By Michael Youhana
When, at the end of May, President Donald Trump threatened to gun down looters in the streets of Minneapolis, some heard echoes of Paul Bremer. The top civilian administrator presiding over the occupation of Iraq from May 2003 to June 2004, Bremer is usually remembered for his decisions to disband the country’s military and fire countless state employees under the imperatives of de-Baathification. Because the viceroy’s reckless policies kicked off an insurgency, it’s often forgotten that the Bush administration dispatched him to restore law and order to the Middle East. Upon arriving he sought to build a muscular Iraqi police force in collaboration with former New York Police Department Commissioner Bernie Kerik. Bremer also tried to change the military’s rules of engagement to allow American soldiers to fire on looters drifting through Baghdad’s debris-peppered streets.
Read against current events, anecdotes of Bremer’s first days in Iraq bring to mind Stuart Schrader’s observation that “the history of US empire is the history of policing experts teaching indigenous cops how to patrol and investigate like Americans… But the flow is not one-way: these institutions also return home transformed.” The crises of the past few years reveal that this dialectic extends beyond law enforcement to encompass the entire metropole. The Pentagon’s growing transfers of military surplus left over from the Iraq War to police departments correlate with a coarsening of the United States’s political culture. And it is with an eye towards this broader embrace of brutality and impunity that Brendan James argues that the Iraq War is “a skeleton key for where we are now.”
James and Noah Kulwin are the creators and co-hosts of a new podcast on the war and the pathologies that emerged in its wake, aptly titled Blowback. Over the course of ten episodes, the two sketch out what they describe as a “counter history” of America’s forays into Iraq. Listeners working their way through the series will hear clips from CNN and MSNBC broadcasts, and anecdotes drawn from the reportage of mainstream journalists, like George Packer and Bob Woodward. What emerges from the synthesis constructed by the hosts is a criticism of these conventional secondary sources. James and Kulwin paint a portrait of a deluded and venal elite convinced that the exercise of American power today will solve the problems created by the exercise of American power in the past.
The hosts include liberals among that elite, taking aim at Democratic politicians who voted to authorize the use of military force against Iraq, as well as celebrities and media figures who supported the invasion. Kulwin, whose essays on foreign policy and technology appear in the gaggle of young or revivified publications associated with the Bernie Sanders left, is a contributing editor to Jewish Currents. James also writes for publications like The Baffler and Jacobin, but he is, perhaps, most well known for his past role as the producer of the sardonic podcast Chapo Trap House.
It is no surprise then that the comical tone of the aforementioned program finds its way into Blowback—an episode describing insurgents in occupied Iraq is titled “The #Resistance” and the historical narrative is occasionally interrupted by the voice of Saddam Hussein, played by comedic actor H. Jon Benjamin, renowned for his roles in Archer and Bob’s Burgers. But in spite of these occasional fits of humor, Blowback is not frivolous. The writing, facilitated by James’s deft scoring, shifts registers where appropriate. For example, the trauma and tragedy of the civil war unleashed by the invasion of Iraq is imparted to listeners by an account of a father searching for his missing son among the corpses in Baghdad’s overflowing morgues. The podcast’s levity comes at the expense of the unaccountable political and military figures that either negligently enabled or perpetrated atrocities in Iraq. Faced with epochal crimes for which there may be no redress, laughter becomes “a kind of sovereignty, a triumph over one’s own powerlessness.”
The substance of Kulwin and James’s critique of conventional histories of the war in Iraq is also serious. To begin with there is the matter of chronology. Typically the start of the war is dated to George W. Bush’s invasion in March 2003. Barack Obama’s troop withdrawal in December 2011 marks its conclusion. In Blowback, the start and end dates are hazier. They fold into a broader history of Anglo-American marauding in Mesopotamia from the 1920’s to the present. Special attention is paid to the inconclusive first Gulf War and the unprecedentedly severe sanctions regime of the 1990’s, both of which hollowed out Iraq’s economy and political institutions long before Bremer began issuing his ruinous decrees.
