War on Iraq

Lebanese poet and essayist Abbas Beydoun and German author Michael Kleeberg met each other last winter during the Berlin Project - West-Eastern Diwan. Qantara.de invited these two renowned authors to participate in a weekly exchange of correspondence related to the events of the war against Iraq.

Thursday, March 20, 2003

My dear Abbas,

Michael Kleeberg
Michael Kleeberg

​​Well, now it's finally started; the war began last night. It's always been said that nobody in Germany was looking forward to it, but I've just noticed that this isn't the case. The moment Bush announced his 48-hour ultimatum, the Frankfurt stock market showed strong gains for the first time in months, and it hasn't looked back since…

I keep thinking about the young poet we met in Beirut. He had just called his wife to arrange a visit to the cinema to see the new Bond film, and he said to me: "Hopefully, the Yanks will come soon and get rid of Saddam - and Assad with him, if possible. And if they do anything that goes against our interests, we'll make war on them too. But first of all, they should get over here, at long last, and get rid of Saddam..."

Now they're there.

I'm sure you remember the mood in Germany, even months ago. A visiting Martian who knew nothing of life on earth would have thought the bombs were about to fall on Berlin and Frankfurt, and not on Baghdad; that's how big the panic was here. I have to admit I'm tired of this senseless blather, when measured against the Americans' declared WILL. One doesn't have to be a military historian to know that simply Not Wanting carries no weight against a determined will (backed up by power).

We also know the only thing that could place any bounds on American military politics: a European military policy, i.e. a united political will on the part of this continent, combined with enough guns and missiles to guarantee credibility and the ability to assert itself. Plus a more developed political culture than that to be found in the USA. The only problem is: this will does not exist - nor do we have the kind of visionary politicians who might formulate and implement it.

I would have more respect for the pacifism of the German government and the German people if I could shake off the following suspicion: that this pacifism is no more than a lack of any political concept (as far as the politicians are concerned) and an extremely selfish kind of cowardice.

Yes: cowardice. If you listen very closely, you can hear WHY the people here are actually so pacifistic: not primarily because they feel sorry for the Arabs, but because they don't want Germany to provoke Islamist terrorists into carrying out attacks in this country. We have a proverb here: "Oh, Holy Saint Florian, spare my house; burn somebody else's." Of course, nobody will admit it, but the fact remains that we, the German people, did not invent moral courage or the concept of standing up for one’s convictions.

Naturally, the radio and the press are now full of the war, no matter what the actual topic at hand happens to be. It's hard to find even a cookery recipe that doesn't include some mention of the war.

You have faced the inevitable with so much more dignity and calm! You, who are in far greater peril! I am thinking of you there in Lebanon - on a powder keg. I hope that this war will spare you all, and that it won't sooner or later engulf your little island.

Looking forward to hearing from you soon.


Dear Michael,

Abbas Beydoun
Abbas Beydoun

​​The Americans didn't loose any time – they began the war the moment their ultimatum ran out. Here in Lebanon, people have been holding out in front of their televisions since the war was started. At the beginning, the taxi drivers who drive me to my office at the newspaper, expected me, as a journalist, to explain the possible consequences of the war for Lebanon to them.

A despairing novelist told me that this war would most certainly be detrimental for his profession. Now, the taxi drivers don't ask me about things anymore. They inform me of the American losses. Posted in front of their television sets, they have transformed themselves into imaginary warriors adding to the toll of the American and English dead.

Still, I don't believe that these people crave a victory in this war, they really don't have too many illusions as far as such things are concerned. But then, the people here don't wage only wars they expect to win, they also believe that lost wars deserve to be fought with courage and enthusiasm. And anyway, where courage is concerned, they don't even stop to think about outcomes.

They have become used to losing and their only wish is at least to preserve a little human dignity. With the exception of the Algerian war, these people have always lost and, in most cases, it was American weapons that brought them down in the end. However, another thing they have become used to is fighting without hope.

They have been doing it in Palestine, they are doing it today in Iraq. They are doing it today, hopelessly doomed as they are to defeat, and at the same time they know, that it is for this very reason that the Americans are attacking them, because they – the Arabs – are so very weak in their desolation and despair.

