Testimony in Iraq

Iraqi children are dying in appalling numbers, as most Friends know. The U.S. bombing of "infrastructure" targets during the Gulf War—power generation plants, water purification and sewage treatment plants—was not nearly as benign as it was portrayed by the elder Bush administration ten years ago. The U.S. public was told the destruction of these sites would bring pressure on Saddam Hussein, with the object of removing him from power. What we were not told was the calculated cost of that "pressure" in the form of human suffering.

Ten years of UN sanctions, enforced under the Clinton administration and now the younger Bush administration, have extended this war against civilians, claiming more lives than the original bombing. A defiant Saddam Hussein remains in power, insulated in his palaces from the privations inflicted on ordinary Iraqis. The Iraqi strongman, who has personally executed enemies and used gas against Kurdish minorities, is excoriated in the United States for his cynical use of the civilian population. The U.S. government has behaved scarcely less hypocritically, both in its 1990 military action—avowedly to liberate Kuwait, but obviously driven by strategic oil interests in the Middle East—and in its continuing pursuit of a failed policy that brutalizes the innocent: the poor, the elderly, and the very young.

According to a 1998 UNICEF report, a million Iraqi deaths have resulted directly from the sanctions. Children account for half the fatalities, succumbing to waterborne diseases such as cholera, typhoid, and dysentery, and from lack of medical facilities for treating birth defects—which are reportedly on the rise in areas contaminated by spent uranium and chemical pollutants.

What have U.S. citizens of conscience—Quakers among them—done to address the suffering inflicted by our government?

One response has been Campaign of Conscience, a project undertaken jointly by American Friends Service Committee and Fellowship of Reconciliation aimed at challenging the sanctions by installing four small water-chlorinators that would provide sterilized water for at least a few hundred Iraqis. Because the purifiers use chlorine, they fall under the UN sanctions against "dual use" chemicals that could conceivably be used by the Iraqi military, and they consequently violate U.S. law. As of this writing, some 85 Quaker meetings in the U.S. have joined in this act of collective civil disobedience, theoretically risking U.S. Treasury Dept. fines up to $1 million. The action is largely symbolic; the chlorinators are not yet in operation, but the campaign has raised awareness and helped—along with world opinion—to force the present administration to reappraise the sanctions.

Despite these efforts, most of the U.S. public remains oblivious to the continuing casualties.

"Those children die quietly," says Doug Hostetter, who has helped coordinate Campaign of Conscience. "No media. No outrage."

The media’s blindness to the suffering in Iraq is all too typical. At best it is a case of violence "done at great distance and by other hands," as John Woolman wrote 240 years ago about the kidnapping of Africans. Surely, in the present case, there is an element of racism behind the media’s demonization of Arab leaders. And implicit in the silence is denial: nobody wants to believe that 5,000 Iraqi children are dying every month at our hands, even as the world—especially the Arab world, including Kuwait—calls for the sanctions to end.

Hostetter is international/interfaith secretary of Fellowship of Reconciliation, based in Nyack, New York. He had spoken to my meeting last winter and was among those I interviewed later by telephone in an effort to get a sense of what motivated him and others like him to make the trek to Iraq.

I had intended to go to Iraq myself but for various reasons opted not to, at least for the present. In the course of networking, I discovered that nearly a dozen organizations have been sending delegations to Iraq, so I decided instead to report on their experiences for readers of Friends Journal. I wanted to know what individuals were observing, what they were accomplishing, and what they were carrying away spiritually from the experience.

What I heard inspired me. It confirmed my feeling that when we engage the great issues of our time—recognize and locate them on the map of our consciousness, and translate our faith into action—we are ourselves transformed. Listening to their stories helped me to understand the movement against sanctions in terms of a faith broader than Quakerism and also to consider Quakerism in a different light.

Hostetter, 54, is a Mennonite. But he says he has found his own spirituality deepened and enriched through cooperative work with people of various faiths. He married into a Jewish family, took in two Bosnian Muslim students during the war in Bosnia, and has also worked with Methodist as well as Quaker organizations. He is typical of those leading the delegations into Iraq, whose compassion transcends the boundaries of any particular religious faith.

From his first visit in 1990, just before the Gulf War, Hostetter recalls a highly industrialized Iraq with the best educational and medical system in the Arab world. It had a large middle class and beautiful cities. "We have destroyed it," he says, "and we have kept it destroyed." The systematic bombing of electric generating plants alone deprived Iraq of basic sanitation, since treatment plants all run on electricity.

Hostetter repeats Nobel Peace laureate Mairead Corrigan Maguire’s burning question, "In 50 years, the next generation will ask: ‘What were you doing when the children of Iraq were dying?’"

Another activist drawn to Iraq and particularly to the plight of the children is Jim Jennings, founder of a group called Conscience International. Asked what was his most moving experience during the dozen visits he had made, delivering medical supplies to pediatric hospitals and supporting other types of relief, he said it was "putting my hand on a dying baby, whose body was just starting to chill."

