America's Deadly Shock Doctrine in Iraq
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The following is an excerpt from Naomi Klein's new book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (Henry Holt, 2007) and first appeared in the UK Guardian (read other excerpts here and here). The video to the right is a short documentary explaining the thesis of Klein's book. Read more about the documentary here.
When the Canadian citizen Maher Arar was grabbed by US agents at JFK airport in 2002 and taken to Syria, a victim of extraordinary rendition, his interrogators engaged in a tried-and-tested torture technique. "They put me on a chair, and one of the men started asking me questions ... If I did not answer quickly enough, he would point to a metal chair in the corner and ask, 'Do you want me to use this?' I was terrified, and I did not want to be tortured. I would say anything to avoid torture." The technique Arar was being subjected to is known as "the showing of the instruments," or, in US military lingo, "fear up". Torturers know that one of their most potent weapons is the prisoner's own imagination -- often just showing fearsome instruments is more effective than using them.
As the day of the invasion of Iraq drew closer, US news media outlets were conscripted by the Pentagon to "fear up" Iraq. "They're calling it 'A-Day'," began a report on CBS News that aired two months before the war began. "A as in airstrikes so devastating they would leave Saddam's soldiers unable or unwilling to fight." Viewers were introduced to Harlan Ullman, an author of the Shock and Awe doctrine, who explained that "you have this simultaneous effect, rather like the nuclear weapons at Hiroshima, not taking days or weeks but in minutes". The anchor, Dan Rather, ended the telecast with a disclaimer: "We assure you this report contains no information that the Defense Department thinks could help the Iraqi military." He could have gone further: the report, like so many others in this period, was an integral part of the Department of Defense's strategy -- fear up.
Iraqis, who picked up the terrifying reports on contraband satellites or in phone calls from relatives abroad, spent months imagining the horrors of Shock and Awe. The phrase itself became a potent psychological weapon. Would it be worse than 1991? If the Americans really thought Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, would they launch a nuclear attack?
One answer was provided a week before the invasion. The Pentagon invited Washington's military press corps on a special field trip to Eglin Air Force Base in Florida to witness the testing of the Moab, which officially stands for Massive Ordnance Air Blast, but which everyone in the military calls the "Mother of All Bombs". At 21,000lb, it is the largest non-nuclear explosive ever built, able to create, in the words of CNN's Jamie McIntyre, "a 10,000ft-high mushroom-like cloud that looks and feels like a nuclear weapon".
In his report, McIntyre said that even if it was never used, the bomb's very existence "could still pack a psychological wallop" -- a tacit acknowledgement of the role he himself was playing in delivering that wallop. Like prisoners in interrogation cells, Iraqis were being shown the instruments. "The goal is to have the capabilities of the coalition so clear and so obvious that there's an enormous disincentive for the Iraqi military to fight," Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld explained on the same programme.
When the war began, the residents of Baghdad were subjected to sensory deprivation on a mass scale. One by one, the city's sensory inputs were cut off; the ears were the first to go.
On the night of March 28 2003, as US troops drew closer to Baghdad, the ministry of communication was bombed and set ablaze, as were four Baghdad telephone exchanges, with massive bunker-busters, cutting off millions of phones across the city. The targeting of the phone exchanges continued -- 12 in total -- until, by April 2, there was barely a phone working in all of Baghdad. During the same assault, television and radio transmitters were also hit, making it impossible for families in Baghdad, huddling in their homes, to pick up even a weak signal carrying news of what was going on outside their doors.
Many Iraqis say that the shredding of their phone system was the most psychologically wrenching part of the air attack. The combination of hearing and feeling bombs going off everywhere while being unable to call a few blocks away to find out if loved ones were alive, or to reassure terrified relatives living abroad, was pure torment. Journalists based in Baghdad were swarmed by desperate local residents begging for a few moments with their satellite phones or pressing numbers into the reporters' hands along with pleas to call a brother or an uncle in London or Baltimore. "Tell him everything is OK. Tell him his mother and father are fine. Tell him hello. Tell him not to worry." By then, most pharmacies in Baghdad had sold out of sleeping aids and anti-depressants, and the city was completely cleaned out of Valium.
Next to go were the eyes. "There was no audible explosion, no discernible change in the early-evening bombardments, but in an instant, an entire city of 5 million people was plunged into an awful, endless night," the Guardian reported on April 4. Darkness was "relieved only by the headlights of passing cars". Trapped in their homes, Baghdad's residents could not speak to each other, hear each other or see outside. Like a prisoner destined for a CIA black site, the entire city was shackled and hooded.
