The predictable slaughter

"Shock and Awe" killed very few Iraqis, but the inept implementation of regime change has let loose

There is that moment when the snackering sound of a rifle being cocked makes you pay attention. And three camouflage-uniformed members of the new Iraqi National Police had just cocked their AK assault rifles. The half-dozen grey-patterned US soldiers standing protectively in front of the man in the grey shirt were now paying attention. Later, they said they thought they were about to get into what the US military calls an "escalation of force situation". But, with a lot of shouting and pushing, and a deal of finessing by Lieutenant Ford and his interpreter, the situation was eventually defused.

Last weekend, Channel 4 News's Nick Paton Walsh and I were in the district of Shula, right beside the famous Umm al-Mahare ("Mother of All Battles") mosque in north-western Baghdad, travelling with a search patrol as it cleared the half-built villas dotted over the marshy land around the mosque. The morning's work had been un event ful. Around eleven, the Iraqi police patrol accompanying the platoon from the US 2nd Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment announced that we had to look for a car. Apparently, there were "terrorists" in an Opel or Mercedes-Benz on the other side of the mosque. The joint patrol rapidly set off across sheep-riddled wasteland. Within minutes, the lead Humvee had stopped an Opel. Inside were two men, well dressed in the smart casual clothes of the Iraqi middle classes.

It quickly became obvious from the shouting and waving of weapons that the Iraqi National Police felt these two should be terminated. Realising this, the American lieutenant moved his men into defensive positions around the detainees, having to extricate one of them from a pasting being administered by several police officers. This quickly put him at odds with his comrades-in-arms. Later, he said he had feared there was a moment when they were about to be attacked by the police patrol.

At the time, I felt sure that the only people in danger were the detainees, but the US soldiers were really spooked. The lieutenant explained that the Iraqi police had become agitated when the men, on being questioned, produced documents showing that they worked for US intelligence. They were also Sunni. In a Shia area. And had been apprehended by an INP patrol that was completely Shia.

That is why this little incident is so revealing and showed the problem of Iraq in a microcosm. I have been reporting from Iraq since the Iran-Iraq war of the Eighties, but more recently during the latest upheaval since 2002. I witnessed the "Shock and Awe" air campaign from a balcony of the Palestine Hotel. That extraordinary display of firepower killed hardly anyone, and the actual war itself killed very few.

But the evil genie unleashed by an inept execution of regime change in Iraq has been horrifying to watch. Since I was last here in December, the Shia-dominated government has rushed Saddam Hussein to his ignominious end and the place now seems somehow hollow.

I would never mourn the old killer, but it seems obvious that he and his Ba'ath Party thugs held this secularised Arab nation together, as well as in thrall. Now the nastiness is barefaced, the bitterness of the oppressed is expressed in their revenge, and criminality is given free rein.

As is now commonly acknowledged, the invaders have found themselves in something of a quandary. Resistance to the "liberation", initially laid at the door of the former Ba'athists and al-Qaeda, changed subtly after the White House forced Iraq into an election that returned a Shia majority. The newly legitimised authority of the majority has since allowed the age-old fight between Sunnis and Shias to flare up - to the point where a death toll of "only" 1,531 in February this year is seen as an improvement on the monthly figures for the second half of 2006.

As the incident last Saturday showed, increasingly, most Sunnis need the US to stay so that the democracy the Bush administration bequeathed the country doesn't turn out to be a death sentence for them.

Lieutenant-Colonel Nikolas, commander of the 2nd Battalion, says the Baghdad security plan designates Shula as a quiet neigh bourhood requiring only an "economy of force" to police it. But then it is not run by the US troops who patrol there daily, nor by the INP, nor by the Kurdish Iraqi army battalion stationed there. Shula is run by Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi militia, who, for the moment, have hidden their weapons and changed out of their black fatigues while the Baghdad security plan proceeds.

Time is on their side. They need the plan to give the US the sense that things have calmed down. They also need the US to beat the Sunni groups, such as al-Qaeda, which fight both of them, while they consolidate their turf. Then, when the US begins to withdraw, they can finish the job of making sure that the Sunnis are completely broken.

Lieutenant Colonel Nikolas is under no misapprehension. He knows he is being used. But he's an officer with the lives of his men at risk and a job to be done, so he's going "hammer and tongs to sort out this area" south of Shula, along the Jordan-Syria highway out to Abu Ghraib and Fallujah. Every day, one of his companies patrolling the area comes under attack. They believe they have dislodged resident al-Qaeda Sunni insurgents from the blocks of shoddily built middle-class villas, but the attacks, although reduced, have not stopped.

At the same time, Nikolas has stabilised a "creeping front line" where the Mahdi Shia militia was pushing south from Shula into Ghazaliya in a spate of ethnic cleansing.

"They [the Sunnis] needed us to stop them being pushed out by the Shias from the north. We're doing that. But their brethren to the south make it real difficult," he says referring to the insurgent attacks from near the highway.

Thus, at every level, Americans are having to come to terms with the reality they have created. From Lieutenant Ford, protecting two men on the ground in the salt marshes of Shula, through Colonel Nikolas, working in an area where whole districts have to be protected, to the president in the White House, who has to juggle the complexity of power politics between Sunnis and Shias at an international level, the problem remains the same. It's only the scale that differs.

"It seems we're caught right in the middle of this," said Lieutenant Ford.

No kidding.

Tim Lambon is assistant foreign editor of "Channel 4 News". He is embedded with the US military in Iraq, in part of the Baghdad Security Plan

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the hidden cost of the war

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood