We all know the saying that knowledge is power. However as descendants of the information age our generation must also grapple with the inverse: misinformation is the deprivation of power, and this maxim serves as the basis for all propaganda. With the 2016 US Presidential elections looming around the corner, and candidates like Hillary Clinton invoking 9/11 every time someone asks her a tricky question, it is important that we, in the words of the Australians, ‘keep the bastards honest’ and remember the lessons of history.
The greatest tragedy of 9/11, contrary to the Jingoistic cries from Clinton or Bush, is not the deaths of the three thousand Americans who perished at the twin towers or subsequent attacks. That is not to demean the deaths of the innocent, ordinary, Americans, who died as a result of their government’s foreign policy. Rather, it is a call for a frank and open discussion on how those deaths were used to justify the deaths of 113,728 equally innocent Iraqi civilians, who were killed by American and Coalition forces by blindly rushing into a ground war in Iraq, and how that has led to the ever growing spectre of insurgency. The greatest tragedy of 9/11 is how those three thousand deaths were twisted to suit the agenda of the Bush administration, in not only depriving the fundamental rights of human beings through extensive ‘enhanced interrogation technique’ programs, but in creating a cycle of war with a death toll now numbering in the millions. Just as historians look back on the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Gavrilo Princip as a watershed moment that redirected the course of history towards the First World War, six years from now, historians will look on our reaction to 9/11 as the catalyst for the continuing cycle of insurgency and conflict in the Middle East.
History will not be kind in its assessment of the Iraq War, not because it was an ‘unjust war’, but because of the failings of the Bush administration in preparing for the aftermath. Purely from the perspective of American geopolitics and human ethics, the invasion of Iraq can be seen as a ‘just war’, not because of 9/11 or the non-existent ‘weapons of mass destruction’, but because of the atrocities already committed by Saddam Hussein. To put them into context, this is a wannabe Hitler who attempted acts of genocide on the Kurdish people, brutally suppressed the Shia Muslim population (think the persecution of Catholics in Northern Ireland), showed a willingness to invade other sovereign nations such as Kuwait (enter the First Gulf War) and Iran (where the CIA had already gone to the trouble of overthrowing their democratically elected government for oil), and broke the Geneva Convention in deploying mustard gas.
While from a layman perspective, things like the Geneva Convention and rules on war seem rather oxymoronic (especially since countries like the United States, Russia, China, and Israel repeatedly flaunt these rules with regards to the use of white phosphorous, land mines, and cluster bombs) they serve as an incredibly important foundation for civilization’s existence. Contrary to popular belief, war is not about killing people, killing people is a rather unfortunate (and the most common) side effect. War is, in its purest form, the use of military force to achieve political means: whether that be annexation (Russia v Crimea last year), conflict over territorial disputes (Britain v Argentina over the Falkland Islands), or a war of annihilation (Rome v Carthage: Carthago delenda est – furthermore I consider that Carthage must be destroyed). It is only in the last case, a war of annihilation, where killing people is seen as the primary objective, and even then the most efficient and logical way to accomplish this, ironic as it may be, is not by killing people but by maiming them.
Without human morality, if we were to approach the cold arithmetic of warfare through the lens of game theory, it is actually superior to injure an enemy combatant to the extent that he is no longer combat effective, (such as removing limbs, damaging internal organs, blinding them, etc) as opposed to killing them, because now they represents a liability for the opposing state. After all, the maimed combatant now requires constant medical aid, acting as a strain on resources, and serves as a form of psychological warfare in demoralising other young people who might be enticed by the old lie of dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (sweet and honourable it is to die for the fatherland), which weakens the political will of the state to continue fighting. Eventually the sheer number of maimed-but-still-alive combatants pushes the opposing state to a breaking point: if they abandon their efforts to help the wounded, they lose the political will of their people. However, if they continue to sustain the wounded they run the risk of running out of resources to keep up the war effort. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Now one of the reasons why such a convention exists was due to the meat grinder that was the First World War: where millions of young men would be brutally cut to pieces by machine gun fire, torn apart by artillery shells, or strung up by barbed wire (not to mention countless deaths from disease). The cold logic of maiming-but-not-killing enemy combatants started to be seen as a rather clever way to bleed their enemies white. Chemical weapons, such as mustard gas, were designed to horrifically incapacitate large swathes of the opposition with relatively little investment or risk, in an attempt to overload field hospitals with casualties and ‘break’ the psychological will of the opposition. Mustard gas in particular, causes painful blisters on exposed skin, akin to first or second degree burns, and when inhaled, burn out the lungs, so that the combatant, while not dead, remains in excruciating pain – taking days or even weeks to die (although mild to moderate exposure can be treated with prolonged care). It was a weapon considered so awful, so inhumane in the amount of pain sufferers experienced, that after the First World War it was universally agreed to never be used again. Even in the desperate depths of the Second World War, when both sides willingly committed war crimes (such as the Allied firebombing of Dresden, or the Nazi Einsatzgruppen death squads) mustard gas was considered by leaders like Churchill, but never used, for fear of reprisal and escalation. The true horror of mustard gas remained that it a weapon most effective against civilian targets, as opposed to military ones, due to how easily mustard gas can be neutralised with protective equipment.