Next it was stripped. In hostile interrogations, the first stage of breaking down prisoners is stripping them of their own clothes and any items that have the power to evoke their sense of self -- so-called comfort items. Often objects that are of particular value to a prisoner, such as the Qur'an or a cherished photograph, are treated with open disrespect. The message is "You are no one, you are who we want you to be," the essence of dehumanisation. Iraqis went through this unmaking process collectively, as they watched their most important institutions desecrated, their history loaded on to trucks and disappeared.
The bombing badly injured Iraq, but it was the looting, unchecked by occupying troops, that did the most to erase the heart of the country that was.
"The hundreds of looters who smashed ancient ceramics, stripped display cases and pocketed gold and other antiquities from the National Museum of Iraq pillaged nothing less than records of the first human society," reported the Los Angeles Times. "Gone are 80% of the museum's 170,000 priceless objects." The national library, which contained copies of every book and doctoral thesis ever published in Iraq, was a blackened ruin. Thousand-year-old illuminated Qur'ans had disappeared from the Ministry of Religious Affairs, which was left a burned-out shell. "Our national heritage is lost," pronounced a Baghdad high-school teacher. A local merchant said of the museum, "It was the soul of Iraq. If the museum doesn't recover the looted treasures, I will feel like a part of my own soul has been stolen." McGuire Gibson, an archaeologist at the University of Chicago, called it "a lot like a lobotomy. The deep memory of an entire culture, a culture that has continued for thousands of years, has been removed".
Thanks mostly to the efforts of clerics who organised salvage missions in the midst of the looting, a portion of the artefacts has been recovered. But many Iraqis were, and still are, convinced that the memory lobotomy was intentional -- part of Washington's plans to excise the strong, rooted nation that was and replace it with their own model. "Baghdad is the mother of Arab culture," 70-year-old Ahmed Abdullah told the Washington Post, "and they want to wipe out our culture."
As the war planners were quick to point out, the looting was done by Iraqis, not foreign troops. And it is true that Rumsfeld did not plan for Iraq to be sacked -- but he did not take measures to prevent it from happening either, or to stop it once it had begun. These were failures that cannot be dismissed as mere oversights.
During the 1991 Gulf war, 13 Iraqi museums were attacked by looters, so there was every reason to believe that poverty, anger at the old regime and the general atmosphere of chaos would prompt some Iraqis to respond in the same way (especially given that Saddam had emptied the prisons several months earlier). The Pentagon had been warned by leading archaeologists that it needed to have an airtight strategy to protect museums and libraries before any attack, and a March 26 Pentagon memo to coalition command listed "in order of importance, 16 sites that were crucial to protect in Baghdad". Second on the list was the museum. Other warnings had urged Rumsfeld to send an international police contingent in with the troops to maintain public order -another suggestion that was ignored.
Even without the police, however, there were enough US soldiers in Baghdad for a few to be dispatched to the key cultural sites, but they weren't sent. There are numerous reports of US soldiers hanging out by their armoured vehicles and watching as trucks loaded with loot drove by -- a reflection of the "stuff happens" indifference coming straight from Rumsfeld. Some units took it upon themselves to stop the looting, but in other instances, soldiers joined in. The Baghdad International Airport was completely trashed by soldiers who, according to Time, smashed furniture and then moved on to the commercial jets on the runway: "US soldiers looking for comfortable seats and souvenirs ripped out many of the planes' fittings, slashed seats, damaged cockpit equipment and popped out every windshield." The result was an estimated $100m worth of damage to Iraq's national airline -- which was one of the first assets to be put on the auction block in an early and contentious partial privatisation.
Some insight into why there was so little official interest in stopping the looting has since been provided by two men who played pivotal roles in the occupation -- Peter McPherson, the senior economic adviser to Paul Bremer, and John Agresto, director of higher education reconstruction for the occupation. McPherson said that when he saw Iraqis taking state property -- cars, buses, ministry equipment -- it didn't bother him. His job, as Iraq's top economic shock therapist, was to radically downsize the state and privatise its assets, which meant that the looters were really just giving him a jump-start. "I thought the privatisation that occurs sort of naturally when somebody took over their state vehicle, or began to drive a truck that the state used to own, was just fine," he said. A veteran bureaucrat of the Reagan administration and a firm believer in Chicago School economics, McPherson termed the pillage a form of public-sector "shrinkage".
