We All Should Have Gotten Our Asses to Iraq
Sadly, it took the mother of a fallen soldier to say what should have been said three years ago, when the country was gearing up for an invasion that was as inevitable as 100 degree weather in Crawford in the middle of August.
Too bad the peace movement didn't think to make this demand before the war was launched. A recruiting station staffed by Gold Star Mothers for Peace and Iraq war veterans at the Republican Convention would have been nice, too.
Of course, most Bush-backers, particularly those financially backing him, were and remain unlikely to enlist themselves or their children in the fight for democracy and freedom in Iraq. Like Dick Cheney during Vietnam, they have"other priorities"--like cashing in on the war-profiteering bonanza that is the American occupation; one that has aggravated the very walmartization of America's economy that compelled so many poor young Americans to join the military in the first place.
Not every soldier who's fought and even died in Iraq joined the military for lack of a better life option. Casey Sheehan is an exemplar of the high ideals and patriotism that has always led young Americans to risk and even sacrifice their lives defending this country. Reading his mother's mournful plea and learning more about his sacrifice reminded me of why I went to Iraq in the late winter and early spring of 2004, just as the insurgency was heating up.
If young men and women, some of them my students, were risking their life fighting a war on whose behalf most of them had no idea it was being fought, didn't I, as a professor of Middle Eastern history, have a professional, even moral obligation to"get my ass to Iraq" and help figure out what was behind one of the most momentous events in the region's recent history?
At least, that's what I thought; what surprised me is how few of my colleagues agreed. Indeed, one of the most striking things about the post-occupation dynamic in Iraq was how few academics or peace activists actually went to the country (I can count less than a dozen academics in a profession with thousands of members) to find out first hand what was going on and work with Iraqis to build a non-violent, mass civil societal response to the occupation.
It is true, as one of my mentors reminded me, that while committed peace activists tend to be either young and unattached or semi-retired and without parental responsibilities, most professors are of Middle East studies, like most professors generally, tend to have a spouse, a job, two kids in school, and other responsibilities that don't go well with getting blown up or beheaded in Iraq (not to mention, as I found out to my chagrin, most life insurance policies won't pay out if you happen to be killed there, even if according to President Bush the"mission" has been"accomplished" and we're no longer in a state of war. Apparently, Prudential is as critical of the Bush discourse on Iraq as A.N.S.W.E.R.).
But the unwillingness to go to Iraq despite the desperate need for our expertise on the ground--particularly when the halls of the CPA were filled with academic and corporate functionaries of America's empire--mirrored the relative absence of Middle Eastern scholars within the peace movement in the protests leading up to the invasion. Admittedly, many of us wrote Op/Eds and did teach-ins and interviews on our local NPR or Pacifica stations. But our lack of presence in the leadership structures of the peace movement was at least partly responsible for the movement's generally naïve views of Iraq and Saddam's rule, and its inability to see the oppression, violence and lack of democracy across the Muslim world as a systemic problem that could only be addressed holistically, not by simplistically blaming the US and Israel for all the region's problems.
Both before and after the invasion, the general absence of scholars not working for the occupation regime left a gaping hole in our understanding of its functioning and goals, as well as how Iraqi society was responding to the situation. It is true that however much we may criticize the press, there were and remain many brave and smart journalists in Iraq doing their best and risking their lives to provide the most accurate picture of what was going on there possible.
Yet no matter how well intentioned and courageous, most American journalists possessed neither the language skills nor deep knowledge of Iraq and the larger region to show up in Iraq and understand the nuances of such a complicated and stress-filled society. As I learned first hand with the drivers and interpreters I met who worked for visiting delegations and journalists, much got lost in translation between what interviewees actually said and how it was translated, between trying to meet the people they felt were important and whom their drivers or assistants could or wanted them to see.
Moreover, from a purely self-interested position, scholars missed out on a literal treasure trove of history that was waiting to be written. To give one example, during my trip I was taken to meet two quite elderly patrician Iraqis, both of whom had been senior ministers in various governments before the Baathist takeover in 1963 and again in 1968. These two gentleman literally were living embodiments of the modern history of Iraq. They lived through the overthrow of the monarchy, were highly placed in several governments since then, had first-hand knowledge about the CIA-sponosred coups that brought the Baath party to power, and were both sentenced to death by Saddam for anti-regime activities. Their minds—and as important, their closets—contained enough information to fill several books on the history of their country during the last fifty years.
Sadly, I had only a few hours with them. I don't know if they're even still alive today. when I got home I tried organizing some trips for graduate students and colleagues to go and spend some time interviewing them with Iraqi professors and grad students, and to help them sort through their priceless documents. But before I even had left Iraq the violence had increased to the point that the idea of Iraqi academics—never mind American grad students—traveling around the country interviewing people and collecting documents seemed ludicrous. With each death of one of these elder statesmen of Iraqi politics, however, a piece of Iraqi history, and in many ways of our own too, is irretrievably lost.
