US Marines landed on our doorstep on April 9 around 4 pm. Dozens of heavily-armed young men in dun-colored fatigues parked outside our hotel in downtown Baghdad.
They set up a machine gun nest right below my third-floor balcony. They and their tanks surrounded the much larger Hotel Palestine across the street. They were so close we could have lobbed water balloons at them.
The day before we had heard over BBC shortwave that US forces besieging Baghdad had crossed to our side of the Tigris. But somehow we didnt expect them to get around to us so quickly. We werent sure what to expect. Would they detain us? Would we soon end up incommunicado in Guantanamo?
The US citizens on our team understood that simply by being in Iraq and that by having brought material aid toys and medicine with us we were defying the sanctions. We were committing civil disobedience and risking prosecution. We had anticipated our possible capture and had memorized a response: I mean you no harm, but I dont believe the organization you represent is entitled to any information. Therefore I am remaining silent.
Despite any possible consequences, however, the Iraq Peace Team (IPT) immediately mobilized. When the invaders first arrived we hung our 25-foot Courage For Peace Not For War banner from the side of our hotel overlooking their encampment. Our Life is Sacred banner and our over-sized color photos of Iraqi children had been hanging from our balconies at the Hotel Al Fanar since mid March when the invasion began.
We werent the only ones doing outreach. Plain white sheets had begun to be draped from the Palestine balconies. That hotel was housing the international press corps. Two days before, on April 7, it had been shelled by a US tank. We could see flames consuming an apartment 16 stories up on the hotels northeast corner. Two journalists were killed in the attack; another lost his eye.
The US military claimed it was targeting a sniper. One of our people, however,
witnessed the shelling and heard no sniper fire. The invaders were bringing
their own embedded journalists in with them. Was the shelling a
shot across the bow to encourage the more independent journalists
to leave town? On the same day the invaders attacked the Al Jazeera Arab
language TV building across the river from us, killing a Jordanian journalist.
Each of us on the Iraq Peace Team, gropingly, ambivalently, found our way to meet or not meet the invaders. Upon their appearance, Neville, a minister and barrister from Australia, chose to set aside his Yankee Go Home sign, already prepared for just this moment. He did so on the chance it might lead to trouble for the Iraqis in our hotel. Instead he held another sign War = Terrorism and remained on his 2nd floor balcony facing the soldiers, a few feet above a tank, for two or three hours until dark.
After we hung our big banner, several of us went down into the street. Central New Yorks own Cynthia Banas, 73, readily talked with these young men looming over us in their immense APCs, armored personnel carriers. After a few pleasantries she moved in her pointed yet unthreatening way to discussing war issues with them. I found, however, that I had no words to share. I was tongue-tied. Not sure what else to do, I stood silently by an APC in my War is not the answer T-shirt. Now, weeks later, I cant say for sure what was going on inside of me. I probably couldnt even have unpacked all my thoughts and emotions at the time. But after enduring three weeks of shock and awe bombardment, after seeing wounded children lying dazed in hospital beds, after visiting bombed residential neighborhoods, I knew I had no stomach for chatting up these warriors. To be true to myself and to all those terrorized and victimized by the war, I didnt want to ignore my anger. But I feared it would seep out or boil over unconstructively. I know I didnt want any Iraqis looking on to think IPT saw itself as the invaders ally. I think mostly I feared that these men with guns would interpret any social interaction with them as support for their mission. Nonetheless, it felt imperative to somehow both encounter and to welcome them. And, even if I couldnt do it myself, I did want them welcomed.
You may wonder why. Heres how I explain it to myself: The Iraq Peace Team is committed to nonviolence not merely as a tactic, but as an existential rudder, a philosophy of life. For many of my teammates one mandate of nonviolence is to act upon the divinity within everyone and within all life. And to acknowledge that the line between good and evil runs through each and every person and group. We all partake in both good and evil.
Further: none of us is free of illusion; but each of us no matter who we may be and no matter what we may have done has at least a shard of the truth. Yes, this even includes war criminals like Saddam Hussein and George W. Bush. In welcoming the invaders, we reflected nearly every Iraqi wed met. In my two months in Baghdad which spanned shock and awe I never met with hostility or rudeness. Iraqis, even those with no knowledge of why I was there, consistently welcomed me a light-skinned, English-only speaker from New York. Of course, at the tactical level welcoming the conqueror is prudent. Let the invaders be relieved of any extra edginess especially where noncombatants are so readily sacrificed to the exigencies of war. (According to figures published in the April 15 Jordan Times, the wars civilian/US soldier fatality ratio up til then was about a dozen to one, i.e. for every soldier killed, 12 civilians were killed. In assessing this vile statistic, bear in mind that neither side in this war is likely to be candid about losses. Further, its in the nature of modern war especially aerial war for many civilian casualties to go untabulated.)
