Green Zone Confidential
How to replace one armed camp with another
They were telling details about life inside the Green Zone.
When the American occupation set up shop in the seven square-mile area formerly the kingly domain of Saddam Hussein, the same segregation between the Green Zone and the rest of the country, which Saddam had purposely created, was maintained and reinforced by the Americans. Ordinary Iraqis were not allowed in. Workers were imported from Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, the Philippines. Halliburton and other subsidiaries of the Bush administration did the importing. Workers were (are) treated as chattel, turning in their passport on arrival, putting in godless hours for slave wages (“but they’re better paid than they’d be back home”) and denied any rights beyond the right to show up for work or be fired. The less they’re paid, the more shareholders back home can keep for themselves out of the billions being disbursed weekly for “security” operations.
Iraqi workers weren’t trusted from Day 1, except for a very small minority. Not trusted to prepare the food for the occupation forces in the Green Zone (they could poison it), not trusted to build the infrastructure, let alone build the American Embassy compound (they could bug it, booby-trap it, sabotage the air). The Iraqis who were trusted, Muslims most of them, were forced to handle foods like pork they never would otherwise, and eat in the dining hall where the westerners ate, whatever was served: Most of the hundreds of Iraqi secretaries and translators who worked for the occupation authority “were offended by the presence of pork,” Rajiv Chandrasekaran writes at the beginning of his “Imperial Life in the Emerald City,” “But the American contractors running the kitchen kept serving it. The cafeteria was all about meeting American needs for high-calorie, high-fat comforts.”
The cafeteria might as well be a metaphor for Iraq. It’s not that the Americans never understood what they were doing in Iraq. They knew what they were doing. They just weren’t doing it for Iraqis’ sake. They couldn’t care less about Iraqis, no matter what that feel-good mural of the World Trade Center they painted in the big Green Zone dining hall, framed by the words, THANK GOD FOR THE COALITION FORCES & FREEDOM FIGHTERS AT HOME AND ABROAD—stupid words or ignorance and arrogance made stupider by the “massive bronze busts of Saddam in an Arab warrior’s headdress” looking down from the four corners of the same building’s roof: The Americans replaced one deluded tyranny with another.
Chandrasekaran describes how you’d never find any of the fabulous vegetables grown in Iraq in any of the Green Zone’s salad bars, because “U.S. government regulations dictated that everything, even the water in which hot dogs were boiled, be shipped in from approved suppliers from other nations.” Milk and bread from Kuwait, cereal from the United States. Naturally, Iraqi support staffers “mocked their American bosses with impunity.”
It’s a small set of details. But it speaks loads about the lie at the heart of the neocons’ designs for Iraq in 2003, and the impossibility of making Iraq work under American guidance today no matter how many surges the Bush administration or the next president throws at the country: There never was any intention to help Iraq. Only a plan to wrest it from Saddam’s control and subdue it by different means, and for different ends. Americans are occupying Iraq for the oil, for strategic reasons, to face down Iran and Russia, to have a fat foothold in the Middle East once Saudi Arabia shatters, as it will. They’re not even there to oppose terrorism (if they were, the best thing to do would be to withdraw: the Shiites would take care of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia in a matter of weeks). They’re there as an old-fashioned, unimaginative colonial power. Chandrasekaran again:
From inside the Green Zone, the real Baghdad—the check-points, the bombed out buildings, the paralyzing traffic jams—could have been a world away. The horns, the gunshots, the muezzin’s call to prayer, never drifted over the walls. The fear on the faces of American troops was rarely seen by the denizens of the palace. The acrid smoke of a detonated car bomb didn’t fill the air. The Sub-Saharan privation and Wild West lawlessness that gripped one of the world’s most ancient cities swirled around the walls, but on the inside, the calm sterility of an American subdivision prevailed.
Not the sterility of willful peace, but of clinical suppression: of reality inside the Green Zone walls, of Iraqis outside of them. As far as the Iraqis are concerned, the end result is the same down to the death tally, with one difference: life was less lethal under Saddam, and more bearable.