Remembrance Sunday and Iraq's forgotten fallen

Remembrance Day was marred by the unacknowledged deaths in Iraq - a genocide unmentioned.

On Remembrance Day 2007, the great and the good bowed their heads at the Cenotaph. Generals, politicians, newsreaders, football managers and stock-market traders wore their poppies. Hypocrisy was a presence. No one mentioned Iraq. No one uttered the slightest remorse for the fallen of that country. No one read the forbidden list.

The forbidden list documents, without favour, the part the British state and its court have played in the destruction of Iraq. Here it is:

 

1 Holocaust denial

 

On 25 October, Dai Davies MP asked Gordon Brown about civilian deaths in Iraq. Brown passed the question to the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, who passed it to his junior minister, Kim Howells, who replied: "We continue to believe that there are no comprehensive or reliable figures for deaths since March 2003." This was a deception. In October 2006, the Lancet published research by Johns Hopkins University in the US and al-Mustansiriya University in Baghdad which calculated that 655,000 Iraqis had died as a result of the Anglo-American invasion. A Freedom of Information search revealed that the government, while publicly dismissing the study, secretly backed it as comprehensive and reliable. The chief scientific adviser to the Ministry of Defence, Sir Roy Anderson, called its methods "robust" and "close to best practice". Other senior governments officials secretly acknowledged the survey's "tried and tested way of measuring mortality in conflict zones". Since then, the British research polling agency, Opinion Research Business, has extrapolated a figure of 1.2 million deaths in Iraq. Thus, the scale of death caused by the British and US governments may well have surpassed that of the Rwanda genocide, making it the biggest single act of mass murder of the late 20th century and the 21st century.

 

2 Looting

 

The undeclared reason for the invasion of Iraq was the convergent ambitions of the neocons, or neo-fascists, in Washington and the far-right regimes of Israel. Both groups had long wanted Iraq crushed and the Middle East colonised to US and Israeli designs. The initial blueprint for this was the 1992 "Defence Planning Guidance", which outlined America's post-Cold War plans to dominate the Middle East and beyond. Its authors included Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and Colin Powell, architects of the 2003 invasion. Following the invasion, Paul Bremer, a neocon fanatic, was given absolute civil authority in Baghdad and in a series of decrees turned the entire future Iraqi economy over to US corporations. As this was lawless, the corporate plunderers were given immunity from all forms of prosecution. The Blair government was fully com plicit and even objected when it looked as if UK companies might be excluded from the most profitable looting. British officials were awarded functionary colonial posts. A petroleum "law" will allow, in effect, foreign oil companies to approve their own contracts over Iraq's vast energy resources. This will complete the greatest theft since Hitler stripped his European conquests.

 

3 Destroying a nation's health

 

In 1999, I interviewed Dr Jawad Al-Ali, a cancer specialist at Basra city hospital. "Before the Gulf War," he said, "we had only three or four deaths in a month from cancer. Now it's 30 to 35 patients dying every month. Our studies indicate that 40 to 48 per cent of the population in this area will get cancer." Iraq was then in the grip of an economic and humanitarian siege, initiated and driven by the US and Britain. The result, wrote Hans von Sponeck, the then chief UN humanitarian official in Baghdad, was "genocidal . . . practically an entire nation was subjected to poverty, death and destruction of its physical and mental foundations". Most of southern Iraq remains polluted with the toxic debris of British and American explosives, including uranium- 238 shells. Iraqi doctors pleaded in vain for help, citing the levels of leukaemia among children as the highest seen since Hiroshima. Professor Karol Sikora, chief of the World Health Organisation's cancer programme, wrote in the BMJ: "Requested radiotherapy equipment, chemo-therapy drugs and analgesics are consistently blocked by United States and British advisers [to the Sanctions Committee]." In 1999, Kim Howells, then trade minister, effectively banned the export to Iraq of vaccines that would protect mostly children from diphtheria, tetanus and yellow fever, which, he said, "are capable of being used in weapons of mass destruction".

Since 2003, apart from PR exercises for the embedded media, the British occupiers have made no attempt to re-equip and resupply hospitals that, prior to 1991, were regarded as the best in the Middle East. In July, Oxfam reported that 43 per cent of Iraqis were living in "absolute poverty". Under the occupation, malnutrition rates among children have spiralled to 28 per cent. A secret Defence Intelligence Agency document, "Iraq Water Treatment Vulnerabilities", reveals that the civilian water supply was deliberately targeted. As a result, the great majority of the population has neither access to running water nor sanitation - in a country where such basic services were once as universal as in Bri tain. "The mortality of children in Basra has increased by nearly 30 per cent compared to the Saddam Hussein era," said Dr Haydar Salah, a paediatrician at Basra children's hospital. "Children are dying daily and no one is doing anything to help them." In January this year, nearly 100 leading British doctors wrote to Hilary Benn, then international development secretary, describing how children were dying because Britain had not fulfilled its obligations as an occupying power under UN Security Council Resolution 1483. Benn refused to see them.

