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New Texts Out Now: Dina Rizk Khoury, Iraq in Wartime: Soldiering, Martyrdom, and Remembrance

[Cover of Dina Rizk Khoury, [Cover of Dina Rizk Khoury, "Iraq in Wartime: Soldiering, Martyrdom, and Remembrance"]

Dina Rizk Khoury, Iraq in Wartime: Soldiering, Martyrdom, and Remembrance. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Dina Rizk Khoury (DRK): The 2003 US invasion of Iraq was the chief impetus for writing this book. I had been about halfway through writing a book on the politics of reform and rebellion in Ottoman Baghdad when the build-up for the 2003 invasion began. Ottoman Baghdad receded very quickly from my focus. I was frustrated as a historian and as an opponent of the war with the way that Iraq was reduced to a set of symbols and catch phrases—Saddam Hussain, the sanctions, WMD, Ba’th oppression, humanitarian crisis, and so on—that wiped out Iraqis as complex and active agents in the making of their own history. I began thinking of ways to talk about Iraq’s recent past outside these catch phrases.

What I found most lacking in much of the discussion on Iraq was any serious engagement with the fact that Iraqis had spent the last twenty-three years of Ba’thist rule living under war conditions, first with the Iran-Iraq war, then with the first Gulf war and embargo. More than 630,000 Iraqis lost their lives in these wars. Almost every Iraqi family was affected, and the Iraqi state spent inordinate amount of its economic, cultural, and political capital managing these wars. Yet there were only a few people talking about the impact of these wars on society, on ideas of belonging, and on the claims that Iraqis make to their rights as citizens. So the book seeks to bring the study of war into our understanding of Iraq’s recent past, in the hope of providing some insight into a society in which violence continues to play a crucial part in the organization of social and political life. 

I had spent six months in Iraq in 1985 doing research for my dissertation, and was struck by the fact that war conditions had become integrated into the business of living. How and why this had happened was something that has puzzled me, in part because of my personal history. My formative years were in Lebanon during the civil war, particularly the early stages of the war. I continued to go back to visit family throughout the eighties and nineties. When the civil war started, we were continuously thinking of it as an aberration, something that would end in the short term. By the 1980s, it was part of our lives. It had become the norm. I had always thought this process of normalization takes a great deal of work on the part of people and governments and that it had to have profound implications for politics and culture. So I set out to write about a similar process in Iraq.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does it address?

DRK: I began thinking through, researching, and writing the book in the midst of Iraq’s disintegration: insurgency, counterinsurgency, sectarian violence, kleptocratic political and business elites, and the erosion of a center that held Iraqis together. Iraq’s history in the last thirty years or so has been marked by a series of crises and ruptures that have continued to upend and reshape state structures and identity politics. It seemed to me that these ruptures had to be studied as a force of change in their own right. So rather than focus on the historical origins of sectarianism in Iraq, or the nature of Ba’thist rule, I wanted to write Iraqi history through its wars. To what extent did these ruptures reshape state rule, identity, and cultural politics and practices of citizenship?

My main inspiration in writing about war came from the growing literature on the way that a state of permanent war, particularly after 9/11, structures politics, law, culture, and citizenship. Hannah Arendt had reminded us of the thin line separating war and peace and the importance of understanding violence as part of governance as early as 1967. My interest was to study war as a form of bureaucratic governance, drawing on Ba’th party documents and oral interviews I conducted. The central question was to explain how what Partha Chatterjee calls the “multiple techniques of administration” of a welfare/corporatist Ba’thist state were changed when Iraq became a national security and counterinsurgency state. I thought the best way to do this would be to focus on soldiers and their families, because they become the chief targets of state policies. From then on, I began to look at how state institutions and the members of the Ba’th party tried to shape the war story and to develop and maintain social policy governing soldiers and martyrs’ families, and how the state created categories of inclusion and exclusion based on soldiering and martyrdom. In effect, the study spells out the process of the militarization of society.                     

