To the mountain

John Berger
13 April 2003

Iraq, the Republic of Fear under Saddam, is now ruled by a Coalition of Fear. The distinguished writer John Berger said on the eve of war that lies prepare the way for missiles. Now he sees revealed in the desperate chaos of Baghdad the blindness of a force whose pitiless weaponry and limitless ambition offer no insight into the truths of its conquest.

“If we don’t succeed, we run the risk of failure.” George W. Bush

Baghdad has fallen. The city has been taken by the troops who were bringing it freedom. Its hospitals are wailingly overcrowded with burnt and maimed civilians, many of them children, and all of them victims of the computerised missiles, shells and bombs launched by the city’s liberators. The statues of Saddam Hussein have been overturned. Meanwhile at a Pentagon press conference, the US secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld is suggesting that the next country to be liberated may be Syria.


Early this morning came an e-mail from a friend who is a painter: “The world today is hard to look at, let alone think of”. All of us can recognise ourselves in that cry from the heart – yet let’s think.


There are certain moments of looking at a familiar mountain which are unrepeatable. A question of a particular light, an exact temperature, the wind, the season. You could live seven lives and never see the mountain quite like that again; its face is as specific as a momentary glance across a table at breakfast. A mountain stays in the same place, and can almost be considered immortal, but to those who are familiar with the mountain, it never repeats itself. It has another timescale.


Each day and night of the ongoing war in Iraq is different with different grieves, different acts of defiance, different stupidities. It remains, however, the same war, the war which almost everyone in the world perceived, before it began, as an aggression of unprecedented cynicism (the ravine between declared principles and real aims), undertaken to seize control of one of the world’s richest oil reserves, to test out new weapons, like the microwave bomb, weapons of pitiless destruction, many of which were offered free to the Pentagon by the manufacturers in the hope of winning substantial contracts for wars to come, but principally and above all undertaken to demonstrate to the present fragmented but globalised world what Shock and Awe is!

This can be put less rhetorically. The primary aim of the war, launched in defiance of the UN, was to demonstrate what is likely to happen to any leader, nation, community, or people, who persist in refusing to comply with US interests. Many propositions and memos about the vital need for such a demonstration were being discussed in corporate and operational planning circles before Bush’s fraudulent election, and before the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.

The term ‘US interests’ can lead to confusion here. It does not refer to the direct interest of US citizens, whether poor or well-off, but to the interests of the most extensive multinational corporations, often dominated by US capital, and now, when necessary, defended by US armed forces.

What Rumsfeld, Cheney, Rice, Wolfowitz, Perle and company have succeeded in doing since 11 September is to close any debate about the legitimacy or ultimate efficacy of such a threatening deployment of power. They have used the fear, set off by the Twin Towers attack, to try to enlist the media and public opinion in support of unilaterally decided pre-emptive strikes against any target they name terrorist. As a result, the world market with its spin is being woven into the Stars and Stripes, and the making of profit (for the few who can) is becoming the only inalienable right.

“Terrorism is the war of the poor, and war is the terrorism of the rich,” Peter Ustinov the playwright recently observed with succinct clarity.

An equally succinct remark was made by one of Rumsfeld’s spokesmen when questioned about the role of countries, who had not joined the invading coalition, in the reconstruction of Iraq when the war is over. “If you haven’t joined the club, why should you come to the dinner?”


Although the assertion that Iraq still had weapons of massive destruction was the so-called justification for the country’s invasion, there has perhaps never been a war in which the inequality of firepower between the combatants has been so great. On one hand satellite surveillance night and day, B52s, Tomahawk missiles, cluster bombs, shells with depleted uranium and computerised weapons which are so sophisticated that they give rise to the theory (and virtual dream) of a no-contact war; on the other hand, sandbags, elderly men brandishing the pistols of their youth and handfuls of fedayeen, wearing torn shirts and sneakers, armed with a few kalashnikovs. The majority of the conventionally-armed troops of the Republican Guard were bombed out of existence during the first week. The comparative casualty rates between the Iraqi forces and those of the coalition may turn out to be, as in the operation, whose logo was Desert Storm, something approaching 1000 : 1.

Baghdad was taken within five days of the US army being given the order to attack the city. The obligatory overthrowing of the dictator’s hideous statues followed the same pattern; the liberated citizens only had hammers whilst the US troops assisted with tanks and bulldozers.

The speed of the operation convinced the tame journalists, but not the courageous wild ones, that the invasion was, as promised, a liberation! Might had been demonstrated to be right! Meanwhile, Baghdad’s poor, fatally deprived during the eleven-year embargo, started to pillage empty public buildings. The chaos began.


Return to the mountain, which proposes another timescale and observe from there. The victors, with their historically unprecedented superiority of weapons, the victors who were bound to be victors, appeared frightened. Not only the gas-masked marines, dispatched to a problematic country and undergoing real desert storms, but faraway spokespeople in the comfort of the Pentagon, and, above all, the coalition’s national leaders, appearing on TV or conferring, conspiratorially, in out-of-the-way places.

Many of the errors committed during the early stages of the war – soldiers being killed by ‘friendly fire’, civilian families being blown to pieces at point-blank range (an operation called ‘killing the vehicle’) – were said to be caused by over-nervousness.

Any of us can become terrified at any moment if fear overlays us. The leaders of the New World Order, however, would seem to be married to Fear and their subordinate Commanders and Sergeants to be indoctrinated from above with something of the same fear.

What are the practices of this marriage? Day and night the partners of Fear are anxiously preoccupied with telling themselves and their subordinates, the right half-truths, half-truths which hope to change the world from what it is into something which it is not! It takes about six half-truths to make a lie. As a result, they become unfamiliar with reality, whilst continuing to dream about, and of course, to exercise power. They continually have to absorb shocks whilst accelerating. Decisiveness becomes their invariable device for preventing the asking of questions.

Married as they are to Fear, they cannot come to terms with, or find a place for, death. Fear keeps death out, and so the Dead desert them. The partners of Fear are alone on this planet – as the rest of the world is not. This is why, considering all the power they wield, military and otherwise, they are dangerous. Terrifyingly dangerous. It is also why they cannot survive.


On the twenty-third day of the war the chaos increased exponentially. The regime had been toppled. Saddam Hussein could not be found. The aerial bombardments continued their havoc wherever General Tommy Franks saw fit. And on the ground in Baghdad and some other liberated cities, everything was being pillaged, stolen, dismembered, not only from deserted ministries, but from shops, houses, hotels, and even hospitals to which more and more maimed and dying were being hopelessly carried. Some doctors in Baghdad took up guns to try to defend their services and equipment. Meanwhile the forces who liberated and traumatised the city stood by, astounded, nervous, doing nothing.


The scenario for the jubilant toppling of the statues was foreseen in the Pentagon and studiously prepared for, because it contained a half-truth. The whole truth of what is happening in the cities was not foreseen. Donald Rumsfeld has referred to the chaos as merely ‘an untidiness’.

When one tyranny is overthrown, not by the people concerned, but by another tyranny, the result risks to be chaos, because it will seem to the people that the ultimate hope of any social order has been totally destroyed, and then the impulse to seize for personal survival takes over and looting begins. It is as simple and terrible as that. Yet the new tyrants know nothing about how people in extreme circumstances behave. Their fear stops them knowing. Expertise in emergency control does not lessen their ignorance. They are familiar only with half-truths addressed to clients.

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