Martyr’s Monument

I was partly responsible for the US Marine battalion that secured the portion of Baghdad containing the Martyr’s Monument. Sinan Antoon (“Monumental Disrespect,” MER 228) portrays the US occupation of the monument as an episode of unthinking American disregard for the sanctity of an Iraqi memorial, but it is a story of compromises forced upon soldiers by the exigencies of war. We undertook sincere efforts to make the unfortunate, but at least temporarily necessary, foreign military presence as inoffensive as possible.

By the evening of April 8, Marines were poised just outside the densely inhabited areas of Baghdad. Resistance had been relatively ineffective. We had seen evidence of executions apparently meted out as an example to those who might have been unwilling to fight. From all available intelligence, including the opinions of local residents, it looked as if defenders of the regime were falling back into built-up areas. When my unit received its orders, we had eight hours to prepare for combat.

I estimated that opposing forces would conduct ambushes and other tactics of urban warfare — leading to extremely high casualties, especially among civilians, and making all movements slow. Most worrisome was the thought that regime defenders might mix with the civilian population in an attempt to draw us into unintentional fire on innocents and their property. The thought of inflicting civilian casualties leaves every good soldier feeling sick, alone and ungrounded.

As we had been assigned no specific facilities to secure, we were left to devise our own plan to identify an area or facility that might provide space for the unit’s 200-odd vehicles and 800 Marines, would be reasonably defensible, would not be vital to civilian necessities (such as a hospital) and would not encroach on residential areas. Based on maps and satellite imagery, the only area that fulfilled these requirements was the Martyr’s Monument. We had no information about the symbolism or history of the memorial other than that it was not a mosque.

I issued a plan to secure the city block surrounding the monument and then consolidate forces within the perimeter. My expectation was that we would incur numerous casualties; thus we needed to maintain our unit’s cohesion to prevent portions of our unit from being cut off or becoming confused. I was banking on the idea that the distinctive shape and central location of the Martyr’s Monument would allow each of our Marines to regain contact with us after the probable bloodletting. Each one of us truly expected April 9 to be the worst, or last, day of his life.

Ten months later, it has seemingly become mandatory for anti-war critics to make sarcastic mention of the promise by expatriate Iraqis that US troops entering Baghdad would be greeted with “sweets and flowers.” Yet this is exactly what happened in our sector that day. The regime loyalists, who had established their headquarters in a school for the disabled, had scattered during our approach, often to the jeers of the public. There was no fighting to speak of.

Despite the lack of resistance, we secured the monument and temporarily consolidated forces there. Our lead infantry unit cleared out a group of looters before they did any substantial damage, but not before they had emptied the display cases in the monument and an adjacent museum. As I laid eyes on the breathtaking monument, I immediately realized the probable importance of the site to Iraqis and that our presence might be perceived as disrespectful.

After conducting several quick inter- views with locals, our human intelligence team reported that the general consensus was that “we were keeping the monument safe.” We found Iraqi flags to hoist on the monument’s flagpoles, to signify that our presence was ultimately temporary, but were advised by an Iraqi-American Marine in our unit to wait until we could find a flag created before Saddam modified it in 1991, in order to avoid the appearance of association with the regime. Our attempts to find a place to relocate to were fruitless. Over the following week, we cleaned up the looting damage and worked with Iraqi contractors to do some repairs. The unit commander and I intended to host the local community leaders we had met inside the monument to show that it was being cared for. However, in less than two weeks we were ordered to hand over our area of operations to a US Army unit and head south to al-Diwaniyya.

It is the unfortunate reality that it is necessary for US forces to live in Baghdad if they hope to restore order there. Many of the city’s parks and public areas have been commandeered for lack of a better alternative. Although the excuse of “military necessity” is a bitter pill to swallow, it is not offered callously. It is offered with the understanding that the facilities must be returned in good order. I agree with Antoon that the extent of the current occupation of the monument is inherently disrespectful, but can only offer my personal apology, and word of rumors that the Martyr’s Monument will be turned back to the public this spring.

Antoon characterizes American forces as uniformly careless and incapable of reason, empathy or respect. He makes the point that Iraqi soldiers who died in the wasteful Iran-Iraq war should be honored as martyrs regardless of the unjust nature of the war they waged. Unfortunately, he extends the exact opposite logic to US soldiers, who he implies are happily digging “a mass grave” for Iraq as a nation-state. Such an unbalanced portrayal fails to consider the plurality of character, intent and action represented in the all-volunteer, profes- sional US military.

Many of the Marines with me on April 9 are still concerned for the fate of the monument, a moving tribute to a colossal international tragedy. There is a common bond among all soldiers that may not be logical in a superficial sense, but is grounded in the burdensome reality of subordinating one’s personal will and well-being to a cause that exceeds the individual, though it may be beyond comprehension to some in the ranks. Although our losses were hardly comparable to the losses of the Iran-Iraq war, some of our Marines did not make it to the monument. They died believing that they might be providing hope for a better tomorrow to the much abused and betrayed Iraqi people. Scott Hagen, a young Marine from our unit, portions of which are returning to Iraq soon, spoke best to the conflicted nature of this war and the feelings of the “invaders” in a letter home that was excerpted in
The Enterprise of Lynwood, Washington: “The night finds me in East Baghdad in the shadows of the Martyr’s Monument. Today we spent time in an upper-class engineers’ neighborhood. The reaction was peaceful and warm. The people offered food, drink or whatever we wished. I had mixed feelings of safety as night approached. The opinions of our invasion were varied, but the outward hospitality a warm breeze. I hope someday I will watch on television how successful the reformation of Iraq was…. I hope and pray that the families of those lost can be consoled.”

