Pushing Beyond Isolation and Despair

Afghan Village, courtesy of Wikipedia
Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, a deputy director of the Natanz uranium enrichment plant, murdered in January 2012. Image courtesy of Radio Free Europe.
By Nathan Paulsen
September, 2012

Washington's Wars and Occupations:
Month in Review #89/September 30, 2012

This month’s Review is a little different from the usual War Times offering. In it, War Times crew member Nathan Paulsen shares his personal struggles with the isolation and despair that sometimes creep into the lives of people working for peace and justice. In this context, he touches on events in Afghanistan, Libya, Iran, and Iraq – and in his own life.

At 32 years old, I have been an activist and organizer for nearly half of my life. I am deeply committed to movement building and intend to remain connected with justice making struggles for as long as I live. In the writing to follow, I present a personal narrative of how I experienced militarism in the past month. My hope is that my experience will resonate with what others have felt or intuited. I write in confidence that befriending difficult emotions is an important aspect of inspiring and sustaining our work for a better world.

A NIGHTTIME RAID IN A SLEEPING AFGHAN VILLAGE

 “The withdrawal, which leaves 68,000 American forces in the war zone, comes as the security transition to Afghan forces is in trouble, threatened by a spike in so-called insider attacks in which Afghan Army and police troops, or insurgents dressed in their uniforms, have been attacking and killing U.S. and NATO forces.” From a September 20, 2012 Associated Press article on the end of the Afghanistan surge. 

On a day not long ago I was pouring over headlines in my usual fashion – the “news” is as much a part of my morning routine as brewing a fresh pot of tea – when I came to a report on a US special operations raid in a remote Afghan village.  The facts were in no way unusual. I had seen variations on the theme at least a hundred times in the past few years.

Then something happened. Only briefly, mind you.  But with enough force that it caught me by surprise. 

Momentary glimpses of the violence raced through my head. I could hear shrill screams fill an agonizing night of mortar rounds explosively cutting through sleeping family homes. I pictured the mud brick debris and shattered wood. I saw brightly glistening blood splattered on walls and pooled on dirt floors beneath the moonlight. I imagined intestines spilled from a stomach torn by bullet holes. Brains seeped grotesquely from a baseball sized fissure in the back of a skull violated by modern weaponry. The peculiar aroma of burned flesh blew in the dry wind.

You would not understand unless you were there - how the perfect stillness of those bodies was almost serene.    

Then as daylight broke the grimacing faces of irretrievable loss filled public squares, the desperate grief of family and friends, the mourning for loved ones departed from the face of the earth.

My palms had grown moist and my breath shallow. A trembling ran up my spine. But the emotion did not linger for long. With a full day ahead, I quickly returned my attention to the black and white print on the page immediately in front of me. The scene I had imagined so vividly seconds before vanished into words on paper.

 I poured my jar of tea and headed out the door. 

EMBASSY PROTESTS TURN A SPOTLIGHT ON US FOREIGN POLICY

"It is hard for the American people to make sense of that because it is senseless and it is totally unacceptable… The people of Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Tunisia did not trade the tyranny of a dictator for the tyranny of a mob." Hillary Clinton speaking at a ceremony for those killed in the recent US consulate attack.

I viewed the images of protests at US diplomatic missions throughout the same region that inspired the Arab Spring with apprehension.

I was sitting alone in front of the TV when I heard the news. My heart beat a notch faster with each new round of nationalistic hyperbole. Muscles tensed in my jaw. My stomach grew tight.

Fragments of the story engulfed my mind. Four US citizens - including the ambassador to Libya – killed. Marines positioned at besieged embassies and consulates. In just a few days demonstrations targeting US diplomatic representatives spread to more than 20 countries in Africa and Asia. 

My nausea intensified as the election season fed on media reports. Mr. Romney called for America to stand firm and never apologize for our exceptional greatness. Ms. Clinton visibly was offended at the lack of gratitude shown by the protesters.

Every picture that flashed across the busy CNN screen of young people throwing rocks at a fortress hung with a US flag was followed with an outraged commentator – how could THEY be so unappreciative after all WE have done for them? 

As US foreign policy entered a period of sustained criticism in the streets, mainstream US medial looked around for someone to blame for the turmoil. They found a series of candidates: the network of US-based Christian fanatics who apparently produced an anti-Muslim film; al-Qaeda and the Islamic right; and the violent tendencies of an overly reactive Islamic world. The banal stupidity of it all was more than mind-numbing – it was actually enraging.  

And by “banal stupidity” I am not of course referring to the protests. Rather I am remarking on the dissociation between current events and social context that passes for journalism in the corporate media.

None of these media outlets mentioned uncritical US support for the Israeli apartheid regime, or the billions of dollars in US military aid designated for regional dictators in exchange for safeguarding US economic interests. I did not hear about the CIA-led coups against  Syria’s Shukri al-Quwatli in 1949, and Iran’s Mohammed Mosaddegh in 1953, nor about the many other democratic governments undermined by US intelligence agencies. There was no comment on the hundreds of thousands of civilians killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The violation of Pakistani and Yemeni national sovereignty with an endless stream of lethal drone-fired missiles was likewise ignored.  

The histories of militarism and empire were erased from the story.

The problem with context is that it complicates the picture. It points a finger at powerful people who would prefer their crimes against humanity passed in silence. The whole episode became utterly incomprehensible when seen through the lens of a xenophobic dominant culture - and when brought into further focus by a tacit bipartisan agreement not to bring up certain facts in public. Add to this mix a highly-concentrated corporate media, and it’s no surprise that US government actions rarely form part of the context in which officials, and their media sounding boards, present events like those of the past month.