Moving back to the Middle East, Saddam Hussein represented a massive threat to the stability of the region. Not only because of his abysmal human rights record (after all we are still allies with the House of Saud who behead people for the crime of atheism, or stone to death adulterers), and his rabid propensity to attack anyone in sight; but because, thanks to oil profits (unlike Kim Jong Il), he actually had the economic means to finance and carry out large-scale wars of annihilation. Purely from the angle of trying to keep a volatile region stable, what with the Shia Iranians trying to make a nuclear bomb and not being too happy with Saddam’s Sunni Iraq (especially after he spent 8 years at war with them in the 80s), an invasion of Iraq could be seen as a ‘just war’ to keep the peace, as oxymoronic as it may sound, and to bring to a war criminal to justice.
The 9/11 attacks unfortunately pushed, what could have been a reasonable and somewhat justified military intervention to remove a monstrous despot, into an act of fearmongering and scapegoating. Despite most of the 9/11 attackers being from Saudi Arabia, a nation which belligerently promotes Wahhabism: a militant and fundamentalist interpretation of Islam which promotes violence as a means of spreading the gospel of the Quran, Saddam got slapped with the ‘terrorist’ label as a way of selling the war to the American public. Overly afraid of what had happened in the Vietnam War, a prolonged quagmire which had sucked in and spat out 2,709,918 US troops over the course of 11 years (about 9.6% of their generation), the Bush administration wanted a quick war – one to the tune of the WWI phrase, “Would be over by Christmas” – with as few American troops and casualties as possible.
To that end, all preparations for the Iraq War were done with the primary objectives of getting in, taking out Saddam Hussein, and getting out as quickly as possible with as little loss of American life. General David Petraeus was given the difficult task of orchestrating the invasion of an entrenched and mobilised enemy nation with a fraction of the projected number of soldiers needed. A task which he was able to accomplish in six weeks and under 150 casualties, a truly remarkable feat as far as the military sciences are concerned. Unfortunately for Petraeus, he won too quickly – no one in the Bush administration had contemplated Saddam’s Iraq collapsing that quickly and the small number of troops on the ground now faced the Herculean task of trying to fill the power vacuum. While George Bush was busy declaring Mission Accomplished, a knee-jerk decision was made to immediately purge all members of the Socialist Ba’ath party from government, which included all teachers, public and civil servants, professors, and doctors, effectively removing the experienced people who kept the country running. The purge of the Ba’athists was soon followed by disbanding the Iraqi Armed Forces, turning 375,000 armed young men and officers out onto the street with no pay and no pension. As Germany’s Weimar Republic had learned to their demise in 1918, abruptly firing a bunch of angry young men (who still had their guns) is a sure-fire way to start an insurgency or a coup. Many of these young men and officers (as well as surviving members of Saddam’s fanatical Fedayeen, Iraq’s equivalent of the Gestapo) would go on to become the very insurgents America invaded to find in the first place, joining Al-Qaeda in droves, and later forming today’s bogeyman: the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Meanwhile the initial waves of gratitude from Iraqi citizens, who chanted ‘USA, USA, USA’ as American troops rolled past their streets, with a fervour that would put Trump supporters to shame, began to fade as the law and order of Saddam’s regime gave way to banditry and lawlessness, with too few troops on the ground to keep the peace. The infrastructure in major cities, such as Baghdad and Fallujah, had been devastated as part of the collateral damage from America’s ‘Shock and Awe’ doctrine (which amounted to driving around in the desert until someone shot at you and then bombing the hell out of them) in their efforts to oust Saddam. As the months rolled by, with little effort by US and Coalition forces to restore running power, water, and sewage, gratitude quickly turned to bitterness and resentment. The greatest nation on the planet, which had promised them democracy, freedom from oppression, and prosperity stood by, impotent, while Iraqi citizens suffered reprisal attacks from Fedayeen, died as collateral damage from US engagements with insurgents, or were left to the tender mercies of former soldiers turned bandits. Despite Saddam’s brutality and oppression, life had largely been prosperous for the average Iraqi citizen, now largely unemployed, and his iron fist had at least ensured a semblance of stability.
