Iraqi army out of Mosul and occupied the city. This event was selected by President Obama as the inciting incident in a new war narrative. He also identified a single antagonist (the so-called Islamic State). However, this narrative omitted several important facts: That the Iraqi government had been waging a genocide against the Sunni population, with US weapons and support, since January of that year. That this allowed the Islamic State to grow and thrive in Iraq by claiming they were defending a desperate population from oppression. And that the Islamic State was only the most extreme force amongst many fighting against the Iraqi government, many of whom had perfectly legitimate reasons for fighting, had very respectable goals, and used tactics that were in line with international conventions. But what this narrative obfuscates most is that the US was once again presenting military action as the only solution to a catastrophe that it had created, and that President Obama’s proposed course of action mirrors the conditions that allowed the Islamic State emerge and thrive in Iraq.

All of this points to an important feature of narrative—that narratives are structured from a perspective, and choices are made about what information to include or exclude based on that perspective. Furthermore, by sharing in a perspective, and making common abstractions about good guys and bad guys, common inclusions and exclusions, and shared assumptions about what is legitimate or illegitimate, we construct a shared identity. It is not surprising then that Iraqi suffering is the greatest it has been in centuries at the same time that a film like American Sniper is enjoying enormous box-office success. At a moment when we could be feeling dissonance over our role in the bloodshed in Iraq, we are instead celebrating the heroism and patriotism of soldiers like the one portrayed in American Sniper. Chris Kyle’s autobiography of the same title, off of which the film was adapted, drew upon several of the narratives already told about Iraq and reaffirmed them through his authority as a Navy SEAL. It is also not surprising that Iraqis would be portrayed in the film as either hapless idiots incapable of running their country without American tutelage and protection, or as blood-thirsty maniacs bent on anti-Americanism, since this is how the civilian/insurgent dichotomy was portrayed in official narratives.

The result is that these narratives are now deeply engrained in American identity, and American Sniper is not just a celebration of the stories we tell ourselves about Iraq, but also of the stories we tell ourselves about us. The enormous factual inaccuracies and over simplifications in these narratives are problematic enough, yet we must also note the almost total exclusion of other narratives—like the ones Iraqis tell about what we did to them. In this strange moment that we inhabit now, our understanding of who we are and how we behave as a nation is being constructed around these self-serving, over simplified, and often false narratives. What’s worse is that our current foreign policy in Iraq is based off of these same abstractions, and Iraqis will surely continue to suffer because of this.

Report Back from Japan

I just returned from Japan after participating in a week of events for Iraq. Although these events were organized by Iraq Inquiry, a group of Japanese aid workers who are pressuring their government to do a formal investigation into the crimes committed against Iraq; the issue Japan’s increasing militarization, at the request of the US government, was also a major focus this week. 10679948_906097836068271_4014630711624782349_o

After World War II, Japan drafted a peace constitution. Article 9 of that constitution forbids Japan from participating in war or preparing for one. But that article was recently reinterpreted, allowing Japan to now participate in “collective self-defense”. This reinterpretation of the constitution has been called a “political coup“, and many fear that this will allow the US to drag Japan into foreign wars in the future. IMG_1026

Japan assisted the US in its invasion and occupation of Iraq by shipping weapons, by allowing the US to use its bases in Japan for logistical operations to Iraq, and by send Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to Iraq as humanitarian workers. Many Japanese citizens opposed Japan’s participation in this war and occupation. A class action lawsuit was led by Yoshinori Ikezumi in 2004, arguing that the deployment of Japan’s SDF violated Article 9 of their constitution. This lawsuit succeeded in getting a ruling from the Nagoya High Court in July 2007 that acknowledged the unconstitutional nature of Japan’s participation in Iraq; however, no Japanese politicians were ever held accountable. The new interpretation of Article 9 will make future actions like the one led by Ikezumi impossible.

