I’ve written this op-ed often enough that it has become formulaic: Fallujah is under attack again. And as a veteran who once helped sack Fallujah, I have a duty to divert your attention to this and plead with you to do something about it.
The fact that Fallujah has come under attack often enough for this to feel routine points to the embarrassing failure of the US antiwar movement, which is also my failure, and to our flawed foreign policy that has brought nothing but constant violence to Iraqis.
It also forces me to consider the bizarre space I occupy as an American and a veteran, as a citizen and a penitent soldier of empire. I sit somewhere uncomfortably between vastly different worlds, between first world comforts and the real world struggles of the people we’re bombing. Their suffering is always on my mind, and I know that my country (amongst others) has caused it, and that I am still complicit, even though I’m no longer carrying a radio through their city.
My tax dollars pay for the military support that we are giving the Iraqi government, the government that has killed 224 civilians since the start of Ramadan three weeks ago. This figure includes 46 women and 55 children, and 346 have been wounded. It was my representatives who supported our renewed bombing missions in Iraq. And it is due to my shortcomings as a speaker and writer that I have not been able to articulate a compelling case for ending our military campaign in Iraq. I am bound to these people by more than just blood, their blood. I am responsible for what happens to them, linked to their well-being through this global chain of causal contributions.
My status as a veteran is nothing more to me than a thing I use to create a platform for myself so that I can be a soundboard for Iraqis and bring their message to Americans. What else could this status mean to me after participating in a massacre like the Second Siege of Fallujah, which was shamefully celebrated in the US as a heroic liberation? My “service” was a service to no one, and my “veteranness” – the result of this so-called service – only reminds me of what I regret and what others want me to be.
The status of veteran in our culture is an oddly neutral political space, imbued with nostalgia, sentimentality and esteem – and yet almost totally void of meaning. It is a highly emotional, yet vacuous label that we selectively fill with traces of meaning, a symbol that both the left and the right fight over to serve different political ends. Thus, the social significance of the veteran is whatever we want it to be. For most Americans, I’m Saving Private Ryan, John Wayne, The Hurt Locker, The Things They Carried, and every other war flick they’ve ever seenall rolled into a messy conglomeration of pre-war idealism, postwar responsibility and hurt feelings. But that’s not me and it doesn’t even scratch the surface of what my war experience meant for Iraqis, the absolute catastrophe that it was for them. However, if there is no honor in being a veteran, there is at least utility in it. So I use it. I try to use it to help the people I hurt.
I’ve tried to stay connected to Fallujah over the years, to know about the struggles of the people who live their, and to be useful to them whenever possible. I’ve even made a few friends, particularly with individuals who work with human rights groups or doctors who have been reaching out to the Western world for help in addressing their crisis of birth defects and cancers.
These relationships began during the tail end of the US-led occupation, when Fallujans were still living like prisoners in their own city. Fallujah had been closed off from the rest of Iraq behind barbed wire and checkpoints. Residents lived under curfew and had to carry ID badges everywhere they went. A heavy stigma was placed on Fallujah as a city of terrorists, not just in the Western mind but also in the rhetoric of the new Iraqi government.
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.
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. My friends in Fallujah tried to compile evidence, but their reports meet little interest in the West. Nevertheless, I saw their photos – the dozens, maybe hundreds of photos of men with the same zip ties up their abdomen and the same puncture wounds from electric drills.
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. Yet the government attacked the protests repeatedly, most notably at Hawija where they killed at least 50 civilians.
The form of the protests was a rhetorical appeal to the West. The choice of Occupy-style demonstrations and the decision to label their movement as a “Spring” was an attempt to gain Western attention and support. But no support came. Instead, I watched as the protest camps in Fallujah and Ramadi were attacked and nonviolence was transformed into armed rebellion.