In the ensuing confusion, millions of my white neighbors will fall back on racist assumptions to make sense of events.

I might not have much in common with the political orientation of those demonstrators who rallied outside US embassies, but I can at least understand the seething anger and pain and distrust of US foreign policy that fuels their pleas for justice.

And when I finally turned off the TV to talk with somebody about these things, there was no one I knew to turn to.

RUMORS OF WAR WITH IRAN

So much ink has been spilt on rumors of an imminent Israeli military strike in Iran that the boldly captioned articles have become little more than a boring backdrop to my daily rounds. If I measure my life by deeds done and left undone I must confess going to work and watching movies are higher priorities for me than a possible war with Iran. Living in a culture as apocalyptic as ours, I find another media cycle of lurking catastrophe fairly unremarkable.

Nonetheless I am haunted by an anxiety that defies my best efforts to subdue. For a split second – barely perceptible to most – my eyes will glaze over with an unfocused distance as the latest news conjures up demons hiding in our collective unconscious.

“What if the conflict boils over into a bloodshed that spirals out of control?” The mostly unarticulated thought is a vague presence. It arises furtively amidst the noise of everyday life.      

The tension is palpable as Western ruling elites debate the best way forward to secure their interests in the region. Significant sections of the US security bureaucracy are decidedly opposed to military action against Iran. High-ranking officials within Israel are openly questioning the wisdom of a military strike. It is becoming increasingly evident that Netanyahu may have overplayed his hand.The war against Iran has already begun. It has started with devastating economic sanctions (the rial has fallen by 80 percent this year), public assassinations of top Iranian scientists, and infrastructure sabotage. Millions of innocent civilians in Iran are today suffering from the indiscriminate application of economic violence – an art that was perfected in President Clinton’s dealings with Iraq. The targeting of civilian infrastructure and scientists is neatly calculated to terrorize Iranians into compliance. 

IRAQ BASKS IN THE GLOW OF LIBERATION

I flee my boredom by consuming disaster and scandal as greedily as most people do the latest technology or clothing fad. So it was natural that I should find myself riveted to a New York Times article reporting that more than 100 human beings were killed in an outburst of sectarian violence across Iraq.

The image accompanying the text showed the remains of a charred vehicle destroyed when a car bomb ignited in a bustling public market in Basra. Baskets were scattered about chaotically in the aftermath of the explosion. I shuddered quietly at the sight. The cheapness of life and ease of its annihilation were mesmerizing.

The bombings and shootings, aimed at security forces and Shiite civilians, took place on the same day that Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Al-Hashimi is a prominent Sunni politician who was charged – within days of the US exit in December 2011 – with ties to the insurgency and murdering Shiite government officials. He fled the country and was convicted in absentia.

The breadth and sophistication of the attacks on September 9 was a stark reminder of the trouble that continues to plague Iraqi politics months after the official withdrawal of US military forces.  The unrelenting psychological trauma and displacement of millions during the US occupation have led to the de facto segregation of Iraq along religious lines.

As the Sunni minority is increasingly marginalized from centers of power, the spillover from the intensifying Syrian civil war – August was the deadliest month to date in the fighting – presents additional challenges. In Syria, al-Assad is pitted against a predominantly Sunni opposition. Much to the dismay of US officials, Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki is allowing Iran to use its airspace to supply the Syrian regime.

With events in the region proceeding at breakneck pace – and the political establishment in Iraq deeply fractured - there remains a real danger of the beleaguered nation itself sliding back into civil war.    

My mind still wrapped in the flames of that burned-out car, my body remains plopped safely on a cushioned seat. Torn to anguish between the worlds I inhabit, I drift into contemplating the insignificance of my life in the shadow of the global stage where events unfold. 

A DIFFERENT KIND OF NEWS

When I heard the heart beating in the belly of my partner earlier this month, I was filled with a joy that bordered on the ecstatic. A softest of warmth rushed through my body and infused my face with a smile that has infectiously introduced my exuberance to just about everybody I have come into contact with over the past few weeks.

I will be the father of a living, breathing human being.

Moments like these center attention like few others. The sheer awe of life cuts in an instant through the distractions that wreak havoc on “post modern” consciousness. Overwork, compulsive entertainment, consumerist urges, substance use and an array of other pastimes offer short term relief from the distress that accompanies the feeling of powerlessness to effect change in oppressive circumstances. They also prolong our collective agony by turning us away from the challenges of our times.  

In a world of tremendous suffering, sensitivity to the pain of others is a burdened virtue at best.  

But then, too, there are few satisfactions in life equal to performing acts of solidarity that transcend our oppressions and usher in another more peaceful, more sustainable world. When my child has grown old enough to understand the great injustice they have inherited – as well as the fragile social gains hard won by prior generations - I imagine being faced with the question, where were you as these things were happening.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

I have worked in human services for much of the past decade; during that time, I acquired an intimate viewpoint on the suffering that structural violence causes in the everyday life of our nation. In writing for War Times, I am particularly concerned with how the United States military machine – consuming hundreds of billions of tax-dollars on an annual basis to wage war and export death – has left us with fewer resources at home for health care, public education, affordable shelter, living wage jobs, domestic violence shelters, and other critical social needs.

More by Nathan Paulsen:

Add a Comment

Dear Reader: Please help us keep our comments section a safe space of respectful and healthy dialogue that furthers the work against militarism and toward justice. Comments will be moderated.

Facebook

WT Comments