The absence of peace activists, especially the young and adventurous ones who lined the streets of Western capitals in the months before the invasion, was as lamentable as the absence of scholars. A few incredibly brave groups, like Christian Peacemaker Teams, Code Pink/Global Exchange, or Bridge for Baghdad, did send volunteers to work with Iraqi NGOs at the grass roots level and record the evolving disaster of the occupation. Their courage equaled that of the many soldiers I met, for they truly did not have to be there.
Indeed, as one of the lead Iraq activists at United For Peace and Justice put it to me,"What could be better than a thousand college students -- not just Americans, but Arabs, Europeans too -- going to Iraq, witnessing what is going on, and returning to tell their fellow citizens what they've experienced." His order of magnitude was exactly right: thousands more peace activists were needed to have succeeded in laying the foundation for a mass-based democratic resistance to the occupation and the violent resistance it bred in order to help convince Iraqis that they weren't alone. To paraphrase Cindy Sheehan, we all needed to get our asses to Iraq.
Now, sadly, it's too late for most of us to go. Every few weeks I email or call my Iraqi friends to see how they're doing and when they think I can return. Each time I get the same response:"Life is worse; please don't come now. It would be too dangerous for you and us if you did." And every once in a while another friend or colleague stops answering calls or emails, leading me to wonder if s/he's in hiding, in jail, in the hospital or the morgue. Luckily, I'm not a journalist who has no choice but to return--or a soldier who has no choice but to remain. But I can't help thinking what history, what chance for peace, I and my colleagues in academia and the peace movement have missed because so many of us chose to stay away just when, maybe, we could have made a difference. And I'm sorry to say that I'm not sure where we should get our asses to now. Teheran? Damascus? Crawford?
N.B.: An earlier and edited version of this entry was published at the Huffington Post.
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Sergio Ramirez - 8/31/2005
On the contrary, I'd be very happy if ISM would stay in Gaza to defend human rights there. But now that the big mean Israelis are gone, I'm sure a thousands human-rights flowers will bloom, and there will be no need for them.
Mark A. LeVine (UC Irvine History Professor) - 8/31/2005
well, i didn't know the ism and hamas were the same entity. thanks for enlightening me. the ism did consider going to iraq and several members did go to the country to explore the situation, but for reasons i'm not sure about they decided not to go. i'm sure you would have been happy had they closed shop in palestine and moved to iraq, but sadly they didn't...
Sergio Ramirez - 8/27/2005
I almost missed the "lead" in this article:
"A few incredibly brave groups, like Christian Peacemaker Teams, Code Pink/Global Exchange, or Bridge for Baghdad, did send volunteers to work with Iraqi NGOs at the grass roots level and record the evolving disaster of the occupation."
LeVine didn't mention ISM/Hamas! I say we consider that a moral victory!
Mark A. LeVine (UC Irvine History Professor) - 8/26/2005
i'm sorry to say, you have a very narrow understanding of what history is. why shouldn't historians, who have the deepest knowledge of all the humanities and social sciences, of how the past informs present, be involved in helping the rest of us understand the most momentous events of one's generation? why can't historians write a history of the present?
and yes, i think historians and other scholars--i didn't limit it to only historians, since i think all scholars of the region could have benefited from going there. these documents and oral histories are priceless and will soon be gone for ever. just as archaeologists had the responsibility to catalog what was threatened and eventually lost in terms of the country's antiquities, historians had a similar obligation regarding is historical record.
Sergio Ramirez - 8/26/2005
As usual, there is much I disagree with in Professor LeVine's piece, but there is something that truly baffles me. He wrote:
"Moreover, from a purely self-interested position, scholars missed out on a literal treasure trove of history that was waiting to be written."
Missed out? Meaning historians must act on a moments notice? Bags packed by the bedside, waiting for a call? That is, to say the least, a strange approach to history, and it also reveals a fundamental confusion in Mr LeVine's thinking.
If historians were mistaken not to get to Iraq to interview these people (but he did, which means Mr LeVine should have a major monograph on these men) the assumption is it was an opprtunity lost. But historians are not journalists--a fact Mr LeVine does seem to grudgingly acknowledge--but it seems he hasn't dealt with its implications. It would truly have been a shame if William Shirer had not witnessed the fall of France, but his work is no longer of much interest for understanding this event. Indeed, it was barely of interest a few years after it was written.
Historians write about events after they occur. The Iraq war will be written about from a number of perspectives in the year to come, and some of those perspectives just might surprise Mr Levine.