Until the Gulf War, I had always been on the pacifist side of the argument in all the conflicts of my lifetime. Vietnam, Panama, the Falklands -- I protested them all. And then in 1988, on a searing summer day, I stepped off a plane in Baghdad and began my acquaintance with a regime of such unfathomable cruelty that it changed my views on the use of force.
I learned from Iraqi dissidents about mothers, under interrogation, tortured by the cries of their own starving infants whom they weren't allowed to breast-feed; about thalium, the slow-acting rat poison Saddam Hussein used on his enemies; about Iraqi government employees whose official job description was "violator of women's honor" -- i.e., prison rapist.
One bright spring day during the Kurdish uprising, I followed Kurds into the security prison they'd just liberated in northern Iraq. It was dim in the underground cells, so my face was only inches from the wall before I was sure what I was looking at. Long, rusty nails had been driven into the plaster. Around them curled small pieces of human flesh. One withered curve of cartilage looked like part of an ear.
I'm home now in my own liberal, pacifist country, Australia. Within a couple of hours of the news of the latest Baghdad bombings, people in Sydney were in the streets, demonstrating against them. Friends were on the phone, upset: "Terrible, isn't it? And at this time of the year! Whatever happened to peace on earth, goodwill to men?" Local pundits argued on the television, decrying American bully-boy tactics against a small and defanged Arab country. I agreed with almost everything they said: Yes, the slaughter and injury of Iraqi civilians is tragic. And yes, the timing of the bombing is the worst kind of political cynicism. And yes, it is questionable what effect this new onslaught will have on Iraq's weapons capability. And yet I disagreed with their conclusion: that this bombing is therefore wrong.
If Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction, he will use them. We know that, because he already has. For two years I've studied a haunting photograph of two of his victims: a young Kurdish father prone on a dusty street in Halabja and his infant, still tenderly cradeled in his arms.
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The West's great crimes in Iraq are not the latest bombings, but the years of inaction: ignoring the use of poison gas in the theaters of the Iran-Iraq war; ignoring it again in Halabja and other rebellious Iraqi cities; ignoring the vast human and environmental devastation since the Gulf War in the mostly Shiite regions of southern Iraq, where the ancient wetlands of Mesopotamia and the unique culture of the marsh Arabs have been wiped out by a series of dams and diversions designed to starve a minority into submission.
Just after the Gulf War, apologists for its inconclusive ending claimed that it barely mattered that Saddam had been left in power. The metaphor of choice was the piece of rotten fruit: Saddam would fall from the tree under the weight of his own decay. Instead, the tree may be dying from the effects of sanctions, but Saddam is holding as tight as ever to its desiccated branches.
Opponents of the bombing say that dealing with Iraq should be left with the United Nations and its gentle leader, Kofi Annan. But Annan is a peacemaker, and a peacemaker isn't necessarily what's required in Iraq, any more than it was in Bosnia. Sarajevans will tell you of the agonies caused by the U.N.'s "evenhanded diplomacy" -- the pressures to accept any kind of unjust peace the Serbs happened to offer. The history of the United Nations has shown that the organization is most useful in keeping peace between belligerents who have decided they no longer wish to fight. But recent experience has shown that the organization is both inept at, and degraded by, its insertion into conflicts where one or both parties have no wish for peace.
After I left the Middle East, I spent some time covering the United Nations at its headquarters in New York and in the field in Bosnia and Somalia. During that time, I learned that people who go to work for the United Nations often do so because they believe that war is the greatest evil and that force is never justified. In Somalia, one U.N. staffer broke into sobs in front of me because instead of keeping peace, her job had become the administration of a war.
It is impossible to imagine the bureaucrats of the United Nations accepting the kind of harsh conclusion that may be necessary in the case of Saddam Hussein: that the bombs should continue to fall until he does. Iraqis will die. But they are dying now, by the scores and the hundreds, in horrible pain, in the dark security prisons with the blood on the walls and the excrement on the floor.
I wish I still believed, as I used to, that the United Nations was always the world's best chance to avert bloodshed. I wish I could join, as I once would have, the placard-waving peace protesters outside the U.S. Consulate here in Sydney.
I wish I'd never seen the piece of ear nailed to the wall.