Olympia, Washington, January 17, 1991-Every Thursday morning in 1990-1991, I volunteered in my son’s first grade classroom. Sometimes I would help the children with their reading or math and sometimes I would just listen to them and answer their questions. The Thursday after the war that became known as Desert Storm began was no different in that respect. Despite my tiredness and a little bit of stress due to my involvement in the week’s activities against the war, I looked forward to checking in with the kids.
Their regular teacher was absent that day–she was several months pregnant–and the substitute was a woman who had a son in another class in the school. She was also a member of the local antiwar coalition. As we prepared our opening conversation circle, we overheard one of the boys talking about the bombing of Iraq.
“We’re kicking their ass, man.” were his words. The substitute, Nora, and I looked at each other and knew immediately what we would talk about that morning with this group of first and second graders. We called the children together and they assumed their spots in the circle. After a couple minutes of playing around, they settled in and Nora began.
“Today, Ron and I will start the circle. As everyone knows there is a war going on. First let me answer some questions you might have.” She began. “The main thing is that your homes are safe. You and your families will not be hurt. The other thing is we all have to hope for and work hard to make sure this war ends quickly.”
“What about my uncle?” asked one of the boys. “He’s in the army and he has to go there. Will he get hurt?”
“Let’s hope not.” Said Nora. “The faster it’s over, the better his chances are.”
In the silence that followed, I began a little tale. “When I was a kid about ten years old I lived in Pakistan which is real close to Iraq and while I was there, there was a war.”
“Why did you live there, Ron?” asked Chaela, one of my favorites in the school. “My dad was in the Air Force. I remember waking up on the night I turned ten because bombs were exploding near my house.”
“Were you scared?” asked one of the boys.
“Yes, a lot. But I was lucky ’cause they weren’t falling on me. Now I hear a lot of people talking these days about how the US is kicking Iraq’s butt and that kind of stuff, but in real life, the people who are getting hurt and killed are kids like you and their moms and dads.”
“What happened to you, Ron?” asked another child.
“The airplanes came every night and bombed the airport near us and the towns around us. Eventually all the American kids and their moms had to leave the country.”
“What about your dads?”
“They had to stay because it was their job. When we were riding the buses away from that place I saw dead cows and donkeys in the fields and blown up houses and stores. I remember wondering if there were dead people there, too-”
“Ron.” Interrupted Chaela. “Can we stop talking about this? It’s making me real sad.”
“Sure, Chaela.” Said Nora. “We don’t want to upset you, but we do want you to think about what war is really like. It’s not like it appears on TV or video games.”
Nora pulled out some cookies and passed them around. As the children shared the treats,she began reading a story.
It was a particularly rainy day for the Pacific Northwest. Instead of the normal heavy mist that one thought of in the same way one thinks of the muzak in a shopping mall, the rain on this day was heavy and unrelenting. Indeed, it was even a topic of conversation-which rain rarely ever was in this land of the temperate rainforest. Hali and I were keeping close to the center of the bandstand in Olympia’s Sylvester Park so we would keep dry. Most of our leaflets and newspapers were still in the plastic bags we stored them in and nobody had come to visit us in the two hours we had been there. Hali and I shared hitchhiking stories and tales of chemically-fueled experiences that had taken us to other realms. Then Tommy showed up.
“Hey, y’all,” he said. “What’s up? I’m fuckin’ wet as a goddam baby fresh out of her mama’s womb.” He used his cane to climb up the bandstand stairs and get out of the weather. Once he was at the top, he sat down on a bench we had retrieved from the park for the day and wiped the rain from his face with his handkerchief.
Tommy was a vet who had lost some use of his leg in Vietnam when he was hit by shrapnel. After recuperating from his wound in a California hospital he had returned to his mother’s house somewhere in the American south and attended college. College lasted for a year or two before he got the urge to travel. Once he hit the road that was it. He was sold on the life of the vagabond. Like many of his fellow road warriors, he liked to drink. Unlike many of them, though, he was a quiet and peaceful drinker. He started coming to the antiwar demonstrations in October, holding a sign he drew himself. Until the January 15th, 1991 protest, he was usually the only African-American man in the crowd. Today, he was drinking his favorite-peach brandy. Once he settled in on the bench, he cracked his bottle and offered Hali and I a nip. I took advantage of the offer.
“So what do you guys have lined up next?” he asked. Tommy hated meetings so he counted on us for updates about the coalition.
Hali began, “We’re gonna’ hold a silent funeral procession from here to the Capitol in a week or so. Once we get to the Capitol grounds we’re gonna’ hold a mock funeral for all those killed in this stupid war.”
“I’m there.” He replied. “Anything I can do to help? Like draw some signs or something?” His artwork, while primitive, was powerful and direct. He handed me the bottle again. I took a longer swallow this time around. It was getting pretty fuckin’ cold sitting in the rain.
“Man, it’s freezing.” I said. Hali moved closer and shared the blanket she was using to keep warm with me.
“You want some, Tommy?” she asked.
