The first group was silent, timidly smiling, and two-dimensional. If you attended a peace march in Seattle you probably saw these Iraqis being carried around by antiwar protesters. If you didn't make it to a peace march, perhaps you saw some smaller Iraqis wheat-pasted to light poles around town. And if you missed these Iraqis at marches and on light poles, you no doubt saw the Iraqi on the sides of buses all over town--that sweet-looking girl in a brilliant blue headscarf.
War kills the innocent--that was the message. "Look at these people," the picture-toting protesters demanded. "They are innocent and they are in great danger. American bombs could kill them. These are the innocent victims! Look at them!"
The other group of Iraqis seen in Seattle last week was three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood, and not at all timid. They weren't being carried by peace protesters or wheat-pasted to light poles or slapped onto buses. They were celebrating in Westlake Center--cheering, weeping, and waving American, Iraqi, and Kurdish flags. These Iraqis were celebrating the collapse of Saddam's regime--the demise of a fascist police/terror state that, by conservative estimates, was responsible for the deaths of one million Iraqis.
Peace protesters who wandered away from Saturday's antiwar demonstration and wound up in Westlake Center didn't quite know what to make of living, breathing, 3-D Iraqis.
"Thousands of people have marched down my street to show how much they care for the Iraqi people," says Michael Modes, who happened on the Iraqi celebration in Westlake. "[The Westlake event] was one of the most joyous scenes I've ever witnessed. But where were all the good, caring humanitarians who love Iraqis so much?" When peace protesters did wander into Westlake Center, Modes says, "they looked pissed. One young woman who was wearing a 'NO WAR' button saw the Kurds dancing and started mocking their movements and snickering. A few more came by, shook their heads in disgust, and walked away. I guess liberation really sucks."
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Whatever opinion you held on the war three weeks ago--whether you believed Bush was going to war for oil, to avenge his daddy, or to distract Americans from his disastrous domestic and economic policies--you have to concede that this war did actually liberate the people of Iraq. Sanctions and weapons inspections and UN resolutions did not. The scenes on television of Iraqis pulling down statues--and, yes, ransacking government offices and Saddam's palaces--looked like the fall of an evil, despotic, hated regime because that's exactly what it was. How evil? Lost in the blizzard of news reports coming out of Iraq was the story of the liberation of 150 malnourished children from a prison in Baghdad--children who had been imprisoned for failing to join the youth branch of the Baath Party. This wasn't the only "children's prison" in Iraq. In 1998, UN weapons inspectors visited a prison that held the terrorized children--toddlers to preadolescents--of men and women who ran afoul of Saddam Hussein's government.
I'll admit to momentarily losing my nerve the week before the war began. I worried that the inept, bullying Bushies had so alienated the world (the United Nations, NATO, our allies) that the war should be postponed--not forever, but until we had more support. But seeing the people of Iraq rise up last week brought me back to my senses--my lefty, pro-freedom, antifascist senses. After all, if I were an Iraqi I would want to be liberated now, not when France and Germany finally came around.
This is usually when my antiwar activist buddies ask if we should go to war against all the despotic regimes in the world--are we supposed to invade Syria? North Korea? The great state of Texas? They have a point, but it's a strange position for freedom-loving lefties to take. The "other despotic regimes" argument is not a call to fight fascism everywhere, but a whimper against fighting fascism anywhere. Once upon a time in the West, lefties believed in fighting fascism--to the point of taking up arms. Well, no more. Now a cheap and sentimental pacifism dominates.
But even if you're a pacifist, even if you don't support a war to roll back secular and religious fascism in the Middle East, can you at least admit to being somewhat pleased by the results of this war? The war in Iraq was short, and it did more good than harm. Even if we refrain from invading Syria, Sudan, and Texas, there is one less fascist regime on Earth today than there was four weeks ago--and can't we all agree that, whatever Bush's "real" motives, that's something worth celebrating? Clearly Iraqis think so--Iraqi exiles in Seattle, and Iraqis living in Baghdad.
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There were other images, other pictures, that came out of Iraq--pictures of Iraqis, wounded, maimed, and dead. One picture in particular struck me. Dead civilians were stacked up in the corridor of a hospital in Baghdad, like cords of wood. They had been killed in crossfire during street battles in Baghdad. And on top of the pile was a boy who looked to be about the same age as my son. It was heartbreaking. But the number of Iraqis who lost their lives during this war is less than the number of Iraqis who regularly lost their lives during three weeks under Saddam Hussein. Fewer Iraqis will suffer and die thanks to this war than suffered and died due to this war.
But liberation is not enough. Americans now bear a tremendous collective moral obligation to the people of Iraq. We have to make certain that this doesn't come to shit--that Iraq doesn't slip back into fascism, that the U.S. doesn't allow another ruthless dictator to rule over the Iraqi people. We have to establish a just peace, the rule of law, social order, minority rights, and freedom of thought, religion, and association.
"The attitude of [those]... who have opposed the war should now shift dramatically," lefty thinker Paul Berman told Salon.com last week. "The people who have demanded that Bush refrain from action should now demand that the action be more thorough.... The position of the antiwar movement and of liberals should be that the United States fulfill entirely its obligation to replace Saddam with a decent or even admirable system."
Lefties can--should, must-- function as the moral conscience of the nation, particularly you lefties who carried pictures of Iraqis at demonstrations. If these people are real to you and not just props, you will keep marching. Unlike some liberal hawks, I don't think the peace protesters were wrong to march, nor do I think you should put those posters away. The peace protests were effective. In response to pressure at home and abroad, the United States went to great lengths to minimize civilian casualties. Peace protesters in the United States and around the world without a doubt saved Iraqi lives, just as the demise of Saddam Hussein's regime has saved Iraqi lives.
But if lefties stop marching now--if the American left abandons Iraq--that only proves that the left didn't care any more about innocent Iraqis than it accused George W. Bush of caring. If American peace protesters don't march for the people of Iraq now, in this postwar period, even if it appears to give a retroactive blessing to this war, then American peace protesters will reveal themselves to be hypocrites. If you wanted to stop the war to protect innocents in Iraq--little girls in blue headscarves--you should want to ensure a just and lasting peace now for the exact same reason. Knee-jerk opposition to "occupation" is as good as stabbing that pretty little girl in the back. She doesn't need an end to American occupation. She needs peace and security and order, and she needs to live in a just society, which will take time and tons of American money. And a period of occupation.
So let's march. Let's march to roll back Bush's tax cuts--tax cuts that imperil our economy, our jobs, and our ability to pay our moral debt to the people of Iraq. Let's march to make sure the occupation is just and brief, and ends with Iraqis in control of their government, their economy, and their own destinies. These are all solid, lefty goals, and lefty hawks and lefty peaceniks should be able to agree on them and work together on them now that the bombs have stopped falling.