Iraq: a year of war

The invasion of Iraq would, we were told, rid the world of mortal danger. One year on, the only people who feel safer are those who prefer not to think for themselves

By Robert Fisk

17 March 2004

The impact of the cruise missiles can still be seen in the telecommunications tower across the Tigris. The Ministry of Defence still lies in ruins. Half the government ministries in Baghdad are still fire-stained, a necessary reminder of the cancer of arson that took hold of the people of this city in the first hours and days of their "liberation".

But the symbols of the war are not the scars of last year's invasion - we cannot say "last year's war", because the war continues to this day. No, the real folly of our invasion can be seen in the fortresses that the occupiers are building, the ramparts of steel and concrete and armour with which the Americans have now surrounded themselves. Like Crusaders, they are building castles amid the people they came to "save", to protect themselves from those who were supposed to have greeted them with flowers.

In even the smallest streets of Baghdad, you can smell the orange blossom, both sweet and bitter, a little paradise amid the muck and the stench of benzine. But you can also hear the sound of an alienated population, for whom every problem, every indignity, every mishap, every tragedy, is the fault and responsibility of its occupiers. Just as we blame Blair - and Blair and Bush only - for the war, so Iraqis blame those who have come to run their country: Americans, British, Westerners, foreigners. Oh, how different we are. Oh, how different they are. Never the twain shall meet. But we are not so different.

It was meant to be a Boy's Own war. That's how our leaders present death and blood and betrayal to us these days. And, strangely enough, that's how war is presented to the Arabs, too, by their dictators and kings. When Saddam sent his legions into Iran in 1980, he dubbed their aggression the "Whirlwind War" - part two, 11 years later, was to be "The Mother of All Battles". We had Desert Shield and Desert Storm and, last year, Operation Free Iraq, and now the Americans - fighting the resistance they could never have imagined would challenge their occupation of Iraq - are initiating Operation Iron Anvil, Operation Iron Hammer and, even this week, in Afghanistan, Operation Mountain Storm.

Our folk memory of the Second World War (for most of the British population, like Tony Blair's Cabinet, have little direct recollection of the 1939-45 conflict) is now invoked as a trailer to the big picture, a necessary part of a familiar narrative to war. The man with the moustache - Nasser or Saddam - is like the little ex-corporal with the moustache who sent the Luftwaffe over England in 1940. And the men who were going to defend us against the Beast of Baghdad, the Hitler of the Tigris (albeit that Saddam was a fan of Stalin) were Churchills, Roosevelts, titans in battle against evil. Churchill, I fear, would have had no time for the little men who wish to sit on his historical throne, with their desperate sincerity, their arrogance, their constant use of "absolutely" and "completely".

Thus when the path to war in Iraq was being laid down for us just over a year ago, the old 1939-45 memory bank was dusted out. Those who did not wish to confront Saddam were Chamberlains, appeasers, weaklings, potential fifth-columnists. Those who were ready to de-fang the monster were marching off to battle like the Desert Rats of * * Alamein. During the 1991 liberation of Kuwait, the British commander, General Sir Peter de la Billiere, actually wore an original Eighth Army Desert Rat patch on his shoulder. At Christmas in 1990, as British troops waited in the Saudi desert to attack the Iraqis, the BBC mixed entertainment for the troops and their families with newsreel pictures of British tanks in the Western Desert in 1942.

There were some slips. When Blair told us we must support George Bush, he reminded us all of how America had come to our rescue in the Second World War, mercifully neglecting to mention the profitable period of neutrality the United States endured until the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941. American commentators recalled for their British audiences that the US had declared war on Hitler. This was untrue. It was Hitler who declared war on America in 1941.

