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Moscow Times
June 30, 2003
Conflicting Storylines in Iraq
By Matt Bivens

"U.S. troops psyched up on a bizarre musical reprise from the Vietnam war film 'Apocalypse Now' before crashing into Iraqi homes to hunt gunmen on Saturday. ... With Wagner's 'Ride of the Valkyries' still ringing in their ears and the clatter of helicopters overhead, soldiers rammed vehicles into metal gates and hundreds of troops raided houses." -- Reuters, June 21.

If U.S. soldiers are interpreting their experience in Iraq in terms of our own myths and movies, the Iraqis are no doubt doing the same. And one storyline we are unwittingly playing into is the tale of the Russians and the Chechens.

It goes like this: A superpower of Christian invaders arrives to bomb and kill and occupy, but a plucky underdog band of Muslims stands up for its land, honor and women. The Muslim world is acquainted with this particular take on Chechnya thanks to, yes, movies -- videos of footage from the war zone -- which are circulated around the world to raise money and recruits for various projects, from the humanitarian to the terrorist.

The Russians hit Chechnya in 1994 with "shock & awe" carpet-bombing, and with ground troops. Chechen guerrillas fought back, often in ways that drew Russian fire upon civilians -- which, of course, radicalized the civilian population. After a brief and uneasy truce, the war was reprised in 1999 -- carpet-bombing, then ground troops, then guerrilla war. There was initially some fine talk about making Russian-occupied territories into a shining democracy with rebuilt schools, pension payments, milk and honey. Instead, the schools provided cover for guerrillas, and Russian forces would return fire against both.

There are dozens of ways this tragedy can't be compared to the occupation of Iraq. And American anti-guerrilla campaigns aren't like Russian zachistki operations -- they aren't broodingly, systematically evil. But they are just as doomed and self-defeating.

Consider the events of June 9, when Americans searching for "pro-Saddam" fighters roared into the village of Thuluya with helicopter gunships and heavy armor, shouting in English, and with an "informer" -- a man with a burlap sack over his head -- to point out whom to arrest. In the process, one shy teenage boy was gut-shot twice and left to die, another holding a 7-month-old girl was shot in the arm and dropped the baby, and a mentally retarded 19-year-old struggled in terror because he feared he would be suffocated as soldiers duct-taped his mouth shut. By week's end, 50 Iraqi men were still being held in a secretive, makeshift detention center with "Welcome to Camp Black Knight" spray-painted over the entrance. And the informer with the bag over his head was marked for revenge-death.

Events like these are common in occupied Iraq. They are truly a lousy fit with the upbeat story line of Operation Iraqi Freedom. But they do support the "Christian invaders bomb and kill and occupy" storyline. Our government nevertheless insists the Iraqis will eventually prefer our interpretation. After the Thuluya raid, a U.S. military spokesman opined: "We understand animosity can be a result, but as we get bad actors and the quality of life improves, people will understand what we're trying to do."

I disagree. I believe they have their stories, including Chechnya, and we have ours. What's more, if we're intentionally aping "Apocalypse Now," we don't really know our own stories -- not, at least, well enough to convincingly tell them to others.

Matt Bivens, a former editor of The Moscow Times, covered the first war in Chechnya for the Los Angeles Times.

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