From the Spanish Civil War To Iraq's Not-So-Civil War: Political
Idealism Is the First Casualty
by Leon Hadar
York journalist Steven Vincent, who was murdered in the southern
Iraqi city of Basra in early August, cut a very romantic figure.
Profiles of the 49-year old former art critic that have been published
since his tragic death portray him as a flamboyant bohemian who
was always searching for new creative experiences, ranging from
sexual fads to the, well, war on terror.
to the New York Observer, Mr. Vincent was a "member
of the fetish scene" and was seen wandering in Manhattan "with
his nose in a book, sometimes sporting a top hat, like a Victorian
dandy on his way to high tea – his hair was long and flowing, his
clothes rich and fabulous." Reporter Lizzy Ratner wrote in
the Observer that Mr. Vincent went through a political conversion
after watching the Twin Towers collapse on Sept. 11, 2001. "He
became preoccupied – even obsessed – with the idea of an epic struggle
between 'democracy' and 'radical Islam'," Ms. Ratner recalled.
"With a convert's zeal, he gave up the glossy world of art
galleries and openings and devoted himself to the story of Iraq."
gung-ho supporter of the US invasion of Iraq, Mr. Vincent chose
to go because he was too old to enlist in the Army but still wanted
to participate in what he called "the greatest event of (his)
lifetime": the war against "Islamofascism" as he
wrote in In
the Red Zone, the book he published after his first two
visits to Iraq. He denounced all armed resistance to the US occupation
of Iraq as the work of "Islamofascism" and right-wing
"death squads" and, according to the New York Times,
he "even compared his trips to Iraq to the tours taken by journalists
covering the rise of fascism in Europe during the Spanish Civil
Aug. 2, Mr. Vincent and his translator, Nouraya Tuaiz, were snatched
from a street in downtown Basra by gunmen in Iraqi police uniforms.
Five hours later, his body was found on a road near the city center.
Several reports suggested that he may have been the victim of an
"honor killing" by Shiite fundamentalists, because of
his open friendship with Ms Tuaiz, an unmarried Muslim woman. There
have also been suggestions that he was murdered by members of radical
Shiite religious groups angry at him for publishing a piece in the
New York Times on the rising influence of Shiite religious
parties, in Basra. According to the Times, Mr. Vincent
had been working on a story about the role of police officers, with
ties to the Shiite parties in the recent assassinations of former
Ba'ath Party officials.
an irony, indeed. An idealistic liberal American writer who applauded
the American campaign against radical Islamic or "Islamofascist"
terrorists and the war to "liberate" Iraq from the Saddam
Hussein and his Ba'athist thugs, is being murdered by violent gangs
with ties to a radical Islamic Shiite group whom he suspected of
murdering former Ba'athists and which was put in power by the American-led
one wonders what would have been the reaction of the bohemian New
Yorker who had fashioned himself as a crusader for global democracy
to learn that the American invasion of Iraq resulted in the emergence
of a regime led by Shiite religious parties with links to the Shiite
theocracy in Iran and under which the rights that women and religious
minorities had enjoyed under Saddam would now be eroded.
was fitting perhaps that Mr. Vincent compared his odyssey in Iraq
to the experiences of those journalists who covered the Civil War
in Spain in the late 1930s. Indeed, American and European journalists
like Arthur Koestler who had flocked into Spain in that time – not
unlike Mr. Vincent in Iraq – saw themselves as romantic figures
and democratic idealists, fighting to defend the secular and liberal
Spanish Republic threatened by a coalition of Fascists, militarists
reality, notwithstanding the romantic visions shared by Mr. Koestler
and his idealistic colleagues, the Spanish Civil War turned out
to be not a grand struggle between Good and Evil, but a battle ground
on which forces allied with one Evil, Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union
were confronting an alliance backed by two other Evils, the Nazi
Adolf Hitler and the Fascist Benito Mussolini. Many of the American
and Europeans idealists who had joined the fight on the side of
the Republic felt betrayed – some of them have been murdered – by
the members of the Soviet-backed alliance. These idealists were
certainly devastated when these two Evils, Stalin and Hitler, joined
in a pact in 1939.
days, the idealists who had fantasized about establishing a liberal
secular democracy in Iraq and the Middle East, are shocked to learn
that the crusade they supported in Iraq has given birth to a Shiite
theocracy and a nationalist Kurdistan and created the conditions
for a civil war that could draw in other nations in the region.
They feel betrayed as they witness the death and destruction taking
place in Iraq, a product of cynical machinations by local tribes,
regional players, and outside powers. And they are probably are
wondering when the mullahs in Baghdad and Teheran will sign their
his book, The
Bullet's Song: Romantic Violence and Utopia, author William
Pfaff chronicles the twentieth-century story of Mr. Koestler and
other writers, artists, intellectual soldiers, and religious revolutionaries
motivated by romanticism, nationalism, utopianism – and the search
imagined politics as a form of art and themselves as artists who
would be able to recreate society – only to become instruments in
the hands of the political and military leaders who used them to
advance their interests and those of the states they controlled.
the 21st century, we seem to be plunging – once again – into visionary
terrorism and utopian quests, that seem to attract idealistic crusaders
like Mr. Vincent who are discovering in Iraq, like their predecessors
did in Spain, that politics is not a work of art and that their
dreams of Heaven on Earth in Mesopotamia and elsewhere end up as
Hadar [send him mail] is
Washington correspondent for the Business
Times of Singapore and the author of the forthcoming Sandstorm:
Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan).
© 2005 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved. Reprinted
with permission of the author.