Fallujah’s nemesis: A hero for our time?
It is unlikely that the people of Fallujah had ever heard of the Australian who was playing a central role in the destruction of their lives and their city, and the killing of its people, nor would they think of him as some of his compatriots did.
In Lermontov’s 1840 novel of this title, the hero is Pechorin, an alienated individual driven by arbitrary impulses behind the uniformed façade of the brilliant young officer serving in the Caucasus.
As we know from long history, many heroes have dark sides to them even if, personally, they are not really heroes at all. This especially applies to soldiers. Every nation-state needs heroes as part of the endless justification for the last war and preparation for the next one, so it cannot allow their names to be sullied in any way. Those who attack them, who pull them off the plinth, out of the pantheon, do so at their own risk: a prime 20th-century example is perhaps Richard Aldington, the poet and novelist, whose exposure of T.E. Lawrence as a liar and fantasist (Lawrence of Arabia: A Biographical Inquiry, 1955) infuriated the establishment and ruined his literary reputation.
Australians, some anyway, the family of course, but also politicians and the chief figures in the Returned Soldiers League (RSL), are now lamenting the recent death of Australia’s latest war hero, Jim Molan, who went into politics after a long career in the army, serving in government as a Liberal Party senator in the federal parliament.
In the obituaries and statements filling the media, Jim Molan is described as a patriot, a hero in every way a man can be (Greg Sheridan, writing in the Australian newspaper), a great man in every way, which of course leaves nothing out, and the ultimate tribute, a decent man.
These encomiums need to be set in the context of his military career, as well as politics and his personal life. Molan joined the Australian army in 1968, rising to the rank of Major General before his retirement in 2008. His overseas postings included Timor and Iraq, where he served as deputy chief of staff of operations for the US-led “multinational force” from April 2004-April 2005 and thus had senior command responsibility for the attack on Fallujah, which in late 2004 was targeted by the US army in one of the most savage attacks of the war. Fallujah was where, in November 2004, “we took the gloves off”, as one US officer said.
What “taking the gloves off” in practice amounted to was what has been variously described as genocide, sociocide and urbicide. Physically and psychologically the city was shattered, tens of thousands of its homes destroyed and most of its population emptied to clear the way for an attack on “insurgents”, which included the use of air power, tank and artillery bombardment. White phosphorus and depleted uranium shells and cluster bombs were also used; these types of weapons which had been provided by the US to Iraq as a ‘force multiplier’ during the 1980-88 war with Iran and were to be used again by the US and its allies - France, the UK and Saudi Arabia - during the 1990-1 war on Iraq.
In the 1920s, Fallujah, which lies 70 km west of Baghdad in Al Anbar province, was one of many strongholds of opposition to the British occupation. Sunni and Shia fought as one. Air power was central to the war on the people of what was to become Iraq. The British, like the French, used soldiers from one colonised land - the Indian subcontinent in their case - to conquer and colonise another.
Entering Baghdad in 1917, General Maude, whose equestrian statue stood in the city until pulled down in the revolution of 1958, said he came not as conqueror, but as liberator of the people from the Turks. The Americans sent out the same kind of message in 2003 with Jerry Bremer, the senior civilian administrator, even referring to the civilisation that US soldiers were defending rather than destroying.
In 1991, Iraq was filleted like a fish, all its infrastructure deliberately destroyed in line with the ‘enemy as a system’ theory, according to which an army deprived of that infrastructure really is as helpless as a beached fish flapping on the sand. What was left had to endure genocidal sanctions until the US and its vassals attacked again in 2003, this time on the basis of a complete lie, that Iraq had WMDs. As had been the case in 1920, Fallujah rose in resistance.
It suited the occupiers to paint all the resistance as fanatical Islamists when the people of Fallujah were doing what any people do when their country is invaded and its citizens are being killed. They resisted, whether in the name of Islam, their country, their region, their city, their tribe, or their family. Over time, as the Americans pressed their attack, differences within the resistance were melted away by the need to stand firm against a ferocious enemy, as Sunni and Shia had done in the 1920s.
In April 2003, US forces launched a sustained ground and air attack on Fallujah, killing dozens of civilians. By early 2004 the Americans, despite their firepower, were struggling to contain the resistance, which on March 31 killed four Blackwater contractors and hung their bodies from beams on the bridge over the Euphrates river. In retaliation, and frustrated by its failure to suppress the insurgency, the US launched Operation Vigilant Resolve. Heavy ground and air action continued until early November, when Vigilant Resolve was replaced with Operation Phantom Fury, initiating perhaps the most brutal attack on any Iraqi city and lasting for more than six weeks.
More than 10,000 US troops and a handful of Iraqis were poured into Fallujah, backed by Abrams tanks, 105mm artillery shells, and C130 gunships. In the coming months, the invading force also used cluster bombs, napalm, ‘shake and bake’ white phosphorus shells and depleted uranium shells. Marines rode into the city in Humvees playing Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries.’ US snipers shot freely into the streets, considering anyone who was out and about as a possible insurgent.
Fallujah is or was known as the city of mosques. Estimates of the number range from 100 to 200. They became strongholds of the resistance and scores were damaged or totally destroyed by heavy shelling and air attack, along with up to 50,000 civilian residences. The main hospital was an early target. Entire districts were flattened. In the two operations, more than 1400 civilians were killed, including an estimated 560 women and children, along with the 2175 ‘insurgents’ claimed by the Americans. More than 90 US soldiers were killed in the second, far more ferocious onslaught. Most of the civilian population had already fled or had been coerced into leaving – “allowed to leave” according to the US command – so the resistance would be isolated. Those who remained – an estimated 30,000-50,000 people – were left without water, power, and food supplies.
According to the Iraqi Red Crescent, “the city was virtually destroyed”. The level of destruction invited comparisons with the Nazi attack on Warsaw and Rotterdam in 1939/40 as well as, much later, Mosul, Raqqa, and Gaza. It far eclipsed what had been the icon of fascist aggression in the 1930s, Guernica.
Despite the full-scale assault, resistance in Fallujah continued until finally suppressed by US and Iraqi government forces in 2016.
Fallujah is part of Jim Molan’s legacy. We are told not to speak ill of the dead, but Molan and other senior officers left hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dead in their wake, and in their name, these war ‘heroes’ have to be held to account. After a decade of sanctions, Iraq was on the brink of political, economic and social recovery when it was attacked in 2003. These were the precise reasons it was attacked, as the US and "Israel" did not want Iraq to recover but rather to destroy it.
Molan was a key figure in a war of aggression, described by the Nuremberg Tribunal as the supreme international crime. War crimes were committed in Iraq for which US and other military commanders and their governments have to be held historically responsible, even if they never face tribunals to answer for their actions.
After leaving the army, Molan was appointed by the right-wing Abbott government as the overseer of Operation Sovereign Borders, whose purpose was to stop boats bringing refugees and asylum seekers from reaching Australia, many of them from countries which the Australian military had joined forces with the US to destroy. There is surely a certain symmetry between Molan’s role in turning Fallujah into a city of refugees and stopping refugees from landing in Australia.
It is unlikely that the people of Fallujah had ever heard of the Australian who was playing a central role in the destruction of their lives and their city. Needless to say, the hero in Australia, a country which, behind the façade of independence, has yet to find the strength to break away from its vassalage to the US, would be described somewhat differently in Fallujah.