The bus to Baghdad

One day in early 2003, I found myself in the waiting room of the Iraqi Embassy in Damascus. I was twenty-one years old, and studying Arabic in the Syrian capital. One of the consular officers had disappeared with my passport into an antechamber for what seemed like an eternity. As I sat waiting anxiously, I couldn’t take my eyes off the enormous portrait hanging on the wall across from me, locking me in its omnipotent gaze. It was an oversized likeness of Saddam Hussein, painted in the quasi-Socialist-realist mode beloved of the crop of rulers the historian Roger Owen called ‘Arab Presidents for Life’, looking down on me as the Assads did on the posters in the streets outside.

The passport eventually re-emerged, in the hands of the officer. Over the standard tourist visa embossed within were scribbled the words dara’a madani: human shield.

The human shield movement had been the brainchild of Kenneth O’Keefe, a former US soldier who had fought in the first Gulf War before turning radical critic of American militarism. It drew upon the principle of non-violent civil disobedience, for which North Americans had a particularly strong tradition, going back to the civil rights movement of the Sixties. The man who recruited me in Damascus embodied this heritage: he hailed from the Mennonite community, known for its radical commitment to pacifism, and articulated principled reasons for the necessity of the action.

The human shield activists were dismissed in some quarters as ‘dreamy idealists’ but were in fact far more hard-headed. They had based their strategy on an uncomfortable, yet undeniable calculus: that our home countries would think more carefully about the lives of their own citizens than the lives of Iraqis, which were clearly dispensable.

In the searing moral clarity of youth, and given my proximity to Iraq in neighbouring Syria, to become a human shield seemed an obligatory act of solidarity with Iraqi citizens. The case for the invasion of Iraq was so nakedly dissembling that it demanded opposition. The assault on Afghanistan, charged by the blind fury and bloodlust of the post-9/11 moment, had mustered widespread support, even among certain progressives, despite its inherent folly. However, the charges laid at the feet of Iraq—the weapons of mass destruction claim, the ‘Axis of Evil’ rhetoric, and the alleged Al-Qā’ida connection—were patently fabricated, and the consequences of invasion, of war and extended occupation, would so obviously be devastating. The vast majority of people around the world could see that.

The case for war rested on an intolerable proposition: that an alliance of democracies would bomb another country into democracy, while railroading opposition to the war within their own bodies politic. The ‘coalition of the willing’ was a wicked distortion of the actual will of the citizenry of the belligerent countries. From the internet café tucked into the walls of the Old City of Damascus near my house, I had seen the headlines from Melbourne newspaper The Age. Among the millions of protestors in cities and towns around the world, more than one-hundred thousand people had taken to the streets of my home town: the largest anti-war protests since Vietnam.

Australian critics of the war riled at our country’s position as the United States’ ‘deputy sheriff’ in the Pacific, ready to be deployed whenever and wherever Washington demanded. This instinctive Australian response to unquestionably follow America to war has recently been characterised by Clinton Fernandes as symptomatic of a broader condition of subimperialism. As a subimperial power, Fernandes argues, what matters most is not the ‘national interest’ in some directly transactional way. (Indeed, if one were to apply a purely Machiavellian, self-interested logic, Australian commercial interests in fact suffered due to the invasion: notably, in losing the wheat contracts that had been so lucrative during the UN-supervised Oil for Food program, later exposed to have involved kickbacks from the Australian Wheat Board to the Iraqi government.) No matter, since for the subimperial power, what counts above all is being perceived as useful to the supra-imperial power. In 2003, that meant following American imperial interests and joining the chorus of warmongers cynically selling an indefensible war.

Word had begun trickling back to Damascus that the human shields who had already gone to Iraq were being instrumentalised by the regime: being made to stand in front of military installations and other sensitive sites, rather than the types of civilian infrastructure that activists had hoped to help protect, like schools or hospitals. Were these stories true, or were they carefully-planted propaganda, like so much of the flow of information framed by the media in the lead-up to the invasion? It was impossible to know for sure.

What ultimately stopped me from going was the knowledge that if—or rather, when—the attack on Iraq started, I was not really prepared to stay for the long haul. Knowing this in my guts, I did not feel ethically comfortable with the prospect of engaging in pre-disaster tourism. I came up against the limits of my good intentions: I couldn’t get on that bus to Baghdad.

A handful of friends in Damascus who had taken the bus came back a week or two later with souvenirs: piles of Iraqi bank notes, rendered near worthless by inflation, and soon to be outdated, which they distributed among friends like Monopoly money. In retrospect, I can better recognise the symbolism of this act. It demonstrated that the pre-assassination of Iraq, its institutions, its central bank and its sovereign independence, had already occurred.

