By Alan Ramsey (Sydney Morning Herald, April 12 2003)
Behind the gloating of John Howard (restrained), Donald Rumsfeld and the Murdoch communications empire (hysterical), what is there to be proud of? This was no war but a travesty. It was an invasion by 300,000 military forces to "disarm" Saddam Hussein of his "weapons of mass destruction". It was not about "regime change". We know this because our Prime Minister said so, repeatedly, for months. And he wouldn't lie, would he? This was a "war" to strip a "rogue state" of biological and chemical weapons to keep them out of the hands of "international terrorists" and "other rogue states".
When Baghdad fell on the 22nd day of the Anglo-American invasion, with Australia's tiny force no more than the military tea lady, the outcome in numbers, as reported from US central command at Doha, Qatar: US forces 255,000; British forces 45,000; Australian forces 2000. Casualties: US 101 dead, 11 missing, seven captured; British 30 dead; Australian nil. Iraqi military, between 5000 and 10,000 dead (estimate); Iraq civilians, 600 dead and 4000 wounded (estimate).
The air "campaign": 30,000 sorties flown by 2000 US/British aircraft from five aircraft carriers and 30 land bases dropped 20,000 "total munitions" on Iraq's cities, infrastructure, its military and its civilian population. There is, and was, no Iraqi air force. The US/British aircraft were unopposed. To call what this aerial armada did a "war", as distinct from unchallenged slaughter, is to debauch language.
And yet, by the time Baghdad fell, the supposed reasons for the invasion, like Osama bin Laden and Saddam himself, were still missing. Despite the best efforts of the Murdoch group's poisonous coverage, and numerous false alarms, no "weapons of mass destruction", one of the worst of the Iraq adventure's cliches, had been found, anywhere. Washington and London are sure they are there, somewhere. So is John Howard.
With Parliament in recess and our politicians spread all over the country - and a good many overseas on various trips and parliamentary junkets, all expenses paid - our Prime Minister two days ago did what he usually does, whether Parliament is in session or not - he spoke to the people through the media, mostly TV and radio.
Howard, in his own way, is every bit the despot Saddam was, the real difference being Australians elected him - and three times, to prove it. His key political weapon is mass distraction, and on Thursday he stood there, in his high-security courtyard at Parliament House, an Australian flag either side of him, and told us: "Good afternoon, ladies and gentleman. I'm sure people all around the world who believe in the principles of freedom and liberty would have been greatly moved by the scenes of jubilation that have been witnessed in the streets of Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq. I haven't seen such exhilarating scenes since the implosion of the Soviet empire in the late 1980s.
"And what we have witnessed is something the Iraqi people wanted the world to know, and that is they're glad to be rid of the loathsome dictator, Saddam Hussein. And I can only say, on behalf of the Australian Government and the Australian people, we wish the people of Iraq well for the future."
Yes, but what about those "weapons of mass destruction"?
Howard: "Well, I've said all along we wouldn't expect to get hard evidence in relation to chemical and biological weapons until well after hostilities ceased. There aren't signs along the road to Baghdad saying, 'WMD 5ks from here.' They've been obviously passed around and hidden. Some may have been taken out of Iraq. You have to wait until hostilities have ceased and there is an opportunity of further investigating that matter."
Q: "Do you think they've already fallen into the hands of terrorists, Prime Minister?" A: "I don't know." That, at least, was honest.
Howard would have no more idea of whether Saddam really does have chemical and biological weapons stashed away somewhere any more than he would have the remotest idea what "the Iraqi people wanted the world to know". That's just hubris. Our PM and his Government know only what Washington tells them. And Washington knows only what its Bush zealots want to believe and what its CIA analysts and Israeli intelligence tell them.
What we can be fairly sure of is that, some time and somewhere, either/or both chemical and biological weapons will be found in Iraq, wherever they might first have come from. Oh yes, we can believe that.
