In the new America, images rule. Positive images. That’s because reality is annoying. So in Washington now, the images are of Oz. President Bush, in his invisible bell jar, has just been inaugurated for the second time—$40 million worth of fat-cat parties and banquets and balls. In Baghdad, there are explosions—not celebratory thank-you fireworks, just explosions. And then bodies in the streets.
But in the new America, we’re not supposed to publish pictures of the bodies of the American dead in the streets—only the Iraqis. The president and his image makers say that showing American corpses is disrespectful. He has barred even the taking of photos of American coffins—too upsetting. Reality only gets in the way.
A hurried, American-arranged election is scheduled for January 30 in Iraq to choose the members of a new national assembly. This would be a first electoral step to replace Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, toppled by the American invasion nearly two years ago. Almost half of Iraq’s population—the whole center of the country, including Baghdad—is in the grip of a fierce, well-armed insurgency led by Hussein loyalists, Islamist guerrillas, and others, including an apparently steady supply of suicide bombers. If this situation were transplanted to the United States, population 295 million, it would mean that somewhere between 100 million and 140 million Americans would be under siege.
Some 150,000 American occupation troops are in Iraq trying to quell this insurgency. In less than two years, the U.S. death toll is nearing 1,400.
What if the war in Iraq were happening here—say, in New York State? What would it be like? In reality, the numbers are roughly comparable. The state has 19 million people. Iraq has 25 million. Baghdad’s population is about 6 million. New York City’s is 8 million.
Place such a guerrilla war in New York State, which has about 80,000 state and local police, and apply the military casualty rate. The result would be 800 police killed in the line of duty in the state since the invasion in late March 2003, and 5,530 wounded. If this had taken place, we, like the Iraqis, would be living under martial law, with a night curfew and restricted movement by day, frightened all the time and guarding our children closely—maybe sending them to Canada for the duration. Few Iraqis have the ability to seek asylum anywhere. No reliable count of Iraqi civilian casualties has been kept. But relief workers estimate that it is, at the very minimum, in the low tens of thousands.
Incidentally, the actual police deaths in New York in that time frame were less than 20.
Also worth noting, the anarchy in Iraq reaches far beyond the American losses. In the hope of sabotaging the coming vote, the insurgents in recent weeks have been primarily targeting the Iraq security forces, whom the Americans have been training as their eventual law-and-order replacements. But much of the training so far has been minimal, and the recruits have little or no experience in urban warfare. Hundreds have been mowed down by the insurgents. Other hundreds have run away, abandoning police stations here and there through the anarchy zone. Iraqi and American officials, however, say the new security forces have toughened up lately, and so the plan on election day is to place them in the front, protecting polling places and key routes. The Americans are to be in the rear, on call but out of sight. (One wonders: Has the White House given any thought to an electrifying appearance by President Bush as a morale builder, perhaps on horseback? Never mind.)
As the election approaches, the police blotter from Iraq is crowded with entries. Take January 17, for instance: In Baquba, north of Baghdad, an insurgent band surrounded a military post and slaughtered at least seven Iraqi soldiers with machine gun fire. Near Tikrit, a suicide bomber rammed a police checkpoint, killing seven officers and wounding more than 20 others. The previous day, a suicide bomber had killed seven civilians when he blew himself up at a funeral for Iraqi policemen killed in an earlier attack. This police blotter can’t soak up the blood fast enough.
Every day brings a new headline about fresh terrorist acts. January 4: The governor of Baghdad Province and six of his bodyguards are slain. That’s the equivalent of assassinating New York’s mayor Bloomberg or governor Pataki. The same day, a truck bomb kills 10 and wounds 60 at the Interior Ministry commando headquarters.
Out of fear, most of the candidates who have filed to run for the national assembly will not identify themselves publicly; they simply name the party slate they’re running on. Many have stopped campaigning. One campaign leaflet, for the United Iraqi Alliance, gave the names of 37 of its candidates but withheld 188 others. “Our apologies,” the flyer read, “for not mentioning the names of all the candidates. But the security situation is bad, and we have to keep them alive.”
Even the international observers for this election have taken the unusual step of staying out of Iraq—they’ll be doing their monitoring from Jordan.
In Washington, the White House says progress is being made in Iraq. We are “advancing democracy,” say the president’s aides. Yes, any open, reasonably secure election in a former dictatorship is a positive sign. But this one seems about as secure as a top hat in a tornado. What would we do if this tornado were ripping up New York? We’d simply postpone the election until we could get the situation more under control—just as we did with the New York primary election after the 9-11 attacks.
President Bush, though, says no postponements—that’s a sign of weakness. It’s full speed ahead. Onward, American soldiers. The president’s men say proudly that he’s not “reality-based” because he’s a visionary who is God-based. Yes, but does his vision take in all the bodies?
Research assistance: Deborah S. Esquenazi
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 18, 2005