Paying Attention

A year ago, I was recommending that friends read a short, invigorating book by Rebecca Solnit, entitled, Hope in the Dark. This year, I will recommend an amazing tour de force of paying attention, in two parts: first, Eliot Weinberger’s “What I Heard about Iraq” and second, Weinberger’s update, What I Heard about Iraq in 2005.”   These two works are, among other things, a breath-taking catalogue of deception, an unflinching account of unnecessary misery, and dossier of the cavalier, smug, macho, and delusional bravado of the Bush Administration.  In the spirit of Charles Reznikoff’s documentary works, Weinberger tenaciously compiles a litany with each paragraph beginning with the line, “I heard …”

Here are few paragraphs from his first installment:

I heard an old man say, after eleven members of his family- children and grandchildren-were killed when a tank blew up their minivan: “Our home is an empty place. We who are left are like wild animals. All we can do is cry out.” [paragraph 75]

I heard Captain Todd Brown say: “You have to understand the Arab mind. The only thing they understand is force-force, pride, and saving face.” [99]

I heard the Marine colonel say: “We napalmed those bridges. Unfortunately, there were people there. It’s no great way to die.” [105]

I heard the President’s mother say: “Why should we hear about body bags, and deaths? Why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?” [117]

I heard Captain Donald Reese, a prison warden, say: “It was not uncommon to see people without clothing. I was told the ‘whole nudity thing’ was an interrogation procedure used by military intelligence, and never thought much about it.” [131]

I heard the President say: “Today, because the world acted with courage and moral clarity, Iraqi athletes are competing in the Olympic Games.” Iraq had sent teams to the previous Olympics. And when the President ran a campaign advertisement with the flags of Iraq and Afghanistan and the words “At this Olympics there will be two more free nations-and two fewer terrorist regimes,” I heard the Iraqi coach say: “Iraq as a team does not want Mr. Bush to use us for the presidential campaign. He can find another way to advertise himself.” I heard their star midfielder say that if he weren’t playing soccer he’d be fighting for the resistance in Fallujah: “Bush has committed so many crimes. How will he meet his god having slaughtered so many men and women?” [148]
I heard Nihida Kadhim, a housewife, say that when she was finally allowed to return to her home [in Fallujah], she found a message written with lipstick on her living-room mirror: “FUCK IRAQ AND EVERY IRAQI IN IT.” [200]

I heard a soldier say that he had talked to his priest about killing Iraqis, and that his priest had told him it was all right to kill for his government as long as he did not enjoy it. After he had killed at least four men, I heard the soldier say that he had begun to have doubts: “Where the fuck did Jesus say it’s OK to kill people for your government?” [205]


And here are a few more from the 2005 collage:

I heard Donald Rumsfeld say: ‘Well, if you have a country of 25 million people and you have x thousands of criminals, terrorists, Baathists, former regime elements who want to blow up things and make bombs and kill people, they can still do that. That happens in most major cities in the world, most countries in the world, that people get killed and there’s violence.’ [paragraph 18]

I heard that some American soldiers had made a heavy metal music video called ‘Ramadi Madness’, with sections entitled ‘Those Crafty Little Bastards’ and ‘Another Day, Another Mission, Another Scumbag’. In one scene, a soldier kicks the face of an Iraqi who is bound and lying on the ground, dying. In another, a soldier moves the arm of a man who has just been shot dead, to make it appear that he is waving. I heard a Pentagon spokesman say: ‘Clearly, the soldiers probably exercised poor judgment.’ [25]

I heard a US soldier talk about his photographs of the 12 prisoners he had shot with a machine-gun: ‘I shot this guy in the face. See, his head is split open. I shot this guy in the groin. He took three days to bleed to death.’ I heard him say he was a devout Christian: ‘Well, I knelt down. I said a prayer, stood up, and gunned them all down.’ [27]

I heard Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Wellman say of the insurgents: ‘We can’t kill them all. When I kill one, I create three. [61]

I heard that this ‘Downing Street Memo’ was a scandal in the British press, but I didn’t hear it mentioned on American network television for two months. During those two months, ABC news had 121 stories on Michael Jackson and 42 stories on Natalee Holloway, a high-school student who disappeared from a bar while on holiday in Aruba. CBS news had 235 stories about Michael Jackson and 70 about Natalee Holloway. [76]

I heard the Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine say that one in four veterans required medical treatment and that it expected that as many as 240,000 would suffer from some form of post- traumatic stress disorder. I heard a soldier say: ‘My nightmares are so intense I woke up one night with my hands around my fiancée’s throat.’ [89]

I heard that John Bolton, the new US ambassador to the United Nations, had said: ‘There is no such thing as the United Nations. There is an international community that occasionally can be led by the only real power in the world – and that is the United States – when it suits our interest and when we can get others to go along.’ I heard that he keeps a bronze hand grenade on his desk.[117]

As the President moved to his ranch for a six-week summer vacation, Cindy Sheehan camped out at the entrance, demanding another meeting, which the President refused. I heard him say: ‘I think it’s important for me to be thoughtful and sensitive to those who have got something to say. But I think it’s also important for me to go on with my life, to keep a balanced life. I think the people want the President to be in a position to make good, crisp decisions and to stay healthy. And part of my being is to be outside exercising.’[123]

I heard Congresswoman Jean Schmidt say: ‘The big picture is that these Islamic insurgents want to destroy us. They don’t like us. They don’t like us because we’re black, we’re white, we’re Christian, we’re Jew, we’re educated, we’re free, we’re not Islamic. We can never be Islamic because we were not born Islamic. Now, this isn’t the Islamic citizens. These are the insurgents. And it is their desire for us to leave so they can take over the whole Middle East and then take over the world. And I didn’t learn this just in the last few weeks or the last few months. I learned this when I was at the University of Cincinnati in 1970, studying Middle Eastern history.’[165]


Rebecca Solnit and Eliot Weinberger’s writings together exemplify that maxim of Antonio Gramsci’s: “pessimism of the intelligence, optimism of the will.”


–Saturday 14 January 2006

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