Chapter 16: Reflections on the past 21 years (April 2012)
Welcome to the sixteenth monthly posting: Those who’ve followed these postings know that my legal battle with the federal government over a $16,000 fine has ended. The fine was because I traveled to Iraq to bring medicine to Iraqi children without asking for a U.S. license. The judge dismissed the government’s efforts to collect from me on the grounds that the government waited too long to sue me.
I’d like to use this posting – possibly my last on this website – to reflect on what the past 21 years have meant to me since I first learned about Iraq and then traveled there. Was it worth it? What have I learned? How has it changed me?
I begin with the front-page story of the New York Times of March 22, 1991. It is a long article and I ask the reader’s indulgence. I have added my emphasis with bold and italics. But I include the entire article: it foretells the whole tragedy of the Iraqi mis-adventure the U.S. was about to engage in. Remember, the Soviet Empire had just collapsed. This article tells how, as the world’s sole superpower, we intended to proceed.
The New York Times
After The War;
U.N. Survey Calls Iraq’s War Damage Near-Apocalyptic
By PAUL LEWIS, Special to The New York Times
UNITED NATIONS, March 21 — A United Nations survey of civilian damage caused by the allied bombardment of Iraq calls the results “near apocalyptic.” The survey, which was made public today, recommends an immediate end to the embargo on imports of food and other essential supplies to prevent “imminent catastrophe.”
The report, prepared by a United Nations team that visited the country between March 10 and March 17, says the bombing has relegated Iraq “to a pre-industrial age” and warns that the nation could face “epidemic and famine if massive life-supporting needs are not rapidly met.”
It calls for “a major mobilization and movement of resources” to provide immediate substantial supplies of food, agricultural equipment, fuel, electrical generators and machinery for water purification, garbage disposal and sewage treatment.
U.S. Position on Sanctions
The report was prepared by Under Secretary General Martti Ahtisaari, who was sent by Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar. He was accompanied by representatives of Unicef, the United Nations Development Program, the High Commissioner for Refugees, the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization. Mr. Ahtisaari, a Finn, earned praise in 1989 for his handling of Namibia’s move to independence.
A White House spokesman said the Administration would “give the report careful study,” but declined to comment on its findings.
The report seemed to be at odds with allied military officials’ insistence that the damage in Iraq was largely confined to military sites and transportation links. But allied briefers acknowledged that they had destroyed power plants and oil refineries, and the United Nations report stresses that the lack of electricity and fuel is paralyzing hospitals, water purification and sewage treatment plants and irrigation projects.
It says the monthly allocation of food staples to the population fell from 343,000 tons last September to 135,000 tons in January.
Most Workers Are Idle
The report says 90 percent of Iraq’s industrial workers “have been reduced to inactivity and will be deprived of income as of the end of March.” Most families already “lack access to adequate rations or the purchasing power to meet normal minimal standards.”
The report says that until Iraq acquires fuel and electrical generating equipment, “food that is imported cannot be distributed; water cannot be purified; sewage cannot be pumped away and cleansed; crops cannot be irrigated; medicines cannot be conveyed where they are required; needs cannot even be effectively assessed.”
Diplomats say the report’s findings are likely to bring pressure for a substantial relaxation in the trade sanctions against Iraq when the special committee monitoring compliance with the restrictions meets on Friday.
The United States has said sanctions should be lifted only when Baghdad fulfills all the allies’ conditions for a permanent cease-fire. The special committee can grant a waiver on food and shipments of humanitarian aid, but the entire embargo may be lifted only by a Security Council resolution.
Ever since the trade embargo was imposed on Aug. 6, after the invasion of Kuwait, the United States has argued against any premature relaxation in the belief that by making life uncomfortable for the Iraqi people it will eventually encourage them to remove President Saddam Hussein from power.
Complex New Resolution
An American draft of a proposed resolution on a permanent cease-fire that has been circulating here indicates that the Bush Administration wants the Security Council to lift only the ban on food shipments after adopting the complex new resolution.
Under the American draft, even after a permanent cease-fire is set, Council permission would still be needed for imports of “materials and supplies for essential civilian needs,” though the Council would examine this requirement every 60 days in the light of Baghdad’s compliance and could eventually lift it.
As expected, the American draft also requires Iraq to agree to the destruction of its ballistic missile systems as well as chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.
