The Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire

Arundhati Roy

Mesopotamia. Babylon. The Tigris and Euphrates. How many children, in how many classrooms, over how many centuries, have hang-glided through the past, transported on the wings of these words?

And now the bombs are falling, incinerating and humiliating that ancient civilization.

On the steel torsos of their missiles, adolescent American soldiers scrawl colorful messages in childish handwriting: “For Saddam, from the Fat Boy Posse.” A building goes down. A market. A home. A girl who loves a boy. A child who only ever wanted to play with his older brother’s marbles.

On March 21, the day after American and British troops began their illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq, an “embedded” CNN correspondent interviewed an American soldier. “I wanna get in there and get my nose dirty,” Private AJ said. “I wanna take revenge for 9/11.”

To be fair to the correspondent, even though he was “embedded” he did sort of weakly suggest that so far there was no real evidence that linked the Iraqi government to the September 11 attacks. Private AJ stuck his teen-age tongue out all the way down to the end of his chin. “Yeah, well that stuff’s way over my head,” he said.

According to a New York Times/CBS News survey, 42 percent of the American public believes that Saddam Hussein is directly responsible for the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. And an ABC News poll says that 55 percent of Americans believe that Saddam Hussein directly supports the al-Qaeda. What percentage of America’s armed forces believe these fabrications is anybody’s guess.

It is unlikely that British and American troops fighting in Iraq are aware that their governments supported Saddam Hussein both politically and financially through his worst excesses. But why should poor AJ and his fellow soldiers be burdened with these details? It doesn’t matter any more, does it? Hundreds of thousands of men, tanks, ships, choppers, bombs, ammunition, gas masks, high protein food, whole aircrafts ferrying toilet paper, insect repellent, vitamins and bottled mineral water, are on the move. The phenomenal logistics of Operation Iraqi Freedom make it a universe unto itself. It doesn’t need to justify its existence anymore. It exists. It is.

President George W. Bush, commander-in-chief of the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines has issued clear instructions “Iraq. Will. Be. Liberated.” (Perhaps he means that even if Iraqi people are killed, their souls will be liberated.) American and British citizens owe it to the Supreme Commander to forsake thought and rally behind their troops. Their countries are at war.

And what a war it is.

After using the “good offices” of U.N. diplomacy (economic sanctions and weapons inspections) to ensure that Iraq was brought to its knees, its people starved, half a million of its children killed, its infrastructure severely damaged, after making sure that most of its weapons have been destroyed, in an act of cowardice that must surely be unrivaled in history, the “Allies”/ “Coalition of the Willing” (better known as the Coalition of the Bullied and Bought)-sent in an invading army!

Operation Iraqi Freedom? I don’t think so. It’s more like “Operation Let’s Run a Race, but First Let Me Break Your Knees.”

Even allowing for the fact that Iraq and the “Allies” are at war, the extent to which the “Allies” and their media cohorts are prepared to go is astounding. When Saddam Hussein appeared on national TV to address the Iraqi people following the first attempt of “Operation Decapitation,” we had Geoff Hoon, British Defense Secretary, deriding him for not having the courage to stand up and be killed, calling him a coward who hides in trenches. We then had a flurry of Coalition speculation: Was it really Saddam Hussein, was it his double? Or was it Osama with a shave? Was it pre-recorded? Was it a speech? Was it black magic? Will it turn into a pumpkin if we really, really want it to?

After dropping not hundreds, but thousands of bombs on Baghdad, when a marketplace was mistakenly blown up and civilians killed-a U.S. army spokesman implied that the Iraqis were blowing themselves up. “They’re using very old stock. Their missiles go up and come down. “

If so, may we ask how this squares with the accusation that the Iraqi regime is a paid-up member of the Axis of Evil and a threat to world peace?


When the Arab TV station Al Jazeera shows civilian casualties it’s denounced as “emotive” Arab propaganda aimed at orchestrating hostility towards the “Allies,” as though Iraqis are dying in order to make the “Allies” look bad. Even French television has come in for some stick for similar reasons. But the awed, breathless footage of aircraft carriers, stealth bombers and cruise missiles arcing across the desert sky on American and British TV is described as the “terrible beauty” of war.

