10 Years Later: An American Muslim Looks Back at Iraq

I didn’t want to write on the occasion of the Iraq War’s tenth anniversary. So much has been written, and so much of it dully offensive, structurally racist, or profoundly heartless, that I thought it better to skip the subject altogether. What, really, could I say to capture how we should feel? But the woman who commands my building’s front desk in the late night hours is Iraqi.

I found this out when, a few days ago, she helped me with the freight elevator. Some folks were buying furniture from me, and while we waited, we started talking. Five years ago, if I remember right, she came to this country. I could not imagine what it would feel like for an Iraqi to find refuge in America, and I wasn’t about to unleash those feelings with a silly, ill-timed question.

The introvert finds refuge in his words. But the emotions he cannot speak he sends out to far more people than would hear him otherwise. Domino effects. When I got back to my building yesterday after spending the evening at a bookstore, writing, trying to forget the war’s exact tenth anniversary, there she was as she should be, on her shift. A casual salam, an inquiry after her day, and she passed on the package waiting for me. David Rohde’s Beyond War. David Rohde, who’d reported on the massacre of Muslims at Srebrenica, advising America to think beyond war when it came to the Middle East.

This suggests there is a purpose to the universe. Things come full circle. Or they cascade, like dreams inside dreams, except instead of Leonardo DiCaprio you have various tyrants, and there are only escalating nightmares. Because of Iraq, Syria looks like Iraq. It’s called the ‘Islamic State of Iraq,’ or Jabhat an-Nusra.

The two most brutal secular dictators of the region are linked by a party that made them enemies, the vicious Arab Ba’ath Party. You can’t just forget years of oppression. Had I been important, I would have told this to someone. As it was, I was stuck at Ruby Tuesday, a restaurant chain, on March 15, 2003. Me and two friends from high school catching up.

Of course the war came up. I must have become very angry in the course of our conversation, because all I remember were some vociferous statements, me speaking them loudly enough, I hoped, that the Bush administration would hear. The looming war was a ‘mistake,’ ‘bullshit,’ and so on, and half the restaurant was looking over at me suspiciously if not entirely uncomfortably. Beware the angry brown man. But I knew the war would ruin America and ruin Iraq.

Of course, nobody listened. So-called experts, who are still experts, casually proposed yet another war. Mind this: We did not go to war with Iraq ten years ago and a day. We went to war with the Iraqi people many years before that, when we supported Saddam against Iran. We paid him off even though he deployed chemical weapons against the Kurds of Halabja in 1988. That came by the end of the bloodiest war between Muslim-majority countries in the past century, with nearly one million dead.

Of course it did not stop. Violence is fertile. It begets. But it is also derivative. It begets itself. A few years after that war, we pounded Iraq for its invasion of Kuwait. Then that war became sanctions, and countless thousands of Iraqis died, suffered, were traumatized and brutalized—the most innocent among them first, for the logic of sanctions is the logic of terrorism: Punish all for your quarrel with a few. We have been at war with the Iraqi people, then, for some thirty-plus years.

We invaded their country in 2003, in a move so stupid and thoughtless that I racked my brains, for years, to see if there had been some nefarious purpose that we could not detect. I’m not one for conspiracy theories, but the Iraq War all but demanded one: Why else would we go to war so brutally, pointlessly, and incompetently? This was, mind you, before Herman Cain, Sarah Palin, Hurricane Katrina, and all the evidence that eventually became inarguable.

The Republican Party had no idea what it was doing. The scale of its incompetence is breathtaking. They destroyed Iraq. They let New Orleans drown. And then they oversaw a financial crisis that sent us reeling, has all but capsized the dream of Europe—a dream to end war forever on that continent—and that opened the door to the rise of new powers in South America and in Asia. This is how, in years approaching, historians will make sense of it. If they even can.

Was it just racism? Who, after all, does not plan for the day after a war? I plan out what I am going to do when I drive up to New York to see friends and family. Maybe it was just racism. They’re Iraqis, who cares what happened to them? Maybe power really does blind, and you think everything’ll just work out, as if there are not moral laws and principles that have the power to push back when pushed against. Maybe. I think the rest of the world decided to move on while we floundered about, amazed that just because we dreamed something, it could not come to pass.

Iraqis lost their lives, their homes, their families, their future. The rest of the world lost faith in us. We thought we were Rome, and we became the mirage in the desert, the rumor of a superpower that could not handle a country that had already been through twenty years of war, that looked helpless in the face of what dispassionate observers had reasonably concluded would happen. But everyone lost their courage. They saw in a fourth-world devastated country a threat to Rome.

But the Romans would have conquered Iraq and then offered them citizenship. In an age of nationalism, there can be no empire, only play-acting at it. We make mistakes; countries are doomed. We are like a giant who does not realize the havoc he can wreak. Now word has come that one of the most famous ‘traditional’ scholars of Sunni Islam, Ramadan al-Buti, has been killed in Syria. War in one country spills into others; this is why our NATO ally, Turkey, voted against the war.

My mother’s family (which is, immediately speaking, from northern India) is supposedly descended from an Iraqi who left Mesopotamia around 1250. In Indo-Islamic culture, among others, we have shajaras, literally (family) trees. That’s how we know. This fortunate ancestor (being Arab) spoke Arabic, so he found employment in the service of the Delhi Sultans, and the family line was from then on inseparable from Islamic law, arts and letters, and judgeships. They managed to make a decent life for themselves.

Eight years after he left, the Mongols flattened Baghdad, annihilating the heartland of Islamic civilization. It was the first but not the last time the Caliphate would die. Islamic Iraq declined, its place eventually taken by Constantinople, by warriors who crowned themselves Padishahan-e Rum, Emperors of Rome, because, we should remember, it is not only the Christian West that claims the mantle of Greece and Rome. There have been many different Romes.

I have no way of conceiving what it must be like to be at war, under sanction, threatened with explosions, ethnically cleansed, chemically gassed, and so on and so forth, for a length of time long as I have been alive. (I was born when Iraq went to war with Iran.) As it turned out, I was in the hospital the day the war started, so I didn’t learn about it until the next morning, when I sat helplessly staring at a television screen and Baghdad seemed lit up by fireworks.

The next time you hear about the next great threat to Western civilization, please remember what happened the last time. They say that Americans who came of age after September 11 have known only permanent war. We are not the only ones. For all the Americans and Iraqis who died because a war was prosecuted for no discernible reason, with no plan in mind, with no hope but to topple one regime after another—as if these were not countries full of people like us, but just shapes on a map, pieces of a puzzle, one we could not solve—I am sorry.