Sunday, October 16, 2005


I had a nightmare not long ago - a particularly vivid one which has stuck in the back of my mind ever since. Like most people (I assume), I find that most nightmares are memorable - I can recall the images, events or 'story-line' of quite a few I've had in the last 20 years or so. However, it is mostly the case that the actual horror of the nightmare - the feeling of unease or terror associated with the images/events of the dream - dissipates quite soon after waking up, so one can recall the details of a nightmare without re-experiencing the unpleasantry. Sometimes, in fact, nightmares become quite comical in retrospect - quite the reverse of the original experience. This one, however, is different. It is still (at least mildly) upsetting and unnerving.

I was in Iraq. I was standing on a dusty road with yellowy-brown sand on either side stretching off into the distance. In front of me was a scattering of metalic and mechanical wreckage across the road, blocking my way. Behind the wreckage, the road was cratered and scorched and a spiral of black smoke trailed into the sky. There were a small number of corpses and half-dead men sprawled across the wreckage and on the road. I got closer to the wreckage and found out that in fact these men were alive. They were grotesque. They were stinking, bloated, swollen, green and rotten - and they were still moving around. One of them was horribly burned - his skin was a black, cracked and flaking mess (like the surface of a badly burned piece of toast). Two of them sat on top of a piece of wreckage which was now a burned out car and seemed to be drinking something and talking. Another, with the top of his skull sliced off was walking towards me. I remember thinking (and this was the horror) that none of them deserved this - all had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were the cannon fodder of other people's warfare. They had been turned into stinking corpses for reasons which could never be justified to them. They had all died thinking 'why me?' and they continued to ask the same question endlessly in death. I woke up feeling sick.

I remember that in my dream these men had been the victims of a coalition airstrike. But really that wasn't the point (if we can talk about the point of a nightmare) - they could easily have been the victims of an insurgent bomb.

The images from this dream, together with a real associated feeling of horror, come back to me from time to time. They come back to me when I read about Fallujah, or when I read about recent operations in Tel Afar. They come back to me when I hear that civilians have been murdered in a market place or mosque bombing. They come back to me when I hear that US or British troops have been killed. They come back to me when I read some twisted, gung-ho blog or media person cheerleading for coalition operations. They come back to me when I read some cheering for death from some on the Left.

There is a romanticising of violence at play here. There is also a terrible rejection (even mockery) of ethical considerations in the name of 'realism'. In relation to the former, in some accounts of what's going on in Iraq, the bombings and the shootings are spoken of in terms which obscure the real effects of violence. The excitement, the explosive booms, the flash of fire from machine gun muzzles, the heroics, the rush, the changes in the balance of power between opposing forces, the tactics and the strategy are discussed animatedly and with relish. This is a little boy's version of warfare - it's how we experienced violence as an 8 year old in the school field playing soldiers with our friends. In these games there was no death - not really. If 'shot' you would simply clutch your hands to your chest dramatically, groan and quickly fall to the ground. You would get up again 2 minutes later. There was no blasting off of limbs, no faces sheared off by shrapnel, no evisceration, no guts spilling onto the ground, no screaming, no crying, no begging for your life, no panic, no terror, no bits of another man's brains on your boots, no pissing and shitting yourself, no vomit, no bloated bodies, no putrifaction, no maggots. Cheer for that.

In relation to the latter, I have seen people claim - pro and anti-war - that one can cannot condemn the mass killing of civilians out of hand. You cannot say, it seems, that there is something wrong with the sight of a market place strewn with the twisted corpses of children. indeed to appeal to 'right' and 'wrong' here is regarded as hopelessly naive - to call the deliberate mass murder of civilians 'bad' is, more than that, something to be mocked. We see it in pro-war responses to the death toll indicated by the Lancet report and we see it in the arguments of the most hardline suporters of the insurgency. All ethical or moral considerations in terms of violence and human suffering are jettisoned - or at least relegated to some secondary and pretty insignificant order of understanding. What matters is objective a, or objective b - everyone along the way is just cannon fodder. Pile up the corpses. There's nothing we can say about it.

I have seen it claimed that one cannot understand violent acts (or any other) in terms of human decisions or choice. The sole causal factor here, is history, social and political circumstances. People do not choose to bomb a market place full of civilians (oddly this line of reasoning is seldom applied to Generals or Presidents). Of course people are made by their social circumstances, their history, their political and economic environment. Put anyone in conditions of desperation or sustained oppression and they will act very differently. Beat a good natured dog and eventually it will snarl and bite. People will fight back with the tools and means at their disposal too. But to say that human actions can be wholly understood in these terms is wrong. Put your finger on the detonator to a remote bomb. Do you really have no choice in the matter? Is there no small room for human agency? Would everyone, given the right conditions, push the button? Do you have no choice when you cross the road? Do you have no choice when you don't punch that old lady in the street and nick her handbag? Structures and environments shape and limit our thoughts and actions - but within those limits there is a certain room for manouvre, a certain space for bounded autonomy. Not everyone has the same boundaries, or the same experiences or the opportunities, or the same choices. But nothing is somehow structurally determined. There is no predestination. I am no fatalist.

These approaches are blind to the suffering of real human beings. There is a picture, which you may have seen, of a young Haitian man, dying in the street. He was murdered by UN gangsters for protesting about the UN/US installed government in his country. When you look at the picture it could, at first, be a picture of a sleepy or drunken man lying in the gutter. We see his head and shoulders. He looks groggy, confused. Then you see the blood flowing down his arms. Then you see that the man has no lower jaw - just a bloody gap, where his mouth should be. It is shocking. What gets me, I think, is not the blood and the gore. It's the look in the man's eyes - he looks confused and he looks scared and he looks desperate. 'Why me?' he seems to be thinking. There is a good chance that the man is quite conscious that his jaw has been shot off and it is quite possible that the man knows that he is about to bleed to death. He knows that his life is over, that all he could have been and all he could have done has now been taken from him. He has nothing. He is horribly alone. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time and now he is going to die. It is a terrible picture.

There is another picture I saw, recently, which has the same kind of effect. I was watching a programme about gangs in South Africa. There was a brutal gang leader called 'Staggy' I think who was abducted by a vigilante gang, beaten, doused in petrol and set alight. He burned to death surrounded by a cheering crowd. The programme showed a photograph taken by someone in the crowd. He was a horrid man - he was a murdering racketeer and gangster - but even so, this picture is sickening. Again it is not the physical horror of the photo which shocks - it is the look on the man's face. The photo shows the victim on fire, flames lick up from the man's legs, his face is blackened, and he is staring into the camera - his eyes are quite brilliantly white and his pupils bright blue. They shine out at you from the blackening face. There is a look of incomprehension in the man's eyes.

Anytime someone dies, it is a someone. When we forget this, when real individual human beings become cannon fodder for someone's foreign policy or someone's theory, when we sweep the panic and the horror and the fucking waste under the carpet we are de-humanising ourselves.

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