(From Night Thoughts In Time Of War)
Thursday, December 18th, 2003
Saddam was captured on Saturday night and on Sunday night, after hours of suspense, displayed by Bremer (‘We got ‘im!’) in Iraq on videotape. He had a full curly brown-and-grey beard, big brown canine eyes and an old creased face, both godlike and doglike, that seemed in turn heroic and bewildered. His emergence like a hobbit from a hole in the ground beside a tiny, filthy adjacent cottage a few yards from the unmarked graves of his sons and grandson, and the pink, vulval parting of his hairy mouth when it was probed with what looked like a shoehorn, drew sympathy for him which was quickly turned round by the spinmen. He had not fought his captives to the death, it was said, nor even reached for his gun but came out saying in English, ‘I am Saddam Hussein, the President of Iraq, can we negotiate?’ It was not the story first told, that his guards at gunpoint said, as the Americans told them to say, ‘Master! Quickly! The Americans are near! We must leave immediately!’, and he came scrambling out and was seized from behind.
And so it went. Worldwide approval. Uncrowded shots of — wait for it — rejoicing Communists on Baghdad streets. Demonstrations in favour of him in Samara (no, said Death, our appointment was in Samara) fired upon by panicky teenage grunts, not many deaths. Bush saying ‘Good riddance to you, Mr Saddam Hussein.’ Howard Dean up against it, thankful for the capture but saying it left the world no safer from terrorists. Gephardt, Kerry and Lieberman calling him ‘soft on Saddam’ in sound grabs Bush will use later. Pundits agreed it made Bush now more likely to win if the economic recovery (deficit-funded, illusory) continued.
In the gloomy days and nights that followed I became convinced the world had gone down a wrong fork of the road on 9/11 and it was not coming back, and the dark, lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-the-key side of human response was on the upswing. Bush, Howard and Latham said, or implied, that Saddam should hang; I suppose the courtly Christian moderate Tariq Aziz will hang beside him. How, condemned worldwide like this, can he, or they, get a fair trial? It seems pretty petulant to ask. Should he suffer sleep deprivation, truth serum, other gruesome forms of physical torture? Should Tariq Aziz? Do they have rights? Don’t even bother to raise these matters, we got ‘im.
In his last months before his March war the old man was writing, in Hemingway style, or near it, a new novel. Be Gone, Demons! it was called and, or so The Spectator tells me. It was about a man called Ibrahim ‘and his three grandchildren, Ezekiel, Aissa and Youssef, who symbolised Moses, Jesus and Mohammed, the prophets of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Ezekiel was portrayed as evil, obsessed with money and sexually deficient. Ezekiel becomes a moneylender and arms dealer whose machinations pit tribes against each other. He falls in love with a woman who resists him. He tries to rape her but she escapes. In the novel’s climax, Ezekiel is killed by “just men” in a battle on the plains of Mesopotamia. The demon is gone and Iraq can flourish.’
He wrote out of boredom, his translator Saman Abdul Majid explained, and his love of the two Iraqi genres, warrior epic and romance. ‘He wanted a pulsating, moody narrative and believable characters. “Saddam wanted to write like this,” says Saman, pointing at a passage in his book. “At dawn, the unit commander woke very early. He had to get to the front lines. He was shaving when he heard the American bombs start to fall.”‘
Why do I find this so beguiling, and this battleworn thug so much more interesting as a man than the dumb lucky wellborn cheating lush George Bush? ‘He saw himself as a great defender of the arts,’ Saman asserted, ‘a poet warrior like the Abbasid caliphs.’
He was amazed, Saman went on, by his fastidiousness. ‘He was a huge man. Always extremely clean, as if he had just stepped out of the sauna. He was obsessed with his clothes. For me, all this reflects his double personality. One half of him was a simple Bedouin, a practising Muslim who wanted to be a good man. He had no need to be repressive or fierce. This was the side of him I saw…a kind, patient man, sometimes humorous, ready to be contradicted. When foreign journalists came in and asked him if he was like Hitler, he did not get angry, he just laughed. He was demonised by the United States.