Six months of no running electricity, power, water, sewage, with rampant looting, violence and massive unemployment went by while the Bush administration patted themselves on the back. Little effort was made by American forces to rebuild the nation they had unscrupulously destroyed, and the strategic blunder of removing the very people who kept the country running soured the opinion of Iraqi citizens. Even to the most moderate, tolerant and civilized person there comes a time when you reach a breaking point – six hours without a wifi connection your average college student is already foaming at the mouth, at six months they’ll be disassembling Kalashnikovs in their living room and reciting passages from The Little Red Book. Throw into the mix 375,000 unemployed and quite angry young men with guns being told that all this is a result of the American invaders by Fedayeen zealots and Al Qaeda recruiters, amidst an increasingly desperate and disenfranchised population, and you have a recipe for the current insurgency in the Middle East.
Despite spending more on its military than every other nation combined. Despite having the most advanced war colleges in the world. And despite the blood soaked lessons of the Vietnam War, the Bush administration failed in grasping the fundamental tenets of counter-insurgency. Without the support of the people, the insurgent is a fish out of water. Therefore, the most important objective is always to gain the trust of the people by establishing order and prosperity. It’s a rather simple rule of thumb that happy people with jobs and a stable government generally don’t strap bombs to themselves or make IEDs in their garage. Give them a reason to work with you, instead of against you, and given how hated Saddam and his Fedayeen were by the average Iraqi citizen, this should have been a walk in the park. Iraq even had the benefit over Vietnam in possessing a large middle class of highly educated and skilled citizens, which the Bush administration immediately antagonised by having a large number of them fired from their government positions. To add insult to injury, the Bush Administration, in their zealous purging of Saddam’s Ba’ath party, even released highly trained Iraqi officers and individuals like Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, who would later form the leadership of ISIL, deeming them to be a ‘low threat’, while imprisoning and torturing innocents.
What we face today in the Middle East in the form of ISIL, is a direct result of fearmongering after 9/11 and the exploitation of those 3,000 deaths by our leaders. For the sins of the Bush administration in the first six months of the Iraq War, we have paid for it with 12 years of war in the Middle East and the 654,000 deaths that have come with it. We have paid for it with an estimated 2-3.5 trillion dollars to our society and our taxpayers. We have paid for their sins by stepping further and further away from victory, in this so called ‘war on terror’, by pouring oil on the flames and manufacturing conflict for future generations. ISIL insurgents might as well have a ‘Made in America’ stamp on their feet for America’s involvement in creating the power vacuum that birthed and armed them.
A RAND (an independent Research ANd Development think-tank for the US military) put the median length of an insurgency to 10 years in a 2010 study. If we look back at the Iraq War (2003) we have an entire generation of young men and women, who had the arbitrary misfortune of being born in the wrong place at the wrong time, growing up under the sound of gunfire and air strikes. Poorly educated, without any opportunities to advance in life, these are young men and women who witnessed their loved ones killed or maimed by weapons made in the USA. Is it no wonder that they grow up filled with hate, seduced by the idea that power flows from the barrel of a gun? Under the teachings of Sun Tzu, we know that a cornered enemy will fight twice as hard – and yet we seem to have fooled ourselves into thinking that we can win this war against ISIL by backing them into a corner.
US policy makers and presidential candidates continue to ignore the rather simple question of why these insurgents want us dead, spouting off fearmongering rhetoric about them hating our freedom. For many of them, short of extremist propaganda, they couldn’t give a damn about our freedom (or growing lack thereof in light of the Paris Attacks). They hate us because we are killing them. They hate us because we continue to bomb their brothers and sisters, regardless of if they are insurgents or not. Currently any male of military age (16-35) is deemed an insurgent by the US government when killed in a drone strike or military operation, even if they were as innocent as those who died in 9/11. They hate us because our tax payer dollars are being spent on drone strikes on weddings (or Medico-San-Frontier hospitals) and funding other ‘moderate’ rebel groups (or the equally brutal Assad regime) who go around killing their loved ones.
Fearmongering after 9/11 is what led to the deaths of 654,000 in Iraq. Blindly lashing out, without any thought to the consequences, is what has birthed the hydra of ISIL and the looming spectre of insurgency in the Middle East. The wars of our generation will not be over by Christmas. We will be still be fighting them a decade from now. If we truly wish to stop ISIL then we must first look inwards at those in our governments who have played a part in their creation. We must work on rebuilding what we have destroyed, so that the next generation will not grow up with nothing to lose, and nothing to hope for. We must bring our own leaders to justice for exploiting the deaths of those at 9/11 in order to commit crimes against humanity to show the world our commitment to the unshakeable tenets of democracy, freedom, and civilization. Just as after the horrors of the First World War and the breaking apart of empires we cried out lest we forget, so too shall we never forget the tragedy of the Iraq War and the complicity of our leaders.