When invading American soldiers (from the Army “that’s only here to help”) are taken prisoner and shown on Iraqi TV, George Bush says it violates the Geneva Conventions and “exposes the evil at the heart of the regime.” But it is entirely acceptable for U.S. television stations to show the hundreds of prisoners being held by the U.S. government at Guantanamo Bay, kneeling on the ground with their hands tied behind their backs, blinded with opaque goggles and with earphones clamped on their ears, to ensure complete visual and aural deprivation. When questioned about the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo, U.S. government officials don’t deny that they’re being ill-treated. They deny that they’re “prisoners of war.” They call them “unlawful combatants,” implying that their ill-treatment is legitimate. (So what’s the party line on the massacre of prisoners in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan? Forgive and Forget? And what of the prisoner tortured to death by the Special Forces at the Bagram Air Force Base? Doctors have formally called it homicide.)

When the “Allies” bombed the Iraqi Television station (also, incidentally, a contravention of the Geneva convention), there was vulgar jubilation in the American media. In fact, Fox TV had been lobbying for the attack for a while. It was seen as a righteous blow against Arab propaganda. But mainstream American and British TV continue to advertise themselves as “balanced” when their propaganda has achieved hallucinatory levels. Why should propaganda be the exclusive preserve of the Western media? Just because they do it better?

Western journalists “embedded” with troops are given the status of heroes reporting from the frontlines of war. Non-”embedded” journalists (like the BBC’s Rageh Omaar, reporting from besieged and bombed Baghdad, witnessing, and clearly affected by the sight of bodies of burned children and wounded people) are undermined even before they begin their reports: “We have to tell you that he is being monitored by the Iraqi Authorities.”

Increasingly, on British and American TV, Iraqi soldiers are being referred to as “militia” (i.e., rabble). One BBC correspondent portentously referred to them as “quasi-terrorists.” Iraqi defense is “resistance” or worse still, “pockets of resistance,” Iraqi military strategy is deceit. (The U.S. government bugging the phone lines of U.N. Security Council delegates, reported by the London Observer, is hard-headed pragmatism.) Clearly for the “Allies,” the only morally acceptable strategy the Iraqi army can pursue is to march out into the desert and be bombed by B-52s or be mowed down by machine gun fire. Anything short of that is cheating.


As of last July, the delivery of $5.4 billion worth of supplies to Iraq was blocked by the Bush/Blair Pair. It didn’t really make the news. But now under the loving caress of live TV, 450 tons of humanitarian aid-a miniscule fraction of what’s actually needed (call it a script prop)-arrived on a British ship, the Sir Galahad. Its arrival in the port of Umm Qasr merited a whole day of live TV broadcasts. Barf bag, anyone?

Nick Guttmann, head of emergencies for Christian Aid, writing for the Independent, said that it would take 32 Sir Galahad’s a day to match the amount of food Iraq was receiving before the bombing began.

We oughtn’t be surprised though. It’s old tactics. They’ve been at it for years. Consider this moderate proposal by John McNaughton from the Pentagon Papers published during the Vietnam War:
Strikes at population targets (per se) are likely not only to create a counterproductive wave of revulsion abroad and at home, but greatly to increase the risk of enlarging the war with China or the Soviet Union. Destruction of locks and dams, however-if handled right-might … offer promise. It should be studied. Such destruction does not kill or drown people. By shallow-flooding the rice, it leads after time to widespread starvation (more than a million?) unless food is provided-which we could offer to do “at the conference table.”
Times haven’t changed very much. The technique has evolved into a doctrine. It’s called “Winning Hearts and Minds.”

So, here’s the moral math as it stands: 200,000 Iraqis estimated to have been killed in the first Gulf War. Hundreds of thousands dead because of the economic sanctions. (At least that lot has been saved from Saddam Hussein.) More being killed every day. Tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers who fought the 1991 war officially declared ‘disabled’ by a disease called Gulf War Syndrome believed in part to be caused by exposure to depleted uranium (which hasn’t stopped the ‘Allies’ from continuing to use Depleted Uranium).

And now this talk of bringing the United Nations back into the picture.

But that old U.N. girl - it turns out that she just ain’t what she was cracked up to be. She has been demoted (although she retains her high salary). Now she’s the world’s janitor. She’s the Philippino cleaning lady, the Indian jamadarni, the postal bride from Thailand, the Mexican household help, the Jamaican au pair. She’s employed to clean other peoples’ shit. She’s used and abused at will.