Then the war began.

In the last few days before the fall of Baghdad, the Iraqi state channel that those with satellite TV in Damascus could access had turned to running epic films with warrior themes from the golden age of Arab cinema in the 1960s, in an apparent attempt at inspiring resistance among the populace. It was a similar spirit of wishful denialism for which the Iraqi Information Minister Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf would become notorious, with his proclamations of heroic Iraqi resistance even as Coalition troops were capturing Baghdad hundreds of metres away from him. Images of Iraq’s capitulation were quickly ‘incorporated into the regime of visibility’, to borrow Faisal Al-Asaad’s apt phrase, alongside the highly staged toppling of a Saddam statue in Baghdad—a clip replayed ad infinitum to signal the irreversible momentum of history behind regime change.

On every imaginable measure, the Iraq war was the colossal disaster that a cacophony of critics had feared it would be. From the outset of the occupation, coalition troops failed to safeguard the cultural treasures of the country. While the priceless world heritage of Babylon and Mesopotamia was looted from the National Museum in Baghdad, the oil ministry was guarded and secured.

Such selective mismanagement confirmed what most critics of the war suspected, but which could not yet be shown decisively. It is now beyond contention that the invasion was motivated above all else by the appropriation of Iraq’s tremendous oil reserves. In the light of the accelerating climate catastrophe, the Iraq debacle should be considered a decisive point in global energy history. By making the fateful choice to accelerate global petroleum consumption, the war architects and their partners in the fossil fuel industry actively, and knowingly, sabotaged our collective ecological horizons.

But most horrific of all is the sheer human toll. Conservative estimates put the loss of innocent life between 300,000 and half-a-million. It is probably much higher. And then there are the lives and bodies disfigured by the toxic legacy of the war: Iraqi children born over the past two decades have suffered birth defects in astronomical rates, especially in centres of conflict like Fallujah.

The particularly risible claim that evicting Saddam from power would protect the world from Islamic terrorism lay in tatters with the collapse of the new, coalition-trained Iraqi army to the forces of ISIS in 2014. The destruction of the former Iraqi army under the program of ‘de-Ba‘thification’ mirrored the balkanisation of the country into sub-sections under the new proconsul Bremer’s constitution, a neo-colonial framework designed to fragment the country. The communal divisions that were stoked by such strategies of divide-and-rule fuelled a terrible fitna, or civil disorder, among the worst sectarian conflicts in recent history. The same fitna would spill into Syria post-2011, accelerating the transformation from revolution to civil war.

The Iraq catastrophe has had especially toxic legacies for Australian democracy. The revival of the culture of Anzackery has severely curtailed public debate and shielded decision-makers from scrutiny. This unquestioning militarism has allowed for an increased policing of public discourse, such as in the appalling treatment of Yassmin Abdel-Magied, who, for her temerity in questioning Australian military mythology was subjected to vicious public attack. But there are cracks in the edifice of Australian military heroism. The trial of Ben Roberts-Smith—the alleged middling war criminal—has highlighted the unsurprisingly problematic culture within elite special forces the SAS and provided a ready scapegoat.

Meanwhile, the major war criminals—those who committed us to war on false and fabricated pretences—have gotten off scot-free. Over the past twenty years, Australia has conducted no public inquiry into the war. There has been no declassification of the intelligence assessments that informed the decision to go to war. ‘A bipartisan consensus,’ writes Fernandes, ‘protects the system from genuine inquiry.’ The new Labor government has sought to differentiate itself from its predecessors on climate change, refugee policy, indigenous affairs and much else. But on the opacity of war powers, Labor ministers are in lockstep with their ideological opponents, refusing to support reform allowing parliamentary oversight on the power of the prime minister to commit Australian troops to war.

In place of reflection and reform, our leaders have committed to an ever-greater intermeshing of Australian and American forces: what is referred to in contemporary military double-speak as ‘interoperability’. The new AUKUS framework has largely extended the surrendering of our sovereignty and capacity for independent defence decision-making to the American Empire.

The twentieth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq should be the occasion for reflection on the part of citizens of the countries who committed their armies to the occupation. As we are shuttled into the prospect of an American-led war against China, we must remember our part in the disaster of 2003 and the decade that followed.


With thanks to Mohammad Armali, Firas Massouh and Virginie Rey for reading earlier drafts of this piece and offering helpful suggestions.

Image: George W Bush visits Baghdad International Airport on 27 November 2003, Wikimedia Commons

Stephen Pascoe

Stephen Pascoe is a historian and urbanist from Naarm/Melbourne, and a postdoctoral fellow at the Laureate Centre for History and Population at UNSW.

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