Defending the dead
The Globe & Mail recently did a hack-job on the character of Pte Mark Graham, who was killed in Afghanistan earlier this year. Some of us are hacking back.
Where left is never right.
"They didn't get anything – except a bloody good hiding."
At one point a Black Watch sergeant explains to his men why they are in Iraq: “You’re here because Her Majesty’s Government has decided that there’s no way we can sit down in Basra brushing up on our Arabic and topping up our tans when our allies are getting ten types ay shite knocked out ay them by the Mujahidin. It’s our turn tay be in the shite. We’ve had three hundred years ay being in the shite. If you dinnay like shite, then you shouldnay have bothered f*****g joining.”
I wonder what was going through Gordon Brown’s mind as he watched the 3rd Battalion of the Black Watch (sic) swinging past him through the streets of Kirkcaldy on Saturday, pipes playing, boots thudding, eyes left. They had just been granted the freedom of Fife, the region that provides the bulk of their recruits, and they were parading in front of the VIPs, who included their local MP, the Chancellor.
He may have noticed that they wore battledress, not kilts, and he may have wondered why. It was not because they are about to go back to Iraq — which they are — but because, since the amalgamation of the Scottish regiments, they are allowed to wear the red hackle, their most famous emblem, only when they are kitted out for patrol.
"It is only a matter of time before all five Regiments are wearing the same uniform and the bracketed names are dropped. This is a meaningless gesture in the greater picture of almost 400 years of proud service to the country. The appalling decision to merge the Royal Scots with the King's Own Scottish Borderers will be remembered by all patriotic men and women of Scotland as the ultimate act of betrayal by this Labour Government and those cowardly, so-called Scottish MPs and MSPs - mainly Labour - who deserted the men of those Regiments in their hour of need."
“Tradition is important,” Evans said. “For a soldier, tradition is often the reason one carries on when there are so many reasons not to. It’s more than just yourself, more than just your mates – but it’s not just something for soldiers, is it? It is true – or should be true – of any professional community.”
As I saw things in early 2003, there were three good reasons for deposing Saddam Hussein, any one of which, by itself, was sufficient to justify his ouster: (1) Saddam was a maniac who had weapons of mass destruction; (2) The creation of a democracy in the heart of the Muslim Middle East would transform the region by firing a fatal crack into the monolith of Arab tyranny; and (3) Putting the wrecking ball to Saddam's dungeons would end the wanton slaughter of Iraq's long-suffering people.
Turns out I was zero for three.
The first zero became obvious in the early months of the American occupation: The WMDs simply weren't there.
The second zero is playing out on the streets as you read this: Rival sectarian militias, rogue Iraqi security units, foreign Jihadis and coalition soldiers locked in an endless war of all-against-all. Amidst the carnage, millions of brave Iraqis have voted in national elections. But the forms and pageantry of democracy can't disguise the fact that the tolerant, pluralistic government everyone wanted remains a pipe dream: While Iraq's legislature serves as an arena for squabbling amongst the country's three main groups, the real spoils are hashed out on the streets by their various militias. Far from setting off a freedom epidemic in the Middle East, Iraq's tragedy has created Exhibit A for every Arab tyrant looking to justify his hold on power.
And then, last week, the third and final zero: a new study of 1,849 randomly selected, geographically representative Iraqi families conducted by the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
These 1,849 families had collectively suffered a staggering 547 violent deaths since the American invasion, a number almost eight times higher than one would expect based on pre-invasion death rates. If you extrapolate that increase to the whole of Iraq, you come up with a total of about 600,000 violent deaths.
As critics of the John Hopkins study have noted, extrapolation is an imperfect business. So let's assume the real total is half that -- that a mere 100,000 per year died violently in the three years following the invasion. This reduced total would still be stunning enough to undermine the humanitarian argument for war. Consider: During his quarter-century of absolute power in Iraq, Saddam killed about a million innocents through aggressive war, internal slaughters, political pogroms and assorted acts of torture and brutality. Do the math and you find that, as horrible as Saddam was, his killing machine chewed up humanity at less than half the rate of the bloody insurgency unwittingly spawned by America's invasion.
First off, much of the German army was kept in being or reconscripted into labour battalions to assist in early rebuilding. I identified the May 23, 2003 decision to permanently disband the Iraqi military and aggressively de-Baathify the civil service as a huge error in September of that year, and nothing that's happened since has changed that opinion.
Even before I arrived in Kandahar, in December, 2001, I was worried about what kind of government would replace the Taliban regime. For it seemed that U.S. officials were ushering discredited warlords into positions of power, though the Afghan people wanted nothing of them, and gave President Hamid Karzai a resounding mandate to expel them from the body politic. In 2002 and 2003, the U.S. government prevented Mr. Karzai from moving against these warlords, and then he, discouraged, gave up trying. The result is a government that is devoured by corruption, with offices up for sale, and officials whose entire motivation is to extract money and favours from their countrymen.
Safia Ama Jan, unfortunately, was one of those, and so her death is very emblematic indeed. She used her office to monopolize money earmarked for Kandahar women, pocketing much of it and using the rest to favour exclusively the members of her own ethnic group. Afghans currently dread interaction with officials like Safia Ama Jan. Bribes are extracted for the least administrative task; soldiers manhandle people or shake them down; principals steal humanitarian assistance earmarked for their students.
"We are like a man trying to balance on two watermelons," said Zarghona, a member of my co-operative, this summer. "The Taliban prey upon us at night, and the government preys upon us in the daytime."
Some of the other points critics of the war make are questionable, and come down to carping. Take the example of disbanding the Iraqi army and banning Baathists from holding any positions of power. Turned the country into a chaotic mess, right? In hindsight, maybe. But we'll never be able to know what would have happened if the U.S. had taken the other fork in that road. It's quite possible the insurgency would have been far more effective with Baathist sympathizers in key government positions. And how much would the brutalized Shia and Kurdish populations have supported the reform process if their oppressors had been left in positions of influence? This sort of criticism is about counting angels dancing on pinheads.
Is it worth having the discussion about hypotheticals? Sure it is. But we shouldn't jump to unsubstantiable conclusions. That holds true for my side of the argument as well: keeping experienced Baathist hands on levers of government with which they were intimately familiar might well have avoided much of the chaos that has allowed the insurgency to survive this long. Just because I have a hard time swallowing that line of reasoning doesn't mean I'm right.