When I asked my 9th-grade modern world history classes to write a list of what they knew about the war in Iraq, Liza’s response was typical: “I’m ashamed to say this, but I literally know very little to nothing.” I had taught about the war for several years, but this was the first time that more than half of my students claimed to know “little to nothing” when we started the unit. Now that U.S. troops have been pulled out, news coverage of Iraq has all but disappeared from the mainstream media and, consequently, from the minds of most high school students, including the ones I teach at Madison High School in northeast Portland, Oregon.
The war in Iraq spanned most of my adult life. The largest protests I have attended were against the war in Iraq. The war shaped my political life and changed many in my generation. But for my students, the war was history history that they had never learned.
Of course, like every war, there is a battle over what version of that history is passed on. My school district’s adopted textbook is Holt McDougal’s Modern World History. As Rethinking Schools editor Bill Bigelow pointed out in a Zinn Education Project column, the section on the U.S. war in Iraq “might as well have been written by Pentagon propagandists.” Modern World History presents the Iraq invasion as reasonable and inevitable, repeats the Bush administration’s lies about weapons of mass destruction and September 11th, and ignores the antiwar movement and all Iraqi voices. The section’s only “critical writing” activity asks students to write a victory speech for then-President George W. Bush.
Perhaps the most insidious statement made in Modern World History is this one: “After less than four weeks of fighting, the coalition had won the war. Despite the coalition victory, much work remained in Iraq. With the help of U.S. officials, Iraqis began rebuilding their nation.”
It is true that U.S. taxpayers were on the hook for billions of dollars handed over to corporations in the name of “rebuilding” Iraq, but the promised reconstruction never materialized. The U.S. invasion, following 13 years of sanctions and military blockade, devastated the infrastructure of what had been one of the most technologically advanced countries in the Middle East. As Banen Al-Sheemary, a young Iraqi American activist wrote about her 2012 trip to Iraq: “Both the Iraqi and American governments promised many things for the people, like building a sewage system. They could not even fulfill this basic necessity. Inadequate water resources have caused massive death and disease in several cities. The two-hour electricity limit halts any work that needs to be done for the day.”
One essential flaw in Holt McDougal’s description of the Iraq war and a familiar theme in the portrayal of any war is that it is depicted as a purely military affair. When we teach about wars, even from a critical standpoint, too often we focus only on the military aspects. But whether it’s Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Iraq, there is always an economic dimension. And in many cases, the war itself is inexplicable without examining these economic dynamics.
Iraq is the perfect example: the violence perpetrated by the United States was not just from guns and bombs, but also from the neoliberal economic policies that allowed international corporations to feast on Iraq’s economy. And it was the resistance of the Iraqi people to the U.S. attempts to impose this economic and social violence that helps explain why troops remained in the country for eight years after the “the coalition had won the war.”
“Baghdad Year Zero”
Inspired by Naomi Klein’s groundbreaking article for Harper’s Magazine, “Baghdad Year Zero,” I wrote a role-play that examines the economic dimensions of the Iraq war. The role-play takes place in 2004, shortly after Bush declared “mission accomplished” in Iraq. This was a key moment in the history of the war, as Klein explained, when Iraq’s fate was decided through a series of controversial orders put in place by Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). The CPA was established as a transitional government following the invasion of Iraq, and the hundreds of laws it enacted served as the foundation for the country’s new political economy.
Before jumping into the role-play, students scrutinized key moments in U.S.-Iraqi history using Portland teacher Hyung Nam’s “The United States and Iraq: Choices and Predictions” lesson plan. Students examined the lead-up to the war by critically reading Bush’s State of the Union speech, in which he made his case for the invasion (see Resources for both lessons). Students also read several descriptions of the experiences of Iraq war protestors and watched the trailer for We Are Many, a yet-to-be released documentary about February 15, 2003, when more than 15 million people marched against the war in Iraq. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, this was the largest protest in human history. The next time I teach this unit, I plan to include sections from Riverbend’s Baghdad Burning: Girl Blog from Iraq to give students some sense of the specific impact of the war on women’s lives.
