I watched the documentary No End In Sight yesterday, and I felt utterly devastated by its depiction of what we have done -- and are doing -- to the people of Iraq by invading their country preemptively.
There is a scene in the movie which shows an Iraqi man crying openly, telling anyone who will listen about what he just witnessed. Apparently, a car drove up, parked, men came out, grabbed four young children from a shop across the street, and then drove away.
The Iraqi man shown in the film (the children's father?), sobbing uncontrollably, shouts to anyone who will listen that he has already gone to the Mahdi Army, and they have denied any knowledge of the children.
I couldn't believe what I was watching. Because as I watched I felt as if I was that man.
This UNICEF report on the humanitarian plight of Iraqi children from May, 2007, puts the number of children who are refugees from that country at nearly 2 million. This report from the United Nations suggests that in the past two years alone tens of thousands of women and children have been kidnapped for ransom -- a number growing, in painful, personal circumstances like those just described, every day.
When you watch, back to back, Donald Rumsfeld's laughing, proud-as-a-peacock, too-clever-by-half style in his Defense Department press briefings, and then the destruction of people's lives on the ground in Iraq, your heart does more than sink. It feels like something inside you is being bruised.
Or when you see Paul Wolfowitz (who of course, like most of the other decision-makers in Bush's cabinet, including Cheney, has had absolutely no experience in the military) talking nonsense about how he can't "imagine" that it could take more troops to occupy a country than to invade it -- which is so basic a point that it is simply assumed in military planning -- you begin to feel a little crazy in the head.
You also feel ashamed for what your country has inflicted on people on the other side of the world: as if, intentionally or not, we have reached out to touch them with a poisonous tendril from some overgrown hothouse here at home.
But that last image is too poetic. The truth is more plain.
What we see in the faces of these architects of the Iraq War is simply a mix of ignorance and arrogance, common the world over. The difference is that here they hold positions of power which allow them to cause disruptions in the lives of others on an unprecedented scale.
Goddamn it! How do we warn our children about what the world can do to people?
How do we break it to them that the world is not cushioned and forgiving and warm? That this cushioning which most of us feel is a temporary condition, a stroke of luck, a perk, not unlike an unexpected upgrade to first class on a long flight... Champagne, anyone?
But lucky streaks end. The flight will end. The plane has to land.
And the hard earth is still there.
What I must somehow tell my children, but I do not want to, is that the earth is not as soft as we like to think it is. Its verdant valleys, cool bodies of water, and fields of flowers are just a thin, top layer. Underneath it is hard. It is made of iron.
And sometimes, without warning and without meaning, it reaches up and hits people, crushes them, and it has no remorse.
Our fellow citizens sometimes seem to have no remorse either. You watch the Republican debate last night on CNN, and you hear and see the crowd cheer when the candidates say that the best way to reach the Muslim world is to "remain on offense" (Giuliani) and "continue this surge" (McCain). When the candidates take turns boasting about their private gun collections or make a joke that "Hillary could be on the first rocket to Mars" (Huckabee), they get more clapping.
Except for Ron Paul (who is booed loudly by the audience on a number of occasions), nobody talks with sadness about the loss of life or suffering caused by the war. Nobody talks about the difficulties faced by most people in the world. On the contrary, Representative Duncan Hunter gets a huge wave of applause for explicitly refusing ambivalence: "I will never apologize for the United States of America."
Never. For nothing. We are preemptively right about everything. Always. Cue applause.
This is not a new story.
The hills of Berkeley, where I live, are the sites of hundreds, even thousands of murders of the local Ohlone Indians by Spanish and Anglo-American settlers, roughly between the years 1820 through 1880. Vigilante groups formed with the stated goal of removing the entire population of Indians.
This passage from a book I am currently reading, a brilliant book, Ishi: Two Worlds, makes that abstraction more real. The few surviving Yahi, once thriving in the hills of Northern California near Chico, were finished off as a tribe on a single day in 1870:
"In this remote and seemingly safe spot were gathered more than thirty Yahi including young children and babies, well supplied with food, even to fresh and dried meat. They were helpless against the four armed men who forthwith killed them all. Norman Kingsley, as he explained afterwards, changed guns during the slaughter, exchanging his .56-caliber Spencer rifle for a .38-caliber Smith and Wesson revolver, because the rifle "tore them up so bad," particularly the babies. There is today a Kingsley Cave, only about two trail miles from Wild Horse Corral. This is presumably the cave of the last massacre."
When I walk with my family on the paths winding through Tilden Park, which runs along the top of the Berkeley hills, I know with certainty that we walk past once bloody caves, and that we kick up dust made up of particles of the whitened bones of some of those who walked there before us. It was not so long ago, during the life of my great great grandfather, when these people lived here.
The bullets and knives which did the killing were hard. They were made of metals pulled from the earth. They returned to it.
The earth is hard. And we should never forget that when we find it soft.