Friday, March 23, 2007

The Terps

Collaborator. A nasty word which conjures up the shaved heads of French women who slept with Nazi soldiers. An image of cowardice and sleaze probably ill deserved but historically persistent. To collaborate with the enemy is to sell out your own. You don’t get much lower.

We're getting a look at the word from the other side these days. It is being used by people in Iraq fighting back at what they see as the American invasion of their country to refer to those the Americans hire to compensate for their lack of skills in Arabic. The “terps,” the interpreters who work for the U.S. occupying forces, are collaborators, and Americans suggest by their behavior towards these people that they see them as low lifes as well. For all the wrong reasons.

Charlie Rose had an interview with George Packer last night on the failure to protect these people from harm. Also on the program was Kenneth Bacon, the head of Refugees International and an Iraqi asylee who will break your heart with her story. I don’t know how long the program will stay online, but as of this moment, it’s still available on the website.

I’d also recommend reading George Packer’s article, “Betrayed” in the March 26, 2007 issue of the New Yorker. It will bring home the suggestion that we have reached a fork in the road where we can compound the wrongs or try to pick up the pieces with some dignity.

The calls are increasing to label Cheney and Rumsfeld as war criminals, and the histories of the war are going to give Bremer a burden to take to the grave for his stunning mismanagement of the occupation (his dismantling of the Iraqi army, for starters), but I’m concerned our rush to lay blame for what we’ve done by calling for impeachment, war crimes trials and the like, is the wrong primary focus. It wouldn’t break my heart if those things happened, but it wouldn’t fix what needs fixing, either.

Too many people were involved in bringing on this war, or allowing it to happen. As in Rwanda, where the number of Hutu and Tutsi individuals who ran amok are too numerous ever to punish, the consequences of the war in Iraq will never be atoned for by having at a few incompetent individuals. We are at the level of human folly. The real culprit is the human capacity for going off half-cocked and for believing things that just ain’t so. It’s a time to tap into the lessons we learned from the shame of the German and Spanish and Italian compliance with fascism, the history of racism, the sins of omission in a century of holocausts. Not argue over who smashed the China cabinet, but glue together what can be salvaged.

Blame falls on plenty of individuals, including every lousy American congressperson with the exception of Barbara Lee – the Hillary Clintons, the John Edwards’, the Dianne Feinsteins, and 80% of the Americans who got behind the war in Iraq before they thought through the consequences, as well as the neocons. This includes, not incidentally, George Packer as well. But the sheer number of Americans who fell prey to jingoism were, and are, simply too many to lay blame on. It’s time, I think, to call it a failure for the best among us to overcome the weakness in most of us and try to pick up the pieces.

For most Americans, the tragedy of Iraq is represented by the 3200 deaths (and counting) of American soldiers. With no desire to minimize the suffering involved there, cold facts about loss of life do not begin to capture the full misery. That can only be done by statistics on rapes, on people dying on the way to the hospital because of roadblocks, consequences of the failure of water and electricity, educations cut short, loss of secular freedoms to religious fanaticism, and the thousands of incidents which represent the loss of civility in a once much healthier society. And on the fate of the people who came forward to welcome the American invaders and help them “build democracy” in Iraq.

Just as we appear to be falling short in helping Iraq war veterans deal with their physical and psychic wounds because we didn’t anticipate such large numbers of them, we are falling short in helping out those who worked for us because we didn’t plan for the possibility of losing the war. We saw the possibility; we just didn’t plan for it.

Packer’s is the story of the interpreters of Iraq whose dedication to helping the linguistically backward occupiers of their country has been repaid by disrespect, mistrust and outright betrayal. Because they work for the Americans, most Iraqis consider them traitors. Because they are Iraqis, most Americans consider them potential terrorists, despite years of close cooperation and evidence of dedication.

Because of the rapid turnover of Americans running the show in Iraq, knowledge of these people on a personal level is routinely lost. Americans in the trenches working with the interpreters watch in horror as their superiors repay their loyalty with disdain. From the Iraqi perspective, Americans are not concerned with their fate, individually or collectively. The evidence continues to grow that we are not there spreading democracy at all, and whatever we think we are doing, we are not even serving American interests.

There is terrible irony in our hubris. Even if we persist in thinking that we are winning the war, and that Iraqis around the world now living as refugees might someday return to rebuild their country, we could still provide the interpreters with protection short term. So convinced is Big Brother, though, that appearances must override reality, that he can't risk a misreading of the American plan. And as always happens when the imagined world rules the real world, God help you if you're real.

The cold hand of bureaucracy explains much of the story, but not all, as Packer points out. The real reason we shoot our friends and ourselves in the foot is the ideology of the Bush administration. In Vietnam, when we saw that we were losing, a sense of decency and honor made us try to get out as many Vietnamese as we could who worked on our losing side. In Iraq, however, as Ann Coulter informed us recently, “things are going swimmingly.” And since we are not officially losing in Iraq, there is no way for the imperial powers to defend helping the collaboraters this time. Officially, they’re supposed to stay and build the country back up. To admit these are people who fit every criterion for a refugee who has to flee or die would be to admit we’ve lost the war.

I'm not naive enough to think Packer will change the minds of the war advocates. They will write these people off as collateral damage and we'll hear once more that greatest of self-fulfilling prophecies masquerading as an explanation, that war is hell. But I'm impressed he has put his all into making the argument we can pull a little of our honor out of this shame. And hopefully, now that the tide has turned, get a critical mass of folk on board.

Years ago, when American jingoism and the war fever were still strong, I remember a look of pure hatred directed at me for saying I was ashamed to be an American. I’ll never forget those eyes. An otherwise decent man looking at me convinced he was looking at evil. Last night, I heard George Packer say the same thing on the Charlie Rose show, “I’ve never quite felt such shame for this country…”

We’re not over this yet. We’re just beginning the pain of defeat, I believe, unfortunately.

It’s not a time to turn away. It’s a time to put honor and dignity in retreat that was lacking in the attack. George Packer does that in his plea we not grind these good folk into the ground with our bureaucratic insensitivity or throw them to the wolves to prop up a bankrupt ideology. I hope the story gets around that it can be done.

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