Jennings, a 62-year-old professor of archaeology and Middle Eastern history, and a Baptist, looks to Christ for his model. As I write, he is leading a delegation of religious leaders to Iraq. For him the relief effort is "a must-do kind of thing—not something I can shrink from. The children of Iraq are on the conscience of America."

The work also has rich rewards, as Michael Carley discovered during a trip last March to the southeastern corner of Iraq, the area hit hardest by the Gulf War. Carley describes his elation when the bus pulled up to the Labanni water-purification plant that his organization, Veterans for Peace (VFP), had rebuilt in partnership with a Michigan-based group called Life for Relief and Development. Seeing the fresh paint with his own eyes and hearing the pumps humming, Carley says "It just wallops you—the fact that it’s working and is saving thousands of children’s lives!" He broke into tears.

VFP’s rebuilding of the Labanni water plant is a large-scale project, restoring filtered and purified water to tens of thousands of people. In contrast, the AFSC-FOR water chlorinators are relatively token, able to provide sterilized water to only a few hundred people—if they can be gotten to function. The chlorinators have run into technical problems, owing partly to their having been designed for less demanding conditions; the reason for using a product manufactured in Pennsylvania was to challenge the law against such exports. In contrast, the VFP project employs Iraqi engineers using hardware familiar to the region and is comparable to projects undertaken by groups from Germany and elsewhere.

These sometimes divergent concerns—the legal challenge, on the one hand, and direct humanitarian relief on the other—tend to characterize the efforts respectively of AFSC and Mennonite Central Committee, Hostetter says, although he sees the two organizations as moving closer together in their aims. Teams from the Bruderhof community have gone to Iraq to scrub hospital floors and perform other menial tasks, as part of their witness.

The VFP effort, known as the Iraq Water Project, is not without its symbolism as well. Volunteers put in token stints of work with shovels and wheelbarrows, but chiefly they are providing the funds to put Iraqi engineers and laborers to work.

Among the members of Carley’s delegation was a Gulf War veteran named Candy Lovett, who suffers from debilitating Gulf War Syndrome. Near suicide, she had been befriended by the Bruderhof community and later encouraged to join the VFP delegation. She had chosen to go so that she could participate at least symbolically. She managed, from her wheelchair, to lift a couple of shovelfuls of dirt and stone. But Lovett was looking for something else, she told me before the trip. She was looking for forgiveness for her participation in the war. Her dream came true, she told me afterward, when the delegation traveled to the city of Basra. There they met a mother who had lost a child to a U.S. bomb in 1999. Lovett asked her for forgiveness. The mother, Fartous Iqbal, knelt by Lovett’s wheelchair and said in English, "Of course you are forgiven."

Lovett felt "a big weight come off [her] shoulders."

Carley has found the work similarly rewarding. "If I never do anything for the rest of my life, I will always know I had this project." He does not consider himself a religious person. "But I am blessed," he says. "I am surrounded by deeply motivated people who are powerfully led by their spiritual beliefs. And if there is something out there, I know I am loved."

One of the most energetic and "on the ground" individuals in the anti-sanctions movement is Kathy Kelly, founder of an organization called Voices in the Wilderness. Kelly has led some 35 delegations into Iraq. She had gone to the Middle East as a pacifist and was there in Iraq, near the Iranian border, when U.S. bombs started falling in 1990. More recently she lived for seven months in Basra, which continues to suffer not only from the sanctions but from the continuing bombardment used to enforce the so-called "no fly zone," declared unilaterally by the United States and Britain.

"Every morning," she says, "usually around 2:30, the planes would come, and we would wonder whether civilians had been hit. Little girls would make a sound—la-la-la-la—and hold their ears, trying to drown out the sound. For the present bombings the Air Force is using National Guard reservists. They’re up there at 30,000 feet and have little sense of consequences. That’s why we think it’s so important to have these people-to-people encounters with Iraq."

The media’s unwillingness to focus on Iraq is a source of anguish for Kelly. "If people in the U.S. knew the plight of these parents, if they could see the faces of those children—gorgeous children—then they would stop seeing Iraq as the personification of one demonized person, Saddam Hussein; they’d be seeing people just like you and me. Then I don’t think the sanctions could stand the light of another day.

"If the media presented this with the same attention they devoted to Elian Gonzales, people would be outraged. Instead, they get the daily diet of ‘What about Saddam?’ and ‘Shouldn’t we be afraid of Saddam?’ This country has by far the most weapons of mass destruction. And yet it’s easy to frighten people in the U.S. into thinking someone is going to aim a weapon at us."

Kelly is Catholic. Growing up in a big family, she had read with fascination about the lives of the saints, about the nuns who founded orders. She might have taken vows herself, but the church was changing and she ended up in college, where she learned about Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker.