And because they – the Americans – believe that for a very small price they can successfully demonstrate and parade their power in Iraq. And because the Americans also believe they are taking their revenge on Iraq for what Afghanistan's "Al-Qaida" did to them. The argument of a link between Iraq and Afghanistan is weak. The Americans have tried again and again, without success, to find such links. Their audience doesn't need much in the way of proof.

The world of Evil and Darkness is always a world of intrigue and conspiracy in which the evil, inflicting their blows upon us, will deliver us with adequate proof. According to the Torah and the cinema, Evil needs no proof. Saddam Hussein begged the Americans and was prepared to do everything he could to save his skin.

He was not only prepared to burn his weapons of mass destruction and conventional weapons but also to introduce all sorts of reforms and metamorphose from a monstrous dictator into an agent for the American West. But all the Americans wanted was a defeat on the battlefield. They - the Americans – wanted, above all, to come here. Not only for the oil, but also to rot out the Evil of Arab and Islamic otherness.

Inevitably, a way will be found to remove the Evil of the lesser Korean otherness. Whereas the weapons of mass destruction only seem to be dangerous in the hands of the Others, these same weapons are undoubtedly and without reserve a sign of Good in the hands of the Westerners and the Israelis. This of course needs no proof. This needs a vision. The bombing of Iraq and its defeat are the vision that was awaited.

I, for my part, wanted a short and fast war, I did not want anyone to die because of a tyrant like Saddam Hussein. I wrote an essay with the title To him alone defeat, but many people felt that the real reason for the war lies in the weakness of Iraq in particular and of the Arabs in general. This war also holds the additional humiliation of a people who has always been declared free for slaughter, who feels itself subject to treatment defying all given law.

No law prevents the Israelis from burying humans below rubble and debris, and of course, there will also be no law preventing Americans from burying humans below rubble and debris. The people abhor Saddam Hussein, but they do not trust the Americans. No matter from which source the analyses come, no-one could see anything in the first burnt-out American tank, but the symbol of blind power, the punishment for its ignorant arrogance.

Most Arabs were only able to think that this time at least their defeat and their weakness would not be quite so great. So far, the outcome of this war is already decided, but what will happen when the Americans suffer great losses on this path? What will happen, when the American people understand that every aggression has its price? What will happen, when the Americans start realizing that people are not protesting against this war without reason and that the Devil, whom Bush believes to have seen, is not a real devil, and that it will not be so easy to hand over the control of a country to a so-called prophet?

I was for a short war because I would never wish death either to Iraqis or Americans. But the resistance to this war will certainly show that the Bush policy is no vision, but raving stupidity, and that to associate this power with divine guidance, goodness and wisdom is monstrous propagandistic arrogance. And when all this happens, it will happen, without any doubt, for the good of America and the world.

Abbas Beydoun

Dear Abbas,

After a week and a half of war, one can observe things happening here in Germany that I would not previously have thought possible. I don't mean the daily anti-Bush and pro-peace demonstrations, for these are nothing new. They've been going on forever, and almost any occasion will suffice. Moreover, now as in the past, most of these protestors are part of well-defined social groupings: many of them belong to or sympathise with the SPD, the Greens or the trade unions, while some are members of small left-wing splinter groups, or otherwise on the margins of society.

No, what seems really new to me is the amount of sheer outrage at the American government: people are sick of its manifest stupidity and the colonial arrogance with which it treats the rest of the world, including its own allies. This feeling of disgust extends far beyond the boundaries of the groups mentioned above.

In the last few days, I have been astonished to see people turning away from the USA and placing their hope, for the first time, in the development of a united Europe. And these are people who had previously felt that our only possible future lay in close solidarity with the USA – in vassalage – politically, economically, culturally, indeed in every respect.

Only a few weeks before this war, I heard a politician remark dismissively that any German-French (political) model could only be consigned to the rubbish-heap of history; our future, he said, lay in preserving a close bond to the USA. Well: more and more people now seem to be realising that we may have an alternative to blindly following a nation whose leadership masks its own power interests in fanatical religious rhetoric.