And if we dared recall that Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defense Secretary, had been shaking hands with Saddam back in the early 1980s - when he was at his most genocidal - Churchill was brought back. I recall one of the US right-wing "commentators" - in this instance from the Brookings Institution - reminding me during a BBC interview that "Churchill said you sometimes have to make a pact with the devil". Not so, I said. Churchill made no such statement. What he did tell John Colville after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 was that "if Hitler invaded Hell, I would at least make a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons". Rumsfeld was making a lot more than a reference.

In the days before we invaded Iraq a year ago, the threats also had to have a Cold War as well as a Second World War flavour. Condoleezza Rice, Bush's specialist on threats and terror, warned us about a "mushroom cloud" - the Russian version, presumably, rather than Hiroshima or Nagasaki - and the word "holocaust" was invoked. Blair's preposterous "dossier" - and journalists went along with this ridiculous description of the Prime Minister's ill-written and meretricious document - suggested obliquely that London could be attacked; take a look at the Express newspapers' report to this effect, which our most senior intelligence man saw nothing wrong with when he was questioned at the Hutton inquiry. Here again were the old nightmares - Blitz on London.

And our European friends and allies? Should they dare to oppose our rush to war, they were gutless, cowardly and ungrateful to the Americans for liberating them from under the heel of Nazi Germany. "Old Europe", to use Rumsfeld's disgraceful expression, was collaborationist, potentially Nazi or - in France's case, of course - Pétainist. Poor old France. When The Wall Street Journal sent its correspondent back to the 1944 D-Day beaches, it was gratifying to find that the still grateful French who live there remembered that the Americans had given their lives for their liberation, not for their future political obedience. Germany was a more difficult nation to condemn because the Second World War parallels couldn't be applied. The Germans, after all, could hardly be abused for not being warlike enough. It's chilling to reflect, however, that when I was talking to Osama bin Laden about attacks on Americans in 1997, he compared those bombings to the French resistance against Nazi occupation during the Second World War. The conflict of 1939-45 is a mountain at which we can all quarry away.

All of this, however, was a narrative that could be - and was - combined with war for the bloke on the street. This began, I suspect, before and during the Kosovo war, when Hitler was dug up again (rather inappropriately, in view of Yugoslavia's wartime courage against the Nazis) to further blacken the name of the Beast of Belgrade. This was the first post-war war - if you take my meaning - in which the Germans were involved. Thus reporters at Nato headquarters were encouraged to call the Luftwaffe the "German Air Force". Slobodan Milosevic himself, of course, had provided the images to go with the Holocaust memories: the long lines of dispossessed and brutalised Kosovo Albanians streaming into Macedonia.

But Nato set the stage. We had the slightly comical, cockney spokesman Jamie Shea, always ready with a good Hobbesian quotation and a quick way of dismissing questions that might prove troublesome. When a Nato plane bombed a train on the Gurdulice bridge in Serbia, up he popped with a camera-video of the bomb - too late to abort because of the speed with which the train approached the bridge - without mentioning that the film had been speeded up and, much more damagingly, that after the train stopped, the pilot went on to bomb the bridge again.

When Nato bombed a narrow road-bridge and killed a party of civilian rescuers in a second raid, Shea blandly pointed out that the bridge could carry a tank. It couldn't; it wasn't wide enough. When Nato killed patients at a hospital, Shea described it as a military target. Post-war enquiries by The Independent proved that Yugoslav troops had been hiding in the hospital basement. Nato must have known this, just as it knew about the patients. So it bombed the hospital anyway. And got away with it.

The missile that killed hundreds of Iraqis in an air-raid shelter in Baghdad in 1991 become a turning point in the war. The old canard about Iraqi anti-aircraft missiles exploding among Iraqis collapsed when Brent Sadler of CNN - the network briefly doing its job of telling us the truth - produced part of a cruise missile that had exploded in a Baghdad hotel.