For all of the above reasons, Japanese citizens are extremely worried about their country’s path towards militarism. We held speaking events in six cities and found large and engaged audiences, of anywhere from 40 to 100 people, each night. I was extremely impressed at the turn out to these events. Nothing similar is currently possible in the US. Although we have several vibrant movements here, the anti-war movement is small and insular. So I was really encouraged to see such a strong movement. I also met several aid workers who are doing great things to help Iraqis.  1502175_906097919401596_3589336983716619478_o

Our events discussed the human consequences of the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. People were shocked to learn the horrible details of what has happened to Iraqis. There was also a lot of interest in PTSD, and especially in Moral Injury. I described for them the VA’s inability to deal with moral injury when it’s related to the issue of participation in an illegal and immoral war, and they seemed genuinely concerned–not just for US vets, but also for what might happen to their own SDF in the future. We also discussed the Islamic State, and whether Japan should get involved in the US’s (new?) war in Iraq. It appears that the Japanese media has reported on IS in much the same way that the US media has by representing IS as the lone purveyor of violence in Iraq.

All in all, we had an extremely successful week. We received a lot of positive media coverage, even by Japan’s mainstream media (which also is not currently possible in the US). I hope that the momentum created by this week’s events will lead to the creation of an independent committee within the Japanese government for a formal investigation into the crimes committed against Iraq. I also hope that we in the US can take a lesson from our friends in Japan. Great things are happening in the US for Palestine, for the environment, and against police brutality. But nothing is being done for Iraq, and that needs to change.

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Veterans Day/Memorial Day

Veterans Day and Memorial Day are really the same bullshit twice a year. This article by myself and Kali Rubaii, which originally appeared in STIR Journal on May 25, 2014, is an argument against the selective memory that is characteristic on these holidays.

On Memorial Day, What We Choose to Remember and What We Forget

By Kali Rubaii and Ross Caputi

On Memorial Day we are called upon to remember those who died fighting America’s wars. But we are also asked to forget. We applaud politely as veterans march in parades. Ribbons and medals, flags and fancy uniforms flood our senses, and everyone is content with the atmosphere of honor, pride, and patriotism.

We remember the men and women who died wearing those uniforms, but we forget the men and women killed for wearing different uniforms. There are other victims of war, too, civilians whose lives were extinguished in the course of military campaigns, but most Americans never see them. A few linger in our collective memory—Mai Lai, Wounded Knee, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki. But on Memorial Day it is impolite to speak of them.

Support for our troops is depoliticized, a national sacrament for all to participate in regardless of political affiliation. Like the victims of our wars, why these veterans died is forgotten. America’s wars are sanitized, abstracted from their historical and political context. We are asked to remember the men and women who died, while forgetting the reality of what they participated in. It is a pleasant fairytale, but one which comes at a price cashed out in human blood.

On this day more than others we are spared the inconvenient memory of hundreds of thousands of civilians killed in Iraq, millions in Vietnam, millions in Korea. Most Americans have never seen their blood or smelled their rotting corpses. They have no personal experience that might give them pause about the nobility or the benevolence of our wars.

How we choose to celebrate Memorial Day is the apex of a broader culture of selective remembering and forgetting. It is a culture that shields us from the unpleasant knowledge of our past violence, from our responsibility for that violence, and, consequently, from the wisdom to avoid similar mistakes in the future. Just as this culture prepares the next generation to follow in the footsteps of those we remember on Memorial Day, it also forsakes our war victims abroad.

Fallujah is a recent example. Few campaigns have been so selectively remembered and forgotten in U.S. military history. Fallujah, a city of 300,000 people roughly 50 miles west of Baghdad, was considered to be the strongest point of resistance against the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq. Coalition Forces launched two major operations in 2004 to sack Fallujah, reminiscent of Rome’s sacking of Carthage. They were the largest and the bloodiest operations of the entire occupation of Iraq, and they have been recorded in a half-dozen books as heroic battles to “liberate” the city of Fallujah from terrorists. What is left out of these histories is that between 4,000 and 6,000 civilians were killed. Much of the city was turned to rubble. Entire neighborhoods were bulldozed to the ground. More than 200,000 people became refugees.

Since those operations, Fallujah has experienced dramatic increases in the rates of birth defects and cancers. Approximately 14% of all children born in Fallujah are born with birth defects. Cancer rates in children are 12 times what is expected in a healthy population. Research suggests that pollution from war is the primary cause. While this is perhaps one of the most severe public health crises ever studied, it has received marginal attention from the U.S. media. The weapon systems that caused this are still in use. Since so few know about this, almost nothing is being done to prevent this from happening to another population, or to help the population we have already devastated.

