Friday, February 16, 2007

Street Corner Memorials On A Flat Earth

image credit: Temple University

Christy Hardin Smith at Firedoglake posted this YouTube video today of rookie Congressman Patrick Murphy (D PA-08) speaking about his own experiences in Iraq, and their applicability to today. I was especially interested to see this video, since I had contributed to his campaign via an online political contribution site called ActBlue. ActBlue represents a great innovation for progressive politics - from my home in the Pacific Northwest, I was able to contribute to truly progressive politicians, like Murphy, all over the country. This made my own money much more effective in electing the kinds of people I want in Congress than contributing to some PAC or to the Democratic campaign funds would have been.

In his speech today, Rep. Murphy mentioned patrolling a part of Baghdad that was roughly the size of his native Philadelphia with a "police force" made up of a brigade of U.S. airborne troops. This is roughly half the size of the Philadelphia police force, which, while it certainly faces some challenges at times, doesn't have to deal with a city-wide insurrection and daily chaos in a place where it doesn't understand the native language. He used the experiences of his American upbringing to contrast the things we take for granted with the situation in Iraq, and the cost that we are paying for our continued folly there (transcript). He mentioned a park near where he grew up, a park named for a fallen hero of an earlier mistake:

It was 38 years ago in August that Patrick, a door gunner in the U.S. Army, was killed in Vietnam after his helicopter was shot down. He was the type of person that neighborhoods devote street corners to and parents name their children after - including Marge and Jack Murphy, the parents of one of the authors of this article.

The Truth About Iraq

While it may sound like part of Murphy's speech, it's actually from an article he and Sen. John Kerry wrote last year. I was able to find it while searching for material on the memorial park, searching for the picture that heads this article.

Rep. Murphy concluded:

There are over 130,000 American servicemen and women serving bravely in Iraq. Unfortunately, thousands more are on the way.

Mr. Speaker, an open-ended strategy that ends in more faceless road-side bombs in Baghdad and more street-corner memorials in America, is not one that I will support.

Transcript of Patrick Murphy's speech

There is another memorial to Vietnam Veterans. It's not made out of stone, or any other real material. It's the Virtual Wall, an online listing of the names on the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC. It's not complete. For instance, it doesn't mention Patrick E. Ward, but it is an attempt to describe the people whose lives were cut short by the war. People who knew the dead write obituaries for them, complete with pictures.

Iraq has its own virtual memorials, one might say. One exists on blogspot. You can probably reach it from here if you hit the "next blog" button often enough. It's called Baghdad Burning, by a young Iraqi woman who calls herself Riverbend. She writes infrequently, at least partly due to the chaotic conditions that exist in her country these days. Last December she wrote:

A day in the life of the average Iraqi has been reduced to identifying corpses, avoiding car bombs and attempting to keep track of which family members have been detained, which ones have been exiled and which ones have been abducted.

2006 has been, decidedly, the worst year yet. No- really. The magnitude of this war and occupation is only now hitting the country full force. It's like having a big piece of hard, dry earth you are determined to break apart. You drive in the first stake in the form of an infrastructure damaged with missiles and the newest in arms technology, the first cracks begin to form. Several smaller stakes come in the form of politicians like Chalabi, Al Hakim, Talbani, Pachachi, Allawi and Maliki. The cracks slowly begin to multiply and stretch across the once solid piece of earth, reaching out towards its edges like so many skeletal hands. And you apply pressure. You surround it from all sides and push and pull. Slowly, but surely, it begins coming apart- a chip here, a chunk there.

That is Iraq right now. The Americans have done a fine job of working to break it apart. This last year has nearly everyone convinced that that was the plan right from the start. There were too many blunders for them to actually have been, simply, blunders. The 'mistakes' were too catastrophic. The people the Bush administration chose to support and promote were openly and publicly terrible- from the conman and embezzler Chalabi, to the terrorist Jaffari, to the militia man Maliki. The decisions, like disbanding the Iraqi army, abolishing the original constitution, and allowing militias to take over Iraqi security were too damaging to be anything but intentional.

The question now is, but why? I really have been asking myself that these last few days. What does America possibly gain by damaging Iraq to this extent? I'm certain only raving idiots still believe this war and occupation were about WMD or an actual fear of Saddam.


Is the American soldier that died today in Anbar more important than a cousin I have who was shot last month on the night of his engagement to a woman he's wanted to marry for the last six years? I don't think so.

Just because Americans die in smaller numbers, it doesn't make them more significant, does it?

End of Another Year ...

Sadly, an American death is more significant, at least to us. They're our countrymen. As Patrick Murphy points out, we sent them there, supposedly to protect us and to make the world a better place. So far, as Riverbend observes, that hasn't worked out too well. Iraqis no doubt feel the same about their dead. And there will always be people like Riverbend and me who wonder why that should be. Some things about human beings really are universal.

Contrast that with Patrick Lang's insightful essay for Foreign Affairs this month. Lang believes that at it was our belief that the rest of the world is just like us that led to the Iraq War:

In the four years since the United States invaded Iraq, it’s become clear that our campaign there has gone terribly awry. We invaded Iraq with too few troops; we destroyed the Iraqi civil administration and military without having a suitable instrument of government ready in the wings; we expelled from public employment anyone with a connection, no matter how tenuous, to the Baath Party—which included most people who could be described as human infrastructure for Iraq. The list of errors goes on and on. Even the vice president acknowledges that “mistakes were made” (although, presumably, not by him).

