Saturday, April 21, 2007

U.S. Military Walling In a Sunni Neighborhood

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I'm sure the wingnuts will find some way to argue that this does not mean the surge is an abysmal failure:

American military commanders in Baghdad are trying a radical new strategy to quell the widening sectarian violence by building a 12-foot-high, three-mile-long wall separating a historic Sunni enclave from Shiite neighborhoods.

Soldiers in the Adhamiya district of northern Baghdad, a Sunni Arab stronghold, began construction of the wall last week and expect to finish it within a month. Iraqi Army soldiers would then control movement through a few checkpoints. The wall has already drawn intense criticism from residents of the neighborhood, who say that it will increase sectarian tensions and that it is part of a plan by the Shiite-led Iraqi government to box in the minority Sunnis.

A doctor in Adhamiya, Abu Hassan, said the wall would transform the residents into caged animals.

“It’s unbelievable that they treat us in such an inhumane manner,” he said in a telephone interview. “They’re trying to isolate us from other parts of Baghdad. The hatred will be much greater between the two sects.”

“The Native Americans were treated better than us,” he added.

The American military said in a written statement that “the wall is one of the centerpieces of a new strategy by coalition and Iraqi forces to break the cycle of sectarian violence.”

That doctor is wrong. The wall makes him free. That's why the Americans are there, to make him free. And he is free -- because the Americans say so.

Tristero points out that walls can just as easily trap people inside as keep people out -- and history demonstrates that's exactly what they are meant to do:

... let's not infer the worst here. After all, history teaches us that sealing off ghettos does reduce violence. That's simply an indisputable fact. For example, attacks against Sunni Jews declined markedly and rapidly under the Nazis. Had they not built walls around the ghettos, which enabled an entire Jewish population of a given city to be quickly rounded up and sent off to the camps, attacks on Jews would have gone on for much, much longer.

In short, behaving like Nazis is an eminently sensible, and, in fact, a deeply compassionate, idea. Bush and the military high command should all be commended for having the courage to approve of such bold initiatives in order to make us safe from the terrorists who perpetrated 9/11.

Unsurprisingly, Tristero is catching a lot of heat from his readers for making this comparison. But is it really so outrageous? Even if everyone agrees, for the sake of argument, that the U.S. military has nothing but benevolent intentions in building this wall, it's still true that they are ghettoizing a section of Baghdad along ethnic lines, which unarguably makes the people inside those walls not just vulnerable to attack but defenseless against it.

Since the day this war began, its supporters have absolved themselves of responsibility for civilian casualties, for the insurgency, for suicide bombings, for sectarian violence, by saying, We didn't intend to kill civilians; we didn't anticipate the insurgency; we didn't know Iraqis would not welcome us with open arms. But at some point, we have to take responsibility for the consequences of our intentions.

Amy Tan's 2005 novel, Saving Fish From Drowning, is instructive in this regard. The title is the central allegory for the novel, which is about 11 American tourists who vanish after taking a predawn cruise to see the sun rise on a remote mountain lake. The novel opens with this anonymous quotation:

A pious man explained to his followers: "It is evil to take lives and noble to save them. Each day I pledge to save a hundred lives. I drop my net in the lake and scoop out a hundred fishes. I place the fishes on the bank, where they flop and twirl. 'Don't be scared,' I tell those fishes. 'I am saving you from drowning.' Soon enough, the fishes grow calm and lie still. Yet, sad to say, I am always too late. The fishes expire. And because it is evil to waste anything, I take those dead fishes to market and I sell them for a good price. With the money I receive, I buy more nets so I can save more fishes.

Later on in the book, the allegory comes up again when one of the novel's characters spots fish for sale in a Burmese marketplace:

On their way out, they passed a pile of shiny carp, the mouths of the fish still moving. "I thought this was a Buddhist country," Heidi said. "I thought they didn't kill animals." [...]

The tour guide explains that the fishermen "approach their fishing with reverence":

... They scoop up the fish and bring them to shore. They say they are saving fish from drowning. Unfortunately..." He looked downward, like a penitent. "...the fish do not recover."
Heidi was unable to speak. Did these people actually believe they were doing a good deed? Why, they had no intention of saving anything! Look at those fish. They were gasping for oxygen, and the sellers who squatted nearby, smoking their cheroots, hardly possessed the caring demeanor of emergency doctors or hospice workers. "It's horrible," she said at last. "It's worse than if they just killed them outright rather than justifying it as an act of kindness."

"No worse than what we do in other countries," Dwight said.

"What are you talking about?" Moff said.

"Saving people for their own good," he replied. "Invading countries, having them suffer collateral damage, as we call it. Killing them as an unfortunate consequence of helping them. You know, like Vietnam, Bosnia."

"Those aren't the same thing," Bennie said. "And what are you suggesting, that we just stand around and do nothing when ethnic cleansing goes on?"

"Just saying we should be aware of the consequences. You can't have intentions without consequences. The question is, who pays for the consequences? Saving fish from drowning. Same thing. Who's saved? Who's not?"

In Iraq, the intention may be to protect Sunnis from attack by Shiites. But what consequences come from that intention? And who pays for those consequences?

Cross-posted at Shakesville.

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