Issue #91 November 19th - December 2nd, 2004
"Pacifying" Falluja, Again
Live Review: The Concretes - Manchester University, 16th November 2004
One step at a time
Perhaps it is the way she moves, so sure of herself. Perhaps it is the way she never seems to stand still, except to scan around, assess, decide what needs doing most, or at all. But she always looks like she does need to be doing something useful. If there are no steaming cups to carry out, or shrunken empty cups to carry back, then out would come the cloth and each table would be briskly, efficiently wiped until someone came in, sat down, and could be served.
Perhaps it is the precise evenness of her attention to everyone. The imperious and distant, yet complete concentration with which she attends to each and every customer. Never a smile or any hint of emotion, response, and yet not unfriendly or even surly. As if she was the undisputed queen of her domain, but content to extend her regal hospitality to a visiting dignitary of equal status. The way she always appears to be aware of everyone in the place, but not actually to look at anyone.
The ultimate professional, then, carefully shielded in her standard green franchised uniform.
Enough to drive you stark, raving mad, in fact.
Even that morning, only a day after she'd first served you, when she arrived with you at the table you were aiming at, your usual coffee already in hand, and as she put it down, she said "you take cold milk, don't you?" and only that, and even then without the slightest trace of recognition - even that morning, though you wondered about that, hatching larval dreams (perhaps), you knew that it was nothing special really, that she did this for everyone. Even after two weeks, when you'd been working every day, and had your coffee there before, and she'd been there too, every day, you were no closer to knowing anything about a human being, about what she might possibly be doing when she wasn't there, wasn't working working working. The one time you happened to be there when she came off shift, she pulled on a baby-blue jacket, strapped a bag across her shoulders and left, unceremoniously, alone, hardly saying bye to boss and colleagues alike.
It seemed unreal to you - there was something severe about her, but she was beautiful. There had to be another life, you thought, outside this, someone for who those level brown eyes would flash, at least for a moment, for who that straight unsmiling mouth would curl, at least a little at the edges. Someone to see that tight, tawny bun of hair unfurled and flying free, halfway down her back. Someone, perhaps, to massage the blood back into those weary feet at the end of each long day spent running them into the floor.
You can't help yourself - for a few days you saw yourself in there, doing that, seeing that, being there.
Then, you thought again, and the thought was this: but what if all that was what she was hiding from, here. Had there been hands, perhaps, not rubbing gently, but striking hard, bruising, drawing too much blood up too close to the skin; perhaps those eyes had not flashed, but flooded instead until the bluish-grey built up like bloated thunderclouds beneath; the lips curled, yes, but arching down and twitching, as she tried to smother them into a pillow, face down on a bed, hair spread, drenched, around her.
And that walk, the first thing that you noticed about her, was it perhaps no more than a way of saying - look at me, I'm still on my feet, despite all of that. Look at me, I'll be fine. I've found my place where I am in control. There's nothing to think about here.
You think, but she too must've been a girl once, must've braided those locks into pigtails on the side of her head, tied them off with pretty pink bows. You think, but perhaps that is still slumbering there, and you hope you're right. You wish her softness, grant her a bedroom frilled with pink and filled with horses: little statuettes and toys, posters, pictures clipped from magazines and a shelf of Mary O'Hara. You place a music-box upon her dresser, and fringe her mirror with glittery pink stars, cover the bed in soft-toys and top it off with the hugest, softest pillow.
You suddenly want all of this for her so much, and you wish her fairy-tales, though without the prince - having thought of all this, you can't dream yourself into her world anymore.
The girl does not quite look as if she needs that sort of thing. At least, not right now. But you close your eyes, and pray anyway.
You pay and leave. You will come back here tomorrow, and the next day and the next, until you see her smile, just once. One step at a time. Easy now - just one step at a time.
The plan was perfect. It couldn't fail. We'd talked it over from beginning to end a million times and we knew every little detail inside out. You were going to do the talking, because I can't talk without stuttering when I'm nervous, and because you are such a charmer. I was going to do…well I was going to do the rest.
"Trust me it is going to work" you said.
