With fitting irony, one of the camps used by the US marines waiting for the assault on Falluja was formerly a Ba’ath party retreat occasionally used by Saddam Hussein’s sons. Dreamland, as it was known, has an island in the middle of an artificial lake fringed by palms.
Now the camp’s dream-like unreality is distorting every news report filed on the preparations for the onslaught on Falluja. We don’t know, and won’t know, anything about what happens in the next few days except for what the US military authorities choose to let us know. It’s long since been too dangerous for journalists to move around unless they are embedded with the US forces. There is almost no contact left with civilians still in Falluja, the only information is from those who have left.
This is how the fantasy runs: a city the size of Brighton is now only ever referred to as a “militants’ stronghold” or “insurgents’ redoubt”. The city is being “softened up” with precision attacks from the air. Pacifying Falluja has become the key to stabilising the country ahead of the January elections. The “final assault” is imminent, in which the foreigners who have infiltrated the almost deserted Iraqi city with their extremist Islam will be “cleared”, “rooted out” or “crushed”. Or, as one marine put it: “We will win the hearts and minds of Falluja by ridding the city of insurgents. We’re doing that by patrolling the streets and killing the enemy.”
These are the questionable assumptions and make-believe which are now all that the embedded journalists with the US forces know to report. Every night, the tone gets a little more breathless and excited as the propaganda operation to gear the troops up for battle coopts the reporters into its collective psychology.
There’s a repulsive asymmetry of war here: not the much remarked upon asymmetry of the few thousand insurgents holed up in Falluja vastly outnumbered by the US, but the asymmetry of information. In an age of instant communication, we will have to wait months, if not years, to hear of what happens inside Falluja in the next few days. The media representation of this war will be from a distance: shots of the city skyline illuminated by the flashes of bomb blasts, the dull crump of explosions. What will be left to our imagination is the terror of children crouching behind mud walls; the agony of those crushed under falling masonry; the frantic efforts to save lives in makeshift operating theatres with no electricity and few supplies. We will be the ones left to fill in the blanks, drawing on the reporting of past wars inflicted on cities such as Sarajevo and Grozny.
The silence from Falluja marks a new and agonising departure in the shape of 21st-century war. The horrifying shift in the last century was how, increasingly, war was waged against civilians: their proportion of the death toll rose from 50% to 90%. It prompted the development of a form of war-reporting, exemplified by Bosnia, which was not about the technology and hardware, but about human suffering, and which fuelled public outrage. No longer. The reporting of Falluja has lapsed back into the military machismo of an earlier age. This war against the defenceless will go unreported.
The reality is that a city can never be adequately described as a “militants’ stronghold”. It’s a label designed to stiffen the heart of a soldier, but it is blinding us, the democracies that have inflicted this war, to the consequences of our actions. Falluja is still home to thousands of civilians. The numbers who have fled the prospective assault vary, but there could be 100,000 or more still in their homes. Typically, as in any war, those who don’t get out of the way are a mixture of the most vulnerable – the elderly, the poor, the sick; the unlucky, who left it too late to get away; and the insanely brave, such as medical staff.
Nor does it seem possible that reporters still use the terms “softening up” or “precision” bombing. They achieve neither softening nor precision, as Falluja well knew long before George W Bush arrived in the White House. In the first Gulf war, an RAF laser-guided bomb intended for the city’s bridge went astray and landed in a crowded market, killing up to 150. Last year, the killing of 15 civilians shortly after the US arrived in the city ensured that Falluja became a case study in how to win a war but lose the occupation. A catalogue of catastrophic blunders has transformed a relatively calm city with a strongly pro-US mayor into a battleground.
One last piece of fantasy is that there is unlikely to be anything “final” about this assault. Already military analysts acknowledge that a US victory in Falluja could have little effect on the spreading incidence of violence across Iraq. What the insurgents have already shown is that they are highly decentralised, and yet the quick copying of terrorist techniques indicates some degree of cooperation. Hopes of a peace seem remote; the future looks set for a chronic, intermittent civil war. By the time the bulldozers have ploughed their way through the centre of Falluja, attention could have shifted to another “final assault” on another “militant stronghold”, as another city of homes, shops and children’s playgrounds morphs into a battleground.
The recent comment of one Falluja resident is strikingly poignant: “Why,” she asked wearily, “don’t they go and fight in a desert away from houses and people?” Why indeed? Twentieth-century warfare ensured a remarkable historical inversion. Once the city had been the place of safety to retreat to in a time of war, the place of civilisation against the barbarian wilderness; but the invention of aerial bombardment turned the city into a target, a place of terror.
What is so disturbing is that much of the violence meted out to cities in the past 60-odd years has rarely had a strategic purpose – for example, the infamous bombing of Dresden. Nor is it effective in undermining morale or motivation; while the violence destroys physical and economic capital, it usually generates social capital – for example, the Blitz spirit or the solidarity of New Yorkers in the wake of 9/11 – and in Chechnya served only to establish a precarious peace in a destroyed Grozny and fuel a desperate, violent resistance.
Assaults on cities serve symbolic purposes: they are set showpieces to demonstrate resolve and inculcate fear. To that end, large numbers of casualties are required: they are not an accidental byproduct but the aim. That was the thinking behind 9/11, and Falluja risks becoming a horrible mirror-image of that atrocity. Only by the shores of that dusty lake in Dreamland would it be possible to believe that the ruination of this city will do anything to enhance the legitimacy of the US occupation and of the Iraqi government it appointed.