Fallujah is an extreme example, but the pattern holds for all of Iraq. Since the first U.S.-led invasion in 1991, Iraq was catapulted from a nation emerging as a developed cosmopolitan country, to one of the most dangerous, divided, and desperate places in the world. Prior to the first Gulf War, Iraq was a medical tourism destination. Iraq’s medical facilities were the best in the region, and Iraqis enjoyed universal health care and higher education. After the first Gulf War, the United Nations, under pressure from the U.S., placed sanctions on Iraq that prevented hospitals from obtaining basic medicines and supplies. Food staples became scarce across Iraq. More than half a million children died from starvation or treatable diseases. Iraqi doctors watched helplessly as children suffocated to death from asthma because inhalers were one of many restricted resources.

After the 2nd U.S.-led invasion in 2003, the Coalition Provisional Authority, the main governing body of the occupation, immediately embarked on a policy of “state destruction.” Many of Iraq’s institutions were dismantled, including military and police forces. More than 200 of Iraq’s state-owned industries were privatized. Sweeping changes to Iraq’s political and social institutions were put in place by the occupation.

Iraq’s intellectual class was “purged,” further decimating academic and medical facilities and contributing to the process of “cultural cleansing.” Many who embodied Iraqi culture—public intellectuals, doctors, artists—were assassinated. Museums and historic monuments were looted and destroyed. As a result of this dismantlement, Iraq’s diverse ways of life were either altered or eliminated entirely. Its ancient agricultural system, historic seed bank, marsh Arab culture, and minority religious practices were forced to adjust to a new militarized climate. Entire communities were displaced, robbing people of their historical bond with their landscape. And new social divisions, which previously held little significance, entrenched resentments and fears throughout the country and fueled civilian war.

The estimated number of “excess deaths” resulting from the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation ranges from 650,000 to 1.5 million. The number of displaced people, both within Iraq and those forced to flee their country, is estimated to be between 3.5 to 5 million. The land and waterways left behind by the dead and displaced are now saturated with contaminations with half-lives of billions of years. This is just a snapshot of the harm brought to Iraq by the U.S.-led invasion and occupation.

On Memorial Day, we remember victorious battles and heroic stories about them; we forget the legacy of death, deformity, and social unraveling those battles leave in their wake. If we remembered, we would have to face questions about responsibility, reparations, and the limited possibilities for repair. But healing from these unspoken atrocities requires total memory, memory that incorporates both the truth of violence and the possibilities for restoration.

Consider the cells of a body, where a cut slowly reintegrates two sides of broken flesh. Cells collaborate, re-gather, and coalesce to heal. They do not forget the injury; they form a scar, a mark to remember the violence. Scars remind us that healing and repair are incomplete in the face of the irreparable, that the texture and continuity of our bodies and societies are forever disrupted by violence. The scar is evidence of truth, the trace of harm. But a scar also marks the healing project itself, the act of repair. Applied to the societal level, repair and restoration require us to remember what life was like or could have been, and to restore continuity to that life.

This kind of repair goes by many names. Islah, in Arabic, means “repair, reconciliation, and restoration.” Islah is a concept of restorative justice that, like a scar, never forgets past violence and never erases it. It means that collective healing requires reconciliation with the truth, and the active work of all people to restore and repair what has been damaged.

The case for repair in Fallujah offers two dilemmas. First, in the wake of irreparable damage, how is repair possible? And second, how do we in the U.S. share in the repair of Iraq without perpetuating the spread of empire? While these questions are impossible to fully answer, they guide us to a cognate repair: reparations.

Reparations are like a scar, in that they accomplish many things at once in the healing process. Reparations, particularly those volunteered through individuals instead of governments, mean active, material giving. Neither aid nor charity, reparations acknowledge our responsibility for harming Iraqi people, whether by direct participation, by passively funding the military enterprise through sales and income tax, or by simply benefiting from the occupation as a member of our country.

Reparations give both Americans and Iraqis the opportunity to reconcile with one another, to interact and heal from the violence of the occupation. Reparations, as with any form of repair, are incomplete and patchy. In the wake of irreparable damage and an irreversible legacy of intergenerational violence (birth defects, contaminated soil, half-lives of billions of years), repair is incomplete. As heiresses and heirs to a global empire, we cannot take back our role in the ongoing violence in Iraq. We can only take responsibility, and act on that responsibility. Islah (reparations) allows us to reframe our good intentions and situate them in the context of our place in the world order.

