WiRED's Work in Iraq: Part #3

BY WIRED DIRECTOR GARY SELNOW, PH.D.

 

Introduction

 

WiRED provided medical and health education programs in Iraq from spring 2003 to late 2009. As the two prior stories in this history series describe, we worked initially from the relative safety of the Green Zone, then from Baghdad hotels and safe houses while providing Iraqi hospitals and universities throughout the country with equipment and training software. Having few financial resources, we traveled without security details, instead remaining inconspicuous, beneath the radar of insurgents. We rode in battered cars whose windows were broken and taped; the tape obscured our identity. We had close calls, as did anyone who traveled in Iraq during the mid-2000s, witnessing the violence firsthand. We lost friends who suffered vicious and deliberate attacks because of who they were and what they were doing to help the Iraqi people.

 

Initially, WiRED received funding from the U.S. State Department to pay for equipment and some travel costs, but our volunteer staff raised much of our funding from generous companies, organizations and private donors. By 2005, our partnerships were entirely with Iraqi educators and medical staffs and other NGOs on the ground; since we had few political connections, we had almost no contact with U.S. Government officials.

 

In 2003, WiRED, a small non-profit organization, installed the first medical education facility at the largest hospital in the country. We initiated the first telemedicine links between Iraqi and American physicians, where hundreds of doctors, separated by thousands of miles, conferred in real time to discuss medicine and to share experiences that were both scientific and personal. By the end of 2008, we had installed 39 Medical Education Centers from Basra in the south to DoHuk in the Kurdish north. We accomplished this by working with Iraqi doctors and computer technicians and by remaining as inconspicuous as possible. Our decision was to run the risk inherent to travel throughout Iraq and to do the work we came to do.

 

WiRED quietly concluded its work in Iraq in 2009, when conditions made our work impossible. Not only was our own security at a greater risk than we could justify, but so too was the security of doctors and medical staffs. As we reported earlier in this series, The Lancet medical journal estimates that between the years 2003 and 2015, more than 2,000 doctors were killed in Iraq. Meanwhile, thousands more and their families had been run out of the country. For Iraq’s doctors, the need for medical education yielded to the need for safety. Moreover, many of our 39 Medical Education Centers had been destroyed, and repairing them would have been too costly; it would have been a fool’s errand.

 

I think it’s fair to state that WiRED, although a small organization, has done a lot with a little, that we have put our lives on the line, that we have done much of this work without the costly support structure available to large organizations and companies with unlimited resources from U.S. taxpayers. We take pride in the work and how it was accomplished. We also feel that our efforts have earned us a turn at the mic to comment on the conduct of the war and on the decisions that brought our country, our troops and our civilian workers to this troubled place.

 

This final article comprises an assortment of small narratives that don’t fit comfortably into a flowing storyline. I’ll start with a description of how the landing strategies of aircraft in a war zone hint at security conditions on the ground. As a former Air Force pilot, I love stories about aviation. With some attention to chronology, in this last installment, I talk a little about our work in Iraqi Kurdistan, the semi-autonomous region in the north of the country, where we finished up our involvement. I’ll offer a few words about the help of the Kurdish government and hospital administrators, and I’ll tip my hat to a Kurdish doctor who made our work productive and genuinely interesting. The piece concludes with an essay about the rhetoric in Washington that brought the United States to Iraq in the first place.

 

WiRED’s Work in Iraqi Kurdistan

 

Passengers gasped when the twin engine turboprop flew over the Baghdad airport at 25,000 feet, throttled back, nosed over and pulled a tight spiral aiming straight at the ground. It’s called a corkscrew landing. The idea is to come in fast and remain directly over the airport to minimize the risk from surface to air missiles and other ground fire. If everything works out, pilots drop the gear on the final leg in time to touch down at the end of the runway. That’s how we arrived in Baghdad in the mid-2000s. Paraphrasing an old saying: there are no atheists during corkscrew landings. How planes landed in Iraq told you a lot about security conditions on the ground.