In this, and in its anti-democratic reflexes, the current Administration bears a closer resemblance to those it describes as "rogue states" than it may care to admit.

And we don't just have an alternative: it seems to be dawning on more and more people that we here in Europe also deserve better than the position of court jesters to this Bush-led America. I'd like to quote an article by the outstanding Austrian writer Robert Menasse, published two weeks ago in the "Literarische Welt". I can imagine no better description of this suddenly reawakened Euro-democratic self-confidence:

"Bush's Law: Wage war only against countries that can afford to pay for it themselves when it's over". This is the first innovation in the field of war theory since Clausewitz. Yet however avant-garde this idea may seem, it's no more than a primitive reflex reaction to the structural backwardness of the USA as compared to Europe; for European politics are already post-national, while the United States is still only capable of understanding politics as the pursuit of national self-interest.

Since Europe's experiences in the first half of the 20th century, the continent's politicians have rightly chosen the path of peace. The USA, however, despite its experiences in the second half of the 20th century, is still focusing on military conquest and military protection of its markets and resources.

In its technological development, and thus in the production of social wealth, the USA may be ahead of Europe in quantitative terms. But when it comes to the distribution of social wealth, Europe completely outstrips the United States. The difference between the US market economy and the European social market economy is comparable to the gulf that separates cuneiform writing from the offerings of the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Two hundred years ago, the ideas of the Enlightenment may well have been closer to realisation in the USA than on the "Old Continent"; now, however, the United States are actually lagging behind the ideas that shaped their constitution. When measured against the ideas of the Enlightenment, the USA today is seen to be an underdeveloped country, even by those who sympathise with it. The evidence for this extends from the influence of religion on politics to the continuing existence of the death penalty."

Something happened a few years ago, while I was still living in France; I remember it well. The French government was the only one in Europe that stood up to an American plan to deal with the import and export of cultural goods – books, films, etc. – according to the same regulations governing all other products of the economy.

Without exception, the French newspapers were filled with the topic – and in Germany, nobody said a word about it. This also marked the beginning of French opposition to a kind of globalisation that benefits only American interests; and the resistance eventually grew into "Attac", a movement that now enjoys a worldwide presence.

It almost looks as though the Europeans have finally woken up. It would be good for everyone if they did - and in the long term this includes all of you in the Orient. But let's wait and see whether Europe's emancipation is just a flash in the pan - or really meant seriously.

Should the Americans actually succeed in toppling Saddam without too much bloodshed – and should they then proceed, against all expectations, to grapple seriously with the issue of Palestine – then they will recapture the hearts of Europeans as quickly as they're losing them right now.

Affectionate greetings,

Michael Kleeberg

Dear Michael,

I have not taken part in any demonstrations. I hear about them from those who consider them as their only means of participating in events. I hate the celebratory aspect of such demonstrations and always feel that those taking part in them are imitating themselves, and conjuring up without any innovation things that have been become part of the wreckage of their lives.

However, I listen to the drivers of the service taxis who drive me around in their cars, and to my fellow passengers. All of them are proud of the resistance the Iraqis are putting up, and all of them do not want to think that the outcome of the battle is a foregone conclusion and that the Iraqis have no hope of being saved from it. People over here support Iraq – or why not say Saddam Hussein and his regime – for one simple reason, namely that it has resisted and inflicted losses on the Americans, both in terms of weapons and lives.

It is not peace that people hear care about. What they care about is confronting the Americans at any cost. They care about daring to defy the Americans and they do not think of the consequences. They are the same people who can be scared to death and prevented from breathing by the political police.

I don't understand how people crushed by fear can appear courageous as they confront the world's strongest super power. I don't know, but I sometimes think that people fear repression more than they fear war. They fear torture and humiliation more than they fear death. I do not understand, but I am saddened when I see people who only care about dying with a dignity that they did not enjoy in their lives.

The day came when the French press put forward some questions about the Arab masses. It said that it seemed that the Arab masses were an illusion, because those masses had not been seen on the streets struggling for peace, whereas people in the countries farthest away from our region had demonstrated against war in Iraq.

