"If you'[re] pro-George and pro-war, get your ass over to Iraq, and take the place of somebody who wants to come home."
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 three years ago, before the war was launched. A recruiting station staffed by Gold Star Mothers for Peace and Iraq war veterans would have been nice at the Republican Convention, 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.
Of course, 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.
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.
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. 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.
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. But for them to have succeeded in laying the foundation for a mass-based democratic resistance to the occupation and the violent resistance it bred, thousands more were needed 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." 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 we 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.