Who’s a Patriot,
Who’s an Oppressor?

If 500 years from now American soldiers are still on patrol in Iraq, they won’t be called Iraq’s “liberators.” After five centuries of armed occupation, it would be hard to describe them as anything other than an oppressive imperial force. And Iraqis who attack U.S. troops in 2507 will no longer be “terrorists” in anyone’s eyes. What could one call them but patriots, trying to rid their nation of invaders?

The question we Americans have to ask ourselves is: At what point do our soldiers become occupiers and those fighting against them become patriots? Four years? Twenty years? One hundred years?

Since the United States invaded Iraq – a defenseless country that never threatened the United States – in an act of aggression, that point could arguably be the war’s inception. But during the early days of the war, polls showed that most Iraqis were grateful the United States had deposed Saddam Hussein. Americans had some leeway.

Most Americans think they are entitled to determine whether military resistance to U.S. patrols in Iraq is legitimate. But the only ones who can legitimately decide whether it is appropriate to resist foreign occupying armies are the people of the nation being occupied – that means the people of Iraq, not the American people (and certainly not “The Decider“).

Look at the situation from the Iraqis’ perspective: They did nothing to the United States, yet the United States bombed Iraq, overturned its government, and forced a strange new system of government upon them that is not stable and results in the torture of its citizens and nearly 100 deaths from violence daily. (One hundred deaths per day is roughly the equivalent of a 9/11 attack every month – in a country with the size and population of California.) After four years, the American leader insists he will not name a date when his soldiers will leave, even though an overwhelming majority in the Iraqi government the U.S. set up has called for a U.S. pullout.

Keep in mind that since at least September of last year, a majority of the Iraqi people wanted the United States out of Iraq immediately, according to a poll published by the Washington Post. Several weeks ago, a majority in the Iraqi parliament (following the people rather than leading them) signed a petition calling for a withdrawal timetable for U.S. troops.

But it doesn’t matter what the Iraqis want; all that matters is what “The Decider” thinks. In steadfastly refusing to name a pullout date, President Bush has flatly contradicted his own claims for nearly three years now that the Iraqi government possesses full national sovereignty. And David M. Satterfield, senior adviser to the secretary of state and coordinator for Iraq, wrote in an online “Ask the White House” chat on March 22 that the administration would leave when “the Iraqis ask us to leave.”

What if some foreign country had done this to the United States? Would any rational person brand American resistance illegitimate?

Before some reader accuses me of not “supporting the troops,” keep in mind that I never accepted the silly premise that in order to support the troops one has to be in favor of getting them killed unnecessarily. I don’t believe that American forces are, for the most part, depraved or monstrous. Like British soldiers in our War for Independence, U.S. forces in Iraq have generally conducted themselves with honor, despite the fact that they are on the wrong side of the conflict.

Christian author and scholar C.S. Lewis posited in his famous wartime radio broadcasts – later transcribed into the book Mere Christianity – that it is quite possible for soldiers on both sides of a conflict to be honorable. I share this view. Lewis explained:

“I have often thought to myself how it would have been if, when I served in the First World War, I and some young German had killed each other simultaneously and found ourselves together a moment after death. I cannot imagine that either of us would have felt any resentment or even any embarrassment. I think we might have laughed over it.”

For Lewis to say such a thing on a government station as British soldiers were fighting the Nazis was remarkable. It would be unthinkable today. Neocon propagandists dehumanize those whom our soldiers are fighting, never allowing that resistance fighters are even human – let alone that the enemy might be going to heaven. No distinction is made between attacks on military targets and true terrorism, such as suicide bombings in market squares and mosques.

There are, of course, limits to Lewis’ analogy. American soldiers who engage in atrocities are no more likely to meet up in a heavenly postwar rap session than are al-Qaeda operatives who aim for civilians. And while it’s possible for soldiers on both sides of a conflict to act with honor and morality, no one who knowingly and willingly fights for an unjust cause is going to have a good laugh in the afterlife. The positive precedent set by the Nuremberg trials was that “I was only following orders” is not a defense.

There are perhaps a few Bush-bots who believe that it doesn’t matter how long our soldiers are in a foreign country, because when a president deploys troops abroad he is as infallible as the pope in proclaiming Catholic dogma ex cathedra. Such a fanatical worldview suggests that you can’t support the troops and oppose the mission. But with each new day of occupation it becomes increasingly clear that our troops are on the wrong side of this war.