For Whom They Toll
Today, in cities and towns throughout the U.S. and beyond, activists will gather to grieve and protest the carnage wrought by the unlawful and immoral war in Iraq. Thousands will gather to commemorate the 2,000 lives of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq and call upon U.S. people to stop funding the war. Others will focus chiefly upon the well over 100,000 Iraqi lives lost, and, in a campaign launched some months ago, will ring bells 100,000 times 1,000 chimes each in 100 different locations–as names of Iraqi civilians killed since the start of Shock and Awe are read aloud.
October 25th marked the 2,000th American service-member death in the Iraq war: October 29th will mark one year since The British Lancet, perhaps the world’s foremost medical journal, estimated from careful research that tens of thousands of Iraqi people had died due to this same horrific war. The demonstrations will overlap, but for once we can claim that separate demonstrations, held simultaneously, can actually raise awareness and hopefully affect change. These protests are after all the same: One life, two thousand lives, one hundred thousand lives, or many, many more–are all too much to pay for the imperial ambitions of the few.
Let me tell you about something I just learned. Eager to help promote the "100,000 Rings" campaign, I recently accepted an invitation–from a literature class at a Baltimore community college–to bring some experiences of injustice and war to the students’ literary pursuit–in this case, the ancient Greek drama, Antigone. It was a surprisingly good fit. Sophocles’ heroine dies utterly forsaken and alone in punishment for standing against Creon, her king, who decrees that her slain brother, declared an enemy of state, will rot, unburied, above ground. Antigone defies the king and adheres to her conscience. In front of witnesses, she pours dirt upon her brother’s corpse, and when the King’s guards undo her work, she returns openly to the scene of her "crime’ to repeat her act once again.
After the King sentences her to be buried alive, the blind seer, Tiresias, denounces the unjust King, saying: "Thou hast thrust children of the sunlight to the shades, . . .but keepest in this world . . . a corpse unburied, unhonoured, all unhallowed," entombing the living and refusing to honor the dead. When Creon relents, of course it is too late. Tiresias had warned him of his madness and as the Greeks and others echoing have said: "Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad."
The lesson for our time is painful.
All over the world, people can see that the U.S. went to war against Iraq because the ruling elites in this country knew Iraq couldn’t fight back. Enough madness. We are mired in a war that could last ten years or more, one that is already intensifying other, perhaps even more dangerous conflicts. Now, whatever security we might establish, as U.S. people or as people of the world, rests in seeking fair trade relations and raising vigorous opposition to the warmongers who run this country. Any other behavior would be madness.
We must not show Creon’s callous disregard to those slain by war. A few months ago, our friend Scott Blackburn went to downtown Chicago, alone, and rang a bell, once a minute, in memory of each U.S. soldier who had been killed in Iraq. The dreadful total then was still "only" 1594, and it kept him there for over 24 hours, ringing his bell once a minute. People who stopped to talk with him learned that honoring the other dead of this war would take months. A local reporter came by, and although Scott’s story of our troops made the paper, nothing he had told the reporter about the Iraqi casualties was considered news. For Scott, the 100,000 rings project was immediately apparent as a burning obligation.
Like all war, this rotten folly creates victims on all sides. What it has done to our safety in this most precarious of times, by destroying most of what was left of our good faith with the world, by further fracturing international solidarity and understandings of rights and law, by escalating conflicts of both grave terror and war-making, has prevented U.S. people from seeing the greatest terrors we face, the disasters generated by our own degradation of the world’s resources and our planetary environment. And let us each consider also the small but real tragedy of not being able to look at ourselves in the mirror each day without wondering how much longer we’ll continue to make war against people for the sake of gluttonously controlling their precious and irreplaceable energy resources.
Which is to say: if you see people gathered in your neighborhood this week, in anger or grief or guilt, with their bells or their candles, perhaps it’s best not to ask if it’s an observance for 2,000 Americans or for the well-over 100,000 Iraqi tragedies our government has not yet even seen fit to count. A life is a life, and the full tragedies of this cruel war are yet to be told. Advice I read in sixth grade remains true today: "send not to know for whom the bell tolls."
It tolls for thee.
I’m grateful to my friend and co-worker Sean Reynolds for elements contributed to this article. For more information on the 100,000 Rings campaign, visit www.iraqmortality.org.
KATHY KELLY co-coordinates Voices for Creative Nonviolence, a Chicago-based campaign to challenge U.S. military and economic warfare against Iraq. She is the author of Other Lands Have Dreams: from Baghdad to Pekin Prison. She can be reached at: email@example.com