Is It About Independence, or Explosions?
I sat on the stone wall that lines Druid Lake on Sunday night and watched Baltimore be destroyed by bombs. I watched tracers light up the sky, followed by the deep pulse of distant explosions.
I watched huge clouds of smoke rise from downtown, escaping from the flaming buildings. I saw explosions as far as Dundalk, Curtis Bay, and Morgan State. I saw light emerging from deep in the West Side, illuminating the trees that line the park.
I saw the Belvedere Hotel hit by a series of missiles, a huge flame bursting out the East wall. I remembered when the bartender there took me and a friend on the roof to see the best 360 degree view I'd ever seen of the city. I wondered if he would survive the attack.
Then a huge bomb fell into the apartment building at Howard and 28th, sending a large cloud of smoke into the air. I could only imagine the horrors inside as elderly residents tried to escape the flames. I watched cars crossing the 29th St. bridge fired on by helicopters that then continued on their way into Remington. I watched mortar fire land in the houses of Reservoir Hill that face the park, and heard the sounds of gunfire from the streets behind them.
It was a total nightmare, something I never wanted to experience. Thankfully, it was mostly in my head. It was the Fourth of July, and celebratory explosions were popping off all over the city.
But I wasn't celebrating, I was mourning. The fireworks reminded me not of 1776 or 1812, but of 2003, when I watched an almost identical scene on the TV news. I thought not of British Redcoats, but of U.S. Soldiers and Marines. I was watching a re-run of Shock And Awe, the massive bombing campaign the U.S. unleashed on Baghdad on March 19th, 2003.
I texted a friend, a former National Guardsman who participated in the initial invasion of Iraq. I told him I was thinking of Baghdad, watching the city light up, and I asked how he was. He said he was "in hiding", not interested in being taken back to that place again, at least, not this year.
I thought how many friends of mine, Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who have joined the ranks of the anti-war movement, were in hiding too, taking pills to calm their shattered nerves, reasoning with their shame and anger at the roles they played in occupying these countries.
I thought of my childhood friend Austin Koth, who deployed to Baghdad in 2006 with an Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit. I imagined which exploding firework might best match the sound of the Improvised Explosive Device (IED) that took his life two weeks before he would have come home. Then I heard it.
I thought about the millions of Iraqi and Afghan citizens whose lives have been turned upside down by the "Global War on Terror". I felt so sad and sorry to the Iraqi people for the actions of my government, a government that wouldn't budge no matter how unpopular the invasion was or how many people voiced opposition to it.
I wondered how I could explain that to those who lost limbs when our bombs came crashing into their neighborhoods because one of their neighbors may or may not have posed a threat to U.S. forces. I thought about the brave people who picked up weapons to defend their communities from the invasion of my government.
I thought "what if Baltimore was really being bombed right now?" I wondered what I would actually feel like, what it means to watch your home, the home of so many friends and family, crumble under the bombs of a foreign government. I wondered what I would do and what my friends would do. Would I go out into the chaos to look for survivors? Would I stay far away hoping to save my own life? Would I fight? Would I organize others to fight with me?
These thoughts paralyzed me for an hour as I sat and stared out into the city. I was among families having cookouts, all the while a simulation of a major bombing campaign lit up my city's skyline.
All I could think of was Baghdad.
It is amazing that we celebrate our Independence Day in such a way. A total glorification of war. A sensory overload of violence. After all, our fireworks are meant to imitate the "bombs bursting in air" which helped win the Independence War against Britain.
I wonder how many take time on this day to consider the Independence movement that led to the creation of the United States. I wonder if they think about other Independence movements, from India to Algeria to Mozambique, that fought similar struggles against colonialism.
I wonder if any note the parallels between British policy in colonial America and U.S. policy in Iraq. After all, it was the British who set the stage for our presence when they invaded and occupied Iraq in 1921.
And the Iraqi resistance that arose after U.S. Administrator of Iraq Paul Bremer set drastic and far-reaching economic decrees in 2004 isn't that different from events in our own history. American Patriots fought back after similar changes were initiated by the British in the 1760s and 70s. They rioted against the Stamp Act and dumped Tea in the Boston Harbor to protest British economic policies.
Then they picked up guns.
But political history aside, a deeper question remains; why the glorification of war? Is it to remind ourselves of the glory of victory, to remember those who suffered and died to free the United States from Britain? Is it to turn war into a celebration, to be enjoyed from afar, knowing we will probably never see it?
I tend to believe the latter, that the fireworks celebration is not about Independence, it's about explosions. It's about war. It's a yearly mass-experience that reminds us that we live in a culture of violence and that we are safe enough from war that we can celebrate it from a detached position. But it's not a conspiracy by some branch of government or some multinational fireworks company, it's a cultural practice, an unwritten consensus.
If we took time to consider the real impacts that war and mass violence have across the world, I don't think we would be able to stomach all the hot dogs. I think we would start to feel the weight of so many lives that were taken early by the crippling shards of shrapnel bursting out of bombs and missiles dropped by our military around the world.
And if we all considered what we would do if we were on the receiving end of such an assault, if we saw the bombing of Baltimore the way I did on Sunday, maybe we would feel the common humanity that binds us to those in Iraq, Afghanistan, and countless other countries that live the results of our government's aggressive foreign policy.
Perhaps then we could start celebrating Independence Day in a way that honors, educates about, or supports those fighting similar battles today, even if they are against our own government's policies.