Anti-War Work Gives Hope, Changing Hearts and Minds

By Guest Columnist Nov 30, 2007

by Brian Palmer For me, today is a day of stock-taking, figuratively speaking. I turned 43, and I’m not exactly relishing the moment. My absence of relish is less a midlife crisis – the typical lamentation about the inexorable creep of mortality, bodily creaks and sags, and regrets about X or Y (not to mention Z) – than an existential one. Each day for the past couple of years I’ve immersed myself in video footage I shot in Iraq in 2005 and 2006 while embedded with US combat troops. On my TV screen, I watch 20-something-year-old infantrymen negotiate the streets of Anbar and Babil provinces, searching for an invisible enemy, but most often confronting ordinary Iraqi men and women. The marines did the best they could with what little they knew, but that usually wasn’t enough. There was consistent miscommunication, endemic confusion, and sometimes worse. People died, got wounded, taken into custody. Cut to today, late 2007, deep into the fourth year of this war. Every day I plunge into Iraq via the web, print publications, official US government documents, and in conversations with real-live humans. These sources tell me that not much has changed on the ground in Iraq. There is no significant reconciliation or reconstruction. But on a different wavelength, one magnificently amplified by our mass-media outlets, administration apologists and USA-first revisionists tout the “gains” made by the “surge,” the president’s temporary military escalation. Success is always around the corner, they tell us – if we maintain our resolve. Such people indulge in a kind of selective accountability that is both seductive and corrosive. To believe these men and women one needs to ignore the facts on the ground, the damage done in Iraq since the invasion and under the US occupation: enormous yet unaccounted civilian casualties; a battered economy reduced to prewar levels; sectarian war and de facto ethnic cleansing in many parts of the country; more than 4 million refugees and internally displaced citizens. That is reality, and there is no reservoir of patience among Iraqi citizens for yet another series of American do-overs. But who cares? Polls say Americans have turned against the war, but we still don’t look at Iraq, feel it, and react to it. We change the channel. I can barely suppress my rage at American apathy, even callousness, about Iraq. And I wonder, what’s the point of making a documentary about this war, of telling a story that the very people I want to reach will simply ignore? “Americans don’t care about Iraq,” I complained to a friend Carol while browsing at the bookstore here in New York City where she works. I expected commiseration, maybe even a little reciprocal bitching and moaning. Instead, Carol fixed me with a serious gaze. And then she hammered me, gently but firmly, for my defeatism – though she didn’t use this term – self-absorption. Americans are speaking up and fighting back against apathy, official lies, and the culture of forgetting that our media promote, she said. We are having an impact. Carol gave me a small example: A few years ago, she marched in a Fourth of July parade with a peace contingent in Butte, Montana. Montana is a red state, albeit a quirky and populist one: in the 2004 election, 50 of 56 counties went for Bush, though Montanans also elected a Democratic governor. As the antiwar posse, made up of people from groups like the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center, Women in Black, and Seeds of Peace, paraded with their banners, it was showered with boos and hisses. But the marchers returned the next year. And the next. Last summer, the ground in Butte shifted: Fourth of July parade onlookers applauded the end-the-war marchers. Carol’s not-so-subtle message to me: Have hope. Be patient. We are reaching American hearts and minds. My family and friends have been encouraging me all along, but it took that last nudge from Carol to wrench me out of despair. So I am spending the rest of my birthday looking into the inspiring work of groups demanding accountability from our leaders for this war and for its consequences, folks like Code Pink, Military Families Speak Out, and Iraq Veterans Against the War. And I’m seeking out organizations laboring to mitigate the war’s effects, for returning service members, such as Vietnam Veterans of American (, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America; as well as for Iraqi citizens – groups such as the International Rescue Committee and the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict. I’ll get back to the bad news tomorrow. Brian Palmer is an independent journalist and filmmaker based in Brooklyn, NY.