Lurching down Valencia Street in San Francisco last week, I all but stumbled over a homeless young man squatting against the wall of the now moribund New College. Begging his pardon, I could not help but note that he was leafing through a dog-eared volume scavenged from a nearby free book box serendipitously entitled "What We Owe Iraq." Indeed, my inattentiveness to the young man"s pedal extremities was the by-product of my contemplation of just that subject.
What do we owe Iraq for over a million dead and ten times that number wounded or otherwise devastated in five years of Bush"s unrelenting bloodletting?
For 5,000,000 people who have been uprooted and displaced from their homes, half of them forced to flee their homeland, 65% of them women and children, 80% of the children less than 12 years of age?
What do we owe Iraq for having perverted governance into an aggregation of death squads? For corrupting public officials and leveling essential services, leaving the nation in the dark most days, contaminating the water supply, destroying the agricultural sector in the birthplace of agriculture, and aiding and abetting the looting of the cradle of civilization?
What do we owe this country "where the first letter was written, the first law put, the first university built, the first money issued, and the first poetry written?" asks Eman Kammas, a fearless Iraqi journalist now forced into exile.
The $3,000,000.000.000 USD Joseph Stiglitz calculates this illegal war will cost U.S. taxpayers will not compensate Iraq in per capita reparations. The quotient of Iraqi blood shed in this genocidal exercise cannot nearly be repaid by all the hemoglobin extracted from the 4000 dead Americans who gave up their lives in this pointless fracaso. The blood they spilled is only a drop in this bottomless bucket.
What do we owe Iraq? The damage can never be quantified. "The debt is too great to comprehend," considers my colleague Sasha Crow, founder of the Collateral Repair Project whose NGO seeks to repair some of the damage done.
The book the homeless comrade on Valencia Street (was he a vet?) was perusing consists of a series of essays by one Noah Feldman, a New York University law professor and once senior constitutional adviser on "the ethics of nation building" to L. Paul Bremer"s Coalition Provisional Authority. On its now tattered pages, Feldman grapples with framing "the interests of the people being governed (read conquered) and our own interest in exercising power over them." The problem, as Bremer"s lawyer saw it, was how to build "responsible, capital-driven nations whose own citizens will not seek to destroy us" (sic.) Or. in other words, how to save Iraq by breaking it, an ethical quandary that 40 years ago perplexed the architects of the U.S. genocide in Vietnam.
Feldman"s moral compass only tackles the "nation-building" part and evades completely the legality of invading and breaking a sovereign nation. The constitution Feldman helped to write indeed handed Iraq over to the assassins and their U.S. sponsors. What we owe Iraq is to string Professor Feldman up from the nearest lamppost in Washington Square.
What Bush"s America thinks it owes Iraq was strikingly encapsulated in a recent New York Times dispatch that told of the "exceptional luck" of an Iraqi toddler. When Marines raided two year-old Amenah al-Bayati"s home in Anbar province to detain her father on suspicion of supporting the insurgency, they noted that her feet were turning blue, a sign of congestive heart failure. Captain Kevin Jarrard prevailed over the objections of Homeland Security to have the child flown to Tennessee for corrective surgery. "The kid couldn"t help who her daddy was," Captain Jarrard told the New York Times, adding that he now was friends with the imprisoned man. Amenah"s homecoming when she returned to Haditha was described by the Times as "a public relations coup" for the Marines.
In April 2005, a U.S. Marine unit killed 24 civilians in Haditha in cold blood, five of them children. The killers have since been absolved.
One thing we do not owe Iraq is another "public relations coup" but that"s what appears to be up ahead as the war de-accelerates. Youngsters maimed by the aggression that Professor Feldman rationalizes will be flown to the U.S. by "humanitarian" aid scams and faith-based Christian charities to massage the collective guilt of America for having slept through the massacre into coughing up big bucks. Celebrity telethons and "We Are The World" clone mega-concerts will follow. Reconstruction swindles with billions in contracts let to Halliburton and Blackwater (to protect the reconstructors) and the annexation of the nation"s damaged oil fields by Big Oil will drive the final neo-liberal nail into Iraq"s coffin. Just like the Feldman scenario, first we destroy "em and then we save "em. It"s the American way.
