Dec. 17, 2022
If you need to unite a hundred bickering historians of the Middle East, you could ask them to identify the Iraqi city that suffered the greatest amount of violence at the hands of the U.S. military. They would all say “Fallujah.”
Fallujah is where, just a few weeks after the fall of Baghdad in 2003, soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division opened fire on a crowd of civilian protesters and killed 17 of them; the U.S. military claimed that the first shots came from Iraqis, but there is no convincing evidence for that assertion and significant reporting to the contrary. Fallujah was a stronghold of the ousted dictator Saddam Hussein and for that reason, its residents fiercely opposed an unprovoked invasion that was, according to international law, flagrantly illegal.
Those killings were the prelude to a torrent of violence and destruction in 2004. The bloodshed that year included the deaths of more than 1,000 civilians; the point-blank murder of prisoners; and the torture of inmates at Abu Ghraib prison, just 20 miles away. Fallujah’s punishment even extended beyond the brutal era of its U.S. occupation; in years after, there has been a spike in cancers, birth defects, and miscarriages, apparently due to America’s use of munitions with depleted uranium.
Instead of apologizing for what was done, the U.S. is choosing to celebrate it: The Pentagon announced this week that a $2.4 billion warship will be named the USS Fallujah. The commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. David Berger, made clear that the military has decided to double down on its fairy tale of Fallujah as an American triumph. “Under extraordinary odds, the Marines prevailed against a determined enemy who enjoyed all the advantages of defending an urban area,” he said in a press release about the naming. “The battle of Fallujah is, and will remain, imprinted in the minds of all Marines and serves as a reminder to our nation, and its foes, why our Marines call themselves the world’s finest.”
The announcement noted that more than 100 U.S. and allied soldiers died in Fallujah but said nothing about the far larger toll of Iraqi civilians killed, the flattening of swathes of the city through extensive bombings, the apparent war crimes by U.S. forces, the health impacts on civilians that continue to this day — and the inconvenient fact that U.S. forces were unable to keep their hold on Fallujah for very long. For the Pentagon, it’s as if none of it mattered, or it didn’t happen.
While the whitewashing is generating little pushback in the U.S., it is eliciting protests from Iraq and elsewhere.
“The pain of defeat in Fallujah is haunting the U.S. military,” wrote Ahmed Mansour, an Al Jazeera journalist who reported from Fallujah during the fiercest fighting. “They want to turn the war crimes they committed there into a victory. … I was an eyewitness to the defeat of the Americans in the Battle of Fallujah.”
I reached out to Muntader al-Zaidi, an Iraqi human rights activist who famously threw his shoe at President George W. Bush during a 2008 press conference in Baghdad. “It is insulting to consider the killing of innocent people as a victory,” Zaidi said. “Do you want to boast about forces that kill and hunt innocent people? I hope this ship will always remind you of the shame of the invasion and the humiliation of the occupation.”
A statement from the Council on American-Islamic Relations got straight to the point: “There must be a better name for this ship — one that does not evoke horrific scenes from an illegal and unjust war.”
IF YOU WERE an American in Iraq after the invasion, Fallujah was one of the most dangerous places you could visit. Based in Baghdad, I had to drive through Fallujah in an ordinary sedan in late 2003 to reach a nearby U.S. base where I had an embed. What I remember of that journey was the feeble disguise I donned (a red and white kaffiyeh over my brown hair); the way I slunk down in my seat as far as I could as we drove into the city; and the clenching in my gut as my car stopped in traffic and people could notice the Americans inside.
I was fortunate; nobody spotted me or the blond photographer I was working with. But a few months later a two-vehicle convoy of heavily armed contractors from Blackwater, a private security company, was ambushed by rebel fighters on the main street where I was briefly stuck. Four Americans were killed and their mutilated bodies were hung over a bridge on the Euphrates River. The killings — and particularly the ghastly images widely published in the U.S. media — prompted the Pentagon to launch a series of revenge attacks against the city. It was an egregious over-reaction, especially because the slain Americans were not soldiers, they were well-paid mercenaries who, as a general rule, were regarded by Iraqis and U.S. troops alike as reckless, ill-behaved, and unprofessional. One of the worst massacres of the entire American occupation would take place in 2007 in Baghdad’s Nisour Square, where a convoy of Blackwater mercenaries opened fire on the cars around them and killed 17 civilians.
