A Strange Kind of 'Freedom'
By Arundhati Roy / The Guardian
May 8, 2003


Arundhati Roy
LONDON (April 2, 2003) -- Mesopotamia. Babylon. The Tigris and Euphrates. How many children, in how many classrooms, over how many centuries, have hang-glided through the past, transported on the wings of these words? And now the bombs are falling, incinerating and humiliating that ancient civilization.

On the steel torsos of their missiles, adolescent American soldiers scrawl colorful messages in childish handwriting: "For Saddam, from the Fat Boy Posse." A building goes down. A marketplace. A home. A girl who loves a boy. A child who only ever wanted to play with his older brother's marbles.

According to a New York Times/CBS News survey, 42 percent of the American public believes that Saddam Hussein is directly responsible for the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. And an ABC News poll says that 55 percent of Americans believe that Saddam Hussein directly supports al-Qaeda.

It is unlikely that British and American troops fighting in Iraq are aware that their governments supported Saddam Hussein both politically and financially through his worst excesses.

Hundreds of thousands of men, tanks, ships, choppers, bombs, ammunition, gas masks, high-protein food, whole aircrafts ferrying toilet paper, insect repellent, vitamins and bottled mineral water, are on the move. The phenomenal logistics of Operation Iraqi Freedom make it a universe unto itself. It doesn't need to justify its existence any more. It exists. It is.

After using economic sanctions and weapons inspections to ensure that Iraq was brought to its knees, its people starved, half a million of its children killed, its infrastructure severely damaged -- after making sure that most of its weapons have been destroyed, in an act of cowardice that must surely be unrivalled in history, the "Coalition of the Willing" (better known as the Coalition of the Bullied and Bought) sent in an invading army!

Operation Iraqi Freedom? I don't think so. It's more like Operation Let's Run a Race, but First Let Me Break Your Knees.

When Saddam Hussein appeared on national TV to address the Iraqi people after the failure of the most elaborate assassination attempt in history, British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon derided him for not having the courage to stand up and be killed.

When the Arab TV station al-Jazeera shows civilian casualties, it's denounced as "emotive" Arab propaganda, as though Iraqis are dying only in order to make the "Allies" look bad. But the awed, breathless footage of aircraft carriers, stealth bombers and cruise missiles arcing across the desert sky on American and British TV is described as the "terrible beauty" of war.

When the "Allies" bombed the Iraqi television station (a contravention of the Geneva Convention), there was vulgar jubilation in the American media. It was seen as a righteous blow against Arab propaganda. But mainstream American and British TV continue to advertise themselves as "balanced" when their propaganda has achieved hallucinatory levels.

Bad Days in Basra
Ali was injured in the US bombing. His photo has been published throughout Europe and Asia. He has one question for George W. Bush: "Can you give me back my arms?"
And now we have the siege of Basra. About 1.5 million people, 40 percent of them children, without clean water and with very little food. We're still waiting for the happy hordes to stream out of the city and rain roses and hosannahs on the "liberating" army. It may well be that if Saddam's regime falls there will be dancing on the streets of Basra. But then, if the Bush regime were to fall, there would be dancing on the streets the world over.

As of July last year, the delivery of $5.4 billion worth of supplies to Iraq was blocked by the Bush/Blair Pair. It didn't really make the news. But now under the loving caress of live TV, 450 tons of humanitarian aid -- a minuscule fraction of what's actually needed -- arrived on the British ship, Sir Galahad. Nick Guttmann, head of emergencies for Christian Aid, writing for the Independent said that it would take 32 Sir Galahad's a day to match the amount of food Iraq was receiving before the bombing began.

We oughtn't to be surprised though. It's old tactics. They've been at it for years. Consider this moderate proposal from the Pentagon Papers, published during the Vietnam War. "Destruction of locks and dams... offer promise. It should be studied. Such destruction does not kill or drown people. By shallow-flooding the rice, it leads after time to widespread starvation (more than a million?) unless food is provided -- which we could offer to do 'at the conference table'."

So, here's the moral math: 200,000 Iraqis estimated killed in the first Gulf War. Hundreds of thousands dead because of the economic sanctions. More being killed every day. Tens of thousands of US soldiers who fought the 1991 war officially declared "disabled" by Gulf War Syndrome. It hasn't stopped the "Allies" from continuing to use depleted uranium.

Cleaning up the Mess
And now this talk of bringing the UN back into the picture. But the UN has been demoted. Now she's the world's janitor. She's the Philippino cleaning lady, the Indian jamadarni, the postal bride from Thailand, the Mexican household help, the Jamaican au pair. She's employed to clean other peoples' shit. She's used and abused at will.

Despite Blair's earnest submissions and all his fawning, Bush has made it clear that the UN will play no independent part in the administration of postwar Iraq. The US will decide who gets those juicy "reconstruction" contracts.

Contracts for the "reconstruction" of Iraq we're told, could jump-start the world economy. It's funny how the interests of American corporations are so often, so successfully and so deliberately confused with the interests of the world economy. While the American people will end up paying for the war, oil companies, weapons manufacturers, arms dealers, and corporations involved in "reconstruction" work will make direct gains from the war. Many of them are old friends and former employers of the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld/Rice cabal.