I also draw on a vast literature on war, gender, and memory, particularly in the second part of the book. I examine the creation and dissemination of what George Mosse had called, in the context of Europe, the “myth of the war experience” and the development of cultures of commemoration. In the Iraqi case, the state invested great amounts in the cultural apparatus to create a myth around soldiering, martyrdom, and the war experience in the 1980s, a myth that fell apart in the 1990s for several reasons. What became important for me was to trace the extent to which this myth worked or failed, and its long-term impact on the cultural politics of Iraq and the formation of Iraqi identity politics. I draw mostly in this section on an analysis of Iraqi literature of war, on some aspects of visual culture, particularly photojournalism and government documents, and on interviews with soldiers who fought in the Iran-Iraq and first Gulf wars.

J: How does this work connect to and/or depart from your previous research and writing?

DRK: This book is a major departure from my earlier work. Although most of my teaching at George Washington University is in the history of the modern Middle East, my writing and research until about seven years ago focused on the early modern Ottoman Empire, in particular its Iraqi provinces. There is one aspect of this book that builds on my previous work, and that is the role of war making in the formation of states and the political and social relations in frontier societies. There is quite a bit of literature on this for the early modern period, spurred by the work of historical sociologist Charles Tilly. For the modern period, we are only now beginning to see some work done on the relation between militarism and state capacity. I think Steve Heydemann’s book War, Institutions, and Social Change in the Middle East, published in 2000, was among first to ask that we consider war making and its impact on state capacity. Baruch Kimmerling, among others, has examined this question in the case of the Israel, but no attempt had been made to address this issue in a systematic and comparative manner. Anthropologists and cultural studies scholars have been better at studying violence and militarism than political scientists and historians have. So I found myself having to do a great deal of reading in the sort of questions that inform the historiography of violence, state building, citizenship, and memory. It was an eclectic education for me, and quite eye opening.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

DRK: The book is written to appeal to wide range of readers, from college students, to those interested in issues of war and society, to members of the educated public who have spent the last ten years or so hearing and reading about this ungovernable and violent place called Iraq, and to policy makers and analysts who have been writing about or have been involved in the politics of the invasion and occupation. Ultimately, the book tells the stories of Iraqis living during the last twenty-three years of Ba‘thist rule through the conscripted men and their families. If it does nothing else, I would like the book to make Iraq less opaque, to put a human face on the people who made war, who suffered it and created its culture. Ideally, it would help to make discussions about Iraq less mired in the discourse on tribalism, Ba’thism, and sectarianism, a discourse that makes for a continuous argument that everything about Iraq is somehow exceptional.

Perhaps most importantly for me, I would like the book to be translated into Arabic, and would be interested in the reaction of Iraqis to my reading of their own lived history, one that continues to shape them. The Iran-Iraq war, the first Gulf war, and the Intifada are part of the Iraqi present, and my writing about it was an attempt to understand the legacies of these wars on the politics of identity and citizenship. 

J: What other projects are you working on now?

DRK: I have two articles in mind that are spinoffs of the book. The first has to do with the use of family as a disciplinary tool in Ba’thist Iraq. There is a section in the book on this, but I would like to look at it comparatively, drawing on work that has been done on the Soviet Union, colonial India, and Palestine/Israel. For the second article, I would like to attempt an analysis of the kind of knowledge created by colonial and post-colonial states about “insurgent” populations. I was struck while reading the Ba’th archives by how “colonial” the Ba‘thist state was, in terms of the kind of knowledge it tried to create about different sectors of the population that it viewed as insurgent. So I am interested in exploring that further.

In the long run, however, I would like to go back to writing on Ottoman history, maybe exploring further the politics of contention of urban populations in the Middle East during the early nineteenth century.

J: How can your book inform American perspectives on continuing violence in Iraq nearly ten years after the US invasion?

DRK: Perhaps the most important aspect of the book is to remind interested American citizens that the US war against Iraq started in 1991, not 2003. The Iraqi regime bore a substantial responsibility for the militarization of Iraqi society during the Iran-Iraq and Gulf wars. Its policies were divisive, corrupt, and corrosive to the social fabric of the country. But much of the post-2003 realities were a result of the First Gulf war and the embargo. The dismantling of state structures, the sectarian politics of the post-2003 invasion, and the disintegration of social/national cohesion were as much the result of Iraqi regime policies as they were the result of US policies after 1991.

