Iraq 1492

IRAQ 1492

Reflecting on the (in)capacity of scholars, and even some indigenous leaders, to learn from the history they researched or the history they survived, I circulated a poem back in 2003 that juxtaposed the invasion of Iraq with Columbus’ invasion of the indigenous Caribbean. It was on a scholars’ listserv, from where it has long been removed. I distributed the poem on a now defunct listserv that I operated, concerning indigenous peoples of the Caribbean (with many of them participating) — I titled my message “Iraq 1492” and then subsequently remembered the poem, incorrectly, by that name. Consequently, it has taken me ages to find it again. More widely distributed in 2003 than now, I found it on one site alone. I remember how some scholars spoke of “false equivalence,” and some indigenous activists protested my sending them the message containing the poem: it was “extreme,” “a bit much,” and a “grievous offense against our Native sons and daughters fighting in Iraq.” A Navajo soldier, Lori Piestewa, had just been killed in Iraq. A Taíno leader castigated me: Had I refused to understand that Saddam Hussein harboured terrorists? That Iraq was involved in planning for the 9/11 attacks? That Iraq possessed vast numbers of weapons of mass destruction? That the increased safety of the world, and the liberation of Iraqis, would both be the result of the U.S. invasion of Iraq? I was stunned into complete silence, and for the sake of listserv collegiality I did not pursue the discussion further. Until now. The poem itself opened diverse doors for revisiting a variety of subjects, from the drawing of historical parallels, to science in service of the state (and whether we can really call it science when it silences dissent), and the position of American Indians on the Iraq war.

You can download a PDF copy of the poem from here, or here.

By Ariel Dorfman, 10 April 2003

Christopher Columbus has words from the other side of death for Captain John Whyte…

…who rebaptised Saddam International Airport as his troops rolled into it. The peremptory renaming of the main airport in Iraq’s capital city by its occupier from across the ocean stirs a centuries-old adventurer from his restless tomb.

I know something about names, Captain.

Those who conquer must always have a name ready.
Even before the sword, before the gun.

I saw the island and called it San Salvador.
San Salvador because we had been saved.

I did not ask the natives
they were friendly, they were almost naked, they were brown under the
tropical sun I did not ask them what they called that place themselves
I did not ask them what they called their home

And I did not tell them that they would all die
I did not tell them that nobody would ever know
what they spoke
how they spoke
the words would be swallowed
like boats are swallowed in the tempest
of a sad sea
like bodies are swallowed in a mine

Now they teach me their words and their songs
here in the dark of forever
I study what they called the moon and love and good-bye
I listen to their Carib whispers
and I purse my lips and I whistle and I soften the air
with the language no one has spoken on that island
for over five hundred years

This is my penance

And then Quechua and then Maya and then Tzotzil
and then the thousand and ten tongues that were once alive
in the lands that would not be called my name
that would be called by someone else’s name
Amerigo America
and then the learning will go on
Navajo and Guaraní and Nahuatl
and the sounds that once filled the ears
of lovely maidens
to bring forth the crops
and no one today even knows their name
learning learning
until they have taught me to pronounce each last word
how do you say friend
how do you say death
how do you say forever

how do you say penance

they will teach me how they say penance
in their thousand and ten tongues

your penance, Captain?
what awaits you?

You said you came to bring freedom

Freedom. When another can decide for himself.

You said you came to bring democracy.

Democracy. When another can control for herself.

You said you came with liberation.

Liberation. When the people who made the world
name that world and themselves.

Freedom. Democracy. Liberation.

Your words, the words of your leaders.

And then you called the airport by another name.
It is ours. We took it. We’re here.
We killed the men who called it by that other name.
We can call it now what we will.
Under a sky full of bombs another name.
Baghdad now. Not Saddam.

