Thursday, September 29, 2011

Christian Parenti's Early Look at the American Occupation of Iraq

(Originally published in the Newark Star-Ledger in February 2005)

Parenti's book is a good, small tome on the insanity of the American occupation in Iraq. Though things have changed drastically there, "The Freedom" is a great look at American foreign policy at its worst.

Today the Iraqi people will go to the polls in their first post-Saddam election. Legitimate election results will inevitably be jeopardized by car bombs, boycott fatwas by Sunni clerics and instability in the countryside that has existed since the March 2003 American invasion and occupation. It has been an occupation with high costs for both American troops and Iraqi civilians.

Journalist and academic Christian Parenti’s book “The Freedom: Shadows and Hallucinations in Occupied Iraq” (The New Press, $22), is a gripping account of his experience in Baghdad and other parts of Iraq as a correspondent for The Nation. During three tours that lasted a total of four months, he covered the steadily worsening situation as the post-invasion violence escalated from August 2003 to July 2004, embedding himself with American troops, interviewing Iraqi civilians and meeting covertly with the Iraqi resistance. Parenti draws a vivid portrait the American occupation leadership and its free-market consultants in the Baghdad’s Green Zone making rosy predictions about Iraq’s future as attacks on American troops increase and the Iraqi insurgency grows in its effectiveness and reach.

Parenti, 35, was raised in Vermont and received his Ph.D. in sociology from the London School of Economics. He is the author of “Lockdown America,” on the prison industrial complex, and “The Soft Cage,” about surveillance in modern society. He has covered the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq for The Nation, and is a visiting fellow at City University of New York’s Center for Place, Culture and Politics. Parenti lives in Brooklyn, New York, where he spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley.

Q. How are the conditions on the ground in Baghdad?

A. Politically, things have deteriorated quite radically. Things were chaotic in August 2003, but when I was back in December 2003, the chaos to some extent had normalized, where the situation seemed to plateau as to what this guerilla war would be. By June 2004, the situation were really out of control. I had been slow to come to this opinion, but by then, I felt that things were lost for the U.S. in Iraq.

Q. Where does your title “The Freedom” come from?

A. I kept hearing Iraqis refer to the chaos and lawlessness as “the freedom.” I heard that numerous times, in that bitter and ironical sort of way, looking at some chaotic gas lines or a bombing. My translator Akeel’s comment was, “Ah, the freedom. Look, we have the gas-line freedom, the killing freedom, the rape freedom, the hash-smoking freedom. I don’t know what to do with all this freedom.”

Q. You write about the optimistic predictions coming out of the heavily fortified Green Zone, from where the U.S. occupation is administered. What was that environment like?

A. The Green Zone at its height was like a piece of the Stanford University campus plopped down in the middle of Baghdad with blonde, chino-clad MBAs with their laptops and backpacks engaging in these fantastical seminars on how they are going to privatize everything, transforming the economy. The Green Zone has recently lost its exemption from “the freedom” in that it is getting pounded every day by mortars.

Q. American companies have the lion’s share of the $18 billion of the money to be spent on reconstruction. You point out most contracts have not been fulfilled. How do you outline grounds for fraud?

A. One one of putting together an idea of fraud is that both Bechtel and Halliburton corporations were indicted and fined for fraud against the federal government, and were barred from federal contracts under Clinton-era rules. The Bush administration changed these rules so they could get contracts. There is also the fact that the Coalition Provisional Authority has launched over a dozen investigations into contract fraud, and that billions of dollars of Iraqi oil money has not been recovered.

In Iraq, I focused on Bechtel and the water resources. I went and visited water projects that Bechtel described in their literature as “underway or near completion.” I went and saw these projects, and they were in many cases not even underway and nowhere near completion.

Q. What is the condition of the U.S. troops on the ground in Baghdad?

A. There is no safe place, no rearguard. The whole place is a front-line. The combat was less dramatic than one would think. It was marked by quick exchanges of gunfire. Morale is pretty high. The soldiers live in a world that is highly compartmentalized. Their war is about their supervisors and subordinates, their comrades and immediate tasks. They are highly professional and generally don’t think about the larger politics of the war. Most are pro-war and think they are going to win.

Q. You write about extensive unsanctioned Valium and steroid use among American soldiers in Iraq, as well as Valium use by the Iraqis. What does this mean?

A. The subtext here is the Vietnam crisis of drugs. That is not the nature of drug use among U.S. soldiers in Iraq. Soldiers have always used drugs. The troops use Valium to sleep, especially if you are hopped up on steroids. The Iraqis use Valium because their society is in crisis. Valium is seen like medicine, which makes you relax and sleep when half your family has been arrested.

Q. You came to the Iraqi war with your own views. What are they?

A. Like every journalist, I went into the war with my own politics. Everybody has political filters, but you try to be true to the facts. My politics are anti-war, not just because I thought it would cause trouble for the U.S., but I thought it was immoral and wrong for the U.S. to invade a country to overthrow a dictator we had propped up ‘til the 1990s. As a guerilla war, it is inherently political. The U.S. military controls the territory and can kill everyone, but they can’t win the political war. They can’t control the people.

Q. What are your view on today’s elections in Iraq?

A. Nearly 40 percent of the population lives in parts of the country where boycotts are being called by the major parties and guerilla organizations or it is too dangerous to vote. It is ridiculous to think that these elections will have any legitimacy. It is like the sovereignty handover and the siege of Fallujah. The elections are just the latest attempt to launch the notion of progress in Iraq. It is going to fail. If the elections translate into institutional power for Shia parties that are influenced by Iran, that will be a deepening of existing problems in Iraq. I only see the situation as deteriorating further.

For an interview with Jon Lee Anderson on his book, "The Fall of Baghdad," got to:

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