I see from Technorati that I’m getting linked to by various blogs that are full of spluttering indignation about how I obviously value a museum full of trinkets over the lives and liberty of the poor oppressed Iraqi people.
Well, no. That’s neither true, nor what I said. These people don’t read too well.
The big lie is that the looting and general disorder was a necessary tradeoff for freedom. The blowhards are out in force: You must not care about all those Iraqi babies Saddam was eating for dinner! I care more about the Iraqi people than about a few trinkets, huh huh huh!
(There’s a new one: bleeding-heart freepers. They didn’t care about the Iraqi people last week and they won’t care about them next week. It’s just their football cheer of the moment. The advent of the internet has made so many things possible. Self-published recreational journalism has always been around; but back when you had to at least learn to run a mimeograph, and you had to pay postage to distribute your deathless prose, people who didn’t actually have much to say for themselves found other hobbies.)
Anyway, it’s complete balderdash. This failure to maintain public order, and the consequent catastrophic looting (which has not been limited to museums), is happening because our leaders screwed up. Our troops are stretched so thin that they couldn’t afford to move a squad and a Bradley three hundred yards down the street to keep a major institution from getting trashed. Days after the outcry over the museums, they couldn’t keep the National Library from being burnt.
How many times have we heard now that we’re more or less in control of Baghdad?If you want to invoke babies, we can discuss the costs of massive social disorder. This is from Salon’s piece on the looting of Mosul (formerly Niniveh), from a reporter who got there not long after Rumsfeld announced that the city had been taken by a mixture of US special forces and peshmerga:
April 12, 2003 | MOSUL, Iraq — A little girl in a red velvet dress stood in the middle of the street on the outskirts of Mosul on Friday morning, holding a box. Traffic zoomed past her in both directions. She was hesitating, uncertain about which way to go, because she was transfixed by everything that was rushing past her. I saw the little girl in the street a second before the car in front of us ran her down. She must have been only five or six years old. The driver who hit her was trying to get his fair share of the loot, and because she was there in front of him, he hit her. She disappeared in the traffic for a moment, then—miraculously—stood up. The car had only knocked her down. She made her way to the median and looked shocked and sad; her parents were gone, or perhaps were busy trying to get something for themselves. Her mouth filled with blood. Behind her, a supermarket burned.You may take it as axiomatic that in a situation where there’s serious looting going on, there’s also rape and casual brutality. You may also take it as axiomatic that where the looters have finished, the vandals and arsonists move in.
It is Saddam’s fault that he ran a violent and oppressive regime. It’s our fault that we’ve gone in to do too much with too few troops, lost control, and delivered the helpless people and institutions of Iraq into the hands of the worst elements of their own society. Every society has them, ours included.
And why did we screw up like that? Because the looters are destroying a lot of documents we’d just as soon went bye-bye.
Also because we don’t have the manpower. Our guys couldn’t protect Baghdad’s hospitals, so 39 out of 40 of those are gone, stripped to the walls. The banks are gone too; and if you think that’s trivial, imagine you’re an elderly Iraqi whose savings were in a bank that’s not only been robbed, but stripped of its computers, filing cabinets, furniture, light fixtures, and plumbing. Mom-and-pop stores are being pillaged. The offices responsible for dull but essential social services are being plundered for their office equipment and furniture. It’s ugly.
And why are our troops stretched so thin? Because when the war was in its planning stages, Donald Rumsfeld repeatedly dismissed and overruled the experienced military planners who told him how much force would be needed to invade Iraq. We have the troops. We have the equipment. Our annual military budget could practically have bought the country. More conventionally, we could have gone in with massive force and done everything in an orderly fashion, the way all our military doctrine says we should do it. But Rumsfeld said no.
Let’s be perfectly clear about this: It was Rumsfeld’s decision, not some fuzzy misunderstanding shared between twenty officials in three different organizations. It’s documented. Rumsfeld repeatedly, personally, decisively, insisted on cutting troop allocations to a fraction of what was needed. He has his own cronies and advisers, and they’re at fault too; and of course George Bush okayed it so he’s responsible in the end; but this mess is as clearly Rumsfeld’s fault as anything in the history of military folly.