I stared hard into your eyes. I could see you meant what you said, so I believed you.
Maybe that was where it all went wrong. Maybe I should have known to trust my own instincts rather than let your smile cloud my brain.
That's what being in love does to you I suppose.
We waited until 5.30 before we left the house. I had wanted to leave earlier but you said that it was important to wait until then.
"We have a plan. We have to stick to it"
It was getting dark and cold by the time we stepped out into the fresh air. It hit our faces with a smack. We tied scarves around our faces, and pulled our hoods up so that only our eyes were showing. My stomach turned over and I said to you:
"In a few hours from now everything might have changed. We'll leave our jobs and run away to a house by the sea. I'll have a room to write stories and you can plant trees in the garden. And each night before it gets dark we'll walk along the shoreline looking out into the distance across the rolling waves, and the pale yellow sand."
"Shush…" you said looking over your shoulder "we haven't done it yet"
We entered the brightly lit supermarket with trepidation. The piped music and the sound of talking made me feel dizzy.
At the checkout there was a queue. We stood in line patiently, that was part of the plan. I looked at you and I could see you were smiling. "It's going to work, it's going to work" I told myself.
You turned to me and said:
"Remember you have to be quick. It won't work unless you do it without thinking."
I nodded gravely and then did what had to be done.
We were half laughing, half running, half skipping as we bolted for the door. We had everything we needed and now we needed to get out of there. My cheeks flushed and my heart pounded. You took my hand and we ran through the cold black night. Not once did we look back, we just ran and ran and ran only stopping once we were back in the safety of our home.
At 10pm you turned on the TV. I held my breath as you read out the numbers:
"13, 21, 27, 34, 46, 48"
You scrunched up the lottery ticket and your face simultaneously. The plan had been perfect, but somehow it had failed. You seemed genuinely puzzled and spent the next 30 seconds scanning the television screen in search of a clue that would explain what had gone wrong. Of course there wasn't one. Instead you turned to me, smiled and said.
"Next week, we'll win. Next week."
I stared hard into your eyes. I could see you meant what you said, so I believed you.
I scratch at the floor, willing myself on. Each time I dig my nails into the floor, pulling myself along, I gesture and pray forgiveness to God, to memories hammered through like nails to the head. Every bad thing I have ever done is encapsulated there, in that moment, and every inch I crawl is another affirmation of that as the daggers and ghosts of wars long since past puncture and pillory, permeate and penetrate.
The fridge is bare. Nothing. But I leave it open and, using a kitchen knife, I tear at the ice that’s accumulated around the edge of the freezer section, tear and twist and bend and contort, and I throw the speckles of ice all over my body, grabbing at dissolving clunks as if my life depended on it and, in a way, it does.
I smear it on, in a heap on the floor, willing its sub-zero temperatures to take effect, to do SOMETHING. Anything. Anything.
The rain is no good. It does nothing. The ice from the fridge did nothing. The gallons of water I poured down my sorry gullet did nothing. Occasionally a picture of you catches the corner of my eye. Occasionally a picture of her catches the corner of my other eye. Occasionally lots of things catch the corners of my eyes.
I tell myself that if I could go back to the first day I had my first drink then I would pour it down the sink or onto the lilies or chrysanthemums. I tell myself this to make myself feel good. It’s another lie. Another way of avoiding responsibility. Alcoholics are good at this.
Because, out of the corner of my eye, one that isn’t scratched or tarnished by you or her or by him or by anything, nestling between Fante and last months bills, is a quarter of Grouse.
Everything becomes clear, watching stars and rabbits dance, fighting fire with fire as our leaders taught us to.
