Missing Persons

America's vision of Iraq misses Iraqis


There is a great deal that is revealing in the American public's rediscovery of Jessica Lynch, months after she was injured during the US invasion of Iraq. The young soldier's slow recovery, embellished by her display of true grit, is only one aspect of a regenerative tale the American media (and Lynch herself) have carefully crafted in recent weeks. More intriguing, however, is that largely absent from the stirring narrative are the Iraqis themselves.

Not that this is new: the peoples America has encountered in its myriad wars have been routinely denied entry into the country's military passion plays. For example, in virtually all of the often stunning Vietnam war films made in the US from the late 1970s onwards—Hal Ashby's Coming Home, Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter, Oliver Stone's Platoon—the Vietnamese characters were invariably silent substructures to essentially American stories—sometimes meriting compassion, but also pervasively alien.

In a Time magazine article this week, as well as in a book written by Rick Bragg that has just been published, the Lynch saga has been all insular psychodrama. Indeed, Bragg, who couldn't get his volume out fast enough under a publisher's deadline, eschewed traveling to Iraq altogether to check out the details of Lynch's capture. Not that it would have mattered, since by then the Iraqis had been airbrushed out of a fable conceived to buttress contending American spins on the Iraq war.

The difficulty Americans have had in integrating Iraqis into their war narratives should reassure those who worry about US imperialism in the Gulf. One aspect of any genuine imperial urge is the desire to summon up what writer Jan Morris has called the "aesthetic of empire," by which she meant "its feel, its look, its human passions, the metaphysics of its power, the sense of it, the intuition…" And while some in Washington cast ravenous eyes on Iraq's oil or aspire to play regional power games from Baghdad, most Americans remain disinterested in the aesthetic of their Iraqi possession, preferring to focus on the microcosm of Jessica Lynch's recovery.

It would be a mistake to condemn this tendency. Too much knowledge of a conquered people is as likely to earn an occupier opprobrium as too little, since it can be regarded as just another instrument of control. However, specifically in the case of Iraq, the dearth of human and cultural ties binding Americans and Iraqis, which the parochialism of the Lynch narrative has underscored, poses a strategic problem: given such a situation, how solid will America's necessary perseverance in Iraq be, particularly if the going there gets even tougher?

Consider that one of the most determined publicists for Iraqi suffering has been US Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. Faced with American self-absorption, he has remained defiantly internationalist. At a recent question and answer session at Georgetown University, Wolfowitz was chastised by a student who told him that his Iraq policies were "deplorable," since they were "responsible for the deaths of innocents." In justifying war, the Pentagon official simply described how the former Baath regime had wiped out the Marsh Arabs, so that there "were half a million… in 1991. The estimates today are somewhere between 40,000-200,000."

What Wolfowitz sought to do was take a specifically Iraqi narrative and give it meaning in an American milieu, arguing that moral considerations had shaped his policies. Yet the fact that a student could sympathize in the abstract with Iraqi victims of Wolfowitz's "deplorable" war, while also ignoring the very real, longstanding and brutal repression wrought by Saddam Hussein and his acolytes against millions of innocents, shows what an uphill struggle the Bush administration has to convince Americans that Iraq has personal meaning for them.

It may be too ambitious to ask that Middle America and Middle Iraq find much common ground, nor do the Iraqis have a choice part in the Holy Scriptures, which have been so useful in tying the American Bible-belt to Israel. But if the Bush administration wants to provide more expansive meaning to its democratic efforts in the Middle East, if indeed it wants to convince a majority of people both in the region and outside that it is sincere about opening up Arab societies, then much more must be done to integrate Iraqi and American narratives.

Can it be done? For half a century successive US administrations managed to convince their countrymen that the Cold War was worth its shocking expense, even though the peoples either engulfed or threatened by communism usually had very little in common with an American public willing to wage wars on their behalf. The same is possible in Iraq, though the effort will not be nearly as demanding. As September 11, 2001 showed, the stakes in promoting a more liberal Arab world, if this curbs the frustrations supposedly engendering violent Islamism, are very high.

Some will dismiss this as a recipe for neo-imperialism. Perhaps, but the critique it acts off of was initially defined by liberal Middle East academics, who saw militant Islam as a byproduct of usually pro-America autocracy and economic underdevelopment. The paradigm has its flaws, but also its merits, and if America is to succeed in Iraq and the Middle East, there is no way it can do so without tying the values it is peddling in the region to those of small town America.