A few of my teammates perhaps instinctively believing that corporal works of mercy should exclude no one approached the soldiers bearing bottled water. This gift the soldiers gratefully received. Kathy Kelly, IPTs leader and muse, made the rounds of the tanks with a smile and a plate of dates to share.
Kathys roots here go back to the 1991 US/Iraq War when she was in Iraq
with the Gulf Peace Team. In 1996 she co-founded Voices in the Wilderness (VITW),
an independent grassroots group. This shoestring operation, three times nominated
for the Nobel Peace Prize, is run out of Kathys apartment in Chicago.
VITW works to end the sanctions and the continued war against Iraq. Last fall
Kathy and VITW began the Iraq Peace Team as an ongoing presence of volunteers
based in Baghdad. (IPT is not to be confused with the Human Shields,
also in Iraq during the invasion.) VITW/IPT organized numerous fact-finding
and solidarity delegations to Iraq. Delegates saw firsthand the effects of sanctions
on innocent civilians. Such sanctions were and, as of this writing, continue
to be weapons of mass destruction. Their murderous toll dwarfs that of
Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Among other sites, the delegates visited hospitals and
met with the cancer-doomed victims of the depleted uranium used in US armaments
during the first Gulf War. Having experienced the dignity and hospitality of
Iraqis, the delegates returned to the States to work against sanctions and the
Although I didnt talk with the soldiers that first afternoon, I could hear some of what they were saying to our people. My overall impression is that they were nice, well-spoken young men.1 Most enlisted in a tight job market hoping they wouldnt have to go to war. One confided he hadnt killed anyone: I just say my rifle jammed.
Wade, our San Francisco cabbie, got talking to an officer. Wade is a big, gentle, white-haired teddy bear of a man. The officer told him he hadnt been sleeping well. He confided that in recent weeks he had had to make quick decisions some of which led to the deaths of Iraqi civilians.
Several GIs ignoring for the moment the Iraqi militarys unexpectedly heavy resistance in the south mentioned the warm reception they had gotten. Not having seen that reception in our neighborhood, I wasnt sure what to think. Were the soldiers grasping at straws? Or had they been watching the US/British TV coverage which, Im told, repeatedly broadcast whatever footage they had of Iraqis welcoming the conqueror? (Al Jazeera TV, by contrast, featured other news: civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure.)
Surely, many Iraqis hope that under their new masters the sanctions will be lifted and no longer despoil their lives. To get on with those lives, they may be willing to forget that it was the US who forced the sanctions on them. Or that it was the US who kept changing the rules so the sanctions wouldnt be lifted no matter how much Iraq complied with conditions for removal. And no matter how much the sanctions strengthened Saddams grip on his people.
There is no doubt that Saddam and the Baath party backed during the eighties by the US oppressed many Iraqis.2 Whether that Stalinist regime killed as many Iraqis as the sanctions, I dont know. After 13 years the survivors of the genocidal sanctions might figure theres survival value in welcoming the conqueror regardless of ones real feelings. Or as an Iraqi saying has it, Starve a dog and hell follow you anywhere.
Besides, many Iraqis, like many US Americans, probably know little about the
US dubious track record in liberating the numerous countries
its invaded over the past century.3
After years of work to end sanctions and prevent invasion and attack, for Kathy Kelly it must be heartbreaking to witness the US occupation. Those guys accepting Kathys dates had no idea of the profound graciousness of the offer.
1. However, as a Salvadoran who heard me describe the scene pointed out: it wasnt likely that we would meet the more predatory soldiers they would be busy elsewhere.
2. During the eighties the secular and socialist Baath party, drawing on oil revenue, provided Iraqis with universal medical care and a high degree of literacy. The position of women in that era was probably the highest in the Mideast. US support for Saddam prior to his 1990 invasion of Kuwait, however, was to help spur on his invasion of Iran.
3. In Id Rather Teach Peace (Orbis, 2002, p.20), Colman McCarthy, citing historian William Blum, lists 22 countries in which the US military has actively intervened since the end of World War II. McCarthy then asks: how many of these interventions led to the formation of democratic governments, respectful of human rights?
Ed was the featured speaker at SPCs recent 67th birthday celebration.
He was in Baghdad on the Iraq Peace Team from early February to mid April. For
more information about IPT, visit <www.iraqpeaceteam.org>.