Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A war correspondent's early impressions of the Libya War

David Enders, a 30-yr-old war reporter who has been reporting from Iraq and has a forthcoming book on the subject, reflects about the Libya War in A reporter in Libya wonders about lessons of war McClatchy Newspapers 09/28/2011. He reminds us that for all the heroic and triumphalist rhetoric we hear about it, the Libya War is a real war:

During my first week or two in Libya I found it an affable salutation, and an inclusive one — Libyans are (almost all) Muslims. Encouraged, I participated, heartily adopting it at checkpoints and in response to questions about "what I thought" of the Libyan revolution.

Identifying myself as an American journalist elicited smiles and handshakes, thumbs up and "Thank you!" — as though I had somehow been personally involved in NATO's decision to support the rebellion. I smiled and reciprocated. The last time I had experienced anything similar in the Middle East was in 2003, after the fall of Baghdad to U.S. troops.

Then skepticism kicked in. Enjoy this honeymoon, I told myself. It took Iraqis about six months to go from shaking hands to shooting.
Actually, there was significant guerrilla resistance activity in June of 2003 after the March invasion. But I suppose Enders has some reason for picking the six-month. He makes his point.


There was no shortage of triumphalist rhetoric in the early weeks of the Iraq War, too, the Mission Accomplished speech by our Glorious Leader Bush in May 2003 being the most notorious. Military historian John Keegan had an article in April 2003 entitled, "Saddam's Utter Collapse Shows This Has Not Been a Real War." (London Daily Telegraph 04/08/2003); though in fairness to Keegan, he was focusing specifically on the conventional war at that point.

Enders confirms that the hostility to black Africans, even ones with long Libyan roots, continues to be a feature of the Libyan war/revolution:

Xenophobia quickly consumed the rebel forces, fueled by rumors that many of Gadhafi's soldiers were "mortezaka," foreign mercenaries paid to fight. There's no evidence that this happened, at least not on the scale that many Libyans think. But many revolutionary militiamen believe any black African without proper documentation is potentially mortezaka.

That's made the past weeks difficult, at best, for the thousands of foreign Africans working in Libya who entered the country illegally and have no documentation from the government. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of black Libyans and non-Libyans have been arrested by revolutionary forces on very little evidence and crowded into packed jails. ...

In Tawergha, a village of black Libyans that has been "cleansed" by the rebels, someone had scrawled the word "abeed" — a slur for blacks that means "slave." Some of the residents of Tawergha, a historically black city on the coast 25 miles south of Misrata, were descended from slaves. Others come from Libya's southern cities. With blacks being coded as supporters of Gadhafi, the rebel rhetoric of cleansing began months before the actual act. The people of Misrata have even developed a victim's narrative for it. They began by driving out many of the residents of Goshi, a predominantly black neighborhood in Misrata.

Out of the violence against Misrata came violence against Tawargha. Crushed, feeling weak, the people of a ruined city took revenge on those of another. Coupled with the violent manifestation of feelings toward black Africans, it was chilling.
Enders sees this as a major ugly trend in the development of events in Libya.

Even though the Free Libya forces are Our Side, it doesn't mean that the US and NATO bear direct responsibility for this. But war is a very messy and unpredictable business. Continuing with Enders:

Libyans scoff at the idea that their country could become "like Iraq," but one of the first things Iraqi militants did after the invasion was to prey upon minority groups. Later they turned on one another. With Saddam Hussein gone, factions once united in a common cause fought over power and resources.

Already, factions are emerging in Libya, with political leaders arguing that one area of the country is less represented than another. A dictatorship often creates a system of bureaucratic patrimony, and Gadhafi's appears to have been no different. The tribe of Gen. Abdulfattah Younes, the rebel military leader assassinated in July, has complained openly that it had been sidelined in the new power structure. So have the rebel fighters from Misrata.

Libya now boasts perhaps the most heavily armed populace in the world, thanks to Qatar and other rebel backers, who showered the rebels with weapons in the final months of their campaign, even as the rebels took more and more materiel from Gadfhafi's well-stocked storehouses. An unknown amount of munitions are simply missing. [my emphasis]
Lots of pissed-off people, with not much experience of politics, with lots of guns and ammo. Things could get a lot uglier.

A dose of cynicism is expected from war correspondence. But still, anyone looking at wars should have a healthy dose of cynicism:

The revolutionaries in Tripoli told me that they would be better than Gadhafi, but already the prisons are filling. Perhaps I am being too harsh on people who are still at war. But with Tripoli fallen, the clock is ticking. A vacuum is a dangerous thing.
Iraqis told me, over and over, that a civil war was impossible. They listed the reasons it wouldn't happen. Many were logical and reasonable. I believed them, and I don't think it was simply because I wanted to believe them.

I want to believe it when Libyans tell me the same. But with six months of civil war building toward bloody showdowns in Gadhafi's last strongholds, I am still waiting for Libya to teach me something new about war.
[my emphasis]
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