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The President's DNA   Post comment Printer friendly versionMore notes

The President's DNA
Iraq, Saddam Hussein, DNA, war
Tuesday, June 24, 2003 13:25 GMT

In Iraq last week the United States army launched a joint air and ground assault on a convoy of luxury off-road vehicles heading towards the Syrian border. The operation, which involved US special forces, helicopters and AC-130 gunships, and Predator unmanned aircraft, resulted in the complete destruction of the convoy when a Predator fired a number of Hellfire missiles at it. Some Syrian border guards were also wounded in the attack.

All of this happened because the convoy was thought to be carrying one or both of Saddam Hussein’s sons, and perhaps Saddam himself. This was apparently based on evidence from intercepted satellite phone calls but, after almost a week of DNA tests on flesh from the wreckage, the US has failed to announce what would at this point be a much-needed triumph. It now seems certain that the dead people were not who they were supposed to be.

Given the fact that the US is supposedly occupying Iraq, the tactics used to deal with its fugitive leader strike you as slightly excessive and desperate. Can’t the crack troops of the US army even manage to stop a few Mercedes and disarm their desperate inmates? Even if they’ve decided that the war against Saddam needs to end with a swift and explosive political assassination rather than some lengthy and pedantic legal process, last Wednesday’s endeavours seem a particularly messy and – is the word appropriate? – distasteful way of going about it.

There was something very intimate about 20th century assassinations, from Archduke Franz Ferdinand onwards. You got close, you waited your moment, you brandished your gun in the crowd, people screamed... It wasn’t just revolutionaries: back in the 60s and 70s even the US government used to operate this way. Its plans to murder leaders such as Fidel Castro, Patrice Lumumba or Salvador Allende relied on local hit men working alone or in small groups. Most of the plans were bungled of course, and today’s statesmen have possibly developed an antipathy towards such conspiracies. Perhaps that’s why the new generation of enemies – Gadafy, Milosevic, Bin Laden, Hussein – is attacked not with guns but with bombs.

Of course in situations of war, killing is legitimised – you don’t have to be covert, so why not unleash greater force, at less risk to the men on the job? But if we read last Wednesday’s events carefully I think we find truths that are less pragmatic than this and that tell us significant things about how the United States imagines its enemies of the 21st century.

The form of these events is provided from beginning to end by the technology of modern warfare:

-- It begins with the tapping of a satellite phone conversation claimed to involve either Saddam or his sons. Iraq is currently being criss-crossed by U-2 spy planes and RC-135 electronic eavesdropping aircraft who “scoop up”, as the lingo has it, electronic signals and help to define targets.

-- On the basis of such intelligence the army launches an operation whose centrepiece is the Predator, an “Unmanned Aerial Vehicle”, or “UAV”, controlled remotely. The remote operators fire from the Predator a number of Hellfire laser-guided missiles. These are designed for targets significantly more robust than fleeing yuppy cars, and last week’s convoy was presumably completely obliterated.

-- Then comes the verification stage. Reconnaissance satellites produce photographs of the scene but these cannot show who has been killed. DNA experts are dispatched to collect the fragments of charred flesh and bone that have been dispersed around the site, bag them, and take them to a lab for DNA testing. Obviously at some point the US military has gathered DNA from close relatives of Saddam.

A man is a fragile thing. Why does it require such a gargantuan hi-tech operation to kill one? The secret lies in that faceless “resistance” that the US is facing, the bunch of fanatics who in their deluded state refuse to accept the inexorability of American peace and dominion. Now there are again good grounds for believing Saddam to be alive, one US spokesperson after another stresses the importance of “taking him out” in order to destroy the morale of local fighters who even now are still presuming to stage attacks on American soldiers. Since everyone, from the military itself to the aid workers trying to fix water pipes, is waiting for this “resistance” to come to its (inevitable) end, the death of Saddam – if you believe that he is in some way behind all of it – is a crucial military objective.

But isn’t there something deeply disgusting here? I’m not even talking about the “shoot first, identify later” ethos, where terrifying force is used against civilian vehicles on the basis of a mere suspicion (although this is by itself a reason to dismiss the ethical pretensions of the coalition nations). I’m talking about the complete evacuation of the human from everything, the abstraction of the American forces into pure, faceless, unmanned technology and the reduction of their enemies to the mere carriers of a deadly virus of evil delusion. I find this neatly summed up in the moment where US scientists don gloves and masks to collect the DNA of their annihilated victims.

As the New York Times delicately put it on Tuesday:

“The official said a team was moving in to try to recover the DNA of those in the convoy, but it was unclear if they had yet arrived at the scene.”

“Recover the DNA”? How do they do that? Do they leave the body parts and take only the DNA? Of course not. What the New York Times means by “DNA” is not beautiful double helices but bits of leg and face and intestine. “DNA” is an almost laughable abstraction.

But this is the point. Somewhere there is a similarity in structure between the literal reduction of individuals – enemies, human beings, political leaders – to genetic material, and the way that the US represents its enemy. The US imagines an enemy that can have no true picture of the world, that does not act according to “analysis” or “opinion”, but who is “infected” with fanatical anti-American feeling by other “carriers” – a chain of contagion that leads back, ultimately, to the original metastatic tumours of evil such as Saddam or Osama bin Laden. This is exactly the context of the US’ self-serving arguments that Iraqi resistance can only be kept alive by a weakened but still living Saddam, who must therefore, in a Lord of the Rings-style scenario, be finally destroyed in order for his evil and somewhat magical influence to end.

In utterly destroying Saddam’s person with laser-guided missiles, as was attempted last Wednesday, it is not that the US military would be depriving the world of a final image of the Great Enemy, the person who designed an oppressive regime. This is not a personal struggle between people but an impersonal one between technology and Evil. And Evil is not located in the human form of Iraqis, it is not located in their humanity or consciousness – for they could have none of either; it is located in their corpuscles, their gametes, their cells. The masked, faceless American military scientists who do finally process Saddam’s DNA, will be looking not at fragments of a former enemy but at precisely the enemy itself.