Letter from the Road #14

Path of the Friend

Elias Amidon


Shock and Awe


Last week my Iraqi friend Fais told me how he used to take his son fishing. “I liked to sit there doing nothing, I liked just to watch the river go by. But we don’t go anymore. No one relaxes now. We’re only nervous about the war coming.”

Yesterday morning Fais and I said goodbye. When we embraced he said, “When you come back to Iraq, God willing there will be no more talk of war. Maybe then we can go fishing together.”

For an unspoken moment we both held that image of the two of us lazily sitting by the Tigris River, fishing but not caring if we caught anything, watching the fish plop and the herons wait in the shallows for minnows.

But then we drew away from each other and the image disappeared. In its place the familiar war-anxiety returned. “Fais,” I said, “you take care of yourself. If the war starts, stay home, don’t go out, stay with your family.”

“Yes, yes, I know,” he said. It was unnecessary for me to warn him like that. He had told me the same scenario of American war planning I had read about a few days earlier, the one called “Shock and Awe.”

It goes like this: according to the Pentagon the war will begin with “the most intense air attack in history”, and that in the first 48 hours the U.S. will unleash more bombs and guided missiles than were used in the entire Gulf War: 3000 smart bombs and 800 missiles. Much of this will be directed at military targets in Baghdad. The 3rd, 4th, and 5th days of the attack will see the firepower of 800 allied jet bombers let loose with 1500 missions a day, 24 hours a day. Then the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions will attack under the cover of hundreds of Black Hawk and Apache helicopters. In another day they will be joined by thousands of U.S. Abrams and British Challenger tanks roaring in from the north and south, along with the 3rd and 4th Infantry Divisions, British forces and the U.S. Marines. The idea is to overwhelm and demoralize the Iraqis with the enormity of the attack, and be able to occupy Baghdad quickly with minimum fighting.

Of course, Saddam Hussein knows all this, and he knows that his country does not provide natural cover for a protracted guerrilla war against U.S. forces in the way the jungles of Vietnam provided cover for the Viet Cong. Except for urban buildings. The Pentagon says it would be immoral for Hussein to use civilian areas as shields for Iraqi forces. It may be immoral, but Saddam has little choice. And the citizens of Iraq fully expect it. From my conversations with Iraqis, they believe many of their countrymen will join the regular forces in resisting the Americans in both urban and rural areas. They are armed and have said to us many times, “Even Iraqis who don’t like our government will resist an invasion. We are a proud people and do not want to be occupied by any foreign power. You Americans would do the same if someone invaded your country.”

There is no way to know for sure if the Iraqis will dig in for long-term resistance after the initial weeks of Shock and Awe. But it is a distinct possibility. Baghdad could turn into Gaza. Wrecked buildings, no clean water, no sanitation, homeless kids, nervous GI’s patrolling bombed-out neighborhoods.

The possibility that this could happen haunts all of us: Fais, me, the Iraqis on every street, the American military planners, the soldiers of each side, the peace advocates marching in a hundred countries. None of us want this to happen. And because we share this revulsion for war, there is hope.

In the 14 letters we have sent from Iraq we have shared many little stories and images of the ordinary people there. That has been our central purpose in writing: to help remind ourselves and anyone who cares to listen of the human costs of this imminent war.

“The struggle of man against power,” the novelist Milan Kundera wrote, “is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” The stories in these letters are a small part of a vast web of conversations happening around the world concerned with helping each other remember. We are trying to remember what matters to us, and how to protect and nurture it. The centers of accumulated power in our time, economic, military, and political power, are sustained by our collective amnesia. To join in this struggle against forgetting is why we went to Iraq, and why you have taken the trouble to read this.

Before we left last November I wrote a statement about why we were going, a few lines from which I would like to conclude with here. We were going to Iraq, I wrote, to appeal “to something inside us, inside me and inside all of us, the place where we are startled by the realization of our common origin, spirit, desires, and destination. If we could truly touch that place, I believe, swords would fall from our hands.”

May the shock and awe of that remembering guide us!

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