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Barbarians Build the Gates
Fortress of Folly

Skyline of the imperials

The great J.M. Coetzee deservedly won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2003. His books include Waiting for the Barbarians, the brief meditation of a magistrate once in charge of am imperial outpost, and now awaiting his execution after his arrest for a minor act of sympathy with the people he once oppressed. The representative of the state has become the enemy of the state. Coetzee wouldn’t want the book read as an allegory of contemporary times, least of all of Iraq (he wrote the book before the invasion), but a couple of parallels are inevitable. The first is this passage:

Some say that the entire thousand-mile frontier has erupted into conflict, that the northern barbarians have joined forces with the western barbarians, that the army of the Empire is too thinly stretched, that one of these days it will be forced to give up the defense of remote outposts like this one to concentrate its resources on the protection of the heartland. Others say that we receive no news of the war only because our soldiers have thrust deep into the enemy’s territory and are too busy dealing out heavy blows to send dispatches. Soon, they say, when we least expect it, our men will come marching back weary but victorious, and we shall have peace in our time.

I love that little nod to Chamberlain’s famous phrase, so often repeated in other forms and in vain by members of the Bush administration (Bush’s “we will prevail” is the most common and unimaginative variation). The second parallel between Coetzee’s bit and the Iraq war is the monstrosity known as the American embassy compound rising up in Baghdad . I’ve written about it before, but it’s a monstrosity that keeps mutating, keeps taking on newer shades of horror—the sheer $600 million expense that will more likely be double that by the time the project is completed, the daily insult to Baghdadis, who must see this thing rising on their horizon as the only constantly functioning building project in the city, the insult to Iraqis for its contractors and most of the construction workers being Kuwaiti, and so on. Not much has been written about the monstrosity since a spate of articles appeared last spring. The U.S. government has effectively shut down reporting about the thing simply by acting as if it doesn’t exist, and Congress has, naturally, acceded to the blackout. Blonsense Liz alerts to one of those articles, by the AP last spring, which noted some of the compound’s features like it was a bigger, better version of the Mall of America, although the Daily Telegraph’s Oliver Poole gave the more relevantly contrasting details:

It takes nearly five minutes to drive along just one side of its 104 acres, which will contain 21 buildings, the first floors of which are clearly visible along with the metal trellising that provides protection from mortars. The surrounding city may still have erratic clean water supplies and intermittent electricity but the new embassy will have a guaranteed supply with its own water treatment facilities and a generator. The only details of what the completed complex will look like can be found in a recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee report. There will be six blocks with 619 one-bedroom flats, a recreation building, a beauty parlour, gym, swimming pool and even its own school. A lavish “American Club” will provide a venue to relax in the evening and a site to host receptions for visiting dignitaries.

Here’s the kicker. The articles mention that the chief contractor for the project is, as the AP piece put it, “a Kuwait builder, First Kuwaiti Trading & Contracting.” None mention whose subcontractor First Kuwaiti is, among others: Kellogg Brown & Root, Halliburton’s parent company and Dick Cheney’s shadow pension. First Kuwait has had 69 contracts with KBR to date (look them up, along with their value; those don’t include the contracts with the US Army, Marines, US Corps of Engineers, all of which can also be looked up). The racket continues.

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