U.S. soldiers Thomas L. Tucker and Kristian Menchaca, 25 and 23, were captured in Iraq Friday, tortured, killed and dumped south of Baghdad Tuesday. Thirty-five Iraqis are kidnapped every day. Many of them are tortured, killed and dumped as Tucker and Menchaca were.
Self-Indulgence as Strategy
American Lives, Iraqi Props
Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, June 20, 2006
It’s one of those stories that took on a life of its own with outlandish, and ultimately offensive, disproportion. Two American soldiers go missing last Friday. The military in Iraq devotes the equivalent of 6 percent of American ground troops to the manhunt. The press in the United States devotes what looks like a fifth of every front page to trailing the story. (Television’s focus is by nature disproportionate, so no surprise that that the networks go Geraldo on the story, camouflaging the Natalee Holloway script for Iraq .) The rest of the world’s press is next-to-mute about it all, for a fair reason: it would be strange if non-American newspapers were to hydroplane over the fate of two missing Americans when thirty-five Iraqis are kidnapped every day, and fifty are killed every day. What exactly would be the justification of a paper in Canada or Laos or Argentina to highlight the fate of two Americans over that of countless Iraqis? But then why not pose the same question regarding the American press?
Before we go on, the numbers are instructive. Nina Kamp and Michael O’Hanlon at the Brookings Institution have been keeping track of Operation Iraqi Freedom’s collaterals since the war began. In May 2003, the month of Bush's "Mission Accomplished" speech, their numbers show that two Iraqis went missing every day, and about eight were killed per day. A year later, kidnappings were up to 10 per day, civilian deaths up to 35 per day. In May 2005, kidnappings were up to 25 per day, and this May, up to 35. For precision’s sake, let’s also note that as of now Iraq body count has the death toll somewhere between 34,000 and 43,000, which means that the year-over-year kill ratio in Iraq during the American occupation has matched or perhaps slightly exceeded that of the Saddam years. U.S. military losses are up to 18,300 wounded and 2,507 killed, 2,733 including other coalition deaths.
So two Americans go missing. It’s not that the U.S. press shouldn’t react, or that the military shouldn’t have done all it could to recover the missing men. That only speaks honorably of both: caring is not a bad thing, even when it’s disproportionate. The question is, disproportionate at whose expense? There’s no objection when the story of two missing Americans should displace stories about summer beach bums, toe-ring fashion, some of the half dozen daily dispatches from the war on fat, most of what Bush is up to and all of what that powder-puff sorority once known as Congress is up to. (Newsweek’s current cover story? “The Pirate in Johnny Depp.”) Except when the disproportion in this case implicitly reveals something less honorable and quite telling about why America is losing the war in Iraq, and why Iraqis despise the American presence regardless of their dependence on it for survival (dependence isn’t love, as any jailbird can say of his warden): Americans don’t give a crab's beard about Iraqis, neither at home nor in Iraq. A kidnapped Iraqi is sand in the wind, a dead Iraqi as valueless as the nano-weight of newsprint it takes to record the nameless figure. If it’s recorded.
The overwhelming majority of Americans don’t know that dozens of Iraqis go missing every day. Most don’t care. Most don’t want to care. Johnny Depp and the cholesterol watch keep them busy enough. It’s ignorance indistinguishable from contempt, because the ignorance is willful: it’s what lets Americans, and the official White House line, continue to pretend that there’s reason enough to have gone to Iraq and to continue being there now—as long as the actual theater remains abstract, as long as the funerals of dead American soldiers aren’t visible, as long as the president keeps up his oh, so honorable refusal to attend a single one of those funerals. It’s also the kind of ignorance enabling of that disproportionate reaction when Americans go missing, as if news of a kidnapping was in fact news, as if it was unique, as if the value of two American lives was that gigantically higher than the value of two Iraqi lives (or that of the 140 Iraqis who have gone missing since last Friday, or the 200 who’ve been killed). It should be said in plain language, because it never seems to be said: An American life is no more and no less valuable than an Iraqi life. But as long as a presumption of superiority persists, so will persist the force underming the American effort more than the insurgency itself: the resentment of Iraqis for being treated like second-class citizens in their own country.