We need a shift from a culture of triumphalism and impunity to a culture of reparations. Memorial Day is emblematic of a culture that shields our national psyche from responsibility. The culture of veneration for veterans, which is so wholly embraced on Memorial Day, obscures questions about war crimes, imperial domination, or accountability. By defining our veterans as heroes, we render almost unthinkable the possibility that they may have participated in something immoral and harmful. Thus, we find egregious gaps and silences in what we choose to remember. This needs to change.

If we challenge ourselves to be the catalysts of this cultural change, Memorial Day can provide us with an opportunity to rehabilitate our memories. We can choose to remember ways of coexisting that do not require military might or national valor. We can choose to consider alternative paradigms of peace that don’t involve total military pacification. We can choose to acknowledge both our own soldiers and the victims of their work in one colliding sweep.

Through rehabilitating our memories, we will come to celebrate Memorial Day differently. And our national treatment of veterans will change, too. For too long, U.S. veterans have been categorized to suit the needs of partisan politics. To some, veterans are heroes without question. To others, they are helpless victims of government propaganda and manipulation. And to others, they are bloodthirsty murderers. There have been efforts by veterans to define themselves in American society. But veterans have rarely been able to assert themselves not as victims, or as heroes, or as monsters, but as human beings, competent moral agents who made a mistake and participated in something they did not understand.

Finally, reparations are memory put into practices, not simply a national mentality. Reparations are a set of actions, a genuine material embrace of the truths we choose to acknowledge. To remember wholly and acknowledge fully what is lost or destroyed, one cannot simply say, “I remember,” or, “I acknowledge my responsibility.” Active memory is to say, “I remember, therefore I take responsibility,” whether this means giving a percentage of your income to a project that helps restore Iraqi society, or giving your time to raise awareness about the harm our society has wrought abroad.

Acts of reparations are healing, and not just for the victims of violence. With the emphasis in recent years on how moral injury affects veterans, we should embrace reparations as a way for our society, civilians and veterans, to assert their humanity and rebuild our moral self-image. This process must begin with remembering. We must remember other ways of being and other systems of justice. We must remember that war is not the answer everywhere and always, and that echoing war is a call for repair, for restoring that which can be so easily forgotten.

Ten Years Later Fallujah is Still Under Attack

*The following is an abridged chapter from a manuscript I’m contributing to titled The Sacking of Fallujah: The US Attacks and their Legacy. We’re looking for a publisher, so if you got connections, hook us up. 

Ten years ago today, I participated in the 2nd Siege of Fallujah, a major war crime embedded within the larger war crimes of the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. The 2nd siege killed somewhere between 4000 to 6000 civilians, displaced 200,000, destroyed two-thirds of a city the size of Boston, and may have polluted the environment to such an extent that 14.7 % of all children born in Fallujah are now born with birth defects. There is nothing subtle about any of this. Yet these facts receive shockingly little attention, and this ten year milestone will motivate nothing more than a handful of sentimental OpEds about the veterans of this operation and how it changed their lives. What should be an opportunity for critical reflection and accountability will instead be used to celebrate the people who sacked Fallujah, and US militarism more generally.

If we, as a society, understood what we did to this city in 2004, we would have a chance of understanding how our current actions in Iraq continue to bring Iraqis nothing but harm and hardship. Fallujah is under attack once again—this time by the Iraqi government, with US military aid and assistance—and it is this 3rd Siege of Fallujah that has been the major vehicle of the Islamic State’s military success in Iraq.

Why is any of this important? Because the Obama administration’s solution to the threat posed by the Islamic State (henceforth IS) mirrors the conditions that allowed IS to grow and thrive in Iraq. But for this to be apparent, we need to understand what has allowed IS to take over a swath of land the size of the UK. The key to understanding this is Fallujah.

Connecting the Past to the Present

This 3rd siege of Fallujah is the logical consequence of the first two sieges and all the structural injustices put in place by the US-led occupation. The continuity is seamless.

Fallujah stood as the major obstacle to the US-led occupation’s political project in 2004. Without the 2nd Siege of Fallujah, the Coalition could never have created the facade of legitimate elections, a democratically drafted constitution, and the process of state building. Thus, Fallujah had to be erased—as a military force and as a symbol of nationalist resistance against the occupation. The sacking of Fallujah is the essential moment in the Coalition’s occupation of Iraq.

In the years following the sieges of 2004, Fallujah was turned into an open air prison, like Gaza, completely sealed off from the world by barbed wire and Coalition checkpoints. Residents were confined within city limits and lived under curfew and constant surveillance. Journalists were not allowed into Fallujah, and no news ever left Fallujah.