His colleague John Agresto also saw a silver lining as he watched the looting of Baghdad on TV. He envisioned his job -- "a never-to-be-repeated adventure" -- as the remaking of Iraq's system of higher education from scratch. In that context, the stripping of the universities and the education ministry was, he explained, "the opportunity for a clean start," a chance to give Iraq's schools "the best modern equipment". If the mission was "nation creating," as so many clearly believed it to be, then everything that remained of the old country was only going to get in the way. Agresto was the former president of St John's College in New Mexico, which specialises in a Great Books curriculum [which emphasises an education based on broad reading]. He explained that although he knew nothing of Iraq, he had refrained from reading books about the country before making the trip so that he would arrive "with as open a mind as I could have". Like Iraq's colleges, Agresto would be a blank slate.
If Agresto had read a book or two, he might have thought twice about the need to erase everything and start all over again. He could have learned, for instance, that before the sanctions strangled the country, Iraq had the best education system in the region, with the highest literacy rates in the Arab world -- in 1985, 89% of Iraqis were literate. By contrast, in Agresto's home state of New Mexico, 46% of the population is functionally illiterate, and 20% are unable do "basic math[s] to determine the total on a sales receipt". Yet Agresto was so convinced of the superiority of American systems that he seemed unable to entertain the possibility that Iraqis might want to salvage and protect their own culture and that they might feel its destruction as a wrenching loss.
This neo-colonialist blindness is a running theme in the war on terror. At the US-run prison at GuantÃ¡namo Bay, there is a room known as "the love shack". Detainees are taken there after their captors have decided they are not enemy combatants and will soon be released. Inside the love shack, prisoners are allowed to watch Hollywood movies and are plied with American junk food. Asif Iqbal, one of three British detainees known as the "Tipton Three," was permitted several visits there before he and his two friends were finally sent home. "We would get to watch DVDs, eat McDonald's, eat Pizza Hut and basically chill out. We were not shackled in this area ... We had no idea why they were being like that to us. The rest of the week we were back in the cages as usual ... On one occasion Lesley [an FBI official] brought Pringles, ice cream and chocolates; this was the final Sunday before we came back to England." His friend Rhuhel Ahmed speculated that the special treatment "was because they knew they had messed us about and tortured us for two and half years and they hoped we would forget it".
Ahmed and Iqbal had been grabbed by the Northern Alliance while visiting Afghanistan on their way to a wedding. They had been violently beaten, injected with unidentified drugs, put in stress positions for hours, sleep deprived, forcibly shaven and denied all legal rights for 29 months. And yet they were supposed to "forget it" in the face of the overwhelming allure of Pringles. That was actually the plan.
It's hard to believe -- but then again, that was pretty much Washington's game plan for Iraq: shock and terrorise the entire country, deliberately ruin its infrastructure, do nothing while its culture and history are ransacked, then make it all OK with an unlimited supply of cheap household appliances and imported junk food. In Iraq, this cycle of culture erasing and culture replacing was not theoretical; it all unfolded in a matter of weeks.
Paul Bremer, appointed by Bush to serve as director of the occupation authority in Iraq, admits that when he first arrived in Baghdad, the looting was still going strong and order was far from restored. "Baghdad was on fire, literally, as I drove in from the airport. There was no traffic on the streets; there was no electricity anywhere; no oil production; no economic activity; there wasn't a single policeman on duty anywhere." And yet his solution to this crisis was to immediately fling open the country's borders to absolutely unrestricted imports: no tariffs, no duties, no inspections, no taxes. Iraq, Bremer declared two weeks after he arrived, was "open for business". Overnight, Iraq went from being one of the most isolated countries in the world, sealed off from the most basic trade by strict UN sanctions, to becoming the widest-open market anywhere.
While the pickup trucks stuffed with loot were still being driven to buyers in Jordan, Syria and Iran, passing them in the opposite direction were convoys of flatbeds piled high with Chinese TVs, Hollywood DVDs and Jordanian satellite dishes, ready to be unloaded on the sidewalks of Baghdad's Karada district. Just as one culture was being burned and stripped for parts, another was pouring in, prepackaged, to replace it.
One of the US businesses ready and waiting to be the gateway to this experiment in frontier capitalism was New Bridge Strategies, started by Joe Allbaugh, Bush's ex-head of Fema [Federal Emergency Management Agency]. It promised to use its top-level political connections to help US multinationals land a piece of the action in Iraq. "Getting the rights to distribute Procter & Gamble products would be a gold mine," one of the company's partners enthused. "One well-stocked 7-Eleven could knock out 30 Iraqi stores; a Wal-Mart could take over the country."
Like the prisoners in GuantÃ¡namo's love shack, all of Iraq was going to be bought off with Pringles and pop culture -- that, at least, was the Bush administration's idea of a postwar plan.