Iraqi Reconstruction Conference Role-Play
I started the role-play by telling students: “Despite the enormous anti-war protests, the U.S. military invaded Iraq on March 20, 2003. After four weeks of fighting, Saddam Hussein fled the country. The United States set up a new government called the Coalition Provisional Authority, led by a man named Paul Bremer. If you want to know why billions of our tax dollars have been spent in Iraq and why U.S. troops remained in Iraq for nearly a decade after the initial invasion, this is probably the most important moment in the history of the war to understand.”
We would be looking at this moment through the eyes of five different social groups: Iraqi Businessmen, Iraqi Farmers, Iraqi Trade Unionists, U.S. Corporate Executives, and the U.S. Government. After dividing students into these groups, I explained to them that they were invited to the Iraqi Reconstruction Conference where they would be presenting to Paul Bremer (me) their vision for how to rebuild Iraq.
I distributed roles to the groups and encouraged them to highlight or underline important sections as they read. When they finished reading, I asked students to write brief interior monologues their inner thoughts on their hopes and fears for the future of Iraq. This helped them to better connect with their roles and clarify their groups’ concerns.
After reading about CPA Order 81, which prevented Iraqi farmers from saving seeds and essentially forced them to buy genetically modified varieties from giant agricultural corporations like Monsanto, Xiao wrote from the perspective of an Iraqi farmer:
Does the United States think we don’t know how to farm? My parents and grandparents farmed here. We Iraqi farmers have been here for over 10,000 years. We developed the rich seed variety for almost every strain of wheat used in the world today. Now we can’t even grow our seeds. Instead, we have to buy them from major corporations or we could be sued! Corporations are immune to our laws and can do whatever they want, while we Iraqi people are stuck with the consequences. We want justice!
As they shared their interior monologues, students heard about the other social groups for the first time. I asked them to listen carefully and identify which ones were potential allies.
Then I read a speech I wrote as Paul Bremer, outlining several of the key CPA orders and, as much as possible, using Bremer’s actual language from various speeches. Students were introduced to a few of the orders in their roles, but now they were able to see the whole U.S. plan. In the name of “de-Baathification,” CPA Orders 1 and 2 fired 500,000 state workers, many of them soldiers, but also doctors, nurses, teachers, and engineers. CPA Order 17 gave foreign corporations and contractors full immunity from Iraqi laws. To ensure the implementation of these new laws, Orders 57 and 77 placed U.S.-appointed auditors and inspector generals with five-year terms and authority over contracts, programs, employees and regulations in every government ministry of Iraq.
But the centerpiece of the U.S. economic strategy was Order 39: 1. privatization of Iraq’s 200 state-owned enterprises, including the oil industry, responsible for more than 90 percent of the Iraqi economy and the largest oil reserves in the world; 2. up to 100 percent foreign ownership of Iraqi businesses; 3. “national treatment” of foreign firms; 4. unrestricted, tax-free remittance of all profits and other funds; and 5. 40-year ownership licenses.
“Thus,” as Antonia Juhasz, project director at the International Forum on Globalization in San Francisco has pointed out, “[Order 39] allows the U.S. corporations operating in Iraq to own every business, do all of the work, and send all of their money home. Nothing needs to be reinvested locally to service the Iraqi economy, no Iraqi need be hired, no public services need be guaranteed, and workers’ rights can easily be ignored.” Or, as my student Naima succinctly put it after learning about the orders, “The U.S. wants to control Iraq.”
To help the students digest all the various orders, I asked them to discuss a series of questions in their groups:
Describe what you see as the purpose(s) of the U.S.-led reconstruction in Iraq:
- Do you support the CPA orders? Why or why not? If not, how do you propose to deal with the reconstruction of Iraq?
- What do you think are the reasons these orders are being put in place? What do they say about the role of the United States in Iraq?
- Are there particular orders that you really like or dislike? How do you lose or benefit from these orders?
- If you don’t get your way, what actions would you take to influence the CPA?