“No man. I’m cool. This coat I got at the shelter is plenty warm. Thanks anyhow.” He pulled his pocket radio out of the small daypack he always carried. “Let me find out what the weatherman is saying. Maybe we gonna’ get some snow.”
Tommy turned on the radio and searched for a station. He stopped on one of the rock stations from Seattle that happened to be playing “Give Peace A Chance.”
“Wow. I’m surprised to hear that on commercial radio.” Commented Hali. “The dj’s boss must be away.” The airwaves were full of nationalistic nonsense ever since the war had begun and the audience was eating it up. Tommy took another nip and the radio began playing “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye. As the song reached the second chorus, I noticed the rain had stopped.
“I’m gonna’ go,” I said. “It’s not raining and I need to go to work in a couple hours. See y’all.” Hali gave me a kiss on the cheek and Tommy shook my hand. I ran towards the bus top at the corner of the park. Before the rain began again, the bus came and I got on.
Despite the conflicts going on in the organization over strategies, politics, and personalities, planning went ahead for the funeral march. People were able to keep their minds on our reason for existence. Costumes were designed, coffins were constructed of cardboard and painted black, speeches composed and permits acquired, processional music was rehearsed and a request sent out to those planning to attend that they be completely silent during the demonstration.
When February 16th , 1991 arrived over 500 people gathered in Sylvester Park, many clothed completely in black. After a couple short speeches by some of the women in the antiwar coalition, we lined up behind a group of musicians led by a violinist named Stacy. She began playing a series of dirges while drummers throughout the procession began a funereal beating that maintained itself during the entire course of the walk. Nobody spoke.
All one could hear was the shuffling of our feet as we lifted them to the beat of the drums. Even the downtown shoppers stopped their busy chatter and rustling of their shopping bags to watch the procession. A heckler coming out of one of the many taverns on Fourth Avenue was hushed by his buddies as they made their way to the next watering hole. The march continued on its way to the Capitol Grounds.
Once there, the people who were acting as pallbearers placed the cardboard coffins they were carrying on the ground and covered them with homemade flags from the seven countries which had suffered casualties in the war: Iraq, Palestine, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Syria, and the United States. Some marchers placed roses they had been holding on the coffins while others took garden trowels and began digging up clumps of sod and throwing them on the coffins in a symbolic act of burial. The police moved in and started arresting the diggers on charges of malicious mischief. After arresting seven protesters and placing them in the police cruisers, the police attempted to leave. Other demonstrators quickly surrounded the vehicles and sat down. The police waited out the sitters and, after forty-five minutes, left the grounds and took those arrested to the police station where they were cited and released.
On February 13th, the heavily censored US media showed footage of Iraqi civilians weeping and shouting as they assisted emergency medical teams who were caring for people whose air raid shelter was bombed earlier that day. Over 400 people died in this intentional bombing raid. Although the Iraqis insisted that the shelter was just a shelter (and that’s what it looked like to those of us watching on TV, the US military claimed that it was a military command center. To those of us against the war, it seemed that any remaining structure in Iraq was being termed a military post just because the US had run out of things to destroy.
In order to “soften up” whatever remained of the Iraqi ground defenses, the US began bombarding Iraqi soldiers with Fuel Air Explosive devices on February 15th. These bombs create intense firestorms, literally sucking the air out of any thing or being engulfed in their flames. In essence, each device dropped is a mini-Dresden. The following day the ground war began with helicopter gunships leading the way, killing all who came in front of their hail of bullets. In the days to come, Iraqi soldiers would be slaughtered, some even buried alive in their trenches in the sand by US military vehicles with blades like those on bulldozers attached to their fronts. In addition, American soldiers were commanded to mow down Iraqis wishing to surrender.
So, after the soldiers were back in the States and the generals safe in their Pentagon offices, did the antiwar movement change anything? We didn’t stop the bloodshed, that’s for sure. To be cynical, one could say all the warmakers learned from the movement against war was to keep wars short and not to show dead people on TV. If war becomes nothing more than another sanitized media phenomenon like the hundreds of shows most of us have watched, the public will either become bored or, worse, actually believe it to be a good thing. Without an equally effective media presence ourselves, the war makers have only token opposition to their battle for our hearts and minds. While we hung posters and gave speeches, the General Electrics of the world trumpeted the success of their death machines on the networks they owned while having it appear as if no one was dying. Therefore, the deaths of those who died were of no consequence. Hell, one of the US generals even stated at a press conference discussing US casualties that Iraqi deaths were none of his concern, implying that these deaths meant less to him than the death of the chicken he ate for dinner that day.
On the other hand, if the antiwar movement led to even one person questioning not only war, but the motives of those who champion them, then the movement had some success. Not enough to end imperial war, but certainly enough reason to continue our struggle. The revolutionary writer and psychologist Frantz Fanon wrote about the psychic liberation achieved the individual undertaking an act of opposing the powers that be, even if that opposition ultimately fell short of revolution or whatever other changes one was attempting. I knew this had occurred for hundreds if not thousands of people around the globe who had opposed this imperial war.
RON JACOBS can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org