 

When our plane used a conventional straight-in approach to land in Erbil, a city in the Kurdish region of Iraq, it signaled that conditions on the ground were reasonably secure. The region known as Iraqi Kurdistan (or Kurdistan for short) was officially part of Iraq, and thus technically governed by Baghdad; but in practice, it was directed by Kurdish officials and well-protected by its own fierce Peshmerga fighters. 1

 

In the two years since WiRED began its health education programs in 2003, security conditions in Iraq grew worse in most of the country, pressing WiRED to shift its resources to Kurdistan, where work in hospitals and medical schools was safer. Moreover, whereas the Ministry of Health in Baghdad had become calcified by bureaucracy and burdened by corruption, health officials in Kurdistan were eager for assistance and facilitated our efforts to establish Medical Information Centers throughout their region. We met from time to time with the Kurdish Health Minister and other administrators and worked regularly with hospital and medical school officials who partnered in our activities. In all, we established nine Medical Information Centers, three each in Erbil, Sulaymaniyah and Dohuk, key cities in Kurdistan.

 

Of our many contacts in Kurdistan, one stands out: Dr. Lezgin Chali, a father of four, who some people call the physician-philosopher. Dr. Lezgin got his medical degree at Shiraz University of Medical Sciences, one of the top medical schools in Iran. He practiced medicine in Erbil, then assumed administrative duties at the Health Ministry. I met Dr. Lezgin when he was the Director General of Planning and Health Education with the Kurdistan Regional Government. He took a special interest in WiRED’s work and became the contact for all of our medical education programs in the region including occasional telemedicine activities.

 

Dr. Lezgin is, by any measure, a renaissance man with an abiding passion for medicine, of course, but also for language (he speaks at least four languages fluently) and books, film, politics and music. In addition, he is fascinated by the latest computer and smartphone developments, which made WiRED’s computer-based medical education work of particular interest to him. He followed the smartphone evolution and offered his studied views on which new phone I might consider to replace my old model. When I wanted to learn about the next new thing in technology, I didn’t go to California, where WiRED is based, but to Kurdistan, where Dr. Lezgin offered an expert review of all things technological.

 

I include a shout out here to Dr. Lezgin not only because he put his shoulder to the cart to advance many of our projects, but because he made the work really interesting. I last heard from him in December 2016. I always email him EID greetings, and he always responds. But not this time. Like everyone in Iraqi Kurdistan, he has been dealing with threats from ISIS and from other terrorists who continue to plague the region. Last I heard, he is out of government and practicing medicine full time.

 

Blast Barrier Murals

 

People who have worked in Iraq will instantly recognize the ubiquitous, massive barriers — 12-foot high, interlocking 7-ton slabs of steel-reinforced concrete, that when joined together, form a blast-resistant wall to protect against bombs.

People who have worked in Iraq will instantly recognize the ubiquitous, massive barriers — 12-foot high, interlocking 7-ton slabs of steel-reinforced concrete, that when joined together, form a blast-resistant wall to protect against bombs. They stand around government buildings, police stations, hospitals, universities, and hotels, and they even line highways and roads to help protect against improvised explosive devices. The drab, concrete-gray walls create a tunnel-vision effect, blocking views throughout a city or roadway and serving as constant reminders that bombs are a persistent threat.

 

Erbil, too, had its share of concrete barriers, but people in that city found a way to reduce the disquieting presence of the concrete slabs: They used them as canvasses to create murals, to tell stories, to make statements about war and about more peaceful times. Sometimes the artists painted a flower or an open field offering a simple tonic against the gloom that settles on such a place.

 

I was staying at a hotel in Erbil and decided one morning to take photos of the blast barrier murals around town. Photos included with this story show the unpainted barriers, the painting process and the artwork that resulted. Most paintings, though, were short-lived. The elements worked against the project, as the sun and rain took their toll, eventually returning the walls to their natural gray state.

 

 

Slideshow of Murals

 

 

The Rhetoric of Selling a War

 

This is a discussion about a dynamic used in the persuasion campaign in the early 2000s to convince Americans that the United States should invade Iraq.