"Pacifying" Falluja, Again
“I wish to share…my increasing concern at the prospect of an escalation in violence, which I fear could be very disruptive for Iraq's political transition. I have in mind not only the risk of increased insurgent violence, but also reports of major military offensives being planned by the multinational force in key localities such as Falluja. …This is the moment for redoubling efforts to break the cycle of violence...” - UN Secretary General Kofi Annan , letter to the British, American and Iraqi Interim governments 6th November 2004
“Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators” General F. S. Maude , 1917, commander of the British forces occupying Basra in what would briefly become the British colony of Iraq , 1920
So far some of the many times the Iraqi city of Falluja has been ‘pacified’ in military operations each of which killed hundreds of civilians include an attack by the British forces who were occupying Iraq in 1920, and Americans forces in April 2003, April 2004 and again now in November 2004
Fighting has broken out all over Iraq including the ‘peaceful Kurdish areas in the North’ (which actually have a mixed Arab, Kurdish and Turcoman population and infighting even among Kurdish groups) such as Mosul after the latest American assault on Fallujah.
There have certainly been fewer reports of civilian casualties so far than there were in the April assault. American appointed Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi could even claim for much of the assault that there were no reports of civilian casualties.
This was because the US military had learned some of the lessons of previous assaults. First – hospitals report most civilian casualties as the dead and wounded are brought there – reporting that more than half the dead were women, children and the elderly in Fallujah in April and also inSamarra in October. Their figures have been confirmed by Iraq Body Count which gives the Iraqi death toll for the April offensive at around 800 – of whom 600 were civilians – contradicting Pentagon claims that 95% of the dead were ‘insurgents’. So US forces seized control of the hospitals first in the November offensive. Fewer pesky reports on numbers of civilian deaths got out that way.
Allawi also set up a Higher Media Commission headed by a former intelligence officer under Saddam – to warn the media that reports critical of Allawi’s government or its policies (such as the Fallujah assault) would not be tolerated. To underline the point journalists frequently receive death threats from Allawi’s police to add to those from Islamic fundamentalists.
Reports of civilians and prisoners of war being killed by US forces in Fallujah have still leaked out though.
Associated Press photographer Bilal Hussein fled Falluja on the 9th of November. He claims he saw civilians – including a family of 5 – shot by US helicopters as they tried to escape across the Euphrates river.
Dr Sami al-Jumaili claims that dozens of civilians and 20 doctors were killed in a US air strike on his clinic
“In the early morning the US attacked the clinic, a place that we were using for treating the injured people in the city”
His account seems to be confirmed by journalist Fadhil Badrani who also reported seeing the dead bodies of women and children lying in the street.
And of course there is the notorious video of the wounded, unarmed Iraqi prisoner being shot by a US marine. Some have tried to defend this action despite the fact that the embedded NBC reporter who took it confirms that the Iraqi killed was one of 5 men wounded (10 were killed) in a fight with an entirely different unit of marines the day before. This first unit ‘tended to’ the wounded men on the Friday. Given this they would have been disarmed – the NBC cameraman confirms they were unarmed when the video was taken. On the Saturday the second unit of marines shot and killed one of the 5 wounded on video – 3 others were also shot again though no film of this was taken
There are various responses to such eye-witness accounts.
Some condemn Iraqi civilians for not having left Fallujah when they were warned an American attack was coming. This ignores the fact that Fallujah had a population of 300,000 people. Where would they all go? The International Red Cross reports that around 200,000 refugees from Fallujah – some who left before the fighting began and some afterwards – are largely without food, water or shelter. What’s more the Falluja offensive triggered fighting across most of Iraq. So much for the option of fleeing to safety
Some claim reports of US troops killing civilians are lies, others that they are ‘isolated incidents’. The careful methodology used in reporting confirmed individual cases of civilians killed in Iraq by Iraq Body Count prove otherwise – putting the total number of civilians confirmed killed since the Iraq invasion at over 16,000 – with far more than half of those killed since the invasion officially ended and became an ‘occupation’/’liberation’ on May 1st 2003. The best estimates on the total number of civilians killed – as opposed to the numbers absolutely known to have been killed as provided by Body Count – comes from a study carried out by Iraqi doctors and published in the Lancet medical journal - and gives an estimate of around 100,000 based on interviews with families across Iraq – though this may include an unknown number of combatants.
Some claim that we are fighting ‘terrorists’ so anything is justified – ignoring the fact that civilians are not terrorists and neither are many of the armed insurgents/ resistance groups fighting the occupying forces. Al Qa’ida and other terrorists and criminal gangs are present – but so are Iraqi guerrillas and militia with no connection to them.