Saddam Airport.
Not a name I like, we like, here on the other side.
a name cursed in the cellars
where the fingers are crushed
where the head is split
where the teeth are pulled

rooted out

the roots of that name Saddam
the striker of the blow
the one who resists
the one who gives grief
the one who prohibits

all all all crying out inside that name

but not for you, Captain,
to change
not for you to decide

your penance?

they wait for you, John Whyte,
here in the glorious dust of words
they once scrolled on paper parchment stone
here in the dark light of death

they wait for you
the poets of Iraq

Abu Nuwas and Hariri
Mutanabbi and Buhturi
waiting like the rugs they used to sit on
waiting like the founts they used to drink from

all the words you did not think to use
Captain John Whyte
all the names you did not know
not even your own
white barakah
barakah related to barak blessing

you will have to learn
pronounce as I have had to pronounce
word for word

the Arabic you did not care to know
like the Nahuatl I never knew
like the Cherokee I never knew

you will have to learn

starting with the hundred words
that pour forth from Allah

Rahman The Compassionate
Rahim The Merciful

Rahman International Airport
Rahim International Airport

can you hear them
even now as you advance towards Baghdad
can you hear their voices

Rahman the Compassionate
Rahim the Merciful

Rahman Rahim
and Salam


one of the attributes of God

your penance
John Whyte John Barakah
did you never think

they will treat you with mercy
on the other side

that the people of Iraq
might want to call their land
with the names of Salam
the many names of peace?

your penance
oh white one

it will take you and your leaders
and forever
and forever
it will take you forever

to learn the word for peace

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In line with Ariel Dorfman’s poem above, and very interesting as well as entertaining and provocative for those who might not have made such associations, or might not have been conscious of the parallels between Iraq (1991-2003) and the Caribbean (1492), was “Mayhem: The Invasion,” a radio play by Tim Robbins about Columbus and Iraq 1492 – 1992 (L.A. Theater Works 1992), which  you can also download, or play and listen below. I recommend it, if you have 1 hour and 14 minutes and 46 seconds to spare.

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Of course, not all American Indians simply went along with the authorized blood lust of 2003, or the mass media’s choreographed cheerleading for war. Notable exceptions were to be found in everyday life, such as one spotted by Catherine Corman:

Bracketing a silk-screened reproduction of a nineteenth-century photograph of Geronimo, armed, alongside three Apache warriors, the writing on the shirt read “Homeland Security . . . Fighting Terrorism Since 1492.” Wildly popular in Indian Country ever since U.S. troops invaded Iraq, the shirt was only beginning to make the rounds in December 2001. Even then, we got the joke. Seen from Indian Country, the folks at the Department of Homeland Security are the hypocritical descendants of terrorists, themselves.

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As for the issue of historians and their forgetting, sometimes this is the result of their serving the interests of power, where having access to “memory” might provoke questioning, and then possibly dissent — career enders. Think of what one of Condoleeza Rice’s teachers and dissertation advisors at the University of Denver had to say of her. Professor Arthur N. Gilbert, on the fact that Rice could support the invasion of Iraq, says that she represents a “terrible failure of education, of picking up what your education should have led you to.” Gilbert, we are told, believes that Condoleeza Rice “has failed to heed the lessons of the past. To a historian, this is unconscionable” (see “He Taught Condi Rice–And He’s Appalled at Her Support for the Iraq War,” Denver Post, 09 April 2004). Regarding Rice’s failure to heed warnings of an impending Al Qaeda attack in 2001, we have another take on Rice as “historian”:

…Perhaps she is not so sound a historian after all. (The American Historical Review’s notice of her first book, a study of Russia and the Czech army after 1948, charged that Rice “frequently does not sift facts from propaganda and valid information from disinformation or misinformation” and that she “passes judgments and expresses opinions without adequate knowledge of the facts.”) Or perhaps she decided to put aside her historian’s skills in service to the president.

Currently, we have a number of academics abusing the term “science” when it comes to research in service of the national security state, war, and occupation. To object to the use of “science” for such ends, we are barked at for being “unscientific,” “subjective,” and “political.” And yes, it is done with a straight face, even if the mind is fundamentally crooked. On the one hand, they have the support of history, where science indeed was an endeavour strongly linked to the advance of the imperial state (I spoke about this here in greater detail: “The Social Production of Science and Anthropology as Knowledge for Domination“).