1963 Frontier Cited
Only when Iraq formally agrees to all provisions of the draft, which is still under discussion, would a cease-fire become effective.
The United States draft says Iraq must accept the boundary agreement it made with Kuwait in 1963 but subsequently rejected. And it empowers the Security Council to guarantee that frontier with “all necessary means,” a phrase that would permit the use of military force against any violator.
In addition, it calls for deployment of a United Nations military observer force along the frontier to monitor possible cease-fire violations and establishes a special fund to pay compensation for damage caused by Iraq’s annexation of Kuwait.
The draft maintains a complete ban on sales of military equipment to Iraq as well as dangerous technologies used in making chemical, biological or nuclear weapons and sets out a four-month timetable for Iraq to comply with all these provisions.
The original sanctions banned all trade and financial dealings with Iraq and occupied Kuwait, except for the provision of medicine. Food was allowed when the committee judged that humanitarian circumstances required it.
This month the committee agreed to speed approval of shipments of food and humanitarian aid, but the call for lifting the restrictions appears to go further than the United States envisages at present.
At Odds With U.S. Position
Assessing the effects of allied bombing and the trade embargo on Iraq’s economy, the report says “the recent conflict has wrought near-apocalyptic results upon the infrastructure of what had been until January 1991 a rather highly urbanized and mechanized society.”
The report says that about 9,000 Iraqi homes were destroyed or damaged beyond repair during the war, including 2,500 in Baghdad and another 1,900 in Basra, and that about 72,000 people have been left homeless.
It says “most means of modern life support have been destroyed or rendered tenuous” and warns that “for some time to come” the country has been “relegated to a pre-industrial age but with all the disabilities of post-industrial dependency on an intensive use of energy and technology.”
After surveying the food shortage and warning that this year’s harvest may fail, the report recommends that “sanctions in respect of food supplies should be immediately removed, as should those relating to the import agricultural equipment and supplies.”
The report concludes: “It is unmistakable that the Iraqi people may soon face a further imminent catastrophe, which could include epidemic and famine, if massive life-supporting needs are not rapidly met. The long summer, with its often 45 or even 50 degree temperatures (113-122 degrees Fahrenheit) is only weeks away. Time is short.”
Copyright © 1991 The New York Times Company
Simply put the U.S. says it will use famine and epidemic to overthrow Saddam Hussein.
That is what the article tells us, on the front-page of our paper of record. The deaths of 100,000s of Iraqi children are foretold. When after 12 years of trying, our goal failed of removing Saddam Hussein from power by “making life uncomfortable for the Iraqi people”, we moved on to our final option: initiating an illegal war of aggression, invading Iraq to accomplish our geopolitical agenda of controlling this oil-rich part of the world.
Even as I write this now, I experience some feeling of anger. At the time, I couldn’t believe we were doing what the article said. But after reading in The New England Journal of Medicine of 46,900 excess deaths of Iraqi children in just eight months – and after my first trips to Iraq to see for myself – my feelings of anger had grown very intense!
That was the first lesson I had to learn. I was eaten up by my anger at what I knew and had seen. As a result I wasn’t very skillful in educating about this. And no less important, I was suffering deeply from my anger – an afflictive emotion – and in danger of burn-out.
As someone wanting to make things better, I’ve now come to see the work in a new light: I have to be willing to look into the darkness – to accept that that’s how our world is at this moment – and to work as skillfully as I can to change it. But without the anger and hurtful criticism and even hatred for those responsible, which I had been feeling.
That’s a hard task.
I was brought up on the American (and not just American) way of seeing the world as divided into ‘good guys and bad guys.’ Of course we were the good guys. We made mistakes, sometimes, but even those mistakes were done with good intentions. Working on the Iraq sanctions issue put this view right in my face. What I knew about Iraq challenged that Manichean view of reality and forced me to look deeper into how things really are.
I’ve been helped by honest introspection – admitting that I have not always been the good guy that I like to think of myself as being – as part of an eclectic spiritual practice.
A few days ago, I was heartened to watch Bill Moyers & Company on TV. His second guest was Carne Ross, formerly a high-ranking British government official in charge of UK Iraq policy at the United Nations. In the interview, he said the following:
In Iraq, we harmed the civilian population grotesquely. And Iraq is still suffering from that. … Well, to my shame, I, you know, I did it, when I was working on sanctions. You know, those were the sanctions that I helped implement. I negotiated those at the U.N. Security Council. I think only afterwards was I really confronted with the reality of what these sanctions had done to ordinary Iraqis. They damaged the Iraqi population very fundamentally and very severely and in a very widespread way. … I feel some sense of personal responsibility for it. … I mean, a lot of people suffered in Iraq, because of sanctions. Who is responsible for that? Who is accountable for that? And I kind of feel that at least I can say, “Well, I was part of it, therefore I am responsible.”
