When he was four years old, after his father died in a car crash rumoured to have been engineered by British intelligence, the asthmatic Faisal II – author of the judo handbook How to Defend Yourself – became king of Iraq.
In 1952, the young king travelled to the United States to meet with President Truman and, during this visit, he saw a colour television for the first time, an invention that had just recently become a viable commercial project (albeit one that was about to be paused for a few years as the Korean War raged, rendering the import of vital components impossible). Faisal II insisted that this invention be brought back to Iraq. Advisers told him that it was much too expensive a project to implement, but the young king refused to listen and ordered his government to introduce the colour television before any other country in the Middle East. When colour TVs were eventually sold in Iraq, it was not only before the rest of the Middle East as the king had ordered, but it was even before the UK, West Germany and Sweden.
(The king himself never got to see the implementation of his project, having been executed alongside most of his family in the 1958 coup d’état.)
The army brigadier who orchestrated the coup against Faisal II, Abd al-Karim Qasim, subsequently became Iraq’s Prime Minister. Although the Communist party was the biggest political force in Iraq at the time, Qasim was backed by the Soviets and had at his disposal the advanced television network that was being put in place by the king he had usurped.
Just as he had used the television to secure his position of power, it was in turn used against him when the time came to stage another coup and execute Qasim. In order to prove to the Iraqi people that the Baathist coup had been successful and that their old leader was in fact dead, footage of the corpse was transmitted across the country via television.
Later, when Saddam Hussein took control over the Baath party, the first thing he did was to assemble the party leaders, making sure that the event was televised during primetime. A man was dragged to the stage to read out a confession to an imaginary act of treason and, after he had finished confessing to a crime that never took place, produced a list of alleged co-conspirators. The party members who were in the crowd were taken outside once their names had been read. Those who remained, out of pure fear, began to panic and started praising Saddam Hussein at the top of their lungs in scenes that resembled mass psychosis, or religious ecstasy or both. They were praying, praying that their testimonies of loyalty would spare them. The camera switched to Saddam in his chair, smoking a cigar, unmoved by the spectacle before him. When it was all over, 68 people had been named and removed from the room, almost half of the Baath party leadership. Saddam then thanked the remaining members for their future loyalty, and then made them execute those who had been taken outside.
This last act was not televised.
What was televised, however, was the execution of Saddam Hussein himself, in December of 2006. Though the government only released a short official video of Saddam being led to the gallows, mobile phone footage of the actual hanging spread online and led to the world’s television channels to carry the footage, albeit often with the dictator’s face pixelated.
(When the American network Fox News showed the video, they followed it up with a side-by-side picture comparison: one an old photo from his arrest, marked “Alive”, the other a still from after the execution, labelled "Dead.")
In declassified documents from Faisal II’s state visit to the US, the anonymous writers of the report mention how enrapt the young king was when shown the colour system developed by RCA. Perhaps the reason he was so entranced was that he saw in that screen flickers of all the corpses that the invention would broadcast to his people?
When the 1979 revolution in Iran gained the epithet “Islamic”, and that epithet stuck — to the crushing disappointment of the Marxist-Leninist youth that had started the uprising — Iraq’s response was swift. Deeming, perhaps correctly, that a Shiite Islamic government would attempt to reclaim the shrines to Ali and Hussein that are located in the Iraqi cities of Najaf and Karbala, Saddam Hussein invaded Iran, believing that the element of surprise and the fact that Iran was still reeling from its revolution would ensure a quick conquest of Iranian territory.
But even though Iraq had the support of the United States, Russia, France and China, when the war ended nine years later, the borders remained just as they were before the conflict began.
Iran’s relative success and resilience is often attributed, i.a., to the bravery of their child soldiers, who marched into certain death, across mine fields, a plastic key around their necks. These were keys to heaven where a bounty of virgins would be waiting for them upon their deaths, according to the Mullahs who issued them to the young boys.
The evidence to support that these keys actually existed is murky at best. Many think this was just a propaganda tactic to demonise the Iranian regime. Yet there are Iranian men and women who to this day swear it happened. They were mass-produced in China, half a million of them, it is rumoured.
Coincidentally, the war also led to half a million casualties.