What we owe Iraq is about to become one more corporate boondoggle - if we let it.
In the years after the debacle in Vietnam, those who had savaged that country and those who had stood fast against the carnage considered this same question: what did we owe the people of Vietnam and their damaged land for our appalling war upon them both? Some returned to the scene of the crime to fraternize with the enemy and calculate the damage they had done. Vets" groups and peace activists took action to repair what collateral damage they could. Hospitals were built and potable water systems installed. Kids horribly burnt by our napalm were flown to California for plastic surgery. It seems almost axiomatic that once the U.S. has destroyed a nation, we are driven to repair it.
Who repairs the collateral damage is crucial in this equation. Should repair and reparations be relegated to the same profit-driven corporate entities responsible for the damage? Or are the people we have indiscriminately bombed best served by grassroots response?
Military euphemisms aside, collateral damage is the willful decimation of a civilian population designed to terrorize those who might consider resisting the conquest of their country. One antidote to this homicidal hypocrisy is collateral repair.
Collateral repair begins at home. Having read of the killing of an ambulance driver by U.S. troops in the northwest city of al-Qaim during the first days of "Operation Iron Fist" in October 2005, Crow began collecting small donations from her Seattle neighbors to repair a part of the damage, eventually providing the driver"s widow and four children with four walls and a roof and a few sheep. Others joined in and a Vets for Peace group installed a potable water system at the hospital whose ambulance had been crunched. The first effort blossomed into the Collateral Repair Project (www.collateralrepairproject.org) which seeks to soften some of the unspeakable damage Bush Inc. has inflicted upon the Iraqi people, person to person, family to family, hand to hand. and heart to heart.
Small things are accomplished: a kids" school uniform is paid for, a tank of propane to heat refugee hovels in winter is purchased, dollar reading glasses for sewing women are shipped over, soccer balls exchanged for toy guns - band-aids, yes, but as CRP asks "what else can we do?"
The dimensions of the damage are hard to comprehend. One does what they can and where they can do it. For the past year, Collateral Repair has focused on the nearly 1,000,000 Iraqis who have been driven into exile in Jordan, sometimes with only the shirt on their back, where they are hounded by authorities much as ICE beats up on undocumented Mexicans on the homefront.
Iraqi families who have sought sanctuary in Jordan now have until April 17th to pay thousands of dollars in fines for seeking refuge in that Hashemite kingdom or face deportation and possible death back to Iraq, or flee to a third country - the U.S. which instigated this butchery in the first place and where Homeland Security restricts refuge to collaborators, is not an option. However, its not all bad news - those Iraqis with $100,000 in the bank will be allowed to remain in Jordan.
Crow understands what we have taken from Iraq is irreplaceable, so she and her partner Mary Madsen work on the little things, the sewing machines, the price of baking a loaf of bread, a camcorder for Um Muna to record the ceremonies of life in her Amman refugee community. A collection we took up at my 70th birthday party paid for it.
What else can we do?
What we owe Iraq is our attention. It has faded as the years and the corpse heaps have piled up, remembered once a year on the anniversary of the invasion when those who have suffered this damage must live it 364 more days a year for five years now and how many more?
What do we owe Iraq? Not a new president who praises the U.S. killing machine and pledges "orderly withdrawal" by 2013. Not corporate solutions to the suffering of those we have treated so callously until now.
What we owe Iraq is to change the way America does business in the world and the only way to do that is to radically change this gangrenous system and root out the source of all this damage. What we owe Iraq is really nothing short of a revolution.
John Ross is back in Mexico and will now turn his attention to this beautifully chaotic republic for a while. If you have further information, write [email protected]