George Bush has made it clear that the United Nations will play no independent part in the administration of postwar Iraq. The United States will decide who gets those juicy “re-construction” contracts. But Bush has appealed to the international community not to “politicize” the issue of humanitarian aid. On March 28, after Bush called for the immediate resumption of the U.N. Oil for Food program, the Security Council voted unanimously for the resolution. This means that everybody agrees that Iraqi money (from the sale of Iraqi oil) should be used to feed Iraqi people who are starving because of U.S.-led sanctions and the illegal U.S.-led war.

Contracts for the “re-construction” of Iraq, we’re told, in discussions on the business news, could jump-start the world economy. It’s funny how the interests of American corporations are so often, so successfully and so deliberately confused with the interests of the world economy. While the American people will end up paying for the war, oil companies, weapons manufacturers, arms dealers and corporations involved in ‘re-construction’ work will make direct gains from the war. Many of them are old friends and former employers of the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld/Rice cabal. Bush has already asked Congress for $75 billion. Contracts for “re-construction” are already being handed out. Operation Iraqi Freedom, Tony Blair assures us, is about returning Iraqi oil to the Iraqi people. That is, returning Iraqi oil to the Iraqi people via corporate multinationals like Shell, like Chevron, like Halliburton.

As the rift between Europe and America deepens, there are signs that the world could be entering a new era of economic boycotts. CNN reported that Americans are emptying French wine into gutters, chanting, “We don’t want your stinking wine.” We’ve heard about the re-Baptism of French fries. Freedom fries they’re called now. There’s news trickling in about Americans boycotting German goods. The thing is that if the fallout of the war takes this turn, it is the United States that will suffer the most. Its homeland may be defended by border patrols and nuclear weapons, but its economy is strung out across the globe. Its economic outposts are exposed and vulnerable to attack in every direction. Already the Internet is buzzing with elaborate lists of American and British government products and companies that should be boycotted. Apart from the usual targets, Coke, Pepsi and McDonald’s-government agencies like USAID, the British DFID, British and American banks, Merrill Lynch, American Express, Bechtel, General Electric, Reebok, Nike and Gap could find themselves under siege. These lists are being honed and refined by activists across the world. They could become a practical guide that directs and channels the amorphous but growing fury in the world. Suddenly, the “inevitability” of the project of corporate globalization is beginning to seem more than a little evitable.

It’s become clear that the War on Terror is not really about terror, and the War on Iraq not only about oil. It’s about a superpower’s self-destructive impulse toward supremacy, stranglehold, global hegemony. The argument is being made that the people of Argentina and Iraq have both been decimated by the same process. Only the weapons used against them differ: In one case it’s an IMF check book. In the other, cruise missiles.


Finally, there’s the matter of Saddam Husseins’s arsenal of Weapons of Mass Destruction. (Oops, nearly forgot about those!)

In the fog of war-one thing’s for sure-if the Saddam Hussein regime indeed has Weapons of Mass Destruction, it is showing an astonishing degree of responsibility and restraint in the teeth of extreme provocation. Under similar circumstances, (say if Iraqi troops were bombing New York and laying siege to Washington) could we expect the same of the Bush regime? Would it keep its thousands of nuclear warheads in their wrapping paper? What about its chemical and biological weapons? Its stocks of anthrax , smallpox and nerve gas? Would it?

Excuse me while I laugh.

In the fog of war we’re forced to speculate: Either Saddam Hussein is an extremely responsible tyrant. Or-he simply does not possess Weapons of Mass Destruction.

So here’s Iraq-rogue state, grave threat to world peace, paid-up member of the Axis of Evil. Here’s Iraq, invaded, bombed, besieged, bullied, its sovereignty shat upon, its children killed by cancers, its people blown up on the streets. And here’s all of us watching. CNN-BBC, BBC-CNN late into the night. Here’s all of us, enduring the horror of the war, enduring the horror of the propaganda and enduring the slaughter of language as we know and understand it. Freedom now means mass murder (or, in the United States, fried potatoes). When someone says “humanitarian aid” we automatically go looking for induced starvation. “Embedded” I have to admit, is a great find. It’s what it sounds like. And what about “arsenal of tactics?” Nice!

