On Sunday November 11th, people all over Britain pinned the famous blood-red emblem of remembrance to their clothing in honor of those who fought and died for the country. In particular, during a conflict few outside the UK remember quite the same way: the First World War.
I have no opposition to this tradition of paying homage to the casualties of the wartime past – many of the victims being conscripts assembled from among the ranks of the working and middle classes, sent to do the bidding of Britain’s elite. Their suffering and sacrifice deserves acknowledgement, even if the false rationale for many of the wars in which they fought, in service of interests that were not their own, do not.
Yet, in my mind at least, to recall the pain of “our” victims alone is not enough if we are to lament war at all. And if we glorify war when we recall history on such occasions, then Robert Fisk is right in arguing that those who “who flaunt the poppy on their lapels” – the emblem recalling those flowers that grew around the graves of soldiers in Flanders – mindlessly mock the war dead.
A recently-concluded event in the US, Remember Fallujah week, serves as an apt juxtaposition to such traditions in Britain and the Commonwealth. Remember Fallujah Week, which comes just after Remembrance Sunday, is organized annually by Iraq veterans, peace activists, academics and others. It’s timed to coincide with the anniversary of the second and most brutal British-American siege of the city during the Iraq war. This year’s commemoration involved two modest speaking events on the eastern seaboard (at a University and a Methodist Church) which were almost totally ignored by the media.
But Fallujah should be remembered by more than those few in attendance at the latter gatherings, especially by the West. This is because lives inside the ancient “City of Mosques” are still being crippled, and its people were subjected to horrific war crimes by “our” soldiers in 2004. Those most grievously afflicted are those most innocent: children, born with birth defects so horrific that they are almost indescribable. Even a casual look at photographs of the infant victims of this is enough to wrench the guts of any feeling person.
Such horrors were caused by the use of depleted uranium by coalition forces during the siege in November 2004, according to many medical experts. One of them, Dr. Kypros Nicolaides, director of the foetal medicine research center at London’s King’s College Hospital told the Independent “I’m sure the Americans used weapons that caused these deformities.” The massive surge in defects came after the assault.
The causal link between depleted uranium and these examples of misery is yet to be fully confirmed. Care to guess why? Because the governments of the US and Britain refuse to investigate the issue, for reasons one can probably surmise.
What compelled the Americans and the British to use such deadly weaponry? Strategic advancement, so it appears. By 2004, the city of Fallujah had become a symbol of resistance to coalition forces. Guerrillas had successfully resisted an Allied attempt at recapturing it earlier in the year, and, with significant external help, had become a powerful insurgent’s nest. This eventually provoked a massive assault designed to ensure the fall of this bastion of defiance.
A desire for revenge also may have been a factor. As news broadcasters such as CNN and Fox never allowed the American public to forget, Fallujah was the scene of a disgusting crime against mercenary fighters from the American Blackwater security firm, who were killed and had their desecrated, burnt corpses hung from a bridge by a small crowd.
Public anger in the US at this outrage was huge, understandably. Paul Bremer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, said that the deaths of the Mercenaries would “not go unpunished”.
But the same networks that deplored such crimes barely paid attention to several preceding atrocities by US troops, which caused a fever of hatred to arrest the city. The worst being an incident in which the 82nd Airborne shot at an unarmed crowd killing 17 civilians who were protesting the seizure of a local school by Coalition forces, for use as a military base. Three days later, when locals protested about the killings, troops again shot into the crowd, ending the lives of three people.
In the run-up to the decisive ground invasion in November, which swiftly became a major US strategic goal, cruel expedients were already being deployed: the city had been continuously bombed in order to “flush out civilians,” with innumerable civilian casualties as a consequence. The Arab journalist Nermeen al-Mufti, present in the city at the time, reported pregnant women, children and whole families slaughtered by the aerial raids.
Jean Ziegler, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, would later condemn another US and British tactic. Specifically, “breaching international law by depriving civilians of food and water in besieged cities as they try to flush out militants” in Fallujah, and elsewhere in Iraq. US-led forces “cut off or restricted food and water to encourage residents to flee before assaults,” he stated, “using hunger and deprivation of water as a weapon of war against the civilian population, [in] flagrant violation of the Geneva Conventions.” Also in the weeks preceding the attack, electricity and water to the city was cut by coalition forces.
When the assault began, thestaff and patients of the main hospital were manacled, cluster bombs were dropped (which, as well as being designed to kill indiscriminately, leave a legacy for years to come as de facto land mines) in addition to white phosphorous.
Before the engagement, US Marines who were sent into the city were informed by Lieutenant Colonel Gareth Brandl that, “The enemy has got a face. He’s called Satan. He lives in Falluja. And we’re going to destroy him.”
Ross Caputi, a Marine who was involved in the assault, told me that, in addition to the dehumanising and inflammatory comments of Brandl, the troops were misled about noncombatants- with terrifying results. “My command told my unit that all of the civilians had left, even though they knew perfectly well that there were still thousands of civilians trapped in the city” he reflected. Such messages, Caputi added “definitely influenced the way we carried out the operation, because we acted with no restraint at all, as if everyone in the city was a combatant.”
“We used a tactic called reconnaissance-by-fire, which is when you fire into a building to see if anyone is inside. There might have been civilians inside, but the point of reconnaissance by fire is that you don’t know what you’re firing at. We used tanks to fire into houses that had resistance fighters inside, and sometimes we used bulldozers to flatten the house on top of them” he continued.
In one particularly disturbing incident, Caputi “watched a unit to [his] right flank flatten an entire neighborhood, one house after another, without checking to see if anyone was inside [those] houses.” Such an act, if proven, would constitute an extremely serious war crime, among the others already detailed.
Caputi’s testimony is supported by that of a visitor from a religious Peacemakers Team who half a year later complained that coalition forces had evidently “leveled entire neighborhoods,” adding that, “about every third building is destroyed or damaged.”
Fallujah has been forgotten in the West. This should be no real surprise. The horrors inflicted on the city were not even covered properly by big news media at the time. What has been left in the wake of the Allied siege of the city—a growing community of minors born with deformities- is now a faraway nightmare for others to face.
It goes without saying that if a Fallujah of some kind was suddenly visited on “us” the response would be fury and outrage. Quite possibly precipitating war. But this is not the case; accordingly, small commemorative events like “Remember Fallujah Week” are exceptional because they are so rarely seen.
Nonetheless, in my view, reminders of the fact that the armies of the West have devastated innumerable lives – in almost inconceivably terrible ways – are just as necessary as the solemn tradition of Remembrance Sunday.