 

Background

 

Many readers will recall the intense U.S. government campaign underway from late 2001 to early 2003 to promote the invasion of Iraq. It’s likely that Secretary of State Colin Powell’s persuasive weapons of mass destruction (WMD) speech at the United Nations in February 2003 crystallized public opinion, but the campaign was underway long before Powell’s presentation. President George W. Bush and other administration officials engaged in a well-scripted program that pressed hard for public and congressional approval of the invasion.

 

Late in 2004, after having worked throughout Iraq for more than a year on a number of health projects in hospitals and universities, I gave some thought to how the war was going and how it was sold in the first place. Did the reasons given to invade the country stand up? Claims of WMDs were wrong; that was evident less than a month after troops arrived, but WMDs weren’t the only reason offered to justify an invasion. Administration communication teams employed other strategies to convince the public. They argued that a war would yield peace in the region. Nearly two years into this, peace seemed a long way off, while the war continued to rage. By 2017, peace continued to be an elusive goal.

 

I began writing this essay while sitting at a hotel café in Erbil and finished it several months later in California. I had time to jot down a few thoughts about the first year’s work in Iraq and to consider how we got into the war in the first place. By late 2004, conditions had grown much worse since the invasion; the bombings had increased dramatically, and the politics had deteriorated, as divisions among Iraqis became more pronounced, as private contractors assumed more control, and as American civilian advisors lost their way. Tens of thousands of Iraqis and more than a thousand American troops had died since the invasion. There was no end in sight.

 

Using Peace to Sell a War

 

It’s the fall of 2004, and I’m 50 miles as the crow flies from a fierce battle being fought in Mosel.2 Several days ago, the American military invaded Fallujah and chased the insurgents to other cities and towns. Mosel was one of the insurgents’ destinations, and, at the moment, one of their victims.

 

The insurgents are tearing Mosel apart, killing police, shooting civilians, slaughtering helpless patients in hospital beds. Scores of people have died; most have been unarmed and uninvolved in whatever politics are driving this. Buildings have been destroyed, roads closed; at this moment, the city of a million people is under siege.

 

It’s hard to work in this place and not witness the violence, especially since the WiRED teams spend so much time in hospitals. I traveled throughout Iraq and lived outside the relative safety of the Green Zone; the violence became personal at times.

 

One day, I was sitting in a restaurant in Baghdad listening to neighborhood children playing in the street, when it dawned on me that high above the sounds of the young voices were the sounds of machine guns. The children and their families had adapted to the sounds of war just a few blocks away.

One day, I was sitting in a restaurant in Baghdad listening to neighborhood children playing in the street, when it dawned on me that high above the sounds of the young voices were the sounds of machine guns. The children and their families had adapted to the sounds of war just a few blocks away.

 

People may adapt to the sounds of war, but who can adapt to the attacks on innocent people who have no stake in the fight. I watched a father carry the lifeless body of his young daughter into a hospital. He cried out for someone to save her. The child was past help, but the father would not accept that. I’ve spoken with surgeons who worked 24-hour shifts, dazed by a conveyor belt of victims who had suffered the cruelest assaults of war.

 

At ground level — where war is palpable, where the concept of war takes on flesh and blood — a war is nothing like the portrayals in the rousing speeches that prepare a nation to fight. The war fought on the ground and the war sold from the podium have little in common.

 

No national leader, persuading a nation to wage war, would lay out the real images in graphic and human terms. No leader would describe the carnage, the loss of property, the destruction of families, neighborhoods and lives. You sell a war on the abstractions, the principles and the hoped-for outcomes, not on the bloody combat, the violence, the death and suffering. If we can persuade a nation to fight for the flag, for honor, for God, for freedom and liberty, for future generations, we can also persuade a nation to fight for peace.

 

Then, when a war is underway, leaders must sustain public support, and this, too, demands the abstract. Depictions of the 1991 Gulf War were known for their video-game qualities of laser-guided bombs and computer-directed air strikes. Casualties from that war were seen as pixels not people. In the present war, administration officials tout the progress of political ideals like freedom and democracy, but avoid the real images of war. Shamelessly, they hide even the returning coffins of our soldiers killed in action. 3

 

Sixty years ago, psychologist Harold Laswell explained how political leaders sell a war and then how they sustain public enthusiasm as the dollars go out and the body bags come in. Over the years, persuasion experts have refined Laswell’s assertions,4 few of which have been missed by the U.S. administration in its efforts to win support for the war in Iraq.5 Above all, leaders must focus public attention on a prize, and few prizes are more cherished than peace.