Let me say that peace to the Arab masses is a luxury they do not contemplate. They think of more necessary matters – of dignity, for example, if not of the medicines and food that they lack. That lack in itself is a big humiliation. They are thinking of dignity. Now, as the Iraqis confront the Americans in whatever way and for whatever reason, everyone feels involved, since dignity is now the issue.

However, this is dangerous because dignity is an ancient issue. In any case, it is not exactly a contemporary issue. Others demand peace and justice. But here, what counts is honour. And with honour comes a tribal heritage that can impose itself: courage, sacrifice, combat.

All these are the war values of peoples that are always defeated and always craving just one victory, or at least a dignified confrontation. That causes us to become preoccupied with non-contemporary issues on the basis of which it is difficult to communicate with the world, hold a debate with it or enter into its battles and confrontations.

The world does not understand why many Arabs commit suicide in commando operations. And the Arabs do not understand – even those of them who oppose those suicide operations – why those suicide attacks are described as unethical. At the very least, they view them as a sign of great sacrifice and outstanding courage. It is likely that a big battle such as the war in Iraq slightly restores Arab dignity.

It is a major war, a war against the world and defeat is a possibility, while remaining steadfast for a while is almost a victory. But this is an issue in which there is no place for politics, economics, self-interest or arithmetic. It is an issue that only entails pure psychology. Once again, we ask the question: Where are we? In what age are we living?

Abbas Beydoun

Dear Abbas!

"The bloody dog is dead!" – That's how simple and clear it used to be, my dear Abbas, back in the days of the unequivocally just war against the Germans. With the mission accomplished, the moustachioed dictator dead, and the allied troops in the capital, the war was over and peace and reconstruction could begin.

The defeated Germans – who had been blasting away at their "Jewish-Bolshevist" enemies only minutes before – hung out their white flags, gave thanks for their liberation from fascism, and lined up to join courses in democratisation or socialism (depending on whose machine guns happened to be pointing at them). Yes - having killed 30 million and seen 7 million of our own killed in turn, we Germans proved how reasonable, how insightful we were.

With admirable enthusiasm, we followed the instructions of out conquerors/liberators to the letter, tugged our forelocks, said "For this relief, much thanks", "Cheers", "Nastrovje", and "If only we'd known what was really going on here…"

Wouldn't it be wonderful if it could be like that everywhere, Mr. Bush? When a war ends, the dictators should be dead or captured; the population should realise they're being liberated (not defeated); the people should nonetheless understand that the victors must govern them; and, last not least (goddammit), they should have the decency to be GRATEFUL for it all.

Well, just between the two of us, my dear Abbas: when one looks at the prisons, the mass graves and the other evidence of Saddam's rule of terror, then one can, in fact, hardly fail to be thankful that the Americans have put an end to his regime. It no longer makes any sense to question the legitimacy or legality of this war; indeed, it would be ridiculous to do so, weeks after the fighting has ended. The question that remains is this:

What should replace the fallen regime? An Islamic theocracy controlled by Shi'ite mullahs, perhaps? Out of Saddam's frying pan, into the Islamist fire… now, that would really be a bitter conclusion to the war. But what's the alternative? What were the Americans thinking about? Were they really so naïve as to suppose that the Iraqis were like the Germans in 1945 – ready to kiss their feet and eager to show what good democrats they could be?

Or do they not in fact care what kind of regime finally assumes power in Iraq, as long as the US controls the oil and their companies are earning money from the reconstruction work? Do the Americans have an idealistic, utopian, democratic master plan for the entire region, logically entailing the removal of a few more autocratic regimes? Or are they as stupid, naïve and plainly imperialist as the European intelligentsia believes?

None of these questions can easily be made to produce exciting pictures, and that's why they aren't being asked on TV any more. Yes, Iraq is no longer front-page news; and, to be honest, we're all a little sick of the subject. Now, in fact, we'd rather see and hear something new, something different: a little German domestic policy, perhaps, or a nice short article about the earthquakes in Algeria.

