A meditation on sex and death

Why we need to make love to the Iraqis after we've made war -- and why we won't.

Published April 9, 2003 7:06PM (EDT)

In Tehran, at the height of the Iran-Iraq war, the helicopter passed and repassed just above the mourners in the city graveyard, whipping stones and dust from the new graves, ripping the chadors back from the white faces of the wailing women and drowning their cries with chopper noise. From its open doors soldiers lavished carnations, sheaf upon sheaf of blood-red carnations, flowers for the dead, falling through the hot air, a turbulent farewell from the government that sent the men they were burying to their deaths.

That night I went to a wedding where the girl, back ramrod-straight with pride, sat cross-legged on the carpet in her white nylon frock and veil, one of the many who volunteered to marry whatever war-wounded boy the army wanted a bride for. This one must have been burned and gassed because there was livid flesh where an eye had been, and his breath rattled in the tendons of his throat. Her family were weeping with pride at being allowed to offer him their daughter.

Up and down the alleyway outside there were more memorials to the dead -- gladioli and palms, naked light bulbs. Back in the foyer of the hotel, Coke bottle tops had been embedded in the plaster of the wall to spell out "Death to America," and beneath, a television showed pilgrims in the shrine town of Mashad flagellating themselves and groaning and weeping in religious fervor.

Washington does know, doesn't it, that the people lined up in America's sights place a different value on suffering, and even defeat, than themselves? In Tehran that time I thought -- and Iraq is as much the home of Shiite Islam as Iran -- grief has the place in Shiite culture that sex has in North American culture. It is the allowed lushness, the heart of the heartless world, what teenagers want and adults revel in, the stuff with which the culture covers its harsh truths. If you have a lot of it, you feel big with belief in yourself. Grief, martyrdom, abasement before fate; they're all beautiful things out there in the desert. Perhaps there are places where a war has no real victims, so profoundly congenial is victimhood to the dominant myth.

The poor American grunts who went to the Middle East from their home bases weren't allowed by the dominant macho myth to express sorrow or fear, much less to beat their breasts in disbelief at where they were going and what they were doing. They married, hundreds of them, just before they went. I read about some Army chaplain who wouldn't perform those ceremonies; he says the boys marry some girl they met at the mall the day before. Good thinking, boys. The pay's better if you're married. The widow will get a pension if the worst happens. Maybe you've left a tiny you behind in her warm womb. You got laid, anyway, didn't you, on your last leave? What else was worth doing? May the motels echo with ecstatic howls!

Humankind has always known that one animal thing opposes the other animal thing. Fucking vs. killing. Orgasm -- le petit mort -- vs. death. As part of the peace pleadings before U.S. forces went into Iraq, actresses all over the English-speaking world held readings of "Lysistrata" -- the Greek play where the women go on sex strike until the men shape up and drop their weapon waving. It was written in 410 B.C.

On a peace march in San Francisco a girl was wearing a T-shirt that said "Fuck War." Too terse, maybe; but we all know that at the other end of the spectrum from bombs and warships and guided missiles and poison gas is the enclave where the physical beings we are take delight in each other, and face gazes without fear into face. Sex can create love from the pleasure given each other and from allowing ourselves to be known, and knowing. And love enables us to imagine -- to change places -- to know in flashes of empathy what it is like to be not ourselves but the other.

This is what the senior warlocks in the White House coven need to remember -- that the slogan that was around when they were '60s people -- "Make love not war" -- applies to the American colonization of Iraq, the near-incredible prospect of which comes closer by the hour. They may have thought, back then, that they were the culture and this was a slogan for the counterculture, deployed by guys who didn't want to be in Vietnam but did want to lie on mattresses, in rooms where joss sticks hid the smell of dope, doing slurpy things with girls. But making love is only one version of love. The heart of love is the imagining of others, and the imagination doesn't need a bed.

Every version of love is a serious impediment to war because it is inquisitive, and the better the mind forms a picture of the other, the harder it is to destroy the other. In this surreal Iraq venture, love is withheld like a gift dangled out of reach, because first there has to be the hurling of America's soldiers against their soldiers and America's weapons against theirs. First there are these fires and explosions and destructions and maimings and deaths and howls of identical grief from the bereaved on continents thousands of miles apart. All this, as foreplay to the edification that will come just as soon as the corpses are cleared from where they fell. Then, ah then, we are given to understand, love will come into its own!

So "Make love postwar" is today's weird slogan. It is not going to be possible for Americans to administer Iraq, however badly, without trying to imagine what kind of place it is -- without asking a lover's questions. What do people who are not Americans or Christians enjoy, fear, hope? What do pink faces and blue eyes mean in a Middle Eastern aesthetic? What makes an Iraqi feel justified and proud, the way neo-Christian righteousness makes President Bush's circle feel?

Shouldn't the middle-aged white American men who have made a laboratory of Iraq be feeling out with a lover's preternatural sensitivity what kind of people are the people of this new American province, who are not white American middle-aged men? And shouldn't the American leaders who chose to do this be beginning to imagine how hard it is going to be to woo Iraq into a loving relationship? It is a material, fleshly thing, war. Even where civilians are spared, community is destroyed, and the old and the women live on cigarettes and coffee, the women too demoralized to wash their hair, the children wetting their beds, laughter and ease forgotten, the normality that shields the young destroyed.

And there is death, of course. As the coffins come home, we're seeing etched on the mourners' faces a heartbreak that was prefigured in those shots of goodbyes being said -- couples clinging in kisses, perfectly unself-conscious in the anguish of farewell, around them children with their heads bravely set. If we had been allowed to see the other side -- the Iraqi children clinging to the adults' legs, the Iraqi loved ones' desperate faces -- we'd be able to measure how pitiably alike humans sent to kill and humans sent to be killed are, when it comes to the first emotional casualty of war: domestic love.

Sex is more varied in the way war lets loose its energies. In tents and huts, soldiers exhausted by the terrible work of organized hatred turn to the pinned-up images of people they love, bodies they desire. But remember when the movies could play with the idea that war is sexy? Full of "Casablanca" moments. Full of erotic opportunity in blackouts, under bombardments, or back in the hotel room with the fan slowly moving the torpid tropical air and shadows from the muslin curtains swaying across the beautiful Eurasian girl's naked back. Lili Marlene waited by the barracks wall -- remember? One thing's for sure; that glamour's gone now. Forget manly gallantry and Bogart's deadpan one-liners. Do you believe that there will be romantic, sexy movies about this war? Do you? Do you believe the two cultures involved in this conflict will ever love each other as they need to do -- love in the sense of each seeking to know the other and each allowing itself to be known? Or do you see already that there are no intimacies in this ill-matched and baffled encounter, and that there isn't and will never be the least shred of romance?

By Nuala O'Faolain

Nuala O'Faolain has been a print and television journalist and is the author of a novel, "My Dream of You," a memoir "Are You Somebody?" and its sequel, "Almost There" (Riverhead). She lives in the west of Ireland and Brooklyn.

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Iraq Iraq War Love And Sex Middle East National Security Sex