There were two battles of Fallujah in 2004. The first was a U.S. invasion in the spring that ended with a partial seizure of the city and its handover to Iraqi authorities who soon ceded control back to the rebels. More than 800 Iraqis were killed in that battle, with more than 600 of them being civilians, half of whom were women and children, according to Iraq Body Count. Later that year, the second battle began when the U.S. military returned with an even greater number of forces and retook the entire city block by block in fighting that stretched from November to December.
During the second battle, freelance journalist Kevin Sites, on assignment for NBC News, followed a squad of Marines into a mosque that contained a handful of injured Iraqi fighters who were disarmed and lying on the ground. Sites was filming and a Marine’s voice can be heard on the video saying, “He’s fucking faking he’s dead. He’s faking he’s fucking dead.” One of the Marines then fires his assault weapon into an Iraqi lying on the ground, after which a voice says, “Well, he’s dead now.” A military investigation subsequently determined that “the actions of the Marine in question were consistent with the established rules of engagement, the law of armed conflict, and the Marine’s inherent right of self-defense.”
After the second battle, more than 700 bodies were recovered from the rubble, and 550 of them were women and children, according to the director of Fallujah’s hospital, who at the time said his count was partial because areas of the city remained unreachable for civilian rescuers. This toll made the second battle even more deadly for civilians than the first one. “It was really distressing picking up dead bodies from destroyed homes, especially children,” said Dr. Rafa’ah al-Iyssaue, in an article published in January 2005 by IRIN News, a United Nations-funded media outlet that specialized in humanitarian issues. “It is the most depressing situation I have ever been in since the war started.”
HISTORY IS INSCRIBED in multiple ways, not just in books, movies, speeches, articles, and statues, but even on the transoms of warships. The U.S. military obviously wants to foment a historical narrative that acknowledges only the bravery of its soldiers rather than their crimes or their civilian victims. And yes, there was bravery by U.S. troops in Fallujah, so it’s not a total lie; they attacked an entrenched enemy, they fought hard, they protected each other, most of them didn’t commit war crimes, and some of them paid the price with their own blood. But that’s true for pretty much any army in any war; it could be said of some German soldiers in World War II (hello “Das Boot”).
But it’s a lie if all you do is look at individual acts of bravery rather than the totality of what happened in a battle or war. I honestly can’t fathom how or why the Pentagon officials who decide such matters settled on “Fallujah” as the best name for this yet-to-be-constructed ship. Are they unaware of what happened? Are they aware but hoping to smother the truth? Are they counting on us to not care enough to say, “Excuse me, this is bullshit,” or do they want to remind the rest of the world at every port call that the U.S. is capable of destroying any city it chooses at any time of its choosing — a kind of floating “suck on this”? It could be any of that or all of that, who knows. The fog of war lingers long after the last bullets.
This isn’t a done deal. The ship won’t be completed for at least several years, and names have been changed before christening and after entering service. While the names are designated by the Navy, it’s done under the authority of the president, so let the lobbying and protesting at the White House begin. Maybe there’s a chance of succeeding; President Joe Biden stood up to the generals who wanted to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan forever, so perhaps he’ll tell them to get lost on this one too.
If you step back from the narrow question of whether this ship should be named after Fallujah or Fresno, the larger truth is that it should not be built at all. The United States spends more on its military than the next nine countries combined. It’s a sickness that weakens the nation by fueling the militarization of domestic policing while depriving Americans of the support they need for essentials like good schools and decent health care.
So if you want to do the right thing for our soldiers and their dependents and their heirs, don’t name this ship the Fallujah, don’t build this ship, and don’t invade a country that has not attacked us. It shouldn’t be this hard.