 

Peace as the Goal

 

To sell a war, leaders must first sell peace as their objective.

To sell a war, leaders must first sell peace as their objective. President George W. Bush and his advisors, well-schooled in the art of public persuasion, are quick to link peace with military strength. On February 27, 2001, in a speech before a joint session of Congress, the recently inaugurated president positioned peace as the engine of his foreign and military policies: “America has a window of opportunity to extend and secure our present peace by promoting a distinctly American internationalism. … We will promote the peace. And we need a strong military to keep the peace.” 6

 

Bush did not say we need a strong military to wage a war; we need, he said, a strong military to keep the peace. Well before the World Trade Center attacks and the ensuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Bush argued for a powerful military and often made his case in the name of peace, which, at the time, was not in noticeable jeopardy.

 

A year later, when the U.S. military was hunting Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, Mr. Bush observed in his State of the Union address that the war provided a chance for peace: “And we have a great opportunity during this time of war to lead the world toward the values that will bring lasting peace.”7 In sustaining public support for the ongoing war, and perhaps to prepare people for the upcoming war in Iraq, the president laid out the simple, causal relationship between war and peace.

 

In President Bush’s final State of the Union address (2003) before going to war in Iraq, he prominently played the war-for-peace card. He frequently contrasted the peace he endorsed with what he saw as the peace-opposing character of the enemy. He emphasized that the purpose of war is to achieve peace, and combatants are the defenders of peace (not the fighters of war). Here are several examples from that address, each followed by my comments:

 

“We seek peace. We strive for peace. And sometimes peace must be defended. A future lived at the mercy of terrible threats is no peace at all.” 8

 

GWS: He says not only must we defend peace, but we must defend against a threats, because living with threats robs us of peace. That is an expansive definition of peace, and quite dangerous if taken literally. In fact, the logic expressed in this statement supports the administration’s controversial prevention policy which asserts America’s right to intervene with force where threats exist. 9

 

“Tonight I have a message for the men and women who will keep the peace, members of the American armed forces.”10

 

GWS: Such references to the military have been used often by leaders who position the armed forces as defenders, not combatants. They keep the peace; they do not wage war.

 

“If Saddam Hussein does not fully disarm for the safety of our people, and for the peace of the world, we will lead a coalition to disarm him.” 11

 

GWS: Here, Mr. Bush issued a double indictment against Saddam saying that his armed status threatens our safety and the peace of the world. We can only assume that by threats, Mr. Bush was referring to WMDs. Nothing short of WMDs would enable Iraq to challenge America’s safety and world peace. This claim is astonishingly overstated — the premise of which we later discovered to be wholly untrue — but it postulated a direct threat against peace which the president asserted would be addressed by war.

 

Leaders who express war as the principal or only path to peace mislead people. That simplistic notion is dangerous. They should never ignore the United Nations, other multi-lateral forums, bilateral discussions, diplomacy, sanctions, or international pressure.

In his earliest pre-war speeches and in his more recent speeches on the Iraq war, Mr. Bush refers to peace as a driving motivation for war and for the maintenance of military strength. Rhetorically, he fuses war and peace and defends his use of force with references to peace. Obviously, he believes the ends justify the means. His statements about war and peace are clear and connecting. They are also clean and devoid of references to the messy stains of war.

 

Leaders who express war as the principal or only path to peace mislead people. That simplistic notion is dangerous. They should never ignore the United Nations, other multi-lateral forums, bilateral discussions, diplomacy, sanctions, or international pressure. Sadly, in Iraq, the United States short-circuited those options and sped to war. I fault the rhetoric of peace and war, because it is fundamentally dishonest; not in what it says, but in what it avoids. In pushing peace to sell war, the rhetoric not only ignores the alternatives, but it avoids mentioning the costs. I reject the omission and the abstractions.

