25 September 2004
We are now in the greatest crisis since the last greatest crisis. That's how we run the Iraq war - or the Second Iraq War as Lord Blair of Kut al-Amara would now have us believe. Hostages are paraded in orange tracksuits to remind us of Guantanamo Bay. Kidnappers demand the release of women held prisoner by the Americans. Abu Ghraib is what they are talking about. Abu Ghraib? Anyone remember Abu Ghraib? Remember those dirty little snapshots? But don't worry. This wasn't the America George Bush recognised, and besides we're punishing the bad apples, aren't we? Women? Why, there are only a couple of dames left - and they are "Dr Germ" and "Dr Anthrax".
But Arabs do not forget so easily. It was a Lebanese woman, Samia Melki, who first understood the true semantics of those Abu Ghraib photographs for the Arab world. The naked Iraqi, his body smeared with excrement, back to the camera, arms stretched out before the butch and blond American with a stick, possessed, she wrote in Counterpunch, "all the drama and contrasting colours of a Caravaggio painting".
The best of Baroque art invites the viewer to be part of the artwork. "Forced to walk in a straight line with his legs crossed, his torso slightly twisted and arms spread out for balance, the Iraqi prisoner's toned body, accentuated by the excrement and the bad lighting, stretches out in crucifix form. Exuding a dignity long denied, the Arab is suffering for the world's sins."
And that, I fear, is the least of the suffering that has gone on at Abu Ghraib. For what happened to all those videos which members of Congress were allowed to watch in secret and which we - the public - were not permitted to see? Why have we suddenly forgotten about Abu Ghraib? Seymour Hersh, the journalist who broke the Abu Ghraib story - and one of the only journalists in America who is doing his job - has spoken publicly about what else happened in that terrible jail.
I'm indebted to a reader for the following extract from a recent Hersh lecture: "Some of the worst things that happened that you don't know about. OK? Videos. There are women there. Some of you may have read that they were passing letters out, communications out to their men. This is at Abu Ghraib... The women were passing messages out saying please come and kill me because of what's happened. And basically what happened is that those women who were arrested with young boys, children, in cases that have been recorded, the boys were sodomised, with the cameras rolling, and the worst above all of them is the soundtrack of the boys shrieking..."
Already, however, we have forgotten this. Just as we must no longer talk about weapons of mass destruction. For as the details slowly emerge of the desperate efforts of Bush and Blair to find these non-existent nasties, I don't know whether to laugh or cry. US mobile site survey teams managed, at one point, to smash into a former Iraqi secret police headquarters in Baghdad, only to find a padlocked inner door. Here, they believed, they would find the horrors that Bush and Blair were praying for. And what did they find behind the second door? A vast emporium of brand new vacuum cleaners. At Baath party headquarters, another team - led by a Major Kenneth Deal - believed they had discovered secret documents which would reveal Saddam's weapons' programme. The papers turned out to be an Arabic translation of A J P Taylor's The Struggle for Mastery in Europe. Perhaps Bush and Blair should read it.
So as we continue to stagger down the crumbling stairway of our own ghastly making, we must listen to bigger and bigger whoppers. Iyad Allawi, the puppet prime minister - still deferentially called "interim prime minister" by many of my reporter chums - insists that elections will be held in January even though he has less control of the Iraqi capital (let alone the rest of the country) than the mayor of Baghdad. The ex-CIA agent, who obediently refused to free the two women prisoners the moment Washington gave him instructions not to do so, dutifully trots over to London and on to Washington to shore up more of the Blair-Bush lies.
Second Iraq War indeed. How much more of this tomfoolery are we, the public, expected to stomach? We are fighting in "the crucible of global terrorism", according to Lord Blair of Kut. What are we to make of this nonsense? Of course, he didn't tell us we were going to have a Second Iraq War when he helped to start the First Iraq War, did he? And he didn't tell the Iraqis that, did he? No, we had come to "liberate" them. So let's just remember the crisis before the crisis before the crisis. Let's go back to last November when our Prime Minister was addressing the Lord Mayor's banquet. The Iraq war, he informed us then - and presumably he was still referring to the First Iraq War - was "the battle of seminal importance for the early 21st century".
Well, he can say that again. But just listen to what else Lord Blair of Kut informed us about the war. "It will define relations between the Muslim world and the West. It will influence profoundly the development of Arab states and the Middle East. It will have far-reaching implications for the future of American and Western diplomacy."
And he can say that again, can't he? For it is difficult to think of anything more profoundly dangerous for us, for the West, for the Middle East, for Christians and Muslims since the Second World War - the real second war, that is - than Blair's war in Iraq. And Iraq, remember, was going to be the model for the whole Middle East. Every Arab state would want to be like Iraq. Iraq would be the catalyst - perhaps even the "crucible" - of the new Middle East. Spare me the hollow laughter.
I have been struck these past few weeks how very many of the letters I've received from readers come from men and women who fought in the Second World War, who argue ferociously that Blair and Bush should never be allowed to compare this quagmire with the real struggle against evil which they waged more than half a century ago.
"I, now 90, remember the men maimed in body and mind who haunted the lanes in rural Wales where I grew up in the years after 1918," Robert Parry wrote to me. "For this reason, Owen's 'Dulce et decorum est' remains for me the ultimate expression of the reality of death in war, made now more horrific by American 'targeted' bombing and the suicide bombers. We need a new Wilfred Owen to open our eyes and consciences, but until one appears this great poem must be given space to speak again." It would be difficult to find a more eloquent rejoinder to the infantile nonsense now being peddled by our Prime Minister.
Not for many years has there been such a gap - in America as well as Britain - between the people and the government they elected. Blair's most recent remarks are speeches made - to quote that Owen poem - "to children ardent for some desperate glory". Ken Bigley's blindfolded face is our latest greatest crisis. But let's not forget what went before.