In an attempt to counter the rising Anglo-American influence in the Middle East, Soviet Russia funded myriad separatist groups that would stand up against the west’s chosen leaders; nowhere did that influence stick more thoroughly than in the nascent Kurdish independence movement, who founded Marxist-Leninist political parties, read Maxim Gorky and began naming their sons Hawre (comrade) and Rafiq (also comrade) instead of Mohammad (prophet) or Ali (also prophet). This still-ongoing struggle for self-determination was largely fought using Mikhail Kalashnikov’s 1947 invention: the Avtomat Kalashnikova, commonly referred to as the AK-47.
What makes this weapon so suitable for guerrilla warfare, still, as a fifth of the world’s firearms remain Kalashnikov-derived rifles, was that this was a true communist invention: unburdened by the needs of market capitalism wherein new models would need to supplant older models in order to allow for continued profitability, Mikhail Kalashnikov was instead instructed to create the most durable rifle he could. There was no planned obsoleteness, no new and improved model, just a killing machine made to last.
Kurdish peshmerga still show off their beloved rifles with pride. They’ve been with them for decades, requiring virtually no maintenance. The grizzled men and women take their rifles apart and put them together in an eternal ritual. Once we’re all gone from this earth there will remain thousands of functional AK-47 rifles scattered across the earth’s wastelands, still waiting for a revolution that will never take place.
In Haroun Farocki’s 1992 documentary Videograms of a Revolution Farocki has collected hundreds of hours of amateur footage of the Romanian Revolution. Nicolae Ceaușescu had banned most forms of critical writing, and even banned people from owning a typewriter without an official license, but since VCRs and video cameras were prohibitively expensive and well-loved by government loyalists, they were still available for purchase. Youth movements banded together and started VCR clubs, sharing equipment between them. The moment when Ceaușescu and his wife were taken to the gallows was, fittingly perhaps, filmed.
Iraq also banned typewriters, leading Kurdish intellectuals to bury them in various places. There are still rusty machines dug up every now and again, happened upon by adventurous children, their owners having either forgotten their location or been buried themselves somewhere in turn.
Unlike Romania, there were not many video cameras to purchase either, even if the Kurdish rebels would have had the money for it. One Sony Handycam video camera did make it to the Kurdish resistance, given as a gift by a German photojournalist to Hero Ibrahim Ahmed, one of the female peshmerga. This camera would proceed to witness and record over four hundred hours of life in the mountains, a testimony that would never be seen by the outside world, uninterested as much of the media was in the plight of a people they had yet to even hear of.
The third phase of Iraq’s much vaunted and, later, highly criticised chemical weapons program was dubbed Project 922 in the sort of banal bureaucratic nomenclature that often accompanies the building blocks of genocide. By 1984, Saddam Hussein’s government had mastered the use of mustard gas and began using these against Iranian military forces and on Iraq’s Kurdish population.
The Kurds, mostly unaware of what these new weapons actually were, spoke of this invisible death in a blend of superstition and terror. Hek Taybat, they called it. That Special Thing.
One day in early 1986, one of the canisters containing the mustard gas dropped from a Soviet-manufactured Tupolev Tu-22 bomber (that the Iraqi army used) without, for whatever reason, exploding as it had been designed and tested to do. The video camera given to the peshmerga by the German photojournalist was available to record the scenes. The grainy 8mm footage shows the bomb from a distance at first. Men in the background are imploring the woman holding the camera to be careful, to not get too close in case it does in fact explode. The film cuts and when it starts again the bomb can be seen in fuzzy close-up, the Iraqi army’s markings coming in and out of focus.
In that moment, one piece of technology acknowledged another. The camera looks on for a long time, the bomb looks back. The film cuts to static.
The chemical attacks on the city of Halabja that took place on the 16th of March 1988 led to the death of over 5,000 people and countless others that are still suffering from various forms of cancer and malformed births due to lingering effects of what is suspected to have been mustard gas. The CIA was quick to denounce Iran for the act, as they were actively supporting Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war and did not want this particular event to be blamed on their ally. Media furore surrounding the rumoured bombing might have died down as Iraq had banned entry to any journalists and non-governmental organisations, thus rendering the act of witnessing impossible. The event was well on its way to become the sort of abstract tragedy that is disassociated from images and, thus, from what we commonly experience as reality, if it had not been for one Iranian photographer, Kaveh Golestan, who made his way into the country illegally and was able to photograph the horribly deformed corpses that still littered the streets of Halabja. The survivors, who drove out of the city as soon as they sensed something was wrong, were afraid to tend to the bodies of their loved ones, not knowing whether they too would die by returning to the city.
