Occupation Dreamland: Iraq and immigration


Watching Occupation Dreamland, a 2005 documentary about the war in Iraq, it occurred to me that the effects of the citizen/noncitizen dynamic we've seen in the U.S. with inhumane and unjust treatment of immigrants in places like Don Hutto, New Bedford, and Oklahoma--presumption of guilt, inhumane treatment of noncitizens, fear and demonization of outsiders, and racism--are exponentially more devastating in Iraq in a war setting. 

Iraqis have been arrested and locked up without charge or trial.  They have been beaten, tortured, raped, and killed by their ostensible protectors--U.S. soldiers and contractors--very few of whom have faced serious consequences for their actions.

What few procedural guarantees exist for noncitizens in the U.S. are almost entirely lacking in Iraq. 

The most aggravating thing about this is: it's not even our country, it's theirs.  We've taken the messed up citizen/noncitizen, rights-for-me-and-not-for-thee conceptual framework of our immigration laws and applied it in another country's sovereign space. 

This we can do principally because of these:


[Image: Wikipedia]

In one scene in the movie the soldiers go at night into a house where suspected insurgents live.  The men are all away--only women and children are in the house.  As the soldiers threaten the women through a translator, they and their children sit in the dark with their eyes lit up in the infrared camera like possums on the side of the road. 

This is not a way to defuse hatred and engender goodwill. 

Trust between the soldiers and the people they are leading to a democratic future, the "hajis" of Fallujah, has largely evaporated by 2004 when this movie was filmed (before the sustained U.S. assault on Fallujah).  One soldier feels bitter at the betrayal and ingratitude he feels from the locals:

I just don't really care about these people.  You know, they don't care about us, they don't care about us helping them, so I don't care about helping them.

Another soldier remarks:

I kind of enjoy getting shot at.  Keeps up the energy, you know.  Makes it interesting out there, instead of just walking around all day and finding nothing.  

Arguably, this is as good a reason as any why we invaded Iraq.  Our multi-trillion dollar war industry employs millions and can't just sit unused, gathering dust on the shelf.  The soldier continues: 

I go outside the wire, all I really wanna do is I wanna light everyone out there up.

Established stateside procedures for calculating guilt and innocence seem cumbersome and inapt to soldiers on the street.  Biases from home creep into perceptions about Iraqis. 

If I'm a patrol officer and I'm riding through a neighborhood that's infested with drugs, I know everybody's guilty, but I can't just go and arrest everybody.  Out here, I gotta wait to get shot at.

When this soldier comes home, I hope he doesn't take a job as a patrol officer in my neighborhood. 

In one daytime scene outside a mechanic's shop in Fallujah, Iraqis saw the cameras and took the opportunity to air their grievances.  They were anxious to tell their side of the story.  One said:

We don't accept colonialism.  Our ancestors taught us.  Excuse me, you tell him.  Bear with me.  This is something that is pent up inside our hearts.  He has to know it, record it and transmit it.  

America can go to the moon. And can make nuclear rockets.  And can make weapons.  But it can't make people.  It can't make the people.  We make the people.

In other words, no amount of money, weapons, or well-trained soldiers can convince local people to support an occupation imposed by outsiders so clearly acting in their own interests, not those of Iraqis. 

It may not be evident from this post thus far, but watching the movie made me somewhat more sympathetic to the U.S. soldiers stuck in Iraq.  A few of the men had second thoughts about what they were doing.

Sometimes I'm thinking, man, what if this were . . . people were searching my home, you know if this was home in Chicago, and somebody was, you know, they were Iraqi soldiers coming up and shoving in my door, I'd be coming up there with a couple of guns myself, you know. 

Sometimes, decisions about who to detain were made on the spot by soldiers on the ground.  Decisions of guilt or innocence were made on the street.  Once arrested and detained, it is anyone's guess when or whether a detainee will get a fair hearing.

In one scene, the soldiers from the platoon are on another nighttime raid of a suspected insurgent's house.  They have a conversation for a few minutes about why Iraqis have so many blankets in their house.  A number of hypotheses are mooted: the Iraqis have a lot of guests, they just use the blankets until they get old and smelly then throw them out, their houses aren't heated very well and it gets cold.  One soldier opens the fridge and complains there is no beer in it.  The soldiers walk from room to room with little concern of attack--they have secured the area--they know they are safe there, so they can relax a little.  For that moment at least, it is their house.  Then at the end of the scene, the camera cuts over to a young woman standing in a hallway, looking back at the camera.  She is terrified and seems to be hoping not to be seen, not to be noticed.  The soldiers don't acknowledge her presence in the slightest.  They don't seem to realize that they are in somebody else's house in the middle of the night, in somebody else's country uninvited. 

One soldier made a good point:

Out here we react a certain way because our lives are in danger. 

In war, the "us vs. them" mentality is essential--no war could be successfully prosecuted without it.  I'm reminded of the famous Stanford prison experiment, one of those conducted back before informed consent was required for psychology experiments.  Wikipedia lists some of the conclusions from the experiment:

The experiment's result has been argued to demonstrate the impressionability and obedience of people when provided with a legitimizing ideology and social and institutional support. It is also used to illustrate cognitive dissonance theory and the power of authority.

In psychology, the results of the experiment are said to support situational attributions of behavior rather than dispositional attribution. In other words, it seemed the situation caused the participants' behavior, rather than anything inherent in their individual personalities. In this way, it is compatible with the results of the also-famous Milgram experiment, in which ordinary people fulfilled orders to administer what appeared to be damaging electric shocks to a confederate of the experimenter.

In a climate of fear and distrust of outsiders perpetuated in the national political discourse since 9/11, the American public has cast itself as the prison guards in the Stanford experiment, the border patrol protecting the citizenry, the foot soldiers patrolling the streets of Baghdad and Fallujah.  With draconian drug laws and mandatory minimum sentencing, a penchant for retributive justice, and a surge in incarceration and deportation of noncriminals, we have applied the prison mentality to our own country.  We should be watchful of the possibility of reaching a Children of Men-style dystopia where every noncitizen is an enemy and even many "disloyal" citizens cannot be trusted.  One must kill or be killed.  The path we are on is not one that terminates in a society ruled by law and constrained by meaningful justice, it is one that leads to a Hobbesian nightmare.  God help us if people of compassion and good sense don't say, before we get to that point, "This is enough, this is not what we want to be doing.  We have to try some other way." 

Meanwhile, tonight on TV the Oscars are on.  You don't see much about Iraq in the press these days, but we are still there, killing and being killed.  We will likely be there for a long time yet. 

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This page contains a single entry by David Bennion published on February 25, 2008 12:29 AM.

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First Migrants, Then Us: Pro-Migrant Round-Up is the next entry in this blog.

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