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Serbs All

We all become Serbs in wartime, and most especially the media.  Chris Hedges was right about that, among many other things.  War is a high, “perhaps the most powerful narcotic ever invented by humankind,” as he observed.  

The great bulk of our American exposure to the war in Iraq fits Chris Hedges’ picture of the Belgrade “coverage” of the long war in the Balkans:  “I was wasn’t a Serb a Croat or a Muslim,” he said, “so I covered it for what it was, it was disgusting human slaughter. And the war in Bosnia as in many wars was primarily the slaughter of innocents. But if I was a Serb, I would cover it through that mythic narrative and I would have looked at the war, as people in Belgrade did, very differently. I would have gone into the town and I would have first found that brave Serb soldier who’s a hero, then I would have found that trapped Serb family in the village who waited to be served by the gallant Serb militia that came into the town and then I would have interviewed Serb refugees about the terrible atrocities by the evil Muslims and Croats, and you don’t report outside of that narrative and if you do you don’t get published.”

The flight of Iraqi vermin into the safety of complicit Syria was part of the official narrative this week… another part of the narrative that sounded tinny and propagandistic to me.  I have been thinking of my late father-in-law Harry Arkelyan, who as a teenager fled the Turkish massacre of Armenians in 1915 and was grateful to Syrians to the day he died for the welcome that his surviving family got in Aleppo.  By the standards of our media today, Harry Arkelyan and Armenians in general might easily have been classified as part of a pro-Russian, anti-Turkish terrorist movement taking refuge in Syria–and he would have been targeted for vilification or even death.

The sobering up, the testing of the “liberation” narrative about Iraq, the recovery of some wider human perspective are all just beginning.  I like Robert Fisk’s cautionary piece here, and his steady skepticism on the street in Baghdad.

The New York Times had a stunning piece–another warning flare–on the fury of the American-trained director of a looted arts center in Baghdad.  Click to feel her rage.

Now about Doc Searls and the Barn-Raising for the Baghdad Museum:  The sentiment behind this links it to the venerable peacenik bumpersticker: “Bakesales for the Pentagon, Higher Taxes for Schools.”  That is, there’s a notion here that we’re forced to confront Official Destruction with Volunteer Re-Construction, and maybe someday think about turning around the priorities.  In this barn-raising case, the idea might be for 4H Clubs, Ladies Auxiliaries and the Little League to come to Baghdad and clean up the mess that US military forces did in the Cradle of Civilization.  I think it’s a nuttily cheerful evasion, first, of what happened.  We said it wasn’t about oil–and rejected the slogan “Operation Iraqi Liberation” –oops, that acronym.  But when it came to it, we had US tanks surrounding the oil ministry and the oil fields, and left the record of 8000 years of human civilization to the entirely predictable frenzy and greed of cultural vultures. 

“How could it have happened?” as Richard Nixon asked about Watergate.  It could not have happened if American public culture had not conditioned us to see Arabs in general and Iraqis as sub-human non-persons–terrorists, towel-heads, lost bedouins, a played out people, a mixed tribe of Islamists, fedayeen and idiots.  It could not have happened either if the Bushniks had given a moment’s broader discussion to what we’re fighting about, and for, in the longer term.  If Saddam ruled perchance Rome, we might just possibly have decided to go get him; but somebody would have said: oh, by the way, we have to save the Sistine Chapel!  If Saddam or somebody like him ruled Jerusalem perchance and we decided on regime change, somebody would have said: oh, by the way, we’re not taking over Just Anyplace–it’s the capital and core and repository of the cultural and spiritual legacy for all time of the Jewish people: protect the Western Wall! 

It tells us more than we want to know, more than we’ll ever admit, that in the case of the Fertile Crescent, the Mesopotamian Garden of Eden, it was strictly: Bombs Away!  And afterward, the damage to the memory of the species got Rummy’s blithe dismissal–just a little untidiness, guys, after a dust-up.  All thousand of Papa Bush’s thousand points of volunteer light won’t undo the damage, and why in the world should they be expected to?  The mission is make the Vandals recognize and admit what they did, as we all prepare to deal with the consequences.

{ 21 } Comments

  1. Anonymous | April 19, 2003 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    Right, it wold have been nice if someone would have thought to dispatch some troops to museum guard duty. Meanwhile, there are troops over at the oil ministry.

    But, they didn’t. Truth is, Iraq needs oil revenue more than it does museum revenue.

    This line of argument is only important to those still actively looking for reasons to oppose the war, those who believe that getting others to agree with their own individual moral code is more important than eliminating murderers and thugs.