 

4 Destroying a society

 

The UN estimates that 100,000 Iraqis are fleeing the country every month. The refugee crisis has now overtaken that of Darfur as the most catastrophic on earth. Half of Iraq's doctors have gone, along with engineers and teachers. The most literate society in the Middle East is being dismantled, piece by piece. Out of more than four million displaced people, Britain last year refused the majority of more than 1,000 Iraqis who applied to come here, while removing more "illegal" Iraqi refugees than any other European country. Thanks to tabloid-inspired legislation, Iraqis in Britain are often destitute, with no right to work and no support. They sleep and scavenge in parks. The government, says Amnesty, "is trying to starve them out of the country".

 

5 Propaganda

 

"See in my line of work," said George W Bush, "you got to keep repeating things over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of catapult the propaganda."

Standing outside 10 Downing Street on 9 April 2003, the BBC's then political editor, Andrew Marr, reported the fall of Baghdad as a victory speech. Tony Blair, he told viewers, "said they would be able to take Baghdad without a bloodbath, and that in the end the Iraqis would be celebrating. And on both of those points he has been proved conclusively right. And it would be entirely ungracious, even for his critics, not to acknowledge that tonight he stands as a larger man and a stronger prime minister as a result." In the United States, similar travesties passed as journalism. The difference was that leading American journalists began to consider the consequences of the role they had played in the build-up to the invasion. Several told me they believed that had the media challenged and investigated Bush's and Blair's lies, instead of echoing and amplifying them, the invasion might not have happened. A European study found that, of the major western television networks, the BBC permitted less coverage of dissent than all of them. A second study found that the BBC consistently gave credence to government propaganda that weapons of mass destruction existed. Unlike the Sun, the BBC has credibility - as does, or did, the Observer.

On 14 October 2001, the Observer's front page said: "US hawks accuse Iraq over anthrax". This was entirely false. Supplied by US intelligence, it was part of the Observer's staunchly pro-war coverage, which included claiming a link between Iraq and al-Qaeda, for which there was no credible evidence and which betrayed the paper's honourable past. One report over two pages was headlined: "The Iraqi connection". It, too, came from "intelligence sources" and was rubbish. The reporter, David Rose, concluded his barren inquiry with a heartfelt plea for an invasion. "There are occasions in history," he wrote, "when the use of force is both right and sensible." Rose has since written his mea culpa, including in these pages, confessing how he was used. Other journalists have still to admit how they were manipulated by their own credulous relationship with established power.

These days, Iraq is reported as if it is exclusively a civil war, with a US military "surge" aimed at bringing peace to the scrapping natives. The perversity of this is breathtaking. That sectarian violence is the product of a vicious divide-and-conquer policy is beyond doubt. As for the largely media myth of al-Qaeda, "most of the [American] pros will tell you", wrote Seymour Hersh, "that the foreign fighters are a couple per cent, and then they're sort of leaderless". That a poorly armed, audacious resistance has not only pinned down the world's most powerful army but has agreed an anti-sectarian, anti al-Qaeda agenda, which opposes attacks on civilians and calls for free elections, is not news.

 

6 The next blood letting

 

In the 1960s and 1970s, British governments secretly expelled the population of Diego Garcia, an island in the Indian Ocean whose people have British nationality. Women and children were loaded on to vessels resembling slave ships and dumped in the slums of Mauritius, after their homeland was given to the Americans for a military base. Three times, the High Court has found this atrocity illegal, calling it a defiance of the Magna Carta and the Blair government's refusal to allow the people to go home "outrageous" and "repugnant". The government continues to use endless recourse to appeal, at the taxpayers' expense, to prevent upsetting Bush. The cruelty of this matches the fact that not only has the US repeatedly bombed Iraq from Diego Garcia, but at "Camp Justice", on the island, "al-Qaeda suspects" are "rendered" and "tortured", according to the Washington Post. Now the US Air Force is rushing to upgrade hangar facilities on the island so that stealth bombers can carry 14-tonne "bunker busting" bombs in an attack on Iran. Orchestrated propaganda in the media is critical to the success of this act of international piracy.

On 22 May, the front page of the Guardian carried the banner headline: "Iran's secret plan for summer offensive to force US out of Iraq". This was a tract of unalloyed propaganda based entirely on anonymous US official sources. Through-out the media, other drums have taken up the beat. "Iran's nuclear ambitions" slips effortlessly from newsreaders' lips, no matter that the International Atomic Energy Agency refuted Washington's lies, no matter the echo of "Saddam's weapons of mass destruction", no matter that another bloodbath beckons.