‘We all heard the stories. But whenever I met him, I found it unbelievable that he could be so cruel and also so nice. Also, people consciously didn’t speak about the worst things…About the woman who wanted to divorce her husband, but he refused. So she recorded him ranting against Saddam and took the tape to the police. The husband was thrown into prison and she got her divorce. Or the little boy of eight or nine at primary school who tells his teacher his parents have criticised Saddam and they are put in prison. You hear these things, but you choose not to talk about them. You chose your friends carefully and information did not get spread easily.’ He had ‘delusions of grandeur,’ he said, ‘which led us to despair.’
I should be careful. In his seventies G.B.Shaw found admirable qualities in Hitler and Stalin; I suppose as your sperm count ebbs and your beard grows white you come to admire the brute decisiveness, the unremitting ardour of the mighty of the earth. And you come to think, like Americans, that killing Arabs is not as bad as killing people.
Did Saddam kill innocent people? Oh yes. Did he have ‘rape rooms’? I doubt it. We look at so many interwoven truths and lies it’s hard to know what happened or if it’s forgivable.
Is it forgivable, for instance, to ‘kill hundreds of thousands of your own people?’
Well, let’s ask the question. What world figure killed seven hundred thousand of his own people and is now universally admired?
Yes, yes, I know I’ve said it before but you can’t get around it. They were his own people, and he caused the war, and he continued it when he might have stopped it, and seven hundred thousand soldiers died, more than all the American soldiers that have died in battle since. And he’s up on Mount Rushmore now. ‘And my client, your honour,’ we can imagine Geoffrey Robertson proclaiming, bewigged, in Saddam’s defence, ‘killed no more than forty thousand of his own people in what he also regarded — rightly or wrongly, m’lud — as another civil war: against Kurds and religious dingbats and unlike honest Abe now faces the gallows. And, oh yes, my learned friend does well to remind me, four hundred thousand Iranians in a war with the Ayatollah Khoumeini, with massively destructive and profoundly chemical weapons supplied by the US who rightly judged this bearded cleric an evil barbarous fanatic and his followers demented. Should we have cheered Saddam, or Khoumeini, in this war, your honour? If Saddam, why curse him now?
Annie’s prophetic dream was right in every particular. For he was indeed in the north of his country, dirty and bearded and wild-haired, like Blake’s engraving of Nebuchadnezzar gone mad; on all fours, she saw him, under tree roots in a kind of earthern cave. Not in Uzbekistan with a big-breasted woman reading Ramond Chandler by hurricane lamplight at all. And so it proved to be.
How does she know these things? How does she see them so clearly so long before they happen? What is the process? How can I find it out?
I got a recorded message last night that HQ had been ‘closed down’. I would be paid for what I had written, but not printed. This, for what it’s worth, is what it all too hopefully said.
Is there free speech in Fox News? Is there due process in Guantanamo Bay? For what crimes, precisely, were Qusay and Uday, and the little boy Mustafa, violently killed? When will families shot dead at checkpoints be compensated? How will this occur? If Iraqi elections are held, can Tariq Aziz stand for office? On what grounds can he, a courtly Christian Anglophile admired by the Pope, be excluded from his country’s democracy? What crime, precisely, is he guilty of? At what trial, and by what jury, was he found to be so? What crimes are al-Duri’s wife and little daughter being held for? Have they been threatened, or tortured? Have they been offered ten million dollars to betray their breadwinner? When will they be tried, and on what charge?
Why can’t David Hicks ring his mother? Why can’t Ali Bakhtiyari sleep with his wife? Why can’t Montezar Bakhtiyari, a brilliant student, know what school, and what country, he will be in next year? Where is this ‘freedom’ that George Bush speaks of so fervently and apparently sincerely, the ‘freedom’ American soldiers daily die for? What is it made of? How can it be tested? What does it taste like? Where can it be found?