Michael Purcell
Monterey, CA
Michael Purcell is a Marine studying at the Naval Postgraduate School. This letter represents his personal opinions.

Michael Purcell can only conceive of himself as a liberator. His letter contains many of the ingredients used by the war party to sweeten bitter truths. He substitutes “foreign military presence” for “occupation,” seasons his apology with stories of the rare Iraqis who welcomed their invaders with “sweets and flowers,” and adds a dash of “intelligence failure” when he tells us that his Marines “had no information about the symbolism or history of the monument other than that it was not a mosque.”

Purcell’s personal sensitivity and compassion are admirable. My gripe is not with the intentions of individual soldiers like him, but with the larger institutions and colonial ideology that have driven them, and countless Iraqi civilians, to cheap deaths. Indeed, I do not see the “all-volunteer and professional” US military from Purcell’s vantage point. Most of the soldiers our film crew interviewed in Iraq came from very disadvantaged backgrounds and didn’t have many, if any, opportunities in other walks of life. “Volunteer” is somewhat of a euphemism. There have been, to be sure, acts of humanity carried out by US soldiers in Iraq, but they are as drops of pure water in an ocean of blood. Purcell should reread my last paragraph carefully. I never even implied that US soldiers, as individuals, are “happily digging ‘a mass grave’ for Iraq.” The mass grave at the Martyr’s Monument was dug by Saddam Hussein and his US supporters. US troops are just keeping it warm. As for the other mass grave, for Iraq, the nation-state, it is too gaping to miss at this point — and I wrote that the US as a state is digging it, not American soldiers.

Just a few days before we went to the Martyr’s Monument in July 2003, our film crew visited my old high school in al-Sulaykh. The teachers told me how “the Americans” had occupied it for a few weeks, breaking doors and safes, stealing cash and several books from the library. The headmaster showed me the fixed doors and the broken windows. He pointed out the walls where graffiti now painted over had been scrawled. I asked him what had been written there. He replied, “Just obscene words, and USMC.”

Sinan Antoon
Dartmouth, NH

“Honor Crimes” in Jordan

As a resident of Amman, Jordan, for the past ten years, I was interested in Janine Clark’s “‘Honor Crimes’ and the International Spotlight on Jordan” in MER 229. However, I found it disconcerting that the article began with an unexplained, fleeting reference to Norma Khouri’s Honor Lost. It would be unfortunate if MER readers rushed out to buy this book, hoping to gain in-depth information on the subject, for the opposite is the case.

Honor Lost has played no role in the public debate here, since the women who document and fight against honor crimes consider it to be a fraud. While appearing to be the personal testimony of a Jordanian woman whose friend was killed by her father, it is filled with so many inaccuracies as to call into question the author’s intentions.

Khouri trots out the gamut of stereotypes: Muslim women cook and serve meals, but are barred from eating with the men of the household, and only eat “leftovers” after the men finish. Love is just a means of control in Arab culture. Women are practically imprisoned in their homes and dare not be seen by male doctors. Photos are totally forbidden by Islam, as is wearing cosmetics. Ironically, all these claims can be discredited through a visit to Jabal Hussein, the very quarter in which Khouri and her friend allegedly lived.

While some strata of the population do live within these bounds, it is not the norm. Such wild exaggerations are hardly credible to people in Jordan, who are the ones to be persuaded to oppose honor crimes, so this defeats Khouri’s stated purpose of ending these crimes.

“Every Arab man in Jordan” is branded by Khouri as a supporter of honor crimes — an affront to those men who participated in the anti-honor crimes campaign. In other passages, the Bedouin take the blame, as Khouri pens “exotic” descriptions, worthy of a third-rate Orientalist, of desert sands blowing into Amman. She claims that Bedouin dominate the country, which might come as a surprise to the real desert dwellers who are actually becoming increasingly marginalized. Khouri lauds the royal family for speaking out against honor crimes, but dismisses the king and queen as “mainly public showpieces” — another total misconception of the Jordanian reality.

Overall, Khouri either has no under-standing of how the legal and political system in Jordan works, or she purposely distorts it. Her attack on Islam and Arab men dovetails neatly with the Bush administration’s post-September 11 anti-Muslim campaign. It does a great disservice to all those who are seriously striving to eradicate the abomination of honor crimes.

Sally Bland

I am in total agreement with Sally Bland about the quality of Honor Lost. The original draft of my article contained a footnote that explained the criticisms of the book and the controversy over it in Jordan.

Janine Clark

How to cite this article:

"Letters (Spring 2004)," Middle East Report 230 (Spring 2004).

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