What Terror Comes Next: An Open Letter to a Friend About War, 07/10/2014

One of my good Twitter friends is a young man about my age named Aboud, who lives in Turkey. He used to live in Syria until recently, a sentence that should tell you a great deal about him, if you’re in the least perceptive. Lately, a common theme on his Twitter feed has been frustration, particularly with the United States. 

Aboud is a man of conscience, intelligence, and great perceptiveness. I’m glad to have connected with him as I did, not just as an activist against Assad, ISIS, and all forces of radicalism and faith turned murderous in a part of the world that, where any violence is too much, has seen much too much violence. I first met Aboud online because we both love Doctor Who. As a person, any progressive activist and enemy of religious violence and military dictatorship would be glad to count him on their side. But a recurrent theme in his tweets and other activism is trying to encourage direct American military action against Bashar al-Assad and ISIS. 

This is where he and I disagree. When I saw him post the tweet at right, I thought the time had at last come to offer a kind of explanation for Western hesitance to return with military forces to the Middle East. It’s not a forceful argument. It’s not really an argument at all. Aboud has taught me a lot about life in contemporary Syria through his feed, his blogs, our conversations, and his wonderful book that first brought me into contact with him. Fidelity to those values in that book, The Doctor, The Eye Doctor, and Me, led me to write this post today, if only to offer a narrative of why, from my own experience, so many in the West are reluctant to do what Aboud implores us to do.

Canada’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, is in the process of doing just what Aboud wishes President Obama would do, sending a substantial (at least for my country) military force to fight ISIS militants in Iraq and Syria. Canada’s opposition parties’ leaders, Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau, have offered typically tepid oppositions that skirt over the real issues. Mulcair and Trudeau say that ISIS is a terrible organization and that something must be done, but they step back from any concrete plans to actually do something. The real alternative to Harper’s actions are far more terrifying to contemplate, yet we must do so.

One of the pivotal political events of my young life was the series of protests against the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. It was an enormous social movement in the face of futility. George W. Bush looked at the vibrant protest movement against his own government and only saw validation of his own actions. In his own words, he was invading Iraq so that the Iraqi people could have the same freedom to safely and publicly protest the actions of their government, just as millions of Americans did.

No matter all the reasons Bush and his administration initially justified the invasion over 2002 and 2003, this was its real purpose. Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with the Sept. 11 attacks, no matter how many Americans were convinced by Bush Administration propaganda. The Iraqi government was incapable of building weapons of mass destruction, no matter the lies American diplomats presented at the United Nations. Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Bill Kristol, and other key figures of the Bush Administration or people who held deep influence there had been members of a think tank in the 1990s: The Project for a New American Century. This think tank produced only one central doctrine during its existence: that one could install democracy in a country by military invasion. It was a domino effect theory, but instead of communism, in the case of Vietnam, it was democracy. The theory turned out to be just as ridiculous.

This man haunts my generation.
Instead of a flowering democracy, we got the terrifying disaster of the Iraq Occupation that lasted until 2011. The removal of any Ba’ath party officials from government in the name of immediate democratization of the bureaucracy left thousands of armed and bitter men unemployed. 

People were radicalized not only by the invasion and occupation of their country, but the complete idiocy by which the United States proceeded to run Iraq. The occupying force had no idea what they were doing. At a time when government services were necessary to keep basic infrastructure like electricity and water functioning properly, the occupation authority fired almost every government worker in the country. The United States army was helpless to prevent the looting and destruction of the National Museum in Baghdad because they simply did not consider it worth protecting. 

Resistance groups sprung up all over the country, Al-Qaeda in Iraq being especially brutal. The United States reacted with extreme prejudice to these groups. The country that had invaded and occupied this country for the ostensible purpose of liberating and democratizing it only knew how to destroy it. American troops used white phosphorus weapons against militants in Fallujah, though most of the casualties of these horrifying machines were civilians. American soldiers invaded Iraqi homes and killed countless innocent Iraqis on vague suspicion of having been associated with militants. 

The behaviour of security contractors was even worse. Blackwater mercenaries regularly went on shooting sprees in Iraq’s neighbourhoods. Wikileaks first became internationally prominent when they released a video of Blackwater employees opening fire on random Iraqis in a street, hollering with joy at their mass murder of innocent civilians. This year, it was revealed that a high-ranking Blackwater official openly threatened to disappear a State Department official who was asking too many awkward questions about his firm’s activities in Baghdad. Rather than castigating the mercenary leader, the American government ordered its own official home.

You wouldn't think a man could be worse than a brutal
dictator like Saddam Hussein. You wouldn't think.
To counter this cowboy brutality, resistance organizations grew ever more violent and extreme. Despite the racist conspiracy theories that are brewing all over the Arab street and the community of the West’s useful idiots, ISIS is not the product of secret CIA and Mossad training camps. The most brutal members of Al Qaeda in Iraq went underground, continuing to attack the Maliki government after American troops finally left the country, until the cataclysm of the Syrian civil war allowed them to emerge as the Islamic State.

This is why so many in the West, leaders and ordinary people, don’t want to bring our armies back to your region, Aboud. We see the terror, the violence, the horrifying destruction, not just of our own good souls and idealists like the reporters and aid workers ISIS has killed, but the millions who have been killed, wounded, or displaced by a war that is just as big, and if anything more chaotic, as the war that shook Europe to rubble in the 1940s. We see it, and we acknowledge its terror, and that it is intolerable. But we also acknowledge one other fact, and it’s a fact that, at least in my case, is awfully shameful.

We make it worse.

We made it worse when Reagan sent weapons to Saddam Hussein in the 1980s so he could go to war with Iran. It got worse when, thinking George H. W. Bush, who he had known so well when they were allies, would continue treating a loyal client state with friendliness, Saddam invaded Kuwait. We made it worse when, in the name of a politics of containment, we encouraged Shia and Kurdish resistance to Saddam in the wake of his defeat in Kuwait, but refused to defend them when they were gassed and massacred.

Bush should feel responsible for creating the conditions
that made this happen. I know he doesn't.
Even when we turn our military might to the ideals of toppling dictators and installing democracy, a noble cause at least in thought, we create disasters. You hate ISIS? Blackwater made ISIS! You want those racist, rapist, massacring, trigger-happy, power-drunk crazies back in your country? And by that, I mean Blackwater. Those people should be in San Quentin with the drug traffickers, wife murderers, and serial killers!

Sorry, I get a little excited.

American military might and espionage subversion meddled in the Middle East to fight Khomeini’s Iran, and we got an emboldened Saddam Hussein. Toppling Saddam Hussein forged Al Qaeda in Iraq and set a modern-day Glanton Gang loose on the streets of Baghdad. The war on Al Qaeda in Iraq gave birth to ISIS. I shudder to think what more terrifying people would emerge from the ashes of ISIS at the hands of Western militaries.

It isn’t because we don’t care that so many Westerners can’t support military invasion in your region again. We can’t conceive of how the situation in Syria and Iraq could possibly get any worse. Yet we look at our own record, our own past, and shudder.

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