The story of the missing Americans is another example of that divide between the storybook scenario the Bush administration keeps feeding the American public and the Iraqi reality neither the public nor Bush want to know. Dramatic stories of American losses or suspended tragedies spring up as out of nowhere—Jessica Lynch, the four American mercenaries killed and strung up on that Fallujah bridge, the two missing soldiers. The story plays out in the media in that Black-Hawk-Down language of inspiring honor against overwhelming odds no matter the outcome. The Iraqi background, where everything is more collectively violent, more tragic, more abject than anything the Americans are suffering collectively (remember: civilians have no armor, and civilians are bearing the brunt of the butchery), is nothing more elaborate in the storyline than those painted backdrops the old Hollywood studios used interchangeably movie after movie. Iraqis extras aren’t even in the picture, begging the indelicate cliché: when an Iraqi dies out of America ’s line of sight, has he even existed? Marginalize the importance of an Arab's self-dignity, and you've lost the war before firing one shot. Voting productions are no substitute.
The Wall Street Journal described exactly how odious is Americans’ contempt for Iraqis. The Journal story last Saturday made the point through the immense differences in the way American soldiers live and work compared with Iraqi soldiers they’re training on the same base, and how those differences apply when the soldiers are in the field. The opening paragraphs:
“This sprawling military base is divided down the middle by massive concrete barriers, a snaking fence and rifle-toting guards. On one side, about 10,000 U.S. Army soldiers live in air-conditioned trailers. There’s a movie theater, a swimming pool, a Taco Bell, and a post exchange the size of a Wal-Mart, stocked with everything from deodorant to DVD players. On the other side are a similar number of Iraqi soldiers whose success will determine when U.S. troops can go home. The Iraqi troops live in fetid barracks built by the British in the 1920s, ration the fuel they use to run their lights and sometimes eat spoiled food that makes them sick. The only soldiers who pass regularly between the two worlds are about 130 U.S. Army advisers, who live, train and work with the Iraqis. For many of these advisers, the past six months have been a disorienting experience, putting them at odds with their fellow U.S. soldiers and eroding their confidence in the U.S. government’s ability to build an Iraqi force that can stabilize this increasingly violent country. Army commanders back in the U.S. “told us this was going to be the most thankless and frustrating job we have ever held, and boy, were they right,” says Lt. Col. Charles Payne, who until last month oversaw about 50 Army advisers. He and fellow advisers say U.S. troops on the American side of the base saddle Iraqis with the least-desirable missions and often fail to provide them with the basics they need to protect themselves against insurgent attacks. “They treat the Iraqis with utter scorn and contempt,” Col. Payne says. “The Iraqis may not be sophisticated, but they aren’t stupid. They see it.”
Another colonel disputes that interpretation of course (see the full story here). Keeping Americans and Iraqis separate is a matter of security. Keeping them separate is a matter of resources. Keeping them separate is a matter of logistics, language, survival, god’s plan. What bunk. The separation is symbolic of the American effort’s inherent failure in Iraq. It explains why the mass of Iraqis in the streets have themselves taken the contempt heaped on them and turned it back on the Americans—the mass of Iraqis whose backing the war effort cannot do without, if it’s to be successful (the proportion of Iraqis optimistic about their future, according to the Brookings reports, has plummeted virtually in sync with Bush’s approval rating: 75 percent in May 2003, 51 percent in May 2004, 60 percent in 2005, 30 percent last month).
That has been the most dependable constant of the war in Iraq: The divide between what Iraqis live through every day, and what Americans pretend to know, what they pretend to be doing, all the while worsening a situation by the very means intended to improve it. That wall between the American and the Iraqi side of the base described in the Journal story is the symbol of that divide, and conditions on either side of it the consequence. Let the little detail about Iraqis living in barracks built by the British not be lost: The British were the former promise-breakers, the former occupiers with the golden tongue and the punishing boot, the myth of Lawrence of Arabia, the reality of surgical exterminations when necessary, village by village, town by town.
So let’s say it again: two American soldiers go missing. The reaction in America is nearly hysterical, especially with the added spin that the men were captured by “al-Qaeda,” a hysteria not dissimilar from the kind that greeted the killing of Zarquawi, the capture of Hussein, the killing of his two sons, the “rescue” of Jessica Lynch, the toppling of Saddam’s statue in Fidros square: all set pieces on a stage controlled from a make-believe war room in Washington the way the Air Force controls its unmanned drones over Iraq and Afghanistan from a small hangar at the edge of a runway in Las Vegas. In that context, the story of the missing Americans, the way it’s been told, the way it’s been hyped, is more of those piled-on insults on Iraqis’ daily fate, more of that attitude Iraqis have had enough of—that Americans count, they have names, they have faces, families, stories to tell, while Iraqis don’t. But even that distinction should be qualified by another divide.