You want to talk about not supporting our troops? (Try to remember. It was last month’s football cheer.) Rumsfeld sent our guys into harm’s way with inadequate numbers and inadequate support. That’s why little 19-year-old supply clerks were getting shot to pieces. It’s why our soldiers have been having to use inappropriate munitions like cluster bombs, and in moments of stress and uncertainty have been shooting at civilians. It’s why we can’t spare the manpower to preserve hospitals and museums and essential government ministries from looters.
Since this is in fact a complete and godawful screwup, the mighty spinning Wurlitzer has come up with “it was the necessary price paid for the liberation of the Iraqi people.” And since these lines always come equipped with a concomitant “You must be a bad person if you don’t agree” bit of spinnage, we’re getting “You must care more about things than about people.”
(This is the heart of the deal for freepers. They get their regular dose of fictional indignation, which gets metabolized as cheap moral righteousness—and don’t ever let anybody tell you that isn’t an addictive vice. The concomitant “why those liberals are bad” line is for those who like to mix active bullying with their cheap moral glow. Next week it’ll be a different cause for indignation, and a different bit of abuse to throw at anyone who can be construed as disagreeing with them. There can’t much actual processing going on, because they never seem to notice when these spin cycles contradict the previous rounds. The ostensible content can’t be sticking in their memories.)
How many reasons have there been now for this war, and how thoroughly have they been discredited? Let’s see how many we can remember:
Iraqis were involved in the 9/11 attacks. Try as they will, Bush & Co. have never succeeded in manufacturing evidence that Iraq had anything to do with that.
Saddam is ignoring UN resolutions. Other nations have ignored UN resolutions, but we didn’t invade them. We’ve ignored UN resolutions ourselves. Besides, Saddam’s been ignoring UN resolutions for years. Why didn’t we go to war before? Why now? And please, don’t tell me that Bush & Co. have any actual respect for the UN.
Saddam has weapons of mass destruction. Every piece of evidence advanced to substantiate this claim has collapsed, embarrassingly quickly, on inspection. Besides, it’s obvious that our leaders don’t believe the Iraqis have WMDs. They refused to wait for UN inspectors to finish looking for them before they sent in our troops, and they cut troop allocations down so low that we’ve had trouble just dealing with conventional weapons—both of which would have been insanely risky moves if the Iraqis had had WMDs. Then they bombed the site where the WMD records would have been kept, and didn’t investigate it afterward. Now they’re combing the country for WMDs that still aren’t turning up.
Saddam supports al-Qaeda. Saddam and al-Quaeda despise each other.
Saddam hasn’t given up fast enough or thoroughly enough. We were getting desperate by then.
We have to go to war because we’ve already gone to war. And furthermore, anyone who criticizes the conduct of the war at home or abroad is unpatriotic, probably a traitor, and is failing to support our troops (see above, “desperate”).
This is too working. It’s a good plan. We planned all along to take weeks taking Basra, get into an extended fight at Nasiriyah, and bog down in front of Baghdad. And furthermore, anyone who criticizes the conduct of the war at home or abroad is unpatriotic, probably a traitor, and is failing to support our troops (see above, “desperate”).
We are fighting to save the oppressed people of Iraq from further harm at the hands of the monster Saddam. The world’s full of oppressed people we aren’t helping. Why the Iraqis, why now? We supported Saddam’s regime for years when we knew perfectly well he was a psychotic bastard. And if rescuing the Iraqis was the idea all along, why aren’t we doing it? There should be massive amounts of help and support coming up behind our strike force. It isn’t there. And by the way, Bush’s latest budget has zero money allocated for the reconstruction of Afghanistan, which we were also supposed to be saving from evil oppressors.
Saddam Hussein stole more than the looters did.
What a mighty and inspiring democratic slogan! It’s the latest musical phrase emitted by the mighty Wurlitzer: What’s been stolen by looters is less than what Saddam stole. Considering how many years he had to work, as compared to a week or so for the looters, this isn’t much of a recommendation. But it’s also a load of codswallop. First, as I pointed out earlier, looting-for-liberation wasn’t an inevitable tradeoff. Second, the list of reasons we’ve gone to war may be long and ever-changing, but “an improved kleptocracy for Iraq” has yet to appear on it.
