19 years ago my dad called in a panic and told us to turn on the TV.
As I watched those deaths in horror and grief, my first thought was: “Oh shit, we’re going to invade Iraq.” I suspect that at more-or-less the same time, Donald Rumsfeld was thinking, “Oh yes, we’re going to invade Iraq.” Already on 9–11 he had scribbled the now infamous note: “Sweep it all up. Things related and not.”
How did I know this? I’d been reading and thinking and trying to do advocacy work for the Iraqi people, who were heavily suffering under US sanctions that punished the general populace while further entrenching the power of Saddam’s regime domestically. People rally around their flags everywhere, when threatened. After being used as an instrument of American “justice” against Iran (and committing horrible atrocities in the process on “our” behalf), Saddam had become persona non grata. And so the Iraqi people suffered.
I met Katie, my wife, while living out on the Ohio State Oval in tents. We made a giant sign that stretched across a table that said, “Ask Questions”.
We spent our days talking to whoever came about the hypocrisies and horrors of US foreign policy under Clinton and now Bush. We argued that the invasion of Afghanistan was just the warm-up, establishing a precedent for a soon-to-come invasion of Iraq. Both wars would amplify the horrific death count of 9–11 and displace countless people. We advocated non-violent responses and non-violent resistance instead, saying that they would be vastly more efficient and effective at securing a just peace.
As it unfolded, we were often verbally accosted and sometimes attacked in our tents. It was an enormously muffled and distant and safe echo of the horrors unfolding elsewhere. Once I chased down someone who attacked our tents while we were resting on the Oval. A shiny metallic ultra-light emergency blanket had caught on my foot from our camp. It clung to me, slowly being torn apart as I ran. I caught up to the guy and raised my hands, saying, “I don’t want to fight, I just want to talk to you.” He was terrified.
Soon, a large vehicle came by and he leapt in. I got the plates. A friend and professor at Columbus State who worked with a PI ran the plates for us. I contacted the owner of the vehicle, who I think was the father of the childish young adults. I left a message informing them that their vehicle was used to aid and abet in an assault, and I’d like to speak to them. The attacks stopped. I left it there. We focused on talking to people back on the Oval. I still see the human heart as the central battleground.
And today, my niece is taking political science from that professor. I like that dude.
During those years, I watched the Iraqi death counts like we watch the COVID counts today. The habit of watching the deaths climb in Iraq has receded from my life, even as I watch the COVID count less and less now too. But today, I looked again to mourn these losses that continue today. Things haven’t been swept up, but plenty have been swept under. Documented civilian deaths in Iraq now stand at 185,296–208.295. Documented combatant deaths now stand at 288,000. Documented COVID deaths today in the US alone stand at 192,000, according to Google.
And strangely enough, in this moment I have a kind of practical hope that I couldn’t have felt back in 2001. This hope is rooted in the apocalyptic nature of our moment, which doesn’t mean that the end of history is near. It means, instead, that this is a moment when secret things have become clear.
Yesterday I was filled with a kind of desolation that I hadn’t known since 2001. Back then the horror of it all was enormously magnified by the deep loneliness of sight. Support for the Iraq War was bipartisan and the vast majority of people eagerly rallied around the flag as I watched the disaster unfold. To speak out then was to face anger and alienation from almost everyone. It also involved a close and immediate connection, in our marginality, with the few who agreed. It involved being berated by students and professors alike.
Today, we face catastrophes of leadership and cycles of violence that are at least widely seen for what they are. And so even as times are hard, I have a kind of practical and immediate hope that was impossible to feel then. Why am I hopeful? Because we are living through an apocalypse. Blurry things are becoming clearer. Not just for me, but for us.