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On to Iraq


In early February, we mourned the deaths of astronauts. Each day now we edge closer to war. And the mystery of this war will hang over us like a curse in a Nathaniel Hawthorne novel.

How can a people who basically do not want a war -- or would support one only with U.N. help -- be conned into an expedition that, according to economists and U.N. memos, will cost $1.6 trillion, from 48,000 to 260,000 lives, humanitarian aid for 7.4 million defeated Iraqis, and medical aid for 500,000 wounded civilians?

A fateful week began with the State of the Union address and ended with the disintegration of the Columbia space shuttle spreading its debris and body parts from Texas to Louisiana.

For a moment the war was forgotten. The networks gave Columbia the weekend -- from Saturday’s white streams of the disintegrating vessel to John Glenn, 81, pleading on Sunday afternoon’s “Meet the Press” for more and more money for NASA so that we can go to Mars and so that the fruits of space research will give us longer lives.

Early Saturday afternoon President George W. Bush delivered a low-key, dignified statement that quoted the prophet Isaiah, who said that God knew all the stars by name. Though the astronauts had not landed safely in Florida, Bush prayed that they had truly “gone home.”

By evening the stations had assembled NASA footage for the biographies of the victims; but early both National Public Radio and CNN focused on the one Israeli. Though he was a non-believer, said the reporter, he had kept the Sabbath in space. His father is a Holocaust survivor, and, as a pilot, the astronaut had participated in Israel’s 1981 bombing raid on Iraq’s nuclear reactors.

Which brings us back to the war.

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In George Orwell’s novel 1984, his 1949 satire on the totalitarian state, the people of Oceania, under the watchful eyes of Big Brother, are kept in a constant state of agitation -- or subjugation -- by daily reports on the wars waging on their frontiers. In fact, unknown to them, there is no war. The myth of the war is simply the Party’s control mechanism, in a time and place where language, called Newspeak, has been contorted to the point where war is peace and lies are truth.

It is no accident that writers see signs of 1984 in America in the years 2001 to 2003.

In the last week of January, I kept a media log of events, articles and shows that might give us a context: What are we seeing at this bizarre turning point in our history?

  • Seeing the film of Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American” made it clear why its studio, Miramax, tried to shelve it, until its star Michael Caine raised a ruckus to force it into distribution. The parallels between our intrusion into Vietnam and our plans for Iraq leap off the screen. The American ideologues in the OSS, now the CIA, are willing to bomb and kill to remake Vietnam in our image. When the “quiet” American tells the British journalist narrator, “We’re not colonialists. We’re here to help these people,” the theater exploded in derisive laughter.
  • On the “Lehrer News Hour,” Mark Shields indicated that we were buying support from allies with all kinds of deals to get them to come on board; meanwhile, he added, the people have no passion for this war. There has been no debate on the cost. Bush has asked no one to sacrifice.
  • On “Washington Week in Review,” one correspondent said, according to sources, the war would start March 13. Other countries will go along because they have a financial stake in the future Iraq, presuming we will control what is left of Iraq after the war.
  • Also on “Washington Week”: Why did Bush include an AIDS package to Africa in the State of the Union address? To reward Colin Powell for going along on Iraq.
  • Discovery Channel/NBC had Tom Brokaw in Baghdad, talking to people on the streets, letting them come across as human beings, but the emphasis was on the administration’s point of view. We see the Baath Party hanging Jews in the town square and we are reminded of Iraq’s similarity to Nazi Germany. They show a Gen. Norman Schwartzkopf interview at the end of the first Gulf War, but not his interviews of today opposing the war coming up.

We have listened to Bush or one of his proxies say, “Saddam gassed his own people. What more reason do you want?” But, as I reported here (April 12, 1991), that is probably not true. The same CIA-Army War College study I cited then has resurfaced in an op-ed by Stephen C. Pelletiere in The New York Times (Jan. 31). The gassed Kurds were most likely killed not by Iraq but by Iran in the Iran-Iraq war. Saddam Hussein is bad enough; when the administration misleads us it undermines its case.

And, as Richard Betts writes in Foreign Affairs (January/February), Bush has not leveled with us on the most likely effect of our invading Iraq. Saddam Hussein with his back to the wall will fight with all he has. He will hit the “homeland” -- most likely New York -- again. Even a series of clumsy attacks could kill 100,000 -- which is one reason New Yorkers oppose the war.

The most visionary justification for war, propagated by The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman and Bush’s inner circle, imagines a new Iraq, a blooming democracy guided by a 10-year benevolent American military presence, U.S.-led “development” of Iraqi oil fields, tripping a reverse domino effect in which all the adjoining Arab states would be converted to our way of life.

They should read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, “The Birthmark,” in which a monomaniacal scientist becomes obsessed with the one imperfection in his lovely wife’s complexion, a tiny birthmark resembling a human hand, on her cheek. Genius that he is, he has concocted a magic potion that will make her perfect. She submits. She drinks the elixir. He’s right. The spot disappears. But she dies.

* * *

The Bush presidency has focused on one goal: accelerating the concentration of wealth in the top 1 percent of the population. So he pushed through a tax cut for the rich -- the consequences of which we live with in today’s depressed economy.

In foreign affairs, his go-it-alone policy has disengaged America from environmental and disarmament treaties and obligations that would either cost American businessmen money or inhibit our freedom to do whatever we might want.

The terrorist destruction of the World Trade Center and the loss of over 2,000 lives was an occasion for us, as a nation, to rethink the image we present to the world. Why do so many people from underdeveloped countries hate the United States?

Instead, his administration has set out to remake the world to suit us. According to Bob Woodward’s Bush at War, Bush secretly decided to attack Iraq at the same time we went into Afghanistan. According to the promising new PBS press-criticism program, “Media Matters” (Jan. 16), Bush backed away from his immediate unilateralism because the op-ed pages hit him hard. They should hit again. An essay by Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., in the Los Angeles Times and the Newark Star Ledger warns that Bush has plans for a preemptive nuclear strike against Iraq.

If they get through Hawthorne, Bush’s men who have never seen war should read Reporting Vietnam (Library of America), an anthology of the best war journalism. Here war is not zapping icons on a video screen. It is arms, legs, heads, bloody torsos of not just enemy soldiers but old men, women and little children scattered on the battlefield and in the town square. It is young men and women blinded, disfigured for life, burdened with the unreadable memories of what they have seen and done.

The president proclaims himself a religious man. But the only religious leaders who have his ear are the most conservative elements of the Israeli lobby and the fundamentalist Protestants.

Meanwhile, the virtually unanimous voices of moral theologians, Catholic bishops, the American Jesuit provincials, and Protestant and liberal Jewish intellectuals say that the evidence available does not justify our going to war.

When I visited Iraq after the first Gulf War I stood on the bridge over the Tigris River in the hot sun and watched the young boys swim in its muddy waters. Today those boys would be in the army.

A week ago, on another CNN program, Bob Novak asked a high NASA official why the promise of “space tourism” had not been fulfilled.

How vast the gap between what our visions seem to promise and the real lives we are obliged to lead.

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is Jesuit Community Professor of Humanities at St. Peter’s College, Jersey City, N.J. His e-mail address is: raymondschroth@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, February 14, 2003