I began writing this when news of the two Americans’ death was announced Monday morning. They were found dumped on an Iraqi street, after being tortured, the very same way dozens of Iraqis are found dumped with signs of torture day after day. I deliberately did not mention their death until now because in the end, their fate, the way the press plays it, is also irrelevant. It is secondary to the story the White House and its acolyte press want to tell. Should they have been found alive, it would have been another one of those fantastic rescue scenarios. Now that they have been found dead, it’s the other scenario—the one that reaffirms the need to “get the job done,” to not let their death be “in vain,” to (and that’s the best one yet) “stand by” our Iraqi friends. Even when it comes to American deaths and survivals, the names are becoming interchangeable, the faces irrelevant except as tear-jerking props for the newscasts and the magazine narratives. But in truth Americans couldn’t care less even about their own boys dying pointlessly. The stories don’t touch them in the least except for those few military families that are feeling the destruction in isolation, to the tune of parodies of sympathy and yellow-ribbon gimmickry. The divide is not only in Iraq. It extends all the way here, to between those few who live the war’s losses and the many who glance it once in a while as an episode of CSI-Ramadi.
The two soldiers’ names, by the way, were Thomas L. Tucker of Madras, Ore., and Kristian Menchaca of Houston. Tucker was 25, Menchaca was 23. They’ll be forgotten by this evening’s ESPN recap of interleague baseball scores. By then their story will have fed a few news cycles well enough to profit a White House starved for fresh public fear and rage at “the enemy,” to give the president’s approval rating a little bounce on the back of corpses choreographed just so. But the one thing Tucker’s and Menchaca’s death will have been for sure, like every death in this hopeless war, is in vain.
Thank you for the article, American Lives, Iraqi Props. I am one of the American troops living in the air conditioned trailers over here. I know the Iraqi and see them dying. It makes me very [had better not say it].
I joined Veterans for Peace and protested well before the war started here in Iraq – in an attempt to end the run up for the war. As a National Guardsman, I was sucked into duty but decided not to play a trump card and get out since my middle class friends and coworkers (many who did not give a damn about the Iraqis and American troops) would at least miss me and hopefully begin to think. It has been a long dreadful year that the American public will never understand – because as you say, they and the media do not want to know\learn the truth. I would even go as far to add the Iraqi lives are perhaps more significant (not important) than Americans. Their family is everything. In America our friends and coworkers are often as important as our families – giving each person less significance since it is spread our over a larger group of people.
I notice as our company gets closer to getting out of here (in a couple of months) morale has dropped drastically and I often hear, “just level the goddamn place.” Luckily we have not been in position to kill Iraqis, although we have been fired upon and have lost several soldiers and friends. I am not a commander but I would not let that happen in any regards.
Working on what I am going to say to the flag wavers when I get off the plane back in the States. Our company motto is, “Do you job,” I will probably begin with something like, "Do your job and insure we are never false manipulated into another." I deserve my chance to speak and be heard. Much work to do. Thanks again.
Steve (last name withheld)
I completely agree with your assessment. I would add just one thing: the staggering death toll of Iraqis. You cite figures from Iraq Body Count. However, as you probably know, the John Hopkins study published in the Lancet estimates a much higher count. Now add the death toll from the first Gulf War, 12 years of lethal sanctions, and ongoing U.S. and British aerial attacks throughout the nineties. I fear the sum far exceeds the number of Iraqis killed by Saddam and his henchmen.
During 1968 and into 1969 I was an advisor to RF and PF (non-ARVN) soldiers in SVN. While the enemy did a lot of nasty stuff, it is sort of funny but I can not recall ever getting furious at them. I do recall many, many, times getting furious at the US Army. Our Army's soldiers treated the SVN people like dirt and killed, or even murdered, a lot of innocent people. It was very racist---just as you point out it is behaving in Iraq. Only advisors like LTCOL Payne realize how stupid and damaging our behavior is in Iraq. He probably will be knifed in the back for his comments.
If anything, because of there now being no draft, today's Army is even dumber and less sophisticated than it was then. Forget that "Our Nation's Finest" crap. It wasn't true then, and certainly is not true now, from the very top to the lowest Private. Iraq is like Vietnam, but worse. Warm regards,
Clarendon Hills, IL
Our pretense of bringing "democracy" to these people will forever be our shame. Only by fearlessly telling the truth will there be any possibility of our extricating ourselves from this self-imposed disaster. I don't know that our nation will able to discern or accept the truth; no one really seems to care what that might be. We're much more satisfied with the story. In times like these, the truth seems discordanant & frightening.
