Few dialogues have taken place between Iraqi and American students on the topic of war in recent months. It seems remarkable that even when governments have ceased talking, students across the time zones are able to find a way to communicate their fears, concerns, angers and dreams to one another.
Recently, eight students from Santa Barbara and seven students from Baghdad talked to each other in radio stations for nearly two hours. The talk was candid. We asked them about liberation, an argument for the war that has won over many Americans. Answering honestly, they felt anything but grateful for the prospect of 3,000 bombs falling on their city. What good will liberation be if they’re all dead?
The students asked what authority we Americans have to impose our will on them. They reminded us that their nation in the 1950s had risen up to overthrow a monarchy that did not serve the people. What right have we, they asked, to determine who should rule their country, and how? Even if they exist in an imperfect system, the only truly democratic reform could happen from the inside. No one mentioned the end of the first Gulf War, in which the first President Bush asked the Shiites in the south to rise up against Saddam Hussein only to be disavowed by the U.S. military, which had promised the resisters protection.
Our Iraqi friends not so gently reminded us that ours is the only country to have used nuclear weapons of mass destruction in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The students grilled us about why we don’t do more to end war. Those of us sitting in the room were speechless. We all feel like we do so much: We write, we speak, we organize, we demonstrate and we work nonviolently to persuade public opinion that this war is one of the saddest, most unhealthy and insane policies ever proposed on Earth. Yet, they struck the Achilles’ heel of the peace movement, the well-intentioned people here in the United States who cannot get it together enough to galvanize voters to elect true representatives and initiate real reform, even with all our constitutional freedoms. We pacifist Americans who have had nominal successes and noble failures need to start playing to win, said the Iraqi students. Regime change starts at home, they prodded.
Joining most recently two career U.S. foreign diplomats and a host of other United Nations officials such as Hans von Sponeck and Denis Halliday, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook resigned, stating that he could not accept responsibility for what Britain was prepared to do in concert with the United States and Spain. These folks have put their careers on the line for peace. What’s holding us back? Why did we not speak out before, addressing some of the real underlying concerns? Few address the issue of the sanctions, the more than 12 years of deprivation at the hands of the United Nations Sanctions Committee, commandeered by the United States and Great Britain. No one talks about the relocation of the marsh Arabs in Iraq, done by the current Iraqi regime under the watchful eye of the United States and Great Britain in the southern no-fly zones. And who in the United States was mourning the Kurdish massacre last year at this time? CNN certainly wasn’t.
I couldn’t help but think of my freshman seminar in college called “The Decline and Fall of Empires.” We studied the last days of Greece, Rome, Sweden, Spain and Great Britain. The Azores Summit smacked of irony, placing two of the world’s great fallen empires on podiums next to the United States. It seems like we are following the legacy of all those nations, cutting spending on social programs, over-extending our military resources and acting not in our own self-interest on crucial domestic policy issues.
Despite the United Nations, our former allies — France, Germany and Russia and maybe even China — the pleadings of Iraqi students and a massive people’s movement worldwide, my country has decided to plunge further into the wrongness of this war.
The conversation with Iraqi students punctuated all the experiences I have had with friends there. Our group concurred that bombing Iraq is different now that we know people, now that we have heard their stories and their frustrations. We lamented that if more people had a personal connection, it would be harder to support the war.
And all of us sank in our chairs when our friends said they hoped to be alive to have another conversation with us, feeling both guilty and lucky that we are bound to our friends in Iraq because we know each other’s stories and names.
* Leah C. Wells recently returned from her third trip to Iraq. She is Peace Education Coordinator at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.