by Jerome Grapel…
(This essay was written at a time when the Abu Ghraib prison scandal was making its way into the world’s consciousness. More than a decade later, the horrifying chaos now prevailing in the region is sickening proof of the colossal blunder the American invasion was.)
As I write this essay, the second Bush Oil War has become the fiasco it always deserved to be. The latest piece of firewood thrown onto the flames of this madness is the graphic international diffusion of the inhuman treatment of Iraqi prisoners. The few days it has taken me to digest and turn this material into some kind of life giving substance has produced the following thoughts: War is bad. War dehumanizes. War is the single most aberration man has ever conceived of. War should only be entered into after the most exhausting efforts are made to avoid it … and even then, don’t we all know that something has gone terribly wrong, that we’ve failed miserably, that we’ve let ourselves down, that the idea of good guys and bad guys, in a real war, becomes less and less relevant until everyone involved is reduced to a brute animal state that should have been exorcized from the human condition long ago?
The acts of gross humiliation perpetrated against the Iraqi prisoners seem hardly abnormal when one considers the venue they took place in. War is madness. War is a breathing organism of squizophrenic behavior. The unacceptable becomes routine in such an environment. Everything we’ve ever been told to respect and hold dear is not just ignored, but reversed. Any nation that does not try to avoid war with every fiber of its being, is committing the ultimate act of immorality.
Although it generally goes unnoticed or overlooked, there has never been a war anywhere where this kind of bestiality has not taken place. Why all this fuss for the normal behavior of such an abnormal setting?
For those Americans who have not traveled abroad lately, I will grossly understate the case by saying that this war is not looked upon favorably outside the “homeland”. (Ever since 9/11, Americans seem to have discovered this word. Doesn’t it have a Nazi-like ring to it?) Even in the one place it is given some veneer of legitimacy — the United States — a substantial part of its population finds this conflict repugnant. Everywhere else, even within the ranks of the countries that make up the “coalition”, the rank and file almost unanimously revile and repudiate it. This war is so universally despised, that any opportunity to further chastise it is seized upon with the same zeal a gossip columnist might break a story about Brittany Spear copulating with a horse. Further sweetening the pot is the hypocrisy of America’s rhetoric: democracy, freedom, human rights, the “liberation” of the Iraqi people, and other such lumpy porridge put forth to justify this war. One has to wonder what the Iraqis may have been subjected to if we had not come as their “friends”.
My indignation for these unfortunate acts of sub-human behavior is not directed at those who carried them out. I feel more pity than hate for these people, whose negative celebrity has now been circulated around the globe. They are the scapegoats, the guinea pigs, the little people who will have to take the rap for the monstrous vileness of their leaders. There is one image in particular that sticks in my mind: an attractive young lady informally clothed in military attire is smiling brightly, as if she were adding a photo to her vacation album, as she humiliates a bent over Iraqi prisoner. There is a Marquis de Sade quality to it all, a jovial kind of erotic perversion that might be seen in a porno flic. But it is not a porno flic.
This young woman has descended to a level of consciousness that she never knew was within her. It was sucked out from the deepest, most hidden recesses of her being, like the oil so deeply encased beneath the parched sands of the Iraqi desert. It was not easy to reach this hidden layer of her emotional make up. It took an extraordinarily vitiated atmosphere to do so. Under almost any other circumstance, this black spot in her almost sub conscience — a black spot we all must have somewhere — would have lain buried and forgotten, far from the light of day. Undoubtedly, if you worked with her from 9 to 5; if you met her in a bar on Saturday night; if you interacted with her in a reasonable setting, she’d seem no different from the great mass of humanity going about their lives as best they can — working, eating, playing, loving. I’m sure many would find her attractive and could even fall in love with her. But the hurricane she found herself in was so confusing, so neurotic, so disorienting …
No … my indignation is not directed at her. My indignation, my scorn, my repulsion goes straight towards those who sent her into such a perverted environment, for those who created it.
Perhaps the intense conflict the idea of war wages with our more typical behavior can best be put into focus by emphasizing our normal reactions to pain, suffering and death.
