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Axis of Evil, The Baby Pictures

02.02.2004 | BOOKS

Bush in Babylon: The Recolonisation of Iraq
By Tariq Ali
Verso, 214 pages, $20

Liberating Korea?
By Arthur J. Paone
Lightning Source/Belmar, 306 pages, $16.95

Ambrose Bierce famously defined war as God's way of teaching Americans geography. It was true when Bierce wrote it, but God abandoned the effort around 1985, when U.S. high school students started to have trouble locating Canada on a map. After a mild breakdown, God learned to satisfy Himself with the occasional good student--the quiet, bespectacled child of immigrants who knows where the Aral Sea is and drags her viola case around the hallways. The rest of the country, He accepted, is forever lost.

Snooty foreigners used to find humor in Americans' stout ignorance of history and geography. They've stopped laughing. This is because there's nothing funny in the fact that the 2004 election will be decided by people for whom Iraqi history consists of biblical references to wicked Babylon and hidden Ba'athist nuclear submarines, with 3000 years of hummus and camel sex in between. Just as sobering is the fact that the only American with access to the nuclear launch codes apparently knows little about North Korea except that its dictator is a short heathen with nukes.

How much Americans should know about the countries they invade isn't really a left-right, dove-hawk issue. A nation of Ph.D.s can come to the same policy conclusions as a nation of cheez-whiz-spraying ditto-heads. But an informed, critically minded public would at least be in a position to kick the tires a bit harder in matters of war and peace. Over the long term, it's hard not to believe there'd be fewer needless deaths, both in the U.S. armed services and Third World population centers. To pick just one example, would an American public acquainted with Iraqi history have done anything but laugh at the idea that 10 million Oprah-starved virgins would greet American soldiers with flowers and sweets?

This is the question driving Bush in Babylon, Tariq Ali's bitter and concise overview of modern Iraq directed at "otherwise intelligent people [who are] surprised on learning that the occupation is detested by a majority of Iraqi citizens." His purpose is to contextualize a guerrilla war that he expects to end only when U.S. troops and their "local jackals" exit Iraqi air space in a caravan of C130s. In this he succeeds with some force, and even those turned livid by Ali's politics will be enriched by this wide-ranging and textured history lesson. As in 2002's Clash of Fundamentalisms, Ali proves a sharp and learned guide with a poet's touch.

(It's also not the prose of a man you want to meet on the debate circuit. When Ali was in New York last November, he clashed swords with Bernard Henri-Levy and his old friend Christopher Hitchens; both performances were practically demonstration tests in the desert that served to warn future challengers. The man is fearsome.)

Bush in Babylon begins in 1258, the year Mongol forces sacked Baghdad and burned its library, possibly destroying the lost plays of Aristophanes. After the Mongols, the area that would become Iraq enjoyed centuries of relative autonomy under indirect rule from Istanbul. As the Ottoman Empire collapsed during WWI, British troops filled the vacuum, taking Jerusalem and Baghdad by force and introducing resistant Arabs to the joys of mustard gas. To represent London in Baghdad, Winston Churchill handpicked Hashemite King Feisal, upon whom the League of Nations then stamped its approval. With this colonial arrangement, modern Iraq was born.

The British immediately began privatizing Iraqi estates and encouraging the growth of a conservative land-holding class on the Indian model, to which Ali attributes the rise of the Iraqi Communist Party and more general anti-British nationalism. With the end of the British mandate in 1929, control from London continued via economic pressure and Feisal's pro-British monarchy. When Feisal's 21-year-old nationalist son, Ghazi, assumed power in 1933, he changed course and denounced imperialism and Zionism, purged the government of British lackeys and claimed--before any oil was found there--that Kuwait rightly belonged to Iraq's Basrah province. A mysterious car crash cut his revolution short.

Throughout the early 1920s, Britain beat back growing nationalist currents with force, claiming all the while, as they did in 1914, to be "liberators, not conquerors." With the help of Indian troops, the British ultimately regained control of the country amidst a nationwide wave of revolts and anti-British fatwas. During the bloodiest six months of rebellion, 2000 Imperial soldiers were killed.

In 1941, a popular nationalist government came to power, requiring yet more British legions to restore Hashemite order. Moscow called on Iraqi Communists to cease opposition in the name of the Popular Front, thereby splitting the resistance and allowing pro-British Iraqi political forces to retrench.

After the war, when the expulsion of the Palestinians and Nassermania was radicalizing Arabs throughout the Middle East, Iraq's King Nuri al-Said went in the other direction. He came down hard on nationalists and hitched Iraq to the Baghdad Pact, a pro-U.S. security agreement binding Iraq to Britain, Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. According to Ali, Nuri signed his own death warrant by supporting the 1956 Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt.

The three main opposition forces inside the Iraqi army--Nassarites, Communists and Ba'athists--finally united in 1957 and overthrew the king; the following year, a republic was declared after the royal family was executed (and denied Islamic burial). Collaborators were cut into pieces and "burnt like lambs." Public statues of the monarchy were torn down in street demonstrations so large and euphoric that the new Revolutionary Council proclaimed a curfew.

A power struggle then commenced between Iraqi Communists (restrained at every turn by Moscow) and the more ruthless, U.S.-backed Ba'athists. Ali's review of this period, centering on the brilliant young Communist leader Khalid Ahmed Zaki, is fascinating. By 1968, Saddam Hussein had moved up the Ba'ath party ranks and wiped out the last real pockets of Communist resistance in the South and North.