But here's one thing this war has taught us: It doesn't matter in the slightest what we desire and hope for, what we see and what we don't see: the United States of America will decide to do certain things or they will decide not to. The Iraqis and the other Arab peoples will be pleased or angry, and they will hate the USA a little more or a little less. And we here in Europe will be informed in good time – which means after the decisions have been made.

M. Kleeberg

Dear Michael,

No one here will say that the Americans liberated Iraq as they did Germany, despite the many similarities. The reason is that the Americans themselves do not want it to be thus. Bush speaks of democracy, but he speaks more of God's will, of Christ's will, of the war against evil. The Iraqis have heard this kind of talk before, in one way or another.

They have heard it from Saddam, who also thought that he had been assigned a mission by God, and they have heard it from the clergymen and the fundamentalist movements. They know it is meaningless talk, and they are surprised to hear it coming from a man who derives all his power from science and technology.

To put it in a nutshell, Bush's discourse did not convince anyone of the necessity of war, and will not convince anyone of his explanations of the war. However, the significant event is that the Iraqis are rid of Saddam Hussein.

The graves that are being discovered every day show the extent to which that is a real victory. It is an orphaned victory that has no owner, but it is wonderful. The Iraqis did not participate in the most important event of their lives. It came to them as a gift, and that is very confusing. They do not know what to do with that gift. They tried their first lesson in democracy by directing it against the Americans themselves.

It was necessary for them to shout, protest and resist through demonstrations, and they have done this profusely, as though they could not be satisfied by this new game to which they were unaccustomed. They shouted against unemployment and hunger; protested against the looting and went in their millions to the Shi'ite holy capital, weeping and lamenting. They cried and they shouted. Freedom, as we know, is not bestowed. It is cruel, it criticises and it curses.

Actually, the cursing and the token violence have begun. Following Saddam's Stalinist cruelty, counter-violence springs up, and it is also repressed and searching for a victim.

It is frightening that the cycle of violence is not ending. It is more frightening that there are those amongst the victims and the exiles who want the vicious circle of violence to continue. Iraq has not experienced true democracy since it was established. Saddam Hussein and his regime destroyed the state and society from within.

During the last decade of his rule, Iraq was a jungle, and all forms of assault were permissible and perpetrated by the Ba'thists, the intelligence services and the president's relatives. There was no law. Today's Iraq, which is seething, is the Iraq from which Saddam Hussein banished any authoritative reference or law.

Therefore, no one knows what must be done. As the answer is awaited, people are distracted by their rancour and resentment. Strangely, the other Arabs do not understand this. They are starting to talk about armed resistance against the Americans, as though it were not enough for the Iraqis to have experienced fifty years of bloodshed, killing and graves and as though they must start another cycle of bloodshed and violence.

The situation is confusing. No one wants to understand what is going on. Everyone is holding on to their preconceived ideologies as though they were afraid that a new era would begin. They speak once again of colonialism and resistance. They do not want to understand that the demise of 50 years of dictatorship is a new life, merely because this was brought about by the hated Americans. There is a very great separation from reality taking place.

I fear that we will live in an intentional and deliberate state of separation from reality. We simply do not want to begin. There is an invitation that we do not want to accept. We are hesitating and no one is actually interested in helping us. The Americans have won the war, but they think that the victor is allowed to commit all kinds of stupidities. People received them as liberators, but they have ended up hating them.

In any case, that is not a big issue. Perhaps the Iraqis, who inhabit almost the oldest Arab country, are finding ways of defending their character. Ways other than armed resistance, of course. If they find those ways, it will be possible for the rest of the Arabs to learn from them. It will be possible for the rest of the Arabs be rid of their shame, of their deep-seated guilt and of their impotence so that they can find a historic moment for themselves.

Saddam Hussein's regime has ended and the regimes that resemble it are threatened. An era has ended. We may experience a huge vacuum for a time, but we are hopeful of another beginning.

If something serious happens in Iraq, we will stop being ashamed of ourselves for allowing the Americans to undertake on our behalf what we were unable to do. We will start thinking of the future. And perhaps we will think that freedom is also a wealth, like oil, and that we can take advantage of it for the sake of a new era.

Translation from Arabic: Samira Kawer; Translation from German: Patrick Lannagan