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Feel Guilt. Then Move On


It was Mary Vargas, a 44-year-old engineer in Renton, Washington, who carried US therapy culture to its new zenith. Explaining why the war in Iraq was no longer her top election issue, she told Salon, the online magazine, that “when they didn’t find the weapons of mass destruction, I felt I could also focus on other things. I got validated”. 


Yes, that’s right: war opposition as self-help. The end-goal is not to seek justice for the victims, or punishment for the aggressors, but rather “validation” for one’s position. Once validated, one can reach for the talisman of self-help: “closure”. In Britain, it’s Blair who adopted the language of self-help: validated by the Hutton whitewash, he is urging the nation to “draw a line” and “move on”. 


In the US, it’s the Democrats who have the therapy market cornered. Howard Dean’s wild scream was not so much a gaffe as the second of the five stages of grieving: anger. The scream was a moment of uncontrolled release, a catharsis, allowing American liberals to externalise their rage and then move on (as they must do now that Dean has dropped out), transferring their affections to more appropriate candidates. 


There is more counselling to come from John Kerry and John Edwards, for whom the war was less an attack on another sovereign nation than a traumatic assault on America’s own psyche and self-esteem.


“The price of unilateralism is too high and Americans are paying it – in resources that could be used for healthcare, education, and our security here at home,” Kerry said on December 16. “We are paying that price in respect lost around the world.” And most importantly, that price is paid in the lives of young Americans forced to shoulder the burden of the mission alone. 


Conspicuously absent from Kerry’s tally are the lives of Iraqi civilians lost as a direct result of the invasion. Dean suffered from the same myopic maths. “There are now almost 400 people dead who wouldn’t be dead if we hadn’t gone to war,” he said in November. In January he updated the number to “500 soldiers and 2,200 wounded”. 


But on February 8, while Kerry was campaigning in Virginia and Dean was in Maine, the number of Iraqi civilians killed since the invasion reached as high as 10,000. That number is the most authoritative estimate available, since the occupying authorities in Iraq refuse to keep count. It comes from Iraq Body Count, a group of respected British and US academics that bases its figures on cross-referenced reports from journalists and human rights groups in the field. 


John Sloboda, co-founder of Iraq Body Count, told me that the passing of the grim 10,000 mark received “scandalously little attention in the US, even as Democratic candidates were hammering Bush over his faulty intelligence”.


If the war was fought on false pretences, Sloboda says, “then every death caused by the war is a death on false pretences. And if that’s the case, the most urgent question is not who knew what when, but who owes what to whom?” 


In international law, countries that wage wars of aggression must pay reparations. Yet in Iraq, this logic has been turned on its head. Not only are there no penalties for an illegal war, there are prizes, with the US actively and openly rewarding itself with huge reconstruction contracts.


When the reconstruction spending has attracted controversy, it has not been over what is owed to Iraqis for their tremendous losses, but over what is owed to European corporations and to American taxpayers.


“This war profiteering is poison to America, poison to Americans’ faith in government and poison to our allies’ perception of our motives in Iraq,” John Edwards said in December. True, but he somehow failed to mention that it also poisons Iraqis – not their faith, or their perceptions, but their bodies. 


Every dollar wasted on an over-charging, underperforming US contractor is a dinar not spent rebuilding Iraq’s bombed-out water treatment and electricity plants. And it is Iraqis, not US taxpayers, who are forced to drink typhoid- and cholera-infested water, and then to seek treatment in hospitals still flooded with raw sewage, where the drug supply is even more depleted than during the sanctions era. 


There is no plan to compensate Iraqi civilians for deaths caused by the willful destruction of their infrastructure, or as a result of combat during the invasion. The occupying forces will only pay compensation for “instances where soldiers have acted negligently or wrongfully”. According to the latest estimates, US troops have distributed roughly $2m in compensation for deaths, injuries and property damage. That’s a third of what Halliburton admits two of its employees accepted in bribes from a Kuwaiti contractor. 


To talk about the price of the Iraq war strictly in terms of military casualties and US tax dollars is an obscenity. Yes, Americans and British citizens were lied to by their politicians. Yes, they are owed answers. But the people of Iraq are owed a great deal more, and that enormous debt belongs at the very centre of any civilised debate about the war. 


In the US, a good start would be for the Democratic candidates to acknowledge some collective responsibility. Bush may have been the war’s initiator but in the lan guage of self-help, he had plenty of enablers. They included Kerry and Edwards, among the 27 other Democratic senators and 81 Democratic members of the House of Representatives who voted for the resolution authorising Bush to go to war. 


Why does this history matter? Because so long as Bush’s opponents cast themselves as the primary victims of his war, the real victims will remain invisible. The focus will be on uncovering Bush and Blair’s lies – a process geared towards absolving those who believed them, not on compensating those who died because of them. 


In the five stages of grieving, there is a step that comes after anger. It’s guilt, when the grieving party starts to wonder whether they did enough, if the loss was somehow their fault, how they can make amends. Moving on – the final stage – is supposed to come after that reckoning. 


 


 



 

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