A Fine Line

Are we liberators or invaders of Iraq?

This has been a somber time. The invasion of Iraq is turning out to be even more imminently disastrous than any of us imagined, and our government infinitely more cynical.

Yesterday--I write this on March 26 in order to make my week-ahead deadline--Dick Cheney's old company, Halliburton, marched into the Basra oil fields to start collecting its share of the pelf, and the words "fedayeen" and "pockets of resistance" started to become sickeningly familiar.

America's children are dying to enrich Texas oilmen. Hooray.

Forty years later, we've marched back into Vietnam, this time with dust instead of mud. Once again, our kids are out there, in mortal danger, unable to tell noncombatants from killers. Once again our government has gotten the country into a bad war for stupid reasons. God only knows how or when we will get out of Iraq--everybody who still has confidence in Pentagon planners, hold up your hand--but I can tell you how we got into it: words.

For the last few months, a White House bent on war has been chanting a few simple words like a scary mantra: Saddam Hussein. Terrorism. The Iraqi people. The American people. Homeland security. Weapons of mass destruction. (This last is particularly manipulative--the World Trade Center hijackers were armed with only box cutters.) The words have coagulated and sunk in, with the result that just before the invasion, half the American population thought that Saddam was behind the Sept. 11 attacks. (Hey, what's up with Osama bin Laden, anyway? Remember him?)

A man who seems too dumb to lie has been repeating these words incessantly, saying them so often that our leaders somehow lost sight of basic reality. War of liberation. Operation Iraqi Freedom. Shock and awe. Thugs.

Did the top brass really believe the Iraqis would welcome us with open arms, as Cheney predicted on the Sunday morning chat shows? (We may assume that Cheney never believed it--he's a highly intelligent man, and his motive for getting us into this mess is all too clear. Halliburton, the designated reconstructor of Iraq, reportedly still pays him about $1 million a year. What he's doing is called "war profiteering.") When has a nation conquered by foreigners ever considered itself to be liberated?

"Liberation" is a powerful word. Our self-image as a country is rooted, to a large extent, in World War II: Korea and Vietnam are only shadows on that bright memory. We were liberators back then, and it's true that Italians and the French welcomed us when we marched into their countries. But that was because we were there to push the Nazi occupiers out.

If we're going to make historical comparisons, the Iraqis are more like the Germans, who fought for every inch of Germany, as the Japanese would have fought for every inch of Japan had we not dropped the atom bomb. By the last months of the war, the German people were exhausted, starving and bereaved. They had been betrayed by their leaders in every way, but they were fighting for their home soil, and they dug in.

We can confidently expect the Iraqis to do the same. People don't fight and die for governments; they fight for their homes and families and for everything they love about the place they live.

Our only chance of getting out of Iraq without terrible casualties is to wake quickly from our video-game dreams of easy conquest and put ourselves in the place of the Iraqis. (Not of Saddam--once the first convoy drove across the border from Kuwait, he ceased to matter.) To expect these people to capitulate easily just because they loathe and distrust their rulers is a deadly failure of imagination.

Look at it this way: What if we were invaded? Our soldiers would be heroes, our guerillas brave freedom fighters. Those killed would be martyrs for liberty. No occupier would be able to withstand the resistance he would encounter.

Like just about everyone in this country, I would fight if a foreign power tried to take over here. It goes without saying. And I hate the people in power: I am of the opinion that George W. Bush, who I think may be insane, is not the president of the United States, but just the public face of a committee that staged a coup d'état in the 2000 election, a shadowy junta made up of rich men who are looting the country and right-wing religious nuts and ideologues who are systematically abrogating civil liberties while causing untold damage to the environment, the economy and our reputation in the world. I believe that Congress is spineless and on the take, and the media corrupt, gutless and lazy. I believe that the courts are being packed with wacked-out conservatives who will destroy the separation between church and state. I believe that we have seen the best, and that the people now in power are dooming the future.

And yet, despairing as I feel about this regime, assenting to foreign rule would be simply unimaginable. And if the invaders were kind, compassionate and promised to leave soon, it'd be the same. They could all be certified heavenly angels--if they weren't Americans, I wouldn't want them running things.

Can we expect the Iraqis not to feel the same?

Pray for peace.

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