Nato tried the same game when it bombed a Kosovo Albanian refugee convoy in 1999, suggesting that Yugoslav planes had attacked the civilians. On that occasion, it was The Independent that found the computer codings on the shrapnel, which proved the bombs were Nato's. But by and large, Nato's bloke-in-the-street approach worked. Milosevic was such an ugly character that we could forget his prominent role in the 1995 Dayton accord - when he was fêted by Richard Holbrooke, the US chief negotiator, who wanted to get US troops into Bosnia without a battle, and when the Kosovo Albanians were witheringly told to shut up - and we could, too, ignore the fine print of the 1999 Rambouillet peace talks over Kosovo. An annexe to the proposed agreement stated that the Serbs had to allow Nato access to all of Serbia's roads and railways, radio stations, territory and frontiers - something no sovereign nation would ever accept. Thus was the path to war concreted over.

In the months leading up to last year's invasion of Iraq, I suspect that this was remembered all too well in Whitehall. The Blair "dossier" was worthy of Jamie Shea, its catalogue of human-rights abuses - albeit in some cases the re-heating of dubious material already 11 years old - contained lies by omission. It recalled the Shia Muslim rioting in Basra in 1991 and Saddam's subsequent repression without once mentioning that it was we, Britain and America, who had urged these poor people to rebel and then betrayed them by leaving them to Saddam's mercy. Which is not that different to General Wesley Clark's 1999 declaration that Nato was bombing Serbia to put Kosovo Albanian refugees back in their homes - even though most of them had been in their homes when Nato began bombing.

I also suspect that one of the principal reasons why so many tens of thousands of Britons - and Europeans - marched against the war was not only because they believed the war was unjust and based on lies, but because they sensed that they were being talked down to, treated as children, treated with disrespect by Blair and his supporters. Britain's Minister for Europe, Denis MacShane, gave the game away in Brussels just before the invasion of Iraq when he told British critics that it was sometimes a prime minister's job to "guide" his people. Europeans did not need to be reminded that the German for "guide" is Führer.

And I rather think that this is what Blair now believes he is - a "guide" who leads his people because of his own moral clarity. It was the Irish prime minister, Eamon de Valera, who once said that when he wanted to know what the * * people of Ireland thought, he had only to look into his own heart. Alas, this is what Blair thought when he went to war. Our feelings, our views, our beliefs, our long-held convictions and our arguments didn't count. Because he knew best. If we could only see the intelligence material on Iraq that passed across his desk, Blair told the House of Commons, we would not be questioning him about the war. Of course, now that we know exactly what was passing across Blair's desk, we know we were right to be suspicious.

And yet - the "and yet" is an important part of every Middle East story - there is an eerie, disturbing parallel, almost a mirror image of our own childlike walk to war, among the very people we invaded. Historically, we have provided most of the Middle East's dictators, funded them, armed them, supported them or (if they nationalised the Suez Canal, attacked Americans in Berlin or invaded Kuwait) bombed them. What we have never been able to explain is their tenacity; or, more to the point, their subject people's ability to lie docile under their heels. We used to ask: why don't the Iraqis get rid of Saddam? And we forgot how few Germans dared risk the ferocity of Hitler's revenge.

But we also have to face a fact: that Arab societies seem to be uniquely capable of absorbing these dictatorships, of playing along with the 99.9 per cent presidential election victories, and the secret policemen and the torture chambers, and the lies and distortions - able even (here is the difficult part) to give real loyalty to the monsters we decided should rule them.

The French have a very good word for this: infantilisme. Many Arab populations have indeed been "infantilised" by their leaders and regimes. In private, they may cast their eyes to the ceiling to show their abhorrence of the regime, but in front of an audience their enthusiasm might almost be real. And I suspect that it often is real. I recall a very intelligent Syrian lady who, in private, would always criticise the late president Hafez Assad. Could I believe how stupid the regime is, how little Assad understands the world or, indeed, Syria? Did I realise how the Syrian people would be happy when his regime ended? Yet when I met her the day after Assad's death, this same woman turned to me with tears in her eyes. "Robert, you cannot understand how we feel," she cried. "He was a father to us, a real father."