In most parts of the world, the invasion of Iraq is being seen as a racist war. The real danger of a racist war unleashed by racist regimes is that it engenders racism in everybody-perpetrators, victims, spectators. It sets the parameters for the debate, it lays out a grid for a particular way of thinking. There is a tidal wave of hatred for the United States rising from the ancient heart of the world. In Africa, Latin America, Asia, Europe, Australia, I encounter it every day. Sometimes it comes from the most unlikely sources. Bankers, businessmen, yuppie students, and they bring to it all the crassness of their conservative, illiberal politics. That absurd inability to separate governments from people: America is a nation of morons, a nation of murderers, they say (with the same carelessness with which they say, “All Muslims are terrorists”). Even in the grotesque universe of racist insult, the British make their entry as add-ons. Arse-lickers, they’re called.

Suddenly, I, who have been vilified for being “anti-American” and “anti-West,” find myself in the extraordinary position of defending the people of America. And Britain.

Those who descend so easily into the pit of racist abuse would do well to remember the hundreds of thousands of American and British citizens who protested against their country’s stockpile of nuclear weapons. And the thousands of American war resisters who forced their government to withdraw from Vietnam. They should know that the most scholarly, scathing, hilarious critiques of the U.S. government and the “American Way of Life” come from American citizens. And that the funniest, most bitter condemnation of their Prime-minister comes from the British media. Finally, they should remember that hundreds of thousands of British and American citizens are on the streets protesting the war. The Coalition of the Bullied and Bought consists of governments, not people. More than one third of America’s citizens have survived the relentless propaganda they’ve been subjected to, and many thousands are actively fighting their own government. In the ultra-patriotic climate that prevails in the United States, that’s as brave as any Iraqi fighting for his or her homeland.

While the “Allies” wait in the desert for an uprising of Shia Muslims on the streets of Basra, the real uprising is taking place in hundreds of cities across the world. It has been the most spectacular display of public morality ever seen. Most courageous of all, are the hundreds of thousands of American people on the streets of America’s great cities-Washington, New York, Chicago, San Francisco. The fact is that the only institution in the world today that is more powerful than the American government, is American civil society. American citizens have a huge responsibility riding on their shoulders. How can we not salute and support those who not only acknowledge but act upon that responsibility? They are our allies, our friends.


At the end of it all, it remains to be said that dictators like Saddam Hussein, and all the other despots in the Middle-East, in the Central Asian Republics, in Africa and Latin America, many of them installed, supported and financed by the U.S. government, are a menace to their own people. Other than strengthening the hand of civil society (instead of weakening it as has been done in the case of Iraq), there is no easy, pristine way of dealing with them. (It’s odd how those who dismiss the peace movement as utopian, don’t hesitate to proffer the most absurdly dreamy reasons for going to war: to stamp out terrorism, install democracy, eliminate fascism and, most entertainingly, to “rid the world of evil-doers.”)

Regardless of what the propaganda machine tells us, these tin pot dictators are not the greatest threat to the world. The real and pressing danger, the greatest threat of all is the locomotive force that drives the political and economic engine of the U.S. government, currently piloted by George Bush. Bush-bashing is fun, because he makes such an easy, sumptuous target. It’s true that he is a dangerous, almost suicidal pilot, but the machine he handles is far more dangerous than the man himself.

Despite the pall of gloom that hangs over us today, I’d like to file a cautious plea for hope: In times of war, one wants one’s weakest enemy at the helm of his forces. And President George W. Bush is certainly that. Any other even averagely intelligent U.S. President would have probably done the very same things, but would have managed to smoke up the glass and confuse the opposition. Perhaps even carry the United Nations with him. George Bush’s tactless imprudence and his brazen belief that he can run the world with his riot squad, has done the opposite. He has achieved what writers, activists and scholars have striven to achieve for decades. He has exposed the ducts. He has placed on full public view the working parts, the nuts and bolts of the apocalyptic apparatus of the American Empire.

Now that the blueprint (The Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire) has been put into mass circulation, it could be disabled quicker than the pundits predicted.

Bring on the spanners.

Arundhati Roy is the author of The God of Small Things, a novel for which she won the Booker Prize in 1997. She is also a tireless activist for social causes, particularly around issues of international peace, poverty, and empire building.
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