Two of the most searing quotes of the "war" have emerged this week from the fog of deceit that has laid over everything the Bush White House has manipulated in ousting the Saddam regime. One was the courageous statement of Dr Ameer Ali, the president of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils: "The Muslim people of Iraq are fodder for the war machines of America." Nothing has been truer.
The other quote comes from an article by James Meek of The Guardian, in London. Meek's story on Thursday of the taking of Baghdad concluded: "Political dissent at the [house-to-house clearing] persisted as evening fell. 'Bush is a rich bully,' said a heavily armed man standing by the roadside. 'The US has no legal right to be here. Probably Saddam would have sold chemical weapons to somebody some day and then the US would have been right to invade, but now this is the first free democratic country ever to occupy another without good reason.' He was a lance-corporal in the US marines."
I noted two other agency reports that seemed to get lost in the turmoil of the week's events. Remember Howard's remark to the ABC's Kerry O'Brien 12 days ago, in seeking to justify Iraqi civilian casualties, that the International Committee of the Red Cross had reported Baghdad's hospital system was "coping quite well"?
On Tuesday the Red Cross announced in Geneva that its people in Baghdad were now saying Iraq's hospitals "are struggling to cope with a deluge of wounded that is causing growing chaos". Two days later the Red Cross announced one of its Canadian staff had been "caught in crossfire" which killed "as many as 12 people" in a Red Cross vehicle in Baghdad. Red Cross visits to hospitals to oversee conditions had been suspended because "it is too dangerous to move around" the city. Howard said nothing about civilian casualties at his Thursday press conference. Nobody asked him about them, either.
Instead Howard eulogised the heroic behaviour of the invading forces in these terms: "I want to pay tribute not only to our own forces but also to the British and American forces. They have behaved and conducted themselves not only in a military sense with great honour and distinction but, along with our forces, they have, I think, set new standards of integrity and ethical behaviour in military conflict, the steps that have been taken to avoid non-combatant casualties. The modern soldier is as much a peacekeeper and conciliator as he or she is a military person." That will stun a few people.
So will his next remark. "Can I say on the question of the media coverage, it's been quite remarkable. I think you all know it has reached a new dimension of penetration and detail. [And] I want to record my sadness that quite a number of your colleagues have lost their lives in this campaign, a reminder you are engaged in a dangerous business on occasions." Particularly listening to political sludge, Prime Minister.
I, too, noted the "penetration and detail" of some correspondents' reportage, especially those actually in Baghdad who wrote about what they saw, not what they were told 150 kilometres away at US command headquarters.
Robert Fisk, of The Independent of London, for example, wrote on Tuesday: "They lay in lines, the car salesman who'd just lost his eye but whose feet were still dribbling blood; the motorcyclist hit by a shell fired at him by American troops near the Rashid Hotel; the 50-year-old female civil servant, her body pockmarked with shrapnel from an American cluster bomb. For the civilians of Baghdad, this is the real, immoral face of war ..." It was not a face ever seen on the nightly Australian TV news bulletins.
Nor was it a face much read about in our newspapers.
There were exceptions. Paul McGeough of this newspaper, one of the very few Australian correspondents who made it to Baghdad and stayed there, has never written a more moving, more honest account than his story, all over yesterday's Herald front page, of the fall of Baghdad and the military, political and social repercussions to come.
There was no bloodlust headline, just the unemotive strap, "After Saddam", over the full, cross-page lines of reportage: "After the looting has come the soul searching. Jubilant Iraqis had not even beheaded the statue of Saddam Hussein in Karamanah Square before they started asking questions of Washington that revealed a deep distrust of America's intentions." It was journalism of the highest quality, as was his front page account on Thursday of his "searing visit to a Baghdad trauma ward" and the terrible toll John Howard's "standards of integrity and ethical behaviour in military conflict" had wrought, and went on wreaking all week, on Iraqi families across the city of 5million.
You might feel proud, Prime Minister, but I do not, and I venture to suggest very many of our fellow Australians feel exactly the same as me. And I don't give a toss what the opinion polls say.