War Without End: The Iraq War in Context

Reviewed by Peter

Michael Schwartz, War Without End: The Iraq War in Context (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2008).

During the Bush public relations campaign to sell the Iraq war, the American press devoted remarkably little critical analysis to the administration’s claims. In fact, one can say that the fourth estate was bullied by the Bush administration into repeating the talking points provided to it, and was therefore complicit in convincing the public that regime change was necessary in Iraq.

Certainly, there were critics who questioned the goals and the objectives set out by Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and Bush, but their voices were confined to the alternative media, receiving little hearing in places like the New York Times and the Washington Post. Independent observers such as Michael Klare, Seymour Hersh, Juan Cole, Noam Chomsky, and Dahr Jamail provided trenchant critiques of the rationales for the Iraq war and of the strategy and tactics employed by the US. Nevertheless, the hegemonic control of the major American media remained relatively unchallenged. Mainstream debate about Iraq avoided questioning the underlying assumptions behind the US attack. In 2004, for instance, John Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate, limited himself to arguing that he could fight the war more effectively than Bush. He downplayed points made by more radical critics of the war and, of course, said little about the Downing Street memo which thoroughly refuted the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld pretext for the invasion.

Absent from the discussion was any broader debate about what led up to the war, how it fit into American geopolitics, its connection to the Bush energy policies, and its adherence to the strategic vision advanced by the Project for the New American Century (PNAC). The lead-up to the Iraq war in the US and the eventual prosecution of the war reflected the erosion of democracy and the degradation of political and social institutions that might have served to check the administration’s imperial impulses. With a weak antiwar movement, there was little to challenge the official perspective.

As the war dragged on and the scandals mounted (Abu Ghraib, Blackwater, Halliburton), the US press, embarrassed by its failure of nerve in the run-up to the war, began to do more critical reporting. Notable books from journalists such as Frank Rich (The Greatest Story Ever Sold), and Thomas Ricks (Fiasco), as well as the stalwart reporting by Seymour Hersh in his Chain of Command and Chalmers Johnson in his books The Sorrows of Empire and Nemesis, began the process of unraveling the administration’s strategy, tactics, and explanations for scandals (“a few bad apples”). Throughout this entire time, a lively debate was taking place on websites such as TomsDispatch, in left publications, on individual websites of Dahr Jamail, Juan Cole, and Nir Rosen, and in the alternative media. But these discussions rarely penetrated the mainstream press, even when the popularity of the Iraq war and the macho would-be cowboy president declined.

It is in this context that we can view Michael Schwartz’s masterful synthesis of a wide range of information in his present book. Schwartz, a sociologist with expertise in social movements and founding director of the Undergraduate College of Global Studies at Stony Brook University, brings a keen eye to the project. His own contributions to TomsDispatch were invaluable in piecing together a different way of seeing what was happening on the ground in Iraq as well as critiquing the changing rationalizations advanced by the administration. This book collects such writings. Like Chalmers Johnson, Schwartz situates the Iraq war in its larger political, economic, and geostrategic context. But Schwartz’s approach is sharper and more radical; it demonstrates the value of a social-movement-oriented account to understanding the war. Schwartz deserves tremendous credit for wading through and reading between the lines of mainstream reporting on the war and combining these views with counter information from the web.

Grounding his account in Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine and David Harvey’s concept of accumulation by dispossession, Schwartz surgically dissects Washington’s claims. Contrary to the Bush administration, the author argues that “resistance grew not because of inadequate troops or the absence of a coherent formula – it resulted from the implementation of neo-liberal structural adjustment policies.” For Schwartz, it was the very process of “securing and reconstructing Iraq that produced the war without end” (11). In chapter after chapter the author lays bare the Bush administration’s arguments regarding the importance of the oil factor, the nature of the insurgency, the use of torture and death squads, the collective punishment of the Iraqi people, and the creation of slum cities.

Schwartz shows that the downward spiral in Iraq was an inevitable consequence of US policy, following directly from an effort to make Iraq a “demonstration model” to show that resistance to US geostrategic claims is fruitless (29). As the US destroyed the Iraqi infrastructure and dismantled the state-run industries, it created the economic conditions that sustained the insurgency. In effect, as the author says, the US imposed global capitalism dressed up as liberal democracy. Following the logic of global capitalism, the only reconstruction projects worth carrying out were those that promised extraordinary profits to multinational corporations. Consequently, reconstruction was distorted and Iraq was left with a dysfunctional infrastructure. To the surprise of US policymakers, the devastation of Iraq did not shock its people into submission but instead generated a formidable resistance movement.

The US responded with increasingly brutal repressive measures that further fueled the insurgency. What was happening on the ground was shielded from the American public, as embedded jounalists rarely reported how US patrols basically cleared everything in their path. Later in the war, as US-trained Iraqis took on many of the repressive tasks, the US distanced itself from the attendant atrocities. But as Schwartz argues, the US recruited, trained, supported and directed the responsible Iraqi forces.

In the last chapters of the book Schwartz recounts how the Iraqis were placed in a position of dependency, resulting in what he calls a Tidal Wave of Misery (Chapter 13). The devastating human toll for the Iraqis is rarely mentioned in the mainstream US media. Instead of a promised better life, the Iraqis were brought mass destruction and a system of social control based on the Shock Doctrine. With sovereignty dissolved, Iraq began its transition to a client state where the conditions for accumulation by dispossession were fully realized.

From a broader perspective, the dreams of the PNAC and the Bush administration of extending their “unipolar moment” – using Iraq as a warning of what happens when you challenge US hegemony – were turned into nightmares by the Iraqi resistance. The Global War on Terror, which in the administration’s view was a first step in reconstituting American power worldwide, was transformed into an endless, hopeless crusade which highlighted the limits of such power and made clear that the US could not simply impose its imperial dreams on the region.

Critics of Schwartz may argue that he does little more than graft onto existing press reports his own understanding of the conflict. However, it is exactly this close reading of the mainstream press and presentation of a plausible alternative explanation that makes this book so valuable. War Without End places the Iraq war in its larger political, economic, and theoretical context without losing sight of the need to carefully refute the Bush administration’s lies and distortions. By concentrating on how US policy fueled the Iraqi insurgency, Schwartz keeps his eye on what is happening on the ground, while simultaneously situating these events in relation to the dynamics of global capitalism. With a radical sociologist’s knack for integrating theory and praxis, Schwartz has produced a compelling picture of the dilemmas of US domination which does not shy away from its roots in the political economy of international capitalism.

Reviewed by Peter Seybold Sociology Department Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis pseybold@iupui.edu