Thank you for saying what you have today in the article appearing in Common Dreams.My ears are open to the truth and have been since the beginning of this mad hatter'sdescent into a lawless world driven by forces so antithetical to American historicvalues. And all this from the White House. It started when we allowed Bush andCheney to demote the terrorists to a subhuman status, thus beyond the law andthus blurring the distinction between them and us. The media only feeds the frenzy,as you say. There is no army strong enough to stop American military power as there was inWorld War II; We are still theoretically a government by the assent of the governed,and my prayer is that truth, such as coming from the pens of individuals like you,will consolidate itself in the heads of the American public, and that that public willdemand an end to this reign of terror in the name of fighting terrorists. It is our onlyhope. I know many in our military on active duty are as appalled as you are as towhat has taken place. There has been an internal coup and it has prospered becauseof the marriage of corporation, select military and civilian leadership interests. InWorld War II, it was called Nationalist Socialism.
Carole Cameron Shaw
My exact sentiments. I'm one american (ashamed american) who feels the worst for the innocent Iraqi civilians who are bearing the brunt of this illegal, immoral, gratuitous war, who never did anything to us or anyone. Like you point out, most americans don't see it or feel it, or just don't care. I'm truly sickened by it.
Everything you said resonated completely with me. The only objection I had pertains to the way you kept reiterating that "Americans don't care ---." Surely you know that we are protesting, writing letters, writing e-mails, praying, screaming, etc. to end this abominable war. Somehow our protests fall on deaf ears. HOW, short of a revolution, do we get through to these war-mongers? They are in the position of power. We are just the little guy, still in shock that our poetry doesn't count. The truth may be that Most Americans do not care; but it is not true that plain Americans do not care.
You can depend on the WSJ to "get it right" once in a while. Those Iraqi soldiers are our "Italians," a reference to the general unreliability of Germany's Italian allies during World War II. The Italians of that era were usually poorly-trained, equipped, and motivated, just like Iraqi soldiers today. When they proved incapable of defending their country against an Allied invasion, the Germans had to commit valuable manpower to its defense, just like the U.S. is committing valuable manpower to subdue Iraq today. Sincerely,
Thank you from the bottom of my heart for speaking truthfully. It hurts as it forces me to examine my own life, my own indifference in the face of such unspeakable horror. Having lived through the Viet Nam war, I find this much more devastating; if only, because it leaves one feeling helpless to stop it.
Thank you for your excellent article comparing the loss of American lives and the loss of Iraqi lives in this infernal war. I agree with you 100%. I no longer attend rallies that focus only on the loss of American lives. We are destroying a land and its peoples. What we need is an Iraq picture like the Viet Nam picture of the young girl running and screaming while napalm burned the flesh off her bones. That stunned Americans and galvanized more against the war. Of course the media won’t display something as real as that. But wouldn’t it be nice?? Your article goes a long way to fill the vacuum in American news coverage.
I read your piece. It is heartbreaking. I know it's true. I feel helpless
to do anything about it.
I want you to know that I appreciate very much you writing this and
Good story! Here is the rest of it. They were enlistees, not draftees. They were privates not S/Sgts. They were not college grads and lord knows what else. Patriots? At 77 yoa I do not personally know a patriot. I know some that race their vehicles on the street, like naughty films, and even go to church. As I am told, even that guy Jesus said, "Father, father, why have you abandoned me?"
Look, people have a difficult time with reason and logic. Pick up John Locke (Jefferson said he was one of the three greatest philosophers of all time) and see if you can tell me what he meant by, "Life, liberty, and property". Is Joe Lieberman a patriot? Can one be a politician without being a patriot? What is a Jeweish, Mexican, Chinese, etc. American? I have lived in several states and even three years in China with other nations thrown in here and there but I am just an American. Did we murder many Iraqi's in our "great" invasion and watching citizens in America die needlessly? I have know a better US since 1929 until bush came along, even with the other wars, but the PNAC was never kidding by a New American Century when they had it so good they couldn't appreciate it. bush says all this is worth it and when Basrbara Walters asked him what did he want to be remembered for 50 years from now he said, "He stuck to his guns." Now tell me it is worth it for him to "stick to his guns" when it was a John Wayne movie he saw.
One person on TV said you may not respect the man but you should respect the office. He is the office for god's sake, why should they not say "We lost two people, we lost two people?" Yes, it is idiotic but more than that, their ethical pants have holes in the knees and stain located between the buttocks. I was in the service and even went to college so what? Are they going to weep when I die even if I may have helped a few people? It is crap. My two oldest children are dead, who the hell cared.
You have voiced, in eloquent fashion, my exact feelings. It
is numbing to experience the denial and ignorance that is on display
every day in the U.S. - - and in every news outlet. There appears to ben
little comprehension of what this war means to the rest of the world; we
just accept Bush's statements that its for "freedom and democracy".
Wish you wrote on the West Coast! I appreciate that you can be read