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An Act of Contrition
And so, Saddam Hussein hangs, writes Robert Fisk, "on the very eve of the Eid al-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice, the moment of greatest forgiveness in the Arab world." The execution of a dictator, orchestrated by the occupying power. But what about our own crimes, Fisk asks, "the mass killings we perpetrated in 2003 with our depleted uranium shells and our ‘bunker buster’ bombs and our phosphorous, the murderous post-invasion sieges of Fallujah and Najaf, the hell-disaster of anarchy we unleashed on the Iraqi population in the aftermath of our ‘victory’ – our ‘mission accomplished’ – who will be found guilty of this?" Indeed.
I believe his question throws into stark relief the challenge facing all of those who oppose the war in Iraq and want to see an immediate end to the U.S. occupation. We have to hoist high the only banner under which we can hope to unite: contrition. We must vigorously embrace the words that can cut through the death dealing: we are sorry.
Reflecting on the recent Johns Hopkins study that reveals an Iraqi death toll in excess of 650,000 since the U.S. invasion, Middle East scholar Juan Cole argued there can be no way out of Iraq that does not begin with "a clear-eyed vision" of what we have done there, "a sense of contrition, a recognition of the reality of what the actions of the United States have done to an entire country, really to a civilization."
"Let’s stop using the word war to describe our action in Iraq," urges Diane Christian, and begin calling it what it truly is, rape. Allowing it to masquerade as war "constructs a righteous cause and compels a rhetoric of winning." And that world of righteous winners is strangely familiar and comfortable to us, but Christian will not allow us to rest there. "We raped Iraq. We began our action with forced, non-consensual penetration and despoliation of that country."
Near the end of Patricia Foulkrod’s catalytic documentary The Ground Truth, Camilo Mejia, a former sergeant in the Florida National Guard, speaks directly from the heart in clean, spare words, "To the people I just want to say that I’m really sorry. I’m really sorry for all the damage, and I’m really sorry for my cowardice for not opposing the war, for not speaking out sooner, for not disobeying more orders in Iraq. I’m sorry."
Camilo Mejia and others returning from Iraq are challenging the rest of us to face the truth about the U.S. occupation and to face our own timidity. His words carry weight, coming from a young man who fought in Iraq, refused to return from furlough, and served time in the military prison at Fort Sill after being found guilty of desertion.
"Refusing and resisting this war was my moral duty," writes Mejia, "a moral duty that called me to take a principled action. I failed to fulfill my moral duty as a human being and instead I chose to fulfill my duty as a soldier. All because I was afraid. I was terrified, I did not want to stand up to the government and the army, I was afraid of punishment and humiliation. I went to war because at the moment I was a coward, and for that I apologize to my soldiers for not being the type of leader I should have been."
Do we have the courage to make a public act of contrition? To address our victims in plain, human words? We are sorry. We will stop. We will make amends.
If we summon that courage, we will become a formidable movement. Our public act of contrition and commitment to reparations will act as the surgeon’s scalpel, cutting through the thicket of weasel words on which our elected officials choke and gag.
What does this mean concretely? Congress is about to return to Washington. In a recent interview Michael Albert posed this question to Noam Chomsky: "Suppose the will of an antiwar opposition could dictate terms, what should U.S. policymakers be forced to do?" Chomsky replied, "The answer seems to me pretty straightforward. Policy should be that of all aggressors: (1) pay reparations; (2) attend to the will of the victims; (3) hold the guilty parties accountable."
As far as the will of the victims is concerned, as Chomsky says, "we know quite a lot from regular polls run by the U.S. and Western polling agencies. The results are quite consistent. By now, about two-thirds of Baghdadis want U.S. forces to withdraw immediately, and about 70% of all Iraqis want a firm timetable for withdrawal, mostly within a year or less: that means far higher percentages in Arab Iraq, where the troops are actually deployed. 80% (including Kurdish areas) believe that the U.S. presence increases violence, and almost the same percentage believe that the U.S. intends to keep permanent military bases. These numbers have been regularly increasing."
This is borne out in a poll conducted in late November 2006 by the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies. Nearly half of the respondents favored an immediate withdrawal of coalition troops with an additional 20% favoring a phased withdrawal that should start right away. The survey found that 66% felt the security situation would improve if the multinational troops left.
