I really don’t have any thoughts to add on this subject of war that haven’t already been said by those more eloquent, experienced, or clear-minded than myself. But my heart is heavy tonight and I will venture some reflections nonetheless.
When I returned from working in Kosovo after the war there, I went around to various audiences telling people about the ethnic and social conflicts between Serbs, Albanians, Roma, and other people. I did my little slide show and I described the tragedies that had been described to me, and I illustrated some of the depressing situations that people who had managed to survive the war had found themselves in. I spoke about life in a divided city, where people who were formerly best friends and neighbors had become enemies and in some cases had murdered and robbed each other. I spoke about people who were afraid to send their children off to school because their ethnic group was hated. I described the bitter intolerance among national groups that the war had exacerbated. I showed pictures of the intense displays of flag-bearing nationalism that smelled of fascism.
Frequently during these presentations to Americans, I’d hear people ’tisk tisk tisk’ing in the darkened room. Their questions to me would betray the sense of superiority they felt over the people I’d describe: Why do they keep fighting each other? Why are they so trapped in their own national mythologies? What accounts for their savagery?
I suppose that I held similar assumptions about “the people of the Balkans” as did those in the audiences, for how else could I have managed to communicate such an impression to so many people? Nevertheless, I was struck by how easy it is for us Americans to identify the delusions of other peoples and yet to be so blind to our own. One of my Serbian friends once remarked, “You Americans lecture us about nationalism. Yet we do not hang our flags in front of our houses, we do not salute the flag, and we do not sing an anthem to Serbia at public events.” When other nations do it, we call that “extremism”; when we do it, it’s “patriotism.”
We are Americans and we too are delusional. It’s not that our “values” – freedom, democracy, justice, whatever terms those mean – are not worthy of sharing with others (and even that statement assumes that we somehow are in possession of these values and others aren’t). It’s that we rarely exemplify those values in the first place.
The United States has since its birth been an imperial power lusting after land, resources, and cheap labor. In the name of manifest destiny, security, freedom, and democracy, we devoured the West and the Native Americans and when there was nothing more to devour we began colonizing the rest of the world. In our delusions of grandeur, we have killed millions and millions of people. In not one of these conquests was our articulated national rationale to sieze resources and kill or subjugate people; it was always to spread freedom or democracy (all the while denying such human rights to millions at home). Yet the pattern of consequences is clear.
As privileged Americans, we reap the benefits of those centuries of conquest. We sit atop an economic pyramid built upon the backs of the slaughtered and oppressed, and we too, like our equals in the Balkans, buy into a national fiction that tells us we’re the center of the universe. We hold these myths to be self-evident because of our phenomenal national wealth, our plethora of cultural distractions, and our distorted historical narratives that – in their omissions and mischaracterizations – weave heartwarming tales out of mass killing.
Tonight it was announced that we are going to war. Many of us, in the inevitable orgy of patriotic fervor that will erupt in the next few weeks, will feel a sense of self-satisfaction as American forces prevail over the Iraqi army. We’ll cry, as we should, for the young American kids who will lose their lives in the desert. We’ll exalt in our own sense of national power when Saddam Hussein’s regime is finally toppled.
But there will be many things in this war that we will not see. We will not see the fleeing Iraqi soldiers killed for no reason but sheer bloodlust by trigger-happy Americans. We will not see the “smart-bombs” that demolish apartment complexes or bus stations. We will not hear about those who die when hospitals lose electricity. We will not learn about life savings, homes and family photographs lost forever. We will not grasp the magnitude of the innumerable injustices that result from the total breakdown of civil order. We will not be told the full extent of the ethnic massacres that will ensue. We will not hear about the girls who are raped in front of their families, mothers in front of their children. We will not be told about our military’s use of depleted uranium – the radioactive and highly carcinogenic substance that poisoned people – Americans and Iraqis alike – in the first Gulf War. We will not know about the hundreds of Iraqi kids who will pick up cluster bombs – little bomblets that look like soda cans and explode upon contact. We won’t know about the people who will lose limbs from the landmines we plant. We won’t hear about the elderly who die fleeing the conflict. We won’t hear about the hunger, dehydration, and disease. We’ll just be told about how much “freedom” we’ve spread and what good we’ve done, while the chaos and psychological damage of war lingers for years among the victims.
Maybe there’s such a thing as a just war; I don’t know. It’s one thing to muse upon war behind the safe abstraction of a newspaper headline. It’s another thing entirely to experience it.
Saddam Hussein is as horrible as they say. But this war is not about freedom or justice or democracy. And it’s definitely not about preventing terrorism. It is about conquest, about oil and the breaking of OPEC, and about the further projection of American power in a hysterical, post-9/11 world. If we really cared about the Iraqi people, we would not have supported Saddam Hussein and his use of chemical and biological weapons, torture, genocide, and extrajudicial killing in the 1980s. We would not have supported the rise of his authoritarian Ba’ath regime in the first place. We would not have played both sides off each other in the Iran-Iraq war. And we would not have imposed a sanctions regime that killed hundreds of thousands of civilians over the last decade.
The Iraqi people have lived through over two decades of war. I am ashamed of America’s role in perpetuating their suffering and its delusion of facilitating their liberation.
*The author coordinated post-war humanitarian assistance and peacebuilding in Kosovo from 1999-2000 for the American Friends Service Committee. He currently lives in Philadelphia, PA and can be contacted at [email protected]