And I think she meant it. Because dictatorship does not just bestow brutality and fear upon a society. It takes from the necks of grown people the yoke of blame, the burden of responsibility. They can forget Western adult cares - where to send the children to school, which political party to vote for, how to find the best tax adviser, how to resolve women's rights, equality, crime, social injustice. Under the dictatorship, the people are returned to their childhood. They can live for ever as children, forever young, nursed and loved by the Great Father, the Caliph, the Sultan, he whom God has chosen to protect them and guide them, a guide who has only to look into his own heart to know what his people think.

Eternal youth is what they are offered in return for their loyalty. True, the price of infidelity is too terrible to contemplate - certainly too terrible to endure physically - but these are difficult times. The Great Father has to enact emergency laws for us. They are in our interest. And who are we to reject this benevolence when foreigners - Americans like Rumsfeld, for example - turn up to shake our leader by the hand and to extend to us the good relations of the West?

I rather think that this explains the patriarchal society that exists in the Arab world. The father who has no role in his society - unless he is a party apparatchik, in which case a new set of childlike rules comes into play - can only rule at home, a place in which his word, his law, his wishes are sacrosanct. Unable to play a role in real society, he mimics this role inside his own home.

He becomes the dictator whose portrait hangs in every home, indeed (for this was the case in Iraq) often in every bedroom. He decides what his children should do, whom they should marry, what his wife should think. A visit from a secret policeman - always supposing the father is not a policeman himself - is an event of fear and potential humiliation. All the more important, then, for the father to appease the policeman, to be his friend and then to reassert his own power in the house.

In earlier days, Saddam would turn up unexpectedly at the home of a poor family in Baghdad or Tikrit to hear what the people were thinking. He wanted to know their fears and concerns and complaints as well as what made them happy. Up to a point, he was told: the sewers that flooded, the houses that were badly built, the hospitals that did not immediately accept patients. And it was in Saddam's interest to listen and hear what his people might be thinking before he stored it in his own heart. It was Saddam's version of Tony Blair's Big Conversation. The Iraqi television cameras would be there, the secret policemen playing the role of spinmeisters just in case things got out of control.

Arabs may think that all this is unfair. A combination of historical tragedy and cultural chance - the Islamic faith, the Caliphate, the political and military encroachment of the West at the very time when the Muslim world might have shared a renaissance with Europe - can account for present-day dictatorships in the Middle East, along with our own ruthless colonisation. Didn't Germans behave in much the same way under Hitler, Italians under Mussolini, the Spanish under Franco?

But it remains true that Iraqi society was "infantilised" by Saddam. How else can we account for its dogged loyalty during the appalling eight-year war with Iran, when Muslim Shia fought Muslim Shia with human-wave attacks and poison gas? They were people who had no responsibility, who were told what to say and read and think, and who were - perhaps, in some dangerous way - the happier for it.

When Iraqis tell me today that "things were better under Saddam", they want to suggest that they had law and order and dictatorship rather than freedom and anarchy (the twin blessings Bush and Blair have brought them). But I also darkly fear that they look back to an age when they had no responsibility, when they could cast aside their cares and their powers of enquiry, when certainties were cast in iron, when love was unquestioning, however corrupt.

Yet this is what I suspect we now share: the Iraqis who lived through Saddam's rule, and we who now go to war so blithely, who now occupy the lands of other people with such sublime certainty. We feel a need - or at least our leaders feel the need - to have a childlike society, where dissent is derided or ignored, where wisdom and integrity and truth are the sole characteristics of those who lead us and those who give their support to those leaders.

No, Blairite Britain and Bush's America are not Saddam's Iraq. But societies require what Coleridge called the "willing suspension of disbelief". We must trust. We must agree. We must accept. We must go along with what our leaders want, we must - an unhappy phrase from the Hitler period - "help to give the wheel a shove".

This is the legacy of the Iraq war, which is now a year old and shows no sign of ending. We are all children now.