On the other hand, there are those who wished to rescue the independence needed for science, not limiting it to serving the state, especially during war. Franz Boas himself spoke of science in service of the state in war as prostitution. Perhaps some will like to argue that what Boas did was “not anthropology,” that he was being “anti-scientific.” Feel free to rebel against the founder of your discipline. In my view, and many of those who voted in 2005 to lift the American Anthropological Association’s censure of Boas, he was offering a careful observation, like scientists do when they are interested in being precise about what they name. Boas was not implying a sexual metaphor, the way many associate prostitution with selling sex for money — the other established meaning of “prostitution” is “the act or an instance of offering or devoting one’s talent to an unworthy use or cause.” Whether speaking of Condoleeza Rice, Montgomery McFate, or Sarah Sewall, clearly Boas would regard all three as prostitutes, and not because of their gender, and not because of any implied sexual services.

I explored these issues in depth, pertaining to public debates about ethics and science surrounding the Human Terrain System, and its earliest condemnation from the top of the American Anthropological Association — see: “American Anthropologists against Counterinsurgency: Part Two.”

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On Caribs, Talibs, and Other Mythological Monsters

Since 2003 there have been many parallels drawn between the U.S. war in Iraq, and other wars (for a cautionary listing see “Iraq Analogies: It’s Vietnam. It’s Lebanon. It’s Algeria. It’s …“), and to say that one historical situation is either homologous or analogous to another is always risky. That is not to say that there are no historical continuities, especially when it comes to an imperial epistemology that undergirds a normative patterning of the enemy-Other. In 1492, the mythologized Other was the Carib, accused of the most extreme savagery by European chroniclers and conquerors, that of eating human beings. The Carib view of “women’s rights” was also a shock to the Europeans who lost women to them: they traded in women, and fought battles for women. Coming back to cannibalism: “cannibal,” once one of the ways of transcribing “Caribal” or “Carib,” became the preferred name for the practice previously referred to as anthropophagy. The name of the people — ascribed by Europeans using a derogatory indigenous word — eventually became the name of practice itself, now separated in popular discourse from its ethnic practitioners. The sea itself is named after these people, and hence we have the “Caribbean.” The Caribs were conceived by their imperial adversaries to be the farthest thing from a human imaginable. From Carib to Talib, there is not an ocean of distance, and it should not surprise anyone if the people who can conceive of an “AfPak” (Afghanistan and Pakistan), might eventually speak of a Talibbean region.

Indeed, like the Spanish blamed the Caribs for the alleged extinction of the Taíno and Lokono, so the U.S. blames the Taliban for all instability, warfare, and even wife-beating in Afghanistan. The Spanish had their good Indians, their allies, who were described as civilized, hospitable, and dependable — until they proved otherwise (which they did, sometimes defecting and announcing they were now “Carib”). Likewise the U.S. has its native collaborators in Afghanistan, and hopes to buy some more: aiming at what it spuriously calls the “$10 Taliban,” U.S. counterinsurgents think they can win them over, perhaps by turning them into “$11 lackeys.” Just as the  Caribs were described by the Spanish as recent invaders of the Caribbean, interlopers, marauders, virtual foreigners, so we have the Taliban treated as exotic, alien, with their foreign partners, “insurgents” rather than a resistance movement (or a movement of movements).

The Caribs were defined out of humanity by imperial courts; the Taliban, let alone Al Qaeda, likewise. The Caribs were  not entitled to human freedom, and could be enslaved or killed, because they were beyond Christian redemption. The Taliban and Al Qaeda, whose imputed savagery comes nowhere close to that imagined of the Caribs, were likewise defined out of the “civilized world” in an imperial court, denied access to protection afforded under the Geneva Conventions, and could be tortured or subject to murder. The debates held in Spain between chief clerics was whether the Caribbean aboriginal could be considered “human” and thus deserving of “Christian freedom.” Likewise, many today argue over whether detainees at Guantánamo and other detention centres are deserving of “human rights.” Their very humanness is up for grabs. Extrajudicial executions, targeted assassinations by drone strikes, and even placing an American citizen on a CIA death list, means these people are not entitled to investigation and trial, but can only be murdered. If a human is one entitled to the rights of a human, one who is not entitled to human rights can only be judged less than human.