Unknown to the world, on the other side of the checkpoints surrounding Fallujah, horrific developments were unfolding among its population: massive increases in the rates of birth defects, cancers and other life-threatening maladies. This snowballing public health crisis went unreported and untreated for years, as Fallujans remained trapped in their toxic city.

During this period, the troop “surge” ordered by President Bush in January 2007 went on to suppress, co-opt, or marginalize all remaining armed resistance groups throughout the country and impose the “new Iraq,” over which Iraqis themselves had no say.

When the last US troops finally withdrew in 2011, all of the injustices imposed upon Iraqis remained in place and became actively enforced by Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, who many Iraqis accused of ruling Iraq like a “Shia Saddam”. Widespread discontent with the political, economic, public health, and human rights situation in Iraq led to the nonviolent protest movement that began in December 2012 and quickly spread throughout the country. The “Iraqi Spring” protests had widespread support throughout the Sunni provinces and considerable support from the Shia community as well. In many Iraqi cities, but notably in Fallujah and Ramadi, activists set up protest camps and held weekly large scale demonstrations calling for political reform.

The protestors articulated a set of demands that addressed the sectarianism, corruption, and various abuses by the new Iraqi government. These abuses included the detention of women in order to elicit confessions from their husbands and male family members; the labeling all forms of political dissent as terrorism (both tactics inherited from the Americans); the creation of sectarian death squads operating with impunity under the command of the Iraqi Ministry of Interior, and various forms of political discrimination. The protestors’ grievances were articulated by Sheikh Khaled Hamoud Al-Jumaili, a leader of the protest camp in Fallujah, when he told Al Jazeera, “[w]e demand an end to checkpoints surrounding Fallujah, we demand they allow in the press, we demand they end their unlawful home raids and detentions, we demand an end to federalism and gangsters and secret prisons”.

For a year Maliki ignored the protesters’ demands and repeatedly sent in troops to suppress them. Maliki’s government had been receiving considerable support from both the US and Iran. But the US played a special role in enabling the Iraqi government’s internal repression, having provided it with military equipment, including the equipment for a navy and an air force, and the personnel to train the new Iraqi military. Despite this oppression, facilitated with US weapons, the protestors remained nonviolent and steadfast in their goal to undo much of what the occupation had done to Iraq.

However, on December 1st, 2013, the violence began to escalate. On that day Sheikh Khaled Hamoud Al-Jumaili was driving with his son, until they stopped in front of a car that was blocking the road. Two men armed with Kalashnikovs exited the car in front of them and proceeded to fire, killing the sheikh and his son. The men who killed them were from Hamas al-Iraq, a militia group tied to the Muslim Brotherhood and the Maliki government.

Then, through its actions on December 30th, the Iraqi government turn a nonviolent movement violent. Maliki sent Iraqi security forces to clear the protest camps—first in Ramadi and then in Fallujah—under the false pretext that the protests had been infiltrated by IS (then known as ISIS, Islamic State of Iraq and al Shab), who at that time was still affiliated with Al Qaeda. Iraqi security forces even arrested a politician who had been sympathetic to the protestors’ goals and assassinated his brother and sister-in-law. Viewing this attack as the last straw, many tribes in Fallujah took up arms and began to drive Iraqi security forces out of their city. This led to skirmishes between tribal fighters, who just a day prior had been nonviolent protestors, and Iraqi soldiers. The next day a convoy of ISIS fighters arrived in Fallujah, but after consulting with tribal leaders they agreed to position themselves on the outskirts of the city.

On January 2nd the Iraqi Ministry of Interior reported to the press that half of Fallujah had “fallen” to ISIS. This claim was false, but the media quoted and repeated it until it became a conventional wisdom that Fallujah had indeed fallen into the hands of terrorists. The Western media framed the violence as an ethnic dispute between Sunni extremists and the Shiite-led government in Baghdad. The US then increased its level of military support to Iraq, promising to send fresh shipments of Hellfire missiles and Apache attack helicopters to “help” the Iraqi military “in the battle to uproot Islamic fighters from Ramadi and Fallujah”.

