I was running on automatic pilot in the midst of a hectic workday, so I grabbed the phone before the first ring faded.
“Are you the one organizing all those peace things downtown?”
The question caught me off guard. “Which peace things do you mean?”
Several demonstrations against the invasion of Iraq had taken place in our far-flung corner of America, and various weekly peace vigils were still drawing respectable numbers—the most visible, a Sunday “Bridges for Peace” gathering on a main thoroughfare near the county’s only shopping mall. I had attended these events, but could not claim to be “the organizer.”
“You know, those people standing around holding signs,” he elaborated.
I felt a twinge of caution. “Who am I speaking to, please?”
He offered his name unhesitatingly, adding that he did not wish me harm, but wanted to say he was angry—as were many others—that our group was out there undermining the morale of U.S. troops. He suggested that I move to Iraq if I “liked it better” there. His American roots ran generations deep, his great-great-grandfather imprisoned at Andersonville during the Civil War. He himself had fought in Vietnam and Cambodia, losing buddies and schoolmates. Who was I to withhold support of our troops in Iraq—especially when it was combat veterans who had won my right to speak out?
I had gotten such calls before in reaction to prior efforts at political activism. They invariably precluded response, consisting of irate venting followed by the crash of a slammed receiver.
This call was different. I sensed a sadness, a reluctance to leave our disagreement at that. No hang-up here. Instead, the caller related hideous scenes etched in his memory and bluntly challenged my credibility. Who was I to talk about war? “Have you ever seen a man’s head cut off?” he asked, “because I have!” Then he got to the point: he had survived the private hell of combat only to be spit upon by anti-war protesters upon his return to the U.S. in 1973.
The pain in his voice was palpable. And so it was to comfort, as well as enlighten, that I explained why we peace activists braved the contempt of people like him to proclaim opposition to America’s misadventure in the Persian Gulf. Our focus was not only the random butchery of ordinary people—their flesh shredded by shrapnel, bones crushed under once-sheltering concrete, mangled limbs, blackened corpses, the obliteration of whole families as they slept—people whose only mistake was to be Iraqi in the spring of 2003.
Our eyes were also fixed on our own not-much-older-than children thrust into the inferno of that carnage, although they merely sought a decent education and a good job in lean economic times. Children whose hands had so recently clasped juice boxes and book bags now reflexively pumped 7.65 mm life-extinguishing steel projectiles into the soft tissue of real soldiers and real civilians, who choked on the terrifying realization of their own mortality, deafened by pounding mortar fire, nostrils filled with the stench of cadavers, their boots slipping through the blood of friend and enemy alike.
As I spoke, I recalled the televised image of a Marine in newly-occupied Baghdad. I had been startled by his youth, his cheeks so smooth, as if they had hardly known the scrape of a razor. He could have been the teenager who mows my lawn, the high school student bagging groceries at the supermarket, or one of those ubiquitous kids gulping burgers at McDonalds. How his mother must grieve for that tender life she nurtured precipitously plucked from boyhood and recast in the crucible of war!
My caller had grown quiet. “I haven’t slept a night since 1973,” he confided.
Those who return from war, and the families of those who do not, take refuge in notions of honor, righteousness, and high moral purpose. How else render their loss comprehensible, their anguish bearable? The ultimate tragedy of Iraq is this: its toll in ruptured pasts and foreclosed expectations cannot be redeemed by the nobility of service or sacrifice. This was a war blatantly driven by the will for hegemony.
We ravished the wealth of a desert country and plundered our own in pursuit of global empire. We will crown our conquest with a $36 million embassy-castle built in the shadows of disemboweled palaces, and lavish $100 million on schools rising from the rubble of those we razed. We will dispense $8 billion in thanks to allies who sold out their people to become vassal-states. We will refurbish our military might, replacing wrecked Apache helicopters ($22 million each) and Bradley tanks ($1.2 million each), and spending $100 billion on weapons in 2004 alone.
Our national largesse is made possible by Oregon’s public school teachers, who agreed to work for two weeks without pay, and 1.7 million Medicaid recipients dropped from the rolls in 22 states, and 2,000 teachers and staff laid off in Alabama, and 30,000 children without childcare in Connecticut, and 8,000 Massachusetts families who will be homeless because the emergency eviction prevention program ran dry, and unknown numbers of veterans losing $844 million in health benefits.
The caller sighed. “This country sure is in a bad way.” I agreed. And that was why I stood on the street—for peace, justice, reason, compassion, and the renewal of a democracy gone awry. In that moment, he and I shared an understanding born of the simple, common dreams of all humanity. We were not so different after all—just two sides of the same coin. “Well, it’s been good talking to you,” he said, preparing to hang up. Yes, I said, it had been good talking to him, too.
Jillian Aldebron (email@example.com) is a lawyer and activist in Presque Isle, Maine.