The sojourn of the Americans in Iraq is coming to a close, and as an Iraqi—who is grateful for what has been accomplished—I worry about how those I take to be liberators will be remembered in my country.
When looking back at the last six years, I must admit that there’s a haze of disappointment and disillusion in my head, yet it quickly lifts when I recapture images of a tyrant facing the gallows, and a nation standing in line to vote. One willfully chooses what one remembers: I choose to remember what really matters at the end. Others may recall the flash and dust of a bomb, a humiliation, a graveside wail; for war is a terrible thing, and terrible things happen, even against the backdrop of a noble cause. It is up to the victors to leave indelible reminders of their victory, and their benevolence, so that future generations can remember why a war was fought, and why unavoidable suffering had to be endured.
Human nature is such that even when the culprit is clearly a suicide bomber bent on jihad, those who have lost a loved one will lash out against anything and everything that may have led to the moment when an act of capricious violence tore their lives apart. It is for that reason that even those who beamed with enthusiasm and hope the day Baghdad was liberated may have ended up being embittered at the Americans, unable to see beyond the haze in their heads.
Let us set aside all the agendas, biases, and recriminations as to why both sides, Americans and Iraqis, soured on what was achieved. Let us focus on what comes next: memory and symbolism.
The British arrived in Baghdad in 1917, exhausted and only half-willing to exercise the tasks of empire. They had just driven out the on-again-off-again Ottoman occupiers of the land. The lure of fertile, and theoretically taxable, Mesopotamia clashed with the unruliness of its boisterous inhabitants. Empires tried, and always eventually gave up on the place.
But the British left bridges, colleges, buildings, and a legacy of cultural borrowings, deemed venerable enough by Iraqis to warrant awarding the onetime occupiers, and subsequent meddlers, an honorific yet personable title: “Abu Naji”. To this day, Iraqis use English words to describe essentials such as ‘bottle’, ‘glass’ and ‘jerry can’ (mangled but still recognizable as a ‘jelican’) even though there are perfectly suitable Arabic, Turkish and Persian words for such things.
Given the scale of the Iraq War, it does not seem adequate for Iraqis to say things like, “Oh, remember that pothole around the corner? Yeah, the Americans fixed it”, or “God bless the Americans for that new coat of paint in the classroom.”
There is enough mashed-up asphalt, scarred by tank treads, and rusting coils of spiky wires, to offset such sentiments.
Victorious empires leave monuments to their grandeur, often highlighting a ‘civilizing’ message such as colleges or courts. I understand that America is reluctant to play empire, but the dearth of its monuments, and the banality of its constructs (think military bases, sewage lines etc.) in Iraq are too forgettable and too shabby for the way a country as powerful and self-confident as America ought to project itself. What enduring symbol will the Americans leave behind, marking their era, in Iraq?
In such cases, especially in uncertain times, hubris is warranted, if only to ward off the jackals circling what they take to be a fallen lion. Otherwise, they would get emboldened to pounce.
Freedom is a concept, intangible and easily taken for granted. It is one thing for Iraqis to exercise their democratic rights, but quite another for them to remember how they got them. The founders of the American republic understood that a new era required visible pomp and grandeur. They, as men thrust into turbulent times, were otherwise not great—a gathering of farmers, attorneys, dandies, and eccentrics—but their deeds, when the times required them, were. And this is how they are remembered. A document bearing signatures was revered as a sacred text; a new capital was laid out with hallowed temples and nodes of power to awe its visitors with the greatness of the new venture. This was greatness that can be pointed to.
And who can ever forget what roles the French played in America’s fate, with that Statue of Liberty they sent over?
It may be futile now to envision such things, seeing how everyone in Washington simply wants to forget about Iraq, and how there isn’t any money to do these sorts of things. Yet sometimes such expenditures are exactly what a nation needs to regain its sense of self-worth.
Where are the plans and funds to refurbish and expand Baghdad College, an iconic high school once run by Georgetown University’s Jesuits? What happened to that world class museum that was supposed to archive the terror of Saddam’s regime?
Imagine a medical complex brimming with the best talent and knowhow of the American military, situated in Iraqi Kurdistan to treat America’s wounded soldiers from nearby theatres of war ( and there will be plenty) but also open to Iraqis.
Imagine an IT university in Basra, patronized by the technological giants of Silicon Valley.
Imagine gentrifying old Baghdad, whose 18th and 19th century alleyways and dilapidated houses hosted until recently the most viral of insurgencies. Imagine renovating what can be renovated, and demolishing the gaudy, to give back to Iraqis a cultural legacy of tolerance and coexistence—of centuries-old mosques, both Sunni and Shia, churches, synagogues, shrines, even a Sikh temple, not to mention ethnic boroughs—in imminent danger of collapse and forgetfulness.
America under Obama can physically escape from Iraq, but it cannot escape from its legacy in Iraq. It can choose to allow the broken jihadists and the ousted Ba’athists to define that legacy, or it can willfully shape how it shall be remembered. Given the way the world works these days, how others remember you filters back into how you remember yourself: will America’s strength and message endure and be reassured, or will the growl of the jackals grow louder?