By New Years Day 2014, many tribes in Anbar province, notably the tribes in and around Fallujah, were in full scale revolt against the Iraqi government. This explosion of violence gave the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria an opportunity to come back into Iraq and find support (where previously they had very little) by helping the tribal militias kick the government forces out of western Iraq. 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 a movement of their own 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, but this has always been a gross over simplification.
Even as the growth of ISIS has eclipsed the Sunni uprising, these movements continue to have very different goals and are of a very different moral character. Furthermore, these two movements are at times cooperative with one another, like when they jointly captured Mosul. But they are also, at times, antagonistic, and attitudes and allegiances often differ from militia to militia and even neighborhood to neighborhood.
More importantly, the overly simplistic binary of good guys and bad guys in the media’s analysis was assumed in the Iraqi government’s and the US’s 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 ISIS.
The US continued to supply the Iraqi government with weapons and intelligence as it bombed civilian structures and 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 narrative of the conflict, which they claim begins with ISIS’s aggression in Iraq, not US 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 air strikes on residential neighborhoods on September 13, and then proceeded, the very next day, to bomb and shell Fallujah, killing six civilians and wounding 22. Again on September 15, two civilians were killed and 14 were injured. And again on September 16th, three civilians were killed and nineteen wounded.
Barrel bombs, very similar to 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. In fact, civilian deaths, other than those killed by the Islamic State, have gotten minimal media coverage in general.
Air strikes by the US and Iraqi governments are presumed to be a good thing because it is believed that the sole source of instability in Iraq is the Islamic State. The logic follows that if we could simply kill every member of the Islamic State, peace and security would ensue in Iraq.
But few analysts or observers have considered what a victory would look like that defeated the Islamic State and left the Iraqi government in place. As brutal and oppressive as the Islamic State may be, they are the lesser of two evils for Iraqi Sunnis. The US 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 US has chosen sides in a sectarian war. And if the US were to succeed in its mission, the result would be the subjugation of Sunnis in Iraq.
I’ve watched over the last year and a half as the Fallujah hospital has been bombed over 30 times. My friend who worked in the hospital was forced to relocate to ISIS-held territory. My other friends who work with human rights groups have worked tirelessly to document the near daily atrocities in their city, only to be ignored.
Ever since the start of Ramadan three weeks ago, the Iraqi government has increased its bombing of Fallujah for a much-prophesied assault to recapture the city. 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 9, including 38 women and 49 children; but the death count has since risen to 203. And since the start of the conflict in January 2014, 5,171 civilians have been wounded and 3,171 have been killed in Fallujah alone.
Fallujah is seen by the Iraqi government and its allied Shi’ite 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 second siege of Fallujah in 2004 in ways that should not be ignored. And just as in 2004, there are remarkably few Western voices crying out in concern for what an assault would mean for civilians.
A friend in Fallujah reached out to me asking me to do something, to write to my Congressperson or to organize a protest. I don’t know how to explain to him the odd enthusiasm in this country for our mini-war against the Islamic State, and our simultaneous detachment from its consequences.
Americans want to know that something is being done, but they don’t really want to know the details. Even the antiwar movement has moved on to other issues. Ordinary Iraqis, and especially Sunnis, currently have no allies in the US.
Veterans appear to be the most engaged with this issue. Many are volunteering to fight with Kurdish militias, and some are even joining religious fanatics like Matthew VanDyke to fight the Islamic State. But the sense of duty that these veterans feel to solve Iraq’s problems is coupled with an unwillingness to solve them on terms set by Iraqis.
It’s an odd sense of duty that I can no longer relate to, one that is defined by a belief in good guys and bad guys, and a belief that evil can be extinguished.
In some sense we are all veterans, we have collectively been at war for fourteen years and we are all responsible in some limited way. The feeling that we have somehow been here before should compel us to think carefully about our status as citizens of empire and the duties and responsibilities that this status confers onto us.
Before we help the Iraqi government launch yet another assault on Fallujah, we need to better understand what we have involved ourselves in.