These are not silly, shallow, childish quibbles by the latte-bibbing Sunday socialist commentariat. They go to the heart of what we are and what we are defending and how hereafter civilised Europeans, and civilised Asians, and civilised Africans think of us and what we have become.
For if freedom means anything it means everybody has it. It means, as Rousseau said, we are all born equal and remain equal in rights. It means David Hicks must be charged with something within a few days of his capture or let go. It means he can ring his lawyer, and plan his defence, as surely as Michael Jackson or Rene Rivkin can.
It means David Hicks, too, cannot be imprisoned for having bad thoughts, for wishing America ill. He has to have killed someone, or hurt someone, in a peacetime situation. If he merely took up arms in defence of a legal government against a warlike, bunker-busting, illegal invader he must be let go. He cannot be tried for violent thoughts any more than Bill Leak can, or Craig Reucassel, or Phillip Ruddock, or Derryn Hinch. He has to have actually done some harm.
And the freedom everybody has also means you cannot bulldoze a block of flats because a bad person slept in it for a couple of nights, evicting into the street at an hour’s notice a twelve-year-old student with exams to study for. It means you cannot build an electric fence between a family and an olive grove they have owned for a thousand years. These measures are as wrong and as lawless and addled as bulldozing a motel Bob Brown slept in once, or bisecting the SCG with a stone wall to stop the leper-loving troublemaker Steve Waugh from playing cricket there.
Freedom has no exceptions. It means we all have a right to life, liberty, a lawyer, due process, a jury, a plea, a day in court. It means we cannot be ‘targeted’ for ‘assassination’ by any government. It means any government’s head can be charged with murder as Milosevic was, and Ceaucescu, and a court like the ICC can put him in the slammer for life. It means that Condoleezza Rice can be brought to trial for fraud, when she knowingly talked of uranium sales that did not happen, and used them as grounds for violent aerial bombardments in which three thousand children died. It means George Bush can be sued for libel by Saddam Hussein, who agreed to debate that libel when Dan Rather asked him to on NBC, and for groundless, baseless torture by David Hicks, and for grievous bodily harm by the child whose arms were blown off in a war that had no legal basis or factual cause. It means ‘collateral damage’ is a concept allowable only in wars the UN, or NATO, or ANZUS, or the ICC approves.
That’s if you’re serious about freedom of course, and human rights, and democratic process and justice and fair play. George Bush isn’t, however eloquently he speaks of it, and his family never was. His grandfather Prescott funded Hitler. His father George H.W. headed the CIA and approved assassinations. His brother Jeb threw tens of thousands of Blacks off the Florida rolls, and refused to let thousands of other Blacks vote. He himself arranged for twenty-three Bin Ladens to leave America and so evade close questioning within a week of 9/11. His father gets millions as a ‘political consultant’ from the undemocratic Saudi Royal Family. His Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld helped fund the tyrant Saddam Hussein. His lawyer James A. Baker (probably) bought Judge Scalia’s vote, and with it a handy presidency for George. His minders covered up his criminal record, his (probable) cocaine habit, his year AWOL from the Air Force Reserve, his alcoholism, his dyslexia, his crazed religious witterings. If he believes in freedom it’s the freedom to fudge the truth, and ‘privatise’ another nation’s oil, and drop-kick billions to his mates, and kill any fucker who gets in his way. I’m not sure he also believes in slaughtering the heathen, but he certainly holds that it’s only by Christ you can get to heaven, and heaven is full of rich Texans but closed to Hindus, Wahabis, Catholics, homosexuals and other dupes of Satan, unless they see Jesus’ light on their deathbed and become fundamentalist Christians in the nick of time. Otherwise they fry in hell.
Can you believe in freedom and hellfire simultaneously? I don’t think so. Freedom means choice and hellfire means strict obedience to a set of tough rules on lifestyle or eternal torture follows. Freedom means freedom to worship and hellfire means you worship my way, buster, or else.