Kelly pays no taxes, not wanting to support weapons and prisons. She lives in voluntary poverty, operating Voices in the Wilderness out of her elderly father’s home in Chicago. She says the IRS agent who showed up to assess what could be seized in lieu of taxes, "looked around and said, ‘You don’t really have anything, do you? I’m going to put you down as uncollectable.’" Jail is no longer a threat, she says, having served nine months of a twelve-month sentence—in maximum security—for the offense of planting corn on a missile silo site in Kentucky.

She thinks people in the U.S. would be furious if they knew how cold-bloodedly the impact of the bombing was calculated. She cites a 1991 report by the Defense Intelligence Agency, only recently declassified, that pinpoints the vulnerability of the Iraqi water system and predicts the consequences in civilian suffering. The bombardments are "more glitzy," she says, and are what sell newspapers, which is of a piece with our society’s glorification of violence. But it is primarily the sanctions that are extending the war.

Asked if she sees any grounds for hope, she observed the extent to which the young people involved today in combating sweatshops and corporate globalization are committed to nonviolence. She attributes much of this to their professors, some of whom were activists during the 60s. The task now is to find ways, as Gandhi did, to make the principles of nonviolence attractive to masses of people: to persuade people in the United States that "there are advantages to simplifying their lives, to serving the needs of our neighbors rather than exploiting them."

Notwithstanding her Catholic roots, Kelly struck me as more Quakerly in her actions than many of us Quakers. Her testimony caused me to examine my own willingness to translate my faith into deeds.

I also was led to consider the special role of Quakerism in today’s struggle for social justice. It so happened that while conducting these interviews I was spending a lot of time reading the work of John Woolman, who for me embodies something quintessential in the Quaker tradition. In the peculiar way that such threads run through one’s life, I ended up attending a weekend workshop at Pendle Hill entitled "The Prophetic Voice in Public Life: Reclaiming the Quaker Social Testimony." There I had the opportunity to hear Jonathan Dale, an English Quaker who described his own struggle to live according to his beliefs. It confirmed my own optimism about Quakerism as an actual and potential force in the world.

"No religious body," Dale writes in Faith in Action, "is in a better position to unite around its fundamental values, our testimonies, and offer them to a world which is more than ever deprived of radical vision. That is the distinctive contribution Friends could make. We could be of service if we faithfully contributed to the public debate, seeking out much more actively than at present opportunities to share the vision inherent in our testimonies. . . . We may not all be actors but, with encouragement and support, we could become more effective agents of change."

All with whom I talked, whatever their religious posture—whether Christ-centered or founded on the teachings of Buddha, or based on no religion at all—shared a dedication to social justice based on nonviolence as well as a belief that their spiritual lives were inseparable from their political lives. All expressed anger at what is happening in Iraq, but the anger was subordinated to compassion, hope, and love. Whether voiced or not, there was a clear, underlying belief in meeting that of God in others; all of which leads me to believe that in a vital sense the Quaker testimonies are broader than Quakerism. We may try to live by them, but we do not own them. If we own anything it is our institutional readiness to support those who act from the deep wells of faith.

Particularly moving for me were some things said by a Quaker couple from Canada. Rick McCutcheon and Tamara Fleming had just returned from Iraq after spending seven and a half months over the course of a year-long assignment overseeing several projects organized by AFSC and Mennonite Central Committee. The projects ranged from distributing 2,000 metric tons of beans and lentils donated by Canadian farmers through the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, to rehabilitating nine schools in the Baghdad area, to teaching Iraqi farmers modern methods of propagating tomato seedlings.

I asked Fleming, who is 27, what she had gotten from the experience spiritually. What happens to your heart? is the way I phrased it. She said that for her it was "seeing the darkness of the situation—the malnutrition, the unemployment, the suffering we were seeing on the ground—and then seeing the Light. We did see the resilience of the human spirit. Driving around Baghdad in some rickety old taxi you come across a wedding and see them celebrating, clapping hands, playing drums. They keep going. You see the survival mechanisms at work, and it fuels my desire to keep going, to keep talking about the issues."

McCutcheon, who is a few years older and had done most of the talking up to that point, answered the question for himself. "How does it affect your heart?" he mused. "As I was listening to Tam, I was thinking, it breaks it open. There’s this Buddhist idea of the heart of compassion just breaking open." He talked of the political burnout he had experienced in Toronto before they left for Iraq, his sense of futility. His voice was gentle. "My heart had filled with that darkness for many years. And then it just breaks open. And there, in the midst of this suffering, is Light."

David Morse

David Morse is a member of Storrs (Conn.) Meeting. He is the author of a novel, The Iron Bridge, and most recently a pamphlet entitled Testimony: John Woolman and the Global Economy. David Morse can be contacted at his website