One of Fernando Botero's most reproduced images from his Abu Ghraib series. Source:

Naming subjects to be conquered, in order to dehumanize and thus demonize them, to deprive them of their freedoms, and to buttress the legitimacy of the invader, links 1492 and Iraq-Afghanistan today. One might recall U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s acerbic lectures in his press briefings, his irate replies, and his stern admonitions to military officers standing next to him, as he stumbled and fumbled from one name to the next, looking for the most appropriate way to stigmatize and delegitimize the resistance to the U.S. The pattern is a very familiar one to Caribbeanists, when one goes through the history of interpretive naming of Caribbean “savages.” Harking to Somalia, Rumsfeld referred to the resistance, which for a while he refused to even acknowledge as existing, as being “technicals.” A general called them “irregulars.” Then Rumsfeld made the gigantic blunder of using the term “fedayeen” — which for many Palestinians is a glorious term, referring to “freedom fighters.” Then they became “Fedayeen Saddam,” which exploded into the American media in 2003 (because no one had heard of them before Rumsfeld’s naming), or just “terrorist thugs” and “dead enders.” “In fact, what they are is death squads,” said a blustering Rumsfeld, searching for ways to translate himself (source).

…on July 16, 2003, the commander of U.S. Central Command, Gen. John Abizaid, invoked the concept of guerrilla war to describe resistance in Iraq. Eight days later Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld denied that there was a guerrilla war in Iraq. The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the U.S.-administered temporary government of Iraq headed by Ambassador L. Paul Bremer III, largely avoids public speculation on the resistance, beyond generally attributing it to regime “dead-enders.” (“Resistance in Iraq,” by Jeffrey B. White and Michael Schmidmayr, Middle East Quarterly, Fall 2003, pp. 17-32.)

Until the war began, few Americans had heard of the Fedayeen Saddam, the paramilitary extremists loyal to Saddam Hussein who have led much of Iraq’s defenses in the first week of the war….

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld labeled the Fedayeen a “terrorist-type threat” and lumped them in the group he calls “dead enders”….On Wednesday, the Pentagon also included in that grouping, paramilitary organizations loyal to the Baath Party, Saddam Hussein’s political apparatus, and special Republican Guard units.

Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said calling these groups paramilitary “sounds too positive in some ways.” (“Feared Fedayeen among most loyal to Saddam, might engage in suicide bombings,” Gannett News Service, 26 March 2003)

Claire Norton, writing in the April 2003 issue of Bad Subjects (see “Marines versus Fedayeen: Interpretive Naming and Constructing the ‘Other’“) observes that “throughout history the enemy, figured as the ultimate ‘other’, have been named in derogatory terms, especially in narratives of propaganda.” In her analysis she found that,

American and British combatants are named and described in the media as soldiers and more specifically, as marines, artillery, infantry and special forces. Such a naming positions them in a narrative where they are viewed as members or representatives of a legitimate state institution; the army. Thus their violence is authorized and legitimized, they are not armed thugs, criminals or terrorists, but soldiers licensed to carry out limited acts of aggression in the interests of the state. In sharp contrast, Iraqi combatants are rarely described by the American and British media as soldiers but are rather, irregulars, paramilitary, militias, terrorists, armed members of the Ba’ath party, criminals and tribesmen loyal to Saddam Hussein.

At the heart of this is the imperative of the state to assert its inviolable morality, so that any forces that are non-state become almost non-human, not civilized, even “pre-modern.” Norton reflects on

the legitimacy of the state to hold dominion over a delimited and universally recognized territory. In other words, such a mapping implies an accompanying moral cartography that emphasizes the inviolable integrity of the sovereign nation state. In turn this affects the legitimate praxis of violence; unauthorized military crossing of boundaries are deemed illegitimate and are considered as providing a globally recognized causus belli for war. The defensive is thus foregrounded.

