A willed moral blindness

We do not equate the American people with George W. Bush, a man Nelson Mandela described as someone who “cannot think properly.” For we know there are many thoughtful Americans who spend a lifetime critically examining the impact of their country’s institutions and policies on their citizens and on other nations.  So too we cannot reduce the Iraqi nation to Saddam Hussein, a cold brutal ruler who oppresses his own people.  But then we do not get to know what the Iraqis think or what they are like as a people.

In 1991, when the United States was raining missiles upon Baghdad, what we saw on our television screens were tails of light streaking across a sky made luminous by the soundless explosion of distant bombs.  We did not see an ancient living city being bombed.  We did not know where Baghdad’s residents had hidden themselves, or if any of their homes had been hit.  The generals assured us that the bombing was very precise so as to minimize the “collateral damage” to civilians.  When the war was over, a total embargo was imposed on Iraq.  The lack of vital medicines resulted in the death of at least half a million people, mostly children.  We did not see these deaths.

War can be so abstract.  We protect ourselves from its horrors by a certain psychological distance and a willed moral blindness.

In contrast, the atrocities of Sept. 11 remain fresh in our minds and our hearts.  Many innocent Filipinos perished in that senseless attack, people who were relatives or schoolmates or town mates of people we knew.  Video footage, replayed over and over — of a hijacked passenger jet used as a weapon slamming against a building full of civilians, of the World Trade Center engulfed in smoke, of people plunging to their deaths from the top floors of a burning building, and later of inconsolable families shrouded in relentless grief — struck us deep and left a permanent wound in our souls.  That was how Sept. 11 became part of our own experience.

“If war must come and bombs rain down on people,” writes the Japanese novelist Natsuki Ikezawa, “I wanted to know who they were.”  A few months ago, he went to Iraq to find out for himself.  His impressions of that visit are published in a short book titled “On a small bridge in Iraq.”  The book can be downloaded free from the Internet (http://www.okm.biz/cafeimpala/iraq/iraq102.pdf).  Ikezawa inspected the food at Baghdad’s markets, visited the homes of ordinary Iraqis, and talked to a few intellectuals there.  But for the most part, he kept his eyes and ears open for the quotidian scenes of Iraqi life.

“At an ancient site in the North called Hatra, there was an old stonemason patiently leveling the face of a stone slab to be used in the far-reaching restoration efforts.  He’d chip away a bit, then rub is hand lovingly over the surface seeking out telltale rises and falls, then once again carefully position his chisel.  There was not a trace of the imminent onslaught in his eyes.  What he was seeing was how the site would look ten years, a hundred years hence.  The Iraqis have many reasons to be proud, one of them being that they created one of the oldest civilizations on earth.  The old stonemason didn’t say anything, but the sight of him treading in the footsteps of the ages was beautifully solemn.  There might be countries in the world steadily marching toward war, but there are also countries that quietly go on restoring their ruins.”

“In the city of Nasiriyah, a man was painting the curbstones white and green around a traffic rotary.  A simple action people do the same way everywhere.  Just trying to get along, trying to live comfortably with the family and neighbors.  What else is there really?  I believe we can still avoid this war.”

“And if we can’t stop this war, then what hope is there of stopping the next war?  International politics will be driven not by discussion, but by military force.”

Ikezawa sums up in a few paragraphs the things we must not forget when we take a position on the necessity of war against Iraq, or for that matter, any war – including the one that our own soldiers have re-opened in Central Mindanao.  War is never just about armies clashing with one another.  It is also about children dying a quick death in the crossfire, from the bombs of terrorists or of regular armies, or a slow one in the clutches of hunger, trauma, and disease in crowded refugee centers.

Against Ikezawa’s images, it may be good to review the personal background of those who have planned this war.  The American author, Chalmers Johnson, a former CIA employee, calls them warlovers.  He tells us what kind of people they are.  President Bush avoided being drafted for the Vietnam War by having himself commissioned in the Texas Air National Guard.  Vice President Dick Cheney has been quoted as saying he had other priorities than military service in the 1960s.  Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, Chairman of the Defense Policy Board, have never worn a uniform. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld enjoyed a university deferment during the Korean War as a Princeton student.  There are many more like them.

“These are today’s ‘chicken hawks’,” writes Johnson, “men and women with an abstract knowledge of war who have never come under attack of any sort.  They are enthusiasts for the notion that the United States has become a New Rome, a colossus unconstrained by any values, loyalties or ideals of international law.  When the Supreme Court appointed George W. Bush President, they came to power.”

I know in my heart that we cannot allow the world to be led to a catastrophe by such individuals.