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Home > World

Iraq: No gain without pain

30 April 2004

For all the international media in Iraq and all the considered analysis coming from various serious-minded journalists, you can't help but feel we Brits have a basic lack of empathy for ordinary Iraqis. There's the unspoken suggestion that the occupation may be unpalatable, but it's good for them, like Quorn vegetarian mince. (The only meat substitute to be modelled on fried string.)

It's slightly reminiscent of the colonialist view taken by elements of the US government during Vietnam. Controversially, the idea was floated that the Vietnamese had less regard for human life than Westerners. Certainly, life was tough in backward nation of Vietnam, and not just if you didn't like rice. The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army were brutal and used communist battle tactics based on the idea that foot soldiers (and civilians) are highly expendable, but the view that the Vietnamese were somehow less human was massively misguided. The Vietnamese turned out to be as dogged in their resistance as the Americans would have been defending their own country.

(Admittedly, we're basing our assessment of the American will to conduct guerrilla warfare on the thoughtful film Red Dawn.)

Similarly, while we are horrified by images of death from Iraq (in our 'Isn't it terrible? Can you pass the Shreddies?' way) there's still a vague assumption that the Iraqis have really just got to grit their teeth and put up with all manner of horror and humiliation because it's for their own good in the long run.

But life doesn't work like this. Consider, in recent British history, the impact of Bloody Sunday. Only 14 people were killed on Bloody Sunday, but the massacre marked out Britain as an occupying power and constituted a recruitment drive for the IRA that was more effective than offering 30K + bonuses and a generous pension scheme. Now, over 30 years later, the massacre has lingered on in the form of the Saville inquiry. Cynics say this is because the inquiry is a legal beanfeast, but there are still strong feelings in Northern Ireland that justice has not been done.

You could argue that it might be time to draw a line under the whole thing - the relatives of the victims want to see paratroops charged with murder, but this obviously isn't going to happen, and it's questionable whether new evidence of any real consequence has emerged. But it's worth remembering how deeply public feelings of injustice run - if you want yet another comparison, think about the murder of PC Yvonne Fletcher.

Ever since the official end of the war in Iraq, the Iraqis have been suffering not only a series of almost-daily Bloody Sundays, in which civilians and protestors are killed while the coalition forces try to suppress armed militias, but also attacks that employ the strong-arm tactics used by the Israeli Defence Force, with helicopter gunship attacks and the bombing of a mosque.

The grievances are also far more wide-ranging than anything that ever happened in Northern Ireland. The Catholics had a rotten time at the hands of Protestant mobs, discriminatory employers and the more heavy-handed elements of the British army, but they were never cast into anarchy in the way Iraqis have been.

Not only this, but Iraqis have had to put with appalling living conditions caused by the collapsed infrastructure. If Iraq (and Afghanistan and even Vietnam) proves anything, it's that American military intervention doesn't rebuild and reshape countries, it just destabilises them.

One Iraqi woman was recently quoted as saying 'Things weren't this bad, even under Saddam Hussein.' Which kind of sums it up. Do we really expect the Iraqis to turn around and thank us when they know that their country has been repeatedly used as a pawn in the big game of Western influence in the Middle East?

People in general don't sit around fitting their lives into some grand utilitarian moral scheme. They don't say 'My house was destroyed in a rocket attack, but I can see that in the long term it was worth it because eventually Iraq will be free and prosperous.' Or, to use the Northern Ireland comparison, 'My brother, who was totally innocent, was shot by the Paras. But I'm not angry - mistakes are inevitable in high-pressure situations.'

What they do say is 'Who is doing this to us?' Some will go on to do evil in return, others will offer tacit support to terrorists. Ultimately, they may not be right to do so, but if we ignore the fact that they might, we're failing yet again to realise that the Iraqis are as good, bad, reasonable or unreasonable as the rest
of us.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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