What is striking about the Iraqi government’s justification for its assault on Fallujah, and the Western media’s coverage of these events, is how much their responses parallel those of the US-led sieges in 2004. Again it was claimed that Al Qaeda (or an affiliate) had taken over Fallujah and that a heavy handed military response was needed to “take back” the city. Again the media parroted these assertions, focusing on Islam, or conflicts between competing sects of Islam, as the main explanation for the violence. Again, it was a government attack that pushed a nonviolent movement in Fallujah to embrace violence in order to defend themselves, and yet Fallujah was framed as the aggressor. And Again, Fallujans were denied the opportunity to speak for themselves and to articulate their own reasons for resistance to the world.

The 3rd Siege and Rise of the Islamic State

IS has its origins in the group known as Tawhid al Jihad, which was an al Qaeda affiliated group in Iraq in 2004 and 2005. In 2006 Tawhid al Jihad was absorbed by a militant group known as the Islamic State of Iraq. However, the group quickly became ostracized within Iraq due to its sectarianism and its acts of terrorism. For many years the ISI was forced to the margins of Iraqi society. When the Syrian Civil War broke out in 2011, ISI saw this as an opportunity to gain strength and popularity. After two years of fighting in Syria, ISI split from the Syrian branch of al Qaeda, called Jabhat al Nusra, and changed its name to the Islamic State of Iraq and al Shab (“al Shab” means greater Syria) to reflect its new territorial ambitions. The group remained concentrated in Syria until they saw an opportunity to overcome their past unpopularity in Iraq. That opportunity was the 3rd Siege of Fallujah.

It is important to note that from the beginning of the 3rd siege of Fallujah, it was the tribal fighters who took the lead in the fight against the Iraqi government. ISIS arrived in Fallujah a day after the fight began, and attempted to piggy-back on the success of the tribal fighters by raising their flag over a building in Fallujah. This move was reported by the Western media as a sign of ISIS’s power in Fallujah. However, Feurat Alani, a French-Iraqi journalist with family ties in Fallujah, told me through personal correspondence that, “[ISIS] took the flag down five minutes later when ordered to by tribal leaders. This shows that the tribes control Fallujah.”

In fact, a command structure was set up in Fallujah within the first weeks of fighting. It consisted primarily of tribal leaders and former army officers and went by the name of the General Military Council for Iraqi Revolutionaries (henceforth, GMCIR). This council was led by Sheikh Abdullah Janabi, who led the Shura Council of Mujahideen in 2004. After the 2nd US-led assault on Fallujah, Janabi fled to Syria, but returned to Fallujah in 2011. His calls for cooperation between the various militant factions in Fallujah were a signifiant unifying factor. And, indeed, at first ISIS was cooperating with the GMCIR. But over the course of the months of fighting with the government, ISIS grew in size and strength. Divisions and power struggles began to emerge between the various rebel factions fighting against the Maliki government. Yet despite all the glaring differences between these groups in Fallujah, the Iraqi government refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of any Sunni militia. A government official told Reuters reporters that, “if anyone insists on fighting our forces, he will be considered an [ISIS] militant whether he is or not.”

The first two weeks of fighting were fierce and led to many losses on both sides. Several Iraqi military vehicles were destroyed and the Iraqi military made no real advances into Fallujah. The rebellion quickly spread to other cities in Anbar province, and everyone began calling the uprising a “revolution”. For a brief, hopeful moment it looked like the rebel fighters had the ability to win. Then the Iraqi military stopped trying to penetrate into Fallujah and instead sealed off all entry and exit points to and from the city. They began an indiscriminate campaign of bombing and launching artillery from the outskirts of Fallujah, safely outside of the range of the rebels’ weapons. Whereas the rebel fighters had been a match for the Iraqi military in urban combat, they did not have the military capabilities to defend themselves from the indiscriminate aerial and artillery attacks.

Since the start of the assault on December 22nd, civilian structures have been shelled and bombed repeatedly, including hospitals. Civilians have been wounded and killed nearly each and every day since the New Year. So far over 1,000 civilians have been killed and over 2,500 have been wounded. Struan Stevenson, President of European Parliament’s Delegation for Relations with Iraq, wrote an open letter calling the Iraqi government’s operation “genocidal”. The Geneva International Center for Justice has issued appeals and various letters to the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, UN Special Procedures, and other UN bodies arguing that the current assault on Fallujah, and all of Al Anbar province, meets the legal definition of genocide. The 3rd siege has also created another wave of refugees within Iraq. A UN report has placed the number of displaced at 62,679 families, or roughly 370,000 people, from within Anbar province.