Ewen Cameron was a psychiatrist who performed CIA-funded experiments on the effects of electric shock and sensory deprivation on patients, without their knowledge, in the 1950s. When I was researching what he did I came across an observation made by one of his colleagues, a psychiatrist named Fred Lowy. "The Freudians had developed all these subtle methods of peeling the onion to get at the heart of the problem," he said. "Cameron wanted to drill right through and to hell with the layers. But, as we later discovered, the layers are all there is." Cameron thought he could blast away all his patients' layers and start again; he dreamed of creating brand-new personalities. But his patients weren't reborn: they were confused, injured, broken.
Iraq's shock therapists blasted away at the layers too, seeking that elusive blank slate on which to create their new model country. They found only the piles of rubble that they themselves had created, and millions of psychologically and physically shattered people -- shattered by Saddam, shattered by war, shattered by one another. Bush's in-house disaster capitalists didn't wipe Iraq clean, they just stirred it up. Rather than a tabula rasa, purified of history, they found ancient feuds, brought to the surface to merge with fresh vendettas from each new attack -- on a mosque in Karbala, in Samarra, on a market, a ministry, a hospital. Countries, like people, don't reboot to zero with a good shock; they just break and keep on breaking.
Which, of course, requires more blasting -- upping the dosage, holding down the button longer, more pain, more bombs, more torture. Former deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage, who had predicted that Iraqis would be easily marshalled from A to B, has since concluded that the real problem was that the US was too soft. "The humane way in which the coalition fought the war," he said, "actually has led to a situation where it is more difficult to get people to come together, not less. In Germany and Japan [after the second world war], the population was exhausted and deeply shocked by what had happened, but in Iraq it's been the opposite. A very rapid victory over enemy forces has meant we've not had the cowed population we had in Japan and Germany ... The US is dealing with an Iraqi population that is un-shocked and un-awed." By January 2007, Bush and his advisers were still convinced that they could gain control of Iraq with one good "surge". The report on which the surge strategy was based aimed for "the successful clearing of central Baghdad".
In the 70s, when the corporatist crusade began, it used tactics that courts ruled were overtly genocidal: the deliberate erasure of a segment of the population. In Iraq, something even more monstrous has happened -- the erasure not of a segment of the population, but of an entire country; Iraq is disappearing, disintegrating. It began, as it often does, with the disappearance of women behind veils and doors, then the children disappeared from the schools -- as of 2006, two-thirds of them stayed home. Next came the professionals: doctors, professors, entrepreneurs, scientists, pharmacists, judges, lawyers. An estimated 300 Iraqi academics have been assassinated by death squads since the US invasion, including several deans of departments; thousands more have fled. Doctors have fared even worse: by February 2007, an estimated 2,000 had been killed and 12,000 had fled. In November 2006, the UN High Commission for Refugees estimated that 3,000 Iraqis were fleeing the country every day. By April 2007, the organisation reported that 4 million people had been forced to leave their homes -- roughly one in seven Iraqis. Only a few hundred of those refugees had been welcomed into the United States.
With Iraqi industry all but collapsed, one of the only local businesses booming is kidnapping. Over just three and a half months in early 2006, nearly 20,000 people were kidnapped in Iraq. The only time the international media pays attention is when a westerner is taken, but the vast majority of abductions are Iraqi professionals, grabbed as they travel to and from work. Their families either come up with tens of thousands in US dollars for the ransom money or identify their bodies at the morgue. Torture has also emerged as a thriving industry. Human rights groups have documented numerous cases of Iraqi police demanding thousands of dollars from the families of prisoners in exchange for a halt to torture. It is Iraq's own domestic version of disaster capitalism.
This was not what the Bush administration intended for Iraq when it was selected as the model nation for the rest of the Arab world. The occupation had begun with cheerful talk of clean slates and fresh starts. It didn't take long, however, for the quest for cleanliness to slip into talk into "pulling Islamism up from the root" in Sadr City or Najaf and removing "the cancer of radical Islam" from Fallujah and Ramadi -- what was not clean would be scrubbed out by force.
That is what happens with projects to build model societies in other people's countries. The cleansing campaigns are rarely premeditated. It is only when the people who live on the land refuse to abandon their past that the dream of the clean slate morphs into its doppelgÃ¤nger, the scorched earth -- only then that the dream of total creation morphs into a campaign of total destruction.
The unanticipated violence that now engulfs Iraq is the creation of the lethally optimistic architects of the war -- it was preordained in that original seemingly innocuous, even idealistic phrase, "a model for a new Middle East". The disintegration of Iraq has its roots in the ideology that demanded a tabula rasa on which to write its new story. And when no such pristine tableau presented itself, the supporter of that ideology proceeded to blast and surge and blast again in the hope of reaching that promised land.