March 19, 2003: a date that will live in infamy. Perhaps not in the minds of many of our fellow citizens, but surely to most people around the world. On that date, U.S. military forces invaded Iraq.
Almost a year later I was in a small farming village some miles north of Baghdad, accompanying members of the Christian Peacemaker Teams. They were recording the stories of the common people of Iraq who had no access to news media or decision-makers in the Green Zone. One of those stories was from a village sheikh who recounted his weeks of horror as a detainee under the control of the U.S. Army.
He and a dozen others were held in, or rather on, a patch of open ground, surrounded by concertina wire, exposed to the sun, huddled against a two-day rain, and with a hole dug with their hands for a toilet. After several days he finally was given at least a blanket.
With his humanity and graciousness somehow still intact, he quickly added that he understood the difference between the American people and their government. But then he uttered the words that haunt me to this day: “But you say you live in a democracy. How can this be happening to us?”
As we arrive at the heartbreaking fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq and begin Year Six as that nation’s occupier, it is a good time to reflect on the words of that sheikh.
We might, for example, reflect on this democracy business and whether we have it in such surplus that we can drop quantities of it from F-16s on those we deem need it most; or whether shoveling additional billions into the treasuries of Exxon, Texaco, Shell, Halliburton, and Blackwater ultimately will make our society more or less democratic.
We might reflect on the 1 million-plus Iraqis we have killed, the likely 5 million wounded, the more than 4 million displaced from their homes, the untold millions desperate for clean water, electricity, food, work, security, and sanity in an unending madness. We might reflect on whether we are more or less safe following such a holocaust against our fellow human beings.
We also could reflect on some numbers painfully close to home — at least 3,984 U.S. troops killed and 29,320 wounded, according to President Bush. His definition of “casualties” conveniently does not include more than 100 suicides and 31,325 “nonhostile” injuries — such as getting hurt in a traffic accident racing down the road to a firefight. That is somehow not considered “wounded in action.”
We could reflect on all the doctors, teachers, scientists, and loving parents whose communities will never benefit from their skills and compassion because their blood drained into the sands of Iraq.
We could reflect on how much healthcare or schooling or public transit we might have bought with the $3 trillion plus this war is likely to cost, or the $390 million it has already taken from taxpayers in the city of Toledo, or the $18 billion vacuumed out of Ohio.
For generations, graveyards have been traditional places to pause and reflect. One particularly stirring and poignant portrayal of a graveyard, called Arlington Midwest, will be erected on the lawn of the Lucas County Courthouse today through Saturday. It consists of some 5,000 small, wooden tombstones, painted white and arranged in precise rows like its namesake in Virginia. Each marker bears the name, rank, branch of service, hometown, and place and date of death for every U.S. soldier killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unique to the dozen or so “Arlingtons” that Veterans For Peace has inspired around the country, Arlington Midwest also has a section memorializing the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who have taken their own lives, and a moving tribute to the Iraqi dead.
Just as that mystified village sheikh wondered — “But you say you live in a democracy. How can this be happening to us?” — so might we stand silently for a moment in Arlington Midwest and ask ourselves, “How can this be happening to us?”
Mike Ferner is a member of the Northwest Ohio Peace Coalition and author of Inside the Red Zone: A Veteran For Peace Reports from Iraq. He served two terms, from 1989-93, on Toledo City Council.