This campaign was initiated by Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki, whose sectarian policies privilege Shia Iraqis and conflated all Sunni Iraqis with terrorists. His party, the Islamic Dawa Party, won more seats than any other political block in the Iraqi parliamentary elections on April 30th, securing their dominance over the political scene in Iraq; despite widespread allegations of voting irregularities and intimidation. After the election results, Maliki took his party’s victory as a green light to intensify his assault on Fallujah. On May 4th, 5 civilians were wounded and 15 were killed by the bombing and shelling. On May 5th, 9 civilians were wounded and 4 were killed. The next day 9 people were wounded and 4 killed. And the day after that, 45 civilians were wounded and 7 were killed. And so on, day after day. Fallujans were at the mercy of military forces who bombed and shelled their city at will, often using new experimental “barrel bombs” dropped from Iraqi Air Force M18 helicopters in residential areas of the city.


Just when it seemed as if the militants in Fallujah and the government were locked in stalemate that could go on forever, slowly killing off and starving the population of Fallujah, ISIS and several other militias launched a blitzkrieg assault that captured the city of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. The Western media reported that on June 10th Mosul “fell” to ISIS and 500,000 residents fled their home in fear. Again, ISIS was portrayed as a monolithic actor that was conquering territory through violence and intimidation. Again, the reality was more complicated.

The joint operations launched by ISIS, tribal, and Baathist militias to take Mosul faced little opposition from the Iraqi Army, which threw down its weapons and deserted en mass. Five hundred thousand residents of Mosul did indeed flee their homes, but not out of fear of ISIS’s Sharia courts. Rather, they fled because they feared that Maliki’s reprisal would make their city “another Falluja [sic]”.

This “revolution”, which started in Fallujah and slowly spread to other cities in Anbar province, suddenly become a national phenomenon attracting international headlines and the fearful eye of Washington and Tehran. The loose coalition of rebel militias went on to capture, or liberate, other cities north of Baghdad, including Tikrit, cities to the West, such as Tel Afar, and one of Iraq’s largest oil refineries at Baiji. In response, Muqtada al Sadr recalled his Mahdi Army but has not yet taken sides in this battle. However, other predominantly Shia organizations have announced their support for the revolution, such as the Unified Confederation of Tribes of the South and Middle Euphrates and the Popular Movement for the Salvation of Iraq, and some Shiite religious leaders have announced their support as well.

The rapid growth of this revolution would not have been possible without IS, who brought international funding and a steady supply of weapons to the cause. Their capture of US military equipment gifted to the Iraqi Army helped them quickly become one of the most powerful military forces in the region. In July they changed their name from the Islamic State of Iraq and al Shab to just the Islamic State. They also announced that their military leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi was now wearing a second hat as the Caliph of the newly constituted Islamic state.

Furthermore, the gains of the rebels prompted the US and Iranian governments to take more overt forms of intervention. US President, Barrack Obama initially promised to send 300 “advisers” to aid the Iraqi military. Meanwhile, Iran sent troops and mechanized units.

During this period the Iraqi Army’s siege on Fallujah transformed into a more general and protracted military campaign against the uprising that had spread across much of western, central, and northern Iraq. Events escalated further when IS’s territorial gains began to encroach upon Kurdish territory and IS began killing and evicting religious minorities from the areas they captured. When IS trapped tens of thousands of Yazidis (neither Christians nor Muslims and, therefore, apostates in the eyes of IS) on top of a mountain and threatened genocide against them, the Obama administration decided to renew airstrikes in Iraq.

However, in President Obama’s address to the nation, he identified the beginning of IS’s “advance across Iraq” as starting in June, omitting the six months prior when the Islamic State was gaining strength and momentum by defending Fallujah from the Iraqi government’s assault. President Obama also omitted the US role in creating the conditions that allowed the Islamic State to grow and thrive by arming the Maliki government’s genocide against the Sunni population in Anbar. Instead, President Obama claimed that the US was just at that moment choosing to intervene in Iraq against a terrorist threat that appeared out of nowhere in June in order to “prevent a potential act of genocide”.