As a result, the violence of the other is terrorism (or cannibalism back in 1492), and our own violence is hardly violence at all: it is more like good policemanship, or even humanitarian work:

If Iraqi combatants are not the legitimate soldiers of a nation-state army, then like terrorists and criminals they are not authorized to engage in acts of violence or aggression. This framing of Iraqi combatants permits a narrative in which the Anglo-American combatants can be positioned as the police. A view reinforced by the frequent figuring of America as the policeman of the world.

In the alarmingly shrill tone of demonization of the “terrorist,” there lies something beneath it: a desire for self-affirmation:

The employment of the vocabulary of de-legitimization in the naming of Iraqi combatants also has an ontological role in that it is through such stark encounters with an oppositional ‘other’ that the construction of self occurs. If they are the illegitimate ‘other’ then we must be the legitimate self.

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One could find many other commonalities between the institutions, strategies, and discourses of imperialism in the 16th and 17th century Caribbean, and their counterparts of today. Sometimes it’s only the terminology that has been updated. Writing on “The Myth of America,” on Monday, 12 October 2009, Dahr Jamail and Jason Coppola use today’s U.S. military phrase “full spectrum dominance” in this regard:

In a letter to the Spanish court dated February 15, 1492, Columbus presented his version of full spectrum dominance: “to conquer the world, spread the Christian faith and regain the Holy Land and the Temple Mount.”

With this radical ideology, Las Casas records, “They spared no one, erecting especially wide gibbets on which they could string their victims up with their feet just off the ground and then burned them alive thirteen at a time, in honour of our Saviour and the twelve Apostles.”

The search for the mythical El Dorado resembles the search for the mythical WMDs in Iraq. The latter were not “gold” as such, but something like a “negative gold,” extremely valuable if found, with a massive payoff in legitimacy. Both “searches” were used as part of wider justifications for colonial adventures. Both resulted in failure.

The Carib and the Talib. Cannibalism and terrorism. El Dorado and WMDs. The list can continue. (Interesting coincidence that in 2002, for the J’ouvert celebrations opening Trinidad’s annual Carnival, one rag-tag band appeared with the title “Carib Taliban” [they were sponsored by Carib Beer].)

Nor is counterinsurgency anything novel, not now, not in the highlands of Guatemala in the 1980s, and not in Vietnam in the 1960s. In fact, virtually every component of this doctrine, made fashionable once again (rerun culture), can be recognized in what the Spanish implemented through the combined political-economic-military institutions known as Catholic missions–an interesting combination of the Church as state-aligned NGO, propaganda unit, economic development agency, and paramilitary organization. As I have studied the history and ethnography of Caribs, of course I also spent considerable time studying the missions, and did my fieldwork in what was once a mission village (in more “modern” doctrines, a “model village”). The combination of ideology, military protection against indigenous rivals, drafting indigenous mission residents into forming their own military defense (even bestowing ranks of Captain and General on  indigenous leaders), allowing the survival of some forms of native worship, and breaking up indigenous trade networks so as to deprive power to adversaries of Spain, while allowing Spanish interests to become dominant in regional trade — all of these were a part of the Catholic mission system in the Caribbean. Spain had two centuries to develop the system, without any pretense of local “nation-building,” and no pretense of maintaining democracy back home or any need to cultivate popular support or explain the situation to the masses — it kept things “nice and simple” for Spain, and still the empire failed.

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4 thoughts on “Iraq 1492

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  3. John Stanton

    I’ve said it before. I hope you are compiling all this material, plus the AJ gig, in a format for a book. There is so much excellent information here for all parties whether pro-con-middle of whatever the issue is. I guess stimulating/catalyst are the words I’m looking for.

    Got to be one of the best sites of its kind and I’m glad to be affiliated.

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