So the White House has a new report on Iraq. Well, the Nation magazine does, too: a document based on unprecedented interviews with Iraq veterans.

For instance, one Sergeant John Bruhns outlines standard procedure for raiding Iraqi houses.

“You go up the stairs,” he explains. “You grab the man of the house. You rip him out of bed in front of his wife. You put him up against the wall. You have junior-level troops, PFCs [privates first class], specialists will run into the other rooms and grab the family, and you’ll group them all together. Then you go into a room and you tear the room to shreds and you make sure there’s no weapons or anything that they can use to attack us.”

The soldiers then ask the terrified family whether they possess weapons or anti-American propaganda.

“Normally they’ll say no,” Bruhms continues, “because that’s normally the truth. So what you’ll do is you’ll take his sofa cushions and you’ll dump them. If he has a couch, you’ll turn the couch upside down. You’ll go into the fridge, if he has a fridge, and you’ll throw everything on the floor, and you’ll take his drawers and you’ll dump them…. You’ll open up his closet and you’ll throw all the clothes on the floor and basically leave his house looking like a hurricane just hit it. And if you find something, then you’ll detain him. If not, you’ll say, ‘Sorry to disturb you. Have a nice evening.”

Of course, when heavily armed soldiers crash through doors into darkened houses, it’s all too likely that people will die.

“You physically could not do an investigation every time a civilian was wounded or killed,” explains Marine Reserve Lieut. Jonathan Morgenstein, “because it just happens a lot and you’d spend all your time doing that.”

But the troops have a simple solution: they plant a weapon.

As Joe Hatcher, a veteran of the Army’s Fourth Cavalry Regiment, says: “Every good cop carries a throwaway. If you kill someone and they’re unarmed, you just drop one on ‘em.”

The Nation notes that these anecdotes would be instantly recognisable to an American soldier serving in Vietnam, an Israeli in the Occupied Territories or a Frenchman in Algeria.

Let’s think about the last example. These days, the occupation of Algeria stands as a byword for brutality, with French soldiers regularly applying electrodes (“la machine qui fait parler”) to the g-nitals of captured insurgents. At the time, though, the French justified their actions by appealing to Enlightenment values threatened by “Islamic barbarism”.

“The war we are waging,” wrote French Resident Minister Robert Lacoste, “…is that of the Western world, of civilization, against anarchy, democracy against dictatorship.”

In that sense, the debate sparked by Brendan Nelson about whether the US invaded Iraq to secure oil supplies or help the Iraqis is fundamentally misplaced. In colonial ventures, two aims always go together. It’s precisely because “backward” nations need the help of the West that they can’t be trusted with resources like oil.

In the Nation’s report, Spc. Jeff Englehart makes the point well:

The soldiers honestly thought we were trying to help the people, and they were mad because it was almost like a betrayal. Like here we are trying to help you, here I am, you know, thousands of miles away from home and my family, and I have to be here for a year and work every day on these missions. Well, we’re trying to help you and you just turn around and try to kill us.

And what was the result?

I guess while I was there, the general attitude was, A dead Iraqi is just another dead Iraqi.

Bush says the war can still be won. What does that mean?

In 2003, the French film The Battle of Algiers enjoyed something of a revival after newspapers reported that the Pentagon was screening it to distil lessons for Iraq.

In that movie, the commander of the French paratroopers suppressing the Algerian resistance stares down journalists worried about his tough tactics. He asks them directly: do they want France to remain in Algeria?

Then he continues. “If your answer is “Yes”, you must accept the consequences.”

The same logic applies in Iraq. So long as the occupation remains, the kinds of brutalities documented by the Nation will continue.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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