Eating King Crab Legs During The Fall
That's what Iraqis call the 2003-2011 U.S. Occupation. Here's my call for reparations at Notre Dame's 2023 War & Peace Forum. PLUS: Does MAGA want to join the ranks of those who attack lower Manhattan on a Tuesday morning?
Edited by Sam Thielman
IT'S BEEN AN EMOTIONALLY DRAINING past few days in South Bend, Indiana. Not gonna lie.
I'm just back from the University of Notre Dame's symposium on the 20th anniversary of the Iraq War. It was my honor to be one of the speakers, but it was my far greater honor to be one of the listeners. Roy Scranton put together a moving program of reflection that spotlighted unforgettable Iraqi poets and writers, including Dunya Mikhail, Mortada Gzar and Amal al-Jubouri, the latter two quoted in my recent Rolling Stone piece. Talking and eating with them—as well as with journalist/novelist Salar Abdoh and professors Omar Dewachi and Mary Ellen O'Connell—gave me memories I will cherish for a very long time.
As Dunya, Mortada, Salar and Amal gave their closing talk on Friday, it occurred to me that I didn't know something fundamental: what do Iraqis call the war we gathered to discuss? They answered that Iraqis refer to the war by several names, including Bush's War, The Year of Change (this one fearfully neutral and apparently out of favor) and The Fall, as in The Fall of Baghdad. "The Fall" apparently carries a reference to the social collapse people experienced during the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
Sit with that for a moment—the epochal devastation and bereftness it implies. As soon as I got to the airport, I opened Amal's poetry collection Hagar Before The Occupation, Hagar After The Occupation. And then I was sitting with it more and more, until I was in a metal tube in the sky, staring out a window at nothing in particular until it hurt my eyes.
Their talk is here:
And mine, with Omar, Andrew Bacevich and Rosemary Kelenic, is below. We were asked to prepare brief remarks. Before I knew it I had a 1300-word essay about understanding Iraq as a resource war and the need for reparations. I cut a fair amount on the fly because I was self-conscious about taking up so much time, but the text as intended is below the video.
THE FIRST TIME I ATE Alaskan King Crab Legs was in Baghdad. It was March 2007, the dawn of the troop surge. I was coming back from a patrol with an Army company of military police who were "mentoring" Iraqi police officers. At the time, top Iraqi police officers were nonchalantly packing their holding cells with frightened people and just as nonchalantly estimating how many of their cops were really sectarian militiamen in uniform. Mentorship involved U.S. companies giving them the material support necessary for such operations while telling them not to act like sectarian militias.
I rode with the 57th Military Police Company back onto what was then called the Victory Base Complex, which those who experienced it will remember as a massive, fortified constellation of bases clustered around Baghdad International Airport. It was chow time, and to my amazement, topping the buffets were cutlass-length crab legs, something we did not eat in my Jewish household in Brooklyn. For dessert there were six flavors of ice cream.
Every now and then during the war, a veteran or a reporter would remark upon the creature comforts available on the giant forward operating bases. It was usually to refer to them and their denizens as pampered and spared the brutal realities of the war. But what we were actually experiencing was how profitable the Iraq War was.
The real money was of course not in dining-facility operations, but those operations were something of a microcosm. The Iraq War was financed on credit rather than direct taxation, and it was nothing to direct exorbitant public contracts to companies like Halliburton, which purely coincidentally was Vice President Dick Cheney's company, and which among other things ran dining-facility operations for the U.S. military in Iraq. This was an era when the Pentagon leadership was seeking to prove that it could privatize a great deal of the work involved in its expansive global operations, and that this broad privatization would be more financially efficient. By 2004, Halliburton held $9 billion in contracts in Iraq. According to an email obtained by the Wall Street Journal, for just one month on one of the dozens of bases it serviced, Halliburton charged the Pentagon for an average of 42,000 meals per day while serving 14,000.
The crab legs weren't the only conspicuous aspect of the dining facility. Americans walked in through one entrance. The contract labor force, usually known as "Third Country Nationals" because they were imported laborers, as well as Iraqis who worked for the occupation forces as translators and so forth, entered through a different, more highly securitized entrance. This awkward reminder of the social hierarchy inflicted by a foreign occupier was unremarked upon. It made a kind of sense following the logic of occupation, under which every Iraqi is a potential threat and those who perform the wage-labor of a privatized war are obligated to be invisible. Not even active service to the occupying forces, performed at enormous personal risk—from death to sexual assault to human trafficking to more mundane forms of exploitation—could override these fundamental indignities of occupation.