  2. Anonymous | April 19, 2003 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    I don’t think you’ve thought this through. That, or you’re filtering this through a distinctly biased lens.
    Specifically, who do you think it was that looted and pillaged the antiquities in Baghdad? It wasn’t coalition troops. It wasn’t Shi’ite milita. It was the residents of Baghdad themselves. Clearly there isn’t enough civilization to go around and you want to blame the coalition troops because the Iraqis themselves are unable to appreciate and preserve their own heritage and instead viewed it as a way to make a quick buck.

    It’s absurd to think that a more moderated culture such as exists in Western Europe and specifically in Italy would look at a regime change as an opportunity to loot its own heritage. Your analogy fails on all points.

    If you want to blame anyone, blame the cultural institutions of Iraq for failing to instill a higher sense of social order and responsibility in the citizens of Iraq. Clearly they aren’t as far removed from their rapacious bedouin ancestors as many naive Americans assume. All it would have taken is a handful of concerned Iraqis or their clergy (or heaven forbid, Iraqi policemen) standing at the entrance to a couple of museums to to stave off this degenerate behavior. Ask yourself why they didn’t do that. Where were the Iraqi police? Where were the curators of the museums? their security guards? all of the other security elements of a normal society? That they collapsed instantly, abandoning all sense of order, with what appears to have been relatively minor outside pressure says a lot about the degree of social order in Iraq.

    Instead, you complain that a military force in the middle of a combat zone didn’t drop everything (including humanitarian assistance and self-protection) and rush to the aid of some old clay pots. How could you possibly describe that as a rational thing for coalition forces to do? On the otherhand, the coalition went far beyond all expectations in avoiding collateral damage to religious sites and other historical and cultural locales. I’m only aware of one mosque in in the entire country that was damaged as a direct result of coalition actions. How many museums and other cultural institutions were damaged or looted by Iraqis?

    What it tells me is that misinformed Americans are too quick to extrapolate their own values and social norms on to what is a distinctly non-American culture and then blame someone else when things don’t go as expected. That you assume lawlessness and destructive behavior is somehow caused by the coalition military only amplifies your misunderstanding of the social dynamics in Arab countries. Next time, you might want to ponder your own enthocentric pronouncements a little more before dispensing them in a public forum. You might come off looking a lot better informed and less impulsive. Certainly a lot less demeaning of your own culture…

  3. Anonymous | April 19, 2003 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    “the antiques in Baghdad” and “some old clay pots”.
    Mr. Shotton, which is it ?

  4. Anonymous | April 19, 2003 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    They’re largely one and the same, Mr. Suter, and the evidence is mounting that most of them were looted before the invasion/liberation even started.

  5. Anonymous | April 19, 2003 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    I’d feel more sympathy for the owner of the
    arts center if all my sympathy wasn’t used up
    reading the stories of Iraqi torture:

    But then I guess they are all US propaganda. Oh,
    I just heard about them on NPR, so they
    must have happened.

    I’m sure your father-in-law would be surprised
    to be equated with the people who committed these

  6. Anonymous | April 19, 2003 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    This ignorant article is proof that attending Harvard does not make you intelligent.

    Try comparing the Sistine Chapel with something more relevant, like the Shrine of the Imam Ali in Najaf. Oh yes, the same shrine that Iraqis were using as cover to snipe at our troops. The same shrine we surrounded but never fired at, never levelled, risking our young men’s lives so as not to “upset the Muslim community”.

    It’s past time the Muslim community had some upsetting. You can’t quietly condone mass murder by not speaking out against it, and then expect to be respected.

    And maybe someday you’ll realize that, as an infidel and a kafir, you are subject to the same treatment under the sharia as the rest of us. Just because you have a bleeding heart doesn’t mean you won’t be shunned, or beaten, or imprisoned, or executed in these cultures. You really should read the Koran and see how it condones this sort of behavior against the “non-believers”.

    Maybe then you’d wake up from your hate-America wet dream.

  7. Anonymous | April 19, 2003 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    Nice post. Let me explain why your critics above are wrong.

    enloop: The U.S. government advisors in charge of protecting antiquities in Iraq have resigned in protest of how the U.S. government handled this debacle.

    Chuck Shotten: If someone came to Atlanta and completely disabled the police department here, wouldn’t that someone be responsible for the foreseeable consequences of their actions?

    Richard Bennnet refers (apparently–if I’m wrong, let me know) to a previous post’s mention of “‘the antiques in Baghdad’ and ‘some old clay pots’ ” with “They’re largely one and the same”. If you want to minimize the damage, I suppose that’s one way to spin it.

    Adam: Did you have something to say?

    Dave: Lose the overt bigotry. It’s subtle hate that’ll put you into the big times.

  8. Anonymous | April 19, 2003 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    One of the biggest issues is the ‘gung ho’ attitude adopted by the US military – and a lot of American’s in general. All that I heard from US military figures on the run up to the war were statements like “It’s hammer time”.

