PROFESSOR OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER
IS ANYONE RESPONSIBLE
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
“Sassaman,” I thought, as I read the article. “I’ve heard that name before.” Indeed, I wrote about that name, on www.commondreams.org, 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.’"
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
Once a star
“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.
early in January, 2004, Sassaman’s hard-line theory of “order first” led some
of his men to throw two captive Iraqis into the
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
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.
years ago, I saw it differently. “When the debacle comes in
It’s too bad Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and all the other inside-the-beltway cowboys didn’t read it two years ago.
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
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.
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