By David Swanson
Tom Engelhardt’s website TomDispatch.com is a wonderful source of news and analysis (and would be if I’d never written for it!), but there’s something to be said for books. Nobody has yet invented a blog that the reader can underline, circle, scribble in the margins of, turn down the corner of the page on, or give to someone as a present wrapped in colored paper. And there’s a lot more than that to be said for “The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire.” This is the collection to take with you to the beach, as long as you’re open to being motivated to abandon the beach and urgently and angrily take up the full-time, full-contact sport of democratic citizenship.
This book could have left out Tom’s brilliant introductory essays, the whole stunning section on the “Imperial Planet,” and three-quarters of the rest of the book, and still have been worth a large stack of Euros or some other valuable currency for a single section alone, the one called “Invisible Victims of the ‘War on Terror'”. Here we learn from Chalmers Johnson, Judith Coburn, Ruth Rosen, Ann Jones, Karen Greenberg, and Dahr Jamail about the human consequences of our actions. These are the stories few Americans could read without changing their view of the world. These are not political ideology, and not your usual news reporting. These are the sorts of stories Americans would devour if their news outlets were to combine the human interest they have in the details of the lives of the rich and famous (including the top employees of the narcissistic news outlets themselves ) with participants in the big political stories of the day.
Nobody tells the story of the looting of Baghdad in 2003 better than Chalmers Johnson, looting that an expert told him had not been matched since 1258 when the Mongols invaded. Prior to the invasion, wealthy American collectors with connections to the White House pressured the Pentagon (our new law-making body — at least for laws outside the “Homeland”) to loosen legislation preventing the sale abroad of Iraqi artifacts. The birthplace of civilization was subsequently stripped clean. What was too large to steal was simply vandalized. At the 6,000-year-old city of Ur, the massive ziggurat, built 2,000 years before George W. Bush’s favorite philosopher lived, and restored by Nebuchadnezzar a mere 600 years before that time, U.S. Marines spray-painted their motto “Semper Fi,” on the walls. “Semper Fi” is, of course, Latin for “What Americans immediately forget, their victims will remember forever.”
Judith Coburn’s effort in 2005 to begin counting the Iraqi dead is dated and yet still provides a guide to approaching the story today and weighing the claims of various sources. One may even come away wondering whether the most “objective” source of body counts is the institution responsible for the occupation, that same five-sided institution that claims it doesn’t count non-American bodies at all. We have more recent studies, yet the gap in awareness and response remains exactly as Coburn describes it.
Ruth Rosen takes us on a tour of sexism and sexual violence in Iraq, through accounts that include American soldiers raping an Iraqi girl and then killing her to hide the evidence. Rape is not just a well-suited metaphor for what we have done to a nation, it is what we have imposed on that nation’s women, both directly (inside and outside prisons) and by destroying any semblance of secular law and order. And we are reminded of all the hints at crimes we’ve been given for which the evidence still remains hidden in the Pentagon, including photos and videos of female prisoners in Abu Ghraib being raped by U.S. guards. Read this account, and then ask yourself whether women’s rights would be better aided by electing a female U.S. president who approves and funds these atrocities or by taking every possible step to end them. Perhaps even Democratic nominee Barack Obama has exhibited a level of tone deafness when he has endlessly recited his delaying mantra that Americans must be as careful getting out as they were careless getting in.
Women are no better off under the “good war” of occupied Afghanistan. Ann Jones’ account of lost safety and freedom is heartbreaking.
Karen Greenberg manages a lighter note by reporting on a visit to Guantanamo exactly as the U.S. military asked her to report. Military reporting is to reporting as military justice is to music, or something like that.
And Dahr Jamail takes us into individual stories of Iraqis made homeless by the invasion and occupation, refugees now living outside Iraq. By the time of his writing, over a year ago, at least one in every seven Iraqis had been forced to flee their home. Read these stories of once prosperous and still proud people turned into refugees. Picture them. consider what you would say to them if you had a chance to meet face-to-face.