Letter from the Road #6

Path of the Friend

Elias Amidon


Letter to a Warrior


I recently received the following email message from a man I have never met but who must have read one of our letters from Iraq:

“I would be happy to join your peace delegation to Iraq, as soon as we bomb that brutal dictatorship into the stone age.”

PO2 Terrence Graves, U.S. Navy

Though his message itself has a brutal edge to it and may be offered cynically, I’ve learned the hard way that those who disagree with us are often our best teachers. There may be something that I, and we, can learn from Terrence’s tough sentence. So here in this public forum, with you who receive these letters as our assembly of conscience, I will try to write a reply to see what may be learned.

Dear Terrence,

I am pleased to hear you would consider joining our peace delegation – you are most welcome. However, the condition you set is puzzling to me – I don’t understand how we can bomb this dictatorship back to the stone age without hitting a lot of innocent people down here, and causing wounds that will provoke even more violence in the future, poisoning the very hope you would bring to the delegation of peace.

I know yours is the hope of many wars: to bring about the conditions of peace by killing those who, in our view, obstruct peace. You have put this very succinctly in your one-sentence letter. And if I could be convinced this tactic would truly bring peace and rid the world of brutal dictators, then I’d say with you, bomb away!

But it doesn’t bring peace. It brings suffering, anger, and death, and sows the conditions for more dictatorships, more wars, more bombs.

You are in the navy. Perhaps you are sailor on one of those aircraft carriers out in the Gulf making ready to launch air strikes on this country. Imagine what happens when those sleek bombs and missiles you see strapped on the bottom of the jets are let loose over the skies of Iraq, what happens when they strike – let’s say even hitting their intended targets, not going astray into civilian areas as so many of them do. Imagine you’ve spray-painted on one of the missiles “Back to the Stone Age Saddam!” and it hits the Ministry of Information building here in Baghdad, surely a bastion of the brutal dictatorship.

Imagine that moment. There’s an eight year-old kid out by the entrance. His name is Ahmed. He shines shoes to help his family get by in these hard times. He could be your kid. He has these soulful eyes – you’ve seen them. The missile crashes through the north side of the building – that’s when the picture on CNN from the missile’s eye-view goes blank, and millions of viewers in the U.S.A. feel a little surge of national pride at our amazing pin-point strike, our surgically-accurate technology. Ahmed, who’s sitting by the east entrance on his empty paint can, looks up, just in time to get a blast of building debris in his face. He is thrown backward and mercifully knocked out when his head hits the pavement. They find him under the rubble about an hour later and bring him to a hospital flooded with victims. He’s blind, one side of his face burned off by the blast, and one of his feet is no where to be found. But he lives, somehow, in a truncated fashion, further back than the Stone Age. You might see him on the streets of Baghdad in a few years, when you come here for that peace delegation. Put some dinars in his paper cup.

Terrence, you can hear that I am bitter, and I ask your forbearance for that. I have lived for nearly sixty years, and during that time my country, my grand old country whose founding principles I wholeheartedly endorse, has pursued foreign policies more reliant on distrust, domination, and violence than on intelligence or kindness. Our nation is supremely powerful through its military might, but is it powerful morally? I grew up believing our country stood for “liberty and justice for all”. Ask around – is that the impression the majority of the world’s people have of the United States of America now?

I know the standard response to stories of “Ahmeds” is that they are the unfortunate collateral damage of a necessary war that will ultimately save more lives. When asked about the 500,000 children who, by U.N. estimates, have died as a direct result of the sanctions on Iraq, our former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright replied famously, “the price is worth it.” What strange calculus is this? 500,000 Ahmeds! Does this not qualify as genocide? Is it a wonder that people here consider the U.S. as “brutally dictating” their lives?

Last night we held a candlelight vigil at an electrical power plant here in Baghdad. There were about 60 of us there, all holding candles, our faces beautiful in the flickering light. It looked like a Christmas pageant. Our taxi drivers joined us, and workers from the power plant, these men with moustaches holding their candles before them like children, looking out into the dark. Standing next to me was an Iraqi mother with three kids. Her name was Amara. She gave birth to the eldest during the bombing of Baghdad in 1991. The assembled press thrust nearly a dozen microphones in front of her as she stammered in broken English, “Please, tell American government, please, no more bombs. No more bombs. We want to be to live in peace.”

Terrence, I do not expect I will change your point of view by these few words, but I am thankful for the opportunity your message gives me to express what is in my heart. I am here in Iraq to give voice to the Ahmeds and the Amaras, at least to raise their images in our minds so that we recognize these are real people whose lives are as precious as our own. I believe you as a warrior, and all of your colleagues in the military, and all of our countrymen and women, must constantly keep this fact foremost in our minds and hearts, whether we intend to make peace or make war.

You may say this sentiment is nice and that you even agree with it, but that it is not practical for confronting evil. I think this is where we most disagree – not on our mutual desire for peace, but on how to sow real seeds of real peace. You say bombs are those seeds. I say we have tried sowing them and the crop always fails.

What if, instead of funding more bombs, the good citizens of our rich country decided to allocate, say, a third (about $120 billion) of our huge military budget each year to help curb AIDS in Africa, provide clean water and adequate food for the world’s children, and to establish schools, universities and hospitals throughout the world? Would that not build a more stable basis for our security as a nation? What if we offered to fund the United Nations to the level it needs? What if we promoted student and citizen exchanges among all countries, so that through people-to-people contact the fear of those different from ourselves would dissipate? What if we stopped flooding the world with dangerous weapons, and worked through the U.N. and other international bodies to eradicate weapons of mass destruction from the arsenals of all nations? What if we supported in every way possible the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Earth Charter, and all the resolutions of the U.N.? What if, rather than dominate the world by fear, we would lead by inspiration?

Actions such as these would do more to assure our safety than all the wars we might attempt. Of course, there would still be bullies and dictators to contain and weapons to dismantle. We, along with the great majority of the world’s nations, would deal with these problems with all the diplomatic and nonviolent tools in our collective power. In so doing we would have helped transform the entire context in which the community of nations work together for the common good. We would become the friend, the good neighbor, to the world’s people. Surely the price is worth it.

With best wishes, and in peace,

Elias Amidon

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