After the invasion, US policy makers installed an Iraqi political elite heavily implicated in the conduct of the Iran-Iraq war, with clear agendas as to whom they planned to exclude from the new political order. They lacked a clear commitment to establishing a pluralistic Iraq. The clearest indication of this is the policy of de-Ba’thification through which they continue to maintain an ethno-sectarian state, a policy sanctioned by the occupation in its first months. In addition, the violence of the occupation itself, the use of private contractors, and the counterinsurgency campaign helped in strengthening a way of doing politics in which violence is the ultimate arbiter. So that rather than tame the militarization that Iraqi society had experienced under the Ba’th, both the occupation and the current elite have helped entrench it further. Ultimately, the Ba’th regime and the US bear equal responsibility for the continued violence that plagues Iraq.

Excerpts from Iraq in Wartime: Soldiering, Martyrdom, and Remembrance

From Managing Territories of War and Insurgency

The leadership of the armed forces divided the war front into the northern, middle, and southern sectors. For much of the war, the southern and northern sectors saw the largest deployment of men and military ordnance and experience the heaviest fighting. Of the seven army corps divided among these sectors, the First and Fifth were deployed in the north, while the Third, Fourth, Sixth, and Seventh Army Corps were stationed in the south. Mobile units of Special Forces as well as divisions of the Republican Guard supported the army corps divisions, the vast majority of them infantry. After 1982, when Iraq had to preserve its defensive positions in the face of the Iranian push into Iraqi territory, the regime developed a series of techniques to alter the physical and human landscape of Iraqi Kurdistan and southeastern Iraq. Its aim was to push back as well as to defend these territories threatened by Iran, to eliminate any topographic and human barriers that allowed for the control of territory by Iranian-supported insurgent Kurds and Shi’i Islamist parties, and to deal in an effective way with the problem of deserters by depriving them of a refuge.

To a large degree, the logic informing the policies used by the military and the Ba’th Party drew on the counterinsurgency techniques used in the 1970s against Kurdish guerillas. The Kurds were familiar with these techniques: the designation of areas of guerilla activities as paces to be “cleansed,” the destruction of villages, the forcible movement of populations and their resettlement. The 1980s marked a qualitative and quantitative shift in the techniques used by the regime. For the first time, the southeastern territories of Iraq were militarized and remapped according to security exigencies created by the war. At the same time, the Ba’th Party headquarters in the northern and southern region became the clearinghouse for the actions of the military and security forces. Finally, the logic of counterinsurgency gave cover to what became a policy of ethnic cleansing of the Kurdish population that included the use of chemical weapons.

On 19 April 1983, the Ba’th Party offices in the city of Amara in Maysan province hosted a special meeting to address the growing problem of deserters and absentee soldiers within the armed forces who had taken refuge in the southern frontier marshes (al-Ahwar) that extended from the province of Wasit to that of Basra. Ali Hasan al-Majid, then deputy general secretary of the Ba’th Party, the leaders of the Third and Fourth Army Corps, the director of general security services, and the representative of the military intelligence service of the south attended the meeting.

Al-Majid asked the secretary of the party’s Southern Bureau to coordinate plans for a military operation with the other agencies whose representatives attended the meeting. The secretary obliged and “Operation Peace” was launched. The headquarters of the military operation in Maysan included high-ranking officers from the Third and Fourth Army Corps, representatives from the Popular Army and the police. On 3 May, more than sixteen thousand soldiers drawn from the two army corps, the Popular Army, and security services undertook a military operation supported by the use of helicopter gunships. The operation lasted three days and yielded 538 arrests and 189 deaths, as well as a trove of light weapons, animals, and boats. A public execution of deserters in Maysan crowned the operation and was attended by the heads of other regional party bureaus, the leader of the Fourth Army Corps, a number of officers and soldiers from the Popular Army, and notables from the southern area. Al-Majid, who had ordered the execution ceremony, provided the guidelines of the speech that the secretary of the Maysan branch delivered before the “traitors” and the attendees.

