Saturday, June 25, 2005

DISSENTER'S NOTEBOOK: Notes before the War

Yes, I’ll admit it. I was – am still -- anti-Iraq war. I wore a button, stood vigil, went to meetings, talked with people… And I know you are weary of hearing about it. But it is not over and the painful images cling. And I still fear for the Iraqis. But I also fear for us, for our sense of who we are, and what we want to be as a nation.

I did not listen to Mr. Bush’s State of the Union. When a friend asked, I sent him an e-mail:

Date: Tue, 28 Jan 2003 17:33:37 –0600

No, Dorik,

I don't plan to listen to the state of the union address tonight. The rhetorical strategies will be different from Germany 1935-1940, but the message will be pretty much the same: We are threatened, and we know who the enemy is. (This time it is not Austria or Hungary or Poland, but Iraq and Iran and North Korea.)

And we have a right to protect ourselves. (This time not from Jews or the retarded or gypsies, gays, or non-Aryans, but from certain Muslims, or terrorists, and any others, including our own citizens, who disagree with us.)

And we are special people who, like Raskalnikov or that “Aryan race” in 1930’s Germany, believe that because we are superior, we are therefore exempt from the demands of a normal moral life and can do as we please.

If I want to hear that stuff I might just as well go back and watch an old 1938 black and white Movietone newsreel.



And when this war began, here’s what I thought – and remembered:


Dear Mary Evelyn,

What sad days. Here we are participants, resisting yes, but participants nevertheless, citizens, in a lawless nation bent on destruction of enemies we have conjured, not quite out of whole cloth. Thank goodness for the thousands of resisters. They are some kind of sign of hope. As are you and John, Lauren, Dorik and Carolyn, and Ben and many others we both know who are leading exemplary lives of integrity. Maybe Isaiah was right and the remnant can save us.

I did watch G Dubya’s announcement, last night, the first time I've listened to him. What an empty mask! And couldn't resist watching some of the scenes around Baghdad: Al Rasheed street, and the river I crossed to walk to the souk and back in the afternoon. One could also walk along its banks, coming to or from those amazing markets. Up and down the river there were open-air restaurants on the riverbank where in the evening they cooked fish from the Tigris, turning them occasionally over open fires.

I loved to stop at a men’s teashop where guys smoked hubbly-bubbly pipes and played dominoes with great loud cracks as they snapped the ivory pieces down. It was right across the Tigris from Saddam's palace, and the teashop wall facing the river was all glass, had a triangle of stained glass that filled the top of that side from where the rafters touched the walls to the apex of the ceiling. The colored glass turned the early setting sun into a prism. I turned on a little micro-cassette tape recorder as I sat there one afternoon and just listened to the murmurs of the men, occasional shouted orders for more water or tea, and the bang of the dominoes. I still have that tape.

How idyllic that seems now – and we were in the midst of war then! That was 1986, and by coincidence it was the week we discovered that it was U.S. missiles, sent covertly to Iran, that were falling on Baghdad, one striking into the basement of an apartment house built on the riverbank a couple of hundred yards directly across the Tigris from my hotel.

One of the topics of conversation that first year, 1986, was ”Why are the Kuwaitis stealing Iraqi oil?” A Yugoslav scholar, a literary critic and Islamist, thought it was crazy. “They have plenty of oil of their own; they don’t need the money…” No one among a dozen Europeans sitting around in the Mansour Melia had questions about whether or not Kuwait was stealing Iraq’s oil. They all seemed to know it. We Americans didn’t have a clue what they were talking about, although, since I’d been in Nicaragua earlier that year I had some idea of just how uninformed Americans are if we rely on the American press for our information.

After Iraq invaded Kuwait and we responded with the force of Desert Storm, I talked with the Yugoslav scholar on the phone, asking what did he think now? He said, “Well, it’s clear that what we all suspected was true: it had to be the CIA that put them up to it. Just preventing any moves toward Arab unity or solidarity.” He may have been right, for there was too much talk of that at the time, and Saddam was at the heart of it.

The first news I got of this war came around 5:30, from Mark Ritchie, Director of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy who passed along an e-mail that had just come from a couple of British reporters. Hours before any news of war hit our media, it was about "fierce fighting" in Basra and Umm Qasr, where some British special forces had gone to create a landing place in the harbor.

The first time I saw Basra the trees in that date palm oasis, once cool, majestic, and serene, were all shot off about waist high, trunks shot right through, the tops sometimes lying flat on the ground, other times just splintered and tilted over like an umbrella drying in the corner. Main Street, and most of the rest of the town was a totally devastated ruin, everything blown apart by Iranian artillery, thousands of rounds falling daily for a long time. Our weapons of course, all part of the Iran-Contra scam. Shipped to Iran while we were telling the world to join us in embargoing all military shipments there, our blatant lies and hypocrisy soon exposed to the world. I was in Baghdad when that news broke.

The last time I saw Basra it was all re-built, with life-size statues of tank commanders -- real likenesses of the actual men, Iraqi folks said. If you knew the men, you could easily recognize them in the statues, just a few yards apart, all along the river, the bronze figures looking across at Iran, with Saddam's statue about twice life-size, pointing... Bizarre statues aside, it was just amazing to see how quickly the city all got put back together. If the British report is true, now it is, or soon will be, all blown to bits again.

We went out into the Fao outside Basra, that huge desert, flat as a beige billiard table, stretching out on either side of the delta where the ancient Tigris and Euphrates come together, where some 200,000 men and boys were killed in a single weekend. By the time we were there the war was over of course, and all that was left to see were the twisted oil tanks, wrecked armor, burned trucks, the sand pyramids pushed up by dozers to house and protect Iraqi combatants, and the flat sands blowing... debris scattered everywhere. What a terrible place to fight. Not a tree or a bush or a hill to get behind, just the broad flat expanse to walk or run or crawl across into waiting guns.

And here we are doing it all again, killing people, destroying homes, littering the desert with our destructive and destroyed artifacts with their viciously toxic and illegal depleted uranium warheads. Since we have been dropping those almost daily for years in the southern no-fly zone, arbitrarily created by us, the hospital in Basra reports a 700 percent increase in cancer. Now it’s us -- U.S. – doing it again, doing it still.

It just makes one ache -- and fear for our country with its proud bearings lost, and this pitiful, weak, and fearful administration, so frightened of truth and openness, leading us into the pit. Bah, humbug...

Much love,


And now we – and the Iraqis -- are left with the mess, the ashes of precious ancient documents, the shards of ancient artifacts, the broken bodies of the wounded, the grotesquely dead children, enmity toward us vastly increased around the world, and not knowing what to do about it. Our government says it has plans, but it had plans for the war. As far as one can tell, looking at sources other than our own media, every assumption made in our war plan went awry. Nothing developed as it was planned. “Methinks the lady (Mr. Rumsfeld, that is) doth protest too much” that things were going exactly as planned for his words to be true. We have sown the wind; the whirlwind is yet to come.

If the peace plans go like the war plans, we’ll be in the same position as the general of ancient times who said, “Another victory like this and we’re finished.”