After students finished discussing the questions, I asked them to use their answers and their interior monologues to craft a presentation for the Iraqi Reconstruction Conference.
During the conference, each group made their case for why the orders should or should not be put in place. After each presentation, the other groups had a chance to ask them questions. The various Iraqi social groups spoke against the CPA orders. Speaking for the Iraqi businessmen, Britany criticized the United States from a pro-business position: “All we see is the United States coming in and trying to steal our country from under our feet. The orders that are set to ïreshape’ our economy are really just a plot to give more money to America. . . . International investment is good, but not when our country and our businesses aren’t making a profit.” Laura, representing an Iraqi farmer, attacked both the U.S. government and the large agricultural corporations: “Large companies like Monsanto and Cargill are trying to make us buy their GMO seeds, while making it illegal for us to save our seeds for next year. They claim they are here to help hungry Iraqis, but we would be doing fine if the U.S. hadn’t bombed our national seed bank in Abu Ghraib.”
Speaking for the Iraqi trade unionists, RaÏl blasted the U.S. government and threatened a strike:
The laws that are being considered are primed to erase Iraqi workers from our own economy. . . . Order 39 will give control of Iraq’s economy to U.S. business owners and CEOs CEOs who will bring in a cheaper labor force to replace Iraqi workers such as myself. And Orders 57 and 77 make a clear and obvious statement: The United States is in control of Iraq. . . . This shows blatant disregard for Iraqi civilians. These laws inhibit Iraqi workers from doing our job, which is necessary for reconstruction. Instead of replacing Iraq workers, we would rather these laws be shredded and the United States leave. The United States is only a hindrance to Iraq. Workers have an advantage that can’t be ignored. How will your businesses run if you have no Iraqi workers to bring you oil? So a warning to the United States: Back off and leave, or face the consequences.
Channeling then-President Bush, Mia defended the U.S. government:
We have come to discuss the laws we will be enforcing in order to progress and convert Iraq to democracy, distributing the freedom [the Iraqi people] deserve after being oppressed for decades under the tyrant king, Saddam Hussein. The United States will continue to have a fervent dedication to our Iraqi brothers and sisters until we can successfully reconstruct their constricting government. Putting these orders in place will help further such endeavors. It will bring much needed foreign companies into Iraq, providing more jobs and helping the economy expand. Lowering Iraq’s corporate and individual tax rate will help some families rise out of poverty and help Iraqi businessmen to flourish.
But RaÏl was not going to let the U.S. government off so easily. He asked, “So is having complete control over a country really freedom?”
David replied, “We’re not controlling you, we’re trying to save you.”
“What are you saving us from?” asked RaÏl.
“Saddam Hussein,” answered Alan.
“But didn’t the U.S. government support Saddam Hussein and give him weapons to fight Iran before you decided he was your enemy?”
“No comment,” said David.
Xiao fired another question: “You say that we need your help to rebuild our country, but isn’t it more accurate to say you need our oil?”
As the U.S. government group began to flounder under this pressure, I decided to step in as Paul Bremer: “All we want is to help transition Iraq from this horrible socialist dictatorship to a democracy. Along the way, you’re going to need some help from people who have experience in democracy and freedom, and that is why we’re here.”
But RaÏl wouldn’t budge. “So how many years do you think it would take to transition a country out of war into a normal democracy? In Order 39 you give foreign corporations 40-year ownership licenses over Iraqi businesses. Is that because you think it will take 40 years to make that transition?”
As I struggled to answer, Robert blurted out, “Oooooh, he just schooled you!”
When we finished the role-play, I asked students to step out of their roles to discuss what they had learned. I asked them what they thought of Bremer’s orders and why they thought they were important to the United States.
“The United States took down Saddam’s regime and replaced it with their own.”
“The United States got complete control of Iraq and their oil. They are rebuilding Iraq for the United States and not for the people of Iraq.”
“How can Iraq have freedom when another country has them in their grip?”
“Maybe the United States thought it was doing a favor for Iraq and thought these orders would actually help.”
