Tales from Iraq

By Вen Li

“On balance, the war was good for Iraqis, and very bad for Americans.”

Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente captivated an audience of 150 for an hour at the 2004 Ross Ellis Memorial Lecture in Military and Strategic Studies on Mon., May 17. During the lecture presented by the University of Calgary’s Centre for Military and Strategic Studies, and the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, Wente described her experiences in Iraq at the end of 2003.

She devoted a considerable portion of her lecture to misconceptions many in the West have about Iraq, emphasizing the inaccurate portrayal of Iraq most Westerners receive from media, and the cultural divide that is hampering U.S. military efforts in the country.

“The first thing that struck me about Iraq was how little it looked like a post-war zone. Downtown Detroit in the 1970s looked worse,” she said. “Most of the looting happened after the war… they looted down to the concrete.”

Few images broadcast on TV show the subsequent reconstruction.

“The second was the traffic. After the war, Iraq was flooded with cars brought over duty and tax free from Jordan,” she said. “Gas is cheap there, at three cents per litre.”

Other misconceptions about Iraq include the perceived poor living conditions and the nature of commerce. She noted that since the fall of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, the availability of foreign goods has increased–a bottle of Johnny Walker cost less in Iraq than in Canada–and that Iraq had the freest press in the Middle East next to Israel.

“Things aren’t as bad as they appear on TV. In most cases, they’re better off. The big losers are the Americans.”

On the cultural divide, she observed that the American military’s conduct was ineffective due largely to their misconceptions of Iraqi society and culture. She spoke of one meeting with a member of the Iraqi governing council, who stated that “the problem with the American presence wasn’t that the Americans were too ruthless.”

“The Americans weren’t being ruthless enough. They were holding fire and not rooting out insurgents. This was seen as a sign of weakness,” she said.

America, she claims, did not observe the culture gap that exists between the two countries, and therefore did not exercise the control Iraqis expected.

“The biggest problem was not the Americans being too imperialist, they weren’t being imperialist enough, not living up to their imperialist responsibilities.”

Further relaying what she heard from Iraqi leaders, she stated: “All our lives, Saddam had always been there. From the first day in school, like Stalin… into all aspects of your life. He told you how to take your orders: from the top.”

She blamed the initial failure of the coalition provisional government on the amount of authority given to Iraqi leaders, authority which they did not know how to exercise. Subsequent failures were due to the American military’s failure to show leadership on the ground.

“This culture was used to being utterly dependent on authority, both secular and religious… Thinking for yourself is un-Islamic.”

On the recent prisoner abuse scandal, she spoke critically of U.S. actions.

“It confirms Muslims’ worst fears of American decadence. They show a society that is licentious and depraved, that Americans are hypocrites, and that they are no better than Saddam.”

She lashed out at one accused soldier, who reportedly made light of the abuse captured in the photos.

“‘We thought it was funny’?–The pictures did as much damage in the West as in the East, maybe more because we live in the post-military age.

To conclude, she relayed the story of Mohammed, the manager of an Internet cafe she frequented, who works two full-time jobs to support his family at a standard of living substantially lower than under Hussein. Despite the harsher living and working conditions, Mohammed became happier and free since Hussein was deposed.

“So whenever anyone asks me how I can defend the war, I tell them the story of Mohammed, because he told me he can now stand up like a man.”