London – On the eve of the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, in a televised address, President Barack Obama proclaimed, “Now, it will take time to eradicate a cancer like ISIL [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant].” There you have it, the official diagnosis of malignant caliphate with terror cells, announced on behalf of the international community by an unlicensed oncologist-in-chief whose “comprehensive and sustained” targeted therapy should “degrade” the diseased “and ultimately destroy” the disease. In other words, “if [a cancer like ISIL] threatens America, [it] will find no safe haven.” What is the procedure, then? In part, it’s having a coalition-of-oncologists from near and far on-call to backup the chief’s official diagnosis and the consequent treatment: “From governments and peoples across the Middle East there has to be a common effort to extract this cancer, so that it does not spread.”
Because cancer kills, and it kills every day.
In her 1978 treatise Illness as Metaphor, American author Susan Sontag, who between 1974 and 1977 received treatment for stage-four breast cancer and in 2004 died at age 71 due to complications of acute myelogenous leukemia, wrote, “Nothing is more punitive than to give a disease a meaning – that meaning being invariably a moralistic one.” With respect to America’s latest counterterrorism campaign, Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq and Syria, what purpose does illness as metaphor serve, and who gets degraded? Who is invariably moralistic, and what gets destroyed?
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The Role of Doctors in War and in General
“As a doctor, your job is to save lives, although the majority of our job is prolonging peoples’ lives and trying to make them healthy and to alleviate their pain,” said Meryem Kaya, a Kurdish general surgical junior doctor based in London. From August 20 to 27, 2014, Dr. Kaya was part of a volunteer team organized by the Kurdish Doctors Association in Germany, comprised of seven doctors, a dentist, a pharmacy student and three journalists from the German broadcaster Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen. That team assisted thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees, largely the Yazidis but also Turkmen, Christian and Muslim Arabs, of the Sinjar region in northern Iraq.
Dr. Kaya’s patients had very recently fled the August 2014 offensive of the malignant caliphate.
“The thing we dealt with more [in Iraqi Kurdistan] was the number of patients rather than the very sick patients,” Dr. Kaya said. “We were treating – and most of the very sick ones, unfortunately, died along the way – things like joint pain and back pain; sore throat and sore eyes due to their exposure to a lot of sand on their travels; psychosomatic symptoms like stress-related tension headaches; gastroenteritis due to a lack of appropriate sanitation in the camps; urinary-tract infections in women because they weren’t dealing with their toilet needs.” She added, “We were told by another doctor that 10 babies had died over a period of 20 days due to malnutrition and infections whilst he was working in one of the camps.”
On November 2, 2014, Dr. Kaya spoke to a crowd of 80 at “The Rojava Revolution: Kobane, Resistance and Radical Democracy,” a panel discussion between political activists that was held in the basement of the Halkevi Community Centre in East London. She described her medical work with clinics in and around the IDP and refugee camps in the cities of Zaxo and Duhok (both of which continue to experience a patient influx due to “sharp growth in recent internal displacements.”) In her estimation, since the malignant caliphate’s offensive in early August, patient admission in said clinics increased tenfold from 50 people daily, her own medical assessments approximating 100 each day. Back in London, she’d average 10 patients.
“The role of doctors is very important in war because war causes death, pain, limb-loss, separation from families, friends and homes. And we can help with all of those things, whether it’s surgical needs, medical needs or psychiatric needs.”
Words Mean Something (Never Going to Say Never)
President Obama, the oncologist-in-chief, declared “the cancer of violent extremism” and as commander-in-chief he prescribes airstrikes. On September 5, 2014, at the NATO Summit Press Conference in Newport, Wales, he was asked, “If you think that the objective here is to destroy and degrade [ISIL], are those the same thing in your mind?” Appealing to the rhetoric of invariable morality inherent to counterterrorism discourse, he reiterated, “The bottom line is, we will do what is necessary in order to make sure that ISIL does not threaten the United States or our friends and partners.” Sounds like the bottom line of any committed, best-intentioned oncologist, no doubt. By way of illustration, a few months after Chantal’s diagnosis, the belief circulated among friends and family that the oncologists will do what is necessary in order to make sure the cancer doesn’t ultimately destroy her. My high school friend Chantal died six years ago, age 20. Now, can you imagine the invasion of Kobane as analogous to the cancer that spread through Chantal’s brain? If you can’t, never say never … in the words of the oncologist-in-chief, guest on CBS’s Face the Nation from November 9, 2014:
Moderator Bob Schieffer: Should we expect that more troops may be needed before [Operation Inherent Resolve] is over?
President Obama: You know, as commander-in-chief, I’m never going to say never. But what, you know, the commanders who presented the plan to me say is that we may actually see fewer troops over time because now we’re seeing coalition members starting to partner with us on the training and assist effort.
From the above it could be inferred that this official bottom line would embrace never-ending war. As it were, embracing the “long-term commitment” doctrine. What is more, former President George W. Bush faced America in the subsequent segment, and was a very welcomed guest of Mr. Schieffer, indeed: “When you say something as President, you better mean it,” President Bush recalled. “Words mean something.”
In an article for The Guardian on October 23, 2001, Indian author Arundhati Roy projected the underbelly of such an invariably militaristic bottom line and the consequent inversions: “Because we know that Infinite Justice for some means Infinite Injustice for others. And Enduring Freedom for some means Enduring Subjugation for others.” Named in the tradition of the 13-year Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, which was originally dubbed an insulting “Operation Infinite Justice,” is the latest war: Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq and Syria. Now, there’s an unofficial interpretation of “Inherent Resolve” detectable in President Obama’s address from the White House on the eve of September 10, 2014: “America, our endless blessings bestow an enduring burden.” Is it a fair assessment, then, to deem Inherent Resolve – like Enduring Freedom, Enduring Subjugation and Enduring Burden – a synonym for never-ending war? By way of illustration, “how many Muslim countries has the US bombed or occupied since 1980?”
Because violent extremism kills, and it kills every day.
Making an Appearance of Medical Professionals
On November 11, 2014, over a week after “The Rojava Revolution” panel, Dr. Kaya and I met at a restaurant a few blocks from Halkevi Community Centre. I told her about my oncologist-in-chief interpretation, and this criticism of the White House’s “doctoral role” in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and beyond proved contagious. “‘We as America, are going to operate and make things better by getting rid of the cancer,'” she improvised. “I think [the cancer metaphor] is just another tactic by America to make their work or their wars fair and just. They’re making an appearance of medical professionals going to solve a problem.”
Based on the accounts of some of her IDP and refugee patients, Dr. Kaya reiterated, “The work of America or the West isn’t praised. People we spoke to praised the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) or Abdullah Öcalan.” She added, “They [some of my patients] don’t appreciate America’s ‘doctor work’ because they don’t trust it.”
Dr. Kaya posited that the oil factor, in part, reproduces mistrust, to which I identified said factor’s existing metaphor with two analogies: “wield the oil weapon” or “pull the trigger of the oil weapon.” In late August, a doctor from Mosul, Iraq, with whom Dr. Kaya had briefly worked in one of the camps, told her, “‘You know what? Poverty is better than petroleum. We’re going through all of this – the war, the situation, the attacks by the Islamic State – just because we have very petro-rich land.'”
Our assessment of illness as metaphor resumed once more: “If you’re coming up with an operation you’d expect the doctor to say, ‘these are the risks, but we’re doing it with the best intentions.’ And if you’re doing it for anything other than that, you’re abusing your power and knowledge.”
As a licensed MD, she opined: “It’s like malpractice, isn’t it?”