Not long ago, I was standing by the tennis courts of our local park, waiting my turn to play. Like many public parks in America, the shadowy presence of that strombotic class of people known as the “homeless” is well represented. It might even be said it is their park and the rest of us are just passing through. Their presence has a phantasmal quality as they shuck and shuffle along in the background, like pieces of furniture or props in a real life play.
So there I was, waiting to play, when I heard a thud behind me like a sack of potatoes dropped from a window. I turned and saw a middle-aged man lying face up on the ground just under a telephone booth. He was probably trying to use the phone when the precocity of his physical condition could no longer maintain a standing position.
From about 20 feet away I stood and gazed at him for about 15 seconds. He was not moving. I approached slowly, as if he were a wounded enemy I did not trust. There was an ugly gash running from just within his dirt-encrusted hairline to just above the bridge of his nose. I noticed a smear of blood on the sharp metal edge of the phone booth. He must have fallen head first into it, slicing his forehead in two.
By now his head had tilted slightly to his left. His face was covered in dirt and the blood began to make its way down his forehead like a red river between its brown banks. It then started to drip steadily off the bridge of his nose, passing before his left eye before splatting to the ground beside his face. His eyes were wide open. I bent down to get a bit closer. Sometimes we say stupid things. “Are you OK?” His cracked lips seemed to be trying to form a smile. A few guttural sounds escaped his mouth.
This man not only meant nothing to me, he meant nothing to anybody, not even himself. His absence from the earth would probably go unnoticed. He was little more than an alcohol fetted piece of flesh with no value to anyone. He was a barely living organism that had still not passed from existence. An ant had more relevance to life on this planet than he did.
I then asked another stupid question, stupid because this man was beyond making decisions. “Do you want some help?” His eyes remained open. Did they see anything?
It was up to the rest of us, embodied in me in this particular instance, to make the choice for him. I walked back to the tennis courts, picked up a cell phone and did what almost all of us would do, even that young lady now famous for her sadistic treatment of Iraqi prisoners: I called 911.
I don’t know if doing such a thing is taught to us, or culturally induced, or is simply a part of our genetic make up by now, millions of years into our evolutionary journey. This is what humans do. This is what makes us “humane”. We don’t just let people agonize, suffer or die if we can help it. This is called compassion, and we are the only animals that possess it.
I could never be described as a “bleeding heart”. I lose no sleep over the fact that thousands of people have no roof to sleep under. I don’t sponsor starving children in Africa or South America. I give no money to panhandlers. These situations are stains on the human condition that denigrate us all, that individual acts of kindness do little to eradicate. My commitment is a more universal attempt to change our ideology so as to make these sordid instances of human degradation less prevalent.
But I don’t let people bleed to death on the sidewalk, no matter how little their worth in the cosmic scheme of things might be. And neither would you.
And that is why war is such a bad thing. It is a complete negation of everything we’ve striven to be since we’ve begun to have consciousness of ourselves. It brings out everything we’ve been trying to flee from since the dawn of time. These horrible pictures of our young men and women reduced to an animal state are frightening proof that no one ever “wins” a war. Even if it had been easy and we had installed our puppet government and secured the cheap fuel necessary to continue with this drunken spree of bigger SUV’s, and the latest Nike sneakers, and the ephemeral joy we might receive from the next DVD, in the long run, everyone has lost again. All we’ve done is perpetrate an ancient form of barbarism that degrades us all — “conquerors” and “conquered” alike — until someday we will be the ball and somebody else will be the bat, still hopelessly trapped in a stagnant orbit of fear and violence, wasting our specie’s remarkable talents in an endless spiral of regressive death and destruction.
When a small cadre of people, for their own selfish reasons, go out of their way to create a war, they have done the greatest disservice possible to humanity. They have retarded our emotional and spiritual growth. They have created an unbearable psychic tension on those forced to participate in the fray, because such an environment is in a pure state of conflict with their normal impulses. It has created a cerebral short circuit …
… but I don’t blame these unfortunate young men and women. One has to go way further up the chain of command, back down the Persian Gulf, through the Suez and out Gibraltar, all the way back to the Potomac and Pennsylvania Avenue to find the real culprits. These people have degraded us all.