But how did the highly educated, wealthy, and powerful American people make such a horrendous, catastrophic series of blunders? As Pogo, the cartoon opossum, once famously said, “We have met the enemy and he is us!” Yes, that’s right: We, the American people—not the Bush administration, nor the hapless Iraqis, nor the meddlesome Iranians (the new scapegoat)—are the root of the problem.

It’s woven into our cultural DNA. Most Americans mistakenly believe that when we say that “all men are created equal,” it means that all people are the same. Behind the “cute” and “charming” native clothing, the “weird” marriage customs, and the “odd” food of other cultures, all humans are yearning for lifestyles and futures that will be increasingly unified as time and globalization progress. That is what Tom Friedman seems to have meant when he wrote that “the world is flat”—that technological and economic change are driving humankind toward a future of cultural sameness. In other words, whatever differences of custom and habit that still exist between peoples will pass away soon and be replaced by a world culture rather like that of the United States in the 21st century.

What Iraq Tells Us About Ourselves

I'm not entirely sure that's what Friedman meant by a "flat earth". Friedman seemed to be saying that it was logical that our economies and affairs would become more closely intertwined as communications and transportaton technology advanced. It would follow, he seemed to be saying, that in some ways we'll become more like each other. Anyway, that's what he should have been saying.

Nevertheless, I agree that Col. Lang is right in that as a country we certainly had rather odd expectations about how Iraq would be after Saddam was gone, and part of the reason was that we truly expected them to just chuck their old culture and its attendant problems and adopt ours. I think you can count Friedman among the people who thought that way, at least to an extent that wasn't borne out by reality.

I left a comment on Col. Lang's blog, which he no doubt read since his blog comments are moderated. I don't know if Riverbend will ever read his words or my words here, but I suppose it's possible.

Which brings us to the central irony in all this, and the tragedy as well. It is that Tom Friedman is in many respects as right as Patrick Lang. The world really is becoming flat, at least in our ability to affect each other. The flat world exists in my ability to find out about, and contribute to the campaign of, a congressional candidate from clear across the country whom I've never actually met. It allows Riverbend to blog on the same blog site that I do, and for Patrick Lang's words to reach me and for mine to reach him, all without either of us having to leave our chairs. It is the flatness that allowed nineteen fanatics from halfway around the world to immolate themselves, and many others along with them, in a pointlessly destructive act that resulted in our own pointless invasion of a country that neighbored theirs. It also allowed that invasion to happen, as with remarkably little effort we were able to send an army halfway around the world to defeat a regional power that had been trained and armed by a former adversary of ours, a country whose military technology was almost as advanced as our own. Much of this would not have been possible even twenty years ago.

Yet we still are a world where vast differences exist. People are all alike in some ways - the hierarchy of needs works the same in Baghdad as it does in Philadelphia. But between the cultures that inhabit those two cities is a gulf of misunderstanding and misconception. We are in many ways a secular society. They are, at least in some ways, clearly not. We are a national society that grew up with democracy and a concept of the rights of people. They are a much older, but tribal society that's divided along ethnic, cultural, and religious lines. For them to become a true nation will take decades, if it can happen at all. To have expected otherwise, and to have expected most people there to greet us as liberators when we weren't even sure how many of them would have felt liberated, was perhaps the ultimate folly of this war.

Riverbend is right, too. It should not matter whether the dead are Iraqi or American. In some ways, that is changing, too. Their dead may come to haunt us someday, if any of their survivors decide to avenge them.

Ours is a new world in which what we do and what people halfway around the world do affect each other nearly every day. Even if we didn't have an army there, even if Al Qaeda had never sent those people here, it would be so. The Iraqis and Afghanistan have paid a terrible price for whatever little part they played in the latter tragedy. Now we will wait to see what happens to us thanks to our own folly. The title of Christy's article was "Accountability Knocks". I wonder what it will be holding when we finally open the door.

UPDATE: (Feb. 18) This BBC article shows another example of how the flat earth is affecting the Iraqis - Google Earth and and a website in the UK are used by Iraqis to avoid death squads.


Anonymous said...

A few days after the SOTU I visited the (un-virtual) Vietnam War Memorial. Its quietness and subtlety were immediately affecting. The grief sneaks up on you. I meant to write a post about it since I had jotted down some notes on a Northwest boy killed in action in Vietnam. Ultimately, I felt too overwhelmed to be able to write anything sensible. I think the realities of war are too obscene to reconstruct in polite language.

Cujo359 said...

Hi shoephone,

I've been lucky; I haven't lost anyone in this war. But I've reached an age now where most of the folks in uniform look like kids to me, or young adults. That probably makes me less invested in this than some folks, but I'm reminded every time I see one of those faces on The NewsHour how tragic this thing has become. There's just enough anger there to fuel the writing, but not so much pain that it interferes with it.

Taylor Marsh said...

Terrific post, Cujo359. It's infuriating to hear the politicians talk about non-binding resolutions in the midst of it all. I find it especially insulting to hear the invectives being hurled at Jack Murtha again. It's like the debate is starting all over. It's too much.


Just passing this around :
Politics & Society
George Washington, Staying in Character

Listen to this story... by Robert Krulwich

Weekend Edition Saturday, February 17, 2007 · In 1777, Gen. George Washington and his troops faced British and Hessian soldiers in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. He issued a firm order that no matter how barbaric enemy armies might be, he would not abide any such behavior in his own troops.

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