We know what needs to be done. Many groups are organizing visits to congressional offices during the first week of January. Events across the country are scheduled for January 11 to mark the fifth anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo. A large rally in D.C. is planned for January 27. Voices for Creative Nonviolence has announced The Occupation Project: A Campaign of Sustained Nonviolent Civil Disobedience to End the Iraq War. They hope to see the occupation of congressional offices for eight weeks beginning in early February.
All of these actions can take place under the banner of contrition. We are sorry. We will stop. We will make amends.
The "mandate" from the November midterm elections will evaporate in the face of the administration’s renewed war plans unless those of us who have been active become more so, and we encourage those who have been quiet in their opposition to step out publicly.
Let’s not waste time on fruitless partisan banter. We know that our members of Congress-of both parties-are prepared to vote for more troops and additional funding for the war. So when dealing with them, whether via email, in phone conversation, or by occupation of their offices, let’s use clear, direct statements. If we are serious in our contrition and committed to making amends, then we must force our elected officials out from behind their "anything for the troops" defense.
Here’s a script. It’s just a starting point, a rough outline. There are groups working specifically on each of these items. Learn what you can. We all need to do our homework and be prepared to unmask the lies and rationalizations.
Are you ready for these conversations?
Dear Senator, Polls show a large and growing majority of Iraqis want coalition forces to leave Iraq beginning immediately. We want you to support immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops. Adequate funds for withdrawal of all troops have already been appropriated so we want you to oppose any further appropriations for the war.
Dear Congressperson, Iraqis overwhelmingly believe that the U.S. intends to keep permanent bases in Iraq. Five such bases are under construction or already complete. The Iraq Study Group envisions at least 70,000 troops remaining on bases in Iraq indefinitely. We want you to cut off all funding for any further construction at these bases and publicly to commit to our withdrawal from all military bases in Iraq.
Dear Senator, We are constructing the largest U.S. embassy in the world on a 110- acre, highly fortified site in the heart of Baghdad. The complex stands as a daily reminder to Iraqis of the U.S. occupation. We want you to cut off all funding for its construction and to commit to turning the property back to the Iraqi people. As the McGovern-Polk plan suggests, a more modest site, outside of the heart of Baghdad should be found.
Dear Senator, Iraqis believe the U.S. intends to maintain permanent control over Iraq’s oil resources. The Iraq Study Group report confirms that belief when it talks of commercializing and privatizing Iraq’s oil industry. We want you to renounce laws and other agreements that have been put in place since the U.S. invasion that have placed control of Iraq’s oil in the hands of U.S., British, and other multinational corporations. We want you publicly to commit to allowing Iraqis to make their own decisions about their oil.
Dear Representative, There are at least 16,000 Iraqis being held by the U.S. within Iraq without charge and any semblance of due process. Families have been denied information about or access to their relatives. We want you to demand the immediate release of these prisoners unless they can be charged with a crime and held by the appropriate Iraqi authority.
Dear Senator, There are hundreds of prisoners who are victims of extraordinary rendition who continue to be unaccounted for. We want you to demand an end to the practice of extraordinary rendition and publicly to commit to the closing of secret "black sites."
Dear Congressperson, January 11 marks the fifth anniversary of the arrival of the first prisoners at Guantánamo. During that time it has become a symbol of illegal and cruel detention and torture. We demand that Guantánamo be closed.
Dear Representative, With the passage of the Military Commissions Act of 2006 in October the right to habeas corpus was effectively abolished. We want you to vote to repeal this act.
Dear Senator, Seventy-five percent of Americans want this country to pursue a path of diplomatic engagement with Iran, yet the administration continues to threaten Iran, refusing to take anything "off the table." We demand that you publicly vow to take any military action against Iran "off the table."
Together let’s stand before the people of Iraq and the rest of the world in a spirit of contrition for the devastation that we have wrought, committed to making amends. Let’s catch some courage from Camilo Mejia and the growing number of U.S. troops speaking out in opposition to the war. I believe that more Americans will join in actively working to bring the occupation of Iraq to an end as the courage of the peace movement helps to reveal the truth.
An act of contrition lays bare the soul and sheds a strong light on the work that needs to be done. We are sorry. We will stop. We will make amends.
ANDREW WIMMER is a member of the Center for Theology and Social Analysis in Saint Louis, MO. He teaches courses in peacemaking and social justice at Saint Louis University. He can be reached at email@example.com.