By Mark LeVine
A bit over a decade ago, in that liminal political period between September 11, 2001 and the US invasion of Iraq, I attended a reading by well-known German writer and Holocaust survivor Ruth Kluger of her just-translated memoir of life in the death camps, Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered. It was the height of the al-Aqsa intifada, and during the Q&A several audience members asked her about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. How could Jews, who suffered unimaginably under the Nazis, in turn oppress Palestinians? They wondered.
Kluger’s response, in the still heavily German accented English that has all but died out with the passing of the last of the World War II generation of German-speaking Jews, was as simple as it was profound: “The Holocaust wasn’t a school,” she responded. “It didn’t teach you anything.” The only lesson, if that’s what it could be called, was survival. Indeed, all too often suffering hardened people’s hearts, making them less sympathetic to the plights of others, especially those perceived as adversaries.
I have often thought about Kluger’s remarks while travelling through the Middle East’s many conflict zones. Violence does not need to be genocidal to inflict unhealable scars, to teach lessons that cannot be learned. Americans have for two generations been forced to confront only the damage done to the perpetrators – its soldiers, who from Vietnam to Iraq have suffered injuries – mental as well as physical – by the hundreds of thousands as a result of the wars in which they’ve been ordered to fight. Only once since the start of World War II have Americans been victims en masse of such violence. Horrific as 9/11 was, it was only one day and one thousandth of a percent of the population that fell victim.
The rupture in the very fabric of American identity and ideals merely hints at the extent of the wounds experienced by other societies, like Iraq, where the victims far outnumber the perpetrators and the level of suffering is greater by orders of magnitude. We can imagine that George Bush, Dick Cheney, Tony Blair and the other masterminds behind the Iraq war and occupation have lost little sleep over the destruction they’ve wrought. The narcissism and sociopathic personalities they share seem, sadly, to be all too common among the political and military leaders around the world, in Bush’s America no less than Saddam’s Iraq.
But what of the enablers and errand-boys and girls of the Iraq war – the journalists who so eagerly parroted the lies and abdicated their responsibility to act as a check on governments’ propensity to resort to violence and war without legitimate justification. Not surprisingly, with the invasion’s 10th anniversary, those who either openly supported the invasion or did nothing to put the arguments for it to the test, are attempting to rewrite history to expiate their guilt in making the invasion possible.
A typical example of such historical revision is a piece by the Huffington Post’s Howard Fineman, who in 2003 was a senior editor at Newsweek covering the lead-up to the invasion. His article, “Iraq War 10th Anniversary Reminds Us Of The Questions We Didn’t Ask“, offers an object lesson in precisely how the media continues to abdicate its responsibility to have known better when there was still the chance to educate Americans about the disastrous adventure upon which they were about embark.
Fineman at least admits that he and other mainstream journalists were part of the “decision-making machinery” that led the country to war, which in his view included “elected lawmakers, appointed officials, and the national media”. As he explains it, “Too few questions were asked, too many assumptions were allowed to go unchallenged, too many voices of doubt were muffled or rejected in a toxic atmosphere of patriotism, ignorance and political fear.” He even owns up to “misguided patriotism” as part of the reason why he was so gullible when scepticism and distrust of those in power was most needed (not least from someone who was already a journalist in the Vietnam and Watergate eras and had already gone through this process several times before).
It is very well and good that Mr Fineman wants to admit he should not have been so gullible when wisdom was most desperately needed. But his admission is rendered worthless by the explanation he provides for his ignorance. “American ignorance of the Arab and Muslim worlds 10 years ago was alarmingly vast. More than ignorance, there was fear, prejudice and propaganda,” he explains.
Fineman’s justification for his ignorance – that it was merely part of a broader American ignorance of the Arab and Muslim worlds – is a lie. All the evidence was there for anyone who wanted to see it. To begin with, some journalists even in the mainstream press where consistenly challenging the official line. The then Knight Ridder (now McClatchy) news service, for example, was consistenly pushing back against the Bush Administration’s narrative, with a stream of articles by its Washington reporters whom colleagues like Fineman had to know were on to a good story (if he didn’t, then he really had no business working as a journalist). At the same time, leading progressive publications such as The Nation, Mother Jones, Tikkun and newer web-based media like Alternet were all filled with articles by the experts Fineman says were in such short supply, sharing their knowledge with anyone who cared to read. Democracy Now! And other progressive radio stations featured innumerable scholars in, from and with long experience studying the region.
