Monday, March 24, 2003

Baghdad cellars – Three different ways

Watching TV footage this morning of (i) Iraqi soldiers getting captured Americans to perform for the cameras, and (ii) hundreds of middle-aged-to-old Iraqi lined up along the river in downtown Baghdad and shooting into it with ancient-looking rifles (there were apparently two downed US pilots sub-aqua) made me wonder about the chemical powers at work. Specifically, I’m talking substances, and my guess is that there’s really only two intoxicants that would have any kind of circulation in Iraq at the moment – alcohol and dope.

I’m not a strong believer in the existence of atavistic blood lust as a stand-alone, natural intoxicant. Sure, with tight enough media control and tight enough production value of what does get on (a la North Korea), the state’s (or more correctly, the broadcaster’s) control of the minds of its subjects is almost total. Without Iraq being such a closed black box to be Saddam’s personal plaything, there must be some other explanation for the strange Iraqi behaviour outlined above. My guess here is intoxicants. Those anti-teen drinking ads actually are right, in one sense – alcohol can send the peer pressure reading right off the scale. When heavy drinking is combined with the peer-ification of war (not only by formal military call-up, hence the seemingly spontaneous dads’ army by the Baghdad riverbank), the resultant pressure effectively combines a large cross-section of “normal” society with the ordinarily not-for-publication antics of the end of season footy trip.

This is mostly blind speculation on my part, of course. I haven’t actually got a clue about whether alcohol (or dope) is ordinarily available and/or widely consumed in Iraq, much less at the present moment. Nonetheless, the 1990s wars around the break-up of Yugoslavia provide a clear precedent for the inter-relationship of alcohol, barbarity, and a rag-tag army (i.e. a grouping of people among whom peer pressure would ordinarily be weak).

If I am right, this means that the ground battle for Baghdad may be very different from the war so far. In particular, this means that the greatest threat to allied loss of life may not be from elite soldiers, but by informal, even spontaneous groupings (aka “irregular militia”) on barbaric rampages (I am thinking particularly of the Bosnian Serbs here).

The apparent war-weary, hardened cynicism of the average Baghdad-ite doesn’t, by itself, play either for or against the success of the rampaging groups. However, such confident cynicism can only last when it is backed by something solid – here, of course, it is having a convenient underground shelter to resort to.

That such shelters are widespread in Baghdad can be taken as proved by the cusp-of-war general insouciance of Baghdad-ites. Not only has their city been regularly bombed since the first Gulf War, the near certainty of a major escalation did not apparently see a mass-exodus from the city.

When just about everyone has an underground shelter; there is actually another word for them – cellars. These rooms (not to be confused with basements) are the original multi-purpose spaces. Apart from providing in-extremis living quarters, the more everyday connotation of a cellar is one of providence – of storage for alcohol.

Before moving on to the third great use of the cellar, it is worth taking a quick tour of the great cellar cities of the world. In Australia, the clearly pre-eminent such city is Adelaide. In the desert 800 km north of Adelaide is a settlement of a few thousand souls (I use the term loosely) called Coober Pedy, where most live in entirely-underground stone caves – so taking cellar living one step further. Coober Pedy’s population is reportedly one of the most psychological dysfunctional on earth. It also, for what it is worth, contains a large percentage of Serbian-born single men. I suspect, therefore, that Belgrade must be one of the world’s other great cellar cities.

But back to Adelaide. Without its residents ever having been under military attack, does this mean that the cellars of this fine city have only ever functioned as luxurious wine storage chambers? Well, no – funnily enough, Adelaide also carries the unwelcome tag of being a city of disproportionately uncaught serial killers, kidnappers and paedophiles. The third use of a cellar, then, may also be its oldest and most primitive – the dungeon.

And on to Baghdad, circa 26 March 2003. The dungeon is the only use of a cellar which seems equally suited for both wartime and peacetime. Not that the intent is the same – rather, the combination of cramped underground living conditions with breaking open the alcohol stash simply creates the intense peer pressure that beseeches: something, someone has got to bleed.

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