Lest we forget.

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2007 issue of the New Statesman, New best friends?

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“The guards WANT you to mess up”: meet the prison wives of Instagram

How memes featuring Disney Princesses, Spongebob Squarepants, and saggy jeans have empowered women with incarcerated partners.

During a recent trip to visit her boyfriend in federal prison, 27-year-old Makenzie wore a floor-length black skirt and a grey shirt that completely covered the top half of her body. After a brief inspection, the guard on duty deemed her outfit appropriate and waved her through, and she was able to spend a happy eight hours with her incarcerated boyfriend and her six-year-old daughter. The next day, she came back to visit again.

“I wore the exact same outfit the second day of visitation because I didn’t want to fight with the guards about any other clothing,” says Makenzie, who had to drive five hours out of her home state, Texas, in order to visit her partner. “I was sent away by a guard who had seen me the day before.”

Makenzie felt “belittled and humiliated” by the guard, who forced her to go to the nearest shop to buy a new shirt. “I wore the exact same outfit down to my shoes and earrings,” she explains. When she confronted the guard, Makenzie says he said: “I honestly don’t care.

“All I’m telling you today is you’re not going in there dressed like that.”

Being a “prison wife” can be isolating and confusing. When wives and girlfriends first go to visit their newly-incarcerated partners, the rules and regulations can be overwhelming. When visiting her boyfriend, Makenzie has to place her money in a clear plastic bag, go through a metal detector before a smaller metal detector is used on her feet, and be patted down by guards. If her clothing is too loose or too tight, she is sent home.

“The guards WANT you to mess up,” Makenzie tells me over email, emphasis hers. “They want to make you mad, make you get in trouble.” For wives and girlfriends isolated by these experiences, the internet has become a haven.

***

Makenzie’s Instagram account has 1,123 followers. Under the handle “Texas Prison Wives”, she has been posting memes, photographs, and advice posts for five years. After incidents like the one above, Makenzie can use her account to vent or warn other wives about changes in clothing rules. Followers can also submit text posts to her that she screenshots, overlays on scenic pictures, and publishes anonymously.

One, imposed on a city skyline, asks if anyone wants to carpool to a prison. Another, overlaying a picture of a nude woman, reads: “I’m wondering if I can get some ideas on sexy pics I can take for my man. I’m about 85lbs heavier than I was the last time he saw me naked.”

The prison wives of Instagram recently went viral – but not on their own posts. A Twitter user discovered the community and tweeted out screenshots of prison wife memes – which are formatted with an image and caption like all relatable memes, with the crucial difference being that not many of us can actually relate.

“The life that we live is not widely accepted by families, friends, and the general outside world because people hear ‘inmate’ and automatically assume the worst,” says Makenzie, whose boyfriend was sentenced to two fifteen year sentences for drug possession.

“This account has given women a safe space and anonymity to seek personal advice, ask questions, and seek other women within their area if they want to reach out.” Her account, Makenzie says, also allows prison wives to laugh during tough times. She both makes her own memes and shares those from similar accounts. One, from May 2016, features a collage of four celebrities rolling their eyes. The caption reads: “When you hear ‘Babe, we are going on lock down again…’”

To outside eyes, some prison wife memes can seem flippant or – to those who retweeted the viral tweet – laughable. “My Life As A Prison Wife” is an account with over 12,000 followers that posts a wide array of memes, often using stills from Disney movies to portray emotions. A post featuring an image of a crying Belle – from Beauty and the Beast –  is captioned “that feeling when… when your visits get suspended”. Yet though many online criticise what they see as the glorification or normalisation of a life choice they don’t agree with, Makenzie emphasises that memes – especially funny ones – are important.

“I think it’s fun to have so many people relate to funny memes even though the direct meaning behind it is about being lonely or the hard things we go through to make this relationship work,” she explains. “It’s a reminder we aren’t alone in our struggle and we can laugh through the pain.”

Jemma, a 22-year-old from London who runs an account called “Doing time too”, concurs. Her profile – which has 1,369 followers – showcases memes featuring puppies, Disney princesses, and stills from Spongebob Squarepants.“I'm sure ordinary members of the public would disagree with our light-hearted way of looking at our loved ones being in prison and I would totally understand that,” she says – also over email.

 

HAPPY VALENTINE'S DAY LADIES  #prisonwife #prisonwifelife #doingtimetoo #inmatelove

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

“Before I was in the situation myself, I would have probably reacted in the same way to an account like the one I now own. But sometimes you end up in situations you never expected to and you deal with things in a way that others won’t understand.”