 

When, exactly, do the leaders tell the people that their sons and daughters will die, that survivors will be crippled, that children will perish, that societies will be broken and ruined? Where is the discussion about the loss of life and treasure? Where is the ground-level view where war is palpable, where the concept of war transforms into flesh and blood? Would any leader planning a war dare to face his people and tell them such things? Would he roll out the coffins? Would he trot out those who are maimed, the orphans, the bloodied surgeons and say to the nation: “These are the costs. If you truly want a war, then prepare to pay this price.”

 

We go to war too easily, because we are lured to the prize and miss the price. We swoon to the rhetoric of peace and war and go deaf to the sounds of battle. Perhaps our leaders know that people would reject the easy call to war if the real costs were declared.

 

We go to war too easily, because we are lured to the prize and miss the price.

So the speeches, uttered so often by those who have never seen combat, remain abstract as the words soar high above the screams of war. And like children playing in the streets, we allow ourselves to be possessed by the game, oblivious to the battle. We nod to speeches and so consent to the devastation being carried out in our name.

 

 

This is the eighth story in a series about WiRED International. How it evolved; how it went from providing computers and Internet connections for towns and villages in underserved regions to focusing on medical and health education using computer technology. How it expanded its work throughout the Balkans to Africa, Central and South America to the Middle East and Eurasia. How WiRED's training programs, carried by the Internet, have now become global resources, used by hospitals and clinics, schools, other non-governmental organizations and universities.

 

An element of WiRED's operation that repeats in every story is that all of WiRED's programs are run mainly by volunteers who have made it possible for WiRED to provide medical and health training programs cost-free to everyone. WiRED's administration is volunteer, we have a volunteer board, and our writers and editors are volunteers. A small paid staff builds and shepherds the training modules through the production process, but even their work is augmented by that of volunteers. I'm proud of the people in the United States and abroad who donate their time and lend their talents to this organization's efforts to provide people in low resource regions with some of the finest public-access, health training material available anywhere.

 

 

1 Control of the purse strings was the biggest threat of the central government over Kurdistan, a threat that remains today as the people of Iraqi Kurdistan hold a referendum on independence. The U.S. Congress threatens to withhold funding if the referendum is decided in favor of separation.

 

2 I began this essay in Iraq in November, 2004, and completed the research and writing in January, 2005.

 

3 Military regulations forbid the news media from taking photographs of returning caskets. The order: "There will be no arrival ceremonies for, or media coverage of, deceased military personnel returning to or departing from Ramstein [Germany] airbase or Dover [Delaware] base, to include interim stops." (http://www.thesimon.com/magazine/articles/canon_fodder/0600_the_us_government_tries_hide_bodies.html).

 

4 See Bruce A. Williams, “War Rhetoric's Toll on Democracy,” April 12, 2004, Chronicle of Higher Education.

 

5 For instance, several effective public persuasion tools well-known to move a population toward support of war are as follows:
Position the leader of the enemy as evil. Laswell said that a key to any successful strategy is to personify the leader of the enemy country as pure evil. This characterization must be complete; that leader must become the vessel for anger and hatred in the public mind. Just as a magnifying glass focuses sunlight on a single point, the propagandists then focus public anger on the hated leader.
We are the abused; not the other side. No country wants to be seen as the aggressor, even if they fire the first shot, so leaders must convince the public that they are the victims. They must show that the enemy has either attacked us or will attack us and we are responding only to protect ourselves from imminent harm.
Position the war as defensive. A companion to the previous item, this element seeks to convince the people that their nation is a defender, not an aggressor. It says “we don’t want to take off the gloves, but we must defend ourselves against aggression.”

 

6 President George W. Bush, Address before a Joint Session of Congress, February 27, 2001.

 

7 President George W. Bush, 2002 State of the Union Address.

 

8 President George W. Bush, 2003 State of the Union Address.

 

9 In a speech at West Point on June 1, 2002, President Bush laid out the basis for a prevention policy:
“ … even weak states and small groups could attain a catastrophic power to strike great nations. Our enemies have declared this very intention and have been caught seeking these terrible weapons. They want the capability to blackmail us, or to harm us, or to harm our friends — and we will oppose them with all our power.”

 

10 President George W. Bush, 2003 State of the Union Address.

 

11 Ibid.

 

 

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