Some point to the pointless murder of Iraqi/British/Irish aid worker Margaret Hassan of Care International by a group claiming to by an ‘armed Islamic group’ (unusually Al Qa’ida and linked groups have denied responsibility) as if pointing to someone else’s atrocities against civilians could justify ours against other civilians and unarmed prisoners of war in some way.
Others claim war crimes are inevitable in war. The last point may have some truth in it (though it is the response which Serbs gave with a shrug when asked how they could condone the Srebrenica massacre in the Bosnian war in the 1990s) – but what was the necessity for this war, and in particular for the assault on Falluja?
One reason the US military, the Bush administration and the Iraqi Interim government they appointed gave was that they needed to capture the Al Qa’ida terrorist Abu-MusabAl Zarqawi whose Tawhid and Jihad or ‘Al Qa’ida in Iraq’ terrorist movement were responsible for the murder of civilians including British engineer Ken Bigley.
Yet the citizens of Falluja – a city of 300,000 people – always said they had no idea where Zarqawi was.
With the beginning of the attack on Falluja the American military’s story changed and contradicted itself. Apparently Zarqawi was not in Falluja according to the Iraqi Interim government and ‘probably long gone’ according to the US military (unsurprising if you warn a criminal months in advance that you will be attacking a city with an entire army). At the same time they admitted he may never have been in Fallujah at all as the video of Ken Bigley’s murder was now thought to have been filmed in the town of Latifyah.
Finally the real reason was divulged. A British Defence source told a BBC Newsnight reporter that the Americans had briefed him on the Fallujah offensive. It’s aim was to ‘make an example’ of Fallujah so that ‘other communities would ask themselves – “Do we really want this here?”
British and American military planners use this plan a lot – even though it never works. Admiral Sir Michael Boyce , British Chief of the Defence Staff , in October 2001 , the strategy being to attack until "the Afghan people say it it is not worth the hassle - 'I know where this guy is, let's sort him out'.” .
The same theory led to the ‘third phase’ of bombing in the 1999 Kosovo war , when NATO air-forces were ordered to hit civilian targets (Knightley 2000). It failed then too – Milosevic only lost power much later when Serbs wanted economic sanctions raised. As Lieutenant General Michael Short , commander of the USAF and NATO air forces in the Kosovo campaign explained the strategy which was eventually adopted
“If you wake up in the morning and you have no power to your house and no gas to your stove and the bridge you take to work is down and will be lying in the Danube for the next 20 years I think you begin to ask 'hey, Slobo [President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia), what's all this about?” (House of Commons Select Committee on Defence 1999-2000 , 14th report para94).
Of course this is the opposite of the actual effect that these kind of ‘tactics’ have. The bombing of London in the ‘blitz’ in world war two did not turn people against the Churchill government or destroy their morale – it rallied them behind it against the suffering inflicted on them by their attackers – and the same effect was seen in Falluja after the aborted April assault – and is being seen now in fighting across Iraq. Civilians could not defeat armed opponents even if they wanted to – and will now tend to side with anyone opposing the occupying forces after these new killings.
In the end arguments over to what extent different war crimes are ‘comparable’ and whether the killing of civilians by coalition forces is deliberate or not are completely academic. If we continue making excuses for such killings and carrying out more pointless assaults to ‘make an example’ of more Iraqi cities and towns , leaving hundreds of civilians dead each time, there will never be peace in Iraq any more than there was in Vietnam before American, French and Australian forces left that country.
Knightley , Phillip (2000), ‘The First Casualty’ ,Prion , London , 2000
copyright© Duncan McFarlane 2004
Live Review: The Concretes - Manchester University, 16th November 2004
It's a cold, rainy autumnal night in Manchester. It's the kind of night that we have all year round here. It's dark, it's wet, it's cold, but tonight, and for one night only The Concretes succeed in turning a small corner of Manchester into a sun kissed, blissed out, haven of summertime cool. They effortlessly manage to transport you to a place miles away from your troubles; leaving the world behind, we step and sway, we sigh and swoon, we close our eyes and glide into the warm embrace that is The Concretes.