Accounts of the war with wider historical lenses often bring into focus the sectarian polarization that marred Iraq in the aftermath of the invasion. But James and Kulwin do not dwell on the topic of sectarianism. Instead, they pay an unusual amount of attention to another social cleavage that runs through both Iraq and the United States today: class. This shift in emphasis has its downsides. Blowback fails to convey the malleability of sectarian identity, and record the myriad of ways in which American interventions in Iraq reified and exacerbated communal tensions along this axis. The widespread view, echoed by even Barack Obama, that contemporary sectarian conflicts “date back millennia,” absolves American policymakers of responsibility for destructive decisions, like creating a quota system on the Iraqi Governing Council.
On the other hand, the authentically socialist portrayal of Iraq as a flashpoint in a global class war casts the beneficiaries and victims of empire in a fresh light. In the first episode, the hosts explain that the British Empire’s exploitation of Iraq’s oil resources weakened restive coal miners’ unions back in the UK. In the final episode, listeners learn of Iraq’s extensive poverty – around 20% of the residents of the oil-rich country lived off of $2.20 a day for many years after the invasion – and of the vast fortunes of the architects of the war — Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, and Dick Cheney are all multimillionaires. The inchoate suggestion borne by these snippets is that somehow global inequality and perpetual interventions in the politics of the Middle East are bound together.
Another of Blowback’s virtues is its use of didactic character studies of war supporters, like Ahmed Chalabi, and Bush administration officials, like Douglas Feith, to convey criticism of conventional narratives of the war. Perhaps the most interesting of these portraits is of Donald Rumsfeld, who Kulwin and James redefine as a zealous and ultimately effective proponent of neoliberalism from his time as Chief of Staff in the Ford administration to his tenure as Secretary of Defense in the Bush Administration. Upon resigning in disgrace at the height of Iraq’s civil war in 2006, Rumsfeld was roundly criticized for his cost-cutting, small-footprint approach to warfare marked by an overreliance on military contractors and advanced technology. But something akin to Rumsfeld’s military doctrine has since become hegemonic. Despite Rumsfeld’s ouster, the US continued its drift toward high-tech drone warfare, special operations forces raids, and overwhelming air power as its primary modes of war. The fleeting gains of Bush’s vaunted 2007 troop surge, which signaled to some a move away from Rumsfeld’s approach, evaporated under ISIS’s blitzkrieg on Mosul in 2014.
The podcast’s most important lesson is that the war was not a fait accompli. The damage wrought was foreseeable. Against Secretary of State Powell, who persuaded liberal opinion makers to support the invasion in spite of his own personal reservations, there was Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, who resigned from Tony Blair’s government over the decision to go to war. Jingoistic reporting and editorializing in the pages of the New York Times and the New Yorker did not erase massive anti-war marches in the streets of New York and other capitals around the world. And in opposition to those legislators, like Joe Biden, who bought into the Bush administration’s case for war, there were 156 dissenters in the halls of Congress who voted “nay” on the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq.
In Teju Cole’s novel Open City the main character, Julius, reads aloud from a newspaper to an elderly mentor, Professor Saito. The year is 2007, the Iraq War has reached a new nadir, and Julius, reading from a Manhattan apartment, cannot contain his dismay. Professor Saito responds to his uneasy student:
I felt that way about a different war… You go through that experience only once, the experience of how futile war can be… There are towns whose names evoke a real horror in you because you have learned to link those names with atrocities, but, for the generation that follows yours, those names will mean nothing; forgetting doesn’t take long. Fallujah will be as meaningless to them as Daejeon is to you.
If only. American troops remain stationed in Iraq. Those most responsible for the atrocities of the war continue to play an outsized role on our national stage. Until they exit, no generation will follow that of the Iraq War. And until a new kind of leadership takes the reins of American foreign policy no generation will follow that of the Korean War. Fallujah and Daejon will resurface as new Fallujah’s and Daejon’s are perpetrated.
It is easy to sympathize with the contributor who, in an episode of Blowback, remarks: “I wish I could get this shit out of my brain and stop knowing or caring about these people, but they’re all still here… they’re all still planning the next war.”
Michael Youhana works for a nonprofit and occasionally writes about foreign policy. Views on Fellow Travelers are his own.