Mourn Paris, but also remember Iraq
In October 2001, a few weeks after the World Trade Center attacks, I was in Afghanistan. The Americans had just launched their war and most of the country was still controlled by the Taliban. In the province of Kunduz, I was in a position held by the Northern Alliance. The men were using an old Soviet tank as a fixed-position cannon. The tank’s caterpillar tracks were gone, and the engine probably wasn’t working either. It was sunk into the ground a couple of feet for stability. A 50-calibre machine gun was mounted on its turret.
It was very early in the war, and reporters had not yet been shooed away from the front lines. I watched this little group as it fought in alliance with the Americans who were dropping bombs on Taliban positions a few hundred yards away. It was the first time I heard the sound of bombs exploding, something I had only experienced on television before. It was a frightening and overwhelming feeling. I was totally unprepared for the shattering report of the cannon and machine gun going off a few feet from me, and my body did not know how to react to the sound of such overwhelming violence. I just froze, till someone pulled me down and I covered my ears.
A couple of years later, I saw on CNN the first bombs falling on Iraq. The American strategy was to bomb Baghdad so hard that Saddam Hussein’s army would feel “shock and awe” at their enemies’ power. But what would the citizens of Baghdad, who would unwillingly also experience that extreme violence, feel? This was not considered by the Americans or, indeed, by CNN. The channel reported the 9/11 attacks under the headline “America Under Attack”. It covered the Iraq war under the headline “Strike On Iraq”. Not “Iraq under attack”. When I saw the bombing of the urban zones, my stomach turned. You cannot subject an entire population of millions of people to such extreme physical trauma and just expect it to go back to normal when you go away, as the Americans did.
The conservative British newspaper The Daily Telegraph carried a report on the first days of the war a couple of years ago (“The Myth Of ‘Shock And Awe’: Why The Iraqi Invasion Was A Disaster”, 19 March 2013). It said, “Iraq Body Count, the most authoritative collator of casualty statistics in Iraq, has estimated that 6,716 civilians died during the initial invasion—an average of 320 per day.”
Iraqbodycount.org says 224,000 people, including combatants, have died in Iraq since “shock and awe” started. I am writing this on Monday morning. The website reports the following events for the previous two days:
Sunday, 15 November: 181 killed, (or) found in mass grave
Mosul: 73 executed.
Sinjar: 50 bodies in mass grave.
Tal Afar: 20 executed.
Tuz Khurmato: 16 (killed) in clashes.
Baghdad: 7 by IEDs (improvised explosive devices), gunfire; 1 body (found).
Amiriyat al-Fallujah: 3 in mortar attack.
Tuz: 2 by snipers.
Taji: 1 body.
Mahmudiya: 1 by gunfire; 2 by AEDs (adhesive explosive devices)
Madain: 3 by gunfire.
Baiji: 1 body.
Kirkuk: 1 by gunfire.
Saturday, 14 November: 119 killed, or (found) in mass graves
Sinjar: 100 bodies found in two mass graves in areas liberated from the IS (network).
Baghdad: 6 (killed) by IEDs, gunfire.
Wajihiya: 5 by IEDs.
Tarmiya: 1 by gunfire.
Muqdadiya: 1 body (found).
Al-Zour: 1 by gunfire.
Madain: 1 by AED.
Mahmudiya: 1 by IED.
Mansuriya: 1 body.
Najaf: 1 body.
Latifiya: 1 by gunfire.
In Iraq, the US and Great Britain took a functioning state and made it dysfunctional. The intervention in Syria and Libya is no different and has produced anarchy, whose victims are almost all Arabs. The usual defence of the Western powers when confronted with this is to say that it was worth paying this price to get rid of dictatorship. But of course they will not accept the idea that their violence could also produce terrorism, or that it is in any way related or that they are in some way responsible.
The attacks in Paris are by the Islamic State network, a group of fanatics who have taken over spaces that organized and functional governments no longer hold in the Arab world. Why do they not hold the spaces? Because the US and Europe have either bombed their governments out or helped arm and assist the rebellions against the government.
Most citizens of Western nations do not realize the damage their nations have caused through war. I myself knew nothing about the full extent of this till that afternoon in Kunduz. In the West, newspapers and TV channels do not even publish photos of dead bodies or of violence, as the Indian media has no problem doing. The Western war is sanitized. Last week, the American writer David Shields published a book called War Is Beautiful: The New York Times Pictorial Guide To The Glamour Of Armed Conflict. He accuses the paper of deliberately using artistic photos to make the war appealing.
See the numbers of those killed in Iraq earlier this week again. It is like a Paris every day. Unfortunately for the citizens of that fine city, the violence has not remained in their newspapers’ sanitized images. It has come to their streets, bringing a terrifying experience that many Arabs have gone through daily for more than a decade.
Aakar Patel is executive director of Amnesty International India. The views expressed here are personal.
Also read | Aakar Patel’s previous Lounge columns here .