About 18 months later, as the U.S. was negotiating a three-year troop basing agreement with its besieged client government, the State Department "advised" the Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki to give no-bid oil-field-development contracts to ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, Chevron and for good measure the French petro-giant Total. It was a natural culmination of the Coalition Provisional Authority's September 2003 Order 39. That one is a lot less famous than the CPA's early orders, the ones that disbanded the Iraqi army and outlawed the Baath Party, but it turns out to have been more historically enduring. Order 39 privatized 200 Iraqi state companies; opened them up to foreign ownership—we're talking about foreign control of things like banks, mines, factories; oil was at that point excluded because it was too politically explosive—and permitted these foreign owners to move their profits entirely out of Iraq.
We've been subjected to ceaseless anniversary journalism that treats the reasons the U.S. invaded as complicated and unknowable. That helps veil the plunder of Iraq and makes the war seem like a worthy idea gone wrong. The New York Times ran a piece treating the war's origins as a great mystery subject to never-ending academic debate. It conspicuously avoided referencing its own library of articles, on the news as well as the opinion side, laundering both the Bush administration's deceitful rationales for war and its depictions of the occupation.
In fact the Iraq War was a resource war. There are more and less sophisticated ways to say that, but I only have a brief opening statement and that's the fundamental truth. No less than Alan Greenspan, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, remarked in his memoir, "the Iraq War is largely about oil." And he was someone who advised President Bush to invade in order to secure the global supply of oil, as he put it. President Trump would later say that the Iraq War he had supported was a stupid war because among other reasons the U.S. didn't take the oil. But Trump was operating on an outmoded concept of what taking the oil looked like, as his secretary of state, ExxonMobil executive Rex Tillerson, could have told him.
One of the many deceits of the war is that it was a noble sacrifice, an act of civilizational charity performed by the benevolent American hegemon on behalf of the Iraqi people, whom this perspective often cast as ungrateful savages. One of the war's neoconservative heralds, Fouad Ajami, dared to call his book about the invasion The Foreigners' Gift. In fact, the Iraq War killed at least 200,000 Iraqis, and depending on which epidemiological model you credit, perhaps well upwards of a million. Millions more were made into refugees. Enduring environmental spoilage, resulting from the U.S. practice of incinerating its stuff in giant open-air "burn pits," is now a feature of the Iraqi landscape. In January, Iraq's planning ministry reported that fully a quarter of Iraqis live in poverty.
The political, economic and security structures the Americans created exacerbated Iraq's social divisions to the point where Iraq waged a civil war under an occupation. The U.S. typically blamed Iraqis and not themselves for unleashing these nightmares, even as it surveilled Iraqis, herded them through checkpoints, raided their homes and their holy places, locked them into detention camps and torture prisons, and killed them with what can only be called impunity. I witnessed a spectrum of human behavior in Iraq from U.S. troops toward Iraqis, from sincere compassion to seething disgust. Try as some sincerely did, there is no way to make occupation anything other than what it is. Whether it's Iraq, Ukraine, or Palestine, occupation is terror itself.
There were no appreciable consequences for any of the architects and beneficiaries of the Iraq War. Its advocates in the policymaking and pundit classes are presently busy using the Ukrainian flag to wipe Iraqi blood off their hands. That's when they're not pressing for a Cold War with China. Maybe these things are related.
But there is a way for the United States to show—not tell, but show—that it accepts responsibility for what it inflicted upon Iraq: to pay Iraqis reparations for their suffering and to relinquish its self-appointed claim to police the world under the rubric of a "Rules Based International Order" meant to bind everyone but Washington. The fact that reparation is politically unthinkable testifies to how deeply the imperial mentality infects the American consciousness: It can express regret, but it cannot make material amends.
The United States lost the Iraq War, but the Iraq War had real winners. Among them were the oil companies and the military-industrial complex that benefited from the consistent increases in U.S. defense spending that have characterized the past 20 years. They ought to be able to foot the bill for a program of Iraqi reparations.
GOING FROM IRAQ WAR remembrance to comic book promotion creates a real emotional whiplash, I recognize. But I've got two signings in Brooklyn this week that I'm really excited for. On Wednesday, April 5, I'll be signing at Flatbush institution Bulletproof Comics, one of my favorite places in the entire city, from 5-7pm. The next day, Thursday April 6, I'll be signing at Crown Heights' Anyone Comics from 6-8pm. Come out, say hi and get some WALLER VS. WILDSTORM #1s and REIGN OF TERROR paperbacks signed!
AS I WAS ON THE WAY to South Bend, Noah Shachtman from Rolling Stone, promoting a wild Swin Suebsaeng/Adam Rawnsley piece, remarked that Donald Trump is just doing book promo for me these days. Within hours, Alvin Bragg's Trump indictment broke. All I can think is: the most REIGN OF TERROR thing possible would be MAGA attacking lower Manhattan on a Tuesday morning. I'm not making any predictions here. But what a comparison to invite!