Third, sorry, but the looting is worse. Saddam is/was a nasty bastard and a thief, but he was also a pro. He knew that if you want to maximize your rakeoff, putting the bite on profitable businesses and keeping society running is the gift that keeps on giving. He also knew that if you go around burning libraries and smashing up your cultural heritage, it just puts people’s backs up. Many of the things he stole still exist in recognizable form, as do the places from which he stole them. This is more than you can say for the National Library.
I’m not saying Saddam was a good guy in any way, shape, or form—and what a contemptible piece of calumny it is, to claim that anyone who criticizes our leaders and their war must needs be pro-Saddam. I’m saying that before, Baghdad and Mosul had libraries, museums, hospitals, stores, banks, social services, and a thousand and one other essential institutions. Now they don’t. There’s a world of suffering in that. It will go on, as will the pillaging.
Another line I’ve been hearing is that this is something the Iraqi people have done to themselves; so I’m going to talk now about rioters, looters, vandals, and arsonists.
Are the pillagers to blame? Yes, of course they are. They’ve wrecked and stolen and burned. It was wicked, and they are at fault. But in any society, ours included, there are people whose good behavior is wholly conditional on their estimate of the odds that they’ll be caught and punished. Part of the work of civilization is to help citizens grow up with a better sense of responsibility and cooperation than that; but I suspect we’re always going to have some people who’ll do whatever they can get away with.
A good way to get a sense of this is to look at employee theft, a relatively well-documented subject which has been studied over a very broad sample of the population. Experts in employee theft prevention estimate that 10-20% of all employees are honest. They won’t steal, no matter what else is going on. Another 10-15% will steal whenever they think they can get away with it. The rest might or might not, depending on need, opportunity, and whether or not they see someone else getting away with it.
That last one’s important. You can see it demonstrated during morning rush hour on the New Jersey Turnpike approaches to the Holland Tunnel, where there’s a traffic light with a very long timing cycle. A mile of cars will stack up while the incoming turnpike traffic waits for its turn. However, if you illegally drive in the breakdown lane, you can bypass them and go straight to the head of the line. Most drivers won’t do that. A few will. But if more than two or three cars go zipping past in the breakdown lane, you’ll see drivers who’ve been sitting patiently, awaiting their turn, start to pull out and do the same themselves.
So. Back to the looters. If you demolish the previous system for maintaining social order (irrespective of how evil or benevolent it was), and it then becomes clear that you’re not going to maintain law and order, you’re giving permission to that 10-15% who’re always waiting for an opportunity. Once those guys get going, visibly unchecked, the middle range will start to join in.
This is what’s behind the controversial practice of announcing, during episodes of temporary catastrophic disorder, that looters will be shot out of hand. The point isn’t that any particular looter deserves to die; it’s that looting will snowball if you don’t get it stopped fast. You want to head that off. Second order, you want to keep groups of looters from forming, and becoming more organized and violent.
There’ve been reports of COW troops explicitly encouraging gangs of young men to ransack properties that belonged to Saddam Hussein, his supporters, and the Baathist Party. Was this a deliberate attempt to destroy evidence? It might have been. But even if there was no such intention, it was still a strikingly bad idea. They were teaching those men to loot. Nothing was more predictable than that they’d keep looting, once the approved targets were used up.
There’ve been reports that the early rounds of museum looters, the ones that cleaned out the gold artifacts, went in hard and fast, and appeared to know what they were looking for. The indiscriminate ransacking mobs followed after, and then the vandals and arsonists. This was standard mob behavior; and again, it was entirely predictable. The same thing could have happened in Winnipeg or Houston.
(There’s a thought. Would Bush have laughed it off as “high spirits” if it had happened in Texas?)
So. Are the looters at fault? Sure. Are our leaders who created this situation at fault? Deeply. The damage has been horrendous. It’s still going on. And it’s happening on our watch.