Ira Chernus  





Once again, a mainstream journalist has missed the real story because he didn’t check out Commondreams. This time it’s the New York Times’ top dog in Baghdad, Dexter Filkins, writing a long piece about the tragedy of Nathan Sassaman.

“Sassaman,” I thought, as I read the article. “I’ve heard that name before.” Indeed, I wrote about that name, on, nearly two years ago. In December, 2003, I wrote: “The U.S. war against Iraq has found its own Lewis Carroll, its true poet and genius of the absurd: Lt. Colonel Nathan Sassaman.…The other day, he told a New York Times reporter: ‘With a heavy dose of fear and violence, and a lot of money for projects, I think we can convince these people that we are here to help them.’"

That reporter was Dexter Filkins. He’s been following Sassaman’s story for a long time. But when he wrote it all out for the Times Magazine last week, he left out the amazing Alice-in-Wonderland quote, the one that sums up the irrationality of the doomed U.S. effort to control Iraq. I doubt that he left it out by accident. It doesn’t fit with the story that he now wants to tell, a Greek tragedy about a good man betrayed by cruel circumstances. 

Once a star quarterback at West Point, Sassaman was the perfect soldier. In Iraq, he became the sole ruler of the city of Balad and its environs; in his own words, he was “the warrior king.” He really wanted to help the Iraqis build a better life, Filkins claims. But he got no direction and no support from the upper echelons of the army. When his unit began to suffer lethal attacks, he turned into a fierce fighter -- but not out of revenge. He was just trying to make the best of a bad circumstance.

“The new priority would be killing insurgents and punishing anyone who supported them, even people who didn't,” Filkins writes. His unit began to beat prisoners, burn down fields, and demolish houses. “When mothers put their children to bed at night, they tell them, 'If you aren't a good boy, Colonel Sassaman is going to come and get you."'

Why this harsh new policy? Sassaman’s own explanation sounded crazy: “Fear and violence…can convince these people that we are here to help them." So Filkins now omits that quote, which he had once published, and makes it all sound very reasonable: “His theory was that no progress would be possible without order first and that ultimately, even if his men were hard on the locals, they would come around.”

It all makes sense, Filkins adds, if you assume that Arabs understand nothing but force. “Whoever displays the most strength and authority is the one they are going to obey,” as another officer told Filkins. This is probably the same officer he quoted in his article about Sassaman two years ago. As I wrote back then, this officer “explained clearly, if unwittingly, one good reason why it won’t work. After explaining that ‘the Arab mind’ understands only force, he added: ‘force, pride and saving face.’ Wounded pride can stir up a powerful resistance.” A reasonable outrage at the injustice of occupation, I added, can stir up even more resistance. And indeed it has.

One night early in January, 2004, Sassaman’s hard-line theory of “order first” led some of his men to throw two captive Iraqis into the Tigris river. Only one came out alive. Sassaman tried to cover up their crime, got caught, and received an official reprimand for criminal conduct, which effectively ended his military career.

But Filkins’ current article lays no blame on Sassaman, nor on Bush administration decision-makers. He portrays Sassaman as “a parable of the dark passage that lay ahead for the Americans in Iraq” -- a tale of good intentions gone tragically awry. The ineptitude in the military system is partly at fault, he suggests. But mostly, no one is responsible for all the suffering. No one is really to blame. It’s just fate: “In retrospect, it is not clear what strategy, if any, would have won over Sunni towns like Samarra and Abu Hishma. Crack down, and the Iraqis grew resentful; ease up, and the insurgents came on strong.” 

This highly respected journalist never considers the idea that we shouldn’t have been there in the first place. In his story, questions of moral choice are simply irrelevant.

Nearly two years ago, I saw it differently. “When the debacle comes in Iraq, as it surely will,” I concluded, “let us hear no talk of ‘the Arab mind.’ Let us remember who showed the real irrationality in this war. Let us remember Colonel Sassaman and all the others who thought that fear and violence would convince the Iraqis we were there to help them.” It’s too bad Dexter Filkins didn’t go back to read that piece from Commondreams.

It’s too bad Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and all the other inside-the-beltway cowboys didn’t read it two years ago.

Perhaps it sounds self-righteous for me to say that, two years ago, I told you so. But we need to remember that none of this was inevitable. As we approach the seemingly inevitable 2000th U.S. fatality in Iraq, we must remember that there was no need for over 2000 Americans, and over 100,000 Iraqis, to die. The outcome of the war was predictable, and predicted by many, long ago. The fundamental wrongness of the war is no recent discovery, either. It was all too clear from the beginning.

With the failure of the U.S. war in Iraq becoming ever more clear, a new struggle is beginning: the struggle over how we will remember this war, how we will tell the story. Regardless of what mainstream media like the New York Times tell us, we have to insist that it is no Greek tragedy. It’s a tale of individuals making irrational, immoral decisions in pursuit of an irrational, immoral goal. If we don’t learn that lesson -- if we call this war just a tragedy, or another “aberration” like Vietnam, with no one really at fault -- we are bound to repeat it.