One has to wonder what whimsical bard in the bowels of the Pentagon conceived the name Operation Phantom Fury for the second Marine invasion of the Iraqi city of Falluja in early November. Was it a reference to the screams of bloodied, bereaved or homeless Iraqis that have been broadcast nightly on Arab satellite channels since the onset of the US-led invasion, but never on the US airwaves unless introduced by the insinuation that they might be propaganda? Did it convey the righteous anger that led so many young Americans to enlist after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, only to find their rage displaced onto “hajjis” whose ingratitude they cannot comprehend? Did it get at the murderous methods of Iraqi and non-Iraqi insurgents whose provenance and political aims remain shrouded in mystery over a year after their attacks began? Or perhaps it predicted how the public dissent of Iraqi interim president Ghazi al-Yawir from the US onslaught would reverberate like a falling tree in an uninhabited forest.
If the warrior-wordsmith really has an ear for pathos, he intended his codename to conjure the Iraq war itself. The US knows neither whom it is fighting nor on whose behalf it is fighting. News about Iraq vanished from the anchors’ scripts during the presidential campaign, even as periodic reminders of the war’s horrors crawled across the bottom of the screen. Underneath the candidates’ clamorous debates about Iraq, there was sound and fury signifying nothing. Senator John Kerry could not promise an explanation for the war’s necessity nor an exit from it — just that he would manage its chaos better. The invasion of Falluja was so transparently postponed until after the US election that no one thinks the fact worth mentioning. It is a war that, for Americans, is there and not there.
The fury of the war is no phantom in Iraq. In late October, the British medical journal The Lancet estimated that tens of thousands of Iraqis have died violent deaths since the invasion. While the journal’s sampling methodology cannot rival the veracity of an actual body count, the estimate’s appearance underscored, yet again, the unwillingness of the US military to offer its own calculations. The Iraqi Ministry of Health stopped releasing mortality figures in the fall because the numbers belied interim prime minister Iyad Allawi’s insistence on the White House lawn in September that in 15 of Iraq’s 18 provinces “there are no problems. It’s safe. It’s good.” Whatever the real number of deaths, it seems certain that US military intervention has now killed more innocent Afghans and many more innocent Iraqis than the 2,948 innocent Americans confirmed killed by the September 11 atrocities.
The author of those crimes against humanity is an elusive specter, his apprehension either too difficult or too distracting for the administration that launched two wars in the name of his victims. Many of his alleged henchmen, or so it appears, have become “ghost detainees” in jails no one knows where to find.
One US-run prison whose existence was captured indelibly on camera houses many hundreds of Iraqis who might as well be bin Laden supporters in the eyes of their jailers. The torture that afflicted untold numbers of their peers is the stuff of murals along dusty alleys in Sadr City and smoggy freeways in Tehran. In the US, however, the Abu Ghraib story became little more than a typical media scandal, its initial twists and turns reported with the breathless dispatch normally reserved for celebrity court cases, but its full import ignored or forgotten within two months. It is torture that happened and did not happen.
No person of high rank has been held accountable for what occurred at Abu Ghraib and, now that the Bush administration has won a second term in office, no one will be. Indeed, the author of the memorandum permitting those crimes is George W. Bush’s nominee for attorney general. To atone for US sins at the facility whose name he still cannot pronounce, the president promised Iraqis a new prison.
The injustices of the Iraq war are not phantoms. They are real, they are still here and people of conscience will slowly muster the will to fight them.