And here Ali's history enters more familiar terrain: the war with Iran, the invasion of Kuwait, the Gulf War, the sanctions, the second Gulf War and the current occupation. What emerges is a picture of a battered people accustomed to fighting against and suffering under native tyrants as well as foreign "liberators" and their Iraqi stooges. Through their eyes, as Ali sees it, the U.S.--and its "after-sales service" in the form of the U.N.--will never be accepted as a legitimate power, however provisional or well-intentioned it claims to be. Their officials are more likely to be "burnt like lambs."

If it needs to be said, Bush in Babylon is not a defense of Saddam Hussein. Ali lost friends under Saddam, and included the Ba'athist among the "freaks and monsters" running the Arab world when the U.S. was building him up as a regional replacement for the Shah. Ali's support for Iraqis' claim upon their own political future and national resources is in substance no different from what Paul Bremer says he wants for Iraq. But as Americans are not Iraqis, Ali believes they have no legitimate business in the country.

Ali is sure Iraqis agree, and thus regrets that "[h]eavy repression will be needed to deal not merely with thousands of Ba'ath militants and loyalists, but with Iraqi patriotic sentiments of any kind." The result, Ali expects, will resemble a bloody mix of Guantanamo and Gaza for years to come. It's happened before.

* * *

"Liberation" at the hands of the West also has a dual meaning on both sides of the 38th parallel in Korea, currently the site of the world's tallest and most immaculately constructed shit sandwich.

If diplomatic efforts to put Pyongyang back in the nuclear bottle fail--and there are signs that powerful people in Washington want them to fail--then two scenarios follow. One, the U.S. chickens out of war and North Korea cranks up the nuclear assembly line, putting a few onto the black market and triggering an arms race in Northeast Asia; or two, the Bush administration celebrates four more years with a war that reduces the Evil Three to Iran.

If everybody in Korea's neighborhood seems more eager than the Bush administration to avoid a second Korean war, it's likely because they have a better memory of the first one. The U.S. lost 34,000 troops in Korea between 1950 and 1953; the natives, meanwhile, lost between three and four million civilians and 900,000 soldiers (including some Chinese). As Washington continues to reject North Korea's demand for a non-aggression pact--the same promise that saved the world from nuclear holocaust in 1962--it's worth revisiting exactly what happened there 50 years ago.

This Arthur J. Paone does in Liberating Korea?, a poorly edited book with ridiculous typography that redeems itself by taking a timely and focused look at the most important documents from the U.S. side of the war. Using high-level memoirs, Congressional testimony and declassified Pentagon documents, Paone lets the principals explain for themselves the political and military logic that led the U.S. Air Force to drop 500,000 tons of bombs--including America's new toys napalm, cluster and phosphorous explosives--on every town and village on the Korean Peninsula.

It was a war few thought would ever happen. During the American Occupation of South Korea (1945-48), the dominant view in Washington was that the American base in the southeastern port of Pusan was both militarily indefensible and strategically redundant. Most top generals, including MacArthur, thought U.S. bases in Japan were sufficient to hold the American defensive perimeter in the Pacific, running from the Aleutians in the North to the Philippines in the South--but staying well clear of mainland Asia. Republican congressmen who pressed for a security guarantee of South Korea were rebuffed by the Pentagon and Secretary of State Dean Acheson, who personally assured both Stalin and Mao the U.S. would not intervene in a Korean civil war. It was a classic green light.

But the president changed his mind. When North Korean forces entered the South, Truman told 70-year-old General Douglas MacArthur to get ready for one more campaign. MacArthur and his fellow generals happily obliged, and Paone's research reveals an eagerness to apply firebombing techniques with new, more destructive bombs. The USAF quickly set Korea aflame, bombing more and more of the country as "U.N." forces retreated into the tiny perimeter around Pusan. (Although technically a U.N. operation, American forces reported directly to the Pentagon.) In Paone's words,

[The whole peninsula was] a playground for American Air Power... Faster and more destructive fighter jets were developed. New techniques for destroying large dams, rice crops and cities were introduced. There was no North or South Korea to our Bombers, only 'gooks.'

All of this is borne out in the memoirs and testimony of the U.S. generals who directed the war. After just six months of bombing, Major General Emmett O'Donnell told Congress, "almost the entire Korean Peninsula is just a terrible mess. Everything is destroyed. There is nothing standing worthy of the name."

But the North Korean troops fought on, aided by China and a sympathetic population in the South that hated the Americans almost as much as they hated the U.S.-supported South Korean police state of Syngman Rhee. And here the parallels with Vietnam are striking. American firepower destroyed a country in order to "save" it, backing an anti-democratic local government with little to no public support.

Frustrated by tough resistance throughout the country, Generals O'Donnell and Curtis LeMay urged Truman and Eisenhower to drop atomic bombs on Korea's already devastated cities on both sides of the 38th parallel. Their requests were seriously considered at the highest levels, and ultimately denied in part because the U.S. at the time simply did not have the strength to take on both China and Russia in two theaters. (We know that Eisenhower was personally disgusted by the idea of using nukes, even as he entertained it; Truman, less so.)

This is the past North Korea takes into its current standoff with the U.S. two years after being placed on Bush's short list for regime termination. Dwelling on all of this doesn't make the dictator in Pyongyang any more palatable, or his nuclear ambitions any less disturbing--Kim Jong Il is indeed a freak whose favorite movies include Rambo and the Friday the 13th series. But recognizing that we can be just as terrifying should make our diplomacy a drop wiser in the effort to head off a regional arms race without causing a million deaths. Assuming, of course, that is what the Bush administration is still trying to do.

Originally published in New York Press.

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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