The operation marked a turning point in the way the regime conducted the war on the southern front at several levels. It was the first coordinated effort by the various agencies and party bureaus to deal militarily with the problem of desertion. It followed a general amnesty for deserters that proved effective in inducing many to surrender. Between the end of the operation and 27 June, more than fifteen thousand soldiers surrendered or were arrested by party cadres. Furthermore, the Southern Bureau of the party, rather than the military, was designated the coordinator of the operation in the marsh areas. Because the regime viewed desertion as an act of potential political insurgency, it assigned the party to manage its suppression. It would deal with the insurgent north in a similar fashion.


From On Soldiering and the War Experience

Mazin al-Hadithi was one of less than a handful of soldiers I interviewed who was willing to talk about his initial experience of killing an Iranian soldier. His narrative framed this first act of killing as a turning point in a process of brutalization of his sensibility as a man, a process he resisted by bribing his superiors for longer furloughs and failing to return on time, a choice that often landed him in prison. He spent the first six months of his time in the trench in complete terror, trying to avoid firing direct shots into enemy lines. In was only after an attack by Iranian forces and his unit’s subsequent chaotic withdrawal that he threw a hand grenade toward an Iranian soldier who was pursuing him and his commanding officer. In his words:

I hit him with hand grenade, as if you are hitting with a stone or something…it exploded….When we returned (after the battle) to look for who was martyred and who was injured…. I went to the Iranian that I had hit with the hand grenade….He was dead, he had a light red beard….I mean he looked like a Dutchman…he had a pocket that had a zipper….I opened the zipper like that…there were identity cards or something in his pocket…I opened his wallet, it had a photograph of a woman with two children. The woman did not mean anything tome but his children, they also had red hair like his beard. The world exploded for me and I started crying as I held onto the photograph…my commanding officer came and I told him, “Look. The poor guy has a family.” He said, “Why? Don’t you have a family? Don’t we also have families? Those people who were killed did not have families?” I threw the wallet back at him (the Iranian soldier) and we left…This “Battle of the Great Day” (the official title of the battle) was a cursed day for me because I had killed and I had not done so before now.

By the time had been transferred to the Faw front, Mazin had become a hardened soldier. To paraphrase his colorful language, he had lost his initial terror through the camaraderie he developed with other soldiers over the stench of death, rockets, and the detritus of other men. He, like other soldiers, told of the absolute quiet and terror that gripped him and his comrades before they undertook an attack, and, in Mazin’s case, the need to sing dirty limericks and songs to help prepare for the confrontation to come. It was as assertion of aggressive masculinity and of camaraderie belied by Mazin’s description of the most scarring battle he fought in the salty waters of the Mamlaha region of Faw. He came closest to dying in Faw, and he found that he had to cross the line that had hitherto set the limits of his endurance; one did not abandon comrades, one helped pick up the dead, and one rescued the injured. These formed his understanding of his duties as a man and his continued survival. His experience in Faw upended this understanding and distilled for him, at least in the way he told me his story, the essence of his war experience.

I swear by God, the attack in Mamlaha….the shouting, the screaming of wounded, the screaming of people, I thought it would reach Kuwait….So strong was the screaming on the front….and the injured, he who had lost his hand and the other who had his abdomen open, what are they supposed to do….On that day….I have told this story to my friend….I had seen death but had never seen the dismemberment of legs, feet, heads….I mean I lost my control…I spit on God….I started talking on God…If God is present why does he accept this…This happened in Mamlaha…I had partaken in Majnoon and Nahr Jasim (earlier deadly battles in difficult terrain)....This only happened in Mamlaha.

At the battle’s end, Mazin had to escape an area covered by an Iranian sniper. While he managed to find his way to the rear lines, he refused en route to help an injured soldier because he could not carry him, and he had to persuade his own army’s execution squad that he was not fleeing his front line unit. He was prepared to shoot at them if they were not convinced. Meeting after he had barely survived a battle in which he had lost his commanding officer and numerous comrades, they represented the enemy within. As he put it, they always had “clean boots.” They did not conform to the code of honor and manhood that supposedly governed soldiering in defense of the nation.

[Excerpted from Iraq in Wartime: Soldiering, Martyrdom, and Remembrance, by Dina Rizk Khoury, by permission of the author. © 2013 by Dina Rizk Khoury. For more information, or to order a copy, click here.]

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