“If I lived in Iraq as a worker, farmer, or businessman, I would disagree with most of these laws.”
“We should have let the people of Iraq have a say and rebuild their own country the way they want to.”
I asked students why they thought the laws were put into effect even though a majority of the groups in Iraq opposed them. Some pointed to the power of the U.S. military. As Liza said, “The United States was just bigger and badder with their weapons and money.”
But others thought that a lack of unity amongst the Iraqi social groups might have played a role. “I think if they all opposed the U.S. rules and worked together to reject Bremer’s proposal they could have benefited,” Alan said.
Marcela added: “Maybe they lacked communication because they had different religions or backgrounds that separated them.”
“Greed is Good”
After our debrief discussion, we read an excerpt from Klein’s “Baghdad Year Zero” to reinforce what the students had learned. Klein argues that the war’s ideological architects believe that “greed is good.” She continues:
Not good just for them and their friends but good for humanity, and certainly good for Iraqis. Greed creates profit, which creates growth, which creates jobs and products and services and everything else anyone could possibly need or want. The role of good government, then, is to create the best conditions for corporations to pursue their bottomless greed, so that they in turn can meet the needs of the society. The problem is that governments rarely get the chance to prove their sacred theory right: even George Bush’s Republicans are, in their own minds, constantly sabotaged by meddling Democrats, unions, and environmentalists.
Iraq was going to change all that. In one place on Earth, the theory would finally be put into practice in its most perfect form. A country of 25 million would not be rebuilt as it was before the war; it would be erased, disappeared. In its place would be a showroom for free-market economics, a “utopia” such as the world had never seen.
In their written responses to Klein, students spoke against the idea that greed is good. Michael summed up the feelings of many of the students: “Greed is only good for those who benefit from it.” Marcela elaborated on this theme, condemning all wars as imperialist: “Greed is the only rule most ïideological architects’ of war play by.”
As we wrapped up the role-play, I felt confident that students left the lesson with a deeper understanding of the war’s economic objectives. Throughout their lives, they will continue to witness and experience this economic war, waged both in Iraq and here in the United States, in different forms. As Marcela commented during our debrief discussion, “Lowering the tax rate for wealthy individuals and CEOs in Iraq is an idea that the United States is intimately familiar with. The wealthiest 1 percent of our country pays a ridiculously small amount of taxes compared to their income.” As students “connect the dots” of the origins of the modern world, one of the most important “dots” is the effort of global elites to incorporate every corner of the world into a global capitalist economic system that benefits the 1 percent at our expense. Whether we are talking about climate change or the war in Iraq, the modern world is inexplicable without this larger framework.
Today, the people of Iraq continue to struggle with the horrendous political, social, and economic consequences of the U.S. war against their country. If our students only learn the textbook’s distorted history of war, they will be unequipped to critically inspect current and future justifications for militarism and imperialism. As historian Howard Zinn pointed out, it was precisely this “absence of a historical perspective” that fooled so many people into supporting the war in Iraq. On the war’s third anniversary, he wrote, “If we don’t know history, then we are ready meat for carnivorous politicians and the intellectuals and journalists who supply the carving knives.”ææ
- Iraq War Role-Play PDF
- Al-Sheemary, Banen. “Returning to Iraq After War and Exile,” Mondoweiss. March 21, 2013. Available at mondoweiss.net/2013/03/returning-after-exile.html.
- Bigelow, Bill. “Why Invade Iraq? Analyzing Bush’s State of the Union Speech,” in Sokolower, Jody, ed. Teaching About the Wars
. Rethinking Schools, 2013.
- Klein, Naomi. “Baghdad Year Zero.” Harper’s Magazine, September 2004. Available at harpers.org/archive/2004/09/baghdad-year-zero.
- Nam, Hyung. “The United States and Iraq: Choices and Predictions,” in Sokolower, Jody, ed. Teaching About the Wars. Rethinking Schools 2013.
- Riverbend. Baghdad Burning: Girl Blog from Iraq. Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2005.