Then there is the singularly important issue that the vast majority of experts engaged in the weapons inspection programme – Scott Ritter, Hans Blix, Joseph Wilson among them – were declaring that Iraq’s WMD programme did not exist in any substantive form and that the stories used to bolster the Bush Administration arguments were implausible.
Not to mention that millions of people around the world were screaming as loud as they could for the US not to invade. When the whole world is screaming at you not to do something, perhaps it’s a good idea to at least see what they’re screaming about.
Journalists of Conscience
Quite simply, no one who lived through Vietnam, who was old enough to have experienced the unmistakable lies and their aftermath (not to mention Watergate, the invasions of Grenada and Panama, the Iran-Contra Scandal), and who worked as a journalist, could claim ignorance. If Fineman and his colleagues were deaf, dumb and blind it was because they chose to cover their ears, tape their mouths, and close their eyes to reality.
For being guilty of such professional misconduct, Fineman and his colleagues should have been run out of the profession. Instead, they simply moved on, without consequence for aiding and abetting one of the biggest crimes against humanity of the last century, which almost brought the American economy to its knees and enabled the creation of a security-intelligence-military order in this country that has trampled the most basic rights enshrined in the Constitution.
In a different world, where journalists still had a shred of their former dignity, those who failed so miserably to do their jobs when they were most desperately needed would have left the profession, and devoted the last decade to working to redress the incredible harm this war did to the Iraqi people, never mind Americans and the world more broadly.
Instead, they merely write about their experiences and “hope [they] are the wiser now”, which seems pretty unlikely given the continued sorry state of reporting about the Middle East.
Meanwhile, whatever good might somehow come to Iraq, the reality is that the war was and remains one giant war crime, not to mention the greatest theft of citizens’ wealth in American, if not world, history (trillions of dollars and counting). As the drone wars heat up and the vioations of (once) Constitutional rights continues, the mainstream media remains largely compliant with Washington’s agenda, regardless of which party is in power. Yet we were constantly learning just how brazen the administration lies were, with new evidence that the CIA and MI6 were told before the Iraq invasion that there were no WMDs.
I have no idea if Mr Fineman ever visited Iraq unembedded in the wake of the US invasion and occupation that he enabled, and experienced the results of the nightmare he helped make possible. I did, and I would like to ask Mr Fineman: Do you still have that smell from Iraqi hospitals and morgues in your nose a decade later? Do you still see the blank stares of American soldiers patrolling the streets of Baghdad, so scared that they will barely say a word to you when you go up to them and offer a word of support or encouragement? Do you still feel the absolute fear in Fallujah, or the disgust of Iraqi doctors, without any medicine to treat their wounded because the US military couldn’t be bothered to provide adequate medical supplies even a year after the invasion (as they were required to do under international law)? Can you get the image of cars overloaded with multiple coffins on their roofs on the way to the daily funerals? Do you still feel the updraft from an Apache helicopter circling over your car, never knowing what slight movement or stop might cause the gunner to blow you out of existence?
What precisely is the price you paid for this war, Mr Fineman? And do you think your accounts are settled now with a lessons-learned column?
I hope Howard Fineman’s wisdom allows him and all the journalists and commentators who cheeleaded this war out of laziness, cowardice, incompetence, or all three to sleep at night. For millions of Iraqis, and Americans as well, such wisdom has come at a price he and his colleagues can neither imagine nor will ever have to pay.
This article was orginally published on Al Jazeera. Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine and distinguished visiting professor at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh. His book, Heavy Metal Islam, which focused on ‘rock and resistance and the struggle for soul’ in the evolving music scene of the Middle East and North Africa, was published in 2008.
Follow him on Twitter: @culturejamming