Operation Iraqi Freedom, Tony Blair assures us is about returning Iraqi oil to the Iraqi people. That is, returning Iraqi oil to the Iraqi people via corporate multinationals, like Shell, like Chevron, like Halliburton.

Boycott Brand America?
If the fallout of the war takes this turn, it is the US that will suffer the most. Its homeland may be defended by border patrols and nuclear weapons, but its economy is strung out across the globe. Its economic outposts are exposed and vulnerable to attack in every direction.

Already the Internet is buzzing with elaborate lists of American and British government products and companies that should be boycotted. Apart from the usual targets -- Coke, Pepsi and McDonald's -- government agencies such as USAID, the British department for international development, British and American banks, Arthur Anderson, Merrill Lynch, American Express, corporations such as Bechtel, General Electric, and companies such as Reebok, Nike and Gap -- could find themselves under siege. These lists could become a practical guide that directs and channels the amorphous, but growing fury in the world.

It's become clear that the war against terror is not really about terror, and the war on Iraq not only about oil. It's about a superpower's self-destructive impulse towards supremacy, stranglehold, global hegemony. The argument is being made that the people of Argentina and Iraq have both been decimated by the same process. Only the weapons used against them differ: In one case it's an IMF checkbook. In the other, cruise missiles.

In the fog of war we're forced to speculate: Either Saddam is an extremely responsible tyrant. Or he simply does not possess weapons of mass destruction. Either way, regardless of what happens next, Iraq comes out of the argument smelling sweeter than the US government.

So here's Iraq -- rogue state, grave threat to world peace, paid-up member of the Axis of Evil. Here's Iraq, invaded, bombed, besieged, bullied, its sovereignty shat upon, its children killed by cancers, its people blown up on the streets. And here's all of us watching CNN-BBC, BBC-CNN late into the night. Here's all of us, enduring the horror of the propaganda and enduring the slaughter of language. Freedom now means mass murder.

American's Racist War
In most parts of the world, the invasion of Iraq is being seen as a racist war. The real danger of a racist war unleashed by racist regimes is that it engenders racism in everybody -- perpetrators, victims, spectators. It sets the parameters for the debate; it lays out a grid for a particular way of thinking.

There is a tidal wave of hatred for the US rising from the ancient heart of the world -- in Africa, Latin America, Asia, Europe, Australia. I encounter it every day. Bankers, businessmen, yuppie students, bring to it all the crassness of their conservative, illiberal politics -- that absurd inability to separate governments from people: "America is a nation of morons, a nation of murderers," they say (with the same carelessness with which they say, "All Muslims are terrorists").

Right now, hundreds of thousands of British and American citizens are on the streets protesting the war. The Coalition of the Bullied and Bought consists of governments, not people. More than one third of America's citizens have survived the relentless propaganda they've been subjected to, and many thousands are actively fighting their own government. In the ultra-patriotic climate that prevails in the US, that's as brave as any Iraqi fighting for his or her homeland.

While the "Allies" wait in the desert for an uprising of Shia Muslims on the streets of Basra, the real uprising is taking place in hundreds of cities across the world. It has been the most spectacular display of public morality ever seen.

Most courageous of all, are the hundreds of thousands of American people on the streets of America's great cities -- Washington, New York, Chicago, San Francisco. The fact is that the only institution in the world today that is more powerful than the American government, is American civil society. American citizens have a huge responsibility riding on their shoulders. How can we not salute and support those who not only acknowledge but act upon that responsibility? They are our allies, our friends.

(It's odd how those who dismiss the peace movement as utopian, don't hesitate to proffer the most absurdly dreamy reasons for going to war: to stamp out terrorism, install democracy, eliminate fascism, and to "rid the world of evil-doers".)

Regardless of what the propaganda machine tells us, these tin-pot dictators are not the greatest threat to the world. The real and pressing danger is the locomotive force that drives the political and economic engine of the US government, currently piloted by George Bush. It's true that he is a dangerous, almost suicidal pilot, but the machine he handles is far more dangerous than the man himself.

In times of war, one wants one's weakest enemy at the helm of his forces. And President George W Bush is certainly that. Any other even averagely intelligent US president would have probably done the very same things, but would have managed to smoke-up the glass and confuse the opposition. Perhaps even carry the UN with him.

Bush's tactless imprudence and his brazen belief that he can run the world with his riot squad, has done the opposite. He has achieved what writers, activists and scholars have striven to achieve for decades. He has exposed the ducts. He has placed on full public view the working parts, the nuts and bolts of the apocalyptic apparatus of the American Empire.

Now that the blueprint (The Ordinary Person's Guide to Empire) has been put into mass circulation, it could be disabled quicker than the pundits predicted.

Bring on the spanners.

Arundhati is the author of The God of Small Things and a tireless advocate for social justice. Upon winning the prestigious $30,000 Booker Prize for literature, she gave the winnings to the people of the Narmada Valley whose homes and farms are threatened by the dam's floodwaters. This is an edited version of a longer essay that first appeared in The Guardian of London.

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