Iraq’s future is in the hands of long-time now.
There’s no need now to rush to the blog or the column, the talk show or the speech, to mark and masticate the meaning of each and every event. Listening to Swarthmore’s War News Radio (the last four programs have been really excellent), I heard one student summarize a suicide bombing from this week by saying that it was the worst attack since…the previous week.
Listening to the reporting of American casualties, I don’t hear more significance in a week of 20 dead than a week of 5 dead: it is an oscillation within an established register. Reading of American participation in the beating, torture and murder of a Ba’athist military officer and insurgent I don’t think, “Now there’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back, which proves Abu Ghraib was not an isolated case”. That has already been proven: the new story is merely more demonstration of a pattern. Reading of Steven Vincent’s death, I wonder why some of his readers do not see the careful attention he was giving to the underlying pressures shaping Iraq’s evolution and the American involvement, the slow movement of events in one direction and away from the direction he believed in and cherished, a perception which led to his murder.
The determining structures are hardening in place, made as they always are by the accumulation of the choices of many people and institutions. Some choices made clearly, with foresight of their consequences. Many choices made hastily, without contemplation, in response to directives and impulses coming from far outside the heat and dust of the war itself. What Iraq is becoming is not just what America is making of it. It is not just what Iraqis are making of it. It is not just what the insurgents are making of it. No one has a god’s eye view, but anyone who thinks there is a good and desirable goal here beyond bolstering some bullshit partisan advantage has to at least try to look at the track that the train is travelling upon. If they’re not happy with the destination, they need to try desperately to pull the switch and move it onto a new one. A train track that’s just a single degree of angle away from another can lead, far later, to a radically different place.
No one knows what the insurgency wants, probably not even the insurgents. Partly because there is more than one insurgency: there are those who just want a better cut of the action in a corrupt postwar US client state, and those who think they can only get a better cut of the action by cutting out the “US client state” part and being just an ordinary corrupt Third World state. There are young jihadists who are the 21st Century’s Lincoln Brigades, restless young men who fuse romance and nihilism and treasure a chance to matter now rather than simply settle into the ordinariness of middle-aged anomie. What could satisfy them but death and killing, unless they somehow live long enough to see through the haze and their own narcissism to the lives they destroy and the futures they strangle? There are the flinty old manipulators and grand dreamers of Islamist movements trying to make moves on a global chessboard, with as little ability to tangibly grasp and hold onto the whole of the game as wonks in Washingtonian think tanks and Pentagon situation rooms. Different insurgencies, adding up to a complex sum far greater than any of its parts, pushing Iraq one way. Perhaps some insurgents do not want it to go that way, but given the incoherence of the overall situation and their own efforts, any direction except improvement of the American situation will do well enough.
There’s the Americans, trying hard to master a messy political situation with largely military means. Some dreamers who truly want a democratic and free society, with little thought to grand geopolitical plotting about Israel or oil. But the dreamers are mostly sleepwalking past what is happening: past the torture (“merely a few bad people, and we caught them”), past the shootings of innocents at checkpoints (“understandable error”), past the dirty deals with death squads (“counter-insurgency is all about breaking eggs to make omelets”), past the easy slide towards accomodating kleptocrats and ‘our-bastards’ in order to establish order. These are not single decisions, single events, with one turning point. That’s the real dreamers: there are also fake ones, who don’t actually care much about Iraq, just about gaining advantage within the United States or even just within the factions of the federal bureaucracy.
These are structures of decision, driven by the confluence of political expediency, the cycle of the American presidency, and more crucially, the deeply rooted and muddled instrumentalism of the war’s planners. The planners have unfocused eyes on the prize because they’ve never been honest with themselves or with the American public about what the prize was, save the unseating of Saddam Hussein. Yes, they did that, and we’re all quite happy about it. But if they want more, they’re going to have to move the train one angle away, shift the structures of decision, move the long-time. More American men and women in Iraq, soldiers and civilians, are going to die in the long-time between now and the day they are no longer there. If their deaths are ever to mean more than, “We got that bastard Hussein”, the logics of the long-time are going to need to push away from torture, away from expediency, away from backroom deals with people who have no more interest in democracy than the insurgents do.
And then there’s the Iraqis. Surely none of them, save the insurgents and the people seeking short-term advantage from American intervention, can be hugely satisfied with the situation as it stands, least of all those who believe in and hope for freer, better, safer society. Their hands are far from the train switch. It’s one thing to say that achieving democracy is a bloody and difficult business. Surely that’s so. But if you say it with any sincerity, think at least of the Iraqis as well as you think of Londoners. Mourn as much their dead as the dead in London’s undergrounds. Grant at least the indignity of being chosen to sacrifice your people in the struggle for democracy instead of choosing yourself to do so, the pain of being the proxy battlefield selected by bearded men huddled in caves at the high roof of the world and men gathered in situation rooms in Washington DC. Feel at least a little discomfort at the thought of people without representation or say being volunteered to heroic sacrifice in the global war on terror.
Iraqis most of all live in the long-time now, and most painfully of all of us, know least and fear most about where it is all heading.