As a precursor to their support slot on the current Thrills tour (they were picked out specifically by the band), Scandinavia's finest have returned to the venue that they thrilled so magnificently earlier this summer, that night was one of the summers highlights, and tonight word has obviously got around because there is an audible buzz in the air, an eager sense of anticipation fills the venue as more and more people are catching onto The Concretes and their slices of perfect, luscious, sublime pop.
There is a certain, delicate elegance to The Concretes that is so evident in their music, and in the flesh it becomes immediately apparent that none of it is forced. They simply appear onstage, no great dramatic entrance, no fireworks, it's as though they have been waiting patiently for us to finish what we were doing before they start. And when they do start, it's immediately into the instantly recognisable 'Say Something New', the regimentation of the rhythm pattern dictates that you have no option but to sit up and take notice. This is not background music, but then again, it's hardly brutal, in your face bluster, it's gentle yet forceful and it brings with it a distinct connection between the stage and the floor. The warm glow of the lights, bathing the octet in vibrant hues of all consuming blue and red vie with shards of purple and green in the battle to saturate the sound in colour. The atmosphere, the music, the lights all seem to compliment each other perfectly, it might sound a bit soft, but there definitely did seem to be a feeling of warmth and happiness in the room, well, that and a pungent aroma of, erm, ahem, 'herbal cigarettes'.
The set is mainly built around this year's eponymous album, and, for a while at least, follows the same track listing. 'You Can't Hurry Love', 'Chico', and 'New Friend' all follow in quick succession. The band are clearly enjoying what they are doing before they head off on the road to ply their wares to a room full of people who have gone out to see another band. This is a night where the audience is out to see The Concretes, not some second generation pseudo west coast Irish surf pop pub rock group. As Peter Buck put it after R.E.M. catastrophically supported The Police in the early days "I'd rather play to a room of ten people who have come to see us, than to ten thousand people who have come to see somebody else". He had a point, and the obvious appreciation of what we were seeing and hearing was reflected in the bands consummate performance. They appear wholly accomplished, and exude an air of confidence whilst still maintaining an aura of politeness so often missed by British or American pop stars. Maybe it's a lesson for our icons.
A triplet of new numbers, 'The Warrior', 'Forces' and 'Lady December' are thrown in towards the end of the set, and in places indicate leanings towards The Velvet Underground. I have detailed elsewhere the unavoidable links to the European lilt of Nico that The Concretes carry around with them, not so much as a weight on their shoulders, but more of a celebratory recognition that all popular music doesn't necessarily need an American accent to fulfil it's requirements.
Winding up the set with the triumphant 'Seems Fine' there is almost an outbreak of leaping down at the front, and there is certainly a bit of dancing going on, whilst set closer (and forthcoming single) 'Warm Night' witnesses the Manchester audience in a wholly uncharacteristic arms aloft, swaying love-in. Things like that don't happen here, it's just not the done thing, it's not right, it just isn't - but last night it was the right thing to do, it was, and we did it. We loved it.
Brought back for the planned encore, we are treated to a cover of The Rolling Stones classic 'Miss You' and 'This One's For You'. The latter building to a set closing crescendo with assured ease, the vocals caress, the guitars soar, the drums pound and the brass rips strips from your ears, the lights shimmer and bathe, and before we know it they're gone; off to get on the tourbus for a trip around the U.K. that may be their salvation and salutation to a public who should know more about this Scandinavian enigma. A thrilling, delightful enigma that delights the few whilst the masses dash from doorway to doorway through the rain, with collars turned up against the weather, and eyes turned downwards from the deluge, seeing nothing but their way home, seeing nothing as beautiful and as honest as that which we saw just a few feet from where they passed.
It was all there tonight, the lights, the music, the warmth, the love, the recreational cigarettes. It was all there, and as we stepped into the rainy Manchester night I turned to Steve and said 'I bet there ain't any fighting out here tonight'. And sure enough, there wasn't.