The Cost of Slumber

Iraqi civilians lie dying after US helicopters open fire on crowds celebrating around a burning US vehicle. Baghdad Iraq 2004. (Photo: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad)
Iraqi civilians lie dying after US helicopters open fire on crowds celebrating around a burning US vehicle. Baghdad Iraq 2004. (Photo: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad)

Long before I discovered the mysterious mix of pain and relief that writing from the heart brings, I was pursuing a Masters in English Literature at Central Washington University in the small town of Ellensburg, Washington.

I was broke, like most grad students, and supported myself by working for two individuals confined to assisted living situations. One of them, Larry, was completely paralyzed. He was unable to speak, and could only blink his eyes. He had been in prison when the ill effects of an operation he undertook there had gone wrong, and were then compounded by an error by the anesthesiologist. His sustenance came from gulping small spoonfuls of food blended with milk. Never in his life would he ever again “enjoy” a meal. He would never be experiencing the simple actions of walking, singing, dancing, swimming, driving, fishing, wandering …

He may have been unable to speak, but Larry had a lot to say. He communicated by blinking his eyes. I would sit beside his prone body on the gurney and slowly recite the alphabet until he blinked on a letter. “C?” I would ask. Another blink. C. Recite again,”A?” Another blink. A. Recite to N, another blink. I would ask, “Can?” Another blink, “Yes.” “Can” would eventually become, “Can I have a drink?” I would get him some juice, or water, depending on what he would spell next.

It was laborious to communicate with him and it took patience and stamina. He lacked neither, for he had a book to write. We would spend three hours to produce half a page of text.

Everything was against him, but that was not going to deter him from trying to write his book, to tell his story. He had already arrived at the secret of writing that I, as a slow learner, did not learn until long after I dropped out of graduate school from lack of funds. It took me long to understand that I cannot keep quiet about what I know, and must write.

I had to have my heart ripped open, witnessing the occupation of Iraq before I knew that I must write. And I have written hundreds of articles, some papers, and now, two books. Forgive me if this sounds self-laudatory. but I oftentimes feel it is not enough … that I should do more. So, here I am writing, yet again. And as far as I know, so is Larry, because we both have a lot that we want people to know about.

Or, perhaps, we want only for people to acknowledge what they know already.

Less than a month from the American presidential election of 2008, the day after the so-called final debate, I sat writing some of this article in Oakland airport, awaiting a flight to Portland, as part of a team of journalists, authors, activists and military veterans from the occupation of Iraq. The team is embarking on a countrywide tour to talk about the occupation of Iraq and the American Empire, in the hope that the American public might consider resisting both.

“… for seven years, France has been a mad dog dragging a saucepan tied to its tail, every day unaware that we have ruined, starved and massacred a nation of poor people to bring them to their knees. They remained standing. But at what a price! While the delegations were putting an end to the business, 2,400,000 Algerians remained in the slow death camps; we have killed more than a million of them ….”
-Jean-Paul Sartre, “The Sleepwalkers,” Les Temps Modernes, April 1962

The economy is in shambles. Yet, in the heated exchanges between Obama and McCain about the economy, there appears to be no connection whatsoever between the occupation, now costing a cool $3 billion per week, and the financial dire straights the country is in.

Here, in the East Bay Area of California, famed for its moderate temperatures, lots of sunshine and fresh ocean air, I peer across the Bay through the pollution to catch the silhouette of San Francisco. My eyes smart from the effort. We’re in a drought, the reservoirs are drying up. Water scarcity is a reality, even here. The Poles are melting. Within my lifetime, this airport may be completely submerged, along with the streets of several major US cities, one of a string of countless results of climate change.

I watched a plane unload and people rushing past, trying to remain abreast of the inhuman pace thrust upon us by the industrial growth society, a pace inherently unsustainable. I marvel continually, awed and uncomprehending that life here goes on as it does, while so much is burning.

Despite a collapsing economy and complicity in a system that is devouring the embers of a burning planet, the privileged carry on with their lives, “unaware.” But everyone knows. Even the most ardent supporter of the powers that be is aware of what the government of the United States has done and is doing to Iraq, to the world, to the planet.

I believe that, like me, most people, deep inside, know that many things have gone terribly wrong, that we must find a better way to exist.

Now, as I write, on October 25, 21 Iraqis and another US soldier are killed in Iraq, along with an additional 17 wounded Iraqis. These facts hardly garner mention in the American corporate media, because the “surge” has been a “success.” You and I are the intended beneficiaries of this “success,” as our lives grind on in this twisted Disneyland, while half a world away an occupation grinds on, carrying out industrial scale slaughter, with the unfailing support of our tax dollars.

History repeats itself, for we choose not to learn from it. I amend the above Sartre quote:

“… for over five years, the United States has been a mad dog dragging a saucepan tied to its tail, every day unaware that we have ruined, starved and massacred a nation of poor people to bring them to their knees. They remained standing. But at what a price! While the delegations were putting an end to the business, 4,700,000 Iraqis remained in the slow death camps as refugees; we have killed more than 1.2 million of them …”

“For 18 months, our country has been the victim of what the legal code has called a ‘demoralization offensive.’ And it is not by sabotaging its ‘morale’ that you demoralize a nation, it is by degrading its morality; as for the procedure, everyone knows it: by precipitating us into a despicable adventure, they have instilled in us, from without, a sense of social guilt. But we vote, we give mandates and, in a way, we can revoke them; the stirring of public opinion can bring down governments. We personally must be accomplices to the crimes that are committed in our name, since it is within our power to stop them. We have to take responsibility for this guilt which was dormant in us, inert, foreign, and demean ourselves in order to be able to bear it.”
-Sartre, Les Temps Modernes, May 1957

Fifty-one years later, two generations away, in another time and another world, are we willing to recognize that we are accomplices to the crimes that are committed in our name, since it is in our power to stop them? Are we willing to take responsibility for this guilt, which was dormant in us, inert, foreign, and to demean ourselves in order to be able to bear it?