    What kind of statement is that? It should be contrasted with the word of Lt. Col. Tim Collins of the Royal Irish Regiment.

    The US forces in Baghdad have still to engender some kind of law and order in Baghdad. As I post this I’m reading a article with more complaints from the International Red Cross. British forces have done a much better job in Basra with an almost instant conversion from their ‘warrior’ to ‘peacekeeping’ role.

  9. Anonymous | April 19, 2003 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    Just to get clear on this “oh, I’m so outraged at all this looting” angle: is the looting being done by Americans or by Iraqis? And which is better, maintaining a totalitarian dictatorship which keeps itself in power by widespread use of torture, rape, and murder, or overthrowing the dictatorship and losing a few clay pots in a short transition to democracy?

    I love clay pots as much as the next guy, but you have to put them in perspective. Perhaps we can offer pottery education to Iraqis so they can replace them, or better yet, buy some from French hippies.

  10. Anonymous | April 20, 2003 at 7:03 am | Permalink

    Maybe dictatorships aren’t all that bad?

    The US is currently supporting the Uzbek dictator, Islom Karimov.

  11. Anonymous | April 20, 2003 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

    What’s better, Richard, is protecting vital resources in a nation we’ve made helpless.

    As to those clay pots–it’s always painless to trash and mock what belongs to someone else. Perhaps if people were smashing up your culture, you’d keep the same detached attitude.

  12. Anonymous | April 21, 2003 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    The incoherence of this post should be an alert to the Medical School that it is possible for human beings to live with completely interchangeable brains and colons.

  13. Anonymous | April 22, 2003 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    You’re stretching on a couple of points.

    1) There was very little internal displacement in this war. The “flight of Iraqi vermin to Syria” is just that. We are only concerned with the upper-echelon regime thugs. On the face of it, you appear to be sympathizing with murderers and torturers.

    2) The Baghdad museum was closed to the public for some years prior to the war and all of the most precious antiquities were locked away in vaults. Now, who do you suppose got into those vaults? Was it the people with the keys or looters with pipes and chairs and the like?

    Now, the invasion has not been without its flaws, but can you honestly hold the US military to the standard of perfection. I submit to you that saving thousands and thousands of Iraqis from murder, starvation and torture counts for a hell of a lot more to them than does saving a stone tablet, even if it does happen to be the oldest recording of Hammurabi’s Code. To opine otherwise puts you in the camp of those who view Iraqis as “sub-human, a played-out people.”

  14. Anonymous | April 23, 2003 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    I agree that many artifacts may have been removed from the museum early in the war, if not before, by insiders. But that’s irrelevant. The question is: should the military have ATTEMPTED to protect the museum? I think any sensible battle plan would have incorporated such protection when it became clear that we had won, very much sooner than it eventually happened. But while there may at first have been a US battle plan for Baghdad, I think it was abandoned.

    The New Yorker this week has a “Letter from Baghdad” with a first-hand account of the city’s fall. He recounts seeing Baghdad’s only working hospital pillaged by looters. He did not just watch, however – he and others collared a small group of Marines and without much effort convinced them to throw a cordon around the place. The soldiers had no idea where the hospital was, and were so confused by the situation that they initially set up with guns pointing AT the hospital, as if they were attacking it.

    Such accounts indicate that the fall of Baghdad was executed in an ad-hoc, unplanned way. Who knows, somewhere there may have been a military plan that laid out hospitals, museums, etc. for protection, but it looks like this was junked in favor of speed when resistance turned out to be minimal. I’m betting that there was no overall coordination specifying that oil ministries were to be protected and hospitals were not; I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that field commanders were empowered to make these decisions, and very few of them had great locale intelligence.

    Was it right take over swiftly (necessitating much chaos), as opposed to the Brits’ more deliberate pace in Basra? I have no clue, but I do know that Basra has 1.3M inhabitants, as opposed to Baghdad’s 5M. That may have been a factor.

  15. Anonymous | April 26, 2003 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    Mary from Waltham.
    “I agree that many artifacts may have been removed from the museum early in the war, if not before, by insiders. But that’s irrelevant. The question is: should the military have ATTEMPTED to protect the museum? ”

    So the military, committed to an ongoing series of battles, should have made a GESTURE? I think you confuse Waltham with Baghdad.

    “If someone came to Atlanta and completely disabled the police department here, wouldn’t that someone be responsible for the foreseeable consequences of their actions?”

    Disabling the police? Do you mean the sort of thing like blocking streets (ambulances, fire and police vehicles) by lying down and locking to each other and shutting down downtowns with masses of demonstrators? Granted the police are not “completely disabled,” by civil disobedience but the principle should stand in measure, don’t you think?

