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War Stories

We believe what we want to

When President George W. Bush went to Iraq, he expected a triumphal celebration; he got a vicious insurgency instead. When peace activist Brian Buckley went to Iraq, he expected an insurgency. But on one night, at least, he got a celebration.


As Buckley explained to a dozen Pittsburghers at Café Bliss Oct. 31, he went to for the simple reason that, "sitting in Virginia at a time when war is being waged in your name is a bit unsettling." Sitting in the Iraqi city of Najaf, however, can be even more unsettling. In their hotel room one night, Buckley and his peers suddenly heard yelling inside the hotel below them. "I thought, ‘Oh Jesus, they're in the hotel,'" Buckley recalled. His compatriots locked the door, doused the lights. "We're sitting there, figuratively and literally in the dark....We were engulfed in darkness and fear."


A few tense moments later, and Buckley discovered the cause of the commotion: Iraqis downstairs were celebrating a goal scored in the soccer game on TV. But before that moment, Buckley said, "I never realized how frightened I was."


Buckley had a few such anecdotes to share with his audience, like the families making "children sandwiches" by piling mattresses on top of their families to shield them from U.S. bombs. Or the U.S. soldiers who responded to "the most noble call," but who have become fearful of the Iraqi children they once hoped to free from fear. But the hotel story stands out as a perfect example of how quickly we jump at shadows, and jump to conclusions.


Having spent nine days in one Iraqi city, Buckley is no foreign-policy expert, and as he admitted to me before he even gave his talk, "The situation over there is so fluid that a lot of what I saw is probably obsolete." He can only guess about the significance of what he saw when he was there: Despite worries about civil war breaking out between Iraq's rival religious factions, Buckley says the Iraqis he spoke to "downplay[ed] talk of Sunni and Shi'ite tension." But is that because it doesn't exist, or because they don't want us to know about it, for fear we'll stay in Iraq longer?


All Buckley, or the rest of us, can be certain of seeing in the darkness is what we project onto it: our worst fears and best aspirations.


Imposing democracy, a bottom-up form of governance, from the top down, has always been fraught with peril. For all our good intentions, Buckley told us, the Iraqis "say we have a funny way of showing our love" -- liberating them from the terror of Saddam Hussein by littering the landscape with depleted uranium shells. When we kill a few, or a few thousand, Iraqis by accident, we insist that such incidents are, regrettably, "the price of freedom." It rarely occurs to us that the whole idea of "freedom" is that you get to decide the price you want to pay.


Meanwhile, we number the dead according to our own beliefs. Days before the election, a British medical journal reported estimates that the war had caused some 100,000 Iraqi deaths, through combat, starvation and disease. That estimate is about five times as large as most other projections, and predictably those who opposed the invasion -- including some attending Buckley's talk -- were quick to seize upon that figure. Backers of the invasion, naturally, insist the lower numbers must be correct. Outside our own beliefs, none of the numbers seem real. (At least, no more real than Iraq's weapons of mass destruction: A recent poll suggests that nearly half of all voters supporting George Bush still believe Iraq possessed them at the time the war began.)


As I write this Monday, I have no way of knowing who will win this election. But neither George W. Bush nor John Kerry plans to pull out of Iraq immediately, the one thing Buckley says Iraqis want most of all. I'd like to believe that was the best option, but perhaps I'm just telling myself a comforting story in the dark. Am I pretending that acting in our own self-interest is what's best for Iraq -- the same way Bush has done all along?


Whoever wins this election, it will end the way it began: with us sitting like Buckley in Najaf, engulfed in darkness and doubt.

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