Guest Comment on Fallujah and Kaplan: Nir Rosen
Journalist Nir Rosen, who has spent most of the past year in Iraq and has fluent Arabic, recently reported on Fallujah for the New Yorker. He objects to many details and arguments in the reporting of of Robert Kaplan on Fallujah for The Atlantic Monthly. We print here by permission his recent letter to the editor at The Atlantic Monthly
‘ Letter to the Editor
Having spent a great deal of time in Falluja since the occupation of Iraq began, and most recently the entire month of May for my article on Falluja for the New Yorker Magazine, I was disappointed by some errors I noted in Robert Kaplan’s piece entitled “Five Days in Falluja,” as well as by Kaplan’s unambiguous identification with the Marines he wrote about.
Kaplan describes Falluja as “the classic terrain of radicalism,” distinguishing radicalism from conservatism. Kaplan views the authoritarian royal courts of Morroco, Jordan and the Gulf States as venerable for their traditions, traditions that in the case of Jordan and the Gulf are artificial and not more than a century old. Unlike these royal courts that represent in fact the “break in tradition” in “the House of Islam” of which Kaplan writes, Falluja is in fact the most traditional city in Iraq. Unlike Tikrit, for example, where the tribes are urbanized, based inside the city, the tribes of Falluja are concentrated in the rural areas surrounding the city, and thus have not modernized and abandoned tribal customs as much as other parts of the country. The tight tribal bonds of Falluja helped preserve the city’s stability following the fall of Saddam’s regime. The religious and tribal leaders appointed their own civil management council even before American troops entered the city. Tribes assumed control of the city’s institutions and protected government buildings. Religious leaders, whose authority was respected, exhorted the people to respect the law and maintain order. Thus there was a continuity of authority and tradition in Falluja lacking in other parts of Iraq.
Known in Iraq as “Medinat al Masajid,” or the City of Mosques, for the over 80 mosques that dominate the city’s cultural life, Falluja is in fact famous for its Islamic traditions, including various orders of Sufi Islam and the very conservative Salafi brand of Sunni Islam. One does not find the “break in tradition” of which Kaplan speaks, nor the reinvented abstract and ideological form of Islam he blames for radicalism. Instead one finds numerous centers for religious study that produce many of Iraq’s most important theologians. The vast majority of the armed fighters in Falluja were not motivated by radical Islamic beliefs, but were fighting to defend their families, homes, city and way of life from the brutal American onslaught and were motivated by nationalism and pride.
The fighters were not, as Kaplan has us believe by quoting Lieutenant Colonel Byrne, men who fought in Chechnya or Afghanistan. The vast majority of the fighters were local men who had prior military experience in the Iraqi military. A few dozen foreign fighters were also present, though most were too young to have fought anywhere else. Kaplan also fails to explain how Byrne’s orders to grow mustaches and subsequently to shave them had anything to do with cultural sensitivity. The Marines would have been more culturally sensitive had they not offended Falluja’s residents by humiliating their fierce pride through violent searches that terrified women and children and involved placing boots in the heads of men.
Nor were the fighters of Falluja known as Ali Babas, a common Iraqi term for thieves, and what he claims the one Iraq he met called them. They were known as Mujahedin or Muqatilin, which both mean “fighters,” though Mujahedin has a more religious connotation. Kaplan repeatedly refers to the several thousand men of Falluja who fought fiercely in self defense as Ali Babas. They were in fact, organized efficiently thanks to military officers in their ranks, and obeyed the commands of officers in alliance with religious and tribal leaders who often had their own virtual armies. Loud speakers on the mosque towers were used for communication, alerting the fighters to where the Marines were approaching and instructing them to move to various fronts.
Kaplan comments on the dominance of southern Christian fundamentalism among the Marines without judgment and reports that their chaplain compares their entry to Falluja with Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, describing their impending destruction of much of the city as “a spiritual battle and you Marines are the tools of mercy.” Kaplan admires the Marines’ “matter-of-fact willingness to die.” Though he mistakenly insists that the defenders of Falluja were cowards who used the cover of women and children to attack the Marines, both the attackers and defenders had much more in common than he would have us believe. Falluja’s defenders believed they were defending their religion and many bravely sacrificed their lives in defense of their neighborhoods against a terrible and mighty foe. They displayed the same solidarity and brotherhood Kaplan admires so much in his Marines. Kaplan’s glorification of military values is also disturbing. Perhaps some Marines should have questioned orders to invade a city of three hundred thousand, pulverizing neighborhoods and killing at least 800 people, most of them women and children. I smelled the death in the city’s air from corpses hastily buried in backyards and the five hundred bodies in the soccer fields, I saw the hospitals riddled with bullets and shells, I met the ambulance drivers who were wounded by snipers, I saw children missing limbs from Marine bullets and shells, but Kaplan either conceals or is unaware of the indiscriminate violence the Marines he identifies with so much unleashed upon the city, causing thousands of refugees and then preventing families from returning home unless the fighters surrendered. Kaplan’s comfort with the word imperialism is also worrisome, but most alarming is his repeated use of the word “us” to describe the Marines. Should he not strive for a certain amount of objectivity? Kaplan is maddened by the “enemy’s” successful intelligence and it seems also disappointed by the “bad news” that “politics in the form of ceasefires” was intruding to prevent he and his Marines from “taking down the city,” a city of three hundred thousand people, hundreds of whom he and his marines killed, along with hundreds of homes they destroyed. Did Kaplan assimilate the urge to fight to the end that no doubt the young Marines he was with felt? Though I recognize the difficulty involved in remaining impartial when living with the affable young men of the American military who risk their lives for the whims of politicians back in Washington, having been embedded myself, I believe it is no less, and perhaps more, important to identify with the receiving end of American Imperialism and military might and to question the assertions of both military and political leaders. ‘