So Operation Iraqi Freedom is a big lie too, probably, as big a lie as Operation Infinite Justice, whose name was rapidly, nervously changed because it was so absurd. Words like Freedom, Justice, Democracy wobble and blur and morph into other words, like Pre-emption and Security and Border Protection, and soon we are blind to all words and bay in darkness for a light no longer there.
(We protect our borders by changing where they are, discuss. And whoever won’t move them round like us are ‘soft on border protection’, discuss. In Duck Soup Groucho Marx, madcap ruler of Freedonia, had a similar sense of cartography.)
Words have to mean what they usually mean or our thinking goes into whiteout, like the brain under dementia, and you start to sound like John Howard who has always malnourished words, especially adjectives, or massaged them to death. He said for instance of Bush’s trip to London, ‘I find it bizarre, and even obscene, that you can have two hundred thousand people demonstrating against the democratically elected leader of the largest nation in the world.’ Well, no, it’s not the largest country, China is. And he wasn’t democratically elected, he got his lawyers to stop the counting when Gore was about to overtake him. And it isn’t bizarre, he started an unlawful war that killed about sixty thousand people (or so some plausibly say). That’s more than the number of American dead in Vietnam, and people often demonstrate against this level of slaughter, so it isn’t really bizarre. And it isn’t really obscene; but blowing sleeping children into chunks of meat by rocket fire, now that’s obscene. So look at him, he’s lost all control of his adjectives and this is our Prime Minister. And it wouldn’t have happened in any other era, when the language still meant something and journalists watched over it jealously and strictly.
They don’t do this much any more. If they did they would have picked up a few more big lies, like the one about the little boy whose eyes were gouged out while his parents watched appalled. What is this little boy’s name they would have asked, and when can we see his parents, or some witness, interviewed about the incident on television? Or like the ‘rape rooms’ George Bush refers to so lasciviously. Where are they? How big are they? How are they furnished? Can we see some photos? Can we talk to some girl who was raped in one of them? A hundred girls perhaps. Of course not. These, like the Belgian babies spitted on German bayonets in August 1914, are the usual foul falsehoods told by the dimwitted arseholes in charge of a war. And it’s a pity.
And propagandists as fatheaded as this still shriek of the cause of freedom. Well, it doesn’t seem much like freedom to the two hundred thousand Iraqi soldiers Paul Bremer sacked and now can’t feed their families. It doesn’t seem much like freedom to the hundred thousand mothers, fathers and siblings and the four hundred thousand cousins of the corpses killed in the firefights, the air raids and the checkpoint shootings. It doesn’t seem much like freedom to the eighty thousand mutilated or traumatised by the rocket bombing. It doesn’t seem much like freedom to the sixty thousand dead, or the twenty thousand dead, whatever the loathsome statistic is; it might be only eighteen thousand dead. Yet Bush still uses the word as though it still has meaning and reality, and he may even believe he can spell it, but hellfire has meaning and reality for George Bush too. And Christ’s resurrection, and our need to drink his blood. And the Devil that makes you gay, or a drunkard like George used to be. And that far green heaven full of Texans with not a turban in sight.
I know this is no way to wish you Happy New Year but we’ve had a lousy stinking, bitterly testing annus horribilis and we won’t get over it for quite a while. So much that was fought for over centuries — habeas corpus, the right to stay silent and ring a lawyer, the right to photograph a coffin coming home, to broadcast a funeral, to broadcast, if they’re of interest, some gruff defiant words from Saddam or Osama, the right to take sides in a foreign conflict without the threat of arrest, the right to speak up against a stupid leader, the right to flee the Taliban and not be punished for it, the right to spend your childhood unimprisoned, the right to be rescued from shipwreck at sea — have been softly, shruggingly, swiftly, glibly surrendered. And we won’t get over it for quite a while.
And it’s a pity.