How wonderful to hear, “I feel some sense of personal responsibility for it.” Would we not be delighted to hear that from our own public figures? He goes on:
Act as if the means are the end. This is purely quoted from Gandhi. I didn’t come up with this myself. He was convinced that actually the form of politics that you choose is actually the end. … I read a lot about nonviolence, which is not doing nothing. It’s not pacifism. It’s actually a series of techniques, which are very powerful and persuasive, and can achieve, you know, extraordinary ends but without relinquishing the moral high ground by using violence.
If I wanted a practical demonstration of Gandhi’s principle that bad means cannot achieve good ends I would look no further than the means the U.S. used in Iraq. By using a means which knowingly killed 100,000s of children what ends did we reach. It has been a terrible disaster which most Americans are only still vaguely aware of.
The next public document which has special personal significance for me is the August 1999 UNICEF report. It said “if the substantial reduction in child mortality throughout Iraq during the 1980s had continued through the 1990s, there would have been half a million fewer deaths of children under-five in the country as a whole during the eight year period 1991 to 1998.” Now no longer eight months but eight years of kids’ deaths.
In the decade that I have been citing this statistic from UNICEF to dozens and hundreds of people, not one single person has ever said, “That’s can’t be! I would have heard of it on the Nightly News or read it in my mainstream newspaper.” No one’s ever said that!
This tells me something significant: People know they can’t turn to their mainstream news sources to get all the important news they need to know. The most common responses I would get from citing the UNICEF statistic – after “Oh, my God!” – is “Well, they only tell us what they want us to hear.”
It’s been important for me to recognize there is a story line connected with our country – and that events and facts which conflict with that story will usually be omitted (or distorted). Remembering this helps me have greater compassion (and less anger) for the people who don’t know the facts as I do about Iraq. This includes even those who don’t want to know (but I admit that’s often harder for me). I can also remember that at a certain level of awareness Americans know that we are being continually propagandized by our media and public figures. Also at some level of awareness, we know this is wrong.
To conclude on this final point, the last public statement with deep personal significance for me came from Mr. Obama in his 2012 State of the Union address.
We gather tonight knowing that this generation of heroes [who fought in Iraq] has made the United States safer and more respected around the world.
I wrote in last month’s posting: Can anyone possibly believe that our 2003 invasion and war in Iraq has “made the United States safer and more respected around the world”? Can President Obama possibly believe this? Does it matter that thousands of U.S. lives were lost, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, $5 trillion dollars will be spent paying for the war, Iraq has been left in shambles, and much of the world knows about Abu Ghraib and knows that this war was an illegal war of aggression? Does it matter that no one can believe what Obama says?!
In a very strange way, I take comfort in the President’s statement. It shows the distance from reality which our rhetoric and story line have gone. But reality does exist. No matter how much we are propagandized, there still is truth. The laws of nature cannot be bent to our will no matter how much we deny climate change. The views of hundreds of millions of Arabs and Muslims cannot be changed no matter how much we tell them what they ought to believe and feel. Propaganda can obscure truth but it cannot create truth.
I am sorry that this posting is so long, though about 40% is the NY Times article from 1991. When history is written, I believe it will mark the beginning of a serious overreach by the American Empire planners, and the start of the collapse of the American Empire. Our tasks as nonviolent peace workers have to be focused on the urgency of abolishing wars – the re-establishing of the rule of law – and creating greater equality and sustainability in our country and the world.
Have these past years on the Iraq issue been worth it? Have they changed me for the better? The short answer to both is Yes. I’m not sure now if I have anything more that would be useful to say. Perhaps I’ll have a future posting, perhaps I won’t feel a need.
In any event, I’d like to end by repeating my last paragraph of thanks from last month.
I need to express my deep gratitude to my lawyers who’ve given so generously and freely of their time. And to express my appreciation for all of those who’ve read these postings and followed my case with their words of support. And finally to my friends in the media who’ve recognized that this issue is not ‘old news’ but an important ongoing one. Thanks to you all,