***

Prison wives don’t use Instagram just for memes. Makenzie’s account helps women in need in an array of ways: they can find out if there have been riots in their partner’s prison; get advice on gifts to send a loved one; and even find out how to appeal sentences. Alongside her Instagram, Jemma also runs a website called www.doingtimetoo.co.uk

Via @TexasPrisonWives

“I started the website because I was in a relationship with someone a couple of years ago who ended up going to prison. It was totally out of the blue for me and something neither of us saw coming,” she says. “I had no idea how to deal with it.” Her site provides information about individual prisons, what to expect from a prison visit, and what to do after release. She also provides tips on how to send creative gifts made out of paper to incarcerated loved ones.

“I believe the internet has been a massive help in supporting prison wives,” says Jemma, who finds most people don’t understand or relate to her situation. Her boyfriend was charged with GBH (grievous bodily harm) and sentenced to two years in prison, after getting into a fight.

Jemma also feels that Instagram can provide prison wives with information that the prisons themselves withhold. “I can't speak for everyone but in my experience, prisons and the visit centres are far from helpful in providing any information, support or advice,” she says. “Sometimes people won’t hear from their husband when they expect to but through interacting with other ‘prison wives’ they may find out that that particular prison is currently on lock down, providing an explanation and reassurance as to why they hadn’t heard from their husband. Without the internet, this wouldn't happen.”

 

Advice! @mothafukn.irvin

A post shared by OFFICIAL N. CALI SUPPORT (@north_cali_prisonwives) on

When Jemma reached out to prison visitor centres in the UK to promote her website to those in need, she never heard back. When she emailed her boyfriend’s visitor centre prior to her first visit to ask what to do, what to wear, and what to expect, she also never received a reply. “There is no communication with family and no support offered… It’s important to remember that the families themselves did nothing wrong or illegal and so don’t deserved to be punished or treated like criminals themselves.” In such circumstances, information shared online is crucial.

Makenzie also believes that the US prison system has it faults when it comes to visitors. “While I know and understand that inmates are being punished for a crime they committed, the guards treat their families disrespectfully and unfairly almost as if we are being punished as well,” she says. “Being a larger woman, I have gotten in trouble for my clothes being too tight AND for my clothes being too loose. It’s a lose-lose situation.”

Makenzie explains that sometimes visitors are forced to wear gowns similar to those worn in hospitals if their clothes are deemed unsuitable. In the past, she has even been sent away to buy a new bra after she wore one without underwire in order to get through the metal detector. In one prison her boyfriend was incarcerated in, visitors had to wait outside to be signed in, one-by-one, regardless of the weather. “We had to wait two hours several times, sweating, drenched in rain, they don’t care…

“The guards degrade your loved ones right in front of your face, they are mean, hateful, and over the top rude, even to the inmates who are the most well behaved and respectful.”

For these women, Instagram has become an invaluable network of support.

***

There are hundreds of Instagram accounts just like Jemma and Makenzie’s. Many often take memes from each other, but Jemma explains there is no competition. In fact, she says, the network is incredibly supportive. “I spoke to one lady regularly about her situation and I remember counting down to her boyfriend’s release date with her,” she says. Jemma and Makenzie also use their accounts to help lonely prisoners find pen pals.

Instagram allows prison wives to find likeminded people, free from judgement. Yet the accounts can also be incredibly informative to outsiders. By using the “When…” format, memes provide a detailed insight into the lives of prison wives. “When you’re kissing baby towards the beginning/end of the visit and the CO yells ‘enough’,” reads one. “When you check your phone and see… not only did you miss 1 call, you missed two,” is the caption on an image of a crying child.

 

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

“Nobody understands this long distance, no physical intimacy, and then the added stresses of dealing with prison politics, corrupt guards, and the worry of riots, lock downs, and retaliation like women who are living through the same thing,” says Makenzie. Yet thanks to these Instagram accounts, outsiders do have an opportunity to understand.

For prison wives, memes are an easy and fast way to talk about a topic that many deem taboo. The fact that Jemma and Makenzie wished to communicate with me over email, and the fact many more prison wives didn’t want to speak to me at all, shows how difficult it can be to talk about these issues. For many, memes are just a bit of fun. For prison wives, they can be a lifeline.

 

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

 “None of us enjoy prison visits or being treated like we are criminals ourselves. We don't enjoy waiting for phone calls that never arrive or having to deal with situations all on our own but if we can laugh about it, that’s something,” explains Jemma.

“Memes allow us all to laugh at the situations we are in, rather than cry.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2007 issue of the New Statesman, New best friends?