By Michael Schwartz; 2008, Haymarket Books, 320 pp.
Michael Schwartz’s illuminating new book, War Without End: The Iraq War in Context, provides a comprehensive overview of the ideological roots of the war and its social costs for the Iraqi people. He shows how neo-liberal policies and the privatization of state resources, backed by massive force, helped to exacerbate the suffering of Iraqis who increasingly turned to resistance against U.S. power and rule and remain disdainful of the occupation.
According to Schwartz, a professor of sociology at Stony Brook University, America’s war aims were clear from the outset: to create a strategic base to control the Middle East’s prized energy reserves and to usher in an economic transition from the “socialist dictatorship” of Saddam Hussein to an unfettered free-market capitalist state. In the aftermath of the invasion, Administrator L. Paul Bremer and his staff rapidly privatized state resources. They rewarded multinational corporations like Haliburton and Bechtel with major contracts to help rebuild the Iraq’s infrastructure.
These policies confirmed for a large number of Iraqis that the U.S. had invaded for self-serving reasons. Furthermore, they caused a social and economic crisis of epic proportions, which gave strength to the insurgency. The dismantling of state industries caused the loss of thousands of jobs, which were replaced by foreign contractors. Local businesses were bankrupted by the flooding of the country with cheap imports and by a lack of regular electricity. Unemployment rates in the once prosperous nation skyrocketed to over 60 percent. Massive corruption in the rewarding of contracts and the dismissal of skilled local technicians resulted in gross inefficiency. This trend was typified by a failed $70 million Halliburton project to reconstruct an oil pipeline in Al Fatah, which came to resemble, as one observer put it, “some gargantuan heart-bypass operation gone night- marishly bad.”
Most disconcerting was the decline in health and educational services. Schools damaged by the fighting were never properly repaired and lacked basic textbooks and school supplies. The U.S. military sometimes used schools as a staging base for military incursions. By 2007, UNICEF reported that only one-sixth of Iraqi children were being educated.
After dismantling the state health-care system, which had been among the best in the Arab world before Hussein’s ascent to power, occupation officials promised to construct dozens of private clinics across the country. Most of these never materialized, resulting in a decline in accessibility of basic medicines and equipment. In the newly “liberated” Iraq, doctors would fill prescriptions that the pharmacies could not provide. Family members of patients even had to serve as nurses, and IVs and needles had to be reused. Over time, doctor shortages and the imposition of curfews in cities made the situation worse. The inability of occupation officials to provide clean water throughout the country and the overflow of raw sewage into city streets resulted in outbreaks of cholera and other diseases which the hospitals were ill-equipped to treat.
One of Schwartz’s important contributions is to show how the failure of America’s privatization and “nation-building” programs contributed to the rise of the insurgency in Iraq. Rather than being composed of “dead enders,” in Donald Rumsfeld’s now infamous words, or foreign jihadists or ex-Bathists, he demonstrates how resistance was in fact driven by “local factors that grew strength from deep grievances and a widespread hostility to the presence of foreign troops,” as U.S. intelligence analysts concluded. In the early phases, many Iraqis staged demonstrations against the occupational authorities demanding basic social services and jobs. Rather than responding to their demands, the authorities instructed the military to greet any act of dissidence as suspicious and to shoot at any perceived threat. U.S. soldiers consequently fired on peaceful crowds and killed and wounded civilians, stoking popular anger. Many more innocent civilians were killed by fearful Marines at often poorly marked checkpoints throughout the country. The routine raiding of homes, designed in part to strike fear among the population, helped to further stoke popular anger and resentment, as did the prevalence of deplorable prison conditions and the revelations of torture. Meanwhile, the U.S. construction of a gaudy multi-billion dollar embassy made apparent America’s ambitions to remain in Iraq indefinitely.
In order to try to maintain its grip on power, and in clear violation of international law, the U.S. adopted a doctrine of collective punishment designed to annihilate not only the insurgent fighters, but anyone who harbored and supported them. The consequence was the perpetration of many massacres, such as the notorious incident at Haditha where 24 civilians were killed. The doctrine of collective punishment was on display during the siege of Fallujah where the U.S. military killed thousands of people and turned the entire city into “a desolate world of skeletal buildings, tank-blasted homes, weeping power lines and severed palm trees,” in the words of New York Times journalist Erik Eckholm. A Marine lieutenant proclaimed afterwards: “This is what happens if you shelter terrorists.” As these comments reveal, the siege of Fallujah was intended as a warning to others that it would suffer the same fate if it defied U.S. power.
Much like the Vietnamese in an earlier failed U.S. colonial intervention, the Iraqis refused to bow to U.S. pressure and thus paid a high price in fighting for their sovereignty and independence. The backbone of the resistance took root in Sunni as well as some Shia cities like Sadr City, where local warlord Muqtada Sadr gained in prestige not only by defending Iraqi cities from attack, but also by seeking to provide basic social services that had been abandoned under the occupation. The resistance in Iraq, however, was never unified and became factionalized and ridden by sectarian tensions which culminated in full-scale civil war.
The war’s ugliness was compounded by the tactics of many insurgent fighters—particularly the small number of Al Qaeda operatives in Iraq whose agenda was to expel the U.S. from Iraq and establish a caliphate through the Arab Middle East embodying the principles of Salafi Islam. They adopted terror techniques, such as suicide and car bombings directed against supposed colonial collaborators and Shia, which intensified public suffering. Criminal gangs seized on the violence and chaos to loot public resources and facilities and to extort money for ransom.
According to Schwartz, the United States bears a large share of the blame for creating a climate in which these trends emerged. In his view, the tactics of Al Qaeda in Iraq resemble those of the U.S. in Fallujah, with the aim of inducing civilians to withdraw their support for the enemy once they experienced the agony of punishment. Contrary to the false impression given by a majority of America’s mainstream media, through the extensive air campaigns and search and destroy missions, U.S. forces and their proxies bear responsibility for the majority of both civilian and combat deaths, which studies place at well over one million. Schwartz estimates plausibly that the U.S. has been responsible for at least 57 percent of the killings, many of which he attributes to a hysterical use of firepower by U.S. troops in urban combat zones. The much vaunted “surge” strategy of President George W. Bush only worsened the carnage and further inflamed Iraqis, who continue to live in conditions of utter destitution. The U.S.-backed Maliki government and military, meanwhile, remain predominantly powerless outside Baghdad’s Green Zone due to the growing strength of the sectarian militias who control many neigh- borhoods.
On the whole, while destined to create controversy, Schwartz has written a very powerful book on the U.S. occupation of Iraq and its devastating consequences for the country. He sheds great insight into the mindset of U.S. policy elites and military officials and documents the stark brutality of their programs. He demonstrates further that the rise of insurgency in Iraq was not irrational or driven exclusively by an Islamicist agenda or by hate, but was rather a product of the arrogance of U.S. occupying officials and the failure of U.S. state-building policies and neo-liberalism, which failed to guarantee basic social services and thereby helped to facilitate Iraq’s social decay. Most of all, Schwartz reminds us of the true victims of war.
Jeremy Kuzmarov is visiting assistant professor of history at Bucknell University.