In conversations with survivors, scenes are described where people vomited a green liquid, where some people’s faces instantly became deformed while others still began laughing hysterically before suddenly dying. But most of all, people speak of the sickly smell of green apples that the gas carried. They all say they still gag whenever they see or smell apples.
Golestan’s photographs made their way to newsrooms across the world, who showed them with a customary warning that these images were graphic in their nature, requesting sensitive viewers to look away, and once the images had been spread there was, indeed, a brief moment of global outrage.
The man who had sold the gas to the Iraqi government, in violation of a multitude of national and international laws, was one Frans Cornelis Adrianus van Anraat, a Dutch citizen who was the sole supplier of the chemical thiodiglycol which the Iraqi government required for project 922. After the chemical attacks on the Kurds were televised, Van Anraat’s multitude of shell companies and their link to the Iraqi chemical weapons program were discovered, which led to Van Anraat’s swift arrest while he was in Italy. He was released, however, pending charges, and from there he fled to Iraq where he lived in luxurious surroundings provided to him by Saddam Hussein’s government.
When the 2003 Iraq war began, and the government that had protected him for fifteen years was no more, he went back to Holland, where he lived in a suburb under his own name for over a year before he was arrested and tried at the Hague, for charges of conspiracy to commit genocide and conspiracy to commit war crimes.
During the proceedings, it became clear how Van Anraat had painstakingly purchased large quantities (538 tons) of thiodiglycol and sent these to Iraq. He was, however, ultimately acquitted of complicity to genocide because the judges deemed that it had not been proven that Van Anraat knew that the chemicals would be used in genocidal acts. Van Anraat himself stated in interviews that the Iraqi government had simply asked him for a favour, and all he did was to provide them with this one chemical. He had no idea, he said, what it would be used for.
(He was, however, convicted of complicity in war crimes. His sentence was 15 years of imprisonment, later extended to 17 years by the appeal court.)
Akram Al-Ghafour was a Third Secretary at the Iraqi embassy in Washington DC, recently promoted from the lowest rank of Attaché, who had been entrusted to purchase as many units of the recently released PlayStation 2 video game console as he could. Someone’s spouse was returning to Iraq the following week and it was imperative for the Iraqi government that these units made it there as soon as possible. Several people at the embassy was out trying to buy them, which was rendered especially difficult since it was a highly sought-after toy and parents all across America had already begun buying their Christmas gifts.
The reason that the PlayStation 2 had suddenly become so important to the Iraqi government was that there were sanctions in place after the first Gulf War which prohibited importing personal computers or any computing device that would allow Iraq to rebuild their fledgling weapons program. Without computers, the logic went, missiles were near useless. The PlayStation 2, however, was deemed to be a toy and thus exempt from the sanctions. Yet the innards of this particular next-generation console had, it turned out, a very sophisticated CPU that could be combined with the CPUs of other consoles into a rudimentary supercomputer. The more PlayStation 2’s that could be sent back, then, the more powerful a computer could be created.
Al-Ghafour had already tried the local Best Buy and Target and had been met with store clerks informing him with manufactured sadness that unfortunately they were all sold out. His third store, the Toys R Us in Silver Spring, did have five of them in stock but they were all set aside for customers who had pre-booked them. Al-Ghafour slipped two hundred-dollar bills into the blue-vested employee’s hand and soon a shopping cart with five consoles emerged from the stockroom.
The employee helped Al-Ghafour wheel the cart to the parking lot, muttering “Man, you must have one big family, huh?” as he tried to fit the console boxes in the trunk of Al-Ghafour’s car.
A quarter of the world’s undetonated landmines are still buried in the Kurdish region between Iraq and Iran. The most popular model used by the Iraqi army was made in Italy and dubbed the SB-33AR. The AR stands for Anti-Rimozione, which means “Counter-Removal”. This feature is intended to detonate if any de-miner attempts to dismantle the mine (or indeed to even move it in any way since the detonator responds to being tilted horizontally by a few degrees).
Since they are so dangerous to remove, entire fields are covered in little red metal triangles put up by the UN’s Iraq Mine Action Program, warning signs that this earth no longer belongs to them, it has been conquered by the machines laying beneath the soil.
Almost thirty years after the war that necessitated the landmines ended, they still lay in wait, patiently, to fulfil their only purpose.
They keep waiting.