  16. Anonymous | May 13, 2003 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

    I’m a bit dissapointed with the American and European Left on the Iraq issue.

    I don’t expect all Leftists to support the war (although 50% of American Leftists did end up supporting it– not that NPR would ever acknowledge it– although MSNBC has).

    But I am dissapointed in the kind of muddled and opportunistic logic that so stridently opposed the removal of a monster like Hussein ‘on moral grounds’.

    Not to mention the patheticly manipulative ploy of blaming the U.S. for allowing looting to occur after the fall of a totalitarian regime in Iraq.

    There was looting in Afghanistan too, not to metion Russia when the Soviet Empire collapsed.

    Such manipulative ploys to find some kind of dark lining in the silver cloud of victory in Iraq (any dark lining, no matter how absurd) make the Left look trivial and foolish.

    What concerns me even more, however, is that this segment of the anti-war Left has, in it’s myopia over Iraq, succeeded in marginalizing the Left in general in the U.S.

    And this is a real tragedy. The Left has much to offer the American political debate, but having marginalized itself in Congress over Iraq and further, as it threatens to further marginalize itself by taking the low road on the post-war period in Iraq, the Left risks a great deal on matters of education, the environment, social security and health care in the U.S.A.

    I hate to say it, especially since my own father was a Vietnam veteran and my adopted Uncle was killed in Vietnam, but Vietnam, folks, was a long time ago and we are no longer living in the same world.

    Thats not to say that the lessons of Vietnam should be forgotten. But neither does it mean that the Vietnam paradigm should be forced over every foreign policiy issue from now to infinity either.

    The Left is in a time of peril that it does not fully recognize. It must choose carefully between rigid orthodoxy on the one hand and a flexible pragmatism on the other in a post 9/11 world.

    If it fails to make the right choice, so much that is precious and vital in the American Left agenda will be sidelined for decades to come.

    Phil Murray

  17. Anonymous | May 13, 2003 at 7:09 pm | Permalink


  18. Anonymous | May 13, 2003 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

    P.S. It may seem that I must be anti-Lydon in my points about the Left and Iraq but I am not.

    I am still a big fan of Chris Lydon and greatly appreciate his work on the radio and also here.

    **But Chris, you also opposed the War in Kosovo to stop Milosevich.

    Chris I’m sorry, but I think a lot of people of your generation are so scarred by the Vietnam experience that you lose perspective when it comes to military action.

    I have my own scars from the Vietnam era, having seen my father off to War at age 9 and having lost my Uncle in that war.

    But I also lived in cold War Europe in the 1960’s and saw the late stages of the rebuilding of a land liberated by war.

    Sorry, but in the 21st century (and perhaps although I hope not the 22nd century) there will still be a moral and just place for war in the human experience.

    It just simply ain’t all Vietnam.

    Respectfully from one generation to another,

    Phil Murray

  19. Anonymous | June 6, 2003 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

    P.P.S. ‘Liberated by war’ was not a good choice of words as a description of post World War II Europe.

    But nevertheless war was the only viable moral choice in that circumstance to stop Adolph Hitler.

    And the subsequent debacle of Vietnam doesn’t erase the fact that the choice for military action must be still be taken at times.

    For moral and not merely geopolitical reasons.


  20. Anonymous | April 8, 2005 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

    “We all become Serbs in wartime…”is so shockingly racist, I’m still numbed that an intelligent person could write something so unintelligent as that.

    I then realized, it just underscored the complete and total demonization of an entire people – the result of the same kind of propagandistic and biased saturation media coverge the author accuses Belgrade of.

    Sorry to confuse you, but there are thousands of Serb victims of the Balkan wars, the most recent in Kosovo, that shining light of Clintonesque “humanitarian intervention”.

    Those Serbs remaining in Kosovo live in terror each day, guarded and protected by NATO troops. You and Hedges remain silent and ignore their plight. Or maybe being so throughly demonized, they illicit no pity and support. Hey they maybe deserve it.

    Serb churches, centuris old, continue to be demolished and razed by Albanians, entire Serb communities destroye and attacks continue unabated, and all under the watchful eye of NATO.

    Your statement implies that Serbs had no victims, were the sole perpetrators of crimes and as such must bear all the blame.

    The fact that all responses to this horrid and unfair statement did not even pick up on it and accepted it as a statement of fact, is very distressing indeed.

  21. Yandex | March 28, 2012 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

    Your statement implies that Serbs had no victims, were the sole perpetrators of crimes and as such must bear all the blame.

    The fact that all responses to this horrid and unfair statement did not even pick up on it and accepted it as a statement of fact, is very distressing indeed.