It would hardly seem so, considering how even much of the “antiwar” contingent believe corporate media drivel about the “surge” being successful. Would Americans call it a success if it translated into a thousand American citizens being killed or disappearing every month, as they do, on average, in Iraq? Thanks to the “success” of the “surge,” today approximately one-quarter of the total population of Iraq are either refugees or dead.

This latest manifestation of bread and circus has the American public enthralled. Our slavish faith in the media renders us unwilling to demean ourselves to the point of hearing the truth within. Millions in the country are transfixed by a politically inexperienced, religious fundamentalist hate-monger from a small Alaskan town known for its meth labs, marijuana growers, four-wheelers, snow-machines and a Wal-Mart Supercenter with the distinction of selling more duct tape than any other in the country.

This is the low-point at which “politics” in the United States has arrived. How can this charade even be taken seriously?

“It is not a good thing, my fellow Frenchmen, you who are aware of all the crimes committed in our name, it is really not a good thing that you do not breathe a word of it to anyone, not even your own soul, for fear of having to be judged. At the start you did not know, I can believe that; then you suspected; now you know, but you continue to remain silent. Eight years of silence have a degrading effect. And all to no avail: today, the blinding sun of torture is at its zenith and illuminates the whole country; in this light, there is no laughter that does not sound false, no face that is not made up to conceal anger or fear, no act that does not betray our disgust and complicity. Whenever two French people meet now, there is a dead body between them. In fact, did I say one? … In the past, France was the name of a country; let us take care that it is not, in 1961, the name of a neurosis.”
-Sartre, from the preface to “The Wretched of the Earth”

What of my fellow Americans? What is their continual denial doing to them? Are we experiencing a mass psychosis? How long will this sleepwalking continue?

Resistance in Baghdad, meanwhile, continues with over one thousand attacks on occupation and collaborating forces every month. Conservatively, that’s over one attack per hour. That, too, is part of the “success” of the “surge.” Most Iraq war veterans know this. Adam Kokesh, a former marine, was ejected from the Republican National Convention during McCain’s “acceptance speech” for holding up a sign that read, “You Can’t Win an Occupation.”

“… the circle is closing, because we are going to be caught in a dreadful trap and, unfortunately for us, in a posture that we ourselves have condemned. False naivete, flight, bad faith, solitude, silence, a complicity at once rejected and accepted, that is what we called, in 1945, collective responsibility. There was no way the German people, at the time, could feign ignorance of the camps. ‘Come off it!’ we said. ‘They knew everything.’ We were right, they did know everything, and it is only today that we can understand: because we too know everything. Most of them had never seen Dachau or Buchenwald, but they knew people who knew other people who had caught a glimpse of the barbed wire or consulted confidential files in a ministry. They, like us, thought that this information was unsound, they kept quiet, were mistrustful of one another. Do we still dare to condemn them? Do we still dare to absolve ourselves?”
-Sartre, Les Temps Modernes, May 1957

In early September, a cholera outbreak spread across southern Iraq and into Baghdad. It continues today, as scores are dead, hundreds sick, and it is still not completely contained. I received an email from Iraq recently, describing the condition of children in the al-Ghaziliya area of Baghdad. They sound to me like children in Somalia, suffering from the same chronic malnourishment, thin limbs, distended bellies, pencil necks, disease and starvation.

Around the same time, on September 10 to be precise, Iraqi Defense Minister Abdel Qader Mohammed Jassim confirmed that Baghdad planned to purchase F-16 fighter jets from the United States. “This plane is to improve the future ability of the Iraqi army to protect the entire country, including Kurdistan, from any foreign aggression,” Jassim told reporters in Baghdad’s Green Zone. The plan states that Baghdad “wants” to buy 36 advanced F-16 fighters from the United States.

The distended bellies are part of the entire country, but I doubt that the Iraqi army will be able to protect them with 36 F-16 fighter jets.

The question I ask myself is what will protect our country from collapsing under the burden of this enormous guilt of having systemically wrecked and destroyed another nation with such impunity? What will protect us from the awareness of being complicit in such unlawful and willful destruction? As the truth becomes impossible to ignore, are we to be transformed from a nation of sleepwalkers into a nation of insomniacs?

If Larry is willing to go to the lengths he is in order to write his book about his life and how he suffered within the prison industrial complex, it seems a good time to ask ourselves, What am I willing to do to effect positive change? Will casting a vote for a particular candidate stop the North Pole from melting in five years, as the latest scientific report shows us? Will walking away from the voting booth bring an immediate, unconditional withdrawal of all occupation forces out of Iraq and Afghanistan?

We must each ask ourselves, during this week before the election, what, precisely, we will be willing to do to bring about the change necessary to end all the illegalities being carried out in our name. For this question shall, of course, persist long after November 4.