This ahistorical analysis of the Islamic State’s rise to power and US intervention in Iraq obscures the flaws in the Obama administration’s policies, because the proposed solutions mirror the conditions that strengthened and emboldened the Islamic State. IS’s success in Iraq cannot be explained by its brutal tactics, its religious ideology as a source of recruitment, or its Saudi Arabian Financiers. Many of those who came to tolerate, support, or ally themselves with IS in Iraq were former nonviolent protestors in the Iraqi Spring movement that explicitly opposed federalism and sectarianism. But they were willing to overlook IS’s sectarian rhetoric (when in the beginning it was just rhetoric) and their goal of dividing Iraq out of their desperation to overthrow the Maliki government. IS was only permitted to exist amongst the Sunni community because of the oppression of the Iraqi government. Not only did it survive the airstrikes and shelling of the Iraqi government, but it grew and thrived because of them. Thus, we should not expect that renewed US airstrikes will do anything but increase the Sunni population’s reliance on IS for security and further strengthen IS as an organization.

Viewed in this context, the Obama administration’s actions are deeply sectarian. Despite its calls for an inclusive government in Baghdad, and its initiative to force Nouri al Maliki to step down from his Prime Ministership; the reality of the Obama administration’s actions is that they have chosen sides in a sectarian war. Indeed, Maliki was forced to step down from his position as Prime Minister, and the Iraqi President, Fouad Massoum, appointed Haider al Abadi to take his place. However, a new “presidential structure” was created for three Vice Presidents, and one of those seats was given to Nouri al-Maliki.

Furthermore, the new Prime Minister is a member the same sectarian based political party as Maliki. Shortly after Abadi’s cabinet was formed, the Sunni community’s suspicions that the new government would continue the policies of the old guard were proven true. On September 13, Prime Minister Abadi promised to end all attacks on civilian areas. However, the very next day, Fallujah was bombed and shelled. Six civilians were killed and twenty-two were wounded. Then on September 15th, Fallujah was bombed again. Two people were killed and fourteen were injured. On September 16th, three civilians were killed and nineteen wounded. In short, the bombing and shelling of Fallujah has continued unabated under the new Abadi government.

Far from a humanitarian intervention, and lacking effective diplomatic action to create an inclusive government, the Obama administration has merely increased its support for the sectarian government in Baghdad.

Furthermore, the Obama administration’s initial promise of limited overt intervention in Iraq has gradually been expanded to a planned three-year mission. The number of troops deployed to Iraq continues to grow well beyond the initial 300 figure, with small teams now operating on the ground. Then, in a significant escalation of the conflict, on September 23rd, President Obama announced that the US was conducting airstrikes against IS in Syria as well as Iraq. And the US is now conducting airstrikes around Fallujah.

Endless War

The 3rd Siege of Fallujah saved IS from remaining the marginal military force that it had thus far been. The brutality of this siege created the casus belli for the Islamic State to gain legitimacy in the eyes of many Iraqis, allowing them to secure a foothold in Sunni communities and expand their campaign to establish themselves as a regional military power and as a self proclaimed caliphate, administering the lives of millions of inhabitants.

Their success has elicited shrill panic in the Western world. IS dominates the media’s attention, and what gets lost in this hysteria is that IS is not the only religiously motivated, expansionist state in the region, IS is not the only group beheading people in the region (the Iraqi military and Saudi Arabia both behead people regularly), and IS is not the only group with genocidal ambitions in the region.

IS is not an isolated phenomenon. Their campaign of terror is happening in parallel with a very legitimate uprising against an oppressive government. But to understand how these two movements can be happening simultaneously, one needs to understand how the US-led occupation crushed all opposition to their political project (most notably in Fallujah, how they put a corrupt, sectarian government in power, the US and Iraqi governments repression of the Iraqi Spring protests, and the 3rd siege of Fallujah.

The violence in Iraq could quite easily be resolved by addressing the needs of the Sunni community—thereby reducing their reliance on IS for security—and by holding those who committed crimes against them accountable. IS has alienated themselves from their base of support through their brutal tactics and their sectarianism. There are Sunni groups that are willing and more than capable of ejecting IS from their communities, but they will not do so until the crimes committed against them have been addressed. However, the US has no interest in taking effective diplomatic action, and instead has chosen endless war.

The point is, understanding what we did to Fallujah is important. Not only should the name “Fallujah” be remembered alongside other American made massacres—like Wounded Knee, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Mai Lai—understanding what we have done to this city is key to understanding how murderous our current policies in Iraq really are, and how we can extract ourselves from this bloodbath.